Tag: public option

Private Insurance Is More Efficient than Medicare—By Far

Diane Archer has a post at the Health Affairs blog arguing that Medicare is more efficient than private insurance.  One can only reach such a conclusion through such sleights of hand as conflating spending with cost, and by ignoring most of Medicare’s administrative costs.

As a pre-buttal, I offer this excerpt from a paper I wrote about a “public option” (emphases generally added and citations omitted):

Is Government More Efficient?

Supporters of a new government program note that private insurers spend resources on a wide range of administrative costs that government programs do not. These include marketing, underwriting, reviewing claims for legitimacy, and profits. The fact that government avoids these expenditures, however, does not necessarily make it more efficient. Many of the administrative activities that private insurers undertake serve to increase the insurers’ efficiency. Avoiding those activities would therefore make a health plan less efficient. Existing government health programs also incur administrative costs that are purely wasteful. In the final analysis, private insurance is more efficient than government insurance.

Administrative Costs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein argues that “the profits made by insurance companies are a good part of what makes health care so expensive in the U.S.and that a public option is needed to keep the insurers honest.” All else being equal, the fact that a government program would not need to turn a profit suggests that it might enjoy a price advantage over for-profit insurers. If so, that price advantage would be slight. According to the Congressional Budget Office, profits account for less than 3 percent of private health insurance premiums. Furthermore, government’s lack of a profit motive may not be an advantage at all. Profits are an important market signal that increase efficiency by encouraging producers to find lower-cost ways of meeting consumers’ needs. The lack of a profit motive could lead a government program to be less efficient than private insurance, not more.

Moreover, all else is not equal. Government programs typically keep administrative expenditures low by avoiding activities like utilization or claims review. Yet avoiding those activities increases overall costs. The CBO writes, “The traditional fee-for-service Medicare program does relatively little to manage benefits, which tends to reduce its administrative costs but may raise its overall spending relative to a more tightly managed approach.”7 Similarly, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission writes:

[The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] estimates that about $9.8 billion in erroneous payments were made in the fee-for-service program in 2007, a figure more than double what CMS spent for claims processing and review activities. In Medicare Advantage, CMS estimates that erroneous payments equaled $6.8 billion in 2006, or approximately 10.6 percent of payments… . The significant size of Medicare’s erroneous payments suggests that the program’s low administrative costs may come at a price.

CMS further estimates that it made $10.4 billion in improper payments in the fee-for-service Medicare program in 2008.

Medicare keeps its measured administrative-cost ratio relatively low by avoiding important administrative activities (which shrinks the numerator) and tolerating vast amounts of wasteful and fraudulent claims (which inflates the denominator). That is a vice, yet advocates of a new government program praise it as a virtue.

Medicare also keeps its administrative expenditures down by conducting almost no quality-improvement activities. Journalist Shannon Brownlee and Obama adviser Ezekiel Emanuel write:

[S]ome administrative costs are not only necessary but beneficial. Following heart-attack or cancer patients to see which interventions work best is an administrative cost, but it’s also invaluable if you want to improve care. Tracking the rate of heart attacks from drugs such as Avandia is key to ensuring safe pharmaceuticals.

According to the CBO, private insurers spend nearly 1 percent of premiums on “medical management.” The fact that Medicare keeps administrative expenditures low by avoiding such quality-improvement activities may likewise result in higher overall costs—in this case by suppressing the quality of care.

Supporters who praise Medicare’s apparently low administrative costs often fail to note that some of those costs are hidden costs that are borne by other federal agencies, and thus fail to appear in the standard 3-percent estimate. These include “parts of salaries for legislators, staff and others working on Medicare, building costs, marketing costs, collection of premiums and taxes, accounting including auditing and fraud issues, etc.”

Also, Medicare’s administrative costs should be understood to include the deadweight loss from the taxes that fund the program. Economists estimate that it can easily cost society $1.30 to raise just $1 in tax revenue, and it may sometimes cost as much as $2.36 That “excess burden” of taxation is a very real cost of administering (i.e., collecting the taxes for) compulsory health insurance programs like Medicare, even though it appears in no government budgets.

