The Tough Cost-Benefit Choices Facing Policymakers Regarding Coronavirus

Right now, the United States, like most of the rest of the world, faces two critical, yet diametrically opposed, priorities: Stopping a global pandemic without causing a global economic depression.

Balancing these two priorities presents tough choices—all else equal, revitalizing the economy will exacerbate the pandemic, and fighting the pandemic will worsen economic misery. Yet, as they navigate this Scylla and Charybdis, some policymakers have taken positions contrary to their prior instincts.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) discussed the false choice between the economy and public health. He made the following assertions:

My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs….

If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.

On this count, Cuomo is flat wrong. Entities in both the United States and elsewhere—including within his own state government—put a dollar figure on human life on a regular basis.

Rationing on Cost Grounds Already Happens

Consider the below statement describing the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a British institution that determines coverage guidelines for the country’s National Health Service (NHS). NICE uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) formula, which puts a value on human life and then judges whether a new treatment exceeds its “worth” to society:

As a treatment approaches a cost of £20,000 [about $24,000 at current exchange rates] per QALY gained over existing best practice, NICE will scrutinize it closely. It will consider how robust the analysis relating to its cost- and clinical-effectiveness is, how innovative the treatment is, and other factors. As the cost rises above £30,000 [about $36,000] per QALY, NICE states that ‘an increasingly stronger case for supporting the technology as an effective use of NHS resources’ is necessary.

Entities in the United States undertake similar research. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) also performs cost-effectiveness research using the QALY metric. The organization’s website notes that “the state of New York has used [ICER] reports as an input into its Medicaid program of negotiating drug prices.” In other words, Cuomo’s own administration places a value on human life when determining what the state’s Medicaid program will and won’t pay for pharmaceuticals.

Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds

Cuomo represents but one example of the contradictions in the current coronavirus debate. Donald Berwick, an official in the Obama administration and recent advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), infamously discussed the need to “ration with our eyes open” While many liberals like him have traditionally endorsed rationing health care on cost grounds, few seem willing to prioritize economic growth over fighting the pandemic.

Conversely, conservatives often oppose rationing as an example of government harming the most vulnerable by placing an arbitrary value on human life. Nonetheless, the recent voices wanting to prioritize a return to economic activity over fighting the pandemic have come largely from the right.

The calls to reopen the economy came in part from an Imperial College London study examining outcomes from the pandemic. The paper concluded that an unmitigated epidemic (i.e., one where officials made no attempt to stop the virus’ spread) would cost approximately 2.2 million lives in the United States. Mitigation strategies like social distancing would reduce the virus’ impact and save lives, but would prolong the outbreak—and harm the economy—for more than a year.

The paper’s most interesting nugget lies at its end: “Even if all patients were able to be treated”—meaning hospitals would not get overwhelmed with a surge of patients when the pandemic peaks—“we predict there would still be in the order of…1.1-1.2 million [deaths] in the US.” Based on the Imperial College model, shutting down the economy so as not to let the virus run rampant would save approximately 1 million lives compared to the worst-case scenario.

A Cost of $1 Million Per Estimated Life Saved

Some crude economic math suggests the value a pandemic-inspired economic “pause” might place on human life. Based on a U.S. gross domestic product of approximately $21 trillion, a 5 percent reduction in GDP—which seems realistic, or perhaps even conservative, based on current worldwide projections—would erase roughly $1.05 trillion in economic growth. The Imperial College estimate that mitigation and social distancing measures would save roughly 1 million lives would therefore place the value of each life saved at approximately $1 million.

Of course, these calculations depend in large part on inputs and assumptions—how quickly the virus spreads, whether large numbers of Americans have already become infected asymptomatically, whether already infected individuals gain immunity from future infection, how much the slowdown harms economic growth in both the short and long-term, and many, many more. Other assumptions could yield quite different results.

But if these types of calculations, particularly when performed with varying assumptions and inputs, replicate the results of the crude math above, policymakers likely will sit up and take notice. Given that Britain’s National Health Service makes coverage decisions by valuing life as worth tens of thousands of pounds, far less than millions of dollars, it seems contradictory to keep pursuing a pandemic strategy resulting in economic damage many multiples of that amount for every life saved.

Tough Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, lawmakers the world over face awful choices, and can merely attempt to select the least-bad option based on the best evidence available to them at the time. Slogans like “Why put your job over your grandmother?” or “If you worry about the virus, just stay home” belie the very real consequences the country could face.

