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IPAB and Medicare Costs Are Bad Medicine

During the original debate over the Affordable Care Act, I wrote that the proposed law failed to address out-of-control Medicare spending. Two years later, this urgent problem remains.

Medicare is awash in a sea of red ink — $280 billion in cash flow deficits already and getting worse — that is driving the U.S. credit rating south and threatening the very foundations of the U.S. economy. It makes no sense to sit idly by while the social safety net unravels and the promise of our future dims.

Advocates argue the health care law solves this problem. Specifically, it creates the Independent Payment and Advisory Board, which will be formed in 2014 and could make its first recommendations in 2015. This advisory board will consist of 15 officials appointed by the president. Board members will be required to make recommendations to cut Medicare funding in years when spending growth exceeds targeted rates. For Congress to block these recommendations, it must veto the board’s proposal with a 60 percent majority and pass alternative cuts of the same size.

In other words, this board puts Medicare on a budgetary diet. What’s wrong with that?

First, the system is clearly set up so that the advisory board, rather than Congress, makes the policy choices about Medicare. This means that the IPAB is not just an advisory body — despite its name. And policy choices, which should be made by elected representatives, are not.

Second, the advisory board threatens the quality of patient care. It can, in essence, ration the health care available to seniors. While technically prohibited from directly altering Medicare benefits, the IPAB will have no choice but to attempt to ratchet back spending by slashing providers’ reimbursement rates.

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The Case For Rational Rationing

The House Republicans on Thursday took another swipe at the alleged rationing in Obamacare, voting to eliminate the independent advisory panel that will propose cuts in Medicare spending when it grows substantially faster than the rest of the economy.

Most people have never heard of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, but they certainly got an earful about “death panels” and “rationing” in 2010 when Republicans used it to attack the Democrats’ health care reform bill. Stoking fear of death panels and rationing helped the Republicans win control of the House.

The IPAB has nothing to do with death panels or rationing. The 15-member panel of experts will offer Congress options for holding down Medicare’s spending whenever it grows out of control. Congress has the option of either allowing those cuts to go into effect, or enacting its own menu of cost control measures.

There is no shortage of skeptical analysts who suggest Congress will be just as likely to reject IPAB recommendations and substitute nothing at all. After all, every Congress over the past decade has rejected imposing previously enacted cuts on physician pay. Why will the IPAB cuts be any different?

The reality is that neither party has a good track record when it comes to holding down Medicare spending, and the level of debate Thursday reflected their perennial obsession with the next election, not the next generation. “Do you remember death panels?” cried Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., on the House floor. “It’s not necessarily a death panel, but it is a rationing panel and rationing does lead to scarcity for some. Who’s going to get the needed treatment, an 85-year-old or the 40-year-old with children?”

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Meet the iPAB!

Contrary to the title, the IPAB is not a new Apple product. Rather, it is the “Independent Payment Advisory Board” created by the Affordable Care Act to solve the problem of ever-increasing Medicare spending.

In people’s worst nightmares, the IPAB is a death panel that will make decisions about how to ration health care for the elderly and disabled. Images of 15 people sitting in a room handing out death sentences flash through the minds of the anti-government crowd.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as the IPAB has no authority to limit benefits, increase beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs, or otherwise alter the Medicare program in any way that would “ration” care.

So what can the IPAB actually do to promote slower spending growth in Medicare?

They can suggest legislation, that’s what. Legislation that, for example, would reduce or alter the way in which payments are made to providers. It’s debatable if the recommendations from IPAB will work to actually control spending. What’s not up for debate is whether action will be taken, and that’s what I’m most pleased about.Continue reading…

Attacks on IPAB Gather Strength—And Waste Energy?

The Washington Post reports that the Affordable Care Act’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, intended to constrain Medicare spending increases, is under increasing pressure from Republicans, health care lobbyists—and a significant number of Democrats.

As specified by the ACA, the IPAB will consist of fifteen health care “experts” to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, with authority to make cuts to Medicare if spending exceeds specified targets, starting in 2015. Congress could overrule the panel, but only by mustering a super-majority in the Senate or by creating an alternate plan to save the same amount.

The ACA imposes narrow limits on the IPAB. By law it cannot ration care, cut benefits, change eligibility rules, or raise revenue by increasing beneficiary premiums or cost-sharing, nor can it—until 2020—reduce payments to hospitals. This means that the brunt of any IPAB-proposed savings will fall on physicians and drug and medical device companies.

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The Debt Ceiling and Health Care

Over the weekend, I watched Twitter as drops of information about the debt ceiling leaked out bit by bit. There was a deal. No deal. Well, maybe a deal.The deal would require Congress to wait until a Balanced Budget Amendment passed in the states before it acted. Well, no it actually didn’t include that. Medicare was on the chopping block. Well, not cuts to members, only cuts to physicians and other providers. What’s an ordinary person to think?

