What Does Medicare Actually Cover?

What Does Medicare Actually Cover?

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If it followed the path of traditional Medicare, it would end up paying for a lot of coverage that has little medical value.

In the first congressional hearing held on “Medicare for all” in April, Michael Burgess, a Republican congressman from Texas and a physician, called such a proposal “frightening” because it could limit the treatments available to patients.

The debate over Medicare for all has largely focused on access and taxpayer cost, but this raises a question that hasn’t gotten much attention: What treatments would it cover?

A good starting place for answers is to look at how traditional Medicare currently handles things. In one sense, there are some important elements that Medicare does not cover — and  arguably should. But a little digging into the rules governing treatments also reveals that Medicare allows a lot of low-value care — which it arguably should not.

Many countries don’t cover procedures or treatments that have little medical value or that are considered too expensive relative to the benefits. American Medicare has also wrestled with the challenge of how to keep out low-value care, but for political reasons has never squarely faced it.

You might remember the factually misguided “death panel” attack on the Affordable Care Act, which preyed on discomfort with a governmental role in deciding what health care would or would not be paid for. (This discomfort also extends to private plans, exemplified by the backlash against managed care in the 1990s.)

Perhaps as a result, Americans don’t often talk about what treatments and services provide enough value to warrant coverage.

You can divide current Medicare coverage into two layers.

The first is relatively transparent. Traditional Medicare does not cover certain classes of care, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental or long-term care. When the classes of things it covers changes, or is under debate, there’s a big, bruising fight with a lot of public comment. The most recent battle added prescription drug coverage through legislation that passed in 2003.

Over the years, there have also been legislative efforts to add coverage for eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental and long-term care — none of them successful. Some of these are available through private plans. So a Medicare for all program that excluded all private insurance coverage and that resembled today’s traditional Medicare would leave Americans with significant coverage gaps. Most likely, debate over what Medicare for all would cover would center on this issue.

But there is a second layer of coverage that receives less attention. Which specific treatments does Medicare pay for within its classes of coverage? For instance, Medicare covers hospital and doctor visits associated with cancer care — but which specific cancer treatments?

This second layer is far more opaque than the first. By law, treatments must be reasonable and necessary” to be approved for Medicare coverage, but what that means is not very clear.

We think of Medicare as a uniform program, but some coverage decisions are local. What people are covered for in, say, Miami can be different from what people are covered for in Seattle.

Many treatments and services are covered automatically because they already have standard billing codes that Medicare recognizes and accepts. For treatments lacking such codes, Medicare makes coverage determinations in one of two ways: nationally or locally.

Although Medicare is a federal (national) program, most coverage determinations are local. Private contractors authorized to process Medicare claims decide what treatments to reimburse in each of 16 regions of the country.

In theory, this could allow for lots of variation across the country in what Medicare pays for. But most local coverage determinations are nearly identical. For example, four regional contractors have independently made local coverage determinations for allergen immunotherapy, but they all approve the same treatments for seasonal allergy sufferers.

There are more than 2,000 local coverage determinations like these. National coverage decisions, which apply to the entire country, are rarer, with only about 300 on the books.

When Medicare makes national coverage decisions, sometimes it does so while requiring people to enter clinical trials.

It has been doing this for over a decade. The program is called coverage with evidence development, and its use is rare. Fewer than two dozen therapies have entered the program since it was introduced in 2006. But it allows Medicare to gather additional clinical data before determining if the treatment should be covered outside of a trial. To be considered, the treatment must already be deemed safe, and it must already be effective in some population. The aim is to test if the treatment “meaningfully improves” the health of Medicare beneficiaries.

Only one therapy (CPAP, for sleep apnea) that entered this process has ever emerged to be covered as a routine part of Medicare. The others are in a perpetual state of limbo, neither fully covered nor definitively not covered. CAR-T cell therapy, a type of cancer immunotherapy, which appears to be very successful but is also very expensive, is one of the most recent to enter this process.

