Red states’ Medicaid gamble: Paying more to cover fewer people

https://www.axios.com/republicans-medicaid-affordable-care-act-expensive-d7057a8e-0a55-4f0d-906e-e42aa3f00ba9.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

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Red states are getting creative as they look for new ways to limit the growth of Medicaid. But in the process those states are taking legal, political and practical risks that could ultimately leave them paying far more, to cover far fewer people.

Why it matters: Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program cover more than 72 million Americans, thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Rolling back the program is a high priority for the Trump administration, and it needs states’ help to get there.

The big picture: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, under the leadership of Administrator Seema Verma, has made clear that it wants to say “yes” to new limits on Medicaid eligibility, and has invited states to ask for those limits.

  • But CMS hasn’t actually said “yes” yet to some of the most significant limits states have asked for.
  • In the meantime, states are left either with vague ambitions they’re not sure how to implement, or with risky plans that put their own budgets on the line.

What we’re watching: State-level Republicans are waiting for CMS to resolve two related issues: how much federal funding their versions of Medicaid can receive, and the extent to which they’re able to cap enrollment in the program.

  • “These issues are going to continue to be intertwined,” said Joan Alker, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

Verma has reportedly told state officials that she wants to use her regulatory power to convert Medicaid funding into a system of block grants — which would be an enormous rightward shift and probably a big cut in total funding.

  • CMS probably cannot do that on its own, experts said, but it could achieve something similar by approving caps on either enrollment or spending.

Where it stands: GOP lawmakers in a handful of states are looking to Utah, which has bet big on Verma’s authority, for signals about what’s possible.

  • Utah voters approved the full ACA expansion last year, but the state legislature overruled them to pass a more limited version.
  • By foregoing the full expansion, Utah passed up enhanced federal funding. It’s still asking for that extra money — a request CMS has never previously approved.
  • Utah will also ask CMS to impose a per-person cap on Medicaid spending — a steep cut that was part of congressional Republicans’ failed repeal-and-replace bill, and which may strain CMS’ legal authority.
  • If Utah doesn’t get those two requests, its backup plan is simply to adopt the full expansion.

What’s next: Utah is not the only red state leaning into Verma’s agenda, but it’s further out on a limb than any other.

  • Idaho, like Utah, overruled its voters to pass a narrower Medicaid bill. But it preserved an option for people to buy into the ACA’s expansion.
  • Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he wants to take Verma up on her offer of block grants; so have legislators in Tennessee and Georgia. But in the absence of any detail about what that means, or what CMS will approve, that’s all pretty vague right now.

If CMS does move forward on any of this, it could face the same threat of lawsuits that have stymied its first big Medicaid overhaul — work requirements.

  • Those rules are on ice in two states because a judge said they contravene Medicaid’s statutory structure and goals. The same argument could await a partial expansion or tough spending caps.

“There’s a clear agenda here to get a handful of states to take up these waivers, which fundamentally undermine the central tenets of the Medicaid program — which [are] that it is a guarantee of coverage, and a guarantee of federal funding,” Alker said.

 

 

 

COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTERS MORE FINANCIALLY STABLE UNDER MEDICAID EXPANSION

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/community-health-centers-more-financially-stable-under-medicaid-expansion?source=EHLM8&effort=B&utm_source=HealthLeaders&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MeritWelcomeB&emailid=&utm_source=silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Warming-Merit-Finance-040319%20(1)&spMailingID=15443417&spUserID=Mzc4MjM1NTY0ODgyS0&spJobID=1620654151&spReportId=MTYyMDY1NDE1MQS2

Facilities are faring better in states that expanded Medicaid, according to a new Commonwealth Fund report.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

A year after facing a federal funding cliff, CHCs in expansion states are thriving. 

CHCs provide care to 27 million patients each year, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.

The financial stability of CHCs, which serve medically vulnerable communities, is a benefit for health systems.

Community health centers (CHC) operating in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA are 28% more likely to report improvements to their financial stability, according to a Commonwealth Fund report released Thursday morning.

CHCs in Medicaid expansion states reported were more likely to report improvements in their ability to provide affordable care to patients, 76%, than their counterparts in non-expansion states, 52%.

More than 60% of CHCs in expansion states reported improved ability to fund service or site expansions and upgrades for facilities, while only 46% of CHCs in non-expansion states said the same.

