Tag: insurance

Paul Krugman, Won’t You Help Me Be a Better Person?

I find myself on the wrong side of the facts. Again. So says Paul Krugman:

Still, wouldn’t private insurers reduce costs through the magic of the marketplace? No. All, and I mean all, the evidence says that public systems like Medicare and Medicaid, which have less bureaucracy than private insurers (if you can’t believe this, you’ve never had to deal with an insurance company) and greater bargaining power, are better than the private sector at controlling costs.

I know this flies in the face of free-market dogma, but it’s just a fact.

And Krugman should know. As the following clip shows, this is a guy who always has the facts on his side:

Yes, that was me at the beginning of the clip. Krugman was selflessly trying to instill in me his respect for evidence and his command of the facts. For some reason, I have yet to absorb either.

The proof is in this paper I wrote (and still stand by, for some reason):

Is Government More Efficient?

Supporters of a new government program note that private insurers spend resources on a wide range of administrative costs that government programs do not. These include marketing, underwriting, reviewing claims for legitimacy, and profits. The fact that government avoids these expenditures, however, does not necessarily make it more efficient. Many of the administrative activities that private insurers undertake serve to increase the insurers’ efficiency. Avoiding those activities would therefore make a health plan less efficient. Existing government health programs also incur administrative costs that are purely wasteful. In the final analysis, private insurance is more efficient than government insurance.

Administrative Costs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein argues that “the profits made by insurance companies are a good part of what makes health care so expensive in the U.S. and that a public option is needed to keep the insurers honest.” All else being equal, the fact that a government program would not need to turn a profit suggests that it might enjoy a price advantage over for-profit insurers. If so, that price advantage would be slight. According to the Congressional Budget Office, profits account for less than 3 percent of private health insurance premiums. Furthermore, government’s lack of a profit motive may not be an advantage at all. Profits are an important market signal that increase efficiency by encouraging producers to find lower-cost ways of meeting consumers’ needs. The lack of a profit motive could lead a government program to be less efficient than private insurance, not more.

Moreover, all else is not equal. Government programs typically keep administrative expenditures low by avoiding activities like utilization or claims review. Yet avoiding those activities increases overall costs. The CBO writes, “The traditional fee-for-service Medicare program does relatively little to manage benefits, which tends to reduce its administrative costs but may raise its overall spending relative to a more tightly managed approach.” Similarly, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission writes:

[The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] estimates that about $9.8 billion in erroneous payments were made in the fee-for-service program in 2007, a figure more than double what CMS spent for claims processing and review activities. In Medicare Advantage, CMS estimates that erroneous payments equaled $6.8 billion in 2006, or approximately 10.6 percent of payments… . The significant size of Medicare’s erroneous payments suggests that the program’s low administrative costs may come at a price.

CMS further estimates that it made $10.4 billion in improper payments in the fee-for-service Medicare program in 2008.

Medicare keeps its measured administrative-cost ratio relatively low by avoiding important administrative activities (which shrinks the numerator) and tolerating vast amounts of wasteful and fraudulent claims (which inflates the denominator). That is a vice, yet advocates of a new government program praise it as a virtue.

Medicare also keeps its administrative expenditures down by conducting almost no quality-improvement activities. Journalist Shannon Brownlee and Obama adviser Ezekiel Emanuel write:

[S]ome administrative costs are not only necessary but beneficial. Following heart-attack or cancer patients to see which interventions work best is an administrative cost, but it’s also invaluable if you want to improve care. Tracking the rate of heart attacks from drugs such as Avandia is key to ensuring safe pharmaceuticals.

According to the CBO, private insurers spend nearly 1 percent of premiums on “medical management.” The fact that Medicare keeps administrative expenditures low by avoiding such quality-improvement activities may likewise result in higher overall costs—in this case by suppressing the quality of care.

Supporters who praise Medicare’s apparently low administrative costs often fail to note that some of those costs are hidden costs that are borne by other federal agencies, and thus fail to appear in the standard 3-percent estimate. These include “parts of salaries for legislators, staff and others working on Medicare, building costs, marketing costs, collection of premiums and taxes, accounting including auditing and fraud issues, etc.”

Also, Medicare’s administrative costs should be understood to include the deadweight loss from the taxes that fund the program. Economists estimate that it can easily cost society $1.30 to raise just $1 in tax revenue, and it may sometimes cost as much as $2.36 That “excess burden” of taxation is a very real cost of administering (i.e., collecting the taxes for) compulsory health insurance programs like Medicare, even though it appears in no government budgets.

