Michael Bloomberg: Against Obamacare Before He Was For It

Last week, old footage emerged of former New York City mayor, and current Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg talking about health care rationing. In his comments from 2011, he advocated denying costly care to older patients:

If you’re bleeding, they’ll stop the bleeding—if you need an X-ray, you’re going to have to wait. That’s just…All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us….You know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice life. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it.

Perhaps more important is why Bloomberg made those particular comments. At the time, in February 2011, he was paying condolences to a Jewish family that had lost a loved one. One of the deceased man’s family noted that the man “was in the emergency room for 73 hours before he died and…that overcrowding in emergency rooms in New York had become out of control.”

This entire episode undermines the message of Bloomberg’s current ad blitz claiming that as mayor, he expanded access to health care in New York City. Plus, what did the mayor say about ER overcrowding back in 2011? “It’s going to get worse with the health care bill [i.e., Obamacare].” He also predicted that hospitals would close as a result.

Obamacare a ‘Disgrace’

During last week’s Democrat primary debate in Las Vegas, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up some of Bloomberg’s other comments about Obamacare. Biden correctly noted that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a “disgrace.” In a June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University just after the law’s enactment, Bloomberg said “We passed a health care bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems in this country. It is just a disgrace.”

Reporters in the past several days have highlighted some of Bloomberg’s prior comments about the law:

  • In his Dartmouth speech, Bloomberg also pointed out that Democrats “say they’ve insured or provided coverage for another 45 million people…except there’s no more doctors for 45 million people.”
  • In a 2011 radio appearance, Bloomberg said that Obamacare “did not solve the basic problems, two basic problems with health care, which…got lost in all of the negotiations as every special interest in Congress got a piece or lost a piece or negotiated about a piece.”
  • In a December 2009 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bloomberg criticized Democrats for not reading or understanding the legislation: “I have asked congressperson after congressperson, not one can explain to me what’s in the bill, even in the House version, certainly not in the other version. And so for them to vote on a bill that they don’t understand whatsoever, really, you’ve got to question the kind of government we have.”

It’s notable that Biden didn’t mention Bloomberg’s last quote—about members of Congress not reading or understanding the legislation—in Wednesday’s debate. Of course, that might have something to do with Biden’s own recent admission that “no one did understand Obamacare”—presumably including himself, at the time the vice president of the United States.

Changing His Tune

Now that Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination, he’s come around to supporting Obamacare. When asked about his prior comments, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN Obamacare’s only flaw lay in the fact that it didn’t go far enough. As a result, Bloomberg’s health plan proposes more government spending, funded by higher taxes, and—in a first—price controls on the entire health-care sector, including what you can and cannot pay your doctors.

On the merits of his policy platform, I’ll give the last word to Bloomberg himself, in his June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University. While Bloomberg said President Obama started out with good intentions, he said Congress “didn’t pay attention to any of those big problems and just created another program that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

It’s an apt description of Bloomberg’s own health care plan—to say nothing of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Pete Buttigieg’s Health Plan Might Be More Radical than Bernie Sanders’

During the most recent Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed that his health-care plan, unlike the single-payer proposal advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would “not polarize the American people.” But contra the candidate’s claims, Buttigieg’s health plan advocates a policy—government price controls on the entire health-care sector—even more far-reaching than Sanders’s socialist approach.

Others have exposed how Buttigieg’s plan would force people to buy insurance costing thousands of dollars, whether they want it or not. But his proposal for government price controls across a $4 trillion health-care sector represents the most radical idea yet—because, unlike Sanders’s plan, individuals appear to have no way to opt out.

National Price Controls

Buttigieg’s plan, released in September, would “prohibit health care providers from pricing irresponsibly by capping their out-of-network rates at twice what Medicare pays.” (Upon entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last November, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also adopted this rate-capping provision in his health plan.) Buttigieg admits that, by capping out-of-network rates, his proposal would give insurers leverage to demand lower prices for in-network care, creating a de facto system of national price controls for the entire health-care sector.

Imposing price controls on nearly 20 percent of the American economy, and linking those price controls to Medicare rates, would have substantial distortionary impacts. For starters, Medicare often does not reimburse medical providers at a rate to recover their costs. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission estimated last March that hospitals would incur a -11 percent margin on their Medicare patients in 2019.

