A Fatuous Defense of the Affordable Care Act

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disraeli

The L.A. Times provides a nice set of cherry picked data to justify the Affordable Care Act. The author is also fond of the word fatuous to describe Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, so I feel compelled to maintain usage of the word my thoughts on the matter.Ignoring the long descent that healthcare has been on for decades now, and then claiming that slowing the growth rate of healthcare spend, while it still moves above the general rate of inflation and much of the decrease in observed to expected growth is related to the recession, is analogous to giving a kid a blindfold and a bat and told to hit the piñata in the tree in your backyard, meantime you have tied the piñata to a forest in the park two miles away. When the kid swings and misses, you take the blindfold off and tell him to try again, and declare success when he at least swings level at the air. The point being, even if Obamacare impacted these selective statistics, it is still miles from being where it needs to be.

To wit, there is many citations of costs decreasing, but the author conveniently ignores that those costs are going back up and projected to once again hit their stride of 6% a year, double the rate of inflation, for the foreseeable future. The recession was a temporary halt in healthcare spend, so it is really convenient to leave that fact out. Consider that in 1946 the average inflation adjusted hospital stay was $30 per day whereas today it is an astounding $2,200, a 70-fold increase. Trumpeting a modest decrease in this awful record is quite a bit like missing the forest for the trees.

Plus, while there is a lot of current debate about the tactics of repeal and replace given the slim Senate majority and how to use arcane Senate rules on budget reconciliation, Paul Ryan and others have come up with plans on replacing Obamacare, all under the banner of the Better Way moniker, which I detail in further detail elsewhere. Apparently this journalist is too lazy to look that up. But yes, I do hope that Republicans don’t take the risk of getting repeal without replace and do both at once. I honestly am not holding my breath given Republican ineptitude in the past.

It’s nice that the uninsured rate is going down, but of course a federal mandate to buy health insurance upon pain of hefty tax penalties is going to increase insurance rates. Would you praise a parent who upon their child spilling a drink or dropping food forced them to do 40 push-ups before eating again and then declaring to Facebook, “my child can do 40 pushups!”? No, I think not. At any rate, the real question is whether this metric on its own is the most important one and decoupled from the irrefutable evidence that healthcare costs and insurance premiums continue to skyrocket at a double-digit pace. Plus, recent research from economist Mark Warshawsky indicates that skyrocketing health insurance premiums have held down take home wages, as health insurance coverage has gone up for the lower and middle classes as a percentage of their total compensation from 4% to 12% in just a couple of decades – meaning they are not getting raises in take home pay because it is getting swallowed up in health insurance. Since inequality is a focus these days, look at the failures in our government run healthcare system as a main culprit.

If we are concerned with people not seeing the doctor, providing a stipend for catastrophic insurance and flexible Health savings accounts would have done the same thing without the enormous bureaucratic bloat that has led to skyrocketing premiums. And uncompensated care is an important gap to close, but this is all a bunch of cost shifting. What used to be covered through disproportionate share payments at the county and state levels, where great board oversight could be applied with local knowledge, is now being soaked up by cross-subsidies through the federal tax code – out of sight, out of mind, no accountability, and requiring hospitals to create a new administrative burden to work through the ACA and all its complexity.

This also ignores the many blatant failures of Obamacare, which I helpfully capture here. https://wordpress.com/post/gymnasiumsite.wordpress.com/117

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“How to Cure Health Care” – Milton Friedman’s 2001 essay on the subject is still remarkably relevant

If I suddenly discovered that I had a serious disease and was handed a medicine concocted in 2001 as the only antidote available, I would very likely panic, despairing that surely something more timely and up to date could have been developed in the intervening 15-16 years. Alas, it seems that America’s healthcare system has been stuck in a reverse funhouse of distorting mirrors for so long, that it is equal parts amazing and depressing to read an essay from Milton Friedman on the subject and discover that the same advice he had for healthcare in 2001 is precisely the advice that would have cured our ailments if only we had followed it. Unfortunately, as he predicted, we did just the opposite, just how we have been doing it for decades since World War II. Thus, for this particular disease, hand me that vial from 2001, because everything else from then on has been cooked up by quacks and witch doctors. The hard medicine from 2001 might be painful to swallow, but it is the right palliative for the long-run.

In the essay, Friedman begins by noting the most important features of modern healthcare. First, there have been major advances in technology and science, which is no bad thing. Second, for several decades we have witnessed rising costs in healthcare relative to overall economic growth on an inflation-adjusted basis. Finally, healthcare features a decreasing satisfaction level amongst both consumers and producers. Within this feature set, Friedman notes that healthcare is unique amongst many other industries in not catalyzing technological advancement to actually lower per unit costs over time.

