When Medicaid is Big Business, People Suffer
by Summer Harrison, DisabilityMom.Blogspot.com September 7, 2011
Hawaii’s governor, the first Democrat elected in eight years, has publicly defended his decision to segregate the state’s Medicaid population as second class citizens.
Like Obama, Neil Abercrombie rode to victory last November on a great tide of hope for the future. And like Obama, he has apparently decided to side with Big Business against the civil rights of his voters.
There is something called “Federal Supremacy.” Federal law is the “supreme law of the land”, and states cannot limit legal rights defined by federal law.
One practical result is that children as well as adults with disabilities have the ability to appeal life-threatening denials of medically necessary services by their Medicaid plan. The majority of cases that reach this level involve children of all ages with disabilities, fighting for the right to live at home rather than in institutions. These home medical services are expensive, although less than what the state would pay for institutionalization.
In May, the White House unexpectedly pushed through an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief with the Supreme Court, taking the position that the protections of Federal law do not extend to Medicaid beneficiaries.
Disability law experts like Sara Rosenbaum and Simon Lazarus immediately warned of the potential “spill-over effect” if beneficiaries of the country’s “safety net programs” like Medicaid were suddenly denied the protections of the court.
Governor Abercrombie’s comments were made during an August 22 meeting called to explain why he signed a piece of legislation eerily similar to that amicus brief.
Hawaii’s S.B. 1274, signed by the Governor in July, accomplishes exactly what Lazarus warned of: it carves out the state’s entire Medicaid population (270,000) and denies them access to the protections of federal law.
The Governor openly admitted the purpose of SB 1274 was saving the state’s Medicaid contractors money on legal fees. Patterns of Medicaid providers violating federal regulations (and civil rights) he dismissed as mere “glitches”. (More information about SB 1274 as well as a link to a recording of the Governor's comments can be found here.)
The crux of SB 1274 was to repeal a state law enabling patients to challenge health insurers’ denials of care, and to be represented by an attorney in the process. The law required health insurers to pay the legal costs of the patient’s appeal when the company refused to approve medical treatments ordered by a doctor.
Seventy percent of Hawaii’s Medicaid budget is paid out to two publicly traded contractors, Unitedhealth and Wellcare. The two share a lucrative $1.2 billion a year contract to provide services to 40,000 children and adults with disabilities. Premiums are calculated individually, and because these contracts are specifically to cover home services for people with disabilities, monthly premiums can range as high as $27,000 for, say, a medically fragile child.
Publicly traded Medicaid (and Medicare) HMOs make shareholder profits by not spending premium money on medical expenses. Since the size of the Medicaid pie is the same it was before they bought the contract, services have to be cut twenty to fifty percent to support corporate profits.
State contracts with Medicaid providers like Unitedhealth and Wellcare must be approved federally (through CMS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, part of DHHS). They mandate compliance with all state laws. Unitedhealth and Wellcare knew about Hawaii’s healthcare laws when they signed the contract, but apparently did not realize what they would cost them.
Only one thing is accomplished by deleting a state law requiring insurance companies to reimburse patients’ legal bills in disputes over medical care. It allows the company to slash services in order to increase profits, without worrying that patients have the ability to challenge them effectively.
In Hawaii, it got the publicly traded companies out from under the mounting legal bills incurred defending against life-threatening cuts in services, most of them victimizing children and seniors.
In April, Unitedhealth’s Hawaii attorney openly told a TV reporter that SB 1274 needed to be passed because the state’s "existing process is expensive, time-consuming and burdensome... just adds to the cost of healthcare when we [Unitedhealth] can ill-afford it."
What she failed to add was that her client, Unitedhealth had over a dozen cases pending against it at the time. As of this writing, she and Unitedhealth have lost every case ever filed against it under the same patient rights law she said needed to be repealed.
What is happening here in Hawaii is only the tip of the iceberg.
By the end of this year, publicly traded companies will own about 30% of Medicaid, up from 19.6% two years earlier.
Remember when Congress had to approve TARP giving the banks $700 billion back in 2008? In the end the price tag was $245 billion, almost all of which has been paid back by now.
