We will be blunt. Hidden under the cloak of expanding health insurance, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has fostered a massive subsidization of healthcare goods and services.
These subsidies often have little or anything to do with what economists would consider the “insurance” part of health insurance – providing protection against financial catastrophe.
Perhaps more troubling, if the past is prologue these subsidies will continue to grow, transferring huge amounts of money to politically favored groups and doing very little to decrease aggregate health spending – a presumed goal of health reform.
In order to understand these claims, it is necessary to take a step back and explain why insurance (of any form) is a good thing in the first place. Simply stated, insurance provides individuals with protection against unpredictable financial hardships not of their own making.
Most of us don’t like risk, and therefore we are willing to pay other people to avoid uncertain outcomes. Therefore the benefits of insurance are to protect us from uncertain events.
The key here is the uncertainty. If something is not going to cause financial distress, or the expense is relatively predictable, then, by definition, the service is not insurable. A health plan could cover the service, but that is a subsidy, i.e. other people in the insurance pool or an outside actor such as the government are simply paying for your service. It is not insurance.
Sadly, most of the discussion around what constitutes “real” health insurance under the ACA bears only a passing resemblance to the protection against financial risk that is the hallmark of insurance. For example, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said: “Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don’t pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus … They’re really mortgage protection, not health insurance.”
What does Secretary Sebelius think insurance is? We don’t expect auto insurance to pay for our gasoline.
Continue reading “The ACA: When Insurance Isn’t Insurance”
Filed Under: Economics, THCB
Tagged: Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, Economics, The ACA
Jan 21, 2014
As the health insurance exchanges find their footing and potentially millions of Americans gain access to insurance, this may be a good time to step back and take a longer term view of the ACA. When you get down to it, expanding health insurance coverage was the easiest and least controversial part of health reform. There is no shortage of ways to expand health coverage and almost any credible health reform proposal would have done the job, provided enough money was thrown at the problem.
In designing the ACA, perhaps as a result of political pressure, President Obama opted for a combination of heavily subsidized individual insurance exchanges and generous expansions of Medicaid. Freed from political constraints, he might have instead pushed for the single payer system that many of his most ardent supporters desired. Republicans inclined to expand coverage (at least one of us is proof that unlike the unicorn these do exist) might have pushed for a pure voucher program that harnessed market forces.
All of these options would expand coverage to the degree that policymakers were willing to fund them. So while we congratulate the President for his political success (we doubt the other options could have made it through Congress), it is a simplistic mistake to evaluate the implementation of the ACA by counting the numbers of uninsured or waiting for the monthly updates on the enrollment figures from the exchanges website. Any regulator with a big enough purse can, in the fullness of time, expand access. Frankly, that’s the “easy” part of healthcare reform.
But what about the other elements of the so-called “triple aim” of health reform: cost and quality? You see, while we agree that liberal, moderate, and conservative health reforms can all improve coverage, they each will have very different effects on the other important outcomes. Consider for example the oft-discussed “Medicare for all”; i.e. a single payer system. This would increase access without the messiness of the exchanges. It would also allow the government to flex its monopsonistic muscles and quickly reduce costs – though likely at the expense of quality. In contrast, relying on markets may not reduce costs in the short run, and may not necessarily reward real quality (though it has a better short than single payer in this regard).
Evaluating health reform in the context of the “Triple Aim” is important, but even that approach is not nearly enough. There is a broad consensus among that technological change is the most important long run driver of cost and quality. It follows that the most important element of health reform is its impact on technological change.
To understand how technological change affects all of us, consider the profound impact of the top ten medical advances in the last ten years, as listed by CNN:
1. Sequencing the human genome
2. Stem cell research
3. HIV cocktails
4. Targeted cancer therapies.
5. Laparoscopic surgery
Continue reading “What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Costs, Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, Economics, health reform, The ACA, Triple Aim
Dec 18, 2013
Last week President Obama announced that he will try to keep his oft repeated promise to Americans in the individual market that they can keep their plans if they like them … for a year. The media have done an excellent job explaining why President Obama’s temporary patch to the ACA may endanger its existence; in the process the American public has learned more than it ever wanted to about adverse selection, cream skimming, and most importantly crass politics.
