Economics

Economics

The Gold Plated Health Care System: What the New Numbers Tell Us about the State of the Economy

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For the third year in a row, national health spending in 2011 grew less than 4 percent, according to the CMS Office of the Actuary.  However, the report said modest rebounds in pharmaceutical spending and physician visits pointed toward an acceleration of costs in 2012 and beyond.  CMS’s analysts make much of the cyclical character of health spending’s relationship to economic growth and also forecast a doubling of cost growth in 2014 to coincide with the implementation of health reform.

This non-economist respectfully disagrees and believes the pause could be more durable, even after 2014.   Something deeper and more troublesome than the recession is at work here.  As observed last year, the health spending curve actually bent downward a decade ago, four years before the economic crisis. Health cost growth has now spent three years at a pre-Medicare (indeed, a pre-Kennedy Administration) low.

More Than The Recession Is At Work

Hospital inpatient admissions have been flat for nine years, and down for the past two, despite compelling incentives for hospitals to admit more patients. Even hospital outpatient volumes flat-lined in 2010 and 2011, after, seemingly, decades of near double-digit growth.  Physician office visits peaked eight years ago, in 2005, and fell 10 percent from 2009 to 2011 before a modest rebound late in 2011 — all this despite the irresistible power of fee-for-service incentives to induce demand.

The modest rebound in pharmaceutical spending (2.9 percent growth) in 2011 appears to have been a blip.  IMS Health reports that US pharmaceutical sales actually shrank in 2012, for the first time in recorded history, and that generic drugs vaulted to the high 70s as a percent of prescriptions!

There is no question that the recession’s 7-million increase in the uninsured depressed cost growth.  But the main reason health cost growth has been slowing for ten years is the steadily growing number of Americans — insured or otherwise — that cannot afford to use the health system.  The cost of health care may have played an unscripted role in the 2008 economic collapse.  A 2011 analysis published in Health Affairs found that after accounting for increased health premium contributions, out-of-pocket spending growth and general inflation, families had a princely $95 more a month to spend on non-health items in 2009 than a decade earlier.  To maintain their living standards, families doubled their household debt in just five years (2003-2008), a debt load that proved unsustainable.  When consumers began defaulting on their mortgages, credit cards and car loans, the resultant chain reaction brought down our financial markets, and nearly resulted in a depression.

By sucking up consumers’ income since 2008, the rising cost of health benefits has weighed heavily upon the recovery.  According to the 2012 Milliman Cost Index, the cost of health coverage rose by 32.8 percent from 2008 to 2012, while family income did not grow at all in real terms.  The total cost (employer and employee contributions plus OOP spending) of a standard PPO policy for a US family of four was $20,700, almost 42 percent of the US household median income in 2012.

Could Wasteful Healthcare Spending Be Good for the Economy?

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Suppose I throw a rock through a store owner’s window. You admonish me for this act of vandalism. But I reply that I have actually done a good deed.

The store owner will now have to employ someone to haul the broken glass away and someone else, perhaps, to clean up afterward. Then, the order of a new glass pane will create work and wages for the glassmaker. Plus, someone will have to install it. In short, my act of vandalism created jobs and income for others.

The French economist, Frédéric Bastiat called this type of reasoning the “fallacy of the broken window.” All the resources employed to remove the broken glass and install a new pane, he said, could have been employed to produce something else. Now they will not be. So society is not better off from my act of vandalism. It is worse off — by one pane of glass.

But there is a new type of Keynesian (to be distinguished from Keynes himself) that rejects the economist’s answer. Wasteful spending can actually be good, they argue. If so, they will love what happens in health care.

By some estimates one of every three dollars spent on health care is unnecessary and therefore wasteful. ObamaCare’s “wellness exams” for Medicare enrollees — so touted during the last election — is an example. Millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on this service, yet there is no known medical benefit. Similarly, ObamaCare is encouraging all manner of preventive care — by requiring no deductibles or copayments — which is not cost effective.

In Defense of Narrow Networks

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It wasn’t long ago that the newly established health exchanges were being celebrated. Before the ongoing website catastrophe, politicians and policymakers were lauding the low premiums in these new health insurance market places. On September 24, President Obama said, “And the premiums are significantly lower than what they were able to previously get … California — it’s about 33 percent lower. In my home state of Illinois, they just announced it’s about 25 percent lower.”

