Richard Foster

Discussing Medicare

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in a forum at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “The Future of Medicare: A Reality Check.” The session focused on the 2012 Medicare Trustees’ Report and began with a presentation from Richard Foster, the Chief Actuary of the Medicare program. I was joined on the panel by Norm Ornstein of AEI, Bob Reischauer of the Urban Institute, Gail Wilensky of Project Hope, and Wendell Primus, who is a senior advisor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (The event video can be found here).

I focused my comments on what I called the $8.1 trillion Medicare double count in Obamacare (the subject of my most recent blog post).  My remarks precipitated a mini-debate with Wendell Primus over the issue; in the video linked above, that part of the session begins at about the fifty-minute mark.

Our panel was preceded by remarks from Senators Tom Coburn and Richard Burr on their Medicare reform legislation.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:33 pm
Tags: Medicare, double-count, Medicare Trustees, Richard Foster, Robert Resichauer, Wendell Primus
File As: Health Care

The Real Medicare Trustees’ Report

The headline news from today’s release of the 2011 Medicare Trustees’ report is that the Hospital Insurance trust fund is scheduled to be depleted in 2024, five years earlier than projected in last year’s report. The primary reason for the erosion in the condition of the trust fund is, apparently, the anemic economic recovery. It’s even worse than what was projected just a few months ago.

But important as this information appears to be, it’s really not the most important information found in the report. To get that, one needs to skip past all the mind-numbing tables and graphs to the final few pages, specifically page 265. There you will find a “Statement of Actuarial Opinion,” signed by the Chief Actuary of the program, Richard Foster. And in that statement, Mr. Foster once again warns the public not to rely on the information provided in the preceding 264 pages.

Why? Because Obamacare’s arbitrary, across-the-board cuts in what Medicare pays for services will force a large portion of health care providers to stop seeing Medicare patients. When that occurs, Medicare would be insurance in name only, as the enrollees would have a terrible time actually getting the care they need.

Here’s how Foster puts it:

By the end of the long-range projection period, Medicare prices for hospital, skilled nursing facility, home health, hospice, ambulatory surgical center, diagnostic laboratory, and many other services would be less than half of their level under the prior law. Medicare prices would be considerably below the current relative level of Medicaid prices, which have already led to access problems for Medicaid enrollees, and far below the levels paid by private health insurance. Well before that point, Congress would have to intervene to prevent the withdrawal of providers from the Medicare market and the severe problems with beneficiary access to care that would result....

For these reasons, the financial projections shown in this report for Medicare do not represent a reasonable expectation for actual program operations in either the short range (as a result of the unsustainable reductions in physician payment rates) or the long range (because of the strong likelihood that the statutory reductions in price updates for most categories of Medicare provider services will not be viable). I encourage readers to review the “illustrative alternative” projections that are based on more sustainable assumptions for physician and other Medicare price updates. These projections are available at

Unfortunately, the alternative scenario referenced by Foster in his statement does not yet appear to be available on the CMS website. When it is available, it will almost certainly resemble the alternative projection released at the time of last year’s trustees’ report, which effectively showed that, using realistic assumptions, Medicare’s finances are no better off now than they were before Obamacare was enacted.

Indeed, the program is actually far worse off now because of the shameless double-counting in Obamacare. The Medicare cuts — unrealistic as they are — were used to partially “pay for” massive new entitlement promises to 32 million more Americans. When the Medicare cuts inevitably melt away, the entitlement promises made to millions of other Americans will not. The result will be that the federal government will go even deeper into debt, making it that much harder to find a way meet future Medicare obligations.

Even before Obamacare was enacted, the nation’s most difficult long-term economic challenge was runaway entitlement spending. Obamacare is more gasoline on what’s already a raging fire. The law included no real reform of Medicare or Medicaid. It simply doubled down on the failed model of command-and-control payment rate reductions. Those have never worked before to make the programs sustainable, and they won’t work this time either.

