Tag: medicaid

Medicaid’s Cash Cab

As Congress hashes out an agreement behind closed doors to expand the government’s role in health care, a Medicaid story out of New York serves as another reminder that government is part of the health care problem, not the solution. Audits released by the state’s comptroller found $169 million in misspent funds, including a $196,000 cab bill for a woman who took a daily $300 taxi ride to visit her son in Albany for three years.

The following are some of the findings:

  • $53 million in overpayments for Medicaid recipients who had multiple identification numbers.
  • $20 million that was nearly spent because the state’s computer system failed to catch a clerical error. Auditors caught it before it was paid out.
  • $5.4 million in overpayments to 10 hospitals that billed for discharging a patient when, in fact, the patient had been transferred to another facility. Hospitals receive higher payments for discharges rather than transfers.
  • $1.2 million paid for services that were not medically necessary or not provided.

According to the state’s comptroller, “[T]he state Medicaid system is leaking millions of dollars… Safeguards designed to protect the taxpayers by detecting waste, fraud and abuse keep failing.” However, this is business as usual when it comes to New York’s notoriously fraud-ridden Medicaid program, as a Cato essay on fraud and abuse in federal programs notes:

The former chief investigator of the state’s Medicaid fraud office believes that about 10 percent of the state’s Medicaid budget is consumed by pure fraud, while another 20 to 30 percent is consumed by dubious spending that might not cross the line of being outright criminal.

A 2005 investigation by the New York Times found remarkably brazen examples of fraud and abuse in New York’s Medicaid. The article noted that the program has “become so huge, so complex, and so lightly policed that it is easily exploited… [T]he program has been misspending billions of dollars annually because of fraud, waste, and profiteering.”

With the massive and complex expansion of Medicaid and other health programs in the pending legislation, we can expect a gargantuan expansion in fraud and abuse. The good news, I suppose, is that the government will need a massive hiring of new health care auditors, which should reduce the nation’s unemployment rate.

For more on fraud and abuse in government healthcare, see here.

Whip (Health Care) Inflation Now?

During the runaway inflations of 1974 and 1979, Presidents Ford and Carter suggested that inflation was caused by the profligacy of American households. President Ford’s infamous “Whip Inflation Now” speech, for example, said, “Here is what we must do, what each and every one of you can do: To help increase food and lower prices, grow more and waste less; to help save scarce fuel in the energy crisis, drive less, heat less.”

Much of the recent discussion of health care costs likewise treats this as a problem caused by a demonic private insurance industry, and therefore requiring such “reforms” as expanding Medicaid to the non-poor and Medicare to the non-old.

The facts are quite different, as shown in “The Evolution of Medical Spending Risk” by Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Helen Levy of the University of Michigan, in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Gruber and Levy calculate that real private health care spending per person (in 2007 dollars) “increased from about $700 to $3,500 between 1960 and 2007, a five-fold increase.” They note that “private out-of-pocket spending has not quite doubled.” Yet “government health spending over the same period … increased from about $250 to $3,5000, a 13-fold increase.”

In fairness, the quality of health care has been hugely improved since 1960. And prices of physician services (which are often incorrectly compared with the overall consumer price index) have risen no faster than prices of non-medical services.

In any case, President Obama’s claim that the pace of total public and private spending on health care could somehow be “contained” by greatly increasing government spending clearly flunks 3rd grade arithmetic.

Unless the hidden agenda is to impose draconian wage and price controls and political rationing on health care providers, all the rhetorical pretense about proposed health care legislation being a way to hold down overall spending on health care is like saying the solution to chronic drunkeness is more booze.

Obama on Health Care: Half Right

President Obama gave what seems like his thousandth exclusive health care interview last night, this one to ABC News’s Charles Gibson.  In trying to sell his health care plan, the president warned that if Congress does not pass legislation controlling health care costs, the federal government “will go bankrupt.”  He also warned that unless health care is reformed, “your premiums will go up.”

 The president is absolutely correct about that.  The only problem is that, according to the president’s own chief health care actuary, the bills that Congress is now considering do nothing to restrain either federal health care spending or total health care costs.  In fact, Rick Foster, chief actuary at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that if Congress passes the bill now before the Senate, health care spending will actually increase by $234 billion more over the next 10 years than if we did nothing. 

