Job lock versus moral hazard

Filed Under (Health Care) by Tatyana Deryugina on Feb 10, 2014

A new CBO report on the Affordable Care Act was recently released. One of the findings, described in an Appendix, is that the implementation of the ACA would result in about 2.3 million fewer full-time jobs by the year 2021. Most of this would be due to workers voluntarily cutting back on work. This has created quite a stir, with some arguing that the ACA is bad for the economy while others arguing that as long as it’s the workers making the decision, there’s nothing wrong with lost jobs.

Jon Stewart tried to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans who rallied against “job lock” in previous years, but are now pointing to the CBO report as evidence that Obamacare is bad for the economy. But Jon appears to have misunderstood (as probably other many people do) the exact meaning of “job lock” and the difference between it and what the CBO finds.

Job lock arises because health insurance on the individual market is much more expensive than what an employer typically pays for it, partly because of the tax deductibility of employer premiums and partly because adverse selection used to be a bigger problem on the individual market (we’ll see if that remains true now). Moreover, workers with pre-existing conditions may have not been able to get health insurance at all if they left their jobs. These conditions create incentives for workers to keep working at their current job mainly for the purpose of maintaining their health insurance coverage ( = “job lock”).

It’s certainly likely that the Affordable Care Act eliminates some job lock. But it also does something else. By tying premium subsidies to income, the government is effectively creating incentives to work less. This has nothing to do with job lock – it’s called “moral hazard,” and most economists would agree that it’s a bad thing. And it’s not a hypothetical effect that evil people made up as an excuse to not help people get health insurance. Several empirical studies, cited by the CBO, find that it exists and is significant. Most of the estimated reduction in employment appears to be coming from moral hazard rather than the elimination of job lock. Thus, the voluntary reduction in employment is not something to cheer about, but something to view as a cost of the Affordable Care Act.

For more, see Casey Mulligan’s discussion of how to think about this loss of jobs.

Breaking News: Supreme Court Upholds Individual Mandate

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on Jun 28, 2012

Hot off the Internet, the Supreme Court has upheld the “Obamacare” individual mandate, which requires most people to buy health insurance or else pay a tax.  The ruling isn’t available yet, but I have to say that I’m really, really impressed by this decision because it shows that the Supreme Court was able to look beyond the politics of the situation and the poor argument by the administration in defense of the bill, and rule according to the law.

The argument against the mandate was that it violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution in that it regulated economic “inactivity” rather than activity.  That is, it forced people to participate in the individual insurance market even if they didn’t want to.  The administration flubbed its defense on this point by failing to show how health insurance markets are different than most other markets, giving the Supreme Court a limiting principle that would prohibit the ruling from establishing that Congress can regulate anything it wants.

It sounds like the Supreme Court did not buy the argument that the indivual mandate was justified under the Commerce Clause.  But, in some sense this is all a red herring.  The individual mandate is a tax, plain and simple.  People who do not buy health insurance must pay a fine to the IRS.  A fine paid to the IRS is a tax.  The Democrats and the administration tried to hide the fact that this was a tax while rallying support for the bill for obvious reasons.  Nobody wanted to be seen as raising taxes, and President Obama had promised during the campaign that he would not raise taxes for middle income Americans.  But, just because the Democrats wanted to pretend that this wasn’t a tax, that doesn’t make it true.  It’s a tax. And, Congress has the right to impose taxes.

Despite the fact that the administration did not emphasize the tax aspect of PPACA’s indivual mandate in either its presetation of the bill to the public or in its defense before the Supreme Court, the Court was able to step beyond the narrative that was being fed to them and identify the key legal principle involved.

Whether you support the bill or not, I think that in a post Bush v. Gore / Citizens United world, when people are wondering whether the Supreme Court really is an impartial arbiter of the law, you have to see this as a great moment for the Court.  Hooray for them.

More after I have a chance to look at the ruling.

Cigarettes and the government budget

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Julian Reif on Jun 24, 2012

Cigarettes are heavily regulated in America. Federal and state cigarette taxes account for 44% of the retail price of cigarettes (Tax Burden on Tobacco 2011). This percentage is even higher if one accounts for local taxes like New York City’s $1.50 per-pack tax. (A pack of cigarettes retails for $6.01 on average.) Many local and state governments have also banned smoking in bars, restaurants, and workplaces.

Some libertarians oppose these taxes and regulations. They argue that consumers should have the freedom to make their own choices without interference from the government. Many public health officials oppose this viewpoint in the case of cigarettes. They argue that many consumers do not properly account for the negative future consequences of their smoking behavior, which causes them to consume too many cigarettes. In addition, second-hand smoke is a negative externality that annoys and potentially harms others. Finally, cigarettes may raise the cost of government healthcare systems like Medicaid and Medicare. These are all important points, but today I will focus on the last one.

