Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services and Medicaid Reform

Published August 20, 2015

Platte Institute for Economic Research

Executive Summary

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), like its federal counterpart, is a large and diverse agency providing an array of services to the state’s lower income households and medically vulnerable populations. And, also like its federal counterpart, the agency’s budget is dominated by large health entitlement expenditures—specifically for the Medicaid program. Any effort to improve DHHS operations will necessarily involve an intensive examination of Medicaid.

On some measures, Nebraska’s Medicaid program is in better shape than it is in other states. For instance, while payments to providers of medical services are notoriously low in Medicaid, and thus also an impediment to securing appropriate access to care in many instances, fees for physician services in Nebraska’s Medicaid program are higher, when measured as a percentage of Medicare’s rates, than in all but ten other states. Further, while program enrollment has surged nationwide and in Nebraska too, Nebraska’s Medicaid enrollment, when compared to the size of the entire state population, remains low compared to the rest of the country.

Still, even in Nebraska, the program is far from what it should be, both in terms of the services it provides to its participants and the costs it imposes on taxpayers.

Nebraska and other states are hampered by the tangle of federal rules and regulations governing the program, and the perverse incentives embedded in the existing federal matching system for covering Medicaid’s costs. With these incentives and rules, the path of least resistance for both federal and state policymakers has been steady program expansion, with costs only cosmetically controlled with payment rate restrictions and inferior access to care for program participants.

Nebraska should chart a new and better course for the Medicaid program by proceeding with reforms on two tracks.


First, the state should examine what other states have done in recent years, learn from those efforts, and pursue a traditional, but aggressive, reform agenda. These reforms should include:


• proceeding with already planned expansions of enrollment in capitated managed care programs;
• placing a heavier emphasis on beneficiary choice and responsibility in the program;
• making aggressive use of all available data systems to ensure program integrity and the disenrollment of ineligible participants; and
• initiating a careful review of optional services to determine if any might be eliminated from future program costs.


In addition to this agenda, which can be pursued in the near-term, Nebraska should begin planning to use existing waiver authority to fundamentally transform the program into a fully consumer-driven model of insurance and service provision. A transformative reform effort of this kind would need approval from the federal government, which is unlikely under the current administration. Nonetheless, it is important to begin planning for such an effort now because the next window of opportunity for consideration of a reform plan of this kind could occur in early 2017, when a new administration is taking office. To be ready to take advantage of that potential opportunity, the state would need to begin developing a workable plan in the very near future. Moreover, regardless of the posture of the federal government, it is important for states like Nebraska to provide a vision for Medicaid and health care reform that demonstrates to citizens in the state and the rest of the country that there is a viable alternative to ever more federal control over the health system.


A fundamental transformation of Nebraska’s Medicaid program should be built on the following framework:
• Pursuit of a combined waiver under section 1115 of the Social Security Act and section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This combined waiver would give Nebraska much more flexibility to build a true, market-driven reform plan within a fixed budget.
• Integration of Medicaid insurance (for the non-disabled and non-elderly) with the broader health insurance marketplace in Nebraska. Instead of separating Medicaid participants from everyone else, they would select from the same competitive insurance plans offered to other working age people and their dependents. Added emphasis should be placed on giving Medicaid participants the option to enroll in Health Savings Accounts and higher deducible insurance options.
• Expansion of the idea that the disabled and the elderly, together with their families and caregivers, are in the best position to use Medicaid’s limited resources to buy the services that they need and desire the most. This approach would enhance budgetary control and enlist the program’s participants in eliminating lower value services.


Beyond Medicaid, DHHS’ portfolio is dominated by economic assistance efforts for lower income households. The agency also administers a number of other programs, including traditional public health efforts, mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment initiatives, residential and day services for persons with developmental disabilities, and four homes for needy veterans. Compared to Medicaid and economic assistance efforts, these programs are relatively small and are substantially funded and governed by rules issued from federal agencies.
Nebraska, like other states, faces challenges in promoting economic independence among lower income and disadvantaged households, but the challenges are more manageable in Nebraska than elsewhere because of the state’s strong economy—including a very low unemployment rate as well as relatively low rates of poverty.


