Posts Tagged ‘Kaiser Family Foundation’

HHS Website Monitors Health Insurance Premium Increases

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Consumers can now select their state on a federal web page to see if any health insurers have raised rates, as well as the company’s reasoning behind the action. This information was previously unavailable, according to Steve Larsen, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) deputy director for oversight (only a few states include rate increases on their own websites).  Now, all insurance companies must file this information with HHS as one directive of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  “We are taking a good, hard look at why insurance companies are seeking to raise your rates, why your premiums might be going up, and making sure these decisions are public and justified,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.  “This is just a start, and over time we will be reporting more of these requests.”

The announcement follows a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed premiums for an employer-sponsored plan for a family of four climbing nine percent in 2011.  A report by Barclays Capital Equity Research showed that in the first three months of 2011, 13 of the leading 14 health insurers exceeded their earnings per share estimates; average earnings were 46 percent over estimates.  Insurers who wanted to raise rates 10 percent or more for individual or small group plans are required to provide justification.

At the same time, an advisory group urged officials to create a list of essential health benefits under President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul that aligns with the cost of typical small-employer plans.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report recommended that HHS be specific in deciding what health benefits should be required in individual and small group plans as the ACA goes into full effect in 2014.  The IOM, one of the National Academies of Science that advises U.S. policymakers, did not address any specific benefits types, in keeping with its assigned task.  “We’re in a marathon.  What we’ve just gotten today is the first leg,” said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

The IOM recommendation favors business groups and insurers who have sought a narrow package of required benefits because of concerns that the plans will cost too much, said Neil Trautwein, vice president for the National Retail Federation.  Government should limit premiums to levels no higher than what small businesses pay on average and choose benefits “within the context of financial constraints,” according to the report.  The recommendation “is the appropriate tack to take since the objective is to cover everyone with at least basic benefits,” Trautwein said.

The issue has seen businesses and patient advocacy groups — such as the American Cancer Society, which argues for robust coverage — at odds with each other.  The ACA requires insurance plans to cover 10 broad categories of care, including hospitalization, mental health and pediatrics starting in 2014 and left details to Obama’s HHS secretary, who has  asked the IOM to recommend the optimal way to select the benefits that should be included in the plans.  Employer lobby groups argue that a generous package of benefits would cause workers to desert company plans, which could have the effect of compelling employers to pay fines and raise premiums as the number of people covered by their health plans decreases.

According to the IOM, Sebelius should start with a package of benefits that mirrors what small businesses offer their employees.  She should set a “premium target” for the benefits that is approximately the same as what small businesses will pay, on average, in 2014.  Next, she should select benefits that meet the target, a process the IOM compared to shopping for groceries under a budget.  “If the package of essential health benefits gets too comprehensive, it quickly becomes unaffordable,” said John Ball, chairman of the institute committee that wrote the report.

Beginning in 2014, every health plan in the new marketplaces known as “exchanges” will have to provide a minimum package of “essential health benefits.”  The IOM report provides federal officials with a framework for devising that package, but doesn’t provide specifics.  “I’m sure a lot of people were expecting to get a list,” said Elizabeth McGlynn, a member of the IOM committee and head of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Effectiveness and Safety Research.  “That was outside of our charge.”

“With this thoughtful report, the IOM is urging policymakers to strike a balance between the affordability of coverage and the comprehensiveness of coverage,” said Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of the health insurance trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.  “We agree that this balance is critical to ensuring that individuals, working families and small employers can afford health insurance.”  Amanda Austin of the National Federation of Independent Business termed the report “encouraging,” and “pretty thoughtful,” although she believes that HHS still has to do the heavy lifting to write the plans.

Sebelius issued her own statement on the report, saying she will hold “listening sessions” to help people choose what benefits they want included in the mandatory package.  “These conversations will help us ensure that every American can access quality, affordable health coverage they can rely on,” she said.  This seems to suggests to some that a proposal from the department won’t be coming anytime soon.

