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.

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Indian Health Service Scandal Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

As if voters didn’t have enough reasons to question government-run health care, the Wall Street Journal provided yet another last week. The paper ran a lengthy expose highlighting numerous cases of doctors previously accused of negligence receiving “second chances” in the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS), resulting in incidents wherein at least 66 patients died in IHS care.

Earlier this year, the Journal ran a separate investigative article explaining how the Indian Health Service repeatedly ignored warnings about a physician accused of sexually abusing patients, moving him from hospital to hospital. Together, these articles describe a broken culture within the Indian Health Service, demonstrating how government-run health systems provide poor-quality care, often harming rather than helping vulnerable patients.

Examples of Negligent Physicians Harming Patients

The Journal examined records from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund, which pays awards in malpractice cases wherein the federal government — in this case, the Indian Health Service — functions as the defendant. The reporters then cross-referenced the physicians involved in those cases with prior malpractice cases and disciplinary actions taken prior to the doctors joining the IHS. The results should shock patients:

  • A doctor “thrust into medical exile” after five medical malpractice settlements in five years, including a rejection by a Nevada licensing board, ended up finding work in the Indian Health Service, where the federal government had to pay an additional five malpractice claims on his behalf. The physician, who had previously left a sponge inside a patient’s breast (among other incidents) before going to work with the Indian Health Service, gashed an IHS patient’s bile duct, causing four liters of digestive fluid to leak into her abdomen and sending her into septic shock.
  • An obstetrician with a history of five malpractice settlements totaling $2.7 million, and sanctions from the California medical board stemming from a patient who bled to death following a caesarean section, found employment in the Indian Health Service. A year after his hire, a baby died in the womb because this doctor failed to treat his mother’s high blood pressure. IHS officials later concluded that the doctor’s history “forshadow[ed] the tragic events that transpired in October 2017.” The physician admitted to the Journal, “I just did not address patients’ primary medical needs in a satisfactory way.” But he still applied for and received a position with the IHS.
  • A surgeon sued for malpractice 11 times over an eight-year period while living in Pennsylvania later got a job with the Indian Health Service in New Mexico. There he “allegedly cut a tube connecting a patient’s liver to his stomach and punctured the man’s intestines during a 2008 gallbladder surgery.” The patient later died.
  • A physician disciplined in both Florida and New York for prescribing pain pills for her boyfriend — up to 1,350 oxycodone pills in a single day — was hired by the Indian Health Service because she had a “clean” medical license in Pennsylvania. While working for the IHS, she sent a patient complaining of dizziness home with a diagnosis of pink-eye. Days later, the patient suffered a stroke that has left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The federal government settled the subsequent malpractice case for $1 million because “hospital officials said in interviews that the doctor’s background made the case hard to defend.”
  • Another surgeon with nearly a dozen malpractice suits and a suspension for sexually abusing a patient during an exam received a job with the Indian Health Service. During his time as an IHS employee, the federal government paid a judgment exceeding $600,000 “over a colostomy the doctor performed that spilled fecal matter under a patient’s skin” and a $500,000 settlement for a botched hernia repair.
  • An obstetrician with at least seven reports in the National Practitioner Data Bank, including North Carolina sanctions over a potential sexual relationship with a patient, got a job with the Indian Health Service. In 2013, the doctor “struggled to deliver a baby” at an IHS facility. The baby developed an irregular heartbeat and died. The federal government paid a $900,000 malpractice claim because “a medical board reprimand later said [the doctor] should have resorted to a [caesarean] section ‘hours earlier.’”
  • A surgeon who lost his medical license in Illinois for “gross negligence” got another chance at a New Mexico IHS facility. “Two months after he arrived as the [IHS] hospital’s chief of surgery, he allegedly punctured a patient’s intestines during a surgery.” The patient ended up needing a dozen surgeries — which she wisely obtained outside the Indian Health Service — and a four-month hospital stay to recover.

Bureaucratic Nightmares

The Journal article also explained the circumstances by which all these physicians with histories of multiple malpractice claims or disciplinary actions came to work in the Indian Health Service. First, while the agency’s policies require hiring managers to consult the National Practitioner Data Bank for a physician’s history of malpractice claims or sanctions, the IHS does not monitor compliance with that requirement.

