Tag: aca

Should States Implement ObamaCare’s ‘Essential Health Benefits’ Mandate?

The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff writes that the Department of Health and Human Services has decided to “punt” on the “monumental” task of dictating exactly what types of coverage those who get health insurance through the individual market or small employers must purchase. HHS has decided to let each state decide for its own residents what constitutes “essential health benefits.” It was a shrewd move: under the guise of decentralized decision-making, HHS is offering to let state officials take the blame for an inevitably controversial decision and the inevitable higher costs that will result. Yay, federalism! States have until the end of this month to decide just how much coverage they are going to help ObamaCare force their citizens to purchase.

Kliff reports that many states are now wrestling with the unanswerable question, “What health-care benefits are absolutely essential?”

Is acupuncture essential health care? Weight-loss surgery? Under Obamacare, states choose…

California legislators say acupuncture makes the cut. Michigan regulators would include chiropractic services. Oregon officials would leave both of those benefits on the cutting-room floor. Colorado has deemed pre-vacation visits to travel clinics necessary, while leaving costly fertility treatments out of its preliminary package…

A Virginia advisory board recommended that the state adopt a plan that includes speech therapy and chiropractic care. A District subcommittee has endorsed a plan pegged to an existing BlueCross BlueShield package, and public comment remains open through Friday Sept. 28…

Of course, an objective definition of “essential” coverage is impossible. Like “medical necessity,” the only way to determine whether health coverage is “essential” is if the benefits exceed the costs. That is an inherently subjective question that no legislator or regulator, state or federal, can or should try to answer for a diverse population of consumers. When they do, health care providers invariably hijack the process, demanding that consumers be required to purchase coverage of their services. Since the legislators/regulators are handing out benefits while consumers and taxpayers shoulder the costs, the result is predictable: health insurance premiums rise.

Thanks to HHS’s punt, providers now have an even greater incentive to lobby states to mandate coverage of their services. If a state creates its own list of “essential health benefits,” then any benefits the state mandates will be eligible for federal subsidies. If not, the cost of state-mandated benefits continues to fall on consumers or employers, who tend to complain. (Again, shrewd. Corrupt and irresponsible. But shrewd.)

But since ObamaCare is on the books, and HHS gave states a choice, what should states do?

The choice is identical to what states face with regard to health insurance Exchanges: states have the option to implement part of ObamaCare themselves, but no matter what they decide, Washington is ultimately running the show.

The federal government will not let states pick a menu of “essential health benefits” or establish an Exchange with fewer regulatory controls than HHS would impose itself. Since less regulation than the federal government would impose is not an option, implementing these parts of the law can only lead to more regulation, fewer choices, and higher costs. And of course, state officials will take the blame when ObamaCare starts increasing costs and denying care to people. There is simply no good reason for states to assume this impossible, harmful, and thankless task.

Instead of doing the feds’ dirty work, states should use this opportunity to show how ObamaCare rigs the game against states and consumers alike. State officials that want to rid the nation of ObamaCare should submit to HHS a “benchmark” EHB plan that they know HHS will refuse. It could be either the most affordable health plan they can find in their individual or small group markets, or a plan that state officials designed themselves. Leave out benefits that HHS considers dealbreakers. Push the deductible as high as you dare. Allow annual or lifetime limits. The less coverage you include in your EHB benchmark, the more choice consumers will have and the lower the premiums will be. Submit such a proposal to HHS and dare them to reject it. Let your voters see that under ObamaCare, choice is a mirage. Dare HHS to explain why they rejected affordable health plans and forced the Treasury to subsidize more-expensive health plans.

Alternatively, state who are not inclined to confrontation can tell the Obama administration the same thing they should say with regard to health insurance Exchanges: it’s your stupid law, you implement it.

The Fraud Lobby

Evidently, there’s fraud in Medicaid.

