Free Markets, Free People

Health Care


Health Care – “The Public Plan”

Ezra Klein discusses what has commonly become known as the “public plan” in the emerging “health care reform” legislation. Put simply it is “public insurance” which is supposed to compete with the private insurance industry and, as Paul Krugman claims, keep them “honest”.

Klein lays out the various flavors being floated out there concerning this option:

• The “Trigger” Plan: Olympia Snowe is pushing this compromise, as are some conservative Democrats. The basic idea is that the public plan would act as an invisible threat: It would be “triggered” into existence if the private insurance market was unable to offer, say, enough options in a particular region, or enough cost control. In addition, the public plan would only come into existence in this or that region, or this or that state. It would be effectively useless as an insurer. It could potentially have some competitive effect in that private insurers would still work to avoid its existence. Some have argued, however, that the conditions being mentioned in the “trigger” proposals have already been met.

• The Weak Public Plan: This is what people are talking about when they refer to a “level-playing field.” This incarnation of the public plan — first proposed by Len Nichols at the New America Foundation and later echoed by Peter Harbage and Karen Davenport at the Center for American Progress — would have no special advantages over private insurers. It couldn’t use the low rates that Medicare sets or access taxpayer subsidies. It couldn’t force its way into networks. It would simply be another insurer, albeit with different incentives than traditional insurers.

• The Strong Public Plan: This would be like Medicare for the rest of us. It could throw the federal government’s weight around. It could negotiate deep discounts with providers. It could muscle its way into networks. Outside groups like the Commonwealth Fund estimate that it would save the average consumer 20 percent to 30 percent. That would give it a massive competitive advantage over private insurers, and would probably result in tens of millions of Americans dropping their current coverage and entering the public plan to save money. A variant of this was in the draft of Ted Kennedy’s bill that was leaked last week.

While Blue Dog Democrats have come out in favor of the “trigger” option, liberals such as Klein and Krugman prefer the “Strong Public Plan” for the reasons stated (massive dropping of private insurance for “public” (i.e. government) insurance). And there’s a reason they both prefer that – they see it as a backdoor way to move health insurance to a single payer system.

And that is a distinct possibility with both the “strong public plan”. In fact it is a design feature. The “competition” touted would most likely be in name only as Greg Mankiw explains (quoting Krugman to set up his explanation):

What’s still not settled, however, is whether regulation will be supplemented by competition, in the form of a public plan that Americans can buy into as an alternative to private insurance.Now nobody is proposing that Americans be forced to get their insurance from the government. The “public option,” if it materializes, will be just that — an option Americans can choose. And the reason for providing this option was clearly laid out in Mr. Obama’s letter: It will give Americans “a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep the insurance companies honest.”

It seems to me that this passage, like most discussion of the issue, leaves out the answer to the key question: Would the public plan have access to taxpayer funds unavailable to private plans?

If the answer is yes, then the public plan would not offer honest competition to private plans. The taxpayer subsidies would tilt the playing field in favor of the public plan. In this case, the whole idea of a public option seems to be a disingenuous route toward a single-payer system, which many on the left favor but recognize is a political nonstarter.

If the answer is no, then the public plan would need to stand on its own financially and, in essence, would be a private nonprofit plan. But then what’s the point? If advocates of a public plan want to start a nonprofit company offering health insurance on better terms than existing insurance companies, nothing is stopping them from doing so right now. There is free entry into the market for health insurance. If a public plan without taxpayer support would succeed, so would a nonprofit insurance company. The fundamental viability of the enterprise does not depend on whether the employees are called “nonprofit administrators” or “civil servants.”

The bottom line: If the goal is honest competition in the provision of health insurance, the public option cannot do much good but can potentially do much harm.

That is a critical point in this debate – there isn’t an insurer out there that has as deep pockets as the US Treasury. If there is public money backing the public option, then the talk of “competition” is a sham. It is being used to placate and fool those who oppose a government takeover of insurance, the result which would surely happen if what Mankiw’s concerns are true. And if you follow the reasoning process that Mankiw has laid out above, it should be pretty darn obvious what the intent of this “public plan” really is, all the happy talk Klein and Krugman throw out there notwithstanding.

