The health care cost debate takes place on two stages using two languages, one scientific, the other economic. The net result is a failure to communicate.
The scientific texts emanated over the weekend from the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago. Ongoing clinical trials showed that science has come up with new drugs that can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and prolong life for people with skin cancer. The former is an estrogen inhibitor that would have to be taken by tens of millions of older women to have a major impact on reducing the rate of breast cancer. The latter would only be given to a subset of the 68,000 new cases of melanoma each year, and would extend life from a few months to a few years for some of the 7,700 who die from the disease each year. Again, most of those people are older, although there are a number of younger people, especially young women, who disproportionately get advanced skin cancer.
For both groups, the cost to the health care system when these drugs are approved, as they inevitably will be, will be calculated in the billions. Medicare will pick up the lion’s share of the tab, since most of the patients in both groups will be over 65.
Now let’s step around the corner to stage two, where the debate in this morning’s papers (if you read the Washington Post and New York Times every day, as I do) is over Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Paul Samuelson, the top economics columnist in the Post, essentially endorses the plan saying “under Ryan’s plan, incentive would shift. Medicare would no longer be an open ATM; the vouchers would limit total spending.” What he doesn’t say is that it would only limit total spending by government. It would require seniors to pick up a growing share of the bill, and limit their own purchasing of health care, either by purchasing plans that didn’t cover expensive end-of-life care, or simply denying themselves routine treatments to avoid co-pays and deductibles.Continue reading…
There is a dangerous but beguiling econometric logic behind the idea that turning Medicare over to the insurance industry will lower health care costs. It’s an idea that could catch on if the general public became convinced that there is nothing we can do acting together as a society to lower the cost of care. Only the market can do it, the Republicans claim. Force seniors (or the poor or anyone, for that matter) to have more skin in the game, and they’ll use their clout as consumers to separate the wheat from chaff in modern medicine. Expensive, wasteful tests, procedures, and drugs will wither for lack of customers.
Democrats, in attacking the Republican plan that passed the House yesterday, relentlessly hammered away at the cost to future seniors of having “more skin in the game.” Two-thirds of the cost of care within a decade of Medicare privatization in 2023 will fall on them. But the 2030s must seem very far away to people in their 40s and 50s. Isn’t it likely that they won’t think about that far-off time, but instead grab on to the promise of future lower costs, which, let’s be frank, the Affordable Care Act (health care reform) may not be able to achieve.
So here’s the real argument young and middle-aged people need to hear, and the real reason why the “more skin in the game” argument can never work for seniors or other vulnerable populations, including them when they reach that age. Seniors and the poor account for over half of health care spending. Within those groups, 5 percent of the population accounts for 50 percent of health care costs; and 20 percent of the population accounts for about 80 percent. These costs come for the most part at times when economic incentives have no influence at all on medical decision-making: in medical crises; in treating chronic conditions; and, for most Medicare patients, in the last six months of life.
That’s why a voucher program for Medicare, which will shift an increasing share of those inevitable costs onto the elderly themselves, can fairly be categorized as a 100 percent estate tax or death tax. People under 55 need to know that if the plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan were passed, most of them will never have a cent to leave to their children. It will all go to the health care industry to support the American way of dying.
Merrill Goozner has been writing about economics and health care for many years. The former chief economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Merrill has written for a long list of publications including the New York Times, Financial Times, The American Prospect and The Washington Post. You can read more pieces by Merrill at GoozNews, where this post first appeared.