With over a dozen conservative states leaning against expanding Medicaid to cover poor workers without health insurance, perhaps it is time to resuscitate an idea embraced by President Ronald Reagan. Let the federal government take over Medicaid lock, stock and barrel.
In 1982 the president who ushered in the modern conservative era offered to assume federal responsibility for the program that now consumes over 22 percent of state government budgets in exchange for states taking over welfare. His offer built on a series of recommendations going back to 1969 by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which called for a federal takeover of all public assistance programs.
President Obama’s health care reform law, if it survives the final hurdle of next November’s election, could give that idea new life. Under the Affordable Care Act, states are responsible for creating insurance exchanges where individuals and businesses can buy individual or group health plans.
The Affordable Care Act envisions a major expansion of health insurance in America, with some 30 million Americans gaining coverage. That figure includes some 17 million people with low incomes who were to get health insurance via an expansion of Medicaid eligibility. With eligibility raised—from 100 percent of the poverty level to 133 percent—many states will enlarge their Medicaid rolls and pay for it with federal funds, at least for a few years.
But the Supreme Court clouded that part of the vision last week, ruling that states cannot be penalized for refusing the federal money—thus leaving in doubt how many of the projected 17 million poor or near poor citizens will actually get coverage.
In short, the Supreme Court allowed the federal carrot to remain, but took away the stick. Matt Salo, the executive director for the National Association of Medicaid Directors, an organization for those who run state programs, summed it up for The Washington Post: “Prior to the court’s decision, failure to implement this expansion meant you [the states] lost all your Medicaid funding. Now you have a political and financial decision to make: Do you do this?”
Americans believe in second chances. Mitt Romney will get his if the Supreme Court rules to throw out part, or all, of the president’s federal health insurance law. Should Romney propose replacing it with a federal version of the Massachusetts health law or a federal mega-bill that mandates a one-size-fits-all free-market solution?
The question is now central to the election — the high court has made that certain — and eclipsed in importance only by the debate over jobs and the economy.
President Obama may cite Romney’s Massachusetts reform as an inspiration for his own efforts, but there are profound differences between the laws — the size and reach, financing, the underlying philosophy. Romney sought an open marketplace for individuals to purchase benefit plans ranging from catastrophic to generous. Romney’s successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, has obscured those differences by taking a big-government approach to implementation, drastically limiting choices and mandating minimum coverage levels beyond private-market norms.
Even with weak implementation, the Massachusetts law has yielded some positive results, including broadening insurance coverage, especially for minorities, and decreasing premiums for individual purchasers of insurance.
President Barack Obama has been busy recently traveling to college campuses across the country, talking about student loan debt and pitching his proposal to keep the interest rates on some federal loans at 3.4 percent for another year. His Republican rival, Mitt Romney, also supports a one-year extension.
While I agree with both that we need to make it easier for students to afford college, the president is not telling the whole story about how we got here and how we’re going to pay to fix it.
What the president needs to tell students is that his own health care policies are the principal reason that tuition and student debt are rising.
Medicaid mandates on states are soaking up dollars that would otherwise be spent on state universities and community colleges, forcing up tuition and resulting in more student loans and debt. Even worse, the federal government is trying to make a profit by overcharging students on their current loans and using part of the profit to pay for the new health care law.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, this takeover produced approximately $61 billion for the government — $8.7 billion of which went to pay for the new health care law.
The president’s new student loan proposal would, for one year, keep rates at 3.4 percent on new subsidized Stafford loans (those for which the federal government pays interest until students graduate), rather than increasing to 6.8 percent under current law. These loans account for about 40 percent of all federal student loans. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average student takes out approximately $3,600 in these new loans and will save about $7 a month in interest payments.
The United States faces large federal budget deficits over the short-, medium-, and long-term. Although perhaps subject to the greatest public attention, the short-term deficits are generally thought to be helping the economy recover. In contrast, medium- and long-term deficits projected for years after the economy returns to full-employment are a source of concern: these deficits will create growing and serious burdens on the economy even if they do not lead to an immediate crisis. Economists of all political stripes agree on this point.
While extending the Bush tax cuts, if that occurs, will play a big role in making the medium and long-term deficit problems worse, economists agree that a key driver of the long-term deficit problem is growth in government spending on health care. Medicare and Medicaid, our two largest health spending programs, currently account for 23 percent of federal spending, or 5.6 percent of GDP. Under current law and optimistic assumptions for health spending, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates these programs will represent 30 percent of total federal spending (6.8 percent of GDP) by 2022 and will continue to grow thereafter.
The prospect of health-driven deficits has produced a burst of proposals for reform. Sadly, the simple truth is that we do not yet know how to reform government health programs to both rein in costs and maintain or improve quality and access.
Not a week goes by without seeing some headline about deficits pushing municipalities to desperation or Bill Gates describing state budgets using accounting techniques that would make Enron blush. The common culprit: healthcare costs with Medicaid being the biggest driver.
Recently Carly Fiorina opined on The Health Care Blog about Health Care, Not Coverage. She pointed out the unnecessary administrative burden that could be better spent on delivering healthcare. Fortunately, there is already a proven model, developed and run by physicians, that has shown it can reduce costs 20-40% by removing administrative overhead while improving outcomes (e.g., 40-80% reductions in hospital admissions) and greatly increasing patient satisfaction with Google/Apple level of patient satisfaction.
It can be described as two parts Marcus Welby and one part Steve Jobs. The federal health reform bill included a little-noticed clause allowing for Direct Primary Care (DPC) models to be a part of the state health insurance exchanges. That little-noticed clause (Section 1301 (a)(3) of the Affordable Care Act and proposed HR3315 to expand DPC to Medicare recipients) should have the effect of massively spreading the DPC model throughout the country. In California, the DPC model was introduced in a bill to bring explicit support for the DPC model as has been done in the state of Washington and elsewhere.