Calculating the costs that a smoker imposes on society is difficult because we do not know for certain what would have happened if she were not a smoker. For example, smokers who die from lung cancer impose large costs on Medicaid and Medicare. However, if those individuals had never begun smoking then they may still have imposed costs on government healthcare systems by contracting a different disease such as Alzheimer’s. The analysis becomes further complicated if we try to account for the fact that smokers die about seven years earlier than non-smokers and thus tend to collect fewer social security payments. This is a morbid observation but it must be accounted for in order to estimate properly the effect of smoking on government spending.

These issues are addressed in a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that analyzes the effect of a hypothetical cigarette tax increase on the federal budget. The main effect is a large increase in excise tax receipts: a total of $38 billion within the first ten years. Because an increase in the cigarette tax decreases the smoking rate, and thus increases the health of the population, the researchers at the CBO also account for the tax’s effects on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security spending. They estimate that total government spending would decrease in the short run, mostly due to Medicaid savings resulting from better health among pregnant women and young children.

In the long run, however, the report estimates that the increase in longevity due to less smoking will cause a nontrivial increase in annual government spending equal to 0.012 percent of GDP ($1.8 billion using 2012 GDP) by 2085. The CBO’s finding that a reduction in smoking would actually increase spending on Medicare and Social Security is consistent with economist Kip Viscusi’s finding that smoking does not have negative financial externalities. The annual excise tax receipts are estimated to equal 0.018 percent of GDP ($2.7 billion using 2012 GDP), however, so the proposed tax is beneficial overall for the government’s budget.

Although it does not appear that cigarette smoking creates negative financial externalities for the government, there may be other reasons (mentioned above) to tax and regulate smoking. Regardless, Americans have largely accepted cigarette taxes and smoking regulations and thus these are likely to remain in place.

The issue of whether and how to best regulate consumer health, however, will continue to resurface for other products. For example, Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces is justified by many on the grounds that consumers lack self control when making dining decisions and that obesity imposes costs on the government. (Sound familiar?) Sugary drinks, of course, are not the same product as cigarettes. There is no such thing as “second-hand drink” and the health effects of drinking soda every day are not as well known as the effects of smoking every day; quantifying the effect of a sugary drink ban on the government budget is therefore difficult. I expect we will see more research (and more debate!) on this topic in the future.

Retiree Health Insurance, Early Retirement and the Illinois Pension Mess

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 2, 2012

Ever since Governor Quinn proposed his plan to reform government employee pensions in Illinois, I’ve been thinking about how to blog about it.  The problem is, my primary opinion is a legal one – that the proposal clearly violates the non-impairment clause of the Illinois state constitution because it threatens current employees with excluding future pay raises from pensionable earnings in contradiction of the “contractual relationship” laid out in the Illinois Pension Code – and I’m not a lawyer.  Better to stick with what I am supposed to know.

So, let’s turn to economics.  While the non-impairment clause prevents the state from reducing pensions, it does not affect other benefits.  In particular, the state would seem free to reduce or remove subsidies for retirement health benefits without running afoul of the non-impairment clause.  New research from by Steven Nyce, Sylvester Schieber, John B. Shoven, Sita Slavov, and David A. Wise suggests that doing so might be a way to lower pension costs.  In short, they show that removing the employer subsidy for health benefits for early retirees would cause people to work longer.  And, when people work longer they contribute more toward the pension fund and draw pensions for less time, improving the overall finances of the pension system.

In the new article, entitled “Does Retiree Health Insurance Encourage Early Retirement,” the authors investigate the relationship between employer subsidies for health insurance to retirees.  The paper begins by noting that many Americans delay retirement until they reach age 65 because employment gives them access to health insurance at far better prices than they could receive in the private market (if such insurance is even available).  When an employer offers subsidized health insurance to those who retire before age 65, it makes it possible for people to retire earlier than they otherwise would.  Using newly-available data, the paper finds that retiree health coverage significantly increases retirements among people in their early 60s.  In fact, when employers subsidize 50 percent or more of the cost of retiree health insurance (as the state of Illinois does), retirements increase by “1-3 percentage points at ages 56-61, by 5.9 percentage points (33.7 percent) at age 62, and by 6.9 percentage points (43.7 percent) at age 63. Overall, an employer contribution of 50 percent or more reduces the total number of person-years worked between ages 56 and 64 by 9.6 percent relative to no coverage.”

