Tag: price controls

Talk of Replacing ObamaCare Is a Bit Premature

Now that a bipartisan coalition in the House has voted to repeal ObamaCare, an even larger bipartisan coalition has approved a Republican resolution directing four House committees to “replace” that ill-fated law.  House Resolution 9 instructs the committees to “propos[e] changes to existing law” with the following goals:

  1. “Foster economic growth and private sector job creation by eliminating job-killing policies and regulations.”
  2. “Lower health care premiums through increased competition and choice.”
  3. “Preserve a patient’s ability to keep his or her health plan if he or she likes it.”
  4. “Provide people with pre-existing conditions access to affordable health coverage.”
  5. “Reform the medical liability system to reduce unnecessary and wasteful health care spending.”
  6. “Increase the number of insured Americans.”
  7. “Protect the doctor-patient relationship.”
  8. “Provide the States greater flexibility to administer Medicaid programs.”
  9. “Expand incentives to encourage personal responsibility for health care coverage and costs.”
  10. “Prohibit taxpayer funding of abortions and provide conscience protections for health care providers.”
  11. “Eliminate duplicative government programs and wasteful spending.”
  12. “Do not accelerate the insolvency of entitlement programs or increase the tax burden on Americans;” or
  13. “Enact a permanent fix to the flawed Medicare sustainable growth rate formula used to determine physician payments under title XVIII of the Social Security Act to preserve health care for the nation’s seniors and to provide a stable environment for physicians.”

Three things about the Republicans’ “replace” effort:

First, America’s health care sector has historically been handicapped by one political party committed to a policy of (mostly) benign neglect, and another party committed to degrading that sector’s performance through government subsidies, mandates, price controls, and other exchange controls.  Republicans now appear to be taking a different posture, and that’s encouraging — but not entirely.  When Republicans set their minds to reforming health care, they are often as bad as Democrats.  (See the Republican “alternatives” to ClintonCare.  Or Medicare Part D.  Or #4-#7 above.)  Exactly how House Republicans plan to deliver on the above goals remains to be seen.

Second, no matter how House Republicans plan to deliver on the above goals, their proposals will be preferable to ObamaCare.  Republicans quite literally could not do worse if they tried.

Third, no matter how good the Republicans’ proposals are, they will be utterly ineffective so long as ObamaCare remains on the books.  ObamaCare’s influence is so pervasive and harmful that it makes real health care reform all but impossible.

So it’s a bit premature to be talking about replacing ObamaCare.

HHS Wildly Overstates the Problem of Pre-Existing Conditions — and Ignores Its Cause

On the eve of a House vote to repeal ObamaCare, the Department of Health and Human Services has released a report claiming that if repeal succeeds, “1 in 2 non-elderly Americans could be denied coverage or charged more due to a pre-existing condition.”  A few problems with that claim:

  • An HHS survey found that in 2001, only 1 percent of Americans had ever been denied health insurance.
  • Economists Mark Pauly and Len Nichols write, “the fraction of nonelderly uninsured persons…who would be rated as actuarially uninsurable is generally estimated to be very small, less than 1 percent of the population.”
  • RAND health economist Susan Marquis and her colleagues find that in markets that do not impose ObamaCare-style government price controls on health insurance, such as California’s individual market, ‘‘a large number of people with health problems do obtain coverage…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.’’
  • It is true that insurers charge higher premiums to many people with pre-existing conditions – and it is crucial that they have the freedom to do so.  Risk-based premiums create virtuous incentives for people to buy insurance while they are healthy and to be cost-conscious consumers.  They also encourage insurers to develop innovative products that protect against the risk of higher premiums.  The real problem here is that the government has created an employment-based health insurance system that denies consumers the protections that unregulated markets already provide, as well as additional protections that insurers would develop absent this government intervention.
  • ObamaCare’s health-insurance price controls will encourage insurers to deny care to the very sick people those price controls are intended to help.
  • The Obama administration projected that 375,000 people would sign up for ObamaCare’s “Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans” by the end of last year. But only 8,000 people enrolled in such plans by December 2010, suggesting the demand isn’t nearly as great as the administration claimed.

