The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on April 6-7, 2017. 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 gauge the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the April meeting are as follows:

1. MedPAC unanimously passes a draft recommendation aimed at improving the current ASP payment system and developing the Drug Value Program as an alternative, voluntary program.

In the March meeting, MedPAC discussed a proposed recommendation to address the rapid growth in Part B drug spending. The short-term policy reforms for the current ASP payment system would be made in 2018, while the Drug Value Program would be created and phased in no later than 2022. MedPAC passes this draft recommendation unanimously with no changes. In the June report to Congress, MedPAC intends to add text to reflect more detail on certain issues, as well as other approaches and ideas for reducing Part B drug spending.

2. MedPAC discusses key issues addressed in a draft chapter on premium support in Medicare to appear in MedPAC’s June report.

MedPAC has developed a draft chapter on premium support in Medicare to serve as guidance if such a model were to be adopted. MedPAC does not take a position on whether such a model should be adopted for Medicare. A premium support model would include Medicare making a fixed payment for each beneficiary’s Part A and Part B coverage, regardless of whether the beneficiary enrolls in fee-for-service or a managed care plan. The beneficiary premium for each option would reflect the difference between its total cost and the Medicare contribution. The draft chapter addresses key issues for this model from previous MedPAC sessions, including the treatment of the fee-for-service program, standardization of coverage options, the calculation of benchmarks and beneficiary premiums, as well as a new proposal regarding premium subsidies for low-income beneficiaries. The draft chapter will be included in MedPAC’s June report to Congress.

3. MedPAC unanimously passes a draft recommendation for the implementation of a unified prospective payment system for post-acute care.

In the March meeting, MedPAC proposed a draft recommendation regarding a PAC PPS. During the discussion in the previous meeting, the percent of the reduction in aggregate payments was the largest point of contention. MedPAC decided the proposed 3% reduction was too low, and increased the reduction to aggregate payments to 5% for the finalized draft recommendation. MedPAC passes this draft recommendation unanimously with the change to the reduction of aggregate payments.

4. Regional variation in Medicare Part A, Part B, and Part D spending and service use

MedPAC compared its most current evaluation of geographic differences in Medicare Program spending and service use with calculations from previous years. The primary takeaway from the current data was that there was much less variation in service use relative to variation in spending.  Most of the service use variation in Part A and B services came from post-acute care.  Among Prescription Drug Plan (PDP) enrollees, drug use also varied less than drug spending.

5. Measuring low-value care in Medicare

MedPAC has been measuring the issue of low-value care, meaning services considered to have little or no clinical benefit, for the last three years. In June 2012, MedPAC had also recommended value-based insurance design, in which the Secretary could alter cost-sharing based on evidence of the value of services. In order to do so, however, CMS would first need information on how to define and measure low-value care.  MedPAC has been using 31 claims-based measures for low value care developed by researchers and published in JAMA. For 2014, MedPAC’s analysis found that 37% of beneficiaries received at least one low-value service.  Medicare spending for these services was estimated to be $6.5 billion.  MedPAC acknowledges that this estimate is conservative because the measures used do not also include downstream services that may result from the initial low-value service.  MedPAC also briefly discussed the issues associated with formulating performance measures in general, including for the merit-based incentive payment system (MIPS) included in Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act.

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.