Tag: Medicare

Health Policy Death Match: Klein vs. Ponnuru

I count both Ramesh Ponnuru and Ezra Klein as friends.  (I’m so post-partisan.)  Why, oh why must they force me to choose between them??

Ponnuru had an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times where he reaffirmed his membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.  Klein responded in a way that’s sure to satisfy his base, but I think he left the reality-based community wanting.  Are you ready for the fisk?

Klein suggests that if “80+ percent of Americans … think the system needs fundamental changes or a complete rebuild,” then 80+ percent of Americans must support universal coverage.  Hmmm, bit of a stretch.  In fact, I can recall one poll where nearly one-third of likely Democratic primary voters rejected universal coverage.

Klein suggests that giving consumers the freedom to avoid unwanted state health insurance regulations would mean that Arizonans wouldn’t get coverage for colorectal cancer screening, and that there would be no mammogram coverage in Idaho.  Mmm, that’s good crazy.  I refer my right honorable friend to the episode where The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn made a similar claim about mandates for prostate and cervical cancer screening.  I looked up the services covered by the plans made available to the Cohn family by the University of Michigan.  It turned out that six out of the seven available plans cover both prostate and cervical cancer screening — even though Michigan requires insurers to cover neither.  (I offered to wager Cohn a fancy dinner that his family has coverage for both, but I never heard back from him.  Foolish, really, to let me know where he gets his insurance. Klein would never give me such an opening … or would he?) What Ponnuru proposes is to let Arizonans and Idahoans and everyone else choose what their health plan covers.   Imagine that: people rationing medical care according to their preferences, rather than the preferences of employers, interest groups, bureaucrats, health policy wonks…  Why Klein clings to such regulations despite zero evidence that they actually increase access to the targeted services is beyond me.

Klein criticizes Ponnuru for proposing to replace the current tax preference for job-based coverage with a tax credit available to everyone, much like John McCain proposed during his (latest) presidential campaign.  Ponnuru cites a study estimating that tax credits would reduce the number of uninsured by 20 million.  Klein counter-cites one study estimating that tax credits would have zero net effect on the number of uninsured, and a second study estimating that those who transition from job-based coverage to the “individual” or “non-group” market would pay an additional $2,000 per year for an identical policy.   Klein’s criticisms sound persuasive – provided you know precious little about the topic.  For one thing, the two studies Klein cites are actually the same study.  Pity, really.  Had Klein found a second study to support his position, perhaps it would not have been quite so flawed as the one he did find.  Here’s what I wrote back in September about that study’s flaws:

Thomas Buchmueller et al. estimate that replacing the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) with Sen. John McCain’s proposed health insurance tax credit would have zero effect on the uninsured. Yet their estimates neither incorporate nor even acknowledge factors that would tend to increase coverage. First, workers who lose ESI would see their wages rise significantly as labor markets force employers to “cash out” those workers.

That effect would help all workers afford health insurance — but particularly older and sicker workers, because they would get cashed-out more.

Second, the authors estimate that non-group enrollment would double, yet they ignore that administrative costs would fall in a thicker non-group market.

So that $2,000 mark-up really wouldn’t be $2,000.  Even if some mark-up remained, workers could reduce their premiums by purchasing less coverage.  Not all that crazy a concept, considering that the tax treatment of job-based insurance encourages people to buy too much coverage.

Then there’s this effect, which would further reduce premiums for healthy workers:

Third, the authors acknowledge that employment-based insurance forces the healthy to subsidize the sick, yet they ignore that the non-group market would reduce premiums for a majority of workers by allowing them to avoid that hidden tax.

The study’s authors also ignored the premium-lowering effects of McCain’s proposal to allow people to avoid unwanted regulatory costs (e.g., mandated benefits):

Fourth, though the Congressional Budget Office estimates that state health insurance regulations increase premiums an average of 13 percent, the authors ignore that McCain’s proposal to let consumers shop nationwide for insurance would further reduce premiums by allowing consumers to avoid that hidden tax as well.

A few random clarifications.  Klein fears living “in a space where insurers could still discriminate based on pre-existing conditions.”  That’s Church-of-Universal-Coverage-speak for, “I want price controls on health insurance.”  Government can outlaw the practice of charging higher premiums to the sick, but it cannot outlaw the reasons behind those higher premiums.  So when government prohibits insurers from competing on price, insurers respond to those underlying reasons by competing to avoid the sick.  Yes, yes, it’s that pious preference for price-controlled premiums that unleashes the beast of adverse selection — and prevents the market from developing innovative insurance products that help sick people pay those higher premiums. Klein fears a world “where millions of Americans will still lack access to health insurance,” because to the devout, access to insurance matters more than access to health care.  Klein fears that when people move from ESI to the individual market, risk pools will get smaller and insurers will get stronger.  Yet risk pools would get bigger, and insurers weaker relative to consumers.  Klein believes we can “ensure that all Americans have health coverage, [and] that their coverage is comprehensive,” and that we can do all that without rationing “access to health services.”  How?  Just “bring down costs in the system.”  Riiiight.

