CBO report examines bill designed to lower health care costs

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a cost estimate stemming from S.1895, Lower Health Care Costs Act, which is intended to lower the cost of health care to individuals as well as to the federal government. The CBO and JCT estimate that several of the bill’s provisions would result in a reduction in the cost of health insurance that is subsidized through the federal government, through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), or from employment-based plans. Overall, the agencies found that if S.1895 is enacted, there would be an increase in direct spending by approximately $18.7 billion in conjunction with an increase in revenues by $26.7 billion over the period spanning from 2019 to 2029, for a net decrease in the deficit of $7.6 billion (CBO Report, July 16, 2019).

The bill is divided into five titles, which the CBO considers individually in its cost estimate. The first title is related to surprise medical bills. Title I contains patient protections against surprise medical billing, such as prohibition against balance billing and by requiring insurers to treat out-of-network care as in-network care for purposes of computing copayments, coinsurance, deductibles and spending toward out-of-pocket limits. Moreover, Title I of the bill “would require insurers to reimburse out-of-network providers at the median in- network rate for a given provider type and geographic area.”

Title I would also affect private insurance premiums in four ways, each explained in the report. According to the CBO and JCT, estimated changes in the cost of these premiums varied according to insurance market and the type of plan. The net effect would be lower insurance premiums and savings to the federal budget. Additionally, in light of the creation of a means by which out-of-network services are reimbursed at median in-network rates, payments to all providers “would converge around those median rates.” This would reduce payments for in-network care. According to the CBO and JCT the most significant effects of Title I stem from these lower payments for in-network care. However, private insurance premiums are also affected by changes in payment rates.

Title II of the bill relates to reduction in the price of prescription drugs. The bill would modify the FDA’s framework for approval of certain drugs and biologics, which would ultimately pave the way for certain generics or biosimilar medications to make an earlier entry into the market. In the report, the CBO and JCT break down their estimates into various sections, citing the impact on direct spending and revenues for each section.

The CBO and JCT explain that in Title III, the bill imposes new rules governing insurers’ contracts with health care providers and pharmacy benefit managers, noting that sections 302, 303 and 306 of the bill specifically affect direct spending or revenues. The report describes the impact of tiered plans and estimates that increased enrollment in those type of plans would reduce spending for certain care, thereby reducing average health insurance premiums for employment-based coverage. The report also details the new requirements on pharmacy benefit managers.

The CBO and JCT also analyzes Title IV of the bill, noting that this section sets out to extend funding for certain federal health care programs, among other things raising the minimum age for the sale of tobacco products. One section of Title V delineates the requirements that health insurers create and maintain “application programming interfaces” the creation and maintenance of which would create new administrative costs. The CBO and JCT estimate the costs would be passed on to enrollees in the form of higher premiums. They estimate that balancing the increase in direct spending with the decrease in revenues, there would be an increase in the deficit for the relevant period.

The report also explains the estimates arising from the various sections of the bill are subject to uncertainty and lays out the nature of that uncertainty relating to different issues. It also explains that the bill imposes intergovernmental and private-sector mandates. CBO estimates that the former would average about $100 million annually and the latter, $15 billion annually. In each instance, the CBO estimates that in each of the first five years the mandates are in effect, those costs would exceed the respective threshold established in Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA). The CBO and JCT examine each mandate and estimate the impact upon outlays and revenues, as well as whether it applied to public, private or both types of entitles.

2018 MA and PDP premium, bid amount, related information released

Important 2018 Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) and Part C Medicare Advantage (MA) information for MA organizations and PDP sponsors has been announced by CMS. The information includes the average basic premium for a PDP, the Part D national average monthly bid amount, the Part D base beneficiary premium, the income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) for enrollees in PDPs who have incomes above certain threshold amounts, the Part D regional low-income premium subsidy amounts, the MA regional preferred provider organization (PPO) benchmarks, and the MA employer group waiver plan (EGWP) regional payment rates.

Average basic PDP premium

The average premium for 2018 is based on bids submitted by drug plans for basic drug coverage for the 2018 benefit year and calculated by the independent CMS Office of the Actuary. The average basic premium for a PDP in 2018 is projected to decline to an estimated $33.50 per month. This represents a decrease of approximately $1.20 below the actual average premium of $34.70 in 2017. The decline comes despite the fact that spending for the Part D program continues to increase faster than spending for other parts of Medicare, largely driven by spending on high-cost specialty drugs.

Part D national average monthly bid amount

CMS computes the national average monthly bid amount from the applicable Part D plan bid submissions in order to calculate the base beneficiary premium. The national average monthly bid amount is a weighted average of the standardized bid amounts for each stand-alone PDP and MA prescription drug plan (MA-PD). The calculation does not include bids submitted by Medicare medical saving account plans, MA private fee-for-service plans, specialized MA plans for special needs individuals, Program of All-Inclusive Care of the Elderly (PACE) programs, any “fallback” PDPs, and plans established through reasonable cost reimbursement contracts. The reference month for the 2018 calculation was June 2017. The national average monthly bid amount for 2018 is $57.93.

