A Milestone In the Health Care JourneyWhen I reached Jonathan Gruber on Thursday, he was working his way, page by laborious page, through the mammoth health care bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had unveiled just a few hours earlier. Gruber is a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties. He was one of almost two dozen top economists who sent President Obama a letter earlier this month insisting that reform won’t succeed unless it “bends the curve” in the long-term growth of health care costs. And, on that front, Gruber likes what he sees in the Reid proposal. Actually he likes it a lot.
“I’m sort of a known skeptic on this stuff,” Gruber told me. “My summary is it’s really hard to figure out how to bend the cost curve, but I can’t think of a thing to try that they didn’t try. They really make the best effort anyone has ever made. Everything is in here….I can’t think of anything I’d do that they are not doing in the bill. You couldn’t have done better than they are doing.”
Gruber may be especially effusive. But the Senate blueprint, which faces its first votes tonight, also is winning praise from other leading health reformers like Mark McClellan, the former director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services under George W. Bush and Len Nichols, health policy director at the centrist New America Foundation. “The bottom line,” Nichols says, “is the legislation is sending a signal that business as usual [in the medical system] is going to end.”
Both the Senate bill’s priority on controlling long-term health care costs, and its strategy for doing so, represents a validation for Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). When Baucus released his health reform proposal last September, after finally terminating months of fruitless negotiations with committee Republicans, Democratic liberals excoriated his plan as a dead end. And on several important fronts–such as subsidies for the uninsured, the role of a public competitor to private insurance companies, and the contribution required from employers who don’t insure their workers–Reid moved his product away from Baucus toward approaches preferred by liberals.
But the Reid bill’s fiscal strategy, and its vision of how to “bend the curve,” almost completely follows Baucus’ path from September. Baucus’ bill was the first to establish the principle that Congress could expand coverage while reducing the federal deficit; now that’s the standard not only for the Senate but also the House reform legislation. And, perhaps even more importantly, the Reid bill maintains virtually all of Baucus ideas’ for shifting the medical payment system away from today’s fee-for-service model toward an approach that more closely links compensation for providers to results for patients. In the Reid bill, there is some backtracking from Baucus’ most aggressive reform proposals, but not much.
Almost everything Baucus proposed to control long-term costs have survived into the final bill. And, with only a few exceptions, that’s just about all the systemic reforms analysts from the center to the left have identified as the most promising strategies for changing the economic incentives in the medical system. (The public competitor to private insurance companies championed by the Left would affect who writes the checks in the medical system, but not what the checks are written to pay for.) Most of the other big ideas for controlling costs (such as medical malpractice reform) tend to draw support primarily among Republicans. And since virtually, if not literally, none of them plan to support the final health care bill under any circumstances, the package isn’t likely to reflect much of their thinking.
In their November 17 letter to Obama, the group of economists led by Dr. Alan Garber of Stanford University, identified four pillars of fiscally-responsible health care reform. They maintained that the bill needed to include a tax on high-end “Cadillac” insurance plans; to pursue “aggressive” tests of payment reforms that will “provide incentives for physicians and hospitals to focus on quality” and provide “care that is better coordinated”; and establish an independent Medicare commission that can continuously develop and implement “new efforts to improve quality and contain costs.” Finally, they said the Congressional Budget Office “must project the bill to be at least deficit neutral over the 10-year budget window and deficit reducing thereafter.”
As OMB Director Peter Orszag noted in an interview, the Reid bill met all those tests. The CBO projected that the bill would reduce the federal deficit by $130 billion over its first decade and by as much as $650 billion in its second. (Conservatives, of course, consider those projections unrealistic, but CBO is the only umpire in the game, and Republicans have been happy to trumpet its analyses critical of the Democratic plans.) “Let’s use the metric of that letter,” said Orszag, who helped shape the health reform debate for years from his earlier posts at CBO and the Brookings Institution. “Deficit neutral; got that. Deficit-reducing second decade, got that. Excise tax: That was retained. Third is the Medicare commission: has that. Fourth is delivery system reforms, bundling payments, hospital acquired infections, readmission rates. It has that. If you go down the checklist of what they said was necessary for a fiscally responsible bill that will move us towards the health care system of the future, this passes the bar.”
