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.

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.

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.

The Broken Promises of Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion

Some in Louisiana want to claim that the state’s expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults represents a success story. The facts indicate otherwise. Medicaid expansion has resulted in large costs to taxpayers, significant amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse, and tens of thousands of able-bodied adults shifting from private coverage to government insurance—even while individuals with disabilities continue to wait for care. On issue after issue, Medicaid expansion has massively under-performed its sponsors’ own promises:

The Issue: Enrollment

The Claim: “The Department [of Health] had originally based its projections based on U.S. Census data that counted about 306,000 people as uninsured.” – New Orleans Times-Picayune[1]

The Facts:

  • Even though the Department of Health tried to increase its projected enrollment numbers as soon as it made its first estimate, the expansion population has soared well past even these higher claims.[2]
  • As of April 2019, 505,503 individuals had enrolled in Medicaid expansion—65.2% higher than the Department’s original estimate, and 12.3% higher than the Department’s revised enrollment estimate of 450,000 individuals.[3]
  • Medicaid enrollment has declined slightly since April 2019, but only because the Department of Health removed tens of thousands of ineligible individuals from the rolls that were receiving benefits they likely did not deserve.[4]
  • In the spring of 2019, the Department of Health commissioned several LSU researchers to project Medicaid enrollment in future years. The researchers concluded that participation in Medicaid expansion would bounce back from recent enrollment declines to reach an all-time high this year of 512,142 individuals. The researchers also concluded that Medicaid expansion enrollment would continue to increase in future years. Despite spending a total of $71,120 of federal and state taxpayer dollars on this report, the Department of Health has yet to release it publicly.[5]
  • The fact that the Department of Health cited Louisiana’s uninsured population as only 306,000, and yet enrollment has far exceeded that number, further demonstrates that Medicaid expansion has led residents to drop their private insurance to go on to the government rolls—and encouraged people who do not qualify for subsidized coverage to apply anyway.[6]

The Issue: Costs and Spending

The Claim: “In Fiscal Year 2017, Medicaid expansion saved Louisiana $199 million. Beginning July 1, 2017, these savings are expected to surpass $350 million.” – John Bel Edwards[7]

The Facts:

  • Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion has cost far more than expected, placing a higher burden on taxpayers.
  • In 2015, the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that expansion would cost around $7.1 billion-$8 billion over five years, or approximately $1.2 billion-$1.4 billion per year.[8]
  • For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019, Medicaid expansion cost taxpayers an estimated $3.1 billion—more than twice the Legislative Fiscal Office’s original estimates.[9]
  • Because most Louisiana residents also pay federal taxes, shifting spending from the state to the federal government does not “save” Louisianans money. Rather, it means Louisiana taxpayers will continue to pay for this skyrocketing spending, just through their federal tax payments instead of their state tax bills.

The Issue: Fraud

The Claim: “Louisiana Medicaid is tough on fraud….When it comes to getting tough on Medicaid fraud, Louisiana is among an elite group of states leading the way by doing the right thing.” – John Bel Edwards[10]

The Facts:

  • Because Louisiana rushed its way into Medicaid expansion without first building a proper eligibility system, the state has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars providing subsidized health insurance to ineligible individuals.
  • More than a year after Gov. Edwards made his claim about Medicaid fraud, the Legislative Auditor found that numerous individuals with incomes well above the maximum eligibility thresholds had applied for, and received, subsidized Medicaid benefits.[11] One household sampled in the audit claimed income of $145,146—more than Gov. Edwards’ annual salary of $130,000.[12]
  • Belatedly, the Department of Health finally removed approximately 30,000 ineligible individuals from the Medicaid rolls, including 1,672 individuals with incomes of over $100,000.[13]
  • The Medicaid program spent approximately $400 million less in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019, in large part due to the disenrollments—suggesting that in prior years, Louisiana taxpayers had spent hundreds of millions per year providing subsidized health coverage to ineligible individuals.[14]

The Issue: Efficient Use of Taxpayer Dollars

The Claim: “I know that any misspent dollar is one that could have paid for health care services for those truly in need. My top priority is to ensure every dollar spent goes toward providing health care to people who need it most.” – Health Secretary Rebekah Gee[15]

