Politics & Policy

The Report Every State Legislator Should Read

(Dreamstime image: Andrei Malov)
Expanding Medicaid won’t save hospitals’ bottom lines.

Regardless of the outcome of November’s elections, health care will likely return to the forefront of policy debates in 2017 — both in Washington and in state capitals across the country. Should Hillary Clinton capture the White House, liberal groups, proclaiming that Obamacare is here to stay, will likely push to expand Medicaid in the states that have rejected the program’s massive expansion under Obamacare. Hospital groups will no doubt work hand-in-glove with the Left on these efforts, claiming that only Medicaid expansion will allow hospitals to remain viable, particularly in rural areas.

That’s why a report released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) earlier this month should be read by every state legislator in every state likely to debate expansion next year. In analyzing profit margins over the coming decade, the nonpartisan CBO concluded that Medicaid expansion will not make a material difference in hospitals’ overall viability.

The CBO paper modeled the impact of various provisions of Obamacare in 2025, and compared those outcomes with hospitals’ profitability in 2011, before the law’s major provisions took effect. Each scenario allowed CBO analysts to isolate the effects of separate provisions — for instance, the law’s reduction in Medicare payments to reflect improved productivity, expanded health-insurance coverage through Medicaid and the exchanges, and other payment changes.

By analyzing the effects of expanded insurance coverage, and examining whether expanding Medicaid in more states would impact hospitals’ financial condition, CBO shows that such an expansion will not materially improve their solvency:

Differing assumptions about the number of states that expand Medicaid coverage have a small effect on our projections of aggregate hospitals’ margins. That is in part because the hospitals that would receive the greatest benefit from the expansion of Medicaid coverage in additional states are more likely to have negative margins, and because in most cases the additional revenue from the Medicaid expansion is not sufficient to change those hospitals’ margins from negative to positive. Moreover, the total additional revenue that hospitals as a group would receive from the newly covered Medicaid beneficiaries . . . is not large enough relative to their revenues from other sources to substantially alter the projected aggregate margins.

A “small effect” and “not large enough . . . to substantially alter” projections — far from the panacea hospitals claim Medicaid expansion will be for their bottom lines.

The report provides several reasons why Medicaid expansion will not cure hospitals’ financial woes. Whereas CBO assumed that exchange plans would reimburse hospitals above their average costs, “Medicaid’s payment rates are below hospitals’ average costs.” Medicaid revenues will likely grow more slowly over time, as Medicaid payment rates cannot exceed Medicare levels — and Obamacare dramatically slowed those Medicare reimbursement levels. Moreover, CBO estimated “that the use of hospitals’ services among the newly insured will increase by about 40 percent as a result of having insurance.” If Medicaid pays hospitals less than their average costs, then inducing additional patient demand by expanding coverage could actually exacerbate hospitals’ shortfalls, not improve them.

Hopitals agreed to annual reductions in their Medicare payments forever in exchange for a one-time increase in the number of insured patients.

To put it bluntly, hospitals made a horrible deal by endorsing Obamacare in 2009. The industry agreed to annual reductions in their Medicare payments forever in exchange for a one-time increase in the number of insured patients. The CBO report quantifies how badly the hospital industry missed its target. Even if hospitals revolutionize their productivity — a standard nonpartisan experts doubt they will achieve — the added revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the effects of the Medicare-reimbursement reductions. Under the worst-case scenario, as many as half of all hospitals could become unprofitable within a decade — and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Medicaid expansion cannot save hospitals from the financial woes they inflicted upon themselves by endorsing Obamacare — but it can make both federal and state governments less solvent in the process. Prior research has shown how the Medicaid rolls in states that did expand drastically exceeded projections — and a new Mercatus Center report released earlier this month noted that costs per beneficiary have grown as well.

With the costs of Medicaid growing in states that did expand, and CBO showing meager financial benefits to hospitals as a result of expansion, state legislators have every reason to resist the temptation to dramatically expand the welfare state under Obamacare.

— Chris Jacobs is the founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington.

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