Obama’s Proposals For Medicare — Do They Go Far Enough? Will They Become Law?

Not long ago, I wrote about the Center for American Progress’ (CAP’s) “Senior Protection Plan” —a report that aims to rein in Medicare “by $385 billion over ten years without harming beneficiaries.” In that post, I suggested that CAP’s proposals might well give us a preview of the “modest adjustments” that President Obama had said he would be willing to make to Medicare.  At the time, I highlighted three of CAP’s recommendations:

– increase premiums for the wealthiest 10% of Medicare beneficiaries (raising $25 billion);

– insist that drug-makers extend Medicaid rebates to low-income Medicare beneficiaries (saving $137.4 billion);

– prohibit “pay for delay” agreements that let “brand-name drug manufacturers pay generic drug manufacturers to keep generics off the market” (saving $5 billion).

Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Obama embraced the first two:  “Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs,” he noted. “The reforms I’m proposing go even further. We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors.”  (In time, I suspect that the administration also will call for a ban on those decidedly seamy “pay for delay” deals.)

“On Medicare,” he added, “I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.” The commission called for reducing Medicare spending by roughly $350 billion over 10 years–  a sum that is not far from CAP’s $385 billion target.

Are These “Adjustments” Too Modest ?

These may seem like small numbers. But keep in mind that this is on top of the $950 billion that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) saves by squeezing waste out of health care spending, while simultaneously raising new revenues. Of that $950 billion, some $350 billion comes in the form of Medicare savings achieved by:

–  Pruning over-payments to private sector Medicare Advantage insurers– $132 billion  

–  Containing Medicare inflation by shaving annual “updates” in  payments to hospitals and other large facilities by 1% a year for ten years, beginning in 2014– $196 billion

– Cutting disproportionate share hospital payments to hospitals that care for a disproportionate share of poor and uninsured patients over 10 years beginning in 2014 – $22 billion.

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Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

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Health Care Reform: Stage Two

Last week, my editorsat  the Health Insurance Resource Center (Healthinsurance.org) challenged me to write a letter to President Obama and suggest what he should do next to advance reform. They were looking for a “new, big idea.”

After thinking about it, I concluded that we don’t need another big idea.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA) contains a great many ideas. Now we need to implement them.

Critics of Obamacare have suggested that as we approach 2014, Washington needs to turn its attention to containing healthcare costs. In particular, they suggest that Medicare is too expensive.

But the fact is that if you read the legislation (and I have, more than once) , you’ll find that it already cuts Medicare spending by some $716 billion. And it does this without cutting medical benefits and without slashing Medicare’s reimbursements to doctors.

In addition, the ACA includes many carrots and sticks designed to encourage hospitals and doctors to provide more efficient, less costly, safer care. In the future they won’t be paid for doing More;  they’ll be paid for doing it Better–for Less. Only health care providers have the power to truly reform our wasteful health care system. Already we’ve seen some evidence that they are responding to the incentives: Medicare spending has slowed.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama should reject any attempts to re-negotiate the ACA during budget talks. The ACA is not on the table. It is now the law of the land. The American people do not want to listen to politicians continue to debate healthcare. (They want their elected leaders to focus their attention on just one Big Idea: Jobs)

The election gave the president the green light to go ahead with reform.. Now, the administration needs to implement the legislation to so that we can see what works and what doesn’t. This will take time–but only then will we be in a position to revise, refine and improve on reform legislation. .

I hope you’ll read the entire post--and come back here to comment.

 

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Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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