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Providers denounce Senate GOP leaders’ healthcare bill

 

Leaders of the hospital sector and other major healthcare groups have denounced the Senate Republican leadership’s  Affordable Care Act repeal bill as  little or no improvement over the House bill, which  providers have criticized as imperiling the health of millions of patients.

Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said of the”Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017”:

“Unfortunately, the draft bill under discussion in the Senate moves in the opposite direction {from protecting coverage}, particularly for our most vulnerable patients. We urge the Senate to go back to the drawing board and develop legislation that continues to provide coverage to all Americans who currently have it.”

Bruce Siegel, M.D., president and CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, said: “For the hospitals that protect millions of Americans and their communities—our essential hospitals—this bill might even accelerate decisions by some to reduce services or close their doors.”

“The Senate healthcare bill released today is just as bad as the version passed by the House of Representatives last month and is a threat to the health of America,” said George Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association. He asserted that  Senate Republicans had committed “legislative malpractice.”

David O. Barbe, M.D., president of the American Medical Association, chimed in with:

“The AMA is reviewing the Senate health system reform legislation, guided by our key objectives that people who are currently insured should not lose their coverage and that Medicaid, CHIP and other safety-net programs should be adequately funded. The AMA strongly opposes Medicaid spending caps, and we have grave concern with a formula that will not cover needed care for vulnerable patients.”

And  Bernard J. Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, said:  “First, we need to cover more people, not fewer people.” He suggested   a three-part test to determine what healthcare progress ought to look like: Does it achieve wider  access, affordability and better outcomes?

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma, a Trump appointee, not surprisingly, praised the bill.

“I appreciate the work of the Senate as they continue to make progress fixing the crisis in healthcare that has resulted from Obamacare. Skyrocketing premiums, rising costs and fewer choices have caused too many Americans to drop their insurance coverage. Today, Obamacare is in a death spiral and millions of Americans are being negatively impacted as a result. They are trapped by mandates that force them to purchase insurance they don’t want and can’t afford.” {The term “Obamacare” is usually used by Republicans as a derogatory term for the Affordable Care Act, the law’s official name.}

“The Senate proposal is built on putting patients first and in charge of their healthcare decisions, bringing down the cost of coverage and expanding choices. Congress must act now to achieve the president’s goal to make sure all Americans have access to quality, affordable coverage.”

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Many parents with job-based insurance turn to Medicaid, CHIP to cover kids

baby

 

By MICHELLE ANDREWS

For Kaiser Health News

Lower-income parents who have health insurance through their employers are increasingly likely to forgo family coverage and enroll their kids in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) instead, a new study found. Working families’ growing reliance on these programs is something that lawmakers should keep in mind when they consider whether to renew financing for the CHIP program in 2017, the study’s lead author said.

“These aren’t just safety net programs for uninsured families,” said Douglas Strane, a clinical research associate at PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the lead author of the study, which appeared in the December issue of Health Affairs. “If CHIP isn’t renewed, we could place substantial pressure on working families.”

Medicaid is the state-federal program that provides health coverage for low-income adults and children. CHIP provides health insurance for children in families whose incomes are modest but too high to qualify for Medicaid. In 2016, only three states — Arizona, Idaho and North Dakota — limited Medicaid/CHIP coverage to children whose families have incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($40,320 for a family of three). In contrast, 19 states offered coverage to children with family incomes greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($60,480 for a three-person family), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Medicaid/CHIP out-of-pocket costs vary by state, but coverage is generally significantly less expensive than employer coverage.

The Health Affairs study analyzed data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey between 2008 and 2013 for families with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level in which at least one parent had employer-sponsored coverage. The study predated the opening of the health law’s marketplaces, but the researchers said that because these families had employer-based coverage options, they would likely not qualify for less expensive coverage on the exchanges.

Over the course of the study, nearly all the families in which a parent was offered coverage accepted it for the parent, and about three-quarters of children in the sample were covered by their parents’ employer-sponsored plan, on average.