And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the congressional bills do little or nothing to reduce the growth in insurance premiums. Even if a bill passes, premiums will roughly double by 2016, and keep rising after that.   But for millions of Americans the bill will actually make things worse.  According to CBO, the Senate bill would actually increase insurance premiums by 10-13 percent for Americans who buy their insurance through the non-group market, that is those who don’t receive insurance from their employer.  Those 10-13 percent increases are over and above the increases that would occur if we did nothing.    

On the other hand, if the president were really serious about controlling health care costs and lowering premiums, he wouldn’t need to spend trillions of dollars and take over one-sixth of the US economy; he could try some of the ideas written about here, and here, and here.

FEHBP Plan Is No ‘Moderate Compromise’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced that he has reached a super secret compromise on how to deal with the so-called public option for health reform.  While Reid said the agreement was too important to actually tell anyone what is in it, most of the details have been leaked to the press.

Rather than set-up a completely government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurance, Congress would establish a program similar to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), which currently covers government workers, including Members of Congress.  The FEHBP offers a variety of private insurance plans under a program managed by the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Each year OPM uses the Federal procurement process to solicit bids from insurance companies to be one of the plans offered.  Premiums can vary, but participating plans operate under stringent rules.   As a model, the FEHBP is apparently acceptable to moderate Democrats because the insurance plans are private rather than government entities, while liberals like it because it is government regulated and managed.

In addition, the compromise plan would expand Medicare, allowing workers ages 55 to 65 to “buy in” to the program, and may also expand Medicaid.

A few reasons to believe this is yet another truly bad idea:

  1. In choosing the FEHBP for a model, Democrats have actually chosen an insurance plan whose costs are rising faster than average.   FEHBP premiums are expected to rise 7.9 percent this year and 8.8 percent in 2010.  By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that on average, premiums will increase by 5.5 to 6.2 percent annually over the next few years.  In fact, FEHBP premiums are rising so fast that nearly 100,000 federal employees have opted out of the program.
  2. FEHBP members are also finding their choices cut back.  Next year, 32 insurance plans will either drop out of the program or reduce their participation.  Some 61,000 workers will lose their current coverage.
  3. But former OPM director Linda Springer doubts that the agency has the “capacity, the staff, or the mission,” to be able to manage the new program.  Taking on management of the new program could overburden OPM.  “Ultimate, it would break the system.”
  4. Medicare is currently $50-100 trillion in debt, depending on which accounting measure you use.  Allowing younger workers to join the program is the equivalent of crowding a few more passengers onto the Titanic.
  5. At the same time, Medicare under reimburses physicians, especially in rural areas.  Expanding Medicare enrollment will both threaten the continued viability of rural hospitals and other providers, and also result in increased cost-shifting, driving up premiums for private insurance.
  6. Medicaid is equally a budget-buster. The program now costs more than $330 billion per year, a cost that grew at a rate of roughly 10.7 percent annually.  The program spends money by the bushel, yet under-reimburses providers even worse than Medicare.
  7. Ultimately this so-called compromise would expand government health care programs and further squeeze private insurance, resulting in increased costs and higher insurance premiums, and provide a lower-quality of care.

No wonder Senator Reid wants to keep it a secret.

$98 Billion in Improper Payments

The Obama administration and its allies in Congress want the federal government to expand its role in subsidizing health care. We are told that this expansion will restrain rising health care costs. But an OMB report yesterday that the government made $98 billion in improper payments last year – $55 billion of which came from Medicare and Medicaid – ought to raise suspicions about that claim.

According to Reuters, OMB Director Peter Orszag told reporters that the embarrassing figures from Medicare and Medicaid demonstrate the need for health care reform. I would concur if “reform” meant reducing the government’s role in health care. However, he means the opposite, which raises the question of how giving more money to an already waste-prone and bureaucratic federal health system can possibly make sense for the economy.

The administration has promised to cut down on improper payments with the aid of a new executive order. According to the Associated Press:

Under the executive order, every federal agency would have to maintain a Web site that tracks improper payments, error rates and outstanding payments. If an agency doesn’t meet targets for reducing error rates for two years in a row, the agency director and responsible official will have to directly report to OMB to explain the delinquency and new actions they will take.

