Tag: jonathan gruber

Oregon Health Insurance Experiment: No Vindication of ObamaCare

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment is the first experiment since the dawn of time that randomly assigns some households to receive health insurance (Medicaid) for purposes of comparing their medical consumption, health outcomes, and financial security to similar households that do not receive Medicaid coverage.  Some of the nation’s top health economists have released the first batch of results from the OHIE.

At National Review (Online), I summarize the OHIE’s first-year results and offer the following analysis:

Supporters of President Obama’s health-care law may tout these benefits, but the OHIE does not provide the vindication they seek. First, despite being eligible for Medicaid, 13 percent of the control group had private health insurance — suggesting that on some dimension, Medicaid’s eligibility rules are already too broad.

Second, the OHIE extended coverage to the most vulnerable population of uninsured Americans, yet the improvements in health and financial security are so far apparently modest. At higher income levels, where individuals have greater baseline access to health insurance and medical care, the benefits of expanding coverage are likely to be smaller and the costs (to the extent that crowd-out is higher at higher income levels) will be greater.

Third, supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies. Health economists generally agree that discrete programs promoting highly effective treatments (for hypertension, diabetes, etc.) could produce health gains as large as expanding health insurance would, but at far less expense. Reducing taxes could plausibly reduce financial strain to a similar degree by expanding job creation.

Finally, the OHIE illuminates an unflattering feature of the push for Obamacare. For a century, the Left has advocated universal health insurance despite not knowing what benefits it might bring. In 2010, Congress and President Obama vastly expanded Medicaid without waiting for the results of the one study that might tell them what taxpayers would get in return for their half a trillion dollars. As the law’s supporters seek to cajole doctors into practicing evidence-based medicine, it is no small irony that they themselves dove head-first into evidence-free policymaking.

To the Church of Universal Coverage, the benefits of universal coverage, whatever those might be, are an article of faith.

KFF/HRET Survey, Part III: Employers Can’t Shift to Workers a Cost that Workers Already Bear

In a previous post, I promised to address the negative spin that the Kaiser Family Foundation put on its annual Employer Health Benefits Survey, released this month.  I do so in an op-ed that ran today at the Daily Caller.  An excerpt:

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently issued its annual survey of employer-sponsored health benefitsdeclaring: “Family Health Premiums Rise 3 Percent to $13,770 in 2010, But Workers’ Share Jumps 14 Percent as Firms Shift Cost Burden.” That’s half-right — but the other half perpetuates a myth about employee health benefits that stands in the way of real health care reform….

[Y]ou pay the full cost of your health benefits: partly through an explicit $4,000 premium and partly because your wages are $9,770 lower than they otherwise would be.

Kaiser therefore claims the impossible when it says that firms are shifting costs to workers.  Employers cannot shift to workers a cost that workers already bear. Yet this year, as in past years, the Associated PressBloombergCNNKaiser Health NewsThe Los Angeles TimesThe New York TimesNPRThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post uncritically repeated the cost-shifting myth.

The bolded sentence is Cannon’s Second Rule of Economic Literacy.  (Click here for the first rule.)

I have also collected a series of excerpts from past Kaiser Family Foundation surveys showing this is a persistent issue.  Here are a few:

1998: “Workers in small firms bear a much larger share of the financial burden for health benefits than employees of larger firms.”

2005: “The average worker paid $2,713 toward premiums for family coverage in 2005 or 26% of the total health premium.”

2007: “Annual Premiums for Family Coverage Now Average $12,106, With Workers Paying $3,281”

The folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation were exceedingly gracious when I approached them to discuss this issue.

A Response to Gruber on RomneyCare & Health Care Costs

I just came across this letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber.  I don’t know how to confine myself to just one of the letter’s many problems. So brace yourselves, here comes the fisk.

Joseph Rago’s article on Massachusetts health-care reform (“The Massachusetts Health-Care ‘Train Wreck’,” op-ed, July 7) is exactly the type of selectively misleading use of facts upon which opponents of health-care reform have been relying over the past year.

No comment, other than remember the phrase “selectively misleading use of facts.”

Health-care reform in Massachusetts has covered 60% of the state’s uninsured, has done so at roughly the cost projected before reform was enacted in 2006, and remains overwhelmingly popular with the residents of the state.

Regarding coverage gains, Massachusetts officials used to claim that RomneyCare reduced the share of uninsured residents from around 10 percent to 2.6 percent.  In a study released this year, Aaron Yelowitz (a former student and coauthor of Gruber’s) and I show why that figure is too low and why the actual figure is likely 5.1 percent or higher.  The study on which Gruber relies – like all other such studies – neither mentions nor attempts to measure the problem that Yelowitz and I identified: uninsured Massachusetts residents appear to be responding to the individual mandate by concealing their lack of insurance, which would inflate the coverage gains.  Since that study obtained results similar to our results for Massachusetts adults, that study’s estimate of a 60-percent reduction in the uninsured appears to be an upper-bound estimate, rather than a point estimate.

Regarding costs, I haven’t seen any updated numbers since the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation’s whitewash from May 2009.  I’d like to see an updated, non-whitewashed report on actual spending and how it compares to the original projections, especially considering that in 2006, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that Massachusetts “anticipates that no additional funding will be needed beyond three years.“  Updated figures would also allow us to judge how much RomneyCare spent per newly insured resident.

The state has seen a decline in its nongroup premiums of more than 50% relative to national trends…It reduced the costs to individuals of purchasing insurance…[an] enormous reduction relative to pre-reform…

Here’s where Gruber engages in his own “selectively misleading use of facts.”  Yes, non-group premiums appear to have fallen for the 4 percent of residents in the non-group market – because RomneyCare shifted those costs to workers with job-based coverage.

It is true that reform has not slowed the growth of group health-insurance premiums, which have continued to rise at exactly the same rate as in the nation as a whole.

The first part of this sentence is an understatement; the second part is false.  This report from the left-wing Commonwealth Fund shows that premiums in Massachusetts are growing faster than anywhere else in the nation.  And the only study that has tried to isolate the effect of RomneyCare finds that it increased premiums for employment-based coverage by 6 percent (see cost-shifting, above).

Despite Gov. Mitt Romney’s claims, the Massachusetts reform was not designed to slow the growth of health-care cost growth.

It should be obvious by now that RomneyCare wasn’t designed that way.  But it sure was sold that way.  And so was ObamaCare.  Any bets on how long before we hear apologists for both claiming that ObamaCare wasn’t designed to slow cost growth?

The PPACA also includes a series of changes that represent the best thinking about how to control costs, such as an independent rate-setting board for Medicare, pilots of innovative medical reimbursement approaches, and an end to the open-ended tax subsidy to the highest cost health insurance plans in the U.S. None of these is guaranteed to slow the rate of cost growth. But each is better than doing nothing, which was the alternative.

So the, ahem, best thinking on how to contain health care costs is (1) price and exchange controls set by (2) an unelected and unaccountable rationing board, plus (3) taxing health insurance.  Bra-vo. Sure, Obama’s National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers says, “Price and exchange controls inevitably create harmful economic distortions. Both the distortions and the economic damage get worse with time.” But when the alternative is nothing – nothing! – that means the bar for “best thinking” isn’t very high.

In the end, it is impossible to control health-care costs without first bringing as many citizens as possible into our health-insurance system.

As I blogged earlier today, it does not speak well of the Left’s approach to health care that in order to reduce wasteful government spending – or at least pretend to – they must first create more wasteful government spending.