A little over two weeks ago, while most of you were paying attention to the debate about how to raise the debt ceiling, those of us who study health care policy were following hearings before the House Budget Committee. The purpose of the hearings was to scrutinize the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a commission that the Affordable Care Act created as part of its apparatus to control health care costs. And the hearings produced some genuinely interesting testimony on everything from the scope of the board’s authority to the limits of its legal power. If we were in the middle of a dialogue about how to improve the board’s structure and function, that testimony would be extremely useful.
But we’re not having a discussion about whether to reform the IPAB. We’re having a discussion about whether to repeal it. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act see the IPAB as an instrument of, and metaphor for, everything that is wrong with the new health care law. The problem with this law, they keep saying, is that it tries to solve the health care cost problem through “central planning.” At best, they say, this strategy will misallocate resources in ways that stifle innovation and make access to care more difficult. And at worst? It will ration care in ways that deny life-saving treatment to people who need it. As one Republican lawmaker put it recently, “It will destroy the very core of what has made our medical system the best in the world.”
Yes, these arguments should sound familiar. They are the same ones critics began making in the summer of 2009, when enactment of the law first seemed imminent. And since neither the argument nor the people making it are going away, maybe it’s a good time to take a step back and remind everybody what the IPAB is; how it will work; and why it (or something very much like it) is essential to making health care accessible to all seniors and, eventually, all Americans.
Despite the fanciful attacks from some conservatives, the IPAB will not be a modern-day Politburo that brings Soviet-style management to American health care. It will be, instead, a board comprised of 15 experts on health care policy, including consumer representatives. The president will appoint the members, subject to Senate confirmation, and they will serve six-year staggered terms. Their job will be to issue recommendations on how Medicare can spend its money more wisely.
A similar commission already exists. It’s called the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, or MedPAC. But its recommendations, however intelligent, usually end up collecting dust on the bookshelves of policy wonks like me. IPAB’s proposals shouldn’t meet the same fate. Whenever the cost of Medicare grows faster than the targets set by the law, IPAB will make proposals that would reduce the program’s spending by as much as to 1.5 percentage points, depending on the circumstances. At that point, Congress would have three choices: Allow the recommendations to take effect, come up with alternatives that would achieve the same savings or opt to let Medicare costs grow up faster than planned. The one key caveat is that the final course of action, allowing Medicare to grow without further restraint, would require a three-fifths vote in the Senate.
The thinking behind this structure reflects a long-standing consensus among health care experts that Medicare needs better, smarter management. Relative to private insurance, the program has actually done a pretty good job of managing costs overall, thanks to the natural efficiencies of such a massive program and the lack of investors to satisfy with profits. But Medicare is still getting too expensive, too quickly — and there’s a ton of data to suggest it doesn’t do a very effective job of fostering good quality. Probably the best known evidence along these lines are the Dartmouth Atlas studies, which show that Medicare spends far more in regions like Miami than in regions like Minneapolis, but without achieving better results.
If we want to keep providing seniors with comprehensive coverage, while still getting the program’s costs under control, the obvious way to do it is to operate the program more carefully. One way to do this is to adopt payment models that reward quality and efficiency. And that’s not something Congress is likely to do on its own, particularly with lobbyists for every health care special interest, from device makers to local hospitals, crawling all over Capitol Hill. The hope is that an independent commission of experts, insulated from politics but still accountable to the president and Congress, can succeed where our lawmakers have failed.
The more extreme critics of IPAB claim it will abuse its power — that it will issue treatment edicts that keep the sick and elderly from getting cancer drugs, expensive surgeries and the like. But the new health law explicitly prohibits IPAB from changing the program’s benefits or imposing anything that would amount to “rationing.” Besides, all insurance plans, public and private, must choose what to cover and what not to cover. That includes Medicare, which already exercises this power routinely. At most, IPAB would increase the influence of scientists and reduce the influence of lobbyists over these decisions. Would critics really prefer it the other way around? (Actualy, maybe some would. Many IPAB critics, including Democrats, have benefitted from large health industry donations.)
The less extreme, more honest criticism of IPAB is that it will encourage payment schemes that lead to indirect rationing, by restricting access to the people who provide care. According to this argument, doctors are already turning away patients because of low reimbursements. Once IPAB ratchets down payments further, they’ll turn away even more patients. But the stories about doctors turning away Medicare patients turn out to be mostly anecdotal, at least at this point. The best data available, from MedPAC among others, suggests most doctors still see Medicare patients — and are more open to them than they are to privately insured patients. Particularly given the Affordable Care Act’s other reforms, which provide financial incentives that reward efficient styles of care, providers should be able to offer care as good if not better than what they offer now — while charging less money per patient.
But what if the critics are right? What if IPAB changes really did make it more difficult for seniors to see providers? That would be a problem, obviously. But the alternative is to cut spending on Medicare in ways that will affect beneficiaries more directly and more severely. The House Republican budget, which most of these critics support, is a prime example. Instead of introducing a commission to manage Medicare more efficiently, it eliminates the government program and hands seniors a voucher that, according to every reliable estimate, would provide far less financial protection. Even if competition among plans reduced the cost of care, seniors would still have a far tougher time getting care — with large numbers forced to choose between health care and other necessities, much as they were in the days before Medicare came into existence. Somehow I think that’s not a reality most seniors would like.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic .