Tag: Policy

Medicaid–a bleak picture gets bleaker

It’s remarkable how badly most health care observers understand Medicaid. But once you understand Medicaid, it’s less remarkable, because it’s so darned complicated! Many people think that Medicaid covers the poor and uninsured.  In fact it covers some sub-segments of the poor, but most of the working poor are not covered, and access to Medicaid has become more difficult for those who have been moved off the welfare rolls in the  late 1990s. Nonetheless, the Kaiser FF Commission on Medicaid & the Uninsured reported this week that costs have gone up but benefits have gone down, mostly because of the fall off in revenues at the state level.  And this will get worse — we’ve noticed that particularly out here in California where the recent budget deal included a further 5% cut in rates to Medi-Cal providers which has caused anguish on the political left.

In the last 15 years Medicaid has been responsible for taking on many millions of poorer Americans who would otherwise have had no coverage.  So without Medicaid expansion in the 1990s uninsurance rates would be much higher today, mostly because of the fall-off in employer-provided insurance (see this post).  This expansion of the Medicaid rolls was mostly among the AFDC population (poor moms with kids) in the early 1990s and mostly children only in the late 1990s, as part of the SCHIP expansion of health insurance for kids.  It’s hard to work out how many people are on Medicaid because the numbers go up and down all the time, and there is double counting with Medicare.  When I was researching this in the late 1990s, my estimate was that roughly 10% of the population (28-30 million people) were using Medicaid as their primary insurer. (the disabled and elderly tend to end up in the Medicare numbers). That number held steady until the year 2000, but now some 35 million adults and kids are in Medicaid.  Most of this growth has come from the kids insurance programs created by SCHIP, but the number of adults in the program has also been growing at 10% annually.  These are adults who have been crammed back down into welfare-type poverty levels in the current recession, even though they may not be on welfare itself.

Medicaid also covers many of the disabled and seniors in nursing homes who have "spent down"–i.e. have no money left. Medicaid also pays into Medicare to cover part B premiums and drugs for a group called the "dual-eligibles".  In fact the fate of the dual-eligibles is one of the many wrinkles that’s holding up the Medicare bill in Congress now. There are about 4 million elderly and 7 million disabled getting benefits from Medicaid, although most of these are also in Medicare.

The final wrinkle in Medicaid is the disproportionate share (DSH–pronounced "DiSH") payments that go to hospitals with a high proportion of uncompensated care and/or Medicaid patients.  These are usually big inner city teaching hospitals or county hospitals, and this is one of a number of subsidies they get–direct support from Medicare for training residents is another. DSH is evidence of the political clout of these big facilities, and of the fact that it’s hard for Medicaid recipients and the uninsured to get care at other facilities.

The costs of the program, while rising for all, are mostly spent on the elderly ($61 bn) and the disabled ($84 bn). The kids are a bargain at $36bn and the adults are only $25 billion.  DHS payments were about $15 billion in 2002 . Altogether, this leaves a Medicaid program which in 2002 spent over $200 billion for the first time.  (Medicare is $254 bn).

Reforming Medicaid is a nightmare and always has been. No-one understands it, the states use it as a way to extract money from the Feds, and the covered population is transient, hard to manage, doesn’t vote and so has little political clout. For national scale providers and pharma companies there are 50 different programs to deal with.  Under any rational system the care for the elderly and disabled would be split off, and the moms and kids would be added to some kind of universal insurance scheme.  Well that’s not going to happen any time soon. With the Medicare bill stuck in Congress, no comprehensive Medicaid reform will happen this side of 2005. So expect more pain in the provider world and much more experimentation in the purchasing world, including expanding the power of the state to extract discounts like MaineRX, as the states try to get a handle on spending.

Employer-based health insurance is dissolving quite fast

A newer study based on Bureau of Labor Statistics finds an acceleration in a trend that’s been going on for a long time.  Fewer employees are getting health insurance from their employer. The Boston Globe reports that:

The study found 45 percent of US employees have health insurance at work, down from 63 percent in 1993……Walter Marshall, a bureau economist in the Boston office, called the drop in nationwide coverage "dramatic." But he warned the data may overstate the trend, in part because of coverage shifts within two-income families. Well there are many families in which everyone gets covered via the one family member with health insurance at work, but frequently that means paying a big share towards that coverage.  This goes along with the trend from defined benefit to defined contribution . As we used to say at Harris, "get less, pay more." One other thing we used to notice at Harris–dissatisfaction with health plans and services was highly correlated with out-of-pocket costs.

The trend to lower health insurance rates used to be concentrated among the lower paid.  Back in 2001 the Commonwealth Fund reported that 45% of those without health insurance from their employers earned less than $10 an hour. But the emergence of health care as a political issue in 1991 came as regular middle-class Americans found that they were getting access to care that looked more like care for poorer people (i.e. less and more expensive access). Well watch this space.  Most people are paying more for less insurance and those losing coverage are being forced into the individual "market"–which often means no coverage.  At the same time the Commonwealth Fund also reports that drug coverage for new retirees fell in 1995-2000 from 45% to less than 40% (down from 49% to 40% for male retirees.)

Health care hasn’t raised its head as a national political issue yet aside from the Medicare drug coverage debate/bills.  But if the drug coverage issue gets connected with the overall mess of the insurance market, it could be a sleeper issue.

Nano-medicine, socialized medicine and innovation.

