Bloomberg Businessweek – Ryan Medicaid Plan

The other Paul Ryan plan: $800B in Medicaid cuts

By By Ricardo Alonso Zaldivar on August 15, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — There’s another Paul Ryan plan for health care, a fundamental change in caring for the poor and disabled that would affect many more people than the Medicare overhaul the GOP vice presidential candidate is best known for.

Under the Wisconsin congressman’s Medicaid plan, states would take over the program. At the same time, Ryan’s budget would reduce projected federal spending on Medicaid by about $800 billion over 10 years, dramatically shrinking it as a share of the national economy.

Medicaid serves about 60 million people, roughly 10 million more than Medicare. It’s a diverse population brought together by need. Most Medicaid recipients are low-income children and their mothers, but the costliest cases are severely disabled people, many of them seniors in nursing homes.

Ryan would also repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, expected to add at least 11 million more people to Medicaid.

Ryan’s Medicaid plan is in sync with his new boss, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“Gov. Romney … believes that states are far better positioned to design programs that effectively serve those in need,” said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

But no matter who runs Medicaid, such cuts would result in millions of vulnerable people losing health insurance, according to advocates for the poor and some nonpartisan economic analysts.

“Medicaid is already a very lean program,” said Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income people. “It is not a program where you can magically glean huge efficiencies by just devolving it to the states. The only way to compensate for funding reductions of this magnitude would be to institute deep, damaging cuts to beneficiaries and the health care providers who serve them.”

Bring it on, says Wisconsin Health Secretary Dennis Smith, who oversees Medicaid in Ryan’s home state. Smith, who works for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, says states can cut costs without gutting services by running Medicaid more efficiently.

“Everybody agrees that there is excess cost in the health care system, so by golly, give us the flexibility to address it, and we will,” said Smith. “We can serve the people on Medicaid with the adjustments the Ryan budget. We can make that work.”

For example, Wisconsin is now charging some low-income adults a modest monthly premium for Medicaid, tapping a new funding source to pay for valuable benefits, Smith said. And the state is looking for ways to help frail elderly people keep living at home, avoiding the costly alternative of a nursing home.

Growing enrollment has turned Medicaid into a big share of state budgets, and since Washington sets many of the rules, the program is a source of constant tension between federal and state governments. On average, the federal government pays about 60 percent of Medicaid costs, and states cover the rest. The Supreme Court recently gave some latitude to states chafing at Obama’s health care law, saying they are free to opt out of its Medicaid expansion.

Obama has largely shielded Medicaid from cuts in budget negotiations with Congress. But his administration has proposed new ways to allocate funding that could be used to dial back the federal share.

Ryan’s plan goes beyond tweaking. It would essentially rip up the Medicaid manual and start all over again. States would get a lump sum from Washington, a “block grant” indexed to reflect population growth and inflation. The idea has governors split along party lines.

Ryan’s Medicare plan, shifting future retirees to private insurance, would phase in over a decade or more. The Medicaid changes would come much more rapidly. The proposal has not been fleshed out, leaving many unanswered questions. For example:

—What happens if a state’s economy tanks?

Under current law, the federal Medicaid share is pegged to program enrollment, not population growth, said John Holahan, director of the Health Policy Center at the nonpartisan Urban Institute. That means federal funding increases when the Medicaid rolls swell. But under Ryan’s plan, “there are no provisions to automatically deal with recessions,” said Holahan. “The demand for Medicaid goes up at the same time state revenue is going down.”

—Would low-income and disabled people still have a legal right to coverage?

Converting Medicaid into a block grant would end the current right to coverage under federal law, and it remains unclear what rights could be preserved. Most analysts say states would insist on the flexibility to reduce their Medicaid rolls. The Urban Institute estimates that between 14 million and 27 million people would lose coverage because of Ryan’s spending restrictions.

—What sorts of safeguards would remain in place for seniors in need of nursing home care?