Despite the complexity of all these coverage determination methods — local, national, contingent on clinical trials — the bottom line is that very few treatments are fully excluded from Medicare, so long as they are of any clinical value. And this suggests that it’s not very likely that Medicare for all would deny coverage for needed care.

A 2018 study in Health Affairs found only 3 percent of Medicare claims were denied in 2015. And traditional Medicare doesn’t limit access to doctors or hospitals either, as it is accepted by nearly every one. (This is in contrast with Medicare Advantage.)

Medicare has a troubled history in considering cost-effectiveness in its coverage decisions. Past efforts to incorporate it have failed. For example, regulations proposed in 1989 were withdrawn after a decade of internal review.

As a result, Medicare covers some treatments that are extremely expensive for the program and that offer little benefit to patients. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission recently studied this in detail. In a 2018 report to Congress, it noted that up to one-third of Medicare beneficiaries received some kind of low-value treatment in 2014, costing the program billions of dollars. If Medicare for all followed in traditional Medicare’s path, it could be wastefully expensive.

The United States has had a historical unwillingness to face cost-effectiveness questions in health care decisions, something many other countries tackle head-on. Some Americans favor Medicare for all because it would make the system more like some overseas. And yet, in choosing not to consider the value of the care it covers, Medicare remains uniquely American.

 

 

Hospital association: Wage index rule positive, but uncompensated care needs work

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The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Friday unveiled its final rule on Medicare payment policies for hospitals under the inpatient prospective payment system for fiscal 2020. Though the Greater New York Hospital Association sees modifications to the agency’s proposal to address area wage index disparities as a boon, it’s not pleased with the outcome when it comes to uncompensated care.

“On a positive note, CMS modified its proposal to address wage index disparities between low and high wage index areas and will apply a uniform national budget neutrality factor to all hospitals instead of cutting only high wage area hospitals,” wrote Kenneth Raske, president and CEO of the association, in a letter to members.

The area wage index applies to the reimbursement of hospitals and raises or lowers Medicare payments to account for geographic differences in labor costs.

The final rule is designed to increase the wage index for hospitals with a value below the 25th percentile. Specifically, it will increase those hospitals’ wage indexes by half the difference between the otherwise applicable value for a hospital and the 25th percentile value across all hospitals. And there will be a 5% cap on any decrease in a hospital’s wage index from its final wage index for fiscal 2019 to mitigate significant decreases.

CMS’ previous proposal would have targeted only high wage index hospitals—such as those in New York—to address disparities. The modified provision will cost New York hospitals about $26 million, including fee–for–service and managed-care payments, less than half of what the original proposal would have cost them, a spokesman for the Greater New York Hospital Association said. Nationwide, the proposal will cost about $330 million.

Before the final rule, the New York congressional delegation took issue with the initial proposal to increase the wage index for hospitals that fall in the lowest 25th percentile of wage areas at the expense of hospitals that are above the 75th percentile of wages.

“CMS argues that its proposed changes to the area wage index seek to help rural hospitals, yet not one of New York’s rural hospitals—who face the same fiscal challenges as rural hospitals across the nation—would see a benefit from the policy,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to CMS administrator Seema Verma. “Rather, states like New York with many hospitals that have legitimately high wages commensurate with market competition will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions in Medicare funding to a small handful of states.”

With the issue of wage index out of the way, state hospitals’ greatest concern may now be the finalized uncompensated care pool proposal. Raske noted the Greater New York Hospital Association has “fiercely opposed” the proposal.

“To mitigate the impact of the data issues and reduce the volatility in the uncompensated care distributions, GNYHA had recommended that CMS continue the fiscal year 2019 policy and base the distribution on a weighted average of low-income days and uncompensated care costs,” Raske wrote. “Instead, CMS finalized its proposal to base the distribution on 100% uncompensated care costs using 2015 data.”