In one case, the CEO of a hospital who fired a surgeon for negligence said she “encourag[ed] him to consider another field of medicine than surgery.” However, the CEO didn’t know the surgeon had ended up practicing at an IHS facility until the Journal contacted her — because IHS apparently failed to investigate the surgeon’s history before hiring him.

Second, the federal government covers physicians’ malpractice claims through the Treasury’s Judgment Fund (the way the Journal reporters researched the hysicians’ history). Because IHS doctors don’t need to pay for malpractice insurance themselves — what one survey of IHS physicians considered the top benefit of working at the agency — it has become an effective “dumping ground” for physicians whose history of prior malpractice claims means they cannot obtain insurance on their own. IHS patients and federal taxpayers often end up paying the price, both literally and figuratively.

Poor Reimbursements Equal Poor Care

One former IHS official admitted that hiring managers have to make compromises when hiring physicians: “You get three candidates who come through and they all seem not great. But what you do is choose the lesser of three evils.” Hiring those “lesser evils” led to disastrous and often fatal consequences for dozens upon dozens of Indian Health Service patients.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., says she wants to extend government-run health care to the rest of the United States. But rather than apologizing to Native Americans for DNA tests, she should instead apologize for the horrid conditions within the Indian Health Service, promise to replace that broken system with something that works, and vow not to wreak on the rest of the American health-care system the kind of havoc Native populations have faced for years.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Costs of “Free” Health Care

Libertarian columnist P.J. O’Rourke once famously claimed that “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” A left-of-center think-tank recently confirmed O’Rourke’s assertion. In analyzing several health care proposals, the Urban Institute demonstrated how eliminating patient cost-sharing from a single-payer system would raise total health care spending by nearly $1 trillion per year.

Those estimates have particular resonance given the recent release of a health care “plan” (such as it is) by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren’s policy proposals contain myriad gimmicks and rosy scenarios, all designed to hide the obvious fact that one cannot impose a $30 trillion-plus program on the federal government without asking middle-class families to paya lot—for its cost.

The Urban Institute estimates show that a single-payer plan maintaining some forms of patient cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles, co-payments, etc.) seems far more feasible—or less unfeasible—than the approach of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who promise unlimited “free” health care for everyone. Mind you, I would still oppose such a plan—for its limits on patient choice, economically damaging tax increases, and likelihood of government rationing—but at least it would have the advantage of being mathematically possible. Not so with Sanders’ and Warren’s current approach.

Option 1: An Obamacare-Like Single-Payer Plan

In the October policy paper, several Urban researchers examined the financial effects of various health coverage proposals, including two hypothetical single-payer systems. The first single-payer system would cover all individuals legally present in the United States. Urban modeled this system to cover all benefits required under Obamacare, and fund 80 percent of Americans’ expected health costs per year, equivalent to a Gold plan on the Obamacare exchanges. Americans would still pay the other 20 percent of health spending out-of-pocket.

This proposed “lite” single-payer system would still require massive tax increases—from $1.4-$1.5 trillion per year. But it would actually reduce total health spending by an estimated $209.5 billion compared to the status quo.

This single-payer system generates calculated savings because Urban assumed the plan would pay doctors current rates under the Medicare program, and pay hospitals 115 percent of current Medicare rates. Because Medicare pays medical providers less than private insurers, moving all patients to these lower rates would reduce doctors’ and hospitals’ pay—which could lead to pay and job cuts for health professionals. But in the Urban researchers’ estimates, it would lower health spending overall.

Option 2: ‘Free’ Health Care Costs a Lot of Money

Compare these outcomes to a proposal closely modeled on the single-payer legislation supported by Sanders and Warren. Unlike the first proposal, this “enhanced” single-payer system would cover “all medically necessary care,” with “no premiums or cost-sharing requirements.” It would also enroll all U.S. residents, including an estimated 10.8 million illegally present foreign citizens.

The Urban researchers found that the single-payer plan with no cost-sharing would raise total health spending by $719.7 billion compared to the status quo. Compared to the “single-payer lite” plan, which provides benefits roughly equivalent to Obamacare, eliminating cost-sharing and covering foreign citizens would raise total health spending by $929.2 billion. Moreover, the plan with no cost-sharing requires a tax increase nearly double that of the “single-payer lite” plan—a whopping $2.7-$2.8 trillion per year.

