Hospital Monopolies Are What’s Wrong with American Health Care

Call it a sign of the times. If Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”) appeared today, he would have little interest in holding properties like the Short Line Railroad. In the 21st century, acquiring railroads, or even utilities, is so Baltic Avenue. The real money—and the real monopolies—lie in health care, specifically in hospitals.

Despite the constant focus on prescription drug prices, pharmaceuticals represent a comparatively small slice of the American health care pie. In 2016, national spending on prescription drugs totaled $328.6 billion. That’s a large sum on its own, but only 9.8 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, spending on hospital care totaled nearly $1.1 trillion, or more than three times spending on prescriptions.

Hospitals’ Monopolistic Tactics

The Journal profiled several under-the-radar tactics that some large hospitals use to deter competition and pad their bottom lines. For instance, some contracts “prevent patients from seeing a hospital’s prices by allowing a hospital operator to block the information from online shopping tools that insurers offer.”

Hospitals use these tactics to oppose transparency, because they fear, correctly, that if patients know what they will pay for a service before they receive it, they may take their business elsewhere. It’s an arrogant and high-handed attitude straight out of Marxism.

Also in hospitals’ toolkits: So-called “must-carry” clauses, which require insurers to keep their hospitals in-network, regardless of the high prices they charge, or poor quality outcomes they achieve. The Journal reported that one of the nation’s largest retailers wanted to kick out the lowest-quality providers, but had no ability to do so.

Officials at Walmart a few years ago asked the insurers that administered its coverage…if the nation’s largest private employer could remove from its health-care networks the 5% of providers with the worst quality performance. The insurers told the giant retailer their contracts with certain health-care providers didn’t allow them to filter out specific doctors or hospitals, even based solely on quality measures.

Surprise! Obamacare Made It Worse

Many of these trends preceded President Obama’s health care law, of course. But it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see how hospital mergers accelerated after 2010, the year of Obamacare’s passage:

Hospitals responded to the law by buying up other hospitals, increasing market share in an attempt to gain more negotiating “clout” against health insurers. That leverage allows them to demand clauses such as those preventing price transparency, or preventing insurers from developing smaller networks that only include efficient or better-quality providers.

Here again, industry consolidation begets higher prices. In many cases, hospitals can charge more for services provided by an “outpatient facility” as opposed to one provided by a “doctor’s office.” In some circumstances, the patient will receive the same service, provided by the same doctor, in the same office, but will end up getting charged a higher price—merely because, by buying the physician practice, the hospital can reclassify the office and procedure as taking place in an “outpatient facility.”

Remember: Hospitals Endorsed Obamacare

In 2010, the American Hospital Association, along with other hospital associations, endorsed Obamacare. At the time the hospital lobbies claimed that the measure would increase the number of Americans with health insurance coverage. For some reason, they neglected to mention how the law would also encourage the consolidation that presents ever-upward pressure on insurance premiums.

But remember too that Obama repeatedly promised his health-care law would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family. Unfortunately for Americans, however, Obamacare’s crony capitalism—allowing hospitals to grow their operations, and thus their bottom line, in exchange for political endorsements—continues to contribute to higher premiums, putting Obama’s promise further and further away from reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Politico Reporter’s “Fact Check” of Trump Riddled with Omissions

Who will fact check the fact checkers? That question reared its head again late last week, as a reporter from Politico attempted to add “context” to health-care-related comments the president made at a political rally in Las Vegas. As with Trump himself, what Politico reporter Dan Diamond omitted said just as much as what he included.

During his speech, the president talked about pre-existing conditions, saying Republicans want to “protect patients with pre-existing conditions:”

I’ve previously written about the Obamacare lawsuit in question—why I oppose both the lawsuit, and the Justice Department’s intervention in the case, as unwise judicial activism—and Republicans’ poor response on the issue. But note what neither Diamond nor Trump mentioned: That the pre-existing condition “protections” are incredibly costly—the biggest driver of premium increases—and that, when voters are asked whether they would like these provisions “if it caused the cost of your health insurance to go up,” support plummets by roughly 40 percentage points.

If you need any more persuading that the media are carrying liberals’ water on pre-existing conditions, consider that the Kaiser Family Foundation released their health care tracking survey earlier this month. In it, Kaiser asked whether people are worried that “if the Supreme Court overturns the health care law’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions you will have to pay more for health insurance coverage.”

The survey didn’t mention that all individuals are already paying higher premiums for those “protections” since Obamacare took effect—whether they want to or not, and whether they have a pre-existing condition or not. In fact, the survey implied the opposite. By only citing a scenario that associates premium rises with a Supreme Court ruling striking down the provisions, Kaiser misled respondents into its “preferred” response.

Then last week, Politico ran another story on the Republican strategy to “duck and cover” regarding the states’ lawsuit, which might of course have something to do with the tenor of Politico’s “reporting” on pre-existing conditions in the first place.

Next, to Single-Payer Proposals

Following the comments about pre-existing conditions, the president then went on the attack, and Diamond felt the need to respond.