But the proportion of kids who lacked employer-sponsored coverage even though at least one parent had it grew from 22.5 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2013, the study found. Likewise, the percentage of children who were on Medicaid or CHIP even though at least one parent had coverage through an employer increased 3.1 percentage points, to 15.2 percent, over the course of the study.

Premium increases for employer-sponsored coverage may put a family plan out of reach for low- and moderate-income families, said Strane. Between 2006 and 2016 premiums rose 58 percent for family coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2016 annual survey of employer-sponsored coverage. This year, families pay $5,277 for coverage on average, 29 percent of the total cost of the plan. Workers’ share of the premium grew 78 percent over the past decade, outpacing the growth in premiums, according to the KFF study.

“They did the math and likely figured CHIP was going to save them money,” said Strane.

 


How congressional Republicans, Trump could move swiftly to change health laws

cutdown

By JULIE ROVNER

For Kaiser Health News

Throughout the campaign, President-Elect Donald Trump’s entire health message consisted of promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That remains difficult with Democrats still commanding enough power in the Senate to block the 60 votes needed for a full repeal. Republicans could use fast-track budget authority to make some major changes to the law, although that could take some time. In the short term, however, Trump could use executive power to make some major changes on his own.

Beyond the health law, Trump also could push for some Republican perennials, such as giving states block grants to handle Medicaid, allowing insurers to sell across state lines and establishing a federal high-risk insurance pool for people who are ill and unable to get private insurance.

But those options, too, would likely meet Democratic resistance, and it’s unclear where health will land on what could be a jam-packed White House agenda.

Still, there are several health issues that the next Congress and the new administration will be required to address in 2017, if only because some key laws are set to expire.

And those could provide a vehicle for other sorts of health changes that might not be able to clear political or procedural hurdles on their own.

Here are some of the major health issues that are certain to come up in 2017: 

The Affordable Care Act

If the GOP could not repeal the law and Trump were to turn to Congress to address some of the issues associated with it, it’s not clear if the executive and legislative branches could work together to respond to rising insurance premiumsdeclining insurance company participation or other unintended impacts of the health law. Nonetheless, some aspects of the law are unavoidable next year. For example, Congress in 2015 temporarily suspended or delayed three controversial taxes that were created to help pay for the law.

One of those taxes, a fee levied on health insurers, is suspended for 2017, while a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices was suspended for 2016 and 2017. Both industries lobbied heavily for the changes — arguing that the taxes boosted the prices of their products — and would like to permanently kill the taxes.

Also on hold is the most controversial health law tax of all, the so-called “Cadillac Tax” that levies a 40 percent penalty on very generous health insurance plans. The idea is to prevent consumers who pay little out of pocket because of their coverage from overusing health care services and driving up overall health costs.

The tax was technically put off from 2018 to 2020, but experts say pressure will begin to mount next year for reconsideration because employers will need a long lead time if they are to change benefits to avoid paying it. While economists are virtually unanimous in their support for the tax on high-end health plans, business and labor both strongly oppose it.

Children’s Health Insurance Program

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal-state partnership that Hillary Clinton helped set up in negotiations with Congress during her husband’s administration, is up again for renewal in 2017. CHIP covers more than 8 million children from low- and moderate-income households and has made a huge dent in the number of uninsured children. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 95 percent of children had insurance coverage in 2015.

When the federal health law passed in 2010, many policymakers thought that CHIP would quietly go away because most of the families whose children are eligible for the program became eligible for tax credits to help them purchase plans for the entire family in the health law’s marketplaces. But it turned out that CHIP in most states remained more popular because it provided better benefits at lower costs than did plans through the ACA.

In 2015, Congress compromised between those arguing to extend CHIP and those who wanted to end it, by renewing it for only two years. That ends Oct. 1, 2017. In practice, if Congress wants to extend CHIP, it needs to act early in 2017 because many states have fiscal years that begin in July and need lead time to plan their budgets.

Prescription Drug And Medical Device User Fees

Also expiring in 2017 is the authority for the Food and Drug Administration to collect “user fees” from makers of prescription drugs and medical devices.

