Tag: medicare reform

‘The Dangerous Gym Membership’?

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

The dangerous gym membership” [Jan. 12] claims that in Medicare Advantage, “advertising a plan as the go-to health insurance source for marathoners could lure in a healthier subscriber base, disrupting the rest of the market place in the process.” Oh?

Does it disrupt the market for sneakers when running shops advertise themselves to marathoners? Since when does giving consumers something they want disrupt the market? That’s why markets exist.

What’s disrupting the market for seniors’ health insurance is government—in this case, Congress’ counter-productive attempt to cross-subsidize the sick via price controls that forbid carriers to consider each applicant’s risk when offering and pricing health insurance.

Personal Accounts—for Medicare

Last night, Newt Gingrich praised the Chilean Social Security system, which allows workers to save for their retirements in personal accounts, rather than contribute to the government pension scheme. Several of my Cato colleagues are far more qualified than I am to comment on that system, including Mike Tanner, Jagadeesh Gokhale, and Jose Pinera–who designed and implemented it. But personal accounts are as important for reforming compulsory health insurance schemes like Medicare as they are for reforming compulsory pension schemes.

In 2010, I traveled to Chile to deliver an address to the International Federation of Pension Fund Administrators (FIAP).  I detailed the harms caused by compulsory health insurance schemes and explained how personal medical accounts would improve health care and generate wealth even for the poor:

In designing health care markets, perfection is not an option. Under any system, whether state-run or the free market, some patients will inevitably fall through the cracks.

Personal medical accounts can help fill in those cracks by enabling innovations that improve medical care and bring it within reach of the poor. Yes, some will not earn enough to provide for themselves. And when we are free to make our own decisions, a small number of people will make poor decisions. I believe we have a moral duty to care for patients who could not or would not provide for themselves. Personal medical accounts will make it easier for us to meet that moral duty.

Under compulsory health insurance schemes, those cracks widen, and more people fall through. Price and exchange controls block innovation. Governments waste resources on low-value medical care. Some would describe these as the unavoidable costs of creating an equitable society. But those wasted resources do not purchase solidarity. They purchase sickness and poverty.

FIAP turned my address into this book chapter, which also explains how to craft a system of personal medical accounts.

For current enrollees, who have not built up savings in a personal medical account, Congress should make Medicare look more like Social Security. That is, the government should subsidize Medicare enrollees by giving them cash, rather than creating a complex health-insurance scheme that effectively lets government officials shape the entire health care sector.

Let the Market Cut Medicare?

The center-right consensus is that in order to balance the budget and improve health care, Congress needs to overhaul Medicare using some form of voucher or premium support.  Whereas the current program offers an essentially unlimited subsidy for medical care, under these options Congress would give each enrollee a fixed subsidy with which they could purchase private health insurance.  But how should Congress determine the size of these fixed subsidies?

The House GOP approved a budget under which Congress would pick the amount.  Beginning in 2022, all new enrollees would receive a voucher.  The average voucher amount would be equal to the average amount Medicare currently spends per enrollee in 2011, adjusted for overall inflation.  Congress would adjust the actual voucher amount for each enrollee based on health status and income, so some enrollees would receive larger and some would receive smaller vouchers.  But since the average voucher would grow at the rate of inflation (i.e., about 2.5 percentage points slower than per-enrollee Medicare spending currently grows), this approach would reduce Medicare spending over time.

A drawback of this approach is that opponents can (and do) demagogue it, claiming that the vouchers would be insufficient and seniors would die for lack of medical care.  This demagoguery ignores two important factors.

First, as Peter Orszag and President Obama themselves loved reminding us during the ObamaCare debate, there is lots of wasteful spending in the Medicare program.  Orszag frequently cites the Dartmouth Atlas, which estimates that one third of Medicare spending is pure waste.  Since the amount of the House GOP’s vouchers would be based on per-enrollee Medicare spending, they would essentially give Medicare enrollees 50 percent more money than they would need to purchase all the beneficial medical care that Medicare currently provides.  The vast amount of wasteful Medicare spending is a disgrace.  But when converting to a voucher system it’s an absolute boon, because it provides a huge margin of safety.  It means that enrollees could reduce their medical consumption by one third without harming their health.

Second, the anti-reform demagogues presume that vouchers would do absolutely nothing to make health care more efficient.  Vouchers would make the nation’s 50 million heaviest consumers of medical care cost-conscious in a way they have never been before.  Like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli, they will force providers to cut costs and thereby make their vouchers go farther.