Moreover, because Medicare payment rates reflect the cost of treating the over-65 population—not many Medicare beneficiaries need maternity care, for instance—even supporters of capping rates have questioned the wisdom of linking such caps to Medicare levels.

More broadly, a national system of price controls could create health-care shortages. Facing reductions in pay, doctors could decide to retire early, and aspiring physicians could avoid the profession entirely. With the United States already facing a shortage of up to 121,900 physicians between now and 2032, Buttigieg’s price controls would reduce the physician supply still further.

Pathway to Single Payer—With No Exit

Despite the contrast he attempts to draw with Sanders’s plan, Buttigieg’s price controls would likely lead to a fully government-run system. Buttigieg admits a desire for his plan to provide a “glide path” to single-payer; its price controls provide an easy mechanism for such a transition.

By reducing the payments that private health insurers can offer doctors and hospitals, Buttigieg would slowly sabotage individuals’ existing coverage, throwing all Americans into a government-run health system. Indeed, his price caps provide an easy mechanism to force more and more individuals off their private coverage. While Buttigieg says he wants to cap payments at double Medicare rates, he could lower that cap over time. Of course, capping private health-care reimbursements at less than Medicare rates would all-but-guarantee private health insurance would cease to exist, because few doctors would agree to accept it.

Patients facing long waits for care would have no way to get around queues created by Buttigieg’s socialistic price controls. Sanders’s single-payer legislation allows physicians and patients to contract privately by paying cash for health-care services. But Buttigieg’s plan does not envision a mechanism for Americans to opt out of his price control regime. If Medicare pays $50 for a service, a patient could not pay a physician more than $100 for that service—no matter how experienced or qualified the physician, and no matter how desperate the patient.

The questionable constitutionality of Buttigieg’s plan belies its purportedly moderate nature. On the one hand, he would compel all individuals to pay for health insurance—whether they want it or not, and whether they use it or not. On the other, he would prohibit individuals from engaging in private transactions with their own doctors and hospitals if the amounts of those transactions exceed federally defined limits.

Differences in tone notwithstanding, Sanders and Buttigieg represent two halves of the same general approach to health care, expanding a technocratic leviathan that will attempt to micromanage nearly one-fifth of the economy from Washington. Doctors and patients, take note.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What John Oliver Didn’t Mention about Single Payer Health Care

During the first episode of this season of “Last Week Tonight,” HBO host John Oliver used his monologue to make the case for the United States to adopt a single-payer health-care system. While Oliver articulated many of the shortcomings of the current system, much of his arguments in favor of a single-payer system missed the mark.

As Oliver noted in his program, whether to adopt single payer represents a debate between the devil one knows and the devil one doesn’t. Skeptics of single payer have the advantage of inertial bias—that is, people may not want to give up what they currently have.

On the other hand, supporters of single payer can characterize the future however they like—even if it doesn’t always line up with the facts. That dynamic has allowed supporters to frame single-payer health-care as “Medicare for All,” even though the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would abolish the current Medicare program.

In his program, Oliver acknowledged some of the trade-offs associated with a move to a government-financed health-care system. But he also minimized others, and failed to explain some of the fundamental flaws in Sanders’ approach.

Cost Explosion

Oliver’s segment attempted to tackle the three primary critiques of a single-payer system: It will cost too much; lead to lines and waiting lists for care; and undermine individual choice. On the cost front, Oliver noted that estimates will vary as to whether the Sanders bill will lead to an increase in overall health-care spending. After admitting that the bill could either reduce health spending or cost “a f-ck of a lot more,” Oliver basically threw up his hands, calling the exact amount of spending under the new system unknowable.

On this front, Oliver didn’t analyze why health costs would likely rise under single payer. He mentioned (correctly) that Sanders’s bill would essentially abolish all premiums, deductibles, and co-payments for health care in the United States, making the new system much more generous than the current Medicare program, and much more generous than single-payer systems in places like Canada and Great Britain.

But Oliver did not mention four critical words that majorly affect costs: “Induced demand for care.” In other words, because Sanders’ legislation would make all health care “free” to patients, they would demand much more of it. According to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank, a single-payer system that eliminated cost-sharing would result in nearly $1 trillion more in health spending per year than a single-payer system that retained a system of co-pays and deductibles roughly equivalent to Obamacare’s Gold health insurance plans.

Along with many liberals, Oliver views eliminating cost-sharing as a feature of Sanders’ single-payer proposal. But at containing the costs of such a system, it represents a major bug—one Oliver never acknowledged.

