States and Health Care Reform

Health insurance has long been a state affair in the USA. Insurance companies were even exempt from many aspects of federal anti-trust law to better enable state regulators to oversee their activities. Yes, there were federal laws that standardized certain aspects of the business—think HIPAA and COBRA. Think about Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP while you’re at it. But when it came to health insurance regulation the states reigned supreme.

Enter Congress and President Barack Obama stage left. With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the federal role in shaping and regulating health insurance shifted significantly to Washington, DC. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is now arguably the most important health insurance regulator in the country. The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service will also play significant roles in determining the future of the nation’s health insurance market and the choices (or lack of choices) Americans have to meet their health care coverage needs. No wonder critics of the PPACA condemn the law as a “federal takeover.”

That the nexus of health plan oversight has shifted to the federal government is beyond argument. The new health care reform law touches everything from how medical plans are designed, priced, offered, maintained and purchased. To conclude that state insurance regulators are shunted to the sideline, however, dangerously overstates the case. In fact, the PPACA invests tremendous flexibility in the states, allowing them to implement the federal requirements in what will likely be very divergent ways.

Rebecca Vesely, writing in Business Insurance, makes this clear in her article describing how two states, Vermont and Florida, are taking strikingly different paths in addressing health care reform. Vermont has taken the first step toward creating a single payer system by 2017. Legislation to set up a five member board to move the state in this direction has already been enacted. And while many details need to be worked out (funding, to name one) and Vermont will need to obtain a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put the package together, the state is further down the road to single payer than any other.

Then there’s Florida where the move is in the opposite direction. That state is seeking to shift virtually all of its Medicaid population from government coverage into private plans starting in July 2012. These private managed care plans would be offered through large health care networks with health plan profits above five percent shared with the state. Whether this approach will achieve the $1.1 billion in first year savings promised by the Governor or not, it has brought new participants into the Medicaid marketplace such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

The Business Insurance article includes a prediction by Boston University law professor Kevin Outterson that the Obama administration will sign off on the waivers Vermont and Florida need to move forward.

What the starkly different approaches to reigning in skyrocketing health care costs being taken by Florida and Vermont demonstrates is the broad flexibility states retain in shaping their own health care destiny. Yes, federal waivers are required, but that would be the case even if the PPACA had never passed—Medicaid is a federal program after all. The CMS web site lists 451 state waivers or demonstration projects in place today. The concept of allowing experimentations and exceptions is ingrained in the Medicaid program just as they are in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There’s nothing wrong with this any more than having shock absorbers on a car is an indictment of an automobile’s chassis or tires.

The marked variation in approaches being taken by Vermont and Florida are extreme examples of what we’ll see as states implement exchanges and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Of course, whether this is good news or bad news depends a great deal on the state in which you live and work. States that are heavily tilted toward one party or the other (I’m looking at you California and Wisconsin) could make some of their residents yearn for the federal government to step in and keep things in perspective. Given the way the PPACA preserves state powers, however, they are going to be disappointed.

State Reform Issues More Incremental than Comprehensive

My personal belief is that comprehensive health care reform is more likely to come from federal action than anything the states do over the next couple of years. That’s certainly true in California where lawmakers are now focused on attacking specific problems rather than fixing the entire system. But the obstacles to state efforts are more than exhaustion, as I’ve written previously, states have limited resources and even more limited levers to exact change on systems as complex as the nation’s health care system.

Yet incremental reforms can make a difference, too, and several states have enacted or are considering interesting approaches. Aetna publishes a “Health Reform Weekly” it distributes to agents (among others) and their March 24th issue provided a roundup of state reform activity. I’ve taken the liberty of  reproducing much of it below. As you’ll see, with the exception of New Jersey — and to a lesser extent, Florida — these are hardly comprehensive efforts:

CONNECTICUT: Many of the health care measures approved by the Insurance Committee last week are focused on the high cost of health care. One of the committee-approved proposals would establish a wellness tax credit for small businesses; another would allow more flexibility to offer lower-cost health plans. Another proposal would allow municipalities to collaborate together to purchase health insurance. The House put forth the Healthy Steps Program, which permits the sale of reduced-mandate products, requires a cost-benefit analysis of mandates and establishes business tax credits for providing employees with health insurance. The Insurance Committee did not act on the “pay or play” health care tax bill, nor did it act on legislation that would dictate the provisions and terms included in the contracts between health insurers and physicians. Disposing of these proposals early in the session provides a boost to the business climate in Connecticut.