Uninsured Americans Uncertain About Healthcare Reform

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Americans have agreed to disagree about the efficacy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). According to Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, Americans agree about this one thing: “It really does help the uninsured; 32 million uninsured people will get coverage.”  The foundation’s recent tracking poll found that only about 50 percent of uninsured people have any idea that help is on the way.  Fewer than one-third (31 percent) think the ACA means they will be able to purchase health insurance.

Those two misperceptions are unmistakably connected.  Among those who currently lack insurance, 41 percent incorrectly think the law has no provisions to help people with modest means buy health insurance coverage; (seven percent said they didn’t know); and 37 percent believe the law doesn’t include an expansion of the Medicaid program to low-income, able-bodied adults; and (16 percent were unsure). 

The logical conclusion, Altman says, is an apparent “communications failure” on the part of the law’s supporters to explain how the ACA will actually work.  “What’s going on here is people who are uninsured are busy just trying to make it through the week, paycheck to paycheck,” he said.  “They’re listening to a confusing political debate.”  But the bottom line, Altman says, is that the healthcare overhaul will eventually start to become clearer in 2014, “when there are benefits out there, real coverage out there that people can look at — and can get.”  That’s when people without insurance will really be able to decide whether they can afford insurance or they like the law or it helps them.  “Until then,” Altman says, “it’s just a political debate.” 

Writing in The Hill, Sam Baker says that “Only 29 percent knew that the law eliminates cost-sharing for some preventive services, and half said the law did not provide that benefit.  The poll was conducted just two weeks after the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced that it would require plans to waive cost-sharing for contraception and other women’s health services.  And strong majorities approved of that decision, despite not being aware that the healthcare law includes preventive benefits.  Eliminating cost-sharing for birth control garnered 66 percent support in the Kaiser poll.  Although support was higher among younger respondents than their older counterparts, partisanship was the sharpest fault line.  Fewer than half of Republican respondents approved of HHS’s decision, compared with 64 percent of independents and 82 percent of Democrats.” 

On the Politico website, Jennifer Haberkorn writes that “The coverage expansion isn’t due to go into effect until 2014, but Altman says people are unlikely to be truly aware of the benefits until up to two years later.  The figures reflect the struggle supporters of the law will have in getting the word out to consumers who can benefit from it.   President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats focused much of their ‘pitch’ for the health law on the benefits for the uninsured.  They frequently cited the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the law would insure 32 million Americans.  But since the law’s passage, some have criticized that pitch, insisting that they should have focused instead on the benefits for the middle class and those who already have coverage.  Altman said the figures do not reflect a communications failure.  He says busy people — particularly those struggling to afford insurance now — will only understand the law when it becomes tangible for them.  The law’s least popular provision — the requirement that nearly all Americans have to buy insurance — remains one of its most recognizable.  About 65 percent of Americans know about the provision, the poll found.” 

At the beginning of 2011, any Republican suggestion of “repeal” was nearly always followed by “Obamacare”.  Since then, the debate has drifted into the background, morphing into a new regulatory repeal push.  A memo outlining the strategy, issued by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), includes a single paragraph on a grandfathering rule for health insurance plans that will become a target in the winter.   While Republicans are moving away from a health repeal agenda, Democrats appear to be having a hard time explaining what exactly the ACA will do for Americans.

Despite their best efforts, both political parties see their bases moving away from them on health reform.  The number of Republicans who have a favorable opinion has gone up by nine points, while Democratic approval ratings fell by 10 points.  Independent voters held on to their original opinions, with nearly the same number favoring the ACA was as when it was passed.  Both parties are running up against the same two challenges here. First, the health reform law is really complicated.  Other than “repeal and replace,” the ACA doesn’t lend itself easily to slogans that explain how it works.  This hurdle has been especially thorny for Democrats, who have seen low support for the ACA, despite the fact its individual provisions are polling extremely well.  

Tim Hoff of the Albany Times-Union believes that “Offering health insurance at reasonable prices is a key component of making the reform law cost-effective and able to reach millions of uninsured people.  The logic of getting private insurance companies to participate in state health insurance exchanges and offer good coverage at those reasonable prices predicates itself on having a balanced ‘risk pool’ of individuals in the marketplace — who must purchase health insurance.  Through a mix of healthy and sick purchasers, some who overuse their insurance and some who underuse, private insurers can be assured of not losing money (and thus exiting the market) by signing up only high-risk individuals.

