Tag: price controls

What Is Causing Drug Shortages?

A number of people have asked me what is causing the current shortages in certain types of drugs. Here’s what I’ve been able to discern so far:

In general, there are two reasons why shortages might appear in a market. The first is high fixed costs. These include regulatory costs, the costs of converting a manufacturing plant to a new use, or the costs of creating a new factory. Industries with high fixed costs will see temporary shortages after either supply shocks (e.g., a factory goes offline) or demand shocks (e.g., an increase in the population needing a drug). The price mechanism eventually resolves such shortages. The duration of the shortage is related to the size of the fixed costs.

Shortages also appear when something interferes with the price mechanism’s ability to resolve a shortage. The classic example is government price controls (i.e., a binding price ceiling). Such shortages persist as long as the price controls (e.g., rent control) remain in place and binding.

From my study of the current spate of drug shortages, the best accounting for these shortages appears in this publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Economic Analysis of the Causes of Drug Shortages,” Issue Brief, October 2011.

I initially suspected these drug shortages were caused by Medicare’s Part B drug-payment system. Others, including Scott Gottleib and the Wall Street Journal, have made that claim. However, this study and a lengthy discussion with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for planning and evaluation have persuaded me that not only is Medicare’s Part B drug-payment system not the cause, that system doesn’t even impose binding price controls. Rather, it controls the margins that physicians earn for administering a drug.  (If Medicare did impose binding price controls, would we see mark-ups of 650 percent or more for the shortage drugs?)

Rather, the shortages appear to be the result of a number of dynamics in the market for rare drugs:

  1. The first dynamic is that the small number of potential manufacturers for these drugs must decide which drugs to manufacture, and they must make those decisions in part based on what they expect the demand for the drugs will be and in part based on which drugs they expect their competitors will produce. You can imagine what happens if one or more manufacturers guess “wrong”: there will be too many firms making some drugs, and too few firms making other drugs. The latter drugs exhibit shortages.
  2. A second dynamic is the high fixed costs inherent to bringing a new pharmaceutical factory online, or from converting existing factories from producing the “wrong” drug to producing the “right” drug.
  3. A third dynamic is the price rigidity introduced by the contracts with middlemen (“group purchasing organizations”) that purchase these drugs from manufacturers and then sell them to providers. These GPOs typically negotiate long-term contracts for drugs, which can temporarily prevent the price mechanism from resolving a shortage by locking manufacturers into churning out an already over-supplied drug. If shortages occurred frequently, one would expect the manufacturers and GPOs to negotiate shorter-term contracts. As I understand these shortages, they are infrequent.
  4. All that said, no doubt some of the high fixed costs in this market are iatrogenic. There are fixed costs associated with getting FDA approval to (a) market a new/substitute drug in the same class as the shortage drug, (b) switch manufacturing capacity to a shortage drug, and (c) import a shortage drug from a new foreign manufacturer. No doubt, there should be some fixed costs—principally related to quality control—associated with each of these activities. But since the FDA implicitly values lives lost to unsafe drugs more highly than it values lives lost to “drug lag,” we can be confident that the fixed costs the FDA imposes on these activities are higher than optimal, and therefore unnecessarily lengthen the duration of such drug shortages.

This analysis suggests that, rather than impose reporting new requirements on manufacturers, Congress should reduce the fixed costs that the FDA imposes on drug manufacturers. Medicare’s Part B drug-payment system is no doubt encouraging physicians to switch to higher-margin drugs, but it doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role in these shortages.

I’d be interested to know if others think I’m missing something.

Kaiser Family Foundation: If ObamaCare Increases the Cost of Your Coverage, That’s a ‘Benefit’

Jonathan Gruber, one of ObamaCare’s biggest defenders, estimates that even after accounting for the law’s tax credits and subsidies, nearly 60 percent of consumers in Wisconsin’s individual market (for example) will pay an average of 31 percent more for health insurance. Some will pay more than twice as much as they did pre-ObamaCare.

Inexplicably, the Kaiser Family Foundation, another defender of the law, counts everyone in the individual market—including those who would pay more—in its estimate of “the number of people who would benefit from the financial subsidies.”

But, But…Price Controls Poll Well!

Politico’s Jason Millman writes:

How much does Rick Santorum hate President Barack Obama’s health care law? So much that he even opposes the parts a lot of Republicans like.

The Republican presidential candidate, talking health care across the street from Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Monday morning, blasted parts of the Affordable Care Act that poll well even among Republican voters — like guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and making health insurers cover preventive care.

