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States Look Inward as Health Tabs Loom Large


 

WASHINGTON — With health care costs accounting for the single largest expense in their budgets, states are increasingly looking for solutions from within, not from the federal government, according to an annual accounting of state legislative trends compiled by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

“Health care spending represented nearly one-third of total state expenditures last fiscal year,” said Susan Laudicina, BCBSA director for state research and policy at a briefing for reporters. And, she noted, as the economy weakens, health care costs will continue to rise, while tax revenues will fall. That will add to the pressure to find creative solutions, she said.

“The challenge for state lawmakers is how to avoid cutting existing programs like Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program while also finding new ways to cover the uninsured and contain costs,” said Ms. Laudicina.

The most significant trend observed in the states: an attempt to expand coverage. About half of the state legislatures debated universal coverage or expansion programs for children in fiscal 2007. State mandates requiring individuals to buy insurance were introduced in 12 states. All of those failed, largely because they are controversial, said Ms. Laudicina.

Connecticut and New York expanded eligibility for SCHIP to 400% of the federal poverty level and seven other states raised eligibility to 300%, but those efforts are threatened by a rule change issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last August that ostensibly caps eligibility at 250% of the federal poverty level. Eight states have sued to challenge that ruling.

Eight states—Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Texas and Washington—created programs in which public funds are used to subsidize the cost of private employer-sponsored health insurance to Medicaid-eligible workers. Oklahoma expanded its existing subsidy program, making more people eligible.

So-called “transparency” initiatives are gaining ground, also. These are proposals that require hospitals—and in some cases, physicians—to publicly share information on infections and other adverse events, and also other quality data and pricing. Twenty-one states debated proposals that would require transparency on some level. Transparency bills were enacted in 10 states: Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

In Texas, for instance, the state is now requiring hospitals and physicians to provide patients with estimates of charges if requested. Hospitals will also be required to tell patients if there is the possibility that an out-of-network provider will be working in an in-network facility, and to inform them there may be costs to the patient as a result. The Texas law reflects a growing concern that patients aren't aware that they may be balance-billed, Ms. Laudicina said.

Eleven states will take up transparency measures in 2008, she said. The annual State Legislative Health Care and Insurance Issues report compiles information from the BCBSA's survey of 39 independent Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans.

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