Doc Fix Survives, Medicaid Ehanced Match Doesn’t

In another procedural vote on the revamped Jobs bill in the Senate, Democrats fell short of mustering 60 votes to end a Republican filibuster, effectively ending for now, legislative efforts to extend unemployment benefits.  The vote count was 57 to 41 to continue debate.  Dying with the extension of unemployment benefits are a series of pro-business tax cuts, tax increases on domestically produced oil and on investment fund managers as well as the extension of the enhanced Medicaid match provided in the Stimulus bill, set to end December 31 of this year.

In an attempt to keep the bill alive, Senate democrats removed the provision related to Part B/physician fee schedule cuts and crafted a smaller, temporary fix (see my posts from last week on this same subject).  This separate “temporary” patch provides for a 2.2% increase in the Part B fee schedule and delays any cuts to physician fees until November 30.  Prior legislative efforts deferred the fee schedule cuts, pegged at 21%, until June 1 of this year.  This past week, CMS began paying claims incurred after June 1 at the reduced fee schedule rate.  In response to an enormous push-back from physicians and the health care community in general, the House passed this temporary Senate measure, sending the bill to the President for signature.  Assuming the President signs the bill, providers that have submitted claims for services provided after June 1, will have to re-submit their claims to assure correct payment, including the modest increase of 2.2%.

What’s next (as I have been asked routinely over the past two-weeks)?  Is the enhanced Medicaid match extension dead?  Legitimate questions, no doubt.  In brief, here’s my take or EWAG (educated, wild-assed guess).

  • Typically, when legislation such as this stalls, there is a single, two-ton elephant that needs to be circumnavigated or removed from the room in order for things to proceed.  In this case, there are three elephants in the room.  First, and larger in size than the other two, is the upcoming mid-term elections.  The current “tone” in electoral politics is not good for Democrats and decidedly, anti-incumbent, anti-big government, and bail-out weary.  Any legislation that looks-like and feels-like a bail-out is perceived as poisonous by incumbents headed toward a November election date.  Even seats once believed safe, are up for grabs and some, such as Sen. Boxer in California and Sen. Reid in Nevada, are considered bell-weather contests marking a shift in electorate sentiment (assuming losses on the part of Boxer and Reid).  The second elephant is the rising federal debt, now at $13 trillion and climbing.  This elephant is a cousin of the first and the Democrats are beginning to feel ownership, correctly or incorrectly, of  this elephant.  With the EU struggling with an enormous debt load, principally due to burgeoning social welfare programs and a slow economy, economists, the Fed, and investment rating agencies such as Moody’s, are warning that the U.S. debt load could pose the same level of risk to the economy as is present across much of the EU.  In fact, the U.S. debt load is perilously close to the value of the GDP; an indicator of a level of negative economic wealth (more debt than assets).  Saving an economic lesson for later, the rising debt load is potentially crippling in so many ways to a recovering economy (enough said for now).  The third elephant is the moribund U.S. economy, incapable of soaking up large additional amounts of debt and virtually non-responsive to the government’s deficit spending in the form of targeted stimulus.  Simply put: The Stimulus and the continued bail-out packages coming from Washington have done virtually nothing to stimulate recovery while adding billions to the debt level.  Arguably, the instability and the spending levels have hurt the recovery more than helped.  With these three elephants present today in the House and in the Senate chambers, very little prior to November (mid-term elections) can get done and what will get done will be temporary in nature (the doc-fix for example).
  • I’m not sure that the enhanced or extension of the enhanced Medicaid match is dead but it is definitely, on life-support in its current form.  It seems that the tone of this Congress  now is to avoid issues that include big price tags unless such an issue is immediately pressing (the doc-fix) and can be pushed every so slightly, down the road, but just by a bit.  The problem here is that many states are stuck with June 30 fiscal years and/or balanced budget requirements.  For these states, the uncertainty of additional Medicaid match dollars from the Feds requires establishing a plan that includes cuts, reimbursement and benefit levels combined.  The real devil in some cases, is for states that have expanded their Medicaid programs via the use of added match funds through the Stimulus, as the expansion components cannot be cut by law.  The additional funds via the Stimulus bill came with “golden handcuffs”, requiring states that used the funds via expansion, to maintain these services.  In short, Medicaid is a real mess but frankly, that is nothing new given how ridiculous its financing provisions are and how “federal” money hungry the states have become, selling their fiscal stability souls for additional federal funds and then shifting budget problems elsewhere, hoping new or additional federal money would continue, bailing out their current spending sins.
  • The logic of once again deferring the Part B cuts, now to November, is to buy Congress time to craft a permanent solution.  Anyone who buys this rhetoric needs professional counseling.  This issue is nowhere close to a permanent fix as such a fix requires political willpower (non-existent today), a revisit to the recently passed PPACA where the budget numbers are already out of whack, and finally, a commitment to spend new money as part of the solution.  Fixing the problem means abandoning the flawed sustainable growth formula, recasting the actual costs associated with the PPACA (estimates of deficit reduction relied heavily on unsustainable and impractical Medicare cuts), and finding new money within the budget, deficit or not, to create parity and stability within the Part B fee “world”.

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