What does this mean for the state of Illinois?  Take, for example, SURS, the State Universities Retirement System.  In this system, a worker’s total retirement benefit is limited to 80% of final salary.  This means that, after about 36 years of working for the state, the worker’s pension no longer increases with additional years of service.  Further, state law provides that the state will pay 5% of retiree health premiums for each year of service.  (Importantly, the applicable law is not the Pension Code!)  So, a person who started working for the state at age 25 would, by age 62, be eligible for the maximum pension and free health benefits.

Given this deal, it is no wonder that people choose to retire before age 65.  This costs the pension system, since early retirees do not contribute and they draw their pension for longer.  Removing retiree health benefits would have a significant financial impact on early retirees.  Back in 2006, the most recent data I could find in a quick search, the average health insurance premium for an adult age 60 – 64 on the non-group health insurance market was around $360/month.   A family policy would cost about twice that.  Such policies are usually less generous than employer-provided insurance and feature higher deductibles and coinsurance rates.  So, a near-elderly state employee contemplating retirement might face expected monthly costs of $500 – $700 or more if they had to pick up their own health insurance, and even more if they had a dependent spouse or children.

So, suppose the state were to eliminate retiree health benefits.  Faced with such costs, many people would choose to work until age 65 (or at least until age 63.5 when the COBRA law would allow them to continue to purchase health insurance under the state plan until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65).  And, when people retire later, they draw pensions for less time.

Now, I am not necessarily advocating this, and certainly not across the board.  There are strong arguments why for some government employees – in particular police and firefighters –the physical demands of the job make early retirement reasonable.  For other government employees, such as professors, there is no strong reason why the state should be subsidizing early retirement through providing free health benefits after I stop working.

My broader point is that whatever the state does, and it must do something, it must be done in a way that does not violate the constitution.  While the state cannot touch pension benefits, it is free to reduce health insurance.  And, since retiree health insurance makes retirement more attractive, reducing or removing retiree health benefits would seem to be a constitutional and, based on recent research, effective way to delay retirement, which would improve the ailing pension systems’ finances.

ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  Retirees who began working for the State of Illinois before April 1986 (at least in the case of SURS) may not be eligible for Medicare Part A.  In this case, removing health insurance benefits would leave workers exposed to significant financial and health risk even after the age of 65.  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits is much more complicated and controversial in this case.

Making Sense of the War of Words over the Cost of Obamacare

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 18, 2012

A war of words (and numbers) has broken out in the policy wonk world over the effect of Obamacare on the deficit.  It is important, entertaining, and confusing.  This blog attempts to bring a bit of clarity to the debate.    

 It began last week with an article, written by Charles Blahous and issued by the Mercatus Center, that argued that Obamacare increased the deficit.  The piece was discussed in the Washington Post (and on my blog) on the day it was issued.

It took almost no time at all for Paul Krugman to denounce the study.  He first began, in typically unfortunate fashion, by attacking the credibility of the author through a suggestion that Blahous was just another Koch-funded crazy who should not be believed.  He then went on to make a slightly more substantive argument about the fact that Blahous’ result rested upon a view (that Krugman called “bogus”) about what Obamacare spending should be compared with.

Blahous publicly responded, defending his position.  A few days later, former CBO Director and former OMB Director Peter Orszag joined the broadside attack against Blahous.  Peter also joined in the credibility attack and went on to also attack Blahous’ choice of baseline. 

So who is right?   The point of this post is to try to provide a bit of clarity on the issue. 

Before proceeding, I should disclose my own personal biases.  First, I consider both Chuck Blahous and Peter Orszag to be personal friends – and I believe both would agree with that assessment.  I have known and worked with both of them for over a decade.  I have an incredibly high level of respect and admiration for both Chuck and Peter as public servants, as intellectuals, and as individuals.  This is not the first time they have publicly tangled (they did so frequently over Social Security reform).  Ideologically, I almost always find myself on the same side of issues as Chuck.  But Peter is an outstanding economist, and when his views are also echoed by other highly respected economists like David Cutler of Harvard (one of the most highly respected health economists in the world, who engaged in a debate with Chuck on my Facebook page), I often find myself temporarily in a state of cognitive dissonance.  When this happens, I try to figure out the core reason for the disagreement.  Is it different values (e.g., perhaps one cares more about redistribution and the other more about economic efficiency)?  Is it different assumptions (e.g., fundamentally different views about how the politics will play out or on how future health costs will evolve?)  In such cases, two very smart people can disagree on policy, without either being “wrong.”