McClellan, the former Bush official and current director of the Engleberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution, was one of the economists who signed the November letter. McClellan has some very practical ideas for improving the Reid bill (more on those below), but generally he echoes Orszag’s assessment of it. “It has got all four of those elements in it,” McClellan said in an interview. “They kept a lot of the key elements of the Finance bill that I like. It would be good if more could be done, but this is the right direction to go.”
Reid gave ground on one Baucus proposal that the economists identified as a priority-taxing high-end insurance plans. Like many health reformers, the economists who wrote Obama argue that such a tax “will help curtail the growth of private health insurance premiums by creating incentives to limit the costs of plans to a tax-free amount.” Amid intense opposition from unions, Reid raised the thresholds at which family plans would face that excise tax from $21,000 to $23,000. But given all the pressure from labor, the more striking thing may have been that Reid didn’t increase the thresholds even more; the CBO calculated the proposal, which the House excluded from its bill, would still raise $35 billion annually by 2019. “They held pretty strong,” said one administration health care expert. “It’s not like unions haven’t been making the case that it shouldn’t have been a much higher number.”
On delivery reform, Reid stayed even closer to the Baucus blueprint. The Finance bill laid out a series of measures to change the way providers are paid for delivering care to Medicare recipients; the hope was that once Medicare instituted these reforms, private insurers would also adopt many of them. “The goal here is that the things we do in Medicare will translate over into the private sector, and there is quite a bit of historical precedence for that,” said one Democratic aide involved in drafting the package.
The Baucus delivery reform ideas revolved around two central aims. One was to reward Medicare providers who deliver care more efficiently and penalize those that don’t. The Reid bill upholds the major proposals Baucus offered to advance that goal. For instance, hospitals under current law must report on their performance in treating patients for common conditions like heart problems and pneumonia; under the bill, their Medicare payments, for the first time, would be affected by their ranking on those reports. Hospitals would also be penalized if they readmit too many patients after surgery or allow too many to acquire infections while in the hospital itself. Another provision would begin the process of applying such “value-based purchasing” toward other providers like hospice providers and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
With physicians, the Reid plan takes a step back from the Finance Committee bill but still a long step beyond current law. The Finance Bill proposed automatic reimbursement reductions for doctors who order up the most care for Medicare recipients with similar medical and demographic characteristics. That was meant to respond to the research showing big disparities in spending on medical services for similarly-situated patients in different communities. But, Democratic sources say, that proposal ran into charges that it would promote rationing-and even function as “a death panel by proxy”-by compelling doctors to arbitrarily reduce care. So the final bill takes a less direct route toward a similar end. It requires Medicare to begin studying the utilization patterns of doctors participating in the program. And then it establishes a “values based payment modifier” that would, in a budget-neutral manner, increase reimbursements for physicians found to deliver high-quality care at lower cost, and reduce them for physicians at the other end of that spectrum. “It will, we believe, have the same net effect [as the original proposal],” said the Democratic aide. “It should change behavior around that threshold.”
The other set of Baucus proposals were intended to promote more coordination among providers. These have survived almost verbatim into the final bill. The bill encourages groups of providers to establish doctor-led “accountable care organizations” to more comprehensively manage patients’ care by allowing them to share in any savings for Medicare they produce. It also establishes a voluntary national pilot of “bundled” payments that would encourage hospitals, doctors and other providers to work more closely together. Another pilot program would test coordinated home-based care for chronically ill seniors.