These facilities reported higher levels of unfilled job openings for mental health professional and social workers, while also implying a greater openness to operating under a value-based payment model.

The success and viability of CHCs are essential for larger health systems, according to Melinda K. Abrams, M.S., vice president and director of the Commonwealth Fund’s Health Care Delivery System Reform program, adding that CHCs act as a strong foundation for providing primary care to medically vulnerable populations in rural communities.

Abrams said that by making sure patients are insured and receiving care up front, rather than delaying treatment and exacerbating their condition, they are less likely to end up in a hospital emergency room and contribute to a rise in uncompensated care for hospitals.

She also told HealthLeaders that populations with higher enrollment rates make it easier for CHCs to innovate, invest in technology, hire new staff, train existing the workforce, and adopt new models of care.

“[Medicaid expansion] makes it a lot easier to provide high-quality comprehensive care when [a CHC’s] patients have health insurance,” Abrams said. “In this particular instance, it’s a lot easier to innovate and have financial stability when you have more paying patients, which means that it is easier if you are [a CHC] in a state that has expanded Medicaid.”

The Commonwealth Fund report provides a welcome note of positivity for CHCs, which serve vulnerable populations primarily composed by the uninsured, but have faced funding challenges in the past.

During the budget battles that produced multiple government shutdowns throughout the early portion of 2018, advocates wondered anxiously whether Congress would provide long term funding to the nearly 1,400 CHCs operating at nearly 12,000 service delivery sites across the country.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, CHCs provide care to more than 27 million patients annually.

The Community Health Center Fund (CHCF), created in 2010 as a result of the ACA, is the largest source of comprehensive primary care for medically underserved communities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, Abrams said that Medicaid expansion has also been a beneficial tool for CHCs, as they have begun to see more insured patients while also benefiting from Medicaid reimbursements, even though they are low compared to other reimbursement rates.

CHCs in states that expanded Medicaid have been able to grow the services that are offered while assisting in the ongoing fight against the opioid epidemic, according to the Commonwealth Fund report.

Abrams said that one downside to the growing success of CHCs have been the unfilled positions, mostly for mental health providers, that are falling behind rising demand levels, though she added that this finding is not surprising.

“I think it’s in part because the supply of the workforce is lagging a little bit behind the demand,” Abrams said. “There’s no reason to think that over time that this gap wouldn’t be closed. But we did find that as a challenge, that [CHCs] have a lot of positions open [yet] they’re hiring. A number of these CHCs are in economically depressed areas, so the good news is that there are some jobs available.”

CHCs are much more likely to participate in value-based payment models as a result of Medicaid expansion, with Abrams explaining that changes in payments and delivery models are common during insurance expansions.

She sees the continued progress made on the value-based front by CHCs as a way to “promote better healthcare and save money” over time.

 

 

Ex-Florida hospital director gets prison time for role in $1B fraud scheme

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/legal-regulatory-issues/ex-florida-hospital-director-gets-prison-time-for-role-in-1b-fraud-scheme.html

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The former director of outreach programs at Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, Fla., was sentenced to 15 months in prison April 3 for her role in a $1 billion healthcare fraud scheme.

Four things to know:

1. The judge handed down the sentence just over two months after Odette Barcha pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the federal government and paying and receiving healthcare kickbacks.

2. Ms. Barcha was one of three defendants charged in an indictment unsealed in July 2016. She allegedly had physicians at Larkin Community Hospital discharge patients to skilled nursing homes and other facilities owned by Philip Esformes, who allegedly paid kickbacks for those admissions.

3. Prosecutors allege Mr. Esformes, who operated a network of more than 30 skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida, admitted Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to the facilities even if they did not qualify for skilled nursing home care or for placement in an assisted living facility. Once admitted, the patients received medically unnecessary care that was billed to Medicare and Medicaid.

4. The seven-week trial of Mr. Esformes wrapped up March 29, according to the Miami Herald. On April 5, a federal jury found Mr. Esformes guilty of various counts, including paying and receiving kickbacks, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice, according to Law360

 

 

 

Obamacare fight obscures America’s real health care crisis: Money

https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/03/obamacare-health-care-crisis-1314382

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The ceaseless battle over the 2010 law has made it difficult to address the high cost of American health care.

The Obamacare wars have ignored what really drives American anxiety about health care: Medical costs are decimating family budgets and turning the U.S. health system into a runaway $3.7 trillion behemoth.

