Joe Biden’s Health Care Plan: SandersCare Lite

On Monday morning, former vice president Joe Biden released the health care plan for his 2020 presidential campaign. The plan comes ahead of a single-payer health plan speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) scheduled for Wednesday.

Biden’s plan includes several noteworthy omissions. For instance, it does not include any reference to health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States. That exclusion seems rather surprising, given both Democrats’ embrace of health benefits for those unlawfully present in last month’s debate, and Biden’s repeated references to the issue.

Biden said later on Monday that illegally present foreign citizens should have access to “public health clinics if they’re sick,” but not health insurance. He also claimed that last month’s debate format did not give him enough time to explain his position.

Overall, however, Biden’s plan includes many similarities to Sanders’. While both Sanders and Biden want to draw contrasts on health care—Sanders to attack Biden as beholden to corporate interests, and Biden to attack Sanders for wanting to demolish Obamacare—their plans contain far more similarities than differences.

Losing Coverage

Sanders’ bill would, as the American people have gradually learned this year, make private insurance “unlawful,” taking coverage away from approximately 300 million Americans. Biden’s plan specifically attacks single payer on this count, for “starting from scratch and getting rid of private insurance.”

As with Obamacare, Biden’s promise will echo hollow. By creating a government-run “public option” like Sanders’, the Biden plan would also take away health coverage for millions of Americans. As I have previously explained, a government-run plan would sabotage private insurance, using access to Treasury dollars and other in-built structural advantages.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government-run health plan, available to all individuals and paying doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates (i.e., less than private insurance), would lead to 119.1 million individuals losing employer coverage:

More Spending

Biden would also expand the Obamacare subsidy regime, in three ways. He would:

  1. Reduce the maximum amount individuals would pay in premiums from 9.86% of income to no more than 8.5% of income, with federal subsidies making up the difference.
  2. Repeal Obamacare’s income cap on subsidies, so that families with incomes of more than four times the poverty level ($103,000 for a family of four in 2019) can qualify for subsidies.
  3. To lower deductibles and co-payments, link insurance subsidies to a richer “gold” plan, one that covers 80% of an average enrollee’s health costs in a given year, rather than the “silver” plan under current law.

All three of these recommendations come from the liberal Urban Institute’s Healthy America plan, issued last year. However, they all come with a big price tag. Consider the following excerpt from Biden’s plan:

Take a family of four with an income of $110,000 per year. If they currently get insurance on the individual marketplace [i.e., Exchange], because their premium will now be capped at 8.5% of their income, under the Biden Plan they will save an estimated $750 per month on insurance alone. That’s cutting their premiums almost in half. [Emphasis original.]

That’s also making coverage “affordable” for families through unaffordable levels of federal spending. By its own estimates, Biden’s plan will give a family with an income of $110,000 annually—which is approximately double the national median household income—$9,000 per year in federal insurance subsidies. Some families with that level of income may not even pay $9,000 annually in federal income taxes, depending upon their financial situation, yet they will receive sizable amounts of taxpayer-funded largesse.

Price Controls and Regulations

The drug price section of the Biden plan includes the usual leftist tropes about “prescription drug corporations…profiteering off of the pocketbooks of sick individuals.” It proposes typical liberal “solutions” in the form of price controls, whether importing price-controlled pharmaceuticals from overseas, or allowing “an evaluation by…independent board members” (i.e., bureaucrats) to determine prices.

Ironically, Biden’s plan implicitly acknowledges Obamacare’s flaws. In talking about prescription drug pricing, Biden omits any discussion of the “rock-solid deal” that the Obama administration cut with Big Pharma, so that pharmaceutical companies would run ads supporting Obamacare.

Likewise, Biden’s plan notes that “the concentration of market power in the hands of a few corporations is occurring throughout our health care system, and this lack of competition is driving up prices for consumers.” Yet it fails to note the cause of much of this consolidation: Obamacare encouraged hospitals to gobble up physician practices, and each other, to obtain clout in negotiations with insurers. Typically, after acknowledging government’s failures, Biden, like Sanders, prescribes yet more government as the solution.

In the leadup to debate on “repeal-and-replace” legislation several years ago, conservative Republicans said they did not want any replacement to become “Obamacare Lite.” Just as history often repeats itself, Democrats seem ready to embark on a similar intra-party debate. That’s because, no matter how much Biden wants to draw distinctions between his proposals and single payer, his plan looks suspiciously like “SandersCare Lite.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, to Single-Payer Proposals

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

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

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

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

SEC. 107. PROHIBITION AGAINST DUPLICATING COVERAGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicare Benefits Not Guaranteed

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

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

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

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

To sum up, in this case Politico ignored:

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.