Last week the Senate agreed to vote on Marilyn Tavenner’s nomination to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced an initiative that will give consumers information on what hospitals charge and posted an initial set of data on CMS’ website; two major Medicare authorizing committees launched significant sustainable growth rate (SGR) reform initiatives; HHS opened the door to a bifurcated exchange approach by allowing Utah to operate its small business exchange itself with the federal government operating the individual exchange; Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that their states would expand Medicaid; and the Florida legislature closed its session without passing a bill to expand Medicaid.
ON THE HILL
On May 10, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Finance Committee announced a hearing on May 14 to address ways to reform the SGR, including witness testimony from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission’s (MedPAC’s) Executive Director Mark Miller, health care consultant and former Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyst Bruce Steinwald, and the Brookings Institution’s Kavita Patel. It also solicited feedback in an open letter to stakeholders, which asks for specific solutions to improving the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. Submissions are due by May 31 to the dedicated mailbox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After repeated rejections from Congress for additional funds to set up the Affordable Care Act (ACA), HHS Secretary Sebelius has been reaching out over the past few months to ask health industry executives, community organizations and church groups to make donations to groups like Enroll America that are working to enroll those without insurance and increase awareness of the law. On May 11, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Alexander (R-Tenn.), said that Sec. Sebelius’s “fundraising and coordinating with private entities to implement the new health care law may be illegal.”
On May 8, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health discussed ideas for reforming Medicare’s SGR with a group of influential medical practitioners and experts. Subcommittee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said the system "fails to take into account the quality of the care provided or how efficiently that care was furnished." The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said "we need a policy that rewards quality, not just quantity. We need a policy that incentivizes team-based, coordinated care, with a strong primary care component."
On May 7, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he would allow Marilyn Tavenner’s nomination to head CMS to go forward. He had previously put a hold on Marilyn Tavenner’s nomination because he was upset about cuts the administration had made to the ACA’s prevention and public health fund. The Senate agreed to vote on Tavenner after an hour of debate, although a specific date for the vote has not been set.
Health care also has taken a place in the immigration debate in which Senators have been engaged. Part of the debate focuses on the economic impact of allowing undocumented illegal immigrants to become legal immigrants – many lawmakers have expressed concern over the cost of providing Medicare, Medicaid or subsidies for the new health marketplaces to a large group of newly legalized immigrants. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) filed an amendment that would bar the group from receiving ACA subsidies for five years after becoming legal. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) filed an amendment that would require HHS to ensure those with registered provisional immigration status are not receiving means-tested public benefits and would revoke the registered provisional immigrant status of anyone in that status convicted of fraudulently claiming or receiving federal means-tested benefits. Other lawmakers are concerned that if this group is denied these subsidies, some of them may get health care in emergency rooms, which could be more costly.
In response to instances of counterfeit drugs and stolen – and then spoiled – drugs being sold in pharmacies, Congress is working on “track and trace” legislation to help ensure the authenticity and safety of prescription drugs. Committees in the House and Senate have released draft versions of bills that would require manufacturers to place bar codes on packages of drugs they ship. The bar codes would be scanned by wholesalers and other middlemen on their way to the pharmacy, at which point the pharmacy would track the drug by its barcode to ensure its authenticity and safety.
On May 7, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) filed legislation to attempt to create more financial and efficiency accountability for Medicaid funding. The first version of Rep. Cassidy’s Medical Accountability and Care Act died in Congress last year.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said that the House will vote again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The House has already voted more than 30 times to repeal the law, but freshmen congressmen have not yet had an opportunity to vote on the issue.
Conservative House Republicans are exploring options for delaying the Affordable Care Act as part of the debt ceiling fight. Members of the Republican Study Committee met with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to inquire how much savings could be generated from delaying exchange and Medicaid expansion.
IN THE WHITE HOUSE
On May 10 in a Mother's Day-themed event at the White House, President Obama targeted women and young people to promote the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for women – free cancer screenings and contraceptives, among the major perks. President Obama urged mothers to encourage their adult children to sign up for the health insurance exchanges that open this fall.
On May 9, the Obama administration pledged $150 million for community health centers to provide in-person enrollment assistance to uninsured patients.
AT THE AGENCIES
On May 8, as part of the agency’s efforts to make health care more affordable and accountable, HHS Secretary Sebelius announced a three-part initiative that will, for the first time, give consumers information on what hospitals charge. New data was released and posted on the CMS website for the 100 most common Medicare inpatient stays, that shows significant variation across the country and within communities in what hospitals charge for common inpatient services.
HHS also announced that it has made about $87 million available to states to enhance their rate review programs and further health care pricing transparency. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit focused on public health issues, is planning a data visualization challenge that would further the dissemination of the data to a larger audience.
IN THE STATES
Notwithstanding the Missouri Governor’s support of Medicaid expansion, the Missouri legislature did not include expansion measures in its 2014 budget. Neither the state House or Senate included expansion in their blueprints. They have opted instead to create committees to study the issue for the remainder of the year and report on the impact of expansion in early 2014, which delays any decision on the matter to after the January 1 start date.
On May 9, the Idaho health insurance exchange board met. The board is working to determine how it can set up a state exchange even with very little done so far. It has been discussing possibly partnering with the federal government in some ways, while still remaining a “state-based exchange and remaining in control.”
On May 9, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced that his state will expand the Medicaid program to adults earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, covering an additional 300,000 people.
On May 9, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced that West Virginia would expand its Medicaid program, making him the 26th governor to back the expansion. Governor Tomblin’s office expects the expansion to cover more than 91,000 people in the state.
After months of discussions with state leaders in Utah, HHS agreed on May 10 to let the state run its own small business health exchange but for the federal government to run the individual exchange, as the state requested, potentially opening the door to a bifurcated exchange approach for other states as well.
California has delayed its plan to launch a program to test new ways to coordinate care for dual eligbiles.
IN THE COURTS
On May 7, Dr. Steven Hotze of Houston sued the United States over the Affordable Care Act. Dr. Hotze argues that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s origination and takings clause, which were not part of the arguments before the Supreme Court in June. He also argues that the ACA violates the constitutional requirement that revenue bills originate in the House.
IN THIRD PARTIES
The Urban Institute is out with a new proposal to curb deficit spending. The report says that capping the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health coverage could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The proposal is controversial, with some arguing that this would change the health insurance market.
An article from May’s issue of Health Affairs by David Cutler and Nikhil Sahni argued that if the slowed rate of health care spending growth persists, public-sector health spending will be as much as $770 billion less than predicted.
To view our compilation of recent health care reform implementation news, click here.