Last, but not least, while the “strong public plan” is an obvious short-cut to single-payer government run health care, the other two plans simply delay that same eventual outcome for a while. While there are certainly reforms that could be made in the insurance industry and health care generally, anyone who believes that government can do it a) better and b) more efficiently has simply not been paying attention to the shape government finances are in right now or how large the deficit has grown as it has mismanaged its entitlement empire to this point.

~McQ


“Health Care Reform” Update (Updated)

A few new developments, none of them good.

One – Obama has indicated his willingness to entertain legislation that would tax your private health care benefits. What that means is you’ll be taxed on the money your employer spends on your health care insurance. Of course the obvious immediate effect would be to raise revenue to pay for the public portion of his health care plan.

Two – Obama has decided that making insurance mandatory may not be such a bad idea. This is 180 degree change from candidate Obama who attempted to hide his statist tendencies by pretending that he wouldn’t require mandatory insurance for Americans.

Threein a letter to Democratic senators:

He told Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) that their legislation must include a government-run insurance option that would compete against the private sector. He also reaffirmed his support for a Massachusetts-style insurance exchange.

What do you suppose will happen if government-run insurance is an option for all? Depending on how it is structured (if, for instance, if it is a universal pool), we could see massive dumping of private insurance by businesses pointing their employees to the government option.

Four:

[I]mbuing a federal panel with the power to make Medicare payment recommendations that Congress must either accept or reject in their entirety.

Obama likens this proposal, based on the current Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, to the way military base closure decisions are made. To Republicans, however, the notion smacks of the kind of “rationing” dictated by government-run healthcare programs in Europe and Canada.

Ezra Klein explains the “federal panel’s” proposed role:

The health system changes too quickly for Congress to address through massive, infrequent, efforts at total reform. New technologies and new care structures create new problems. A health care reform package signed in 2009 might miss some real deficiencies, or real opportunities, that present themselves in 2012. A health reform process that recognizes that fact is a health reform process that is continual, rather than episodic.

But the reason health reform is so infrequent is that it’s structurally difficult. Small tweaks are too technically complex for Congress to easily conduct and so are dominated by lobbyists. Large reforms attract broad interest but are impeded by polarization and the threat of the filibuster. The MedPAC changes under discussion are, in other words, nothing less than a new process for health care cost reforms. They empower experts who won’t be intimidated by the intricacy of the issues and sidestep the filibuster’s ability to halt change in its tracks.

In other words health care decisions that will directly effect you will be in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable panel of bureaucrats just as all the critics of this sort have program have been claiming since the beginning of the debate.

The effect?

MedPAC, of course, is restricted to Medicare. But there’s little doubt that where Medicare leads, the health care industry follows. Private insurers frequently set their prices in relation to Medicare’s payment rates. Hospitals are sufficiently dependent on Medicare that a reform instituted by the entitlement program becomes a de facto change for the whole institution, and thus all patients. A process that empowers Medicare to aggressively and fluidly reform itself would end up dramatically changing the face of American health care in general.

Klein is exactly right, but most likely not for the reasons he thinks he is. The level of care, innovation and incentive will follow the decline in prices driven by MedPAC. What the nation needs is insurance reform, not “health care reform”. And while that is how the proponents of this try to spin the issue as just that, MedPAC’s existence and proposed expanded role argues persuasively against that spin.

Watch carefully – the Democrats are going to try to move this quickly and with little debate.

UPDATE: Apparently the letter from Obama I spoke about above also had another effect:

President Obama’s letter to Senate lawmakers yesterday saying a healthcare package must include a public option may have stalled progress on a bipartisan deal, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Thursday.

Gregg said that the president’s letter, which said a public option should be included in the legislation, stalled “significant progress” in negotiations.

“We were making great progress up until yesterday, in my opinion,” Gregg said during an interview on CNBC. “There’s a working group under Sen. Baucus that involves senior Republican and Senate senior members who are involved in the healthcare debate, and we were, I thought, making some fairly significant progress.”

The most discouraging thing about this update is the fact that Republicans, who are claiming government is too big and we’re spending too much are knee deep in negotiating more government and more spending (i.e. selling out – again) having apparently swallowed the Democratic premise that this is necessary whole.

~McQ


Health Care Is Why We’re Broke?

The more I listen to Obama, the more of an ideologue I realize he is and how willing he is to use any opportunity to “justify” his agenda, even those that don’t fit. For instance:

In a sobering holiday interview with C-SPAN, President Obama boldly told Americans: “We are out of money.”