The following are excerpts from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. See if you can spot the fraud lobby:

In 2011, New York charged [Medicaid] a per-diem rate of $5,118 for residents of the [state-run] institutions, a network of 11 centers that now house about 1,300 people with severe developmental disabilities. Over the course of a year, Medicaid spends $1.9 million for every resident, or $2.5 billion in total—with half coming from the federal government. But the cost of running the institutions is only a quarter of that amount.

[A congressional] report said New York took advantage of a complex formula and kept federal officials in the dark for years…

The committee’s report said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration refused to cooperate with the investigation. Joshua Vlasto, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said the report’s conclusions were “wrong and totally misleading” and that a threatened “precipitous reduction” in funding would jeopardize administration efforts to modernize and restructure its Medicaid program…

But at a Thursday hearing, Penny Thompson, a CMS deputy director, suggested…, “You can expect to see a rate that’s about one-fifth of its current level” … without specifying a time frame. Such a reduction would reduce the annual federal reimbursement by about $1 billion, punching a hole in New York’s $54 billion Medicaid program…

The skewed methodology traces back more than 20 years, when New York got permission from the federal government to use a different formula for state-run developmental centers, assuring officials that the rates would hew close to costs.

But almost immediately, reimbursements began to skyrocket. The new methodology allowed New York to bill Medicaid for ghost patients: When a patient was discharged from a state-run facility, New York retained nearly two-thirds of the reimbursement amount. The formula also double-billed taxpayers: Many of those patients who left the centers moved into Medicaid-financed group homes.

Between 1990 and 2011, the daily reimbursement rate grew to $5,118 from $348. Ms. Thompson said it wasn’t clear if CMS “completely understood” the cost projections when it approved the rates. CMS officials acknowledge they first became aware of the problem in 2007 but waited three years before launching a probe.

In June 2010, the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a lengthy investigative piece about the rates. CMS started its investigation in response to the newspaper’s report, the committee said.

Lest you think I’m blaming Medicaid fraud on one political party, have a gander at my recent article, “Entitlement Bandits”:

Even conservatives fight anti-fraud measures, albeit in the name of preventing frivolous litigation, when they oppose expanding whistle-blower lawsuits, where private citizens who help the government win a case get to keep some of the penalty.

Protecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud is a bipartisan pastime.

Oklahoma Challenges Obama’s Illegal Employer Tax

Yesterday, the attorney general of Oklahoma amended that state’s ObamaCare lawsuit. The amended complaint asks a federal court to clarify the Supreme Court’s ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius, but it also challenges an IRS rule that imposes ObamaCare’s employer mandate where the statute does not authorize it: on employers in the 30 to 40 states that decline to implement a health insurance “exchange.”

Here are a few excerpts from Oklahoma’s amended complaint:

The Final Rule was issued in contravention of the procedural and substantive requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act…; has no basis in any law of the United States; and directly conflicts with the unambiguous language of the very provision of the Internal Revenue Code it purports to interpret…

Under Defendants’ Interpretation, [this rule] expand[s] the circumstances under which an Applicable Large Employer must make an Assessable Payment…with the result that an employer may be required to make an Assessable Payment under circumstances not provided for in any statute and explicitly ruled out by unambiguous language in the Affordable Care Act.

Plaintiff believes…that subjecting the State of Oklahoma in its capacity as an employer to the employer mandate would cause the Affordable Care Act to exceed Congress’s legislative authority; to violate the Tenth Amendment; to impermissibly interfere with the residual sovereignty of the State of Oklahoma; and to violate Constitutional norms relating to the relationship between the states, including the State of Oklahoma, and the Federal Government.

