Tag: health care

So This Is What an Election Is Like

Martha Coakley just called me for, oh, the fifteenth time over the long weekend. I get multiple fliers in my mailbox every day. People from other states are calling me and asking me to volunteer. I’m sure I would be seeing nonstop ads on TV, except I don’t watch TV. All this started within the last week when, as many news outlets have noted, the Democrats woke up and realized they might actually lose Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

We’re not used to competitive elections here in Massachusetts, certainly not competitive elections with national implications. But this one is huge. The Republicans have been admirably or distressingly able, depending on your perspective, to hold forty votes against more or less anything the Democrats and President Obama want to accomplish, including health care reform. I think it’s a fairly easy bet that if Coakley loses, health care reform is dead until 2013 at the earliest, since there is no chance the Republicans will allow anything that looks like an accomplishment to occur if they can possibly help it. So if you live in Massachusetts, and you care about health care reform one way or the other, you should take the time to vote tomorrow.

Update: A friend emailed to point out that should Brown win, the House Democrats could pass the Senate bill, which presumably would not then have to go back to the Senate to be voted on again. (If the conference committee modifies the Senate bill, then it would have to go back.) Then some provisions could be modified through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes. So a Coakley defeat might not be the end.

As for the comment about whether the Democrats could have negotiated with the Republicans to pick off one or two votes, they tried that for months–first via the Baucus Group of Six, then later directly with Snowe. Snowe ended up pulling out saying that the Democrats were rushing the bill, when they had spent several months talking to her specifically.

By James Kwak

United States Health Care Spending

The vast discrepancy between what we spend on health care and what every other prosperous (or not-so-prosperous) country spends on health care–and the little good it does us–is so well-known that it’s not going to change any minds when it comes to health care reform. Opponents of reform have come up with their rationalizations (more spending on technology, someone has to subsidize cheap drugs for the rest of the world, etc.), some of which contain grains of truth. But even if people aren’t listening any more, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Ezra Klein brings us the latest reminders. Here’s the most amazing graph from National Geographic:

That’s a clever trick, putting the outlier above the title of the chart. I’ll have to try it sometime.

By James Kwak

Small Steps and Health Care Costs

Hey all you deficit hawks out there. Atul Gawande, the person of the year when it comes to health care, has a long article on the cost-cutting proposals in the health care reform bill (hat tip Ezra Klein). Gawande’s main point is that the long list of pilot programs and other initiatives in the bill are probably the best possible way to reduce costs in the health care system (which, if you missed the implication, is the only way to control long-term government spending–that or eliminating Medicare).

Indeed, it’s hard to see what else the bill could have done. Remember, we have a largely private-sector health care system (both insurance and delivery), which means the government cannot simply order providers to charge less. A single-payer system might be able to take such draconian steps, but Mitch McConnell, who claims, “Two thousand seventy-four pages and trillions of dollars later, this bill doesn’t even meet the basic goal that the American people had in mind and what they thought this debate was all about: to lower costs,” is the last person who would vote for single payer. And the Republicans are similarly against anything that allows the government to use the one big lever it does have–Medicare–to force lower cost levels.

Continue reading “Small Steps and Health Care Costs”

A Few Words on Health Care Reform and Medicare Buy-In

From Ezra Klein:

“[Doctors] should be forced to work in a way that doesn’t hurt society. That, after all, is the guiding principle behind the insurance reforms: Insurers will have to live with a market that society can live with. Similarly, providers will have to live within a market that society can afford. That will mean a strict budget, at least within the federal programs (and over time, as the private programs become unaffordable, they will probably come on budget as well). …

“It’s that or national bankruptcy. And the problem, if left untreated, will only get worse, and the eventual correction, when it comes, will only be more severe. That, however, is exactly what they’re asking Snowe, and the rest of Congress, to permit. The fear with Medicare buy-in is that Medicare pays somewhat lower rates than private insurers because it tries to live within a budget, even if it fails. But like it or not, that’s the future, or one variant of it.”

Am I being hypocritical in allowing Ezra Klein to use the words “national bankruptcy?”

Continue reading “A Few Words on Health Care Reform and Medicare Buy-In”

What’s Wrong with Our Health Care Debate

Uwe Reinhardt has a post on Economix that zeroes in on Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s criticism of the new mammogram guidelines. Here’s the quote from Hutchinson:

“So this task force says all of a sudden we’re going to change the guidelines that we have had for all these years. And now the public option may not pay for those, and that means the insurance companies are going to follow. The key is that these are covered by insurance so women will not have to decide if they’re going to spend $250 to get a mammogram because they and their doctors believe it is right to do so.”

Basically, the critics of the mammogram guidelines* are bemoaning the fact that certain women may not be able to get mammograms paid for by insurance — without mentioning the fact that many women don’t have insurance to begin with.

