Michael Bloomberg: Against Obamacare Before He Was For It

Last week, old footage emerged of former New York City mayor, and current Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg talking about health care rationing. In his comments from 2011, he advocated denying costly care to older patients:

If you’re bleeding, they’ll stop the bleeding—if you need an X-ray, you’re going to have to wait. That’s just…All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us….You know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice life. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it.

Perhaps more important is why Bloomberg made those particular comments. At the time, in February 2011, he was paying condolences to a Jewish family that had lost a loved one. One of the deceased man’s family noted that the man “was in the emergency room for 73 hours before he died and…that overcrowding in emergency rooms in New York had become out of control.”

This entire episode undermines the message of Bloomberg’s current ad blitz claiming that as mayor, he expanded access to health care in New York City. Plus, what did the mayor say about ER overcrowding back in 2011? “It’s going to get worse with the health care bill [i.e., Obamacare].” He also predicted that hospitals would close as a result.

Obamacare a ‘Disgrace’

During last week’s Democrat primary debate in Las Vegas, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up some of Bloomberg’s other comments about Obamacare. Biden correctly noted that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a “disgrace.” In a June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University just after the law’s enactment, Bloomberg said “We passed a health care bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems in this country. It is just a disgrace.”

Reporters in the past several days have highlighted some of Bloomberg’s prior comments about the law:

  • In his Dartmouth speech, Bloomberg also pointed out that Democrats “say they’ve insured or provided coverage for another 45 million people…except there’s no more doctors for 45 million people.”
  • In a 2011 radio appearance, Bloomberg said that Obamacare “did not solve the basic problems, two basic problems with health care, which…got lost in all of the negotiations as every special interest in Congress got a piece or lost a piece or negotiated about a piece.”
  • In a December 2009 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bloomberg criticized Democrats for not reading or understanding the legislation: “I have asked congressperson after congressperson, not one can explain to me what’s in the bill, even in the House version, certainly not in the other version. And so for them to vote on a bill that they don’t understand whatsoever, really, you’ve got to question the kind of government we have.”

It’s notable that Biden didn’t mention Bloomberg’s last quote—about members of Congress not reading or understanding the legislation—in Wednesday’s debate. Of course, that might have something to do with Biden’s own recent admission that “no one did understand Obamacare”—presumably including himself, at the time the vice president of the United States.

Changing His Tune

Now that Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination, he’s come around to supporting Obamacare. When asked about his prior comments, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN Obamacare’s only flaw lay in the fact that it didn’t go far enough. As a result, Bloomberg’s health plan proposes more government spending, funded by higher taxes, and—in a first—price controls on the entire health-care sector, including what you can and cannot pay your doctors.

On the merits of his policy platform, I’ll give the last word to Bloomberg himself, in his June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University. While Bloomberg said President Obama started out with good intentions, he said Congress “didn’t pay attention to any of those big problems and just created another program that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

It’s an apt description of Bloomberg’s own health care plan—to say nothing of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Pete Buttigieg’s Health Plan Might Be More Radical than Bernie Sanders’

During the most recent Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed that his health-care plan, unlike the single-payer proposal advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would “not polarize the American people.” But contra the candidate’s claims, Buttigieg’s health plan advocates a policy—government price controls on the entire health-care sector—even more far-reaching than Sanders’s socialist approach.

Others have exposed how Buttigieg’s plan would force people to buy insurance costing thousands of dollars, whether they want it or not. But his proposal for government price controls across a $4 trillion health-care sector represents the most radical idea yet—because, unlike Sanders’s plan, individuals appear to have no way to opt out.

National Price Controls

Buttigieg’s plan, released in September, would “prohibit health care providers from pricing irresponsibly by capping their out-of-network rates at twice what Medicare pays.” (Upon entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last November, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also adopted this rate-capping provision in his health plan.) Buttigieg admits that, by capping out-of-network rates, his proposal would give insurers leverage to demand lower prices for in-network care, creating a de facto system of national price controls for the entire health-care sector.

Imposing price controls on nearly 20 percent of the American economy, and linking those price controls to Medicare rates, would have substantial distortionary impacts. For starters, Medicare often does not reimburse medical providers at a rate to recover their costs. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission estimated last March that hospitals would incur a -11 percent margin on their Medicare patients in 2019.

Moreover, because Medicare payment rates reflect the cost of treating the over-65 population—not many Medicare beneficiaries need maternity care, for instance—even supporters of capping rates have questioned the wisdom of linking such caps to Medicare levels.

More broadly, a national system of price controls could create health-care shortages. Facing reductions in pay, doctors could decide to retire early, and aspiring physicians could avoid the profession entirely. With the United States already facing a shortage of up to 121,900 physicians between now and 2032, Buttigieg’s price controls would reduce the physician supply still further.

