Health Cost Projections to 2019: The Doc Fix Trick Again

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) takes the President to task for cooking the books on projected health care costs, most egregiously with the “doc fix” – namely, assuming Medicare slashes physician payments by 21.3% this year and subsequently lets them fall continuously in real terms.

What nobody seems to have noticed is that the same phony “doc fix” taints the new “Health Spending Projections Through 2019” from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, tries to downplay the CMS forecast “that the public sector will start paying more than half of the nation’s health care bill starting in 2012, and that government spending will grow faster than private spending from 2009 to 2019 (an average of 7.0% per year vs. 5.2%).”

Worrying about such spending trends is a foolish “ideological battle over the role of government,” says Altman, because rapid increases in government health spending is “just the byproduct of economic and demographic trends” (recession and an aging population).   “Is government health spending out of control?” he asks; answering “NO” in capital letters.  “The report simply underscores the need to control health care costs in the public and the private sectors alike.”

On the contrary, the reason government health care spending is projected to slow down to 7% a year is, the CMS explains, “due principally to the 21.3% reduction in physician payment rates … mandated in current law.”

Putting aside such “doctored” projections, “health spending by public payers ($1.2 trillion) is projected to have grown much faster in 2009 (8.7 percent) than that of private payers (3.0 percent).”

That was not because of high inflation in costs of medical goods and services (which should not differ much between government and private payers), but because the government has only in recent years been heavily subsidizing health insurance for the unemployed and drug insurance for seniors, and actively expanding the enrollment of Medicaid programs which (being “free”) often lure people out of employer-sponsored plans.

What Congressional Democrats call “reform” is, in fact, much more of the same—more non-poor people getting Medicaid and other subsidies that are yanked away if you work too hard.

No, It’s Not Health Inflation

Describing  runaway entitlement spending as “health inflation” is terribly misleading (even when Rep. Ryan does it), because doing so confuses rising prices with rising utilization of medical goods and services by people who are insulated from actual costs by taxpayer-financed subsidies.

Government subsidies also raise costs to those using private insurance.  The CMS notes that 2009’s 4.6% increase “private health insurance premium spending per employee … resulted in part from an increase in the proportion of high-cost claims—many of whom have temporary COBRA coverage” [emphasis added], which is 65% financed by taxpayers.

By contrast, health inflation per se is projected to be 2.8% this year – comparable to other labor-intensive service industries and also down from 3.2% in 2009 and 3% in 2008.     Morevoer, “out-of-pocket spending is projected to have grown 2.1 percent in 2009, down from 2.8% in 2008.”

What about all the uninformed media fuss about health insurance companies supposedly “asking for” premium increases of “up to” 39%?

If President Obama really wanted to find out how quickly typical health insurance premiums have been increasing, he could have a staffer call the Bureau of Labor Statistics and ask for Table 3A of the “Consumer Price Index Detailed Report Tables Annual Averages 2009.”  It turns out the consumer price index for health insurance premiums fell by 3.2% in 2009.