But this debate seems different.  This is – or at least should not be – an ideological debate.  The question here is deceptively simple.  It is a debate over a “fact.”  Either Obamacare increases the deficit, or it does not. 

So who is right?

The correct answer is “it depends.”

To understand the long-term effect of any public policy change, one must first ask the question “compared to what?”  And this is where Blahous and Krugman/Orszag differ.

The following is a FICTITIOUS conversation between Blahous and his critics.  I am trying to be clear on their views.  The material in “quotes” is taken from their writing.  The rest is my own attempt to explain their views, and I alone am responsible for any misattributions.  The Orszag quotes can be found hereThe Krugman quotes are here.  Blahous’ views can be found in his original paper, his follow-up post on Forbes, and a new post at E21.  The use of the term “Obamacare” is mine.    

Me:  “If I look at the new spending programs under Obamacare, and compare that to any spending reductions or tax increases under Obamacare, does the program increase or decrease the deficit?”

Blahous:  Over the next ten years, the increases in spending from Obamacare – Medicaid/CHIP, new exchange subsidies, making full Medicare benefit payments for an additional eight years, etc. – exceed the ways that it reduces spending or raises taxes by $346 billion through 2021.  (This is based on a CBO projection of $352 billion adjusted slightly by Chuck.)

Krugman:  This is just “another bogus attack on health reform.”

Orszag:  Indeed.  The cost savings exceed the new costs by $123 billion through 2021.   

Blahous:  But you are both ignoring the cost of extending the solvency of Medicare!  One of the effects of Obamacare is to extend our full financing commitment to Medicare through 2024.  This costs money.  Add up all the things the legislation does, and it is $346 billion more than the legislation’s cost-savings.

Orszag:  This is a “trick.”  The Blahous analysis “begins with the observation that Medicare Part A, which covers hospital inpatient care, is prohibited from making benefit payments in excess of incoming revenue once its trust fund is exhausted. He therefore argues that the health reform act is best compared to a world in which any benefit costs above incoming revenue are simply cut off after the trust-fund exhaustion date. Then, he argues that since the health-care reform act extends the life of the trust fund, it allows more Medicare benefits to be paid in the future. Presto, the law increases the deficit by raising Medicare benefits.” 

Blahous:  Look guys, this is really simple.  Without the ACA, Medicare would have been insolvent in 2016.  Under the new legislation, we are making a binding commitment to make full benefit payments through 2024.  These are real payments to real people.  How can you ignore the extra commitments through 2024?  After all, you claim the Medicare solvency extension as one of the achievements of the ACA.

Krugman:  “OK, this is crazy. Nobody, and I mean nobody, tries to assess legislation against a baseline that assumes that Medicare will just cut off millions of seniors when the current trust fund is exhausted.”

Blahous:  But under a literal interpretation of current law – which is how most budget scoring is done in Washington – a law that extends Medicare for additional years would be scored as a cost.  Do you acknowledge that under a literal change in law, this legislation puts us $346 billion deeper in the hole? 

Krugman:  The literal law does not matter.  Everyone knows that Congress is not going to allow Medicare benefits to be slashed in 2016.  To suggest these costs are a cost of Obamacare is misleading.  “In general, you almost always want to assess legislation against ‘current policy’, not ‘current law’; there are lots of things that legally are supposed to happen, but that everyone knows won’t, because new legislation will be passed to maintain popular tax cuts, sustain popular programs, and so on.

Blahous: But we have to abide by these budget rules in other contexts.  For example, let’s look at the Alternative Minimum Tax. The Congressional Budget Office counts the revenue from the AMT in its baseline budget projections, even though it knows full well that Congress is likely to continue to provide AMT relief before that revenue is collected.  Similarly with the “doc fix” in Medicare!

Orszag:  Yes, but by your logic, if we just assume that Medicare benefits are cut when the trust fund runs dry, or that Social Security benefits are cut when its trust fund runs dry a few decades later, then we do not have a long term budget problem!  Indeed, Chuck, you are “far too modest. The government is not legally allowed to issue any debt above the statutory limit, so (you) should have assumed the deficit would disappear when we reach that limit at or around the beginning of next year.”

Blahous:  Look, when you make Medicare benefit payments, real money leaves the US Treasury.   We can’t send the same check to Medicare and to Medicaid.  If you want to take credit for all the benefits of the ACA – one of which was to extend Medicare – then you have to account for the Medicare commitments as well as the Medicaid ones.  Even if you don’t think we would have allowed benefits to be suddenly cut, historically Congress has always enacted other savings to avert Medicare insolvency.  And, now that Medicare solvency is extended through 2024, the pressure on Congress to enact further savings is reduced.  So it’s not only as a matter of literal law but as a matter of practical budgetary behavior that the ACA worsens the outlook.  No matter how exactly you think things would have played out under prior law, this legislation still worsens deficits by $346 billion relative to prior law.