The Prescription Drug User Fee Act, known as PDUFA (pronounced pah-doof-uh), was originally passed in 1990 in an effort to speed the review of new drug applications by enabling the agency to use the extra money to hire more personnel. The user fees were later expanded to speed the review of medical devices (2002), generic copies of brand-name drugs (2012) and generic biologic medicines (2012).

PDUFA gets reviewed and renewed every five years, and its “must-pass” status makes it a magnet for other changes to drug policy. For example, in 2012 the renewal also created a program aimed at addressing critical shortages of some prescription drugs. Earlier renewals also included separate programs that gave pharmaceutical firms incentives to study the effect of drugs in children.

Some policy-watchers think this year the bill could serve as a vehicle for provisions to help bring down drug prices, although it is not clear how well many of the ideas currently being floated would work.

“I think [Congress] will talk a lot about it and do very little,” said Robert Reischauer of the Urban Institute, who called the drug price issue “incredibly complex.”

Medicare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board

One more issue that might come up is a controversial cost-saving provision of the federal health law called the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB. The board is supposed to make recommendations for reducing Medicare spending if the program’s costs rise significantly faster than overall inflation. Congress can override those recommendations, but only with a two-thirds vote in each of the House and Senate.

So far the trigger hasn’t been reached. That’s lucky because the board has turned out to be so unpopular with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who say it will lead to rationing, that no one has even been appointed to serve.

The lack of an actual board, however, does not mean that nothing will happen if the requirement for Medicare savings is triggered. In that case, the responsibility for recommending savings will fall to the secretary of Health and Human Services. Medicare’s trustees predicted in their 2016 report that the targets will be exceeded for the first time in 2017.

That would likely touch off a furious round of legislating that could, in turn, lead to other Medicare changes.


HHS wants to know how to best measure EHR interoperability

Rube_Goldberg's_"Self-Operating_Napkin"_(cropped)

“Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin (1931),” by Rube Goldberg.

Healthcare Dive reports:

  • “HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has put out a call for input on how best to measure progress toward {EHR} interoperability that supports improved healthcare and smarter spending.
  • “The call comes as a result of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA), which named interoperability a national objective and directed HHS to collaborate with health IT stakeholders to establish metrics to determine if and when this objective is met.”

“Measuring progress and addressing the roadblocks toward interoperability will be critical, as despite all the committments and best intentions, the goal has been elusive and we still don’t have it. Some vendors suggest ‘it’s never going to happen.”‘

The ONC’s latest request seeks health IT experts’ thoughts on how to measure interoperability and keep HHS on pace in meeting the objectives established in the Roadmap and the Federal Health IT Strategic plan.

The public comment period is open until June 3.


Medicare big data experiment depends on privacy pacts

Modern Healthcare reports: “The Obama administration is working to balance patient privacy with the promise of tapping into market forces to boost its four-year-old initiative to allow outside organizations to mine federal claims data for healthcare-quality improvement and cost containment.”

Last week the  CMS issued  a proposed rule under  the 2015 Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act  to  let  13 current quality-improvement organizations and some newcomers sell their data-analytics products to businesses. This would include a mix of patient data from the private sector as well as from Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Only  “authorized users”—healthcare providers, suppliers, employers, health insurers, medical societies, hospital associations, healthcare professional associations and state agencies — could buy these data analyses.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Public programs look better than insurance via ACA for kids

 

Medicaid got by implication a big plug with the results of a National Survey of Children’s Health report.

The study said that children in low-income households with private insurance  obtained through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) received fewer regular checkups and  had higher medical costs than children on public insurance plans — which mostly means Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The report said:

Only 83 percent of children insured through the ACA’s qualified health plans had a preventive medical visit compared to  88 percent of those on Medicaid and 95 percent on CHIP.

Parents of children with private insurance also reported the highest “prevalence of out-of-pocket costs” No surprise there.

 

 

 

 

 

 


What’s in the House Medicare ‘doc fix’

By MARY AGNES CAREY, for Kaiser Health News

 

It’s make-or-break time for a Medicare “doc fix” replacement.

