Tag: health care spending

A Response to Jonathan Gruber on ObamaCare & Health Care Costs

In this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, MIT health economist and Obama administration consultant Jonathan Gruber responds to claims that ObamaCare will increase health care costs.  Gruber acknowledges the Obama administration’s estimates that ObamaCare will increase health care spending, but compares that to the administration’s estimate that 34 million otherwise uninsured U.S. residents will obtain coverage under the law:

[B]y 2019, the United States will be spending $46 billion more on medical care than we do today. In 2010 dollars, this amounts to only $800 per newly insured person — quite a low cost as compared (for example) with the $5,000 average single premium for employer-sponsored insurance.

What a bargain!  Of course, Gruber is being sneaky.  The cost per newly insured person is not $800.  It will be higher than $5,000.  But only $800 of that cost will appear as new health care spending.  The rest of that cost will be borne largely by people who already had coverage, but find their access to care reduced.  These include Medicare enrollees who will receive fewer benefits through (or who will be ousted from) their private Medicare plans; Medicare enrollees who will have a harder time accessing care because some hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies and other providers “might end their participation in the program,” according to the Obama administration; and maybe even some (currently) privately insured people who find themselves in Medicaid.  (The administration itself says it is “probable” that ObamaCare “could result…in some of this demand being unsatisfied.”)  Other costs include the economic growth and opportunity that is destroyed by ObamaCare’s tax increases, and the costs associated with trapping workers in low-wage jobs.

And that’s if everything goes as planned.  Gruber remains convinced that future Congresses will not undo ObamaCare’s tax increases or downward adjustments to Medicare’s price controls, as Congress has consistently undone scheduled reductions in the prices that Medicare pays physicians.  Gruber’s sometime employer – the Obama administration – itself contradicts his argument when it writes that the bulk of those reductions in Medicare spending are “doubtful” and “unrealistic.”  Gruber inadvertently shows why critics are right to be skeptical about the tax increases and spending reductions when he writes:

The cuts in spending and increases in taxes are actually “back-loaded,” with the revenue increases rising faster over time than the spending increases, so that this legislation improves our nation’s fiscal health more and more over time.

The fact that the austerity measures had to be backloaded is a sign of their implausibility.  If they were popular, they could take full effect tomorrow.  But their implementation had to be delayed to head off significant political resistance – resistance that will express itself between now and when those austerity measures take effect.

On the broader issue of reducing the growth of health care spending, Gruber claims that ObamaCare “cautiously pursue[s] many different approaches toward cost control and stud[ies] them to see which ones work best.” Yet each approach is all but guaranteed to fail. The tax on high-cost health plans? Unlikely to survive. (But at least Gruber now admits it is a tax.)  The rationing board designed to curtail each congresscritter’s ability to keep the money flowing to health care providers in their districts? Also unlikely to survive, for obvious reasons.  Pilot programs experimenting with different government price and exchange controls? Even successful pilot programs get nixed.  Comparative-effectiveness research?  A pipe dream that fails every time the government tries it.

To the extent that these spending cuts fail to materialize, health care spending will rise, and deficits will deepen. Congress will need to impose additional tax increases, and/or find sneakier ways to ration medical care curb health care spending.  Gruber’s Massachusetts enacted ObamaCare four years ago, and that’s exactly what state officials are doing.

Since President Obama signed this law, the Congressional Budget Office has announced that its cost, including the so-called “doc fix” and spending subject to appropriations, is already about $200 billion higher than previously believed.  As I’ve written elsewhere:

ObamaCare would create new constituencies for government spending, hook existing constituencies on even more government spending, and promise implausible cuts in existing subsidies to constituencies that are highly organized and vocal.

Gruber gets chutzpah points for arguing that the same law would actually contain health care costs.

What Is ‘Meaningful’ Health Insurance? Who Decides?’

Noting that premium increases, such as Anthem’s proposed 39-percent hike in California, have caused individuals and employers to purchase less coverage, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman writes:

Rising health care costs and insurance company practices are leading not just to more expensive premiums, but to skimpier, less comprehensive coverage as well; slowly redefining what we have known as health insurance. To be sure, some economists argue that this is precisely what should happen…But this is not likely how regular people see it. Appropriate cost sharing is one thing, but we may be reaching the point in the individual market where the policies many people have simply cannot be considered meaningful coverage.