Somehow I doubt this will amount to much of a deterrent. The AP also said the administration plans to impose penalties on government contractors who receive improper payments. But last month it was reported that “the Department of Defense awarded nearly $30 million in stimulus contracts to six companies while they were under federal criminal investigation on suspicion of defrauding the government.”

Democrat Tom Carper, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, seemed to partly understand the broader meaning of the improper payment estimates:

It goes without saying that these results would be completely unacceptable in the private sector, as they should be in government, especially at a time of record deficits…Unfortunately, these numbers may still be just the tip of the iceberg since they don’t even include estimates for several major programs, including the Medicare prescription drug plan.

Yes, Senator, which is precisely why bigger government – be it stimulus, bail outs, or health care reform – is an inferior option to letting the marketplace provide for our wants and needs.

Carper is also right about the $98 billion figure being the “tip of the iceberg.” As has been noted here before:

The Government Accountability Office estimates that the two major government health programs are currently losing a combined $50 billion annually to such payments. But that estimate probably low-balls the actual losses. Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow, a top specialist in health care fraud, estimates that 20 percent of federal health program budgets are consumed by improper payments, which would be a staggering $150 billion a year for Medicare and Medicaid.

See this essay for more on fraud and abuse in government programs.

State ‘Opt-Out’ Proposal: a Ruse within a Ruse

President Obama and his congressional allies want to create yet another government-run health insurance program (call it Fannie Med) to cover yet another segment of the American public (the non-elderly non-poor).

The whole idea that Fannie Med would be an “option” is a ruse.

Like the three “public options” we’ve already got – Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program – Fannie Med would drag down the quality of care for publicly and privately insured patients alike.  Yet despite offering an inferior product, Fannie Med would still drive private insurers out of business because it would exploit implicit and explicit government subsidies.  Pretty soon, Fannie Med will be the only game in town – just ask its architect, Jacob Hacker.

Now the question before us is, “Should we allow states to opt out of Fannie Med?”  It seems a good idea: if Fannie Med turns out to be a nightmare, states could avoid it.

But the state opt-out proposal is a ruse within a ruse.

Taxpayers in every state will have to subsidize Fannie Med, either implicitly or explicitly.  What state official will say, “I don’t care if my constituents are subsidizing Fannie Med, I’m not going to let my constituents get their money back”?  State officials are obsessed with maximizing their share of federal dollars.  Voters will crucify officials who opt out.  Fannie Med supporters know that.  They’re counting on it.

A state opt-out provision does not make Fannie Med any more moderate.  It is not a concession.  It is merely the latest entreaty from the Spider to the Fly.

(Cross-posted at National Journal’s Health Care Experts blog.)

Yes, Mr. President, a Free Market Can Fix Health Care

At his White House forum on health reform back in March, President Barack Obama offered:

If there is a way of getting this done where we’re driving down costs and people are getting health insurance at an affordable rate, and have choice of doctor, have flexibility in terms of their plans, and we could do that entirely through the market, I’d be happy to do it that way.

In a new Cato study titled, “Yes, Mr. President, a Free Market Can Fix Health Care,” I take up the president’s challenge and explain that markets are indeed the only way to achieve those goals.  I also explain how Congress can remove the impediments that currently prevent markets from doing so:

  1. Give Medicare enrollees a voucher (adjusted for their means and health risk) and let them purchase any health plan on the market,
  2. Reform the tax treatment of health care with “large” health savings accounts, which would give workers a $9.7 trillion tax cut (without increasing the deficit) and free them to purchase secure coverage that meets their needs,
  3. Free consumers and employers to purchase health insurance across state lines (i.e., licensed by other states), which could cover up to one third of the uninsured,
  4. Make state-issued clinician licenses portable, which would increase access to care and competition among health plans, and
  5. Block-grant Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, just as Congress did with welfare.

Unlike the president’s health care proposals (which, as Victor Fuchs explains, would merely shift costs), these reforms would reduce costs, expand coverage, and improve health care quality – without new taxes, government subsidies, or deficit spending.

Would a free market be nirvana?  Of course not.  But fewer Americans would fall through the cracks than under the status quo or the government takeover advancing through Congress.

There is a better way.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)