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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IRS ruling a ‘disaster for Obamacare?’ Not quite. Ruling may be ‘unfortunate,’ but it won’t leave ‘millions’ uninsured

Under the Affordable Care Act, Americans who are not offered “affordable” insurance at work can purchase coverage in the ACA’s health insurance exchanges, where many will be eligible for generous subsidies.

The law defines “affordable” as insurance that costs less than 9.6 percent of income. But the ACA doesn’t specify whether it is referring to individual coverage or family coverage, which is always far more expensive. The wording is ambiguous, an “oversight,” say many legislators.

Now the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled that the government will look at the cost of coverage for an individual – not a family – when deciding if a plan is “affordable.”

A disaster for Obamacare?

Earlier this week, Forbes ran a story about the rule under a headline that blared, “IRS Ruling to Create Millions of Uninsured Americans as It Undermines the Very Intent of Obamacare.”

Forbes’ take plays right into the conservative claim that Obamacare is a disaster. “We are now entering the crucial phase of the law’s enactment,” crows blogger Dwight L. Schwab, “and many critics are saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Whoa! Let’s look at Forbes’ argument, and the numbers.

Fear-mongering vs. facts

Forbes observes that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2012 survey of employee benefits, on average, workers contribute $951 annually for an individual plan. But those buying family coverage fork over $4,316, “a number well in excess of the 9.5% of earnings for someone making just $35,000 a year.” Yet, under the IRS decision, “only the portion of the contribution attributable to the individual employee” can be “considered for the purpose of determining what is affordable – not the entire contribution.”

Forbes’ contributor Rick Ungar offers an example: If an employee who earns $35,000 and “is the sole breadwinner in the family” pays less than $3,325 annually for his own insurance … “nobody in the family qualifies for participation on the healthcare exchanges and nobody can qualify for the intended government subsidies.” If the employee signs up for a family plan with his employer it would cost “over 12 percent of their annual income … a crushing amount.”

“The result,” Ungar says, “will be millions of spouses and children left to go uninsured.”

Millions uninsured???

Let’s begin with that last sentence. Just how many children would be shut out? Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group, estimates that 500,000 children could remain uninsured.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report offers a similar estimate … that “460,000 children may be left uninsured if states stop funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) beyond 2015.” (Funding ends in 2015 because legislators assumed the ACA would protect kids.) “Federal funding could be extended,” the GAO notes. (My guess is that, if necessary, Congress would expand CHIP funding.)

But what about the mothers? If 500,000 children might be affected, that means that, at most, 500,000 mothers would be left uninsured. But in most of these cases, parents may well have have two children, sometimes more. Let’s assume that, on average, they have two children. That means 250,000 mothers (half of 500,000) might find themselves uninsured because of the IRS rule.  Add those 250,000 mothers to a maximum of 500,000 children, and 750,000 people wind up “going naked” as insurers put it.

Married couples who don’t have children also should be counted. If only one spouse works, and they cannot afford the family plan his employer offers, another adult could be left out. But, these days, few married women under 65 who don’t have children stay at home. We’re still far from “millions.”

Forbes’ example

Forbes’ example of a single-breadwinner family is the exception, not the rule. Among families earning $25,000 to $60,000, 67 percent of mothers and 85 percent of fathers work.In these cases, couldn’t each parent purchase insurance through their employer?

Note: The post originally appeared on Healthinsurance.org  To find the answer to that question, and why the Forbes Op-ed represents “fear-mongering, pure and simple”, please click here.  If you like, come back here to comment.

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“Fiscal Cliff” Talks: An Update

Today, for the first time since the election, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met alone, face-to-face, at the White House to discuss ongoing negotions over the budget.   (I can’t help but see the photo, which shows Obama with a hand on Boehnr’s shoulder, as a reference to the “Saturday Night Live” skit that appeared last night.  

I’m more and more hopeful about the budget negotiations. Recentlly, I wrote that Obama had “won round one,” explaining that I believed CNN’s report that  the Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal on taxes. “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.”  Based on everything I know about the economics and the politics of the situation, this makes sense. /

Since then Boehner has said:  “No progress has been made.”

This does not change the story:  If, as CNN’s sources say, (and I believe) Republicans have conceded that taxes cuts for the top 2% must expire Janauary 1, while cuts for the remaining 98% will continue, that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the agreement public.

