The Health 202: ‘Medicare for all’ is the dream. ‘Medicaid for more’ could be the reality.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-health-202/2018/08/02/the-health-202-medicare-for-all-is-the-dream-medicaid-for-more-could-be-the-reality/5b61d4ed1b326b0207955ea2/?utm_term=.f54d337c2d74

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“Medicare for all” is the hottest position on the left these days, but there’s a quieter push afoot to create a public option using Medicaid. 

Chanting “Medicaid for more” may not sound as bold for progressives seeking to prove their bona fides before the midterm elections. Yet all the most-hyped 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are on board with the idea, including the Medicare expansion’s biggest champion, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The idea in concept is simple: Allow states to open up their Medicaid programs to anyone regardless of income. Those people could buy in to the social safety net and have access to Medicaid’s provider network and benefits. The groundwork for expanding the program for low-income Americans has already been laid to some extent as 34 states have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has introduced the “State Public Option Act” to promote states to expand Medicaid — co-sponsored by some familiar Democratic faces: Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). But the real efforts are happening at the state level where legislatures all over the country are seriously considering the idea.

Heather Howard, a lecturer at Princeton University who also helps states with their health-care systems, said many plans are in their infancy, but that 14 states across the country have made moves to, at minimum, weigh the benefits and challenges of shifting Medicaid to a publicly available health insurance option.

“There are a lot of policy considerations to think about, but while the federal policy debate is stalled, you have states thinking about what tools do we have. [Medicaid] is the immediate tool you have,” she told me.

That’s because Medicare is operated at the federal level so any major changes to it have to be decided in Washington. Medicaid, on the other hand, is run by the states, so they have more discretion over how the program is set up. 

There are real critiques of Medicaid as it now exists, such as low reimbursement rates for doctors and uniform access to care. To offer it to everyone would require responding to those criticisms as well as new questions such as the cost to states, whether states have to apply for federal waivers to alter the program and whether a public option lives on or off the ACA exchanges.

This week stakeholders across New Mexico met with President Obama’s former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Andy Slavitt to begin some of those conversations. Earlier this year, New Mexico’s state legislature passed a bill to create a committee to study a Medicaid buy-in program. Medicaid is popular there; one-third of New Mexicans are enrolled. Yet 230,000 people remain uninsured in the state, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, and proposed premium rates for 2019 for those who don’t qualify for ACA subsidies are increasing anywhere from 9.2 percent to 18.5 percent.

Slavitt is the board chair of a new group, United States of Care, which has an impressive roster of bold-faced names leading it from investor Mark Cuban to former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly. In the absence of Washington leadership, the group is working with states on ways to improve health care.

Allison O’Toole, the group’s director of state affairs, was also on the ground in New Mexico this week and told me there’s a “real hunger” and “momentum” around the idea of allowing states to expand Medicaid.

“Washington is in gridlock and not addressing people’s real concerns around the cost and affordability of health care,” O’Toole said. “This has created a greater sense of urgency and necessity by states to pick up that ball and run with it.”

With the Republicans’ failure to repeal the ACA and the public outcry when they tried, Democrats are feeling emboldened this year to talk ambitiously about their health-care goals. 

Health care is a leading issue heading into November, and polls show at least half of Americans are in favor of a “Medicare for all” program. But even if Democrats win the House majority and make gains in the Senate, President Trump has said Obamacare is unsustainable and his administration has worked persistently to chip away at it.

That’s why Michael Sparer, a public- health professor at Columbia University, believes “Medicaid for more” is not only good policy, but also good politics. It’s the type of proposal, he reasons, that could peel off moderate Republicans in a way that a national Medicare program never could. 

It’s true that Medicaid is a favorite GOP punching bag. The Trump administration is urging states to add work requirements to their programs and the GOP playbook has long included capping how much the federal government pays each state to administer Medicaid.

Yet 34 states, including many with Republican governors, expanded the ACA under Medicaid to include more low-income residents, and several more red states are on the precipice of following them. It’s a program that has endured and grown for 53 years.

“The Medicaid buy-in is more of a compromise program, it’s not viewed as a big national program. People who believe in states’ rights can view it as states having more flexibility,” Sparer said.

Sparer has written extensively on the topic and told me his support for expanding Medicaid is heavily influenced by the political viability of focusing on the program for low-income Americans versus the one covering seniors — meaning states don’t have to wait for a new president to do something meaningful. But that doesn’t mean he thinks national political figures like Sanders should stop talking about “Medicare for all.”

