HHS authorizes higher hypothetical cost threshold for privatized Medicaid

Medicaid Demonstrations: HHS's Approval Process for Arkansas's Medicaid Expansion Waiver Raises Cost Concerns

GAO, Released September 8, 2014

What GAO Found

In approving Arkansas’s Medicaid Section 1115 demonstration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave the state the authority to test whether providing premium assistance to purchase private coverage offered on the health insurance exchange will improve access to care for individuals newly eligible for Medicaid as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

In approving the demonstration, HHS did not ensure that the demonstration would be budget- neutral — that is, that the federal government would spend no more under the state’s demonstration than it would have spent without the demonstration. Specifically, HHS approved a spending limit for the demonstration that was based, in part, on hypothetical costs — significantly higher payment amounts the state assumed it would have to make to providers if it expanded coverage under the traditional Medicaid program — without requesting any data from the state to support the state’s assumptions. GAO estimated that, by including these costs, the 3-year, nearly $4.0 billion spending limit that HHS approved for the state’s demonstration was approximately $778 million more than what the spending limit would have been if it was based on the state’s actual payment rates for services under the traditional Medicaid program. Furthermore, HHS gave Arkansas the flexibility to adjust the spending limit if actual costs under the demonstration proved higher than expected, and HHS officials told us that the Department granted the same flexibility to 11 other states implementing demonstrations that affect services for newly eligible beneficiaries. Finally, HHS, in effect, waived its cost-effectiveness requirement that providing premium assistance to purchase individual coverage prove comparable to the cost of providing direct coverage under the state’s Medicaid plan, further increasing the risk that the demonstration would not be budget-neutral.

As of June 2014, HHS has approved one additional state’s — Iowa’s — demonstration to use premium assistance to purchase exchange coverage. Iowa’s demonstration is more limited in scope in that it covers a portion of the expansion population, those with incomes of 101 percent to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. As with its approval of the Arkansas demonstration, HHS gave Iowa the flexibility to adjust its spending limit and waived the cost-effectiveness requirement. According to HHS officials, three other states as of June 2014 had indicated an interest in implementing a similar approach.

In commenting on a draft of this report, HHS disagreed with GAO’s findings that HHS’s approval process did not ensure that the Arkansas demonstration will be budget-neutral. GAO maintains the validity of these findings.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making recommendations in this report. GAO has had long-standing concerns with HHS’s policy, process, and criteria for reviewing and approving section 1115 demonstrations, including the lack of transparency in the basis for approved spending limits. GAO has previously reported that HHS’s budget neutrality policy and process did not provide assurances that demonstrations would be budget-neutral to the federal government. Among other concerns, GAO reported that HHS allows methods for establishing the spending limit that GAO believes are inappropriate, such as allowing states to include hypothetical costs — expenditures that the state could have made under its Medicaid program but did not — in establishing the baseline for the spending limits. As a result, GAO has made a number of recommendations in the past to improve the budget neutrality process for Medicaid demonstrations. In 2008, because HHS disagreed that changes to the budget neutrality policy and review process were needed, we suggested that Congress require the Secretary of HHS to improve the demonstration review process by, for example, better ensuring that valid methods are used to demonstrate budget neutrality.

From the full GAO report:

HHS’s approval of $778 million dollars of hypothetical costs in the Arkansas demonstration spending limit and the department’s waiver of its cost-effectiveness requirement is further evidence of our long-standing concerns that HHS is approving demonstrations that may not be budget-neutral. HHS’s approval of the Arkansas demonstration suggests that the Secretary may continue to approve section 1115 Medicaid demonstrations that raise federal costs, inconsistent with the Department’s policy of budget neutrality. Moreover, the additional flexibility granted to Arkansas and 11 other states to increase the spending limit if costs prove higher than expected sets another precedent, further eroding the integrity of HHS’s process. If, as it did with Arkansas, HHS allows states to use an approach to expanding Medicaid that is expected to cost more than expansion under the existing Medicaid program with fewer cost controls in place, there could be significant cost implications for the federal government. Efforts to ensure cost- effectiveness and budget neutrality in Medicaid expansion demonstrations have even greater fiscal implications given that states that choose to do so will receive enhanced federal funding for the newly eligible population.



By Don McCanne, MD

Our two major public programs for health care financing - Medicare and Medicaid - continue down the path of privatization, with the complicity of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

We’ve reported many times that the private Medicare Advantage plans that are displacing the traditional Medicare program have been deliberately funded well in excess of that allotted for traditional Medicare, both by acts of Congress and by administrative chicanery at HHS.

Now the GAO reveals that HHS has also used the section 1115 Medicaid waiver process to allow states to not only transfer their Medicaid patients to private health plans, but to also allow them to meet the higher costs of private plans, through innovative chicanery such as “allowing states to include hypothetical costs — expenditures that the state could have made under its Medicaid program but did not — in establishing the baseline for the spending limits.”

Although privatization of Medicare and Medicaid has long been a Republican goal, since the neo-liberals have dominated the Democratic leadership, they have aided and abetted this effort. We are supposed to be a democracy, yet no matter how we vote, we are electing politicians who spend more of our tax and premium dollars on the administrative waste and mediocre performance of the private insurers. Any suggestions?