Part D base beneficiary premium

The base beneficiary premium is equal to the product of the beneficiary premium percentage and the national average monthly bid amount. Part D beneficiary premiums are calculated as the base beneficiary premium adjusted by the following factors: (1) the difference between the plan’s standardized bid amount and the national average monthly bid amount; (2) an increase for any supplemental premium; (3) an increase for any late enrollment penalty; (4) a decrease for MA-PDs that apply MA A/B rebates to buy down the Part D premium; and (5) elimination or decrease with the application of the low-income premium subsidy. The Part D base beneficiary premium for 2018 is $35.02. In practice, actual premiums vary significantly from one Part D plan to another and seldom equal the base beneficiary premium.

Income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA)

If a beneficiary’s “modified adjusted gross income” is greater than the specified threshold amounts ($85,000 in 2018 for a beneficiary filing an individual income tax return or married and filing a separate return, and $170,000 for a beneficiary filing a joint tax return), then the beneficiary is responsible for a larger portion of the total cost of Part D benefit coverage. Therefore, in addition to the normal Part D premium paid to a plan, such beneficiaries must pay an IRMAA to the standard base beneficiary premium of $35.02 for 2018. Beneficiaries do not pay the IRMAA to the Part D plan; instead, IRMAAs are collected by the federal government.

Part D regional low-income premium subsidy amounts

Full low-income subsidy (LIS) individuals are entitled to a premium subsidy equal to 100 percent of the premium subsidy amount. A Part D plan’s premium subsidy amount is the lesser of the plan’s premium for basic coverage or the regional low-income premium subsidy amount (LIPSA). The 2018 regional LIPSAs are available through the CMS website.

MA regional PPO benchmarks

The standardized PPO benchmark for each MA region is a blend of: (1) a statutory component consisting of the weighted average of the county capitation rates across the region for each appropriate level of star rating; and (2) a competitive, or plan-bid, component consisting of the weighted average of all of the standardized A/B bids for regional MA PPO plans in the region. For 2018, the national weights applied to the statutory and plan-bid components are 66.5 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively.

Beginning in 2017, these benchmarks reflect the average bid component of the regional benchmark excluding EGWPs. The statutory and plan-bid components of the MA regional standardized benchmarks for 19 of the 26 MA regions are available from CMS. In the remaining seven MA regions, there are no regional MA plans.

MA regional EGWP payment rates

For detailed descriptions of the payment policy finalized for 2018 MA regional EGWP payment rates see the 2018 Advance Notice and Rate Announcement. The payment rates for Regional EGWPs are in the file Regional Rates and Benchmarks 2018 which can be accessed on the CMS website.

Insurance antitrust exemption reform clears House

The House passed on March 22, 2017, H.R. 372, The Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2017, with a bipartisan vote of 416 to 7. The Act repeals in part the McCarran-Ferguson Act antitrust exemption for insurers, including price fixing, bid rigging, and market allocation, and retains the exemption for certain collaborative activities. A CBO report projected that the Act would have no significant net effect on the premiums that private insurers would charge for health or dental insurance and that any effect on federal revenue would be negligible.

The report noted that health insurance premiums could be lower to the extent that enacting the bill would prevent insurers from engaging in practices currently exempted from antitrust law. On the other hand, insurers could become subject to additional litigation and thus their costs and premiums might increase. The CBO estimated that both of those effects would be small.

The American Hospital Association had expressed concerns about the abuse of market power by large commercial insurers with the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services previously.

House Republicans narrow aim to specific provisions in health reform battle

House Republicans introduced four bills as part of a new piecemeal strategy to repeal and redefine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148). The proposed legislation—which will be considered at a February 2, 2017, hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee—concerns: (1) special enrollment period (SEP) eligibility verifications; (2) premium rate ratios; (3) grace periods for missed premium payments; and (4) a political promise to continue the ban on preexisting condition exclusions.


The first bill would require HHS verification of an individual’s eligibility for a SEP before an insurer would be permitted to make coverage effective for that individual. Although HHS has already developed a pilot program for some SEP eligibility verifications, the bill would require HHS to create a verification process, through interim final rulemaking, for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2018.

Premium variation

The second bill would give insurers more authority to vary the premium rates charged to older enrollees, as compared to younger enrollees, in the individual and small group markets. The bill would permit insurers to raise the current ratio of three-to-one to a ratio of five-to-one, or, to any other ratio established by a state. The greater variation addresses insurer complaints that the three-to-one ratio is not actuarially appropriate.

Grace period

The third bill would reduce the length of the current 90-day grace period afforded to premium tax credit recipients who miss their premium payments. The bill would shorten the grace period to one “provided by law” or one month. Although premium tax credit recipients are, by definition, experiencing financial difficulty, the bill is designed to assuage insurers’ contentions that premium tax credit recipients are using the grace period to skip the last three months of premium payments, catching up only when or if they develop a need for health care. However, HHS noted in the preface of its Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018 (81 FR 94058) that such grace period “gaming” claims are unsubstantiated.

Preexisting conditions

The fourth bill, which does not promise a change in policy, is a statement of policy. In essence, the bill is a promise, in the event Congress decides to repeal the ACA, that the health reform replacement will include a provision with an absolute ban on preexisting conditions clauses. The bill establishes Congress’ position that it will not allow a return to a health insurance market where coverage decisions are based upon the status of an enrollee’s health. The bill makes a curious exception, however, for genetic conditions which have not already led to a diagnosis.