Tag: health plans

Your Health Insurance, Designed by Lobbyists

Christopher Weaver of Kaiser Health News has an excellent article in today’s Washington Post on the various government agencies that will now be deciding what health insurance coverage you must purchase, and how many of those decisions will ultimately fall to lobbyists and politicians:

For years, an obscure federal task force sifted through medical literature on colonoscopies, prostate-cancer screening and fluoride treatments, ferreting out the best evidence for doctors to use in caring for their patients. But now its recommendations have financial implications, raising the stakes for patients, doctors and others in the health-care industry.

Under the new health-care overhaul law, health insurers will be required to pay fully for services that get an A or B recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force…[which] puts the group in the cross hairs of lobbyists and disease advocates eager to see their top priorities – routine screening for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or HIV, for example – become covered services.

And it’s not just the USPSTF that will be deciding what coverage you must purchase:

[P]lans must also cover a set of standard vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as well as screening practices for children that have been developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration in conjunction the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health plans will also be required to cover additional preventative care for women recommended under new guidelines that the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue by August 2011.

The chairman of the USPSTF says the task force will try “to stay true to the methods and the evidence… the science needs to come first.”  A noble sentiment, but as my colleague Peter Van Doren likes to say, “When politics and science conflict, politics wins.”  Witness how industry lobbyists have killed or neutered every single government agency that has ever dared to produce useful comparative-effectiveness research.  (You’re next, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute!)

When government agencies are making non-scientific value judgments–e.g., are these studies reliable enough to merit an A or B recommendation? what should be the thresholds for an A or B recommendation? will the benefits of mandating this coverage outweigh the costs?–politics does even better.  Witness Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) overruling a USPSTF recommendation when she “inserted an amendment in the [new] health-care law to explicitly cover regular mammograms for women between 40 and 50. “

Speaking of value judgments, the one flaw in Weaver’s article is that it inadvertently conveys a value judgment as if it were fact.  He writes that the mandate to purchase coverage for preventive services is “good news for patients” and that 88 million Americans “will benefit.”  Whether the mandate is good news for patients depends on whether patients value the added coverage more than the additional premiums they must pay.  (The administration estimates that premiums for affected consumers will rise an average of 1.5 percent.  One insurer puts the average cost at 3-4 percent of premiums.  Naturally, some consumers will face above-average costs.)  Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is ultimately a subjective determination. (The best way to find out, as it happens, is to let consumers make the decision themselves.)

ObamaCare Regs Will Increase Premiums, Reduce Wages, Force Americans to Change Coverage

Today, the Obama administration issued new health insurance regulations as part of its effort to implement ObamaCare.  According to The New York Times:

the rules appear to fall short of the sweeping commitments President Obama made while trying to reassure the public in the fight over health legislation.

One of those commitments was that people who are satisfied with their health insurance will be able to keep their existing health plans. Of course, there is a tension between that goal and ObamaCare’s goal of requiring every American to purchase a minimum amount of health insurance coverage.

The new regulations explain how the government will interpret ObamaCare’s “grandfather” clause, which allows some health plans to continue as they exist today. If an insurer makes too many changes to its health plan, or if an employer or individual purchaser selects a different health plan, then the consumer loses the protection of ObamaCare’s grandfather clause. The consumer must then purchase the full array of coverage that ObamaCare requires, which can increase premiums significantly.

How many Americans will lose this protection?  Again, The Times:

About half of employer-sponsored health plans will see such changes by the end of 2013, the administration says in an economic analysis of the rules.

What are some of the ways that consumers can lose this protection?

If, for example, an employer is paying 60 percent of the cost of family coverage, it would run afoul of the rules if it cut its share to 50 percent.

An employer would also lose its exempt status if it increased co-payments for doctor’s visits to $45, from $30 — a 50 percent increase — while medical inflation was 8 percent…

An insurer loses its special protection…if, for example, it requires patients to pay 25 percent of the bill for surgery, rather than the 20 percent charged in the past…

If [insurers] want to retain their grandfathered status, they cannot reduce any annual dollar limit that was in place on March 23.

