Every once in a while a politician comes up with an idea that’s so bad, so wrongheaded, that you’re almost grateful. For really bad ideas can help illustrate the extent to which policy discourse has gone off the rails.
And so it was with Senator Joseph Lieberman’s proposal, released last week, to raise the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67.
Like Republicans who want to end Medicare as we know it and replace it with (grossly inadequate) insurance vouchers, Mr. Lieberman describes his proposal as a way to save Medicare. It wouldn’t actually do that. But more to the point, our goal shouldn’t be to “save Medicare,” whatever that means. It should be to ensure that Americans get the health care they need, at a cost the nation can afford.
And here’s what you need to know: Medicare actually saves money — a lot of money — compared with relying on private insurance companies. And this in turn means that pushing people out of Medicare, in addition to depriving many Americans of needed care, would almost surely end up increasing total health care costs.
The idea of Medicare as a money-saving program may seem hard to grasp. After all, hasn’t Medicare spending risen dramatically over time? Yes, it has: adjusting for overall inflation, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose more than 400 percent from 1969 to 2009.
But inflation-adjusted premiums on private health insurance rose more than 700 percent over the same period. So while it’s true that Medicare has done an inadequate job of controlling costs, the private sector has done much worse. And if we deny Medicare to 65- and 66-year-olds, we’ll be forcing them to get private insurance — if they can — that will cost much more than it would have cost to provide the same coverage through Medicare.
By the way, we have direct evidence about the higher costs of private insurance via the Medicare Advantage program, which allows Medicare beneficiaries to get their coverage through the private sector. This was supposed to save money; in fact, the program costs taxpayers substantially more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.
And then there’s the international evidence. The United States has the most privatized health care system in the advanced world; it also has, by far, the most expensive care, without gaining any clear advantage in quality for all that spending. Health is one area in which the public sector consistently does a better job than the private sector at controlling costs.
Indeed, as the economist (and former Reagan adviser) Bruce Bartlett points out, high U.S. private spending on health care, compared with spending in other advanced countries, just about wipes out any benefit we might receive from our relatively low tax burden. So where’s the gain from pushing seniors out of an admittedly expensive system, Medicare, into even more expensive private health insurance?
Wait, it gets worse. Not every 65- or 66-year-old denied Medicare would be able to get private coverage — in fact, many would find themselves uninsured. So what would these seniors do?
Well, as the health economists Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll document, right now Americans in their early 60s without health insurance routinely delay needed care, only to become very expensive Medicare recipients once they reach 65. This pattern would be even stronger and more destructive if Medicare eligibility were delayed. As a result, Mr. Frakt and Mr. Carroll suggest, Medicare spending might actually go up, not down, under Mr. Lieberman’s proposal.
O.K., the obvious question: If Medicare is so much better than private insurance, why didn’t the Affordable Care Act simply extend Medicare to cover everyone? The answer, of course, was interest-group politics: realistically, given the insurance industry’s power, Medicare for all wasn’t going to pass, so advocates of universal coverage, myself included, were willing to settle for half a loaf. But the fact that it seemed politically necessary to accept a second-best solution for younger Americans is no reason to start dismantling the superior system we already have for those 65 and over.
Now, none of what I have said should be taken as a reason to be complacent about rising health care costs. Both Medicare and private insurance will be unsustainable unless there are major cost-control efforts — the kind of efforts that are actually in the Affordable Care Act, and which Republicans demagogued with cries of “death panels.”
The point, however, is that privatizing health insurance for seniors, which is what Mr. Lieberman is in effect proposing — and which is the essence of the G.O.P. plan — hurts rather than helps the cause of cost control. If we really want to hold down costs, we should be seeking to offer Medicare-type programs to as many Americans as possible.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 12, 2011
The current cry to reduce Federal deficits and debt growth by reducing Medicare and Medicaid entitlements is totally missing the key issue: the need to moderate all health care inflation. This should be the time for a national debate on how to best tackle the underlying cost problem, for the sake of our future, the economy, and access to health care.
The June 13-19, 2009 Economist editorialized: “America has the most wasteful [health] system on the planet. Its fiscal future would be transformed if Congress passed reforms that emphasized control of costs as much as the expansion of coverage that Barack Obama rightly wants.”
Health reform failed to get an adequate handle on all health care costs. Now there are constant calls by various expert commissions and many in Congress for entitlement spending reductions. Such cuts will create enormous new problems by failing to address the underlying, real problem of health costs and inflation.