Waiting Lists

Oliver did concede that waiting lists for care exist in other countries’ single-payer systems. However, he contended that patients wait primarily for non-emergency care, using knee replacements as an example. (Many patients wouldn’t call the concept of waiting nearly 10 months for a knee replacement—the average wait in Canada for an orthopedic procedure—a non-urgent matter.) He also didn’t point out that 4.56 million individuals in Britain—roughly 7 percent of that country’s population—were on waiting lists for care as of last fall, an increase of roughly 40 percent in the past five years.

Oliver’s discussion of waiting lists also missed a critical point: Sanders’s legislation would go further than other countries with single-payer systems, because it would prohibit individuals from purchasing private health insurance. Canadian and British patients who object to government waiting lists can purchase private coverage, and obtain care via that route.

Under Sanders’s proposal, American patients would not have that choice: They could only opt-out of the single payer system by paying for their treatment entirely in cash. Because not even a family making several hundred thousand dollars per year could afford the full costs of a heart transplant or chemotherapy, the vast majority of Americans would have no choice but to wait for care until the government system got around to treating them.

Choice

That brings up Oliver’s discussion of choice, and whether taking choice away matters. He points out—rightly—that many Americans do not have a substantive choice of either insurers or doctors, because their employers control the former, and by definition the latter.

But it doesn’t require the federal government taking over the entire health-care system to solve this problem, and give Americans a true choice among insurance plans and doctors. I have pointed out on many occasions the ways the Trump administration has acted to make coverage more portable, so that individuals, not employers, and not the federal government, choose the coverage options they prefer.

Oliver talks about the choices some patients currently face: whether to seek treatment they cannot pay for, or rationing medicines based on cost grounds. But patients would face similar choices under a government-run system—just for different reasons.

Oliver acknowledged the likelihood of waiting lists under a single-payer system, as have other supporters. For instance, the head of the People’s Policy Project has argued that costs won’t rise under single payer because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” In other words, people will seek care, but not be able to obtain it.

In such circumstances, people won’t have a “choice” at all. Because they cannot purchase private insurance to cover treatments the government plan does not, they can either wait for care or they can…wait for care. That’s not just not giving patients choices, it’s harming patients by prohibiting them from buying the insurance they want to buy with their own money.

Towards the end of the segment, Oliver revealed his own bias against giving American patients any choices. After a clip of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s claim that “I trust Americans to make that right choice” on health care, Oliver responded to laughs: “Okay, well, hold on there. You trust Americans to make the right choice? You know Americans choose to drink Bud Light, right?”

Even as he tries to rebut conservative claims that single-payer would undermine Americans’ choices, Oliver admits that he doesn’t really want to give Americans a choice at all. He would rather use government to impose his beliefs on others, and force them to comply.

At minimum, Oliver’s program acknowledged the very real trade-offs associated with a single-payer health-care system. But had he explained those trade-offs fully, the American people would understand why single payer would result in adverse consequences to both our health-care system and our economy as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Single Payer Would Make Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Worse

The past several weeks have seen two trends with important implications for health policy: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s burst of momentum following strong political showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire has drawn greater attention to his proposal for single-payer health care, as China struggles to control a coronavirus outbreak that first emerged at the end of last year.

The two events are linked by more than just time. The coronavirus outbreak provides a compelling argument against Sanders’s so-called “Medicare for All” program, which would upend the health-care system’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

In an Outbreak, Could You Obtain Care?

For starters, supporters of Sanders’s plan have admitted that under single payer, not all patients seeking care will obtain it. In 2018, People’s Policy Project President Matt Bruenig claimed that while demand for care might rise under single payer, “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

By eliminating virtually all patient payments for their own care, single payer would increase demand for care—demand Bruenig concedes the system likely could not meet, even under normal circumstances. Consider that an outbreak centered more than 6,000 miles from the Pacific coast has already led to a run on respiratory face masks in the United States. During a widespread outbreak on our shores, an influx of both sick and worried-but-well patients could swamp hospitals already facing higher demand for “free” care.

