United States Capitol Building - Washington, DC.

Congress Should Insulate the Indian Health Service from the Next Government Shutdown

By Matthew B. Lawrence

Contributors to Bill of Health’s symposium on Recommendations for a Biden/Harris Health Policy Agenda have made a number of excellent suggestions. I have one more policy suggestion to add and endorse: Congress should adopt the Biden Administration’s recent proposal to insulate the Indian Health Service from future government shutdowns.

A service population of 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives rely on the federally-funded Indian Health Service (IHS). The IHS is one of several trust obligations that the U.S. government owes Native peoples as a result “of Native Americans ceding over 400 million acres of tribal land to the United States pursuant to promises and agreements that included providing health care services,” as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights put it.

Yet the IHS is dependent entirely on annual one-year appropriations from Congress. That means that the House and the Senate must come together, on time, every single year on an appropriations package, for the IHS to continue all its operations.

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U.S. Capitol Building at Night

Advantages of Using the Congressional Review Act to Revoke Health Care Waivers

By Matthew B. Lawrence

The Trump Administration has granted health care waivers that the Biden Administration will surely look to end, including work requirement waivers that the Supreme Court is going to consider in Azar v. Gresham. How the Biden Administration approaches this task may set precedents that last far into the future, which is one argument in favor of considering the Congressional Review Act as a potential path forward.

Waivers are a huge part of health policy. They entail a state seeking approval from the federal government to make various changes to ACA or Medicaid programs. Waivers are normally approved for several years at a time, and routinely renewed. They foster experimentation, and are also (or especially) a tool the federal government uses to steer national health policy by pushing states to adopt some reforms and not others, as I explain in a forthcoming article.

Over at the Yale Journal of Regulation blog, I describe how the Congressional Review Act (CRA) could potentially be used to revoke health care waivers (like community engagement, aka work requirement, waivers).

In brief, the CRA is a way Congress can change the law to revoke agency actions without the votes necessary to override a filibuster. The CRA might be a cleaner alternative for revoking health care waivers than administrative revocation by the Biden Administration. One big policy advantage of this route is that it wouldn’t come back to haunt health policy. Revocations through the administrative process would set a precedent that could undermine the stability of all waivers, but revocations through the CRA would not.

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Graduate Students, ACA Section 2714, and Medical Debt

Special guest post by Marissa Lawall 

Arguably the most popular provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), section 2714 (42 U.S.C. § 300gg-14) provides that individuals may stay on their parent’s insurance plan until they are twenty-six years of age. A 2013 Commonwealth Fund survey found 7.8 young adults gained new or better insurance through this ACA provision, and a repeat survey in 2016 found the uninsured rate for young adults, ages 19-34, dropped from 28% to 18%. On its face, it is difficult to find any harm caused by this provision. Healthy young people have insurance, despite continuing education or lack of gainful employment, and are presumably lowering costs by being in the risk pool. However, this provision can lead to unforeseen pitfalls, including medical debt, because of the way it interacts with the growing trend of increased cost sharing and narrow networks.  These trends acutely impact students in higher education, because students who study even a modest distance from their parents’ home are unlikely to have access to nearby “in-network” providers, and because students’ medical needs more often tend to come in the form of unexpected emergencies.  In this post, I will highlight my personal experience with Section 2714, as a graduate student, and explore policy and possibilities for reform.

An Emergency and a Choice: Applying Section 2714

Like many young adults, I remained on my parents’ insurance when I went to college. Specifically, I remained on my mom’s insurance because I was in law school and continue to be an advocate for the ACA program. But when my mom began a new job at a different hospital her insurance changed and so did the medical network. The only “in network” coverage was through the hospital that employed her, and that was hour and forty-five minutes away. I didn’t view this as an issue until the unexpected happened. Read More

Recovery Navigators: How an Overlooked ACA Program Could Be a Tool in Addressing the Opioid Crisis

By Matthew J.B. Lawrence

benefits

Research indicates that one of many challenges in addressing the opioid epidemic is getting people who are theoretically eligible for government-funded drug abuse treatment through CHIP or Medicaid to actually make use of those programs when their sickness or circumstances give them a window of opportunity to try to get help. The hassle of actually enrolling in these programs—knowing they are there, filling out the paperwork, having access to available information, and having the patience to navigate the process—is one impediment. The ACA’s sometimes-overlooked “Navigator” program could help. The ACA provision creating the program is broad enough for HHS to use it to award grants to community groups to serve as recovery navigators, enrolling addicts in Medicaid, CHIP, or Exchange coverage for substance abuse treatment.

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Regulating Wellness Through Employers: Mitigating the Knowledge Gap

Some of the behavioral changes that the Affordable Care Act seeks to bring about are prompted directly by the Act or a federal agency acting pursuant to the Act.  The “individual mandate” that people buy health insurance is one example; individuals who do not change their behavior to comply with that particular provision of the law are subject to a tax penalty imposed by the IRS.

But much of the work of the ACA is done through regulatory intermediaries that are themselves incentivized by the Act to find ways to bring about the end-user behavioral changes that the ACA is really after.  Medicaid expansion is a straightforward example–under the ACA the federal government does not provide insurance coverage to those who make less than 133% of the federal poverty line, rather, it incentivizes states to do so.  Accountable Care Organizations are another somewhat more roundabout example: the Act incentivizes doctors to form organizations that will themselves incentivize doctors to coordinate care and patients to obtain more value-maximizing services.