Although frail elderly people must spend down most of their savings before they can qualify for Medicaid, a federal law shields spouses from becoming impoverished. It’s unclear what would take its place.

Supporters of state control say governors and legislatures are closer to the people and would not harm their own constituents.

Back in Ryan’s state, the jury is still out.

Medicaid covers nearly 1 in 5 Wisconsin residents, and hospitals have a major stake in the outcome. Joanne Alig, senior vice president for policy with the Wisconsin Hospital Association, says they would need to know more about the plan to reach conclusions.

“While I think we are supportive of looking at alternatives to the Medicaid status quo, the devil’s in the details,” she said.

Feds Sidestep Stubborn GOP Govs to Build Health Insurance Exchanges

By The Associated Press

Posted 9:34AM 08/07/12

By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

WASHINGTON — Don’t look now: The feds may be outmaneuvering GOP governors who’ve balked at carrying out a key part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law.

Opponents of the law say they won’t set up new private health insurance markets called exchanges. But increasingly it’s looking like Washington will just do it for them.

That means federal officials could be calling the shots on some insurance issues that states traditionally manage, from handling consumer complaints to regulating plans that will serve many citizens.

Unless Mitt Romney wins in November, that could turn into a political debacle for those dug in to fight what they denounce as “Obamacare.”

“You’re kind of rolling the dice if you think [Obama’s health care law] will go away,” said Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a Republican. If Romney either doesn’t win or does, but can’t make good on his vow to repeal the overhaul, “you are just giving up a lot of authority.”

The law envisioned that states would run the new markets, or exchanges, with federal control as a fallback only. But that fallback now looks as if it will become the standard option in about half the states — at least initially.

It would happen through something called the federal exchange, humming along largely under wraps on a tight development schedule overseen by the Health and Human Services Department in Washington.

Exchanges are online markets in which individual consumers and small businesses will shop for health insurance among competing private plans. The Supreme Court’s health care decision left both state exchanges and the federal option in place.

The exchanges are supposed to demystify the process of buying health insurance, allowing consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Consumers will also be able to find out whether they’re eligible for new federal subsidies to help pay premiums, or whether they qualify for expanded Medicaid.

It’s all supposed to work in real time, or close to it, like online travel services. Open enrollment would start a little over a year from now, on Oct. 1, 2013, with coverage kicking in the following Jan. 1.

Eventually more than 25 million people are expected to get coverage through exchanges, including many who were previously uninsured. As exchanges attract more customers, competition among insurance plans could help keep costs in check.

But only 14 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted plans for their own exchanges: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. Some could still backtrack.

Kentucky and Minnesota are pushing forward with their own exchanges, and others may be able to partner with the federal government. States face a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for Washington to sign off on their plans.

Meanwhile, development of the federal exchange is advancing.

HHS contractors are working feverishly to design and test computer systems that would make the federal exchange come alive. It’s a top priority for the Obama administration, which is guarding the details closely. Estimated price tag: at least $860 million.

The government is “on track in moving aggressively to set up this market structure,” Mike Hash, the HHS official overseeing the effort, told industry representatives, state officials and public policy experts at a recent Bipartisan Policy Center conference. “We’re on track … to go live in the fall of 2013.”

“I think the pressure is on them to deliver, and I fully expect they will,” said Jon Kingsdale, who was the founding director of the nation’s first health insurance exchange, created under then-Gov. Romney’s health care overhaul in Massachusetts.

Now a consultant to states, Kingsdale says he expects the federal exchange to look very much like the one already operating in his home state.

There will be a website, and you’ll be able to put in your ZIP code and get a list of available health plans. There will be a section where you can find out whether you qualify for subsidies, or whether you might need to look at Medicaid. There will be cost calculators to allow you to compare different levels of coverage: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. There will be tools that allow you to see whether your doctor or hospital is with a particular plan.

