The Importance of Independence

Affordable Care Act’s Independent Payment Advisory Board Key to Quality Care at Lower Cost

Judy Feder and Nicole Cafarella question conservative efforts to gut this key piece of comprehensive health care reform.

President Barack Obama listens as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks during a town hall meeting on the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday, June 8, 2010, at the Holiday Park Multipurpose Senior Center in Wheaton, MD. (AP/Alex Brandon)
President Barack Obama listens as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks during a town hall meeting on the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday, June 8, 2010, at the Holiday Park Multipurpose Senior Center in Wheaton, MD. (AP/Alex Brandon)

A year ago this week, President Barack Obama signed into law our nation’s first comprehensive health reform law, the Affordable Care Act, which not only extends health insurance protection to tens of millions of Americans but also actually reduces the deficit—in large part because of measures the law takes to responsibly slow the growth in Medicare and overall health spending. Lowering the projected growth of health care costs is a key promise of the law because these ever-escalating costs drain businesses, government coffers, and individuals’ savings. Yet many who criticize the law as a budget buster are aiming to repeal some of its key cost-containment features.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board is a case in point. The Affordable Care Act establishes this board to serve as a guarantor that the law’s cost-containment goals will actually be achieved. If the government’s main health care program for the elderly and disabled Medicare exceeds its per capita cost-growth targets under the new law, then the Independent Payment Advisory Board is empowered to recommend ways to reduce program expenditures by changing the way Medicare pays health care providers.

The secretary of health and human services must implement these recommendations unless Congress passes an alternative proposal or discontinues the cost-containment review process by the Independent Payment Advisory Board. Some legislators propose to eliminate the board. This would be a mistake.

Understanding the purpose of the board—as part of the Affordable Care Act’s cost-containment strategy overall—makes it clear that keeping and strengthening the independent board makes sense. The new health law’s cost-containment strategy includes both reducing excessive payments to providers under Medicare’s current payment mechanisms and moving Medicare—and, by example, the private sector—away from a payment system that rewards volume of services, without regard to health benefits, to payment arrangements that reward effective care, efficiently provided.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board will reinforce this twin focus on quality care at lower cost.

The Affordable Care Act holds hospitals and other institutional health care providers to productivity gains—something every other sector of our economy has achieved over the past several decades. Between 1995 and 2008 average annual productivity growth across the vast majority of U.S. businesses was 2.4 percentage points—just more than 1 percentage point higher than the previous two decades. In contrast, the health care, education, and social services sectors combined have produced average annual productivity growth rates of negative 0.2 percentage points.

The Affordable Care Act’s push for providers to produce productivity gains on par with other sectors promotes the efficiencies needed to reduce health care costs. But to assure that growth rates actually slow, the Affordable Care Act sets a target for Medicare spending growth and requires the Independent Payment Advisory Board to develop and recommend payment changes to achieve it. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the executive branch’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predict that explicit payment changes will produce most but not all of the savings needed to realize the independent board’s spending-growth targets through 2019 under the new law.

Avoiding excessive increases in the rates Medicare pays historically slows spending growth across the entire health care industry and can do so in the future. But tightening fee-for-service does nothing to improve quality or efficiency in care delivery—a critical goal of health reform. That’s why the Affordable Care Act includes multiple strategies to promote payment and delivery reform.

First, the new law stops rewarding bad behavior. The law authorizes the secretary of health and human services, without seeking congressional action, to review and alter “misvalued” fees, such as paying more for services than they’re worth, and to reduce payments for clearly undesirable behavior, such as hospital-acquired infections or conditions, inappropriate hospital readmissions, and, even more egregious, outright fraud. These new steps will deliver market-based signals to Medicare health care providers—and by example to the entire industry—that the wrong kinds of services that drive up current costs will no longer be rewarded.

Alongside what might be considered these “sticks” to change behavior come a set of essential “carrots,” or rewards to deliver more effective and efficient care. At the most basic level, these rewards are extra payments to providers for doing “good” things—say, meeting a set of efficiency standards while maintaining quality care. But more importantly, these rewards reside in alternative payment mechanisms to replace today’s fee-for-service payment system.