Santorum, who has touted free market health principles like health savings accounts as an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, defended insurance industry practices the law eliminates, like setting premiums based on people’s health status.

Sigh. I refer my right honorable friend to the smack-down I gave such silliness some time ago:

Asking people whether they support the law’s pre-existing conditions provisions is like asking whether they want sick people to pay less for medical care.  Of course they will say yes.  If anything, it’s amazing that as many as 36 percent of the public are so economically literate as to know that these government price controls will actually harm people with pre-existing conditions.  Also amazing is that among people with pre-existing conditions, equal numbers believe these provisions will be useless or harmful as think they will help.

But as the collapse of the CLASS Act and private markets for child-only health insurance have shown, and as the Obama administration has argued in federal court, the pre-existing conditions provisions cannot exist without the wildly unpopular individual mandate because on their own, the pre-existing conditions provisions would cause the entire health insurance market to implode.

If the pre-existing conditions provisions are a (supposed) benefit of the law, then the individual mandate is the cost of those provisions. If voters don’t like the individual mandate–if they aren’t willing to pay the cost of the law’s purported benefits–then the “popular” provisions aren’t popular, either.

Or, as Firedoglake’s Jon Walker puts it, ObamaCare is about as popular as pepperoni and broken glass pizza.

Even among Republican voters? Good grief.

The Real Tragedy of the Komen/Planned Parenthood Flapdoodle

…is that it overshadowed news that the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to repeal one of two new entitlement programs created by Obamacare—the ironically named CLASS Act—with a bipartisan three-fifths majority. (With numbers like that, Congress could even repeal Obamacare’s death panel!)

But really, one private organization pulling funding for another private organization is way more important than Congress voting to repeal an entitlement program … isn’t it?

‘The Problem with CLASS Is That It’s Voluntary.’

As I write, the House is debating a bill that would repeal the CLASS Act, one of two new entitlements created under ObamaCare. It’s hard express just how awful this program is. Here’s my attempt from back in October, when the Obama administration admitted CLASS is a bust:

The idea behind CLASS was that the government would run a voluntary and self-sustaining insurance plan to help the disabled pay for long-term care, including nursing home care…

Congress required CLASS to set each applicant’s premiums according to the average applicant’s risk of needing such long-term care, rather than her individual risk. But averaged premiums are only attractive to people with above-average risks. Since few people with below-average risks would enroll, the average premium would rise. That would encourage more people with below-average risks not to enroll, and the vicious cycle would continue until the program collapsed.

As it turns out, CLASS collapsed even before its 2012 start date. The same thing happened when Obamacare imposed the same sort of price controls on health insurance for children in September 2010: the markets for child-only coverage collapsed in a total of 17 states, and are slowly collapsing in even more.

Everyone with a rudimentary understanding of insurance saw this coming. The government’s non-partisan actuaries warned of “a very serious risk” that CLASS would be “unsustainable.” One wrote, “Thirty-six years of actuarial experience lead me to believe that this program would collapse in short order and require significant federal subsidies to continue.”

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee called CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing that Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” An Obama administration official wrote, “Seems like a disaster to me.” One of President Obama’s own cabinet secretaries called the program “totally unsustainable” and echoed a presidential commission on fiscal responsibility by recommending it be “reformed or repealed.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has diagnosed the fatal flaw in this most ill-conceived government program. I swear, I am not making this up:

The problem with CLASS is that it’s voluntary.

Harkin isn’t the first person to wistfully lament that CLASS would be such a great program if only we could put non-participants in jail. He’s just the first person I know of who has said so explicitly. Others have said that the collapse of the CLASS Act should inspire confidence in the rest of ObamaCare, which imposes the same type of price controls on health insurance, and then threatens to put people in jail if they don’t buy it. Here’s how I described that strategy back in October:

Obamacare inspires confidence in its supporters, then, because one part of the law throws a Hail Mary pass to prevent another part of the law from stripping Americans of the insurance that currently protects them from illness and impoverishment. Feel safer?

Rather than make the CLASS Act compulsory, Congress should make the rest of ObamaCare voluntary:

[Ezra] Klein writes, “One way of looking at the administration’s [CLASS] decision is that it shows a commitment to fiscal responsibility.” If so, then let’s handle the rest of Obamacare exactly the same way. Congress should require Obamacare’s health insurance provisions to be voluntary and self-sustaining, just like CLASS: no individual mandate, no taxpayer subsidies. Or is fiscal irresponsibility part of the plan?

Harkin and other ObamaCare defenders have a profound lack of respect for other people’s freedom and dignity. The problem with that is that it’s voluntary. If it were a medical condition, it might be excusable.