Can the GOP Produce on Healthcare?

 

The House of Representatives, after much struggle, was finally able to pass a healthcare bill, The American Health Care Act.  Now it’s the Senate’s turn to pass its own version and it, too, is turning out to be a struggle.


The healthcare policy expert, Avik Roy, considers the Senate bill to be a huge step forward:

 

  • Medicaid is finally put on a budget with annual increases in spending, starting in 2025, tied to the overall rate of inflation. In return, states will gain substantial latitude to use funds more effectively and efficiently.
  • Tax Credits in the Senate bill are means adjusted and will also encourage younger people to enroll for coverage. This is an improvement over the AHCA.
  • Expanded coverage. Mr. Roy predicts that passage of the Senate bill would increase (not decrease as the CBO predicts) the number of Americans with health insurance five years from now. This will result because the near poor in states like Texas and Florida, which have not expanded Medicaid, will be eligible for the new means-tested tax credits.
  • The 10th Amendment is strengthened because so much more authority for regulating healthcare insurance is transferred to the states. This represents huge progress because states are so much more fiscally responsible than the federal government (they have to balance their budgets)!

 

Conclusion. There are certainly many imperfections in the Senate bill.  It does nothing to limit tax credits for employer-sponsored insurance.  This is sorely needed to put the overall cost of American healthcare on a sustainable course.  It does nothing to help low income people who struggle with high deductibles (for example, by helping to set up Health Savings Accounts). It also does nothing to rein in the cost of Medicare, such as by introducing means adjusted premiums and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.
Nevertheless it is a huge step forward in controlling excessive healthcare costs as well as expanding health insurance coverage to more Americans in a fiscally responsible way.

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Redesigning the American Health Care System to Lower its Cost

 

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.

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The Fundamental Flaw in the GOP Healthcare Plan

 

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.

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The Urgent Need to Lower the Cost of American Healthcare

 

Our country faces many serious problems (terrorism, global warming, income inequality, etc.) but the most serious of all in the long run is our rapidly growing national debt and the inability (unwillingness?) of our national leaders to address it.
Furthermore, the fundamental driver of our debt problem is the cost of healthcare, public and private.  The Affordable Care Act, established in 2010, expands access to healthcare but does not address the cost problem (see chart below).


I have previously discussed how to repair the ACA to make it more cost efficient, by, for example, repealing both the individual and employer mandates, establishing a universal (and refundable) tax credit for catastrophic care, migrating Medicare and Medicaid to the new universal system, etc.
But there are lots of other things, less political contentious, that we can do as well.  I have just read an astonishing new book, “An American Sickness” by Elizabeth Rosenthal, an MD who works as a healthcare journalist, which provides a vivid and compelling description of our overly expensive and dysfunctional healthcare system. According to Ms. Rosenthal here are a few of the things we could do collectively to get costs under much better control:

  • Reform malpractice insurance to place limits on noneconomic damages.
  • Breakup oversize hospital conglomerates so that hospitals don’t have such huge monopoly pricing power.
  • State insurance regulators could do a much better job of enforcing transparency and accuracy for provider directories, in-network and out-network fees, etc.
  • Insurance companies could do a better job on reference (i.e. standardized) pricing, encouraging bundling of services, tying the size of co-payments to a procedure’s medical worth and urgency, etc.
  • Congress should permit Medicare to negotiate national drug prices.

Conclusion. Repairing the ACA, as is now being done in Congress, will go a long way towards much better cost control of healthcare. But there are many other common sense steps which can also be taken towards this goal.

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The GOP Needs to Get Healthcare Right This Time

 

The Affordable Care Act expands healthcare access in the U.S. but does nothing to control its costs. With its current majorities in Congress as well as holding the presidency, the GOP now owns the healthcare insurance crisis.  If the GOP doesn’t get it fixed right, it is almost inevitable that we’ll eventually end up with a single-payer system such as universal Medicare.


I have previously discussed one good way to fix the bill recently passed by the Republican House of Representatives.  But today I will take a more general approach proposed by Thomas Miller from the American Enterprise Institute.  Mr. Miller says that a replacement for the ACA should emphasize:

  • Private markets rather than a bureaucratic system.
  • Positive incentives to obtain and maintain affordable coverage instead of mandates and ever-growing regulations to buy what you don’t want.
  • Decentralized decision making by patients, their representatives and state and local officials.
  • Lower taxes, higher value choices and clearer rewards for performing better, working harder and acting more responsibly.
  • Better targeted subsidies that will ensure generous protection of our most vulnerable Americans.