Pathway to Single Payer—With No Exit

Despite the contrast he attempts to draw with Sanders’s plan, Buttigieg’s price controls would likely lead to a fully government-run system. Buttigieg admits a desire for his plan to provide a “glide path” to single-payer; its price controls provide an easy mechanism for such a transition.

By reducing the payments that private health insurers can offer doctors and hospitals, Buttigieg would slowly sabotage individuals’ existing coverage, throwing all Americans into a government-run health system. Indeed, his price caps provide an easy mechanism to force more and more individuals off their private coverage. While Buttigieg says he wants to cap payments at double Medicare rates, he could lower that cap over time. Of course, capping private health-care reimbursements at less than Medicare rates would all-but-guarantee private health insurance would cease to exist, because few doctors would agree to accept it.

Patients facing long waits for care would have no way to get around queues created by Buttigieg’s socialistic price controls. Sanders’s single-payer legislation allows physicians and patients to contract privately by paying cash for health-care services. But Buttigieg’s plan does not envision a mechanism for Americans to opt out of his price control regime. If Medicare pays $50 for a service, a patient could not pay a physician more than $100 for that service—no matter how experienced or qualified the physician, and no matter how desperate the patient.

The questionable constitutionality of Buttigieg’s plan belies its purportedly moderate nature. On the one hand, he would compel all individuals to pay for health insurance—whether they want it or not, and whether they use it or not. On the other, he would prohibit individuals from engaging in private transactions with their own doctors and hospitals if the amounts of those transactions exceed federally defined limits.

Differences in tone notwithstanding, Sanders and Buttigieg represent two halves of the same general approach to health care, expanding a technocratic leviathan that will attempt to micromanage nearly one-fifth of the economy from Washington. Doctors and patients, take note.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What John Oliver Didn’t Mention about Single Payer Health Care

During the first episode of this season of “Last Week Tonight,” HBO host John Oliver used his monologue to make the case for the United States to adopt a single-payer health-care system. While Oliver articulated many of the shortcomings of the current system, much of his arguments in favor of a single-payer system missed the mark.

As Oliver noted in his program, whether to adopt single payer represents a debate between the devil one knows and the devil one doesn’t. Skeptics of single payer have the advantage of inertial bias—that is, people may not want to give up what they currently have.

On the other hand, supporters of single payer can characterize the future however they like—even if it doesn’t always line up with the facts. That dynamic has allowed supporters to frame single-payer health-care as “Medicare for All,” even though the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would abolish the current Medicare program.

In his program, Oliver acknowledged some of the trade-offs associated with a move to a government-financed health-care system. But he also minimized others, and failed to explain some of the fundamental flaws in Sanders’ approach.

Cost Explosion

Oliver’s segment attempted to tackle the three primary critiques of a single-payer system: It will cost too much; lead to lines and waiting lists for care; and undermine individual choice. On the cost front, Oliver noted that estimates will vary as to whether the Sanders bill will lead to an increase in overall health-care spending. After admitting that the bill could either reduce health spending or cost “a f-ck of a lot more,” Oliver basically threw up his hands, calling the exact amount of spending under the new system unknowable.

On this front, Oliver didn’t analyze why health costs would likely rise under single payer. He mentioned (correctly) that Sanders’s bill would essentially abolish all premiums, deductibles, and co-payments for health care in the United States, making the new system much more generous than the current Medicare program, and much more generous than single-payer systems in places like Canada and Great Britain.

But Oliver did not mention four critical words that majorly affect costs: “Induced demand for care.” In other words, because Sanders’ legislation would make all health care “free” to patients, they would demand much more of it. According to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank, a single-payer system that eliminated cost-sharing would result in nearly $1 trillion more in health spending per year than a single-payer system that retained a system of co-pays and deductibles roughly equivalent to Obamacare’s Gold health insurance plans.

Along with many liberals, Oliver views eliminating cost-sharing as a feature of Sanders’ single-payer proposal. But at containing the costs of such a system, it represents a major bug—one Oliver never acknowledged.

Waiting Lists

Oliver did concede that waiting lists for care exist in other countries’ single-payer systems. However, he contended that patients wait primarily for non-emergency care, using knee replacements as an example. (Many patients wouldn’t call the concept of waiting nearly 10 months for a knee replacement—the average wait in Canada for an orthopedic procedure—a non-urgent matter.) He also didn’t point out that 4.56 million individuals in Britain—roughly 7 percent of that country’s population—were on waiting lists for care as of last fall, an increase of roughly 40 percent in the past five years.