The Facts:

  • Internal records indicate that Secretary Gee’s own Department knew that tens of thousands of individuals were dropping private coverage to enroll in government-run Medicaid—yet did little about it.
  • For much of 2016 and 2017, the Louisiana Department of Health compiled data indicating that several thousand individuals per month dropped their existing health coverage to enroll in Medicaid expansion.[16]
  • At the end of 2017, the Department of Health stopped compiling data on the number of people dropping private coverage, claiming the data were inaccurate. However, the Department’s stated reasoning for its action suggests that, to the extent the data were inaccurate, they likely under-estimated the number of people dropping private coverage to enroll in Medicaid.[17]
  • Based on the program’s average cost per enrollee, Medicaid has paid hundreds of millions of dollars per year subsidizing the coverage of people who previously had health insurance.[18] This spending comes over and above taxpayer dollars paid to cover individuals ineligible for benefits, as outlined above.

The Issue: Uncompensated Care

The Claim: “Disproportionate share payments to hospitals have decreased as the uninsured population decreased.” – Louisiana Department of Health[19]

The Facts:

  • Uncompensated care payments to hospitals have remained broadly flat since expansion took effect, and by some measures have actually increased.
  • During the three fiscal years prior to expansion, the state paid an average of $1,039,444,880 to Medicaid providers for uncompensated care—$1,011,324,118 in Fiscal Year 2014, $1,000,502,910 in Fiscal Year 2015, and $1,106,507,612 in Fiscal Year 2016.[20]
  • In the fiscal year ended on June 30, 2019, Medicaid spent an estimated $1,056,458,352 on uncompensated care payments—greater than the average spent on uncompensated care in the three years prior to expansion.[21]
  • The meager $50 million in uncompensated care savings between Fiscal Year 2016 and Fiscal Year 2019 does not even begin to match the more than $3.1 billion annual cost to taxpayers of expansion.[22]
  • Even if the Department of Health wants to claim the modest reduction in uncompensated care from Fiscal Year 2016 to Fiscal Year 2019 as “savings,” that means the Medicaid program is spending approximately $62.03 for every dollar it “saves” in uncompensated care payments.

The Issue: Jobs

The Claim: “An analysis by LSU estimates that Medicaid expansion created more than 19,000 jobs and generated $3.5 billion in economic activity in 2017 alone.” – Health Secretary Rebekah Gee[23]

The Facts:

  • Since Medicaid expansion took effect in July 2016, Louisiana’s economy has created only 2,700 jobs—less than one-seventh of the jobs the LSU study claimed expansion would create.
  • In June 2016, the month before expansion took effect, Louisiana’s non-farm payrolls totaled 1,979,100.[24] According to federal data, as of July 2019 Louisiana’s non-farm payrolls now stand at 1,981,800—a meager increase over more than three years.[25]
  • One year before expansion took effect, in July 2015, Louisiana had nearly 10,000 more jobs (1,991,500) than it does today (1,981,800).[26]
  • Since Medicaid expansion took effect, the total labor force within the state has declined by more than 65,000 individuals, or more than 3%—from 2,161,299 in June 2016 to 2,095,844 today.[27]
  • Within days of the LSU report’s release in April 2018, the Pelican Institute published a rebuttal demonstrating that the LSU researchers likely omitted key facts in their calculations, which meant the study made inaccurate and inflated claims about the fiscal impact of Medicaid expansion.[28]
  • Following an exhaustive series of public records requests with LSU, the university finally admitted that the researchers did indeed omit a key data source from their calculations, leading to inflated claims in their study.[29] While the researchers conceded in one document that their 2018 report “overstate[d] the economic impact of” Medicaid expansion, they have yet to admit this error publicly, and the Department of Health has refused to release the document in which they admitted their error.[30]

The Issue: Vulnerable Individuals Waiting for Care

The Claim: “It’s inconvenient that the facts don’t follow this story. [The Department of Health] ended the wait list for disabilities last year in partnership with the disability community. #Fakenews.” – Health Secretary Rebekah Gee[31]

