Archive for the ‘Health Care’ Category.

Why Single Payer In the US Will Not Necessarily Lower Costs

A few days ago I wrote a multi-part tweet on the topic of whether single-payer in US health care would necessarily lower costs.  Twitter is a frustrating medium not only because of the short length but also because many critics just read the first tweet in the string (with the summarized hypothesis to be discussed) and comment without reading the rest.  That is probably why I got many comments like "but European single-payers get better pricing" as if I did not spend a number of tweets on exactly this topic.  So I will go back to my old medium of blogging to deal with this complex topic.

As a thought-starter, let's think about another industry where the US government is the single-payer in a complex industry that is a substantial part of GDP:  Defense.  The US government has always been the single payer in the defense industry and I think it isunlikely most of use think the US government gets particularly good pricing in that industry.  I have seen that a number of folks have instinctively rejected this analogy, without giving any specifics about why they do so, but I want to observe here that in fact Defense may have better price dynamics than single payer for pharmaceuticals, as at least in defense there are multiple sellers to play off against each other.  I am not going to insist on this analogy, and will provide another analogy later that I think is perhaps more apt, but I would challenge the reader to name a field where the US government is a single payer -- not a large payer in a larger market but the single only payer -- and gets better pricing than might be had in a free market.

A single-payer system eliminates market pricing and all the enormously valuable information that those prices contain.  In a real market, prices are set based on the knowledge and preferences and expertise of millions of people. In single-payer, you lose access to all that.

For this post I am going to focus mainly on pharmaceutical prices in large part  because, from observing the Twitter comments, that is what most folks seem to think about first as an area for cost reduction under single-payer.  I will return at the end to a discussion of other health care costs under single-payer.   I am also going to entirely avoid discussion of the many supply-side restrictions in the US healthcare system -- from pharmaceutical approval to physician licensing to hospital certificates of need.  I want to look primarily at the supposed beneficial (in some peoples' minds "huge") price reductions that might flow from single payer negotiating leverage.

Before I do that I want to discuss the misuse (IMO) of the term "economies of scale" in this discussion.  In my mind "economies of scale" refers to a real reduction in unit costs from an increasing volume.  In most cases, this is not what we are talking about with single payer.  There is nothing from single payer, to my understanding, that actually reduces the development, production, and distribution costs of pharmaceuticals.  I know folks like to point to the elimination of private insurance companies as a cost saving, but I find that hard to believe.  Most of the functions of the private insurance company would have to remain and profit margins in health insurance are tiny, on the order of low single digit percentages of premiums.  Eliminating these profit margins could theoretically save a few percent on costs, but only if one assumes that the government is just as efficient on claims processing and management.  One might get rid of some marketing costs, but the government has found under PPACA that communication and education costs, essentially not much different from marketing, have been pretty substantial.

The main potential advantage of single payer for pharmaceuticals is not one of economy of scale but of negotiating leverage.   With negotiating leverage, larger buyers can try to extract discounts vs. what other smaller buyers pay.  Certain countries like Canada have certainly been able to do this with pharmaceuticals purchased by their state health care systems.

For all those who want to point this out to me as if I don't know it, I freely stipulate that it is true.  To understand what is going on, let's take a step back.  Pharmaceutical prices will theoretically include three portions:

  1. Variable cost of actually manufacturing and distributing the pharmaceutical.  For many drugs, even expensive ones, this can be relatively low
  2. Fixed cost of developing the pharmaceutical and getting it through testing and approval.  This fixed cost also will contain a share of the costs of failed drug development efforts, just like one producing oil well has to cover the cost of the 10 dry holes drilled before oil was struck.  These fixed costs can be very very high
  3. For drugs still covered by their patents, a profit from having a monopoly position, which we allow to incentivize new drug and medical procedure development

Most US pharmaceutical makers treat the US as the main market for recovering 2 and 3.  They are willing to treat foreign markets and incremental, and price their drugs (either directly or via the licensing fees they charge) closer to marginal cost without full cost recovery.  This is in part because many other countries negotiate, and the US mostly does not -- Medicare has restrictions on pharmaceutical price negotiation and drug companies have limited negotiating leverage.  If you wonder why the latter is so, it is because insurance companies are required by law that they must buy a lot of these pharmaceuticals.  One's negotiating leverage against a single monopoly seller is extremely restricted if one cannot walk away and the seller knows it.

I have for years supported laws allowing drug re-importation from other countries.  I see no reason why US consumers should tolerate essentially subsidizing drug development for the rest of the world.  By the way, if you don't accept my cross-subsidy picture, watch what happens in the rest of the world if the US were to adopt drug re-importation laws.  My guess is that the other countries would ban their export, because they know such policies would serve to reduce the cross subsidy, lowering US prices but raising prices in their countries.

To understand my concerns over cost control in US single payer, let's think about negotiation at Walmart.  It is well known that Walmart uses its huge market size to get large discounts from suppliers.  In part, these discounts could be related to true economies of scale (ie if you are a niche seller and not yet in Walmart, getting into Walmart could drive huge new volumes for your product).  But for companies like Coke, Walmart's main leverage is the threat to walk away, or at least to give less shelf space, to your product.

But forget the leverage and negotiating strategy for a second, how does the negotiation actually go?  As I imagine it, Walmart does some research and finds the lowest price they can find Coke selling to anyone else is X.  They will then turn to Coke and say we want 10% off X.  The key point is that the negotiation begins in reference to an existing market price.   I will bet that's how you negotiate for a car, or for anything else.

But they key question is: "What happens when there is no market price."  I am the last one to say that US health care markets, with all their various inefficiencies and interventions, is anything like a free market, but there is still some sort of market there.  I would argue that if the US goes single payer, that will essentially end the only market for drugs and other health care services in the world.  How do you negotiate if there is no market price to start from?  What does negotiating leverage even mean in that situation (again, consider the Defense example above)?

I suppose for some years negotiation for pharmaceuticals under single payer will be in reference to the old, pre-single-payer price.  But that reference can only be meaningful for so long.  And how does one use negotiating leverage for an entirely new product?

Let's say a new drug comes along that's a better treatment for gout.  There is no market price or price history.  No one has ever bought it or sold it.  What does your negotiating leverage even mean?  There is no market price, so how can you get a discount?  You could say that you want a discount off list, but the inventor could just name the list price arbitrarily high.  You could ask to see their cost accounting but anyone who has ever made the mistake of taking net profit points in a movie can tell you that cost accounting can be gamed endlessly.

This is basically the situation in government defense procurement.  They can theoretically use their negotiating leverage to get a better price for hammers or sidearms, because a market price exists for those set by many other individual buyers. But how does it use its negotiating leverage for a Patriot missile?

And remember, the only way that negotiating leverage has any power is if one is willing to walk away from the table.  At some point, the single payer has to be willing to say, "F it, if that is your best price for Humira, we aren't buying any (and thus no American can have any)."  Does the government really have the ability / cojones to do this and make it stick?  After all, one reason why insurance companies overpay for a lot of medical procedures is that they HAVE to pay for it, by law.  They cannot walk away from the table.  Imagine negotiating for a car if next time the dealer you are buying from knows you have to leave the store that day with a car.  You are not going to get a very good price.

The situation is slightly different in other health care payments, such as to providers.  But this is only true because there are multiple providers and provider groups in a given area.  And here the negotiating leverage is still the same, the threat to walk away.  And in fact we have seen this, with low cost PPACA plans offering very limited networks -- essentially they have walked away from higher cost suppliers.  Note that this really pisses off consumers, and is one of the reasons they say they hate insurance companies, so its not clear if there would be the political will for the government to do the same thing as single payer.  Also note that providers and banding together into larger and larger provider groups -- essentially in this great game of monopsony and negotiation they want to grow to be too large and comprehensive to walk away from.