In March the Greater New York Hospital Association called the proposal dangerous and said it would base distributions on bad debt and charity care data and cap the pool’s rate of growth, representing a $98 billion cut over 10 years. —Jennifer Henderson

 

 

 

 

In Wednesday’s second Democratic debate, 7 of 10 candidates support Medicare for All

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Democratic candidates take the stage during first debate in June.

Expanding coverage, lowering healthcare costs, central to Democratic agenda.

Tonight, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet, Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio take the stage for round two of the Democratic presidential debates.

Seven support Medicare for All. The others – Biden, Bennett and Inslee have come out in favor of a public option. Here, in no particular order, is a look at where each candidate stands on healthcare coverage.

Joe Biden

As vice president to President Barack Obama, former Senator Joe Biden carries into this election the legacy of the Affordable Care Act. As president, Biden said he would protect the ACA and prevent further Republican attempts to dismantle it.

Unlike many of his Democratic rivals, Biden does not support full Medicare for All. Instead of getting rid of private insurance, Biden said he would build on the ACA through the Biden Plan to create a public health insurance option. As in Medicare, costs would be reduced through negotiating for lower prices from hospitals and other providers.

He also has a plan to increase the value of the ACA tax credits by eliminating the 400% income cap on tax credit eligibility and lowering the limit on the cost of coverage from 9.86% of income to 8.5%. This means that no one would spend more than 8.5% of their income on health insurance. Additionally,  Biden would base the size of tax credits on the cost of the higher-tiered gold plan, rather than silver plan.

Biden also supports premium-free access to the public option for individuals in the 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA. States that have already expanded Medicaid would have the choice of moving the expansion population to the premium-free public option, as long as the states continue to pay their current share of the cost of covering those individuals.

Biden also promises to stop surprise billing, tackle market concentration, repeal the exception allowing drug companies to avoid negotiating with Medicare over drug prices and limiting the launch price for drugs that face no competition, among other actions.

In his words: “When we passed the Affordable Care Act, I told President Obama it was a big deal – or something to that effect.”

Kamala Harris

California Senator Kamala Harris often refers to her mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer and her Medicare coverage for treatment as an example of why all Americans should have Medicare for All.

Harris is looking to eliminate premiums and out-of-pocket costs through government insurance that guarantees comprehensive care including dental and vision and coverage. Harris gives no estimate of the cost of universal healthcare, but says taking profit out of America’s healthcare system would save money.

Her Medicare for All plan, which is similar to Senator Bernie Sanders – would cover all medically necessary services, including emergency room visits, doctor visits, vision, dental, hearing aids, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, telehealth and comprehensive reproductive care services. It would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

As former Attorney General of California who won a $320 million settlment from insurers, Harris said she wants to take on Big Pharma and private insurers to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

She also has strong views on prosecuting opioid makers and for preserving women’s right to healthcare and protecting Planned Parenthood from the financial cuts and policies of the Trump Administration.

She would institute an audit of prescription drug costs to ensure pharmaceutical companies are not charging more than other comparable countries, a comprehensive maternal child health program to reduce deaths among women and infants of color, and rural healthcare reforms, such as increasing residency slots for rural areas with workforce shortages and loan forgiveness for rural healthcare professionals.

In her words on the ACA: “As someone who fought tooth and nail as Attorney General and as Senator to prevent repeal, that’s exactly what I will continue to do.”

Cory Booker

Senator Cory Anthony Booker, first African-American Senator from New Jersey, and former mayor of Newark, is also a Medicare for All proponent.

He also wants to implement universal paid family and medical leave.

He supports lowering costs for prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices and by importing drugs from Canada and other countries, the latter a policy announced today by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

He would also invest in ending the maternal mortality rate and work to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality rates.

One of his big issues is expanding eligibility for long-term services and support for low and middle-income Americans needing care at home. He wants long-term care workers to be paid a minimum of $15 an hour.To limit the impact of the program on state budgets, the new costs associated with the expansion of Medicaid long-term care services and workforce standards would be financed entirely by the federal government in, effectively, a 100% match. The cost would be financed by making the tax code more progressive by reforming the capital gains, estate, and income taxes.