The Facts:

  • While the Department of Health may have changed the name from a “waiting list” to a “Request for Services Registry,” nearly 15,000 vulnerable individuals continue to wait for access to care.
  • The Department of Health’s own website regarding waiver services includes the following passage: “Waiver services are dependent upon funding, and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis through the Request for Services Registry.”[32] The reference to “first-come, first-served” consideration for waiver applicants clearly indicates that vulnerable individuals continue to wait for care.
  • According to information provided by the Department of Health in response to a public records request, as of May 2019 a total of 14,984 individuals were on the “Request for Services Registry.”[33]
  • Since Medicaid expansion took effect in Louisiana, at least 5,534 individuals with disabilities have died while on waiting lists to access care—more than one-quarter of the at least 21,904 individuals with disabilities nationwide who have died while waiting for services under Medicaid expansion.[34]
  • By giving states a greater federal matching rate to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities, Obamacare has encouraged state Medicaid programs to discriminate against the most vulnerable individuals in our society.[35]

Medicaid expansion has singularly failed to its advocates’ own promises of success. Louisiana should begin the process of unwinding this failed experiment, and put into practice reforms that can reduce the cost of care for beneficiaries, while focusing Medicaid on the vulnerable populations for which it was originally designed.[36]

 

[1] Kevin Litten, “Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion Enrollment Could Grow to 450,000,” New Orleans Times-Picayune January 20, 2016, https://www.nola.com/politics/2016/01/medicaid_expansion_500000.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Healthy Louisiana Dashboard, http://www.ldh.la.gov/HealthyLaDashboard/; Kevin Litten, “Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion Enrollment.”

[4] Sheridan Wall, “GOP Legislators Renew Attacks on Medicaid Management as Data Emerges on Misspending,” Daily Advertiser April 9, 2019, https://www.theadvertiser.com/story/news/local/louisiana/2019/04/09/gop-legislators-renew-attacks-medicaid-management-data-emerges-misspending/3418133002/.

[5] Chris Jacobs, “The Report the Department of Health Doesn’t Want You to Read,” Pelican Institute, September 26, 2019, https://pelicaninstitute.org/blog/the-report-the-department-of-health-doesnt-want-you-to-read/.

[6] Chris Jacobs, “What You Need to Know about Medicaid Crowd-Out,” Pelican Institute, May 20, 2019, https://pelicaninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/PEL_MedicaidCrowdOut_WEB-2.pdf.

[7] Louisiana Department of Health, “Louisiana Medicaid Expansion 2016-2017 Annual Report,” http://ldh.la.gov/assets/HealthyLa/Resources/MdcdExpnAnnlRprt_2017_WEB.pdf, p. 2.

[8] Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office, Fiscal Note on HCR 3 (2015 Regular Session), http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=942163.

[9] Louisiana Department of Health, “Medicaid Forecast Report: May 2019,” June 10, 2019, http://www.ldh.la.gov/assets/medicaid/forecast/FY19MedicaidForecast-may2019.pdf, Table 3, Expenditure Forecast by Category of Service, p. 2.

[10] Louisiana Department of Health, “Louisiana Medicaid Expansion 2016-2017 Annual Report,” p. 7.

[11] Louisiana Legislative Auditor, “Medicaid Eligibility: Wage Verification Process of the Expansion Population,” November 8, 2018, https://lla.la.gov/PublicReports.nsf/1CDD30D9C8286082862583400065E5F6/$FILE/0001ABC3.pdf.

[12] Ibid., Appendix E, Targeted Selection Individual Medicaid Recipient Cases, pp. 27-29.

[13] Sheridan Wall, “GOP Legislators Renew Attacks on Medicaid Management.”

[14] Melinda Deslatte, “Louisiana Medicaid Spending $400M Less Than Expected,” Associated Press June 12, 2019, https://www.nola.com/news/2019/06/louisiana-medicaid-spending-400m-less-than-expected.html.

[15] Rebekah Gee, “Medicaid Expansion, Fighting Fraud, Equally Important,” Daily Advertiser April 21, 2019, https://www.theadvertiser.com/story/opinion/editorial/2019/04/21/medicaid-expansion-fighting-fraud-equally-imoportant/3534502002/.

