Why We Cannot Wait to Fix the Debt

 

A Letter from Birmingham Jail   Why we cannot wait  Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day and every year at this time we are reminded of his eloquent letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Why we cannot wait,” written to some of his hesitant supporters in the Spring of 1963.
African-Americans were tired of waiting so long for equal rights in their own country.  On my own personal scale, I am so frustrated by the inability of our political system to address our massive debt problem, that I am getting organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Senate Primary against the incumbent Deb Fischer who has just voted (with the new tax law) to increase our debt by $1 trillion over the next decade.
Basically I am saying that our debt is so large and growing so fast that it will soon be out of control if we don’t take action to start reducing it very soon.


Consider:

  • The public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse. It will grow by $11.5 trillion in just 10 years to almost 100% of GDP and will reach 150% of GDP, double the current level, by 2047, without major changes in current policy.
  • A fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008, will occur long before 2047 if nothing is done to greatly shrink our annual deficits which are again rapidly approaching the trillion dollar per year level.
  • The new tax law increases deficits by an average of $100 billion per year, and therefore makes it that much harder to shrink them down substantially. It is imperative for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, to work together to figure out how to do this.

Conclusion. Our national debt is so large and growing so fast that it is virtually out of control. We need prompt and fairly strong action to turn the situation around.  I have often discussed one major way to do this.

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Fixing Our Broken Healthcare System

 

As I get organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Primary for U.S. Senate, I want to make it clear why I would challenge the apparently popular incumbent Senator Deb Fischer who is running for reelection. The reason is very simple and clear cut.  The new tax law which she voted for will raise our national debt by $1 trillion over the next ten years and likely overheat our already vigorously growing economy in the process.  In other words:

  • Our national debt, already sitting at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), is the highest it has been since right after WWII and already slated to get worse, even before the new tax law supported by Senator Fischer. When interest rates inevitably rise in the near future, interest payments on the debt will become a huge burden on our economy.

  • Controlling the cost of healthcare, which already eats up 18% of our GDP (and is growing much faster than GDP), is the key to shrinking our annual deficits and therefore being able to shrink our debt as well.

But is it possible to control healthcare costs within the framework of a free market? I think it is and here is one way to do it:

  • For private healthcare, repeal the employer mandate and replace the ACA income based tax credits with age based tax credits (which then apply to everyone). This will allow healthy employees to migrate away from employer provided health insurance towards individually underwritten health insurance (including Health Savings Accounts) at much lower cost. This saves money for employers and rewards healthy life styles. High risk pools for unhealthy people would receive federal and state subsidies.
  • Medicaid recipients would also be able to migrate into this new private system.
  • Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) would be required to offer Medical Savings Accounts which were authorized in 1997 but have not been widely utilized. This will make Medicare Advantage highly attractive to healthy people and encourage migration from regular Medicare (Part B) to Medicare Advantage.

Conclusion. The point here is not to try to insist on one particular way of controlling the cost of healthcare but to demonstrate that it can be done within a relatively free market framework.

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There Is Really Only One Way to Reduce Our Debt

 

In 2012 I was a candidate in the Republican Primary for U.S. Congress, Nebraska District 2. My platform at that time was to “Eliminate the Deficit.” Today I am about to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate.  My platform will be to “Fix the Debt.” (http://www.fixthedebt.org/)
Our current debt ($15 trillion for the public part on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since right after WWII, and steadily getting worse.  At the present time it is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But that is already starting to change.  Every 1% increase in interest rates will increase interest payments by $150 billion per year.  A huge upsurge in inflation (which can happen at any time), followed by a corresponding rise in interest rates, will become a huge drain on the federal budget and likely lead to a new crisis much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.


With healthcare spending, both public and private, now almost 18% of GDP, and growing rapidly, there is really only one practical way of getting our national debt under control: stabilize the cost of healthcare in the U.S.
Consider the following data:

  • Our national health expenditure grew 4.3% (much faster than inflation) to $3.3 trillion in 2016, $10,348 per person, and accounted for $17.9% of GDP.
  • National health spending is projected to grow at an average rate of 5.6% for 2016 – 2015, and reach 19.9% of GDP by 2025.

  • Federal Medicare Outlays were $588 billion in 2016 or 15% of federal outlays.
  • Federal Medicaid outlays were about $390 billion in 2016 or 10% of federal outlays.
  • The federal tax exclusion for employer provided health insurance was $250 billion in 2016.
  • Summary: the federal government spent almost $1.23 trillion on healthcare in 2016, over 30% of all federal spending of $3.9 trillion.

Conclusion. The only practical way to get our nation’s debt under control is to limit the growth of healthcare spending. Right now federal spending on healthcare is defined benefit (i.e. open ended).  We simply must move to a defined contribution system where all of us as healthcare consumers assume responsibility for our own healthcare spending.  Detailed proposal forthcoming!

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Moving Forward on Healthcare Reform: Single payer?

 

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.

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Moving Forward on Healthcare Reform: Emphasize Cost Control

 

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.

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It’s Time for a Bipartisan Approach to Healthcare Reform

 

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.


For example:

  • 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.

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Time to Start Over on Healthcare Reform

 

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.

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