Krugman:  Don’t believe any of this.  The Mercatus Center is funded by the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers, by golly!!

Blahous:  Look guys, I am trying to make a real point here, not engage in character assassination.  If carried to its logical conclusion, this is not only a departure from interpreting actual law, it is also fiscally dangerous.  You guys are basically saying that there are no prior law restraints on Medicare spending.  So every time we extend the program’s solvency, it does not cost anything!  

Me:  Okay, guys, thanks for clearing that up.  I understand it all so much better now. 


So there you have it.  A knock-down, drag-out battle over budget baselines.  The debate is not over the cost of things like the coverage mandate.  It is a debate over the proper way to account for an extension of Medicare’s solvency. 

To summarize:

Relative to a world where Medicare expenditures are brought into balance with revenues within the next few years (which does appear to be required under the literal reading of current law), ACA increases Medicare expenditure and the deficit.  This is the Blahous view.   

Relative to a world in which we project current practice forward, ACA reduces Medicare expenditure and the deficit.  This is the Krugman and Orszag view. 

I think most reasonable people can understand both points.  And I don’t think this really calls for name-calling and credibility-questioning.  But in Washington, that is what passes for debate.

Most ordinary people probably think that what we should be doing is making some cuts, but not cut so deeply as to eliminate the entire Medicare shortfall.  If so, the effect on the deficit is better than if we did nothing, but worse than if we solved the problem. 

So most people probably think the “truth” (whatever that means in this context) lies somewhere in the middle.

How the Supreme Court can Reduce the Deficit: The Fiscal Impact of Ending Obamacare

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 10, 2012

West face of the United States Supreme Court b...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week’s U.S. news was dominated by the oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known more succinctly as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or, simply, “Obamacare.”  Most of the news coverage revolved around legal issues, such as how to define a “limiting principle” that would distinguish health insurance from other goods and services.  A few of those analyses, including one by my colleague Nolan Miller at the University of Illinois, provided useful economic insights on these legal questions.

But what I have not seen much of – until now – is a careful analysis of the impact of repeal on the federal budget.  Yes, there is plenty of rhetoric around this topic, with Democrats arguing that PPACA saved money and Republicans arguing that it created a huge new entitlement.  But there has been very little careful analysis.

That changed today, when the Mercatus Center at George Mason University released a meaty new report written by Charles (“Chuck”) Blahous.  His analysis shows quite clearly that the Supreme Court now finds itself in the position of having an enormous impact on the long-run fiscal situation in the U.S.

As background, Chuck Blahous is one of two public trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, having been appointed to this post by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  Previously, Chuck served all eight years of the G. W. Bush administration at the National Economic Council.  After spending over two decades in both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government, Chuck knows the ins and outs of federal budgets.  He is also widely respected on both sides of the aisle as a serious policy analyst.

In a nutshell, here is what Chuck’s careful analysis finds:

  1. PPACA is expected to increase net federal spending by more than $1.15 trillion over the next decade.
  2. PPACA is likely to add more than $340 billion, and perhaps as much as $530 billion, to federal deficits over the next decade.
  3. Despite these realities, government scorekeeping rules lead to deep confusion over the fiscal impact, and have the effect of making PPACA appear less expensive than it really is.

How can this be?  In part, the law “relies upon substantial savings already required under previous law to maintain the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund.  These do not represent new net savings … but substitutions for spending reductions that would have occurred by law in the absence” of this act.  There are other issues at play as well.

All of this is “public,” in the sense that it has been disclosed in scoring documents by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). But the CBO is constrained to report the effect of government tax and spending programs according to various scoring rules – even when those rules deviate substantially from the likely political or economic reality.  Skilled politicians have learned to use these scoring rules to their advantage.

As Chuck points out in his paper:

“A full understanding of the ACA’s budget effects requires appreciation of the distinction between two important points:

  1. CBO found that the ACAD would reduce federal deficits when a specific scoring convention was applied;
  2. The same analysis shows implicitly that the ACA would substantially increase federal deficits relative to previous law.

The paper is over 50 pages in length (including the helpful Q&A in the appendix), but is well worth a read if you want to know the details behind the calculations.

