Avik Roy, Bill Clinton, Block Grants, Christopher Jacobs, competition, Health Insurer Bailouts, Hillary Clinton, John C. Goodman, Marketplace Regulation, Medicaid, monopoly, Obamacare Exchanges, Obamacare Fixes, Pharmaceutical Patents, Public Option, Reimbursement Rates, Risk corridors, Sally Pipes, Single-Payer System, Wikileaks
One of Hillary Clinton’s “public positions” is that Obamacare needs a few “fixes”, a considerable understatement. Meanwhile, Wikileaks has revealed that she has “privately” rooted for the failure of Obamacare. For that reason, Bill Clinton’s recent slip-up, in which he portrayed Obamacare as a “crazy” system, had a certain Freudian quality. Indeed, Obamacare looks crazier every year, especially in the middle of premium-hike season.
One of Hillary’s so-called “fixes” is the creation of a “public option”, or health insurance offered by the government to compete on exchanges with private insurance. Private health insurers, with the expiration of the so-called “risk corridors”, do not have continuing access to the public purse to cover their losses; going forward, they must price coverage at rates covering the cost of their respective risk pools. The government, on the other hand, is likely to have pricing flexibility. If exercised, there will be little hope for private insurers to “compete” without bailout money. Health insurance coverage, then, is likely to devolve into a single-payer monopoly, and control over health care delivery will be increasingly monopolized as well.
Sally Pipes says the “public option” is a politically attractive way to make a single-payer system inevitable:
“But progressives face the same problem pushing single-payer they always have — the public won’t stand for it. So they’re dusting off an old idea that will get them to single-payer without using those words.“
So the path from Obamacare to a single-payer system is likely to involve a public option in one form or another. John C. Goodman points out that expanding Medicaid is one way to create a broad public option. Medicaid reimbursement rates are low, however, which is why many doctors refuse to accept patients with Medicaid coverage. Such might be the quality of future coverage under an “affordable” public option. And if Medicaid is enhanced so as to appeal to middle class families, it will be correspondingly more expensive. But for whom? More than likely, the tab will be paid by a combination of insureds and taxpayers. And more than likely, the number of competing Medicaid plans (most of which are now privately offered and managed (e.g., Centene Corporation)) will dwindle.
Christopher Jacobs says that when Obamacare became law, health insurers had every expectation that they’d be bailed out by the government indefinitely. Continuing reimbursement for losses was never guaranteed, however. The pressure to backstop the insurers’ profitability will be stronger as the debate over “fixing” Obamacare advances. But as Jacobs warns, ongoing bailouts mean that these insurers are essentially controlled by the government. The private insurers would essentially become heavily-regulated entities managing the operational details of a de facto single-payer system.
So, there are three distinct possibilities under a Hillary Clinton presidency, assuming she can get any of them though Congress: 1) a public option with no private bailouts; 2) a public option with ongoing bailouts; and 3) no public option with ongoing bailouts. Ultimately, all of these scenarios are likely to devolve toward a de facto single-payer system. So we will have monopoly, central control of health care, and/or bailouts. Who was it that said government is the way we wreck things together?
Hillary has some other “fixes” in mind. Some of these involve more regulation of coverage and pricing, such as mandatory provision of three free “sick” visits with a provider each year and in-network pricing for emergency procedures. These steps will add to the cost burden on private insurers.
Regulating drug companies more heavily is another favorite Hillary Clinton theme, but regulation is perhaps the primary reason why the drug development process is so lengthy and costly. The theory that government will be more effective at negotiating drug prices than insurers is suspect. Outright price regulation is likely to mean reduced availability of various medicines. Patent reform and an expedited drug approval process would be a more effective approach to reducing drug prices.
Clinton has also proposed a tax credit for out-of-pocket health care costs exceeding 5% of income. We’ll need higher tax rates, lower deductions and credits elsewhere, or higher deficits to pay for this one.
Finally, Hillary wants to expand eligibility for Medicare to anyone 55 and older, but as Goodman explains, the kind of Medicare Advantage plans that would be made available to “near seniors” under this proposal are similar to those already offered by private insurers, and at lower cost, and premia for these plans are often payable with pre-tax dollars, or the buyers may be eligible for tax subsidies. This proposal might sound appealing, but it is unlikely to accomplish anything except to create more administrative overhead, regulation and diminish existing offerings.
Obamacare has injected a high degree of central planning into the health care system with disastrous results. It has fallen far short of its own objectives for reducing the number of uninsured, “bending the cost curve” downward, and avoiding disruptions to existing coverage and patient-doctor relationships. Choices have narrowed in terms of coverage options and within networks. Obamacare has imposed unnecessary costs on providers and encouraged a monopolization of health care delivery, hardly a prescription for affordability. And Obamacare has proven to be a budget buster, contrary to the advance hype from its proponents.
I remember standing in a pharmacy shortly after Obamacare was enacted, and I heard a sharp-voiced leftist telling a clerk that Obamacare was just a bridge to single-payer health care. I tried to mind my own business, thinking it unproductive to engage such an individual in public. This fellow was quite pleased with the clever deception that was Obamacare. It was never a secret that the progressive left hoped single-payer would be the ultimate outcome, but it’s interesting to witness their discomfort with the way things are unfolding. Surely they must have known that if “fixes” were necessary, something would have to be broken. Perhaps they thought the politics would get simpler, but the shortcomings of the health care law have inflicted too much pain and shame.
I’m tempted to say that the health care system can be improved only by doing precisely the opposite of everything Clinton has proposed. There’s some truth in that, but it’s not quite that simple. The path to better and more affordable health care is to end the dominant role of third-party payers, placing responsibility on price-sensitive consumers, allowing a variety of choices in coverage, ending tax preferences, reducing regulation and encouraging real competition in the markets for coverage and medical care. Reform of the patent system could introduce more competition to markets for pharmaceuticals. The Medicaid system will have to be relied upon to cover those who otherwise can’t be insured at affordable rates. Proposals for federal funding of Medicaid through block grants to the states is an avenue for achieving greater efficiency and better health care outcomes.
Hillary Clinton’s “fixes” are all likely to exacerbate the worst failings of Obamacare for consumer-patients and taxpayers. More federal spending commitments will not solve the structural problems embedded in the health care law. It will magnify them. The hope among the progressive left remains that single-payer health care will evolve out of the Obamacare system once it is “fixed”. And what will we get? More complete monopolies in coverage and care, higher prices, central regulation, narrowed choice, waiting lists, denial of care, and some combination of higher taxes and deficits. In other words, a more radical version of Obamacare.