General principles such as these will end both the individual and employer mandates and allow average Americans a greater choice in how they want to spend their resources to protect and enhance their health.

Conclusion. The ACA has taken us closer to the goal of universal healthcare for all Americans and there can be no retreat from this standard. But much better cost control can be achieved and this is what fixing the ACA should focus on.  A free market system for healthcare will work if it is set up in a fair and responsible manner.

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How to Improve the Affordable Care Act

 

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has dramatically expanded access to healthcare in the United States. But it has done nothing to lower the cost of healthcare  which now exceeds 18% of GDP and is steadily increasing.


Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, refers to medical costs as “the tapeworm of American economic competiveness.”
An excellent plan for improving the ACA, “Transforming Obamacare” has been put forward by the medical economist, Avik Roy.  It has five main features:

  • Repeals the individual mandate and proposes universal tax credits for acquiring catastrophic insurance and setting up health savings accounts.
  • Repeals the employer mandate and sets up a capped standard deduction for employer sponsored coverage.
  • Reforms Medicaid by migrating the current system into the above universal (and refundable) tax credit plan
  • Reforms Medicare by migrating the current program into the same universal system.
  • Other reforms for veterans, medical innovation, hospital monopolies, drug pricing and malpractice litigation.

According to Mr. Roy, the American Health Care Act, recently passed by the House of Representatives, does a good job in relaxing many of the ACA’s onerous regulations.  However it falls down badly by including a flat tax credit rather than a means-tested credit based on income. Such an approach means that millions of low-income Americans, either near retirement or just above the Medicaid cutoff, will be priced out of the insurance market.  This is what the Senate bill needs to fix.

Conclusion. Mr. Roy’s plan will not only expand overall healthcare access beyond the level achieved by the ACA but will also dramatically cut the cost of healthcare in the U.S. and even goes a long way towards achieving a balanced budget. Let’s hope that the Senate gets the AHCA proposal back on track.

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The GOP Can Do Better on Healthcare Reform

 

The Congressional Budget Office has just released its analysis of the GOP Healthcare Reform Bill, the American Health Care Act, designed to replace the Affordable Care Act.  The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has summarized its main features as follows:

  • The AHCA would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the next ten years.

  • CBO estimates that there would be 24 million fewer Americans with health insurance under the AHCA as compared with the ACA by 2026, with 14 million fewer Medicaid beneficiaries (see the above chart). The decrease in individuals with employer coverage would result from dropping the employer mandate. The decrease in individual coverages would result from smaller subsidies under the AHCA.

I have previously summarized the AHCA pointing out its strengths and weaknesses:

  • Strengths: discards mandates, fewer regulations, turns Medicaid into block grant program to states.
  • Weakness: huge discrepancy between lavish tax treatment of employer-paid care (no upper limit on tax exemption) and much stingier tax credits for individuals

The U.S. now spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, both public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country. Such high costs are a big drain on government revenue as well as a drag on economic growth.  The AHCA should take a much bigger step towards controlling the cost of healthcare.  Block granting Medicaid to the states, and giving the states more flexibility in implementation, definitely helps, but it is not enough.
But basic fairness as well as fiscal responsibility requires a major cutback in the tax exemption for employer provided care.  This is essentially a subsidy to employees.  It should have no greater value than the refundable tax credit provided to individuals who purchase health insurance on their own.

Conclusion. A free market healthcare system allows more individual choice and delivers more medical innovation. But our current system is too expensive to be sustainable for much longer.  Either the GOP fixes this problem or a single-payer system will be the inevitable result.

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The Strengths and Weaknesses of the GOP Healthcare Reform Bill

 

The American HealthCare Act, introduced in the House of Representatives on Monday, begins the process of looking for a replacement and improvement to the Affordable Care Act.  It moves in the right direction but also has some major shortcomings.