But if you don’t have time to read it, here is the bottom-line: “Taken as a whole, the enactment of the ACA has substantially worsened a dire federal fiscal outlook.  The ACA both increases a federal commitment to health care spending that was already unsustainable under prior law and would exacerbate projected federal deficits relative to prior law.  This is an unambiguous conclusion …”

Were the Supreme Court to strike down all or part of this Act, we should view it as an opportunity to revisit health care reform in a way that reduces, not increases, public spending.

PPACA goes to SCOTUS: Health reform appears to be in danger.

Filed Under (Health Care) by Nolan Miller on Mar 28, 2012

The argument over the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a “Obamacare,” is taking place before the United States Supreme Court this week.  Three questions are being considered.  The first is a technical question regarding whether the challenge to the law can be heard now or if it has to wait until someone actually pays the penalty the law imposes.  Perhaps this is an interesting legal matter, but there isn’t much economics there.  The second question is whether the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty, is a constitutional exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce or not.  This is the key question, since, if the justices decide that Congress overstepped its powers in passing the law, the part of the law that results in nearly universal health insurance could be struck down.  The third question is, if the individual mandate is struck down, how much of the rest of the law will go along with it.

As I said, the second question is the key, and SCOTUS heard arguments on this question yesterday.  By all accounts, the administration bumbled it.  Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times:

But several of the more conservative justices seemed unpersuaded that a ruling to uphold the law could be a limited one. Justice Alito said the market for burial services had features similar to the one for health care. Chief Justice Roberts asked why the government could not require people to buy cellphones to use to call emergency service providers.

Justice Scalia discussed the universal need to eat.

“Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food,” he said. “Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.”

Justice Alito asked Mr. Verrilli to “express your limiting principle as succinctly as you possibly can.”

So, the justices wanted to know if they allow the individual mandate to stand, what won’t Congress be able to regulate.  The administration’s response:

Instead of a brisk summary of why a ruling upholding law would not have intolerably broad consequences, Mr. Verrilli gave a convoluted answer. First of all, he said, Congress has the authority to enact a comprehensive response to a national economic crisis, and the mandate should be sustained as part of that response.

He added: “Congress can regulate the method of payment by imposing an insurance requirement in advance of the time in which the service is consumed when the class to which that requirement applies either is or virtually most certain to be in that market when the timing of one’s entry into that market and what you will need when you enter that market is uncertain and when you will get the care in that market, whether you can afford to pay for it or not and shift costs to other market participants.”


Here’s what they should have said.  It is true that people need to buy burial services and food, but these markets differ from health care in that there is no threat of “adverse selection” as there is in health insurance, and adverse selection has the potential to make it impossible for individuals to purchase insurance at reasonable rates (i.e., the sick pay less than their expected cost of care and the rich pay more) unless that market is regulated.

Take the market for broccoli or burial services.  As the justices point out, it is true that everybody needs food or burial, eventually.  However, my ability to consume food or be buried does not depend in any crucial way on what others do.  In economic terms, we say that there is no “market failure” here.

Now, take the market for health care services.  Suppose there are two kinds of people.  Healthy people have expected annual health care costs of $1000, while sick people have expected annual health care costs of $11,000.  If there are equal numbers of healthy and sick people, then the average cost of caring for all people is (1000 + 11000)/2 = $6000.  Next, assume that individuals know whether they are healthy or sick, but health insurers don’t know whether a person is healthy or sick, or, as is done in the new health care law, are prohibited from using this information to charge different prices to healthy and sick people. 

Suppose the insurer charges a price of $6000.  If everyone purchased this insurance, the insurer would break even.  But, a person who expects to have only $1000 healthcare costs would not be willing to purchase this coverage, since by doing so they spend $6000 for something worth $1000.  A person who expects to so spend $11,000 on health care would be willing to buy coverage.  But, if the insurer expects that only sick people will buy the insurance, it will not be willing to sell it at a price of $6000, since by doing so it would lose $5000 on each policy.

In this example, the only sustainable outcome is where the insurer charges $11,000 and only the sick people buy insurance.  But, at this price, the sick people are no better off than they would be without insurance, and the insurer earns zero profit.  So, nobody benefits from this market.  In cases like these, we say that adverse selection (the fact that those who value a product the most are likely to be the most costly to serve) has led to a market failure.  In this case, the fact that the healthy are unwilling to purchase health insurance voluntarily makes it impossible for the sick to purchase it at a reasonable price.  It is this interdependence that makes health care markets and broccoli markets fundamentally different.

This market failure could be addressed by mandating that everybody had to buy insurance, as is done in PPACA.  In this case, the price of insurance would be $6000.  Firms would just break even, sick people would benefit from insurance, and healthy people would be forced to subsidize the sick against their will.

