Message to the Congress Transmitting Proposed Health Care Incentives Reform Legislation

February 28, 1983

To the Congress of the United States:

I am today transmitting to the Congress legislation comprising the Health Incentives Reform program. This legislation reforms health care financing policies to constrain rising health care costs and to keep high quality health care affordable for all Americans. Because of the coming shortage in the Medicare Trust Fund, prompt action is particularly important.

This legislative package addresses the underlying causes of excessive increases in health costs: the perverse incentives operating in the market for health services. Cost-based reimbursement, poorly structured cost-sharing, and open-ended tax subsidies for health insurance have contributed to inefficiency and inflation in the health sector. Our proposals correct these incentives. Our plan involves all participants in the health care market in restructuring financing and service delivery arrangements: providers and patients, physicians and hospitals, and beneficiaries of public programs as well as privately insured workers. Thus it shares the responsibility for bringing down health care costs fairly among all segments of society.

The Health Care Cost Problem

The need for action now is clear. Health care costs are climbing so fast they may soon threaten the quality of care and access to care which Americans enjoy. In 1982 health care costs went up almost three times the national inflation rate. Taxpayers have seen Federal outlays for Medicare and Medicaid go up nearly 600 percent since 1970. Health care funding is one of the fastest-rising expenditures in the Federal budget. The cost of health insurance rose 15.9 percent in 1982, the biggest increase ever. Health care costs are consuming a growing portion of the Nation's output: 10.5 percent of GNP in 1982, compared with 5.9 percent in 1965.

The cost of the average hospital stay jumped from $316 in 1965 to $2,168 in 1981. American taxpayers (mainly through Medicare and Medicaid) pay a large part of those costs: 40 percent of all hospital bills.

Rising health care costs are a problem that affects everyone. The elderly, who are covered by Medicare, face the threat of catastrophic illness expense, against which Medicare offers no protection. The poor on Medicaid have seen coverage reduced as States have been forced by rising costs to make cutbacks. Workers with employment-based health insurance have received lower cash wages, because of the unchecked cost increases for health benefits. Americans pay for health care costs in other hidden forms, including higher costs for the merchandise they buy, since the costs of employee health care benefits must be included in the price of products.

As is the case with many of our national difficulties, past Federal policy has been a part of the problem. These policies have thwarted normal incentives for efficiency in health care.

  • Medicare's cost-based system has actually rewarded inefficiency by paying more to less efficient, higher cost hospitals.

  • Cost sharing in Medicare has been backwards. Those who are less ill, and could act to keep their hospital stays shorter have been given no cost incentive to do so, and severely ill patients have been penalized with high cost sharing and no catastrophic coverage.

  • Federal tax policy has created a bias for high priced medical coverage instead of wages, since employer contributions to health care benefits are not treated as income to the employee.

  • Federal health care programs have made too little use of competitive bidding practices.

  • Medicare beneficiaries have been unable to enroll in efficient private health plans.

  • Unnecessary regulations have added to higher costs in past years.

The Elements of Health Incentives Reform

The Health Incentives Reform package contains a number of specific provisions which address each facet of our multi-pronged strategy. First, it initiates Medicare coverage for the catastrophic costs of lengthy hospital stays and improves Medicare's cost-sharing provisions. These reforms encourage efficiency while reducing the cost burden on the severely ill.

The plan establishes a prospectively-set hospital rate structure under Medicare that rewards cost-effective hospital practices. This contrasts with the traditional Medicare policy of reimbursing hospitals retrospectively for whatever ``reasonable'' costs they incurred.

The plan limits the open-ended tax subsidy of relatively high-cost private health plans, which biases employee compensation towards elaborate health coverage instead of cash wages.

The plan expands opportunities for Medicare beneficiaries to use their benefits to enroll in private health plans as an alternative to traditional Medicare coverage.

The plan freezes payments to physicians under Medicare's reasonable charge system for one year at 1983 levels.

The plan provides for gradual yearly increases in the Medicare Part B premium and deductible once again to cover a sufficient portion of the program's costs through beneficiary payments.