Understandably, Republicans are not willing to acknowledge that they lost round one of negotiations until they can also announce that they won something in round two.  Nor does  President Obama want to blind-side Boehner by letting it leak that a tax deal is in place. That would be counter-productive.

                          The Inside Story and the Outside Story

Recentlly, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reported:  “Right now, the fiscal cliff negotiations are proceeding on two tracks.

“One track includes the press releases, public statements and legislative tactics the two parties are deploying to prove the purity of their faith and their commitment to beating the other side to a bloody pulp. Watch these closely and it’s easy to get depressed.  . . ‘There isn’t a progress report;’ Republican House Speaker John Boehner sighed Friday, ‘because there’s no progress to report.’

“The other track includes the offers, counteroffers and red lines proposed by Boehner and President Obama. If you look at these closely, a deal is taking shape.”

 I agree with Ezra about the “two tracks”. But I don’t agree regarding the “shape” of the deal that is emerging.

First, I agree that  the majority of Republicans in Congress have accepted the fact that the Bush-era tax breaks for folks earning over $200,000 (and couples earning over $250,000) will have to expire. I won’t try to guess when politicians will complete the two stages of bargaining and be ready to announce a deal. We may go right up to the January 1 deadline.

Moreover, it is  possible that when it comes to cutting government spending, too many Republicans will remain stubbornly, and foolishly, intransigent — insisting on concessions that would inflict pain on the middle-class.

If that happens, I predict that President Obama will let us sail over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  He knows this wouldn’t do any permanent damage to the economy.  As Rutgers reported today, even Wall Street does not seem panicked by the prospect: “Investors have peered over the cliff and realized they are looking at a gentle slope . . . . some investors say lawmakers still have time in early 2013 to strike a deficit-reduction deal without imperiling the economy. A survey of 62 Wall Street money managers released on December 5 showed market losses would be manageable if the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, even though worries still run deep.

Many on Wall Street understand that, early in the spring, the administration could undo Draconian spending cuts, while lowering tax rates for the 98%. Public pressure will ensure that happens. (In the meantime, the Treasury Secretary could lower withholding rates so that middle-class Americans didn’t suddenly see their paychecks trimmed.)

But taking a ride down that slope would do lasting damage to the GOP.  Polls show that voters would blame Republicans. This is why I think that, in the end, Republican leadership in Congress will do whatever it must to make a deal before January.  As I indicate in the post below. Tea Party extremists in the Republican party are being side-lined.

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A Centrist Perspective: Makers and Takers, Obamacare, and the Path Forward

Below, a guest post from Stephen Reid, Managing Partner at Pharmspective, a market research firm that provides advisory services to healthcare and pharmaceutical companies on strategic issues including the Affordable Care Act. (ACA)

I don’t  agree with Reid on every point. (For example, if Republicans take both the White House and the Senate, I believe that they could and would eliminate both the premium subsidies that will make insurance affordable for middle-class Americans and the mandate.) Nevertheless, when he sent his Op-ed to me I was impressed by how well he understands the legislation. A great many moderates have been confused by the arguments coming at them both from the left and from the right.  A combination of misinformation, half-truths and fear-mongering has created so much “noise” that it has become extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction.

By contrast, Reid does a very good  job of explaining the reasoning behind the Affordable Care Act, and how its “checks and balances” work. I agree with him that the legislation is far from perfect, but it represents a good beginning.

 There is just one major aspect of reform that I think Reid doesn’t understand: the rationale for expanding Medicaid. See my note at the end of his post.

                   A Centrist Perspective: Makers, Takers and Obamacare

by Stephen Reid

With a few days left before we elect a president, the prevailing belief is that an Obama win would propel the Affordable Care Act (ACA) forward with little delay and a Romney win would kill it. Both parties have gone to great lengths to characterize healthcare reform; the Democrats tout the legislation as essential to addressing a broken healthcare system that results in the U.S. spending twice as much as most developed countries on healthcare while leaving 50 million people without coverage; the Republicans cite the ACA as an example of hopeless dependency on government and contrary to free-market principles and individual rights.