In an interview, HHS official Hash said the government is undaunted by the prospect of running exchanges in half the states or more.

“What we are talking about building here is a system that is really using 21st century technology, and it’s not dependent like in the past on bricks and mortar or how many (federal employees) you have,” said Hash. “Information technology produces the opportunity for efficiency. It’s much more easily scalable if you need to do it for a larger number of individuals.”

Paper applications also will be accepted. And Hash expects people will have plenty of help to navigate the system, from volunteers to insurers advertising to reach new customers.

Medicare fraud busters unveil command center

Medicare fraud busters unveil command center

By By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and KELLI KENNEDY – 1 day ago 

BALTIMORE (AP) — Medicare’s war on fraud is going high-tech with the opening of a $3.6 million command center that features a giant screen and the latest computer and communications gear. That’s raising expectations, as well as some misgivings.

The carpeting stills smells new at the facility, which went live a week ago in a nondescript commercial office park on Baltimore’s outskirts. A couple dozen computer workstations are arrayed in concentric semicircles in front of a giant screen that can display data and photos, and also enable face-to-face communication with investigators around the country.

Medicare fraud is estimated to cost more than $60 billion annually, and for years the government has been losing a game of “pay and chase,” trying to recoup losses after scam artists have already cashed in.

Fraud czar Peter Budetti told reporters on a tour this week that the command center could be a turning point. It brings together in real time the geeks running Medicare’s new computerized fraud detection system with gumshoes deployed around the country. Imagine a kind of NCIS-Medicare, except Budetti says it’s not make-believe.

“This is not an ivory-tower exercise,” Budetti said. “It is very much a real-world one.”

But two Republican senators say they already smell boondoggle.

Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn say Medicare’s new computerized fraud detection system, a $77-million investment that went into operation last year, is not working all that well. In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, they questioned spending millions more on a command center, at least until the bugs get worked out.

“Institutionalizing relationships through establishing a (command) center may be useful, but if huge sums of money have indeed been spent on a video screen while other common-sense recommendations may have not been implemented due to ‘resource concerns,’ this seems to be a case of misplaced priorities,” wrote Hatch and Coburn. Insiders are telling them the screen alone cost several hundred thousand dollars, the senators say.

The two Republicans may have more than congressional oversight in mind. In an election year, Medicare fraud is an issue with older voters because it speaks to the Obama administration’s stewardship of the program.

Responded Budetti: “Our expectation is that this center will pay for itself many times over.”

Conducting what amounted to her first formal inspection on Tuesday, HHS Secretary Sebelius set the bar high for the command center, nothing less than the end of “pay and chase.”

“Preventing fraud and abuse is what this effort is about,” she said.

The government’s new antifraud computer system aims to adapt tools used by credit card companies to stop theft from Medicare and Medicaid. It was launched with great fanfare last summer. But by Christmas, it had stopped just one suspicious payment from going out, for $7,591. Administration officials say that shouldn’t be the only yardstick, and the system has made other valuable contributions.

Sebelius spoke with three groups of staffers during her visit Tuesday. One group was responsible for developing computer models to query billing data for suspicious patterns; another in charge of investigating data generated by the computer models, looking for mistakes as well as real fraud; and a third handling coordination with law enforcement around the country. The staffers said they expect the coordination to cut the time it takes to investigate suspected fraud schemes from months to days and weeks.

Hatch’s office says development of the computer models has lagged. Command center staffers told Sebelius the first-year goal is to have 40 such computerized anti-fraud queries to sift through millions of incoming claims.

The administration must report to Congress on the antifraud computer system later this year, an assessment that will first be independently reviewed by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office.

Hatch and Coburn say they have repeatedly pushed the administration for details and “the responses have been polite, but vague.”

Medicare scams have grown into sophisticated networks where crooks file millions of dollars in bogus claims and take off with the money. Sometimes they even manage to flee abroad to countries where the feds can’t touch them.