The Urban Institute estimates confirm that making all health care “free,” as Sanders and Warren propose, would cause an enormous increase in the demand for care. This would overwhelm any potential savings from lower payments to doctors and hospitals, meaning the health sector would face a double-whammy, of getting paid less to do more work. These estimates also could underestimate the growth in health spending, because Urban’s researchers did not assume a rise in medical tourism or immigration when calculating the increase in demand for “free” health care.

Socialists’ ‘Solution’: Hold Costs Down by Rationing

Socialist supporters of Sanders’ plan attacked these estimates, claiming that the Urban Institute failed to consider that a single-payer system would ration access to “free” health care. The People’s Policy Project called Urban’s estimates of increased demand “ridiculous,” in part 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.”

Its position echoes that of the socialist magazine Jacobin, which in response to a single-payer study by the Mercatus Center last year admitted that “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

An increase in health spending of nearly $1 trillion per year, and increased waiting times and rationed access to care: either or both of those scenarios represent the costs of “free” health care, based on the words of leftists themselves. The prospect of either scenario should make Americans reject this socialist approach.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

November Debate Outs Democrats’ Health Care Double Speak

Ten Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta for the latest presidential debate on Wednesday evening, and as with the past several debates, health care played an important role. The attack lines echoed debates past: Progressives like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged support for full-fledged socialized medicine, while so-called “moderates” like former Vice President Joe Biden expressed opposition to taking away Americans’ existing health plans, and raising taxes by tens of trillions of dollars to do so.

Several contradictions emerged. First, as in debates past, the controversy seemed focused more on tactics than on strategyhow quickly to take away Americans’ health insurance, rather than whether the United States should ultimately end up with a system of socialized medicine.

Warren’s Unrealistic Promises

Early in the debate, Warren tried to square the circle into which she has put herself, by first releasing a plan for full-on single payer, and then releasing a second “transition” plan last Friday. In the latter plan, Warren pledged she would pass not one but two separate major pieces of health care legislation through Congress—the first within her 100 days, the second within three years.

Warren claimed that she would provide access to “free” health care for 135 million Americans within her first 100 days in office. That number comes from the populations that she pledged in last week’s plan would have immediate access to a Medicare-type single-payer system without premiums or cost sharing: Those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $51,500 for a family of four), and all children under age 18.

The idea that Warren can introduce, let alone pass, such massive legislation within 100 days—by April 30, 2021—seems unrealistic at best. By way of comparison, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—the first committee to mark up the legislation that became Obamacare—did not even introduce its version of the bill until June 9, 2009, well after Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. Barack Obama did not sign Obamacare into law until March 23, 2010, 427 days after his inauguration.

Drafting and passing a bill providing “free” health care to only 135 million people (as opposed to more than 300 million in full-on single payer) would in and of itself represent one of the largest and costliest pieces of legislation—if not the largest and costliest piece of legislation—ever considered by Congress. It would also require massive tax increases, which given the gimmicks in Warren’s plan would likely fall on the middle class.

The idea that Congress could pass such large legislation in only 100 days seems unrealistic at best, and an affront to democracy at worst. Underpinning this timetable lies the idea that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it,” because Democrats fear the ramifications of allowing the American people to understand the effects of their agenda before enacting it. In reality, however, trying to pass legislation that fast would quickly become a legislative morass for Warren, much like the political morass (of her own making) that she currently faces on health care.

Does Biden Believe in Choice?

Biden also spoke out of both sides of his mouth on health care. He claimed that 160 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage like their current insurance, and that he trusts the American people to decide whether or not to join a government-run plan.

However, Biden also claimed that his plan would bring down costs and premiums for the American people. Those reductions can only materialize if people end up enrolling in the government-run health plan, because it would use raw government power to pay doctors and hospitals less.

On the one hand, Biden claims he believes in choice. But on the other hand, his rhetoric belies his desire for a given outcome, one in which people “choose” the government-run plan. As with Pete Buttigieg’s claim that a government-run plan would provide a “glide path” to single payer, both Biden’s rhetoric and the details of his plan show that he wants to sabotage private insurance to drive people into the government-run plan.

Forcing everyone into socialized medicine, and dissembling to voters while doing so: That’s the agenda the American people saw on display in Atlanta Wednesday evening.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

How a Massive Medicare Regulation Illustrates the Problems of Single Payer

What do provisions in a federal regulation, released on a sleepy Friday in August, have to do with the raging debate regarding single-payer health care? As it turns out, plenty.

