Will Cuts in Healthcare Save the Federal Budget?

Healthcare budget and policy experts are waiting for Washington to eventually face the difficult task of finding even more savings to cut the deficit.  They anticipate that health spending — which makes up more than 20 percent of the federal budget — will be targeted.  Some healthcare leaders are already planning to redirect a debate they’re expecting in 2013.  They hope to prevent spending from being shifted from one part of the system to another.  Jack Lewin, chief executive of the American College of Cardiology, said that proposals to address the basic causes of high healthcare costs have mostly been ignored in Washington.

“We talk about them all the time, but there’s nothing that we’re doing in any of these proposals to get that done,” Lewin said.  “What we would like to get on the table that’s not there is a paradigm shift in thinking about how you control costs.”  According to Thomas Scully, a former Medicare administrator under President George W. Bush and now a senior counsel at Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based law firm, “There’s going to be a Round Two (of cuts), but after the election, because of the economic pressures exerted by the national debt.”

Proposals include reducing payments to providers; asking beneficiaries to pay more for coverage; and raising the Medicare eligibility age.  The healthcare interests that might take another hit in 2013 want to start planning now.  Several key healthcare leaders – the majority of whom have been through other cost-cutting campaigns — say efforts to reduce spending too often transfer costs from the federal budget and individuals, insurers, doctors and hospitals.

These worries have caused “people from dramatically different quarters to start thinking about what to do to get their hands around this” and redirect the conversation, said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans.  “I’ve been talking to a range of stakeholders about how to work together…to urge policymakers to look at what’s already out there now and build on it.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is one element of this debate.  Administration officials and other supporters of the law say it will help drive down costs through initiatives designed to promote primary care, emphasize on preventive medicine, study treatments to evaluate their effectiveness and rate hospitals and other providers on quality.  Other healthcare authorities counter that the law will not strongly impact costs because its reforms are small and will mature incrementally.

Additionally, the law saves money by cutting Medicare payments to hospitals and other providers; it also places some unwelcome standards on health plans.  For example, insurers cannot reject people with pre-existing conditions, must justify rate increases of 10 percent or more, and send rebates to consumers if they don’t spend a minimum of 80 percent of premiums on healthcare.

Writing in the Washington Post, Drew Altman and Larry Levitt – both with the Kaiser Family Foundation — note that “Healthcare costs are driving people into poverty.  Indeed, if the burden of healthcare expenses were not taken into account, then 10 million fewer people would have been classified as poor.  One of the biggest jumps in poverty under the new method is among people with private health insurance.  We tend to think of such people, most of whom get coverage through their jobs, as being better equipped to handle the cost of getting sick.  But even those who are insured are increasingly vulnerable to high healthcare costs, in no small part because, as costs keep rising, employers have shifted more of the burden onto workers.  The share of employees with an insurance deductible of $1,000 or more for single coverage has tripled in the past five years.  The trend is especially strong among small businesses, where half of workers faced a deductible of at least $1,000 in 2011.  For those on the edge of poverty, a big medical bill could send you over it — even if you have insurance.  The effect of healthcare costs is particularly acute for the elderly, with the proportion of seniors living in poverty increasing from nine percent under the official census measure to 16 percent under the alternative measure.  An astounding 49 percent of seniors are living at or below twice the poverty level, a threshold at which people are still considered low-income (up from 35 percent under the official method).

“It’s up to us to get really serious with the agenda so that, when the time comes after the election, we are prepared to offer serious proposals that deal with costs and that do not impair the quality of care,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer group Families USA.

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