The state already emphasizes work and program integrity in its administration of these programs, but additional steps can be taken. Among other things, Nebraska could implement even more aggressive contractor incentives to improve job placement results for needy families. In addition, the agency should establish work expectations for able-bodied participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Finally, DHHS should aggressively use all available data matches to ensure program integrity in SNAP.


The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is Nebraska’s largest state agency. DHHS administers the significant human service and health care programs for the state, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), economic assistance for families, public health programs, behavioral health efforts, child welfare services, veterans’ services, and much else.


Health and human service programs have grown rapidly in many state budgets in recent years, and Nebraska is no exception. Driven primarily by growth in Medicaid expenditures, DHHS’ budget has overtaken education as the most expensive line item in Nebraska’s state budget.


The looming presence of the federal government complicates efforts to reform DHHS operations and programs generally and Medicaid specifically. Medicaid was enacted by Congress in 1965, and although the states administer Medicaid, it is fundamentally a federal program. The federal government has established an extensive web of regulatory requirements for Medicaid the states must follow unless they specifically seek and are granted a waiver by the federal government, which generally only occurs after much effort and protracted negotiations. Further, the federal government pays for more than half of all Medicaid expenditures, including in Nebraska. As a result, when a state implements measures to reduce Medicaid spending, most of the savings goes back to the federal, not the state, treasury. This makes it difficult for state leaders to secure the necessary political support to pursue what are inevitably controversial steps.
Far-reaching reform of DHHS programs is also difficult because of the importance of the assistance provided to many economically vulnerable households in Nebraska. Nebraskans, like citizens in other states, expect their government leaders to use taxpayer funds wisely and to aggressively root out any fraud and abuse of government funds; however, they are also generally supportive of an effective safety net. They prefer reforms that make programs work better and more efficiently to changes that simply reduce the levels of support for disadvantaged households. The Medicaid program represents an opportunity in this regard because, despite its significant expense, there is a large amount of evidence that the program’s expenditures are not matched by high levels of services or improvements in the health status of those enrolled in the program. There is thus ample room for improvement without the need to devote more taxpayer funds to the program.


The challenge for policymakers in Nebraska and elsewhere is to craft reforms in Medicaid and other health and human service programs that open up new possibilities and opportunities for those participating in the programs rather than just giving them less support. There is no single or simple answer to how this might be done. But an important part of the answer is to rely more on the enrollees themselves to make choices and steer limited resources in ways that assist them in their efforts to improve their lives and achieve greater independence.

Brief Overview of the Nebraska DHHS


Nebraska’s DHHS has evolved over the years, with new services and programs created or moved within its purview on a regular basis. The result is a sprawling department, not unlike the federal Department of Health and Human Services, with responsibilities for a wide variety of activities, including public health promotion, health insurance administration, economic assistance, child support enforcement, disability assistance, and much else.


As shown in Figure 1, the result of a long series of federal and state decisions to expand assistance and services in these areas is a DHHS budget that is now the largest single line item in Nebraska’s general fund account, surpassing state educational aid to localities. In the newly completed FY 2016 budget, total general fund appropriations were $4.3 billion, with nearly $1.6 billion allocated to DHHS services and operations, approximately 37 percent of the entire state budget.1
These figures for the state’s general fund budget reflect state-only resources; however, DHHS’s budget is considerably larger than these figures indicate due to the large amount of federal funding also flowing through it.
The full DHHS budget for FY 2014, including both state and federal funds, is shown in Figure 2. Total expenditures were about $3.0 billion, and one-half of that spending was financed with federal funds, including federal matching funds for the Medicaid program, the welfare assistance block grant, and full federal funding of the benefits provided through SNAP. The rest of the funding came from appropriations from the state’s general fund or cash reserves.


Figure 2 also shows the uses of those combined federal and state funds in FY 2014. Nearly 80 percent of DHHS resources were spent on direct aid to program beneficiaries, including cash support payments, SNAP benefits, and Medicaid coverage for medical expenses. About 6 percent of the DHHS budget was spent on state-operated service agencies, such as veterans’ homes and centers for the developmentally disabled. Three percent of funds were spent on public health efforts, and the remaining 12 percent was spent on DHHS administrative costs. The department employs about 5,500 state workers.