Bureaucrats’ Questionable Spending Priorities

While Sanders’s legislation attempts to provide emergency surge capacity for the health-care system, experience suggests federal officials may not spend this money wisely. Section 601 of the House and Senate single-payer bills include provisions for a “reserve fund” designed to “respond to the costs of treating an epidemic, pandemic, natural disaster, or other such health emergency.” However, neither of the bills include a specific amount for that fund, leaving all decisions for the national health care budget in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And federal officials demonstrated a questionable sense of policy priorities in the years leading up to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Of the nearly $3 billion from Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund given to the Centers for Disease Control in the years 2010-2014, only about 6 percent went towards building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Instead, CDC spent $517.3 million funding grants focused on objectives like “improving neighborhood grocery stores” and “promoting better sidewalks and street lighting.”

Socialized Medicine Brought to Its Knees By…the Flu?

Including a system of global budgets as part of a transition to single payer would leave hospitals with little financial flexibility to cope with a sudden surge of patients. Sanders’s Senate version of single-payer legislation does not include such a payment mechanism, but the House single-payer bill does. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberal think-tanks believe the concept, which provides hospitals lump-sum payments to cover the facilities’ entire operating budget, can help reduce health-care costs.

But in its May 2019 report on single payer, the Congressional Budget Office noted that consistently slow growth of global budget payments in Britain’s National Health Service has “created severe financial strains on the health care system.” And how: Rising hospital bed occupancy rates have created longer wait times in emergency rooms, with patients stuck on gurneys for hours. In one example of its annual “winter crisis,” two years ago the NHS postponed 55,000 surgeries due to capacity constraints, with one ER physician apologizing for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.”

A British health system barely able to cope with a predictable occurrence like a winter flu outbreak seems guaranteed to crumble in the face of a major pandemic. Voters lured by the siren song of socialism should bear that in mind as they ponder news of the coronavirus and Sanders’ “Medicare for All.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Unanswered Questions on Single Payer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at USA Today.

How Socialized Medicine Will Lead to Waits for Care

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

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

Misleading Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Waiting Times to the North

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

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

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

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

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

Socialists Admit Care Rationing Ahead

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

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

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

Lest one consider this admission an anomaly, the People’s Policy Project called a recent Urban Institute study estimating the costs of single payer “ridiculous” and “unserious,” in large part because of its “comical assumption” about increased demand for care: “There is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” Again, socialists claim that single payer won’t bust the budget, in large part because people who seek care will not be able to obtain it.

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The “Other” Election Debate about Single-Payer Health Care

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s a national election going on, and single-payer health care is one of the prime points of contention. It’s not what you think.

Voters in Great Britain head to the polls on Dec. 12 in the country’s third general election in just more than four years. The ongoing Brexit debate, about whether or how Britain will leave the European Union, necessitated the early election. With his Brexit agreement with the European Union bogged down in Parliament, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt the need to go to the country, to obtain a mandate to push the deal through.

But health care has also taken a prime place in the campaign. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, have raised the specter of the Conservatives “putting the National Health Service up for sale” to reach a post-Brexit trade agreement with the United States.

The issue of the NHS’s status in a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement came up during President Trump’s state visit to Britain in June. In a press conference with then-Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump originally said “everything with a trade deal is on the table,” only to walk those comments back one day later. With the president due back in London on Tuesday for a NATO summit, and Labour trailing in the polls only a week before election day, Corbyn will doubtless make the issue a focal point of Trump’s visit.

Drug Pricing Issues

Last week, a series of government documents leaked that summarized preliminary trade discussions between American and British negotiators. Corbyn waved around heavily edited versions of the documents at his first debate with Johnson earlier this month. Government officials had redacted large swathes of the documents, to preserve the sensitive nature of the trade talks, but those discussions escaped into public view via the unauthorized leak.

The leaked documents confirm that drug pricing remains a prime point of contention regarding a U.S.-U.K. trade deal. One document, summarizing a series of meetings held in July, includes a lengthy section entitled “Intellectual Property: Patents and Pharmaceuticals.”

Britain’s Channel Four reported in October that two linked issues drive the talks. First, American negotiators prefer the United States’s longer period of data exclusivity as part of any Anglo-American trade agreement. This policy would seek to preserve incentives for innovation, allowing manufacturers to maintain their exclusive intellectual property for longer periods of time.

Britain Wants to Keep Rationing Health Care

Second, the American side “want[s] to remove the UK’s ability to block American drugs not deemed ‘value for money.’” The BBC notes that Britain’s National Health Service relies on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) “on what offers the best benefits for patients balanced against value for money:”

The NICE regime, introduced 20 years ago, is seen as a great success in helping the NHS strike realistic pricing deals. A recent deal for the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi was hailed by health leaders in England as a big win for the system, with the American manufacturer Vertex, having initially refused to bring down its price, eventually signing up.

