Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Very Costly Health Care Solution

Linda Gorman and Ari Armstrong have written an OpEd on the forthcoming 208 Commission report which appears in the January 30, 2008 edition of the Rocky Mountain News:
A very costly health-care solution
By Linda Gorman and Ari Armstrong

As the health-care debate unfolds, we hear a lot about cost-shifting, the idea that some people are charged more for health care to make up for the fact that others do not pay. Various legislators, journalists and activists tell us that the state should adopt the Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform's recommendation to impose an individual mandate and force everyone to buy health insurance in order to end the unfairness of cost-shifting.

In fact, the commission's recommendations likely will shift more costs onto those who already have insurance. Along with the individual mandate, the commission recommends large subsidies for those whom the commission considers too poor to purchase the insurance it says they should have.

Under the commission's plan, people with health insurance would be taxed to subsidize health insurance for single people making as much as $40,000 a year, and families of four making as much as $82,600 a year. Many of these people pay for their own health care now, or have the assets to do so in an emergency.

The commission would also increase cost-shifting by forcing many more people into Medicaid.

Because Medicaid pays so little to providers, Medicaid as a whole generates far more uncompensated care and cost-shifting than the uninsured.

Those who advocate an individual mandate throw up all kinds of numbers to support the wild claims that the proposal would save everyone money. A Jan. 8 article from The Denver Post claims that "Coloradans who have insurance spend an extra $950 each year to cover the costs of those who show up at the hospital without insurance."

The article attributes the number to state Rep. Anne McGihon, who said that the figure comes from Partnership for a Healthy Colorado. Partnership for a Healthy Colorado, in turn, says it got the figure from Families USA, which published a paper in 2005. That paper's estimates were unable to accurately predict the percentage of uninsured residents in Colorado. The paper also grossly overestimated at least some costs of uncompensated care.

The Lewin Group, the modeling firm hired by the commission to collect information about Colorado, reported total Colorado expenses for the uninsured of about $1.4 billion. Of that amount, around 45 percent, or $627 million, was paid out-of-pocket by the uninsured themselves.

Private philanthropy covered $197 million. Another $341 million was paid by the Veterans Administration, workers compensation and various public programs.

The leftover uncompensated costs, the ones that are not paid by any identifiable source, total $239 million. Divide $239 million by Colorado's 2.8 million insured residents, and the result is a maximum likely cost-shift of about $85 per insured individual per year.

To "fix" the problem of $239 million in cost-shifting, the commission proposes to increase health spending in Colorado by more than $3 billion, funded with an income tax increase of $800 million to $1.8 billion, new taxes on various politically incorrect types of food and drink, and an increase in the cigarette tax.

The sensible way to solve cost-shifting is to reduce health-care costs so that people fund their own health care, not to force people to buy insurance created by special-interest groups or to expand Medicaid. Professor Christopher Conover of Duke University estimates that 10 percent of annual health costs are caused by inefficient regulation. Results from experiments in consumer-directed health-care plans suggest that freeing consumers, providers and insurers can reduce costs by up to 30 percent.

The hostility of the commission to any plans like this was summed up in two votes that took place one after another on the same day. First the commission voted to recommend that the state legislature study single-payer health reform plans. Then it voted not to recommend that the legislature study consumer-directed reforms. While single-payer plans have failed around the world, consumer-directed reforms are succeeding wherever they're given the chance.

Linda Gorman, a senior fellow with the Independence Institute, serves on the Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform. Ari Armstrong writes for
As we've already seen in places like Massachusetts, these sorts of "reform" don't eliminate the cost shifting. Instead they (1) expand it through the new regulations and (2) disguise it by folding it into the government budget where it is given fertile soil for further growth through the usual tax-and-spend system.

Suppose everyone had to buy mandatory "food insurance" to protect restaurants against nonpaying customers who skipped on their bills, and the government got to decide what constituted a "permissible meal" that all restaurants had to offer, and it also established a huge "Connector" to enforce the rules on restaurants, food insurers, and customers. Then everyone could see that it would be an enormous boondoggle. The cost-shifting from the nonpaying customers to paying customers wouldn't go away - instead, it would explode under new taxes, bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, and predictable special interest lobbying to get their particular pet foods included in the basic meal plan ("soybeans for everyone!"). And these adverse economic consequences would be a direct result of the government violating the rights of individual customers and restaurants, by forbidding them to freely contract between themselves what meals they wished to purchase for what price to their mutual voluntary consent.