The department divides its programmatic responsibilities into six divisions, as shown in the agency’s official organizational chart, replicated in Figure 3: behavioral health; children and family services; developmental disabilities; Medicaid and long-term care; public health; and veterans’ homes. These divisions are sensible as they reflect the varied programmatic responsibilities within the department.

DHHS and Nebraska’s Medicaid Program


Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are the dominant programs within DHHS.2 In FY 2014, DHHS’ total expenditures were about $3.0 billion, of which a little more than $1.8 billion, or 60 percent, was devoted to Medicaid and CHIP benefits. If SNAP benefits, which are entirely financed with federal funds, are removed from the DHHS total, then the amount associated with Medicaid and CHIP is even higher—about two-thirds of DHHS’ remaining budget.3


Although Medicaid is appropriately handled by its own division within DHHS, it is important to recognize there are also very different program beneficiaries within Medicaid, with very different service needs. Specifically, Medicaid provides insurance to lower income households needing access to traditional medical services, and it provides assistance to the severely disabled and to the frail elderly in need of nursing home care or other support services to help them with their activities of daily living.


As shown in Figure 4, Medicaid and CHIP eligibility in Nebraska is dominated by children and non-disabled adults, including pregnant women. These groups make up more than three-fourths of all persons enrolled in Nebraska’s Medicaid or CHIP programs. The elderly and the disabled comprise just 24 percent of all enrollees in these programs.


However, the distribution of expenditures is not reflective of program enrollment. In FY 2014, two-thirds of all Medicaid and CHIP spending went toward services used by the elderly or the disabled and just one-third of all spending went to services used by children and non-disabled adults. The higher concentration of spending on the elderly and disabled in Nebraska’s Medicaid program is due to the much more expensive and intensive services needed for these populations. In FY 2014, Nebraska Medicaid spent nearly $22,000 per elderly and disabled enrollee, compared to just $3,500 per child or non-disabled adult.


Medicaid Eligibility in Nebraska


Medicaid’s enrollment profile in Nebraska is a function of the program’s patchwork of mandatory coverage provisions and state options. In the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Congress attempted to establish more uniform national standards for Medicaid eligibility by setting 133 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) as the threshold below which all adults, including those without dependent children, would be eligible for enrollment in the program. States that did not adopt this new eligibility standard were to face a severe penalty—the loss of all federal Medicaid funds in the state. The Supreme Court intervened, however, and ruled that this heavy penalty was an unconstitutional infringement on state authority. The court’s decision effectively converted the ACA provision from what was supposed to be a new mandatory coverage requirement into an option that states could elect to implement under their Medicaid programs.4


As of mid-2015, thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia had adopted the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, but Nebraska is not one of them.5 As a result, eligibility for the program in the state is still governed by a combination of previously established federal requirements and state decisions to optionally expand coverage to various populations.
As originally conceived, Medicaid was to provide health insurance to the same families needing welfare support under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) in 1996. States were also allowed to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income blind, disabled, and elderly persons eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or a state-financed supplement to that program. For many years, these were the populations that dominated Medicaid enrollment. The major expansions of the program, mainly for children and pregnant women, came in the mid-1980’s and later. Up until passage of the ACA in 2010, Medicaid generally had not provided coverage to able-bodied adults without dependent children. Nebraska’s program continues to adhere to that traditional model.


In general, and as summarized in Figure 5, the populations who are eligible for Medicaid coverage in Nebraska fall into five groups:


Children: Under Medicaid and CHIP (which Nebraska has chosen to administer as an extension of Medicaid), the state is covering all children in low-income households up to 200 percent of FPL; federal law requires coverage of young children (1 to 5) up to 133 percent of FPL and older children (6 to 18) up to 100 percent of FPL;


Pregnant Women and Newborns: Over a number of years in the 1980’s, Congress steadily expanded Medicaid coverage to low-income pregnant women and their young children. The law now requires coverage to 133 percent of the FPL for pregnant women and their newborn children; Nebraska has taken up the option to raise the income threshold to 185 percent of FPL for this population;


Parents/Caretakers of Low-Income Children: Some parents of low-income children, or their caretakers, can be eligible for Medicaid in Nebraska if their incomes are very low (around 33 percent of the FPL or lower) and thus would make them eligible for assistance on the old AFDC program, now converted to TANF.  In addition, Medicaid allows the state programs, as an optional expansion, to count very high medical expenses as effectively a reduction in income. Thus, some “medically needy” parents also qualify for Medicaid coverage.