Oliver’s discussion of waiting lists also missed a critical point: Sanders’s legislation would go further than other countries with single-payer systems, because it would prohibit individuals from purchasing private health insurance. Canadian and British patients who object to government waiting lists can purchase private coverage, and obtain care via that route.

Under Sanders’s proposal, American patients would not have that choice: They could only opt-out of the single payer system by paying for their treatment entirely in cash. Because not even a family making several hundred thousand dollars per year could afford the full costs of a heart transplant or chemotherapy, the vast majority of Americans would have no choice but to wait for care until the government system got around to treating them.

Choice

That brings up Oliver’s discussion of choice, and whether taking choice away matters. He points out—rightly—that many Americans do not have a substantive choice of either insurers or doctors, because their employers control the former, and by definition the latter.

But it doesn’t require the federal government taking over the entire health-care system to solve this problem, and give Americans a true choice among insurance plans and doctors. I have pointed out on many occasions the ways the Trump administration has acted to make coverage more portable, so that individuals, not employers, and not the federal government, choose the coverage options they prefer.

Oliver talks about the choices some patients currently face: whether to seek treatment they cannot pay for, or rationing medicines based on cost grounds. But patients would face similar choices under a government-run system—just for different reasons.

Oliver acknowledged the likelihood of waiting lists under a single-payer system, as have other supporters. For instance, the head of the People’s Policy Project has argued that costs won’t rise under single payer because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” In other words, people will seek care, but not be able to obtain it.

In such circumstances, people won’t have a “choice” at all. Because they cannot purchase private insurance to cover treatments the government plan does not, they can either wait for care or they can…wait for care. That’s not just not giving patients choices, it’s harming patients by prohibiting them from buying the insurance they want to buy with their own money.

Towards the end of the segment, Oliver revealed his own bias against giving American patients any choices. After a clip of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s claim that “I trust Americans to make that right choice” on health care, Oliver responded to laughs: “Okay, well, hold on there. You trust Americans to make the right choice? You know Americans choose to drink Bud Light, right?”

Even as he tries to rebut conservative claims that single-payer would undermine Americans’ choices, Oliver admits that he doesn’t really want to give Americans a choice at all. He would rather use government to impose his beliefs on others, and force them to comply.

At minimum, Oliver’s program acknowledged the very real trade-offs associated with a single-payer health-care system. But had he explained those trade-offs fully, the American people would understand why single payer would result in adverse consequences to both our health-care system and our economy as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Single Payer Would Make Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Worse

The past several weeks have seen two trends with important implications for health policy: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s burst of momentum following strong political showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire has drawn greater attention to his proposal for single-payer health care, as China struggles to control a coronavirus outbreak that first emerged at the end of last year.

The two events are linked by more than just time. The coronavirus outbreak provides a compelling argument against Sanders’s so-called “Medicare for All” program, which would upend the health-care system’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

In an Outbreak, Could You Obtain Care?

For starters, supporters of Sanders’s plan have admitted that under single payer, not all patients seeking care will obtain it. In 2018, People’s Policy Project President Matt Bruenig claimed that while demand for care might rise under single payer, “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

By eliminating virtually all patient payments for their own care, single payer would increase demand for care—demand Bruenig concedes the system likely could not meet, even under normal circumstances. Consider that an outbreak centered more than 6,000 miles from the Pacific coast has already led to a run on respiratory face masks in the United States. During a widespread outbreak on our shores, an influx of both sick and worried-but-well patients could swamp hospitals already facing higher demand for “free” care.

Bureaucrats’ Questionable Spending Priorities

While Sanders’s legislation attempts to provide emergency surge capacity for the health-care system, experience suggests federal officials may not spend this money wisely. Section 601 of the House and Senate single-payer bills include provisions for a “reserve fund” designed to “respond to the costs of treating an epidemic, pandemic, natural disaster, or other such health emergency.” However, neither of the bills include a specific amount for that fund, leaving all decisions for the national health care budget in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And federal officials demonstrated a questionable sense of policy priorities in the years leading up to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Of the nearly $3 billion from Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund given to the Centers for Disease Control in the years 2010-2014, only about 6 percent went towards building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Instead, CDC spent $517.3 million funding grants focused on objectives like “improving neighborhood grocery stores” and “promoting better sidewalks and street lighting.”

Socialized Medicine Brought to Its Knees By…the Flu?

Including a system of global budgets as part of a transition to single payer would leave hospitals with little financial flexibility to cope with a sudden surge of patients. Sanders’s Senate version of single-payer legislation does not include such a payment mechanism, but the House single-payer bill does. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberal think-tanks believe the concept, which provides hospitals lump-sum payments to cover the facilities’ entire operating budget, can help reduce health-care costs.

