Tag: proposal

GOP Health Care Alternative: Not as Bad as Advertised

Like my colleague, Michael Cannon, I was convinced by the staff summary and general spin accompanying the Republican health care bill introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) that the bill headed, albeit more slowly, down the same road to government-run health care as expected Democratic proposals. However, a closer reading of the actual bill shows that, while there are still reasons for concern, it may be much better than originally advertised.

First, it should be pointed out that the centerpiece of the bill is an important change to the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez bill would replace the current tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,300 per year an individual worker or $5,700 per year for family coverage. This move to personal, portable health insurance has long been at the heart of free market healthy care proposals. The bill would also expand health savings accounts and make important reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.

And, the bill should receive credit for what it does not contain. There is no individual or employer mandate. (I could live without the auto-enroll provisions, but they look more obnoxious than truly dangerous). There is no government board determining the cost-effectiveness of treatment. There is no “public option” competing with private insurance. In short, the bill avoids most of the really bad ideas for health reform featured in my recent Policy Analysis.

Other aspects are more problematic. The authors still seem far too attached to the idea of an exchange/connector/portal. The summary implied that states would be required to establish such mechanism. In reality, however, the bill merely creates incentives for states to do so. Moreover, I have been repeatedly assured that the bill’s authors are aiming for the more benign Utah-style “portal,” rather than the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Massachusetts “connector.” Still, I would be more comfortable if the staff summary had not singled out Massachusetts as the only state reform worthy of being called “an achievement.”

And, if states choose to set up an exchange, a number of federal requirements kick in, such as a requirement that at least one plan offered through the exchange provide benefits equal to those on the low cost FEHBP plan. There is also a guaranteed issue requirement.

Elsewhere, there are also requirements that states set up some type of risk-adjustment mechanism although the bureaucratic ex-post option that I criticized previously, appears to be only one option among many for meeting this requirement. And, I wish the authors hadn’t jumped on the health IT bandwagon. Health IT is a very worthy concept, but one better handled by the private sector.

And, if we should praise the bill for what it doesn’t include, we should criticize it in the same way. The bill does not include one of the best free market reform proposals of recent years, Rep. John Shadegg’s call for letting people purchase health insurance across state lines.

The bills (there are minor differences between the House and Senate versions) run to nearly 300 pages, and additional details, both good and bad, may emerge as I have more opportunity to study them. But for now, the bill, while flawed, looks to have far more good than bad.

GOP Health Care Alternative: Drinking the Massachusetts Kool-Aid

Earlier this morning, my colleague, Michael Cannon, blogged a devastating critique of the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez alternative to the Obama health plan. As he shows, while the bill has some good features (changing the tax treatment of health insurance, expanding HSAs), the good is swamped by a bizarre collection of regulation, mandates, and hidden taxes.

In fact, the bill appears to be based, in large part, on what its sponsors call “the well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care through a private system in Massachusetts.” But the Massachusetts model has failed to either achieve universal coverage or control health care costs. Rather, as I noted in this recent blog, it has led to more regulation, less consumer choice, and increased insurance premiums, while running huge budget deficits that have already led to one tax increase and are now causing the state to consider premium caps and global budgets. One wonders why congressional Republicans would want to head down that road.

Notably, Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez abandons Rep. John Shadegg’s proposal to allow Americans to buy insurance across state lines in favor of a requirement that states establish Massachusetts-style connectors. But the Massachusetts Connector has been one of the worst aspects of that state’s reform, acting as a super-regulatory body, adding new mandated benefits, restricting consumer’s choice of plans, and adding both regulatory and administrative costs to insurance. (In fact, the Connector adds its own administrative costs, estimated at 4 percent of premium costs, for plans that are sold through it.) What the Connector has not done is live up to its promise of breaking the link between employment and insurance, giving workers personal, portable insurance that they could take with them from job to job, and which they would not lose when they lost their jobs. Unfortunately, the Connector has not lived up to its promise in the latter regard. In fact, as of May 2008, only 18,122 people had purchased insurance through the Connector. That’s very little gain for so much pain.

Since there is virtually no chance that the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez will actually be enacted, perhaps one shouldn’t get too excised about its failings. No doubt it is far superior to Obamacare. And, it is understandable that congressional Republicans want to appear as more than the “party of no.” Still, this looks like a sadly missed opportunity.

The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunes Mandate-Price-Control Bill

Today, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) announced that they will introduce a health care reform bill. If my reading of the bill summary is correct, their bill would:

  • Mandate that states create a new regulatory bureaucracy called a “State Health Insurance Exchange,”
  • Mandate that all plans offered through those exchanges meet federal regulatory standards,
  • Mandate “guaranteed issue” in those exchanges,
  • Mandate “uniform and reliable measures by which to report quality and price information,”
  • Impose price controls on those plans by prohibiting risk-rating,
  • Launch a government takeover of the “insurance” part of health insurance, by means of a “risk-adjustment” program intended to cope with the problems created by price controls, and
  • Fall just short of an individual mandate by setting up (mandating?) automatic enrollment in exchange plans at “places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.” – essentially, trying to achieve universal coverage by nagging Americans to death.

Needless to say, I am troubled.

The bill summary is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it lists “No Tax Increases” as a core concept. Do its authors not know that imposing price controls on health insurance premiums imposes a tax on healthier-than-average consumers? And where do they think the money for “risk-adjustment” payments will come from? Heaven?