It is because of this second factor that Yuval Levin proposes a different way of setting the voucher amount(s).  Levin proposes to use a competitive-bidding process.  Under this approach, everyone in Medicare would receive a voucher equal to the second-lowest bid that health plans submit to provide a standard package of benefits.  Enrollees could then apply their voucher to any private plan or even a government-run plan.  Under this approach, enrollees would still be cost-conscious: if the health insurance policies they choose cost more than the voucher amount, they would have to make up the difference; if the policies cost less, they would keep the savings.  Levin argues that this cost-consciousness would also lead enrollees to put pressure on providers to cut costs, and therefore the amount of the second-lowest bid would automatically grow at a slower rate than per-enrollee spending under the current Medicare program.  ”In such a system,” Levin writes, “the premium-support benefit would grow exactly as quickly as required to provide a comprehensive insurance benefit, since the growth rate would be determined by a market process rather than a preset formula. ” Voila!  The competitive forces of the market would cut Medicare spending.

The best evidence that competitive bidding will reduce Medicare spending is that the durable medical equipment manufacturers have fought efforts to impose it on them.  So while I’m not hostile to the idea, I don’t think it’s an improvement over the House GOP plan.

First, Levin calls competitive-bidding “the Confident Market Solution” because he is confident that markets will reduce the cost of health care.  I’m confident of that too.  But I’m also confident that rent-seeking will be present in Medicare, no matter what reforms Congress enacts.  I am far less confident that markets will reduce costs faster than rent-seeking will increase them.  My sense is that politicians will be much more likely to hold the line on rent-seeking if they actually draw one.

Second, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) crafted a House budget that proposed to reduce the growth of Medicare spending using hard, score-able numbers.  Hundreds of House members likewise stuck their necks out by voting for it.  The Confident Market Solution essentially undercuts those folks by telling them they should not have done something so bold and courageous.  Levin is no doubt correct that a competitive-bidding process that doesn’t specifically commit Congress to reducing Medicare spending growth is more politically feasible than a voucher plan that does.  When politicians choose the more politically perilous option, however, reformers should tell the world why that was the right thing to do.

Third, Levin would include a public option in the competitive-bidding system.  I am also confident that the government would heavily subsidize that health plan until it drove private insurers (and any hope of cost-cutting innovations) out of the market.

I’ve discussed what I think is a better approach to Medicare reform here and here.

Newt Tries to Out-Romney Romney, Endorses ‘Public Option’ in Medicare

In 1995, shortly after becoming Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich mulled a radical overhaul of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  As he put it to a room full of health insurers, “Maybe we’ll take out FDA.

What made Newt likable to advocates of freedom is sadly no longer part of his schtick.  Here’s how Andrew Stiles reports on Newt’s appearance on Meet the Press yesterday:

“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” he said when asked about [House Budget Committee chairman Paul] Ryan’s [R-WI] plan to transition to a “premium support” model for Medicare. “I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”

As far as an alternative, Gingrich trotted out the same appeal employed by Obama/Reid/Pelosi — for a “national conversation” on how to “improve” Medicare, and promised to eliminate ‘waste, fraud and abuse,’ etc.

“I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options,” Gingrich said. Ryan’s plan was simply “too big a jump.”

He even went so far as to compare it the Obama health-care plan. “I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

If you close your eyes, it’s like listening to The Princess Bride. Medicare and Medicaid are nothing if not social engineering.  So by Newt’s logic, we should get rid of them.  But Newt also says that radical change is bad, which means we can’t.  That leaves incremental changes.  But incremental changes to massive social-engineering experiments are themselves social engineering, so we clearly cannot make incremental changes, either.  ObamaCare is both social engineering and radical change.  Again by Newt’s logic, ObamaCare is bad, and we must get rid of it, but we can’t.  Truly, he has a dizzying intellect.

Newt’s objection to Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms is no less incoherent.  It appears to be that the reforms approved by the House would eliminate the traditional Medicare program as an option for Americans who enroll after 2021.   So far as I can tell, Newt’s opposition to this feature is consistent with his past positions on Medicare reform.  He wants to let people stay in traditional Medicare if that’s what they prefer, and would have traditional Medicare compete against private insurance companies for Medicare enrollees.

But it is completely inconsistent with Newt’s opposition to President Obama’s call for a so-called “public option” to compete with private insurance companies. In 2009, Newt told Good Morning America:

I guarantee you the language they draft for the public plan will give it huge advantages over the private sector or it won’t work…what they will do is rig the game…I mean, anybody who’s watched this Congress who believes that this Congress is going to design a fair, neutral playing field I think would be totally out of touch with reality.

Newt may not realize this, but he was actually explaining why his preferred Medicare reforms would fail: Congress would rig the game to protect the “public option” that Congress offers to seniors – i.e., traditional Medicare.  House Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, rather bravely stuck to their guns when they kept a “public option” out of their proposed Medicare reforms.  Ryan is offering Republicans credibility and success.  By his own admission, Newt is offering them failure.

What’s up with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich?  Does the Republican presidential nomination race have some sort of prize for insincerity or incoherence that I don’t know about?

Finally, Newt endorsed a “variation of the individual mandate” (tell me again why he opposes ObamaCare?) and said there is “a way to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy.” He must have meant to say leftists rather than libertarians. Regardless, I invite Newt to come to the Cato Institute so he can explain to people who actually care about freedom just how happy he’s going to make us.