Tag: john cochrane

How ObamaCare Is Destroying Consumer Protections

In this morning’s Charlotte Observer, I explain how ObamaCare is destroying consumer protections.  Exhibit A is Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina’s decision to refund $156 million to its policyholders:

BCBSNC’s refunds show that ObamaCare is leaving seriously ill patients with less protection, not more. Health insurance was hardly perfect before ObamaCare, but BCBSNC’s policyholders had insurance that had pre-funded many of their future medical bills.

Now, ObamaCare has effectively transferred those reserves from the sick to the healthy. Seriously ill policyholders now have less protection against BCBSNC reneging on its commitments to them. Competition used to discourage skimping; ObamaCare rewards it.

Due to space considerations, the editors dropped the parts where I explain (A) how research by Harvard economist (and sometime Obama advisor) David Cutler shows that under ObamaCare’s price controls, insurers must compete to avoid the sick, and (B) that ObamaCare is blocking further innovations – such as those foreseen by University of Chicago economist John Cochrane – that would provide even greater protection to the sick.

Is ObamaCare Pushing Rope?

Regarding ObamaCare’s first adverse-selection death spiral, Julie Rovner posts this over at Shots, the NPR health blog:

The advocacy group Health Care for America Now was the first to bring the action to widespread attention. “Even for the insurance industry this behavior is surprisingly brazen,” HCAN Executive Director Ethan Rome wrote in a blog entry for the Huffington Post. “They don’t like the rules, so they’re going to take their ball and go home.”

But the insurance industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans rejected HCAN’s contention that the companies’ refusal to sell to all comers is somehow a violation of a promise made earlier this year by AHIP CEO Karen Ignagni that insurance companies would comply with regulations regarding children and pre-existing conditions.

In an interview, AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said Ignagni was responding only to promises that children wouldn’t be excluded from their parents’ plans and that if the kids are covered, the policies would include treatment of their pre-existing condition.

What emerged in the regulations, however, Zirkelbach said, was, in effect, a  requirement that insurance companies accept children even if they are already sick. That, he said, would be tantamount to exactly what companies want to avoid with the adult population — letting people wait until they are sick to sign up for insurance. Which is exactly why the insurance industry is so insistent on a coverage mandate: It needs premiums of healthy people to help cover the costs of those who are not.

In effect, ObamaCare supporters said to the public, “Give the government more power over insurance companies and the government will make health insurance more accessible and secure.”  These few paragraphs capture how that strategy has turned into a cat-and-mouse game with insurers, and is turning ObamaCare’s most attractive selling point – guaranteed coverage for kids with pre-existing conditions – into an empty promise.

In stark contrast stands the individual insurance market.  Yes, insurers there generally (but not always) charge premiums that correspond to risk, and sometimes turn people down – but that market has also been remarkably innovative when it comes to protecting sick people from higher premiums.  RAND Health economist Susan Marquis and her colleagues write, “a large number of people with health problems do obtain coverage” in the individual market: “Our analysis confirms earlier studies’ findings that there is considerable risk pooling in the individual market and that high risks are not charged premiums that fully reflect their higher risk.”  Even as Congress debated ObamaCare, UnitedHealthcare introduced an innovative new product that protects people with employer-sponsored coverage from facing sky-high premiums when they leave their company plan.  Economist John Cochrane predicts that further innovations can make health insurance more secure and improve the quality of medical care.

Which process seems more likely to improve quality and reduce costs?  The political process, where politicians and regulators try to force insurance companies to act against their financial self-interest?  Or the market process, where self-interest forces insurers to find innovative ways to give consumers more of what they want?

Shifting the Blame for America’s Health Care Woes

I must be losing my touch. I’ve let nearly two months pass without responding to Ezra Klein’s defense of RomneyCare, ObamaCare, and other centrally planned health care systems.  (For those who want to get up to speed: his original post, my reply, and his response.)  So here goes.

Klein notes that he and I had each used flawed measures of RomneyCare’s impact on health insurance premiums in Massachusetts.  Fair enough.  But Klein ignores the study I cited by John Cogan, Glenn Hubbard, and Dan Kessler, which estimates that RomneyCare increased premiums in Massachusetts by 6 percent.  The CHK study has limitations, but it is the best estimate available.  I hope Klein addresses it.