Like any principal-agent relationship, regulating through an intermediary has benefits and costs.  The intermediary (state, employer, insurer, doctor, etc.) may be differently positioned than the federal government to obtain information about, and influence the behavior of, the actors whose collective behavior we ultimately care about, for better or worse.  And certain intermediaries may be differently responsive to the concerns of those impacted by the policies they enact than the federal government, again for better or worse. Read More

Exploring The Significant State-To-State Variation In Marketplace Enrollment

This new post by the Petrie-Flom Center’s Academic Fellow Matthew J. B. Lawrence appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

What role did geography, advertising, community, Navigators, and the controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) play in consumers’ decisions whether to purchase health insurance in the individual marketplaces? The percentage of potential exchange marketplace enrollees who actually made use of the marketplace to purchase insurance varied widely from state to state for 2014 and 2015.

As of February 22, 2015, for example, there were eight states with enrollment at 50 percent or greater and eight states with enrollment at 25 percent or lower. (Per the Kaiser Family Foundation, the top eight were Vermont, Florida, Maine, DC, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. The bottom eight were Colorado, Ohio, Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa).

It would be an interesting and challenging task to explain this variation empirically. Generating reliable statistical inferences from inter-state comparisons is notoriously difficult, and the variables at play here range from the easily measured (percent of population eligible for subsidies, navigator grant amounts, number of participating insurers, premiums) to the not-so-easily measured (enthusiasm for Obamacare, efficacy of state or federal outreach efforts, geography, education, availability and usefulness of charity care and emergency Medicaid, functionality of state exchange website, population health, availability of health services). […]

Read the full post here.

Death Spirals…to the Rescue!

We’ve heard a lot about “death spirals” and how they could stand in the way of the Affordable Care Act’s goal of a functioning individual health insurance marketplace.  Seth Chandler has an interesting blog devoted to the subject, “ACA Death Spiral.”  And those who have been following King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court’s latest ACA case, have been predicting that a ruling against the government there would be disastrous because it would only exacerbate the “death spiral” threat to individual health insurance markets.  (See a sum-up of such predictions here.)

But could death spirals save the ACA?  According to a fascinating amicus brief filed in the King case by a number of interest groups and co-signed by several prominent law professors and Bill of Health contributors (I understand that Abigail Moncrieff is the driving force behind the brief, joined by Allison Hoffman, Sharona Hoffman, Russell Korobkin, Joan Krause, Stephen Marks,  Kevin Outterson, and Theodore Ruger), the answer might be yes.  The argument boils down to “death spirals to the rescue.”  (Here is a copy: 14-114 bsac JALSA.)

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Against Hearings in Medicare?

As the backlog of Medicare appeals indicates, Medicare claimants are seeking many more hearings than we can currently provide. The mismatch makes a fundamental question particularly acute: Why do we hold hearings to review Medicare coverage decisions in the first place?

It’s a question worth asking. The Affordable Care Act mandated that denials of private health insurance coverage be reviewed by external, contract medical specialists, without a hearing. (See here.) If we are comfortable with private, sometimes profit-motivated coverage decisions obtaining external review review by someone other than an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), without a hearing, why do we feel differently about Medicare coverage decisions? Read More

Problems with Medicare’s Settlement Methods

One option for dealing with the backlog of Medicare claims waiting for a hearing is to settle them. That’s up to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals that actually oversees the process, so it’s not an administrative fix that the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals could actually implement alone. But it is worth considering, and the CMS has shown an openness to it by going along with the proposal for facilitated settlement and by offering to settle a big chunk of pending inpatient hospital admission disputes for 68 cents on the dollar. (See Nick Bagley’s post at the incidental economist.)

These settlement efforts have received some high-level scrutiny, however. Last month Representative Brady, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Subcommittee on Health, sent the HHS a strongly-worded letter after the inpatient hospital settlement was announced, arguing that the settlement may exceed CMS’s statutory authority, among other problems. (See the letter linked here (“I question whether HHS has statutory authority for this settlement process.”)

I tend to share Congressman Brady’s skepticism.  Read More

Upcoming Medicare Forum on Appeals Backlog, Posts

Next week (on October 29) Medicare’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) is holding another appellant forum to discuss the ongoing backlog of Medicare claims waiting for a hearing.  In one sense, a lot has happened since the last forum in February (I covered that here): OMHA announced pilot projects to try statistical sampling and facilitated settlement in some cases (see here and here); CMS (effectively the “defendant” for settlement purposes in these appeals; functionally independent from OMHA) announced a willingness to settle a subset of pending inpatient hospital billing claims for 68 cents on the dollar (see Nick Bagley’s post at the incidental economist); the backlog came up at a couple congressional hearings; and two lawsuits were filed to challenge it, one by providers (see here) and another by beneficiaries (see here).

In another sense, not that much has happened. Unless Thursday’s forum brings big news—and I know that OMHA and CMS have been working hard on reforms so perhaps it will—there is still a big backlog of Medicare appeals, there is still not a resource fix in sight, and the influx of Medicare appeals seems to still far outstrip OMHA’s capacity to hold hearings.

In advance of the forum, I’m planning a series of posts offering my thoughts, such as they are, on where we are and where we are going. I invite anyone who disagrees or thinks I’ve gotten something wrong to post their own views in the comments. Or you can email me and I will look into sharing your thoughts as an independent posting. You can get all my posts on this subject, including new ones as they come in, by clicking here.

A caveat: I’m approaching these as blog posts—trying to get my educated thoughts based on everything I have read out in a timely way—but I might be missing something. If the upcoming forum or comments reveal that I am–I won’t be there in person but will be watching remotely–I will either post a general update or go add particular updates in the text of my posts as necessary.

And a disclosure: I’ve said this before but want to do it once more again before pontificating—I worked in government until a little over a year ago, so my views on these matters may be biased. (And of course I will not discuss anything I worked on.)  But I’ve done my best to be objective.