The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released new Medicaid spending projections, showing a significantly lower rate of growth. Nationally, while federal Medicare costs continue to rise dramatically and far faster than medical inflation, Medicaid spending growth has moderated considerably.

Twice each year, OMB releases its latest projections of federal revenues and expenditures. Projections are announced in February as part of the President’s proposed budget and updated in July as part of what’s called the Mid-Session Review. Falling in the middle of each year’s Congressional session, the Mid-Session Review gives Capitol Hill the Administration’s latest fiscal projections.

For Medicaid, OMB works with CMS budget staff and actuaries to update estimates of federal Medicaid spending in the current fiscal year and for the next five years. They rely heavily on spending estimates and enrollment reports prepared by state Medicaid agencies.

From FY 2002 through FY 2005, the federal share of Medicaid grew at an average annual pace of 7.2 percent. Federal Medicaid spending is now expected to grow by a modest 1.8 percent this year (FY 2006) and by 4.6 percent in FY 2007.

Compared to earlier estimates, aggregate federal spending on Medicaid is now expected to be 8 percent lower. Specifically, the new projections of federal Medicaid spending for FY 2007 through FY 2016 are $53.3 billion lower than the projections contained in the President’s 2007 Budget.

Naturally, Medicaid spending growth varies widely from state to state. However, 16 states now expect to spend less on Medicaid this year than last year. States with flat or negative Medicaid spending growth this year include Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. Medicaid spending in large states – most notably Florida and California – continues to grow but at a much lower pace.

While some of this slowed growth in the federal share of Medicaid is an artifact of the shift of prescription drug benefits for dual eligibles from Medicaid to Medicare Part D, slower spending growth is a byproduct of a variety of factors. These include improved economic conditions, cost containment initiatives, new waiver-based programs, greater use of private health plans, increased use of generic drugs, and the steady shift away from nursing homes to home and community-based programs.

As we reported earlier, CMS is considering new rules to restrict state use of provider taxes and cut back on Medicaid payments to publicly owned providers and facilities. The new OMB figures give states, provider groups, and advocates new ammunition to oppose this and other Bush Administration efforts to cut federal Medicaid spending. It also highlights the effectiveness of state-based initiatives to reform Medicaid – that is, reforms that are initiated by states themselves but with federal support and cooperation.

While OMB’s new Medicaid projections are good news for states and the feds, the new Medicare projections show faster spending growth in Medicare Part A and Part B. The five-year cost estimate for Medicare Part A (inpatient hospital and post-acute care) is $17 billion higher. The five-year cost estimate for Medicare Part B (physician and other outpatient services) is $30 billion higher. The jump in Medicare Part A and Part B growth rates are largely attributable to rapid increases in per capita use of services.

However, because of stiff price competition among drug plans and a slower than expected sign-up rate, the five-year cost estimate for Medicare Part D is $34 billion lower than the projections last February. For FY 2006 through FY 2016, the projected cost of the new Medicare drug benefit is $76 billion lower.

Medicare’s high growth rate increases pressure on Congress and the White House to reform Part A and Part B. In addition to putting greater pressure on the federal budget, higher Medicare costs also mean big, politically tough jumps in beneficiary cost sharing (e.g., the 11% increase in Part B premiums for 2007). And of course, state Medicaid programs are on the hook to pay for Medicare cost sharing for dual eligibles and other low-income Medicare beneficiaries. Bottom line: because so much of state Medicaid budgets are now driven by the health care costs of dual eligibles, higher Medicare costs and utilization can increase state Medicaid costs.

For better or worse, a byproduct of Medicare’s problems may be to divert attention from Medicaid inside the Beltway. However, federal money is fungible (especially in the hunt for budget savings) and states continue to press for greater flexibility. For many on Capitol Hill and in the Bush Administration, fiscal frustrations with Medicare are part of larger frustrations with federal entitlements. So even with slow growth in the near-term, Medicaid remains in the spotlight.