The Better Solution for Our Health Insurance System: A Plan You Can Actually Keep

Sometimes, liberals and conservatives agree on a policy problem, but disagree strongly on the best solutions to that problem. Our health insurance system presents one case of such a disconnect between problems and solutions.

In the last Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN in March, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the coronavirus pandemic made the “dysfunctionality of the current health care system … obviously apparent.” He elaborated in an April op-ed in Politico, in which he noted that “already, an estimated 9.2 million workers have lost their employer-sponsored insurance, and as many as 35 million people might lose coverage by the end of the crisis.”

Sanders makes a valid point: The pandemic does illustrate the shortcomings of our system of health coverage. But his single-payer health care plan — or even Joe Biden’s proposal for a (purportedly) voluntary government-run “option” in which individuals could enroll — would take the system in the exact opposite direction.

The dysfunctionality of the system exists largely because employers control most Americans’ health insurance. Most conservatives would therefore support letting individuals control their health coverage, rather than liberals’ plan to replace employer control with government control. Thankfully, the Trump administration has moved health policy in that exact direction, laying the groundwork for a movement toward more personalized insurance options.

The Problem: Employer-Provided Health Insurance

Sanders cited a study from Health Management Associates stating that as many as 35 million individuals could lose access to employer-sponsored insurance due to coronavirus-related layoffs. A revised paper, released in late May, did not specifically update estimates for the number of people losing employer insurance, but still showed significant coverage losses. Other estimates have indicated similarly large numbers of Americans losing their employer coverage.

The sudden job losses sparked by coronavirus lockdowns have illustrated one of the three major problems with employer-provided health insurance. Individually and collectively, these flaws have represented a problem hidden in plain sight for decades.

Lack of choice: The largest survey of employer-provided health insurance found that in 2019, exactly three-quarters of firms (75%) offered only one type of health insurance plan. In general, large firms offer more choices than small businesses, but even among the largest firms — those with more than 5,000 workers.

Because the employer and not the employee owns the insurance policy, workers often end up stuck with whatever plan their employer chooses. An individual who doesn’t want to enroll in an HMO, or whose doctors lie outside his or her employer’s provider network, might have few choices but to switch jobs or accept a plan that does not meet his or her needs.

In its first season, the U.S. version of “The Office” satirized this dynamic, when resident megalomaniac Dwight Schrute got charged with picking the office health plan — and let the power go to his head. While Americans don’t have to worry about contracting “Count Choculitis,” one of the fictitious diseases Schrute’s co-workers invented to needle him in the episode, they do face the very real worry that their employer’s choices and wishes regarding health care might not align with their own.

Flawed incentives: A conversation with one of my friends several years ago illustrated this problem. My friend said he loved the insurance plan his employer provided: “I can go to the doctor and it only costs me a $5 co-pay.”

I posed a thought experiment: What if your health insurance suddenly became taxable, and you had to pay $1,500 or so in taxes on that coverage? (At the time, a top-of-the-line plan cost about $6,000 for an individual, and I assumed a 25% state and local tax rate.) He responded immediately: “I wouldn’t want the plan — I would tell them to raise my co-pays and deductibles.”

That response illustrates the policy problem of employer-sponsored insurance: Everyone thinks they’re spending everyone else’s money. Employees don’t pay taxes on employer coverage; an IRS ruling during World War II, later codified by Congress, exempts employer-provided benefits from both income and payroll taxes.

All the incentives regarding employer-provided health care point in the wrong direction. Exempting employer coverage from taxation encourages individuals to take more compensation in untaxed health insurance benefits rather than taxable wages. Many employees don’t even realize that the employer’s share of the contribution for their coverage — which averaged nearly $15,000 for a family policy in 2019 — comes out of their own wallets in the form of lost wages.

All the flawed and misaligned incentives mean that the co-pay of “only” $5 my friend talked about years ago costs far more than that — to workers, employers and the economy as a whole. It’s one major reason why our health care system represents such a large, and rising, share of our economy.

Lack of portability: This issue arises because employers and not individuals own their health plans. As a result, when individuals lose their jobs, they also lose their health coverage. That dynamic results in the double whammy Americans have experienced during the pandemic, when workers lose their coverage at the same time they have unexpectedly lost their job — compounding families’ financial distress.

