How Do We Establish A Free Market Healthcare System in the U.S.?


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.
Capture1Both 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.

Private Health Care Reform is Getting Started!


Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article, “More Employers Overhaul Health Benefits”, which describes a movement just getting started whereby employers give their employees a fixed sum of money and let them choose their own plan from an online market place.  The idea is that employers will be better able to predict and control their healthcare expenses for employees.  Furthermore, employees will be able to get better value for dollars spent by selecting their own coverage options, deductible amounts, copays, etc.
In fact, in an exchange run by Liazon Corp., which has 60,000 people enrolled, 75% of workers have chosen less expensive plans than they had before, by accepting bigger deductibles and copays, as well as smaller choices of healthcare providers and restrictions such as primary-care gatekeepers.
This is such an appealing approach to private healthcare cost control that the Accenture Management Consulting Company estimates just five years from now there will be 40,000,000 business employees receiving their healthcare benefits in this manner.  This would be a phenomenal development!
The United States spends 18% of GDP on healthcare altogether, both public and private, which is double the amount spent by any other country.  This enormous expense is a major reason why wage growth is stagnant in our country as well as why the costs of public programs like Medicare and Medicaid are so high and contributing to so much government debt.  It is critical for our country to get the rapid increase of healthcare costs under much better control.  That’s why this new movement of employers and employees working together on this critical problem is such a big step in the right direction.
If the estimate by Accenture is anywhere nearly accurate about how fast this new private healthcare selection method will grow, then there will soon be an excellent opportunity for Congress to expand its benefits to the control of Medicare and Medicaid costs as well.  This is very exciting indeed!

How Can We Boost Stagnant Wages?


Today’s Wall Street Journal has a column by Neil Shah, “Stagnant Wages Crimping Economic Growth”, pointing out that the average hourly pay for non-supervisory workers, adjusted for inflation, has declined to $8.77 last month from $8.86 in June 2009, when the recession ended.  It has also been reported recently, e.g. in the New York Times, that U.S. medium household income, now at $52,100, has not nearly recovered from its prerecession peak of $55,500 and is even below its $54,500 level in June 2009, at the end of the recession.
Lower income for workers and households mean lower consumer spending.  This is a major reason for our economy’s low annual growth rate of only 2% of GDP since the end of the recession.  Of course, the high unemployment rate, currently 7.4%, as well as increasing global competition, contribute to downward pressure on wages.  But there is another factor, directly under government control, which is a major contributor to stagnant and declining wages.
Washington Post columnist, Robert Samuelson, in a recent column reprinted in the Omaha World Herald, reported that, from 1999 to 2013, wages and salaries rose 50% (adjusted for inflation) while health insurance premiums increased 182%.
Most health insurance is provided and largely paid for by employers and is therefore an indirect form of compensation.  The huge disparity between wage gains and health insurance premium increases in recent years means that wages are being held back by the rapidly increasing cost of health care.  The U.S. spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, twice as much as any other country and this is clearly out of line.
The best single thing we can do to slow down healthcare inflation is to remove the tax exemption for employer provided healthcare (and offset it with lower overall tax rates).  Employees would then pay taxes on their health insurance benefits as part of their pay. This would have the beneficial effect of making consumers far more conscious of the true cost of healthcare and therefore consumers a strong incentive to hold down these costs.
It is up to Congress to change this provision of the tax code.  Let’s insist that they get this done!

Is the Cost of Health Care Under Control?


