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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Be the Change that you can Abdicate to Others

Not quite the snappiest title like "Be the change that you see in the world" which is both a popular bumper sticker and looks good on the back of graduation T-shirts from social work programs. However, I like the word "abdicate" as much as I like the word "colonoscopy" and it's easier to spell.

The fact that I completely digressed before I even started writing the post is completely impressive, too. I can't even use "But I digress" as a transition. My point is that local governments are running away from making any difficult decisions in designing health care systems. Their lack of boldness is making Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's decision to declare war on organized labor look good because at least he made a decision and stuck to it.

The state of Oregon has provided some very fine recent examples of such abdication with their Medicaid program. Rather than make difficult, thoughtful decisions to guide the program, they throw half baked ideas to health plans and providers. They are:

1. Charge copays for services. The state gave the option to charge a $1 to $3 copay to non-Native American adults for prescription drugs and primary care. This was intended to reduce the amount of money that the state paid for services by passing on the costs to the Medicaid beneficiaries. However, trips to the emergency room were still no cost to the Medicaid beneficiary. In an effort to save money, the state made an incredibly poor benefit design decision and and as a bonus, set up in a way that was difficult to administer. Providers would have to figure out who they could collect $1 to $3 from and what to do if that individual did not have any money (like send them to the Emergency Room rather than give them their $4 generic prescription drugs).

Almost all the carriers decided not to implement this copay scheme and just take less money from the state. This is an example of a bad idea to save money that the state floated to health plans and providers. It went over like a lead zeppelin. This was an opportunity to have a serious discuss about benefit designs and what Medicaid beneficiaries should pay for and what they should not pay for. Incentives could have been developed to guide positive behavior and punish negative behavior. Instead, an administratively unwieldy option was offered to punish positive behavior. The end result was a waste of time.

2. Ask health plans what the reduction in Medicaid costs should be: Oregon is facing a budget shortfall and has stated that it plans to reduce Medicaid spending by 19%. Another option is increase the provider tax in order to get more federal matching funds and face a 10% to 12% reduction. Oregon also has a rule that its Medicaid spending must be actuarial sound. That means if they want to cut costs by 10%, or 12%, or 19%, then the health care services used should also be projected to reduced by that same amount. This also provides yet another example of how actuaries are guaranteed employment forever.

Oregon has proposed some good ideas to redesign their Medicaid system to achieve those savings. However, they don't think that they can achieve the savings this year. They are squandering a perfectly good crisis and asking health plans to come up with their own actuarial sound analysis of the lowest cost to provide health care services for Medicaid beneficiaries. In other words, they are asking health plans what the cut in spending should be. This is a crucial decision in Oregon's Medicaid program and they asking health plans to do their homework for them.

A budget cut is just a loss of services but a budget cut and a health care system redesign is an opportunity. Under health reform, states have more options available to transform their health care system with Xxchanges that will allow them more control over the health insurance market. There are "pay or play" options where carriers must participate in Medicaid or providing guaranteed issue to children or face a financial penalty. This is the opportunity for bold and difficult decisions for states to make that will change the lives of their most vulnerable citizens.

This is not the time to buy a vowel.

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