Lack of portability also exacerbates the problem of pre-existing conditions. Upon entering the workforce in their teens or 20s, most individuals have yet to develop a pre-existing condition like cancer or diabetes. But every time individuals switch jobs, they lose their employer-provided health coverage — making them vulnerable if they have developed a condition in the intervening time.

The worst kinds of situations occur when individuals must leave their jobs because they have become too sick to work. These patients face not one but two potential sources of financial ruin: They have lost their source of income, and face the prospect of astronomical medical bills without a means to fund them.

Cure the Disease, Not the Symptoms

In the past several years, Democrats have spent lots of time talking about the need to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But in focusing on pre-existing conditions, the left focuses on the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

Remember: When Obamacare went into effect in January 2014, at least 4.7 million individuals received cancellation notices, according to The Associated Press. These individuals had plans that they liked, and wanted to keep — but the Obama administration wouldn’t let them. Politifact called the promise that Americans could keep their plan the 2013 “Lie of the Year,” and that lie affected many individuals who had developed, or feared that they would develop, a pre-existing condition. Let’s spare the notion that Democrats want to “protect” people with pre-existing conditions, when they “protected” millions of people right out of their coverage.

Liberals don’t talk about the underlying policy issue that creates the pre-existing condition problem — that people don’t own their own health coverage — because they don’t want people to own their own insurance. They want Washington to control health care decisions, not individual patients. It’s the classic example of former President Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But if individuals could buy an insurance policy upon joining the workforce — one that they owned, not their employer — and retain that policy from job to job for decades, most individuals could buy coverage well before they develop a pre-existing condition, and keep that coverage after they do so, the pre-existing condition problem would rapidly diminish. (Yes, a small percentage of Americans, most notably those born with congenital illnesses, develop pre-existing conditions very early in life, but other policy solutions can address this population.)

Trump Administration’s Solution

You wouldn’t know it, given all the carping and hostility from the left, but the Trump administration has put forward a very positive solution that answers the policy problems associated with employer-provided health coverage. It should increase portability in ways that help solve the pre-existing condition problem, while also providing additional choice and competition.

The administration’s policy, implemented through regulations finalized in 2019, allows employers to contribute funds to workers on a pre-tax basis through Health Reimbursement Arrangements. These HRAs allow individuals to purchase coverage that they own, not their employers — making the coverage portable from job to job.

The HRA concept provides wins for employers, employees and the economy as a whole:

• Employers get predictability when it comes to their health insurance offerings. By providing employees a fixed sum (say, $300 or $500 a month) into the HRA, they will not have to worry about changing plans from year to year, a sudden spike in costs because of a sick employee, or many of the other paperwork hassles associated with offering coverage.
• Employees get both choice and portability. They can select the insurance plan that best meets their needs — the doctors, deductibles and plan features that they want. Not only can they keep the plan when they switch jobs, the fact that they and not their employer chose the coverage in the first place will make them more likely to do so.
• The economy will benefit from individuals selecting the plans they want, rather than the plans employers select for them. Insurers will have to provide better, more customized plans that fit individuals’ needs, and employees will have incentives to make better choices to stretch the HRA dollars their employers provide them.

Ideally, Congress would amend the law regarding Health Savings Accounts, to allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund health insurance premiums. Because HSA funds cannot pay insurance premiums in most cases under current law, the Trump administration had to use Health Reimbursement Arrangements (which are owned by employers) rather than Health Savings Accounts (which are always owned by individuals) to fund individual coverage.

Providing contributions via an HSA, as opposed to an HRA, would allow employees to control any unused employer contributions upon leaving a job. That way, individuals would not only have a source of coverage in the event of a layoff, they could develop a source of savings to pay for that coverage while unemployed. But until Congress acts, the Trump administration’s Health Reimbursement Arrangement regulations represent a tremendous step forward toward a more logical, patient-centered insurance system.

Empower Patients, Not Government

Coronavirus has made the problems with government control of health care apparent. As Joe Biden (of all people) noted in the March CNN debate, Italy has a single-payer system — and that nation had to ration access to ventilators, whereas the United States did not.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws in our health insurance system. But it comes just as the Trump administration has shown a better path forward. By empowering patients rather than government bureaucrats, Health Reimbursement Arrangements can help transform the coverage system into something that lowers costs and provides the care American patients prefer.

This post was originally published at the Daily Caller’s American Renewal blog.