How times have changed! Even supporters of the exchanges have rightly criticized the technical problems that have prevented millions of Americans from signing up. However, many critics are also complaining about the large number of health plan offerings with “narrow networks” of physicians that enrollees can visit for medical services. The Missouri Health Advocacy Alliance expressed “major concern” when Anthem excluded BJC HealthCare from its narrow network. Seattle Children’s Hospital, which was excluded from several exchange plans, has sued the Washington State Office of Insurance for “failing to ensure adequate network coverage.”

Criticism of narrow networks is misguided and counterproductive. As we explain below, narrow networks will be of little consequence to most of the individuals who sign up for the exchanges, and the elimination of narrow networks could eliminate our single best opportunity to harness market forces to reduce costs and improve quality. Indeed, narrow networks are largely responsible for the low premiums that were being celebrated just one month ago.

The Hoax of Entitlement Reform

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It has become accepted economic wisdom, uttered with deadpan certainty by policy pundits and budget scolds on both sides of the aisle, that the only way to get control over America’s looming deficits is to “reform entitlements.”

But the accepted wisdom is wrong.

Start with the statistics Republicans trot out at the slightest provocation — federal budget data showing a huge spike in direct payments to individuals since the start of 2009, shooting up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase.

And Census data showing 49 percent of Americans living in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing — up from 44 percent in 2008.

But these expenditures aren’t driving the federal budget deficit in future years. They’re temporary. The reason for the spike is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.

If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically, including 22 percent of our children.

What about Social Security and Medicare (along with Medicare’s poor step-child, Medicaid)?

Health Care: An Alternate Economic Universe

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In July, 2012, the US economy produced roughly the same volume of goods and services as it did five years earlier with five million fewer workers. Yet, during the first four years of the recession (May 2007 to May 2011), the US health system, despite slowing or declining utilization, added 1.149 million workers. Key sectors, specifically hospitals and physician offices, grew their workforces despite declining admissions and office visit volume. (Employment data in this post comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) National 4-digit NAICS Industry-Specific Estimates from May 2007 and May 2011.)

Compared to the rest of the economy, health care seems to exist in an alternate economic universe. This would be good news, rather than a problem, if we were not borrowing roughly half of every dollar of general revenue the federal government is spending on health care and if employers were not robbing their workers of wage increases to fund their health benefits.

Hospitals and physician offices saw declines in their core activity in the past few years. Hospital admissions have been flat the past five years, and have shrunk the past two. Even hospital outpatient volume growth has subsided into the low single digits, only partially offsetting the lost admissions. Yet hospital employment rose by over 220,000 workers, or 4.4 percent from mid-2007 to mid-2011.

What Difference Does Health Insurance Make?

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Almost everyone thinks we should insure the uninsured. I don’t recall even a single dissenter. Yet it is precisely when everyone agrees on something that thinking begins to get very sloppy. So let me be the devil’s advocate and challenge the idea.

Why do we want to insure the uninsured? Forget about the costs, for a moment. Are there any benefits? What are they? I can think of four candidates. If people are insured:

  • They may get more health care.
  • They may get better care.
  • They will enjoy protection from the financial effects of catastrophic illness.
  • They will be less likely to be free riders on the charity of others.

The first three items are “it’s for his own good” benefits and, frankly, the case for them is pretty lame — especially in the context of RomneyCare and ObamaCare. If you expand the demand for health care but do nothing to increase supply, people in the aggregate will not be able to get more care. One person’s gain in care will be offset by someone else’s loss. (At least that tends to be the case, when the principal currency patients use to pay for care is time and not money.)  Since the costs of non-price rationing will rise in the process, the whole exercise must make society as a whole worse off.

The same objection applies to the idea of “better care.” Better care for one person must be obtained at someone else’s expense, if the supply of medical resources is unchanged.

[I suppose you could make an additional argument: If we insure the uninsured, they will have a better chance of getting a “fair share” of health care. In other words, care will be distributed more equally. While that argument makes sense in the abstract, it doesn’t work if you segregate the previously uninsured into plans that pay providers below-market rates — as both RomneyCare and ObamaCare do — and cause them be pushed to the rear of the waiting lines. See below.]