The House is likely to vote this week on a proposal to scrap Medicare’s troubled physician payment formula, just days before a March 31 deadline when doctors who treat Medicare patients will see a 21 percent payment cut. Senate action could come this week as well, but probably not until the chamber completes a lengthy series of votes on the GOP’s fiscal 2016 budget package.

After negotiating behind closed doors for more than a week,  Republican and Democratic leaders of two key House committees that handle Medicare unveiled details of the package late Friday. According to a summary of the deal, the current system would be scrapped and replaced with payment increases for doctors for the next five years as Medicare transitions to a new system focused “on quality, value and accountability.”

 

There’s enough in the wide-ranging deal for both sides to love or hate.

Senate Democrats have pressed to add to the proposal four years of funding for an unrelated program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. The House package extends CHIP for two years. In a statement Saturday, Senate Finance Democrats said they were “united by the necessity of extending CHIP funding for another four years.”

Their statement also signaled other potential problems for the package in the Senate, including concerns about asking Medicare beneficiaries to pay for more of their medical care, the impact of the package on women’s health services and cuts to Medicare providers.

Still some Democratic allies said the CHIP disagreement should not undermine the proposal. Shortly after the package was unveiled Friday, Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumers group Families USA, said in a statement that “while we would have preferred a four-year extension, the House bill has our full support.”

Some GOP conservatives and Democrats will balk that the package isn’t fully paid for, with policy changes governing Medicare beneficiaries and providers paying for only about $70 billion of the approximately $200 billion package.

For doctors, the package offers an end to a familiar but frustrating rite. Lawmakers have invariably deferred the cuts prescribed by a 1997 reimbursement formula, which everyone agrees is broken beyond repair. But the deferrals have always been temporary because Congress has not agreed to offsetting cuts to pay for a permanent fix. In 2010, Congress delayed scheduled cuts five times. In a statement Sunday, the American Medical Association urged Congress “to seize the moment” to enact the changes.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the proposal and the congressional ritual known as the doc fix. 

Q: How did this become an issue?

Today’s problem is a result of efforts years ago to control federal spending – a 1997 deficit reduction law that called for setting Medicare physician payment rates through a formula based on economic growth, known as the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR). For the first few years, Medicare expenditures did not exceed the target and doctors received modest pay increases. But in 2002, doctors were furious when their payments were reduced 4.8 percent. Every year since, Congress has staved off the scheduled cuts. But each deferral just increased the size of the fix needed the next time.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress, says the SGR is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for its repeal. The SGR provides “no incentive for providers to restrain volume,” the agency said.

Q. Why haven’t lawmakers simply eliminated the formula before?

Money is the biggest problem. An earlier bipartisan, bicameral SGR overhaul plan produced jointly by three key congressional committees would cost $175 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While that’s far less than previous estimates for SGR repeal, it is difficult to find consensus on how to finance a fix.

For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration. Some say the uncertainty has led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so. Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.

In a March 2014 report, the panel stated that beneficiaries’ access to physician services is “stable and similar to (or better than) access among privately insured individuals ages 50 to 64.” Those findings could change, however, if the full force of SGR cuts were ever implemented.

“The flawed Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula and the cycle of patches to keep it from going into effect have created an unstable environment that hinders physicians’ ability to implement new models of care delivery that could improve care for patients,” said Dr. Robert M. Wah, president of the American Medical Association. “We support the policy to permanently eliminate the SGR and call on Congress to seize the moment and finally put in place reforms that will foster innovation and put us on a path towards a more sustainable Medicare program.”

Q: What are the options that Congress is looking at?

The House package would scrap the SGR and give doctors a 0.5 percent bump for each of the next five years as Medicare transitions to a payment system designed to reward physicians based on the quality of care provided, rather than the quantity of procedures performed, as the current payment formula does.

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would give a 5 percent payment bonus to providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

“The SGR has generated repeated crises for nearly two decades,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of the bill’s drafters, said in a statement. “We have a historic opportunity to finally move to a system that promotes quality over quantity and begins the important work of addressing Medicare’s structural issues.”