Rather than focus on the distinction made above, the administration has argued that the key distinction between health care and other markets is that there is a degree of uncertainty about future use in health care markets that is not present in other markets.  This case is empirically weak, and more importantly, not a market failure that requires government intervention.  They have also argued that even those who choose not to purchase health insurance often consume health care, and in many cases these costs are passed onto others.  This argument, however, would seem to fail the broccoli test: if not eating broccoli today means I’ll be less healthy and more likely to collect government benefits in the future, then, by extension, the government should be able to force me to eat broccoli.  I don’t think the administration wants to be making this argument (at least not today, in front of the Supreme Court).

The example I discussed above illustrates how the PPACA provisions that prohibit charging higher prices to sick individuals and the individual mandate work together.  The result is a situation where everyone is covered by private insurance.  However, there is clear redistribution from the healthy to the sick.  This may be desirable from a social perspective, and somewhere in the administration’s convoluted argument is the idea that the healthy are always at risk of becoming sick.  Whether you favor PPACA on social grounds depends on your individual preference for redistribution and, even if you are in favor of increased redistribution, whether you think intervening in health insurance markets is the best way to do it.  However, one thing that is indisputable is that health insurance markets are different from broccoli and burial markets.   The administration’s failure to effectively show that there is a bright line between the market for health insurance and broccoli might result in PPACA being overturned.

Doc Fix: Time to Start Over

Filed Under (Health Care) by Nolan Miller on Feb 22, 2012

Last week, Congress struck a deal to head off a pending 27 percent decrease in what Medicare pays to physicians.  Well, head it off until the end of the year.  Then we’ll be right back where we started from, except the amount of the pay cut will be even larger.

So, what’s it all about?  It all goes back to an attempt in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 to slow the rate of growth in what Medicare pays to physicians.   Each year, Medicare decides how much to increase the fees it pays to physicians.  In order to reduce the rate of growth in these fees, the 1997 BBA instituted something called the Sustainable Growth Rate formula to help dictate what those increases should be.  In hindsight, the term has turned out to be quite ironic, since the growth rate it proposes has turned out to be anything but sustainable.  In fact, Congress often overrides the changes dictated by the SGR in what has become called a “doc fix.”

The SGR formula is too complicated to discuss, but it’s basic aim is to reduce the rate of Medicare spending on physicians.  Each year, Medicare projects what it thinks it will cost to care for recipients based on past behavior, inflation, and population growth.  If actual spending turns out to be close to this projection, physicians are rewarded by an increase in fees the following year.  On the other hand, if actual spending is too much above the projection, the SGR formula kicks in and lowers fees across the board in an attempt, over time, to bring actual spending back in line with projections.

As usually happens, in the early years the formula worked fine.  Medical expenditures were in line with expectations and docs got a small increase in fees.  However, in 2002, the SGR formula imposed a 5 percent cut in physician fees that was actually implemented.  Then, in 2003, when the SGR formula once again dictated a fee reduction, Congress stepped in and prevented the fee cut from happening.  This was the first Doc Fix.  Along with the Doc Fix, Congress included language that said that the SGR formula in future years should continue to be calculated as if Congress had not imposed the Doc Fix.

In subsequent years, actual expenditure continued to be high relative to projections, and Congress continued to override the SGR formula.  Since past Doc Fixes were not taken into account, each year the size of the adjustment to physician fees needed to bring payments in line with the original SGR formula has grown until now it has reached a whopping 27%.  And, every year it becomes clearer that if Congress wasn’t going to let physician fees decrease by 5% or 10%, they’re certainly not going to let them decrease by 27% or 35%.

So, what should we do about the Doc Fix?  The original intent of the SGR was a good one: slow down the rate of growth of healthcare spending. But, it is clear that the SGR approach doesn’t work.  At this point, physicians rightfully assume that eventually Congress will pass another Doc Fix, and they will continue to get paid higher rates than the SGR would dictate.  Consequently, the SGR formula has no power to persuade physicians to rein in spending.

Thus, I think the first step to is to reset the SGR.  Instead of sticking to the original formula, which requires a thirty percent reduction in physician fees, in the short run we should re-base the formula, so that next year maintaining the SGR would require a much smaller decrease in fees — on the order of a few percentage points — if physicians do not reduce overall spending on their own. This would restore the original intent of the SGR, applying pressure on providers to reduce overall spending.