The Bill’s strengths are:

  • The Bill discards the ACAs web of mandates and regulations in favor of incentives to buy health insurance in a deregulated market.
  • The Bill replaces the ACA exchanges with refundable tax credits for individuals not covered by employer provided health insurance.
  • The Bill turns Medicaid into a block grant program for states with much flexibility for the individual states to run their own programs. This reverses the current system whereby the federal government matches each state’s spending on Medicaid and is thereby expensive for both state and federal government

The Bill also has major weaknesses:

  • There is no upper limit on the tax exemption for employer-paid premiums. This tax exemption amounts to a total drain of nearly $300 billion a year on U.S. tax revenues and is the biggest single reason why healthcare is so expensive in the U.S.
  • The inadequacy of financial support for the lowest income individuals and families. A $2000 annual tax credit for a minimum wage worker is simply not enough for her/him to be able to afford health insurance.
  • This huge discrepancy between the lavish tax treatment of employer-paid care and stingy tax credits for individuals is a matter of fundamental inequity as well as unsound tax policy. It would be much fairer to give all Americans the same equal tax credit roughly equivalent to the cost of catastrophic healthcare insurance.

Conclusion. The ACA increases access to healthcare insurance but does nothing to control costs. It is imperative for the Republican replacement plan to fix this glaring deficiency.

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Fixing Obamacare: Keep it Simple and Low Cost

 

Straightening out healthcare insurance is a high priority for the new Trump Administration and Congress as it should be. The U.S. spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, public and private, twice as much as any other developed country and this percentage is likely to keep on increasing without major changes.

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Republican thought is converging, see here and here, on a plan with these broad features:

  • Repeal of both the individual and employer mandates so that health insurance can be individually tailored and purchased at a much lower cost than under the ACA.
  • A Universal (and refundable) tax credit sufficient to pay for catastrophic insurance coverage.
  • Health Savings Accounts to pay for routine healthcare expenses up to the deductible for catastrophic insurance. Such HSAs could be funded, at least initially, with (refundable) tax credits.
  • High risk pools and coverage for pre-existing conditions. It is estimated that 500,000 people with pre-existing conditions would need protection if the ACA is repealed. This would cost about $16 billion annually, much less than the full cost of the ACA.

Conclusion. Such a plan will insure coverage for all Americans who want it. The high deductibility feature, coupled with HSAs, will strongly encourage healthcare consumers to shop around for the best price on routine care.  Such price consciousness by consumers is the only way (short of a single payer system with severe rationing) to get our national healthcare costs under control.
A modification of such a plan, proposed by Senator Bill Cassidy (R, LA) and Senator Susan Collins (R, ME) would give each state the choice of either keeping the ACA or replacing it with a version of the above plan.  This is a poor idea because the ACA has no cost control and this is what is sorely needed.  In other words, the above plan should be made universal, identical for all states.  Let the states provide and pay for supplemental coverage if they wish.

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A Major Difficulty of True Healthcare Reform

 

As my regular readers know I am focused primarily on two major national problems:

  • Speeding up economic growth to create more jobs and better paying jobs, and
  • Getting our national debt under control by reducing our annual budget deficits so that our debt will shrink over time as a percentage of GDP.

The evidence continues to persuade me that entitlement spending in general and the cost of healthcare in particular will play the biggest role in solving these two problems. My last post points out that healthcare, higher education and housing are all drags on family expenses but that the cost of healthcare has by far the largest negative effect on our economy.
The United States spends 18% of GDP (and climbing) on healthcare, both public and private, twice as much as any other developed country.  This enormous expense must be reduced but how will it happen?  The Affordable Care Act has increased access to healthcare but has not bent the cost curve.
Now the Republicans (President-elect Trump and Congress) want to repeal the ACA and replace it with something less restrictive and less expensive.   A popular alternative is health insurance which has:

  • High deductibles typical of catastrophic coverage in order to hold down the cost of insurance.
  • Tax credits to defray the cost of insurance.
  • Tax preferred health savings accounts to pay for routine expenses below the deductible.

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Unfortunately it’s not this simple. Today’s New York Times has a credible Op Ed by Drew Altman, CEO of the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Health Care Plan Trump Voters Really Want,” which reports on a series of focus groups set up by Kaiser after the election to quiz Trump voters about healthcare. What Kaiser learned about Trump voters is that:

  • In the pre-ACA market, they liked their ability to buy lower-cost plans which met their needs.
  • They want lower drug costs and improved access to cheaper drugs.
  • The very last thing they want in healthcare reform is higher out-of-pocket costs.

Conclusion. What Trump voters are looking for in healthcare reform is quality healthcare at a low cost. This is also the Republican ideal.  But the high deductible plus health savings account combination is going to be a hard sell to many Trump voters.

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