For the next three months, the Supreme Court will mull the constitutionality of the new health care law. At stake is the government’s requirement that its citizens buy private health insurance. But whatever the outcome, it’s a foregone conclusion that some fundamental change must be instituted in the financing of health care delivery.
Today, enormous sums of taxpayer money are spent on the administration of health care programs such as Medicaid. Those administrative costs could be sharply reduced and the savings put to what is really needed — providing health care. With the information technology available today, public agencies should consider eliminating their function as a government-run insurance operation and focusing their resources on paying providers to deliver care.
Consider Medicaid, the shared federal and state program for the poor. When Medicaid was created, it was designed to replicate the private insurance function. But the basic purpose of insurance is to protect the policy holder’s assets against a catastrophic event causing risk of personal bankruptcy. Because the very nature of qualifying for Medicaid requires recipients to first spend down their assets and then earn an annual income below a certain percentage of the federal poverty level, what assets is the policy protecting? The person doesn’t need health insurance. He needs health care.
When the government created Medicaid as a look-alike insurance product, it developed an oversight operation that has not kept up with what technology can do to make a system run more efficiently. And unlike private insurance, it built a system requiring monthly updates of each of its 50 million recipients’ eligibility, including filled-out and faxed-in monthly reports, income receipts, etc.
During the debate two years ago over the health care law—which I called an historic mistake because it expanded a health care delivery system we already knew was too expensive, instead of taking steps to reduce its cost two years ago—I suggested to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle who were supporting it that, if they voted for it, they ought to be sentenced to go home and run for governor and see whether they could implement it over an eight-year period.
Governors have long wrestled with the rising costs of Medicaid, paid for partly by the states according to rules set in Washington, and the question of how to deal with public education, especially higher education. Some 30 years ago, when I was a young governor, I was still struggling with the fact that at the end of the budget process, we had money either to put into higher education or into Medicaid – but the rules from Washington said it had to go to Medicaid.
I remember going to see President Reagan and asking: ‘Why don’t we just swap it, Mr. President? Let the federal government take all of Medicaid. Let the states take elementary and secondary education.’ That didn’t happen, and gradually, the increasing Washington-directed costs have distorted state budgets so much that now 24 percent of the state budgets go to the Medicaid program.
Because of the health care law, we are going to add 25.9 million more Americans to Medicaid, according to the Medicaid Chief Actuary.
Our former governor, Governor Bredesen, a Democratic governor, estimated that between 2014 and 2019 the expansion of Medicaid would add $1.1 billion in new costs to the state of Tennessee.
I once called an older version of Paul Ryan’s budget plan “voodoo economics.” But you have to admire him. He has just released a new plan that slashes the deficit from 8 percent of GDP to around 1 percent by the end of the decade while simultaneously keeping revenues at 18 percent of GDP over the decade, very close to their historical average. To be sure, the specific policies required to get there are not well specified and there is much that I don’t like, such as the assumption that we don’t need new revenues to close the fiscal gap; still, after reading the “Path to Prosperity” I came away with a sense that there is food for thought, worthy of further discussion and debate, in this document.
I came to this conclusion after reading the section of the document called “repairing the safety net.” I had figured out that a lot of the savings in this plan had to come from slashing programs for the poor so I expected to be horrified by what I read. I am not in favor of cutting programs for the poor, especially in a plan that reduces taxes for the wealthy and leaves Social Security virtually untouched. Instead, I found myself at least intrigued with the arguments that I found in this section of the plan. They are thoughtful, well-articulated, and worthy of further debate.
One argument is that federal subsidies for safety net programs encourage states to spend more than they otherwise would. Another argument is that federal dollars come with federal prescriptions and paperwork that stifle state innovation and efficiency. A third argument is that these programs undermine efforts by civic or faith-based groups to play a stronger role. A fourth argument is that some of these subsidies (for example, Pell grants) simply bid up prices (for college tuition). A fifth argument is that we have too many overlapping and complex programs with similar purposes (job training being a great example). A sixth argument is that assistance should be made conditional on personal responsibility—for example, being engaged in work or job training if you are receiving government assistance. This model of conditional assistance was a key element in the largely successful 1996 welfare reform law and could be expanded to other programs. Finally, the plan emphasizes the importance of upward mobility—a goal which I think many can embrace.
North Carolina Medicaid recently reported, for the third time, using a third consulting firm, the achievement of massive savings through its patient-centered medical home (PCMH) program, now called Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC). Among other things, CCNC pays the physicians more money in order to encourage and compensate behaviors and processes, including enhanced access to care and case management, to hopefully reduce the need for emergency and inpatient services. (A brief summary of this and past consulting reports appear in the current issue of Modern Health Care. http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20120218/MAGAZINE/302189938/1140)
However, the third time is not a charm. Notwithstanding these consultants’ reports — which paradoxically support my contrary conclusions by choosing to ignore the overwhelming data contradicting their own claims – the program is a total failure as far as reductions in cost and inpatient utilization are concerned.
Fact #1: According to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) report to Congress http://www.macpac.gov/reports, North Carolina is by a significant margin the highest-cost state per capita in its region for adult and for child Medicaid spending. These are the two categories in which the PCMH has been in place the longest. In the “aged” category, in which PCMH had barely been started when the MACPAC data was compiled (and would not affect medical costs noticeably because the state is a “secondary payer” following Medicare, and most Medicaid “aged” spending is custodial anyway), North Carolina is the lowest cost state in the region.