KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations.

First Edition: February 7, 2014

Today's headlines include reports from Capitol Hill about the continuing efforts to overhaul Medicare's payment system for doctors. 

Kaiser Health News: Hill Plan Would Reward Medicare Doctors For Quality
Kaiser Health News staff writer Mary Agnes Carey reports: "Now comes the hard part. After negotiating for months over how to overhaul Medicare’s troubled payment system for physicians, the bipartisan leadership of three Senate and House committees has reached a deal on the policy. Their next task could be even harder – finding a way to finance repeal of the 'doc fix,' the shorthand for the 1997 formula used to set physician payments, the sustainable growth rate" (Carey, 2/7). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: Obamacare Thrives In San Francisco's Chinatown
Kaiser Health News staff writer Sarah Varney, working in collaboration with NPR, reports: "Chinatown here is a city within a city. Built by immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century, Chinatown was a refuge from the era’s vicious prejudice. But the crowded blocks of Chinatown were also somewhat of a prison. Chinese residents feared leaving the area after dark, and they were barred from local schools and the city’s hospitals -- even during an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco. It was painfully clear that when it came to medical care, they had to provide for themselves" (Varney, 2/6). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: A Reader Asks: Can Foreign Visitors Buy Health Insurance Exchange Plans?
Kaiser Health News consumer columnist Michelle Andrews answers this reader’s question (2/7). Read her response.

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Rocky Mountain High Insurance Prices Rankle Ski Towns
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, Eric Whitney writes: "Colorado Insurance Commissioner Margeurite Salazar has been getting an earful about high health insurance premiums in pockets of the state since prices she approved were unveiled Oct. 1. She is under increasing pressure to do something about them now that part of Colorado has been identified as having the most expensive premiums in the country" (Whitney, 2/6). Check out what else is on the blog.

The Associated Press/Washington Post: A Scramble To Sign Up The Young By Health Deadline
Nearly every day, Bransfield comes to a satellite campus of the University of the District of Columbia in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, sitting for hours behind a table in the lobby of a classroom building. Armed with an Apple laptop and a pile of fliers, he’s part of the army of workers and volunteers fanned out around the country trying to enroll young — and probably healthy — people in health insurance available through President Barack Obama’s signature law. Run largely by groups with close ties to the White House, the on-the-ground recruiting effort is based in part on lessons learned from Obama’s two presidential bids, which revolutionized the way campaigns tracked and targeted voters (2/7).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Administration Said To Ponder Insurance Extension
The Obama administration is considering an extension of the president’s decision to let people keep their individual insurance policies even if they are not compliant with the health care overhaul, industry and government officials said Thursday. Avalere Health CEO Dan Mendelson said Thursday that the administration may let policyholders keep that coverage for as long as an additional three years, stressing that no decision has been made. Policymakers are waiting to see what rate hikes health insurers plan for the insurance exchanges that are key to the overhaul’s coverage expansions (2/6).

The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker: The First Attacks Based On The CBO Report On Obamacare And Workers
The Congressional Budget Office report on the impact of the Affordable Care Act was released on Tuesday, and already we have the first attack ads. The Fact Checker devoted one column to explaining what the CBO’s report actually meant. But we have long learned that all the fact checks in the world won’t stop politicians if they think an attack line moves voters. So how do these early attacks fare? (Kessler, 2/7).

Politico: White House Embraces CBO Report
The Obama administration is going all out to turn the Congressional Budget Office’s latest Obamacare report into a positive — and they’re confident they can convince Americans that it’s a good thing if the health care law means they can work less. In a White House blog post Thursday, Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, fleshes out the administration’s defense against a wave of publicity over the CBO report that said the health care law will lead to a reduction in work hours (Nather, 2/6).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Md. Panel To Examine Problems With Health Exchange
The panel, which will hold its first public meeting Monday, will include five state senators and five members of the House of Delegates. A main focus will be overseeing the progress of fixing technological problems and helping as many people as possible sign up before an open enrollment deadline of March 31. Members will later look at what led to the problems in the first place with an aim toward preventing it from happening again in the future (2/6).

