On Monday, January 23rd, Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the Patient Freedom Act of 2017 (“PFA”), the first of what may be many Republican Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) “replacement” alternatives. The PFA is notable for several reasons. It is the first replacement plan to be introduced in the 115th Congress, it is sponsored by Senators who are considered comparatively moderate on health issues, and thus its content may represent an opportunity for compromise in the future, and, perhaps most interestingly, does not actually repeal the ACA. The overarching feature of the PFA is that it allows states to control which course they chart for health reform.

The ACA: What Stays and What Goes  

If enacted, the PFA would eliminate the majority of the provisions contained in Title I of the ACA. This includes the individual and employer mandates, the community rating provision, essential benefits requirements, and the establishment of the health benefit exchanges. However, the ACA provisions the PFA retains are just as notable as the provisions it removes. The PFA maintains the bans on lifetime and annual coverage limits, maintains the ACA ban on coverage exclusions based on preexisting conditions, continues to permit dependents to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26, keeps in place the ACA non-discrimination requirements, and maintains the ACA mental health parity coverage requirements. The PFA also does not repeal any provisions outside of Title I, leaving many features in place, such as Medicaid expansion and Medicare prescription drug plan provisions.

State Options

The PFA would shift the decision of how to implement health reform to individual states. The PFA allows states to choose between three options: 1) maintain the current ACA model using subsidies and health benefit exchanges to provide insurance coverage; 2) enact a market-based option or “state alternative;” or 3) select to design its own health system without federal funding. If a state fails to select one of the options by a certain date they will be deemed to have selected the market based option.

Option 1: Keep the ACA

States that elect to continue to operate under the ACA will be treated as if the changes to Title I of the Act in the PFA were never enacted. This will allow states to maintain health benefits exchanges and for eligible enrollees to receive federal subsidies and cost sharing reductions to purchase coverage from qualified health plans (“QHPs”). However, States may see a reduction in the exchange subsidies and costs sharing reductions available to enrollee as the PFA includes an additional provision designed to align federal funding between ACA states and states that elect the new market-based approach.

Option 2: Market-Based Approach

The market-based approach, or “State Alternative” option, will allow states to essentially shift residents enrolled in QHPs and potentially Medicaid into a standard high-deductible health plan containing basic pharmaceutical coverage and some coverage for preventive care and free immunizations. Residents currently enrolled in QHPs will receive Roth health savings accounts (“HSAs”) funded through tax credits.  These tax credits will replace the advanced premium tax credits QHP-enrollees are currently eligible to receive with a tax credit that is similarly advanceable and refundable.  The tax credit is also adjustable based on the age, income, and geographic location of the enrollee.

States may also include the Medicaid expansion population under this market-based alternative, but only enrollees not otherwise eligible for Medicare coverage, and eligibility for federal Roth HSA contributions will be limited to those not enrolled in a federal healthcare or veterans benefit program. States can either administer the market-based solution themselves or they can allow the federal government to administer the system. The total amount of the tax credits available under the market based approach will be equal to 95 percent of the total projected ACA premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies that the state would have otherwise received.

What’s Next and What to Watch?

The PFA is the first of what may be many Republican plans to replace the ACA. Reports indicate other members of Congress, including Senator Rand Paul, are expected to release alternative plans in the near future. It is unlikely that any one plan will be enacted in the form that it is introduced. However, significant insight into what ultimate changes may occur can be gained by monitoring how stakeholders- such as members of Congress, the administration, and governors- respond to the various provisions contained in these proposals. Health care entities should closely monitor the provisions that appear to have support among the various stakeholders to ensure that there is sufficient time to react and adapt to the changing health care environment.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on December 8-9, 2016. The purpose of this and other public meetings of MedPAC is for the commissioners to review the issues and challenges facing the Medicare program and then make policy recommendations to Congress. MedPAC issues these recommendations in two annual reports, one in March and another in June. MedPAC’s meetings can provide valuable insight into the state of Medicare, the direction of the program moving forward, and the content of MedPAC’s next report to Congress. At the annual December meeting MedPAC reviews draft recommendations to Congress regarding Medicare payment policy. MedPAC reviews and formalizes these recommendations during its January meeting.

As thought leaders in health law, Epstein Becker Green monitors MedPAC developments to gage the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the October meeting are as follows:

1. MedPAC discusses recommending that Congress update Medicare inpatient and outpatient payments by the amounts specified in current law.

MedPAC reviewed the inpatient and outpatient hospital payment adequacy. In doing so MedPAC reviewed beneficiary access to care, provider access to capital, quality of care, and the impact of cost growth on hospital margin. MedPAC found that beneficiary access to care is good, provider access to capital is strong, quality is improving, and that margin for inpatient and outpatient hospital services in Medicare was at 9%. This led the MedPAC make a draft recommendation that Congress update the inpatient and outpatient payments as currently specified in existing law.

