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.

Single-Payer Will Increase Fraud and Corruption

It seems fitting that the Democratic National Committee chose Miami to host the first debates of the 2020 presidential campaign. Given that many of the candidates appearing on stage have endorsed a single-payer health care plan, the debates’ location epitomizes how government-run care will lead to a massive increase in fraud and corruption.

In South Florida, defrauding government health care programs doesn’t just qualify as a cottage industry — it’s big business. In 2009, “60 Minutes” noted that Medicare fraud “has pushed aside cocaine as the major criminal enterprise.” One former fraudster admitted that likely thousands of businesses in the Miami area alone were defrauding Medicare. Eric Holder, then the attorney general, explained why: Medicare fraud is easier — and carries smaller penalties — than dealing drugs.

A 2009 Government Accountability Office report also highlighted pervasive fraud within Medicare. For instance, some South Florida home health agencies “have submitted claims for visits that were probably not provided, such as claims for visits that allegedly occurred when hurricanes were in the area.” Auditors also found that fraudsters paid off seniors to cooperate with their scams. Because some “beneficiaries purportedly received more income in illegal [kickbacks] than from their monthly disability checks,” they would not report fraud to government officials.

Lest anyone believe that much has changed in the past decade, the spring of 2019 saw not one but two billion-dollar — that’s billion with a B — fraud rings against Medicare exposed in a single week. On April 7, Philip Esformes, a South Florida businessman, was convicted for bilking Medicare and Medicaid out of $1.3 billion in fraudulent nursing home claims. Two days later, federal authorities charged dozens more individuals in a $1.2 billion Medicare scam regarding neck braces.

If you think that the single-payer bills promoted by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others would stop this rampant fraud, think again. Both the House and Senate single-payer bills include not a single new provision designed to stop crooks from defrauding government health programs. The bills would apply some existing anti-fraud provisions to the new government-run health program. However, given the widespread fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, expanding the failed status quo would increase corruption rather than reducing it.

To give some sense of perspective, in the last fiscal year Medicare had a rate of improper payments — payments either made in the wrong amount, or made under fraudulent pretenses — of 8.12%. Medicaid had an even higher improper payment rate of 9.8%. Extrapolating those rates to all health spending nationwide yields estimated improper payments under a single-payer system of between $296.1 billion and $357.3 billion. These sums of potential improper payments under single payer exceed the entire economies of countries like Finland and Denmark.

If lawmakers like Bernie Sanders want to see the ways in which socialized medicine will increase fraud, they don’t have far to look. Sanders’ Senate colleague Robert Menendez received nearly $1 million in gifts and favors from Salomon Melgen, yet another South Florida medical provider convicted of defrauding Medicare. Yet over several years, Menendez repeatedly lobbied Medicare officials on his friend Melgen’s behalf — using his influence as a senator to try to protect Melgen from his crimes.

At next week’s debates, moderators should ask candidates supporting Sanders’ plan whether they condone the actions of their colleague Menendez — and whether they think concentrating all power in a government-run health plan will increase or decrease the incidence of fraud and corruption within our health care system. The American people deserve better than to pay massive tax increases for this $32 trillion scheme, only to see much of that money end up in the hands of criminal fraudsters.

This post was originally published at Real Clear Politics.