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The Affordable Care Act’s “Penalty”: If You Don’t Buy Health Insurance in 2014, How Much Will You Pay?

Note to readers; a longer version of this post originally appeared on HealthInsurance.org, along with a penallty calculator.

Despite the hullabaloo about the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that nearly everyone puchase heath insurance in 2014–or pay a penalty–the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 1.4 percent of Americans will wind up paying the tax.

That is because the vast majority of us either have health insurance, or are exempted from the mandate for any one of a number of reasons.  For example, at the end of 2014 you will owe no tax if:

  • your income is low enough that your share of premiums (after federal subsidies and employer contributions) would total more than 8 percent of your income;
  • your income is below the income tax filing threshold, and so you’re not required to file taxes;
  • you were uninsured for less than three months of the year (If over three, the penalty is pro-rated);

As a result the Urban Institute estimates that just 6  percent of the population (roughly 18 million Americans) will even have to consider the question: “Should I purchase health insurance, or pay a tax?” That’s right: a whopping 94 percent of the population will have no reason to worry about paying a penalty.

And 11 million of that 18 million will be low-income or middle-income Americans who are eligible for a government subsidy to help cover the cost of their premiums. Chances are, most of them will take the government up on its offer.
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Medicare, Medicaid, Global Warming and Gun Control– Can Liberals and Conservatives Find Middle Ground? Should They? Part 1

 In a nation divided, “compromise” has become an extraordinarily appealing idea. Weary of the acrimony and endless wrangling, more and more Americans are asking: Why can’t conservative and liberal politicians come together and forge bipartisan solutions to the problems this nation faces?

Keep in mind that it is not only our elected representatives who are having trouble finding common ground. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey of “American Values” reveals that as voters head to the polls this November, their basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the past 25 years. In particular, when it comes to the question of government regulation and involvement in our lives, the average Republican has gravitated to the right. In 1987, 62% of Republicans agreed that “the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Now just 40% support this proposition. Democrats haven’t changed their views on this issue: most continue to believe “there, but for fortune . . .”

In Congress, where polarization has led to paralysis, some argue that Republican leaders are responsible for creating gridlock by insisting on “party discipline.” But liberals in Washington also are accused of “dividing the nation.” Even President Obama, who set out to unite the country, has been described as “the most polarizing president ever.” During his third year in office, Gallup reports, “an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year”–though this may say more about the temper of the times than the man himself. Nevertheless, many commentators believe that progressives, like conservatives, need to cede ground. The debate has become too contentious, too “political,” they say. I disagree. There are times when we cannot “split the difference.” Too much is at stake. We must weigh what would be won against what would be lost.

But reporters who have been taught that they must be “fair” and “balanced” often write as if all points of view are equally true. After all, they don’t want to be accused of “bias.” Thus they fall into the trap of what veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse calls “he said, she said” journalism. To them, the “middle ground” seems a safe place– a fair place– to position a story.

This may help explain why so many bloggers and newspaper reporters are calling for “bi-partisan consensus” as they comment on some of the most important issues of the day.

Global Warming

Writing about global warming, Huffington Post senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. recently declared: “Compromise is the necessary first step to tackling the problem. What ordinary Americans really want is for honest brokers on all sides to detoxify and depoliticize the global warming conversation, and then get on with the business of addressing it. That business will necessarily recognize that we all bring different values and interests to the table; that we perceive risks and rewards, costs and benefits differently; and it will identify solutions through thoughtful discussion and that crazy thing called compromise.” [ my emphasis] (Hat tip to David Roberts (Twitter’s “Dr. Grist”) for calling my attention to this post.)

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What Will the Supreme Court’s Decision Mean for the November Election?

Thursday, when Chief Justice Roberts explained that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is constitutional because the “penalty” that some Americans will have to pay is, for all practical purposes, a “tax,” you could hear tea cups shattering from Billings to Boca Raton. In conservative and libertarian circles, the initial reaction was shock, but it didn’t take long for President Obama’s opponents to rally.

The word “tax” might as well have been a pistol shot at a horse race. In the blink of an eye, Obama’s opponents were off and running, megaphones in hand, blasting the president for lying to the American people while hiking taxes under the guise of healthcare reform. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign then began providing regular Twitter updates on the campaign contributions it was raking in following the decision. Friday, it announced that it had collected $5.5 million.

