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Many believe that women are entitled to taxpayer subsidies by virtue of “reproductive rights”, or simply gender disparities in health care costs. Is this reasonable from an economic perspective? Is it fair? Some components of this claim on public resources are highly controversial. I discussed these issues last week in the following post, originally titled “Spite and the ‘Right’ To Subsidies”:

The Women’s March on Washington on January 21st was not precise in communicating its real objectives. But the costumes were cute, and some critics felt that more of the men in attendance should have worn them. Anyway, the leaders and organizers fell short in terms of articulating a coherent agenda. Unless, of course, you just “got it”. These women were angry, but it’s not as contagious as they think: a great many circumspect women recognize the unmatched freedoms, privileges, and prosperity enjoyed by women (and men) in the U.S. The inherent divisiveness of identity politics is simply not appealing to everyone.

There are a number of reasons why those marching unfortunates might feel put upon, and it must have felt cathartic to wail and gnash teeth. The dissatisfaction is mostly related to the fact that Donald Trump is the president, but if I had to guess, I’d say a quarter of the marchers weren’t registered to vote. Probably a third of the remainder did not vote, despite their registration.

All that aside, what sort of policy purpose did the marchers hope to achieve? For one thing, they do not want to lose federal funding and cross-subsidies for support of women’s health issues, including reproductive rights or family planning (terms of art for preventing pregnancies). That’s a passable translation of “stay away from my vagina!” There are several avenues through which the federal government arranges payments or subsidies for women’s health services such as childbirth, maternity care, and birth-prevention products and services:

  1. Medicaid reimbursements account for the bulk of direct federal funding for family planning services; states are responsible for a major share of reimbursements as well.
  2. Federal funding also occurs under Title X, the Public Health Service Act of 1970, which authorizes federal grants for family planning services.
  3. Indirect funding occurs through cross-subsidies inherent in the structure of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare:
    • The ACA requires health insurance to include a set of “essential benefits”. Premium payments from those for whom such benefits are superfluous subsidize those who require those benefits.
    • The ACA prohibits “gender rating”, so that men effectively subsidize the higher cost of care and coverage for women (up to roughly middle age).
  4. Those purchasing coverage on the Obamacare exchanges may be eligible for federal subsidies on their premium payments.

Both Medicaid and Title X grants are intended to serve the family-planning needs of low-income women. Likewise, the federal subsidies (#4) for insurance covering family planning services, including contraceptives, are designed to assist low-income women. The cross-subsidies inherent in the structure of Obamacare premia confer family planning benefits (and penalties) across a broad range of incomes.

Reproductive Rights and Family Planning

Many taxpayers object to the use of tax dollars to pay for contraceptive services on religious or moral grounds. This is unrelated to a woman’s right to use contraceptives; it has to do with coerced payment for anyone’s contraceptives. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision relieved private employers of the obligation to pay for abortifacients on religious grounds, however.

Even more controversial is the idea that federal tax dollars might be used to fund abortions. In fact, that is outlawed by the Hyde Amendment, a temporary provision routinely attached to budget appropriation bills each year. This amendment restricts the use of federal and state funds for abortion to cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger. Elective abortions, however, are not eligible for taxpayer funding. Unfortunately, Hyde and a related executive order issued by President Obama have not been wholly effective at preventing premium cross-subsidies and taxpayer subsidies from paying for elective abortions. That’s because of the limited choices of insurance plans available in many states and the failure of insurers and public authorities to monitor compliance. Carl Anderson in National Review explained these issues in “Obamacare’s Taxpayer-Funded Abortions“. Anderson points to the findings of a 2014 report from the federal General Accounting Office (GAO):

“Twenty-eight states have a legal environment that allows insurance plans within these exchanges to cover abortion. Among these 28 states, they found that 1,036 plans include abortion coverage, including every plan in New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. More than 95 percent of the plans in Massachusetts, New York, and California also cover abortion.

… The GAO report makes clear that those who want to find a plan that does not cover abortion will have a very difficult time. In some cases, the information is available in the Summary of Benefits. In other cases, it is only available on the insurer’s website. In other cases, the information is available only by calling the insurer.”

The ACA also required insurers to account and bill separately for abortion coverage, but compliance is spotty:

“… the GAO found that, of the 18 insurers it investigated, none of them charged separately for abortion coverage, and none of them even itemized the coverage on their bills.”

Planned Parenthood

It’s also quite likely that Title X grants and even Medicaid are funding abortions, despite prohibition by the Hyde Amendment. Medicaid is rife with mismanagement, with tens of billions of dollars of improper payments each year. Title X grants, if not tied to specific procedures, are used to cover overhead costs, some of which undoubtedly support the abortion practices of certain health service providers. Planned Parenthood (PP) is the largest abortion practice in the country, in furtherance of Margaret Sanger’s eugenic vision. Abortions have been declining nationwide in recent years, but PP’s abortion count has been fairly stable. Between 2009 and 2014, several other prominent PP services declined by half to two-thirds, such as cancer screenings, breast exams/breast care, and pap smears, while PP’s total income grew.

PP has aborted more than 300,000 pregnancies every year since 2007, yet the organization claims that those procedures account for only 3% of its activity. The 3% figure is derived by treating an abortion as the equivalent of a pregnancy test, or an STD test, or a breast exam, a PAP smear, or any other “discrete clinical interaction”. This renders the 3% claim meaningless, or much worse, a deception. Abortion is a costly procedure relative to most of the other services counted by PP as equivalent. “Prenatal care” services can be complex, but the small count of such services delivered (about 19,000 annually) indicates that it does not account for a major part of PP’s budget.