The likely outcome is to turn pharmaceuticals and other medical suppliers into regulated utilities.  In electricity, the government essentially acts not quite as single payer but in a very parallel role as single price negotiator.  They negotiate the prices to be paid for all consumers in their state or region.  They are negotiating as the single buyer with a company that is a monopoly provider.  This situation faces all the issues we discussed above, basically a negotiation without any market price reference.  So most governments regulating utilities choose an approach where the utility opens its books and sets prices so that the utility gets a minimum return on capital but not any "excess" profits.   In theory, they try to get the lowest price they can that still ensures that private capital will still have an incentive to flow into the company.

There are a number of problems with this approach vis a vis pharmaceuticals and other health care purchases

  • Its not at all clear it achieves a lower price than in a freer market.  Certainly non-regulated cogen companies in California have made a lot of money selling electricity below the regulated rates
  • There is little incentive for innovation.  Regulated utilities make the most money when they do nothing new or risky.  This may be OK in electrical generation, but it is not great for drug development.
  • There is a lot of potential for cronyism.  Even in electrical rates, certain politically favored groups get lower rates subsidized by less influential groups.  Military procurement often leads to bad decisions driven more by lobbying than reason.  In health care, changes in reimbursement rates in Medicare are already subject to immense political gamesmanship -- for example, the famous annual Congressional "doc fix" battles.

Of course the government could just fix prices by law at some low level, or even seize all pharmaceutical patents and offer drugs close to marginal cost (which tends to be low).  This might work great if you are perfectly happy with the medical treatments available today and want nothing new.  But if innovation is a concern of yours at all, this would obviously kill it (not to mention drive a lot of providers out of the business, reducing demand and increasing wait times to those of .. all the other single payer countries).

While the choice not cut off future benefits just to get current stuff cheaper may seem a no brainer to many of you, I would argue that many Progressives, whether from risk aversion or a lack of ability to perceive opportunity costs, might well take this deal.  Its a sort of Directive 10-289 solution and a preference I discussed way back in 2004 (yes, I was blogging at this same site then).

Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

I understand the large numbers of people are concerned about the potentially bankrupting effects of a major medical condition.  The problem is that people keeps suggesting solutions that don't actually solve the problem, or make things worse.  I have suggested an intervention here that preserves much of the health care market while protecting folks in the case of major medical conditions.

Transpartisan Plan #2: A Better Approach to Government Health Care: Focus the Government on the One Thing It Does Best

So this is my second in a series of transpartisan proposals, the unintended consequence of which is likely to have me ostracized not just by the two major parties but by the libertarian community as well.  My first such proposal, on climate, helped get me ostracized from the climate skeptic community.  Much of this article is based on a proposal I first made in 2015.

I want to say at the top that unlike my climate plan, this is not a plan so much as a concept for a plan.  As in climate, tribalism and muddled thinking about goals has made it hard to make forward progress on the role of government in health care.  The Democrats in 2008 and 2018 and the Republicans in 2010 arguably won a lot of Congressional seats stirring up fears about health care, so it is a vital issue with the public.  For those who want to just dig in their heals and wait until it all goes away, I don't think this will happen.  And I think the logic I outline is superior to the typical political process described by Megan McArdle as 

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, this must be done.

I think the key to creating a viable program for health care depends on being very clear on the goals that one is trying to achieve and matching those goals well with the capabilities of government.  Obamacare was a huge mess in this regard, weaving all over the place in terms of goals (increasing insurance coverage, lowering costs, improving care effectiveness) and assigning roles to the government that were laughably poorly matched to its skills.

Take increasing the percentage of Americans with health insurance, probably the number one goal of Obamacare and the metric most cited to evaluate its success.  Is the core need of Americans really to have health insurance, or it something else?  Is mandating that people buy insurance they don't value in order to improve this metric really improving individual well-being?  Does increased coverage really translate to increased health? (spoiler -- any causal link here is really tenuous in the data).  All these questions and more exist because increasing insurance coverage was the wrong goal.  So is anything having to do with "pre-existing conditions" as Democrats framed it (fairly successfully) in the recent election.

The #1 Consumer Need and Fear in Health Care

Here is my main assumption:  The real, core need of individuals is that a) when they or a family member get dreadfully sick, lack of money will not be a barrier to getting them the needed care and b) even if they can get the care, they would really prefer not to be bankrupted by it.  All these other things -- percent covered by insurance, mandates to accept pre-existing conditions, insurance mandates and subsidies -- are all imperfect proxies for this core need.

This is exactly the kind of need that we buy catastrophic insurance to cover.  I would be bankrupted and homeless if my house burned down and I was still responsible for the mortgage but relatively inexpensive fire insurance covers that.  Losses are not usually correlated (ie one loss does not make it more likely I have a second loss, except in flood insurance which is why there is no private flood insurance any more) so I don't worry about non-renewal even after a major fire.

But obviously health care is different.  Health problems this year greatly raise the probability of health problems in future years.  There is every incentive for an insurer to bail on you after one bad year.   This is the major fear that then follows the need - that catastrophic insurance will no longer be available after the first claim.  Had health insurance developed differently (e.g. with policies that covered more than just one year, more like term life) we might be in a different situation, but here we are.

Government is Good at Having Lots of Money on Call

And the good news is that the one thing the government is really, really good at is being an insurer of last resort -- they have the deep pockets and the fiat money power to do this better than anyone else -- that is why they are the insurer of last resort of bank deposits and for flood insurance (I am not saying that there are not moral hazards in these or unintended consequences, but the insurance works).  So there is the clear opportunity -- what people need most is catastrophic insurance even when the private market won't provide it and the government does really well is provide catastrophic insurance as a last resort.

Before we get into the plan itself, let's discuss a few things that the government does NOT do well:

Government is Bad at Cost control.

I feel like arguing that government is bad at cost control should be about as necessary as arguing that socialism always fails, but I guess it just needs to be repeated over and over.  A large part of the PPACA (Obamacare) was adding provisions meant to reap cost savings in health care.  None of it has worked.  The problem is that any real markets for health care have been disappearing for decades as more and more health care expenses get paid by third parties rather than individuals making price/value trade-offs (as they do with pretty much everything else -- the prosaic word for this is "shopping").

Now, Democrats are increasingly seeking "single payer" health care, arguing that aggregating all purchases in one entity will result in huge negotiating leverage.  But this never has been true.  It is impossible to have a real price negotiation without a market, and market price, to reference.   Look at another area of government spending where the government does 100% of the industry purchasing:  military hardware.  Do you really have the sense that the military is getting great pricing due to their purchasing power?  Supporters will site discounts that Medicare gets over other buyers for certain services and pharmaceuticals.  But note again that this is all in reference to a market price benchmark, that will disappear with single payer.  Further, many of the savings Medicare gets are not real savings, but cross subsidies where other customers end up paying more so Medicare can get something below cost.  When the government is buying everything, this cross-subsidy goes away.  And can you even imagine the lobbying and cronyism and opportunities for graft that will exist once government pricing is untethered from any market price?  Just think again about military procurement.