What distinguishes health care from these industries? Friedman has the answer – government involvement. Unique amongst all industries, healthcare is the only industry in which government plays such a dominating role in the production, financing, and delivering of medical services. And despite the role of the nominal private insurers in the market, I would point out that government finances, whether directly through Medicare and Medicaid, or indirectly through subsidies, a critical mass of over 50% of healthcare finance. Where the government leads on payment models, commercial players, largely structured in local monopolies, inevitably follow, making a mockery of any claims that this is a “market” in any sense of the word. Commercial insurers are not much different than government directed contractors.

The role of third party payment models
Within this doleful narrative, we can firmly point the finger at third party healthcare payment models as the culprit for the out of control expenditures and the mess of unintended consequences we have found ourselves in. And how we got third party payments is another lesson in how one muddled government intervention leads to the need for yet another, building an unsustainable house of cards that always needs one more card stacked on top. In this case, wage controls in the World War II era led employers to provide medical coverage as a benefit to get around controls and to more effectively compete for talent. By the time the IRS got wind of it and attempted to tax these benefits, they had become so popular that Congress intervened to make them a non-taxable benefit. Here is the catch though- the tax exemption was only provided to employers. Any consumer out on the marketplace buying insurance on their own receives no such benefit. Thus, people are conditioned and majorly incented to look for health coverage from their employer. Friedman summarizes the ill logic behind reliance on third party payment models and employer-based insurance:

We have become so accustomed to employer-provided medical care that we regard it as part of the natural order. Yet it is thoroughly illogical. Why single out medical care? Food is more essential to life than medical care. Why not exempt the cost of food from taxes if provided by the employer? Why not return to the much-reviled company store when workers were in effect paid in kind rather than in cash?

The major perverse impacts of employer-based insurance are that people delegate their healthcare provisioning and decision making to entities and individuals ill-equipped to perform those responsibilities. Furthermore, employees inevitably give up the ability to achieve in direct wages what is now siphoned off to healthcare coverage.

Then in the 1960s the U.S. Government enacted Medicare and Medicaid, driving third party payment models across even more populations. What is the logical impact? As Friedman notes, “nobody spends money from someone else as frugally as his own.” The third party administration of healthcare costs means no incentives for the individual to control those costs. As Friedman observes:

Enactment of Medicare and Medicaid provided a direct subsidy for medical care. The cost grew much more rapidly than originally estimated—as the cost of any handout invariably does. Legislation cannot repeal the nonlegislated law of demand and supply: the lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded; at a zero price, the quantity demanded becomes infinite. Some method of rationing must be substituted for price, which invariably means administrative rationing.

Astoundingly, healthcare as a share of our national income has risen from 3 percent in 1919 to close to 20 percent in 2016. To put this in perspective, Friedman comments that in 1946 seven times as much was spent on food, beverages, and tobacco than on healthcare. By 1996, healthcare had passed these collective categories.

What is Insurance? In healthcare, it bears little resemblance to what it typically means

In every other aspect of our lives, insurance means coverage for the catastrophic, long tail events that we never expect to happen but which would wipe us out financially if they did occur. It is the hurricane that reduces our house to rubble or the wreck that totals someone else’s car and puts them in a hospital. In healthcare, government meddling has forced this to become coverage for everything, however routine the expense. Much of this is based upon the employer incentives to move compensation into healthcare coverage, but even more pernicious is government mandates on what health plans must cover. It is analogous to auto insurance covering oil changes by force of government mandates. In this event, we would not marvel at oil change prices spiraling out of control. Similarly, it is little wonder that healthcare costs have exploded; between third party payment obfuscation, administrative bloat, and mandated coverages of all healthcare expenses, it would be an economical gravity defying miracle if costs didn’t explode.

“The Black Hole of Bureaucratization” 

One malignant outcome of third-party based payment systems is the concomitant growth in administrative functions, be it comprised of the administrative state for government programs or administrative bloat from commercial insurers required to finance, provision, deliver, and indeed ration medical care. As Friedman indicates, since the patient no longer has an incentive to care about healthcare costs and since the provider of health services has to worry about whether a certain service is covered by the third-party payer, a middle layer is required. In this model, the physician becomes little more than an employee of the insurer or the government, taking their guidance on what can be performed for the patient. In turn, the patient’s voice is squelched, as they are merely told what can be done within the confines of their plans.