The upshot of these regulations is this:  Health premiums, which were going to keep rising anyway, will rise even higher as a result of ObamaCare.  If employers or consumers try to cope with those rising premiums by paring back the amount of coverage they purchase, they lose their “grandfather” protections, and ObamaCare forces them to purchase even more coverage.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The requirement that employers sustain their “contribution” to the cost of health benefits, meanwhile, will hide ObamaCare’s effect on health insurance premiums.  Health economists agree, almost universally, that the “employer contribution” is a fiction; employers merely deduct from the employee’s overall compensation package whatever they pay toward health benefits.  In other words, the employee pays for her health benefits, not the employer.  Forcing employers to maintain their current “contribution” essentially requires them to hide much of ObamaCare’s cost in the form of lower wages, which workers are less likely to associate with the law than rising premiums.

The Senate Bill Would Increase Health Spending

Ezra Klein quotes the Congressional Budget Office’s latest cost estimate of the Senate health care bill when he writes:

“CBO expects that the legislation would generate a reduction in the federal budgetary commitment to health care during the decade following 2019,” which is to say that this bill will cover 30 million people but the cost controls will, within a decade or so, leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.  That’s a pretty good deal. But it’s not a very well-understood deal.

Indeed, because that’s not what the CBO said.

First, the CBO said the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would rise by $210 billion between 2010 and 2019 under the Senate bill.  Then, after 2019, it would fall from that higher level.  And it could fall quite a bit before returning to its current level.

Second, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” is a concept that includes federal spending on health care and the tax revenue that the federal government forgoes due to health-care-related tax breaks, the largest being the exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  If Congress creates a new $1 trillion health care entitlement and finances it with deficit spending or an income-tax hike, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” rises by $1 trillion.  But if Congress funds it by eliminating $1 trillion of health-care-related tax breaks, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would be unchanged, even though Congress just increased government spending by $1 trillion.  That’s what the Senate bill’s tax on high-cost health plans does: by revoking part of the tax break for employer-sponsored insurance, it makes the projected growth in the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” appear smaller than the actual growth of government.

Third, the usual caveats about the Senate bill’s Medicare cuts, which the CBO says are questionable and Medicare’s chief actuary calls “doubtful” and “unrealistic,” apply.  If those spending cuts don’t materialize, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” will be higher than the CBO projects.

Fourth, Medicare’s chief actuary also contradicts Klein’s claim that the Senate bill would “leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.”  The actuary estimated that national health expenditures would rise by $234 billion under the Senate bill.

And really, Klein’s claim is a little silly.  Even President Obama admits, “You can’t structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage and it costs nothing.”

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.

ObamaCare 3.0: Higher Implicit Taxes, Quicker Death Spiral

In a recent paper, I showed that the health care legislation passed by the House and Senate would impose punitive implicit tax rates on low- and middle-income workers.  Those bills would also result in higher health insurance premiums over time because they would create large financial incentives for healthy people to drop coverage and only purchase it when they become sick.

The health care proposal that President Obama released yesterday essentially splits the difference on most areas of disagreement between the two bills.  But a preliminary analysis shows that ObamaCare 3.0 would make these perverse incentives even worse.  Families of four earning $22,000 under the Senate bill (100 percent of the federal poverty level) or $30,000 under the House bill or the Obama plan (133 percent FPL) would face the following effective marginal tax rates as they climb the economic ladder:

  • Senate bill - Average: 62 percent.  High: 73 percent.
  • House bill -  Average: 74 percent. High: 82 percent.
  • Obama plan - Average: 72 percent. High: 90 percent.

In other words, over broad ranges of income, families of four would see their take-home pay rise by an average of 28 cents of each additional dollar earned.  In some cases, it would rise as little as 10 cents for each additional dollar earned.  Using smaller changes in income reveals the Obama plan would create EMTRs as large as 200 percent or higher.  That is, earning more money would leave many families worse off financially.

In addition, by requiring insurers to cover all applicants without regard to illness, each of these health plans would remove any penalty on waiting until you are sick to purchase coverage.  Therefore – even after accounting for all relevant taxes, subsidies, and penalties – these plans would create large financial incentives for healthy people to drop out of the market, which would cause premiums to rise for those who remain.  That would in turn encourage more healthy people to drop out, which would cause premiums to rise further, and so on.  Those perverse incentives are much worse under the Obama plan than under the House or Senate bills.  Here are the maximum financial incentives to drop coverage that each plan would create for families of four:

  • Senate bill: $8,000
  • House bill: $7,800
  • Obama plan: $9,900

By increasing the financial incentives to drop coverage, the Obama plan would cause private insurance markets to unravel even faster than the House and Senate bills would.