9:56am

Thu March 22, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Medicare Board Draws Fire Before It Even Meets

IPAB sounds like a new Apple product, but it's actually a controversial board that is at the heart of House Republicans' efforts to upend the 2010 federal health law.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board, created by the health law, is supposed to help hold down costs in Medicare, the federal health program for seniors and the disabled.

It isn't even operating yet. But that hasn't stopped Republicans — and some Democrats — from denouncing the concept, saying it would wind up rationing care and would eclipse congressional authority over Medicare.

The House is expected to pass a bill Thursday that would repeal IPAB, but few Democrats are likely to vote in favor of it. Earlier this month some prominent Democrats appeared likely to join in. But when the GOP added a provision to limit medical malpractice awards, Democratic support appeared to evaporate.

Either way, the Senate isn't likely to approve it. The White House last month reiterated its support for IPAB, and this week threatened to veto the Republican repeal should it pass the Senate. Even if the legislation doesn't get that far, it could provide Republicans with a strong campaign issue.

Last year, President Barack Obama said IPAB is critical to controlling the cost of Medicare, estimated at $524 billion in fiscal 2010.

Here's a look at the issues:

What will IPAB do?

Beginning in fiscal 2015, if Medicare is projected to grow too quickly, IPAB will make binding recommendations to reduce spending. Those recommendations will be sent to Capitol Hill at the beginning of the year, and if Congress doesn't like them, it must pass alternative cuts — of the same size — by August. A supermajority of the Senate (at least two-thirds of those present) can also vote to amend the IPAB recommendations. If Congress fails to act, the secretary of health and human services is required to implement the cuts.

Who will serve on the panel?

It will have 15 full-time members, and only a minority of them can be health care providers. The president is required to get suggestions from leaders of both parties in Congress in nominating 12 of the 15 appointees. For the other three, he doesn't have to consult Congress. The members have to be confirmed by the Senate. Obama hasn't nominated anyone yet, but has promised to fill the slots with "doctors, nurses, medical experts and consumers." Board members, who will serve six-year terms, are to be paid the salary of senior executives in the federal government — $165,300 this year — and cannot hold any other jobs.

Why is IPAB so controversial?

Hospitals, doctors, drug companies and some patient groups are worried IPAB will recommend reductions in Medicare payments — which they say already are too low — and that they won't have the time or ability to counter the cuts during accelerated congressional action. Doctors and drug companies are particularly worried that they'll bear a lot of the burden because hospitals and nursing homes aren't subject to IPAB's cost-cutting recommendations until fiscal 2020. Lawmakers — mostly Republicans but some Democrats as well — say that IPAB will have too much power and are pressing for repeal of the provision.

Some critics, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., charge that IPAB will ration needed care for seniors.

Defenders counter that the law bars it from rationing care, restricting benefits or changing eligibility criteria. And, in response to complaints from the health care industry, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who was one of IPAB's architects, said that the board was specifically designed to reduce the influence of "special interests" on Medicare payment policy. Those interests, he and others say, have kept Congress from making the tough decisions needed to hold down spending and reduce the deficit.

How exactly will IPAB slow Medicare spending?

Under the health care law, the board is required to recommend reductions in Medicare if spending per capita is projected to exceed specific targets. In the first few years, the target will be based on inflation gauges, such as the Consumer Price Index.

Proponents note that IPAB won't impose a "hard cap" on spending, but rather will recommend ways to reduce spending.

What if Medicare's projected spending doesn't exceed the targets?

In that case, the board isn't required to make the recommendations. And in fact, the Congressional Budget Office last year said that is likely to be the situation for almost a decade. CBO is expecting Medicare spending to remain below the threshold that requires action.

Copyright 2012 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.