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Seventy-two million Americans rely on Medicaid for health care.
This article originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Trump administration wants to drop an Obama-era rule designed to ensure that there are enough doctors to care for Medicaid patients.
State health officials say the rule, which requires states to monitor whether Medicaid reimbursement rates are high enough to keep doctors in the program, forces them to spend a lot of time collecting and analyzing data with little benefit. Health care advocates, though, fear that dropping the regulation would enable states to set those payments at a level that would cause some of the 72 million Americans who rely on Medicaid to scramble for health care. Research shows that when reimbursement rates drop, fewer providers agree to accept low-income Medicaid patients.
Although the Medicaid Access Rule, adopted in 2016, pertains to Medicaid fee-for-service plans, the Trump administration also is seeking to relax requirements on how states determine whether Medicaid managed care organizations have enough providers.
If reimbursement rates are too low, there’s a risk that health care providers would see fewer Medicaid patients or even refuse to treat Medicaid enrollees altogether. That, in turn, could lead to longer wait times to see providers still participating in Medicaid or force patients to travel longer distances to reach providers remaining in the program.
Medicaid, the government health plan for low-income U.S. residents, covers 1 in 5 citizens. It is jointly administered and financed by the federal government and the states.
The rule, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said, “excessively constrains state freedom to administer the program in the manner that is best for the state and Medicaid beneficiaries in the state.”
According to Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, scrapping it would eliminate a bureaucratic headache for states that, in the end, hasn’t improved patients’ access to providers.
“Nobody is moving the goal of improved access,” Salo said.
Some health care advocates disagree, pointing out that the rule hasn’t been in place very long and that getting rid of it fits the Trump administration’s overall mission of giving states more freedom in operating Medicaid.
“The Trump administration’s approach to Medicaid has been state flexibility, giving states a lot more discretion to do what they want without a lot of attention to what beneficiaries need,” said Abbi Coursolle, a senior attorney with the National Health Law Program, a group based in Washington, D.C., that works to protect access to health care for low-income populations.
CMS last year called for a significant watering down of the Obama rule. Last month, the agency proposed to scrap it altogether. The comment period on elimination of the rule runs through next month, after which CMS will announce its decision.
The initial proposal to weaken the rule generated plenty of opposition. Among those objecting were hospital and physician organizations, groups that advocate for health care access for all, and organizations created to support those living with certain diseases and to raise funds for research into those conditions.
Among the latter was the Epilepsy Foundation, which warned in its public comment that weakening the rule would deprive CMS of information it needed to monitor and enforce Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to care. State reimbursement rates, the foundation said, are crucial to ensuring enough willing providers are available to treat Medicaid beneficiaries.
Shawn Martin, senior vice president of the Academy of Family Physicians, said scrapping the rule would make states more likely to set reimbursement rates too low, prompting practitioners to stop taking Medicaid patients or cut back. “A low reimbursement would affect how many beneficiaries providers are willing to see.”
Just as adamant on the other side, however, are many states that complain that the Obama rule is cumbersome and ineffective at ensuring access for Medicaid beneficiaries.
At the Maryland Department of Health, Tricia Roddy, a research director, said the rule doesn’t do much to help gauge the fees’ effects on access to care.
Similarly, at the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, Marc Williams, a spokesman, said his state uses other strategies to ensure Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to the health services they need.
According to Salo of the Medicaid directors group, states of both political stripes, red and blue, are delighted that the Trump administration is moving to abolish the rule.
“It was creating many bureaucratic burdens without accomplishing anything concrete,” Salo said. The rule, he said, “is insanely micro-managed and overly bureaucratic.”
The 1965 law establishing Medicaid has been amended through the years to ensure that enough doctors, nurses and other providers are available to serve beneficiaries. Congress in 1989 passed an amendment making clear states’ obligation to pay providers enough to ensure Medicaid enrollees have access to care.
Medicaid pays doctors about three-fourths as much as Medicare, the government program for senior citizens, according to a 2017 analysis by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. And Medicare pays much less than private insurers.
When Medicaid and Medicare payments, or reimbursement rates, go down, research shows that patients make fewer doctor’s visits and more trips to the emergency room.
According to a 2017 Kaiser Family Foundation report, only about 70% of office-based physicians accept new Medicaid patients. The results vary from 39% in New Jersey to 97% in Nebraska. By comparison, the study found, 85% of doctors accept new patients with private insurance.
The 2016 rule required states to tell the agency every three years how providers from various geographic regions and specialties were participating in Medicaid, and how reimbursement rates were affecting that participation.
Michael Ollove is a staff writer for Stateline.