Here is where Friedman delivers what I believe to be one of his most innovative economics insights, what he calls Gammon’s Law – which is defined as bureaucratization that causes both a rise in inputs and expense alongside a decrease in outputs and outcomes. Gammon’s Law is based upon observations of a British physician named Max Gammon, who performed an extensive study of the British National Health Service and noted that in this bureaucratic system that there was both an increase in expenditure as well as a fall in production. He noted that such systems behave like ‘black holes,’ ‘sucking in resources’ and ‘shrinking in terms of emitted production.’

There are some astounding statistics from the U.S. healthcare system that I believe are so shocking that their true gravity is hard for the human mind to grasp and that demonstrates Gammon’s Law at work. Friedman observes that inflation adjusted costs per patient day since 1946 have increased from $30 to $1,200 in 1996. A more recent update for this from the Kaiser Foundation updates this number to $2,200. This is a stonking seventyfold increase! Further highlighting Gammon’s Law at work, hospital staff per bed increased ninefold from 1946 to 1996. Given other trends in the industry, I highly doubt that this force has dissipated in the intervening 20 years. This Hospital Staffing Ratio from Statistica suggests a great amount of staffing per bed in the U.S.

In order to head off any common simplistic conjectures that medical science and technological progress are the reasons for the dramatic increase in inputs and expenditures, Friedman observes the following:

….True, medical machines have become more complex. However, in other areas where there has been great technical progress—whether it be agriculture or telephones or steel or automobiles or aviation or, most recently, computers and the Internet—progress has led to a reduction, not an increase, in cost per unit of output. Why is medicine an exception? Gammon’s law, not medical miracles, was clearly at work. The provision of medical care as an untaxed fringe benefit by employers, and then the federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care of the elderly and the poor, provided a fresh pool of money. And there was no shortage of takers. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals and medical care, further increasing administrative costs and leading to the bureaucratization that is so prominent a feature of medical care today.

Friedman turns to the important question of what outputs are we getting for this increase in inputs? His answer is that it is almost impossible to tell given overall improvements in diet, clothing, housing, hygiene, sanitation, general improvements in public health, better diagnosis and treatment of conditions, etc. In short, while life span and life expectancy have increased, little of that is likely attributable to the increase in health system spend. In fact, the number of days people spend in a hospital have gone down over time. While obviously that can be a good outcome and a result of better care within the walls of a hospital, it is also directly correlated to cost pressures hospitals face – pressure that leads to a maniacal pursuit of getting patients out of beds and out of the door. In summary, we can’t point to any discernible improvements we have achieved in outcomes to pair with the seventyfold increase in expenditures. Again, Gammon’s Law of the black hole in all of its fearsome gravity sucking power.

Conclusions

In a comparison between the U.S. and other developed (OECD) countries, Friedman articulates that the hybrid system that America employs is particularly bad at controlling costs. In this respect alone, the U.S. has a relative disadvantage compared to peers such as the U.K. and Canada that have single-payer and monopoly over delivery systems. Of course, there is a tradeoff with these systems in access and innovation. Following the previously mentioned maxim on infinite demand when a good is effectively zero, the inherent tradeoff is administrative controlled rationing and inevitable queuing. Another major disadvantage of these systems is that the incentives push politicians to focus less on delivering best-in-class care to a primary focus on controlling costs.

At long last, we have arrived at the palliative against Gammon’s Law in healthcare. Of course, every classical liberal, of which Friedman is an apostle, a veritable “hero of the faith” whom we study and revere, dreams of a healthcare system that becomes as efficient and as consumer-centric as the likes of Amazon. We should be able to get on an intuitive dashboard and observe ratings of physicians and systems on the value that they drive. We should be able to observe both their pricing and outcomes, including being able to drill into the details by condition and procedure of concern to us in that moment. Competition should drive them to provide meaningful information to consumers in order to capture market share. We should have great care-based (not insurance-based) relationships with our primary care providers and other care planners and providers. A classical liberal is going to logically deduce, as does Friedman, that the idealistic path to get there is to eradicate Medicare and Medicaid, remove the tax exemption for employer-based coverage (in return for lower tax rates directly to consumers, of course) and a return of insurance to its proper role of covering catastrophes. Friedman observes that since these are going to be politically impossible in the short-run, we should aim for the next best thing – flexible health savings accounts. Friedman concludes his essay by outlining his policy proposals further:

A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense. As noted earlier, it eliminates third-party payment except for major medical expenses and is thus a movement very much in the right direction…

…Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.

A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible). Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And, third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance—hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns—the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe—and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become “What’s wrong?” not “What’s your insurance?”