Today’s New York Times reports that “Health Care Costs Climb Moderately, Survey Says”.  The average annual insurance premium for a family rose 4% in 2013 compared with a 1.1% overall rate of inflation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation which conducted the survey.  Since 1999 health insurance premiums have increased by almost 300% while consumer prices have increased by 40%.  As insurance premiums rise, deductibles are also getting bigger.  About 38% of all covered workers now face an annual deductible of $1000 or greater.  Dr. Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Foundation, refers to this “quiet revolution” as an attempt by consumers to keep the cost of health insurance from rising even more quickly.
A 4% increase in insurance costs may seem moderate, but at almost four times the rate of inflation, it is really very large.  Obama Care is unlikely to have any impact in holding down such a rapid increase and, in fact, is likely to make matters worse because of massive new health care regulations which are coming.  The basic problem is that America spends 18% of GDP overall on health care, almost twice as much as any other country.
What can we do about this?  One major step would go a long way.  We need to remove the tax exemption from employer provided health insurance.  Employers could still provide health insurance for their employees, but the cost would be added to an employee’s salary for tax purposes.  This can be offset with a lower tax rate, of course.  But it would make employees, i.e. all consumers, far more conscious of the cost of healthcare and therefore to have a direct incentive to hold down these costs.  For example, Dr. Altman’s “quiet revolution” would pick up steam as employees raise deductibles even higher in order to lower overall costs.
How can we get going in this direction?  The Employer Mandate of Obama Care should be repealed, and not just postponed for a year.  Ideally, removing the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance would become part of the broad based tax reform which is so badly needed to stimulate the economy.
Our fiscal and economic problems can be addressed with smart leadership.  We should insist that our national leaders get going on such badly needed reforms!

Can We Solve Our Fiscal Problems Without Raising Taxes?


Scott Lilly, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, has an Op Ed column in yesterday’s Fiscal Times, “The Choice Congress Won’t Face Up To”.  Mr. Lilly admits that we have at least a long-term deficit problem, namely exploding entitlement spending driven by the aging of the U.S. population.  The Congressional Budget Office predicts that federal outlays, including entitlements, will be 22.8% of GDP in 2023 while revenues will equal only about 19.3% of GDP, a huge gap.  And outlays will continue to rise,  because of entitlement spending, reaching 25% of GDP by 2040.  This means that the public debt, on which we pay interest, would rise from 73% of GDP today, to 99% of GDP by 2040.  As interest rates inevitably return to their historical average of 5%, interest payments on this massive debt will become an increasing burden on the economy.
Mr. Lilly asks the question:  How are we going to cut back on entitlement spending when the average Social Security monthly check is $1268 out of which about $350 goes to out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered by Medicare?  Congressman Ryan has proposed limiting the growth of Medicare to the increase of inflation + 1%.  But the cost of healthcare is increasing much faster than this.  And many seniors are living close to the edge.
Thus we reach “the choice which Congress won’t face up to.”  According to Mr. Lilly, either we have to make big cuts in entitlement spending or else raise taxes dramatically so that federal revenue increases to about 24% of GDP by 2040.  Mr. Lilly makes the far-fetched claim, based on flimsy evidence, that such a large tax increase will not retard economic growth.  But let’s set this issue aside for now.
Is there any alternative to increasing taxes so dramatically in order to avoid making big cuts in entitlements?  The answer is yes.  The above discussion assumes that the cost of healthcare in general will keep on increasing at the current rapid rate, much faster than the increase in inflation.  This is the main driver of entitlement costs.  The U.S. currently spends 18% of GDP on healthcare which is double the amount spent by any other country.  This is what must change.  We should abolish, not just postpone, the employer mandate in Obama Care.  But even more fundamentally, the tax exemption for employer provided healthcare should be removed (and offset with a rate reduction).  This would make consumers far more aware of the cost of healthcare and therefore drive down these costs.
Only after serious attempts are made, such as above, to control costs should any consideration be given to raising taxes.

Going On a Short Vacation!

