The Center's work on 'Health Policy' Issues

The Center works to ensure that federal and state health insurance programs provide coverage that meets the health care needs of low-income children and families, as well as seniors and people with disabilities. The Center also works to remove barriers preventing eligible families from gaining access to health coverage.

A Congressional Budget Dictionary

March 27, 2015 at 10:03 am

Congressional Republicans are using complicated — and likely poll-tested — language to make their budget plans’ deep spending cuts and dramatic structural changes in key programs for low- and moderate-income people sound benign and even positive.

As Budget Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) noted before the plans’ release, “From the standpoint of a budget, the less words of the English language you use, the better off you are.”

While it’s common practice for lawmakers to use language that puts their plans in the best possible light, it’s important to understand exactly what they mean.  Here are three key “translations”:

The House budget summary says:
It will make Pell Grants, which help more than 8 million students from low- and modest-income families afford college, “permanently sustainable.”

This turns out to mean:
The House budget would institute sharp funding cuts in Pell Grants, which in turn would make it harder for millions of students to afford college at a time when those costs are rising quickly.  Over time, this likely would reduce economic opportunity and the readiness of the U.S. workforce.

The House budget summary says:
The budget would convert both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid to “State Flexibility Funds.”  It states that this would give state governments “the power to administer [SNAP] in ways that best fit the needs of their communities with greater incentives to achieve better results,” and also would “empower state policymakers to tailor their Medicaid programs based on the unique challenges they face.”

This means:
The budgets would convert SNAP and much or all of Medicaid to “block grants,” with fixed — and sharply reduced — federal funding.

The programs would no longer respond automatically to increased need due to rising poverty and unemployment during economic downturns.  And the combination of block grants and big funding cuts would leave states having to figure out whose benefits to cut or terminate.  The magnitude of the cuts would leave them without good options.  The SNAP cuts would force states to shrink or eliminate food assistance for millions of low-income families, while the Medicaid cuts would force them to make eligibility and benefit cuts that would likely leave millions of beneficiaries uninsured or underinsured (on top of the loss of coverage that millions of poor Americans would face due to the House and Senate budget plans’ repeal of health reform and its Medicaid expansion).

Finally, sometimes even silence needs a translation.  The House and Senate budgets make no mention of extending crucial provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) for low- and modest-income working people now slated to expire at the end of 2017.

This means:
The plans would allow these provisions to expire,  thereby pushing more than 16 million people — including almost 8 million children — into or deeper into poverty and squandering the opportunity to help promote work, reduce poverty, and support children’s development.

Once you get beyond the euphemisms and flowery language, a clear agenda stands out in these plans:  shrinking government in substantial part through steep reductions in programs for low- and moderate-income Americans that, in turn, would lead to higher levels of poverty and inequality, less opportunity, and a future workforce that’s less able to compete with its counterparts overseas.

Despite Anti-Fraud Rhetoric, Republican Budgets Omit Funding to Combat Fraud and Abuse

March 25, 2015 at 5:00 am

The budgets that the House and Senate will consider this week leave out the funding that the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) specifically allows for “program integrity” activities to fight fraud and abuse in Medicare, Medicaid, and disability programs, despite the fact that these activities have a proven track record of saving money.  This action stands in contrast to Republican claims that their budgets will make government spending more “efficient and effective.”

Both the House and Senate budgets fail to include the $1.166 billion in funding the BCA sanctions in 2016 for reducing overpayments and fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, and the $395 million for combatting Medicare and Medicaid fraud.  Congress provided the allowed amounts for fiscal year 2015 — $1.123 billion to combat fraud and overpayments in the disability programs and $361 million to address Medicare and Medicaid fraud — but under the new House and Senate budgets, this funding would end.

These program integrity activities have been found to save substantial sums, reduce program costs, and thereby lower budget deficits.  For example, a key use of program integrity funding for Social Security and SSI is to conduct “continuing disability reviews” to weed out beneficiaries who have recovered from their impairments.  The Social Security actuaries have found that these reviews save about $10 for every $1 they cost.

Similarly, program integrity activities to detect and stop erroneous payments and outright fraud in Medicare and Medicaid (including payments to doctors and hospitals that improperly bill or overbill the programs) saved about $8 for each dollar spent on such efforts in 2012-2014.

The funds in question are the amounts the BCA specifically allows for designated program integrity activities with a proven track record of saving money.  Because these activities yield savings significantly exceeding their cost, the BCA allows specified amounts for these program integrity efforts that don’t count against the BCA’s austere appropriations caps.

Many Republican lawmakers have been vocal in criticizing various programs for people who have disabilities or low-income families by charging that the programs are marked by fraud and abuse.  This can make good political and campaign rhetoric.  Now comes the question:  will they put their money where their mouths are?

Even if the budget resolutions do not include these funds, the Appropriations Committees may still be able to provide them when they write the annual appropriations bills.  That would be the right thing to do.