Of course, this is the whole idea behind President Obama’s proposed tax on high-cost health plans: higher prices will cause people to purchase less coverage, which will temper health care spending.

But whether Altman is correct depends on what the meaning of “meaningful” is.  When individuals pare back the amount of insurance they purchase, they are revealing what they consider to be meaningful coverage.  (The same is true when employers opt for less-comprehensive coverage, though employers’ revealed preferences are obviously a poor proxy for what their workers value.)

If Altman thinks the coverage that individuals are choosing “cannot be considered meaningful coverage” (note the passive voice), he is implicitly stating that individuals are not the best judges of their own welfare.  And the only way to devise an alternative definition of meaningful coverage is through the political process.

It is difficult to argue that the political process does a better job of selecting meaningful coverage.  That process forces many consumers to purchase coverage that they don’t find meaningful (e.g., chiropractic, acupuncture, circumcision), that they find offensive (e.g., abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization), or for treatments that are downright harmful (e.g., high-dose chemotherapy combined with autologous bone-marrow transplant for late-stage breast cancer).

Letting consumers reveal their preferences is possibly the worst way to define “meaningful coverage.”  Except for all the others.

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.

Obama’s ‘Best’ Idea? Rationing Care via Clinton-esque Price Controls

Hoping to revive his increasingly unpopular health care overhaul, President Obama has invited Republicans to a bipartisan summit this Thursday and plans to introduce a new reform blueprint in advance of the summit.  On Sunday, the White House announced that a key feature of that blueprint will be premium caps, a form of government price control that helped kill the Clinton health plan when even New Democrats rejected it.

The New York Times reports on President Obama’s blueprint:

The president’s bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators.

It bears repeating what Obama’s top economic advisor Larry Summers thinks about price controls:

Price and exchange controls inevitably create harmful economic distortions. Both the distortions and the economic damage get worse with time.

For example, as I have written elsewhere, artificially limiting premium growth allows the government to curtail spending while leaving the dirty work of withholding medical care to private insurers: “Premium caps, which Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is currently threatening to impose, force private insurers to manage care more tightly — i.e., to deny coverage for more services.”  No doubt the Obama administration would lay the blame for coverage denials on private insurers and claim that such denials demonstrate the need for a so-called “public option.”

As the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Kendall explained in a 1994 paper, the Clinton health plan contained similar price controls.  Kendall explains why they would be a disaster:

In spite of the late hour in the health care debate, Congress has not yet decided how to restrain runaway health care costs. The essential choices are a top- down strategy of government limits on health care spending enforced by price controls or a bottom-up strategy of consumer choice and market competition. History clarifies that choice: Previous government efforts to regulate prices in peacetime have invariably failed. Moreover, government attempts to control prices in the health care sector would undermine concurrent efforts to restructure the marketplace…

The idea of controlling costs by government fiat is seductively simple. But it rests on a conceit as persistent as it is damaging: that government bureaucracies can allocate resources more wisely and efficiently than millions of consumers and providers pursuing their interests in the marketplace. The alternative – one rooted in America’s progressive tradition of individual responsibility and free enterprise – is to improve the market’s ground rules in order to decentralize decision-making, spur innovation, reward efficiency, and respect personal choice.

As centrally planned economies crumble around the world, many in the United States seem bent on erecting a command and control economy in health care. This policy briefing examines the reasons why government price regulation would fail to constrain health care costs and create many adverse side effects…

Ultimately, government price regulation will always fail because it does not change the underlying economic forces driving up prices. If we are serious about slowing the growth of health care costs, we have to change the ways we consume and provide medical care. Price controls evade the hard but essential work of structural reform in health care markets: They are a quintessentially political response to an economic problem. The alternative is to allow well-functioning markets to set prices and allocate resources, while ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care coverage. The market-oriented approach leaves decisions to cost-conscious consumers and health care providers rather than bureaucrats.

Any of that sound familiar?  It’s worth reading the whole thing.

This is not hope.  This is not change.  (Much less a game-changer.)  It is, to pinch a phrase, a return to “the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis.”

Whip (Health Care) Inflation Now?