Comparing administrative expenditures in the traditional “fee-for-service” Medicare program to private Medicare Advantage plans can somewhat control for these factors. Hacker cites a CBO estimate that administrative costs are 2 percent of expenditures in traditional Medicare versus 11 percent for Medicare Advantage plans. He writes further: “A recent General Accounting Office report found that in 2006, Medicare Advantage plans spent 83.3 percent of their revenue on medical expenses, with 10.1 percent going to nonmedical expenses and 6.6 percent to profits—a 16.7 percent administrative share.”

Yet such comparisons still do not establish that government programs are more efficient than private insurers. The CBO writes of its own estimate: “The higher administrative costs of private plans do not imply that those plans are less efficient than the traditional FFS program. Some of the plans’ administrative expenses are for functions such as utilization management and quality improvement that are designed to increase the efficiency of care delivery.” Moreover, a portion of the Medicare Advantage plans’ administrative costs could reflect factors inherent to government programs rather than private insurance. For example, Congress uses price controls to determine how much to pay Medicare Advantage plans. If Congress sets those prices at supracompetitive levels, as many experts believe is the case, then that may boost Medicare Advantage plans’ profitability beyond what they would earn in a competitive market. Those supracompetitive profits would be a product of the forces that would guide a new government program—that is, Congress, the political system, and price controls—rather than any inherent feature of private insurance.

Economists who have tallied the full administrative burden of government health insurance programs conclude that administrative costs are far higher in government programs than in private insurance. In 1992, University of Pennsylvania economist Patricia Danzon estimated that total administrative costs were more than 45 percent of claims in Canada’s Medicare system, compared to less than 8 percent of claims for private insurance in the United States. Pacific Research Institute economist Ben Zycher writes that a “realistic assumption” about the size of the deadweight burden puts “the true cost of delivering Medicare benefits [at] about 52 percent of Medicare outlays, or between four and five times the net cost of private health insurance.”

Administrative costs can appear quite low if you only count some of them. Medicare hides its higher administrative costs from enrollees and taxpayers, and public-plan supporters rely on the hidden nature of those costs when they argue in favor of a new government program.

Cost Containment vs. Spending Containment  

Advocates of a new government health care program also claim that government contains overall costs better than private insurance. Jacob Hacker writes, “public insurance has a better track record than private insurance when it comes to reining in costs while preserving access. By way of illustration, between 1997 and 2006, health spending per enrollee (for comparable benefits) grew at 4.6 percent a year under Medicare, compared with 7.3 percent a year under private health insurance.” In fact, looking at a broader period, from 1970 to 2006, shows that per-enrollee spending by private insurance grew just 1 percentage point faster per year than Medicare spending, rather than 2.7 percentage points. That still omits the 1966–1969 period, which saw rapid growth in Medicare spending.

More importantly, Hacker’s comparison commits the fallacy of conflating spending and costs. Even if government contains health care spending better than private insurance (which is not at all clear), it could still impose greater overall costs on enrollees and society than private insurance. For example, if a government program refused to pay for lifesaving medical procedures, it would incur considerable nonmonetary costs (i.e., needless suffering and death). Yet it would look better in Hacker’s comparison than a private health plan that saved lives by spending money on those services. Medicare’s inflexibility also imposes costs on enrollees. Medicare took 30 years longer than private insurance to incorporate prescription drug coverage into its basic benefits package. The taxes that finance Medicare impose costs on society in the range of 30 percent of Medicare spending. In contrast, there is no deadweight loss associated with the voluntary purchase of private health insurance.

Hacker nods in the direction of non-spending costs when he writes, “Medicare has maintained high levels of … patient access to care.” Yet there are many dimensions of quality other than access to care. It is in those areas that government programs impose their greatest hidden costs, on both publicly and privately insured patients.

Mr. Krugman, won’t you please help me care about the facts as much as you do? It just seems like such bliss.

Written Testimony on the Illegal IRS Rule to Increase Taxes & Spending under Obamacare

The written testimony that Jonathan Adler and I submitted for the House Oversight Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service’s unlawful attempt to increase taxes and spending under Obamacare is now online. An excerpt:

Contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent, this [IRS] rule issues tax credits in health insurance “exchanges” established by the federal government. It thus triggers a $2,000-per-employee tax on employers and appropriates billions of dollars to private health insurance companies in states with a federal Exchange, also contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent. Since those illegal expenditures will exceed the revenues raised by the illegal tax on employers, this rule also increases the federal deficit by potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, again contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent.