Though the full costs of adverse selection will be muted in the first year by risk corridors and reinsurance, it is clear that the failing website, the bad press, and the recently announced delay are placing maximal stress on even those backup provisions of the bill.
Even if the ACA survives this additional insult against the economics that support its very existence, we have witnessed yet another missed opportunity for positive reform to President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. And this time we can’t just blame intransigent tea-party Republicans and their quixotic efforts at repeal; here the buck stops at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW.
While many of the plans that are affected by the President’s temporary patch might actually be plans that don’t qualify as “insurance” (i.e. they have low lifetime caps on expenditures or don’t cover hospital services), numerous others actually offer quite good coverage that just don’t meet the exceptionally high standards of the newly developed minimum essential health benefit (EHB).
In many ways, the first dollar coverage for preventive care and the wide ranging number of services covered by the ACA aren’t truly insurance either. Instead, these features amount to a very generous pre-payment plan for medical services supported by the United States treasury.
These elements of the EHB are too costly and unnecessary. Perhaps even more concerning, they are just the ante. As time goes on, vested interests for everything not included in the EHB will work tirelessly to insure that their favorite benefits are included. If you want evidence of this eventuality, you need look no further than the remarkably long and growing list of benefits mandated by most states.
Keep in mind that as the EHB grows more generous the premiums and subsidies on the exchanges will also grow. And we know who will pay their “fair share” of those increases.
Continue reading “The Real Fix? The Exchanges Aren’t Working. Here’s Why …”
Filed Under: Economics, THCB
Tagged: Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, Essential health benefits, Health Insurance Exchanges, Health Plans, Obama administration, Obamacare Fix, The ACA
Nov 18, 2013
The Obama administration announced on Friday that it will require parity for mental health insurance coverage. That means that health insurers must apply the same copayments, deductibles, and visit limits to mental healthcare as they do for physical health care treatment. Call it fair, call it political, but please don’t call it a good economic or health policy.
The story about how this is fair, or at least politically popular goes something like this: Health insurers are evil and powerful firms that can and will do whatever they want. On the other hand, patients with mental health problems are politically weak and must be protected from the powerful insurers that have no interest in taking care of them.
In this story, the Obama administration rides in on its white stallion and rights the wrongs being perpetrated by the villainous insurance companies. All we need is a damsel in distress, an evil step-mother, and a catchy tune and Disney will sign the movie rights.
The problem with this simplistic story line is that you can replace “mental health” with nearly any other condition and the story would sound just as plausible.
Continue reading “Mental Health Parity and the Affordable Care Act”
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Costs, Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, insurance coverage, Mental Health, mental health care, The ACA
Nov 11, 2013
By now you’ve certainly seen the headlines: “Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance,” or “Report: Millions will lose health plans as ObamaCare takes hold.”
This is not just the rumblings of right wing media outlets or scare tactics, it is now becoming clear that millions of individuals who used to buy their insurance in the individual market will not be able to keep their old plans. As a result of minimum standard for health insurance “quality,” between 50 and 75 percent of existing individual insurance plans will be canceled.
White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said that these cancellations will only affect “substandard policies that don’t provide minimum services.” But again, the devil here is in the undiscussed details. The “minimum services” bar for the Affordable Care Act is actually very high and as a result the new policies that replace those being canceled can be quite expensive.
For people who are in the unsubsidized portion of the exchanges, or even those who qualify for smaller subsidies, these minimum requirements are going to result in large premium increases. While many people might all believe that these individuals be buying better insurance, this is not the argument used to gain public support for the ACA.
We’ve both been vocal in our support of moving people onto the exchanges and away from employer provided coverage. One reason for that support has been that the exchanges allow a far better matching of individual preferences for health insurance and the products that people can purchase. Certainly that was our basis for our strong support of narrow network plans on the exchanges.