C-SPAN host Steve Scully broke from a meek Washington press corps with probing questions for the new president.

SCULLY: You know the numbers, $1.7 trillion debt, a national deficit of $11 trillion. At what point do we run out of money?

OBAMA: Well, we are out of money now. We are operating in deep deficits, not caused by any decisions we’ve made on health care so far. This is a consequence of the crisis that we’ve seen and in fact our failure to make some good decisions on health care over the last several decades.

This is about as twisted a bit of reasoning as I’ve seen in a while. We’re “out of money” because of “health care decisions?”

What total nonsense. This is a politician using a crisis unrelated to “health care decisions” to push his ideology (i.e. that it is government that is the answer in all areas of life). As Glenn Reynolds says:

“I’ve bankrupted the nation, so now your only hope is to pass my healthcare plan.” That goes beyond chutzpah to the edge of pathological dishonesty. Except, I guess, that it’s not pathological if you get away with it. And so far, he has.

Very true – but at some point, as his favorite pastor likes to say, the chickens have got to come home to roost.

From the same interview:

SCULLY: States like California in desperate financial situation, will you be forced to bail out the states?

OBAMA: No. I think that what you’re seeing in states is that anytime you got a severe recession like this, as I said before, their demands on services are higher. So, they are sending more money out. At the same time, they’re bringing less tax revenue in. And that’s a painful adjustment, what we’re going end up seeing is lot of states making very difficult choices there..

Painful choices? But for the federal government – unprecedented spending spree. The cognitive dissonance there is mind boggling.

~McQ


Sin Taxes To Fund Health Care?

First they came after the smokers. But I didn’t say anything because I don’t smoke. And then they came after the soda drinkers, and I didn’t say anything because I rarely drink soda.

But then they came after beer, but I couldn’t do anything because the precedent had been set (with apologies to Pastor Martin Niemöller).

Yes, sinners, you are going to pay for health care. You and the evil rich. “Sin” taxes are seemingly the chosen method of this administration for paying the bill for the upcoming health care debacle.

Consumers in the United States may have to hand over nearly $2 more for a case of beer to help provide health insurance for all.

Details of the proposed beer tax are described in a Senate Finance Committee document that will be used to brief lawmakers Wednesday at a closed-door meeting.

Taxes on wine and hard liquor would also go up.

Apparently they’re still discussing sugary drinks as well (although it seems diet drinks are not yet on the table) because, you know, obesity is a problem and since government will be paying for all of this (can taxing Oreos be far off?).

But remember:

“If you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year, you will not see a single dime of your taxes go up. If you make $200,000 a year or less, your taxes will go down.”

Unless, of course, you’re a smoker, a fattie or a boozer (or, heaven forbid, all three).

~McQ


Medicare Rationing – The Shape Of Health Care To Come

I love the way the Wall Street Journal starts this editorial about health care reform and rationing. It is something I’ve been wondering for some time here at QandO:

Try to follow this logic: Last week the Medicare trustees reported that the program has an “unfunded liability” of nearly $38 trillion — which is the amount of benefits promised but not covered by taxes over the next 75 years. So Democrats have decided that the way to close this gap is to create a new “universal” health insurance entitlement for the middle class.

In fact what they’re proposing defies logic. It is counter-intuitive (some wag said that “counter-intuitive” is the new “stupid”). I mean think about it – they’re essentially saying “we’ve run the 46% of the health care segment we have into $38 trillion of unfunded debt. The way to fix that is to give us the rest”.

But the bulk of the editorial is about who, under this new grand scheme the Democrats are proposing, will be making decision about how to treat you. And in this case one example serves to make the point:

At issue are “virtual colonoscopies,” or CT scans of the abdomen. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of U.S. cancer death but one of the most preventable. Found early, the cure rate is 93%, but only 8% at later stages. Virtual colonoscopies are likely to boost screenings because they are quicker, more comfortable and significantly cheaper than the standard “optical” procedure, which involves anesthesia and threading an endoscope through the lower intestine.

Virtual colonoscopies are endorsed by the American Cancer Society and covered by a growing number of private insurers including Cigna and UnitedHealthcare. The problem for Medicare is that if cancerous lesions are found using a scan, then patients must follow up with a traditional colonoscopy anyway. Costs would be lower if everyone simply took the invasive route, where doctors can remove polyps on the spot. As Medicare noted in its ruling, “If there is a relatively high referral rate [for traditional colonoscopy], the utility of an intermediate test such as CT colonography is limited.” In other words, duplication would be too pricey.

