Focus on fixing insurance exchange

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable — and not a good excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off health insurance.

It’s time for Iowa’s congressmen and senators to start working on immediate measures to strengthen the health care system, and specifically the health insurance exchange, or marketplace. The obsession of some with bills to repeal and replace Obamacare has been a distraction from that task.

In recent days, bipartisan groups have sprung up in both the House and the Senate to begin developing legislation to stabilize the insurance market. These groups recognize the immediate need for measures to ensure that federal payments continue for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) that help low-income people afford their copays and deductibles. Without the assurance that these payments will continue, premiums will rise sharply.

The president has threatened to continue his efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by ordering an end to CSRs. This threat has already prompted Medica, the only Iowa health insurance company still offering plans on the exchange, to plan for another premium increase.

The bipartisan efforts to shore up the insurance exchanges could include another important measure: a reinsurance program that would reduce the risk that a small number of high-cost customers will cause insurance company losses. The “million-dollar customer” has been cited as a factor contributing to the decisions of Wellmark and Aetna to exit the Iowa exchange. Reinsurance would establish a national pool to cover high-risk cases; this would allow companies to remain in the exchanges without drastic premium increases on everyone to pay for those few cases.

The Senate’s attempts to repeal and replace failed because they were wildly unpopular. These measures would have resulted in over 200,000 Iowans losing health insurance; would have effectively ended the expansion of Medicaid that covers thousands of low-wage workers; would have reduced Medicaid benefits for thousands of seniors, children, and people with disabilities; would have raised premiums and deductibles; would have gutted protections for persons with pre-existing conditions; and would have provided billions in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Another attack on coverage: Graham-Cassidy

Pragmatic efforts to stabilize the health insurance market stand in stark contrast to a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare that surfaced this week: the Graham-Cassidy plan. Like the previous failed bills, this plan would end the Medicaid expansion that now covers 150,000 Iowans.

Unlike previous repeal and replace bills, the Graham-Cassidy plan would also end the premium assistance that makes health insurance affordable to tens of thousands of low and moderate income Iowa families. While it replaces ACA funding of premium assistance and Medicaid expansion with a block grant, it provides no guarantee that the states will use that block grant to make health insurance affordable to those who need help the most. And the bill would further destabilize the insurance market by ending the mandate to purchase insurance, while making it more expensive, leaving insurance companies with the sickest and costliest customers.

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable. Let’s see if our Senators and Representatives actually try to fix those problems instead of using them as an excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off their health insurance.

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Why not a special session?

Now is the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and that might make a special session useful, sooner rather than later.

Long-term impacts could be decided in short order;
Might not our state lawmakers want to weigh in?

If anything has been clear about the current health-care debate in Washington, it is that little is clear — except the likelihood that (1) people will lose insurance coverage and thus access to health care, and (2) this will pose new challenges for state government.

That being the case, it seems a good time for the Legislature to return to Des Moines and sort it out, sooner rather than later. It will be easier for legislators to talk to their federal counterparts about all this before legislation passes than afterward.

Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion serves about 150,000 Iowans, and would serve an estimated 177,000 Iowans in 2019 if preserved. But those Iowans — and some 55,000 more — would be in jeopardy of losing insurance under legislation pending in the Senate. If the enhanced federal share of funding for Medicaid expansion is reduced or eliminated under any legislation to come — and both the House and Senate bills currently would do this — states would have a choice: Fill in the gap or let people go uninsured.

Oh, and if you’re going to choose to fill in the gap, go ahead and plan now on what will have to be cut to compensate for it. K-12 education, perhaps? Even more cuts to the regents institutions? Child care? Water protection? Law enforcement and corrections?

Already, legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds are facing those kinds of questions amid a looming fiscal shortfall and speculation about a possible special session.

In The Des Moines Register this week, columnist Kathie Obradovich suggested Governor Reynolds “is prudent to wait until fall to make a decision on a special session but that doesn’t mean she should avoid talking about it. Now is the time to be speaking frankly with Iowans and individual legislators, identifying the causes and consulting on potential solutions.”

Now is also the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and for that reason, waiting until fall might be too late. Legislative leaders and the Governor right now could be bringing in experts for a special session to discuss the potential impacts, and reach out to the congressional delegation, before decisions are made that restrict state budget choices for many years to come.
Unless, of course, they want to see budget crunches and special sessions more frequently.
Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Any way you cut it — Americans lose health coverage

The stakes for some 200,000 Iowans are significant, jeopardizing recent health-care coverage gains and putting vulnerable Iowans at risk.