2. MedPAC finds annual volume growth in the clinician services highest in five year period, but that beneficiary access to clinician services remained comparable to private health insurance.

In reviewing payment adequacy to physicians and other health professionals MedPAC staff found that the annual volume growth in clinician services was higher in 2015 than it was in the period from 2010-2014. The staff also found that the growth in services reflected a shift from freestanding offices to hospital based settings. However, despite the growth in volume MedPAC also found that Medicare beneficiaries have comparable access to clinician services as those with private insurance. Based on this MedPAC’s draft recommendation to Congress is that they should increase payment rates for physician and other health professional services as specified in current law.

3. MedPAC considers recommending changes to how Medicare pays for skilled nursing facility (SNF) services.

MedPAC’s review of the current SNF payment model found that Medicare fee-for-service payments remain higher then Medicare Advantage payments for services and that differences in beneficiary population across payment models does not explain the payment differences. They also found that the current payment model has resulted in a wide disparity in SNF margins partially due to the current payment model favoring intensive therapy over medically complex care. MedPac’s draft recommendation is for Congress to eliminate the market basket for 2018 and 2019 and direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the prospective payment system for SNFs.

4. MedPAC considers recommending Congress eliminate the update to Medicare hospice payments for 2018.

MedPAC review of the Medicare hospice benefit found that the number of hospice providers has continued to increase and that the number of Medicare beneficiaries utilizing hospice has also increased. Medicare hospice providers saw a marginal profit of 11% in 2014. Given the strength of marginal profit and the increase of in the number of hospice providers MedPAC’s draft recommendation is that Congress should eliminate the update to the hospice payment rates for fiscal year 2018.

5. MedPAC considers recommending changes to Medicare’s home health payment model, including reducing the total payment level.

MedPAC found that Medicare home health benefits have resulted in a provider margin of better than 16% in the 2001 to 2014 period. MedPAC also found that the current payment model may be creating inefficiencies in treatment by incentivize multiple therapy visits per episode. To address these areas MedPAC’s draft recommendation is that Congress should reduce payments by 5% in 2018, and implement a two year rebasing of the payment system, beginning in 2019. Further, MedPAC draft recommendation is that Congress should direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the PPS to eliminate the use of therapy visits as a factor in payment determinations, concurrent with rebasing.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on October 6-7, 2016. The purpose of this and other public meetings of MedPAC is for the commissioners to review the issues and challenges facing the Medicare program and then make policy recommendations to Congress. MedPAC issues these recommendations in two annual reports, one in March and another in June. MedPAC’s meetings can provide valuable insight into the state of Medicare, the direction of the program moving forward, and the content of MedPAC’s next report to Congress.

As thought leaders in health law, Epstein Becker Green monitors MedPAC developments to gage the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the October meeting are as follows:

1. While Accountable Care Organizations received high marks for quality they failed to produce Medicare savings in 2015.

MedPAC staff provided a status report on Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (“ACOs”). The report found that while ACOs received high marks for quality they failed to produce significant Medicare savings in 2015. Pioneer model ACOs produced net savings of only $5 million while Medicare Shared Savings ACOs cost the Medicare program $216 million. The MedPAC staff conducted a review of the ACO data and found that ACOs in the south, those that are physician led, and are smaller in size were more likely to produce savings. However, the most important variable was the historic level of service use in the area where the ACO was located. Regions with a high historic use of services had more success producing savings.

2. MedPAC finds the rate of potentially avoidable hospital admissions varied significantly among long-stay nursing facilities.

As part of an ongoing project to develop measures to properly evaluate initiatives aimed at reducing the number of hospital admissions and use of skilled nursing facilities among long-stay nursing facility residents, MedPAC staff found a wide discrepancy among nursing facility providers. Overall the staff found that in 2014 long-stay nursing residents accounted for 200,000 “potentially avoidable” hospital admissions and 20 million days of skilled nursing facility care. They found that nursing facilities with fewer than 100 beds and rural nursing facilities made up a disproportionate share of facilities with high potentially avoidable hospital admission rates. The data showed that some facility-level characteristics affected the rate of potentially avoidable hospital admissions; facilities with higher portions of hospice days and access to x-ray services on site had lower potential avoidable admissions, and facilities with a higher use of licensed practical nurses and lower frequency of physician visits had higher rates of hospital use.

3. MedPAC considering suggesting changes to Part B drug payment policies.

MedPAC discussed a number of policy options with respect to the Part B drug payments. The options the Commission discussed sought to either increase price competition and address the growth in Part B prices or improve the current payment formula and available data.  The polices designed to increase price completion and address price growth  included: consolidating billing codes for drugs and biologics with similar health effects, limit the growth in drug prices based on inflation, and introduced a restructured competitive acquisition program. The policies designed to improve the payment formula and improve available data included: modifying the average sale price add-on formula, modifying the wholesale accusation cost formula, and strengthen the manufacture reporting requirements. MedPAC is expected to continue to actively work towards developing policy recommendations regarding Part B drug payment reforms.