“Without a mandate, many healthy uninsured people, as they tend to do, will continue to roll the dice and go uninsured.  This is even truer for the increasing number of Americans who are out of work or who work for employers who do not provide insurance, but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.  For them, paying for health insurance is lower on the priority list.  That is, until they get sick,” Hoff said.

“Our country faces what may be an extended economic slump, a severe and perhaps more permanent absence of good jobs, rapid downsizing of the middle class and continued abdication by employers from offering benefits such as health insurance.  Yet, we leave it to lawyers and politicians to engage in armchair debates about what might or might not be ‘constitutional’ instead of supporting our government to do something beneficial that furthers the nation’s long-term health and prosperity.  Insuring every citizen is beneficial for our country.  It would do as much for our long-term future as a just, democratic society as any jobs program or debt reduction strategy would.  We are an increasingly sicker, unequal and less productive country in part because of the declining health and well-being of our citizenry, especially our poorer citizens,” according to Hoff.

 “How do we think we can fix the problem of the uninsured without requiring people to carry health insurance?  In our broken, polarized political system that is devoid of bold ideas, this health reform law and its insurance mandate were the best we could do to get health insurance to more people.  Asking almost everyone — citizens and legal residents — to have health insurance is fair, and subsidizing the poor’s ability to do it sensible.  At some point, everyone uses the health care system.  When the uninsured do, they cost us a lot more than those who are insured.  But the insurance mandate issue also speaks to how those of us with good health insurance often think selfishly about the role of healthcare in our own lives.”

Medicare Changes Would Hit Lower-Income Seniors Hard

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

At a time when concern about federal deficits and the national debt are growing,  few quarrel with the need to reform Medicare.  The health insurance program for seniors and people with certain disabilities accounts for 15 percent of the federal budget – in third place behind Social Security and defense spending.  That share is rising as healthcare costs continue to rise and more baby boomers retire, threatening the program’s long-term solvency.

Several of the most prominent solutions under discussion largely derive their savings by shifting a greater share of the cost onto beneficiaries.  The plan sponsored by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and passed by the House of Representatives would significantly cut Medicare spending by capping the government’s contribution to the program and transforming it into a system of “premium supports” given to seniors to help subsidize their purchase of private insurance plans, with seniors paying additional costs.  This would double out-of-pocket spending by the average senior to $12,500 each year, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The ability of a majority of seniors to shoulder that burden appears dubious.  Just five percent of Medicare beneficiaries make $80,000 or more, a figure that includes any income from a spouse. For the 47 percent of seniors who are at or close to poverty, on average they are already spending nearly 25 percent of their budgets on healthcare, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“There’s this impression that there’s a great deal of wealth among the Medicare population, this image of wealthy seniors playing golf and enjoying their retirement years,” said Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Medicare Policy Project.“But while some are lucky to do so, many are living on a fixed income, struggling to make ends meet…with really limited capacity to absorb rising costs.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report, raising Medicare’s eligibility to 67 in 2014 would generate an estimated $5.7 billion in net savings to the federal government, but also result in an estimated net increase of $3.7 billion in out-of-pocket costs for 65- and 66-year-olds, and $4.5 billion in employer retiree healthcare costs.  In addition, the study projects that the change would raise premiums by about three percent both for those who remain on Medicare and for those who obtain coverage through health reform’s new insurance exchanges.  The study assumes both full implementation of the health reform law and the higher eligibility age in 2014 in order to estimate the full effect of both the law and the policy proposal.  In the absence of the health reform law, raising Medicare’s age of eligibility would result in an increase in the uninsured, according to other studies, as many older Americans would have difficulty finding affordable coverage in the individual market in the absence of Medicare.  With health reform, virtually all 65- and 66-year-olds would be expected to obtain alternative sources of coverage.”