[16] Chris Jacobs, “What You Need to Know about Medicaid Crowd-Out.”

[17] Chris Jacobs, “Medicaid Expansion Has Louisianans Dropping Their Private Plans,” Wall Street Journal June 8, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/medicaid-expansion-has-louisianans-dropping-their-private-plans-11559944048.

[18] Chris Jacobs, “What You Need to Know about Medicaid Crowd-Out.”

[19] Louisiana Department of Health, “Louisiana Medicaid Expansion 2016-2017 Annual Report,” p. 7.

[20] Louisiana Department of Health, “Louisiana Medicaid 2016 Annual Report,” http://ldh.la.gov/assets/medicaid/AnnualReports/2016AnnualReport.pdf, Table 3, Medicaid Vendor Payments for Budget Programs by State Fiscal Year, p. 5.

[21] Louisiana Department of Health, “Medicaid Forecast Report: May 2019,” Table 2, Expenditure Forecast by Budget Program, p. 1.

[22] Ibid, Table 3, Expenditure Forecast by Budget Category of Service, p. 2.

[23] Rebekah Gee, “Medicaid Expansion, Fighting Fraud, Equally Important.”

[24] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Regional and State Employment and Unemployment—July 2016,” August 19, 2016, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/laus_08192016.pdf, Table 5: Employees on Non-Farm Payrolls by State and Selected Industry Sector, Seasonally Adjusted, p. 13. The report for July 2016 reflects final (as opposed to preliminary) data for the June 2016 period.

[25] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Regional and State Employment and Unemployment—August 2019,” September 20, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/laus_09202019.pdf, Table 3: Employees on Non-Farm Payrolls by State and Selected Industry Sector, Seasonally Adjusted, p. 10. The report for August 2019 reflects final (as opposed to preliminary) data for July 2019.

[26] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Regional and State Employment and Unemployment—July 2016,” Table 5, p. 13.

[27] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Regional and State Employment and Unemployment—July 2016,” Table 3, Civilian Labor Force and Unemployment by State and Selected Area, Seasonally Adjusted, p. 11; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Regional and State Employment and Unemployment—August 2019,” Table 1, Civilian Labor Force and Unemployment by State and Selected Area, Seasonally Adjusted, p. 8.

[28] Chris Jacobs, “Why Expanding Louisiana’s Program to Able-Bodied Adults Hurts the Economy,” Pelican Institute, April 17, 2018, https://pelicaninstitute.org/policy-brief-debunking-pro-medicaid-report/.

[29] Chris Jacobs, “LSU, Department of Health Inflate Claims in Medicaid Expansion Studies,” Houma Today July 27, 2019, https://www.houmatoday.com/news/20190727/opinion-lsu-department-of-health-inflate-claims-in-medicaid-expansion-studies.

[30] Louisiana State University response to Pelican Institute Public Records Act request, September 23, 2019.

[31] @rebekahgeemd, May 20, 2019, https://twitter.com/rebekahgeemd/status/1130459486307667968.

[32] Louisiana Department of Health Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities, “Waiver Services,” http://www.ldh.la.gov/index.cfm/page/142, accessed June 15, 2019.

[33] Louisiana Department of Health, response to Pelican Institute Public Records Act request, May 21, 2019.

[34] Nicholas Horton, “Waiting for Help: The Medicaid Waiting List Crisis,” Foundation for Government Accountability, March 6, 2018, https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/WAITING-FOR-HELP-The-Medicaid-Waiting-List-Crisis-07302018.pdf.

[35] Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Citizenship, Marriage, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[36] Chris Jacobs, “Reforming Medicaid in Louisiana,” Pelican Institute, January 30, 2018, https://pelicaninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/PEL_MedicaidPaper_FINAL_WEB.pdf.

Junk “Study” Demonstrates Liberal Think-Tank’s Bias

Why would an organization billed as a “respected source of health care data” publish an analysis with mutually contradictory conclusions? In the case of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the answer is simple: To defend Obamacare—even if the facts don’t align with one’s conclusions.

