Poll: People Care MORE About Rising Costs Than Pre-Existing Conditions

Now they tell us! A Gallup poll, conducted last month to coincide with the midterm elections and released on Tuesday, demonstrated what I had posited for much of the summer: Individuals care more about rising health insurance premiums than coverage of pre-existing condition protections.

Of course, liberal think tanks and the media had no interest in promoting this narrative, posing misleading and one-sided polling questions to conclude that individuals liked Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections,” without simultaneously asking whether people liked the cost of those provisions.

Overwhelming Concern about Premiums

Ironically, a majority of 57 percent said the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions did not constitute a major concern for them, with only 42 percent agreeing with the statement. Lest one believe that the relative insouciance over pre-existing conditions came because Democrats won a majority in the House, therefore “protecting” Obamacare, Gallup conducted the survey from November 1–11, meaning more than half the survey period came before the American people knew the election outcome.

By comparison, more than three-fifths (61 percent) of respondents viewed rising premiums as a major concern, with only 37 percent not viewing it as such. Not only did premiums register as a bigger concern by 19 percentage points overall, it registered as a larger concern in each and every demographic group Gallup surveyed:

Income under $30,000: +15 percent (70 percent said premiums were a major concern, 55 percent said pre-existing condition coverage was a major concern)

Income between $30,000-$75,000: +19 percent (63 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Income above $75,000: +24 percent (57 percent premiums, 33 percent pre-ex)

On Medicare/Medicaid: +16 percent (60 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

On private insurance: +24 percent (60 percent premiums, 36 percent pre-ex)

Republicans: +25 percent (52 percent premiums, 27 percent pre-ex)

Independents: +19 percent (64 percent premiums, 45 percent pre-ex)

Democrats: +16 percent (68 percent premiums, 52 percent pre-ex)

Aged 18-29: +16 percent (54 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Aged 30-49: +23 percent (65 percent premiums, 42 percent pre-ex)

Aged 50-64: +21 percent (67 percent premiums, 46 percent pre-ex)

Aged over 65: +13 percent (57 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Men: +18 percent (56 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Women: +20 percent (67 percent premiums, 47 percent pre-ex)

With those double-digit margins (i.e., outside the poll’s margin of error) in every demographic group—including among groups more likely concerned about pre-existing conditions, for reasons either practical (i.e., older Americans) or ideological (i.e., Democrats)—Gallup has overwhelming evidence to support its claim that “concerns are greatest about the possibility of having to pay higher premiums.”

Premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, as the law’s major provisions, including the pre-existing condition requirements, took effect. They again rose sharply in 2018, causing approximately 2.5 million individuals to drop their Obamacare-compliant coverage completely.

Not a Surprise Outcome

The Gallup results confirm prior surveys from the Cato Institute, which also demonstrate that support for Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions drops dramatically once people recognize the trade-offs—namely, higher premiums and a “race to the bottom” among insurers, reducing access to specialist providers and lowering the quality of care:

But the polling suggests that Democrats have no such mandate, and that they should think again in their approach. Rather than making an already bad situation worse, and potentially raising premiums yet again, they should examine alternatives that can solve the pre-existing condition problem (and yes, it is a problem) by making it easier for people to buy coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition in the first place.

As the polling indicates, the American people—to say nothing of the 2.5 million priced out of the marketplace in the past 12 months—will thank them for doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot on Pre-Existing Conditions

Republicans who want to blame their election shortcomings on last year’s attempt to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare will have all the fodder they need from the media. A full two weeks before Election Day, the bedwetters caucus was already out in full force:

House Republicans are increasingly worried that Democrats’ attacks on their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare could cost them the House. While the legislation stalled in the Senate, it’s become a toxic issue on the campaign trail for the House Republicans who backed it.

In reality, however, the seeds of this problem go well beyond this Congress, or even the last election cycle. A health care strategy based on a simple but contradictory slogan created a policy orphan that few Republicans could readily defend.

A Dumb Political Slogan

Around the same time last year, I wrote an article explaining why the “repeal-and-replace” mantra would prove so problematic for the Republican Congress trying to translate the slogan into law. Conservatives seized on the “repeal” element to focus on eradicating the law, and taking steps to help lower health costs.

By contrast, moderates assumed that “replace” meant Republican lawmakers had embraced the mantra of universal health coverage, and would maintain most of the benefits—both the number of Americans with insurance and the regulatory “protections”—of Obamacare itself. Two disparate philosophies linked by a conjunction does not a governing platform make. The past two years proved as much.