There was plenty of humiliation to go around. Speaker Boehner didn’t return the president’s phone calls. Speaker Boehner couldn’t rally his own party to support his deal. Majority Leader Reid couldn’t get Republicans to talk to him. Sen. McConnell would only talk to Biden not Reid, and his unfortunate facial expressions left us with the impression that he had a serious digestive problem. The classic picture was Boehner in the House elevator letting out a long groan as the doors closed. He was not the only one groaning.

Pundits made the worst cliché pronouncements. Everything was a “crisis”; there was lots of “kicking the can down the road.” TV time had to be filled and fill it they did. Those smart folks who spent the weekend outside, barbecuing or swimming, were the wise ones. We all knew it would come down to the last moment, but oh, was it painful to watch those last agonizing hours.

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Off-base Optimism

I like to view myself as an optimist, but two recent reports demonstrate the danger of misplaced or premature optimism.  I fear that they are influenced by what the authors hope will be the case rather than what has proven to be the case.  I find this generally to be the situation in the health care arena, where public policy is often based on shallow interpretations of data and on people’s political wishes rather than rigorous analysis.

The first comes from Karen Davis at the Commonwealth Fund, in a blog post entitled, “Health Spending Continues to Moderate, Cost of Reform Overestimated.”  We should know from the title alone that the conclusions cannot be accurate:  It is just too soon to reach them.  It would be like drawing a picture of climate change from one year of data about temperatures.

Here’s an excerpt:

A recent report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shows that national health spending grew at a historically low rate of 3.9 percent in 2010, almost paralleling the 3.8 percent increase in our gross domestic product (GDP) last year. This is . . . good news for the federal government as the slowdown indicates that the cost of health reform has been overestimated.

Now, let’s look at the possible reasons:

First . . . continuing declines in employment and private health insurance coverage have contributed to fewer people receiving both essential and nonessential treatment. [F]ewer people have received needed preventive and acute care. And people have increasingly gone without prescriptions, tests, and elective procedures.

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Why IPAB Is Essential — A Timely Review

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.

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Why Let IPAB Control Health Care?

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once said that Congress needed to pass the new health care law so the American people can find out what’s in it. Many have since taken her up on that — and they do not like what they see in Obamacare. Seniors on Medicare are particularly alarmed by the new Independent Payment Advisory Board, which could severely restrict their access to treatments and medications.

The advisory board would change Medicare forever. This group of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats has now been given the power to restrict access to health care for our seniors. They can do so through price controls on medical services that would become law without a vote in Congress.

This board, included in Obamacare, was bad enough to begin with, but now President Barack Obama wants to strengthen it further. After two years of wasteful spending, he sees the new board as the key to reducing Washington’s budget deficit. Instead of reforming our entitlement programs responsibly, he wants to appoint 15 “experts” to balance the budget on the backs of our seniors.

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There’s No Choice but Change

The outrageous distortions about the Ryan Medicare reform plan are coming from people who are accelerating the program’s path to insolvency.

Medicare is being used as a piggy bank by Democrats, with $575 billion in payment cuts used to finance two massive new entitlement programs in Obamacare. And this April, the president proposed taking another $480 billion out of the program to lower the deficit.

Payments to providers will be cut so deeply that seniors will find it harder and harder to get care. Doctors will stop taking Medicare or go bankrupt. A whopping 87 percent of doctors say they will stop seeing or will restrict the number of Medicare patients they see, further shrinking the pool of providers and further restricting access to care.

The powerful, 15-member Independent Payment Advisory Board will use price controls to meet ever-elusive spending targets. Rationing is inevitable, especially of newer medicines and technologies.

House Energy and Commerce chairman Fred Upton explained, “Last year, Medicare expenditures reached $523 billion, but the income was only $486 billion — leaving a $37 billion deficit in just one year. And with 10,000 new individuals becoming eligible each day, it’s only going to get worse.”

Medicare is $38 trillion in the red, and it accelerated five years toward insolvency in just the last year, according to the Medicare Trustees’ latest report.

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Can Berwick Be Saved? Here’s One Possible Scenario

We’ve all had the experience of hearing someone we know well say or write something totally out of character, and wondering, “what was that about?”

Don Berwick said such a thing last week, all-but-contradicting President Obama’s support for a strengthened, independent Medicare payment board. After a little head scratching, I began to wonder whether this might have been a harbinger of some good news regarding his tenure as Medicare czar.

This is one complicated political dance, so let me explain.

Berwick, as you know, received a recess appointment to lead the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last July, after his nomination had become hopelessly entangled in a web of partisan politics. I applauded President Obama for the appointment, and predicted that Don would do a great job in this crucial role, perhaps even wooing some of the Republican legislators who hijacked his nomination process to re-litigate the fracas over healthcare reform.

Then, in early March, Senate Republicans made it clear that they would not support Berwick’s continued tenure when his recess appointment expires later this year. The reasons include lingering concerns about Berwick’s politics (particularly his embrace of the British system of universal healthcare coverage), continued anger over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and some peevishness over the recess appointment itself. In this space last month, I promoted a letter-writing campaign to try to save the Berwick appointment, though insiders told me it was “hopeless.”Continue reading…

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