Klein’s fallback position is that even if RomneyCare increases premiums, that’s not an indictment of the law because cost-control was not one of its goals.  Never mind that Mitt Romney boasted, “the costs of health care will be reduced.”  Klein knows political rhetoric when he sees it.  Yet he oddly sees no parallels between the phony-baloney promises of cost-control used to sell RomneyCare and the phony-baloney promises of cost-control used to sell ObamaCare – despite ample assistance from people like Medicare’s chief actuary and Alain Enthoven (“the American people are being deceived”).

Then Klein throws down his trump card:

[E]ven a cursory read of the evidence would show that whatever the drawbacks of central planning, it covers people at an extremely low cost. Romney Care’s cost problem is a result of pasting a coverage-oriented quick fix atop our insane health-care system. Compare its costs to the British system, the French system, the German system, or any other system, and whatever your conclusions, you won’t walk away unimpressed by the ability of centralized systems to cover whole populations for much less money than we spend.

Oy, where to begin?  First, Klein violates Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: he writes that centrally planned systems cost less, when what he means is that they spend less.

Second, the phrase “whatever the drawbacks of central planning” is some serious hand-waving.  Those “drawbacks” include (among other things): the Medicare program’s suppression of comparative-effectiveness research, error-reduction efforts, care coordination, and other delivery innovations; Canada’s human-rights violating Medicare system; and the suppression of untold innovations in health insurance and medical treatment by government price controls.  Other than a few drawbacks, Mrs. Lincoln…

Third, our “insane health-care system,” as I blogged previously, “is the product of the old raft of government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies.”  Prior to ObamaCare, government already controlled half of all U.S. health care spending directly, granted control over another quarter to employers, and regulated health care more heavily than perhaps any other sector of the economy.  Klein and his fellow central planners can’t deny paternity.  Our “insane health-care system” is the product of central planning.

Finally, only a cursory read of the evidence could lead to the conclusion that central planning contains health care spending.  Klein posts the following charts and concludes that since all those (other) centrally planned systems spend less on health care than the United States, central planning must result in lower health care spending.

Photo credit: By Robert Giroux/Getty Images

But if that were true, then one would expect per-capita spending on elderly Americans – who have universal coverage through the centrally planned Medicare program – would not be far out of line when compared to how much other nations spend per elderly resident.  Yet the United States is just as far out of here as overall.  According to the OECD, the United States spends about twice as much per elderly person as Canada, and more than twice as much as Australia spends.  (Alas, I’m not cherry-picking; these are the only four nations for which the OECD provides recent data.)

Source: OECD, author’s calculations

(One could argue that the reason for this is that Medicare exists alongside the world’s largest (ostensibly) private health care sector, whose evils spill over into Medicare.  If that were the case, then moving all Americans into Medicare should reduce U.S. health care spending, bringing it back into line with other nations.  But consider that Klein and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait both acknowledge that Congress had to throw $2 at the health care industry for every $1 that ObamaCare cut from future Medicare spending. How exactly could Congress move 250 million Americans into Medicare (which presumably would reduce overall spending), or reduce Medicare spending later, given those constraints?  How, exactly, would an independent rationing board survive the political dynamics that produce such outcomes? Prediction: it won’t.  The narrative that central planning contains health care spending just doesn’t hold water.)

Klein, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, and others have taken a big step by acknowledging that RomneyCare is struggling.  When they shift the blame to “the American health care system,” however, they obscure what’s really happening.  As I closed my previous post: “RomneyCare and its progeny ObamaCare are attempts by the Left’s central planners to clean up their own mess.  If Klein and Cohn want to defend those laws, pointing to the damage already caused by their economic policies won’t do the trick.  They need to explain why government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies will produce something other than what they have always produced.”

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

Hurting the Sick Is Not Good Politics

I was glad to see James Pinkerton engage my criticism of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) endorsement of federal price controls for health insurance.  I was even more pleased to see that Pinkerton has his own blog devoted to developing a Serious Medicine Strategy.

If I understand Pinkerton, his argument is essentially: it’s all well and good for some unelectable wonk in the “citadel of libertarian thinking” to “uphold ivory-tower free-market purity” by opposing price controls.  But Republicans need “art-of-the-possible solutions” to win elections, and 90 percent of the public support those price controls.  “Everyone has a right to his or her principled position,” Pinkerton writes, “but the majority has rights, too.”