However, the BBC neglected to mention that, as part of its “negotiations” with the manufacturer Vertex, NICE denied thousands of British patients access to Orkambi for more than three years, because the drug exceeded cost limits set by the government body.

It seems somewhat ironic that in October, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for International Trade told Channel Four that the British government “could not agree to any proposals on medicines pricing” that would “reduce clinician and patient choice.” For the past three years, patients had no choice for accessing Orkambi—bureaucrats called the drug too expensive, therefore British cystic fibrosis patients could not receive it.

End Foreign Freeloading

Britain’s drug pricing policies cost American and British patients alike. British patients pay when they cannot get access to treatments the government deems too expensive, and their health suffers as a result. And American patients pay when Britain, like other European nations, free rides on American innovation—allowing U.S. consumers to pay far more for pharmaceuticals, absorbing a disproportionate share of drugs’ research and development costs.

U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and others have suggested importing socialist-style price controls to the United States to “solve” the free-rider problem—a variation of the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach. But a better solution would involve American negotiators taking up the issue of foreign freeloading with other governments as part of trade talks—the exact policy pursued as part of the U.S.-U.K. discussions.

Trump’s visit to London so close to Britain’s election has prompted speculation about its political ramifications. Johnson has warned Trump not to endorse his re-election bid, fearing it may only encourage Britons to vote for his Labour opponents instead.

But on policy, the United States absolutely should work to stop foreign free-riding over pharmaceutical prices. Moreover, we would do the British people no small favor if, in the process of ending that free-riding, we could stop that country’s health care system from denying patients access to life-saving treatments that a government board deems too costly.

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.

UK Debate Shows Single Payer’s Shortcomings

This week’s debate featuring candidates for the highest office in the land showed all the problems with single-payer health care. Except the debate took place in Britain, not the United States.

During Tuesday’s debate between the current British prime minister, Conservative Boris Johnson, and the man who wants to replace him, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, both agreed that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) currently provides poor care to patients. That surprising consensus in an otherwise-contentious debate illustrates why the United States shouldn’t import Britain’s poor quality of care to our shores.

‘Make Sure Nobody Else Goes Through This Pain’

The debate featured a question by a hospital-based physician, who said he “see[s] firsthand the unsustainable pressure on the NHS—elderly patients stuck on trollies in corridors, unacceptably long waiting times for operations.” He asked how the health service can meet future demands, when it arguably doesn’t meet the current patients’ needs.

After calling the NHS a “wonderful and brilliant institution,” Labour’s Corbyn then recounted a heart-rending tale of how it let down one patient just this week:

Yesterday, a woman—friend of mine—died at 6:30 yesterday morning from secondary breast cancer. The day before, she’d gone to hospital, at the recommendation of her GP [general practitioner], in order to get urgent treatment. She waited eight hours. The nurses that were trying to help her were unable to get anyone to see her because they were under such strain and stress. And so she recorded a video saying, ‘Please, in my memory—make sure nobody else goes through this pain.’

Corbyn then concluded by calling for increased spending, claiming that the NHS stands as “one of the most civilized things about this country.” His friend might have objected to that characterization—but thanks to the NHS, she never lived to see Corbyn make his comment.

Waiting Times

Johnson likewise pledged additional funding, but the effects of choices made in the last several years have affected NHS. In a May report, Congressional Budget Office analysts stated that “the relatively slow growth in [payments to hospitals] since 2010 ha[ve] created severe financial strains on the [British] health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.”

While Corbyn’s comments brought home the personal impact of the NHS’ failures, data compiled by the House of Commons Library (Britain’s version of the Congressional Research Service) demonstrates that stories like the one Corbyn recounted have become far too common.

Charts like those below need very little explanation. A roughly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting more than four hours in emergency rooms since 2011:

A nearly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting on trollies in emergency rooms for hours after their doctors decided to admit them as inpatients:

A 40 percent increase in the number of people on the NHS waiting list, such that it now totals 4.56 million people, or nearly 7 percent of the entire British population of approximately 67.5 million:

A majority of NHS trusts breaking the target that a patient should wait “only” 18 weeks (i.e., four and a half months) for treatment led by a consultant (i.e., a medical specialist):

More than three-quarters of NHS trusts breaking the target that patients should receive their first treatment for “urgent” cancer within 62 days (i.e., two months) of their GP referral:

All this poor performance—people waiting and waiting for care—comes as the number of doctors and nurses within the NHS has increased over the past decade (and in the case of physicians, has increased by nearly 20 percent).