Comparing administrative expenditures in the traditional “fee-for-service” Medicare program to private Medicare Advantage plans can somewhat control for these factors. Hacker cites a CBO estimate that administrative costs are 2 percent of expenditures in traditional Medicare versus 11 percent for Medicare Advantage plans. He writes further: “A recent General Accounting Office report found that in 2006, Medicare Advantage plans spent 83.3 percent of their revenue on medical expenses, with 10.1 percent going to nonmedical expenses and 6.6 percent to profits—a 16.7 percent administrative share.”

Yet such comparisons still do not establish that government programs are more efficient than private insurers. The CBO writes of its own estimate: “The higher administrative costs of private plans do not imply that those plans are less efficient than the traditional FFS program. Some of the plans’ administrative expenses are for functions such as utilization management and quality improvement that are designed to increase the efficiency of care delivery.” Moreover, a portion of the Medicare Advantage plans’ administrative costs could reflect factors inherent to government programs rather than private insurance. For example, Congress uses price controls to determine how much to pay Medicare Advantage plans. If Congress sets those prices at supracompetitive levels, as many experts believe is the case, then that may boost Medicare Advantage plans’ profitability beyond what they would earn in a competitive market. Those supracompetitive profits would be a product of the forces that would guide a new government program—that is, Congress, the political system, and price controls—rather than any inherent feature of private insurance.

Economists who have tallied the full administrative burden of government health insurance programs conclude that administrative costs are far higher in government programs than in private insurance. In 1992,University of Pennsylvania economist Patricia Danzon estimated that total administrative costs were more than 45 percent of claims in Canada’s Medicare system, compared to less than 8 percent of claims for private insurance in the United States. Pacific Research Institute economist Ben Zycher writes that a “realistic assumption” about the size of the deadweight burden puts “the true cost of delivering Medicare benefits [at] about 52 percent of Medicare outlays, or between four and five times the net cost of private health insurance.”

Administrative costs can appear quite low if you only count some of them. Medicare hides its higher administrative costs from enrollees and taxpayers, and public-plan supporters rely on the hidden nature of those costs when they argue in favor of a new government program.

Cost Containment vs. Spending Containment  

Advocates of a new government health care program also claim that government contains overall costs better than private insurance. Jacob Hacker writes, “public insurance has a better track record than private insurance when it comes to reining in costs while preserving access. By way of illustration, between 1997 and 2006, health spending per enrollee (for comparable benefits) grew at 4.6 percent a year under Medicare, compared with 7.3 percent a year under private health insurance.” In fact, looking at a broader period, from 1970 to 2006, shows that per-enrollee spending by private insurance grew just 1 percentage point faster per year than Medicare spending, rather than 2.7 percentage points. That still omits the 1966–1969 period, which saw rapid growth in Medicare spending.

More importantly, Hacker’s comparison commits the fallacy of conflating spending and costs. Even if government contains health care spending better than private insurance (which is not at all clear), it could still impose greater overall costs on enrollees and society than private insurance. For example, if a government program refused to pay for lifesaving medical procedures, it would incur considerable nonmonetary costs (i.e., needless suffering and death). Yet it would look better in Hacker’s comparison than a private health plan that saved lives by spending money on those services. Medicare’s inflexibility also imposes costs on enrollees. Medicare took 30 years longer than private insurance to incorporate prescription drug coverage into its basic benefits package. The taxes that finance Medicare impose costs on society in the range of 30 percent of Medicare spending. In contrast, there is no deadweight loss associated with the voluntary purchase of private health insurance.

Hacker nods in the direction of non-spending costs when he writes, “Medicare has maintained high levels of … patient access to care.” Yet there are many dimensions of quality other than access to care. It is in those areas that government programs impose their greatest hidden costs, on both publicly and privately insured patients.