Cutting just Medicare and Medicaid without addressing the whole problem is like squeezing a balloon—the balloon starts looking very strange very fast. While it is difficult to tell how much cost-shifting may occur and it will vary from market-to-market, some Medicare and Medicaid cuts probably get passed through in higher costs to the private sector—hardly a helpful action. (Congressional Budget Office, December 2008, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, p. 116) Cuts that are too deep in Medicare will also end up causing providers to be reluctant to see seniors and people with disabilities—as happens all too often today in Medicaid. In time, quality may be threatened.
And Medicare and Medicaid are not particularly driving the problem of soaring health care costs. As various studies have shown, over the long haul, Medicare has probably inflated slightly less rapidly for a comparable package of services than the private sector has. Recent reports by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) show that high quality, efficient hospitals have made a little money on Medicare, while private insurers have often failed to control costs, and have paid less effective hospitals 132 percent of the costs of running an efficient hospital. (See, for example, MedPAC’s March 2009 Report to Congress, Section 2A.)
A Comprehensive Approach To Health Care Cost Containment
It is past time for a comprehensive solution to ensure the affordability of a fundamental need: access to health care. We should say that access to reasonably affordable health care is a basic national need, like access to clean water and air, and treat it like a regulated utility—like your water–where cost growth is kept within a reasonable range and where a reasonable quality service is widely available (but if you want to go buy Perrier, you can).
Instead of squeezing one part of the health care cost balloon (Medicare and Medicaid), we need an “all saver” system. Under this system, any provider in the health care sector which inflates its billings faster than the growth in the CPI plus, say, one percent (adjusted for changes in population, new technologies, increased productivity, and changes in the severity of the cases that provider treats) would owe a rebate of the excess amount to its customers—both private and public. If the rebate were not provided, that excess income would face a 100 percent tax. The Federal government could do this under the Commerce clause, or, to enable providers and patients to opt out, could require participation by those accepting payment from Medicare, Medicaid, and payers claiming tax-deductible medical expenses.
How would the plan work? Complicated? Yes, but soon very doable with today’s health information technology systems and the coding systems developed by Medicare and others. It would take several years to set the system up, but it would work like this. Let’s say a hospital in a base year of 2013 had $100 million worth of billings. If consumer inflation were 4 percent and if the system allowed another 1 percent (just because we do highly value health care and some extra growth is a reasonable choice), then in 2014, the hospital could bill $105 million. (Let’s assume that an expensive new technology is available that costs an extra $1 million, but let’s also assume that increase is coincidentally offset by a national increase in productivity of 1 percent that saves about $1 million.)
If the hospital bills its customers $110 million in 2014, yet those customers are no sicker or more complicated to treat than in 2013 (as proven by the audited billing codes or adjusted for coding creep), the hospital will owe its customers $5 million in rebates. If Medicare paid 40 percent of the bills ($44 million), it would receive back 40 percent of the $5 million excessive inflation ($2 million). If a large employer’s health plan paid 20 percent of the provider’s bills, it would get $1 million back, and so forth.
If a provider did not want to participate, they could insist on only after-tax cash customers, and individuals would be free to use such doctors and hospitals.
Changing The Debate
Instead of focusing on Medicare/Medicaid cuts, Congress should be debating ideas of how to moderate all health care spending while minimizing interference in the practice of medicine. The plan I’ve described is just one option, and of course it would have to be adjusted to deal with many complexities. For example:
- How could the plan be made fair to new doctors and facilities with one-time extra start-up costs and no history of billings?
- How could the plan use quarterly payments or rolling averages to avoid many providers shutting down in December?
- How could society encourage further innovation, perhaps by offering more inflation for drugs certified as breakthroughs by the Food and Drug Administration?
- What cosmetic-type services could or should be exempt?
- What MedPAC-like advice and constitutional governance would be best?
Of course, if over the next decade reforms such as electronic medical records, comparative effectiveness research, and new bundling of the way we pay for services sufficiently ‘bends’ the spending curve downward, this system could be suspended. But it is doubtful those changes will do enough, and it is time to act on a comprehensive solution.
Incidentally, slowing all health care inflation would not only save enormous amounts in Medicare and Medicaid; over time it should achieve huge extra CBO/Joint Tax scorable savings, because the private sector and individuals will claim less in tax-deductible expenses for health care.
Budget reform that gets a handle on all health care inflation will solve most—or at least the toughest–of the ‘entitlement and future debt problems facing the nation. The entitlement problem is overwhelmingly a Medicare problem, driven not so much by more seniors or an aging population as by constantly soaring per capita costs of care. If we try to solve the entitlement problem just by cutting Medicare and Medicaid, we will destroy those programs. We need a total solution, because soaring health care costs are distorting the economy and our future as a successful nation.
Now is the time for this debate.
By: William Vaughan, Health Affairs Blog, Originally published March 3, 2011