Avoiding the Extremes on Either Side

 

Not only is Washington politics already hyper-partisan, but both parties are continuing to move to even greater extremes, see here and here.
Here are two examples of extreme positions now being espoused by major elements of one or the other of the two parties:

  • Single payer healthcare. The failure of the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act this past summer means that (the goal of) universal healthcare is here to stay. The ACA expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs. Single payer, Medicare for All, would control costs but then we end up with socialized medicine. The only way to establish a cost efficient free market healthcare system is to remove, or at least limit, the tax exemption for employer provided care and to set up high deductible catastrophic care supplemented by health savings accounts to pay for routine expenses. This would compel everyone to pay close attention to the cost of their own healthcare.
  • Tax cuts instead of tax reform. Tax reform, i.e. lowering both corporate and individual tax rates, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, is an excellent way to speed up economic growth and thereby create more and better paying jobs. But it is imperative to do this in a revenue neutral manner, i.e. without increasing our annual deficits. Our debt (the public part on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since the end of WWII, and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting larger without major changes in public policy.

Conclusion. The U.S. badly needs a more cost efficient healthcare system and a simpler and more efficient tax system. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do both of these things.  Single payer healthcare and (unpaid for) tax rate cuts are the wrong way to proceed.  In each case, no action at all is much better than getting it wrong.

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The GOP Congress Needs to Get Back to Fundamentals

 

Granted that it is hard to implement good policy with a populist President like Donald Trump who is most interested in stirring up his base, nevertheless the Republican Congress is making some serious policy mistakes:

  • Healthcare. The GOP should accept the fact that universal healthcare is a desirable societal goal and is here to stay. The Graham-Cassidy bill is bad policy because some states, such as debt-ridden Illinois, can’t possibly handle healthcare on their own. The fact that the ACA needs operational fixes gives the Republicans leverage for insisting on cost lowering changes in a bipartisan bill.
  • Tax Reform. The GOP should focus on the most serious problems in our tax system. The complexity of the tax code is partly responsible for the fact that taxes paid lag true tax liabilities by an estimated 16% or $406 billion per year.  As an example of waste, the IRS has paid out $132 billion in EITC benefits over the last decade to people who were ineligible.
    Our uncompetitive corporate tax rate of 35% encourages multinational companies to leave their profits overseas rather than bringing them back home for reinvestment.  Even so, corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP is less than in most other developed countries.
    Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and should therefore be highly uncomfortable with any tax plan which reduces federal revenue and increases our already very large annual deficits.  With a low unemployment rate of 4.4%, any additional artificial (deficit financed) fiscal stimulus is likely to kick off a new round of inflation.

Conclusion. Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to enact policy changes beneficial for the country. They need to get serious about what is really important before time runs out.

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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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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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Getting American Health Care Straightened Out II. Medicare

 

One of the major problems facing the United States today is the high cost of healthcare. We spend almost 18% of GDP on healthcare, both public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country.  A big reason for the high cost is the low out-of-pocket consumer spending on health services in the U.S. 
My last post discusses a general plan, involving catastrophic health insurance and health savings accounts, for getting the overall cost of healthcare under control.

capture82Once we have a handle on the overall problem, we then need to focus on the cost of the Medicare entitlement program for retirees.  The problem here is easy to understand.  In just 15 years enrollment in Medicare will increase to over 80 million beneficiaries from 57 million today.  Likewise there are 3.1 workers per beneficiary today and there will be only 2.4 in 2030 (see above chart).

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The second chart demonstrates that Medicare will be the major component of increases in federal spending in the coming years (with the other entitlements of Social Security and Medicaid following right behind).
So the question is: how do we control Medicare spending within the context of overall health-care reform?  Here is a proposal from James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute:

  • Medicare recipients would receive fixed payments toward the coverage option of their choice, based on their age, income and health status. The traditional Medicare program would be one of the choices. Enrollees choosing less costly coverage options would see a reduction in their premiums.
  • Premium payments would be comparable to subsidies and tax credits received from the reformed Affordable Care Act.
  • Privately run managed care plans provide benefits at far less cost than traditional Medicare. Beneficiaries would share in the savings.