The package, which House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began negotiating weeks ago, also includes an additional $7.2 billion for community health centers over the next two years.  NARAL Pro-Choice America denounced the deal because the health center funding would be subject to the Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that says federal money can be used for abortions only when a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said the funding would occur “under the same terms that Members have previously supported and voted on almost every year since 1979.” In a statement, the National Association of Community Health Centers said the proposal “represents no change in current policy for Health Centers, and would not change anything about how Health Centers operate today.”

The “working summary” of the House plan says the package also includes other health measures – known as extenders – that Congress has renewed each year during the SGR debate. The list includes funding for therapy services, ambulance services and rural hospitals, as well as continuing a program that allows low-income people to keep their Medicaid coverage as they transition into employment and earn more money. The deal also would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual, or QI program, which helps low-income seniors pay their Medicare premiums.

Q. What is the plan for CHIP?

The House plan would add two years of funding for CHIP, a federal-state program that provides insurance for low-income children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. While the health law continues CHIP authorization through 2019, funding for the program has not been extended beyond the end of September.

The length of the proposed extension could cause strains with Senate Democrats beyond those on the Finance panel who have raised objections to the House package. Last month, the Senate Democratic caucus signed on to legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for a four-year extension of the current CHIP program.

Q: How would Congress pay for all of that?

It might not. That would be a major departure from the GOP’s mantra that all legislation must be financed. Tired of the yearly SGR battle, veteran members in both chambers may be willing to repeal the SGR on the basis that it’s a budget gimmick – the cuts are never made – and therefore financing is unnecessary. But that strategy could run into stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats

Most lawmakers are expected to feel the need to find financing for the Medicare extenders, the CHIP extension and any increase in physician payments over the current pay schedule. Those items would account for about $70 billion of financing in an approximately $200 billion package.

Conservative groups are urging Republicans to fully finance any SGR repeal. “Americans didn’t hand Republicans a historic House majority to engage in more deficit spending and budget gimmickry,” Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, said earlier this month.

Q. Will seniors and Medicare providers have to help pay for the plan?

Starting in 2018, wealthier Medicare beneficiaries (individuals with incomes between $133,500 to $214,000, with thresholds likely higher for couples) would pay more for their Medicare coverage, a provision impacting just 2 percent of beneficiaries, according to the summary.

Starting in 2020,   “first-dollar” supplemental Medicare insurance known as “Medigap”  would not be able to cover the Part B deductible for new beneficiaries, which is currently$147 per year but has increased in past years.

But the effect of that change may be mitigated, according to one analysis.

“Because Medigap policies would no longer pay the Part B deductible, Medigap premiums for the affected policies would go down. Most affected beneficiaries would come out ahead — the drop in their Medigap premiums would exceed the increase in their cost sharing for health services,” according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “Some others would come out behind. In both cases, the effect would be small — generally no more than $100 a year.”

Experts contend that the “first-dollar” plans, which cover nearly all deductibles and co-payments, keep beneficiaries from being judicious when making medical decisions. According to lobbyists and aides, an earlier version of the “doc fix” legislation that negotiators considered would have prohibited “first dollar” plans from covering the first $250 in costs for new beneficiaries.

Post-acute providers, such as long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health and hospice organizations, would help finance the repeal, receiving base pay increases of 1 percent in 2018, about half of what was previously expected.

Other changes include phasing in a one-time 3.2 percentage-point boost in the base payment rate for hospitals currently scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2018. The number of years of the phase-in isn’t specified in the bill summary.

Scheduled reductions in Medicaid “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that care for large numbers of people who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid would be delayed by one year to fiscal 2018 but extended for an additional year to fiscal 2025.

Q. How quickly could Congress act?

Legislation to repeal the SGR is expected to move in the House this week. The House is scheduled to begin a two-week recess March 27.

Senate Democrats and Republicans may want to offer amendments to the emerging House package, which could mean that the chamber does not resolve the SGR issue before the Senate’s two-week break, which is scheduled to begin starting March 30.

If the SGR issue can’t be resolved by March 31, Congress could pass a temporary patch as negotiations continue or ask the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare, to hold the claims in order to avoid physicians seeing their payments cut 21 percent.

 


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