Poll after poll shows that cost is the number one issue in health care for American voters, but to a large extent, both parties are still mired in partisan battles over other aspects of Obamacare – most notably how to protect people with pre-existing conditions and how to make insurance more affordable, particularly for people who buy coverage on their own.

That leaves American health care consumers with high premiums, big deductibles and skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs for drugs and other services. Neither party has a long-term solution — and the renewed fight over Obamacare that burst out over the past 10 days has made compromise even more elusive.

Democrats want to improve the 2010 health law, with more subsidies that shift costs to the taxpayer. Republicans are creating lower-cost alternatives to Obamacare, which means shifting costs to older and sicker people.

Neither approach gets at the underlying problem — reducing costs for both ordinary people and the health care burden on the overall U.S. economy.

Senate HELP Committee chair Lamar Alexander, the retiring Tennessee Republican with a reputation for deal-making, has reached out to think tanks and health care professionals in an attempt to refocus the debate, saying the interminable fights about the Affordable Care Act have “put the spotlight in the wrong place.”

“The hard truth is that we will never get the cost of health insurance down until we get the cost of health care down,” Alexander wrote, soliciting advice for a comprehensive effort on costs he wants to start by summer.

But given the partisanship around health care — and the fact there have been so many similar outreaches over the years for ideas, white papers and commissions — it’s hard to detect momentum. Truly figuring how to fix anything as vast, complex and politically charged as health care is difficult. Any serious effort will create winners and losers, some of whom are well-protected by powerful K Street lobbies.

And the health care spending conversation itself gets muddled. People’s actual health care bills aren’t always top of mind in Washington.

“Congress is looking at federal budgets. Experts are looking at national health spending and the GDP and value. And the American people look at their own out-of-pocket health care costs and the impact it has on family budgets,” said Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which extensively tracks public attitudes on health.

But Congress tends to tinker around the edges — and feud over Obamacare.

“We’re doing nothing. Nothing. We’re heading toward the waterfall,” said former CBO director Doug Elmendorf, now the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, who sees the political warfare over the ACA as a “lost decade,” given the high stakes for the nation’s economic health.

The solutions championed by the experts — a mix of pricing policies, addressing America’s changing demographics, delivering care more efficiently, creating the right incentives for people to use the right care and the smarter use of high-cost new technologies — are different than what the public would prescribe. The most recent POLITICO-Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll found the public basically wants lower prices, but not a lot of changes to how — or how much — they consume health care, other than spending more on prevention.

Lawmakers are looking at how to start chipping away at high drug prices, or fix “surprise” medical bills that hit insured people who end up with an out-of-network doctor even when they’re at an in-network hospital. Neither effort is insignificant, and both are bipartisan. While those steps would help lower Americans’ medical bills, health economists say they won’t do enough to reverse the overall spending trajectory.

Drug costs and surprise bills, which patients have to pay directly, “have been a way the public glimpses true health care costs,” said Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “That information about how high these bills and these charges can be has raised awareness of health care costs — but it has people focused only on that part of the solution.”

And given that President Donald Trump has put Obamacare back in the headlines, the health law will keep sucking up an outsized share of Washington’s oxygen until and quite likely beyond the 2020 elections.

Just in the last week, the Justice Department urged the courts to throw out Obamacare entirely, two courts separately tossed key administration policies on Medicaid and small business health plans, and Trump himself declared he wants the GOP to be the “party of health care.” Facing renewed political pressure over the party’s missing Obamacare replacement plan, Trump last week promised Republicans would devise a grand plan to fix it. He backtracked days later and said it would be part of his second-term agenda.

Democrats say Trump’s ongoing assaults on the ACA makes it harder to address the big picture questions of cost, value and quality. “That’s unfortunately our state of play right now,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.). “Basic health care needs are being attacked and threatened to be taken away, so we have to defend that.”

The ACA isn’t exactly popular; more than half the country now has a favorable view of it, but it’s still divisive. But for Republicans and Democrats alike, the new POLITICO-Harvard poll found the focus was squarely on health care prices — the cost of drugs, insurance, hospitals and doctors, in that order.

The Republicans’ big ideas have been to encourage less expensive health insurance plans, which are cheaper because they don’t include the comprehensive benefits under Obamacare. That may or may not be a good idea for the young and healthy, but it undoubtedly shifts the costs to the older and sicker. The GOP has also supported spending hundreds of millions less each year on Medicaid, which serves low-income people — but if the federal government pays less, state governments, hospitals and families will pay more.