Consider possible scenarios if officials loosen economic restrictions while the pandemic persists. Some individuals with health conditions could face the prospect of returning to work in an environment they find potentially hazardous, or losing their jobs. Individuals who stay home to avoid the virus, yet develop medical conditions unrelated to the virus—a heart attack, for instance—could die due to their inability to access care, as hospitals become swarmed with coronavirus patients. And on and on.

The president said on Tuesday he would like to start reopening the economy by Easter, a timeline that seems highly optimistic, at best. If by that time the situation in New York City deteriorates to something resembling Italy’s coronavirus crisis—and well it could—both the president and the American people may take quite a different view towards reopening the economy immediately. (And governors, who have more direct power over their states, could decide to ignore Trump and keep state-based restrictions on economic activity in place regardless of what he says.)

Nonetheless, everyone understands that the economy cannot remain in suspended animation forever. Hopefully, better data, more rapid viral testing, and the emergence of potential treatments will allow the United States and the world to begin re-establishing some sense of normalcy, at the minimum possible cost to both human life and economic growth.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Bernie Sanders, Single Payer Wouldn’t Eliminate the Coronavirus Outbreak

On Monday evening, Fox News hosted a town hall with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Dearborn, Michigan, ahead of that state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. The program began with a question about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and how Sanders would respond to the outbreak.

Sanders criticized President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, specifically the contradictions between some of his public statements and those of government scientists. Sanders then pivoted to suggest that a single payer health care system with “free” care would ameliorate Americans’ concerns:

We will talk I am sure about [single payer]. But when I talk about health care being a human right, and all people having health care, the coronavirus crisis makes that abundantly clear as to why it should be. You’ve got millions of people in this country today who may feel that they have a symptom. But you know what? They cannot afford to go to a doctor.

Sanders believes a single payer system that eliminates patient cost-sharing, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), would improve access to care. But consider some recent comments made by British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Corbyn raised the same issue Sanders did—patients in his country unable to access care:

Yesterday, our part-time prime minister finally published the steps that his government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?

Far from acting as the panacea Sanders claimed in his remarks Monday evening, Corbyn believes the NHS will also leave some coronavirus patients untreated.

As this space has previously noted, British patients pay quite a lot for health care—they just pay for it by waiting, as opposed to out-of-pocket costs. A report released last fall concluded that waiting lists in the NHS have risen by 40 percent in the past five years, and now approaches 4.6 million Britons, or nearly 7 percent of the country’s entire population.

As Corbyn noted in his remarks last Wednesday, funding shortfalls mean that British hospitals already face overcrowding pressures under normal circumstances. Two years ago, an outbreak of the flu caused the postponement of nearly 55,000 operations. Emergency room physicians apologized for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.” Lack of inpatient beds meant ER patients spent hours on gurneys in hallways waiting to get admitted to the hospital, and ambulances spent hours circling hospitals, waiting to drop off their patients.

The NHS’ “winter crisis” occurs regularly when flu cases spike in Britain. And coronavirus—more virulent than the flu, and with no treatments available at present—represents a potential threat orders of magnitude greater than the NHS’s usual capacity problems.

Britain provides health care to its residents with few out-of-pocket charges. But the nearly 4.6 million Britons on waiting lists have no ability to compel the government to treat them promptly. In other words, Sanders’s claims to the contrary, Britain does not make health care “a human right.” Nor would his own bill make health care a legally enforceable right in the United States.

Both American and British patients end up paying for their care—the former more explicitly, and the latter more implicitly. But the potential queues that will likely materialize at NHS hospitals should the coronavirus spread demonstrate that a single-payer system will not provide a cure-all for American health care.

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.

Is Elizabeth Warren Trying to Use a “Goldilocks” Strategy to Win the Democratic Nomination?

In blessing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and recent presidential dropout Julian Castro used an interesting rationale to explain his endorsement: “More than any other candidate in this race…Elizabeth Warren is the candidate who can unite the entire Democratic Party.”

That premise may well explain the strategy behind her campaign, to win the Democratic nomination as the “Goldilocks” candidate—not too hot, and not too cold.

The strategy wouldn’t make Warren a political moderate, by any stretch. No nominee who has endorsed a conversion to a single-payer system of socialized medicine would fall into that category. But making Warren the candidate most acceptable (or least unacceptable) to moderates and leftists alike does mean that, the longer the nomination fight plays out, the stronger her chances might get.

Contested Convention Ahead?

