Congress vs. HCFA: Bureaucracy bashing 101
Congress vs. HCFA: Bureaucracy bashing 101
Frustrated politicians like to point out how hard it can be to please constituents who simultaneously demand contradictory things, like those voters who all at once want increased spending, tax cuts, and no new additions to the deficit. But sometimes, the politicians themselves behave just as inconsistently.
Take the Health Care Financing Administration, known, and almost universally derided, as HCFA (pronounced Hickfa). The HHS unit that oversees Medicare, Medicaid, and, since last year, the new children's health insurance program, HCFA is the agency politicians most love to hate. In 1992, when he was running for president, candidate Clinton in his "Putting People First" manifesto vowed to "scrap [HCFA] and replace it with a health standards board made up of consumers, providers, business, labor and government."
In short, anybody except bureaucrats. During the heated Medicare debate of 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., claimed he never meant to suggest Medicare would "wither on the vine" under the GOP's budget plan, merely HCFA.
But Congress' second favorite pastime, after beating up on HCFA, seems to be giving the agency even more work to do. Since 1996, three different bills have increased HCFA's responsibilities exponentially.
"It's the greatest workload in the history of the agency," said Harvard Professor Joseph Newhouse, vice chairman of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.
And it is not like HCFA was a sleepy bureaucratic backwater: Running Medicare and Medicaid already required it to supervise the healthcare programs that will serve nearly 75 million Americans in 1998 and cost the federal government $300 billion in 1997, 18 percent of the entire federal budget.
HCFA's latest onslaught began in 1996, with passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Not only did HIPAA give the agency broad new responsibility to root out fraud and abuse in Medicare (the accountability part), it also made HCFA the fallback enforcement agency for states that failed to pass their own laws to implement the portability part. As of now, that includes five states: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Missouri, Michigan, and California.
Later that fall, Congress ordered HCFA to implement provisions tacked onto the VA-HUD appropriations bill barring "drive through" baby deliveries and requiring limited parity for mental health coverage.
But that was only an appetizer. Last year's Balanced Budget Act, according to HCFA Administrator Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, gave the agency about 300 new tasks.
In Medicare alone, the agency is expected to devise new payment systems for home health, hospital outpatient, and nursing home care; a new "risk adjuster" and new payment methodologies for managed care plans; and rules for new "provider-sponsored organizations." And that is not to mention devising how to inform Medicare's 39 million beneficiaries about a vast array of new "choices" available to them this fall.
At the same time, HCFA is responsible for approving each state's new children's health insurance program, and for helping states locate and enroll the millions of children eligible but not yet signed up for Medicaid.
With that much more to do, you might think Congress would also give HCFA more money to do it with. But it is so easy to bash the bureaucracy that the Senate could not resist striking HCFA's request for an additional $16 million for FY98 during consideration of the supplemental appropriations bill last month.
HCFA officials said $6 million of that request was to hire workers to enforce HIPAA in states that have yet to pass their own legislation. The states in question contain a total of 54 million citizens. "The work requires knowledge and expertise in the area of health insurance regulation at the state level," said the agency in its supplemental request. "The nature of this work is totally unlike that performed by HCFA's workforce."
But that plea fell on deaf ears. "Do we want to turn that much additional bureaucracy over to HCFA, that much more money, or can't they borrow some more of those employees that they now have who are probably reading through reports that are obsolete and maybe not doing so much good?" asked Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., on the floor March 25.
Evidently they can, according to the Senate. Members adopted Nickles' amendment to strip the funding from the bill after defeating, 51-49, an attempt by Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to keep only half the money.
The result of all this, says former CBO Director Robert Reischauer, is "setting HCFA up" for failure. "It's classic Congress," he said. "There's no way HCFA can accomplish the changes Congress has asked [it] to do. Then [Congress] will be back in two years having oversight hearings about how HCFA failed to do its job."
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