The plan expands authority under Medicare for the use of competitive bidding procedures and other cost efficient approaches for the purchase of laboratory services, durable medical equipment, and other non-physician services and supplies. Furthermore, payment for durable medical equipment provided through home health agencies would be limited to 80 percent, the same percentage covered by Medicare under other circumstances.

A provision of the plan will entitle the elderly to Medicare benefits on the first day of the full month that individuals meet all eligibility conditions. At present, entitlement begins on the first day of the month in which an individual meets the conditions for only one day. This proposal is consistent with initial Social Security eligibilities for individuals who attain age 62. Also, most private insurance coverage now remains in effect until Medicare coverage begins; thus most beneficiaries would not be affected.

Finally, the plan makes two changes in Medicaid. The reduction in Federal payments to States authorized by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 would be extended beyond 1984 for an indefinite period. The reduction would be cut, however, from 4.5 percent to 3 percent. In addition, Medicaid beneficiaries would have to make nominal copayments for outpatient visits and hospital stays.

Our legislative package contains additional Medicare and Medicaid provisions to strengthen program management, simplify requirements for program participation, produce savings in program spending, and reduce waste, fraud and abuse in these programs.

Medicare Catastrophic Coverage and Cost-Sharing Reform

The ``Medicare Catastrophic Hospital Costs Protection Act of 1983'' improves coverage for long and expensive hospitalizations and introduces modest coinsurance on the initial days of hospitalization.

The current Medicare Hospital Insurance program neither adequately protects beneficiaries in cases of prolonged illness, nor provides financial incentives to minimize unnecessary utilization of services. Medicare covers only 90 to 150 days of hospitalization during a spell of illness (depending on whether a ``lifetime reserve'' of 60 days has been previously exhausted), even if additional hospitalization is clearly warranted. After the 60th day, cost sharing becomes onerous. Patients pay 25 percent of the inpatient hospital deductible ($88/day) for the 61st to 90th day and 50 percent ($175/day) for lifetime reserve days. On the other hand, after a deductible is paid for the first day, no coinsurance at all is imposed until the 61st day of hospitalization, eliminating any financial incentive for the beneficiary to leave a hospital as soon as it is medically advisable to do so.

The bill provides Medicare reimbursement for unlimited days of hospitalization under the Medicare Hospital Insurance program. At the same time, the bill imposes coinsurance for a maximum of 60 days annually (8 percent of the inpatient hospital deductible for the 2nd through 15th day of a spell of illness and 5 percent thereafter) to encourage beneficiary cost-consciousness and the efficient use of health resources. The bill also limits to two the number of inpatient hospital deductibles that could be imposed annually (no matter how many spells of illness occur) and reduces the skilled nursing facility coinsurance rate from 12.5 to 5 percent of the inpatient hospital deductible.

Prospective Payment for Inpatient Hospital Services Under Medicare

The ``Medicare Prospective Payment Rates Act'' will establish Medicare as a prudent buyer of services and will ensure for both hospitals and the Federal government a predictable payment for services. This system of payment can be implemented in October, 1983.

Medicare traditionally paid hospitals retrospectively determined reasonable costs. This system essentially paid hospitals for whatever they spent. There were, therefore, weak incentives for hospitals to conserve costs and operate efficiently. It is not surprising that under this system hospital expenditures have been and are continuing to increase rapidly. Medicare expenditures for hospital care have increased 19 percent annually from 1979 to 1982. The cost of a service varies substantially from hospital to hospital.

The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) changed this system of hospital reimbursement by placing limits on what hospitals could be paid. My proposal builds upon the TEFRA improvements. This bill establishes a system of prospectively determined rates which will foster greater efficiency in the provision of hospital services. Medicare payments for operating costs will be specifically related to the patient's condition, but will not vary from hospital to hospital (except to allow for differences in area wage rates). Rates will be set for each of 467 diagnosis-related groups. Capital expenditures and medical education costs will be excluded initially from the calculation of basic payments and reimbursed separately. Additional payments will be made for unusual cases involving exceptionally long hospital stays.