PAYGO, the CBO, and Repealing ObamaCare

One could argue that exempting ObamaCare from the PAYGO requirement is appropriate given the defects in current budget rules.

By law, the CBO must follow certain rules when doing cost estimates of legislation and projecting federal spending under current law. Under those rules, CBO projects ObamaCare will reduce the deficit. No question.

But Congress often defeats those budget rules by passing legislation with “pay fors” (i.e., spending cuts) that make the budget look better, yet are highly unlikely to be sustained because they are politically implausible. A good example of this is the “sustainable growth rate” formula, where Congress promises to ratchet down the government price controls that Medicare uses to pay physicians in future years. Congress has consistently reneged when those cuts come due. The pretense of future cuts that Congress writes into law makes 10-year budget projections/deficits look better than actual, unwritten policy would suggest.

This is a recognized problem. When the CBO believes that the law and actual policy are at variance, they actually do two types of cost projections: one based on the law as written and one based on the policy they think Congress is likely to adopt, based on past performance. They call the latter their “alternate fiscal scenario.”

ObamaCare opponents submit that this law is one of those instances where law and policy are at variance. So even though ObamaCare will reduce the deficit under existing budget rules, the spending cuts (actually, reductions in future spending growth) in the law were never going to take effect anyway. The CBO, CMS, and even the IMF have all discredited the idea that ObamaCare would reduce the deficit, because they all question the sustainability of ObamaCare’s spending “cuts.” Exempting ObamaCare repeal from PAYGO rules is appropriate if those rules have failed to protect taxpayers.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission and Health Care Spending

Following up on what Dan and Chris have said …

If the co-chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed eliminating the federal deficit, rather than “reduc[ing] it to 2.2 percent of GDP by 2015.”  Yawn. They would have proposed cutting federal spending (currently, 24 percent of GDP and rising) to match federal tax revenue (currently at 15 percent of GDP).  But the co-chairs proposed only to “bring spending down to 22 percent and eventually 21 percent of GDP.”  Not only does that elicit another yawn, but since the co-chairs only asked for half a loaf, they won’t even get that much.

If the co-chairs were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed a balanced-budget amendment.  They would have proposed block-granting Medicaid.  They would have proposed implementing Medicare vouchers immediately.  (Vouchers are the only way to reduce Medicare spending while protecting seniors from government rationing.  They would also change the political dynamics that repeatedly stymie efforts to reduce Medicare spending.)  Instead, the co-chairs propose the same ol’ failed strategy of trying to limit Medicare and Medicaid spending using government price-and-exchange controls, which they euphemistically describe as “rebates” and ”payment reforms.”  Along the same lines, they propose strengthening IPAB, ObamaCare’s rationing board.  IPAB’s mandate is – you guessed it – to ration care by fiddling with Medicare and Medicaid’s price and exchange controls.  It will therefore inevitably fall prey to the same political buzzsaw.  To appease Republicans, the co-chairs propose unwise and unconstitutional federal rules that would prevent patients injured by negligent physicians from recovering the full amount they are due (euphemism:  medical malpractice liability “reform”).  Finally, the co-chairs propose that if federal health spending continues to grow faster than GDP growth plus 1 percent, Congress should consider “a premium support system for Medicare” (which could mean vouchers) and “a robust public option and/or all-payer system” for people under age 65 – a debate that wouldn’t even begin until 2020.

Fiscal Commission members, congresscritters, and citizens who are serious about reducing federal spending and deficits – and who are looking for specific ways to cut government spending – should instead consult Cato’s excellent web site DownsizingGovernment.org.

Washington State Regulator Can’t Prevent ObamaCare from Destroying Child-Only Market

ObamaCare has touched off a battle between Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield and Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. From the commissioner’s press release:

Kreidler orders Regence BlueShield to cover children

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler ordered Regence BlueShield this morning to stop illegally denying insurance to children, effective immediately.

“Regence is in clear violation of state law that prohibits insurers from denying insurance to people on the basis of age,” said Kreidler. “I was shocked and deeply disappointed when Regence announced its decision last week to stop selling insurance to kids.”