Diamond accurately notes that “there is no consensus ‘Democrat plan.’” As the saying goes, the left hand doesn’t always know what the far-left hand is doing. But Trump also made crystal clear what specific Democratic plan he was describing—the single-payer plan written by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He even quoted the $32 trillion estimated cost of the plan, as per a Mercatus Center study that became the topic of great dispute earlier this summer.

Here’s what Section 102(a) of Sanders’ bill (S. 1804) says about coverage under the single-payer plan: “SEC. 102. UNIVERSAL ENTITLEMENT. (a) IN GENERAL.—Every individual who is a resident of the United States is entitled to benefits for health care services under this Act. The Secretary shall promulgate a rule that provides criteria for determining residency for eligibility purposes under this Act.”

And here’s what Section 107(a) of the bill says about individuals trying to keep their own health coverage, or purchasing other coverage, to “get out” of the single-payer system:

SEC. 107. PROHIBITION AGAINST DUPLICATING COVERAGE.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Beginning on the effective date described in section 106(a), it shall be unlawful for—

(1) a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act; or

(2) an employer to provide benefits for an employee, former employee, or the dependents of an employee or former employee that duplicate the benefits provided under this Act.

In other words, the Sanders bill “would force every American on to government-run health care, and virtually eliminate all private and employer-based health care plans”—exactly as the president claimed.

His “most” wording cleverly attempted to elide the fact that the most prominent Democratic plan—the one endorsed by everyone from Sanders to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and vigorously pursued by the activist left—does exactly what Trump claimed.

I have little doubt that, had the president inflated the Mercatus study’s estimated cost of Sanders’ single-payer plan—for instance, had Trump said it would cost $42 trillion, or $52 trillion, instead of using the $32 trillion number—Diamond (and others) would have instantly “fact checked” the incorrect number. Given that Diamond, and just about everyone else, knew Trump was talking about the single-payer bill, this so-called “fact check”—which discussed everything but the bill Trump referenced—looks both smarmy and pedantic, specifically designed to divert attention from the most prominent Democratic plan put forward, and Trump’s (accurate) claims about it.

Medicare Benefits Not Guaranteed

Ironically, if Diamond really wanted to fact check the president, as opposed to playing political games, he had a wide open opportunity to do so, on at least two levels. In both cases, he whiffed completely.

In the middle of his riff on single-payer health care, President Trump said this: “Robbing from our senior citizens—you know that? It’s going to be one of the great catastrophes ever. The benefits—they paid, for their entire lives—are going to be taken away.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Politicians can claim all they want that people “paid into” Medicare to get back their benefits, but it isn’t true. The average senior receives far more in benefits than what he or she paid into the system, and the gap is growing. Medicare’s existing cash crunch makes a compelling case against expanding government-run health care, but it still doesn’t mean that seniors “paid for” all (as opposed merely to some) of the benefits they receive.

Second, as I have previously noted, Sanders’ bill is not “Medicare-for-all.” It’s “Medicare-for-none.” Section 901(a)(1)(A) of the bill would end benefits under the current Medicare program, and Section 701(d) of the bill would liquidate the existing Medicare trust fund. If seniors like the Medicare coverage, including the privately run Medicare Advantage plans, they have now, they would lose it. Period.

To sum up, in this case Politico ignored:

  1. The cost of the pre-existing condition “protections”—how they raise premiums, and how Obamacare advocates don’t want to mention that fact when talking about them;
  2. The way that the most prominent Democratic health care bill—the one that President Trump very clearly referred to in his remarks—would abolish private coverage and force hundreds of millions of individuals on to government-run health care;
  3. Inaccurate claims President Trump made about seniors having “earned” all their Medicare benefits; and
  4. The fact that Sanders’ bill would actually abolish Medicare for seniors.

And people say the media have an ideological bias in favor of greater government control of health care. Why on earth would they think that?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Mixed Messages on Federalism

Care to take a guess how many Republican senators are willing to take a stand over federalism? Would you believe just two?

On Monday night, when the Senate considered legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about “gag clauses” in pharmaceutical contracts, only Utah’s Mike Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul voted no. Lee and Paul do not believe the federal government has any business providing for blanket regulation of the health-care sector.

Gag Clauses, Explained

I have experienced the distorted ways the drug pricing system currently operates. When looking to refill a prescription for one of my antihistamines, my insurance benefit quoted me a charge of $170 for a 90- to 100-day supply. But when I went online to GoodRX.com, I found online coupons that could provide me the same product, in the same quantities, for a mere $70-80, depending on the pharmacy I chose.

I found even greater discounts by purchasing in bulk. I ended up buying a nearly one year’s supply of my maintenance medication for $210—little more than the price for a 90-100 day supply originally quoted to me by my insurer. Had I used my insurance card, and refilled the prescription repeatedly, I would have paid approximately $300 more over the course of a year. Because my Obamacare insurance is junk, I have little chance of reaching my deductible this year, short of getting hit by a bus, so it made perfect sense for me to pay with cash instead.