“The advantage is [Medicaid buy-in] is incremental, it adds populations here and there. But incremental isn’t a great political slogan. You put ‘let’s change the system’ on a bumper sticker and I get that,” he said. “But the more there’s momentum for ‘Medicare for all,’ then ‘Medicaid for more’ could be the back up plan.”

“Given the ever-present debate,” he added, “a more incremental path is a better path.”

 

 

Reinsurance in Wisconsin expected to stabilize individual market

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Under the Wisconsin Health Care Stability Plan, the state pays for 50 percent of the cost of claims between $50,000 and $250,000.

Wisconsin has received a federal waiver to leverage $200 million to implement a state-based reinsurance program to cover high-cost claims in the individual health insurance market.

Reinsurance covers a portion of the most expensive claims. The move helps to stabilize the individual market by reducing insurer claim costs and decreasing premiums.

Insurers don’t have the uncertainty that a small number of high-risk individuals could dramatically increase their expenses because there aren’t enough healthy consumers to balance out the risk pool.

Under the Wisconsin Health Care Stability Plan, the state pays for 50 percent of the cost of claims between $50,000 and $250,000.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Treasury on Sunday approved the 1332 state innovation waiver under the Affordable Care Act. The five-year program starts Jan. 1, 2019 and ends Dec. 21, 2023.

The approved waiver allows the state to have access to $200 million in reinsurance funding. The federal government will pay an estimated $166 million and the state, $34 million.

The program is budget neutral to the federal government. The money comes from savings from premium tax credits. The federal waiver allows the premium tax credits to be passed through to the state, rather than going directly to the consumer.

Consumers will see the savings in an expected 3.5 percent drop in their premiums in the individual market, starting in 2019, according to a released statement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. This compares to a 44 percent rate hike on premiums in 2018.

Walker submitted the waiver request for the state’s Health Care Stability Plan in April.

In an unrelated waiver request, Wisconsin has asked to impose work requirements as a condition of Medicaid beneficiaries receiving coverage.

While CMS Administrator Seema Verma and HHS Secretary Alex Azar have reportedly said that a judge’s decision in Kentucky barring work requirements will not stop the Trump administration from considering similar waivers, Wisconsin’s request awaits federal approval.

Last month, a federal judge blocked Kentucky’s plan to implement a work requirement waiver. In light of the action, CMS decided to reopen Kentucky’s 30-day federal public comment through August 18.

 

California’s ACA Rates To Rise 8.7% Next Year

California’s ACA Rates To Rise 8.7% Next Year

Premiums in California’s health insurance exchange will rise by an average of 8.7 percent next year, marking a return to more modest increases despite ongoing threats to the Affordable Care Act.

The state marketplace, Covered California, said the rate increase for 2019 would have been closer to 5 percent if the federal penalty for going without health coverage had not been repealed in last year’s Republican tax bill.

The average increase in California is smaller than the double-digit hikes expected around the nation, due largely to a healthier mix of enrollees and more competition in its marketplace. Still, health insurance prices keep growing faster than wages and general inflation as a result of rising medical costs overall, squeezing many middle-class families who are struggling to pay their household bills.

The 8.7 percent increase in California ends two consecutive years of double-digit rate increases for the state marketplace.

“It’s not great that health care costs are still increasing that much, but the individual market is not sticking out like a sore thumb like it has in other years,” said Kathy Hempstead, senior adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It’s falling back to earth.”

The future may be less bright. An estimated 262,000 Californians, or about 10 percent of individual policyholders in and outside the exchange, are expected to drop their coverage next year because the ACA fines were eliminated, according to the state. Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, warned that the exodus of healthier consumers will drive up insurance costs beyond 2019 — not just for individual policyholders but for California employers and their workers.

“We are paying, in essence, a surcharge for federal policies that are making coverage more expensive than it should be,” Lee said in an interview. “There will be more of the uninsured and more uncompensated costs passed along to all of us.”

Critics of the Affordable Care Act say it has failed to contain medical costs and left consumers and taxpayers with heavy tabs . Nearly 90 percent of Covered California’s 1.4 million enrollees qualify for federal subsidies to help them afford coverage.

Foiled in its attempt to repeal Obamacare outright, the Trump administration has taken to rolling back key parts of the law and has slashed federal marketing dollars intended to boost enrollment. Instead, the administration backs cheaper alternatives, such as short-term coverage or association health plans, which don’t comply fully with ACA rules and tend to offer skimpier benefits with fewer consumer protections.

Taken together, those moves are likely to draw healthier, less expensive customers out of the ACA exchanges and leave sicker ones behind.