As for the latest claim to be made in defense of the IRS rule – that an Exchange  established by the federal government under Section 1321 is an Exchange “established by the state under Section 1311” – the complaint says this:

If the Act provides or is interpreted to provide that an Exchange established by HHS under Section 1321(c) of the Act is a form of what the Act refers to as “an Exchange established by a State under Section 1311 of [the Act],” then Section 1321(c) is unconstitutional because it commandeers state governmental authority with respect to State Exchanges, permits HHS to exercise a State’s legislative and/or executive power, and otherwise causes the Exchange-related provisions of the Act…to exceed Congress’s legislative authority; to violate the Tenth Amendment; to infringe on the residual sovereignty of the States under the Constitution; and to violate Constitutional norms relating to the relationship between the states, including the State of Oklahoma, and the Federal Government.

Oklahoma does not yet list any private-sector employers as co-plaintiffs, but that may change.

Since this IRS rule also unlawfully taxes 250,000 Oklahomans under the individual mandate – a tax that in 2016 will reach $2,085 for a family of four earning $24,000 – the attorney general has an awful lot of individual Oklahomans that he could add to its plaintiff roster.

Jonathan Adler and I first wrote about President Obama’s illegal taxes on employers in the Wall Street Journal and again in the USA Today. Since parts of those opeds have been overtaken by events, I recommend reading our forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Yes, all 82 pages of it.

Sebelius v. Gessing on ObamaCare’s Medicaid Expansion

From the Rio Grande Foundation’s Errors of Enchantment blog, foundation president Paul Gessing argues against New Mexico implementing ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion:

One should note that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius left out the cost to New Mexico of the “old eligibles” who would enroll in Medicaid as a result of the expansion.

Paul Krugman, Won’t You Help Me Be a Better Person?

I find myself on the wrong side of the facts. Again. So says Paul Krugman:

Still, wouldn’t private insurers reduce costs through the magic of the marketplace? No. All, and I mean all, the evidence says that public systems like Medicare and Medicaid, which have less bureaucracy than private insurers (if you can’t believe this, you’ve never had to deal with an insurance company) and greater bargaining power, are better than the private sector at controlling costs.

I know this flies in the face of free-market dogma, but it’s just a fact.

And Krugman should know. As the following clip shows, this is a guy who always has the facts on his side:

Yes, that was me at the beginning of the clip. Krugman was selflessly trying to instill in me his respect for evidence and his command of the facts. For some reason, I have yet to absorb either.

The proof is in this paper I wrote (and still stand by, for some reason):

Is Government More Efficient?

Supporters of a new government program note that private insurers spend resources on a wide range of administrative costs that government programs do not. These include marketing, underwriting, reviewing claims for legitimacy, and profits. The fact that government avoids these expenditures, however, does not necessarily make it more efficient. Many of the administrative activities that private insurers undertake serve to increase the insurers’ efficiency. Avoiding those activities would therefore make a health plan less efficient. Existing government health programs also incur administrative costs that are purely wasteful. In the final analysis, private insurance is more efficient than government insurance.

Administrative Costs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein argues that “the profits made by insurance companies are a good part of what makes health care so expensive in the U.S. and that a public option is needed to keep the insurers honest.” All else being equal, the fact that a government program would not need to turn a profit suggests that it might enjoy a price advantage over for-profit insurers. If so, that price advantage would be slight. According to the Congressional Budget Office, profits account for less than 3 percent of private health insurance premiums. Furthermore, government’s lack of a profit motive may not be an advantage at all. Profits are an important market signal that increase efficiency by encouraging producers to find lower-cost ways of meeting consumers’ needs. The lack of a profit motive could lead a government program to be less efficient than private insurance, not more.

Moreover, all else is not equal. Government programs typically keep administrative expenditures low by avoiding activities like utilization or claims review. Yet avoiding those activities increases overall costs. The CBO writes, “The traditional fee-for-service Medicare program does relatively little to manage benefits, which tends to reduce its administrative costs but may raise its overall spending relative to a more tightly managed approach.” Similarly, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission writes:

[The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] estimates that about $9.8 billion in erroneous payments were made in the fee-for-service program in 2007, a figure more than double what CMS spent for claims processing and review activities. In Medicare Advantage, CMS estimates that erroneous payments equaled $6.8 billion in 2006, or approximately 10.6 percent of payments… . The significant size of Medicare’s erroneous payments suggests that the program’s low administrative costs may come at a price.

