By James Kwak
When it comes to Obamacare, I’m firmly in the “significantly better than nothing” camp. Obamacare has increased coverage—although not as much as one might have hoped. The percentage of people uninsured has fallen from around 17% in 2013, when only a few coverage-related provisions of the ACA were in effect, to around 11% in early 2015, after the major changes kicked in in 2014. That’s six percentage points, or millions of people—but it’s still much less than half of the pre-ACA uninsured.
There has also been a lot of controversy over the impact of Obamacare on health insurance prices. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the weighted average pre-subsidy price of a silver plan on the exchanges only increased by 3.6% from 2015 to 2016, which certainly seems good. But one way the ACA keeps premiums reasonable is by pushing people into plans with high levels of cost sharing. The average silver plan has a combined annual deductible (including prescriptions) of more than $3,000; the deductible for an average bronze plan is close to $6,000. In other words, one reason that insurance premiums are affordable is that those premiums don’t buy you what they used to, as insurers shift more and more health care costs onto their customers.
This is exactly what we should have expected. Obamacare is an example of “managed competition,” something that Bill Clinton talked about on the campaign trail twenty-four years ago. The basic principle is that competitive markets will generally produce good outcomes—low costs, efficient allocation of resources to meet consumer needs, etc.—but need to be managed around the edges. Moderate Democrats (what we used to call moderate Republicans) have fallen in love with this idea, because they can talk about the wonders of markets while blaming anything they don’t like on “market failures.”
The classic example of correcting for a market failure, of course, is the individual mandate. By now, every liberal interested in policy has learned what adverse selection is and, more specifically, can explain why community rating will produce an adverse selection death spiral unless you have mandated universal participation. This is the image that Obamacare’s most ardent supporters want you to take away: cleverly designed regulation preventing a market failure and ensuring universal coverage, while enabling markets to reduce costs, encourage innovation, blah blah blah. What could be better?
The dirty not-so-secret of Obamacare, however, is that sometimes the things we don’t like about market outcomes aren’t market failures—they are exactly what markets are supposed to do.
The problem with adverse selection, remember, is that people know more about their health status than insurers do, so they only buy policies that are profitable for them on an expected basis (that is, sick people are more likely to buy insurance than healthy people), which means that insurers would lose money, so insurers raise premiums, but that only reduces the number of people buying insurance. But imagine if insurers had the same information as insureds, so they could calculate the actuarially fair price for every policy. No more adverse selection! But would that be a good outcome? Sick people and poor people would be unable to afford insurance at all. That’s what markets do: they distribute goods and services based on people’s willingness to pay, which is a function of their budget constraints. And that’s not something that we as a society are willing to accept.
So Obamacare says: No medical underwriting!—which means, basically, that the healthy and the sick pay the same up-front premiums. At this point, with a universal coverage mandate and no medical underwriting, you might think we should just have a single payer system. But … but … markets!
So, in order to give private insurers something to do, Obamacare allows them to offer different flavors of health plans, within the rules set up by the ACA. But what is it that insurance companies do? They try to sell policies for more (in premiums) than they cost (in benefits). We know sick people will cost more than healthy people, but now insurers aren’t allowed to price discriminate on the front end. So, instead, they offer plans with loads of cost sharing—high deductibles, high out-of-pocket maximums, and high levels of coinsurance. Cost sharing has two purposes. One is to deter people from actually using health care—this is the reality of “consumer-driven health care.” The other is to make the sick pay more than the healthy. Remember, that’s how markets are supposed to work. Insurers are supposed to identify the sick people and charge them more for insurance; Obamacare says they can’t do that, so instead they switch to policies that force sick people to pay more for care at the point of service.
None of this is at all nefarious. If you’re going to have private health insurance companies, you have to let them try to make money—otherwise, what’s the point? Indeed, if you like markets, you have to recognize that markets only do what they do because companies are trying to make money.
But you run up against this fundamental problem: Markets work by making people pay for what they get; the more health care you “consume,” the more you pay, either in insurance premiums or at the hospital. But the vast majority of Americans are not comfortable with the idea that rich people get good health care, middle-class people get passable health care (until they get seriously ill, in which case they go bankrupt), and poor people get no health care to begin with.
Obamacare is a heroic attempt to make the best out of this basic conundrum: we are trying to use markets to distribute something that, at the end of the day, we don’t want distributed according to market forces. That’s why we have not only the individual mandate and the prohibition on medical underwriting, but also the expansion of Medicaid, the subsidies, the Cadillac tax (because we don’t like the market when it produces gold-plated insurance plans) and, most telling of all, risk adjustment.
What is risk adjustment? Well, consider what a profit-seeking insurer would do if it has to charge the same price to everyone. In that case, you want to sell insurance to healthy people, not to sick people. Since you’re not allowed to turn people away, you design marketing programs so that only healthy people find out about your product. Again, nothing nefarious going on. But that’s bad for the system, because then other insurers will get stuck with the sick people, lose money, and pull out of the market.
So Obamacare’s risk adjustment provisions transfer money from plans with healthy people to plans with sick people. Insurance companies aren’t allowed to compete by trying to attract lower-risk customers. The only way they are allowed to compete is by paying less to health care providers for the same services (since Obamacare requires standard minimum benefit packages for all plans). But the thing is, we already know how to lower payments to providers. The key is to be a really, really big insurance plan, covering lots of people, so that you have bargaining power when it comes time to negotiate rates with hospitals and physician offices. There’s no “innovation” to stimulate here; it’s pure market power. No one has more of it than Medicare—and nothing can have as much market power as a single payer plan.
So at the end of the day, Obamacare is based on the idea that competition is good, but tries to prevent insurers from competing on all significant dimensions except the one that the government is better at anyway. We shouldn’t be surprised when insurance policies get worse (in terms of the benefits they actually provide) and health care costs continue to rise.
If we take as our starting premise that everyone should be able to afford decent health care—something that literally everyone agrees with—then the most obvious solution is single payer or one of its close cousins, such as we see in every other advanced economy in the world. But … markets! Not just Republicans, but also most Democrats are convinced that markets must be better, because of something they learned in Economics 101. Health care is one of the best examples of economism—the outsized influence that the competitive market model has had on public policy, even in areas where its lessons patently don’t apply.
You could say that the Obama administration made the best of the lousy hand it was dealt by decades of market propaganda and a weak majority that hinged on Democrats In Name Only. Obamacare certainly improves on what preceded it (nothing, that is, as far as the individual market is concerned). But ultimately it is a flawed attempt to force markets to produce outcomes that markets don’t want to produce.