Among the new payment systems the new health law encourages is “bundling” separate fees into a single payment for services associated with a specific condition, such as a hip fracture, which today would include separate fees for diagnosis, surgery, and postoperative care. Another provision of the law promotes the financial and health benefits of primary care and chronic care management through newly created “medical homes,” which coordinate health care for their patients. And yet another new approach to health care promoted by the new law are so-called “accountable care organizations,” which are collaboratives of inpatient and outpatient providers who are rewarded for delivering quality care to a defined set of patients at lower-than-projected costs.

The new law sets a clear timetable for implementing some of these measures and creates the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Payment Innovation to initiate, evaluate, and broadly extend the application of these methods as part of “rapid cycle change.”

The law also recognizes that these efficiencies and the savings they can deliver will not be realized if changes in payment systems are limited to the public sector, and therefore encourages public-private partnerships. Medicare is a large payer, accounting for 20 percent of our nation’s medical bill in 2009. Private payers have historically followed Medicare payment practices. But that outcome is neither automatic nor immediate.

What’s more, inconsistent payment mechanisms across payers discourage providers from changing behavior, impede efficiency improvements, and create opportunities for offsetting one payer’s spending reductions with increases for others. Indeed, a recent study by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent congressional agency, finds that hospitals squeezed by both Medicare and private payers changed their operations to become more efficient, yet hospitals with generous private payments ignored Medicare constraints, took losses on Medicare patients, and continued business as usual. Better quality care at lower costs requires that the public and private sectors work in tandem.

The health reform law encourages common action in different ways. The law gives preference to innovations where providers engage with private payers alongside Medicare in adopting new payment incentives Other provisions in the law further support payment reform in the private sector by extending access to Medicare provider performance data to guide private payers’ payment-reform efforts, and requiring private health plans to regularly report on those efforts. These data will inform the Independent Payment Review Board when it uses its authority to make nonbinding recommendations for private-payer reforms alongside binding recommendations for public programs.

This is a key provision of the new law. From 1970 to 2000 the private sector was less effective than Medicare in promoting efficiency, with an average annual growth rate per enrollee of 11.1 percent compared to Medicare’s rate of 9.6 percent. An effort that addresses public-sector but not private-sector health care spending risks limited access for beneficiaries as well as missed opportunities to encourage health care providers to operate more effectively and efficiently. Therefore, the broader the new board’s authority is to influence not only public but also private spending, the more effective it will be.

A focus on policy tools alone, however, obscures the most important element of the Independent Payment Review Board’s potential impact. Payment improvements in the past were stymied by legislators responding to providers’ resistance to change. Provider payment is rarely a partisan issue but it is a political issue. The new law takes the politics out of the equation by giving the independent board the authority to make Medicare payment recommendations that become law unless explicitly overridden by legislative action. This gives a major boost to policy over politics in containing health care costs.

And it’s precisely this boost that special interest groups want to prevent. Opponents of the new board complain it undermines congressional authority and removes from their control an important budgetary lever at a time when the federal budget deficit is rising at an unsustainable rate. But the real concern of many of these critics, who often are the fiercest advocates of fiscal restraint, is that the board’s authority diminishes their influence and their ability to fashion a Medicare budget that benefits the pharmaceutical industry and other special interest groups that are in a position to lose the most from the board’s future recommendations.

Other critics of the Independent Payment Advisory Board fear the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough in granting it authority, leaving too many loopholes for special interest groups to avoid payment adjustments. In making adjustments the board is prohibited from addressing payments to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and other health care providers who are scheduled to receive “productivity adjustments” under the Affordable Care Act. Rather than repeal the board, the more sensible option would be to close these loopholes and extend accountability for unacceptable health care cost increases.

In fact, members of Congress and policymakers in the federal government should be thinking of ways to strengthen the Independent Payment Advisory Board given the fiscal reality facing the federal government today. The new board is one of the Affordable Care Act’s most important cost-containment tools. We can’t afford to lose it.

Judy Feder is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a national leader in health care policy. Nicole Cafarella is the Payment Reform Project Manager and Policy Analyst on the Center’s health policy team.

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Nicole Cafarella

Payment Reform Project Manager and Policy Analyst