CMS further estimates that it made $10.4 billion in improper payments in the fee-for-service Medicare program in 2008.

Medicare keeps its measured administrative-cost ratio relatively low by avoiding important administrative activities (which shrinks the numerator) and tolerating vast amounts of wasteful and fraudulent claims (which inflates the denominator). That is a vice, yet advocates of a new government program praise it as a virtue.

Medicare also keeps its administrative expenditures down by conducting almost no quality-improvement activities. Journalist Shannon Brownlee and Obama adviser Ezekiel Emanuel write:

[S]ome administrative costs are not only necessary but beneficial. Following heart-attack or cancer patients to see which interventions work best is an administrative cost, but it’s also invaluable if you want to improve care. Tracking the rate of heart attacks from drugs such as Avandia is key to ensuring safe pharmaceuticals.

According to the CBO, private insurers spend nearly 1 percent of premiums on “medical management.” The fact that Medicare keeps administrative expenditures low by avoiding such quality-improvement activities may likewise result in higher overall costs—in this case by suppressing the quality of care.

Supporters who praise Medicare’s apparently low administrative costs often fail to note that some of those costs are hidden costs that are borne by other federal agencies, and thus fail to appear in the standard 3-percent estimate. These include “parts of salaries for legislators, staff and others working on Medicare, building costs, marketing costs, collection of premiums and taxes, accounting including auditing and fraud issues, etc.”

Also, Medicare’s administrative costs should be understood to include the deadweight loss from the taxes that fund the program. Economists estimate that it can easily cost society $1.30 to raise just $1 in tax revenue, and it may sometimes cost as much as $2.36 That “excess burden” of taxation is a very real cost of administering (i.e., collecting the taxes for) compulsory health insurance programs like Medicare, even though it appears in no government budgets.

Comparing administrative expenditures in the traditional “fee-for-service” Medicare program to private Medicare Advantage plans can somewhat control for these factors. Hacker cites a CBO estimate that administrative costs are 2 percent of expenditures in traditional Medicare versus 11 percent for Medicare Advantage plans. He writes further: “A recent General Accounting Office report found that in 2006, Medicare Advantage plans spent 83.3 percent of their revenue on medical expenses, with 10.1 percent going to nonmedical expenses and 6.6 percent to profits—a 16.7 percent administrative share.”

Yet such comparisons still do not establish that government programs are more efficient than private insurers. The CBO writes of its own estimate: “The higher administrative costs of private plans do not imply that those plans are less efficient than the traditional FFS program. Some of the plans’ administrative expenses are for functions such as utilization management and quality improvement that are designed to increase the efficiency of care delivery.” Moreover, a portion of the Medicare Advantage plans’ administrative costs could reflect factors inherent to government programs rather than private insurance. For example, Congress uses price controls to determine how much to pay Medicare Advantage plans. If Congress sets those prices at supracompetitive levels, as many experts believe is the case, then that may boost Medicare Advantage plans’ profitability beyond what they would earn in a competitive market. Those supracompetitive profits would be a product of the forces that would guide a new government program—that is, Congress, the political system, and price controls—rather than any inherent feature of private insurance.

Economists who have tallied the full administrative burden of government health insurance programs conclude that administrative costs are far higher in government programs than in private insurance. In 1992, University of Pennsylvania economist Patricia Danzon estimated that total administrative costs were more than 45 percent of claims in Canada’s Medicare system, compared to less than 8 percent of claims for private insurance in the United States. Pacific Research Institute economist Ben Zycher writes that a “realistic assumption” about the size of the deadweight burden puts “the true cost of delivering Medicare benefits [at] about 52 percent of Medicare outlays, or between four and five times the net cost of private health insurance.”

Administrative costs can appear quite low if you only count some of them. Medicare hides its higher administrative costs from enrollees and taxpayers, and public-plan supporters rely on the hidden nature of those costs when they argue in favor of a new government program.

