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Which Is More Efficient: Employer-Sponsored Insurance or Medicaid?

By SAURABH JHA, MD

An old disagreement between Uwe Reinhardt and Sally Pipes in Forbes is a teachable moment. There’s a dearth of confrontational debates in health policy and education is worse off for it.

Crux of the issue is the more efficient system: employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) or Medicaid. Sally Pipes, president of the market-leaning Pacific Research Institute, believes it is ESI. Employers spend 60% less than the government, per person: $3,430 versus $9,130, per person (according to the American Health Policy Institute). Seems like a no brainer.

Pipes credits “consumerist and market-friendly approaches to health insurance” for the efficiencies. She blames “fraud,” “improper payment,” and “waste” for problems in government-run components of health care.

But Uwe Reinhardt, economist at Princeton, counters that Medicaid appears inefficient because of the risk composition of its enrollees. Put simply, Medicaid recipients are sicker. Sicker patients use more health care resources. Econ 101.

The points of tension in their disagreement are instructive.

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Healthcare Law on the Ballot

Ezra Klein is right. In a recent Washington Post column, the left-leaning policy wonk laid plain that the future of ObamaCare is at stake in next week’s elections. If President Obama wins and Democrats hold the Senate, the Affordable Care Act will survive. If Mitt Romney wins and Republicans take the Senate, the law is dead. It is the starkest of differences.

How likely is each scenario? At this moment Democrats have the advantage. According to Real Clear Politics, the president is running slightly ahead in six out of ten battleground states. He could actually lose seven of these, but still be reelected if he hangs onto Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

While key Senate races have tightened, such as Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Democrats have a slight advantage there too. If the elections were held today, Republicans would fall two seats short.

What would this future look like?  Implementing ObamaCare would be accelerated. HHS and states will have less than fourteen months to finalize major provisions of the law before they take effect on January 1, 2014.

Thousands of pages of regulation will be released shortly after the election, on everything from IRS rules for employers to essential health benefits to covering pre-existing conditions. It remains to be seen how prescriptive these regulations would be.

State officials will have to submit a blueprint for their insurance exchanges by November 16th. They will need to decide if they will create and exchange and how it will be designed.

They will also have to decide whether to expand their Medicaid programs, and they’ll need to determine essential health benefits and benchmark plans for the insurance options to be sold through their exchanges.

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