Last week, courts blocked rules in two states that required many Medicaid enrollees to work in order to keep their health benefits, and also nixed Trump’s expansion of association health plans, which let trade groups and businesses offer coverage that doesn’t include all the benefits required under the ACA.

House Democrats last week introduced a package of bills that would boost subsidies in the Obamacare markets and extend that financial assistance to more middle-class people. The legislation would also help states stabilize their insurance markets — something that the Trump administration has also helped some states do through programs backstopping health insurers’ large costs.

These ideas may also bring down some people’s out-of-pocket costs, which indirectly lets taxpayers pick up the tab. These steps aren’t meaningless — more people would be covered and stronger Obamacare markets would stabilize premiums — but they aren’t an overall fix.

The progressive wing of the Democratic party backs “Medicare for All,” a brand new health care system that would cover everyone for free, including long-term care for elderly or disabled people. Backers say that the administrative simplicity, fairness, and elimination of the private for-profit insurance industry would pay for much of it.

The idea has moved rapidly from pipe dream to mainstream, but big questions remain even among some sympathetic Democrats about financing and some of the economic assumptions, including about how much of a role private insurance plays in Medicare today, and how much Medicare puts some of its costs onto other payers. Already a political stretch, the idea would face a lot more economic vetting, too.

The experts, as well as a smattering of politicians, define the health cost crisis more broadly: what the country spends. Health care inflation has moderated in recent years; backers of the Affordable Care Act say the law has contributed to that. But health spending is still growing faster than the overall economy. CMS actuaries said this winter that if current trends continue, national health expenditures would approach nearly $6 trillion by 2027 — and health care’s share of GDP would go from 17.9 percent in 2017 to 19.4 percent by 2027. There aren’t a lot of health economists who’d call that sustainable.

And ironically, the big fixes favored by the health policy experts — the ones that Alexander is collecting but most politicians are ignoring — might address many of the problems that keep aggravating U.S. politics. If there were rational prices that reflected the actual value of care provided for specific episodes of illness and treatment, instead of the fragmented system that largely pays for each service provided to patients, then no medical bill would be a surprise, noted Mark McClellan, who was both FDA and CMS chief under the President George W. Bush and now runs the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy.

“But taking those steps take time and will be challenging,” McClellan noted. “And they’ll be resisted by a lot of entrenched forces.”

 

 

 

Trump is reading the GOP base wrong on the Affordable Care Act

https://www.axios.com/trump-reading-base-wrong-aca-b6e2521c-d386-4c94-81e8-b018a6aaf3b1.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

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The only plausible explanation for President Trump’s renewed effort through the courts to do away with the Affordable Care Act, other than muscle memory, is a desire to play to his base despite widely reported misgivings in his own administration and among Republicans in Congress.

Reality check: But the Republican base has more complicated views about the ACA than the activists who show up at rallies and cheer when the president talks about repealing the law. The polling is clear: Republicans don’t like the ACA, but just like everyone else, they like its benefits and will not want to lose them.

The big picture: About three quarters of Republicans still have an unfavorable view of the ACA, and seven in 10 say repealing the law is a top health priority for Congress — higher than other priorities such as dealing with prescription drug costs. And yes, 7 in 10 Republicans still want to see the Supreme Court overturn the law.

But as the chart shows, majorities of Republicans like many elements of the ACA —especially closing the “donut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage (80%), eliminating copayments for preventive services (68%), keeping young adults under 26 on their parents’ plans (66%) and subsidies for low and middle-income households (63%).

  • Nearly half of Republicans want the Supreme Court to keep the protections for pre-existing conditions (49%), and even more show general support for the pre-existing conditions protections (58%).
  • During the repeal and replace debate in 2017, even Republicans were nervous to hear that these sorts of things would go away. The 2020 campaign would drive home to the public, and to Republicans, what they have to lose — and it would become especially real to them if the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the ruling striking down the ACA.

Maybe Republicans would forget about these lost benefits if they could agree on a replacement plan they liked? But there isn’t one, and many of the ideas thought to be elements of one — such as cutting and block granting both Medicaid and ACA subsidies — are non-starters with Democrats and moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill. They’re unpopular with the public, too. 