Nationally, 2019 premiums for silver plans — the second-cheapest and most popular plans offered — are expected to jump by 15 percent, on average, according to an analysis of 10 states and the District of Columbia by the Avalere consulting firm. Prices vary widely across the country, however. Decreases are expected in Minnesota while insurers in Maryland are seeking 30 percent increases.

In California, exchange officials emphasized, consumers who shop around could pay the same rate as this year, or even a little less.

Christy McConville of Arcadia already spends about $1,800 a month on a Blue Shield plan for her family of four, opting for “platinum” coverage, the most expensive type. Her family doesn’t qualify for federal subsidies in Covered California.

She’s worried about further increases and doesn’t want to switch plans and risk losing access to the doctors she trusts. “We’re getting right up to the limit,” McConville said.

Amanda Malachesky, a nutrition coach in the Northern California town of Petrolia, said the elimination of the penalty for being uninsured makes dropping coverage more palatable. Her family of four pays almost $400 a month for a highly subsidized Anthem Blue Cross plan that has a $5,000 deductible.

“I’ve wanted to opt out of the insurance model forever just because they provide so little value for the exorbitant amount of money that we pay,” said Malachesky, who recently paid several hundred dollars out-of-pocket for a mammogram. “I’m probably going to disenroll … and not give any more money to these big bad insurance companies.”

Covered California is aiming to stem any enrollment losses by spending more than $100 million on advertising and outreach in the coming year. In contrast, the Trump administration spent only $10 million last year for advertising the federal exchange across the 34 states that use it.

Also, California lawmakers are looking at ways to fortify the state exchange. State legislators are considering bills that would limit the sale of short-term insurance and prevent people from joining association health plans that don’t have robust consumer protections.

However, California hasn’t pursued an insurance mandate and penalty at the state level, which both health plans and consumer advocates support. New Jersey and Vermont have enacted such measures.

Lee said it’s up to lawmakers to decide whether a state mandate makes sense.

David Panush, a Sacramento health care consultant and a former Covered California official, said some lawmakers may be reluctant to push the idea, even in deep-blue California.

“The individual mandate has always been the least popular piece of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Despite the constant uncertainty surrounding the health law, many insurers nationally are posting profits from their ACA business and some plans are looking to expand further on the exchanges.

In California, the same 11 insurers are returning, led by Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California. Together, those two insurers control two-thirds of exchange enrollment. (Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

The Covered California rate increases are fairly uniform across the state. Premiums are climbing 9 percent across most of Southern California as well as in San Francisco. Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties faced the highest increase at 16 percent, on average.

The rates are subject to state regulatory review but are unlikely to change significantly. Open enrollment on the exchange starts Oct. 15.

The ACA’s expansion of coverage has dramatically cut the number of uninsured Californians. The proportion of Californians lacking health insurance fell to 6.8 percent at the end of last year, down from 17 percent in 2013, federal data show.

 

 

CMS Adminstrator dismisses Affordable Care Act

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About 1.4 million Californians buy coverage through the state’s Obamacare exchange, Covered California, and nearly 4 million have joined Medicaid as a result of the program’s expansion under the law.

Stepping into the land of the Trump resistance, Seema Verma flatly rejected California’s pursuit of single-payer health care as unworkable and dismissed the Affordable Care Act as too flawed to ever succeed.

Speaking Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club here, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said she supports granting states flexibility on health care but indicated she would not give California the leeway it would need to spend federal money on a single-payer system.

“I think a lot of the analysis has shown it’s unaffordable,” Verma said during a question-and-answer session following her speech. “It doesn’t make sense for us to waste time on something that’s not going to work.”

During her speech, Verma issued a broader warning to advocates pushing for a Medicare-for-all program nationally. She said that “socialized” approach to medicine would endanger the program and the health care it provides for millions of older Americans.

“We don’t want to divert the purpose and focus away from our seniors,” Verma said in the address before more than 200 people. “In essence, Medicare for all would become Medicare for none.”

Single-payer has emerged as a key issue in the California governor’s race this year. The current front-runner for governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and the current lieutenant governor, has vowed to pursue a state-run, single-payer system for all Californians if elected in November. Many California lawmakers have endorsed that idea as the next step toward achieving universal coverage and to tackling rising costs.

California has enthusiastically embraced the Affordable Care Act, and state leaders have struggled with — and even bucked — the Trump administration on a variety of health-policy fronts. The state stands to lose more than any other if the Trump administration is successful in further dismantling the ACA.