But in its May 2019 report on single payer, the Congressional Budget Office noted that consistently slow growth of global budget payments in Britain’s National Health Service has “created severe financial strains on the health care system.” And how: Rising hospital bed occupancy rates have created longer wait times in emergency rooms, with patients stuck on gurneys for hours. In one example of its annual “winter crisis,” two years ago the NHS postponed 55,000 surgeries due to capacity constraints, with one ER physician apologizing for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.”

A British health system barely able to cope with a predictable occurrence like a winter flu outbreak seems guaranteed to crumble in the face of a major pandemic. Voters lured by the siren song of socialism should bear that in mind as they ponder news of the coronavirus and Sanders’ “Medicare for All.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, $400 in Routine Health Care Costs is Not a Reason to Socialize Medicine

Sometimes, even heated discussions on Twitter can bring both light and heat by illuminating policy discussions. On Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a since-deleted tweet, using her transition from a writing position at the Washington Post to one at The New York Times to argue for single-payer health-care system:

Vance made a compelling point on policy, but one that conflated two issues. I wholeheartedly agree with his position on wanting to make coverage portable. But I don’t believe that a movement to de-link health coverage from employment means the government should pay for the health costs of comparatively affluent individuals.

Need for Portability

In her tweet, Bruenig admitted her period of uninsurance came from switching jobs. As a mother of two, including a newborn, Bruenig quite likely—and understandably—arranged some time between her two positions to spend with her young children.

On that front, I agree with both Bruenig and Vance about the good policy reasons to move away from individuals obtaining health coverage from their employers. As I outlined in prior writings, much of the problem of pre-existing conditions comes from our employer-based health insurance system: When you lose your job, you lose your coverage, which causes understandable worry for employees who have pre-existing conditions.

Making health coverage portable would allow individuals to take their insurance from job to job. This change would eliminate the friction people like Bruenig face when they’re between jobs, and greatly reduce (but not eliminate) the problem of pre-existing conditions, because people who develop such conditions during their working careers would own their own coverage, purchased before they became ill. The Trump administration has taken big strides on that front, publishing a regulation that will allow individuals—not their employers—to select and own their own health coverage, while still receiving an employer subsidy to cover some or all of the cost of their premiums.

However, people on the left talk about making health coverage portable not by giving power to individuals but by giving power to government. To borrow a medical metaphor, most liberals and socialists focus on the symptom (pre-existing conditions) rather than the underlying disease (lack of portable insurance). They favor either government regulation regarding pre-existing conditions, which encourages people to wait until they become sick to buy insurance, or in Bruenig’s case, an entirely government-run system.

Affordability for Individuals—And Taxpayers

While I agree with both Bruenig and Vance on the need to improve coverage portability (even if I disagree with the former on the way to go about it), I disagree in this instance about the separate question of who should pay for those costs.

But context matters, and in this case, the context looks quite different. Bruenig’s husband Matt also works; a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, he heads the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think-tank. As a result, their family has a second source of income, and another source of employer-based health insurance. (While Bruenig referenced health bills for her children, she didn’t say that her children faced an insurance gap. Given that context, I assume, but do not know for certain, that her husband’s insurance covers her children.)

Consider also the most recent breakdown of IRS tax filing data by income. As of 2017, households with adjusted gross income exceeding $97,870 represented the top quintile (i.e., top 20 percent) of filers, and households with adjusted gross income exceeding $145,135 represented the top 10 percent of filers. Bruenig and her husband almost certainly exceed the threshold to put themselves in the top 20 percent, and quite possibly the top 10 percent as well. Do I believe someone with that kind of income should receive government assistance for health insurance costs? In a word, no.

I haven’t yet completed my tax returns for 2019, but based on my paperwork compiled to date, I expect to declare just over $100,000 in income from my business last year. Of course, because I run my own business, I have to pay my own health insurance premiums. And my age (I’m roughly ten years older than Bruenig) means I pay more in premiums for Obamacare exchange coverage than she would if she bought temporary insurance there—and I do it month after month, not just when I have a gap between jobs.

In short, the Twitter mob calling me an “elite” for my tone and comments about savings ignore the fact that, based upon their station in life, Bruenig and her husband qualify on that front too. Unlike them, however, I don’t believe the federal government has a place subsidizing my insurance costs.

A Question of Priorities

I’ll give the last word to a Democrat: Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. As I mentioned in my book, in 2009, Hoyer, then as now the House majority leader, took to the House floor to make this compelling statement about entitlement spending and federal priorities:

At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgement and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody, irrespective of their ability to pay for themselves, the Ross Perots of America, frankly, the Steny Hoyers of America, then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America. [Emphasis added.]

I agree with both Vance and Bruenig on the need to make health coverage more portable. But on the separate question of who pays, and saving scarce taxpayer resources for those who need them most, I stand with Hoyer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.