In his words: “Healthcare is a human right.”

Kirsten Gillebrand

Kirsten Gillebrand, U.S. Senator from New York, originally ran for a House seat in that state on a platform that supported the expansion of Medicare, a view she still holds, and in 2017 expressed support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill.

In May, Gillebrand reiterated her support, saying the best way to achieve a single-payer system is to let people buy-in over a transition period of about four to five years. She favors allowing a public option to create competition with insurance companies. Medicare needs to be fixed first so that reimbursement rates better reflect costs, she said.

In 2011 she helped pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides treatment to the first responders of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The law provides health monitoring and services for 9/11-related health issues among those exposed to the debris and tainted air of the attack’s aftermath.

In her words: “Under the healthcare system we have now, too many insurance companies continue to value their profits more than they value the people they are supposed to be helping.”

Bill de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio believes everyone, including undocumented immigrants, has a right to receive healthcare, and has repeatedly voiced his support for a national single-payer health plan.

He and rival Elizabeth Warren raised their hands during the first debate when asked if they supported Medicare for All.

One of his accomplishments as mayor was signing a bill into law that established a paid sick leave and safe leave plan for the city.

First unveiled in January, the program NYC Care, guarantees healthcare for the roughly 600,000 New Yorkers who aren’t currently insured, which de Blasio touted as the “most comprehensive health system in the nation.” He has indicated that NYC Care could become a model nationwide.

The plan encompasses primary and specialty care, pediatric and maternity care and mental health services. The idea is that NYC Care works on what de Blasio said was a “sliding scale,” in which people can essentially pay what they can for care. While the city already has a public option for healthcare, de Blasio said NYC Care will pay for direct comprehensive care for people who can’t afford insurance or who aren’t covered by Medicaid.

The program costs $100 million per year for the city — an investment the mayor expects will yield returns.

In his words: “If we don’t help people get their healthcare, we’re going to pay plenty on the back end when people get really sick,” he said recently on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” broadcast.

Jay Inslee

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has planted a flag as “the climate change candidate” and in many ways he’s all in on that single issue, reasoning that things like healthcare policy “become relatively moot if the entire ecosystem collapses on which human life depends.”

That said, he has a strong case to make on healthcare by virtue of having just recently put his state’s money where his fellow candidates’ mouths are: in May he signed the country’s first public option into law in Washington.

Expect him to bring up that accomplishment — in which the state will contract with private insurers to create a public option that pays at Medicare plus 60 percent — in any conversation about healthcare, as he did in the first debate.

In his words: “We hope this will be a smashing success. We hope that it will give a shot of courage to other governors to move forward toward universal access. We were willing to take the leap and we’re gonna learn as we go along, I’m sure, and there will be some modifications. But we had to get started.”

Michael Bennet

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet supports a public option he calls Medicare-X. But where his plan stands apart from others is a strong focus on the rural-urban divide on access to care. He intends to create a healthcare policy that will ensure that all regions of the country are covered by available health plans, addressing what he calls a failure of the ACA exchanges.

His plan is unusually detailed and includes lowering prescription drug prices, closing existing gaps in care, and, yes, promoting telemedicine and other technology that can bolster rural healthcare. He also has provisions for combatting substance abuse, improving maternal and mental health, and bringing more support to senior caregivers.

In his words: “As president, I would build on the Affordable Care Act to cover everyone, rather than doing away with our current system. My Medicare-X plan gives every family the choice to buy an affordable public option or keep the plan they have today. It starts in rural areas, where there is very little competition and requires the federal government to negotiate drug prices. I have fought for this approach for almost a decade, because it is the most effective and fastest way to cover everyone and drive down costs.”

Julián Castro

The former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio Mayor favors a Medicare for All, single-payer system.

To pay for the system, Castro has said he would raise taxes on corporations and on the wealthiest Americans — the “0.05, 0.5 or 1%,” he said.