By definition, single-payer health care assumes that one payer will finance all the care provided by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers. But this premise comes with an important corollary: Funding all medical providers’ care through a single source means that source—the federal government—must pay those providers the right amount. Paying providers too much wastes taxpayer resources; paying them too little could cause them to close.

The Rural Wage Index and MRI Counting

Consider, for instance, the regulation governing Medicare inpatient hospital payments for 2020, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released on Friday, August 2. That 2,273-page regulation—no, that’s not a typo—included major changes to Medicare payment policies.

Most notably, the final rule changed the Medicare hospital wage index. For years, hospitals in rural areas have complained that the current wage index exacerbates wage disparities, under-paying hospitals in low-wage and rural areas, while over-paying hospitals elsewhere. According to CMS, the final rule increased the wage index for many rural hospitals, while slightly reducing payment rates to other hospitals, because CMS must implement the change in a budget-neutral manner.

Consider also a comment made several years ago by Donald Berwick, former CMS administrator and a strong advocate of single-payer health care. In a 1993 interview, Berwick said that “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

‘Little Intellectual Elite’

I don’t know whether the wage index change represents a more accurate way of calculating hospital payments, although I suspect it will make some hospitals’ payments more accurate, and some less accurate. But I don’t presume to know the financial situations of each of the United States’ thousands of hospitals, let alone believe I can calculate the change’s effects for each of them.

Conversely, liberals have the arrogance, even hubris, to believe that a massive—not to mention costly—federal bureaucracy can track and micro-manage the health care system to near-perfection. Remember, this is the same federal government that but a few years ago couldn’t build a website for Obamacare. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his “A Time for Choosing” speech 45 years ago:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can govern ourselves.

Berwick, and his fellow single-payer supporters want to place our health care system in the care of that intellectual elite—although, given the size of our health care system, the bureaucracy needed to control it may prove far from “little.” (But hey, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.)

Invitation to Corruption

Four years ago, federal prosecutors obtained an indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on bribery charges, for accepting campaign contributions and other gifts from Miami physician Salomon Melgen. Among other things, Menendez repeatedly contacted Medicare officials and asked them to stop seeking $9 million in repayments from Melgen, who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of Medicare fraud.

A U.S. senator receiving nearly $1 million in gifts from a Medicare fraudster seems shocking enough. But increasing the federal government’s influence over health policy will make scenarios like this even more likely—and will make things like hospitals’ yearslong lobbying over the wage index seem like small potatoes.

In “Federalist 51,” James Madison famously wrote that “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Single-payer supporters’ obsession over the former, to the exclusion of the latter, bodes ill for any supposed “efficiency gains” resulting from single payer—to say nothing of the integrity of our government.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Reasons You Won’t Keep Your Doctor Under Single Payer

Over Fourth of July week, liberal activists took solace in the results of a poll that they said demonstrates the popularity of a single-payer health system. The survey showed diminished support for a “‘Medicare for All’ [system] if it diminished the role of private insurers.” However, support rose by nearly ten points if pollsters described single payer as a system that “diminished the role of private insurers but allowed you to keep your preferred doctor and hospital.”

Staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed the survey showed single payer “is wildly popular when you tell people what it would actually do.” That claim misses the mark on several levels. First, most individuals wouldn’t consider a 55 percent approval rating—the level of support for a single-payer plan that allows patients to keep their doctors—as evidence of a “wildly popular,” as opposed to mildly popular, policy.

More fundamentally, though, single payer has precious little to do with keeping one’s doctor. For at least three reasons, many patients will lose access to their preferred physicians and hospitals under a single-payer system.

‘Free Care’ Means People Will Demand More

Second, the Sanders legislation would virtually eliminate medical cost-sharing—deductibles, co-payments, and the like. As a result, individuals who currently have health insurance would use more care once it becomes “free.”

In their analysis of single-payer legislation, both the Rand Corporation and the liberal Urban Institute have estimated that induced demand would result in capacity constraints for health care supply. In other words, so many more people would clamor for “free” care that the system would not have enough doctors or facilities to treat them.

More Work, Less Pay

As I noted last year, single-payer supporters operate under the fanciful premise that doctors and hospitals will perform more procedures for less money. Nearly three-quarters of hospitals already lose money on their Medicare patients—and single payer would extend those Medicare reimbursement rates to all patients nationwide. A study earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that a single-payer system linked to Medicare payment levels would reduce hospitals’ revenue by $151 billion annually.