As conservatives have noted for years, Obamacare encourages states to discriminate against individuals with disabilities—a prime example of how government intervention in the health care system ultimately hurts those the left claims they want to help. Liberals, understanding the political power of such charges, feel compelled to push back on this narrative. While they don’t have many actual facts with which to do so, that hasn’t stood in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s way.

Obamacare’s Discrimination, Explained

If you could gain 50-76 cents for doing one thing, and 90 cents for doing another, which would you choose? I know which I would.

When I served on the Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, it explored an area of health policy unknown to much of the public: Hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities remain on Medicaid waiting lists for home and community-based care. While federal law requires state taxpayers to pay nursing home benefits for all eligible Medicaid patients, coverage of community-based services remains optional, so states can—and do—establish waiting lists to control their Medicaid spending.

These waiting lists preceded Obamacare, so Obamacare didn’t cause the waiting lists per se. And individuals with disabilities on the waiting lists do have their health care needs paid for by Medicaid, even as they wait to become eligible for home-based care (e.g., help with bathing, dressing, etc.). But sheer common sense indicates that states will prioritize coverage of able-bodied adults—for which they get paid a higher match from the federal government—than eliminating their waiting list for individuals with disabilities.

The Flawed Premise

For the past several years, Kaiser has attempted to rebut charges that Medicaid expansion has affected waiting lists for individuals with disabilities. Their studies, including one released in April, claim that there is no relationship between whether a state has expanded Medicaid and increases or decreases in its waiting lists.

However, as I first noted two years ago, Kaiser’s over-simplistic analysis does not begin to consider the many other factors that affect decisions about their Medicaid programs and waiting lists. To use the most obvious example, the average state that has not expanded Medicaid is poorer than the average state that has. Connecticut, with a median income of $73,781 in 2017, has more resources to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults and reduce its waiting lists than a state like Alabama, which had a median income of $46,472.

If Kaiser wanted to do a thorough analysis, it would control for this variable, and others. For instance, a good econometric analysis would factor in states’ morbidity rates—because states with sicker populations may have more individuals with disabilities needing care—along with the underlying cost of care, because states would have to spend more to reduce their waiting lists in areas with higher prices.

Contradictory Claims

How superficial are Kaiser’s conclusions? The section of its April paper right after the passage claiming no relationship between Obamacare and waiting lists includes this doozy:

Waiting lists are a function of the populations a state chooses to serve and how the state defines those populations; both of these factors vary among states, making waiting lists an incomplete measure of state capacity and demand for [home and community-based services] and not directly comparable among states. [Emphasis original.]

If waiting lists for individuals with disabilities are “not directly comparable among states,” then why did Kaiser in the preceding section claim Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion has nothing to do with waiting lists—a conclusion that by definition involves comparing waiting lists among states?

The question practically answers itself. Kaiser just hopes you won’t notice.

Talking Point versus Research

After more than two months, the researcher, Mary Beth Musumeci, would not deign to defend her “research” with a direct reply. Instead a Kaiser spokesman sent me what amounted to a polite brush-off, replicated in full below:

Thank you for your interest in our work. We appreciate people taking the time to consider our work and provide constructive feedback on it, and our team discussed your comments and ideas.

The data in the brief are presented as a simple, descriptive comparison of trends in wait lists stratified by expansion status, and we also tried to be clear about major limitations of the data, including caveats in state comparisons of wait lists. While we agree that further econometric analysis to assess causality could build on this work and contribute to policy understanding, the posted brief was not an attempt to undertake such analysis.

We appreciate your feedback and will consider it as we continue to develop our work in this area, and we hope our work serves as a useful basis for your own analysis and econometric research to undertake the type of work you suggest in your comments.

I responded with one simple question: Does the Kaiser Family Foundation have any plans to conduct an econometric study on Medicaid expansion and waiting lists? As I noted in my response:

You’ve admitted the limitations of your own analysis to date, but you’ve repeated these types of assertions for several years—without doing the type of in-depth research that you concede would be both warranted and more accurate. Why not?

