Study Contradicts Claims of California’s Obamacare “Success”

Liberals have cited California as the prototypical Obamacare success story for years now, but a new study puts that assertion very much in doubt. Five years ago, even before Obamacare’s exchanges went live, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman claimed California would prove that “a program designed to help a lot of people can, strange to say, end up helping a lot of people — especially when government officials actually try to make it work.”

Reporters have chimed in with similar stories about Obamacare’s supposed success in California. During the presidential campaign in 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that “California is emerging as a clear illustration of what the law can achieve.” The article quoted several insurers saying the state “did it right,” and had created stable insurance markets.

Emergency Rooms Are Getting More, Not Less, Use

The study, conducted by the California Health Care Foundation, examined emergency department usage over the ten years from 2006 to 2016. While the report, perhaps quite deliberately, didn’t highlight this conclusion — it mentioned Obamacare once, and only in passing — the data indicate that emergency department usage since Obamacare has not only not decreased, it has accelerated, rising at a faster rate than in prior years.

One chart tells the tale:

The study indicates that ER usage accelerated in the years immediately following Obamacare’s implementation, just as it shows Medicaid patients comprised a larger share of ER visits. From 2006 through 2016, Medicaid patients nearly doubled as a share of ER visitors, while ER visitors with private insurance and no insurance both declined:

Unfortunately, this chart does not reveal data for the years immediately before and after Obamacare implementation in 2014, making it tougher to draw direct conclusions. However, the 20 percentage point increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients (California calls its Medicaid program “Medi-Cal”) more than outweighs the 9 percentage point decline in self-pay and uninsured patients and the 4 percentage point decline in patients with other forms of coverage.

While private patients’ ER usage held relatively flat over the decade, the nearly 4 million increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients swamped the combined 863,000 fewer visits by self-pay and uninsured patients and patients with other coverage.

To put it bluntly, the raw data from the California study suggest the state has less of a problem with an overall increase in ER visits and much more of a problem with an explosion in Medicaid patient ER visits. That inconvenient truth might explain why the California Health Care Foundation didn’t highlight the impact of Medicaid, or Obamacare’s expansion of it, in the report itself.

California Study Echoes Oregon ‘Experiment’

In 2016, a group of economists released an updated analysis from Oregon, which concluded that ER usage increased, not decreased, by 40 percent for participants in the Medicaid expansion. The increased ER usage persisted for at least two years, making it unlikely that it existed solely due to “pent-up demand” — i.e., individuals using their new insurance coverage to have lingering but previously untreated problems examined.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that giving patients a more normal source of coverage would decrease ER utilization, the Oregon study found that usage of health care services increased across-the-board, including emergency department visits.

The California study did not reveal whether access problems resulted in the 170 percent increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients. The state has notoriously stingy payment rates for Medicaid providers, which could impede patients from accessing primary care, forcing them to use the emergency room instead.

At minimum, however, the study once again demonstrates how Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise to lower the cost of health care by providing that care in a more timely fashion and at the most efficient location. The increase in ER usage by Medicaid patients also raises questions about whether an insurance card provides access to actual health care.

Five years ago, I wrote about how Krugman’s claims of California’s Obamacare success echoed The Mamas and the Papas: little more than California Dreamin’. Last week’s study reiterates how liberal claims that the state represents an Obamacare “success story” remain nothing more than a pipe dream.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Does Brookings Have a “Wonk Gap?”

Yesterday two researchers at the Brookings Institution released an article claiming that “people are getting more for less” in the individual market under Obamacare.  The piece claims that people are getting “better” coverage, so I asked one of the authors on Twitter: What proof do you have that the coverage is better?  Do people like PPACA plans more than their prior coverage?  Are these new plans leading to better health outcomes for patients?

In an exchange of tweets, Brookings’ Loren Adler said that surveys show people are satisfied with their PPACA coverage — a nice point, but one that doesn’t prove people think it’s “better” than what they had before.  And he admitted that studying the trade-offs PPACA created — in which generally plans have a higher actuarial value, but smaller doctor and hospital networks — “wasn’t the focus of the research piece.”  All well and good, but if that’s the case, why go out on a limb and make an unsubstantiated claim that PPACA coverage is “better?”

He didn’t have a good answer.  He tweeted that the claim of “better” coverage “has nothing to do with the analysis itself of premium comparison,” and that “the wording used in the intro/conclusion has nothing to do w/ analysis itself.”

Think about those words for a second.  Is that the standard we want for research — that people can reach “conclusions” that have “nothing to do with the analysis itself?”  On that basis, I wrote an e-mail to Brookings (pasted below) requesting a retraction or clarification on the specific point that coverage is “better” and people are getting “more” under PPACA.

As I pointed out last night, the Brookings researchers MADE the nature of PPACA coverage a focal point of the analysis, by including unsubstantiated claims to fit a political talking point: “You’re getting more/better coverage for less!”  Having been called out on it, they should prove the claim, or withdraw it.