The Affordable Care Act requires all health plans to cover kids with pre-existing conditions…

Regence Blue Shield, the largest health insurer in the individual market, notified Kreidler on Sept. 27 that, effective Oct. 1, it would no longer sell individual health insurance policies to kids.

From Regence’s press release:

We were shocked by the Commissioner’s action and press statement this morning. This gross politicization of such a complex regulatory problem does not help address the very real economic challenges of providing coverage to Washingtonians seeking individual insurance policies, especially children.

Over the past several months, we have had at least five separate conversations with the Commissioner and his staff regarding planned changes to how we would cover children under age 19. Our goal in those discussions was and continues to be a solution that would allow us to serve all of our individual members – including children – without exacerbating costs and increasing coverage risks for the entire pool. Never once did the Commissioner or his staff express any concern that these changes might violate state law. We’re disappointed that the Commissioner appears to have suddenly changed his perspective…

We’ve been very clear that we will insure kids during open enrollment periods when the child is not the sole subscriber – and we will do so regardless of health status. Dozens of carriers across the country have found it necessary to adopt similar policies.

We disagree with the Commissioner’s action today and will consider how it might impact our ability to offer coverage to all individuals across the state. While more than ten carriers have deserted Washington’s individual market – leaving three today – Regence has continued to insure these members despite losses of more than $33 million in the last three years. While we remain committed to our individual members, we simply cannot expose our broader membership to greater risk. Therefore, we believe the changes we made are in the best interest of the nearly one million Washingtonians we serve today.

Washingtonians want and need an equitable, stable insurance market that people can afford. We want to avoid the mistakes of the 1990’s when a small minority was allowed to game the insurance system by purchasing insurance only when they were sick, which led to rate spikes and the collapse of the individual market.

Either way, the child-only market is toast.

Giving Power to Experts Is No Way to Reform Health Care

In the latest Cato Policy Report, Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling’s essay on the (mis)rule of experts explains why ObamaCare will fail:

Despite the many pages contained in the health care legislation that Congress enacted, the health care system that will result is for the most part to be determined. The design and implementation of health care reform was delegated to unelected bureaucrats, as was done in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, the promises of proponents have proven false, and the predictions of skeptics have been borne out. Costs have not been contained; they have shot up. Emergency room visits have not been curtailed; they have increased. The mandate to purchase health insurance has not removed the problem of adverse selection and moral hazard; instead, thousands of residents have chosen to obtain insurance when sick and drop it when healthy. The officials responsible for administering the Massachusetts health care system are no longer talking about sophisticated ways of making health care more efficient.

Instead, they are turning to the crude tactic of imposing price controls.

Once again, we have legislators putting unrealistic demands on experts. This results in the selection of experts with the greatest hubris, shutting out experts who appreciate the difficulty of the problem. When the selected experts find that their plans go awry, they take out their frustrations by resorting to more authoritarian methods of control.

With ObamaCare, that dynamic took hold before the law even took effect.

ObamaCare Prods Yet Another Insurer to Flee the Market

First, a dozen insurers said they would stop writing child-only health insurance policies.  Now, according to the Wall Street Journal:

By forcing the exit of Principal Financial Group — which ran a profitable, $1.6 billion health insurance business — ObamaCare has now left 840,000 Americans to find another source of coverage.

According to The New York Times, other insurers may soon follow:

More insurers are likely to follow Principal’s lead, especially as they try to meet the new rules that require plans to spend at least 80 cents of every dollar they collect in premiums on the welfare of their customers…

“It’s just going to drive the little guys out,” said Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant in Alexandria, Va. Smaller players like Principal in states like Iowa, Missouri and elsewhere will not be able to compete because they do not have the resources and economies of scale of players like UnitedHealth, which is among the nation’s largest health insurers.

Mr. Laszewski is worried that the ensuing concentration is likely to lead to higher prices because large players will no longer face the competition from the smaller plans. “It’s just the UnitedHealthcare full employment act,” he said.

Let’s remember what President Obama told a joint session of Congress just one year ago:

So let me set the record straight here.  My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.  That’s how the market works… And without competition, the price of insurance goes up and quality goes down.  And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly – by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates.

Everybody got that?