Avik Roy

Avik Roy has done the unthinkable. In a recent op-ed title he used “conservative’s case” and “universal healthcare” in the same sentence. And bridged these disparate words by the preposition for.

Spoiler alert: Roy has asked Republicans to embrace universal healthcare.

The Twitterverse is abuzz. An angry Gary P. Jackson, a self-affirmed conservative, tweeted:

“there is NEVER a conservative case for Marxism….especially Universal healthcare.”

Stated differently, universal healthcare is the worst form of Marxism except for all other forms of Marxism.

Thus far Roy has not been asked to produce his birth certificate, which is just as well. Roy, a prolific Forbes columnist and a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, was healthcare policy adviser to Mitt Romney. He is not a cheerleader of the Affordable Care Act.

There are things one may disagree with Roy. However, his short treatise, How Medicaid Fails the Poor, was impressive, as it deftly dealt with Medicaid’s structural problems. That a right-of-center policy analyst would write a book with that title is one of the many ironies I am now accustomed to encountering (the other delicious irony was the love of Cadillac health plans by unions).

In The Washington Examiner and National Review Online, Roy urges conservatives to acknowledge and embrace universal healthcare, in no uncertain terms:

“…[conservatives] have to agree that universal coverage is a morally worthy goal.”

The arguments put forward by Roy are pure common sense. No one objects to public education as “socialized education.”  If conservatives are afraid that universal healthcare means big government, government is already heavily involved in healthcare.

And not just Medicare, which a certain tea party placard asked the government to keep its hands off!
Continue reading “The Conservative’s Faustian Fear”

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If you’ve been paying attention to the debate over the constitutionality of the health reform law, you’ve probably heard mention of the hypothetical “broccoli mandate.”

The question, if the federal government can make everyone buy health insurance at a particular coverage level and type, can it make everyone buy anything?

For example, could the federal government require everyone to buy a certain amount of broccoli every year, and assess penalties for a failure to do so? After all, like health insurance, broccoli has the potential to improve health, thereby reducing health care spending and perhaps enhancing economic productivity of the workforce. If the argument works for health care, why not for broccoli?

More to the point: What about the real “broccoli mandate” that the administration is already enforcing?

The idea of a broccoli mandate is a whimsical way of making a serious point.

Both as originally written and subsequently amended, the Constitution is structured under the assumption of limited government – the idea that the federal government’s power is limited to those powers specifically designated as such. Anything else a government might do is either given to the states (for example, highway patrol) or prohibited to government entirely (for example, infringing freedom of speech). The point made by raising the prospect of a “broccoli mandate” is to point out that a few of the powers granted to Congress – such as the regulation of interstate commerce – have been interpreted so broadly over the last several decades that the very idea of limited government has been called into question.

Continue reading “The Broccoli Mandate”

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Today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 1173, the Fiscal Responsibility and Retirement Security Act of 2011, sponsored by Rep. Charles Boustany (R., La.). This two-page bill would repeal the fiscal disaster known as the CLASS Act, Obamacare’s new long-term care entitlement, which was “suspended” by the Obama Administration because Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius could not certify that the entitlement was fiscally sustainable. Why, you might ask, should Congress bother to repeal CLASS, given that Sebelius has suspended its implementation? Because, according to the Congressional Research Service, courts could force her to implement the new entitlement, despite the fact that it will blow up the deficit.

According to the text of the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Sebelius is required to “designate a benefit plan as the CLASS Independence Benefit Plan” by October 1, 2012. Back in November, the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked CRS to evaluate the question: based on this language, could advocacy groups file suit against HHS for failing to implement the program? Would a court be likely to side with these plaintiffs? According to CRS, it’s a real possibility.

“If the Secretary does not designate a plan by October 1, 2012,” write the CRS staffers, “this failure to act would appear to be the type of agency action that could be challenged under the judicial review provision for agency action unlawfully withheld.” A court could grant deference to Sebelius’ finding that the program was unsustainable, but it could also force implementation of CLASS by “declaring the Secretary in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 706(1) or issuing a write of mandamus to compel agency action, thus requiring the Secretary to renew her efforts to create a plan that is consistent with the statutory requirements.”