Next, we need to rethink the way we approach the whole problem.  Even if Congress had the courage to enforce the payment reductions imposed by the SGR, the approach would still be fundamentally flawed because it creates a situation where it forces physicians to compete for an increasing share of an ever-shrinking pie.  If physicians know that the total amount of money available to physicians is fixed and they expect fees to be reduced as they are under the SGR, then a rational physician who wants to maintain income will have to respond by performing more procedures.  However, all physicians have this incentive, so we should expect all of them to deliver more services (some of which may not be as medically necessary), and this will force the SGR to lower physician fees even more.  The result is a vicious cycle that leads to more and more care being provided without substantially increasing patient outcomes.

While it is clear the SGR has to go, it is less clear what it should be replaced with.  However, the fundamental problem – that the SGR actually encourages more care – would be alleviated if we switched a greater share of provider compensation from payments for the quantity of services provided to payments for the quality of outcomes.

Health Reform and Cost Reduction: So Far, No Good

Filed Under (Health Care) by Nolan Miller on Jan 25, 2012

Since the 1960’s, Medicare has the authority to conduct pilot studies to determine whether particular innovations might reduce the cost of providing healthcare services to Medicare beneficiaries.  The 2010 health reform law (PPACA) expanded this power, giving Medicare the authority to expand nationally any program that has been shown to reduce projected spending and improve quality.  While many of us were disappointed by PPACA’s lack of attention to cost reduction (and quality improvement), there was reason to hope that, out of the garden of demonstration projects, a few flowers might bloom.  Unfortunately, while the first group of demonstration projects has taught us something about what kinds of demonstrations we should look at in the future, none successfully reduced overall Medicare spending (including the costs of implementing the pilot programs).

Broadly speaking, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Studies (CMS – note the government did successfully save money by removing the second “M” from the acronym!) has focused on two types of programs: disease management programs aimed at improving care for patients with chronic conditions and reduce costs by decreasing the likelihood of costly complications and hospital admissions, and value-based payment programs that attempt to reward providers for quality and efficiency of care rather than paying them for providing more care (as is the case in the standard Medicare fee-for-service model).  Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a series of reports (here and here, and summarized here and here

 The results on the disease management programs were uniformly disappointing.  Quoting from the CBO Issue Brief on the topic:

 The evaluations show that most programs have not reduced Medicare spending: In nearly every program involving disease management and care coordination, spending was either unchanged or increased  relative to the spending that would have occurred in the absence of the program, when the fees paid to the participating organizations were considered.

 The results for the Value-Based Payment initiatives were somewhat mixed.  One of the four programs considered, in which CMS made bundled payments to providers to cover all hospital and physician services for patients receiving coronary artery bypass surgeries, rather than paying for each service (and each additional service) that the hospitals and physicians chose to provide, reduced overall spending by about 10 percent.  The other three programs were less successful, and on average the savings generated by the four programs were far less than the costs and fees associated with running them.

 So, does this mean that the demonstration projects were a failure?  Not necessarily.  No reasonable person thinks that reducing Medicare spending is going to be easy.  If it were, we would have done it already.  Even in the failed demonstration projects there are lessons to be learned about where we should look for cost savings in the future.  In its issue brief, CMO lists several of these.  In my mind, the two most important are the need to limit the costs of interventions and the need to move away from the fee-for-service model of care delivery.

Regarding the costs of interventions, a number of the projects CMS implemented actually did improve quality and efficiency of care.  However, they were unable to generate savings sufficient to offset the fees paid to service providers and the other costs associated with the programs.  It is possible that if these costs could be reduced, perhaps through a competitive bidding process, disease management programs might prove to deliver the savings we suspect they can.

Regarding the need to move beyond the fee-for-service model, the CBO issue brief sums things up as:

Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care but does not pay them for coordinating with other providers, and in the nation’s decentralized health care delivery system, which does not facilitate communication or coordination among providers. The results of those Medicare demonstrations suggest that substantial changes to payment and delivery systems will probably be necessary for programs involving disease management and care coordination or value-based payment to significantly reduce spending and either maintain or improve the quality of care provided to patients.

In light of this, the next thing to keep your eye on are is Medicare’s experiment with so-called “Accountable Care Ogranizations,” a program that will offer comprehensive provider groups bundled payments for taking care of all of a group of patients’ healthcare needs, where these payments will be based in part on how well the ACO meets certain quality goals.  The Medicare ACO experiment is just getting under way now. We’ll see whether it is more successful in bringing down costs than CMS’s earlier experiments.

The limited market for long-term care insurance

Filed Under (Health Care) by Jeffrey Brown on Nov 8, 2011

Rather than post an original blog this week, I am going to settle for providing a link to a blog that someone else wrote, but which is based on my research on long-term care insurance … you can read it by clicking here.