I suppose that the government could turn all health care suppliers into a huge regulated utility, for example paying pharmaceutical companies a utility-like cost plus a fixed return on drugs.  If this occurs, I hope you are satisfied with the range of treatments you have today because you won't get many others -- if you don't believe me, name the three most recent innovations that have come out of your local regulated utility.  Typically all they do is fight innovation (e.g. rooftop solar and co-generation).Finally, the government has a lot of regulations that Congress did not touch in the PPACA that restrict supply and greatly increase costs.  For example, many states and municipalities have certificate of need processes that prevent new entrants from adding hospitals or even new equipment without the permission of existing competitors.  The same is true in occupational licensing, which protects the most skilled (and expensive) health care workers from competition on simple procedures (e.g. why is someone required to go through a decade of medical training to put stitches in my kid's elbow?)

I will say that the PPACA has perhaps had an accidental effect on costs but not through any intended mechanism.  As deductibles in the gold/silver/bronze exchange plans have gone up to try to keep a lid on premiums, individuals previously used to first dollar health care now find themselves responsible for making spending choices.  This is a good thing, maybe the best part of the whole program.

Government is Bad at Service Effectiveness. 

The PPACA also sought to increase the effectiveness of health care providers.  The problem is that it is impossible for a small group of people in Washington to do this.  We are 300 million consumers who each make trade-offs in different ways and define effectiveness differently.  Take an example from another field:  Hair care.  In the state of AZ, hair cutters must go through 2000 hours of training to be licensed to cut hair -- they must demonstrate proficiency in all sorts of hair styles.  I personally don't give a cr*p about that -- I tend to choose the fastest, cheapest person who does a reasonable job.  But no one in government has anticipated that as a valid consumer need.

The PPACA was larded with expensive provisions that reflected the vision of a few elites about how they personally wanted health care performed.  A great example is the whole electronic medical records requirement, likely stuck in their based on a lot of intensive lobbying by makers of this software.  I have yet to meet a doctor who likes this software, or who feels that their patient service is improved by it, but everyone has to do it none-the-less.Perhaps even more than the cost issue, it is amazing to me that anyone believes that government involvement will make some service more effective.  If you think it can, I urge you to take two identical copies of documents, and go through the process of sending and tracking one by Fedex and sending and tracking one via the post office

Outlines of A Plan

I am not sure how you actually do this, but I think being clear on the goal and the useful (and not useful) roles of government in the process are good.  Rather than a plan, I offer some design goals for a plan

  1. Make the government the insurer of last resort to make sure that all Americans are protected against catastrophic health care costs in a year.  One approach, though probably not the most compact, is to make the government responsible for all non-discretionary individual health care expenditures in a year above a certain percentage of that person's adjusted gross income for that year.   I am thinking personal responsibility numbers that start at 15% of AGI and could increase in higher income brackets. Yes, if you are a person making $50,000 a year, then $7,500 of out of pocket health care expenses will be difficult -- but likely not bankrupting and not a barrier to getting needed care.   Perhaps we exclude social security from AGI and apply this to seniors as well, effectively eliminating medicare and phasing out government benefits for wealthy seniors.I am open to a more compact way of doing this. Perhaps guaranteed-entry government subsidized high-risk pools for health insurance.  The problem is that insurance companies will just dump all their expensive customers into those pools and we will end up with a system as costly to the taxpayers as the one above but less rationally organized.
  2. Shift as many of the individual spending price / value tradeoffs as possible into individual hands.  The step outlined above in #1 is a good start, at least for more routine purchases.  As a design goal, at every turn, try to build in ways for consumers to get money back or get rewarded for choices to use less or more inexpensive care.I do not think there is anything with more potential leverage for improving the health care world than bringing back individual shopping for medical care.  My kid used to injure himself a lot in sports and we had a high deductible on our insurance, so we found a sports medicine guy who charged us only $50 a visit if we paid cash.  Then he told us that when we went downstairs to the radiology company, to tell them we were paying cash.  Sure enough, the lady there pulled out a special book from behind the counter and the $300+ they charge to the insurance companies became $40 to us.  On the other hand, we have spent weeks talking to doctors and hospitals about  heart surgery my mother-in-law (who is covered by Medicare) needs.  You know what has not come up a single time?  Price.  I have zero idea how much it will cost -- but let's say it is $100,000.  Can you imagine buying anything else that expensive without discussing the price once?
  3. Any medical benefits paid by the employer become fully taxable
  4. Price transparency mandates -- every provider must disclose the best price it sells a product and service at, as well as your price.  For all but emergency procedures, a cost estimate must be given in advance (My dog had to have surgery and even in an emergency condition they gave me a detailed cost estimate in advance).
  5. Systematic review of supply restrictions and rethinking of licensing arrangements. Banning of state and local certificate of need processes.
  6. Accelerated and streamlined drug approval process.  Really what I would like to see is that there is a government led testing process that leads not to an approval/refusal but to the publication of safety/effectiveness data that doctors and patients can then use to make their own decisions.

Hat tip to Megan McArdle who has been suggesting something like this for years, probably long before I started thinking about it.

Why I Go Back and Forth On Issues of Forced Psychiatric Institutionalization

A few months ago I wrote:

I was among those who has opposed forced institutionalization.  The practice used to be rife with abuse, and when it was really being challenged in the 1970's it was with recent knowledge of how institutionalization for supposed mental health issues had been used in the Soviet Union as a tool against dissent.  And in a world where political partisans still routinely assign negative mental health diagnoses to their political enemies and have even suggested using mental health diagnosis-from-a-distance to unseat the current President, there is still a lot of possibility for abuse.  But seeing that most of those who would have been in state mental hospitals are now in prison or living (and dying) on the streets, I am open to having made a mistake.   I am still not sure, though, who advocates for such people who are without friends and family and would help guard against their abuse.

I understand that the general media explanation of homelessness is to blame it on the cold heart of whoever was the last Republican President in office, but it is hard for me to correlate national policy with trends in homelessness.  I am maybe 70% convinced that the closing of mental health facilities in the 70's and 80's across most cities and states was the main cause, a hypothesis born out by the high rates of mental illness recorded in most homeless populations.  This is why I think so much government spending for the homeless is wasted -- it all focuses on creating homes, I guess just because of our word choice of "homeless".  If we called them the mentally ill, or perhaps "helpless" rather than "homeless" we might investigate other approaches.

I see a number of sources nowadays trying to pin these closures entirely on tight-fisted Republican governors, and I am sure this is partly true.  But this misses an important element -- that civil libertarians had real issues with both the conduct of these institutions (e.g. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and the fairness of the forced-institutionalization process.  Also tied up in all this were Cold War stories of Soviet Russia using institutionalization in mental hospitals as a way to dispose of dissidents.  After all, it is a short step from the totalitarian view of ideology (ie that everyone must believe, not just comply) to declaring that any deviation from the official orthodoxy constitutes mental illness.

Which leads me to this story, which got me started thinking about this again:

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far right has been left shocked and furious after a court ordered her to be examined by a psychiatrist to determine if she "is capable of understanding remarks and answering questions".

Le Pen, who is head of the former National Front party - now National Rally (Rassemblement National) revealed on Twitter her shock and anger at being ordered to undertake a psychiatric assessment.

The unusual summoning is in relation to Le Pen having tweeted out gruesome propaganda images from terror group Isis that showed the bodies of people having been executed by the so-called Islamic State.

In March Le Pen was charged with circulating "violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity" and that can be viewed by a minor.

And as part of their investigation it appears magistrates in Nanterre near Paris have ordered Le Pen to visit a psychiatrist for an expert assessment.

"I thought I had been through it all: well, no! For denouncing the horrors of Daesh (Isis) by tweets the "justice system" has referred me for a psychiatric assessment. How far will they go?!" she said on Thursday.