While he favors a single-payer system, Castro said he would allow private insurance, saying that anyone who wants their own private insurance plan should be able to have one.

In his words: Castro said at an event in Iowa that, “The U.S. should be the healthiest nation in the world.”

Andrew Yang

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York is founder of Venture for America, a two-year fellowship program for recent grads who want to work at a startup and create jobs in American cities.

He supports Medicare for All and has called the Affordable Care Act a step in the right direction that didn’t go far enough because access to medicine isn’t guaranteed and the incentives for healthcare providers don’t align with providing quality, efficient care.

Doctors are incentivized to act as factory workers, he has said, churning through patients and prescribing redundant tests, rather than doing what they’d prefer–spending extra time with each patient to ensure overall health.

Medicare for All will increase access to preventive care, bringing overall healthcare costs down. Cost can also be controlled directly by setting prices provided for medical services.

He cites the Cleveland Clinic, where doctors are paid a flat salary instead of by a price-for-service model. Redundant tests are at a minimum, and physician turnover is much lower than at comparable hospitals, he said.

And the Southcentral Foundation which uses a holistic approach to treat native Alaskans with mental and physical problems by referring patients to psychologists during routine physicals.

Also, the current system of employer-sponsored insurance prevents employees from having economic mobility.

In his words: “New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million U.S. jobs, and in the next 5-10 years, they will eliminate millions more.”

Tulsi Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is a military veteran who supports Medicare for All as a cosponsor of H.R.676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act.

But she is currently getting press for her lawsuit against Google claiming alleged election interference.

Following the first Democratic primary debate on June 26, many people searched her name, but “without any explanation, Google suspended Tulsi’s Google Ads account,” her office said in a statement, according to The Verge.

Tulsi claims the tech giant suspended her campaign’s Google Ads account just after that first debate.

Congress must act to prevent the tech giant from exerting too much influence, she claimed Monday on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
In her words: “This is really about the unchecked power these big tech monopolies have over our public discourse and how this is a real threat to our freedom of speech and to our fair elections.”

 

Democratic Debate Turns Ferocious Over Health Care

Candidates in the first night of this week’s Democratic presidential debates sparred over health care coverage.

It took only one question — the very first — in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate to make it clear that the issue that united the party in last year’s congressional elections in many ways now divides it.

When Jake Tapper of CNN asked Senator Bernie Sanders whether his Medicare for All health care plan was “bad policy” and “political suicide,” it set off a half-hour brawl that drew in almost every one of the 10 candidates on the stage. Suddenly, members of the party that had been all about protecting and expanding health care coverage were leveling accusations before a national audience at some of their own — in particular, that they wanted to take it away.

“It used to be Republicans that wanted to repeal and replace,” Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana said in one of the more jolting statements on the subject. “Now many Democrats do as well.”

Those disagreements set a combative tone that continued for the next 90 minutes. The health care arguments underscored the powerful shift the Democratic Party is undergoing, and that was illustrated in a substantive debate that also included trade, race, reparations, border security and the war in Afghanistan.

In the end, it was a battle between aspiration and pragmatism, a crystallization of the struggle between the party’s left and moderate factions.

It is likely to repeat itself during Wednesday night’s debate, whose lineup includes former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Kamala Harris of California. He supports building on the Affordable Care Act by adding an option to buy into a public health plan. She released a proposal this week that would go further, eventually having everyone choose either Medicare or private plans that she said would be tightly regulated by the government.

Democrats know all too well that the issue of choice in health care is a potent one. When President Barack Obama’s promise that people who liked their health plans could keep them under the Affordable Care Act proved to be untrue, Republicans seized on the fallout so effectively that it then propelled them to majorities in both the House and Senate.

On Tuesday night, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio evoked those Republican attacks of years ago on the Affordable Care Act, saying the Sanders plan “will tell the union members that give away wages in order to get good health care that they will lose their health care because Washington is going to come in and tell them they have a better plan.”