How Government-Run Health Care Worsened the Coronavirus Crisis

Leftist politicians have spent a great amount of time over the past two months attacking President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. But instead of reflexively criticizing the administration, those liberals might want to examine how the left’s dream of government-run health care has exacerbated the crisis within the United States.

One of the major causes of the dearth of testing over the past several months: Low payments from Medicare, which led to low payment rates from private insurance plans. It may come as a shock to people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but guess what labs did when low payments meant they suffered a financial loss for every coronavirus patient tested? They performed fewer tests.

Low Reimbursements Equals Fewer Tests

A recent expose in USA Today highlighted how Medicare “lowballed payments” to labs for coronavirus tests, leading those labs to restrict the number of tests they performed. An executive at one lab, Aaron Domenico, told the paper that “I’m an American first, and if I could do it for cost, I’d be happy to do it for the people at cost.” But Medicare initially reimbursed laboratories only $51 for a coronavirus test, much less than Domenico’s costs of $67 per test.

Paying $51 for a diagnostic test sounds like a lot, but Medicare gives laboratories nearly twice that amount, or approximately $96, to test for the flu. And government bureaucrats setting unrealistically low prices meant that private insurers followed Medicare’s lead. Little wonder that the head of the National Independent Laboratory Association said “a number of labs are holding back” on performing additional tests “because they didn’t want to lose money.”

Thankfully, on April 14 Medicare raised its reimbursement for a coronavirus test from $51 to $100. Unsurprisingly, the number of tests performed daily has roughly doubled since that point. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said she “recognized that there may have been some issues with reimbursement” discouraging labs from performing coronavirus tests.

Bureaucrats Can’t Micromanage Health Care

Therein lies one of the major problems with government-run health care: The notion that federal bureaucrats can determine the correct price for every prescription drug, laboratory test, physician service, or hospital procedure across the country. Donald Berwick, a former CMS administrator who helped develop Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s single-payer proposal, once said, “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.”

Berwick’s comments suggest that the federal government can determine the “right” amount of MRI units in each city, and use policy levers to achieve that “correct” outcome. But the coronavirus testing fiasco demonstrates how federal bureaucrats often do a poor job of trying to micromanage health care from Washington. Paying doctors and laboratories too much will encourage over-consumption of care, while paying too little discourages providers from even offering the service.

Low Payments Lead to Job Losses, Too

The problems with coronavirus testing also preview the left’s efforts to expand government-run health care. For instance, Joe Biden’s campaign platform calls for a government-run health plan that “will reduce costs for patients by negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health care providers.”

But all these proposals—whether they would abolish private insurance outright, as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders support, or offer a government-run “option,” as in Biden’s platform—would have the government “negotiate” prices by forcing doctors, nurses, and hospitals to accept less money. By lowering payment levels, those plans would lead to massive job losses—as many as 1.5 million jobs in hospitals alone under a transition to single-payer, according to one estimate in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

The pay cuts and furloughs affecting many front-line health workers—the health-care sector lost 1.4 million jobs during the month of April—provide a preview of the future. Instead of suffering temporary revenue declines due to the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals and medical practices would face permanent reductions in revenue from lower-paying government programs.

Worse yet, care will suffer when people cannot access the care they need at the paltry prices government programs will pay. While the left lays the coronavirus testing flaws at the feet of President Trump, they should look instead at the government-run programs they support as a major source of the problem. Voters being asked to endorse the movement towards socialism in November should take note as well.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Medicare at 60” Shows Democrats’ Lust for Government-Run Health Care

The day after socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suspended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, presumptive nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden announced his support for a smaller version of Sanders’ signature single-payer proposal. In a Medium post, Biden said he had “directed [his] team to develop a plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60.”

As with many Democratic plans, the proposal sounds like a moderate option. After all, near-seniors will join Medicare soon enough, so how much harm would this plan cause?

But viewed from another perspective, Biden’s proposal looks like a major step toward Sanders’s goal of a government-run health care system. As a way to reduce the number of uninsured, the idea seems like a solution in search of a problem. But as a method to replace private coverage with government-run health care, the Biden plan could accomplish its goals effectively.

Most Eligible People Already Have Coverage

The consulting firm Avalere Health, founded by a Democrat and with liberal leanings, recently released an analysis indicating nearly 23 million people may qualify for coverage under the Biden proposal. But the firm’s headline cleverly attempted to bury the lede, obscuring the fact that the vast majority of eligible people already have health insurance.