Consequently, because there might be a percentage of referrals (that Medicare assumes might be “relatively high”) which then require a traditional colonoscopy, no Medicare patients may have the virtual colonscopies even if they are quicker, more comfortable and, as with any invasive procedure, less dangerous.

Now I assume I don’t have to lay out all the implications of this to readers here – this is prefect example of precisely what opponents of government health care have been saying for years. And it certainly gives lie to the claims by some that all government wants to do is offer “insurance”.

Led by budget chief Peter Orszag, the White House believes that comparative effectiveness research, which examines clinical evidence to determine what “works best,” will let them cut wasteful or ineffective treatments and thus contain health spending.

The problem is that what “works best” isn’t the same for everyone. While not painless or risk free, virtual colonoscopy might be better for some patients — especially among seniors who are infirm or because the presence of other diseases puts them at risk for complications. Ideally doctors would decide with their patients. But Medicare instead made the hard-and-fast choice that it was cheaper to cut it off for all beneficiaries. If some patients are worse off, well, too bad.

One of the complaints about private health insurers is that patients resent someone group on high deciding what is best for them. That should be their doctor’s decision. Yet here is that complaint being sanctioned for the largest purchaser of health care in America – Medicare. And, as the WSJ points out, since private carriers usually adopt Medicare rates and policies, the virtual colonoscopy could be a technology which is “run out of the market place”.

Mr. Orszag says that a federal health board will make these Solomonic decisions, which is only true until the lobbies get to Congress and the White House. With virtual colonoscopy, radiologists and gastroenterologists are feuding over which group should get paid for colon cancer screening. Companies like General Electric and Seimens that make CT technology are pressuring Medicare administrators too. More than 50 Congressmen are demanding that the decision be overturned.

All this is merely a preview of the life-and-death decisions that will be determined by politics once government finances substantially more health care than the 46% it already does. Anyone who buys Democratic claims about “choice” and “affordability” will be in for a very rude awakening.

Is this how you want health care decisions affecting your life to be made? Political fights in Congress? Look at the financial health of the US government right now and consider the huge unfunded liabilities in front of it. What side do you really think such decisions will come down on – yours or the least costly alternative regardless of your individual need?

~McQ

[HT: Anna B]


Health Care – Speaking Of Taxes …

According to AP, there’s not much of an appetite among Democrats to raise taxes to support “health care reform”.

And, of course, given the estimates of the cost of “health care reform”, aimed at making health care “more affordable” (how do they get away with that, especially in light of our experience with Medicare and Medicaid), there’s no question that taxes must increase.

Right now the administration and Democrats are attempting to convince a skeptical public that most of that cost can be recovered in “efficiencies” government will introduce into the system. It is the oldest con game going. Anyone who has observed government operations of any scope or size knows quite well that government and its bureaucracies are not at all efficient in their operation. Medicare fraud, for instance, costs us about $60 billion a year. Somehow the same bureaucracy which has allowed this year after year will suddenly become “efficient” and stop it?

Even if that could happen, the huge expansion of the governmental piece of health care is going to require massive funding. That means raising taxes. But many Democrats are very wary of such a move, especially with the 2010 midterms looming:

Many of those newly elected Democrats are wary of voting to raise taxes, especially when they are unlikely to get any Republican support.

“If you are a first- or second-term Democrat, why on earth would you want to vote in July or August 2009 for a tax increase that the president doesn’t want to have take effect until 2011?” asked Clint Stretch, managing principal of tax policy at Deloitte Tax. “You’ve just handed your opponent an extra year to campaign that you’re a big-tax Democrat.”

There, indeed, is the nut of the opposition to such a move. That doesn’t mean that Democrats wouldn’t eventually vote to raise taxes, but they’d want to do it in 2011, not 2009. That, of course, puts them in direct opposition to Speaker Pelosi, from a safe California district, who has pledged to pass “health care reform” this year. As I’ve stated repeatedly, while Pelosi might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (and her CIA/waterboarding debacle make the case) her political instincts are good. She realizes that there’s a very narrow window available to Democrats to pass their liberal agenda and it may close by 2010.