Republicans watching the debate may well have been smiling; the infighting about taking away people’s ability to choose their health care plan and spending too much on a pipe-dream plan played into some of President Trump’s favorite talking points. Mr. Trump is focusing on health proposals that do not involve coverage — lowering drug prices, for example — as his administration sides with the plaintiffs in a court case seeking to invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act, putting millions of people’s coverage at risk.

It was easy to imagine House Democrats who campaigned on health care, helping their party retake control of the chamber, being aghast at the fact that not a single candidate mentioned the case.

Mr. Sanders’s plan would eliminate private health care coverage and set up a universal government-run health system that would provide free coverage for everyone, financed by taxes, including on the middle class. John Delaney, the former congressman from Maryland, repeatedly took swings at the Sanders plan, suggesting that it was reckless and too radical for the majority of voters and could deliver a second term to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Sanders held firm, looking ready to boil over at time — “I wrote the damn bill,” he fumed after Mr. Ryan questioned whether benefits in his plan would prove as comprehensive as he was promising. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the only other candidate in favor of a complete overhaul of the health insurance system that would include getting rid of private coverage, chimed in to back him up.

At one point she seemed to almost plead. “We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone,” she interjected. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”

Mr. Delaney has been making a signature issue of his opposition to Medicare for all, instead holding up his own plan, which would automatically enroll every American under 65 in a new public health care plan or let them choose to receive a credit to buy private insurance instead. He repeatedly disparaged what he called “impossible promises.”

He was one of a number of candidates — including Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas; Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. — who sought to stake out a middle ground by portraying themselves as defenders of free choice with plans that would allow, but not force, people to join Medicare or a new government health plan, or public option. (Some candidates would require people to pay into those plans, while others would not.)

The debate moderators also pressed Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren on whether the middle class would have to help pay for a Sanders-style plan, which would provide a generous set of benefits — beyond what Medicare covers — to every American without charging them premiums or deductibles. One of the revenue options Mr. Sanders has suggested is a 4 percent tax on the income of families earning more than $29,000.

In defending his plan, Mr. Sanders repeatedly pointed out how many Americans are uninsured or underinsured, unable to pay high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs and thus unable to seek care.

Analysts often point out that the focus on raising taxes to pay for universal health care leaves out the fact that in exchange, personal health care costs would drop or disappear.

“A health reform plan might involve tax increases, but it’s important to quantify the savings in out-of-pocket health costs as well,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, tweeted during the debate. “Political attacks don’t play by the same rules.”

A Kaiser poll released Tuesday found that two-thirds of the public supports a public option, though most Republicans oppose it. The poll also found about half the public supports a Medicare for all plan, down from 56 percent in April. The vast majority of respondents with employer coverage — which more than 150 million Americans have — rated it as excellent or good.

In truth, Mr. Delaney’s own universal health care plan could also face political obstacles, not least because it, too, would cost a lot. He has proposed paying for it by, among other steps, letting the government negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and requiring wealthy Americans to cover part of the cost of their health care.

Had Mr. Sanders not responded so forcefully to the attacks, it would have felt like piling on, though some who criticized his goals sounded more earnest than harsh.

“I think how we win an election is to bring everyone with us,” Ms. Klobuchar said, adding later in the debate that a public option would be “the easiest way to move forward quickly, and I want to get things done.”

 

 

How a Medicare Buy-In or Public Option Could Threaten Obamacare

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Some Democrats are proposing a government alternative to private insurance. But allowing people to choose such a plan may destabilize the A.C.A., some experts say.

It seems a simple enough proposition: Give people the choice to buy into Medicare, the popular federal insurance program for those over 65.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is one of the Democratic presidential contenders who favor this kind of buy-in, often called the public option. They view it as a more gradual, politically pragmatic alternative to the Medicare-for-all proposal championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, which would abolish private health insurance altogether.

A public option, supporters say, is the logical next step in the expansion of access begun under the Affordable Care Act, passed while Mr. Biden was in office. “We have to protect and build on Obamacare,” he said.

