Some Powers of the Immutables

DrRich | April 5th, 2010 - 7:34 pm


As DrRich helpfully pointed out in his last post, our new healthcare law (Section 3403) creates a new and apparently immutable entity called the “Independent Medicare Advisory Board,” whose job is “to reduce the per capita rate of growth in Medicare spending.” This, in fact, is the right goal. For it is the rate of growth in healthcare spending (and not the absolute amount being spent) that threatens us with societal disintegration within the next couple of decades.

But it is mathematically impossible to attribute this explosive growth rate in healthcare spending to waste and inefficiency. Most of that growth must necessarily be caused by healthcare expenditures that are actually producing some benefit (though, to be sure, some of that benefit is marginal). And this means that in order to reduce the rate of growth, we have to ration healthcare (i.e., to withhold at least some beneficial healthcare from at least some of the people who would benefit from it).

We can only conclude that, in order for the new IMAB to do its designated job, it must ration healthcare. But since the same law that creates the IMAB also stipulates that it must not ration care, the IMAB must necessarily perform that unavoidable rationing covertly. This is a very difficult job, as demonstrated by the fact that the private health insurers (even with the wonderful incentive of profits, and with the full support of Congress) have utterly failed to develop a sustainable business model based on the covert rationing of healthcare.

But still, this is the job that our leaders have now assigned to the IMAB. And so, DrRich has attempted to tease out some of the options which remain available to the Immutables as they embark on their difficult but necessary assignment of covertly rationing our healthcare. (As DrRich will shortly explain, the legal nomenclature for the IMAB is actually a bit confusing and misleading. So for clarity’s sake, DrRich will hereafter refer to this Board as the Immutables.)

DrRich has found, so far, at least three powers which our new healthcare law grants to the Immutables, that will give them at least a fighting chance at success.

1. The most fruitful pathway to covert rationing remains open to them.

The new healthcare law specifically does not allow the Immutables “to ration health care, raise revenues or Medicare beneficiary premiums. . ., increase Medicare beneficiary cost-sharing (including deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments), or otherwise restrict benefits or modify eligibility criteria.” While these prohibitions might appear on the surface to greatly limit the options available to the Immutables, in fact all this language does is to formalize their directive to ration covertly instead of openly. Since covert rationing has long been our society’s policy regarding healthcare, these prohibitions actually change nothing.

What is left to the Immutables, of course, is the most time-honored pathway to covert rationing – coercing the healthcare providers to place the needs of the payers ahead of the needs of their patients. DrRich has posted innumerable examples over the years showing how payers do this. He is confident that the Immutables will employ all the methodologies which have been devised to date for coercing providers, and (with the awful power of the sovereign authority behind them) they will invent some really useful new ones.

2. The Immutables have been granted near-dictatorial authority.

On the surface, one might think of the Immutables as a sort of Mr. Rogers of healthcare – a mild-mannered, friendly, always-helpful, but ultimately undemanding agent for good. One might get this impression by reading the first few paragraphs of Section 3403, which paint the new entity as an “advisory” board, whose main task is to develop “proposals” and “advisory reports,” and these “proposals” and “advisory reports” would solely consist of various “recommendations,” that ought to be “considered” for the purpose of cost reduction.

Indeed, one might get the impression that the main difference between the Immutables and this blog is that the former is appointed by the President, and has a travel budget.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once the Chief Actuary of CMS determines that the projected per capita growth rate for Medicare exceeds the target growth rate, the Immutables are required to submit a “proposal” which will cut costs sufficiently to bring the growth rate back in line. Then, the Secretary of HHS is required to implement that “proposal” in its entirety, unless Congress acts to block implementation. However, Congress is forbidden from taking any action “that would repeal or otherwise change the recommendations of the Board,” unless it replaces those “recommendations” with its own legislation that would cut Medicare spending to the same target level.

For all practical purposes, then, the cost-cutting “recommendations” which the Immutables would “propose” for “consideration” will be implemented nearly automatically, with the full authority of the Federal government.

And, for all practical purposes, the Immutables will become a new agency of the executive branch, with near-dictatorial authority to cut Medicare spending as it sees fit.

3. The Immutables have been granted the authority to limit private health-care expenditures.

Those who paid attention to the process that brought us our new and transformational healthcare system might recall that the Senate bill, which ultimately became law of the land, was never designed to be actually implemented. It was designed solely to assure 60 votes in the Senate, after which the Joint Conference with the House was to meld the House Bill and the Senate Bill into a workable law.

As part of the negotiations to gain those original 60 votes in the Senate, five or six Democrat Senators cobbled together a list of amendments to the original Senate Bill – the so-called Manager’s Amendments. It is in the Manager’s Amendments that one can find such famous niceties as the bribes paid to Nebraska. But the Manager’s Amendments (which, contrary to the expectations of the actual Managers, are now part of our new healthcare law) contained lots of other stuff as well.

One of the more interesting parts of the Manager’s Amendments (Section 10320) is entitled, “Expansion Of The Scope Of, And Additional Improvements To, The Independent Medicare Advisory Board.”

Section 10320 (which can be found way down on page 2210 of the new law) grants the Immutables (beginning in 2015) the authority to limit all healthcare expenditures, and not just expenditures by Medicare or government-run programs.

To emphasize this expanded authority, Section 10320 changes the name of the Immutables from the Independent Medicare Advisory Board to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. It directs the Immutables (and now readers will understand why DrRich has resorted to this more descriptive name), at least every two years, to “submit to Congress and the President recommendations to slow the growth in national health expenditures” for private (non-Federal) healthcare programs. Furthermore, it allows that these “recommendations” may be implemented by the Secretary of HHS or other Federal agencies administratively.

Ostensibly, the justification for this expansion of the Immutables’ authority is that controlling private healthcare expenditures will directly impact Medicare, since the “target” Medicare growth rate which the Immutables are charged with achieving will be determined by overall healthcare expenditures. More practically, if Medicare patients (who are subjected to arbitrary cost-cutting measures) see their younger counterparts enjoying less restricted healthcare, the old farts are likely to become rowdy. But DrRich suspects there was an even stronger reason to give the Immutables this authority over private healthcare expenditures.

DrRich has often speculated that the real fight regarding healthcare reform will come when the government attempts to limit the ability of American citizens to spend their own money on their own healthcare. This limitation is absolutely necessary if we’re to have a single-payer healthcare system, since if you can spend your own money on your own healthcare, that would be at least two payers. (It would also be “unfair.”)

Many of DrRich’s readers think it’s absurd to think we’re headed toward a single-payer system. DrRich hopes these readers are correct. But he also thinks there’s plenty of evidence that some of our leaders are intentionally taking us there. The new healthcare law, at least arguably, is entirely consistent with such an ultimate goal. And if we are ever to have a single-payer system, the government ultimately will need the authority to limit private expenditures.

DrRich does not believe that the Immutables will act immediately to limit the ability of private citizens to spend their own money on their own medical well-being. Such an action would create a great uproar today, and likely for several years to come, at least until those of us who still cling to the quaint notion of individual autonomy are finally worn down, or re-educated, or otherwise made to see the light.

But whenever that time comes, Section 10320 of the new healthcare law appears to give the Immutables all the authority they will need.

(At the same time, those who castigate DrRich for paranoia might consider reading just how far our healthcare system has already come in limiting the prerogatives of individuals.)