4. MedPAC continues to develop a premium support model to reward high quality plans and ACOs and incentivize beneficiaries to seek out high quality care.

As part of its efforts to develop a payment model that rewards high quality care and incentivizes beneficiaries to seek high quality care MedPAC continued its discussion of alternative quality measures that could be used across the Medicare delivery system. Under this alternative model Medicare would use a smaller number of population based health outcomes and patient experience to measures to measure quality across the delivery spectrum (including fee-for service). The Commission suggests that these quality measures be collected at a local market level; each market will then be given a quality benchmark based on the measures. Medicare Advantage (“MA”) plans and ACOs which have quality scores that are higher than the benchmark would see an increased federal contribution to lower beneficiary premiums, with the hope of pushing more beneficiaries into higher quality delivery systems based on the lower beneficiary premiums.

5. MedPAC is considering how to improve Medicare’s behavioral health benefits.

MedPAC staff gave an overview of behavioral health issues among Medicare beneficiaries and of highlighted potential areas for programmatic improvement. The staff suggested Medicare improve payment of inpatient psychiatric care and work towards integrating primary care delivery and behavioral health services. MedPAC appears to be committed to dedicating more resources towards developing policy options for achieving these suggestions in the future.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on September 8-9, 2016. The purpose of this and other public meetings of MedPAC is for the commissioners to review the issues and challenges facing the Medicare program and then make policy recommendations to Congress. MedPAC issues these recommendations in two annual reports, one in March and another in June. MedPAC’s meetings can provide valuable insight into the state of Medicare, the direction of the program moving forward, and the content of MedPAC’s next report to Congress.

As thought leaders in health law, Epstein Becker Green monitors MedPAC developments to gage the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the September meeting are as follows:

  1. MedPAC expects Medicare spending growth to outpace GDP, with total Medicare spending to reach approximately $1 trillion by 2025
    MedPAC began its September meeting with a discussion of the projected growth in the Medicare program. Although the growth in both Medicare and overall health care spending slowed from 2009 to 2013, the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) and the Medicare Trustees (“Trustees”) project that total Medicare spending will return to growing at a rate that outpaces gross domestic product (“GDP”) growth. Driven by an increase in both enrollment and per beneficiary spending, the CBO and Trustees project that total Medicare spending will grow at an average rate of 7 percent annually through 2025; if these projections are accurate, the Medicare program will almost double in size—from $600 billion in 2015 to approximately $1 trillion 2025.
  2. MedPAC predicts the trends in Medicare to trigger action from the Independent Payment and Advisory Board in 2017
    MedPAC staff expects the growth in Medicare spending to trigger action from the Independent Payment and Advisory Board (“IPAB”) at some point in 2017. Created by the Affordable Care Act, IPAB is an independent board tasked with proposing Medicare policies designed to reduce spending growth. As of now, no one has been appointed to IPAB. If there are no members when Medicare growth triggers IPAB action, IPAB’s authority will transfer to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Secretary will then be required to fulfill IPAB’s role, and the Secretary’s savings proposals will automatically become law unless Congress affirmatively acts to block the proposals.
  3. Physician practice sizes continue to grow, and a greater number are affiliating with health systems and hospitals
    MedPAC staff, using the SK&A Office-based physician database (a commercial database file with information on almost 600,000 physicians), determined that the number of physicians who reported as affiliated with a health system or hospital rose from 34 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2014. Over that same time period, the percentage of physicians working in practices with more than 50 physicians grew from 16 percent to 22 percent. MedPAC plans to look deeper into the size and affiliation of physician practice groups, including the geographic distribution of practice groups, to more accurately understand the infrastructure needed to move towards alternative payment models.
  4. MedPAC will focus on recommending steps for adjusting the clinician fee schedule to address “misvalued” services
    MedPAC expressed concern that certain clinician services, mainly primary care, are undervalued and undercompensated as a part of the clinician fee schedule. Accordingly, MedPAC will continue to look at recommendations to improve the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (or “RUC”) process and make suggestions to increase payment for primary care services, including a potential partial capitation payment for primary care services.
  5. MedPAC is considering how to evaluate initiatives for reducing avoidable hospitalizations of long-stay nursing facility residents
    MedPAC staff gave an overview of provider initiatives to reduce avoidable hospitalizations of nursing facility residents. These initiatives included efforts made in conjunction with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation that feature a new three-part payment model. The new model will make payments to facilities for providing treatment for qualified conditions, increase payments to clinicians for providing treatment in nursing facilities, and establish a new payment to providers who conduct care coordination in nursing facilities. MedPAC is planning on developing measures to evaluate the success of these initiatives at reducing cost and improving beneficiary care.