To the extent that a hospital operates efficiently it would earn a surplus, and to the extent it operates inefficiently it would show a deficit. Hospitals with higher costs will not be able to pass on extra costs to Medicare beneficiaries and thus will face strong incentives to make cost-effective changes in practices.

Changes in the Tax Treatment of Employer Contributions to Health Plans

The Health Costs Containment Tax Act of 1983 is designed to encourage employers to provide an adequate level of health benefits to their employees, while eliminating the open-ended tax preference for health benefits over cash wages.

Under current tax law an employer's contribution to an employee's health plan is not included in the employee's gross income. This bill will limit tax-free health benefits paid by an employer to $175 per month for a family plan and $70 per month for individual coverage. These limits will be indexed to increase yearly in proportion to the Consumer Price Index. Employer contributions above these amounts will be included in the employee's income and taxed (income and Social Security) accordingly. Thus, individuals can choose to purchase as much health insurance as they wish with after-tax dollars, but the tax laws will not subsidize the purchase of unlimited health insurance.

Elaborate health benefits funded with tax-free, employer-paid contributions are inflationary -- they insulate consumers, providers, and insurers from the cost consequences of health care decisions. By doing so, they contribute both to the persistence of inefficient forms of health care financing and delivery and to overuse of health services. The limit on tax-free benefits will help to alleviate these problems while allowing employers to provide adequate tax-free coverage to protect an employee against the serious financial consequences of illness. Employees will be free to purchase more comprehensive health care coverage with after-tax dollars.

The proposal will be effective on January 1, 1984, except with respect to collective bargaining agreements in effect on January 31, 1983, which will not be subject to the new rules until the earlier of January 31, 1986, or the first date on which such agreement is reopened after January 31, 1983.

Optional Medicare Voucher

The provision of the Health Incentives Reform package that creates an opportunity for Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in alternative health plans is contained in the ``Medicare Voucher Act of 1983.''

Last year Congress, with the support of my Administration, amended the Medicare statute to permit payments on a risk basis to HMOs and other competitive medical plans that provide Medicare beneficiaries with coverage at least as extensive as the Medicare benefit package. The optional voucher provision will build on current law by allowing Medicare beneficiaries to use Medicare benefits to enroll in a wider array of private health plans. Medicare will contribute an amount equal to 95 percent of what it would have cost to care for the beneficiary if he or she had elected traditional Medicare coverage. If a beneficiary selects a private health plan with a premium lower than Medicare's contribution, the beneficiary will be eligible for a cash rebate from the private plan. If, on the other hand, the private plan costs more than Medicare's contribution, the beneficiary must pay the difference.

Enrollment in a private health plan will be voluntary. Once a year, beneficiaries will have the opportunity to switch private health plans or to elect traditional Medicare coverage. A qualified health plan may be an HMO, an indemnity insurer, or a service benefit plan. All private plans must cover, at a minimum, the services provided under Parts A and B of Medicare, and must participate in a coordinated annual open enrollment period.

Medicare Physician Payment Freeze and Hospital Reimbursement Limits

The other provisions of this package are contained in the ``Health Care Financing Amendments of 1983.''

Medicare customary and prevailing charges for physician services will be held at 1983 levels for one year beginning in July, 1984. Under current law prevailing charges would otherwise be increased in July, 1984, by the annualized 1984 value of the Medicare Economic Index while increases in customary charges would not be constrained. This limit is consistent with other steps contained in the Budget to reduce the structural deficit.

The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) limited the increase in hospital expenditures under Medicare to the increase in the cost of goods and services hospitals purchase (the hospital ``market basket index'') plus one percent. This provision amends TEFRA to limit the rate of increase in hospital expenditures for fiscal year 1984 only to the increase in the hospital market basket index.

These proposals are part of a government-wide freeze aimed at reducing the Federal deficit. Medicare spending for physicians increased by 21 percent in 1982 and is expected to rise by 19 percent in 1983 and 17 percent in 1984. As mentioned earlier, Medicare hospital expenditures have grown at comparable rates. In this time of fiscal crisis, we must ask all participants in the health care market, physicians, hospitals, and program beneficiaries, to do their part in slowing increases in spending.

