Cutting the underfunded Medicaid program

How Would Republican Plans for Medicaid Block Grants Actually Work?

By Aaron E. Carroll
The New York Times, February 6, 2017

There are only so many ways to cut Medicaid spending.

You can reduce the number of people covered. You can reduce the benefit coverage. You can also pay less for those benefits and get doctors and hospitals to accept less in reimbursement. Or you can ask beneficiaries to pay more.

None of those are attractive options, which is why Medicaid reform is so hard. Medicaid already reimburses providers at lower rates than other insurance programs. How do you reduce the number of beneficiaries when the vast majority of people covered are poor children, poor pregnant women, the disabled, and poor older people? Which of those would you cut?

Reducing benefit coverage has always been difficult because most of the spending has been on the disabled and poor older people, who need a lot of care. Beneficiaries don’t have much disposable income, so asking them to pick up more of the bill is almost impossible.

That doesn’t mean that states haven’t tried. As I’ve discussed in past columns, a number are attempting to increase cost sharing. But this isn’t really a solution because it doesn’t change overall spending much at all.

The fiscal magic behind a block-grants approach is that the federal government can then set how quickly the amount they’re responsible for will increase over time, regardless of how quickly medical spending grows. If a gap develops between how much a state needs to spend, and how much the block grant provides, it’s up to the state to make up the difference.

A recent New England Journal of Medicine article provides some perspective on how this might work by looking at what happened before Medicaid was created in 1965. Care for the poor in the 1950s was done through direct reimbursements to providers. It was calculated on a per-capita basis — the average cash and medical needs of those the programs covered. Those amounts were capped, based on age and demographics. This is quite similar to how many Republican proposals might function.

When these capped amounts weren’t enough to pay for the programs, states had to make cuts. They began to restrict who would be covered, what would be covered and how much care beneficiaries could use. Some states refused to cover children at all. Others didn’t cover doctors’ visits or drugs.

There’s no magic in how Congress reduces spending under a block grant mechanism. It just says it will do so, and leaves the hard decisions to others.


NYT Reader Comment:

By Don McCanne,  M.D.
San Juan Capistrano, CA

Why should Medicaid be a separate program for low-income individuals? Or Medicare for the elderly and those with long-term disabilities? Or a multitude of private plans based merely on employment status? Or, as the Affordable Care Act attempted to address, having to turn to the highly dysfunctional individual insurance market by default?

The most popular of these alternatives is Medicare. Why don’t we simply improve Medicare and then provide it for everyone? As a welfare program representing individuals with a weak political voice, Medicaid is vulnerable to budget hawks. If we had one program representing all of us, politicians would be motivated to protect the program rather than hacking it with a blunt cleaver.