Did Obamacare Increase the National Death Rate?

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether a policy change included in Obamacare actually increased death levels nationwide.

Some may recall that two years ago, liberals engaged in no small amount of hyperbolic rhetoric insisting that repealing Obamacare would kill Americans. They viewed that fact as a virtual certainty, and spent more time arguing over precisely how many individuals would die under the law’s repeal.

About the Readmissions Program

The Obamacare change sparking the policy debate involves the law’s hospital readmissions program. Section 3025(a) of the law required the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. The program began in October 2012, and since October 2014 has reduced payments by 3 percent to hospitals with high readmission rates for three conditions: heart failure, heart attacks, and pneumonia.

The program intended to make hospitals more efficient, and encourage them to treat patients correctly the first time, rather than profiting on poor care by receiving additional payments for “repeat” visitors. However, several data points have called into question the effectiveness of the policy.

First, a recent article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that data proving the readmissions program’s effectiveness “appear to be illusory or overstated.” The study noted that, right before the readmissions program took effect, hospitals could increase the number of diagnoses in claims submitted to Medicare. After controlling for this difference, the Harvard researchers concluded that at least half of the “reduction” in readmissions came due to this change.

By contrast, a December study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even darker outcome. The JAMA study, which examined a total of 8.3 million hospitalizations both before and after the readmissions penalties took effect, found that the program “was significantly associated with an increase in 30-day postdischarge mortality after hospitalization for [heart failure] and pneumonia, but not for” heart attacks. This study suggests that, rather than incurring penalties for “excess” readmissions, hospitals instead chose to stop readmitting patients at all—and more patients died as a result.

Is This ‘Alarmist’ Rhetoric?

In a blog post analyzing the debate at the New England Journal of Medicine, former Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag pointed out the two studies arrive at conclusions that are likely mutually contradictory. After all, if the readmissions policy didn’t affect patient outcomes, as the Health Affairs analysis suggests, then it’s hard simultaneously to argue that it also increased patient mortality, as the JAMA paper concludes.

But Orszag also criticizes The New York Times for an “unduly alarmist” op-ed summarizing the JAMA researchers’ results. That article, titled “Did This Health Care Policy Do Harm?” included a subheading noting that “a well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

  • Washington Post: “Repealing the Affordable Care Act Will Kill More than 43,000 People Annually”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Repealing Obamacare Will Kill More than 43,000 People a Year”
  • Vox: “Repealing Obamacare Could Kill More People Each Year than Gun Homicides”

These headlines don’t even take into consideration the comments from people like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who said, “If you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.” Then there were the “analyses” by organizations like the Center for American Progress, helpfully parroted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that said “getting rid of Obamacare is a death sentence.”

Alongside this rhetoric, the supposedly “alarmist” Times article seems tame by comparison. It didn’t use the word “Obamacare” at all, and it couched its conclusions as part of a “complex” and ongoing “debate.” But of course, the contrast between the mild rhetoric regarding hospital readmissions and the sky-is-falling tone surrounding Obamacare repeal has absolutely nothing to do with liberal media bias or anything. Right?

Democrats, the Science Deniers

The Times article concludes by “highlight[ing] a bigger issue: Why are policies that profoundly influence patient care not rigorously studied before widespread rollout?” It’s a good question that Democrats have few answers for.

Liberals like to caricature conservatives as “science deniers,” uninformed troglodytes who can barely stand upright, let alone form coherent policies. But the recent studies regarding Obamacare’s hospital readmissions policy shows that the Obama administration officials who created these policies didn’t have any clue what they were doing—or certainly didn’t know enough to implement a nationwide plan that they knew would work.

Given this implementation failure, and the staggering level of willful ignorance by the technocrats who would micro-manage our health care system, why on earth should we give them even more power, whether through a single-payer system or something very close to it? The very question answers itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mixed Messages on Paul Ryan’s Entitlement Record

Upon news of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement Wednesday, liberals knew to attack him, but didn’t know exactly why. Liberal Politico columnist Michael Grunwald skewered Ryan’s hypocrisy on fiscal discipline:

Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis…Ryan does talk a lot about reining in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, for which he’s routinely praised as a courageous truth-teller. But he’s never actually made entitlement reform happen. Congress did pass one law during his tenure that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but that law was Obamacare, and Ryan bitterly opposed it.

For the record, Ryan opposed Obamacare because, as he repeatedly noted during the 2012 campaign, the law “raided” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, admitted the law used Medicare spending reductions to both “save Medicare” and “fund health care reform.”)

Compare that with a Vox article, titled “Paul Ryan’s Most Important Legacy is Trump’s War on Medicaid”: “[Paul] Ryan’s dreams are alive and well. Through work requirements and other restrictions, President Donald Trump could eventually oversee the most significant rollback of Medicaid benefits in the program’s 50-year history.” It goes on to talk about how the administration “is carrying on Ryan’s Medicaid-gutting agenda.”

Which is it? On fiscal discipline, is Ryan an incompetent hypocrite, or a slash-and-burn maniac throwing poor people out on the streets? As in most cases, reality contains nuance. Several caveats are in order.

First, Ryan’s budgets always contained “magic asterisks.” As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2012, “the budget resolutions he wrote would have left that Medicare ‘raid’ in place”—because Republicans could only achieve the political goal of a balanced budget within ten years by retaining Obamacare’s tax increases and Medicare reductions.” The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare. The budgets served as messaging documents, but generally lacked many of the critical details to transform them from visions into actual policy.

