Medicaid is big and growing — but should it be reined in? Alexandrta Bachert, Staff writer for MedPage, discussed the value of Medicaid and I thought that it would be important in light of the budget and new health care policy cutting back on Mecicaid. The House Republicans and the White House have recently proposed massive reductions in the Medicaid program, which could shave more than $1 trillion from projected expenditures over the next 10 years.
Much of the debate over these cuts has centered around the effects on children and the poor, but about 40% of the Medicaid budget pays for long-term care for the elderly, many of whom are poor only on paper. In this edition of “Friday Feedback,” experts discuss the critical role Medicaid plays in the healthcare system, particularly for America’s increasingly numerous seniors, and what might happen if funding is slashed.
To what extent has Medicaid gone off the rails, relative to its original intent? Or was the original intent faulty?
Diane Rowland, ScD, Kaiser Family Foundation: The original intent was that Medicaid would be a companion to Medicare in meeting the health needs of the nation’s poor and disadvantaged population — a role it has filled well.
Hemi Tewarson, JD, MPH, National Governors Association: Medicaid is now the largest public payer of health insurance, covering 1 in 5 Americans in 2016 and half of all births nationally. The magnitude of the program and its complicated structure has certainly evolved since the program’s inception. However, the program is still serving our nation’s most vulnerable populations, through a federal-state partnership, which was the original intent of the program.
Leighton Ku, PhD, MPH, George Washington University: Medicaid always had a broad mission to serve the needy, including low-income children, adults, the elderly, and the disabled. It has kept that mission, but broadened it over time as it became necessary — as we learned of the importance of home and community-based care and of difficulties that low-income adults have getting insurance.
Sara Rosenbaum, JD, George Washington University: Medicaid’s purpose always has been to help people gain access to medically necessary care. Over a half century, Congress has repeatedly and steadily expanded the range of people in need who can qualify for Medicaid. What makes it so unique is its ability to evolve over time. There is nothing about the adult expansion that in any way is at cross-purposes with its original “intent.”
Tom Buchmueller, PhD, University of Michigan: I wouldn’t describe Medicaid as going off the rails. Going back to the program’s origins, it was political considerations that led to Medicare being a universal program and Medicaid being means-tested. Very quickly, Medicare became a cherished and politically sacrosanct institution, while Medicaid has struggled for political support. But now that Medicaid is the larger program in terms of enrollment, we need to recognize it for what it is: a critical part of the healthcare system.
Kenneth Brummel-Smith, MD, Florida State University: I don’t think it has. The original intent was to help states provide medical care to poor residents. Prior to 1965, old and poor people were more likely to die from treatable conditions than after Medicare and Medicaid were passed. The problem with Medicaid is that the states (and the feds to some degree) have never put enough cars on the tracks to handle the need.
Chris Pope, Manhattan Institute: The original intent of Medicaid was somewhat nebulous. The program has always given enormous discretion to states – in terms of which services are covered, who is eligible for them, and how they are delivered. That said, the program has been expanded by Congress over time, and the 1999 Olmstead Supreme Court decision greatly expanded the entitlement to long-term care in the home.
Matt Salo, National Association of Medicaid Directors: Medicaid didn’t set out to be the largest payer of long-term care in the country, but since Medicare doesn’t offer a comprehensive benefit; we’re there to pick it up. Medicaid probably should be “less necessary” in the healthcare system than it is today, but the fault doesn’t lie within Medicaid and that certainly doesn’t mean that Medicaid is broken and needs knee-jerk fixing. It means that the broader healthcare system is broken. To really fix Medicaid, you have to ensure that the roles it plays today are adequately and affirmatively picked up somewhere else.
How much of a problem is it that so much of eldercare is now dependent on Medicaid?
Brummel-Smith: It’s huge and going to get bigger. The aging of the population means more will need help with medical care and the older population is high consumers of healthcare. Here’s the paradox of providing good care — people live longer which means they’ll need more long-term services and supports. They don’t want to buy long-term care insurance, or they can’t afford it. And the size of families is decreasing meaning they’ll be fewer family caregivers. And we have an anti-immigration attitude, yet immigrants are the main people who are willing to work in these jobs. A perfect storm.
Buchmueller: The patchwork system we have for financing long-term care has many problems that will only become more challenging as the population ages. It is too bad that we are spending so much time and energy fighting about Obamacare — and trying to undo its real successes — instead of trying to address the issue of long-term care and other real issues that the U.S. healthcare system faces.
Pope: Family has always taken most of the responsibility for caring for older adults, largely uncompensated, and often at substantial personal cost. This remains the case, but families are more fragmented than they used to be and people are moving further for work — this increases the need for paid care. There will not be enough money for the government to cover all long-term care services for everyone, and so it is essential to limit Medicaid long-term care to those who have no other sources of assistance, and find ways of leveraging alternative resources wherever possible.
Tewarson: As Medicare and other commercial plans do not cover most nursing facility services and home and community based services, Medicaid is often the only option and as a result, is now the single largest payer of long-term services and supports (LTSS) in the U.S. If federal Medicaid funding was capped, states may need to consider different options, which could include reducing the number of individuals receiving LTSS in states that have a rapidly growing elderly population.
