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Tag: Budget Deal 2013

The Doc Fix Is Real

Congress just had an uncharacteristically big week – with significant implications for healthcare policy. It flew by fast and furious, so here we pause to unpack the most significant developments and what they teach us about the future.

1. The Permanent Doc Fix Effort is Real. You have to hand it to the committees of jurisdiction, they have kept their heads down and plugged away all year at permanently repealing the broken Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula that dictates Medicare payments to doctors. They’ve floated new payment methodologies, added policy addressing the package of “extenders” that perennially travels with the “doc fix,” and now all three have successfully completed bipartisan mark-ups of their respective approaches. Furthermore, the three month SGR patch that was included in the budget deal is an implicit endorsement by congressional leadership that there’s actually a chance this could happen in the first quarter of next year.

The next step is to identify savings to pay the roughly $150 billion price tag, which has always of course been the biggest rub. That process is going to take center stage early next year in a “Super Committee-lite” process of negotiating various potential cuts to healthcare programs. The cynics are still betting against it, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been before to replacing the 15+ year-old SGR.

2. The Long-Term Care Hospital Sector Will Never be the Same. In a lesser-noticed component of the three month doc fix patch alluded to above, Congress eliminated the payment differential for LTCHs (pronounced el taks) and regular inpatient hospitals for patients who do not meet clinical complexity criteria. What began as an esoteric exemption for a small handful of hospitals in the early 1980’s and grew to a $6 billion Medicare benefit annually is now going to start to plateau.

The market liked the change, paradoxically, because it was gentler than some bean counters had recommended and gave plenty of time (four years) for sophisticated companies to adjust. But the hot LTCH business just got some pretty cold water poured on it.

3. The Budget Deal Helps Healthcare Programs. The Murray-Ryan agreement to set spending levels for the next two years alleviated some of the impact of the sequester on discretionary spending programs like those at the FDA, NIH and HRSA. This means that funding for new product approvals, clinical research, workforce development programs and some primary care services will be modestly improved in 2014 and 2015.

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The Republican Dilemma

What a difference a few weeks make. Just as Republicans were desperately trying to extricate themselves from the fiasco of tying budget passage and debt ceiling legislation to repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the White House came to their rescue with its disastrous healthcare.gov start-up.

It’s now looking like the most egregious healthcare.gov glitches will be fixed by year-end, but with enough problems remaining in 2014 to continue to provide fodder for conservative (and other) critics. Unfortunately for the administration, just as the technical bugs are ironed out the spotlight will move to other aspects of Obamacare.

Premiums are going to take a jump next year, reflecting the lower than projected enrollment by the young and healthy (thanks in part to the healthcare.gov fiasco and the confusion created by Presidential and Congressional attempts to allow non-compliant plans to be extended). There’s a good chance of wholesale cancellations, too, as some insurers take a long look at the unhealthy business they’ve acquired and decide to abandon the exchange market. And it’s almost a given that every other increase in premiums or cut in coverage or cancellation of insurance will be blamed on the upheaval of the Affordable Care Act.

It’s enough to make gleeful Republican leaders believe in the Tooth Fairy.

But will the Tooth Fairy continue to deliver, notably in the Congressional midterms in 2014 and the Presidential election in 2016? The public attention span is notoriously short, and while the current chaos may influence the 2014 midterms, by 2016 the healthcare.gov disaster is likely to be a fading memory. Barack Obama won’t be running for reelection, so harping on the present White House’s incompetence will have limited impact. And while the eventual imposition of IRS fines on those still without coverage will certainly generate a new round of outrage–even assuming the IRS gets the calculations right–Hilary Clinton, or whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, will reasonably be able to ask “So where was the Republicans’ better idea?”

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