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How Soon Can We Expect National Health Reform?

On this blog, we have debated how soon Americans will be ready for national health reform.  Many observers believe that we’ll only get reform when more people are uninsured—specifically when more middle-class and  upper-middle-class families find themselves “going naked.”

The chart below comes from a new Commonwealth Fund Report which shows that while two-thirds of low-income adults (earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold) were uninsured or underinsured in 2006, just 17 percent of those earning more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) were either underinsured or uninsured at some point during the year.

 

Uninsuredandunderinsured_2

“Underinsured” is defined as someone who finds himself spending 10 percent or more of his income on out-of-pocket medical expenses. (For those earning less than 200 percent of FPL, the number is 5 percent.)

The report observes that employers are continuing to back away from offering health benefits:  “Between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance declined from 74.2 percent to 70.5 percent,” and again “middle- and lower-wage workers,” suffered most, with “the largest decreases” hitting this group.

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Immigrants Exploit Our Health Care System…Right?

There’s no easier punching bag in politics today than undocumented immigrants. They can be blamed for any number of problems—including high health care costs. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, insists that “the costs of medical care for immigrants are staggering.”

But a handful of hot-off-the-press reports tell a different story. A just released Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study concludes that while immigrants are indeed “more likely [than American citizens] to rely on emergency rooms or public clinics for health care” the cost of caring for immigrants is much less than alarmists would have you believe.

This conclusion clashes with the widespread conception that emergency rooms around the nation are filled to the brim with Mexicans—all on the dime of the American taxpayer. In fact, a November UCLA study showed that “undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are 50 percent less likely than U.S.-born Latinos to use hospital emergency rooms in California,” the state that incurs the most undocumented immigration-related costs. (The lower rate of hospital use is due to the fact that undocumented immigrants tend to be young and healthy. After all, border-crossing is a rough experience).

Of course, it’s not the rate of health care use that has people worried—it’s the cost of use. But a 2006 RAND study concluded that in 2000, health care for undocumented immigrants between 18 and 64 years old cost taxpayers about $11 per household—roughly the price of a cheeseburger in Manhattan.

Part of the reason the price tag is so low is that our health care
system does only the bare minimum for undocumented immigrants. The CBO
reports that 1986 Medicaid reforms stipulated that immigrants could
receive emergency Medicaid for must-have-care situations like
childbirth. But “emergency Medicaid covers only those services that are
necessary to stabilize a patient; any other services delivered after a
patient is stabilized are not covered.” Undocumented immigrants are
only assured enough health care to make sure they don’t die; so the
costs of emergency Medicaid are very low.

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The Academic Buzz around Health Care

Being a young whippersnapper, it never occurred to me that health care policy was a relatively new field of study within our universities. But when Health Beat reader Bradley Flansbaum passed along the  Reuters story below to Maggie (original here)  and she passed it on to me, I gained a new perspective on the issue. It turns out that until very recently, health care used to just mean medicine. But today, thinking about health care demands thinking about  a lot of different things, like public policy, public administration, economics, politics, and even sociology.

This mixed bag is reflected in the diverse academic offerings at colleges and universities—as well as the swell of students interested in them. The Reuters story below suggests that there are three main motivations for the increased student interest: fascination, idealism, and profit. That sounds about right. You can either be genuinely interested in the complexities of health care or the politics surrounding it; want to fix the system for the greater good; or want to learn as much as you can about the system to better navigate it for GlaxoSmithKline.

There’s obviously a lot of good to be had from generations growing up understanding more about our insanely complex and counter-productive health care system. Teaching college students about the system now might instill a long-term openness to reform and improvement that wasn’t present in generations who never knew about health care until they got sick.

But I can’t help but wonder about the faddishness of it all. After all, health care isn’t the only broken system that could use some attention. Consider the criminal justice system. Back in the day, law and order meant being a lawyer or a cop. But today there are criminology and criminal justice programs around the world that focus on issues like incarceration, community policing, cost, risk management, and more. Yet the buzz surrounding these issues hasn’t been comparable to the much louder debate about health care—even though one out of 32 Americans is currently in the corrections system and a black male is more likely to have served time in jail than have a college degree. This too is a crisis.

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