Blind and Disabled Citizens: Federal Medicaid law requires states to provide coverage of premiums and cost-sharing obligations for blind and disabled persons who are on the Medicare program and have low incomes. Nebraska, like most states, has also elected to provide full Medicaid coverage to those who are on the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides monthly income-tested cash benefits to very low income blind and disabled persons, and the state provides full Medicaid coverage—beyond filling in Medicare’s cost-sharing—to any blind or disabled person with an income below 100% of FPL. In addition, the state has elected to provide “medically needy” coverage to this population as well.


Poor Elderly: Nebraska’s coverage for the poor elderly generally mirrors what the state provides to the blind and disabled. Federal law requires coverage of premiums and cost-sharing for some low-income seniors, but Nebraska has chosen to go beyond that requirement and provide full Medicaid to all seniors with incomes below 100 percent of the FPL, as well as to “medically needy” seniors. It is this coverage that allows many frail elderly to have their nursing home expenses paid for by the Medicaid program.


Medicaid’s Steady Enrollment Growth


Medicaid enrollment has risen steadily in Nebraska from the program’s inception in 1965. As shown in Figure 6, in 1977, there were 54,000 Nebraskans on the program. Today, there are about 250,000 people enrolled in the program on a monthly basis.


The steady rise in program enrollment is partly due to the series of program liberalizations enacted by Congress in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These changes to Medicaid, and then also the enactment of CHIP, extended public insurance coverage to tens of millions of people nationwide, and tens of thousands of Nebraskans.


But it wasn’t just federal action that expanded these programs. The pressures that pushed Congress to amend Medicaid to broaden its reach also pushed states to adopt some of the optional coverage expansions provided in federal law. As noted, Nebraska has gone beyond required federal coverage for all of the major eligibility categories.

Still, Nebraska is a relatively low enrollment state compared to the rest of the country. As shown in Figure 7, Nebraska’s enrollment, as a percentage of the total state population, has gone up significantly over the years, from 4 percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 2013. But that level of enrollment is still well below what has been taking place elsewhere. In 1980, national Medicaid enrollment was 9 percent of the total U.S. population, and by 2013, it had risen to 18 percent.


Covered Services in Nebraska’s Medicaid Program


Another important aspect of Medicaid administration is required and optional covered services. Federal Medicaid law specifies a number of services that every state Medicaid program must cover as part of its medical assistance to enrollees. The law also specifies a number of services that states are permitted, but not required, to cover.


As shown in Figure 8, the list of required federal services is lengthy and covers many of the items one would expect to see provided by a traditional health insurance plan, including hospital services, physician care, diagnostic tests, and outpatient services. Importantly, Medicaid law requires coverage of “nursing facility services” which is the hook by which the program has become the largest purchaser of nursing home care for frail seniors.


Some services not required by federal law really are not optional, in a practical sense. For instance, prescription drugs are not a required covered service under Medicaid, but it is hard to fathom an effective health insurance plan for low income households which provides no assistance in paying for the medicines that are necessary to stay well. Consequently, Nebraska—and every other state, for that matter—covers prescription medications in its Medicaid program.6 Nebraska also pays for many institutional and community-based services for the disabled that are not required by federal law but are viewed as effective mechanisms for keeping patients out of even more expensive care settings.