A Non-Sensical Bill

In life, one mistake can often lead to another, and so it proved in health care. After having created an internal divide through the “repeal-and-replace” mantra over four election cycles, Republicans had to put policy meat on the details they had papered over for seven years. In so doing, they ended up with a “solution” that appealed to no one.

  1. Removed Obamacare’s requirements for what treatments insurers must cover (e.g., essential health benefits);
  2. Removed Obamacare’s requirements about how much of these treatments insurers must cover (e.g., actuarial value, which measures a percentage of expected health expenses covered by insurance); but
  3. Retained Obamacare’s requirements about whom insurance must cover—the requirement to cover all applicants (guaranteed issue), and the related requirement not to vary premiums based on health status (community rating).

As I first outlined early last year, this regulatory combination resulted in a witch’s brew of bad outcomes on both the policy and political fronts:

  • Because lawmakers retained the requirements for insurers to cover all individuals, regardless of health status, the bills didn’t reduce premiums much. If insurers must charge all individuals the same rates regardless of their health, they will assume that a disproportionately sicker population will sign up. That dynamic meant the bills did little to reverse the more-than-doubling of individual market insurance premiums from 2013-17. What little premium reduction did materialize came largely due to the corporate welfare payments the bills funneled to insurers in the form of a “Stability Fund.”
  • However, because lawmakers removed the requirements about what and how much insurers must cover, liberal groups raised questions about access to care, particularly for sicker populations. This dynamic led to the myriad charges and political attacks about Republicans “gutting” care for people with pre-existing conditions.

You couldn’t have picked a worse combination for lawmakers to try to defend. The bills as written created a plethora of “losers” and very few clear “winners.” Legislators absorbed most of the political pain regarding pre-existing conditions that they would have received had they repealed those regulations (i.e., guaranteed issue and community rating) outright, but virtually none of the political gain (i.e., lower premiums) from doing so.

Some people—including yours truly—predicted this outcome. Before the House voted on its bill, I noted that this combination would prove untenable from a policy perspective, and politically problematic to boot. Republicans plowed ahead anyway, likely because they saw this option as the only way to breach the policy chasm caused by bad sloganeering, and paid the price.

Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy

That apathy continued after Obamacare’s enactment. While Suderman articulated an alternative vision to the law, he admitted that “Republicans can’t make the case for that plan because they’ve never figured out what it would look like. The GOP plan is always in development but never ready for final release.”

Emphasizing the “repeal-and-replace” mantra allowed Republicans to avoid face the very real trade-offs that come with making health policy. When a Republican Congress finally had to look those trade-offs in the face, it couldn’t. Many didn’t know what they wanted, or wanted a pain-free solution (“Who knew health care could be so complicated?”). Difficulty regarding trade-offs led to the further difficulty of unifying behind a singular policy.

Can’t Avoid Health Care

Many conservative lawmakers face something that could be described as “health policy PTSD”—they don’t understand it, so they don’t study it; they only define their views by what they oppose (e.g., “Hillarycare” and Obamacare); and when they put out proposals (e.g., premium support for Medicare and “repeal-and-replace” on Obamacare), they get attacked. So they conclude that they should never talk about the issue or put out proposals. Doubtless Tuesday’s election results will confirm that tendency for some.

Rather than using the election results to avoid health care, Republican lawmakers instead should lean in to the issue, to understand it and ascertain what concepts and policies they support. The left knows exactly what it wants from health care: More regulation, more spending, and more government control—leading ultimately to total government control.

Conservatives must act now to articulate an alternative vision, because the 800-pound gorilla of Washington policy will not disappear any time soon.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Conservative’s (Sort of) Defense of IPAB

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to eliminate Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). I come not to praise IPAB, but not to bury it, either—at least, not yet.

Yes, Obamacare empowers this federal board to make binding recommendations to Congress about enforcing per capita spending caps within Medicare. Yes, that board undermines congressional sovereignty by empowering unelected bureaucrats, in what its own advocates transparently described as an attempt to minimize democracy. And yes, federal bureaucrats have no business interfering still further with physicians’ practice of medicine. But for multiple reasons, Congress should not repeal IPAB without first enacting a suitable replacement.