The rule is therefore illegal. It lacks any statutory authority. It is contrary to both the clear language of the PPACA and congressional intent. It cannot be justified on other legal grounds.

On balance, this rule is a large net tax increase. For every $2 of unauthorized tax reduction, it imposes $1 of unauthorized taxes on employers, and commits taxpayers to pay for $8 of unauthorized subsidies to private insurance companies. Because this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers and obligates taxpayers to pay for illegal appropriations, it is quite literally taxation without representation.

Three remedies exist. The IRS should rescind this rule before it takes effect in 2014. Alternatively, Congress and the president could stop it with a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. Finally, since this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers in states that opt not to create a health insurance “exchange,” those employers and possibly those states could file suit to block this rule in federal court.

Requiring the IRS to operate within its statutory authority will not increase health insurance costs by a single penny. It will merely prevent the IRS from unlawfully shifting those costs to taxpayers.

Related: here is the video of my opening statement, and Adler’s and my forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation without Representation: the Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits under the PPACA.”

The Illegal IRS Rule to Increase Taxes & Spending under ObamaCare: Our Response to Timothy Jost

Jonathan Adler and I have a post at the at the Health Affairs blog where we respond to Timothy Jost’s critique of our working paper, “Taxation without Representation: the Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits under the PPACA.” Jost has been our most tenacious (if not most consistent) critic.

Here’s an excerpt. Keep in mind that although we say “tax credits,” government spending accounts for about 80 percent of the money involved. Which is a lot: the cost of this illegal IRS rule could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The dispute is over whether the [Patient Protection and Affordable Care] Act authorizes the IRS to provide tax credits only in Exchanges established by states (under Section 1311) or also in Exchanges established by the federal government (under Section 1321). Three facts are key to this dispute.

First, both sides acknowledge that the statutory language governing eligibility for tax credits is clear and unambiguous. The Act provides that taxpayers are eligible for tax credits if they purchase a health plan through “an Exchange established by the State under section 1311.” That language clearly authorizes tax credits only in state-established Exchanges, and the Act employs or refers to that language no less than six times when authorizing tax credits. There is no parallel language anywhere in the statute authorizing the IRS to offer tax credits through federal Exchanges established under Section 1321.

Second, there is nothing in the statute that conflicts with the plain meaning of that language. Indeed, the rest of the statute supports that plain meaning. Nor has anyone identified anything in the law’s legislative history that conflicts with that language. The only statement anyone has found on this point shows the statutory language was intentional. During congressional debate, the bill’s lead author, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), explained that the bill conditions tax credits on the establishment of a state-run Exchange.

Third, even though some members of Congress and the President might have preferred a law that authorized tax credits in federal Exchanges, they nevertheless enacted a law that did not. Many advocates of health care reform urged passage of the Senate bill even though there were parts of the bill they did not like, and knowing full well that not all defects could or would be fixed through the reconciliation process. Congress amended the sections of the Senate bill that authorize tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies a total of 12 times through the reconciliation process, but left the language limiting tax credits to state-established Exchanges undisturbed. Again, many of those amendments support the clear meaning of that language, and none of them conflict with it.

And yet, in late May the IRS finalized a rule that will issue tax credits—and therefore will trigger cost-sharing subsidies and employer-mandate penalties—through federal Exchanges, contrary to the plain language of the statute. It is our contention that this rule is illegal.

We invite everyone to read our working paper alongside Jost’s post, and our reply, and to decide for themselves whether the IRS is breaking the law.

You can also watch Jost and me testify before Congress on the IRS rule tomorrow at 9am ET in room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

States Resist ObamaCare Implementation, Oklahoma Edition

The Washington Post reports:

The Supreme Court may have declared that the government can order Americans to get health insurance, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to sign up.

Nowhere is that more evident than Oklahoma, a conservative state with an independent streak and a disdain for the strong arm of government…

When it comes to health insurance, the effort to sign people up isn’t likely to get much help from the state. Antipathy toward President Obama’s signature health-care overhaul runs so deep that when the federal government awarded Oklahoma a large grant to plan for the new law, the governor turned away the money — all $54 million of it.

The idea that the federal government will persuade reluctant people here to get insurance elicited head-shaking chuckles at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse…

But some in Oklahoma aren’t so sure the population here will be easy to persuade, especially if the state government continues to condemn “Obamacare.”

