Friday, October 26, 2007

Gorman on Medicaid

Linda Gorman, Health Care Policy Center Director at the Independence Institute, has written the following OpEd on Medicaid:
It's Official: Medicaid Managed Care Does Not Save Money

The reform plan drawn up by Colorado's Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform plans to enroll 50 percent of Medicaid recipients in managed care. Given the history of Medicaid managed care in Colorado, this is an odd recommendation.

Back in the dark ages of Clinton Care 1.0, heath care policy gurus asserted that managed care would save enormous sums. State governments salivated. To sweeten the pot for switchers, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other acolytes of managed care encouraged the notion that Medicaid HMOs could provide better, more coordinated care, at rates that were 95 percent of fee-for-service costs. The usual economic models predicted big savings. Projects were funded. Federal waivers were pursued. Medicaid clients were herded into capitated health plans, and all parties proclaimed the dawning of a new era in health care.

In the heady days of 2002 and 2003 Colorado Medicaid enrolled 50 percent of Medicaid clients in one of five Medicaid HMO plans. Kaiser and United Health pulled out in November 2002. In 2003, two others left. Four of the five original plans sued the state for inadequate payments. They won $77,810,395 in additional payments, along with legislation requiring actuarially sound calculations of capitation rates.

Enrollment in Medicaid HMOs fell. Even though clients in the Denver metro area were automatically enrolled in managed care unless they actively chose fee-for-service, by September 2006 fewer than 10 percent of Medicaid clients were enrolled in risk-based managed care.

In June 2007, Denver Health Medicaid Choice, the remaining Medicaid HMO, informed the state that it would withdraw unless capitation rates were increased to 100 percent of the fee-for-service rates. The state applied for the emergency supplemental appropriation required to fund the increase.

After years of testing, the state has found that Medicaid HMO plans are at least as costly as traditional fee-for-service. They may even cost more. In its December 2006 Joint Budget Committee hearings, the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing wrote that "Although managed care organizations should experience savings over fee-for-service due to their improved ability to reduce unnecessary hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and other overutilization, there are also extensive administrative costs for care management, utilization management, providing networking to ensure access, and other processes such as bill paying and risk management."

The state could elect to give taxpayers a break and simply make the same payment for the same care regardless of delivery method. People who use the care would simply pick the kind of care they like. They might prefer a private physician to an HMO. In Medicare, where people do have a choice between HMOs and fee-for-service, the data show that healthier people tend to enroll in HMOs. Those most likely to leave HMOs are those in poorer health.

The fact that managed care should cost less but doesn't poses a problem for influential people who have spent their entire professional lives being trained in the managed care creed. Many of them prefer to believe that failure results from too little money and not enough regulation. Undeterred by failure, they want to repeat the Medicaid managed care experiment with more regulation and more tax money.

To attract managed care providers, the Department proposes increasing Medicaid HMO payment rates to 100 percent of fee-for-service payments and adding a 5 percent payment for administrative costs. If these measure fail, it is even investigating the possibility of setting up and running its own Medicaid HMO. The idea is that if it runs its own HMO, it will enjoy lower costs for purchasing and administration. In some particularly florid prose, the Department says that a state run HMO would allow the state to achieve "the efficiency of centralization," a transcendental state that has eluded every other government-run, centralized health care system in the English speaking world.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Directed Attendant Support program, Colorado's innovative experiment with consumer directed care, frees clients from Medicaid centralization, giving them a budget and letting them keep 50 percent of any money they save. In turn, their ingenuity saves the state about 20 percent a year. In the private sector, innovative companies are having similar results when they reduce centralized management by marrying tax free health savings accounts with high deductible health insurance.

Unfortunately, real savings by real people cut little ice with those who think that 50 percent of all Medicaid clients should, for some unknown reason, be in Medicaid HMOs. That the state is demonstrably unfit to run an HMO doesn't matter.

The goal has been set, "the efficiency of centralization" awaits, and real costs are of little real importance when true believers spend other people's money. Look for a massive rollout of results from esoteric theoretical models. These results will prove that state run health facilities will produce big theoretical savings. In practice, the real world is unlikely to oblige.