In the past several weeks, multiple stories have analyzed the possibility of a prolonged contest for the Democratic nomination. In the fourth quarter of 2019, four candidates—Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Warren—raised more than $20 million, suggesting they will have ample resources to compete in primaries throughout the spring. The nomination fight also features two billionaires who have the ability to self-fund their campaigns, Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Couple the field of well-financed candidates with the Democratic Party’s proportional allocation method, in which any candidate exceeding 15 percent of the vote in a state receives a share of that state’s delegates, and you have the recipe for a prolonged campaign of attrition. In this year’s “bizarro world” scenario, each of the half dozen candidates has the means to continue competing in primaries, and because many (if not most) will amass delegates along the way, they will have every incentive to do so.

It seems premature to make definitive judgments on the complexion of the campaign weeks before the first ballots get cast. But Democrats may convene in Milwaukee this July without a single candidate controlling the majority of delegates necessary to win the presidential nomination.

Least Common Denominator Candidate

If Democrats do end up with a contested convention, it seems unlikely to result in an outcome in which a previously undeclared candidate emerges from the shadows to win the nomination. Given the acrimony throughout the 2016 campaign, when Sanders’ supporters (rightly) protested at a process rigged against their candidate, the idea that a “white horse” candidate such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or someone similar could win the nomination without having entered a single primary seems far-fetched, not least because of the outrage that would ensue.

So a contested convention would feature the candidates currently declared, and only the candidates currently declared, battling for the nomination. At that point, it likely would become less a contest of persuasion—which candidate can I most enthusiastically support?—than an attempt to cobble together a coalition of delegates that focuses on a different test: Which candidate offends the least?

Of the four candidates leading the polls, Warren appears to win this test, by a fairly wide margin. Consider the negatives against the other candidates:

  • Biden’s age (77) has raised questions throughout the campaign about his physical stamina and mental acuity. Even after he reversed himself (under pressure) on taxpayer funding of abortion, Biden’s history of positions on issues—from his support for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, to his vote for the Iraq War, to his support for the 1994 crime bill, to his treatment of Anita Hill—remain to the right of the party, drawing scorn from leftists as a moderate supported by corporate interests.
  • Like Biden, Sanders’ age (78) remains an issue, particularly given his heart attack in October. While many on the left believe he has strong appeal to working-class voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, who have deserted the party, establishment types worry that a self-proclaimed socialist will prove unelectable in November.
  • Buttigieg has age concerns as well because of his relative youth (he turns 38 this month). He has little political experience outside South Bend, won his last mayoral election with a total of 8,515 votes, and lost his only statewide campaign by a nearly 25-percentage point margin. And his experience working at McKinsey has become fodder for attacks by the far-left, who love to hate the candidate they call “Wall Street Pete.”

By contrast, Warren has comparatively few obvious drawbacks. While a septuagenarian, her age (70) makes her several years younger than Biden and Sanders, and younger than President Trump. She has endorsed a host of far-left policies, but insists she remains a capitalist to her bones. And in a field that has shrunk to become dominated by white men, a Warren nomination would provide Democrats an identity politics card.

For all these reasons, Warren remains the top second choice of voters in most polls, even as her standing as voters’ first choice has shrunk. It makes her well-placed to serve as the compromise candidate should Democrats face a contested convention, which by definition would involve at least some delegates choosing their second-favorite candidate as the nominee.

The two biggest strikes against her appear largely self-inflicted: The controversy over her ancestry (exacerbated by her DNA test), and her evasions on health care. While Trump would bring the latter up often—indeed, has already done so—it seems unlikely any opponent would make it an issue during a fight for the Democratic nomination. (At least he or she would not do so publicly.)

As for health care, she evaded questions about how to pay for single payer for months, and finally released a funding plan in early November, only to say two weeks later she wouldn’t push for single payer until the third year of her term. This bobbing and weaving coincided with a pullback in her polling numbers. But to take the longer view, it syncs up well with a larger “Goldilocks” political strategy.

Her eventual position, in which she pledged to enact a robust “public option” immediately, followed by a push for single payer later, drew little love from either moderates (who don’t like talk of single payer at all) or leftists (who want to enact single payer immediately, as Sanders has promised). But it represents the kind of clunky political compromise could easily envision a party’s platform committee drafting. That makes it entirely consistent with an attempt to position Warren in ways that offend the fewest number of Democrats—a helpful strategy in the event of a contested convention.

Obama Wild Card?

