Tag: regulation

Unregulated Is Not Unconstrained

The forces that constrain behavior are manifold—moral, physical, financial, reputational, and so on. Formally, the word “regulate,” with its roots in the Latin regulare (“to control by rule, direct”), refers to only one kind of constraint: the governmental kind (or at least some kind of authority). Yet when one calls something “unregulated,” that often seems to imply that it can act on whim, launching itself in any direction it likes. Not so.

Foreign Affairs has a capsule review of a book on non-governmental organizations that relies on the distinction between other constraints and government regulation. The review describes the factors that arguably cause international NGOs to behave well, even though they are “not regulated.”

NGOs are extremely sensitive to criticism and to the fact that their authority flows from a reputation for fairness and integrity. Chapters explore NGOs in areas such as child labor, elections, and human rights, identifying the ways these groups have strengthened their credibility by increasing their own transparency, professionalizing their staffs, and integrating themselves into the wider community of NGOs, which informally commits them to shared standards of conduct. And although NGOs are not regulated, this book makes clear that they are disciplined by the complex donor-client environment in which they operate.

My sense is that the word “regulate” is migrating from its origin in referring to formal and governmental rules to a more general sense of any constraint. (I’m dubious of the move in the opposite direction, which would treat any constraint as governmental.) Until it completes that journey, if you find yourself talking about regulation—and especially if you use the word “unregulated”—it would be helpful to bracket that word by describing which kind of constraint you are talking about. Unregulated is not unconstrained.

Paul Krugman, Won’t You Help Me Be a Better Person?

I find myself on the wrong side of the facts. Again. So says Paul Krugman:

Still, wouldn’t private insurers reduce costs through the magic of the marketplace? No. All, and I mean all, the evidence says that public systems like Medicare and Medicaid, which have less bureaucracy than private insurers (if you can’t believe this, you’ve never had to deal with an insurance company) and greater bargaining power, are better than the private sector at controlling costs.

I know this flies in the face of free-market dogma, but it’s just a fact.

And Krugman should know. As the following clip shows, this is a guy who always has the facts on his side:

Yes, that was me at the beginning of the clip. Krugman was selflessly trying to instill in me his respect for evidence and his command of the facts. For some reason, I have yet to absorb either.

The proof is in this paper I wrote (and still stand by, for some reason):

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.” 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.

Mr. Krugman, won’t you please help me care about the facts as much as you do? It just seems like such bliss.

Larry Summers: Uncle Sam Is No Bill Shatner

In today’s Washington Post, Larry Summers writes:

[I]ncreases in the price of what the federal government buys relative to what the private sector buys will inevitably raise the cost of state involvement in the economy. Since the early 1980s the price of hospital care and higher education has risen fivefold relative to the price of cars and clothing, and more than a hundredfold relative to the price of televisions.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that government should buy less stuff? Maybe then prices in the health and education sectors would behave like the prices for cars, clothing, and televisions.

IPAB: Yes, It Can

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Bob Samuelson writes:

Then there’s the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a body of 15 experts charged with limiting Medicare spending if it passes certain targets. But the law handcuffs IPAB. It can’t increase patient cost-sharing, restrict benefits, modify eligibility requirements or — in any one year — cut spending by more than 1.5 percent, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation.

All four of those assertions about supposed limitations on IPAB’s powers are false, as Diane Cohen and I explain here.

Written Testimony on the Illegal IRS Rule to Increase Taxes & Spending under Obamacare

The written testimony that Jonathan Adler and I submitted for the House Oversight Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service’s unlawful attempt to increase taxes and spending under Obamacare is now online. An excerpt:

Contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent, this [IRS] rule issues tax credits in health insurance “exchanges” established by the federal government. It thus triggers a $2,000-per-employee tax on employers and appropriates billions of dollars to private health insurance companies in states with a federal Exchange, also contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent. Since those illegal expenditures will exceed the revenues raised by the illegal tax on employers, this rule also increases the federal deficit by potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, again contrary to the clear language of the statute and congressional intent.

The rule is therefore illegal. It lacks any statutory authority. It is contrary to both the clear language of the PPACA and congressional intent. It cannot be justified on other legal grounds.

On balance, this rule is a large net tax increase. For every $2 of unauthorized tax reduction, it imposes $1 of unauthorized taxes on employers, and commits taxpayers to pay for $8 of unauthorized subsidies to private insurance companies. Because this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers and obligates taxpayers to pay for illegal appropriations, it is quite literally taxation without representation.

Three remedies exist. The IRS should rescind this rule before it takes effect in 2014. Alternatively, Congress and the president could stop it with a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. Finally, since this rule imposes an illegal tax on employers in states that opt not to create a health insurance “exchange,” those employers and possibly those states could file suit to block this rule in federal court.

Requiring the IRS to operate within its statutory authority will not increase health insurance costs by a single penny. It will merely prevent the IRS from unlawfully shifting those costs to taxpayers.

Related: here is the video of my opening statement, and Adler’s and my forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation without Representation: the Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits under the PPACA.”

My Testimony on the Illegal IRS Rule Increasing Taxes & Spending under ObamaCare

Here is the video of my recent opening statement before a House Oversight Committee hearing on the IRS rule that Jonathan Adler and I write about in our forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation without Representation: the Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits under the PPACA.”

Please forgive the audio.

In addition, Pete Suderman writes that Adler and I “have jointly authored a long and quite convincing rebuttal to defenders of the IRS rule over at the journal Health Affairs. If they are right, it could be a fatal blow to the law.”

House Oversight Hearing on the IRS’s Illegal Rule Increasing Taxes & Spending under ObamaCare

Overall, this Tennessean article summarizes well yesterday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the IRS rule that Jonathan Adler and I write about here and here. Unfortunately, the article does perpetuate the misleading idea that the nation’s new health care law is “missing” language to authorize tax credits in federally created Exchanges. (The statute isn’t missing anything. It language reads exactly as its authors wanted it to read.)


Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ argument that the health-care reform law lacks wording needed to implement a crucial part of it took a major step forward Thursday.

The Jasper Republican got a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on his claim that the Internal Revenue Service lacks authority to tax employers who fail to offer health policies and leave workers to buy coverage through federally established exchanges.

His arguments, while not uncontested during the hearing, apparently won over the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Issa signed on Thursday as a co-sponsor of DesJarlais’ bill related to the issue. Other House Republican leaders also have shown interest, DesJarlais said in an interview afterward. He said he expects a vote on the House floor sometime this fall.

And a Senate version has been introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis…

DesJarlais contends that Congress worded the law in a way that authorizes the taxes and tax credits only for insurance bought through state-based exchanges, not federal ones…

The distinction is important because many states are balking at setting up their own exchanges. DesJarlais’ argument would mean federal exchanges couldn’t be implemented in those states, either…

“They have rewritten a law Congress haphazardly drafted,” DesJarlais said.

His bill, which has 35 cosponsors, would keep the IRS from moving forward with its regulatory language.

“I have employers watching this very closely,” DesJarlais added. Essentially, he said, the issue is “about whether ObamaCare can continue to exist.”