Healthcare remains a major focus of budget talks on Capitol Hill,Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) recently told the American College of Surgeons (ACS).  Every group that relies on federal funding should expect a 10 to 20 percent drop in that funding.  When Dr. L.D. Britt, president of the ACS, warned that such cuts could send some healthcare providers into a “tailspin,” Kirk responded that “the tailspin is the U.S. economy.  There is a new audience at play,” Kirk said, referring to U.S. creditors.  “The judgments they render, they are swift and severe.”  Kirk is optimistic that a solution to the country’s debt-ceiling dilemma “will have a way of concluding itself one day before the August 2 deadline.”

CMS Issues Rules for Health Insurance Co-ops

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued rules impacting the creation of co-ops, or private not-for-profit insurers created by Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  The co-ops will receive funding via $3.8 billion in government loans.  They will be run by consumers and will qualify for start-up loans if they have a high probability of becoming financially viable.  CMS will determine viability based on evaluations of their legal, operational and business plans, according to Richard Popper, director of the Office of Insurance Programs at the CMS.  Additionally, CMS will offer “solvency” loans to provide insurers with the legally and financially required reserves.  The co-ops are intended as non-commercial alternatives for insurance consumers joining the health insurance exchanges that will begin in 2014.  The rules will require that any co-ops’ profits to go to reducing their customers’ costs or improving their care.  “That’s what really makes these plans different and why Congress chose to include these in the Affordable Care Act,” Popper said.

Anyone who is confused about the status of their state’s insurance exchange can take advantage of two excellent resources for clarification.  One is a primer put out by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation which answers many basic questions about the online exchanges, where millions of individuals and small businesses will price and compare insurance plans starting in 2014, in clear-cut terms.  Additionally, the Commonwealth Fund provides its own explanation of how the insurance exchanges will work.

Co-ops will provide consumers with a wider range of choices, greater plan accountability and help ensure a more competitive insurance market,” said Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.  This “announcement shows how the Affordable Care Act is bringing new choices and giving consumers a voice in insurance markets throughout the nation.”

The co-ops are structured to increase competition in the insurance market and provide additional options for people and small businesses looking for affordable health insurance.  Their organization is similar to that of credit unions: profits are used to benefit members of the co-op, which can include reducing premiums, improving health benefits, improving the quality of care, expanding enrollment or taking other actions to contribute to stabilizing coverage.

“The co-op program also seeks to promote improved models of care. Existing health insurance cooperatives and other business cooperatives provide possible models for the successful development of Co-ops around the country,” noted the proposed rule.  “One major barrier to continued development of this model has been the difficulty of obtaining adequate capitalization for start- up costs and state reserve requirements.  The Co-op program is designed to help overcome this major barrier to new issuer formation by providing funding for these critical activities.”

Writing on Kaiser Health News, Christopher Weaver says that “The rules would steer a total of $3.8 billion in low-interest loans to groups such as The Evergreen Project in Baltimore, seeking to launch the so-called Consumer Oriented and Operated Plans. The health department hopes at least one ‘co-op’ will launch in each state and anticipates funding a total of 57 around the country.  The strategy is that new health plans run by consumers – most board members would also have to be plan members — would find ways to improve care, rather than boost profits. The new plans, made possible by the seed money, would also compete with established insurers to drive prices down.  The Evergreen Project, named after the coffee shop where its founders held initial meetings, is among a small cadre of groups that are laying the groundwork to launch these nonprofit insurers to care for families and individuals who will be required to buy coverage under the health law — but may be hard pressed to afford it.”

Dr. Peter Beilenson, one of the founders, said The Evergreen Project has already raised $315,000 in foundation grants and completed a 16-month feasibility study.  The members are expecting a report from hired actuaries before applying for the loans to move forward.  The key factor: Could the co-op actually cost less than other insurers?  “We actually think we can bring it in” — meaning the plan’s premium prices — “under Aetna and Coventry,” Beilenson said.

Mike Leavitt,  a former Secretary of Health and Human Services and governor of Utah said that governors need to take the lead in creating health insurance exchanges or the federal government will dictate how the exchanges should be run.  “This is a profoundly important moment for states,” Leavitt said.  “States need to lead.  Too often, we have just deferred this to the federal government, and the federal government needs guidance (from the states) to do it.”  Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said Iowans are “confused and, I think, very upset with what’s going on” with healthcare reform implementation.  According to Branstad, consumers must take “ownership” of their health decisions and the costs.

