Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street’

Medicare Advantage Premiums to Fall Four Percent in 2012

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

The Obama administration’s announcement that Medicare Advantage insurance plans premiums will decline in 2012, at a time when enrollment is expected to rise, is good news for the leading health insurers in that segment.  Wall Street analyst Ana Gupte said that the announcement suggests strengthening support in the administration for the privately-run versions of the government’s Medicare program, which covers the elderly and disabled.  Medicare Advantage plans offer basic Medicare coverage with extras like vision or dental coverage oratremiums lower than standard Medicare rates.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that Medicare Advantage premiums will average four percent less in 2012, and insurers running the plans believe that enrollment will rise by 10 percent.  “Overall, we were very encouraged by the announcement and see this as reinforcing our bullish thesis on the Medicare Advantage and (prescription drug coverage) segments,” according to Gupte.

It’s highly unusual to see healthcare insurance premiums falling. Reduced premiums and growing enrollment are the opposite of what insurers and Republicans predicted would happen to Medicare Advantage after the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The ACA cut payments to fee-for-service Medicare Advantage plans by about $136 billion over the next 10 tears.  Right before the law passed, American’s Health Insurance Plans predicted that “millions of seniors in Medicare Advantage will lose their coverage, and millions more will face higher premiums and reduced benefits.”  So what accounts for the drop?  The decrease in premiums doesn’t have a lot to do with policy decisions made in the ACA.  It’s three outside factors that are putting downward pressure on Medicare.  One is that Medicare costs are growing more slowly.  Both in Medicare and in private insurance, the recession has seen patients using fewer medical services.  This looks to be especially true in Medicare, where seniors might have more limited resources because they tend to live on a fixed income.  The latest S&P Healthcare Economic Indices data indicates that Medicare spending appears to be rising at a slower rate than just a few years ago.

Jonathan Blum, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Center for Medicare, said the more affordable costs and growth forecasts demonstrate that companies are still interested in offering such plans despite new consumer protections under the healthcare law and payment caps to insurers.  According to Blum, “We can say with complete accuracy that despite projections in 2010 that the program will decline, the program has grown and will continue to grow.  The plans have made a very strong statement that they intend to commit to the program.  Plans that do a better job serving the needs of their Medicare members should be rewarded and all plans should be encouraged to improve their performance.” 

Healthcare insurers warned that seniors can expect more costs and receive fewer benefits from their Medicare Advantage plans after payment cuts take effect.  They point to projections from the Congressional Budget Office, which predicted Medicare Advantage enrollment would fall to just 7.8 million participants in 2019.  “Medicare Advantage plans remain committed to the program and are doing everything they can to preserve benefits and keep coverage as affordable and possible for beneficiaries,” said Robert Zirkelbach of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).  “However, as these cuts take effect in the coming years, Medicare Advantage beneficiaries will face higher out-of-pocket costs, reduced benefits, and fewer health care choices.”  The group and its insurer members, who opposed many of the healthcare reforms before they passed, are now committed to implementing the law.

“Many people raised fears that under the Affordable Care Act, beneficiaries would see their Medicare Advantage options shrink and their premiums rise,” Sebelius said.  “Instead, we have seen just the opposite.”

Some in the industry are looking at other ways to bring Medicare costs down.  According to the Fierce Pharma website, “Healthcare industry leaders are poised to make their own deficit-reduction suggestions — including some that might not win them points in a popularity contest.  Uncertain what budget cuts the deficit-reduction committee might propose, the Healthcare Leadership Council has come up with its own proposal that would ask Medicare beneficiaries to endure more belt-tightening themselves.  The group is aiming to put forward an alternative more palatable than across-the-board Medicare cuts mandated by the deficit-reduction bill if the “supercommittee” doesn’t agree on its own plan.  And it’s betting that its proposal will be easier to bear than budget-cutting ideas floated in the past, such as drug re-importation.  The council, which includes Big Pharma executives, hospital companies and insurers, crafted a plan that would raise the Medicare-eligibility age little by little to 67 from 65, beginning in 2014. It would hike co-pays and deductibles.  It would require well-off seniors to pay higher premiums.  And it would add private-sector competition to traditional Medicare coverage, pitting government-subsidized private insurance plans against regular Medicare.  Requiring seniors to pay more might be considered a non-starter; after all, consumer groups, particularly AARP, have vociferously fought against such moves in the past.  But the council figures that provider-based Medicare cuts will end up costing beneficiaries when all is said and done.  ‘This thinking that we’re protecting beneficiaries because we’re only cutting providers — that’s mythical,’ said Mary Grealy, the council’s president.”

Capitol Hill Kabuki

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Five Senators want to take the House-passed Medicare plan off the table in bipartisan deficit reduction talks, claiming that the plan effectively dismantles the program.  According to the Senators, the Medicare plan, which passed as part of a budget proposal in April, would jeopardize senior citizens’ current benefits and double out-of-pocket costs.  The five are Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD); Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Senator Bill Nelson, (D-FL); Senator Claire McCaskill, (D-MO); and Senator Jon Tester, (D-MT).