One other figure could loom large over a prolonged nomination fight: Barack Obama. Two reports in recent weeks suggest first that Obama doubts Biden’s connection with voters, and second that Obama has talked up Warren’s candidacy behind closed doors. While one must caveat the articles with two of the biggest weasel words in politics—“If accurate”—these reports suggest that, should the nomination fight become prolonged, the last Democratic president may weigh in on behalf of the Massachusetts senator. While such a development might not decide the nomination, it could go a long way in doing so.

After Warren’s fumbling on health care this fall, some had begun to write off her candidacy. Indeed, this author said she had “Swift-boated” herself, by turning her supposed strength as a policy wonk into her biggest weakness. Paradoxically, however, while Warren’s machinations cost her in the polls over the short term (and would harm her in a general election campaign), they could help her to win the Democratic nomination.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.

Elizabeth Warren’s Health Care “Choice:” Dishonesty

In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) may debut before a nationwide audience a surprising mantra for someone openly committed to enacting a single-payer system of socialized medicine: Choice.

NBC reports that Warren said on Saturday: “We’re going to push through…full health care coverage at no cost for everyone else who wants it—you can buy it for a modest amount. You don’t have to, but it’s your choice.”

To clarify her “you can buy it” comments, Warren’s most recent health care plan said she would immediately make “free” coverage available to anyone making less than two times the federal poverty level ($51,500 for a family of four in 2019), with sliding-scale premiums capped at no more than 5% of income for those making more than 200% of poverty. Her recent speeches have focused on selling this “transition” plan—“free” coverage if you want it, but only if you want it—rather than her earlier single-payer program.

Some conservatives have claimed that Warren’s change in rhetoric marks the “last gasp” for the left’s move towards socialized medicine. Don’t you believe it. Warren hasn’t given up on anything. Nor have Pete Buttigieg and the other candidates who have campaigned against “Medicare for All.” They, and she, have just chosen to become less candid with the American people about how they hope to achieve their ultimate objectives.

Why Warren Pivoted

Two reasons in particular explain why Warren suddenly embraced the mantra of choice. First, most Americans who have health insurance right now like their plan. A Gallup survey found that nearly seven in ten Americans find their health coverage either excellent (27%) or good (42%). In the 18 years since Gallup first started asking this question, the approval number for Americans’ health coverage has never dropped below 63%.

When millions of people received cancellation notices as Obamacare took effect, Barack Obama found out in 2013 how much people like their current coverage. He felt compelled to issue a public apology for his “Lie of the Year,” telling people they could keep their existing plans when many could not. In part due to these events six years ago, the fear of taking people’s coverage away has dominated the health care discussions at this year’s Democratic presidential debates.

By emphasizing choice, Warren seeks to minimize this potential source of controversy for key constituencies. In the Democratic primaries, union households who have negotiated generous health benefits may blanch at losing those benefits; one confronted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about the issue in Iowa this past summer.

Then in next year’s general election, educated and affluent voters who have good health coverage will similarly fear a new plan taking that coverage away. As Philip Klein recently noted in the Washington Examiner, proposing the eradication of existing insurance options could well cost Warren in places like the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee—critically important battleground areas in battleground states.

De-Emphasizing (Middle Class) Tax Increases

Second, Warren’s earlier rhetoric about taking coverage away from all Americans implies another, similarly awkward question: How will you pay for this massive expansion of government? Warren tried to answer this query by releasing a funding proposal in early November, but in truth, it raised more questions than it answered.

To give but one example: Since Warren released her plan, one study found that her proposed wealth tax would raise $1 trillion less in revenue than she claimed. That $1 trillion gap represents money that she would have to get from somewhere else.

Her revenue plan has myriad other gimmicks buried inside (analyzed in detail here). For instance, her estimates didn’t take into account the fact that the tax increases will shrink the economy, and therefore by definition won’t produce all the revenue she claims.

Warren released her revenue plan claiming that she could fund the full cost of her single-payer plan without raising taxes on the middle class. But the more she pushed that plan, the more people would pick apart all the gimmicks—and Warren’s opponents would rightly claim the gap between what she said her plan would raise and what it actually does would end up coming from the middle class. As a result, Warren “chose” to pivot to her “choice” mantra, navigating away from the Scylla and Charybdis of taking away people’s coverage, and raising taxes on the middle class to do so.

Forcing People to ‘Choose’ Socialism

The change in Warren’s tone doesn’t mean she’s changed her ultimate objective, however. Consider her comments at a town hall on Monday: “When tens of millions of people have had a chance to try [the buy-in proposal], I believe, at that point, we’re going to be ready to vote for” single payer (emphasis added).