That shapes up into an interesting internal fight within the Democratic caucus. As I see it, “victory”, at least in the short-term, would be seeing health care put off until after the mid-terms. And, as history has told us, the longer it takes for the Congress to act on legislation like this, the less likely its passage becomes.

~McQ


Your Sunday Morning Wakeup

Bruce Bartlett gives you a different way of looking at the mess your political leaders, over a number of generations, have gotten us into and what it will cost, at a minimum, to fulfill the promises they’ve made over the decades.

To summarize, we see that taxpayers are on the hook for Social Security and Medicare by these amounts: Social Security, 1.3% of GDP; Medicare part A, 2.8% of GDP; Medicare part B, 2.8% of GDP; and Medicare part D, 1.2% of GDP. This adds up to 8.1% of GDP. Thus federal income taxes for every taxpayer would have to rise by roughly 81% to pay all of the benefits promised by these programs under current law over and above the payroll tax.

Since many taxpayers have just paid their income taxes for 2008 they may have their federal returns close at hand. They all should look up the total amount they paid and multiply that figure by 1.81 to find out what they should be paying right now to finance Social Security and Medicare.

To put it another way, the total unfunded indebtedness of Social Security and Medicare comes to $106.4 trillion. That is how much larger the nation’s capital stock would have to be today, all of it owned by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, to generate enough income to pay all the benefits that have been promised over and above future payroll taxes. But the nation’s total private net worth is only $51.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. In effect, we have promised the elderly benefits equal to more than twice the nation’s total wealth on top of the payroll tax.

We again have a new crop of political leaders making similar promises about a range of things, from energy to the environment to health care. Look at what they’ve done with the portion of health care they were given previously?

Someone – anyone – tell me how, given the performance of government to this point with Medicare and Medicaid, it is going to provide lower cost health care when it is obvious that it has been instrumental in doing just the opposite?

For some reason, I just can’t get past that negative and inconvenient truth enough to suspend disbelief and decide that once government is running the whole show, everything will fall in line and we’ll have world-class health care at a much lower price – all managed by government.

And one other point Bartlett makes – this mess was made by politicians and, as our laws are written, can only be fixed by politicians. But politicians rarely, if ever like to make decisions which will be unpopular and cause them to have to find new employment. No one likes to be the bad guy. So don’t expect much in the way of “fixing” this mess. You’re more likely to see the whole house of cards collapse because it is unsustainable and the administration in charge at the time blame the previous one (kind of like what you’re seeing now on just about everything else) than to see any political leader actually make the hard decisions necessary (and then win over the Congress) to actually take care of these looming problems.

Enjoy your Sunday.

~McQ


Business As Usual In Congress

The Congress described as the “most ethical and open Congress” in history by its Speaker is busy writing massive and costly health care legislation in secret. Even Democrats aren’t happy about this process:

Forty-five House Democrats in the party’s moderate-to-conservative wing have protested the secretive process by which party leaders in their chamber are developing legislation to remake the health care system.

The lawmakers, members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said they were “increasingly troubled” by their exclusion from the bill-writing process.

They expressed their concerns in a letter delivered Monday to three House committee chairmen writing the bill, which House leaders hope to pass this summer.

Representative Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat who is chairman of the coalition’s health task force, said: “We don’t need a select group of members of Congress or staff members writing this legislation. We don’t want a briefing on the bill after it’s written. We want to help write it.”

Of course the Blue Dogs are Democrats elected in mostly conservative districts and thus hold seats which have traditionally been Republican. Meanwhile the chairmen of the three committees in question all hold safe Democratic seats.

The committee chairmen writing the House bill are Representatives Henry A. Waxman and George Miller, both of California, and Charles B. Rangel of New York.

Asked about the letter, Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for Mr. Waxman, said he had met with some members of the Blue Dog Coalition and welcomed their suggestions. When she was asked why, then, they were complaining, she said, “That’s more of a question for the Blue Dogs than for us.”

Very similar to the Obama outreach to Republicans on the budget and stimulus. He ‘welcomed their suggestions’, but they certainly had no chair at the table when the legislation was formulated.

Your future health care is being decided behind closed doors by the liberal wing of the Democratic party. Apparently input from the “center” and right are not welcome.  I’m not surprised in the least, but I’m sure there are some out there that are.

~McQ

[HT: Mary R]

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