Or, to paraphrase Reinhardt: If certain medical procedures are so important to people’s health — shouldn’t everyone get them regardless of income or insurability?

* On which, let me make clear, I have no opinion, nor any qualified basis on which to have an opinion.

By James Kwak

Free Markets and H1N1

In a free market, companies should be allowed to decide whether or not to offer paid sick leave to employees. At the margin, employees who value paid sick leave will flow to companies that offer it and employees that don’t won’t; also at the margin, companies that offer paid sick leave will be able to pay their employees a little less in other forms of compensation. Everything works out for the best.

Unfortunately, not offering paid sick leave creates a classic externality: People go to work even when they’re sick, infecting their co-workers (or customers); employers internalize some of that cost (co-workers), but not all of it (co-workers going home and infecting their kids, who then go to school — because their parents can’t stay home to take care of them — and infect their classmates, etc.). I’ve written before that we are far behind the rest of the developed world in requiring paid sick leave.

Continue reading “Free Markets and H1N1”

What Is Risk Adjustment?

I think I know what it is, and if I’m right it’s very important to health care reform, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.

Risk adjustment is the solution to the following problem. Imagine you tell all the health insurers that they have to accept the healthy and the sick, and they have to charge each the same insurance premium. You may not have to imagine for much longer; this is at the core of all the proposed health care reform bills. (In the Finance Committee bill you can discriminate based on a small number of factors, like age and tobacco usage, but that’s it.)

If you’re a profit-maximizing insurer, what do you do? You try to cherry-pick the healthy, since the revenues will be the same as for the sick and the costs will be lower. If you can do this successfully — say, by only advertising in gyms and in Runner’s World, or maybe by offering additional benefits that only the healthy will want — then you can dump the sick on someone else. That someone else will eventually (after all the private insurers get smart or go out of business) be the public option or the non-profit cooperative, whichever we end up with, which will end up losing money; the net effect is a transfer from taxpayers to private insurers. Now, the fact that insurers participating on exchanges have to take everyone should mitigate this problem, but it won’t go away. In effect, insurers will compete by marketing in ways that attract the healthy and hide from the sick, instead of competing to offer better health care at lower cost.

Continue reading “What Is Risk Adjustment?”

The Good Part of the Baucus Bill

I’ve been generally critical of the Baucus Bill, primarily because of the reduced subsidies, which I see as an increased tax on the currently uninsured middle class. But luckily Ezra Klein has been providing detailed coverage of what’s good about it – notably, the proposed reforms to the health care delivery system. See his interview with Peter Orszag and his post about Chris Jennings and most of his other posts from yesterday. On my reading, the Baucus Bill will kick off a number of initiatives that will test different ways of reducing costs or improving quality, such as ways of linking payments to outcomes.

I think this is promising because, as I’ve said before, even though we have a general idea of what the problem is – economic incentives that are cut loose from outcomes – we’re not sure how to solve it. As a result, any master plan to reduce costs without sacrificing quality is easy to attack, and given the political dynamics people will be eager to attack it. The answer is that, in the medium term, we have to figure out what does work, and the way to do that is to try lots of different things. This is exactly what a smart business would do, so it’s good to see the government doing it.

By James Kwak

Health Care Reform and Fairness

Over at the Washington Post this week, it’s back to health care reform, and our topic is fairness. Specifically, somebody has to pay if we’re going to have near-universal coverage. Do you think it should be the people who benefit immediately (the uninsured middle class*) or do you think the payment mechanism should have nothing to do with the beneficiaries (like Medicare and, to an extent, Social Security)? I think this comes down to two concepts of what government programs are for. If the former, you probably want low (or zero) subsidies; if the latter, you probably want to tax the rich, tax gasoline, auction off emission permits, or something like that.

* This is a simplification, I know. But basically, the very poor have Medicaid and will still have Medicaid after reform; most of the insured middle class have employer-based coverage or Medicare, and that isn’t going anywhere in the short term. In the long term, as we’ve argued elsewhere, everyone benefits (except the super-rich) because of increased health care security.

By James Kwak

Voodoo Cost Savings

If you really want to know about Max Baucus’s bill, head on over to Ezra Klein’s blog, which is all Baucus, all day. If you want to complain about fake cost-saving measures, stay here.

A major selling point of the Baucus bill (can’t really call it the Group of Six bill with zero Republican support; can’t call it the Democratic bill with questionable Democratic support), at least in the media, is its lower cost – $860 billion according to Baucus, $770 billion according to the CBO. This compares to the $1 trillion cost of the House bill. But this is a meaningless number, for two reasons.

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No, Wait! This Is What I Really Want!

I try not to comment on purely political issues, but sometimes they are just too infuriating.