In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, the senators wrote:  “We are aware the administration has rejected this proposal since its passage by the House, and we applaud your efforts to educate the American people about its serious implications.  We encourage you to remain unwavering in opposition to this scheme.  For the good of the nation’s seniors, it must remain off the table.”

According to the letter,“This proposal would never pass Congress on its own, and it does not belong in a larger deal either.  It would be devastating for America’s seniors, who would see their out-of-pocket costs for healthcare double and the benefits they currently enjoy jeopardized.  Under this risky proposal, insurance company bureaucrats would decide what seniors get.”  Biden is leading talks to raise the debt ceiling and negotiating with lawmakers regarding ways to reduce the deficit as a trade-off to raise the debt ceiling.

The deficit and debt limit – whose ceiling the nation is rapidly approaching – are part of the conversation on Capitol Hill.  “I’m willing.  I’m ready. It is time to have the conversation” about deficit cuts and the debt limit, said House Speaker John Boehner

(R-OH), urging President Barack Obama to involve himself personally.  “It is time to play large ball, not small ball.”  House Democratic leader Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “I could never support any arrangement that reduced benefits for Medicare.  Absolutely not,” she said,” emphasizing a position she and other Democrats had laid out at their own meeting with the president.   Given Medicare’s size — nearly $500 billion a year — any deal on cutting future deficits is likely to include savings from the program, and may include the benefit cuts that most Democrats oppose.

The Obama administration has come out against the Medicare reforms in the House plan –  authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).  The Senators insist that this is a non starter, and stressed that they must not be a point of negotiation during the ongoing debt ceiling talks.  Despite the Democrats’ opposition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insists that the Medicare reform plan will be “on the table” in negotiations.  “We are going to discuss what ought to be done,” McConnell said.  “I can assure you that to get my vote to raise the debt ceiling, for whatever that is worth…Medicare will be a part of it.”

Some Republicans are backing away from Ryan’s proposal.  For example, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had egg on his face after suggesting that the plan is “radical… right-wing social engineering,” Gingrich’s explanations proved too little, too late for many conservatives, who continue to hammer the former House speaker for his gaffe.

In an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Sentinel,  Chrystia Freeland writes that “The political theater in the United States this week has been all about the ‘debt ceiling’:  Congress voting not to increase it; President Barack Obama and the House Republicans are meeting to discuss it; and the Treasury warning that failure to raise it will bring economic apocalypse for the United States and the world.  Elites like to accuse ordinary Americans of a lack of political sophistication, but everyone from Main Street to Wall Street is savvy enough to understand that so far, the fighting over the ceiling is pure Kabuki.  As with the budget deal earlier this year, the real negotiating is unlikely to happen until the very last minute.  But everyone also understands that this summer game of brinkmanship matters because it is a proxy war being fought over a very real problem:  the growing national debt and deficit.  At just under 60 percent of gross domestic product, the U.S. national debt is lower than that of France, Germany and Britain.  And the rest of the world still seems delighted to lend the United States money on historically generous terms.”

In Recessionary Times, Private Capital Drives Healthcare Development

Monday, April 6th, 2009

The recession has put the health care industry’s importance to our economy in sharp relief. It accounted for 17 percent of GDP and added 371,600 jobs last year.  Even when the economy lost 651,000 jobs during February, healthcare added 27,000 new positions.pj-am329_pjnurs_200805061826111

In terms of the construction of new facilities during 2009, healthcare development is expected to fall by five or eight percent.  Yet, the drivers that historically have made the healthcare market so strong – obsolescence, new technologies and demographics – are still very much in place.

The collapse of the $330 billion auction rate securities market which let healthcare systems borrow money long term while paying short-term interest rates – cut off a principal source of capital for new development.  Hospitals have investment portfolios tied to Wall Street, another source of capital that is being cut off.  Endowments are drying up as even the most dependable philanthropists see their fortunes shrink.  Access to long-term debt vehicles, such as variable-rate demand bonds backed by letters of credit, is available only to healthcare systems that are A-rated or even better.  Even when a provider has superior credit, interest rates to borrow money may be as high as six to 6.5 percent.  For some hospitals and healthcare providers, the cost of credit – if they can get it – is too expensive.

To fill the gap, healthcare providers are considering private sources that have the capital necessary to finance projects.  The upside of private capital is that it can be committed over the long term to help hospitals and providers fulfill their strategic expansion plans without the same balance sheet implications – something hospitals are focused on in order to maintain a good standing with the ratings agencies.

In a 0 percent federal rate environment when 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have come down to 5.29 percent, capital is competitive with traditional hospital financing, compared with other cycles.