Beyond the size of the network, some people don’t want to pay for generous first dollar coverage. Instead, these consumers are willing to exchange lower premiums for higher deductibles or other forms of cost sharing. Others might not be interested in having coverage for every possible service, but instead might opt for a less generous set of benefits.
They will be thwarted by the ACA.
Continue reading “Will You Be Able to Keep Your Plan? The Economics Behind the Obama Administration’s Latest Problem”
Filed Under: Economics, OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, Health Insurance Exchanges, The ACA
Oct 30, 2013
That past month of debate over the botched launch of the health care exchanges has brought the programming geeks, and their hired mouthpieces, out in the open to defend the indefensible. As painful as this has been for so many Americans, we cannot help but be amused to hear so many commentators doing their best impression of Captain Renault and expressing their shock that the federal procurement system could have produced such an outcome. Of course, most of this is a sideshow, the opening act to an even more serious drama in the making.
Let us be clear from the outset, the rollout of Healthcare.gov is an embarrassment. However, this only becomes a real problem if it dissuades enough people who were already marginal customers with respect to their purchase of health insurance on the exchanges to simply pay the penalty and avoid the hassle of staring at a computer screen, waiting on hold for hours, or refusing to try again once the geeks get this all sorted out.
While the self-appointed technology experts on both sides of the aisle have been debating the causes of the web site debacle, attention has been diverted away from the necessarily frank discussions we must have about the real potential benefits and looming costs of the exchanges.
In a valiant attempt to steer the conversation towards the benefits of the ACA, President Obama held a rose garden press event where he repeatedly claimed that the health insurance on the exchanges is good product. But as is all too often the case, the President talked about the benefits and side stepped the difficult conversation about the costs.
At least he is half right. If they can ever fix the web sites, people with pre-existing conditions who shop on the exchanges will gain access to insurance at a more affordable price. Enrollees may save thousands of dollars. But let’s not kid ourselves.
The exchanges do not reduce the cost of medical care; they only change who pays for it. And we all know who that is.
Continue reading “The Opening Act”
Filed Under: Economics, THCB
Tagged: business of healthcare, Craig Garthwaite, David Dranove, Economics, Employers, Health Insurance Exchanges, Healthcare.gov, Obama administration, The ACA
Oct 28, 2013
There is an ancient Arabic proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With this in mind, I can’t help but think that whatever Senator and leading Tea Party blowhard Ted Cruz opposes must be good. When Cruz decided to try to shut down America because he opposes Obamacare , well that sealed the deal for me. I say “Obamacare forever.”
Readers know that I think Obamacare has too many rules that create problems for payers and providers alike, and relies on some questionable practices for funding. I don’t like the rush to form ACOs or the lack of serious cost-effectiveness analysis (admittedly a concession to Republicans.) But Obamacare beats the hell (sorry Ted) out of Cruzcare, which, as far as I can tell, goes something like this: “Didn’t put aside enough money for that life-saving operation? Here is a prayer that might help.”
I used to sort of be a Republican. I voted for Bush (I won’t say which one in order to avoid embarrassment) and voted against Obama more than once (living in Illinois I had several opportunities.) And I hate that Obama is playing at President like someone playing poker with a winning hand.
This isn’t supposed to be about which politician claims the biggest pot for himself. But I will take a selfish and somewhat scornful Obama over Ted Cruz and the Tea Cozies any and every day of the week. And I will work to find the best Democratic leaders if all the Republicans can offer is Cruz and his TCs.
Shut down the government to finally fund Medicare and Social Security? Maybe. Shut down the government to achieve a rational tax code? Sure. Shut down the government to balance the budget? Now we are talking. But shut down the government to block the opening of the health insurance exchanges? How absurd!
Continue reading “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Obamacare”
Filed Under: Economics, THCB
Tagged: David Dranove, GOP Repeal, government shutdown, Health Insurance Exchanges, The ACA
Oct 6, 2013
While sitting in the crowded waiting room of a medical specialist’s office I was forced to listen to the television set directly over my head. Cranked up so that everyone could listen above the din of conversation, Wolf Blitzer introduced a video clip of the President hailing the latest news from New York about health insurance exchanges.