As the below graph shows, Avalere found only 7 percent, or 1.7 million, of the 22.7 million people potentially eligible for the Biden proposal lack coverage. The majority of the 60-64 population (13.4 million, or 59 percent) obtain coverage not from government, but from their current or former employer.

Composition of Individuals Newly Eligible for Medicare Under Biden Proposal, Ages 60–64, 2018

The Avalere analysis more accurately depicts how 16.6 million people (13.4 million with employer coverage and 3.2 million with individual plans) could lose their existing private coverage. It also demonstrates how taxpayers could face major costs — particularly if people with private insurance drop that coverage and join the Biden Medicare plan — to reduce the uninsured population by a comparatively small amount.

Near-Retirees Are Comparatively Wealthy

Biden didn’t say how he would structure his proposal to allow people to buy into Medicare at age 60. But he did imply that enrolled individuals would receive some type of federal subsidy when he stated, “Any new federal cost associated with this option would be financed out of general revenues to protect the Medicare trust fund.”

Here again, many near-retirees, in the peak years of their earning potential, don’t need federal subsidies for health insurance. Various surveys show the median household income of near-retirees ranges between $85,000 and over $90,000.

At that income level, even those people who have to pay their entire insurance premiums — Obamacare Exchange policies can easily exceed $1,000 per month for the 60-64 population — could do so without a subsidy. Indeed, a family of three making $86,880 in 2020 would not qualify for any subsidy under the present regime, although Biden’s original health care plan calls for increasing the richness of the Obamacare subsidies.

‘Medicare at 60’ Is a Slingshot to Single-Payer

If Biden’s “Medicare at 60” proposal wouldn’t significantly reduce the number of uninsured — it wouldn’t — and wouldn’t lower costs for people who can’t afford coverage — the comparatively small number of uninsured among people ages 60-64 demonstrates the fallacy of that proposition — then why did Biden propose it in the first place?

Apart from serving as an obvious political sop to the Sanders crowd, the Biden “Medicare at 60” proposal would function as a major cost-shift. By and large, it wouldn’t help the previously uninsured obtain coverage nearly as much as it would use federal dollars to supplant funds already spent by the private sector (whether individuals or their employers).

By doing so, it would build the culture of dependence that represents the left’s ultimate aim: crowding out private insurance and private spending, and putting more people on the government rolls. That Biden would propose a plan so obviously centered around that objective shows he doesn’t fundamentally disagree with Sanders’s single-payer plan at all. He just doesn’t want to disclose his intentions before bringing socialized medicine to the American health-care system.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Congress’ Coronavirus Legislation Could See Millionaires on Medicaid

Congress’ urge to legislate quickly on the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in all manner of unintended policy consequences. Numerous reports indicate that the Internal Revenue Service has sent coronavirus relief payments to deceased individualsLarge restaurant chains have received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program intended for businesses that have less access to capital, even as small businesses struggling to survive report being shut out of the PPP.

Even more worrisome than these reports: A series of Medicaid-related provisions that provide a potential steppingstone toward a single-payer health-care system. These provisions not only encourage waste, fraud, and abuse, but will also further entrench government-run health care—the left’s ultimate objective.

Maintenance of Effort Provisions

Section 6008 of pandemic relief legislation the president signed on March 18 provides states a 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match. But the funds, designed in part to offset states’ revenue loss during the economic downturn, come with a huge catch.

To receive the additional federal funding, states may not adopt more restrictive Medicaid eligibility standards, impose new premiums, or otherwise restrict benefits. These “maintenance of effort” requirements echo provisions included in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation, which also raised states’ Medicaid match. But this year’s bill went even further, prohibiting states from terminating benefits for any enrollee during the coronavirus public health emergency “unless the individual requests a voluntary termination of eligibility or the individual ceases to be a resident of the State.”

In layman’s terms, this provision prohibits state Medicaid programs from terminating the enrollment of individuals with income that exceeds state eligibility limits. For instance, following a scathing report by the state’s legislative auditor, Louisiana last year disenrolled 1,672 individuals with incomes of more than $100,000 from the state’s Medicaid program—including some with income higher than Gov. John Bel Edwards’ salary.