Continue reading “Congressional Research Service: Courts Could Force HHS to Implement CLASS Act, Despite Its Insolvency”

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I’ve written previously about the looming train wreck from Obamacare’s new long-term care entitlement for the elderly, called the CLASS (Community Living Assistance Services and Support) Act. Democratic Senator Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), you may recall, once described the CLASS Act as “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing that Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” The Obama Administration strongly supported the CLASS Act’s inclusion in the Affordable Care Act, and Conrad ended up voting for it anyway.

However, the case for the CLASS Act has been rapidly unraveling. In February, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee, admitting for the first time that CLASS is “totally unsustainable.” Under questioning by Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), she pointedly refused to rule out an individual mandate that would force everyone to join the program. Though Sebelius assured Thune that she had broad authority to fix CLASS’ structural problems, I obtained a Congressional Research Service report that stated the opposite. In the July/August issue ofForeign Affairs, former White House budget director Peter Orszag proposed an individual mandate as one of “the only solutions” to CLASS’ unsustainability.

So, we’re all in agreement that CLASS is a mess that could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. So why was it included in our new health law in the first place?

The reason is simple: budget gimmickry. CLASS will rake in $86 billion in premiums from 2012-2021, but pay out substantially more than that over the long-term, rapidly generating deficits and bankruptcy. However, the Congressional Budget Office can only score the law’s impact over the next ten years, a period in which CLASS “reduces” the deficit. The claim that Obamacare was budget-neutral was critical to winning the approval of skittish moderate Democrats.

And now, today, a new Congressional investigation led by John Thune reveals that the Obama Administration knew all along that CLASS was unsustainable. “As a result of this investigation,” the authors write, “it is now clear that some officials inside HHS warned for months before passage that the CLASS program would be a fiscal disaster. Within HHS the program was repeatedly referred to as ‘a recipe for disaster’ with ‘terminal problems.’”

Continue reading “CLASS-Gate”

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Jonathan Cohn has a piece on Medicaid yesterday with which I agree. I want to amplify one related point.

National Review and Forbes writer Avik Roy believes that Medicaid is a “humanitarian catastrophe” which is actually worse than no insurance at all. Now Scott Gottlieb has taken up the argument in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve noted before that this is a bad argument. Medicaid should certainly provide better coverage. I’d also like to see the new exchanges provide poor people with better options outside of Medicaid. Yet the claim that people would actually be better off uninsured than they would be with Medicaid—this strains credulity.

I’ve basically said my piece regarding the causal impact of Medicaid in various studies. I want to pick up a different aspect of this debate.

Roy’s response to my initial column includes the following:

Many of the factors Harold raises as flaws of the study are actually flaws of Medicaid. It’s Medicaid that restricts access to the best hospitals and the best doctors and the best treatments. It’s Medicaid, i.e., welfare dependency, that leads to family breakdown and social disrepair. (For those who seek a more extensive discussion of this problem, read Charles Murray’s landmark book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980.)

I took umbrage at that, as indicated below. Roy then took umbrage at my umbrage, writing:

One aspect of Harold’s post is wholly unjustified, and a bit of a cheap shot: his assertion that I am “disrespectful” and “disparaging” to welfare recipients, because I’ve highlighted the corrosive effects of welfare dependency (something Harold dismisses as a “bromide”). We’ll never have a constructive debate on Medicaid policy if we can’t get past this kind of nonsense. The entire point of my series of posts on Medicaid is that Medicaid beneficiaries are the victims of an uncaring and bureaucratic system, and also the victims of those who, for ideological reasons, ignore the very real problems that Medicaid has. Continue reading “Medicaid and (supposed) Welfare Dependence”

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Austin Frakt has penned a reply to a recent piece I wrote on Medicaid for my health-policy blog on Forbes, The Apothecary. Austin is a guy who takes the time to address opposing points of view, to his credit, and I’ve enjoyed my back-and-forth with him over time. But while I’m grateful for Austin’s attention to an issue of high import—the degree to which Medicaid harms the poor—he didn’t respond to the core concerns I raised in my post.