But depending on its design, a public option may well threaten the A.C.A. in unexpected ways.

A government plan, even a Medicare buy-in, could shrink the number of customers buying policies on the Obamacare markets, making them less appealing for leading insurers, according to many health insurers, policy analysts and even some Democrats.

In urban markets, “a public option could come in and soak up all of the demand of the A.C.A. market,” said Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

And in rural markets, insurers that are now profitable because they are often the only choices may find it difficult to make money if they faced competition from the federal government.

Some insurers could decide that a smaller and uncertain market is not worth their effort.

If the public option program also matched the rates Medicare paid to hospitals and doctors, “I think it would be really hard to compete,” Mr. Garthwaite said. Even leading insurers do not have the leverage to demand lower prices from hospitals and other providers that the government has.

Whether to implement a public option or Medicare buy-in has become a defining question among Democratic presidential candidates and is likely to be a contentious topic at this week’s debates.

On Monday, Senator Kamala Harris took an alternate route, unveiling a plan that would allow private insurers to participate in a Medicare-for-all scheme, akin to their role currently offering private plans under Medicare Advantage.

The recent spate of proposals reprises some of the most difficult questions leading up to the passage of the A.C.A., in many ways a compromise over widely divergent views of the role of the government in ensuring access to care.

After a shaky start, the federal and state Obamacare marketplaces are surprisingly robust, despite repeated attempts by Republicans to weaken them. They provide insurance to 11 million customers, many of whom receive generous federal subsidies to help pay for coverage.

The A.C.A. is now a solidly profitable business for insurers, with several expanding options after earlier threats to leave. For example, Centene, a for-profit insurer, controls about a fifth of the market, offering plans in 20 states. It is expected to bring in roughly $10 billion in revenues this year by selling Obamacare policies.

In spite of stock drops because of investors’ concerns over Medicare-for-all proposals, for-profit health insurers have generally thrived since the law’s passage.

But a buy-in shift in insurance coverage could profoundly unsettle the nation’s private health sector, which makes up almost a fifth of the United States economy. Depending on who is allowed to sign up for the plan, it could also rock the employer-based system that now covers some 160 million Americans.

In a recent ad, Mr. Biden features a woman who wants to keep her current coverage. “I have my own private insurance — I don’t want to lose it,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Biden argued that a public option can extend the success of the Affordable Care Act.

“Joe Biden thinks it would be an egregious mistake to undo the A.C.A., and he will stand against anyone — regardless of their party — who tries to do so,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, in an email.

Major insurers and hospital chains, pharmaceutical companies and the American Medical Association have joined forces to try to derail efforts like Medicare-for-all and the public option. Mr. Sanders denounced these powerful interests in a recent speech.

“The debate we are currently having in this campaign and all over this country has nothing to do with health care, but it has everything to do with the greed and profits of the health care industry,” he said.

Other critics of the public option, including Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, argue Democrats’ programs will lead to a “complete government takeover.”

“These proposals are the largest threats to the American health care system,” she said in a speech earlier this month.

Some experts predict that private insurers will adapt, while others warn that the government could wind up taking on the sickest customers with high medical bills, leaving the healthier, profitable ones to private insurers.

It’s uncertain whether hospitals, on the other hand, could thrive under some versions of the public option. If the nation’s 5,300 hospitals were paid at much lower rates by a government plan — rates resembling those of Medicare — they might lose tens of billions of dollars, the industry claims. Some would close.

One variant of the public option — letting people over 50 or 55 buy into Medicare — is often depicted as less drastic than a universal, single-payer program. But this option would also be problematic, experts said.

This consumer demographic is quite valuable to insurers, hospitals and doctors.

Middle-aged and older Americans have become the bedrock of the Obamacare market. Some insurers say this demographic makes up about half of the people enrolled in their A.C.A. plans and, unlike younger people who come and go, is a reliable and profitable source of business for the insurance companies.

The aging-related health issues of people in this group guarantee regular doctor visits for everything from rising blood pressure to diabetes, and they account for a steady stream of lucrative joint replacements and cardiac stent procedures.