Ms. Le Pen is not really my cup of tea, but this strikes me as a creepily totalitarian action, oddly similar to certain groups in the US that want to take on Trump with mental health claims.  If you are imitating strategies used by Soviet Russia to suppress dissidents, you are probably doing Democracy wrong.

 

 

Things I May Have Been Wrong About

Ace of Spades writes, in response to a NYT article on the death of a homeless woman:

In Sunday’s NYT there is a long article about a homeless woman who lived on a grate near Grand Central Terminal. She was seemingly intelligent, a Williams grad, and had a promising future snuffed out by mental illness....

What is ironic is that the majority (probably all) of the people involved and interviewed probably support the deinstitutionalization craze that has gripped America since the 1970s. I wonder whether a firm public policy of forced commitment would have helped this woman. My suspicion is that it would have. That is not to say that our institutions were wonderful, but an all-or-nothing approach makes no sense. We have moved the mentally ill out of sometimes awful psychiatric facilities into the revolving door of the street, prison and an early death.

I was among those who has opposed forced institutionalization.  The practice used to be rife with abuse, and when it was really being challenged in the 1970's it was with recent knowledge of how institutionalization for supposed mental health issues had been used in the Soviet Union as a tool against dissent.  And in a world where political partisans still routinely assign negative mental health diagnoses to their political enemies and have even suggested using mental health diagnosis-from-a-distance to unseat the current President, there is still a lot of possibility for abuse.  But seeing that most of those who would have been in state mental hospitals are now in prison or living (and dying) on the streets, I am open to having made a mistake.   I am still not sure, though, who advocates for such people who are without friends and family and would help guard against their abuse.

A Government Healthcare Alternative

A few years ago I began to find the hard-core libertarian anarcho-capitalist advocacy to be getting sterile.  I would sit in some local discussion groups and the things we would argue about were so far outside of reality or what was realistically politically possible that they seemed pointless to talk about.  Taking a simplified example, baseball purists can argue all day the designated hitter rule should go away but it is never going to happen (players support it because it creates another starting roster spot and owners like it because it juices offensive numbers which drive ratings).  So I embarked on suggesting some left-right compromise positions on certain issues.

One result was my proposed climate compromise, which fit the classic definition of a good compromise (both sides don't like it) as many skeptics disowned me for writing it and the environmental Left campaigned hard against a similar proposal in Washington State.

I tried something similar with a proposal for restructuring the government role in health care.  First, I defined what I think are the two most important problems a government health care proposal has to address.  Most current and proposed plans fail to address at least one of these:

The first is a problem largely of the government's own creation, that incentives (non-tax-ability of health care benefits) and programs (e.g. Medicare) have been created for first dollar third-party payment of medical expenses.  This growth of third-party payment has eliminated the incentives for consumers to shop and make tradeoffs for health care purchases, the very activities that impose price and quality discipline on most other markets.

The second problem that likely dominates everyone's fears is getting a bankrupting medical expense whose costs are multiples of one's income, and having that care be either uninsured or leading to cancellation of one's insurance or future years.

I think the second point is key.  Everyone keeps talking about a goal of having coverage -- coverage even if you don't have money or don't have pre-existing conditions.  But that is not, I think, the real human need here.  The real need is to be protected from catastrophe, a personal health-care crisis so expensive it might bankrupt you, or even worse, might deny you the ability to get the full range of life-saving care.  Everything else in the health care debate and rolled up in Obamacare is secondary to this need.  Sure there are many other "asks" out there for things people would like to have or wish they had or might kind of like to have, but satisfy this need and the majority of Americans will be satisfied.

And so I proposed this:

So my suggestion ... was to scrap whatever we are doing now and have the government pay all medical expenses over 10% of one's income.  Anything under that was the individual's responsibility, though some sort of tax-advantaged health savings account would be a logical adjunct program.

I found out later that Megan McArdle, who knows way more about health care policy than I, has been suggestion something similar.

How would a similar program work for health care? The government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for health care over a certain percentage of adjusted gross income—the number would have to be negotiated through the political process, but I have suggested between 15 and 20 percent. There could be special treatment for people living at or near the poverty line, and for people who have medical bills that exceed the set percentage of their income for five years in a row, so that the poor and people with chronic illness are not disadvantaged by the system.

In exchange, we would get rid of the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance, and all the other government health insurance programs, with the exception of the military’s system, which for obvious reasons does need to be run by the government. People would be free to insure the gap if they wanted, and such insurance would be relatively cheap, because the insurers would see their losses strictly limited. Or people could choose to save money in a tax-deductible health savings account to cover the eventual likelihood of a serious medical problem.

A few weeks ago I started reading the blog from the Niskanen Center after my friend Brink Lindsey moved there from Cato.  If I understand him, Niskanen has quickly become a home to many libertarian-ish folks who focus on real workable, executable policy proposals more than maintaining libertarian purity.  In that blog, Ed Dolan has proposed something he calls UCC (Universal Catastrophic Coverage) which would work very similarly to what I proposed earlier:

Universal catastrophic coverage is not meant to cover every healthcare need of every citizen. Instead, UCC would offer protection from those relatively rare but ruinous healthcare expenses that are truly unaffordable. (Note: As we use the term UCC here, it is not to be confused with the more narrowly defined catastrophic insurance that is available, in limited circumstances, under the ACA.)

Here is how UCC might work, as outlined in National Affairs by Kip Hagopian and Dana Goldman. Their version of the policy would scale each family’s deductible according to household income. The exact parameters would be subject to negotiation, but to use some simplified numbers, the deductible might be set equal to 10 percent of the amount by which a household’s income exceeds the Medicaid eligibility level, now about $40,000 for a family of four. Under that formula, a middle-class family earning $85,000 a year would face a deductible of $4,500 per family member, perhaps capped at twice that amount for households of more than two people. Following the same formula, the deductible for a household with $1 million of income would be $96,000.

The cost of the catastrophic policy would be covered by the government, either directly or through a refundable tax credit. The policies themselves could, as in the Swiss model, be offered by private insurers, subject to clear standards for pricing and coverage. Alternatively, they could take the form of a public option, for example, the right to buy into a high-deductible version of Medicare.

With UCC in place, people could choose among several ways to meet their out-of-pocket costs, which, for middle-class families, would be comparable to those of policies now offered on the ACA exchanges.

One alternative would be to buy supplemental insurance to cover all or part of expenses up to the UCC deductible. The premiums for such supplemental coverage would be far lower than policies now sold on the ACA exchanges, since the UCC policy would set a ceiling on claims for which the insurer would be responsible. If the supplemental policies included modest deductibles or co-pays of their own, they would be more affordable still. Although UCC itself would be a federal program, the supplemental insurance market would continue to be regulated by the states to meet their particular needs.

Very likely, many middle-class families would forego supplemental insurance and cover all of their routine health care costs from their regular household budgets, the way they now pay for repairs to their homes or cars. Doing so would be easier still if they took advantage of tax-deductible health savings accounts—a mechanism that is already on the books, and could be expanded as part of reform legislation.

The main thing that has always flummoxed me is that I have no idea how expensive this plan might be.  Dolan is claiming it could be done at reasonable cost.

As it turns out, the numbers don’t look all that bad. Because UCC leaves responsibility for routine care with individual families, in line with their ability to pay, it would be far less expensive than a system that offered first-dollar coverage to everyone. Hagopian and Goldman estimate that their version of UCC would cost less than half as much as the projected costs of the ACA.

