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.
My last post, “Why Is American Healthcare So Expensive?” suggests that we don’t have enough “skin in the game” because most costs are paid for by third party insurance companies. One way to alleviate this problem is to subsidize insurance coverage only for catastrophic care with a high deductible and to encourage health savings accounts to pay for routine healthcare expenses. But the University of Chicago’s John Cochrane points out in “After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care” that getting to a true free market in healthcare “will be a long hard road” because “both supply and demand must be freed.”
Health care supply. Cost reduction only comes from new entrants into a business, not reform of old businesses. But in 36 states, for example, every new hospital or even major purchase requires a Certificate of Need issued by Hospital Equalization Boards which have explicit mandates to defend the profitability of existing hospitals.
Health care demand. True “need” is simply not a well-defined concept when a third party is paying the bills. The consumer must pay a lot closer to the full marginal cost of healthcare, or perhaps receiving the full financial benefits of any economies which he is willing to accept.
What are the objections to establishing a free market system?
The homeless and mentally ill, etc. Charity will always be needed for those who fall through the cracks. This doesn’t require a nanny state for the rest of us.
Adverse selection. In a free market sick people are more likely to buy insurance and healthy people to forgo it. Sick people would pay more but “health status” insurance and guaranteed renewability will mitigate this problem.
Shopping paternalism, i.e. people faced with serious illnesses are incapable of making cost-based decisions. These people and their families will simply have to learn to shop around. In a competitive market, a hospital which routinely overcharges cash customers will be “creamed by Yelp reviews.”
Conclusion. There are only two ways to get health care spending under control. A single payer system with rigid regulations and severe rationing or else a deregulated free market system where individuals have primary responsibility for their own care. Americans are likely to prefer the second option if given a clear choice.
My last two posts have been devoted to discussing the prospects for a true free-market healthcare system in the U.S. Let’s bring this discussion down to earth with two specific examples. In Omaha NE, where I live, there are three major hospital systems and one of them, Catholic Health Initiatives, is 30% more expensive than the other two. The major insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, has reacted by canceling its contract with CHI, making it out-of-network for Blue Cross policy holders.
As reported in today’s Omaha World Herald, “Non-CHI health clinics, hospitals handling influx,” the Nebraska Medical Center and Methodist Hospital System are seeing a large influx of Blue Cross insured patients. This is exactly what has been expected to happen and will eventually put pressure on CHI to lower its prices in line with the other two hospital systems.
The second example, “Unable to Meet the Deductible or the Doctor” is the title of an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The article reports that 7.3 million Americans are now enrolled in insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. However the average deductible for a bronze plan on the exchange – the least expensive coverage – is $5,081 for an individual. This compares to the average deductible of $1,217 for individual coverage in employer-sponsored plans.
Not surprisingly, relatively low-income people obtaining subsidized coverage through an exchange are likely to want a low cost policy. But with a high deductible they will then be hard-pressed to have to pay the full price of routine care out of there possibly meager budgets. This is going to be a larger and larger problem as more and more people obtain coverage through the exchanges.
Since all of an individual’s medical bills should go through the insurer for processing, insurance companies are in a position to, and should be expected to, help control costs by bargaining with providers to make sure that prices are not excessive.
Conclusion: here are two examples of price competition in today’s healthcare market place. This is the reality that more and more Americans are going to have to learn to live with. It is the only way that our excessive healthcare costs can be brought under control.
As I discussed in my last post, it is critical and urgent for the U.S. to sharply reduce the cost of healthcare, both public and private. There are basically two different ways to do this: with either a “single payer” system like most of the rest of the developed world has, or with a more nearly free market system than we have at the present time. Both Switzerland and Singapore have largely free market systems with universal coverage and they operate at far less public cost, as shown above, than for other developed countries including the U.S. The Singapore model features Catastrophic Care insurance, coupled with Health Savings Accounts, for all citizens, with subsidies for those with low-income. The Swiss model employs exchanges, similar to our own Affordable Care Act, to subsidize, on a sliding scale, health insurance for the low income. In Switzerland only 20% of the people receive an insurance subsidy compared to 85% in the U.S.
The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has proposed a true free market system for the U.S., “Transcending Obamacare: a patient-centered plan for near-universal coverage and permanent fiscal solvency,” which is modeled on the Swiss system. Mr. Roy’s plan sets up universal exchanges to offer insurance, subsidized if necessary, to everyone who does not receive it from their employer.
He proposes that over time Medicare and Medicaid recipients as well as Veterans would migrate into the exchange system. This means that eventually the 30% of Americans (elderly, poor and veterans) who now receive direct government (single payer) support would become part of the exchange system. Mr. Roy’s Universal Exchange Plan is projected to reduce deficit spending by $8 trillion over the 30 year period which it will take to fully phase in the exchanges. This will go a long way towards solving our serious fiscal problems.
Conclusion: both Singapore and Switzerland have high quality, cost efficient free market health care systems which proves that a free market approach is possible. Mr. Roy adapts and expands the Swiss model for the much larger and more complex American market. It isn’t necessarily the last word in healthcare reform but it takes a big step in the right direction.
With a total national debt of $17.8 trillion, of which close to $13 trillion is public debt (on which we pay interest), it is easily understood that the U.S. has a very serious fiscal problem. At the present time the public debt is 74% of GDP and this already high percentage is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep growing indefinitely.
The biggest driver of spending growth going forward is the cost of healthcare. For example just the three programs, Medicare ($492 billion), Medicaid ($280 billion) and Veterans Healthcare ($54 billion), cost a total of $826 billion per year in federal dollars. And these costs are all increasing rapidly. Of course, private healthcare spending, currently about $2 trillion per year, is also growing rapidly. Overall, the U.S. spends 17.3% of GDP on healthcare spending, public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country.
How are we going to address this enormous cost issue going forward? The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) doesn’t do it. What it does do is to provide healthcare to more people under our current model of employer provided health insurance with Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. It is this model which is broken and must be reformed. Basically we have two choices for how to do this. Either we switch over to a “single payer” system like most of the other developed countries have or we establish a far more efficient free market system. As the above chart shows, right now we have a composite system and it is just not cost-effective. There are plenty of experts who claim that a free market cannot work in healthcare. For example, the tax lawyer, Edward Kleinbard, in a new book, “We Are Better than This: how government should spend our money” argues that what a free market gives us is: unavoidable controversy for excluded pre-existing conditions, moral hazard for risky behavior, uncertain premiums for permanent insurance, fragmented healthcare markets, monopoly provider organizations leading to price opacity, very high administrative costs, etc. The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has a different point of view. In his proposal, “Transforming Obamacare,” (http://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/mpr_17.pdf) he points out that there are two countries, Switzerland and Singapore, which operate highly regarded free-market healthcare systems at very low public cost. Stay tuned for further discussion!