The following is a guest post from David Shulkin, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a distinguished health policy fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a special adviser to Sanford Health.
With COVID-19 there has been unprecedented stress placed upon the healthcare system. The human and financial toll of the current crisis has been extraordinary. Yet, little attention has been focused on the impact of this virus on the viability of our healthcare financing system.
Three significant shifts in healthcare financing are occurring as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact. First, as a result of job losses, there will be a shift in commercial insurance to government-funded insurance programs. Second, revenue for funding Medicare, based on payroll taxes, will be significantly decreased. Finally, states will have less tax revenue to pay for Medicaid, threatening the viability of this program as well.
More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent report, about 27 million people may lose their employer-sponsored insurance.
This will result in millions of people seeking coverage through Medicaid programs, the individual marketplace or simply becoming uninsured. Healthcare providers have relied upon margins from commercial insurance to offset costs from poorer reimbursing government funded programs and uncompensated care.
With more than 156 million Americans receiving employer sponsored insurance at the start of this year, and given recent projected job losses, providers may see a 17% shift in payer mix. The reliance on commercial insurance and cost shifting has become a necessary way for providers to financially sustain operations.
With a 35% margin with commercial insurance compared to Medicare, a 17% shift in payer mix on a trillion dollar spend would result in a substantial reduction in financial resources available to hospitals.
Almost half of healthcare expenditures already come from government programs. Medicare, the largest of these programs, is principally supported by taxes on payroll and social security benefits. With COVID-related job losses there will be a corresponding reduction in payroll tax revenues to the Medicare system. Reports from the Congressional Research Service submitted to Congress in May, with data used prior to COVID-19, projected that Medicare would become insolvent in 2026.
Analyses performed show that there will be a gap in Medicare revenues during the next three years (from the pre-COVID projections) of close to $150 billion. The result is that Medicare will become insolvent as early as 2022. Even by applying more conservative projections, such as recovering all job losses by the end of 2020 and payroll tax revenue holding steady at pre-COVID levels, Medicare still becomes insolvent in 2023.
State revenues, too, will be under real pressure with reduced tax revenues resulting from the current economic downturn. Medicaid programs are supported in part by federal funds, but also from general funds from the state.
On average, states are projecting about a 10% reduction in revenues in 2020, rising to almost a 25% reduction in 2021. Even without considering the growth in Medicaid enrollment hitting states, this reduced tax revenue will make sustaining current Medicaid program funding increasingly difficult.
This perfect storm of a shift in payer mix, the impending insolvency of Medicare by 2022 and the inability of states to absorb the growing costs of Medicaid represent a tsunami of challenges for the health system. Looking at this new reality, it is clear that our system for financing healthcare is severely broken and we must identify solutions to sustain access to medical care for our citizens.
This will be a challenge of a generation and we will need strength, courage and bold ideas to get through this. Pandemics have a way of changing a society’s political, economic and sociologic outlooks, and COVID-19 will be no different.