The 55-to-64 age group, for example, accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s population, but generates 20 percent of all health care spending, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Several experts said that designing a buy-in program that is compatible with the existing public and private plans could be daunting.

“You’d have to do it carefully,” said Representative Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat who served as the secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton.

Linda Blumberg, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, agreed. “The idea of Medicare buy-ins was taken very seriously before there was an Affordable Care Act,” she said. “In the context of the A.C.A., it’s a lot more complicated to do that.”

Many dismiss concerns about whether insurers can compete.

“Any time a market shrinks in America, insurers don’t like it,” said Andy Slavitt, the former acting Medicare administrator under President Obama and a former insurance executive. Mr. Slavitt noted that insurers raised similar concerns about the federal law when it was introduced. “They’ll figure it out,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, five private insurers that sell insurance in the A.C.A. market already compete with L.A. Care Health Plan, which views itself as a kind of public option, said John Baackes, the plan’s chief executive.

The insurer offers the least expensive H.M.O. plan in the county by paying roughly Medicare rates. “We’ve proved that the public option can be healthy competition,” he said.

But the major insurance companies, which were instrumental in defeating the public option when Congress first considered making it a feature of the A.C.A., are already flexing their lobbying muscle and waging public campaigns.

In Connecticut, fierce lobbying by health insurers helped kill a state version of the public option this spring. Cigna resisted passage of the bill, threatening to leave the state. “The proposal design was ill-conceived and simply did not work,” the company said in a statement.

Blue Cross plans could lose 60 percent of their revenues from the individual market if people over 50 are shifted to Medicare, said Kris Haltmeyer, an executive with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, citing an analysis the company conducted. He said it might not make sense for plans to stay in the A.C.A. markets.

Siphoning off such a large group of customers could also lead to a 10 percent increase in premiums for the remaining pool of insured people, according to the Blue Cross analysis. More younger people with expensive medical conditions have enrolled than insurers expected, and insurers would have to increase premiums to cover their costs, Mr. Haltmeyer said.

Tricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies insurance markets, said a government buy-in that attracted older Americans could indeed raise premiums for those who remained in the A.C.A. markets, especially if those consumers had high medical costs.

But some experts countered that prognosis, predicting that premiums could go down if older Americans, whose health care costs are generally expensive, moved into a Medicare-like program.

“The insurance companies are wrong about opposing the public option,” Ms. Shalala said.

Dr. David Blumenthal, the president of the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that funds health care research, said a government plan that attracted people with expensive conditions could prove costly.

“You might, as a taxpayer, become concerned that they would be more like high-risk pools,” he said.

Jonathan Gruber, an M.I.T. economist who advised the Obama administration during the development of the A.C.A., likes Mr. Biden’s plan and argues there is a way to design a public option that does not shut out the private insurers.

“It’s all about threading the needle of making a public option that helps the failing system and not making the doctors and insurers go to the mat,” he said.

Many experts point to private Medicare Advantage plans, which now cover one-third of those eligible for Medicare, as proof that private insurers can coexist with the government.

But the real value of a public option, some say, would stem from the pressure to lower prices for medical care as insurers were forced to compete with the lower-paying government plans, like Medicare.

Washington State recently passed the country’s first public option, capping prices as part of its plan to provide a public alternative to all residents by 2021.

“It’s couched in this language in expanding coverage, but it does it by regulating prices,” said Sabrina Corlette, a health policy researcher at Georgetown University.

The hospital industry would most likely fight just as hard to defeat any proposal that would convert a profitable group of customers, Americans who are privately covered at present, into Medicare beneficiaries.

Private insurers often pay hospitals double or triple what Medicare pays them, according to a recent study from the nonprofit Rand Corporation.

While Ms. Shalala supports a public option as an alternative to “Medicare for All,” she is clear about how challenging it will be to preserve both Obamacare and the private insurance market. “You can’t do it off the top of your head,” she said.