Health Roundup: Fiscal commission unveils unpopular health savings ideas

Fiscal commission unveils laundry list of unpopular solutions to save Medicare: President Obama's fiscal commission proposes to get the government's healthcare spending under control with a laundry list of oft-debated solutions that neither party has been able to enact because of entrenched ideological and industry opposition.

The co-chairmen's mark, unveiled Wednesday, suggests "asking doctors and other health providers, lawyers and individuals to take responsibility for slowing healthcare cost growth." The proposals include tort reform, drug rebates and Medicare payment cuts, all of which have been lobbied to a halt in the past.

The proposal also recommends mandatory premium increases and payment cuts after 2020 if federal healthcare costs continue to grow faster than the rate of growth of GDP plus 1 percent. And it rekindles the debate over taxing health benefits and instituting a public option.

The proposal was immediately blasted by numerous healthcare industry groups.

From the American Hospital Association

"Today’s draft proposal ... contains certain recommendations that could jeopardize hospital services for vulnerable patients and communities, particularly given that hospitals already face $155 billion in cuts as part of health reform. 

"The draft suggests accelerating cuts to the DSH program that provides funding to hospitals that serve a large population of poor and uninsured patients. This vital program was already cut in the health reform legislation, and further reductions are not acceptable.

"The proposal also calls for all hospitals to be subject to the independent payment advisory board — a commission established by the reform bill to set Medicare payment rates. This flies in the face of congressional intent and removes lawmakers from decisions that will affect health care in their community. 

"The proposal also calls for reductions in federal spending on graduate and indirect medical education at a time when physicians are in short supply. In addition, the draft recommends cutting the Medicare bad debt program that provides additional funding to hospitals that treat seniors who are unable to pay their bills."

Slew of Medicare changes announced: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Wednesday made three significant announcements regarding:

  • Updated star plan ratings for 2011 Medicare health and drug plans;
  • A three-year demonstration to provide Medicare Advantage plans financial incentives to provide high-quality care;
  • And proposed regulations to implement several provisions of the health reform law. These include codifying clarifications to CMS authority to negotiate plan bids, expanding restrictions on charging higher cost-sharing than traditional Medicare for certain services, and limiting long-term care pharmacy waste by specifying efficient dispensing practices.

Stark wants insurers to pay up: Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), chairman of the Ways and Means's  Health subcommittee, wrote a letter to 10 insurance company executives Wednesday asking them to "share the billions you are reaping in higher profits with your policyholders by lowering premiums." The 10 firms have reported more than $9.3 billion in profits for the first three quarters of 2010, $2.1 billion more than the same period last year.

Hospitals costs skyrocket: The cost of healthcare for people with employer-sponsored health insurance climbed an estimated 6.3 percent for the year ending June 30, according to a new Thomson Reuters index. Spending for hospital care increased faster than spending on physician services or prescription medicines in the past year, according to the index: by 8.2 percent, versus 5.5 percent for physician costs and 3.4 percent for drug costs.

Prepare your hazmat suits: Donald Berwick, the controversial administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) appointed during the July recess, is scheduled for his first hearing before the Senate Finance Committee next Wednesday, Nov. 17.

Berwick became a lightning rod during the healthcare reform debate because of his past statements in favor of Great Britain's National Health Service, which Republicans say rations care. Republicans in the House and Senate have been asking for months for a chance to grill Berwick on the new law.