What’s at Stake? Medicaid, Not Medicare

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Seventy percent of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare and 57 percent are against cutting Medicaid, even when they are aware that the programs constitute an outsized weight in the federal deficit.  Of the two wildly popular programs, Medicaid is the most vulnerable.

Writing in the Washington Post about a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation about the health of Medicare and Medicaid, Ezra Klein says “It doesn’t matter whether Eric Cantor says he’s bargaining for the Ryan budget or not.  The GOP cannot privatize and voucherize Medicare.  They can’t even get close.  It’s too easy an issue for Democrats, too dangerous an issue with seniors, and too slipshod a policy even for Michele Bachmann.  The attack on Medicaid, however, is another story.  That one might actually work.  And if it does, it’ll actually be worse.  ‘in-the-know political circles,’ says Chris Jennings, who ran President Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform efforts, ‘it’s just assumed Medicaid is going to be hit.  No one is going to want to touch Medicare.  Medicare is where the political juice is.  But we’re going to need savings.  So that leads to Medicaid.’  There are two reasons Medicaid is more vulnerable than Medicare.  The first is who it serves.  Medicaid goes to two groups of people: the poor and the disabled. Most of the program’s enrollees are kids from poor families, though most of the program’s money is spent on the small fraction of beneficiaries who are disabled and/or elderly.  These groups have one thing in common: They’re politically powerless.”

It’s a little-known fact that Medicaid covers more people than Medicare. In 2010, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, Medicaid covered 53.9 million people, compared with Medicare’s 47.3 million.  Additionally, Medicaid patients are also among society’s most vulnerable.  “Kids (and) pregnant women are the vast majority,” according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “But then older seniors, many of whom are in nursing homes…and very disabled individuals” are also covered by Medicaid.

Although states and the federal government share the cost of Medicaid, what grates on some governors is the rules that come with the money.  “Governors just want flexibility to run our states,” said Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the annual National Governors Association meeting in February. “We don’t want to pay 50 percent of the cost of Medicaid and have zero percent of the authority.  And I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to be asking for.”  Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi agrees.  “If I could get total flexibility, I would take a two percent cap in a heartbeat,” he said.  Barbour’s preference is to receive a lump sum – what it gets now from the federal government, plus two percent to fund Medicaid.

Dr. Donald Berwick, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, (CMS) said “There’s a right way to reform Medicare and a wrong way,”  Berwick believes that the direction he is taking — modeled on his successful patient safety campaigns at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement – will bring about needed healthcare change.  The Obama administration’s efforts to improve patient safety are more or less bipartisan.  There is little cause to dispute CMS’ data: the agency spent $4.4 billion in 2009 caring for patients harmed in hospitals and an additional $26 billion on patients who were readmitted within 30 days.  The Partnership for Patients, funded through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), seeks to reduce preventable injuries by 40 percent and cut hospital readmissions by 20 percent in just two years.  According to CMS, achieving the Partnership’s goals will result in 1.8 million fewer patient injuries, allow more than 1.6 million patients to recover complication-free and save up to $35 billion in health costs.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described contentious portions of the ACA as the inaugural steps toward entitlement reform.  Sebelius criticized proposals to transform federal Medicaid funding into block grants for states.  When some lawmakers asked her to speak about the Obama administration’s alternative proposal to rein in entitlement spending, Sebelius pointed to two provisions of the new law.  The ACA created a new board of independent experts that will recommend Medicare payment cuts.  Its recommendations will take effect automatically unless Congress blocks them — and proposes equivalent savings.  According to Sebelius, the panel represents “a big step in terms of entitlement reform that actually doesn’t potentially cause harm to our seniors.”  She also pointed to an HHS effort to create new methods of dealing with people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid because those patients represent a lopsided share of the programs’ costs.

Will Proposed Medicare Reform Leave Seniors Out in the Cold?

