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An acquaintance of mine is a cancer patient who just made the following claim on Facebook: the only people complaining about Obamacare are hypocrites because they don’t have to purchase their health insurance on the exchanges. That might be her experience. It certainly isn’t mine. I know several individuals who purchase their coverage on the exchanges and complain bitterly about Obamacare. But her assertion reveals its own bit of hypocrisy: it’s apparently okay to defend Obamacare if you are a net beneficiary, but you may not complain if you are a net payer. Of course, I would never begrudge this woman the care she needs, but it is possible to arrange for that care without destroying the health care industry and insurance markets in the process. Forgive me for thinking that Obamacare was designed with the cynical intent to do exactly that! Well, at least insurance markets. The damage to the health care industry was brought on by simple buffoonery and rent seeking.

Depending on developments in Congress over the next few months (3? 6? 9?), Obamacare could be a thing of the past. We’ve all probably heard hyperbolic claims that the new health care bill “will kill people”, which is another absurdity given the law’s dislocations. That was the subject of “Death By Obamacare“, posted in January on Sacred Cow Chips. AHCA detractors base their accusations of murderous intent on a fictitious notion of reduced access to care under the plan, as well as a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that viewed the future of Obamacare through rose-colored glasses. I discussed the CBO report at greater length in “The CBO’s Obamacare Fantasy Forecast“.

Before anyone gets too excited about what they like or dislike about the health care bill passed by the House of Representatives last week, remember that a final health care bill, should one actually get through Congress, is unlikely to bear a close resemblance to the House bill. The next step will be the drafting of a Senate bill, which might be assembled from parts of the House’s American Health Care Act (AHCA) and other ideas, or it might take a different form. It could take a while. Then, the House and Senate will attempt to shape a compromise in conference committee and bring it to a vote in both houses. President Trump, looking for a “win”, is likely to sign whatever gets through, even if he has to bargain with democrats to win votes.

So relax! If your legislators are democrats, tell them to participate in the shaping of new policies, rather than throwing petulant barbs from the sidelines. First, of course,  you’ll have to face up to the fact that Obamacare is a failed policy.

Another recent post on Sacred Cow Chips, “Cleaving the Health Care Knot… Or Not“, covered some of the most important provisions of the AHCA. By the time of the vote, a few new provisions had been added to the House bill. The McArthur Amendment allows states to waive the Obamacare essential benefits requirements. Fewer mandated benefits would allow insurance companies to offer simpler policies covering truly insurable health care events, as opposed to predictable health maintenance costs. Let’s face it: if you must have insurance coverage for your annual checkup, then it is not really insurance against risk; either the premium or the deductible must rise to cover the expenses, ceteris paribus.

The other change in the AHCA is an additional $8 billion dollars allocated to state high-risk pools for pre-existing conditions, for a total of $138 billion. These risks are too high to blend with standard risks in a well-functioning insurance market. (In a perfect insurance market, there would be no cross-subsidies between groups on an ex ante basis.) As a separate risk pool, these high-risk individuals would face very high premia, so the idea is to allow states the latitude to subsidize their health care costs in ways they see fit. This is a federalist approach to the problem of subsidizing coverage for pre-existing conditions, and it has the advantage of restoring the ability of insurers to underwrite standard risks at reasonable rates, correcting one of Obamacare’s downfalls. However, some GOP senators are advocating a combination of standard risks and those with pre-existing conditions, which obviously distorts the efficient pricing of risk and exaggerates the need for broader subsidies.

And what about the uninsured poor? A major focus of health care insurance reform, now and in the past, has been to find a way for the poor to afford coverage. Obamacare fell far short of its goals in this respect, as any enthusiasm for subsidized (though high) premia was dampened by shockingly high deductibles. This week, Tyler Cowan reported on some research suggesting that low-income individuals place a low value on insurance. Their responsiveness to subsidies is so low that few are persuaded to pay anything close to the premium required. Cowan quotes the authors as saying that even 90% subsidies for these individuals would leave about 25% of this population unwilling to pay for the balance. Cowen quotes the study’s authors:

‘We conclude that the size of uncompensated care for low-income populations provides a plausible explanation for their low [willingness-to-pay].’ In other words, many of the poor do not value health insurance nearly as much as many planners feel they ought to, in large part because they are already getting some health care.

This has several implications. First, these individuals are not without health care, regardless of their coverage status. One of the great misapprehensions among Obamacare supporters is that the poor had no access to care before the law’s passage. Never mind that emergency room utilization is still quite high. Uninsured individuals can go to a public hospital and get treatment in the emergency room and get admitted if that is deemed medically necessary. If the illness causes a loss of income, the individual might qualify for Medicaid if they hadn’t before, and Medicaid has no exclusion for pre-existing conditions. In fact, I’m told the hospital staff might even help you apply right there at the hospital! So who needs insurance before a health crisis?

Many of the poor have continued to do what they did before: go without coverage. Obamacare’s complex system of subsidies is almost beside the point, as is almost any other effort to sign up everyone prior to the onset of major health care needs. Eventual enrollment in Medicaid will pay some of the hospital bills, though it’s true that not all can qualify for the program. Either way, the hospital will swallow a share of the cost — that is, the taxpayer will. Providers would rather not rely on low Medicaid reimbursement rates or perform charity work. This coalition will grapple with the failure of many low-income individuals to arrive at their emergency room doors with coverage as long as we rely on direct subsidies as an inducement to purchase insurance. Unfortunately, a policy offering a separate guarantee of financial health for providers would create another set of awful incentives.

The unfortunate truth is that Medicaid is unsustainable at current funding levels. The AHCA would convert the federal share of the program to one of block grants to states, wnich have always managed the program under federal mandates. The AHCA would free the states to manage the program more flexibly, but caps on the grants would create pressure to manage costs. It is not yet clear whether the Senate will offer a different approach to Medicaid reform, but it was the primary driver of increased health care coverage under Obamacare.

Finally, there are certain individuals with higher incomes who can afford to pay for coverage but prefer to freeload. Those who experience catastrophic health problems will be a burden to others, not necessarily through distortions in insurance pricing, but via taxes and deficits. To an extent, the situation is a classic problem of the commons. In this case, the “commons” is an invention of government and the presumed “right to health care”: there is no solution to the freeloader problem faced by taxpayers short of denying the existence of that right to those who can afford catastrophic coverage but would refuse to pay. Only then would the burdens be internalized to the cost-causes. Charity can and should go partway to relieving individuals of the consequences of their bad decisions, but EMS will still arrive if called, providers will render care, and a chunk of the costs will be on the public dime.