Rowland: Medicaid was always intended to help those on Medicare who were low-income and needed assistance with filling Medicare’s gaps — especially for long-term services. Because efforts to broaden long-term services beyond Medicaid have not succeeded, Medicaid remains the primary source of help for elders in nursing homes or needing help with long-term care in the community.
George Grossberg, MD, Saint Louis University: People are too dependent on Medicaid to pay for long-term care, especially nursing home care. Far too few have long-term care insurance or use family resources or save over a lifetime to pay for needed long-term care in the future. This places an inordinate burden on taxpayers, especially with our booming older adult population.
As for the rest of Medicaid, with the growing cost due mainly to the increasing costs of healthcare, won’t budget cuts simply deprive the poor of access to care?
Brummel-Smith: Absolutely. The biggest concern is that these folks are not good advocates for themselves — they are sick, frail, and often demented. I’m afraid that the government’s response will be following the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge — “They had better die and decrease the surplus population.”
Grossberg: Yes. Medicaid is insurance for the poor. Medicaid cuts will hurt those without personal/family resources the most, whether children or adults.
Daniel Derksen, MD, Arizona Center for Rural Health: You don’t save money by throwing millions off of coverage. That strategy shifts costs to states, to individuals and their families, and to physicians, hospitals, clinics and nurses through uncompensated and charity care. It strains credulity to cut almost a trillion dollars of federal funding to state Medicaid programs over the next 10 years, and claim that bill gives states more autonomy.
Joanne Lynn, MD, Altarum Institute: Cuts in Medicaid for the disabled elderly mean that people with no other options will be desperate before they get help, and the help will be inadequate. We will nearly triple the number of frail elderly Americans in the first half of this century. When we are old and frail, we will most likely have few financial resources and volunteer caregivers. The country should be making plans for an aging population and building more reliable and efficient systems in the few years before the Boomer generation starts hitting their years of disability. Simply cutting Medicaid won’t accomplish that.
Stephanie Woolhandler, MD, MPH, Hunter College: Rising Medicaid costs have been due to a large extent to the increasing number of people covered by that program. As employer-based insurance covered a shrinking share of the population, Medicaid filled the gap. Cuts to Medicaid are likely to result in both worse quality of care for those who remain covered, and cuts in the number covered. Many will suffer.
Rowland: With rising health costs and a growing elderly populating, reductions in the federal financing of Medicaid will place serious strains on state’s ability to maintain coverage and services for their low-income population. Both coverage and access to care are at risk.
Rosenbaum: Medicaid’s costs in the coming years are heavily driven by rising enrollment. In terms of covering the poor, Medicaid is the most cost effective means of doing so — 50% lower than private insurance for the same basket of services. Those who qualify for Medicaid because they are poor will go without access to affordable coverage if benefits are taken away. Just compare the uninsured rate among the poor in non-expansion states to that for the poor in expansion states. All of our gains will be lost.
Ku: It is very clear that Medicaid costs per person grow more slowly than per person costs in private insurance and Medicare. Medicaid is already very efficient and pays less than other forms of insurance. Federal efforts to shift costs to states will generally be problematic for states, which must balance their budgets. It may be possible to modify benefits or payment rates to become more efficient, but this is hard to do and takes time, trial, and assessment. It’s not clear that conservative politicians have the patience or temperament to figure out what works best while harming the fewest number of beneficiaries.
“Medicaid probably should be ‘less necessary’ in the healthcare system than it is today, but the fault doesn’t lie within Medicaid and that certainly doesn’t mean that Medicaid is broken and needs knee-jerk fixing.” — Matt Salo, of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, on the current debate over whether Medicaid has grown too big. “The scientists, the physicians in our country are under assault with this Trump budget.” — Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), addressing a rally organized by the American Thoracic Society in Washington. Providers are now asking- how much pain will per capita caps in Medicaid bring? The administration released what it calls a “Taxpayer First” budget on Tuesday. “This is, I think, the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters in a briefing on Monday. The plan was crafted with a skeptical eye toward programs that serve the needy. Over a decade, it calls for hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and disability benefits. Marie Lee, last week, reported that the end of Medicaid as an entitlement program is a coming, provider sand political observers say. Now the question is how much will the federal government seek to reduce its spending on the insurance program that covers 70 million people—and how much will senators listen to providers who say that care could ultimately become unattainable for people if the House version of a per capita cap is approved.
The American Health Care Act, passed by the House in early May, aims to cut federal spending on Medicaid by $834 billion by 2026, and it’s hard to know exactly how that will play out for patients and providers, said Grady Health System CEO John Haupert.
“You would have to look at every channel Medicaid flows through,” he said. “Long-term care. Outpatient—what will be covered? What won’t? It has to come from somewhere.”
Grady sees 650,000 visits each year at six clinics and a specialty HIV/AIDS clinic, and has 27,000 inpatient admissions. It also has a 300-bed skilled-nursing facility. Medicaid covers the vast majority of patients in the nursing home, and 30% of all patients are enrolled in the program.