Although much of what Nebraska pays for in its program is either required or impractical to exclude from coverage, the state has elected to take up some options that are somewhat more discretionary. For instance, the state covers the cost of school-based administration of services for lower income students in conjunction with their education. The rationale is that some services might be best delivered in a school setting (such as speech therapy). States have also found it advantageous to secure federal funding for a portion of local school expenses.7


Providers of Medicaid Services


Nebraska’s Medicaid program has been steadily moving away from the traditional fee-for-service (FFS) insurance model to a managed care approach to providing services to the enrolled population. Under FFS, the Medicaid program makes direct payments to physicians, hospitals, clinics, and other providers when they render a covered service to a Medicaid enrollee. Under managed care, the Medicaid plan pays a fixed monthly amount per person enrolled in a managed care insurance plan—the “capitation” rate. The managed care plan is then responsible for making payments out of its total available funds to the various medical services providers who take care of the patients enrolled in the plan.


The steady shift away from FFS in Nebraska has taken place over two decades and has pushed the managed care insurance plans to the top of the list of vendors receiving payments from Nebraska’s Medicaid program. As shown in Figure 9, the managed care plans received a total of $556 million in FY 2014, or about 30 percent of all Medicaid payments in Nebraska to service providers.  The next largest recipients of Medicaid payments were the facilities and community-based providers that take care of the elderly and disabled—populations not covered to date by Nebraska’s managed care initiative. In 2014, these facilities and providers received a combined $626 million—or 34 percent of all Medicaid payments in 2014.


Medicaid’s Low Payment Rates, Access Problems, and Poor Quality of Care


Nationally, the Medicaid program has been characterized for many years with restricted access to care. To cut costs, states have often reduced their payment rates to hospitals and physicians to levels that are well below what private insurers and the Medicare program pay for the same services. As a consequence, the program has struggled with maintaining an adequate network of hospitals, clinics, and physicians willing to provide services to large numbers of Medicaid patients. And without adequate networks of care, the program’s participants sometime struggle getting the medical attention they need or getting it from the best and most qualified practitioners.


Several academic studies have documented the problems that occur when access to care is inadequate. A 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that patients with private, commercial insurance had three-year survival rates for prostate, colorectal, breast, and lung cancer that were markedly higher than the survival rates for those enrolled in Medicaid.8  For instance, women with private insurance had a three-year survival rate of 90.6 percent, while those on Medicaid had a survival rate of 75.5 percent. Somewhat shockingly, uninsured women with breast cancer had a slightly higher survival rate than those with Medicaid coverage.


A 2010 study published in the Annals of Surgery found that Medicaid patients fared much worse, after controlling for important demographic and risk factors, than their counterparts in private insurance in terms of outcomes from major surgical interventions. The study examined nearly 900,000 cases from a large patient-care database compiled from hospitals from all over the country. The authors found that patients with Medicaid coverage were much more likely to die from surgical interventions than the privately insured, and that Medicaid patients even had higher mortality rates than those who were uninsured.9


A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked strictly at access to specialist physician services among children and found that those on Medicaid faced significant barriers to scheduling appointments with private practice clinics. More than half of the specialist physician practices contacted in an audit required disclosure by the caller of the patient’s insurance status before indicating if an appointment could be scheduled.10


Although other factors, such as language proficiency barriers, can certainly play a role in the reduced access to care for some Medicaid enrollees, the most significant factor is almost certainly the program’s notoriously low payment rates for services.  According to the Office of the Actuary in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (and shown in Figure 10), Medicaid’s payments for hospital care were just 61 percent of what private insurers paid for the same services.11 Medicaid’s payments for physician services were even lower, at just 58 percent of what private insurers paid for the same services. Physicians and other service providers respond to these low payment rates by explicitly limiting the number of Medicaid patients they will see or by employing other business practices, such as the location of their offices and facilities, which cater to patients with higher-paying commercial insurance.



Like other states, Nebraska’s Medicaid program pays low rates for physician services compared to private insurance, but, in relative terms, Nebraska has not gone as low with its physician fees in Medicaid as other states have gone. As shown in Figure 11, on average across the U.S., states have set fees for all physician services at about 66 percent of the comparable Medicare rate.12 In Nebraska, however, Medicaid’s fees for physician care have been set at about 87 percent of the comparable Medicare rates.13 That puts Nebraska above all but ten states in terms of the percentage of physician fees paid through Medicaid relative to what Medicare pays for the same services in the state. For primary care services, the average Medicaid program pays 59 percent of what Medicare pays, while Nebraska pays 76 percent.