I began this blog last November, right after the national elections, to promote my strong view that the United States is on a dangerous fiscal course, with an already enormous, and still rapidly growing, national debt.  After four years in a row of deficit spending exceeding $1 trillion per year, the current year’s deficit is projected to be “only” $640 billion.  Far too many people, including many of our national leaders, interpret this to mean that the problem is getting solved and so we can relax.  But the already accumulated $12 trillion in public debt will cost our economy $600 billion a year, a significant fraction of total revenue, in interest alone when interest rates return to their historical average of 5%.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Federal spending is out of control all across the board.  Entitlement spending on Medicare and Medicaid is growing at twice the rate of inflation and is an especially acute problem.  But progress here depends on figuring out how to get healthcare costs in general under control, a huge challenge.  The much reviled sequester is working but it’s not nearly enough by itself to get discretionary spending under control.
Four years after the end of the Great Recession the economy is still limping along at 2% GDP growth and 7.6% unemployment.  And this is after enormous fiscal stimulus (deficit spending) as well as quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve.  Current policies are not working.  What we need is broad based tax reform with lower marginal rates (offset by ending tax preferences) to stimulate business investment and the private risk taking which propels the economy and creates jobs.  And, of course, faster economic growth will also increase tax revenue and therefore lower the deficit, as well as boosting employment.
This is a brief summary of what I’ve been saying for the past eight months.  To me it just seems like simple common sense, but not everyone agrees!  At any rate I’ll be out of town for the next two weeks.  I hope to be able to make a few new posts while I’m gone.  Stay tuned!

Should the Employer Mandate Be Repealed?


In last Sunday’s New York Times the columnist Ross Douthat makes an excellent case in “A Hidden Consensus on Health Care”,  that Obamacare’s employer mandate, recently postponed for one year until January 1, 2015, should be repealed altogether.  The reason for delaying its implementation is because of the complexity of the process for the government to gather all the necessary information about a company’s employees and coordinating with IRS tax returns to verify incomes.  This is, of course, a mammoth job.
Furthermore, small and medium sized companies, near the 50 employee cutoff for mandatory coverage, will not have to immediately slow down their growth, in order to avoid the health insurance requirement.  This could help boost the economy in the short turn.
In addition, as Mr. Douthat points out, it is the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance which is the biggest impediment for getting the cost of healthcare under control.  It means that employees are shielded from the true costs involved in receiving care and therefore have little, if any, incentive to hold down the cost of their own care.
If this tax exemption was eliminated, perhaps as part of a broad based tax reform initiative, then employers could still offer an optional health insurance benefit to their employees but it would be taxed as part of their total pay.  This would give employees an interest in holding down the cost of their own insurance.  And they would also have the option to shop around on the private market, perhaps on the new exchanges, for a better deal.
The Employer Mandate is thus altogether a dead weight on our struggling economy.  It’s certainly beneficial to have it postponed for a year.  Let’s go the rest of the way and repeal it altogether!   This would be a significant step towards true healthcare reform!

Does the Economy Need More Spending Now?

In today’s Wall Street Journal the economist Alan Blinder writes, “The Economy Needs More Spending Now”, that the tax hikes and spending cuts agreed to in January and before are reducing GDP growth by 1.5% – 2% annually.  Mr. Blinder claims that it would be easy to design a new fiscal stimulus package that adds 2% to GDP per year as long as it lasts.  He also claims that a fundamental change like tax reform might only add a much smaller .2% to GDP per year although this much smaller annual effect would repeat indefinitely and therefore eventually amount to a large cumulative effect.  This is a sensible argument as far as it goes but is incomplete.
In the last five years there has been almost $6 trillion in (deficit) stimulus spending, coupled with a $3 trillion quantitative easing program by the Federal Reserve.  This represents an unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus to the economy by the federal government.  And the result has been a tepid although steady 2% annual growth in GDP, much slower than usually follows a recession.
After all of this enormous stimulus, which is having only a meager effect, what makes more sense:  to try even more stimulus or to try something different?  What else is there to try?  Immigration reform will boost the economy by drawing our 11,000,000 illegal immigrants into the main stream economy.  Note that citizenship (amnesty) is not required to accomplish this, only legal status.  Also, requiring many people receiving welfare (food stamps, disability benefits, etc.) to work would boost the economy by increasing the size of the labor force.
Broad based tax reform, greatly curtailing most, if not all, tax preferences, would be so attractive that it should not be put on a back burner, as Mr. Blinder suggests.  In fact, completely repealing the ACA’s Employer Mandate, now that it’s been postponed for a year, would give a big boost to many medium sized companies for which required health insurance is a big impediment to growth.
The point is that there are many ways to boost the economy besides even more artificial deficit stimulus, whose effect would be at most temporary anyway, as Mr. Blinder suggests.  It really is important to shrink our still very large annual deficits down to zero fairly quickly so that we stop adding to the huge burden which we have already placed on future generations.  In other words, we can likely have stronger economic growth and fiscal restraint at the same time, the best of all possible worlds!