What he knows is that Georgia isn’t going to step in and increase funding to replace the declining federal share.
Combined state and federal spending on Medicaid in Georgia is about $4,000 a person, 48th in the country. “There’s a reason why we’re 48th, put it that way,” Haupert said of the state’s willingness to spend on medical care for the poor.
Cleveland’s MetroHealth system has about 280,000 patient visits a year, with half covered by Medicaid. Dr. Akram Boutros, CEO of the public hospital and its health system, fears that what will be left for Medicaid will not be enough to cover the cost of treating the population, which tends to have a higher disease burden than the general population.
Boutros understands that providers need to find ways to bend the cost curve, whether in Medicaid or any other patient group, noting that the health system did a medical home demonstration with 28,000 Medicaid expansion patients in 2013 that resulted in $41 million in reduced costs. Ohio cut payments for outpatient Medicaid services by 5% in 2016.
“And remember,” he said, “We’ve been through this before. The American hospital system was asked to take Medicare cuts to fund Medicaid expansion.”
Katherine Hayes, director of health policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agreed. “Providers were asked to pay for a lot of the health reform, and now they’re paying for it again—more than paying for it again—with less coverage.”
Hayes, who worked for both Democrats and a moderate Republican senator in her time on the Hill, said the structure of a per capita cap isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s how much the federal government aims to reduce its share of spending.
“When you are putting in $834 billion in Medicaid cuts, you cannot make up the difference by scaling back eligibility of the Medicaid expansion,” she said.
Georgia never did a Medicaid expansion, which Grady estimates would have brought $25 million in revenue to the system. Still, Grady reduced its uncompensated care by $68 million, going from the equivalent of 41% of total revenue to now 28%. The system hired navigators to get qualified patients enrolled in Medicaid.
Because the ACA’s phase-out of disproportionate-share hospital payments was delayed, Grady still receives $80 million a year. The phase-out would have reduced it by $45 million a year.
To soften the blow of Medicaid cuts, House GOP leaders would make disproportionate-share payments permanent, for a nationwide price tag of $43 billion. Haupert said that would not nearly make up for the effects of the per capita cap.
When he was lobbying in Washington against the AHCA, he asked a Georgia Republican lawmaker why the savings couldn’t come both from Medicare and from Medicaid. He said the member replied: “If you mess with Medicare, you don’t get re-elected; if you mess with Medicaid, no one really cares. ”
Haupert said as he sees the political backlash against the AHCA, it seems that sentiment’s not totally wrong. Nearly all of the focus has been on the individual market, which is 4% to 5% of his system’s patients. Will people in the individual market who are sick have access to insurance they can afford to buy? Will modest-income older customers be able to buy plans?
He said he knows many people whose parents’ nursing home or other long-term care costs have exhausted their savings, ultimately sending them to Medicaid. Most people never think that will be them, he said, and many wrongly assume Medicare pays for assisted living and nursing home stays.
Still, Haupert believes senators are open to hearing from providers about what kinds of changes are too radical for the system.
“I think in general the Senate is doing a bit more due diligence around this,” he said. “I still sense this high level of pressure to get it done, get it done. When you’re in a hurry, that’s when you make mistakes.”
Hayes said she believes providers’ lobbying will make a difference. And, she said, senators are paying attention to the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring that showed the changes to the ACHA did little to move the dial on the number of people who would become uninsured. The most recent report estimated that 23 million people would lose coverage by 2026; scoring of the original bill in March put the number at 24 million.
Besides the direct financial implications for providers, the potential loss of coverage poses another challenge, says Dr. Nick Turkal, president and CEO of Aurora Health Care, a 15-hospital system based in Milwaukee. “The other thing that concerns me is that we’ll be going back to people coming to the emergency department in a crisis rather than getting the care they need in preventive services and primary-care services. That’s not an efficient way of getting care,” he said.
Haupert said he hopes the per capita cap allows below-average spending states to catch up to more generous states, or at least that there will be special consideration for safety-net systems like his. For Grady, the cuts to Medicare were very minor, just $8 million in the last four years. “Our margin, with county support, is around 4%,” he said, and they received $55 million from the counties they serve last year. “Without county support we’d be at about a negative 1%.”
He said when he talks with county officials about what’s happening in Washington, he can see they fear if the federal government steps back, then the bill will come due first to states, and then, they’re asking themselves, “Is this going to land in our lap?”
So, budgeting is going to impact a number of programs in all areas including health care. We need to look carefully at where the money goes and whether it is worth decreasing those programs that serve as safety nets. If we want to cover all we need to come to grips with the fact that some where we are going to find a way to pay for it all and maybe lowering taxes will impact all programs as well as health care. What other ways to we have to pay for 24 million people who need financial assistance? Think about it and yes I will be discussing this aspect further in my answer to our health care dilemma.
Happy Memorial Day to all and remember why we have set aside this day- to remember those who gave their lives for all of us., to protect our freedoms..