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Uwe Reinhardt

flying cadeuciiIn ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.”

It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust.

Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.

Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers.

It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made.

Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures?

Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?

Continue reading “ACA 101: An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice”

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Beholding David H. Howard’s rendering of the crazy-quilt of financial sources that have been tapped by the designers of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (hereafter ACA ’10) to finance the new entitlements they put in place – a little nuisance tax here, a little nuisance cut in other federal spending there – reminds me once more of the sincere, indeed touching, naiveté with which Democrats tend to go about enacting new entitlements.

It is a totally counterproductive and inelegant approach. To be sure, none of the added taxes or spending cuts in the bill seriously disrupt anyone; but they do spread a little pain all around. Therefore, it seems almost deliberately designed to maximize opposition to it from many quarters.

It also leads to acute embarrassments, such as having to postpone by a year (and perhaps more years) the unseemly penalty imposed on employers with 50 or more employees each working 40 your or more etc etc, even at the appearance of having broken the law – or so we are told.

When will the Democrats ever learn?

And from whom might they learn?

From the Republicans, of course.

Dream back to the good old days – 2003 – when the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress pushed through, with deft parliamentary maneuvering and some arms twisting, H.R. 1 (2003), the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act – hereafter the MMA ’03.

Continue reading “How Naïve Can Democrats Get?”

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After doing Talmudic-like studies of the doctrines on health reform promulgated by Republican health-policy makers and the conservative economists who inspired them during the past two decades, I am devastated to discover that all of those studies have been for naught. We are now told, sometimes by the same prophets of yore, that these doctrines were not only wrong, but outright heretical, which in this context means un-American.

New doctrines are rumored to be in the making, but the first word on them has yet to be committed to new, sacred tablets, mainly because there have not yet emerged any new ideas worth committing to tablets.

Do not take my word for it. Newt Gingrich, one of the Grand Old Party’s aging prophets, said so himself in his recent speech to the Republican National Committee.

Comes now conservative commentator John R. Graham of the Pacific Research Institute, telling us that Republicans seem lost in the desert even in their hit-and-run insurgency against their sworn enemy, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA).

What is a befuddled immigrant to the United States like me, eagerly trying to become a right thinking American, to make of it all?

My early introduction to the texts coming from conservative thinking on health reform was the Heritage Plan of 1989, Viewed through the prism of the ACA of 2010, its language seems eerily familiar. One provision, for example, proposed a:

“[m]andate all households to obtain adequate insurance. Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seatbelts for their own protection. Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance. But neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement” (p.5).

The Heritage Plan also called for income-related, refundable tax credits toward the purchase of private health insurance. Although it did not call for community rated premiums, it proposed means-tested public subsidies and toward high out-of-pocket expenses of individuals and families. It did not spell out the daunting administrative apparatus that would entail. But one can imagine the required new bureaucratic apparatus, replete with auditors to prevent fraud and abuse. Presumably, income-related subsidies would have involved the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in some ways as well.

Next came a text put forth by conservative economist Mark V. Pauly and like-minded colleagues in Health Affairs. It is worth a reading again. Here’s the core of these prophets’ proposal:

“In our scheme, every person would be required to obtain basic coverage, through either an individual or a family insurance plan. …All basic plans would be required to cover specified health services; plans could, however, offer more generous benefits or supplemental policies. The maximum out-of-pocket expense (stop-loss) permitted would be geared to income, with more complete coverage required for lower-income people, to ensure that no one faced the risk of out-of-pocket expenses that were catastrophic, given their income.” Again, lots of government intrusion into health care, along with links to the IRS.

There then followed a real life health bill based on these ideas, the late Republican John Chafee’s antidote to the emerging Clinton plan. It was called the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993” and had an impressively long list of Republican co-sponsors, among them Senator’s Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), now fierce opponents of the ACA. As the folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation have shown, many of its provisions of Chafee’s bill have a striking similarity to provisions in the ACA of 2010 and comparing.

Continue reading “Talmudic-Like Studies of Republican Health Reform Ideas”

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In his “The Great American Health Care Divide,” Brad DeLong laments the great ideological divide that has so long prevented this great country from developing a coherent national health policy.

I am glad to have Brad’s company, because I have whined about the same divide for several decades now, as evidenced by my “Turning Our Gaze from Bread and Circus Games,” penned in 1995 and “Is there hope for the uninsured?

Finally, after a nice visit with my friends at the Cato Institute and reading the often amazing commentary on John Goodman’s NCPA blog , I was moved to pen a post on The New York Times blog Economix entitled “Social Solidarity vs. Rugged Individualism.” It was inspired by the often hysterical description of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a government takeover of U.S. health care or a trampling on the freedom of Americans, as in mandating individuals to have minimally adequate health insurance, lest they become freeloaders on the system.

The basic idea of my proposal is simple.

In 2009, Paul Starr had warned Democrats of a potential voter backlash against the individual mandate and proposed instead a nudging arrangement. Uninsured Americans would be auto-enrolled into health plan, if they chose not to select one, but could opt out of it with the proviso that for the next five years they could then not buy insurance through the insurance exchanges established by the ACA at community-rated premiums, and potentially with federal subsidies.

My proposal is to make that a lifetime exclusion. An individual would have to choose one or the other system by age 25. Should individuals opting out fall seriously ill and not have the means to pay for their care, we would not let them die, of course, but to the extent possible we would cover their full bill – possibly at charges — by expropriating any assets they might have and garnishing any income above the federal poverty level they subsequently might earn. Something like that.

As Jay Gaskill’s somewhat opaque reaction in “RUGGED INDIVIDUALLISM is NOT the Essential Value of Freedom” suggests, people who oppose the ACA as trampling on their freedom are not comfortable with my prescription, which does not at all surprise me.