Folks on the Left complain frequently about a supposed “wonk gap” among conservatives.  I’d be VERY interested to hear from Paul Krugman, or any other observer, who would defend a researcher who makes conclusions that — by his own admission — have “nothing to do with the analysis itself.”

In California’s Health Exchange Cuts, A Preview of Other States’ Woes?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the legality of insurance subsidies in 37 states that use the federal HealthCare.gov site. Some states have discussed creating their own exchanges in the wake of the court’s decision, but those may not be fiscally sustainable.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Covered California, the Golden State’s exchange, “is preparing to go on a diet,” cutting its budget 15% for the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of lower-than-expected enrollment. Earlier this month, Hawaii’s state exchange prepared plans to shut down this fall amid funding shortfalls. Hawaii’s exchange had technical problems that have impeded signups since its launch, but Covered California has had relatively few computer glitches. During the HealthCare.gov rollout problems in 2013, columnist Paul Krugman held up California as a model of efficiency:

What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website? Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Mr. Krugman called California “an especially useful test case,” saying that “it’s huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole.”

But that model has run into financial distress. After slashing its spending, Covered California achieved a balanced budget for next year by utilizing $100 million in federally provided start-up funds. The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general and at least two U.S. senators have questioned whether exchanges are using start-up funds to plug holes in their budgets—a practice prohibited by law and one the senators called a “short term fix” in a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Using federal funds may help Covered California next year—but it will leave a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget the following year, leading to another round of belt-tightening.

The spending cuts—particularly a 33% reduction to marketing and outreach next year—will have an impact. As one report noted, “With enrollment growing more slowly than expected, a big cut in marketing might result in continued difficulties reaching target markets.” In other words, a spending cut next year could result in lower-than-expected enrollment—and budget crunches—in future years. Covered California could raise the $13.95 per policy monthly fee to generate more revenue—but that would also raise premiums, potentially driving away customers.

Before the exchanges opened, some worried about a disproportionate number of sick patients driving up premiums–and driving out healthy enrollees. A related phenomenon could be happening in state-run exchanges: in which few sign-ups result in a combination of cuts to outreach programs and/or higher monthly fees, discouraging enrollment and starting another round of the spiral. It’s possible that California’s experience could be a useful test case of that proposition—and a cautionary tale for those states contemplating their own exchanges.

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

Paul Krugman’s California Dreamin’

Since California released its health care exchange premium rates late last week, liberals such as Paul Krugman have argued that Obamacare’s predicted “rate shock” will fail to materialize next year. At least three reasons explain why liberals’ argument falls short:

1. Dubious Assumptions About Exchange Enrollment

Some independent observers questioned whether the insurance companies in California’s exchange made favorable—and dubious—assumptions about the people who would buy insurance on the exchange next year. The Washington Post noted that “if sick people sign up en masse next year…that could dramatically increase costs for insurers, who would then have to recoup the money by increasing premiums.” One vice president at Avalere Health, a consulting firm, told the Post that a delayed premium spike could happen:

[The projected premium rates] are low enough that you have to think, are there going to be health plans in this market that are underwater…. It’s so hard to predict because you don’t know who’s going to show up on the market.

2. A Pre-Existing Preview

While no one knows who will sign up for exchange coverage next year, an Obamacare program already up and running—one established for individuals with pre-existing conditions—has attracted far sicker enrollees than first anticipated. As The New York Times reported last week:

The administration had predicted that up to 400,000 people would enroll in the program, created by the 2010 health care law. In fact, about 135,000 have enrolled, but the cost of their claims has far exceeded White House estimates, exhausting most of the $5 billion provided by Congress….

When the federal program for people with pre-existing conditions ends on Jan. 1, 2014, many of them are expected to go into private health plans offered through new insurance markets being established in every state. Federal and state officials worry that an influx of people with serious illnesses could destabilize these markets, leading to higher premiums for other subscribers.

People in the pre-existing condition program have been much sicker than actuaries predicted at the time the law passed. If that phenomenon repeats itself in the exchanges—either because only sick individuals enroll, or because employers struggling with high health costs dump their workers into the exchanges—premiums will rise significantly in future years.

3. Bait and Switch

As a column in Bloomberg notes, for all the press around California’s supposedly low exchange premiums, officials generated such spin only by comparing apples to oranges:

Covered California, the state-run health insurance exchange, yesterday heralded a conclusion that individual health insurance premiums in 2014 may be less than they are today. Covered California predicted that rates for individuals in 2014 will range from 2 percent above to 29 percent below average small employer premiums this year.

Does anything about that sound strange to you? It should. The only way Covered California’s experts arrive at their conclusion is to compare apples to oranges—that is, comparing next year’s individual premiums to this year’s small employer premiums. (Emphasis added.)

Therein lies one of Obamacare’s many flaws. Liberals now argue that while some may pay more for coverage, they will get “better” benefits in return. However, when campaigning in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama didn’t say he would raise premiums; he said he would give Americans better coverage: He promised repeatedly that he would cut premiums by an average of $2,500 per family. That gap between Obamacare’s rhetoric and its reality makes arguments such as Krugman’s seem fanciful by comparison.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.