About 1.4 million Californians buy coverage through the state’s Obamacare exchange, Covered California, and nearly 4 million have joined Medicaid as a result of the program’s expansion under the law.

Verma wields enormous power as head of CMS, overseeing a $1 trillion budget. The agency sets policy for Medicare, Medicaid and the federal insurance exchanges under the ACA.

The landmark health law, she said, was so flawed it could not work without further action from Congress.

“It wasn’t working when we came into office and it continues not to work,” Verma said, responding to a question from moderator Mark Zitter, founder of the Zetema Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes debate on health care across partisan lines. “The program is not designed to be successful.”
Zitter billed the event as a rare chance for Californians to hear directly from a top Trump administration official, although Verma’s remarks broke little new ground, he said.

Trump health care policies figure into many of California’s congressional races this fall in which incumbent Republicans are fending off Democratic challengers. And in court, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is leading a coalition of attorneys general who are defending the constitutionality of the ACA in a Texas case with national implications.

The Trump administration has sided with the officials waging the lawsuit, choosing not to defend the health law’s protections for people with preexisting conditions. Separately, the administration has backed work requirements for many people on Medicaid.

Short
California’s state Senate passed a law in May banning such requirements as a condition for eligibility in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. The bill is pending in the state Assembly.

“Making health insurance coverage contingent on work requirements goes against all we’ve worked for here in California,” state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), author of SB 1108, said in May.

State lawmakers also are considering bills that would limit the GOP-backed sale of short-term health policies and prevent people from joining association health plans that don’t have robust consumer protections.

In an interview after the speech, Verma criticized those legislative efforts in California because they would limit consumer choice.
“Any efforts to thwart choice and competition and letting Americans make decisions about their health care is bad health policy,” she said.

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state’s ACA marketplace, has criticized the Trump administration for promoting those cheaper, skimpier policies as an alternative to ACA-compliant plans. He said he fears consumers will be harmed by “bait-and-switch products” that don’t provide comprehensive benefits.

“There have been a series of policies from Washington that have the effect of raising costs, particularly for middle-class Americans, and pricing them out of coverage,” Lee said in an interview last week. “This is not a failure of the ACA. This is entirely happening since the new administration.”

Most of Verma’s speech in San Francisco focused on Medicare. She outlined a number of initiatives designed to strengthen the program and protect taxpayers from ballooning costs. After the speech, CMS announced proposed changes to Medicare payment policies for outpatient care that could yield savings for the government and patients.

In her remarks, Verma reiterated the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce prescription drug prices, improve patients’ access to their own medical records and eliminate burdensome regulations on doctors and other medical providers.

Verma received a polite round of applause at the beginning and end of her appearance.

 

Kavanaugh Supreme Court Fight Will Be All About Health Care

https://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2018/07/10/Kavanaugh-Supreme-Court-Fight-Will-Be-All-About-Health-Care

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he fight over President Trump’s pick of Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is on, with Democrats launching what The Washington Post called “an all-out blitz” to defeat the nomination.

So get ready to hear a lot about health care in the coming days.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank notes that former Republican senator Jon Kyl, now a lobbyist for the pharmaceuticals industry, has been tapped to guide Kavanaugh’s path through the Senate. Why? Because by picking Kavanaugh, “Trump has guaranteed that health care will be at the center of the confirmation fight,” Milbank says.

Democrats welcome that fight, even if they have little chance of actually blocking the nomination. “The liberal base is fired up about abortion rights, but Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) will seek to emphasize access to affordable health care as much as Roe v. Wade in the battle over the Supreme Court,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports.

Focusing on health care might make sense for Democrats in a number of ways:

  • It reinforces the party’s preferred midterm election messaging in an area where voters say they trust Democrats more than Republicans.
  • Framing women’s reproductive rights as a matter of access to health care will be less polarizing in red states where seats are at stake in November, Bolton writes.
  • Playing up access to affordable health care may also put more pressure on Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom voted against Obamacare repeal last year.

If confirmed, Kavanaugh may get to weigh in on any of a number of cases with the potential to reshape health policy well beyond abortion rights. Despite his long legal record, “many of his health-related decisions are open to parsing from either side of the aisle and don’t actually provide a clear insight into where he’d stand on the Supreme Court,” The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz says.

Here are some key issues and cases that could be decided by the Supreme Court and Kavanaugh:

Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions: Americans overwhelmingly support keeping these protections in place, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from last month, but Trump’s Justice Department has asked a federal court to rule that those provisions of Obamacare are invalid. The case will soon be heard in a district court in Texas and could make its way to the Supreme Court before long. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the few Democrats who might back Kavanaugh, said in a statement that he wants to hear where the judge stands on the ACA protections for those with pre-existing conditions before deciding whether to confirm him.