“If we’re not being cooperative and all the rhetoric is hostile, then that’s going to be a real barrier to providing information to people,” said David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a state policy think tank. “There’s a lot of important outreach that needs to happen before January 1, 2014, and it’s going to be extremely difficult to do that when you have state leaders standing there saying, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ ”

Resistance remains strong in other states as well, with some governors promising to opt out of parts of the law.

Wait until states find out that they can block ObamaCare’s employer mandate just by refusing to create an Exchange.

‘Coverage Will Not Necessarily Translate into Care’

Members of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club already knew this. Members of the Church of Universal Coverage may want to take heed. The New York Times reports:

In the Inland Empire, an economically depressed region in Southern California, President Obama’s health care law is expected to extend insurance coverage to more than 300,000 people by 2014. But coverage will not necessarily translate into care: Local health experts doubt there will be enough doctors to meet the area’s needs. There are not enough now.

Other places around the country, including the Mississippi Delta, Detroit and suburban Phoenix, face similar problems…

Moreover, across the country, fewer than half of primary care clinicians were accepting new Medicaid patients as of 2008, making it hard for the poor to find care even when they are eligible for Medicaid. The expansion of Medicaid accounts for more than one-third of the overall growth in coverage in President Obama’s health care law.

But isn’t the important thing that they’ll have a piece of paper that says “health insurance”?

To Help the Poor, Don’t Expand Medicaid — Just Get out of the Way

The gods tell me I’m not allowed to post the article, “Medical volunteers not free to cross state lines; Charity wants changes so it can help more,” from The Tennesseean in its entirety. So here’s an, ahem, excerpt:

The founder of the Knoxville-based charity Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps says his nonprofit is hamstrung by laws preventing medical volunteers from crossing state lines.

Stan Brock told the Bristol Herald Courier that RAM has provided free medical and dental care to more than half-a-million patients since 1992, but it could serve even more if state laws were changed…

Brock said the group recently went to Joplin, Mo., with a mobile eyeglass lab. But they were not allowed to make free glasses because their volunteer optometrists and opticians were not licensed in the state.

Events in California have had dozens of empty dental chairs as patients were turned away — not for lack of willing volunteers but because state law creates impossible hurdles for out-of-state providers.

“Before Georgia told us to stop, we used to go down to southern Georgia and work with the Lions Club there treating patients,” he said.

Brock said the laws are designed as “turf protection,” but his charity efforts pose no threat to traditional medical providers…

RAM began providing its free services, which it calls “expeditions” in South America. Its first expedition in the U.S. was in Tennessee, which also passed the first law allowing the providers to cross state lines for charity care. Illinois later adopted a similar law, modeled after Tennessee’s.

Brock said those laws have three key components: They allow health providers from out of state to provide charity care, protect them against frivolous lawsuits and are simple enough to allow busy volunteers to come without jumping through hoops.

See also this moving photoblog about a Remote Area Medical “expedition” to Appalachia.

For more about Remote Area Medical, click here.

For $460 Billion a Year, Medicaid Darn Well Better Save Lives

A study in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine finds that when three states expanded their Medicaid programs, mortality rates fell 6 percent relative to four neighboring states. The study found evidence that the mortality gains were concentrated in poorer counties – i.e., where people were most likely to become eligible for Medicaid.

As always, the study comes with caveats. The results “may not be generalizable to other states,” may have been driven by unobservable confounding factors, et cetera. Speaking only for myself, I hope these results are accurate. I hope Medicaid does save lives. That program spends nearly half a trillion dollars per year. It damn well better save lives.

Even so, that does not mean politicians should expand Medicaid. If saving lives is the goal, then politicians should instead find the lowest-cost way of doing so, because that enables the greatest number of lives to be saved with the available resources. It is generally accepted among health economists that other strategies (e.g., discrete health programs targeted at hypertension or diabetes) could save more lives per dollar spent than expanding health insurance. This study says nothing about how much it costs to save lives through Medicaid, much less whether alternative uses of those resources could save even more lives. It could be that other uses of the money would save – I don’t know – twice as many lives.

Absent evidence that Medicaid saves the most lives per dollar spent, expanding Medicaid does not show how much politicians care about saving lives. It shows how little they care about saving lives, because they are willing to forgo additional reductions in mortality for the sake of…whatever else expanding Medicaid gives them.