House Bill to Extend Children’s Health Funding Would Ease Pressure on States

March 24, 2015 at 2:27 pm

The House is likely to vote this week on a bipartisan compromise to permanently fix Medicare’s flawed physician payment formula (SGR) and extend federal funding and current policy for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for two years.  The continued momentum for extending CHIP funding quickly and cleanly is important not only for the millions of children who rely on the program for health coverage, but also for states and their budgets.

Six state legislative sessions have already ended, and Kentucky will become the seventh when it adjourns today.  So while lawmakers have yet to make new federal funding for CHIP available starting in October, states are passing budgets for the next fiscal year — which in most states begin on July 1 — nowRepublican and Democratic governors alike have called for CHIP funding certainty and quick extension.

Each week that passes without congressional action on CHIP places states in a tougher position.  For example, a recent survey of state CHIP directors found that if uncertainty about the program’s funding persists, states will have to pursue contingency plans that reflect the risk that no new federal CHIP funding will be available, such as how to move kids out of CHIP coverage and how to inform families that coverage could end.

To be sure, it would be better if the House bill extended federal CHIP funding for four years in order to ensure longer-term stability for the program and the children it serves (and robust efforts are expected to secure that in the Senate once the House bill is passed).  Nevertheless, the House bill does right by states and kids in other critical aspects.  Most importantly, the House bill maintains program improvements that Congress made in 2009 and 2010, while leaving out proposals floated by House and Senate committee chairs last month that would likely cost many children their coverage while shifting costs to states.

House Bill Makes Permanent Medicare Premium Assistance for Low-Income Beneficiaries

March 24, 2015 at 11:24 am

The compromise legislation that House Republican and Democratic leaders unveiled today to permanently fix Medicare’s flawed physician payment formula and extend funding and current policy for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through 2017 has another important feature — it would also make permanent the Qualifying Individuals (QI) program, which helps low-income Medicare beneficiaries pay their premiums and is otherwise slated to expire at the end of March.

QI is one of the Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs) through which Medicaid helps low-income Medicare beneficiaries pay their Medicare premiums and/or other cost-sharing charges.  QI covers the annual Medicare Part B premiums for beneficiaries with incomes between 120 percent and 135 percent of the poverty line (roughly $14,100-$19,100 for singles and $15,900-$21,500 for couples).  The program helps more than half a million near-poor seniors and people with disabilities pay their premiums.

Policymakers periodically need to extend QI — unlike the other MSPs, which are permanent features of Medicaid — and it’s once again scheduled to expire.  In finally making QI permanent, the House legislation would ensure that QI beneficiaries can continue to receive benefits, which are worth about $1,260 in 2015, over the long run.  Moreover, because people enrolled in QI are automatically enrolled in the Medicare drug benefit’s Low-Income Subsidy, which helps low-income beneficiaries with their premiums and cost-sharing for their drug coverage, they’d be assured of continuing to receive that assistance as well.

The House Budget Committee Plan — Not Medicaid — Makes Empty Promises

March 23, 2015 at 4:57 pm

The House Budget Committee’s budget plan, which the House will consider on the floor this week, states that “Medicaid’s promises are empty,” claiming that beneficiaries don’t have health care providers who will see them and thus don’t have access to needed care.

That’s not true; research shows that Medicaid beneficiaries have access to care comparable to that of private insurance.  In fact, it’s the House budget plan that offers the empty promises to the tens of millions of people who rely on Medicaid.  The plan’s proposal to block-grant Medicaid and cut federal Medicaid funding deeply will harm millions of low-income children and families, people with disabilities, and seniors by forcing states to cut eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.  That will add millions to the ranks of uninsured or underinsured, and take away their access to needed treatments and services.  (That’s not even counting the effect of repealing health reform’s Medicaid expansion.)

The House Budget Committee plan says that states will be given “flexibility” to make more choices about their Medicaid programs to best suit their needs.  But with a federal funding cut of $913 billion over the next decade — and the cut exceeding one-third by the tenth year relative to current law (see chart) — states’ only choices will be deciding what cuts to make.

For example:

  • How much will they lower or eliminate eligibility for low-income parents? (These cuts will adversely affect children covered by Medicaid as research shows that covering parents helps ensure that their children receive care);
  • How deeply will they cut payments to pediatricians, and how much will that limit access to care for children on Medicaid?
  • Can they continue to provide personal care services that help people with disabilities get ready for work?
  • Can they continue to provide any targeted care coordination services to beneficiaries with chronic conditions, which improve recipients’ health outcomes and save states money in the long-term?
  • If they cut payments to nursing homes, how much will the quality of care provided to seniors with long-term care needs fall?

The House Budget Committee’s plan offers “flexibility,” but in reality it promises to pass the buck, forcing states to make draconian cuts targeted on their most vulnerable residents.