Two problems.

First, Pinkerton suggests that libertarians oppose price controls for reasons that only matter to libertarians, and therefore may be safely ignored.  Problem is, price controls hurt people.  Were Pinkerton to explore the merits of Jindal’s proposal, he would soon conclude that imposing price controls on health insurance taxes the healthy, reduces everyone’s health insurance choices, and creates even greater incentives for insurers to shortchange the sick.  (Turns out that what Larry Summers said about price controls applies to health insurance, too.)  As John Cochrane explains, those price controls also block innovative products that would provide more financial security and better medical care to the sick.

But Pinkerton’s advice for Republicans is, essentially: “Do what’s popular now, even if it hurts people and voters end up blaming Republicans for it later.”  How is that a good strategy?

Second is this idea that “the majority has rights.”  Majorities don’t have rights.  Individuals have rights.  For example, you have the right to negotiate the terms of your health insurance contract with the individuals at this or that insurance company.  Majorities may attain power, but that’s the opposite of rights.  (See the Bill of Rights.)

Finally, a couple of important odds and ends.  Pinkerton suggests it is “un-libertarian” to be “pro-life,” or to “support the police, the military, and other upholders of public order,” or to “support government restrictions on…euthanasia.”  Writing from the “citadel of libertarian thinking,” I can assure him he is wrong.  Might I suggest Pinkerton read the relevant chapters from The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism?  (The health care chapter is a page-turner!)  Also, I did not “denounce Jindal” any more than Pinkerton denounced me.  I criticized his ideas, and I respect the man.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

‘Health Status Insurance’ Provides Real Alternative to Universal Care

So screams the headline of John Cochrane’s oped in today’s Investor’s Business Daily.  An excerpt:

Markets can provide long-term, secure health insurance while enhancing choice and competition. Given the chance, they will…

This is not pie in the sky. The market for individual health insurance is already innovating to provide better long-term insurance. Well before it was required by law, insurance companies started offering “guaranteed renewable” policies.

Once you buy in, you have the right to continue coverage even if you get sick, and your premiums do not rise if you get sick.

UnitedHealth Group recently announced a product that gives customers the right to buy medical insurance in the future, at a premium that depends only on their current health status.

For a small premium, you can protect yourself against the risk that your health premiums will escalate. This is only a small step away from full health-status insurance.

The oped is based on Cochrane’s recent Cato policy analysis, “Health-Status Insurance: How Markets Can Provide Health Security.”

You can also hear Cochrane and Johns Hopkins University health economist Brad Herring discussing health-status insurance at this Cato policy forum, held today.

Events This Week

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

POLICY FORUM - Can the Market Provide Choice and Secure Health Coverage Even for High-Cost Illnesses?

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

In a study recently published by the Cato Institute, economist John Cochrane argues that the market can solve a huge piece of the health care puzzle: providing secure, life-long health insurance and a choice of health plans to even the sickest patients. The key, Cochrane explains, is to eliminate government policies that force the healthy to subsidize the sick, such as the tax preference for employer-sponsored coverage and other attempts to impose price controls on health insurance premiums.

Featuring John H. Cochrane, Myron S. Scholes Professor of Finance, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research; Bradley Herring, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; moderated by Michael F. Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies, Cato Institute.

Please register to attend this event, or watch free online.


Friday, April 3, 2009

PglennOLICY FORUM - Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

In 2001, Portugal began a remarkable policy experiment, decriminalizing all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

In a new paper for the Cato Institute, attorney and author Glenn Greenwald closely examines the Portugal experiment and concludes that the doomsayers were wrong. There is now a widespread consensus in Portugal that decriminalization has been a success. The debate in Portugal has shifted rather dramatically to minor adjustments in the existing arrangement. There is no real debate about whether drugs should once again be criminalized. Join us for a discussion about Glenn Greenwald’s field research in Portugal and what lessons his findings may hold for drug policies in other countries.

Featuring Glenn Greenwald, Attorney and Best-selling Author; with comments by Peter Reuter, Department of Criminology, University of Maryland; moderated by Tim Lynch, Director, Project on Criminal Justice, Cato Institute.

Please register to attend this event, or watch free online.

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