Health Reform Assumes its Role as a Punching Bag

Health Reform Assumes its Role as a Punching Bag

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Remember death panels? Politicians have found a new reason to use the health care reform law as a punching bag.

The Independent Payments Advisory Board (IPAB) will be a 15-member expert panel appointed by the president and approved by the Senate that is charged with coming up with ways of cutting Medicare spending when payments grow significantly faster than the rest of the economy.

Last week, President Obama, in his speech outlining his long-term plan for cutting the deficit, upped the ante for IPAB by ratcheting up the level of cuts the board could impose if the senior citizen health care program grew too fast. Congress, under the law, would have to substitute comparable cuts of its own, or the IPAB’s plan would go into effect.

It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. The New York Times reported this morning that politicians from both sides of the aisle are lining up not only to deep-six the president’s latest IPAB proposal, but to get rid of it entirely. Republicans like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin cried rationing. Democrats like Pete Stark of California said such decisions are better left in the hands of Congress.

Reps. Paul Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of Energy and Commerce, jumped on the anti-IPAB bandwagon today. In a letter to the president, they demanded to know what the president meant when he said IPAB should be given more tools to improve quality and lower costs by using “value-based insurance design.” “Would this require a statutory change given that IPAB is not currently allowed to consider changes to the Medicare benefit package?” they wrote.

It’s hard to take seriously complaints from politicians that an independent board set up by Congress will usurp the power of Congress. One of the reasons Medicare costs are out of control is that every effort to rein in spending in one Congress is usually overturned by subsequent Congresses. Look at the annual increase to physician fees, which a decade-old law says should be adjusted between specialties so the entire physician tab for seniors stays within the so-called sustainable growth rate. Year after year, Congress votes more money so no doctor gets a pay cut – call it the unsustainable growth rate.

The Camp-Upton complaint about value-based insurance design (VBID) baffled its architect, Dr. Mark Fendrick of the University of Michigan. His Center for Value-Based Insurance Design, located in their home state, briefed both Congressmen on the concept, Fendrick said in an e-mail.

VBID is an insurance payment system that raises co-pays on services of lower medical value. It has been successfully used by many companies to lower drug costs and to send a powerful economic signal about what tests and procedures are considered medically wasteful. In other words, Medicare, if it adopted VBID for the entire program, would still pay for everything in the benefit package. But beneficiaries would pay more for tests, images, procedures and drugs that experts consider of dubious worth. 

The rationing charge raised by Ryan and an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal is more serious and must be addressed if the IPAB is going to survive. “The so far unidentified technocratic reforms of 15 so far unidentified geniuses” will result in Medicare “arbitrarily paying less for the services seniors receive, via fiat pricing,” which would inevitably lead to “political rationing of care for the elderly, as now occurs in Britain,” the editorial said. “Or else the board will drive prices so low that many doctors and hospitals will drop out of Medicare.”

Yet that’s not the position of the health insurance industry, which understands that holding down costs in Medicare is crucial to holding down costs in plans purchased through private employers. Every major insurance company already has its own panel of experts determining what it will pay for, insurance company executives say. “The idea of having experts making recommendations on how to bring down medical costs is a good idea,” said Robert Zirkelbach, the chief spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade group. “The question is whether it will do it or not.”

The problem, according to insurers, isn’t in IPAB, but in the way it was set up. The law exempted the hospital sector from its purview in exchange for a limited pledge to cut costs over the next decade to help the president reach reform’s $500 billion goal. “If there’s going to be an entity to look at costs, you can’t exempt the biggest driver, the hospitals,” Zirkelbach said.

The IPAB “can’t order the system transformations that we need like care coordination and a focus on chronic conditions,” said Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of public health at Emory University. “So the only thing they can really do is cut payment rates.”

In other words, the problem isn’t that IPAB has too much power. It’s that it doesn’t have enough.

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spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.