Graduated Increases in the Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) or Part B Premium

This provision will freeze the Part B premium at the present $12.20 per month for the remainder of 1983, instead of increasing it to $13.50 in July as was previously announced. The delay coincides with the delay in the cost-of-living increase for Social Security recommended by the National Commission on Social Security.

In January, 1984, the Part B premium will be set at 25 percent -- the percentage specified in current law -- of program costs for aged beneficiaries for that calendar year. Over the next four years, the Part B premium will be increased 2.5 percentage points each year, to reach 35 percent of program costs for the elderly in January, 1988. Thereafter, the premium for each calendar year would be set at 35 percent of program costs (the actuarially adequate rate) for the elderly for that year. When Medicare began, Congress envisioned that the elderly would bear 50 percent of SMI costs and the law initially required that SMI costs be equally financed by the general taxpayer and the users of SMI services.

By gradually raising the SMI premium to 35 percent of program costs, this provision provides for a more equitable balance between general revenue and premium financing of Medicare Part B.

Indexing the Part B Deductible

The Part B deductible will be increased in January of each year based on annual changes in the Medicare Economic Index. This provision would maintain the constant dollar value of the deductible.

The 1981 Reconciliation Act increased the Part B deductible from $60 to $75. Before this amendment, the deductible had remained at $60 since 1972, despite a 250 percent increase in program reimbursements per aged enrollee between 1972 and 1981.

Current law does not provide for future increases in the deductible. As a result, the initial beneficiary liability for medical services will decrease in real terms over time and these costs will be shifted to the Federal government. Furthermore, the value of the deductible as a deterrent to unnecessary utilization will again diminish.

Other Proposals

The legislation I am submitting today includes other items, all of which are designed to make Medicare and Medicaid more effective and efficient programs. They include, among others, proposals for competitive purchasing for laboratory services and durable medical equipment and reimbursement charges for certain Medicare services.

Nominal Medicaid Copayments

This provision requires States to impose nominal copayments on all Medicaid beneficiaries for hospital, physician, clinic, and outpatient department services. Specifically, the categorically needy would have to pay $1 per day for hospital services and $1 per visit for physician or outpatient services. The medically needy would have to pay $2 per for hospital services and $1.50 per visit for physician services. Beneficiaries who are enrolled in HMOs or who are institutionalized would be exempt from all copayment requirements.

First-dollar insurance coverage, such as that which Medicaid provides, leaves the consumer with virtually no financial incentive to question the need for services. Services that are totally free are likely to be overutilized. If patients share in some of the costs, they and their physicians will reduce unnecessary or marginal utilization. There is substantial evidence that cost-sharing can reduce health care costs, mostly by reducing unnecessary utilization.

Budgetary Effect of the Health Incentives Reform Package and Other Medicare and Medicaid Provisions

These provisions will have a substantial impact on reducing the size of the Federal budget and the Federal deficit. In fiscal year 1984 this legislative package will have a cumulative budgetary impact of $4.2 billion: the net Medicare impact of spending reductions and premium increases is a budgetary reduction of $1.7 billion; Federal Medicaid spending reductions amount to $256 million, and increased tax revenues from the change in the tax treatment of employer-paid health benefits amount to $2.3 billion. These savings are sustained and, in fact, grow in subsequent years.

The legislation that we are advancing today reflects our most thoughtful effort to address and reform the basic economic incentives that operate in the health care sector. Since health care now represents over 10 percent of our Nation's Gross National Product and is growing as a proportion of GNP each year, the enormous task of structural reform is well worth undertaking. As I mentioned earlier, we have taken great care to devise a legislative package that shares the responsibility for such reform and the burden of reductions in health care financing fairly among all segments of our society. The distribution of budgetary savings among workers and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries confirms our efforts in this regard.

Our need to constrain the growth of our national spending for health care in the interests of a healthy and stable economy is urgent. Regulatory approaches to health care cost containment tried previously have proven ineffective and sometimes counterproductive to this goal. I urge you to join me in facing the challenge before us and consider favorably our approach to health incentives reform.

Ronald Reagan

The White House,

February 28, 1983.