But the provisions Congress enacted in March now prohibit Louisiana, or any other state, from disenrolling these ineligible individuals during the coronavirus outbreak. To put it another way, an individual who enrolled in Medicaid while unemployed could take a new job making $1 million per year, and the state would have absolutely no recourse to kick that individual off of the government rolls, so long as he wants to remain enrolled in “free,” taxpayer-funded health coverage.

Pave the Way for Single Payer?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how the next president could use these provisions to empower a vast expansion of government-run care. A Biden administration could leave the public health emergency declaration in place for its entire presidency—and would have strong policy incentives to do so. By preventing states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for its entire presidency, a Biden administration could massively expand Medicaid, turning the program into something approaching liberals’ dream of a single-payer system.

The Louisiana experience also shows the direct correlation between eligibility checks, enrollment, and spending on Medicaid. State officials removed at least 30,000 individuals from the program last spring, reducing enrollment in expansion by more than 10 percent, and lowering program spending by approximately $400 million. A Biden administration that prohibits states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for four or eight years would see taxpayers spending billions of dollars funding millions of ineligible enrollees—an enrollment explosion that could prove difficult to unwind.

Don’t Bail Out the States

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already begun work on the next coronavirus package, with she and her fellow Democrats adamantly insisting that a bailout of states stands next on Congress’ “to-do” list.

But it seems highly disingenuous for Pelosi and Democrats to call for bailing out state budgets, even as they prohibit those same states from removing ineligible individuals from the Medicaid program. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has called the new requirements on state Medicaid programs absurd: “Why would the federal government say, ‘I’m going to trample the state’s right to redesign its Medicaid program, that it runs—that saves money?’”

Conservatives in Congress should demand that lawmakers fix the Medicaid provisions, either by allowing states to remove ineligible beneficiaries, setting a specific end-date for the increased federal matching funds, or (more preferably) both. Otherwise, by prohibiting states from purging their rolls of Medicaid enrollees who don’t belong in the program, the United States could find itself with a single-payer system by the back door.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

We Should Move Away from Employer-Based Insurance, But NOT Towards Single Payer

The left continues to seek ways to politically capitalize on the coronavirus crisis. Multiple proposals in the past several weeks would replace a potential decline in employer-provided health insurance with government-run care.

One analysis released earlier this month found the coronavirus pandemic could cause anywhere from 12 to 35 million Americans to lose their employer-provided coverage, as individuals lose jobs due to virus-related shutdowns. Of course, these coverage losses could remain temporary in some cases, as firms reopen and rehire furloughed workers.

But these lefties do have a point: The United States should move away from employer-provided health coverage. It just shouldn’t rely upon a government-run model to do so.

Biden: Let’s Expand an Insolvent Program

Days after his last remaining rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president and presumptive nominee Joe Biden endorsed a plan to expand Medicare. Biden’s statement didn’t include details. Instead, he “directed [his] team to come up with a plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60.”

One big problem with Biden’s proposed expansion: Medicare already faces an insolvency date of 2026, a date the current economic turmoil will almost certainly accelerate. He claimed that “any new federal cost associated with this option would be financed out of general revenues to protect the Medicare trust fund.” But Biden didn’t explain why he would choose to expand a program rapidly approaching insolvency as it is.

Another problem for Biden seems more political. As this space has previously noted, in 2017 and 2018, the former vice president and his wife received more than $13 million in book and speech revenue as profits from a corporation rather than wage income. By doing so, they avoided paying nearly $400,000 in payroll taxes that fund—you guessed it!—Medicare.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ask the obvious question: If Biden loves Medicare so much that he wants to expand it, why didn’t he pay his Medicare taxes?

Medicare Extra

Other liberals have proposals that would expand the government’s role in health care still further. Examining the impact of coronavirus on coverage, and analyzing a movement away from employer-provided care, Ezra Klein endorsed the Medicare Extra plan as superior to Biden’s original health-care proposal for a so-called “public option.” Towards the end of his analysis, Klein makes crystal clear why he supports this approach:

[Medicare Extra] creates a system that, while not single-payer, is far more integrated than anything we have now: A public system with private options, rather than a private system with fractured public options.

Medicare Extra, originally developed by the Center for American Progress and introduced in legislative form as the Medicare for America Act by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), goes beyond the Biden plan. Both would likely lead to a single-payer system, but Medicare Extra would do so much more quickly.

Biden’s original health care plan would create a government-run “option,” similar to Medicare, into which anyone could enroll. Individuals could use Obamacare subsidies (which Biden’s proposal would increase) to enroll in the government-run plan.

