During last night's GOP presidential debate, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney had a polite disagreement over Romneycare's impact on free-ridership in Massachusetts. The short version: Santorum was right. Romney and even FactCheck.org disputed Santorum's claim, but they misunderstood it.
The exchange comes 2:15 into this video from Kaiser Health News:
Here's the Kaiser Health News transcript:
SANTORUM: Just so I understand this, in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, to buy health insurance, and if you don't, and if you don't, you have to pay a fine.
What has happened in Massachusetts is that people are now paying the fine because health insurance is so expensive. And you have a pre-existing condition clause in yours, just like Barack Obama.
So what is happening in Massachusetts, the people that Governor Romney said he wanted to go after, the people that were free-riding, free ridership has gone up five-fold in Massachusetts. Five times the rate it was before. Why? Because...
ROMNEY: That's total, complete...
SANTORUM: I'll be happy to give you the study. Five times the rate it has gone up. Why? Because people are ready to pay a cheaper fine and then be able to sign up to insurance, which are now guaranteed under "Romney-care," than pay high cost insurance, which is what has happened as a result of "Romney-care."
ROMNEY: First of all, it's not worth getting angry about. Secondly, the...
ROMNEY: Secondly, 98 percent of the people have insurance. And so the idea that more people are free-riding the system is simply impossible. Half of those people got insurance on their own. Others got help in buying the insurance.
Romney is right. The percentage of insured residents in the state went up from 93.6 percent in 2006, the year the law was enacted, to 98.1 percent in 2010. And data from the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy show a 46 percent decline in the number of free care medical visits paid for by the state’s Health Care Safety Net. The number of inpatient discharges and outpatient visits under the program went from 2.1 million in 2006 to 1.1 million in 2010 (see page 12)...
A Santorum campaign spokesman pointed us to a Wall Street Journal column by Michael F. Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute, who stated that “Massachusetts reported a nearly fivefold increase in such free riding after its mandate took effect.” But that doesn’t square with official data just cited. Cannon didn’t specify the time period and so may have referred to some temporary or transitory bump in free riders. We will update this item if we are able to get more information from Cannon.
Speaking of facts, here's a fun one: both Kaiser Health News and FactCheck.org unnecessarily flank "Romneycare" with quotation marks when it appears within a quote from Santorum. As if Santorum had used quotation fingers. Adorable. But I digress.
Romney and FactCheck.org failed to consider that there are different types of free riding. One type happens when government guarantees access to emergency-room care: people show up to get care, and they don't pay. Another type happens when government guarantees people the ability to purchase health insurance at standard rates no matter how sick they are: people wait until they are sick to purchase health insurance and drop it right after they get the care they needed. These free riders pay far less than they would in a free market, which would not allow such behavior. Romney and FactCheck.org assumed Santorum meant the former type of government-induced free riding, when he was clearly talking about the latter.
The data that Santorum and I cite come from a report by the Massachusetts Division of Insurance. See this June 2010 blog post, where I quote the Boston Globe:
The number of people who appear to be gaming the state’s health insurance system by purchasing coverage only when they are sick quadrupled from 2006 to 2008, according to a long-awaited report released yesterday from the Massachusetts Division of Insurance.
The result is that insured residents of Massachusetts wind up paying more for health care, according to the report.
“The active members subsidize some of the costs tied to those individuals who terminate within one year,” the report says...
The number of people engaging in this phenomenon — dumping their coverage within six months — jumped from 3,508 in 2006, when the law was passed, to 17,177 in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.
Actually, it more than quadrupled: 17,177/3,508≈4.9. But whatever. Santorum was right.
One might object that these numbers seem like small potatoes compared to the apparent drop in visits paid from the Commonwealth's Health Care Safety Net program. Fair point. But the type of free riding Santorum identified is incomparably worse than the kind that happens in hospital emergency rooms. When people can wait until they are sick to purchase insurance, overall premiums rise so high that the health insurance market collapses in an "adverse selection death spiral." That’s how Obamacare destroyed (and is destroying) the market for child-only coverage in dozens of states. It’s why Obamacare’s CLASS Act collapsed years before it collected a single premium. It’s happening very slowly in Massachusetts, but it is happening. And it will happen to all private health insurance under Obamacare. In contrast, as I mention in my Wall Street Journal piece, the ER-type of free riding increases health insurance premiums by “at most 1.7 percent,” according to the Urban Institute. That’s not ideal, but it’s not catastrophic.
One might also object that this latter type of free riding can't be a problem since Romneycare has increased the number of Massachusetts residents with health insurance coverage. Also a fair point. But not only can adverse selection occur at the same time that coverage is expanding, it has the potential to completely undo those coverage gains over time. Moreover, some of Romneycare's supposed coverage gains might be people who are actually uninsured but conceal that fact from government surveys rather than admit to unlawful behavior. These are the ultimate free riders: they're not even paying the fine. In this Cato Institute study, Aaron Yelowitz and I found evidence consistent with such concealment behavior in the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.