Monday, April 11th, 2011

A Congressional proposal to reform Medicare will transfer a significant share of the cost to the nation’s senior citizens – a constituency that is known for high voter turnout in elections.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) added fodder for critics, concluding that the majority of future retirees would pay considerably more for healthcare under the “Path to Prosperity” approach — which turns Medicare into a voucher-like plan for Americans who are currently 54 and younger.  Representative Paul Ryan

(R-WI), who introduced the plan, said “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls people to lives of complacencies and dependencies, into a permanent condition where they never get on their feet.”  Instead of coverage for a set of prescribed benefits, Americans in their mid-50s and younger would receive a federal payment to purchase private insurance from a choice of government-regulated plans.  If the proposal becomes law, beginning in 2022, Americans would have a vastly different experience when they became eligible for Medicare.  The age for eligibility would rise from 65 to 67, according to the CBO.

Ryan’s proposal slashes $1.4 trillion from Medicaid over the next decade.  He proposes to cut $630 billion off the budget by more or less repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s provisions that extend coverage to include anyone living on less than 133 percent of the poverty rate — just under $30,000 for a family of four.  Additionally, Ryan’s plan eliminates subsidies for private insurance premiums for those just above the poverty line.  According to CBO estimates, nearly 17 million people without insurance would have been covered by the Medicaid expansion.

Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking Budget Committee Democrat, said Republicans are protecting tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy to the detriment of the middle class and the poor.  “It doesn’t reform Medicare, it deforms and dismantles it,” Van Hollen said.  As for Medicaid, Ryan’s proposal “rips apart the safety net” for poor and older people.  “A typical beneficiary would spend more for healthcare under the proposal,” according to the CBO analysis.  “Although the uncertainty in future federal spending on healthcare would decrease under the proposal, that uncertainty would be transferred to future beneficiaries,” the CBO analysis said.  “If the volume, complexity, and costs of medical services turned out to be greater than expected, future beneficiaries would pay higher premiums and cost-sharing amount than are currently projected.”

Ryan’s budget resolution would improve the nation’s overall fiscal health, cutting projected deficits in President Obama‘s budget and moving the federal government towards a surplus by 2040, according to the non-partisan CBO.  Ryan believes that the cuts are necessary to save the programs.  “This is not a budget.  This is a cause,” he said.  “The social safety net is fraying at the seams.”  Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, said that Ryan’s proposal would “result in the loss of health coverage for millions of low-income Americans, reduce critical benefits for others, and make it more difficult for hospitals, clinicians and other healthcare providers to deliver the care so many need.”  Other critics maintain that Ryan’s approach will shift the higher costs to individuals, much as the change from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k) plans has increased retirement risk.  Senior citizens, the disabled and the poor likely will pay more for healthcare, even as Washington pays less.  Additionally, Ryan’s plan would permanently extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

“The idealized notion that older consumers would be making these annual choices may have some merit as an idea, but it doesn’t seem to be taking place in practice,” said Patricia Neuman, director of the Medicare Policy Project at the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.  Picking the right health plan could become even more critical if premiums outpace federal subsidies.  In 2010, 50 percent of the nation’s Medicare recipients reported incomes of less than $21,000 a year, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

In an opinion piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the “Monday Morning Economist” Stephen Herrington writes “The tax cut proposal is not getting the attention it deserves.  If it shapes up to be anything like was described in Ryan’s Road Map, it will create massive dislocations and disruptions in the economy.  Ryan’s plan was/is to cut the top tax bracket from 35 percent to 25 percent with the promise/expectation that this would not impact revenues.  In a departure from the standard ‘trickle down’ excuse for tax cuts, Ryan meant/means to offset the admitted loss in revenues by eliminating all manner of deductions.  The deductions in our current tax code, such as medical, mortgage and state income tax expense are there for a purpose.  Eliminating them will introduce wild distortions in markets and effectively push the tax cuts for the rich onto the other 98 percent of us.  Elimination of the medical expense deduction will intensify the impact of the Medicare/Medicaid part of the plan.  It is as if Ryan thinks the magic of the free market can absorb any shock in real time.  No more mortgage deduction?  No problem, I just won’t buy a house at all until the lack of the mortgage deduction causes prices to fall by half.”