The impact on the federal budget would be further moderated if the tax deduction for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) were phased out as UCC came online. Tax expenditures for ESI currently cost the budget an estimated $235 billion per year, an

Coke and Pepsi Healthcare Reform -- It's All About the Credit

Over the last several years, when the successes and failures of the PPACA/Obamacare/Health Care reform entirely accrued to Democrats, the Republicans fought against market stabilization funds as unwarranted subsidies for insurance companies.  My understanding is that the original PPACA included a market stabilization method, but it was written as being revenue neutral - ie funds from insurers who had healthier than average subscriber pools would be transferred to insurers who had sicker subscribers.  But soon, all insurers were losing money and premiums were rising and insurers were dropping out of the exchanges.  So President Obama transferred money from other sources to give extra market stabilization funds, e.g. subsidies, to insurers.  Republicans fought this action in the courts.  There was a principled position that Obama's actions were not legal, but Republicans were also happy to see the PPACA failing.  If Democrats in Congress could have made any one change to the PPACA last year, it likely would have been to increase these stabilization or subsidy funds, which I presume the Republicans would have fought.

Now, it is clear the public and the media is going to hang any future PPACA problems around Republican necks.  Whether this is fair or not is almost irrelevant -- one can see from Republican actions that they feel this to be true, at least in the Senate.  Because now Republicans are proposing market stabilization subsidies that are likely higher than Democrats would have even dreamed of asking for:

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases its estimate of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare discussion draft this week, it will undoubtedly state that the bill will lower health insurance premiums. A whopping $65 billion in payments to insurers over the next three years virtually guarantees this over the short-term.

Indeed, Senate Republican staff have reportedly been telling members of Congress that the bill is designed to lower premiums between now and the 2020 election—hence the massive amounts of money for plan years through 2021, whose premiums will be announced in the heat of the next presidential campaign....

Section 106 of the bill creates two separate “stability funds,” one giving payments directly to insurers to “stabilize” state insurance markets, and the second giving money to states to improve their insurance markets or health care systems. The insurer stability fund contains $50 billion—$15 billion for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 and 2021. The fund for state innovation contains $62 billion, covering calendar years 2019 through 2026.

This goes against pretty much all of the principled reasons Republicans opposed Obamacare in the first place, but given the choice of following principle or using our tax money to help buy another couple years in power, both parties will always make the second choice.  Of course, being given all that they would have wanted last year, the Democrats will likely not sign on for this as they don't want to bail Republicans out any more than Republicans wanted to bail Democrats out.

Republican Obamacare Changes Are Senseless

I can't even call the Republican proposed changes to Obamacare awful -- they are senseless.   There is no framework I can devise, either ideological or pragmatic, in which they make sense.  Republican commentators seem to be divided between those who think this new legislation sucks and those who think it sucks but needs to be looked at in a larger legislative framework.   The latter argue that this first bill is merely all that can be done in reconciliation, and that other changes will be coming later.  But of course, no one will tell you what they plan for later (if they even know themselves).  This approach is at least as bad as the original Democrat "we have to pass the bill to find out what is in it" approach.  At least the full plan for Obamacare was there to be read, even if it was a stultifying 2000 pages.  How can we possibly assess what the Republicans are trying to do if they will not  outline their whole plan?

I refuse to even take the time to criticize this seriousness mess in detail.  If you really need that, see Megan McArdle for example.  What we have right now is the legislative equivalent of Trump's original half-baked, rushed immigration order.  This pile of garbage will likely last about as long.

A Global Economy in Health Care Services? Good!

Kevin Drum laments that people are "Americans Flee America For Overseas Health Care Just Like Canadians."  My response in his comments:

I am confused by your using the word "flee". If I buy a Toyota, no one says I am "fleeing" the US manufacturing system. It is a global economy, and I don't know why the globalization of health care services is anything but a good thing. We have put so many barriers in the way of expanding capacity (licensing, certificates of need, FDA approvals, etc) and legislated so many artificial monopolies in health care, it seems perfectly reasonable, even good news, that competition for medical services is emerging from other countries.

Disney Wait Times Are Among The Most Transparent Service Numbers Anywhere

How often does Amazon fail to deliver Prime shipments in two days?  I have no idea -- I know it has happened to me sometimes, but they don't publish the metric.  What is the average wait time on the phone with the IRS?  We don't know.  What is the average wait time at a TSA checkpoint?  We don't know.

One thing we most certainly do know, and can know any time on any day, is the current wait time for any Disney ride.  I bring this up because some goofball in the Obama Administration made this absurd statement trying to justify the lack of transparency for VA wait times:

When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Bruce McQuain rightly points out the downside of a longer wait for Space Mountain is just a tiny bit lower than the downside of waiting for heart surgery.

But I want to add that this statement is not even close to being factually correct on its face.  Here is an example of a site that has Disney ride wait times in real time, but there are dozens of apps and sites with this info because Disney makes the data public in an API most anyone can access.  (My favorite is Touring Plans, which has built a whole Disney trip planning business on top of Disney published wait time data -- as an aside, if you are a Disney fan or future visitor, you should join).

But I would go further.  I know for a fact that Disney spends a ton of time internally planning and improving ride throughput and capacity entirely with an eye to reducing wait times (and also, by the way, to making design changes that make ride waits more enjoyable with in-line activities).  They have a sophisticated operational research staff working on this all the time, and they are constantly tweaking their Fastpass system which would not even begin to work correctly if they did not understand ride wait times down to the second decimal place.  And by the way, if their management found out that some folks in their organization were fudging line wait time data, I am pretty sure the offenders would not be working there any more (as they are at the VA).

Postscript:  I am still amazed by the fail here.  Anyone who has been to Disney even once will know that all wait times are displayed all over the park on boards, and that at each ride, every few minutes a customer will get an electronic card at the beginning of the ride that precisely times their wait.   Seriously, where do they get folks like this who can blithely utter nonsense as if they know what they are talking about.  The whole premise is screwed up.  Yes, good service companies measure overall satisfaction. This is marginally useful data, but what does one do with it?  To really fix and improve the experience, one also has to measure many important bits of the experience.  Saying that one should pay attention to only one output metric and nothing else would get you laughed out of any quality course I have ever been to.

Update:  Also, I would add that there is a lot of market pressure on the wait time issue pushing Disney to improvement on lines, market pressure that does not exist on the VA (which is one reason they totally lack any accountability).  Disney has its FastPass system for helping guests manage ride waits, but both Universal and Six Flags have their own different systems (Universal has a higher level ticket you can buy that gets you preferred access to all rides, Six Flags Magic Mountain has a pager system where you tell it which ride you want to do next and they page you when your place is ready).

Thought for the Weekend:

From the people who brought you the DMV comes.... Postalcare

postalcare

We Want the Term "Liberal" Back

[This is first in a series of comments I would like to post at Mother Jones, but I have been banned]

Liberal Kevin Drum is crowing that the ACA is "doing exactly what it was designed to do" in "successfully browbeating" and "threatening" young people to buy health insurance, a product that in most cases they don't want and can ill afford -- particularly since the rules of Obamacare risk-rating jack up the prices to young healthy people in order to subsidize the premiums of older, wealthier, more politically powerful people.  Wow, the term "liberal" has sure come a long way, hasn't it?  Those of us who still respect the dignity and autonomy of individuals, and by the way are horrified at the idea of having younger lower income people forced to subsidize older higher income people, would like our term "liberal" back.

I will say, though, that it is nice to see Progressives being more up-front about their authoritarianism.

An Obamacare Alternative

After criticizing Obamacare at a party, another person said something like "well you can't criticize it without suggesting an alternative."  This of course is total bullsh*t.  The passage of a bad law to imperfectly achieve objectives with which I disagree does not obligate me to craft alternative legislation to achieve those objectives.