Speaking as if he was still on the campaign trail, the President’s words came through loud and clear over the television: thanks to his health reform, premiums in the New York exchange would be half that of premiums in the individual market. This was a model the entire nation should embrace.
No one heard me mutter under my breath that this was a model for New York and a small handful of other states that previously regulated their individual insurance markets effectively out of existence.
What the President undoubtedly knows, but dared not say, is that New York’s individual insurance market is unlike any other state. In New York, insurers cannot charge higher premiums to high risk enrollees.
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As a result of this aggressive community rating, high risk individuals are disproportionately represented in New York’s individual policy risk pools. This drives up premiums, which drives away low risks, driving premiums even higher. Insurers in New York are counting on the purchase mandate, combined with purchase subsidies, to lure low risks into the pool.
This is why they have lowered premiums.
Continue reading “What Happens In New York Stays In New York”
Filed Under: The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Costs, David Dranove, Health Insurance Exchanges, New York, Obamacare, Premiums, The ACA
Jul 19, 2013
In a recent New York Times blog, Uwe Reinhardt places much of the blame for high and rising medical prices on passive employers. He argues that employers should work just as hard to reduce healthcare benefit costs as they work to reduce other input costs. But he then observes:
“One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees.”
I think that Reinhardt gets the economics wrong here and, in the process, he puts too much of the blame on employers. Reinhardt is right in one respect – employees care about their entire wage/benefit packages. If benefits deteriorate, employers will have to increase wages to retain workers. Thus, it seems that if an employer reduces benefit costs, it must increase wages by an equal amount. If that is true, we can understand why employers are passive.
The correct economic argument is a bit more nuanced. Employees do not care about the cost of their benefits; they care about the benefits. If an employer can procure the same benefits at a lower cost, the employer need not increase wages one iota. In this regard, there is nothing special about health benefits. Suppose an employer offers employees the use of company cars. Workers don’t care what the employer paid for the cars, and if the employer can purchase cars at a deep discount, it will pocket the savings.
Continue reading “Are Employers to Blame For Our High Medical Prices?”
Filed Under: Economics, OP-ED, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Benefits, Costs, David Dranove, Economics, Employees, Employers, Health Plans
Jun 17, 2013
The recent Medicare report on variation in hospital “prices” is not exactly news. In fact, I wonder why anyone (including the NY Times and NPR) covered it, let alone make it a lead story.
As you probably know, Medicare reported that hospital charges for specific treatments, such as joint replacement surgery, greatly vary from one hospital to another. (This includes charges for all services during the hospitalization, including room charges, drugs, tests, therapy visits, etc.) Everyone in the healthcare business knows that charges do not equal the actual prices paid to hospitals, no more than automobile sticker prices equal the prices that car buyers actually pay. Except that for the past thirty years, the gap for hospitals greatly exceeds (in percentage terms) the gap for cars. This is not just a nonstory, it is an old nonstory.
So reporters tried to give it a new spin. One angle concerns the uninsured, who may have to pay full charges. I will write about this in a future blog. Another angle is that by publishing these charges, Medicare will encourage patients to shop around. That is the subject of this blog.
I suppose it is okay to tell patients that the amount they might have to pay out of their own pockets may vary from one hospital to the next. But the published charge data is useless for computing out of pocket payments; in fact, it may be worse than useless. As even the NY Times noted, insured patients make copayments based on prices that their insurers negotiate with hospitals. These prices are essentially uncorrelated with charges. So a patient who visits a hospital with low charges may well make higher out-of-pocket payments than a patient who visits a high charge hospital. It is a crap shoot.
Continue reading “The Rest of the Story About Hospital Pricing”
Filed Under: Economics, OP-ED, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: bitter pill, CMS, Costs, David Dranove, Hospitals, Pharma, Price controls, The ACA, Transparency
May 9, 2013