To cap things off, Klein claims that Ponnuru and I think the U.S. health care sector as it exists is “fine.”  I really can’t blame him for arguing with straw men.

In the end, Klein’s case against Ponnuru boils down to the same absurdity I found in Buchmueller and colleagues’ case against McCain:

The McCain plan would eliminate forced subsidies: of the sick by the healthy (via ESI and community rating) and of particular providers by unwilling consumers (mandates for chiropractic coverage, etc.). Buchmueller et al. would have us believe that if we stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, not even Peter would benefit. A more balanced critique might have been more persuasive.

Klein spends a lot more time thinking about health policy than Ponnuru does. But you’d never know it.

CER: A (Slightly) Different Perspective

My colleague, Michael Cannon, makes several good points about comparative effectiveness research (CER), both in his letter to USA Today and in his excellent paper on the subject. I strongly agree with him that we should not reflexively oppose CER—much of health care spending is wasteful or unnecessary, and it makes sense, therefore, to test and develop information on the effectiveness of various treatments and technology, giving consumers tools to evaluate the value of the care they receive. There is also a case for the use of CER in taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize health care that has not proven effective, nor can Medicare and Medicaid pay for every possible treatment regardless of cost-effectiveness.

However, I am more skeptical in general about CER than he is for several reasons.

  • First, “quality” and “value” are not unidimensional terms. In fact, such concepts are highly idiosyncratic with every individual having different ideas of what “quality” and “value” means to them, based on such things as a person’s pain tolerance, lifestyle, feeling about hospitalization, desire to return to work, and so forth. For example, a surgeon may tell you that the only way to ensure a cure for prostate cancer is a radical prostectomy. But that procedure’s side-effects can severely impact quality of life - so some people prefer a procedure with a lower survival rate, but fewer side effects. Who is better suited to determine which of those procedures represents “quality” and “value,” a government board or the person directly affected?
  • Second, comparative effectiveness research too often has a tendency to gear its results toward the “average” patient. But many patients are outliers, whose response to any particular treatment, for either good or ill, can vary significantly from the average. This matters little when the research is simply informative. However, if the research becomes the basis for more prescriptive requirements, for example prohibiting reimbursements for some types of treatment, the impact on patient outliers could be severe.
  • Third, comparative effectiveness research can create a time lag for the introduction of new technologies, drugs, and procedures. The FDA, for example, has already caused delays in introducing drugs that have resulted in unnecessary deaths. Depending on how the final program is structured, comparative effectiveness research could create another layer of bureaucracy and testing between the development of a new drug, for example, and its introduction into the health care system. One only has to look at the difficulty in expanding Medicaid drug formularies to see how this could become a problem.

The advocates of government-sponsored CER clearly intend for it to be used as a basis for rationing care, not just in government programs, but for private insurance as well.

Cannon points out that government-sponsored CER is likely to be corrupted under pressure from special interest lobbies and politicians. I couldn’t agree more. Government-sponsored CER, therefore, is liable to yield the worst of all possible worlds, not only rationing, but rationing that is based on special interest lobbying rather than science.

Health care, is of course, a finite good. Therefore, it will always be rationed in some fashion. But, it is far better if the rationing agent is the consumer himself, rather than the government or any other arbitrary agent. The private sector is already undertaking CER. To the degree that consumers, insurers, and providers make use of this information, that is a good thing. If consumers don’t like how an insurance company, for example, uses CER in determining its reimbursement policy, he or she can choose a different insurer.

Government-imposed fiat rationing allows for no such choice. Therefore, we should oppose any government involvement in CER, and any efforts by the government to use CER to restrict reimbursement, especially in private insurance plans.

Democrats Agree on Health Plan Outline: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The New York Times reports that key congressional Democrats have agreed on the basic provisions for a health care reform bill.  And while many details remain to be negotiated, the broad outline provides a dog’s breakfast of bad ideas that will lead to higher taxes, fewer choices, and poorer quality care.