FLORIDA: Governor Charlie Crist’s “Cover Florida” plan for the uninsured passed out of its first committee last week and continues to move forward.Aetna has worked with the Governor’s office for several months on this proposal and has been successful in seeing a number of suggestions incorporated into this version. Health plan participation in the plan would be voluntary. Though Cover Florida still contains guaranteed issue language affecting participating plans, the plan would allow pre-existing condition exclusions as well as benefit limits.

GEORGIA: Action on the Georgia Medical Association’s prompt-pay proposal was postponed last week, but it may be acted on in committee this week.While it still contains language applying the prompt-pay requirements to self-insured plans, Aetna has been able to help reduce the bill’s impact by assuring health plans are not assessed penalties regarding prompt payment of claims unless they are below a 95 percent compliance standard. Also, the interest penalty has been reduced from 18 percent to 12 percent.

INDIANA: The Legislature adjourned the 2008 session on March 14. In recent weeks, an Assignment of Benefits bill died in the Senate.However, a “Silent PPO” bill made it through the process. After much negotiation, the industry supported the bill, which requires greater disclosure of information regarding the rental of PPO networks. The provider community attempted to include much more far-reaching, costly, and unnecessary items to the bill, but those were ultimately defeated.

MASSACHUSETTS: Commonwealth Choice health insurance premiums projected for this summer will average 5 percent more than last July’s rates.A state panel last week approved a contract to pay insurers about 10 percent more for each person enrolled in the subsidized insurance program starting July 1, making the lowest premiums in Commonwealth Care $39 a month to $116 a month. Insurers had asked for an increase of about 15 percent but agreed to less after weeks of negotiations. Under the contract, the state also would assume more of the financial risk if the enrollees were to use more medical care than expected. The Connector’s Executive Director John Kingsdale recently reported that more than 300,000 Massachusetts residents have enrolled who were previously uninsured. This large number suggests that the state’s official estimate of the number of uninsured (372,000) was low, so the cost of solving this bigger problem is going to be significantly more than originally thought (an estimated $869 million in FY ’09 instead of $725 million).

NEW JERSEY: Senators Joseph Vitale and Robert Singer and Assemblymen Neil Cohen and Lou Greenwald joined David Knowlton, President of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, last week in announcing a comprehensive health care reform initiative – the Vitale Plan – with the goal of achieving universal coverage in New Jersey.Phase One would feature a Kids First mandate requiring coverage of all children under 18; expansion of New Jersey Family Care to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; and small group and individual market reforms, including prior approval by the Department of Banking and Insurance for premium increases of more than 15 percent, an increase in MLR from 75 percent to 80 percent, and a requirement that insurers selling small group market products also sell in the individual market. Phase 2 would feature an individual coverage requirement, and establishment of a state-operated health insurance plan administered (ASO) by two insurance carriers. Projected costs for the first year total $28.8 million (of which $20.5 is for the children’s component), and funding is purportedly available at present in the form of surpluses totaling $180 million in the state’s Family Care and Medicaid Programs.

SOUTH DAKOTA: The Legislature adjourned its 2008 session on March 17.Recent legislative action includes passage of a transparency bill, which requires licensed hospitals to report charges for any procedure for which the hospital had at least 10 cases. The data will be reported to the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, which is required to develop a web-based system for making the information available to the public via a link from the Department of Health’s website. In addition, the law requires the dissemination of information about physicians’ charges for certain outpatient procedures.

TENNESSEE: The Tennessee Medical Association this week announced it now officially supports the “Silent PPO” legislation originally introduced by some individual providers.The bill closely follows the AMA model on this issue and contains significant restrictions on insurers’ ability to operate rental networks. Aetna is working with the industry to defeat this legislation.

State lawmakers are not going to ignore health care issues. Nor should they. But when it comes to substantial changes to the structure of health care and health care coverage in this country, the next president and the new Congress will need to take the lead.