But I decided to take a swing at it anyway.  Taking a step back, I said that I thought there were two overriding problems in health care that the government might address.

The first is a problem largely of the government's own creation, that incentives (non-tax-ability of health care benefits) and programs (e.g. Medicare) have been created for first dollar third-party payment of medical expenses.  This growth of third-party payment has eliminated the incentives for consumers to shop and make tradeoffs for health care purchases, the very activities that impose price and quality discipline on most other markets.

The second problem that likely dominates everyone's fears is getting a bankrupting medical expense whose costs are multiples of one's income, and having that care be either uninsured or leading to cancellation of one's insurance or future years.

So my suggestion I made up on the spot (and I am a little fuzzy on the details as my friend had actually cracked open a bottle of Van Winkle bourbon for a few of us, my first taste of that magic elixir) was to scrap whatever we are doing now and have the government pay all medical expenses over 10% of one's income.  Anything under that was the individual's responsibility, though some sort of tax-advantaged health savings account would be a logical adjunct program.

I obviously make policy better when I am drinking absurdly rare and expensive bourbons, because Megan McArdle (who knows a hell of a lot more than I about health care economics) has apparently been advocating something similar for quite a while

How would a similar program work for health care? The government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for health care over a certain percentage of adjusted gross income—the number would have to be negotiated through the political process, but I have suggested between 15 and 20 percent. There could be special treatment for people living at or near the poverty line, and for people who have medical bills that exceed the set percentage of their income for five years in a row, so that the poor and people with chronic illness are not disadvantaged by the system.

In exchange, we would get rid of the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance, and all the other government health insurance programs, with the exception of the military’s system, which for obvious reasons does need to be run by the government. People would be free to insure the gap if they wanted, and such insurance would be relatively cheap, because the insurers would see their losses strictly limited. Or people could choose to save money in a tax-deductible health savings account to cover the eventual likelihood of a serious medical problem.

The missing piece here, as was in my plan, is I have no idea how much this would cost.

Thanks Obamacare!

I just got the first year bill from my payroll company for the extra reporting we have to do each year vis a vis Obamacare:  $7195.50 for 2015.  Note that this adds absolutely no value -- this is not the cost of insurance or cost of any extra taxes sent to Uncle Sam.  This is merely the cost to handle all the new paperwork required in the law.

I will repeat what I have said before -- the Republicans tend to focus narrowly on taxes and often tend to miss or downplay the regulatory issues, which I think actually loom larger in destroying economic growth.

Electronic Medical Records: Last Year's Silver Bullet

I was skeptical in the extreme when President Obama and other PPACA supporters  claimed so much savings would come from electronic medical records.  While in theory good, portable records might prevent some accidents and streamline care in certain emergency situations where there might not be time to take a full history, my actual experience with these systems did not give me much confidence.  And it just sounded like yet another politician's silver bullet  (HMO's were another such bullet 20 years ago).

This was a pretty powerful article about medical records and patient care.

There is no point in trying to automate the diagnostic process with an expert system AND retain the 12-year-trained doctor in the room.  It strikes me as one or the other.  Perhaps these systems are close to working fine and doctors can see themselves getting automated out of a job and this type of job is their last-ditch attempt to stop them.  Or perhaps the systems really suck and add a lot of extra time and cost.  It will be interesting when this has a chance to be fully studied.

Worst Argument for Regulation Ever

We generally use startup activity as a proxy for positive innovation and future increases in productivity and consumer value.  But it is only a proxy - based on the theory that in a free economy new startups generally add new value or die.  Startups per se are not inherently positive, especially when all they are doing is fixing the inefficiencies and mandates imposed by government regulation

I wrote about a new study suggesting that new federal regulation doesn't inhibit the creation of new startup companies in an industry. In fact, it might actually stimulate the creation of startups. This seems counterintuitive, but a reader with some experience in the education and health care sectors—which were influenced by NCLB and Obamacare, respectively—proposes an explanation for this:

Healthcare startups have absolutely exploded post-ACA....This was pretty well anticipated by venture capital; a bunch of Sand Hill firms started putting together ad-hoc health IT teams shortly after the ACA was passed, on the basic logic that anything that changed an industry as much as the ACA did would necessarily create a lot of startup opportunities.

Drum says, well this may be good or may be bad.  Look, it HAS to be bad.  All this investment and activity is going into trying to get back to even from productivity losses imposed by the government, or is being spent addressing government mandates for new services that the market did not want or value.  This is a diversion of resources from new value-creation to fixing things, and as such is just the broken windows fallacy re-written in a new form.

The language he is using, of shaking things up, is a bit like that of chemistry.  He seems to imagine that markets can reach and get stuck in local maxima, so that government action that shakes the system out of these maxima (like annealing in a metal) is positive in that it allows the system to progress to a better state over time even if the government's action initially makes things worse.  I know of absolutely no evidence for this being true, and my strong suspicion given how many industries the government has trashed is that this is rare or non-existent.  And impossible to spot, even if it did exist.  Not to mention the fact it is a total joke to talk of health care as if it was some pristine untouched-by-government industry before Obamacare.

I Hate to Say I Told You So, But Retail Sector Full-Time Work At An End

I have to say I told you so, but, from a reader, Staples threatens to fire anyone who works over 25 hours:

Part-time Staples workers are furious that they could be fired for working more than 25 hours a week.

The company implemented the policy to avoid paying benefits under the Affordable Care Act, reports Sapna Maheshwari at Buzzfeed. The healthcare law mandates that workers with more than 30 hours a week receive healthcare.

If Staples doesn't offer benefits, it could be fined $3,000 in penalties per person.

I can tell you from personal experience that $3000 is a staggering penalty.  For a full time worker at $8 an hour, this is over 2 months pay -- 2 months pay extra the company has to pay but the worker never sees.

As I have written before, we have moved heaven and Earth to get every employee we can in our company converted to part-time.  We had absolutely no alternative -- after seeking quotes from about 20 places, no one would offer our company any sort of health insurance plan at any price**.  So no matter what we did, we were facing the $3000 penalty for each full-time workers, so all we could do to manage the situation was convert full-time workers to part-time.

 

** We have seasonal workers, which makes insuring us awkward and expensive because there are high administrative costs with people constantly going on and off the plan.  We also have a very old work force.  Obamacare prevents insurers from charging the much higher premiums to older people that our costs might justify -- it milks younger people with prices well above their cost to serve to pay for subsidizing older people.  Insurers would be crazy to voluntarily add groups that are purely old people, they would lose their shirt.  So they refuse to quote us.

Wow, Who Could Have Predicted This?

Full-time employment in one fast-food survey drops over last several years from 50% of workers to less than 2%.

This is the conclusion I draw from my survey in December of 136 fast-food restaurants (franchisees) that employed close to 3,500 workers. Before 2014 about half the employees were “full time” as defined by ObamaCare; that is, they worked 30 hours or more a week. The potential cost to the employers of providing mandated health insurance to their full-time staff would have been about $7 million a year. But by the time the employers took advantage of all their legal options they were able to reduce their cost to less than 1% of that amount.

The first step was to make all hourly workers part time. That may seem easy to do, but in the fast-food business it’s not uncommon that employees fail to show up for work. Other employees are asked to work additional hours to prevent the restaurant from shutting down. By the end of 2014, 58 employees had crossed the line to full-time status and were eligible for mandated health insurance in 2015.

My 2012 article about the end of full-time work in the retail service sector.  The follow-up at Forbes was here.