The privatization of Medicaid and Medicare has gone from $105.3 billion in 2009, to $113.7 billion in 2010, and already stands at $65 billion for the first half of 2011. Not a penny of that $284 billion needs to be repaid.
The political hot potato neither Republicans nor Democrats are talking about is who determines how much of that money actually needs to be spent. Or even if any of this nice federal and state funding has actually been spent on real medical care for people who need it.
The amicus brief and state laws like SB 1274 clear the way for these publicly traded companies to increase profits without worrying about federal regulatory interference. Unitedhealth and Wellcare are only two of about ten publicly traded health companies together splitting about $11 billion every month in federal and state revenues for Medicaid and Medicare.
The morning after last November’s elections, Public Citizen published a study of the link between “party-shifting contests” and “unregulated third-party spending.” Twenty-two of fifty-eight new Republicans were in seven of the eight states that just settled with Wellcare for criminal Medicaid fraud claims. Unregulated third party spending in those seven states came to $11 million, of the $54 million tracked.
Eighty-five percent of the total was spent in states where six publicly traded corporations (Unitedhealth, Wellcare, Wellpoint, Centene, Amerigroup and Molina) own Medicaid contracts. Unitedhealth alone operated either Medicaid or Medicare HMOs in 28 of the 33 states where Republicans beat Democrats, and was bidding on new contracts with a 29th state at the time.
On August 5, the White House took another swipe at federal protections for people on Medicaid, and particularly those with disabilities. CMS sent a letter out telling states how to auction off their Medicaid contracts without worrying about inconvenient federal safeguards. The legal work-arounds that CMS proposes specifically target what is called “maintenance of effort.” New Medicaid contracts/programs cannot restrict existing access to program benefits.
Now they can.
The politics of Medicaid/Medicare corruption override party membership. Greed trumps ideology, apparently.
You see it as far back as 2002. That’s the year a group of Wall Street financiers bought Florida’s biggest Medicaid HMO, a little known company named Wellcare. George Soros, head of the group, was known for donating to Democrats. The financiers’ hand-picked CEO was a Bush fundraiser.
Between taking the company public in 2004 and selling out before the very public FBI raid in October 2007 (the last shares were sold only weeks earlier), the original investors turned $70 million into almost $900 million.
The whistleblower complaint that led to a dawn raid by 200 FBI agents was not unsealed until last summer, almost three years later. Reading it, however, makes it very clear that the criminally fraudulent practices that generated such excessive profits traced back to the change of ownership in 2002.
Wellcare almost appears to have been structured from the get-go as a financial experiment in how to get rich from Medicaid and Medicare.
One of the last Board Members whose involvement could be traced back to 2002 only stepped down in early 2010. It took until the fall for the company to finish getting around to suing former executives whom, it claimed, had hid their criminal actions from the Board.
In October, it was learned the company had become one of Florida’s largest political contributors between 2004 and 2007, reporting a total of $2.6 million to the state Republican Party as well as individual Republican candidates. According to a report in Health News Florida, “Tampa attorney Barry Cohen …said today the contributions were pennies on the dollar compared to the money the HMO saved in Medicaid fines -- and the profits it made.”
In November, industry analysts were predicting that “WellCare’s strong Medicaid HMO position in multiple states will enable it to grow the upcoming Medicaid expansion that is part of the new health law.”
In late April, the White House apparently backed a federal settlement with Wellcare letting the company off the hook forever. The final settlement was for about $137 million, of up to $600 million estimated embezzled from federal and state funds.
Since January, Wellcare has been outperforming the S&P 500 by up to 35%. Quarterly net earnings reported in June are 7.64% of gross premium revenue, up from 1.62% in June 2008. Quarterly gross premiums are down $160 million (from $1.64 billion to $1.49 billion) while net earnings have grown from $26.6 to $113.5 million.
There’s an old saying that you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. Wellcare’s first financial success was defeated because they got caught stealing. The emerging federal “hands-off” policy towards Medicaid means they, and all the other publicly traded companies feeding off the backs of our most vulnerable citizens, will no longer have to worry about getting caught. Nobody will be looking.