Like Buttigieg, Warren sees a buy-in program—call it a “government-run plan,” call it a “public option,” call it “Medicare for All Who Want It”—as creating a natural “glide path” to single payer. They remain quite outspoken in their goal: They want to achieve a socialized medicine system. If given the opportunity, they will use policy to accomplish that objective—just slightly more slowly than under an immediate transition to single payer.

A throwaway line in a recent Vox article got at this same point. The article focused on open enrollment for exchange plans, and the fact that insurers must limit enrollment to a certain period of time, because Obamacare’s costly pre-existing condition provisions encourage individuals to wait until they become sick to sign up for coverage. The penultimate paragraph included this claim:

Under the various public options that have been proposed, uninsured people would be automatically enrolled in the new optional government plan. One advantage the government has over private insurers is it doesn’t need its books to balance perfectly; adverse selection [a disproportionate number of sick people signing up] isn’t as big a concern. [Emphasis mine.]

The highlighted line demonstrates how liberals would use taxpayer funds for the government-run plan: subsidizing coverage in advance, or bailing out the government plan after the fact if premiums are set too low, or too many sick people enroll, or both. Vox’s line hints at the left’s true goal through a “public option:” To sabotage private plans, and force people into socialized medicine, one person at a time.

Warren’s “choice” mantra sounds innocuous, but its underlying premise—by her own admission—seeks to create a single-payer system, just over a slightly longer period. Conservatives who think her approach represents anything other than a change in tactics should think again. The wolf attacking private insurance hasn’t disappeared so much as put on a disguise of sheep’s clothing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Unanswered Questions on Single Payer

This month’s Democratic presidential debate will likely see a continued focus on the single-payer health care proposal endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But for all the general discussion — and pointed controversy — over single payer at prior debates, many unanswered questions remain. The moderators should ask Sanders and Warren about the specific details of their legislation, such as:

►Section 901(A) of the bill states that “no benefits shall be available under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act” — i.e., Medicare. And an analyst with the liberal Urban Institute has said that “you can call (the bill) many things — from ambitious to unrealistic. But please don’t call it Medicare.” Why do you insist on calling your proposal “Medicare for All” when it would bear little resemblance to the Medicare program and, in fact, would abolish it outright?

►You have claimed that single payer will make health care a human right. But the bill itself does not guarantee access to a doctor — it only guarantees that patients will have their care paid for if they can find a doctor or hospital willing to treat them. In fact, in 2005, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that “access to a waiting list is not access to health care,” because patients in that country’s single-payer system could not access care in a timely fashion. Why are you promising the American people access to care when your bill falls short of that promise?

►The Urban Institute estimated that a similar single-payer plan would raise national health care spending by $719.7 billion a year, because abolishing cost-sharing (e.g., deductibles, copayments, etc.) will increase demand for care. But the People’s Policy Project called Urban’s estimates “ridiculous,” because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors.” Which position do you agree with — the Urban Institute’s belief that individuals consuming more “free” health care will cause spending to rise, or the position that spending will not increase because at least some people who demand care will not be able to obtain it?

►Countries like Canada and Great Britain, both of which have single-payer health care systems, permit individuals to purchase private insurance if they wish — and many Canadians and Brits choose to do so. Why would you go beyond Canada, Britain and other countries to make private health insurance “unlawful” — and do you believe taking away individuals’ private insurance can pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court?

►Four years ago, your Senate colleague Robert Menendez, D-N.J., was indicted for accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and favors from a Florida ophthalmologist. Menendez had tried to help that ophthalmologist — who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of defrauding Medicare — in a billing dispute with federal officials. Given this ethically questionable conduct by one of your own colleagues regarding the Medicare program, why does your legislation include no new provisions fighting fraud or corruption, even as it vastly expands the federal government’s power and scope?

►You have criticized President Donald Trump for his supposed attempts to “sabotage” the exchanges created under President Barack Obama’s health care law. How, then, would you stop a future Republican president from sabotaging a single-payer system when your legislation would vest more authority in the federal government than President Trump has?

Once Warren and Sanders finish answering these questions, the American people will likely recognize that, the senators’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding, single payer doesn’t represent a good answer for our health care system at all.

This post was originally published at USA Today.

How Socialized Medicine Will Lead to Waits for Care

Recently, a liberal think-tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), issued a policy paper that promised “the truth” on waiting times in government-run health systems. If you want the truth about the issue, however, you’ll have to wait a long time for it if you choose to rely on CAP’s disingenuous analysis.