Making Everyone a Criminal

From Atlas Shrugged:

Dr. Ferris smiled. . . . . ."We've waited a long time to get something on you. You honest men are such a problem and such a headache. But we knew you'd slip sooner or later - and this is just what we wanted."

[Hank Reardon:]  "You seem to be pleased about it."

"Don't I have good reason to be?"

"But, after all, I did break one of your laws."

"Well, what do you think they're for?"

Dr. Ferris did not notice the sudden look on Rearden's face, the look of a man hit by the first vision of that which he had sought to see. Dr. Ferris was past the stage of seeing; he was intent upon delivering the last blows to an animal caught in a trap.

"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against - then you'll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We're after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you'd better get wise to it. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt. Now, that's the system, Mr. Rearden, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."

Here is the same thing, Obama Administration style

Major U.S. corporations have broadly supported President Barack Obama's healthcare reform despite concerns over several of its elements, largely because it included provisions encouraging the wellness programs.

The programs aim to control healthcare costs by reducing smoking, obesity, hypertension and other risk factors that can lead to expensive illnesses. A bipartisan provision in the 2010 healthcare reform law allows employers to reward workers who participate and penalize those who don't.

But recent lawsuits filed by the administration's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), challenging the programs at Honeywell International and two smaller companies, have thrown the future of that part of Obamacare into doubt.

The lawsuits infuriated some large employers so much that they are considering aligning themselves with Obama's opponents, according to people familiar with the executives' thinking.

"The fact that the EEOC sued is shocking to our members," said Maria Ghazal, vice-president and counsel at the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives of more than 200 large U.S. corporations. "They don't understand why a plan in compliance with the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is the target of a lawsuit," she said. "This is a major issue to our members."

At the exact same moment, one branch of the Administration is encouraging an activity that another branch is working to criminalize.

If You Like Your Health Plan...

We received a letter from Blue Cross / Blue Shield of AZ saying we could keep our plan, but the cost goes from about $579 a month to $739 a month in January of 2015 (a 27.6% increase).  Note that this is for a pretty high deductible health plan, something like $5000.  We wrote to our broker to explore options.  We got this response:

Crazy as this latest BC [Blue Cross] rate increase is it is a lot better than Obamacare.  I ran the same plan under the Affordable Care Act with BC and the rate for 1/1/15 would be $963.70 a month and if you went to the $6300 deductible plan the rate would still be $914 a month.  So I guess we are all lucky to be out of ACA until we are forced into it.  Now there is one variable that could lower your cost and that is if your household income in 2015 will be under $92k you could go into the Marketplace for premium assistance from our wonderful Federal government. If it is going to be higher than that be grateful you are where you are!

As predicted in advance, Obamacare and the exchange are not about saving money.  The only people who are saving money are those getting taxpayer subsidies in the exchange.

Government Supply-Side Health Care Restrictions that Raise Costs

One of the least reported issues related to health care cost inflation is the existence of artificial government restrictions on health care supply, often called "certificates of need".

The COPN [certificate of public need] law is supply-side Obamacare: top-down, command-and-control restrictions on which providers can offer which services. A certificate of public need is, essentially, a government permission slip. Without one, a Virginia doctor can’t put an MRI machine in his clinic. A hospital can’t build a new wing. A hospital company can’t add a satellite campus. And so on.

Getting such permission slips is a long and costly process. The owner of a Northern Virginia radiology practice, for example, spent five years and $175,000 asking permission to buy a new MRI machine. The state said no.

One reason the process takes so long is that competitors often fight such requests. When Bon Secours proposed the St. Francis Medical Center in Chesterfield, rival chain HCA fought it vigorously, arguing there was insufficient demand. The hospital was approved and enjoys a robust business. You’d think state regulators would laugh off competitors’ arguments, but sometimes they’re actually taken seriously. When a Richmond radiology practice wanted to move—not add, but move—a radiation device to its Hanover offices, the state said no in part because Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center worried the project “could take some of their business.”

This is cronyism and protection of incumbent competitors, pure and simple.  It is often justified by the economically-ignorant as reducing costs because it reduces expenditures on expensive machinery.  But in what industry can you think of does restricting supply ever reduce costs?

In any other industry, the proper response to that would be: So what? If Kroger sets up across the street from Food Lion, we consider that good for consumers: They have more choice. And if they migrate from Food Lion to Kroger, that’s not a bad thing. It means they’re getting more utility for their grocery dollar.

Studies of the COPN system around the country have confirmed what seems intuitively obvious. A joint examination by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission found that COPN regulations hurt competition, fail to contain costs, and “can actually lead to price increases.” Restricting supply raises prices? Imagine that.

Well, My Company Is Officially Required to Buy a Product That Does Not Exist For Us

As of next year, my company is required to offer health care plans to our full-time employees or else pay a penalty.    Unfortunately, after an extensive market search, no one will sell me such a policy -- not even the government health care exchange for small businesses.

Let's take a step back.  Business owners have had the rules pounded into us over the last few years, but many of you may not be familiar with the details.  The detail rules are here, as "simplified" as much as possible by the NFIB, but don't read them unless you have to or your head will explode.  The simple way to think of it is that there are two penalties out there:

  • The "A" penalty is for companies that do not offer any sort of health plan, no matter how crappy, to their full-time employees.  The A penalty in this case is $2,000 per full-time employee, with the first 30** free (so with 60 FT employees and no health plan, the penalty is (60-30) x $2,000 = $60,000 a year.
  • The "B" penalty is for companies that avoid the "A" penalty.  If a health plan is offered, but is not affordable (ie the employee monthly share of premiums is higher than a government-set floor) then the company gets penalized $3,000 for every full-time employee who both goes into an exchange and gets a plan with a government-subsidized premium.   There is a cap on the "B" penalty that it can be no higher than if the "A" penalty was applied to the whole company.

We have always pretty much assumed we were going to get the B penalty.  For minimum wage workers, the floor contribution is something like $9o a month, so the company share over a year for a typical employee of ours would be way over $3000.  Also, since over half of our full-time employees are on Medicare and another portion of them are on some sort of retirement plan from a corporation, we don't expect that many to go into the exchange anyway.  So we plan to just pay the penalty.

But we had expected to avoid the A penalty by offering some sort of policy to our employees.  When experts present this stuff, they act like only the dumbest of the dumb companies would ever be saddled with the A penalty.  After all, the company does not even have to pay anything for the policy, they just have to offer something.

But it turns out that all the things that protect us from the B penalty make us almost un-insurable.  First and foremost, insurers have a minimum participation rate they demand.  They are not going to go through all the overhead costs of setting you up on their plan if no one is going to sign up.  In the Government Small Business Health Care Exchange (SHOP), that minimum participation rate is around 70%.  No WAY we can meet that, since over half or our employees are on Medicare and would thus not sign up for anything.  The fact that the average age of our workforce is in the 60's, maybe even the 70's, just makes things worse.  Obamacare gives insurers only limited ability to price for higher risk, so they lose money on older people.  That means they are going to avoid like the plague signing up any group like ours that is all older people.

So, as a result, I am required by law, under harsh financial penalties, to purchase a product that is not available to me.  Had President Obama required that I buy 2 pounds of rocks from Mars, the result would not have been any more unfair.

By the way, I have for a couple of years now been discussing my efforts to convert all our full-time employees to part-time.  I have gotten a lot of grief for that in the comments.  But do you see why now?  The Administration is levying a penalty on me that I cannot avoid.  That penalty is calculated as a multiple of the number of full-time workers I employ.  The only way I can reduce the penalty is to reduce the number of full-time employees.