Affordable Care Act Under Siege As It Celebrates Its 1st Birthday

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

As the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) celebrates its first birthday, the future of the law is still unclear, but its effects have been enormous.  The debate over the law likely created the “tea party” movement.  Last November, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and strengthened their numbers in the Senate.  Potential contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination need only say one word, “Obamacare,” to get a negative reaction from a crowd.  President Obama at times himself has struggled to ensure that his first term isn’t defined solely by this legislation.

Public opinion over the ACA remains divided, despite the efforts of Democrats to showcase how it will provide healthcare insurance to millions of uninsured Americans.  Additionally, most Americans remain confused about what the healthcare overhaul actually accomplishes.  Republicans considering a 2012 presidential race for the most part stand united in their opposition to the legislation.  Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is using his opposition to the law to gain a national following.  “If courts do not do so first, as president, I would support the immediate repeal of Obamacare and replace it with market-based healthcare reforms,” Pawlenty said.  Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is in a different position because he supported a similar law during his tenure.

Representative Steve King (R-IA), the Iowa Congressman who is in the vanguard to repeal the ACA, says that “America will never become the nation it can be if were saddled with Obamacare“, “I have a deep conviction that this is unconstitutional, that this is unsustainable, and I have a duty.  And that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for the Supreme Court to save America from itself.  It’s my job to step up and lead.”

Taking a difference stance, Carmela Coyle, president and chief executive of the Maryland Hospital Association, said her group strongly supports the reform law and will work to assure that the effort translates into better and cost-effective care.  “We support healthcare reform because hospitals see every day what happens when patients don’t have the healthcare coverage they need and can’t get their care at the right time and in the right setting.  Expanding coverage was necessary, and it was right.  We must ensure that the health coverage now guaranteed to many Marylanders is meaningful coverage.”

What’s the future of the Affordable Care Act? House Republicans, who say the law gives the federal government too much control and doesn’t cut costs, passed a repeal bill after they became the majority in January.  Full repeal is unlikely unless Republicans successfully take control of the Senate and the presidency in the 2012 presidential elections.  The current Democratic-led Senate will not vote to repeal and President Obama would certainly veto a repeal bill.  Democrats argue the law’s reforms will slow the growth of healthcare costs while improving care and reducing the ranks of the uninsured.  Republican efforts to withhold funds to block the law’s implementation will be DOA in the Senate.  That leaves Republicans the option of picking apart the law regulation by regulation, a strategy that could prove more successful.

In the meantime, implementation is underway.  “As we look forward with implementation of the health reform law, the states really become the focus now,” said Jennifer Tolbert, a principal policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation.  “When thinking about the coverage expansions in particular because it is going to be up to the states to implement the expansion of the Medicaid program for lower-income individuals and to create the new health-insurance exchanges that will provide access to private insurance for moderate and middle income individuals.”

Nearly 50 Percent of Americans Think the Healthcare Law Has Been Repealed – They’re Wrong!

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Defying the odds – and facing President Barack Obama’s veto pen – the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA); a move that was DOA in the Senate.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, approximately 50 percent of Americans are convinced that the healthcare law has been successfully repealed.  A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found widespread public confusion about the law, with 22 percent of Americans incorrectly believing it has been repealed and another 26 percent unsure or unwilling to say. Even after extensive media coverage of the repeal effort, only 52 percent of Americans accurately responded that the healthcare law remained intact.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “There remains no consensus about whether to keep, expand, replace or repeal the law.  Forty-eight percent are opposed to the law, while 43 percent favor it.  Sixty-one percent of those polled oppose Congress cutting off funding of the law in order to block it, as many Republican lawmakers are considering.”

The Republican-sponsored repeal bill, curiously named the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act,” passed 245 – 189 with assistance from three Democrats.  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has refused to bring repeal to the Senate floor for a vote.  President Obama has vowed to veto any repeal effort.  Republicans have not introduced an alternative bill, although Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said Republicans will ask congressional committees to make “common-sense reforms” to expand coverage and cut costs, but told reporters no “artificial deadlines” were needed.