The CAP report cherry-picks facts to try to make an argument that a single-payer health-care system won’t result in rationing of health care. Unfortunately, however, even supporters of single payer have admitted that government-run care will increase waiting times for care.

Misleading Analysis

CAP’s paper starts out by criticizing President Trump and other conservative groups, who have asserted that a single-payer system would lead to “massive wait times for treatments and destroy access to quality care,” as Trump stated in his recent executive order on Medicare. CAP calls these assertions “false,” and then claims:

Patients in peer nations generally have similar or shorter wait times than patients in the United States for a variety of services, refuting the argument that universal coverage would necessarily result in longer wait times in the future. [Emphasis added.]

The above sentence, like the rest of the paper, uses clever semantic wordplay to obscure the issue. CAP claims that universal coverage wouldn’t necessarily result in longer wait times, but Trump and the right-leaning groups have criticized one specific form of universal coverage—single payer, in which the government serves as the sole funder of health care. (CAP repeats those misleading tactics by referencing the impact of prior coverage expansions in the United States, many of which used private insurers and none of which directly equate to a universal, government-funded health system.)

Of the paper’s four “peer nations” with universal coverage systems—Australia, France, Germany, and Sweden—only Australia and Sweden have government-run insurance plans. By contrast, France and Germany rely on private insurers to implement their universal coverage systems.

While it includes other systems without single-payer coverage in its analysis, CAP specifically excludes Britain’s National Health Service, known for its waiting times and rationed access to care. CAP claimed to omit the NHS in its analysis because “no candidate currently running for president is proposing nationalizing health care providers” a la the British model—a true enough statement, but a self-serving one.

If CAP included non-government-funded systems in its analysis, it certainly should have included the government-funded NHS. That it did not suggests the analysts wanted to “rig” the paper’s outcomes by relying solely on favorable examples.

Biggest Waiting Times to the North

The CAP paper’s most deliberate omission comes in the form of our neighbor to the north: Canada. The paper examined four metrics of access to care, based on data from an analysis by the (liberal) Commonwealth Fund of 11 countries’ health systems. Given the shabby results Canada’s health system showed on health care access, it seems little wonder that the leftists at CAP failed to disclose these poor outcomes in their paper:

  • Patients who reported they saw a doctor or nurse on the same or next day the last time they needed care: Canada ranked in a tie for last, with 43% agreeing. (The United States had 51% who agreed.)
  • Doctors who reported that patients often experience difficulty getting specialized tests like CT or MRI scans: Canada ranked third from last, with 40% agreeing. (The United States had 29% who agreed.)
  • Patients who reported they waited two months or longer for a specialist appointment: Canada ranked last, with 30% agreeing. (The United States had only 6% who agreed.)
  • Patients who reported they waited four months or longer for elective surgery: Canada ranked last, with 18% agreeing. (The United States had only 4% who agreed.)

As I discuss in my book, Canada’s health system suffers from myriad access problems, based on other metrics from Commonwealth Fund studies that CAP chose not to mention in their paper:

  • The second-lowest percentage of patients (34%) who said it was easy to receive after-hours care without going to the emergency room;
  • The lowest percentage of patients (59%) who said they often or always receive an answer the same day when calling the doctor’s office about a medical issue;
  • The highest percentage of patients (41%) using the emergency room; and
  • The highest percentage of patients (29%) waiting four or more hours in the emergency room.

With results like that, little wonder that the liberals at CAP didn’t want to highlight what single-payer health care would do to our health system.

Socialists Admit Care Rationing Ahead

That said, some socialist supporters of single payer have conceded that the new system will limit access to care. As I noted last year, the socialist magazine Jacobin said the following about one analysis of single payer:

[The study] assumes utilization of health services will increase by 11 percent, but aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit below the level [the study] projects.

Translation: People will demand additional care under single payer, but there won’t be enough doctors and hospitals to meet the demand, therefore resulting in waiting times and rationed access to care.

Lest one consider this admission an anomaly, the People’s Policy Project called a recent Urban Institute study estimating the costs of single payer “ridiculous” and “unserious,” in large part because of its “comical assumption” about increased demand for care: “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.” Again, socialists claim that single payer won’t bust the budget, in large part because people who seek care will not be able to obtain it.

With analysts from the right and the socialist left both admitting that single payer will lead to rationed health care, CAP can continue to claim that waiting times won’t increase. But the best response to their cherry-picked and misleading analysis comes in the form of an old phrase: Who are you going to believe—me, or your lying eyes?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.