Second, to the best of my recollections, Ryan never took on the leadership of his party on a major policy issue. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner famously never requested an earmark during a quarter-century in Congress. Sen. John McCain’s “Maverick” image came from his fight against fellow Republicans on campaign finance reform.

But whether as a backbencher or a committee chair, Ryan rarely bucked the party line. That meant voting for the Bush administration’s big-spending bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and TARP—both of which the current vice president, Mike Pence, voted against while a backbench member of Congress.

Third, particularly under this president, Republicans do not want to reform entitlements. As I noted during the 2016 election, neither presidential candidate made an issue of entitlement reform, or Medicare’s impending insolvency. In fact, both went out of their way to avoid the issue. Any House speaker would have difficulty convincing this president to embrace substantive entitlement reforms.

In general, one can argue that, contrary to his image as a leader on fiscal issues, Ryan too readily followed. Other Republicans would support his austere budgets, which never had the force of law, but he would support their big-spending bills, many of which made it to the statute books.

On one issue, however, Ryan did lead—and in the worst possible way. As I wrote last fall, Ryan brought to the House floor legislation repealing Obamacare’s cap on Medicare spending. This past February, that repeal became law.

Ryan could have sought to retain that cap while discarding the unelected, unaccountable board Obamacare created to enforce it. As a result, Ryan’s “legacy” on entitlement reform will consist of his role as the first speaker to repeal a cap on entitlement spending.

Primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Ryan may not have had the power to compel Republicans to reform entitlements, but he did have the power—if he had had the courage—to prevent his own party from making the problem any worse. He did not.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Dear Congress: Take My Obamacare Coverage — Please!

Last week, Vox ran a story featuring individuals covered by Obamacare, who live in fear about what the future holds for them. They included people who opened small businesses because of Obamacare’s coverage portability, and worry that the “career freedom” provided by the law will soon disappear.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Vox didn’t ask this small business owner—who also happens to be an Obamacare enrollee—for his opinions on the matter. Like the enrollees in the Vox profile, I’m also incredibly worried about what the future holds, but for a slightly different reason: I’m worried for our nation about what will happen if Obamacare ISN’T repealed.

What Obamacare Hasn’t Done For Me

While in generally decent health, I have some health concerns: mild hypertension (controlled by medications), mild asthma, and allergies that have worsened in the past few years. I’ve gone through two reconstructive surgeries on my ankle, which I’ve chronicled in a prior article. Under “research” previously published by the Obama Administration, my health conditions classify me as one of the 129 million people with a pre-existing condition supposedly benefiting from the law.

Yet while my health hasn’t changed much since Obamacare passed and was implemented, my health insurance policy has already been cancelled once. The replacement I was offered this year included a 20 percent premium increase, and a 25 percent increase in my deductible.

If Obamacare was repealed, or if insurers stopped offering coverage, it would be an inconvenience, no doubt. I don’t know what options would come afterwards. That would depend on actions by Congress, the District of Columbia, and the insurance community. But having already lost my coverage once, and gone through double-digit premium and deductible increases, how much worse can it really get?

Obamacare Will Raise the Deficit

I know what liberals are saying: “But Obamacare will reduce the deficit!” Yes, the Congressional Budget Office did issue a score saying the law will lower the deficit. But consider all the conditions that must be met for Obamacare to lower the deficit. If:

  • Annual Medicare payment reductions that will render more than half of all hospitals unprofitable within the next 10 years keep going into effect; and
  • Provisions that will, beginning in 2019, reduce the annual increase in Exchange insurance subsidies—making coverage that much more unaffordable for families—go into effect; and
  • An unpopular “Cadillac tax” that has already been delayed once—and which the Senate voted to repeal on a bipartisan 90-10 vote in December 2015—actually takes effect in 2020 (which just happens to be an election year); then

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will reduce the deficit by a miniscule amount. But if any of those conditions aren’t met, then the law becomes a budget-buster. And if you think all those conditions will actually come to pass, then I’ve got some land to sell you.

Obamacare’s Unspoken Opportunity Costs

Even if you believe in raising taxes to reduce the deficit, Congress has already done that. Except that money wasn’t used to lower the deficit—it’s been used to pay for Obamacare. Even some liberals accept that you can only tax the rich so much, at which point they will stop working to avoid paying additional income in taxes. Obamacare brought us much closer to that point, without doing anything to put our fiscal house in order.

We Just Can’t Afford Obamacare

Whether they’re liberal websites, Democratic leaders, or Republican politicians attempting to cover as many Americans as Obamacare in their “replacement,” no one dares utter the four words that our country will soon face on any number of fronts: “We can’t afford it.”

But the fact of the matter is, we can’t afford Obamacare. Not with trillions of dollars in debt, 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, and the Medicare trust fund running over $130 billion in deficits the past eight years. Our nation will be hard-pressed to avoid all its existing budgetary and financial commitments, let alone $2 trillion in spending on yet more new entitlements.

So, to paraphrase Henny Youngman, take my health coverage—please. Repeal Obamacare, even if it means I lose my health coverage (again). Focus both on reducing health costs and right-sizing our nation’s massive entitlements.

Failing to do so will ultimately turn all 300-plus million Americans into the “faces of Obamacare”—victims of a debt crisis sparked by politicians and constituents who want more government than the public wants to pay, and our nation can afford.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.