Cost Containment vs. Spending Containment  

Advocates of a new government health care program also claim that government contains overall costs better than private insurance. Jacob Hacker writes, “public insurance has a better track record than private insurance when it comes to reining in costs while preserving access. By way of illustration, between 1997 and 2006, health spending per enrollee (for comparable benefits) grew at 4.6 percent a year under Medicare, compared with 7.3 percent a year under private health insurance.” In fact, looking at a broader period, from 1970 to 2006, shows that per-enrollee spending by private insurance grew just 1 percentage point faster per year than Medicare spending, rather than 2.7 percentage points. That still omits the 1966–1969 period, which saw rapid growth in Medicare spending.

More importantly, Hacker’s comparison commits the fallacy of conflating spending and costs. Even if government contains health care spending better than private insurance (which is not at all clear), it could still impose greater overall costs on enrollees and society than private insurance. For example, if a government program refused to pay for lifesaving medical procedures, it would incur considerable nonmonetary costs (i.e., needless suffering and death). Yet it would look better in Hacker’s comparison than a private health plan that saved lives by spending money on those services. Medicare’s inflexibility also imposes costs on enrollees. Medicare took 30 years longer than private insurance to incorporate prescription drug coverage into its basic benefits package. The taxes that finance Medicare impose costs on society in the range of 30 percent of Medicare spending. In contrast, there is no deadweight loss associated with the voluntary purchase of private health insurance.

Hacker nods in the direction of non-spending costs when he writes, “Medicare has maintained high levels of … patient access to care.” Yet there are many dimensions of quality other than access to care. It is in those areas that government programs impose their greatest hidden costs, on both publicly and privately insured patients.

Mr. Krugman, won’t you please help me care about the facts as much as you do? It just seems like such bliss.

IPAB: Yes, It Can

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Bob Samuelson writes:

Then there’s the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a body of 15 experts charged with limiting Medicare spending if it passes certain targets. But the law handcuffs IPAB. It can’t increase patient cost-sharing, restrict benefits, modify eligibility requirements or — in any one year — cut spending by more than 1.5 percent, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation.

All four of those assertions about supposed limitations on IPAB’s powers are false, as Diane Cohen and I explain here.

Written Testimony on the Illegal IRS Rule to Increase Taxes & Spending under Obamacare

The written testimony that Jonathan Adler and I submitted for the House Oversight Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service’s unlawful attempt to increase taxes and spending under Obamacare is now online. An excerpt:

Contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent, this [IRS] rule issues tax credits in health insurance “exchanges” established by the federal government. It thus triggers a $2,000-per-employee tax on employers and appropriates billions of dollars to private health insurance companies in states with a federal Exchange, also contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent. Since those illegal expenditures will exceed the revenues raised by the illegal tax on employers, this rule also increases the federal deficit by potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, again contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent.

The rule is therefore illegal. It lacks any statutory authority. It is contrary to both the clear language of the PPACA and congressional intent. It cannot be justified on other legal grounds.

On balance, this rule is a large net tax increase. For every $2 of unauthorized tax reduction, it imposes $1 of unauthorized taxes on employers, and commits taxpayers to pay for $8 of unauthorized subsidies to private insurance companies. Because this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers and obligates taxpayers to pay for illegal appropriations, it is quite literally taxation without representation.

Three remedies exist. The IRS should rescind this rule before it takes effect in 2014. Alternatively, Congress and the president could stop it with a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. Finally, since this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers in states that opt not to create a health insurance “exchange,” those employers and possibly those states could file suit to block this rule in federal court.

Requiring the IRS to operate within its statutory authority will not increase health insurance costs by a single penny. It will merely prevent the IRS from unlawfully shifting those costs to taxpayers.

Related: here is the video of my opening statement, and Adler’s and my forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation without Representation: the Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits under the PPACA.”