Conclusion. It needs to be emphasized as strongly as possible that the point of Medicare reform is to lower costs to both individuals and the government, sa that Medicare can be preserved indefinitely into the future.

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Getting American Health Care Straightened Out

 

Donald Trump was elected to be our next president because of the huge desire for change amongst the American electorate. Many things need changing, but among the most important is our healthcare system.  The problem is that we are spending 18% of our GDP on healthcare, twice as much as any other developed country.  The Affordable Care Act has increased access to healthcare but does very little to hold down costs.  This is one reason why it is so unpopular and needs to be substantially modified.
capture10President-elect Trump has nominated Representative Tom Price (R, Ga) to head up Health and Human Services in his cabinet.  Rep. Price is an expert on healthcare and is a leading advocate for replacing the ACA with something more workable.  He will soon be in position to lead the charge for healthcare reform.
The two American Enterprise Institute scholars, James Capretta and Scott Gottlieb,  have some good ideas for what needs to be done.

  • Provide a path to catastrophic health insurance for all Americans. The idea is that all Americans who do not get health insurance through employers, or Medicare or Medicaid, should be eligible for a refundable tax credit sufficient to pay for a basic level of catastrophic (i.e. with a high deductible) insurance coverage.
  • Accommodating people with pre-existing health conditions. Everyone who maintains continuous (catastrophic, as above) coverage would be allowed to move from employer coverage to the individual market without facing exclusions or higher premiums based on health status.
  • Allow broad access to health-savings accounts. There would be a one-time federal tax credit to encourage all Americans to open an HSA to pay routine medical bills. Families typically spend up to 22% less on healthcare after switching to an HSA.
  • Deregulate the market for medical services. Providers need freedom from regulation to provide packages of services better tailored to people’s needs. Such provider flexibility will further reduce costs through additional marketplace competition.

Conclusion. The major reason why our healthcare is so expensive is because we, as individuals, don’t have enough “skin in the game,” in the sense of paying for routine medical expenses directly out of our own pockets. The reforms outlines above would correct this very problem.

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The Challenges of American Health Care

 

America is facing great challenges in healthcare. Our national health expenditure is $3.1 trillion per year, 17.4% of GDP, and is projected to reach 19.6% of GDP by 2024.   Some 34% of Americans are obese (BMI>30), far more than in any other country. Their medical expenses will soar in the years ahead.  Medicaid now covers over 70 million low-income people at a cost of $500 billion per year.  Medicare spends $615 billion per year on the 42 million Americans over age 65.
CaptureThe Hoover Institution’s Scott Atlas has just published “Restoring Quality Health Care: a six-point plan for comprehensive reform at lower cost.”  He claims that his plan will save $2.75 trillion over a decade for private healthcare and an additional $1.5 trillion per decade for federal healthcare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
The elements of his plan are to:

  • Expand Affordable Private Insurance by allowing all insurers to offer high deductible, limited-mandate catastrophic coverage (LMCC) to all citizens, which would be owned by individuals and portable.
  • Establish and Liberalize Universal Health Savings Accounts (HSA) for all citizens, individually owned and portable.
  • Instill Appropriate Incentives with Rational Tax Treatment of Health Spending equal for all, whether individual, self-employed or employer-based, requiring LMCCs for all.
  • Modernize Medicare for the 21st Century by establishing a private insurance option with defined-benefit premium support based on regional benchmarks featuring cash rebates to individual HSAs if premium is less than benchmark, otherwise additional cost paid by enrollee.
  • Overhaul Medicaid and Eliminate the Two-Tiered System for Poor Americans by permitting all insurers to offer LMCC plans to entire state population as well as setting up government seeded HSAs for all Medicaid enrollees.
  • Strategically Enhance the Supply of Medical Care While Ensuring Innovation by stimulating private retail clinics and loosening practice restraints on nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

 

A plan along these lines would go a long way towards both improving the quality and lowering the costs of American healthcare.

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