The bill sponsors seem to want to cement in place the monopoly regulation that currently exists at the state level – when they’re not encouraging Congress to take over that function. Have they abandoned their colleague Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-AZ) proposal to allow for competitive regulation of health insurance?

And if Massachusetts created an “exchange” on its own, why do other states need federal legislation?

The bill includes some ideas for which I have more sympathy, like its tax-credit proposal and expanding health savings accounts.

But the above provisions would sow the seeds of a government takeover of health care – so much so that The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is salivating:

The word of the day is “convergence.” That – and that alone – is the definitive message of the conservative health reform alternative developed by Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). For now, some of the key provisions are about as clear as mud. The plan’s changes to the tax code, in particular, are impossible to discern. So I’ll do another post when I can get some clarity on those issues. The politics, however, are perfectly straightforward.

A superficial read of the Patients’ Choice Act – which I’ve uploaded here – would make you think you’re digging into a liberal bill. A fair chunk of the rhetoric is lifted straight from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. “It is time to publicly admit that the health care system in America is broken,” begins the document. “Health care is not a commodity in the traditional sense,” it continues. “States should provide direct oversight of health insurers to make sure they are playing by fair rules,” it demands. The way we pay private insurers in Medicare “wastes taxpayer dollars and lines the pockets of insurance executives,” it says. Elsewhere, it praises solutions that have worked in several European countries.”

And though it’s still too early to say how the policy fits together, it’s clear that many traditionally Democratic concepts have been embraced. To put it simply, the plan wants to encourage a version of the Massachusetts reforms – which it calls a “well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care” – in every state. There are some differences, of course. The plan doesn’t have an individual mandate. It doesn’t have an obvious tax on employers. But it strongly endorses State Health Insurance Exchanges. And that, for Republicans, is a radical change in policy.

This idea – present in every Democratic proposal but absent in Arizona Sen.John McCain’s plan – would empower states to create heavily regulated marketplaces of insurers. The plans offered would have to “meet the same statutory standard used for the health benefits given to Members of Congress.” Cherrypicking would be discouraged through risk adjustment, which the PCA calls “a model that works in several European countries.” The government would automatically enroll individuals in plans whenever they interacted with a government agency and states would be able to join into regional cooperatives to increase the size of their risk pool.

In essence, Coburn, Burr, and Ryan are abandoning the individual market entirely. Like Democrats, they’re arguing that individuals cannot successfully navigate the insurance market, and they need the protection of government regulation and the bargaining power that comes from a large risk pool. This is literally the opposite approach from McCain, who attempted to unwind the employer-based insurance and encourage families to purchase health coverage on the individual market. The core elements of this plan, in other words, make it the same type of plan Democrats are offering. A plan that enlarges consumer buying pools rather than shrinks them. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect a Blue Dog Democrat to propose. And it’s further evidence that the argument over health reform is narrowing, rather than widening. And it’s narrowing in a direction that favors the Democrats.

UPDATE: After discussions with Sen. Coburn’s staff, I happily issued a few corrections. Still, concerns remain.

On Taxing Employer Health Benefits

Democrats in Congress are reportedly considering taxing employer-provided health insurance benefits as a way to pay for their health care reform plan.  And, even though he brutally attacked John McCain for something similar (see below) during the campaign, President Obama may now go along with the idea.

Much of the media coverage around the idea has equated this tax hike with the McCain plan and other proposals by advocates of market-based health reform over the years that would shift the tax break from employer-provided insurance to individual insurance.  However, there is an important distinction.  The market-based proposals would have taxed employer-provided health benefits (treating them as taxable compensation), but would have provided workers with a deduction or credit for purchasing insurance regardless of whether they receive it through work or pay it on their own.  The result, for all but a handful of workers with the most expensive gold-plated employer plans, would have been tax neutral.  In fact, many workers would receive a net tax cut.   The shift in tax treatment was simply part of a larger strategy to move from a system of employer-provided insurance to one where health insurance was personal, portable, and owned by workers.

The plan being discussed by Congress, on the hand, is simply a tax hike.  It is not revenue neutral—it is a $1 trillion tax increase that will fall heavily on the middle-class.  It is designed not to change the system, but simply to raise revenue. 

That’s a very different thing!

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

What “Taxpayers?”

In an editorial yesterday on President Obama’s proposal to end federal guaranteed student lending and turn everything into loans and grants direct from Uncle Sam, the New York Times had an interesting take on what constitutes putting ”taxpayers’ interests first”:

Private companies that reap undeserved profits from the federal student-loan program are gearing up to kill a White House plan that would get them off the dole and redirect the savings to federal scholarships for the needy. Instead of knuckling under to the powerful lending lobby, as it has so often done in the past, Congress needs to finally put the taxpayers’ interests first.

So let me get this straight: Redirecting tax dollars from lenders – who do get cushy fees and security through the guaranteed loan program – and giving it to students is somehow in the best interest of taxpayers? Maybe I’m old fashioned or something, but wouldn’t the best thing for taxpayers be to get their money back, not just see it shuffled from one special interest to another?

Obviously it would, and not just because taxpayers are best off when they decide how their ducats are used. As Andrew Gillen and I made clear in a Capitol Hill briefing last week, the best thing that could happen for taxpayers, students, and all of society would be for the federal government to provide much less aid to students, not more. The reality is that student aid drives massive, self-defeating college price inflation, creates ugly bloat and waste in our ivory towers, and ultimately cramps economic growth.

And we wonder why there are tea parties!

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.