Over the last few days, Max Baucus has been leaking “his” health care proposal, which should be made public. Regular readers will know I’m no fan of Max Baucus, whose main goals seem to be killing the public option (I know, it’s not as big deal as it’s made out to be, but it isn’t irrelevant) and cutting subsidies to poor people. But supposedly, the whole point of the Baucus/Group of Six approach was that it would result in a bipartisan bill that could clear the Senate. The tradeoff was very simple; a plan that isn’t as good as it could be, but one that could pass.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported two of the three Republicans in the Group of Six, Charles Grassley and Michael Enzi, are against the Baucus proposal, and even Olympia Snowe wants changes.

Continue reading “No, Wait! This Is What I Really Want!”

The Importance of Outcomes

Last week, Bill Moyers interviewed Jim Yong Kim, a distinguished medical professor and leader of nonprofit organizations and the new president of Dartmouth College. A lot of Kim’s work is dedicated to improving health in the developing world, so you might think he is some sort of soft-hearted lefty. But one of his main points about our health care problems was that our health care delivery system is not sufficiently tough-minded and calculating, and that health care providers can learn a lot from the business world. For example:

“JIM YONG KIM: So a patient comes into the hospital. There’s a judgment made the minute that patient walks into the emergency room about how sick that person is. And then there are relays of information from the triage nurse to the physician, from the physician to the other physician, who comes on the shift.

“From them to the ward team, that takes over that patient. There’s so many just transfers of information. You know, we haven’t looked at that transfer of information the way that, for example, Southwest Airlines has. Apparently they do it better than any other company in the world.

“BILL MOYERS: Computers?

“DR. JIM YONG KIM: No, they have taken seriously the human science of how you transfer simple information from one person to the next. And in medical school, and in the hospitals that I’ve worked in, we’ve done it ad hoc. Sometimes we do it well. Sometimes we don’t do it well. But what we know is that transfer of information is critical. Now to me, again, that’s the rocket science. That’s the human rocket science of how you make health care systems work well.”

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Another Year, Another Decline in Employer-Based Coverage

Ezra Klein shows the new Census figures on the uninsured. The long-term trend is absolutely clear: employer-based coverage is declining and public coverage is increasing, but not enough to make up the gap. Looking at the underlying data, we can see that 2008 was the eighth consecutive year in which the proportion of people covered by employer-based health insurance declined.

This is a point I’ve also tried to make before. Not only is employer-based coverage deteriorating, but the reasons for that deterioration imply that it is likely to only accelerate. As health care costs continue to increase, even if the rate of increase stays the same, the rate of deterioration will increase, because each year health care costs become a larger proportion of total costs and therefore harder to absorb. (Put another way, if health care cost inflation remains around 7% per year, each year it will be 7% of a larger proportion of employers’ costs.) Deterioration will take three forms – some employers will drop health coverage altogether, some will increase the share paid by employees, and some will shift toward less-generous plans.

Klein’s point is that it may be dangerous to premise health care reform on the idea that the employer-based system will remain what it is, because it won’t. My point was that because the employer-based system is slowly dying, people with employer-based coverage should not be thinking, “I don’t need health care reform, I’ve got my employer-based plan;” they should be thinking, “I’m afraid of what will happen when my employer drops its plan, so I need health care reform.” Unfortunately, I think both of us are right.

By James Kwak

The Myth of Consumer Choice

I’m such a public radio groupie that David Kestenbaum and Chana Joffe-Walt are minor idols of mine. I get excited on the very occasional occasions when David calls to ask me a question, and Chana . . . well, if I were in my twenties and single, I would probably have a crush on her. So I was disappointed to listen through their recent Planet Money episode on health care, waiting for them to tell the other side of the story, but finally being left to yell at my radio. (No, I don’t actually yell at inanimate objects, but you know what I mean.)

David and Chana use the metaphor of an all-you-can-eat buffet to illustrate the well-known problem in health care that end consumers don’t bear anything near the full costs of their choices, which ordinarily leads to overconsumption. One problem with our health care system is high costs, so it’s common to blame high costs on the all-you-can-eat buffet.

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Healthcare Rationing Is Good

This guest post was contributed by StatsGuy, a regular commenter on this blog.

In the current healthcare debate, Conservatives warn us that a single payer system will bring government rationing…  Progressives argue that we already have rationing, based on wealth.  Both sides are right, but both pretend that rationing is bad.  Yet as every economist knows, the allocation of scarce resources is the basis of economics itself.  The question is not whether we will have rationing – the question is how to structure a system of rationing that accomplishes our goals.

Two primary themes dominate this debate:

The Uninsured: In the past two decades, both the total number and the percentage of uninsured have increased in spite of some modest programs designed to expand coverage (like CHIP). (Original chart is here.)


The graph above, which extends through 2007, has surely worsened since 57% of US citizens are insured through their workplace (down from 63% in 2000) and unemployment increased from under 5% to 9.4% in the last couple years.

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