More Soul-Crushing Regulations

The federal government has already caused physicians countless hours of paperwork and grief. Thanks to requirements regarding electronic health records introduced in President Obama’s “stimulus,” an emergency room physician makes an average of 4,000 clicks in one shift. Rather than practicing their craft and healing patients, physicians have become button-clicking automatons, forced to respond to Washington’s every whim and demand.

The combination of more work, less pay, and added government intrusion under single payer could cause many physicians to leave the profession. For instance, the electronic records requirements caused my mother’s longtime physician to retire—he didn’t want to spend all his time staring at a computer screen (and who can blame him).

Some physicians could instead eschew the single-payer route, offering their services on a cash basis to wealthy patients who can afford to opt-out of the government system (provided the government will permit them to do so). Still other individuals may make alternative career plans, abandoning medicine even before they begin their formal training.

Here’s hoping that the American people never get an opportunity to discover the fanciful nature of Sanders’s promise that you can keep your doctor and hospital under single payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Democratic Health Proposals Will Take Your Coverage Away

Following her performance in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, California Senator Kamala Harris once again tripped up over the issue of health care. For a second time, Harris attempted to claim that she would not eliminate private health coverage. In reality, however, virtually all Democrats running for president would enact policies jeopardizing Americans’ health insurance. The candidates differ largely in their level of honesty about their proposals’ effects.

During the debates on Wednesday and Thursday, only Harris, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said they supported eliminating private insurance. But in an interview Friday morning, Harris claimed she heard the question as asking whether she would give up her insurance, not whether she would take others’ coverage away.

The facts defy Harris’ lawyerly parsing. Section 107(a) of the bill that Sanders introduced, and which Harris, Warren, and New Jersey’s Cory Booker have co-sponsored, would make it “unlawful for a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided” under the legislation.

In May, Harris claimed that Sanders’ legislation would permit private health insurance to supplement the government-run program. But as CNN’s Jake Tapper pointed out at the time, Sanders’ bill would provide such comprehensive benefits that supplemental coverage could only cover treatments like cosmetic surgery. It raises an obvious question: Who would want to buy “insurance” covering breast implants and Botox injections? Harris’ Hollywood constituents, perhaps, but few middle-class Americans.

Other candidates have similarly tried to disguise their intentions when it comes to taking away Americans’ health coverage. During last week’s debates, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—another co-sponsor of Sanders’ legislation to make private coverage “unlawful”—did not raise her hand when asked about eliminating health insurance. She said she supported a government-run “public option” instead: “I believe we need to get to…single payer. The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers.”

But individuals with private coverage cannot, and should not, rest easy. The fact that Gillibrand says she supports a government-run health system as an eventual outcome means that she would work to sabotage the private health insurance system, to drive all Americans into a government-run program.

Even Democratic candidates who claim they oppose Sanders’ single-payer legislation have proposed policies that would eventually lead to such a government-run health system. In Thursday’s debate, Sen. Michael Bennet claimed that his proposal for a “public option” “could easily” see 35 million people enroll. Bennet proved off in his estimate by only about 100 million individuals. In 2009, the Lewin Group estimated that a plan similar to Bennet’s could enroll as many as 131.2 million Americans.

A review of Bennet’s legislation demonstrates how it would sabotage private coverage, by giving the government plan major structural advantages. Bennett’s bill grants the government plan $1 billion in start-up funding from taxpayers—with additional bailout funds likely should the plan ever run into financial distress. It would require all doctors participating in Medicare to join the government plan. And it would pay doctors and hospitals the much lower rates that Medicare pays, even though nearly three-quarters of hospitals lost money on their Medicare patients in 2017.

Among the Democrats running for president, Sanders has remained outspoken in his desire to take away Americans’ health coverage, and ban private insurance. While most of the other candidates say that they want to preserve private coverage, their policies would do the exact opposite. Just as Barack Obama eventually had to apologize for his infamous “If you like your plan, you can keep it” broken promise, so too will most of this year’s candidates have to explain why American families couldn’t keep their insurance if and when their policy plans go into effect.

In accepting his party’s nomination for president at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale infamously claimed that “[Ronald] Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you; I just did.” Thirty-five years later, virtually all Democrats have embraced a position almost as unpopular as raising taxes: Taking away Americans’ health insurance. Unlike Mondale, most of this year’s candidates won’t tell you the full truth about their policies. I just did.

This post was originally published at Fox News.