The Four Fiscal Fantasies

Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler from the Third Way think tank have just written a new article, “The Four Fiscal Fantasies”, in which they address our country’s current fiscal situation from a point of view which is sympathetic to, but critical of, the left.

  • Fantasy #1:  Taxing the rich solves our problems.
  • Fantasy #2:  We can have it all.
  • Fantasy #3:  Waiting is benign.
  • Fantasy #4:  The politics get better.

These four fantasies are fairly self-explanatory.  The solution they propose for the long term insolvency of Social Security is an at least partial lifting of the FICA cap as well as chain-weighting of the CPI.  These are both good ideas.
Their solution to looming Medicare insolvency is to trim costs in the current program with, for example: bundled payments, medical homes for end-of-life, a permanent fix for the Sustainable Growth Rate (doc fix), reducing duplicative care, increasing provider coordination, etc.  This however is a band aid approach to getting Medicare costs under control.  We need far greater and more fundamental changes in our entire healthcare system, public and private.  Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy have a plan to do this which I have discussed in my June 5, 2013 blog post, “Free Market Healthcare in America”.
With respect to discretionary spending in the federal budget, Mr. Cowan and Mr. Kessler propose several specific budget cuts in order to boost spending for other programs for kids, science, research, curing disease, infrastructure, etc.  Savings in one area would be spent on investments in other areas rather than being used for reducing the deficit.
To me this whole program represents a step in the right direction even though it does not come close to all of the changes that will be needed to shrink the deficit down to zero.  If national Democratic leaders would propose this sort of a program, it would force Republican leaders to take it seriously and would therefore break the current logjam in Congress.

Free Market Healthcare in America: How Do We Get There?


Almost everyone agrees that healthcare in the U.S. is way too expensive but how do we change to a better system?  Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy have laid out a roadmap to do this: “The future of free-market healthcare”.  Here is the essence of their plan: 1) start with what we will soon have under Obamacare: subsidized health-insurance exchanges; 2) limit subsidies in the exchanges to incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level as in Massachusetts and also limit the growth of subsidies to the overall growth rate of the economy; 3) use the exchanges for Medicare reform by raising the eligibility age for Medicare by 3 months each year.  Retirees would then gradually migrate into the defined contribution system of the exchanges; 4) gradually shift Medicaid enrollees into the exchanges.  The exchanges would allow them to move up the income ladder while maintaining their health insurance.
Eventually all low income and retired  Americans would become part of a unified health-insurance system based on the exchanges which would provide subsidies as needed.  I would add one additional feature to this system:  remove the tax exemption from employer provided insurance.  This would, of course, create healthcare cost consciousness amongst employees.  Employers could still offer a health insurance package to their employees but it would become part of their taxable compensation.  They might decide to join an exchange instead for a better deal.
Such a system as outlined above is based on the Swiss free market model.  The Swiss choose their own doctors and have short waiting times for appointments.  The cost of healthcare in Switzerland is about half as much per person as in the U.S. so we would achieve a huge savings.  We have got to make big changes in the way we deliver and pay for healthcare in the U.S. and here is one way to do it!