The bottom line: It is widely accepted that a renewed debate about repeal hands Democrats a powerful new political opportunity. Deeper in the polling, it’s also clear that’s it’s more of a mixed bag for Republicans than President Trump may realize.  

 

 

 

How Medi-Cal’s Fiscal Balancing Act Could Soon Become More Challenging

https://www.chcf.org/blog/how-medi-cals-fiscal-balancing-act-could-soon-become-more-challenging/?_cldee=aGVucnlrb3R1bGFAeWFob28uY29t&recipientid=contact-58e265c0591ce51180f7c4346bac4b78-08f50c5a9cf34653babd5e94c7220c48&utm_source=ClickDimensions&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Essential%20Coverage_2019_Q1&esid=ee791b98-7851-e911-a97a-000d3a1993e0

Many Californians know that Medi-Cal is our state’s health coverage program for residents with low incomes, including children, people with disabilities, and workers who may not get affordable health insurance through their jobs.

What many Californians don’t realize — call it Medi-Cal’s best-kept secret — is that even with the program’s rising enrollment and costs in recent years, Medi-Cal’s financial impact on our state’s General Fund (the account that receives most state tax revenues) has been relatively small. This matters because General Fund dollars support an array of vital services in addition to Medi-Cal, many of which — such as income supports and subsidized childcare for low-income working families — also promote Californians’ health and well-being. If Medi-Cal had claimed a larger share of General Fund revenues over the past decade, fewer state dollars would have been available to support other critical public supports and services.

This article first looks at how our state has expanded Medi-Cal to meet the health care needs of one in three Californians while minimizing the program’s impact on the General Fund. It then highlights key Medi-Cal financing issues on the horizon that could hamper state policymakers’ efforts to continue balancing Medi-Cal’s funding needs with those of other important public services. This article is adapted from a presentation I gave at the February 25 Medi-Cal Explained briefing hosted by the California Health Care Foundation.

As Medi-Cal Enrollment Doubled, State General Fund Support Rose Modestly

Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, has seen enrollment and expenditures grow substantially since 2007–08 (PDF), the last fiscal year before the Great Recession sent California’s economy and state budget into a tailspin. Enrollment for the current fiscal year (2018–19) is expected to be 13.2 million, about double the 2007–08 level. Total Medi-Cal spending is anticipated to reach $98.5 billion, roughly $53 billion (114%) higher than in 2007–08. (All 2007–08 expenditures are adjusted for inflation.)

State General Fund dollars accounted for only $3 billion of this $53 billion increase in Medi-Cal spending between 2007–08 and 2018–19. This relatively small jump in General Fund support for Medi-Cal is remarkable in light of periodic concerns that the program is putting the squeeze on California’s General Fund budget. Instead, Medi-Cal’s spending growth has largely been supported with non-General Fund sources of revenue. Specifically, the remainder of the $53 billion spending increase between 2007–08 and 2018–19 — around $50 billion — came from federal funds ($35.3 billion) and other non-federal funds, such as state taxes paid by managed care organizations (MCOs) and fees paid by hospitals ($14.2 billion). Since 2007–08, federal funding for Medi-Cal has increased by 129%, while other non-federal funds have grown by more than 1,600%.

The substantial increase in non-General Fund support for Medi-Cal has been driven by several factors, including:

  • More generous federal cost-sharing. California and the federal government equally split the cost of services for most Medi-Cal enrollees. However, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included more generous federal cost-sharing for certain beneficiaries. The federal government pays 93% of the cost for the Medi-Cal expansion population, which consists of low-income non-elderly adults who became newly eligible in 2014. In addition, federal dollars fund 88% of the cost for children who are enrolled in Medi-Cal as part of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Like a see-saw, higher federal cost-sharing leads to lower state cost-sharing, freeing up state General Fund dollars.
  • Creative financing. California has tapped into alternative in-state financing sources to support Medi-Cal, including local matching funds (such as from counties and public hospital systems), provider fees, and a tax on MCOs. These alternative sources of financing allow California to draw down more federal funding for Medi-Cal while minimizing the impact on the General Fund.
  • The 2016 state tobacco tax increase. Proposition 56 raised the state’s excise tax on cigarettes by $2 per pack and triggered an equivalent increase in the state tax on other tobacco products. Medi-Cal’s share of these revenues — roughly $1 billion per year — is primarily used to boost payments to doctors and other Medi-Cal providers, relieving the need for the General Fund to support such rate increases.