Fundamental Dilemma

Johnson and Corbyn can pledge all the additional money for the NHS they want. Their promises won’t solve the health service’s fundamental problem—and may end up bankrupting Britain in the process.

Britain’s pledge of an NHS “free at the point of use” creates the problem. People who believe they can receive “free” care over-consume it, with the types of rationing and wait times seen in the past several years the inevitable consequence.

Voters in the United States who tuned into Wednesday’s Democratic debate to see the candidates talk single payer should have spent their time watching Tuesday night’s prime ministerial debate instead. Few who watched that event would come away thinking that single payer would represent anything less than an unmitigated disaster for the American health care.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Warren Advisor Admits Her Health Plan Raises Middle Class Taxes

That didn’t last long. Five days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a health plan (chock full of gimmicks) that she claimed would not raise taxes on the middle class, one of the authors of that plan contradicted her claims.

In an interview with Axios published on Wednesday, but which took place before the plan’s release, Warren advisor and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick said the following:

Q: Many people may not know their employers cover 70% or more of their entire premium — money that otherwise would go to their pay. Is this the main problem when talking about reforms?

DB: The basics are not that complicated. Every single dollar — every nickel spent on health care in this country — is coming from workers. There’s no other source. [Emphasis mine.]

Compare that phraseology to what Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson said on Friday about Warren’s plan and its effects:

For months, Elizabeth Warren has refused to say if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, and now we know why: Because it does….Senator Warren would place a new tax of nearly $9 trillion that will fall on American workers. [Emphasis mine.]

In response to the Biden campaign’s criticism, Warren said last Friday that her health plan’s projections “were authenticated by President Obama’s head of Medicare”—meaning Berwick. Unfortunately for Warren, Berwick, by virtue of his comments in his interview with Axios, also “authenticated” Biden’s attack that her required employer contribution will hit workers, and thus middle-class families.

Warren also tried to defend her plan on Friday by claiming that “the employer contribution is already part of” Obamacare. Obamacare does include an employer contribution requirement, but that requirement:

  • Is capped at no more than $3,000 per worker, far less than the average employer contribution for workers’ health coverage—$14,561 for family coverage as of 2019— which will form the initial basis of Warren’s required employer contribution;
  • Does not apply to employers at all if the firm offers “affordable” coverage—an option not available under Warren’s plan, which would make private insurance coverage “unlawful;” and
  • Will raise an estimated $74 billion in the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—less than 1 percent of the $8.8 trillion Warren claims her required employer contribution would raise.

While Obamacare and Warrencare both have employer contributions, the similarities pretty much end there. Calling the two equal would equate a log cabin to Buckingham Palace. Sure, they’re both houses, but differ greatly in size. Warren’s “contribution”—which Berwick, her advisor, admits will fall on middle-class workers—stands orders of magnitude greater than anything in Obamacare.

Public Accountability?

In the same Axios interview, Berwick highlighted what he termed a tradeoff “between public accountability and private accountability.” He continued: “By not having a publicly accountable system, we are paying an enormous price in lack of transparency.”

His comments echo prior justification of his infamous “rationing with our eyes open” quote in a 2009 interview. As he explained to The New York Times as he departed CMS in late 2011, “Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get….The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.”

Except that Berwick, as CMS administrator, went to absurd lengths to hide from public scrutiny after his series of remarks. He would gladly meet with health-care lobbyists behind closed doors, but refused to answer questions from reporters, going so far as to duck behind curtains and request security escorts to avoid doing so.

Warren apparently has taken a lesson in opacity from Berwick’s time as CMS administrator. At first, she avoided releasing a specific health care proposal at all, only to follow up by issuing a “plan” containing so many absurd assumptions as to render it irrelevant as a serious blueprint for legislating.

Unfortunately for her, however, Berwick committed the unforgivable sin of speaking an inconvenient truth about the effects of her proposal. Eight years after leaving office as CMS administrator, Berwick, however belated and however unwittingly, delivered some much-needed public accountability for Warren’s health plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.