In theory, anyone can go to GoodRX.com (with which I have no relationship except as a satisfied consumer), or other similar websites, to find the cash price of prescription drugs and compare them to the prices quoted by their insurers. But in practice, few try to shop around for prescription drugs.

Why Federalism Matters

In general, conservatives would support efforts to increase transparency within the health-care marketplace, and prohibiting “gag clauses” would do just that. However, some conservatives would also note that the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1947 devolves the business of regulating insurance, including health insurance, to the states, and that the states could take the lead on whether or not to eliminate “gag clauses” in insurance contracts. Indeed, a majority of states—26 in total—have already done so, including no fewer than 15 state laws passed just this year.

Lee’s office reached out to me several weeks ago for technical assistance in drafting an amendment designed to limit the scope of federal legislation on “gag clauses” to those types of insurance where the federal government already has a regulatory nexus. Lee ultimately offered such an amendment, which prohibited “gag clauses” only for self-insured employer plans—regulated by the federal government under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

Unfortunately, only 11 senators—all Republicans—voted for this amendment, which would have prevented yet another intrusion by the federal government on states’ affairs. Of those 11, only Lee and Paul voted against final passage of the bill, due to the federalism concerns.

More Federalism Violations Ahead?

One of the prime sponsors of the discussion draft? None other than Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the author of legislation introduced last year that he claimed would “give states significant latitude over how [health care] dollars are used to best take care of the unique…needs of the patients in each state.”

The contradiction between Cassidy’s rhetoric then and his actions now raise obvious questions: How can states get “significant latitude over” their health care systems if Washington-based politicians like Cassidy are constantly butting in with new requirements, like the “surprise medical bill” regulation? Or, to put it another way, why does Cassidy think states are smart enough to manage nearly $1.2 trillion in Obamacare funding, but too stupid to figure out how to solve problems like drug price “gag clauses” and “surprise bills?”

Politics Versus Principle

The widely inconsistent behavior of people like Cassidy raises the possibility that, to some, federalism represents less of a political principle to follow than a political toy to manipulate. When Washington lawmakers want to punt a difficult decision—like how to “repeal” Obamacare while “replacing” it with an alternative that covers just as many people—they can hide behind federalism to defer action to the states.

Reagan had another axiom that applies in this case: That there is no limit to what a person can do if that person does not mind who gets the credit. Lawmakers in literally dozens of states have acted on “gag clauses,” but that matters little to Collins, who wants the federal government to swoop in and take the credit—and erode state autonomy in the process.

It may seem novel to most of official Washington, but if lawmakers claim to believe in federalism, they should stick to that belief, even when it proves inconvenient.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Of Course Russian Trolls Used Obamacare Repeal to Divide Americans

Full disclosure: I am not a Russian troll.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published an analysis of nearly 10,000 tweets published by accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian-backed organization that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted for its attempts to interfere with the American electoral process.

It should go without saying, but no one should support efforts to interfere with, or otherwise corrupt, the American democratic process. Particularly given the way in which Russia’s authoritarian regime has stifled dissent and dismantled the country’s free and independent media, the IRA and Russian President Vladimir Putin have little business trying to lecture the United States on how to run a government.

That said, it seems unsurprising that the Russian government would attempt to use health care as a “wedge” issue to divide groups of Americans. The Journal article notes that “health policy [was a] natural target for the [Russian] provocateurs.”

In 2010, Democrats passed their health-care law through Congress on strict party lines, with not a single Republican vote. Health care in general, and Obamacare in particular, have remained polarizing issues ever since. The Journal also noted that the trolls’ Obamacare-related activity spiked last spring and summer, during the heat of the debate over “repeal-and-replace” legislation in Congress.

Health care, unlike most other issues, remains intensely personal to each American. Whereas many Americans might not care much about energy policy, or see how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization affects their daily lives, people have frequent and personal interactions with the health care system, whether for themselves or someone close to them. Everyone has a story and an opinion about health care.

Health care also has become a flashpoint for long-simmering political debates over the size and scope of government. Conservatives and libertarians oppose Obamacare because they view it as “big government” overreach. They would repeal the law, and scale back the involvement of government in general, and the federal government in particular, over the health care system.

By contrast, liberals want to go even further to expand government’s scope and reach—hence the renewed push for a single-payer health system. The Left views health care as a right, the number of uninsured and underinsured people as a scandal, and health concerns as a moral imperative that only government can address. Likewise, the vaccine debate plays to similar questions about the extent to which government can and should involve itself in health choices.

Almost one year ago, I wrote that “wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and the strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice.” A medium that attempts to digest “news” into a 280-character format seems tailor-made for the type of instant, emotional reactions that the IRA desires as a means to foment discord and dissent.

Combating Russian trolls requires actions by law enforcement and social media companies, yes, but it also requires some level of introspection by each one of us. Instead of simply “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a phenomenon Neil Postman first described more than three decades ago, we should spend less time passively consuming media and more time thinking about what we consume. As I wrote last October:

At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.