Medicaid: A federal court late last month blocked Kentucky’s plan to introduce work requirements for Medicaid recipients. The Trump administration is likely to appeal the ruling. Other states are also implementing work requirements. “As more states experiment with these programs and the cases wind their way through the courts, the Supreme Court may weigh in and shape how low-income Americans access Medicaid across the country,” Arielle Kane, director of health care at the Progressive Policy Institute, writes at the New York Daily News. The high court could also be asked to consider whether private health care providers can sue over Medicaid reimbursement rates, a question that could open the door to state funding cuts.

Risk adjustment payments to insurers: The Trump administration just froze billions of dollars of payments to insurers who enroll costlier-than-expected patients. The payments come from money collected from other insurers in the individual market. Legal challenges involving these payments are making their way through the courts. In the meantime, “the insurers in the individual market must manage uncertainty and constant change — resulting in higher prices for health care consumers,” Kane writes.

Industry consolidation: “Last year, four of the largest insurers tried, and failed, to merge into two. This year, CVS has proposed merging with Aetna, Amazon has acquired PillPack, and Walmart is seeking to combine with Humana,” Kane writes. “This so called ‘vertical integration’ raises questions about monopolies, competition and health-care pricing. It is likely that at some point courts will weigh in.”

 

 

Just how bleak is the financial outlook for rural hospitals?

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Nearly half are operating with negative margins, according to new research, which says a high rate of uninsured patients is among the reasons.

With healthcare services being concentrated more and more among major health systems and larger providers, rural hospitals are struggling.

A new study from Chartis Group and iVantage Health Analytics sheds light on the scope of the problem. About 41 percent of rural hospitals faced negative operating margins in 2016, the report found.

If those hospitals were located in a state that elected not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, those margins were generally worse than those of their peers, suggesting that such expansion had a mitigating effect on financial pressures.

Due to those financial pressures, 80 rural hospitals closed from 2010 to 2016, indicating that the rural health safety net has seen better days.

One of the key factors behind this was a high rate of uninsured patients, and a payer mix heavy on public insurers with lower claims reimbursement rates. More patients are seeking care outside rural areas, which isn’t helping, and many areas see a dearth of employer-sponsored health coverage due to lower employment rates. Many markets are also besieged by a shortage of primary care providers, and tighter payer-negotiated reimbursement rates.

Demographics aren’t helping rural hospitals, either. Patients in rural markets are generally more socioeconomically disadvantaged, with many patients over 65 years old and suffering from multiple health disparities, which lead to higher general healthcare costs.

To make matters worse, there’s a shortage of physicians in rural communities as well, with only about 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people. By contrast, the ratio in non-rural areas is 53.3 physicians per 100,000 people.

All this comes at a time when the shift from fee-for-service payment models to value-based reimbursement is in full swing, putting pressure on all hospitals to reduce costs — which is especially problematic for rural hospitals given that their demographic and staffing challenges have a tendency to drive costs up, not down.

The researchers pointed to the Graves-Loebsack Save Rural Hospital Act as a possible means of mitigating the problem. The bill, introduced by the House in 2015, would create a payment structure whereby 105 percent of “reasonable” costs would be reimbursed; 100 percent of bad debt would be reimbursed; and rural hospitals would be exempt from 2 percent of sequestration of payments.

The authors suggested revisiting the bill, which would also establish the Community Outpatient Hospital Program, a measure aimed at preserving emergency and outpatient care for rural markets. It would also recoup $5.4 billion in lost Medicare reimbursement among rural hospitals over 10 years.

 

 

Governor says hospital tax could cover Medicaid expansion

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/article214337194.html

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Maine’s Republican governor is publicly laying out a proposed tax hike on hospitals to pay for voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

Gov. Paul LePage’s office says Medicaid expansion will offset a tax hike by decreasing charity care and bad debt. Maine’s hospital tax rate is 2.23 percent, and Rabinowitz said Maine could go up to six percent.

Maine Hospital Association lobbyist Jeffrey Austin previously told The Associated Press that Maine hospitals pay $100 million in annual taxes and would oppose an increase.

Mainers voted last fall to expand Medicaid to 80,000 low-income adults.

LePage’s administration is fighting litigation by advocates calling on the governor to stop blocking expansion. LePage vetoed legislation funding Maine’s share of expansion with surplus and tobacco settlement funds after he argued lawmakers must fund expansion without raising taxes.