Continue reading “A Health Plan for Rugged Individualists”

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In his “Are Employers to Blame for Our High Medical Prices?,” David Dranove takes issue with my statement in a New York Times blog post:

“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.”

He writes:

“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.”

So far I can buy the nuance. It is something we could theorize about.

But then David he notes that:

“Employers may have an incentive to reduce benefits costs yet they are passive purchasers. With a few exceptions, nearly every American corporation outsources its healthcare benefits to insurers and ASO providers and then looks the other was as the medical bills pile up. Sure, they complain about the high cost of medical care, but they don’t take direct action by aggressively shopping for lower provider prices. Doesn’t this passivity demonstrate a lack of interest? No more so than the fact that auto makers do not aggressively shop the lowest rubber or silica prices implies that they are disinterested in the costs of tires and windows. Auto makers outsource the production of tires and windows (and most other inputs) and let the Michelins and PPGs of the world worry about rubber and silica prices. By the same token, American companies outsource the production of insurance and let the Blues and Uniteds of the world worry about provider prices. This is entirely appropriate.”

Forgive me if by now I am lost. Do we really believe that modern corporations, whose management and board of directors agonize even over an extra penny of earnings per share (EPS) – believe me, I know whereof I speak – simply outsource the procurement of major inputs and then look the other way?

They do seem to do it in health care – which is the puzzle – but they surely do not in connection with other important inputs where smart buying can add pennies to EPS.

Continue reading “Would We Be Better Off If Employers Stopped Paying for Health Insurance?”

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I welcome Leah Binder’s earlier post on this blog, written in  response to my blog post in The New York Times. To be thus acknowledged is an honor.

As an economist, I am not trained to respond to Ms. Binder’s deep insights into my psyche, dubious though it may be. Nor, alas, can I delve into hers, fascinating though that might be. Let me therefore concentrate instead just on substance.

First of all, I do not recall calling employers “stupid,” nor did I question their IQ. I do confess to having once called employee benefits managers, when addressing them at some of their usually mournful meetings, “kind-hearted social workers dressed to look like tough Republicans.” At that meeting I contrasted how carefully their company’s tough-minded VP for Procurement, Murgatroid de B. Coverly III, Princeton ’74, purchased paper clips for the company with the much more mellow approach taken by their V.P. of Human Resources to purchase health care for their company’s employees.

Benefit managers – I hate to call them BMs — really are the nicest folks. They care deeply about their employees’ well being (until, of course, the latter lose their job with the company). They worry incessantly about their company’s ever rising outlays for health insurance. And, after a cocktail or two, they regularly lament how rarely they get the attention of top management and of the board of directors – the very folks I once told to go look into a mirror in their search for the culprit behind rising health care costs.

No, when I say “employers” I really mean top management and boards of directors who make the rules. And  I did not even call those mighty ones stupid, but merely “passive payers” as did, by the way, David Dranove on this blog in his critical response to my New York Times piece. Why these usually tough and smart people have behaved so passively in buying health care for themselves and their employees remains a puzzle at the level of economic theory.

Continue reading “Yes. Employers Really Are to Blame For Our High Medical Prices”

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Uwe Reinhardt is one of the nation’s most respected health care economists, professor at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, fellow of the Institute of Medicine, and one of the shining lights in health policymaking circles.

But alas, even the best and the brightest are wrong sometimes. Case in point: Reinhardt’s recent comments in the New York Times on the role of the American business community in fueling our nation’s health care problems. To paraphrase, Reinhardt believes that employer purchasers of health care are 1) dim bulbs and 2) responsible for the escalating costs of care.

This seemed puzzling coming from Reinhardt, whose views are widely respected by purchasers.  But I was able to diagnose the problem by drawing on insights from social psychology.

Social psychology investigates “attribution,” our mind’s process for inferring the causes of events or behaviors. It’s how we describe why things happen — to us or to someone else. It turns out, we humans aren’t very accurate in our attribution processes because all of us suffer from at least one of the following problems. In his New York Times piece, poor Professor Reinhardt appears afflicted by all three at the same time. Let’s take a closer look at each:

1. Actor-Observer Bias: This is the notion that when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to blame external forces more often than our own personal characteristics.

Reinhardt is rightfully troubled by a decade of escalating health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance. But seized by Actor-Observer Bias, Reinhardt blames this problem not on the world of health care that he played such an influential role in over the past few decades, but on external forces, the employers who purchase health care.

Continue reading “Three Reasons Uwe Reinhardt Blames Purchasers for Everything”

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We physicians like to think that we are really different from other workers.

We physicians, perhaps thinking back to that medical school application essay we all wrote, really believe that we went into this career to simply help others.  We physicians truly believe that we always put our patients first.Because we sincerely believe all of the above, we are shocked when someone like Uwe Reinhardt points out that collectively we act just like any other worker in the economy.

The classic 1986 letters between the Princeton professor Reinhardt and former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman highlight the tension between how we think of ourselves and how we act.

Relman thinks physicians are special and he asks Reinhardt the following question:

“Do you really see no difference between physicians and hospitals on the one hand, and ‘purveyors of other goods and services,’ on the other?”

Reinhardt is ready with a long answer that should be read in its entirety.  The short answer is that doctors act like any other human beings. A portion of his answer includes the following:

“Surely you will agree that it has been one of American medicine’s more hallowed tenets that piece-rate compensation is the sine qua non of high quality medical care.  Think about this tenet, We have here a profession that openly professes that its members are unlikely to do their best unless they are rewarded in cold cash for every little ministration rendered their patients.  If an economist made that assertion, one might write it off as one more of that profession’s kooky beliefs.  But physicians are saying it.”

Continue reading “The Battle for the Souls of American Doctors”

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