Robert Mittman’s technology series in iHealthbeat covers Nano-technology in health care.  Meanwhile, Tim Oren responded to my saying that I find it strange that "sensible business people vigorously defend their right to be gouged by the current health care system and call anything else socialized medicine"  by writing:

"You might find me more sympathetic than you suspect on the problems, if not on the solutions. We’ve got an incentive system for medical R&D that encourages the development of diagnostics over therapeutics, and palliatives for chronic diseases of the well-off over actual cures for anything. We balance the majority of the global costs of that R&D on the backs of American employers and employees. We’re headed pell-mell to a future in which genomic/proteomic diagnostics will be able to tell us risk factors and disease onsets down to the individual level, destroying the traditional notion of insurance as a pool of unknown risks, long before there are genetic or other therapies to do anything about the problems. We’ve got a growing medical infrastructure capable of extending lives at enormous expense and often with dubious benefit to the patients; and growing expectations that all will have access to those capabilities, even as the less skilled and educated are unable to contribute enough to the society to fund that ‘social minimum.’

I’m just firmly convinced that single-anything is the wrong way out. Putting a government bureaucracy in sole control of either side is a problem – a way to stifle the innovation that might get us out of this mess eventually. Some of the hybrid public/private proposals kicked around over the last decade are at least worth the discussion – maybe some social minimum level publicly funded, privately administered, with a layer of private insurance and medical capabilities on top of it, that everyone would understand is ‘on your own dime’. Yup, a two tier system, but we’re there de facto anyway"

Now I agree with virtually everything in Tim’s analysis of the system’s problems but thus far "innovation" in medical care have just given us more costs down the road–as everyone gets sick and dies eventually.  (Notwithstanding the fact that many of these innovations obviously improve quality of life and save individual lives, even if many of them don’t stand up to rational cost-benefit analysis). Which is why I believe that we should put all the costs under one central line item and have a real debate about what we should spend and how. (I also know that we won’t have that debate, despite the urging of Humphrey Taylor at Harris, because it necessitates use of the term rationing!).

But what if there is a huge change going on?  What if medical care became a real productivity enhancer and added to rather than subtracted from social capital–the way education does now?   A pipe dream?  Well probably, but if you read the nanotechnology article, this paragraph jumps out:

"Robert Freitas, the author of Nanomedicine, has designed (but not yet built) red and white blood cells and platelets–nanorobotic devices called Respirocytes–that will work 100-1,000 times better than natural cells. So for instance, you could sprint at full speed for 15 minutes. While this might make us all run like Carl Lewis, it would also enable extremely efficient removal of bacteria from the bloodstream. Imagine having one injection cure your flu within an hour. Freitas thinks that respirocytes are about 20 years away. Not much beyond that, perhaps another 20 years, is chromosome replacement therapy. Imagine taking several strands of DNA pairs from your body, matching the good ones, eliminating defects, and then manufacturing 4 trillion copies of that genome (you have about 4 trillion cells in your body). Put each into a nanorobot that would travel to each one of your cells and change the chromosome. With some other twists, the nanorobot would permanently rejuvenate you; no more aging."

That may just be science fiction, but if medicine really could cure disease and aging, then it would add tremendously to our social capital–because we wouldn’t have the long expensive periods of sickness that are associated with disease and old age.  (How we’d die under this scenario is another question).  Worth a thought, even if it’s far, far off.

Three strikes and you’re covered

CBS 60 minutes has an amazing story about a patient given a $1 million heart transplant at Stanford–who was a prisoner.  The decision to pay for the transplant was made by the state prison system because it feared being sued by the patient’s estate. Too many lawyers? Apparently it’s part of the 8th Amendment. Has the prisoner got the same rights as anyone else or more?  Would an uninsured patient get the same care? Unlikely, according to Dr. Lawrence Schneiderman, a medical ethicist at the University of California at San Diego, interviewed in the show, you may need to show that you have $150,000 in cash if you don’t have insurance. And the prisoner in question? He wasn’t a model patients and died shortly after the transplant. You can make up your own mind about this one, but it brings up all kinds of issues, and goes to show that health care is incredibly complex.

Quickie on Premiums

Kaiser Family Foundation and AHA’s HRET have just released their annual employer benefits survey.  Premiums paid by employers are up nearly 14% and employers are shifting costs onto workers. Employers are also more and more interested in providing employees with high deductible plans — the kind the employees in the survey in my previous post say that they don’t want! 9% of employees have them now and a further 11% are "very likely" to end up with them soon. You can get to the full report index here (if you’re a real wonk!).  But the message is, as Bob Leitman at Harris has been saying for years; "pay more, get less!"

Jeanne Scott–an unabashed plug

If you don’t already, go now and sign up for Jeanne Scott’s newsletter on health care inside the beltway at her new site, right click on Now you’ve done that let me tell you a bit about her.  She just retired from over 10 years at CIS, then NDC and is the best source of knowledge on HIPAA, politics inside the beltway and anything touching health care policy. You get the dirty sausage-making aspect of politics from Jeanne, but you also get highly considered and understandable background, and logical opinions on what’s likely to happen when push comes to shove.  All that and an endless supply of lawyer jokes!  Now she’s officically independent, I’m hoping that her newsletters will get even more "explicit", but they weren’t exactly quiet before. Plus go read her explanation of what’s going on in the House versus Senate Medicare Drug debate/bill settlement feud (so I don’t have to repeat it all when I write about it!)

My favorite Jeanne line comes from a few years back.  I had her as a speaker at an IFTF meeting, and she talked very amusingly in great detail about the then new HIPPA transaction laws.  One client asked her why HCFA (now CM3/CMS) had set the fines for HIPAA violations so low.  Quick as a flash she replied – "That’s all they can afford!"