What about General Fund support for Medi-Cal as a percentage of the total General Fund budget? Medi-Cal’s share of the General Fund has increased by just seven-tenths of a percentage point over the past decade — from 13.63% in 2007–08 to an estimated 14.35% in 2018–19. Yes, Medi-Cal receives a slightly larger slice of the General Fund “pie” than it did 2007–08. But this increase has been modest given the substantial benefit experienced by millions of Californians newly covered by the program. As a result, more state dollars have been available for other public services and systems than if General Fund support for Medi-Cal had risen at a much faster pace.

Medi-Cal’s Big Financing Issues Create Uncertainty for Medi-Cal and the General Fund

Over the past decade, state policymakers have deftly balanced the needs of a growing Medi-Cal program with those of other public services and systems. However, Medi-Cal faces a number of near-term financing issues that could make this balancing act more challenging in the coming years. These financing issues include:

  • Reductions in federal cost-sharing. The federal government is scheduled to reduce its share of costs for CHIP-funded children as well as for adults enrolled in Medi-Cal starting in 2014 under the ACA. The state’s share of CHIP costs will increase in two steps, rising from 12% to 23.5% on October 1, 2019, and then to 35% on October 1, 2020. For the expansion population, the state’s share of cost will rise from 7% to 10% on January 1, 2020, where it will remain unless revised by Congress. Upon full implementation, these changes will increase annual state General Fund spending on Medi-Cal by more than $1 billion compared to 2018–19, according to estimates from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).
  • The pending expiration of the MCO tax. California’s MCO tax expires on June 30, and Governor Gavin Newsom is not proposing to extend it. If the MCO tax expires, California would forgo a net annual General Fund benefit of $1.5 billion, based on the current structure of the MCO tax package. These dollars could help to pay for a number of state policy advances, including efforts to move California closer to universal health coverage. The governor “has not laid out a convincing rationale” for declining to seek an extension of the MCO tax, according to the LAO. If the tax were allowed to expire, annual state General Fund costs for Medi-Cal would ultimately increase by well over $1 billion but without any additional benefit to the Medi-Cal program. Instead, state General Fund dollars would simply replace lost MCO tax revenues in order to keep the program whole.
  • The pending expiration of two major federal waivers. California’s current Section 1915(b) waiver expires on July 1, 2020. Under this waiver, counties are allowed to deviate from standard Medicaid rules and provide or arrange for a broad array of “specialty mental health services” for eligible Medi-Cal beneficiaries. In addition, California’s Section 1115 Medi-Cal 2020 waiver expires at the end of 2020. Under this waiver, the federal government is providing the state with billions of dollars to help improve access to care as well as to transform how care is delivered. Will the Trump administration agree to renew these waivers without significantly reducing federal funding or imposing new requirements that California would find objectionable? Time will tell.
  • The next recession. Medi-Cal could face spending cuts when the next recession comes and policymakers seek ways to close budget shortfalls. Fortunately, California has been building up its reserves. The state expects to have more than $15 billion in its constitutional reserve, the Budget Stabilization Account, by the end of 2019–20. In addition, Governor Newsom wants to add $700 million to the state’s new Safety Net Reserve for Medi-Cal and CalWORKs. (The balance now is $200 million.) These reserves will reduce the need for state budget cuts during the next downturn, although Medi-Cal would not be guaranteed a specific share of the funds. State reserves will be crucial to shoring up Medi-Cal’s budget because the federal government may do little to help states pay for their rising Medicaid costs when the next recession arrives.

One of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — that California lawmakers and the governor face each year is allocating the state’s limited General Fund revenues among many vital priorities. The financing issues that Medi-Cal is facing — and how these issues are resolved — will help to determine whether policymakers can continue improving the Medi-Cal program while also ensuring that other vital public services are adequately funded.

 

 

 

Congress Warns Against Medicaid Cuts: ‘You Just Wait for the Firestorm’

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WASHINGTON — If President Trump allows states to convert Medicaid into a block grant with a limit on health care spending for low-income people, he will face a firestorm of opposition in Congress, House Democrats told the nation’s top health official on Tuesday.

The official, Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, endured more than four hours of bipartisan criticism over the president’s budget for 2020, which would substantially reduce projected spending on Medicaid, Medicare and biomedical research. Democrats, confronting Mr. Azar for the first time with a House majority, scorned most of the president’s proposals.