For those who haven’t been following the debate on Medicaid outcomes from the beginning, let me offer a brief summary.

How Medicaid Harms the Poor: The Debate (So Far)

Last summer, on my old blog, I put up a series of posts highlighting the findings of a study published in Annals of Surgery by a group of surgeons at the University of Virginia, entitled “Primary Payer Status Affects Mortality for Major Surgical Operations.” The study evaluated 893,658 major surgical operations occurring between 2003 and 2007, stratified by primary payer status, on three outcomes endpoints: in-hospital mortality, length of stay, and total costs incurred.

Despite the fact that the authors controlled for age, gender, income, geographic region, operation, and 30 comorbid conditions, Medicaid fared poorly compared to those with private insurance, Medicare, and even the uninsured. Relative to those with private insurance, Medicare, uninsured, and Medicaid patients were 45%, 74%, and 97% more likely to die in the hospital post-operatively. The average length of stay for private, Medicare, uninsured, and Medicaid patients was 7.38, 8.77, 7.01, and 10.49 days, respectively. Total costs per patient were $63,057, $69,408, $65.667, and $79,140 respectively.

Despite Austin’s initial criticism that this was merely one study, and therefore not representative, the poor performance of Medicaid beneficiaries is well-established in a very large body of medical literature. What was striking about the UVa study was its large sample size; that it controlled for a highly validated set of background health and social factors; and its finding that Medicaid beneficiaries not only underperformed those with private insurance (and dramatically so), but also those who lacked insurance.

Given that a core feature of PPACA is its large expansion of Medicaid to those with higher incomes than current beneficiaries, I argued that it was far from clear that this expansion would improve health outcomes, and in fact was likely to harm them by crowding out the more-efficacious private sector. Furthermore, I argued for the clinical benefits of migrating Medicaid over to a premium-support or cash-assistance model, which would allow Medicaid recipients to benefit from the superior quality of care delivered by private insurance. As I’ve said all along, “There is, doubtless, a level of poverty at which Medcaid is better than nothing at all. But most people can afford to take on more responsibility for their own care, and indeed would be far better off doing so.”

Continue reading “The Urgency of Medicaid Reform”

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Avik Roy has read and posted about the papers I reviewed as part of my Medicaid-IV series. If you’ve forgotten, the purpose of that series of posts was to examine studies that use proven, sound methods to infer the causal effect of (as opposed to a correlation between) Medicaid enrollment on health outcomes. From that series, I concluded that there is no credible evidence that Medicaid is worse for health than being uninsured. Considering only studies that show correlations (not causation), Avik disagrees.

Avik’s post is long, but you can save yourself some trouble by skipping the gratuitous attack on economists in general, and Jon Gruber in particular, as well as the troubled description of instrumental variables (IV).* About halfway down is his actual review of the papers; look for the bold text.

The point I want to drive home in this post is why an IV approach is necessary in studying Medicaid outcomes. People enrolling in Medicaid differ from those who don’t. They differ for reasons we can observe and for those we can’t. An ideal study would be a randomized controlled trial (RTC) that randomizes people into Medicaid and uninsured status. Thats neither practical nor ethical. So we’re stuck, unless we can be more clever.

The next best thing we can do is look for natural experiments. That’s what IV exploits. In this case, the studies I examined use the state-level variation in Medicaid eligibility (and related programs). That variation obviously affects enrollment into Medicaid (you can’t enroll unless you’re eligible), though it is not determinative. Importantly, state-level variation in Medicaid eligibility rules does not itself affect individual-level health. Other than figuratively, do you suddenly take ill when a law is passed or a regulation is changed? Do you see how Medicaid eligibility rules are somewhat like the randomization that governs an RTC, affecting “treatment” (Medicaid enrollment) but not outcomes directly? (If this is unclear, go here.) Continue reading “Medicaid and Health Outcomes (again)”

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