As we shake off the carb-coma and make our pre-resolutions, Congress and the Administration head into a sprint to the holiday recess fraught with health policy implications. Unlike every December in recent memory, there isn’t very much Congress actually has to do. Here are the top five things you need to know to follow the fun and prepare your organization for the changes afoot. A key theme to take home is that December 2013 is a month of anti-deadlines.
- The Nov. 30/Dec. 1 “fix” to Healthcare.gov was set arbitrarily and has simply teed up another pivot point for opponents to pounce. We already know the wand hasn’t tapped the electro-synapses of the site yet to make the dang thing work like it should. Expect more incremental improvements through the month and enrollment numbers to come in above current rock-bottom expectations, with a healthy chunk coming from the proud, the few … the state-based exchanges.
- The Dec. 13 deadline for budget conferees to produce a joint resolution is similarly fictional and self-imposed. While there are some burgeoning reports that co-chairs Murray and Ryan might be able to agree to FY14 funding levels and potentially alleviate some of the sequester, the buzz-o-sphere in Washington still has deep doubts. Even if the two negotiators come to agreement, House and Senate leadership have the bigger challenge of getting a bipartisan deal through their chambers.
- Jan. 15 is the real deadline for a budget agreement and the real goal is writing a check to fund the government through Sept. 30. A budget resolution is helpful to give appropriators time to write actual spending policy, but it can be bypassed if the end-game is a continuing resolution that keeps current funding allocations in place. (Congress hasn’t passed an actual budget resolution since Democrats controlled both chambers.) At the end of the day, we’ll be back to the all-too-familiar roundtable of congressional leaders and Obama reps hatching a last-minute deal to avert a shutdown.
Between October 1 and 17, the federal government ceased all nonessential operations because of a partisan stalemate over Obamacare. Although it is premature to declare this the greatest example of misgovernance in modern U.S. Congressional history, this impasse ranks highly.
One casualty of the showdown was any consideration of changes to lessen the impact of the across-the-board sequestration cuts that began on March 1. The cuts have caused economic and other distress across the nation, including serious impacts within the health care sector. Nearly eight months into sequestration, we can move beyond predictions and begin to quantify these effects.
Consider the following impacts of sequestration on Federal health agencies and activities:
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH
Cuts to the FY13 budget: $1.71 billion or 5.5%
A 5.8% cut to the National Cancer Institute, including 6% to ongoing grants, 6.5% to cancer centers, and 8.5% to existing contracts
A 5.0% cut to National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and a 21.6% drop in new grant awards
Among the effects:
- 703 fewer new and competing research projects
- 1,357 fewer research grants in total
- 750 or 7% fewer patients admitted to NIH Clinical Center
- $3 billion in lost economic activity and 20,500 lost jobs
- Estimated lost medical and scientific funding in California, Massachusetts, and New York alone of $180, $128, and $104 million respectively.
Dr. Randy Schekman, whose first major grant was from the National Institutes of Health in 1978, said winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine made him reflect on how his original proposal might have fared in today’s depressed funding climate. “It would have been much, much more difficult to get support,” he said. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) noted the irony that because of sequester cuts, NIH funding was reduced for the research that resulted in Yale’s James Rothman sharing in the 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
The dreaded sequester cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 went into effect this month, putting into place a 2 percent cut in Medicare spending.
While Congress can still enact a “fix” that will delay or amend these cuts, that seems unlikely as of this writing. Yet how the cuts will impact Medicare and its nearly 50 million beneficiaries is a still a moving target.
In a joint study issued September 2012 by the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association, it was estimated that some 766,000 jobs would be lost by 2021 if the sequester cuts went into effect.
According to the study, “Researchers forecast that more than 496,000 jobs will be lost during the first year of sequestration, and these cuts will impact health-care sectors in every state. In California alone, the health sector could lose more than 78,000 jobs by 2021.”
In these politically polarized times, Americans expect Republicans and Democrats to disagree on every detail right down to what day of the week it is. This is especially true in the posturing hurly-burly of the House, where members can appeal to the few select priorities of a gerrymandered district to win re-election.
So it’s remarkable and unexpected when any legislation exits a House committee with unanimous bipartisan support. It’s even more surprising when the legislation potentially threatens the status quo for established corporate interests—in this case information technology companies.
The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITAR)—sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa along with Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, and supported by every member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—threatens to put open-source software on par with proprietary by labeling it a “commercial item” in federal procurement policies. The proposal wouldn’t give open source a privileged position, just an equal one.
The recent news that thousands of seniors with cancer are being denied treatment with expensive chemotherapy drugs as a result of sequestration-mandated budget cuts raises the question of whether other patients are being equally harmed, but less visibly.
A careful study of the impact of past federal budget cutting suggests a troubling answer. That study, in a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper published in 2011 and revised last year, established an eerily direct link between slashing hospital reimbursement and whether Medicare patients with a heart attack live or die.
Using data from California hospitals, researchers Vivian Y. Wu of the University of California and Yu-Chu Shen of the Naval Postgraduate School examined mortality rates for heart attack patients following the Medicare payment cuts resulting from the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997. The impact of the BBA was not as sudden or clear as the current situation, where Medicare’s two percent across-the-board cut on April 1 instantly transformed some expensive chemotherapy drugs into money losers, but it was significant and long-lasting.
The researchers examined hospitals claims data for a three-year period before the BBA, a three-year period when the BBA first took effect and, finally, a six-year period after budget cuts had either permanently changed care or failed to do so. They also tried to adjust for the severity of illness of the heart attack patients – the condition is formally known as acute myocardial infarction (AMI) – and other factors.
In the end, the researchers were able to trace a clear path from Congressional budget decisions to the patient’s bedside. Payment reductions triggered by the BBA , Wu and Shen concluded, led to “worse Medicare AMI patient outcomes, and more importantly, that the adverse effect only became measurable several years after the policy took place.”
They even quantified the effect: every thousand dollars of Medicare revenue loss from the BBA translated to a six to eight percent increase in mortality rates from heart attack.Continue reading…
It has become accepted economic wisdom, uttered with deadpan certainty by policy pundits and budget scolds on both sides of the aisle, that the only way to get control over America’s looming deficits is to “reform entitlements.”
But the accepted wisdom is wrong.
Start with the statistics Republicans trot out at the slightest provocation — federal budget data showing a huge spike in direct payments to individuals since the start of 2009, shooting up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase.
And Census data showing 49 percent of Americans living in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing — up from 44 percent in 2008.
But these expenditures aren’t driving the federal budget deficit in future years. They’re temporary. The reason for the spike is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.
If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically, including 22 percent of our children.
What about Social Security and Medicare (along with Medicare’s poor step-child, Medicaid)?