In the aftermath of the surprise election putting Trump in charge of a unified GOP Congress, it is encouraging that the policy proposals developed under the moniker of “Better Way” produced by Paul Ryan and other Republicans in Congress make incremental gains in these areas. I have summarized these policy proposals in another post, and while they don’t go nearly as far as Friedman or I would want, it at least has the advantage of incremental gains, particularly in the area of health savings accounts. Given that Obamacare went even further in the wrong direction compared to Friedman’s prescriptions, further exacerbating the decades of bad decisions full of unintended consequences that is the hallmark of U.S. healthcare policy, getting at least a portion of that proverbial 2001 antidote vial is good momentum. Of course, Trump is the ultimate wild card on where he intends to take healthcare reform, but I hope he looks no further than some of the sensible plans that are already there. The ball is being handed off right in the gut. Don’t fumble it, Mr. President.

As bonus material, it is always a personal pleasure to observe the affable and remarkably quick on his feet Friedman address some of these questions and issues directly. Here are some great videos on this very subject.

The left’s massive remake of healthcare strikes and fails again

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In a recent Modern Healthcare article, it is evident that small health plans and insurers are being heavily penalized by the ACA’s risk corridor program in a shocking, but not entirely unpredictable, bit of reverse corporate wealth redistribution in which money is actually flowing from small businesses and insurers to the behemoths in the industry such as Anthem and Aetna. Since the ACA and ancillary modern healthcare legislation seems to be openly promoting and favoring the large health system and large insurer over the small private practice and small insurer, this really should not be a surprise. Perhaps it is bringing scarcely disguised huzzahs from those in progressive camps .

Meantime, officials at CMS, in true Baghdad Bob soothsaying fashion, continue to maintain that everything is working to plan. If by working according to plan they mean standing ready to cover and excuse their errors while promising to correct their original mistakes with more thousand page complex and inscrutable reforms (in other words, the standard government playbook of creating a problem through market intervention, blaming venal companies, and then creating more market intervention to further compound the original errors), then I guess they are correct. Meantime, there is less care plan choice due to mandated standardization, less consumer choice of  health providers and insurance companies due to industry consolidation, and precipitously increasing premiums. The next step from progressives is inevitable – proposals that only a single payer health system can resolve this government induced mess. The question to free citizens is, do you really trust the government that can’t build a bridge to manage the entirety of your health insurance system?

Limiting health insurance plan choice is harmful to consumers

A significant component of the Affordable Care Act is the forced standardization of health care coverage through prescribed components that must be carried by insurance plans. Ultimately, this approach has been tremendously disruptive and has moved millions of people off of the plans that in the previous market paradigm they were happy to buy. I refuse to call it a free market since it really has not been that for decades. This disruption is the impetus behind much of the lampooning of Obama’s language, which later proved to be an astoundingly incorrect bit of marketing and hype, that if you had a plan that you liked you could keep it.

Standardization of plans ostensibly removes buyer searching costs for complicated products. Such as approach would only make economic sense if the searching costs were higher than the benefits obtained from the selected product. The challenge is that this sets a remarkably paternalistic precedent – if we dupes in America can’t be trusted to buy health coverage that suits our needs, perhaps we can’t be trusted to buy financial instruments or real estate either. It also has the perverse effect of cutting off product innovation that caters to individuals and unique segments of the healthcare market. Something to consider and question: can government possibly keep up with the changing demands of consumers as well as the unpredictable emergent order that drives market-betterment ideas and innovations? Even if government might be approximately right on the first iteration of defining product standards, it would be impossible for them to keep up with the pace that a free market comprised of consenting adults engaging in commerce could drive. Furthermore, a significant philosophical challenge is that such an approach mandated by government significantly violates an essential freedom of consumers to choose for themselves what is best for them. Finally and perhaps most perniciously, such an approach allows government to enact their own views of desirable social policy through diktat. The Supreme Court case of Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby  is an example in which a private employer was forced to provide contraceptives against their own religious beliefs. Whether one believes Hobby Lobby is outside of the societal norms in their stance on contraceptives is quite beside the point. The point is really whether we believe government should be powerful enough to be able to force anyone in society to choose which product to purchase and what it should contain. This is the first-order principle freedom-loving citizens should be concerned with.

