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Tell Me the Good News Again

By Kim Bellard, February 13, 2013

This just in from CBO: federal health care spending has slowed dramatically, easing its impact on the federal deficit.  They are now projecting federal Medicare and Medicaid spending will be $200 billion lower in 2020 than they did three years ago.  And it is not just federal health spending:  according to CMS, 2011 marked the third consecutive year of relatively slow grow, increasing by 3.9%, which is modest for health care. 

Should we be breaking out the champagne to toast the victory?  Maybe not just yet. 

Economists aren’t sure if structural changes are finally taking place, or if much of the slowdown can be attributed to the recession and to consumers being more reluctant to spend any discretionary cash on health care.  There are some signs that the slowdown started before the recession, but there are conflicting signs that some portions of health spending are accelerating. 

For example, the CMS report cited increases in out-of-pocket payments as an area where spending was rising faster, but the Washington Post notes a contrary analysis by NPR’s Planet Money which suggests that the share of spending from consumer out-of-pocket payments is actually decreasing, dropping by nearly half over the last forty years.  Of course, that share is of a much large dollar amount, so the lower percentage may be of scant comfort.  Consumers probably don’t have the perception that their share is getting smaller, not with rise of high deductible plans, and some researchers, like Deloitte, would argue that the official numbers understate direct consumer spending by a wide margin.  So we don’t really know.

What everyone is waiting to see is what 2014 brings us, as several of the most significant ACA provisions – Medicaid expansion, health insurance exchanges, guaranteed issue health coverage, essential benefits, and federal subsidies for health insurance, to name a few – kick in.  None is without its problems. 

Medicaid expansion seemed like a no-brainer.  It promised to make eligibility for Medicaid much more uniform across states and between different pockets of the population, and it minimized the fiscal impact on states by the federal government picking up all the costs of the expansion in the first few years.  Some states are skeptical that the federal government is a reliable partner, and others oppose ACA on general principle, with the net effect that we still don’t have even a majority of states who have agreed to the expansion.  Without the expansion, some people won’t qualify for either Medicaid or subsidized coverage through the exchanges.  In other words, if you are the wrong kind of poor person, you may still be out of luck.

As for the exchanges (excuse me – “marketplaces,” as newly rebranded by HHS), according to Kaiser Family Foundation, as of February 12, only 18 states are planning to run their own exchange, another 6 are planning to run one in partnership with the federal government, and the remaining 27 are defaulting to a federally-run exchange.  Whether state, federal, or jointly run, if they are not already deep in the planning/building process, it’s worrisome as to whether they will be able to start online shopping for all those consumers beginning this October.  I’m not betting on a wonderful, Amazon-like experience come October.

The biggest problem with guaranteed issue and essential benefits is not the much debated controversy over contraception coverage, with its weird proposed compromise for “contraception-only” coverage, but rather is the concern that premiums could skyrocket, especially for younger people.  The combination of generally richer coverage and inclusion of people who previously could not obtain insurance, along with tighter age rating bands, may lead to doubling or even tripling of premiums for some consumers, report Politico and The Wall Street Journal.  Supporters of ACA note that the subsidies will largely offset most or even all of these increases, but disguising the true cost of things from consumers is a big part of the reason our health care system is in the mess it is in.  We should be aiming to bring down the cost of health care and health insurance, not simply offset it with other federal spending.

Last but not least, there are the subsidies themselves, which are the key to success in improving the number of people with coverage (not, as many think, the infamous mandate, which is probably too weak to force people to buy coverage they don’t want or don’t think they can afford).  The subsidies are already running into problems.  Unions fear that their health plans may become disadvantaged relative to subsidized coverage in the exchanges, and have asked the Administration to be eligible for similar subsidies, thus reopening the spending spigot.  Of course, there are a number of employer plans who could make the same request, although their political clout may not be as great as the unions. 

Employer plans face enough problems as it is, and the recent IRS rules that base “affordability under ACA guidelines solely on the cost for single coverage, not family coverage, are likely to complicate things further.  The IRS ruling spares employers from the nightmare of having to guess at a worker’s total family income, but also opens the door to employers contributing ever smaller portions towards family coverage.  We could end up with a Catch-22: rapidly shrinking employer contributions for dependent coverage make that coverage too expensive for many families, yet those same families would not be not eligible for the subsidies in the exchanges because of their eligibility for employer coverage.  I can already see the tear-jerking stories in Congressional hearings, although I’m not sure who Congress will try to pin the blame on.  Not themselves, of course.

And, of course, the sheer size of the subsidies – over $1 trillion through 2022 -- will become a tempting target for budget cuts should Congress and the Administration ever get serious about the deficit.  At the same time CBO delivered the good news about lower Medicare/Medicaid spending, they also disclosed that they were raising the estimates of the cost of the subsidy by over $200 billion over 10 years.  They also estimated that twice as many people – 7 million – will move from employer coverage to individual coverage through the exchanges.  Oh, and they also think fewer people will gain coverage through ACA at all, reducing their estimate to 27 million from their initial estimate of 32 to 34 million.  So there.

We have a long way to go before we can feel comfortable about how the health care system is changing.  The disturbing but, sadly, not surprising results of the recent study by Jaime Rosenthal and Peter Cram on the inability of consumers to obtain prices of hip replacement illustrate both the difficulty of obtaining prices for even a common surgical procedure, as well as the shockingly wide range of the prices they might be able to find.  If anyone thinks ACOs will make this better, I suggest they think again – assuming consumers will be able even find multiple ACOs near them from whom to seek competing prices, due to increasing provider consolidation.

And meanwhile we face the spectre of an explosion of health spending as baby boomers begin hitting peak health expense years, especially since they are already in worse health than their parent were at the same age, according to a recent study.  Living longer but in worse health and more demanding – not exactly a recipe for reduced health care spending in the years ahead.

I’ll go back to something I wrote a couple years ago: all health care spending ends up as revenue for someone.  Even care we might categorize as waste, unnecessary, or inappropriate counts towards some entity’s revenue.  We can make the health care system more efficient, more transparent, and more patient-centered, but at the end of the day controlling spending will mean controlling providers’ income.  To do that, one of three things has to happen: all providers end up getting less, some categories of providers fare worse than others (e.g., hospitals gain while nursing homes lose), or we start paying specific providers drastically less, or not at all. 

Personally, I think the fairest – although not the easiest -- way to control spending, and to improve the quality of care for patients, is to weed out underperforming providers, those who are delivering sub-par care (and we’re kidding ourselves if we think they don’t exist).  When we get serious about that, then maybe it will be time to start the celebration.

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