It is a sorry state of affairs to have to see my greatest business achievement of the last year was to get my number of full-time employees in a workforce of over 350 people down to just 42.  This year, we will work to get it under 30.  If we can do that, we will avoid all penalties entirely without having to mess with the health insurance marketplace.

 

** As a transition measure, the first 80 are free in 2015, which means my company will avoid penalties in 2015 no matter what but not in 2016 unless we can get our full-time employee count down further.

 

Postscript:  One of the oddball and confusing parts of the law is that the word "full-time" has multiple meanings.  This year, companies with more than 100 full time equivalents (FTE) are subject to the mandate.    Because of this, at cocktail parties, I have people walk up to me all the time saying the law does/doesn't apply to me based on a factoid they heard about minimum workforce sizes.  I have 350 total employees of whom 42 are full time.  Some say that puts me over 100 (the 350) and some say that puts me under the 100 (the 42).  It turns out that neither are relevant in determining if I am under or over 100, it is a third calculation that matters.  We do have more than 100 FTE, but we have less than 80 full-time employees that triggers the penalties in 2015.  Go figure.

Arrogance of the Elite

I am pretty freaking cynical about the political process, so it takes something pretty bad to catch my attention.  This attitude by Obamacare architect Jonathon Gruber, which is likely shared by most of the Administration, simply makes me sick:

An architect of the federal healthcare law said last year that a "lack of transparency" and the "stupidity of the American voter" helped Congress approve ObamaCare.

In a clip unearthed Sunday, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Jonathan Gruber appears on a panel and discusses how the reform earned enough votes to pass.

He suggested that many lawmakers and voters didn't know what was in the law or how its financing worked, and that this helped it win approval.

"Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” Gruber said. "And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass."

Gruber made the comment while discussing how the law was "written in a tortured way" to avoid a bad score from the Congressional Budget Office. He suggested that voters would have rejected ObamaCare if the penalties for going without health insurance were interpreted as taxes, either by budget analysts or the public.

"If CBO scored the [individual] mandate as taxes, the bill dies," Gruber said.

"If you had a law that made it explicit that healthy people are going to pay in and sick people are going to get subsidies, it would not have passed," he added.

By the way, Jonathon Gruber was the one in 2012 who said over and over that the limitation of subsidies to state-run exchanges was not a drafting error, but was an intentional feature meant to give incentives to states to create exchanges.  Now that it is clear that incentive did not do its job, and a case is in front of the Supreme Court attempting to enforce the plain language of the law, Gruber is now saying that he mispoke (over and over again) in 2012 and it was a typo.  Given the fact that he has now admitted he would gladly lie (and has) to the public to defend Obamacare, how much should we believe his current claims?

Healthcare Deductibles Rising -- Why This is GOOD News

Things like Obamacare cannot be discussed, it seems, in anything but a political context.  So if you don't like Obamacare, everything that happens has to be bad. But I actually think this is good news, and goes against my fears in advance of Obamacare.  I had been worried that Obamacare would just increase the trends of more and more health care spending being by third-party payers.  And my guess is that this is happening, when you consider how many people have gone from paying cash to having a policy, either a regular policy or expanded Medicaid.

A report out today puts numbers behind what hit many workers when they signed up for health insurance during open enrollment last year: deductible shock.

Premiums for employer-paid insurance are up 3% this year, but deductibles are up nearly 50% since 2009, the report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows.

The average deductible this year is $1,217, up from $826 five years ago, Nearly 20% of workers overall have to pay at least $2,000 before their insurance kicks in, while workers at firms with 199 or fewer employees are feeling the pain of out-of-pocket costs even more: A third of these employees at small companies pay at least $2,000 deductibles.

“Skin-in-the-game insurance” is becoming the norm,says Kaiser Family Foundation CEO Drew Altman, referring to the higher percentage of health care costs employees have to share.

Honestly, this is good news, sort of.  I don't like the coercion and lack of choice, but the main problem with health care is that the person receiving the benefits is not the person paying the bills, which means there is no incentive to shop or make care tradeoffs.  Higher deductibles mean more people are going to be actively shopping and caring what health services cost, and that is a good thing for prices and health care inflation.

So In The End, The VA Was Rewarded, Not Punished

Remember the whole VA thing?  It has mostly been forgotten, though we will all remember it again, or more accurately get to experience it ourselves, once the Democrats manage to get single payer passed.

People talk about government employees being motivated by "public service" but in fact very few government agencies have any tangible performance metrics linked to public service, and when they do (as in the case of the VA wait times) they just game them.   At the end of the day, nothing enforces fidelity to the public good like competition and consumer choice, two things no government agency allows.

I will admit that government employees in agencies may have some interest in public welfare, but in the hierarchy of needs, the following three things dominate above any concerns for the public:

  • Keeping the agency in existence
  • Maintaining employment levels, and if that is achieved, increasing employment levels
  • Getting more budget

But look at the VA response in this context:

  • The agency remains in existence and most proposals to privatize certain parts were beaten back
  • No one was fired and employment levels remain the same
  • The agency was rewarded with a big bump in its budget

The VA won!  Whereas a private company with that kind of negative publicity about how customers were treated would have as a minimum seen a huge revenue and market share loss, and might have faced bankruptcy, the VA was given more money.

Murry Rothbard via Bryan Caplan:

On the free market, in short, the consumer is king, and any business firm that wants to make profits and avoid losses tries its best to serve the consumer as efficiently and at as low a cost as possible. In a government operation, in contrast, everything changes. Inherent in all government operation is a grave and fatal split between service and payment, between the providing of a service and the payment for receiving it. The government bureau does not get its income as does the private firm, from serving the consumer well or from consumer purchases of its products exceeding its costs of operation. No, the government bureau acquires its income from mulcting the long-suffering taxpayer. Its operations therefore become inefficient, and costs zoom, since government bureaus need not worry about losses or bankruptcy; they can make up their losses by additional extractions from the public till. Furthermore, the consumer, instead of being courted and wooed for his favor, becomes a mere annoyance to the government someone who is "wasting" the government's scarce resources. In government operations, the consumer is treated like an unwelcome intruder, an interference in the quiet enjoyment by the bureaucrat of his steady income.

If You Like Federal Curbs on School Bake Sales, You Are Going to Love the Results of Obamacare

From George Will, the logic behind what I call the health care Trojan Horse

Washington’s response to the menace of school bake sales illustrates progressivism’s ratchet: The federal government subsidizes school lunches, so it must control the lunches’ contents, which validates regulation of what it calls “competitive foods,” such as vending machine snacks. Hence the need to close the bake sale loophole, through which sugary cupcakes might sneak: Foods sold at fundraising bake sales must, with some exceptions, conform to federal standards.

So if school lunch programs are a platform for so much micro-regulation, how much regulation do you think the government takeover of healthcare will justify?  If government is paying most of the health care bills, then any activity that might affect your health is then logically subject to government regulation, if for no other reason than to protect against additional costs.  Motorcycle helmet laws have been justified for years on this logic that helmetless riders impose additional costs on government health programs.  Well, if that works for motorcycling, why shouldn't government be heavily regulating skiing?  Or for that matter, why should it allow people to drive cars at all?  Perhaps we should have to get government approval before every car trip to make sure it is not "frivolous" and creating future health care costs through accident risk.

Or how about that most costly-to-health-care activity of all: sex.  Sex spreads expensive diseases.  It can lead to expensive procedures like abortion.  And of course it can lead to costly pregnancies and, worst of all, new lives that have to be maintained for another 80 years by the government health care system.  If funding school lunch programs leads logically to banning cupcake sales at schools, why won't Obamacare lead logically to micro-regulation of our every activity?