Among the items that are expected to be included in the final bill:

  • An Individual Mandate. Every American will be required to buy an insurance policy that meets certain government requirements.  Even individuals who are currently insured – and happy with their insurance – will have to switch to insurance that meets the government’s definition of acceptable insurance, even if that insurance is more expensive or contains benefits that they do not want or need.  Get ready for the lobbying frenzy as every special interest group in Washington, both providers and disease constituencies, demand to be included.
  • An Employer Mandate. At a time of rising unemployment, the government will raise the cost of hiring workers by requiring all employers to provide health insurance to their workers or pay a fee (tax) to subsidize government coverage.
  • A Government-Run Plan, competing with private insurance.  Because such a plan is subsidized by taxpayers, it will have an unfair advantage, allowing it to squeeze out private insurance.  In addition, because government insurance plans traditionally under-reimburse providers, such costs are shifted to private insurance plans, driving up their premiums and making them even less competitive. The actuarial firm Lewin Associates estimates that, depending on how premiums, benefits, reimbursement rates, and subsidies were structured, as many as 118.5 million would shift from private to public coverage.   That would mean a nearly 60 percent reduction in the number of Americans with private insurance.  It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances, putting us on the road to a single-payer system.
  • Massive New Subsidies. This includes not just subsidies to help low-income people buy insurance, but expansions of government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Government Playing Doctor.   Democrats agree that one goal of their reform plan is to push for “less use of aggressive treatments that raise costs but do not result in better outcomes.”  While no mechanism has yet been spelled out, it seems likely that the plan will use government-sponsored comparative effectiveness research to impose cost-effectiveness guidelines on medical care, initially in government programs, but eventually extending such restrictions to private insurance.

Given the problems facing our health care system-high costs, uneven quality, millions of Americans without health insurance–it seems that things couldn’t get any worse.   But a bill based on these ideas, will almost certainly make things much, much worse.

Or maybe it’s all just a massive April Fool’s joke.

This Is Why Universal Coverage Is a Religion — and Not about Compassion or Saving Lives

I was invited to participate in an email/online/sorta exchange for the Washington Post yesterday.  Unfortunately, the effort was spiked after just a few rounds of emails.  But rather than let my participation go to waste, I thought I’d post one exchange that I think highlights why I’m not just being colorful when I describe supporters of universal health insurance coverage as the Church of Universal Coverage.  I could summarize the exchange, but I’m lazy.  So I’ll just copy and paste.

I wrote:

All the interest groups are meeting with all the right politicians and making all the right noises, thus the Church of Universal Coverage says the stars have aligned for fundamental reform… Everyone is at the table right now because no one wants to be on the menu.  But when the Democratic leadership makes its intentions clear, today’s love-fest will turn into a bloodbath.

Andres Martinez of the New America Foundation (who owes me a taco al pastor) responded:

I am a proud member of the church, Michael.  As New America’s own recent study on the urgency of reform – which reads like a strong courtroom closing argument – noted, how can the world’s most prosperous nation afford to have tens of thousands of its citizens die each year because they lacked access to health care?  Health care reform is a moral imperative, so your reference to a church (um, even if sarcastic) is appropriate…

I replied:

The Institute of Medicine estimates that every year, about 20,000 Americans die because they lacked health insurance, but as many as 100,000 die from preventable medical errors.  What moral code compels the Church of Universal Coverage to solve the first problem before addressing the second?

Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute (whose working paper, “Who is Adversely Affected by Limiting the Tax Exclusion of Employment-Based Premiums?”, I am keen to read) chimed in:

In an answer to Michael’s post about the deaths caused by lacking health insurance as compared to those from preventable medical errors, I’d argue that it’s much easier to solve the second when you have people in a common system (i.e., solving the first).

Me again:

To say that universal coverage will make it easier to reduce medical errors is pure fantasy.

The principal reason we have too many medical errors is that fee-for-service payment dominates America’s health care sector, and fee-for-service rewards medical errors and punishes efforts at error reduction.  The reason fee-for-service dominates is government.  Medicare – the single-largest purchaser in the world – pays largely on that basis.  Ditto Medicaid.  And the federal tax code encourages fee-for-service by insulating consumers from the cost of their health coverage.  If you think it’s hard for government to change payment systems now, just wait until universal coverage gives government even more control over payment systems and makes even more providers dependent on those decisions for even more of their income.  (As an aside, when consumers control their health care dollars and choose their health plans, they can change payment systems in a heartbeat.)

This is why universal coverage is a religion: supporters believe that universal coverage has magical, supernatural powers to suspend political reality and the laws of economics.  I do not exaggerate.  See here and here.

Health care reform is a moral imperative.  But universal coverage is not a moral imperative, nor is it about compassion or saving lives.

For those who are interested, the Anti-Universal Coverage Club is still accepting new members.

Enzi Lays Down Health Care Marker

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has a good op-ed in today’s edition of The Hill.

Enzi rather interestingly does not see Medicare Part D as an example of Congress “simply throwing more money at Medicare.”

That aside, Enzi stakes out a position against creating a new Medicare-like program to compete with private insurance, and against price controls in health care.  Those are two of the three positions I advised free-market advocates to take in this op-ed.

The third is a firm opposition to mandates that require individuals to purchase health insurance, whether directly or through an employer.  I’m sure Enzi’s saving that for his next op-ed.