Notably, Biden’s proposal eliminates Obamacare’s subsidy “firewall,” in which anyone with an offer of “affordable” employer coverage does not qualify for subsidized exchange coverage. Removing this “firewall” will encourage a migration towards the exchanges, and the government-run plan.

By contrast, Medicare Extra would go three steps further in consolidating government-run care. First, it would combine existing government programs like Medicare and Medicaid into the new “Medicare Extra” rubric. Second, the legislation would automatically enroll people into Medicare Extra at birth, giving the government-run program an in-built bias, and a clear path towards building a coverage monopoly.

Third, Medicare Extra would not just allow individuals with an offer of employer-sponsored coverage to enroll in the Medicare Extra program, it would require the employer to “cash out” the dollar value of his contribution, and give those funds to the employee to fund that worker’s Medicare Extra plan.

The combination of this “cash out” requirement (not included in Biden’s proposal) and the other regulations on employer coverage included in Medicare Extra would result in a totally government-run system within a few short years. After all, if businesses have to pay the same amount to fund their employees’ coverage whether they maintain an employer plan or not, what incentive do they have to stay in the health insurance game?

Let Individuals Maintain Their Own Coverage

Both Biden’s proposals and Medicare Extra would consolidate additional power and authority within the government system—liberals’ ultimate objective. By contrast, the Trump administration has worked to give Americans access to options other than employer-provided insurance that individuals control, not the government.

Regulations finalized by the administration last year could in time revolutionize health insurance coverage. The rules allow for employers to provide tax-free contributions to employees through Health Reimbursement Arrangements, which workers can use to buy the health insurance plans they prefer. Best of all, employees will own these health plans, not the business, so they can take their coverage with them when they change jobs or retire.

It will of course take time for this transition to take root, as businesses learn more about Health Reimbursement Arrangements and workers obtain private insurance plans that they can buy, hold, and keep. But if allowed to flourish, this reform could remove Americans’ reliance on employers to provide health coverage, while preventing a further expansion of government meddling in our health-care system—both worthy objectives indeed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospitals’ Corona Cash Crunch Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted such vast damage on the American economy that one damaged sector has gone relatively unnoticed. Despite incurring a massive influx of new patients, the hospital industry faces what one executive called a “seismic financial shock” from the virus.

The types of shocks hospitals currently face also illustrate the problems inherent in Democrats’ proposed expansions of government-run health care. Likewise, the pay and benefit cuts and furloughs that some hospitals have enacted in response to these financial shocks provide a potential preview of Democrats’ next government takeover of health care.

Massive Disruptions

The health-care sector faces two unique, virus-related problems. The lockdowns in many states have forced physician offices to close, or scale back services to emergencies only. The cancellation of routine procedures (e.g., dental cleanings, check-ups, etc.) has caused physician income to plummet, just like restaurants and other shuttered businesses.

While many physician practices have seen a dramatic drop-off in patients, hospitals face an influx of cases—but the wrong kind of cases. According data from the Health Care Cost Institute, in 2018 a hospital surgical stay generated an average $43,810 in revenue, while the average non-surgical stay generated only $19,672.

The pandemic has raised hospitals’ costs, as they work to increase bed capacity and obtain additional personal protective equipment for their employees. But as one Dallas-based hospital system noted, coronavirus’ true “seismic financial shock” has come from the cancellations of elective surgeries that “are the cornerstone of our hospital system’s operating model.”

This rapid change in hospitals’ case mix—the type of patient facilities treat—has inflicted great damage. Replacing millions of higher-paying patients with lower-paying ones will rapidly unbalance a hospital’s books. Changing patient demographics, in the form of additional uninsured patients and patients from lower-paying government programs, only compounds hospitals’ financial difficulties.

A Preview of Democrats’ Health Care Future

The shock hospitals face from the rapid change in their case mix previews an expansion of government-run health care. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission noted in a report released last month that in 2018, hospitals incurred a 9.3 percent loss on their Medicare inpatient admissions. To attempt to offset these losses as hospitals treat coronavirus patients, Section 3710 of the $2 trillion stimulus bill increased Medicare payments for COVID-related treatment by 20 percent.

