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Here’s a question a friend posed: Why do we care whether health care coverage for high-risk individuals is subsidized by taxpayers versus premium payers via common (community) rating in a combined risk pool? For convenience, let’s call those two scenarios T and C. Under C there is no segmentation whatsoever, while T involves a division of individuals into two groups: standard and high risk. Both scenarios involve guaranteed issue, though T assumes that high-risk individuals must purchase their coverage in the appropriate market. I’ll tackle T first because separate treatment of the distinct risk archetypes yields results that are useful as a baseline.

Taxpayers Subsidize Pre-Existing Conditions

Under scenario T, suppose that all standard risks face the same expected outcome in each period. Everyone in that group pays based on their expected health care costs. In the end, some will have greater health care needs than others, but only a few will be truly unlucky, incurring extremely high health care expenses. On balance, the pooling of risk makes the arrangement sustainable. People enter into these contracts voluntarily because they are risk averse. No one forces them; they are capturing value from protection against financial ruin. The paid-in cash can be invested by the plan in the interim between premium and claims payments. The combination of premium payments and investment income must be enough to cover claims and allow the managers of the plan to defray their administrative costs and make a tidy profit. The profit matters because it attracts voluntary resources to bear on the problem of health-expense risk. Therefore, these insurance transactions are mutually beneficial to the insured and the owners of the insurer.

Conceivably, the smaller high-risk group could be handled the same way, as long as their aggregate health care expenses are predictable. Those expenses will be high, however, so the cost of coverage for individuals in such a pool might be prohibitive. One solution is to force taxpayers to subsidize coverage for this group. The transactions in this market are also mutually beneficial to the insureds and the insurers, just as in the market for standard risks. In both cases, the value to purchasers of coverage is no less than the cost of providing it, including compensation for any capital employed in the process.

In the simplified world of scenario T, we have an optimal insurance outcome for both standard and high-risk individuals. The downside is the cost of the subsidies to taxpayers, which distort a variety of incentives, including labor supply, saving and investment. These lead to misallocations, but they are spread across the economy rather than concentrated on the outcomes in a single market. Is this better than simply pooling all risks, as in Scenario C (common rating)?

Common (Community) Rating

Common rating means that all risks are combined into one pool and everyone is charged the same premium. High-risk individuals get to participate just as if they are standard risks. However, because the combined risk pool has greater expected health care costs on average than the standard risk population, the premium must be greater than the one charged to standard risks in Scenario T. Otherwise, the plan could not cover all expenses nor earn a profit. Worse yet, the standard risks now have an incentive to exit the market while high-risk individuals have every reason to leap in. This is called adverse selection, and it leads to the sort of insurance death spiral we’ve witnessed under Obamacare. And not only does the risk pool deteriorate: the incentive to offer coverage is diminished as well. Thus, an entire industry is rendered dysfunctional. Those who wish to pool together voluntarily in order to efficiently hedge their risks are, by law, prohibited from doing so. The next step might well be for government to mandate participation in an attempt to keep the plan afloat.

Those who favor forced redistribution (not my set) might have other reasons to prefer Scenario T, as it creates greater latitude for progressive tax funding of the subsidies. However, the subsidies themselves could be sensitive to income such that the risky but well-heeled pay more.

From a libertarian perspective, Scenario C has obvious drawbacks, starting with the coercion of insurers to provide coverage to the high-risk population at rates that do not compensate for risk. Then, too, the mis-pricing of risk places a burden on individuals of standard risk. With the pooling of all risks, community rating and coverage mandates result in individual and aggregate over-insurance against most types of risk, tying up scarce resources in insurance assets that could be invested more productively in other uses. In addition, resources are absorbed by compliance costs as authorities find it necessary to enforce the many rules made in hopes of proping-up an otherwise unsustainable arrangement.

Then There’s Single-Payer

It’s often argued that going beyond this point in Scenario C to a single-payer system will yield better outcomes at lower costs. Megan McArdle shreds this idea in a recent column: well over 40% of health care spending in the U.S. is paid by government already; the average growth of that share is even higher than private health care spending; the quality of care is often lower in the government health sector, and in any case, single payer systems around the world do not enjoy slower growth in costs. Rather, they started from lower levels of health care costs. Our relatively high level of costs in the U.S. evolved many years ago, before single-payer systems were adopted abroad. We have many more private and semi-private hospital rooms in the U.S., we often have greater availability of advanced technology, and waiting times for care tend to be significantly shorter.

The high standard of living in the U.S., i.e., our level of consumption, explains a lot of the gap in health care spending. Overall, our health care outcomes are good relative to other developed countries. Unfortunately, we’ve also pushed-up costs from the demand side by offering tax subsidies on employer-provided care, and government in the U.S. has had a role in “managing” health care since the time of the Woodrow Wilson Administration, largely to the detriment of cost control. Government control stultifies competition, creating monopoly-like conditions in both insurance and the provision of care. That manifests in higher profits, safer profits, or slovenly performance by organizations and agents that lack accountability to customers and market forces. Costs rise.

Liberty or Coercion

Libertarians will object to the tax in Scenario T, which like all taxation is coerced, but the taxes necessary to pay for adequate coverage for pre-existing conditions is minor relative to the potential costs of distorting the entire health insurance industry, repleat with the costs of government regulation and compliance that entails, and the potential for still more encroachment of government in health care.

Finally, the question posed by my friend about tax subsidies versus common insurance rating was prompted by a presumed “right to health care”. One must ask whether that right is legitimate. Kevin Williamson argues that scarcity interferes with any such claim. More to the point, in a free society, one cannot simply demand health care from another free individual. Our choices for distributing scarce health care fall into one of only two categories: voluntary and coerced. We should always prefer the former, which may take the form of charity or a mechanism under which care is provided via free exchange. The latter works very well when incentives are clear and pricing is efficient. For those who cannot participate in exchange for any reason, including pre-existing conditions that make coverage prohibitive, private charity is an alternative to government subsidies. At a minimum, charity should serve as an important relief valve for the burden on taxpayers. The Left, however, is always quick to condemn private charity as if it is somehow an illegitimate mechanism for solving social problems, but it is often superior to government action.