The paper goes on to discuss how private insurance bests Medicare on quality, but this excerpt is long enough.  For more on the comparison between private health insurance premiums and per-enrollee Medicare spending, see this blog post, where I conclude, “If [this comparison] were a farm animal, and social scientists farmers, they would have to take it behind the barn and put a bullet in its head.”

In addition to committing the same errors and Hacker and others, Archer fails to note that Medicare Advantage reduces spending in traditional Medicare – thereby treating us to the spectacle of an opponent of competition taking credit for one of competition’s many benefits.

Why Ryan-Rivlin Beats ObamaCare on Costs — and Spending

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein asks of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) Medicare voucher proposal (co-authored with former Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin):

Why are the cost savings in his bill possible, while the cost savings in the Affordable Care Act aren’t?…when it comes to the ACA, Ryan firmly believes that seniors will quickly and successfully force Congress to reverse any reforms that degrade their Medicare experience. That’s a fair enough concern, of course. What’s confusing is why it isn’t doubly devastating when applied to Ryan-Rivlin.

Set aside that Klein violates Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: Never say costs when you mean spending.  And that he uses the word “affordable” to describe ObamaCare.

There are two reasons why the Medicare spending restraints in the Ryan-Rivlin proposal are more likely to hold than those in ObamaCare.

First, ObamaCare’s restraints amount to nothing more than ratcheting down the price controls that traditional Medicare uses to pay health care providers.  Structuring Medicare subsidies in this way – setting the prices that Medicare pays specific providers – makes it very difficult to lower those prices, because the system itself creates huge incentives for providers to organize and lobby to undo those restraints.  As I explain more fully in this op-ed from September 2010, Medicare vouchers would change that lobbying game by reducing the incentives for provider groups to expend resources in the pursuit of higher Medicare spending.  That gives the Ryan-Rivlin restraints a much better shot at surviving.  (Seriously, it’s a pretty cool feature.)

Second, Klein predicts a backlash against Medicare vouchers because he says it amounts to “giving seniors less money to purchase more expensive private insurance.”  The notion that Medicare is less costly than private insurance is pure, uninformed nonsense.  Medicare and a “public option” are attractive to the Left precisely because such programs hide the full cost of their operations from enrollees and taxpayers.  It is a virtue of vouchers that they would reveal to Medicare enrollees the actual prices of the coverage and services they demand, because that information will spur enrollees to be more cost-conscious when selecting a health plan and consuming medical services.  That, in turn, will force insurers and providers to compete on the basis of cost to a degree never before seen in this nation, competition that will generate the sort of cost-saving innovations that Jim Capretta discusses here.

Both of these reasons boil down to the truism that nobody spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.  We’ll make a lot of progress in this country when the Left realizes how much damage they’ve done by ignoring that truism.

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.

The ‘Public Option’ Is Back

That didn’t take long at all.  Left-wing congresscritters have (re-)introduced legislation to create a “public option” in ObamaCare’s health insurance exchanges.

The Congressional Budget Office scores the bill as reducing federal deficits by $53 billion by 2019.  How?  Paying doctors and hospitals less!  Put that on a bumper sticker! The public option would use Medicare’s price and exchange controls to pay doctors and other health care providers 5 percent more than Medicare does.  Except for prescription drugs: the public option would, ahem, “negotiate” those prices, meaning it would use a separate price-control scheme and pay less than Medicare does.  (That means PhRMA probably won’t be bankrolling the public-option campaign the way it bankrolled the pro-ObamaCare campaign and is bankrolling the re-election bids of its congressional benefactors.)  Providers, such as community hospitals, would take a huge pay cut if some of their privately-insured patients suddenly only paid Medicare plus 5 percent.

When costs explode under ObamaCare the way they are exploding under RomneyCare, expect the public option to be the Left’s go-to solution. In CongressDaily, co-sponsor Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) says:

By reintroducing it, we make sure that people don’t forget this is a viable option…. I think as the health bill is implemented, more and more people are going to come to the realization that cost containment and competition aren’t as robust as they should be, because of the absence of the public option.

Naturally.  Because the first thing that comes to mind when I think cost-containment and competition is government health care programs.

