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.
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.
The annual shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was held this weekend in Omaha. More than 40,000 people attended. Yesterday CEO Warren Buffett and vice chairman Charles Munger held a five and one-half hour question and answer session for the attendees.
Says Mr. Buffett as reported by the Omaha World Herald:
“We’ve got a big appetite for wind and solar projects.” BH Energy “borrows at taxable rates and Nebraska in terms of wind is not that much different than Iowa. We’re selling electricity in Iowa at lower rates than exist in Nebraska (with public power).”
Should BH keep working with Brazilian investors 3G Capital, known for slashing jobs at companies it invests in? Replied Buffett, “The gains in this world have come from gains in productivity. … This is why we live so well. … Government can put in place policies and programs that help workers left behind by economic shifts.”
“Trade, export and import, massive trade, should be and is enormously beneficial to the U.S. and the world.”
Medical costs are the “tapeworm of American economic growth. … Corporate taxes aren’t crippling but medical costs continue to rise. … The problem seems to transcend political party.”
Conclusion. Just these few remarks, among many others from the meeting, touch on several broad economic themes which I discuss on this blog. Private enterprise is a powerful and efficient method of generating wealth for humanity. Government should intervene to help those hurt by progress. Renewable energy is profitable and here to stay. Healthcare costs have a significant effect on business growth and need to be controlled. Neither political party has a monopoly on the truth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My last post, “What Is Slowing Down the U.S. Economy,” reports on an interesting analysis by the Gallup economist, Jonathan Rothwell, making an excellent case that three of the biggest drags on the U.S. economy are the costs of:
Healthcare. By far the biggest drag, healthcare costs have increased from 9% of GDP in 1980 to 18% in 2015. Mr. Rothwell notes that the average U.S. physician spends $83,000 per year to process claims and interact with insurance companies compared to $22,000 in Canada which has a single payer system. The solution, in my opinion, is to change the tax treatment of employer provided health insurance (to cover catastrophic coverage only) in order to give individuals more “skin in the game.”
Education. Although education costs have risen only from 6% to 7% of GDP over the past 35 years, education overall is 8.9% more expensive in 2015 than in 1980 and higher education is 11.1 times more expensive. Considering the ever increasing need for highly trained workers in today’s high-tech and globally competitive economy, such rapidly increasing cost presents a huge impediment to progress. Foundational K-12 education is also failing to close the achievement gap between low-income minority students and middle-class students. Such disparity in educational outcomes bodes ill for future social harmony. Even overall cognitive performance in math and literacy is now declining (see chart). These are tough problems to solve.
Housing. Again, only a 1% increase (from 11% to 12%) in GDP from 1980 to 2015 but this translates into a rental cost increase of 19% of GDP in 1980 to 28% of GDP in 2015. Also mortgage payment costs increased from 12% of GDP in 1980 to 16% of GDP today. Mr. Rothwell attributes these increases to a tightening of local zoning restrictions. There does not appear to be any general policy solution to such a problem.
Conclusion. The costs of healthcare, education and housing are eating up greater and greater amounts of family income and therefore are retarding economic growth and social progress. What can be done about these problems? Stay tuned!