Opponents of the public option have funded an analysis that warns more rural hospitals may close if Americans leave commercial plans for Medicare.
With the focus on rural hospitals, the Partnership for America's Health Care Future brings a sensitive issue for politicians into its fight against a Medicare buy-in. The policy has gone mainstream among Democratic presidential candidates and many Democratic lawmakers.
Rural hospitals could lose between 2.3% and 14% of their revenue if the U.S. opens up Medicare to people under 65, the consulting firm Navigant projected in its estimate. The analysis assumed just 22% of the remaining 30 million uninsured Americans would choose a Medicare plan. The study based its projections of financial losses primarily on people leaving the commercial market where payment rates are significantly higher than Medicare.
The estimate assumed Medicaid wouldn't lose anyone to Medicare, and plotted out various scenarios where up to half of the commercial market would shift to Medicare.
The analysis was commissioned by the Partnership for America's Health Care Future, a coalition of hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies fighting public option and single-payer proposals.
In their most drastic scenario of commercial insurance losses, co-authors Jeff Goldsmith and Jeff Leibach predict more than 55% of rural hospitals could risk closure, up from 21% who risk closure today according to their previous studies.
Leibach said the analysis was tailored to individual hospitals, accounting for hospitals that wouldn't see cuts since they don't have many commercially insured patients.
The spotlight on rural hospitals in the debate on who should pay for healthcare is common these days, particularly as politicians or the executive branch eye policies that could cut hospital or physician pay.
On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) seemingly acknowledged this when she published her own proposal to raise Medicare rates for rural hospitals as part of her goal to implement single payer, or Medicare for All. She is running for the Democratic nomination for president for the 2020 election.
"Medicare already has special designations available to rural hospitals, but they must be updated to match the reality of rural areas," Warren said in a post announcing a rural strategy as part of her campaign platform. "I will create a new designation that reimburses rural hospitals at a higher rate, relieves distance requirements and offers flexibility of services by assessing the needs of their communities."
Warren is a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is credited with the party's leftward shift on the healthcare coverage question. But she is trying to differentiate herself from Sanders, and the criticisms about the potentially drastic pay cuts to hospitals have dogged single-payer debates.
Most experts acknowledge the need for a significant policy overhaul that lets rural hospitals adjust their business models. Those providers tend to have aging and sick patients; high rates of uninsured and public pay patients over those covered by commercial insurance; and fewer patients overall than their urban counterparts.
But lawmakers in Washington aren't likely to act during this Congress. The major recent changes have mostly been driven by the Trump administration, where officials just last week finalized an overhaul of the Medicare wage index to help rural hospitals.
As political rhetoric around the public option or single payer has gone mainstream this presidential primary season, rural hospitals will likely remain a talking point in the ideas to overhaul or reorganize the U.S.'s $3.3 trillion healthcare industry.
This was in evidence in May, when the House Budget Committee convened a hearing on Medicare for All to investigate some of the fiscal impacts. One Congressional Budget Office official said rural hospitals with mostly Medicaid, Medicare and uninsured patients could actually see a boost in a redistribution of doctor and hospital pay.
But the CBO didn't analyze specific legislation and offered a vague overview of how a single-payer system might look, rather than giving exact numbers.
The plight of rural hospitals has been used in lobbying tactics throughout this year — in Congress' fight over how to end surprise medical bills as well as opposition to hospital contracting reforms proposed in the Senate.
And it has worked to some extent. Both House and Senate committees have made concessions to their surprise billing proposals to mollify some lawmakers' worries.