“As has been true since early in the debate, individual provisions of the new law are more popular than the law itself, complicating the debate over repeal,” the study notes. “So while the public in general is divided over whether to keep or repeal the legislation, if they could pick and choose, the large majority (roughly eight in 10 Americans) would keep the provisions providing tax credits to small businesses, and upward of seven in 10 would keep the provisions that close the Medicare doughnut hole, provide coverage subsidies to those of low and moderate income, institute the new voluntary long-term care insurance program known as the CLASS Act, and prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.”

According to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 32 percent of Americans would like to see the law repealed; 13 percent want to see the bill left as it stands. The poll found that 29 percent of Americans want to see minor changes and that 24 percent want major changes.  Representative Ben Chandler, (D-KY), who voted against the law last year, said he voted against repeal because he thinks the law’s “bad” parts should be repealed piece by piece.  “I will not vote to repeal parts of the law that protect central Kentuckians by preventing insurance companies from dropping people if they get sick, ending lifetime caps on coverage and eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions,” Chandler said.

Implementation of the law is continuing as planned, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “I want the people who are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act — including families, seniors and small business owners — to know that this vote does not change the law and that this department will continue to work every day to implement this vital law.”

Arizona Halts Medicaid Funding for Some Transplant Surgeries

Friday, December 17th, 2010

The State of Arizona – facing soaring enrollments and shrinking revenues – has eliminated Medicaid coverage for some transplants of the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and bone marrow.  Because these treatments are usually considered to be life saving, the consequences for Medicaid patients in Arizona requiring transplantation are grim.  The cut, which impacts approximately 100 Arizonans, is a clear demonstration of the fiscal pressure that states are facing.

“It’s a real sign of the times,” said Alan Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy.  “And I think this is a precursor to a much larger number of states having this discussion.”  These policy implications are all the more striking, given the partisan framing of the healthcare debate.  Republican arguments against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act frequently focus on the specter of healthcare rationing and even the so-called death panels.  Democrats counter with the argument that – because 50 million Americans currently lack coverage – healthcare is already being rationed.

Diane Rowland, director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, said that Arizona’s move “is a classic example of making decisions based not on medical need but based on a budget.  It results, potentially, in denial of care to individuals in a life-or-death situation.”  Dr. Robert Gaston, president-elect of the American Society of Transplantation, agrees, noting that “It seems inappropriate that life-saving care has the potential to be withheld based solely on budgetary issues and the bureaucratic determination of relative benefits.”

Earlier this year, Arizona became the only state to almost eliminate its Children’s Health Insurance Program, which would have impacted 47,000 children from lower-income families.  State legislators reversed this decision before the effective date, but only after concluding that the state might lose billions of dollars in matching money from the federal government

House Panel Finds Many Individual Healthcare Policies Do Not Cover Pregnancy

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

A recent investigation by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce has found that many individual health insurance policies do not cover maternity care. The news is no surprise for women who are covered by these policies and experienced a rude awakening when they became pregnant. The four largest for-profit health insurers – Aetna, Humana, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint – don’t cover normal deliveries for their members who have individual policies. The committee’s report confirms a 2009 report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) that scrutinized 3,600 individual policies and determined that just 13 percent provide maternity coverage. For women with these policies, it gets even worse should they become pregnant. At that point, if they apply for coverage in the individual market, insurers typically determine that pregnancy is a pre-existing medical condition and deny coverage on that basis. Maternity riders are offered on some policies, but they are extremely expensive, provide very limited coverage and might take as long as a year to become effective, according to the NWLC. The average cost of maternity care – nine months of prenatal care, three months of post-partum care and a delivery without complications – averaged $10,652 in 2007, a March of Dimes study reported. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 exempts companies with less than 15 employees and individual policies from providing maternity coverage, although some states maintain stricter requirements. This year, 12 states mandate maternity coverage in the individual insurance market and 17 in the small-group market, according to statehealthfacts.org, a project of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, this coverage gap will cease to exist in 2014.