We Can’t Afford Medicare As It Is

The Medicare Trust Fund suffered $132.2 billion in deficits during the Great Recession, and faces insolvency in just more than a decade. Medicare needs fundamental reform now, but repealing IPAB without simultaneously enacting other reforms will only encourage partisan attacks when Congress finally must act. Witness the liberal ads throwing granny over a cliff in response to congressional Medicare reform proposals that would save both seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

Second, repealing IPAB would also undermine the case for reforming Medicaid. Liberals’ hue-and-cry over proposals to reform Medicaid earlier this year demonstrated an opportunistic hypocrisy, as the same groups that attacked Republican efforts to impose per capita caps on Medicaid supported per capita spending caps on Medicare when created by a Democratic president. Conservative support for IPAB repeal would reinforce this ideological incoherence, demonstrating Republicans as favoring per capita caps in Medicaid, but not Medicare, and weakening the case for reforms to either entitlement.

Third, opportunities to control spending do not come often, or easily, which should make conservatives inherently reluctant to repeal any of them. In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, designed to force lawmakers to live within statutory spending targets. But Congress weakened Gramm-Rudman’s statutory fiscal discipline within five years, and abandoned it altogether by 2002. It took the debt limit fight of 2011 to restore fiscal discipline through the Budget Control Act’s sequestration caps—conservatives’ major policy victory of the Obama era, and one that congressional spendthrifts have consistently worked to undermine since.

It’s Clumsy, But Better than Nothing

As someone who has criticized Obamacare’s overly regulatory structure since its enactment seven years ago, I recognize—and entirely agree with—objections to the way IPAB undermines congressional authority, and intrudes still further into the practice of medicine. But conservatives would do well to avoid conflating IPAB’s highly flawed means with its entirely proper ends.

The board imposes real caps on Medicare spending, however clumsy, and like the budget sequester mechanism represents a genuine, albeit flawed, attempt to reduce federal spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office estimates the board’s repeal would increase Medicare spending, and thus the budget deficit, by $17.5 billion over the coming decade and more after that.

Most health-care interest groups want an outright IPAB repeal immediately, which is one major reason the House will vote on its repeal this week. But conservatives should not take that bait, and should instead work to replace IPAB with constructive reforms that modernize Medicare and make the program more fiscally sustainable for future generations.

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Conservatives may not wish to see spending rise on an already unsustainable entitlement. But if they follow the efforts of K Street lobbyists and repeal IPAB without an effective substitute, that’s exactly what they would end up getting.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Dear Congress: Take My Obamacare Coverage — Please!

Last week, Vox ran a story featuring individuals covered by Obamacare, who live in fear about what the future holds for them. They included people who opened small businesses because of Obamacare’s coverage portability, and worry that the “career freedom” provided by the law will soon disappear.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Vox didn’t ask this small business owner—who also happens to be an Obamacare enrollee—for his opinions on the matter. Like the enrollees in the Vox profile, I’m also incredibly worried about what the future holds, but for a slightly different reason: I’m worried for our nation about what will happen if Obamacare ISN’T repealed.

What Obamacare Hasn’t Done For Me

While in generally decent health, I have some health concerns: mild hypertension (controlled by medications), mild asthma, and allergies that have worsened in the past few years. I’ve gone through two reconstructive surgeries on my ankle, which I’ve chronicled in a prior article. Under “research” previously published by the Obama Administration, my health conditions classify me as one of the 129 million people with a pre-existing condition supposedly benefiting from the law.

Yet while my health hasn’t changed much since Obamacare passed and was implemented, my health insurance policy has already been cancelled once. The replacement I was offered this year included a 20 percent premium increase, and a 25 percent increase in my deductible.

If Obamacare was repealed, or if insurers stopped offering coverage, it would be an inconvenience, no doubt. I don’t know what options would come afterwards. That would depend on actions by Congress, the District of Columbia, and the insurance community. But having already lost my coverage once, and gone through double-digit premium and deductible increases, how much worse can it really get?

Obamacare Will Raise the Deficit

I know what liberals are saying: “But Obamacare will reduce the deficit!” Yes, the Congressional Budget Office did issue a score saying the law will lower the deficit. But consider all the conditions that must be met for Obamacare to lower the deficit. If:

  • Annual Medicare payment reductions that will render more than half of all hospitals unprofitable within the next 10 years keep going into effect; and
  • Provisions that will, beginning in 2019, reduce the annual increase in Exchange insurance subsidies—making coverage that much more unaffordable for families—go into effect; and
  • An unpopular “Cadillac tax” that has already been delayed once—and which the Senate voted to repeal on a bipartisan 90-10 vote in December 2015—actually takes effect in 2020 (which just happens to be an election year); then

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will reduce the deficit by a miniscule amount. But if any of those conditions aren’t met, then the law becomes a budget-buster. And if you think all those conditions will actually come to pass, then I’ve got some land to sell you.