Kaiser’s communications department responded that they don’t have that type of study planned. I won’t hold my breath for them to conduct this type of econometric study, either. As with the issue of pre-existing conditions, Kaiser won’t ask a question to which it doesn’t want to know the answer. Far better to use a crude and highly flawed “study” to claim that Obamacare hasn’t affected Medicaid waiting lists—the political conclusion the Kaiser analysts want to support.

A supposed “fact check” on the disability waiting list issue two years ago called the Kaiser Family Foundation a “respected source of health care data.” But by issuing mutually contradictory conclusions to maintain a political talking point, and not conducting the in-depth research that they admit the issue of Medicaid waiting lists warrants, Kaiser again reveals itself not so much as a respected source of health care data as a highly liberal one.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Inconvenient Truths of Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion

In the wake of a wave of stories about the tens of thousands of ineligible individuals who received Medicaid benefits, supporters keep trying to defend Louisiana’s expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied. But their defenses ignore several inconvenient truths.

First, money doesn’t grow on trees. Health Secretary Rebekah Gee recently claimed that Louisiana’s “Medicaid expansion comes at no additional cost to taxpayers.” Because she believes the federal government will pay all the cost of Medicaid expansion, she thinks Louisiana taxpayers are “off the hook” for the program’s spending. But anyone who had to mail a check to the Internal Revenue Service on April 15 would disagree. By definition, any new government spending imposes a cost to taxpayers, because Louisiana residents pay taxes to Washington just like everyone else.

And Louisiana has seen a ton of new government spending due to Medicaid expansion. In 2015, the Legislative Fiscal Office projected spending on expansion to total $1.2 billion-$1.4 billion per year. In the last fiscal year, Louisiana spent nearly $3.1 billion on expansion—or more than double the Fiscal Office’s original estimates.

Second, the truly vulnerable continue to get overlooked due to Medicaid expansion. Secretary Gee claimed that her “top priority is to ensure every dollar spent [on Medicaid] goes towards providing health care to people who need it most.” But Louisiana still has tens of thousands of individuals with disabilities on waiting lists for home and community-based services—who are not getting the care they need, because Louisiana has focused on expanding Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Since Louisiana expanded Medicaid in July 2016, at least 5,534 Louisiana residents with disabilities have died—yes, died—while on waiting lists for Medicaid to care for their personal needs. Louisiana should have placed the needs of these vulnerable patients ahead of expanding coverage to able-bodied adults—tens of thousands of whom already had private health insurance and dropped that insurance to enroll in Medicaid expansion.

This skewed sense of priorities pervades supporters of Medicaid expansion. One recently claimed that most of the individuals improperly enrolled in expansion “are poor, but not poor enough to qualify for coverage” under Medicaid.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report suggests otherwise. The 100 Medicaid recipients studied by the auditor, 93 of whom did not qualify for benefits for at least one month they received them, had an average—repeat, average—household income of $67,742. Fourteen of the recipients reported income of over $100,000. One recipient reported income of $145,146—well above Governor John Bel Edwards’ annual salary of $130,000.

The Louisiana Department of Health recently acknowledged that at least 1,672 individuals receiving over $100,000 qualified for Medicaid benefits. Supporters of Medicaid expansion can claim that these six-figure Medicaid beneficiaries classify as “poor,” but hardworking taxpayers forced to foot the bill for these recipients would likely disagree.

Louisiana taxpayers deserve policies that prioritize the most vulnerable in society—individuals with disabilities currently dying on waiting lists—rather than funding benefits for enrollees with six-figure incomes, or able-bodied adults who dropped their private coverage to enroll in Medicaid. They deserve more than claims that money grows on trees, or that expanding dependency will lead to growth and prosperity. They deserve better than Medicaid expansion’s failed status quo.

This post was originally published in the Daily Advertiser.

The High Costs of Medicaid Expansion in Louisiana

The data indicates that as a result of Medicaid expansion, taxpayers face an ever-growing tab for benefits provided to able-bodied adults — many of whom already had health insurance prior to Obamacare — even as the most vulnerable wait and wait for care. Louisiana can — and should — do better.

This post was originally published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.