[Cross-posted on Critical Condition]

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:41 pm
Tags: Medicare Trustees, Richard Foster, payment rate reductions
File As: Health Care

The Heart of the Matter

Slowing the pace of rising health care costs is the holy grail of domestic and economic policy. It’s pretty much the key to everything that’s desirable. For starters, it’s central to heading off the debt-induced economic calamity that is fast approaching. If health care costs in the future were to rise at something close to the rate of growth of wages (instead of a couple of percentage points more, as they have for most of the past half century), trillions in unfunded government liabilities now on the federal books would vanish altogether. The massive deficits now projected for coming decades wouldn’t necessarily go to zero overnight, but they would be in a range that is politically solvable, not hopeless. And if premiums for private health insurance rose moderately, it would be much easier to expand coverage to more people, even as employers could pay workers more with cash instead of health benefits. Our collective future would look far, far brighter under such a scenario.

So, yes, “bending the cost-curve,” as the president famously put it, is the right objective. But what will actually do it?

To answer the question, it’s useful to start with a recent post from the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who himself approached the issue in the form of a question. He asks what makes Congressman Paul Ryan so confident that the Ryan plan for Medicare reform (offered with former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin, and so now called the Ryan-Rivlin plan) will work to control cost growth while Obamacare won’t.

From Klein’s perspective, it seems like Ryan is applying a double standard. In Obamacare, Congress cut Medicare payment rates for hospitals and other providers of services quite dramatically — to the tune of about $0.5 trillion over a decade. Ryan and others — yours truly most definitely included — have argued that these cuts are illusory because they are politically unsustainable. Klein wonders why that same argument doesn’t also apply to cuts under Ryan-Rivlin. After all, Ryan-Rivlin would bring Medicare spending well below baseline projections in the future by converting the Medicare entitlement into a defined contribution payment from the government. Isn’t Congress just as likely to get cold feet about those cuts as it would about Obamacare’s payment-rate reductions? In fact, aren’t the Ryan-Rivlin cuts even more vulnerable, as they would seem to more transparently fall on the shoulders of the beneficiaries?

But that’s not how to look at this problem at all. Bending the cost curve is not a matter of simply paying less for a service. What’s needed is real and continuous productivity improvement in the health sector. Doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, labs, clinics and others finding better ways to deliver higher quality care at less cost. Because if productivity in the health sector does not rise, then payment-rate reductions will simply drive willing suppliers of services out of the marketplace.

And that’s exactly what would happen under Obamacare. Providers of medical services aren’t going to take payments for services that don’t cover what it costs to care for patients. As Richard Foster, the chief actuary of the Medicare program has repeatedly warned, Obamacare’s cuts would drive Medicare’s average payment rates so low that they would fall below those of Medicaid by the end of the decade. And Medicaid’s rates are already so low that the network of physicians and hospitals willing to take care of large numbers of Medicaid patients is notoriously constrained.

The Ryan-Rivlin plan is entirely different because it is based on empowering consumers to find the best value possible for their defined contribution payment. This is the way to unleash a productivity revolution in health care. The administration says it wants everyone to have access to low-cost, high-quality models, such as the Geisinger Health Plan. The way to bring that about is with a dynamic consumer marketplace in which those kinds of plans are rewarded financially for being more efficient and higher quality. And the way to bring that about is by giving people the control and financial incentive to become active, cost-conscious consumers both of the insurance they select and the delivery system by which they get their care. And that’s exactly what would happen under Ryan-Rivlin, which is why it would work and Obamacare wouldn’t.

Klein and others continue to tout the supposed cost-cutting potential of the various Medicare demonstrations and pilots created in Obamacare. To assume that these are the answer to the cost problem is really wishful thinking in the extreme. Medicare’s administrators have been trying for years to use the levers of payment to bring about more efficient health care delivery. The problem is that building a high-quality, low-cost network requires making distinctions among physicians and hospitals that Medicare has never been able to do. To cut costs, the government always resorts to blunt, across-the-board payment cuts that actually induce more inefficient behavior, not less.

That’s almost certainly why Foster, recently testifying before the House Budget Committee, quite plainly disagreed with Klein’s premise. Under questioning about what would work to bend the cost curve, he was, as usual, quite cautious. Nonetheless, he made it clear that he had more confidence in Ryan-Rivlin than Obamacare to bend the cost curve, because Ryan-Rivlin has the potential to unlock productivity improvements in a way Obamacare does not. I’m with Foster.

[Cross-posted on NRO.]

posted by James C. Capretta | 10:30 am
Tags: Ezra Klein, Ryan-Rivlin, Richard Foster, Medicare, chief actuary
File As: Health Care