With respect to the single-payer bill promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), neither the conservative Mercatus Center nor the liberal Urban Institute assumed the higher reimbursement rates included in the stimulus bill. Mercatus’ $32.6 trillion cost estimate assumed no increase in current Medicare hospital or physician payments, while Urban’s $32 trillion cost estimate assumed a 15 percent increase in hospital payments and no increase in physician payments. Raising Medicare reimbursements to match the 20 percent increase included in the stimulus bill would substantially hike the cost of Sanders’ plan.

Conversely, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden believes his “public option” proposal, by making enrollment in a government plan voluntary, represents much less radical change. But his plan increases the generosity of Obamacare subsidies and repeals current restrictions prohibiting workers with an offer of employer coverage from receiving those subsidies—both of which would siphon patients toward the government plan.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government plan open to all workers would result in 119 million Americans dropping their private coverage. Such a massive influx of patients into a lower-paying government system would destabilize hospitals’ finances much the same way as coronavirus.

Economic Cutbacks and Job Losses

Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to see what a rapid influx of lower-paying patients will do to the hospital sector. A few weeks into the crisis, many systems have already resorted to major cost-cutting measures. Tenet Healthcare, which runs 65 hospitals, has postponed 401(k) matches for employees. In Boston, Beth Israel Deaconess has withheld some of emergency room physicians’ accrued pay, a measure sure to harm morale as first responders face long hours and difficult working conditions.

This economic damage from a rapid change in hospitals’ payer mix echoes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last spring. That study concluded that a single-payer health care system paying at Medicare rates would reduce hospital revenues by $151 billion annually, resulting in up to 1.5 million job losses for hospitals alone. Robust enrollment in the government-run health plan Biden supports would have only marginally lower effects.

Hospitals, like the rest of our economy, will in time recover from the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But they may not bounce back quickly, or at all, from another expansion of government-run health care—a fact that hospital workers facing cutbacks, and patients needing care, should take to heart in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Bernie Sanders, Single Payer Wouldn’t Eliminate the Coronavirus Outbreak

On Monday evening, Fox News hosted a town hall with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Dearborn, Michigan, ahead of that state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. The program began with a question about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and how Sanders would respond to the outbreak.

Sanders criticized President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, specifically the contradictions between some of his public statements and those of government scientists. Sanders then pivoted to suggest that a single payer health care system with “free” care would ameliorate Americans’ concerns:

We will talk I am sure about [single payer]. But when I talk about health care being a human right, and all people having health care, the coronavirus crisis makes that abundantly clear as to why it should be. You’ve got millions of people in this country today who may feel that they have a symptom. But you know what? They cannot afford to go to a doctor.

Sanders believes a single payer system that eliminates patient cost-sharing, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), would improve access to care. But consider some recent comments made by British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Corbyn raised the same issue Sanders did—patients in his country unable to access care:

Yesterday, our part-time prime minister finally published the steps that his government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?

Far from acting as the panacea Sanders claimed in his remarks Monday evening, Corbyn believes the NHS will also leave some coronavirus patients untreated.

As this space has previously noted, British patients pay quite a lot for health care—they just pay for it by waiting, as opposed to out-of-pocket costs. A report released last fall concluded that waiting lists in the NHS have risen by 40 percent in the past five years, and now approaches 4.6 million Britons, or nearly 7 percent of the country’s entire population.

As Corbyn noted in his remarks last Wednesday, funding shortfalls mean that British hospitals already face overcrowding pressures under normal circumstances. Two years ago, an outbreak of the flu caused the postponement of nearly 55,000 operations. Emergency room physicians apologized for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.” Lack of inpatient beds meant ER patients spent hours on gurneys in hallways waiting to get admitted to the hospital, and ambulances spent hours circling hospitals, waiting to drop off their patients.

The NHS’ “winter crisis” occurs regularly when flu cases spike in Britain. And coronavirus—more virulent than the flu, and with no treatments available at present—represents a potential threat orders of magnitude greater than the NHS’s usual capacity problems.

Britain provides health care to its residents with few out-of-pocket charges. But the nearly 4.6 million Britons on waiting lists have no ability to compel the government to treat them promptly. In other words, Sanders’s claims to the contrary, Britain does not make health care “a human right.” Nor would his own bill make health care a legally enforceable right in the United States.

Both American and British patients end up paying for their care—the former more explicitly, and the latter more implicitly. But the potential queues that will likely materialize at NHS hospitals should the coronavirus spread demonstrate that a single-payer system will not provide a cure-all for American health care.

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.