Finally, the Reid bill maintains the two powerful institutions the Finance legislation proposed to promote these reforms and develop new ones. The one that’s attracted the most attention is an independent “Medicare Advisory Board.” Under the Senate bill, that board would be required to offer cost-saving proposals when Medicare spending rises too fast; Congress could not reject its proposals without substituting equivalent savings. Since the board would be prohibited from offering changes that raise taxes or “ration care,” and since the legislation initially exempts hospitals from its recommendations, it could choose to promote the sort of payment reforms the bill establishes. (More prosaically it might also clear away some of the expensive coverage mandates that Congress imposes on Medicare under pressure from different elements of the medical industry). Given the limitations imposed on the commission, an equally important means to expand these reforms might be a second institution the legislation creates: a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in the Health and Human Services Department. Though this center has received much less attention than the Medicare Commission, it could have a comparable effect. It would receive $1 billion annually to test payment reforms; in a little known provision, the bill authorizes the HHS Secretary to implement nationwide, without any congressional action, any reform that department actuaries certify will reduce long-term spending. While the House bill omitted the Medicare Commission (a top priority for Obama) it included the innovation center.
No one can say for certain that these initiatives will improve efficiency enough to slow the growth in health care spending. Some are only pilots; others would affect only a small portion of providers’ revenue from Medicare. CBO typically evaluates them skeptically: it generally scores little or no savings from most of them. Former CBO director Robert Reischauer, who signed the November 17 letter, says that’s not surprising. “CBO is there to score savings for which we have a high degree of confidence that they will materialize,” says Reischauer, now president of the Urban Institute. “There are many promising approaches [in these reform ideas] but you…can’t deposit them in the bank.” In the long run, Reischauer says, it’s likely “that maybe half of them, or a third of them, will prove to be successful. But that would be very important.”
While generally supportive of Reid’s approach, McClellan, the former Medicare administrator under Bush, offered several specific ideas for strengthening it. He says the Senate should improve the capacity of HHS to more quickly evaluate whether the payment reforms are working, and also to provide data and technical assistance to new physician groups like the accountable care organizations that will be attempting to better coordinate care. “Ideally you’d both be able to tell the organizations involved and Congress what is working or not, and give the organizations the feedback and data they need to know whether they are doing a good job,” he says. McClellan also believes that the plan needs sharper sticks-tougher penalties on providers who don’t provide efficient and effective care. “There are a lot of carrots and not so many sticks,” he maintains. Of course, tougher penalties might provoke more opposition from provider groups like hospitals and physicians now tenuously supporting the legislation.
[[McClellan stands at the forefront of centrist Republican thinking on health. Even the more ideologically conservative health care thinkers to his right generally don’t oppose long-term reform ideas like bundling payments (John McCain promoted that during his presidential campaign). But they tend to view them as insufficient or tangential to the real problem. Their view highlights a fundamental difference between the parties’ on health care. To save costs, Democrats mostly want to change the incentives for providers. Republicans mostly want to change the incentives for patients by shifting toward a model where insurance covers only catastrophic expenses and people pay for more routine care from tax-favored health savings accounts. In essence, the Republican view is that the best way to hold down long-term costs is to directly expose patients to more of them. Few Democrats accept that logic though and it has little influence on either chamber’s legislation.
Another Republican cost-containment priority missing from the bill is meaningful medical malpractice reform. (The bill only encourages states to think about it.) Nichols, of the centrist New America Foundation, would like to see that included as well. Its omission is one reason he says he gives the plan a “b” rather than an “a”; the other is he’d like to see mechanisms to more quickly diffuse into the private insurance system reforms that show promise in Medicare. Democratic sources say a group of centrist Democrats led by Virginia Senator Mark Warner is trying to devise a package designed to do just that, perhaps by expanding the role of the independent Medicare advisory commission.
The attempt in all these ideas to nudge the medical system away from fee-for-service medicine toward an approach that ties compensation more closely to results captures how much the health care debate has shifted toward cost-control. So far, the rise in health care spending has proven almost invulnerable to every previous attempt to tame it, like the managed care revolution in the 1990s. Even if Obama signs into law a final bill embodying all these reform proposals, many skeptics wonder if they can bend, much less break, the seemingly inexorable increase in health care spending. Reischauer understands that skepticism, but isn’t able to entirely suppress a kernel of optimism that this latest reform agenda may prove more effective than its predecessors. “One never knows whether we’re turning the corner or if this is just playing the same old game for another inning,” he says. “But I sense there’s something different out there. I think the medical profession and its leaders have read the handwriting on the wall and are trying to evolve.” If so, the ideas the Senate will begin voting on tonight could mark a milestone in that journey.