In the book The Future of Healthcare Reform in the United States, Richard Epstein, of the NYU School of Law, pens the following compelling narrative on the challenges with the elitist assumptions of government needing to protect consumers through standardized plans:

Any decision such as that made in healthcare markets – to require given firms to offer a particular type of contract with predetermined coverage – does not facilitate competition but thwarts it by restricting the dimensions over which innovative firms can compete. To be sure, it is unlikely that either midsize firms or ordinary consumers can canvass the entire market. But they can make a series of initial cuts to focus on the market segment they care about most. At this point, one of the key drivers of good competition is the ability to offer a particular configuration of goods and services that make sense to some segment of the overall market. The standardization of service packages thus prevents innovation along certain key dimensions, which hardly improves the overall competitive market. Put otherwise, product differentiation is the great and beneficent spoiler because it allows rapid and discontinuous changes in the market such as the rise and fall of BlackBerry and the now possible decline of Apple in the face of potential disruptive technological developments from a host of competitors. In my view, these large gains dominate any negative effects. Indeed the constant use of product differentiation, both large and small, in market after market, suggests healthcare regulators engage in a dangerous gambit by limiting product choice to a few set choices in order to reduce the buyer’s costs of search. People can truncate searches using sensible strategies. They do not have similar ways to expand market options.

Imagine if government decided that our smartphone choices were overwhelming to consumers and determined that we should all have certain features based upon some government committee’s determination of a rightful specific set of requirements. I suspect the product so described by the committee in the duly published 500 page document would prescribe usage of something resembling the BlackBerry more so than the iPhone. And despite Hillary Clinton’s fondness for this device, we obviously would be immediately worse off as consumers. Further imagine that the government decided that we could no longer buy the phones at Apple stores or Best Buy, but purchasing of these devices had to occur at government licensed locations. Behold the entirety of the healthcare market: a market in which there is an inherent paternalistic assumption that consumers are too ignorant and overwhelmed to make their own choices. The government committee decisions on what we can buy and where we can receive our products described in the smartphone analogy is precisely the kind of marketplace we have allowed our government to create in healthcare. Perhaps it is time to step back and ask ourselves why and whether we are getting good outcomes out of this approach.

 

“Are provider-led health care networks too big to fail?”

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AEI recently published an interesting article that serves as a thought experiment on whether the Affordable Care Act will push consolidated health networks to such a large degree that they become too big to fail.

I have attempted to chronicle elsewhere the growing list of unintended consequences of the ACA, as well as what I believe are some sensible, free-market oriented reforms that would set us on the right path that are tucked within a Hoover Institute essay written by University of Chicago economist John Cochrane,  but this “moral hazard” of health networks that are too big to fail that is similar to what we have recently witnessed in the financial industry and meltdown of 2008 certainly adds a new wrinkle that I had not previously contemplated.

Expanding beyond the AEI article that focuses on the Accountable Care Organizations, my own experience informs me that the ACOs within the ACA are unfortunately but one prong in the Obama administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) arsenal in this coordinated and dedicated effort to foist large integrated networks upon us. These will indeed wind up being “too big to fail.” Hospitals already possess an unfair advantage in blocking new entrants and hide behind “non-profit” status as well as serving as the largest employers in many communities. The massive rush to merge and acquire will surely exacerbate this.  Even organizations outside of the ACO model are going to be pushed to consolidate through being increasingly subjected to “value-based” payment models that shift payments from fee-for-service to models that are tied to various outcomes measures. CMS has set a goal of having fully 50% of payments to hospitals by 2018 funneled through such mechanisms. While on the surface shifting from fee-for-service to quality based measures seems a logical and positive step in the right direction, we must beware of the unintended consequences. Many of these “quality” payments are aimed squarely at issues such as readmitted patients back to hospitals, “excessive” spend per Medicare beneficiary that occurs in the outpatient settings, and one bundled payment per an episode of care (i.e. a hip and knee replacement). Interestingly, CMS is targeting directly the large hospital and not the outpatient settings. In essence, the hospital is heavily incentivized to buy and control the outpatient setting and physician practices in order to control the flow of patients and the finances. Or in the very least, hospitals that don’t acquire will starve out recalcitrant outpatient and physician practices that can’t or won’t toe the line to the hospital’s demands by shutting them out of their referral network. We will consequently be left with narrower networks and less choice.

Now, there might be some good in all of this as it relates to care coordination and the cost of care delivery, but do we really expect that these giant regional monopolies are going to pass on these cost savings to consumers, if indeed they actually do occur? Do we really expect the focus to be on product quality and consumer  value when there is no competition left, or will the focus turn to gaming the system, lobbying CMS, and inevitable asking for bailouts (per this article)? I would argue that the government conveniently ignored all of these likely negative consequences in their rush to revolutionize the system to their liking – one in which they will increasingly call the shots on who wins and who loses.