For a refresher on how the Left confuses cost-containment with spending-containment – and on why the public option is a really, really, really bad idea – see my paper, “Fannie Med? Why a ‘Public Option’ Is Hazardous to Your Health.”

Will Kucinich’s Vote Help ObamaCare?

Whether Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) “aye” vote will help pass ObamaCare depends on whether he asked for something in return.

Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake reports, “Kucinich told Obama that he wants a full ERISA waver [sic] and a public option in exchange for his vote.”  If he gets either of those things in the reconciliation “fixer” bill, then that will trigger a backlash.  His “support” could undermine the whole process.

It really depends on what kind of a negotiator Kucinich is.  If he’s a good negotiator, it hurts ObamaCare.  If he’s a lousy negotiator, it helps.

Obama’s ‘Best’ Idea? Rationing Care via Clinton-esque Price Controls

Hoping to revive his increasingly unpopular health care overhaul, President Obama has invited Republicans to a bipartisan summit this Thursday and plans to introduce a new reform blueprint in advance of the summit.  On Sunday, the White House announced that a key feature of that blueprint will be premium caps, a form of government price control that helped kill the Clinton health plan when even New Democrats rejected it.

The New York Times reports on President Obama’s blueprint:

The president’s bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators.

It bears repeating what Obama’s top economic advisor Larry Summers thinks about price controls:

Price and exchange controls inevitably create harmful economic distortions. Both the distortions and the economic damage get worse with time.

For example, as I have written elsewhere, artificially limiting premium growth allows the government to curtail spending while leaving the dirty work of withholding medical care to private insurers: “Premium caps, which Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is currently threatening to impose, force private insurers to manage care more tightly — i.e., to deny coverage for more services.”  No doubt the Obama administration would lay the blame for coverage denials on private insurers and claim that such denials demonstrate the need for a so-called “public option.”

As the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Kendall explained in a 1994 paper, the Clinton health plan contained similar price controls.  Kendall explains why they would be a disaster:

In spite of the late hour in the health care debate, Congress has not yet decided how to restrain runaway health care costs. The essential choices are a top- down strategy of government limits on health care spending enforced by price controls or a bottom-up strategy of consumer choice and market competition. History clarifies that choice: Previous government efforts to regulate prices in peacetime have invariably failed. Moreover, government attempts to control prices in the health care sector would undermine concurrent efforts to restructure the marketplace…

The idea of controlling costs by government fiat is seductively simple. But it rests on a conceit as persistent as it is damaging: that government bureaucracies can allocate resources more wisely and efficiently than millions of consumers and providers pursuing their interests in the marketplace. The alternative – one rooted in America’s progressive tradition of individual responsibility and free enterprise – is to improve the market’s ground rules in order to decentralize decision-making, spur innovation, reward efficiency, and respect personal choice.

As centrally planned economies crumble around the world, many in the United States seem bent on erecting a command and control economy in health care. This policy briefing examines the reasons why government price regulation would fail to constrain health care costs and create many adverse side effects…

Ultimately, government price regulation will always fail because it does not change the underlying economic forces driving up prices. If we are serious about slowing the growth of health care costs, we have to change the ways we consume and provide medical care. Price controls evade the hard but essential work of structural reform in health care markets: They are a quintessentially political response to an economic problem. The alternative is to allow well-functioning markets to set prices and allocate resources, while ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care coverage. The market-oriented approach leaves decisions to cost-conscious consumers and health care providers rather than bureaucrats.

Any of that sound familiar?  It’s worth reading the whole thing.

This is not hope.  This is not change.  (Much less a game-changer.)  It is, to pinch a phrase, a return to “the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis.”

Thursday Links

  • How Obama’s plan for health care will affect medical innovation in America: “Imposing price controls on drugs and treatments–or indirectly forcing their prices down by means of a ‘public option’ or expanded public insurance programs–would reduce the incentive for innovators to develop new treatments.”
  • Register now for the upcoming Cato forum featuring author Tim Carney and his new book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses. Buy the book, here.