Obamacare’s Unspoken Opportunity Costs

Even if you believe in raising taxes to reduce the deficit, Congress has already done that. Except that money wasn’t used to lower the deficit—it’s been used to pay for Obamacare. Even some liberals accept that you can only tax the rich so much, at which point they will stop working to avoid paying additional income in taxes. Obamacare brought us much closer to that point, without doing anything to put our fiscal house in order.

We Just Can’t Afford Obamacare

Whether they’re liberal websites, Democratic leaders, or Republican politicians attempting to cover as many Americans as Obamacare in their “replacement,” no one dares utter the four words that our country will soon face on any number of fronts: “We can’t afford it.”

But the fact of the matter is, we can’t afford Obamacare. Not with trillions of dollars in debt, 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, and the Medicare trust fund running over $130 billion in deficits the past eight years. Our nation will be hard-pressed to avoid all its existing budgetary and financial commitments, let alone $2 trillion in spending on yet more new entitlements.

So, to paraphrase Henny Youngman, take my health coverage—please. Repeal Obamacare, even if it means I lose my health coverage (again). Focus both on reducing health costs and right-sizing our nation’s massive entitlements.

Failing to do so will ultimately turn all 300-plus million Americans into the “faces of Obamacare”—victims of a debt crisis sparked by politicians and constituents who want more government than the public wants to pay, and our nation can afford.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Our Entitlement Problem for the Next Generation, in One CBO Chart

 

The Congressional Budget Office released its annual update last week regarding the long-term budget outlook. In that document, one chart in particular demonstrated the financial difficulties caused by an entitlement system that has promised Americans more in benefits than it can deliver.

Figure 2-5, on Page 47 of the CBO report, analyzes the average lifetime Medicare benefits and taxes for cohorts of the population based on their decades of birth. Individuals born in the 1940s will receive, on average, Medicare benefits equal to about 7% of their lifetime earnings. Those born in the 1960s will receive lifetime Medicare benefits equal to about 11% of their average lifetime earnings, and those born in the 1950s get benefits equal to about 9% of their earnings. In all three cases, the lifetime benefits received from Medicare will vastly exceed the lifetime taxes paid in. Most cohorts, CBO said, will pay about 2% of taxes relative to their lifetime earnings.

These findings echo reports by Eugene Steuerle and colleagues at the Urban Institute analyzing Social Security and Medicare benefits over a lifetime. Their most recent series of estimates, released in November 2013, found that a two-earner couple in which both make average wages and turn 65 in 2015 will receive more than three times as much in lifetime Medicare benefits ($427,000) as they paid over their career in Medicare taxes ($141,000).

It’s noteworthy that the dedicated Medicare payroll tax is not the program’s only source of financing. While Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) is largely funded through the direct payroll tax, general government revenues fund Medicare Part B coverage of physician services and Part D coverage of prescription drugs. In other words, most individuals fund Medicare through revenue sources beyond their payroll taxes—namely the income tax— even if quantifying the size of that contribution proves more difficult.

Still, the CBO chart illustrates two major forces squeezing Medicare: Rising health costs and longer life spans are increasing the benefits paid, and average promised benefits do not remotely equate to average contributions made—undermining the principle of a social insurance model. With about 10,000 baby boomers on track to retire every day for a generation, these two trends will define our fiscal future. Policy makers would do well to address them sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Is Medicare Spending Increasing?

The Department of Health and Human Services released a report this month highlighting the slowdown in Medicare spending growth in recent years. The administration says that Obamacare has led to slower growth in overall health spending, which in turn has made Medicare more sustainable. Another government document suggests that Medicare spending may be accelerating—but even if it isn’t, demographic trends will create pressure on the program in the coming years.

The HHS report compared Medicare growth rates from 2000 to 2008 with rates from 2009 to 2013, and found that $316 billion was saved over the latter period. The calculation includes Medicare savings for the year before Obamacare was enacted, which indicates that the law cannot be fully responsible for the slowdown. Some reports have suggested that much of the slower growth in health spending has stemmed from lingering economic weakness, though studies and experts differ on this point.