It is difficult to find information on PP’s fee revenue by service; one analysis concluded that abortions accounted for about 52% of PP’s fee income in 2010. But it is impossible to know exactly how the organization allocates public funds. Of course, fees from some services might cross-subsidize others. But almost half of PP’s annual budget is funded by taxpayers. Therefore, at a minimum, PP should be required to provide more auditable information on the question of how it allocates taxpayer funds.

Gender Rating

Another major source of cross subsidies is the absence of gender rating in insurance coverage under Obamacare and other law. Health care costs are higher for women than men for a variety of reasons: First, of course, there is childbirth and maternity care. Women also tend to utilize clinical services at higher rates than men. Perhaps women are more careful about attending to their health needs, as they are more likely than men to have regular checkups. They tend to have more stress fractures and other musculo-skeletal injuries. And they live longer than men, creating higher costs in their senior years. In the past, gender rating by insurers in the individual market led to premium disparities between women and men of 25%-85%. Some states have prohibited or restricted gender rating for years, however, and employer plans nationally have been prohibited from gender rating since 1978.

Prohibitions against gender rating, like other forms of community rating, are ill-founded from an economic perspective. Hadley Heath put it well in 2013 in “Women Should Pay More for Health Insurance:

“Pregnancy and childbearing aside, women seek preventive care and visit doctors more often. But these additional screenings cost money, and the person receiving the care should pay for it, not other members of her insurance pool (community-rated or not). After all, women may reap the benefits of this behavior by living longer lives; they should also take on the costs. …

A better, more equitable solution would be for both men and women to pay for more noncatastrophic health expenditures outside an insurance plan. This is the only way to ensure that individuals — not pools of people — pay for what they consume. … If our premiums don’t reflect our risk, our claims or our costs, then some people will be overcharged and others undercharged. The overcharged parties will underinsure, and the undercharged parties will overinsure, perpetuating the problems in our current system.”

Those who over-insure, or who have access to services at prices below cost by virtue of mandates and cross subsidies, will over-utilize scarce health care resources. Eliminating the prohibition on gender rating would not foreclose the opportunity to obtain reasonably-priced health care coverage, however. In fact, eliminating over-charges to men would give them an incentive to remain in the risk pool, which would restrain pricing in age ranges through which women experience higher costs. The elimination of cross subsidies to women would ease cost pressure in the delivery of services as well. And interstate competition among insurers would give women a better set of choices and prices. Heterosexual married couples would split the difference in gender-rated premium levels, of course, but lesbian couples would probably bear higher costs. In general, allowing choice in selecting coverage levels would focus costs on cost-causers, a requirement for economic efficiency. For example, to the extent that many pregnancies are intended, maternity care actually fails to meet the definition of an insurable risk. Requiring others to pay those costs creates an incredibly arbitrary and unfair burden, though insuring against complications is a different matter.

Assisting Low-Income Women

Again, much of the federal funding at issue is directed at low-income women. This includes Medicaid, Title X grants, and Obamacare subsidies on policies purchased through the state exchanges. Current discussions regarding an ACA replacement plan would subsidize low-income individuals via refundable tax credits, which are free of the nasty incentive effects of coverage mandates combined with cross subsidies. While some contend that Medicaid is under threat, the most “extreme” plans discussed thus far are limited to replacing current federal funding practices with block grants to the states, who manage the program. The grants might be frozen at current funding levels. In view of the Medicaid waste identified by the GAO, there is a need to create incentives for states to manage the program more effectively.

The rules prohibiting taxpayer-funded abortion payments are unlikely to change, though they might be given a more permanent form than by Hyde, and compliance efforts might be tightened. It is mistaken to argue in this context that denying funds to a poor woman for an abortion is the equivalent of burdening society with more dependency. One error is in thinking that somehow life is for sale by taxpayers. It is not. The second is in assigning a negative value to a person with untold potential. Those individuals should be thought of as sentient human assets to be nurtured under policies that promote family stability, effective educational institutions and incentives for self-reliance. The third mistake is in selling short the charitable motives of pro-lifers, most of whom know that true charity has nothing to do with the state.

Your Vagina, My Money

The marchers on the 21st of January were motivated in part by possible changes in the availability of federal tax money for women’s health care under the Trump Administration. There are several avenues through which that support is provided as aid to low-income women. The funding mechanisms and management of these programs must be improved, and they must be made more accountable to taxpayers. Moreover, subsidies to women are provided through the structure of premiums under Obamacare, which distort economic incentives, misallocate resources, and undermine the stability of health care costs and insurance premia. An end to “one-side-fits-all” insurance mandates and gender rating would go far in improving the efficiency and equity of health insurance.

The marchers’ concern also revolves around subsidized access to contraceptives and federal support for organizations that provide abortion services. Even complete removal of that support would have no bearing on fundamental “rights” in any true sense. It has nothing to do with the existence of a right to abort children, only the question of who pays. Ultimately, your reproductive decisions, and your non-reproductive decisions, should be your own financial responsibility, your insurer’s, or that of others who might wish to assist you. Private donors give many millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood every year, and presumably could give more. Don’t ask for taxpayers to be involved with your vagina in any way.