During the runaway inflations of 1974 and 1979, Presidents Ford and Carter suggested that inflation was caused by the profligacy of American households. President Ford’s infamous “Whip Inflation Now” speech, for example, said, “Here is what we must do, what each and every one of you can do: To help increase food and lower prices, grow more and waste less; to help save scarce fuel in the energy crisis, drive less, heat less.”

Much of the recent discussion of health care costs likewise treats this as a problem caused by a demonic private insurance industry, and therefore requiring such “reforms” as expanding Medicaid to the non-poor and Medicare to the non-old.

The facts are quite different, as shown in “The Evolution of Medical Spending Risk” by Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Helen Levy of the University of Michigan, in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Gruber and Levy calculate that real private health care spending per person (in 2007 dollars) “increased from about $700 to $3,500 between 1960 and 2007, a five-fold increase.” They note that “private out-of-pocket spending has not quite doubled.” Yet “government health spending over the same period … increased from about $250 to $3,5000, a 13-fold increase.”

In fairness, the quality of health care has been hugely improved since 1960. And prices of physician services (which are often incorrectly compared with the overall consumer price index) have risen no faster than prices of non-medical services.

In any case, President Obama’s claim that the pace of total public and private spending on health care could somehow be “contained” by greatly increasing government spending clearly flunks 3rd grade arithmetic.

Unless the hidden agenda is to impose draconian wage and price controls and political rationing on health care providers, all the rhetorical pretense about proposed health care legislation being a way to hold down overall spending on health care is like saying the solution to chronic drunkeness is more booze.

Obama on Health Care: Half Right

President Obama gave what seems like his thousandth exclusive health care interview last night, this one to ABC News’s Charles Gibson.  In trying to sell his health care plan, the president warned that if Congress does not pass legislation controlling health care costs, the federal government “will go bankrupt.”  He also warned that unless health care is reformed, “your premiums will go up.”

 The president is absolutely correct about that.  The only problem is that, according to the president’s own chief health care actuary, the bills that Congress is now considering do nothing to restrain either federal health care spending or total health care costs.  In fact, Rick Foster, chief actuary at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that if Congress passes the bill now before the Senate, health care spending will actually increase by $234 billion more over the next 10 years than if we did nothing. 

And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the congressional bills do little or nothing to reduce the growth in insurance premiums. Even if a bill passes, premiums will roughly double by 2016, and keep rising after that.   But for millions of Americans the bill will actually make things worse.  According to CBO, the Senate bill would actually increase insurance premiums by 10-13 percent for Americans who buy their insurance through the non-group market, that is those who don’t receive insurance from their employer.  Those 10-13 percent increases are over and above the increases that would occur if we did nothing.    

On the other hand, if the president were really serious about controlling health care costs and lowering premiums, he wouldn’t need to spend trillions of dollars and take over one-sixth of the US economy; he could try some of the ideas written about here, and here, and here.

Washington Post Misrepresents Individual Mandates

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter to the editor I sent to The Washington Post:

Like Car Insurance, Health Coverage May Be Mandated” [July 22, page A1] paints a misleading picture of proposals to require Americans to purchase health insurance – i.e., an “individual mandate.”

First, the article lacks balance.  It cites three politicians who support an individual mandate but none who oppose it, a group that includes a majority of Republicans.  The article claims an individual mandate “has its roots in the conservative philosophy of self-reliance,” even though most conservatives, including the movement’s flagship magazine National Review, oppose the idea.  The closest the article comes to offering an opposing perspective is one conservative who has supported an individual mandate in the past and may yet again, just not yet.

Second, the article makes the demonstrably inaccurate claims that an individual mandate “lowers overall costs” and “help[s] keep premiums down” by adding more young and healthy people to the insurance market.  Forcing healthy people to purchase insurance does not affect premiums for sicker purchasers, because insurers set premiums according to each purchaser’s health risk.  The article confuses a mandate with price controls, which force low risks to pay more so that high risks can pay less.

Finally, if an individual mandate reduced overall costs, then health care spending would be falling in Massachusetts, which enacted the nation’s only individual mandate in 2006.  Instead, overall health spending is rising, and the rate of growth has accelerated under the mandate.  Rising health spending implies rising health insurance premiums, which has also been the Massachusetts experience.