First, let’s make no mistake: Both the Senate and House bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) represent substantial cuts in health coverage, including Medicaid.

People will lose coverage, have less coverage, and/or pay more for it. This is a public policy choice being offered in the drive to repeal ACA’s enhancement of insurance coverage for millions of Americans. In Iowa alone, uninsurance dropped from over 8 percent to 5 percent in just two years.

It is at best disingenuous for anyone to suggest otherwise, or to downplay the cut. Those who want to promote this legislation, for whatever reason, have to own the impact. If they’re afraid of the political disadvantage of admitting it, that’s another story.

The stakes for some 200,000 Iowans are significant, jeopardizing recent health-care coverage gains and putting vulnerable Iowans at risk. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership report from Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project sets the context for this week’s discussions in the Senate.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (see graph at right) shows how the Senate bill would drive up costs for the 31 states that — along with Washington, D.C. — expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

For Iowa, the estimates are daunting: In 2021, Iowa would have $54 million more in costs, and in 2024, $395 million more — a 315 percent increase.

That CBPP report is part of the exceptionally good information available even in the short time frame we have to understand what is emerging from the backrooms of Washington, out of public view.

See these reports, just produced in the last couple of days by tremendously reputable organizations:

This is our business. We can demand to know the facts and we might just want to know them before the Senate votes — even if some in the Senate might be uncomfortable with that.

By Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

When the decisions come to cut health care to Iowans, Governor Branstad won’t be around to make the tough choices. Is that what state legislators signed up for?

060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Of course the $33 million matters, Governor

The Governor’s rose-colored glasses on Medicaid privatization do not obscure the very real cost of an extra $33 million out the door to private companies.

It seems no Governor Branstad costume is complete without rose-colored glasses, even after Halloween.

For on the final day of October, as goblins prepared to venture out to neighbors’ houses for treats, the Governor offered news on his unilateral decision to privatize Medicaid: It will cost the state an extra $33 million this fiscal year, payments to private companies not previously anticipated.

But he’s telling us not to worry about that spending. For example, the Des Moines Register story prominently noted reassurances from the Governor and his chief of staff, Michael Bousselot:

But the situation will not negatively impact the state budget because Medicaid cost savings will exceed $140 million when compared to the old Medicaid program, they said.

 

Hmmm. So, we’re going to spend $33 million more — $33 million we weren’t planning to spend — and that doesn’t “negatively impact” the state budget?

That is not what we’re told when it’s $33 million for schools, or cracking down on polluters or businesses that deliberately stiff their employees for wages owed. For those things, we just don’t have the money.

Think of it this way: Last month, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected that the state would take in $72 million less in FY2017 than it had estimated in March. That means those funds will not be coming in and may affect what can be spent. Now, we learn of an extra $33 million charge. Already, some $100 million less for the current year.

Of course the $33 million matters. There is an impact on the budget bottom line, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Budget projections are always a difficult thing. But from the start of the Governor’s decision to privatize Medicaid, without legislative consent, we have been asked to accept optimistic assessments of what to expect. And if the optimism is misplaced? Education funding and other general-fund priorities inevitably lose.

Medicaid privatization already has scared a fair number of Iowans about their access to health care. Those fears are not resolved. Neither are concerns about the fiscal side of this issue.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A new baseline: Drop in number of uninsured Iowans

The new census numbers set a baseline to evaluate the effects of Iowa’s move this year to privatize Medicaid. After sharp declines in Iowa’s uninsured population, it will be interesting to see if declines continue.

Nineteen out of 20 Iowans are now covered by health insurance, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act and Iowa’s Medicaid expansion. The latest census data, released today, show that the percent of Iowans who were uninsured dropped from 8.1 percent in 2013 to just 5.0 percent in 2015. While 248,000 Iowans were without insurance in 2013, by 2015 the number had dropped to 155,000.

Only four states have a lower percent of the population without health insurance: Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia.

Across the country, the gap has widened between states that expanded Medicaid and those that did not, as shown below. Twenty-eight states, including Iowa, chose to expand Medicaid eligibility in 2014 or 2015 to families with income up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The uninsured population has declined faster in the last two years in the states that chose to expand.

In Iowa, the 2015 census numbers establish a baseline for evaluating the effects of Iowa’s Medicaid privatization, which took place early this year. It will be interesting to see if the uninsured population continues to decline in 2016.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

For more on this issue, see:
Census Data Show States Not Expanding Medicaid Falling Further Behind, by Matt Broaddus, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities