It is frequently stated that the current Republican Congress is ineffective in getting anything done. That is not entirely true. A big issue was decided this past summer. The failure of Congress to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act means that the goal of universal healthcare for all Americans is here to stay.
The question now is the best way to implement universal healthcare. Senator Bernie Sanders (D, VT) has just introduced a single payer universal plan, “Medicare for All.” Here are some of the problems associated with such a plan:
At least three states, Vermont, Colorado and California have recently rejected state-wide single-payer plans because of the huge costs involved.
The Urban Institute estimates that Medicare for All would increase federal spending by $32 trillion for the first ten years (compared to a very high current total national debt of $20 trillion).
Medicare is an inefficient hidebound system with over 140,000 procedure codes where private sector cost-saving measures, like competitive bidding for routine services, are rarely used.
There are now 155 million Americans who receive and like their employer provided health insurance and who will resist moving to a Medicare for All plan especially at the cost of a huge tax increase.
On the other hand the cost of healthcare in the U.S., public and private, now eats up 18% of GDP, almost twice as much as for any other developed country, and major changes need to be made to give individuals more direct responsibility for the cost of their own healthcare.
One attractive alternative is to limit the tax deduction for employer provided care to the cost of catastrophic coverage, at a cost of about $3000 per person per year. It could be made progressive by tying deductibles to income.
Conclusion. Healthcare spending in the U.S. is way too high and something major needs to be done. Universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare and Medicaid is an attractive alternative to single-payer Medicare for All.
Now that the Republicans have failed to replace the Affordable Care Act with a poor substitute, it is likely that a bipartisan plan will emerge. Both sides want changes in the existing structure of the ACA. The Democrats want to hold down the rapidly growing costs for individuals who purchase insurance through the exchanges. The Republicans want to hold down the overall cost of American healthcare which now exceeds 18% of GDP.
There should be plenty of room for compromise:
Medicaid. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project that under the House bill, which caps federal spending growth for Medicaid and saves hundreds of billions of dollars, total Medicaid enrollment will stay roughly constant above 70 million for the next decade, compared to 55 million before the ACA was enacted.
A Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus would fund cost-sharing payments to insurers, proposes curtailing the mandate on employers to provide health insurance to their workers, advances states’ ability to band together into regional compacts for selling insurance across state lines, and expands the opportunity for states to experiment with different ways of providing coverage.
Medicare. Just letting Medicare negotiate for drug prices and reducing the variation in the costs for post-acute care would provide huge savings, without even addressing inefficiencies in Medicare’s basic design.
Conclusion. The above plan holds down the cost of insurance purchased by individuals on the exchanges as well as taking significant steps to control the costs of both Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t address the huge inefficiency of employer provided care but nevertheless represents a big step forward towards implementing cost control in healthcare.
The Affordable Care Act was passed by a Democratic Congress in 2010 with no Republican support. It expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs which have now reached 18% of GDP and climbing.
The current Republican Senate bill to replace the ACA does attempt to control costs but is unable to attract enough support to pass.
The problem is to achieve both broad access and much lower costs at the same time. In general, Democrats prefer a single payer system while Republicans want to retain a free market approach. So compromise will be required.
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance should be replaced by a universal (and refundable) tax credit for all limited to the cost of catastrophic health insurance (with a high deductible). This will preserve expanded access as well as requiring everyone to pay attention to costs.
Tax preferred health savings accounts for routine healthcare expenses should be authorized and further subsidized for low-income families through the ACA exchanges.
Medicaid (for poverty-level families) should be put on a fixed federal budget to control runaway costs. States should be given much greater flexibility to direct resources to those with the greatest needs.
Redesign of Medicare. Medicare is currently being subsidized by the federal government (after FICA taxes and premiums paid) at over $400 billion per year. Introducing a defined contribution element into this single payer program will help to hold down costs.
Pre-existing Conditions can be covered with suitable enrollment windows and state-run high-risk pools.
Conclusion. The ACA has achieved nearly universal access to healthcare in the U.S. But costs continue to rise sharply. A universal tax credit combined with health savings accounts for the private market combined with a defined contribution single payer Medicare system has a good chance of getting overall healthcare costs under much better control.
The Affordable Care Act, established in 2010, greatly expanded access to healthcare in the U.S. However, in spite of its name, it has done nothing to control the rapidly increasing cost of healthcare which is the core of our debt problem.
The new Senate plan, struggling to gain enough support to pass, puts Medicaid on a budget but doesn’t even attempt to address wider aspects of the healthcare cost problem.
A wider approach is the best way to proceed and perhaps now it is the only way to succeed in getting something done. Mr. Peter Suderman, who writes for Reason magazine, proposes several principles for a new approach:
Work for broader coverage but not necessarily universal coverage. This allows focusing on other important features such as:
Unification, not fragmentation, is what should be emphasized. Medicare and Medicaid are paid for directly by the government. Employer provided coverage, subsidized through the tax code and costing $250 billion per year, is the biggest problem in the U.S. healthcare system. It incentivizes employers to provide ever more generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. It discourages job switching and entrepreneurship. Medicare ends up paying out far more than individuals have paid in.
Health insurance coverage is not the same as healthcare. For non-catastrophic, non-emergency expenses, affordability should be emphasized, rather than subsidies. Health savings accounts are a good way to accomplish this.
Focus on government assistance for the poorest and sickest. This means upgrading Medicaid, and coverage for pre-existing conditions, at the same time as putting Medicaid, Medicare and employer provided care all on a fixed, but reasonable, budget.
Conclusion. The cost of American healthcare is a huge problem. Hopefully the Senate will begin to address this fundamental problem as it struggles to pass a healthcare reform bill.
Recently I have been discussing the high cost of American healthcare and the urgent need to lower this cost. The current GOP plan, the American Health Care Act, partially addresses this problem by reforming the funding mechanism for Medicaid.
But much more needs to be done. All Americans will have to be involved in the solution and not just the poor. There are two main facets to the problem, neither of which is addressed by the AHCA:
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance should be replaced by a universal (and refundable) tax credit limited to the cost of catastrophic health insurance (with a high deductible).
Medicare needs to be redesigned so that well-off retirees pay for more of their health care. Details to follow soon.
The U.S. spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, public and private, about $3 trillion per year, and almost twice as much per capita as any other developed country. Furthermore this already enormous relative cost will continue to get worse without major changes in policy.
The main reason for the huge cost is that free market forces are not operating properly. More specifically, it is because most of us, as individual healthcare consumers, do not have enough “skin in the game.”
This conundrum is caused by our third party health insurance system whereby most of us receive health insurance through our employers. This gives us as individuals little incentive to pay attention to the cost of our own care and to try to keep these costs as low as possible.
A good way to fix this problem is to limit the exemption for employer provided insurance to the cost of catastrophic care with a high deductible. Routine medical expenses would be handled through individual (tax preferred) health savings accounts. The self-employed can be included by granting them a (refundable) tax credit also equivalent to the cost of catastrophic care.
Conclusion. Americans are fortunate to have access to high quality health care. But we are paying unsustainably high prices for it. If we cannot figure out a rational and sensible solution to this problem, our healthcare system will soon collapse from its own deadweight and we will end up with a tightly controlled, government run, single payer system.
The Democratic Affordable Care Act expands access to health insurance for millions of Americans. This is its great virtue. However it does nothing to rein in overall costs which is a huge deficiency.
The Republican American Health Care Act, passed by the House and being considered by the Senate, has both strengths and weaknesses, as I have previously discussed. Primarily, it puts Medicaid on a budget by block-granting it to the states with sufficient flexibility for the states to operate it much more efficiently. This needs to be done and is a big money saver.
The major problem with the AHCA is that all cost savings come from just one program, namely Medicaid, and this is a program for people with low incomes. Simple fairness, as well as the need for much bigger savings, dictates that financially well-off people should also have to share in solving the healthcare cost problem. This can and should be done in two different ways:
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance should be replaced with a universal (and refundable) tax credit sufficient to pay for catastrophic health insurance (with a high deductible). Also tax preferred Health Savings Accounts for all can be subsidized based on income. The purpose here is to force all of us to pay attention to, and take responsibility for, the cost of our own healthcare.
Redesign of Medicare. Medicare is already being subsidized by the federal government at a net cost (after FICA taxes and premiums paid) of over $400 billion per year, and this overall cost will continue to increase as the number of retirees increases and the net subsidy per retiree also increases (see chart). Details of possible redesign will be discussed later.
Conclusion. The ACA needs to be improved in many ways to get the cost of healthcare under control. The AHCA bill currently being considered by Congress needs major changes so that all Americans, rich and poor and in between, are part of the solution of our healthcare cost problem.
As I have discussed in previous posts, here and here, the American Health Care Act, the GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act, is a step in the right direction.
One of the best features of the GOP bill is its provisions to revamp the Medicaid program. The problems of Medicaid are well described by the healthcare expert, Avik Roy, here and here:
Medicaid was established in 1965 and now provides healthcare benefits for individuals and families with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level.
The states pay 40% of the costs on average while only controlling 5% of how the program is operated.
The federal Medicaid law mandates a laundry list of benefits which the states must provide. States cannot charge premiums and copays and deductibles are minimal.
Medicaid is the largest or second largest line item in nearly every state budget. The only tool states have in controlling costs is to pay doctors and hospitals less than private insurers pay for the same care. This means that fewer and fewer doctors are accepting Medicaid patients.
Thus Medicaid enrollees have poor access to healthcare. In fact, their health outcomes are typically no better than for those with no insurance at all.
An able-bodied adult on Medicaid receives about $6000 a year in government health-insurance benefits. Yet CBO estimates that five million Americans won’t sign up for Medicaid if the ACA individual mandate is repealed as proposed by the AHCA.
AHCA block grants will give states more flexibility to manage Medicaid’s costs in ways which increase access to doctors and other providers. It would also decrease federal outlays for Medicaid by $880 billion in its first decade.
AHCA’s goal is to ultimately merge Medicaid for able-bodied low-income adults into the system of tax credits which the AHCA proposes for those above the poverty line.
Conclusion. The AHCA will make Medicaid into a much more efficient, flexible and effective program for serving low-income individuals and families. This represents a first step in the entitlement reform which the U.S. so badly needs.