But few drew as much heat as Mr. Trump’s proposed overhaul of Medicaid. His budget envisions replacing the current open-ended federal commitment to the program with a lump sum of federal money for each state in the form of a block grant, a measure that would essentially cap payments and would not keep pace with rising health care costs.

Congress rejected a similar Republican plan in 2017, but in his testimony on Tuesday before the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Azar refused to rule out the possibility that he could grant waivers to states that wanted to move in that direction.

Under such waivers, Mr. Azar said, he could not guarantee that everyone now enrolled in Medicaid would keep that coverage.

“You couldn’t make that kind of commitment about any waiver,” Mr. Azar said. He acknowledged that the president’s budget would reduce the growth of Medicaid by $1.4 trillion in the coming decade.

Representative G. K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, said that “block-granting and capping Medicaid would endanger access to care for some of the most vulnerable people” in the country, like seniors, children and the disabled.

Mr. Trump provoked bipartisan opposition by declaring a national emergency to spend more money than Congress provided to build a wall along the southwestern border. If the president bypasses Congress and allows states to convert Medicaid to a block grant, Mr. Butterfield said, he could face even more of an outcry.

“You just wait for the firestorm this will create,” Mr. Butterfield said, noting that more than one-fifth of Americans — more than 70 million low-income people — depend on Medicaid.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump said he would not cut Medicare, but his new budget proposes to cut more than $800 billion from projected spending on the program for older Americans in the next 10 years. Mr. Azar said the proposals would not harm Medicare beneficiaries.

“I don’t believe any of the proposals will impact access to services,” Mr. Azar said. Indeed, he said, the cutbacks could be a boon to Medicare beneficiaries, reducing their out-of-pocket costs.

After meeting an annual deductible, beneficiaries typically pay 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount for doctor’s services and some prescription drugs administered in doctor’s offices and outpatient hospital clinics.

Mr. Azar defended a budget proposal to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults enrolled in Medicaid. Arkansas began enforcing such requirements last year under a waiver granted by the Trump administration. Since then, at least 18,000 Arkansans have lost Medicaid coverage.

Mr. Azar said he did not know why they had been dropped from Medicaid. It is possible, he said, that some had found jobs providing health benefits.

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, said it would be reckless to extend Medicaid work requirements to the entire country without knowing why people were falling off the rolls in Arkansas.

If you are receiving free coverage through Medicaid, Mr. Azar said, “it is not too much to ask that you engage in some kind of community engagement.”

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, expressed deep concern about Mr. Trump’s proposal to cut the budget of the National Cancer Institute by $897 million, or 14.6 percent, to $5.2 billion.

Mr. Azar said the proposal was typical of the “tough choices” in Mr. Trump’s budget. He defended the cuts proposed for the National Cancer Institute, saying they were proportional to the cuts proposed for its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health.

The president’s budget would reduce funds for the N.I.H. as a whole by 12.6 percent, to $34.4 billion next year.

Mr. Azar was also pressed to justify Mr. Trump’s proposal to cut federal payments to hospitals serving large numbers of low-income patients. Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, said the cuts, totaling $26 billion over 10 years, would be devastating to “safety net hospitals” in New York and other urban areas.

Mr. Azar said that the Affordable Care Act, by expanding coverage, was supposed to “get rid of uncompensated care” so there would be less need for the special payments.

While Democrats assailed the president’s budget, Mr. Azar relished the opportunity to attack Democrats’ proposals to establish a single-payer health care system billed as Medicare for all.

Those proposals could eliminate coverage provided to more than 20 million people through private Medicare Advantage plans and to more than 155 million people through employer-sponsored health plans, he said.

But Mr. Azar found himself on defense on another issue aside from the president’s budget: immigration. He said he was doing his best to care for migrant children who had illegally entered the United States, were separated from their parents and are being held in shelters for which his department is responsible.

He said he was not aware of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy before it was publicly announced in April 2018 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. If he had known about the policy, Mr. Azar said, “I could have raised objections and concerns.”

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the subcommittee, summarized the case against the president’s budget.

“The Trump administration,” she said, “has taken a hatchet to every part of our health care system, undermining the Affordable Care Act, proposing to fundamentally restructure Medicaid and slashing Medicare. This budget proposes to continue that sabotage.”