The Wall Street Journal: Massachusetts To Retain Health-Exchange Vendor CGI
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said Thursday the state will retain the company behind its online health-insurance exchange but is bringing on additional help after an outside review found problems with the performance of vendor CGI Group Inc. His decision comes after the federal government in January chose not to renew CGI's contract overseeing key parts of HealthCare.gov, the federal health exchange that got off to a rocky start in October. The site has since seen significant improvement. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chose Accenture as the new lead contractor. CGI's federal contract runs through February (Kamp, 2/6).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Model Arkansas Way Of Expanding Medicaid At Risk
Arkansas’ plan for expanding Medicaid by buying private insurance policies for the poor instead of adding them to the rolls was heralded as a model for convincing more Republican-leaning states to adopt a key part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul (2/6).

The New York Times: New Hampshire: Deal Reached On Medicaid Expansion
State senators said Thursday that they had reached a bipartisan deal on a framework to expand Medicaid to about 50,000 low-income adults. Under the agreement, the state will use federal money to buy private insurance, similar to a method adopted last year in Iowa and Arkansas (Bidgood, 2/6).

Los Angeles Times: U.S. Lawmakers Reach Accord On Paying Doctors For Medicare
In a rare bipartisan agreement, congressional leaders have settled on a plan to fix Medicare's system for paying physicians, potentially ending years of uncertainty that often held up fees for doctors who care for the nation's senior citizens. The proposed fix still must be paid for, requiring lawmakers to come up with as much as $150 billion in savings from elsewhere in the budget (Levey, 2/6).

The Wall Street Journal: Lawmakers Reach Deal On Doctor Payments
House and Senate lawmakers have agreed on a five-year plan to change how physicians are paid for treating Medicare patients, an issue that has created a recurring scramble in Congress for over a decade. Under the deal announced Thursday, Medicare would increase the amount it pays physicians by 0.5% each year for the next five years. The agreement was the result of talks that included the top members of the Senate Finance, House Energy and Commerce, and House Ways and Means committees (Radnofsky, 2/6).

The Washington Post: House Speaker John Boehner Mulling Over Debt-Ceiling Options
On Thursday, however, two ideas gained traction, with dozens of Republicans predicting that versions of the pitches could hit the floor next week once House members return to Washington. At the top of the list: a proposal to link a one-year extension of the debt ceiling to a restoration of recently cut military benefits. Another popular option is tying the “doc fix,” which would alter the way doctors are reimbursed for Medicare treatments, to an extension. Changes to the federal budget that would reduce fraud or mandatory spending levels also have been mentioned (Costa, 2/6).

The New York Times: Skating Close To The Edge, Again, On The Debt Ceiling
Even as some Republicans continued to hunt for one policy concession or another to demand from Democrats in exchange for lifting the ceiling, leadership has indicated it has no appetite for brinkmanship — particularly as Republicans head into a midterm campaign for control of Congress where they feel they have an upper hand, given the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s low approval ratings. And the White House has made clear that it has no intention of giving Republicans anything in exchange for increasing the limit (Lowrey, 2/6).

The Wall Street Journal: Aetna Expects To Lose Money On Health-Law Marketplaces
Aetna Inc. said it expects to lose money on its business in the health-law marketplaces this year, with the demographics of enrollees skewing slightly more than expected toward people likely to rack up higher costs. The insurer, which is participating in public consumer exchanges in 16 states and the District of Columbia, the most of any carrier, said it has signed up about 135,000 paid members through the end of January (Mathews, 2/6).

The Wall Street Journal: Cigna Earnings Slip On Decline In Health-Care Margins
Cigna Corp. said its fourth-quarter profit declined 11% as the health insurer's global health-care margins slipped and it lost members from the prior quarter. For the new year, the company predicted earnings of $6.80 to $7.20 a share, compared with estimates of $7.32 a share from analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Cigna has logged increased revenue in recent quarters, aided by growing membership and acquisitions. The company, which traditionally focused more on commercial health insurance, pushed further into the market for senior-focused plans by recently buying Medicare insurer HealthSpring Inc. and American Financial Group Inc.'s Medicare supplement and critical-illness businesses (Rubin, 2/7).

The Washington Post: AOL Chief Cuts 401(k) Benefits, Blames Obamacare And Two ‘Distressed Babies’
AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong on Thursday offered a number of unusual explanations for why his company pulled back its 401(k) benefits for employees this year. The first reason: Obamacare. The second: two women at the company who had "distressed babies" in 2012 (Yang, 2/6).

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