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Tag: David Dranove

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Obamacare

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!

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What Happens In New York Stays In New York

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.

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Are Employers to Blame For Our High Medical Prices?

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.

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The Rest of the Story About Hospital Pricing

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.

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Zombie Hospital Economics

The Illinois hospital dinosaurs continue to defy evolution and prove that they are not extinct. I am talking about our health facilities planning board, which just turned down another Certificate of Need application for a new hospital, this time in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. The board justified the decision by stating that the new hospital would harm existing hospitals.

I know that the Chicago School of economics tells us that regulators serve the interests of those they regulate, usually at the expense of the public. But just because the Illinois planning board sits in Chicago, that doesn’t mean they have to slavishly follow the Chicago School. They could act in the public interest at least once in a while! (Though if the board started approving too many new health facilities, someone might notice that they are not needed and put them out of a job.)

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Physician Entrepreneurs

I have been taking a vacation from blogging as I try to get through a very busy academic quarter. But my last blog, “My Son the Electrician” elicited a lot of comments and I have always wanted to follow up. And today I see that the Chicago Sun Times has generously quoted me, in particular noting how I liken physicians to entrepreneurs. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, let me briefly explain what I mean.

Like entrepreneurs, physicians launch their careers by making large investments – up to ten years of post-graduate training. Such investments do not come with a guarantee. Entrepreneurial physicians – those who own their own practices or work in small partnerships, must build their practices and maintain relationships with other physicians. All successful physicians, whether entrepreneurs or employees, enjoy personally and professional satisfying careers and comfortable, sometimes more than comfortable, incomes. But only physicians entrepreneurs have ultimate responsibility for their practices and their patients.

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In Defense of Narrow Networks

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.

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Unleashing the Innovation Monster

I have been absent from the blogosphere for about two months. The fact is, there just isn’t all that much new to write about. Healthcare spending growth continues to moderate, but not by enough to stave off forecasts of doom for Medicare and Medicaid. Nor can employers begin to shift money from health benefits back into wages. But wheels are turning. Health networks are expanding as providers prepare to offer ACOs and/or increase their bargaining clout. A handful of states are poised to start up exchanges with the feds ready to take the reins in the laggard states. Aon/Hewitt is about ready to launch a private sector exchange. We will start to learn whether exchanges save or destroy private health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act has had many detractors but at least it has disrupted the status quo. We needed to see fundamental changes in how we pay for and deliver healthcare services and the ACA has delivered. But ACA has brought us a very particular set of changes. Time will tell if we have chosen the right path.

Even as the industry changes the way it does business, one critical aspect of change is missing. The faces are all the same. The same large systems that dominated the fee for service world seem poised to dominate the shared savings world, and the same insurers that dominated the traditional employer-based insurance market stand ready to dominate exchanges. Value might be created when old businesses play by new rules, but even more value is created when new players are free to enter and perhaps even break the rules.

Entry is the engine that drives economic progress. Entrants bring new technologies to manufacturing and new service models to sales. Threatened by entry, incumbents strive to innovate and improve customer service. This is as true in high tech industries as it is in the service economy. Research confirms that entry is ubiquitous – in a typical manufacturing industry, fully one third of established firms are replaced by entrants within five years. Though the data is not as readily available, turnover in the service sector is likely even higher.

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Setting the Record Straight on Medicaid’s “Success”

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Paul Krugman extolled the virtues of Medicaid. Here are some excerpts from this astonishing column:

“Medicaid has been more successful at controlling costs than any other major part of the nation’s health care system.”

“How does Medicaid achieve these lower costs? Partly by having much lower administrative costs than private insurers.”

“Medicaid is much more effective at bargaining with the medical-industrial complex.”

“Consider, for example, drug prices. Last year a government study compared the prices that Medicaid paid for brand-name drugs with those paid by Medicare Part D — also a government program, but one run through private insurance companies, and explicitly forbidden from using its power in the market to bargain for lower prices. The conclusion: Medicaid pays almost a third less on average?”

In the days since this column was published, I have spoken with many experts on Medicaid who are uniformly appalled by it. While I may not reach the same audience as the New York Times (at least not yet!), I feel compelled to set the record straight on Medicaid’s “successes.”

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A Sign of the Times

Coming Soon, North Shore University Health Systems Medical Office Building.

For me, this is sad news. I am not saddened that North Shore University Health is opening yet another medical office building. It is where they are opening that gets me. They are taking over a two story building that used to house a Border’s Bookstore. My Border’s Bookstore. Sure, Border’s may have been a bit corporate, but this was still a great bookstore. They sold best sellers there, of course, but they also carried all the classics and lots of eccentric titles. Heck, they even briefly carried one of my own books! They had a vast selection of books about military history and an amazing travel section. My wife lost herself for hours in gardening and my sons ogled the aisles of mystery and fantasy novels. Border’s also had vast CD and DVD departments (with classical CDs and Criterion Collection movies) and the café sold a chocolate bundt cake that was out of this world. Maybe best of all, the building had an odd layout with lots of nooks and crannies and surprises around the corner. For a corporate bookstore, it oozed charm. Medical office buildings never ooze charm.

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