But in the week before this report was published, HHS undercut its message by acknowledging that Medicare spending has accelerated in recent months. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services initially proposed a payment decrease for Medicare Advantage plans in 2016, but its final call letter proposed a payment increase, which it attributed to recent spikes in Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) spending:

The 2.5 percentage point increase from the Advance Notice to the Final Notice comprises 1.9 percentage points of additional FFS spending through 2015, an underlying additional FFS trend rate of 0.6 percent for 2016, and 0.1 percent for the assumption that Congress will enact the pending [“doc fix”] legislation….Initial information from Medicare actuaries suggests that contributing factors behind the change from the preliminary growth rate include higher than expected spending on impatient hospitalizations and some intermediary services such as therapy, rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers.

In other words, Medicare Advantage plans did not cut payments for the upcoming year because Medicare’s actuaries have observed an uptick in spending for traditional Medicare. It’s possible, then, that the trend of slower spending growth highlighted in the HHS report may have ended.

Even if the growth in Medicare spending stops, demographic trends in the coming decades will still force a re-examination of the program. The onslaught of retiring baby boomers—an average of 10,000 per day for two decades—will define our fiscal future for the next generation. Whether or not growth in Medicare spending remains slow for years to come—and some trends suggest that it won’t—federal policy makers still have good reason to prioritize right-sizing of entitlement programs.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Little Reason to Celebrate about Medicare

Lost amid discussion of the Medicare trustees report and the additional four years until the program becomes insolvent is the fact that for the sixth consecutive year, Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund paid out more in benefits than it generated in revenue.

Table III.B4 on Page 56 of the trustees report tells the tale. In 2013 Medicare’s hospital insurance (Part A) trust fund took in $251.1 billion in revenue while spending $266.2 billion. On top of this $15 billion loss, the losses from 2008 through 2012 were more than $105 billion. The 2014 loss is estimated to be $13.6 billion.

In total, Medicare Part A is projected to pay out $134.2 billion more than it took in from 2008 through 2014. And the trustees forecast that the losses will not be recouped: Trust fund balances will never recover to their pre-2008 levels largely because of long-predicted demographic changes.

Those who cite the projected 2030 insolvency date to argue that the program does not immediately need significant reforms ignore the fact that the same trust fund has run deficits for six straight years–is expected to for a seventh. Policymakers focused on a delayed insolvency date imply a strategy of managed decline for Medicare. The American people deserve real, lasting solutions.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

CBO Forecast Points Up the Need for Entitlement Reform

The Congressional Budget Office’s annual long-term budget forecast prompted numerous news articles about a potential slowdown in the growth of health spending and what that would mean for Medicare and other programs. But federal entitlement spending in the short and medium term will be defined much more by the demographics of an aging population–10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day–than by whether policymakers can bend the proverbial cost curve in health care.

The CBO admits as much. In Box 1-1 (Pages 22-23) of its report, the budget office compares the relative weight of three factors in increased health spending: the aging of the population; excess cost growth; and newly created (and in the case of Medicaid, expanded) entitlements under Obamacare. Over the next 10 years and the next 25 years, the effects of an aging population exceed the effects of cost growth when it comes to spending on federal programs.

Because demographics put greater pressure on federal entitlement spending over the next generation than excess cost growth, efforts to bend the health-care cost curve–even if successful–miss the larger problem: If per-beneficiary costs rise not a penny, growing numbers of beneficiaries would still create their own fiscal pressures. For instance, under Medicare’s current structure, a couple about to retire stands to receive three times as much in benefits as they paid in Medicare payroll taxes during their working lives.

Resolving the spending pressures in federal entitlements will require more than efforts to reduce the growth in health-care costs. Broader structural reforms–such as additional means-testing for entitlement programs, or a premium support structure for Medicare–must be an important element of the discussion.

The CBO forecasts were not nearly as sanguine as some coverage suggested. Overall debt-to-GDP projections for the next 25 years rose compared with the CBO’s estimates from September, partly because of reduced projections for economic growth. These projections emphasize the need to enact structural entitlement reforms soon–before the demographic wave of the coming years fully hits. Unfortunately, those focused on the idea that “bending the curve” can save them from the tsunami may not recognize the error of their ways until it is too late.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.