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Archive for the ‘Medicare’ Category

I’m very worried about the burden of government spending.

Moreover, I’m quite concerned that poorly designed entitlement programs will lead to fiscal disaster.

And I’m especially irked that Obama made the problem worse by ramming through yet another misguided and costly health care entitlement.

Given this background, you can imagine that I was very interested (and depressed) to see that Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center put together some very important charts and analysis based on new fiscal policy projections.

After crunching the new numbers from CBO, here’s her bottom line conclusion.

…data from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) recently released update to its Budget and Economic Outlook to show the trends and components of projected revenue and outlay increases. …growing entitlement obligations and net interest payments are projected to push outlays (spending) to grow faster than revenues over much of the next decade.

She also produced a chart showing the ever-rising burden of both taxes and spending. Pay close attention to how the numbers get worse at a rapid rate over the next 10 years.

There are two important takeaways from this data.

First, it should be abundantly clear that Washington is not suffering from inadequate tax revenue. Receipts are projected to rise in nominal dollars, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and as a share of GDP.

In other words, America’s long-run fiscal problems are solely a result of a rising burden of government spending.

Second, on the topic of government spending, it’s important to understand that the problem is overwhelmingly caused by entitlement programs. Social Security is part of the problem, but the real issue is government-run healthcare.

The President claimed Obamacare would “bend the cost curve.” But he wasn’t truthful since the White House implied the legislation would bend the curve down rather than up.

Here’s a second chart showing the breakdown of various spending categories.

As you can see, the problem is entitlements. And the healthcare entitlements deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

If this chart isn’t sufficiently depressing, then keep in mind that the numbers get even worse after 2024.

Simply states, the United States is doomed to become another Greece in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus just on the next 10 years. Ms. de Rugy adds some detail.

…CBO projects three large budget categories—major health care programs (consisting of Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance), Social Security, and net interest payments on the debt—will account for 85 percent of the total increase in outlays from 2014 to 2024. Total outlays are projected to increase from roughly $3.5 trillion in 2014 to $5.8 trillion in 2024, for a total increase of $2.3 trillion. Major health care programs are projected to grow by $816 billion, which accounts for 32 percent of the total. Social Security spending will grow by $654.9 billion over the next decade, which constitutes 28 percent of the total increase in outlays.

Let’s close, though, with some good news.

The numbers in the previous charts are all based on what happens if government policy is left on autopilot.

But what happens if politicians impose a modest bit of spending restraint?

According to the latest CBO forecast, inflation is supposed to average almost 2 percent over the next 10 years. So if some sort of spending cap is imposed and outlays “only” grow by a commensurate amount, it turns out that there’s a remarkably quick change in America’s fiscal profile.

As seen in this chart, there’s a budget surplus by 2019. And more important, government spending by 2024 is about $1.5 trillion lower than it would be with the budget left on autopilot.

Here’s a video from a few years ago. The numbers are out of date, but the underlying analysis is still completely appropriate. Simply stated, it’s very easy to balance the budget if politicians simply follow the Golden Rule of spending restraint.

P.S. Since this was a somewhat depressing topic, let’s close with some humor.

A few years ago, I shared a satirical application form for bailout money from Uncle Sam. Well, the New Yorker has an application quiz for Syrian rebels seeking American dollars.

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Since I primarily work on fiscal policy, I normally look at the budgetary impact of entitlement programs. And the numbers are very grim.

But I’m also an economist, so I periodically comment on how government intervention undermines the efficient functioning of markets in the healthcare field.

Last but not least, I’m also a taxpayer, so I can’t resist occasionally expressing my frustration at how the government is a giant pinata of waste fraud and abuse. And government-run healthcare seems especially vulnerable.

Huge amounts of money bilked from taxpayers for supposed counseling sessions financed by Medicare and Medicaid.

Medicare getting scammed to pay for plastic surgery.

Russian diplomats scheming to get their healthcare costs covered by Medicaid.

We now have another example to add to the list.

The Washington Post has an excellent expose on how government incompetence has made Medicare a prime target for fraudsters and other crooks.

…in a Los Angeles courtroom, Bonilla described the workings of a peculiar fraud scheme that — starting in the mid-1990s — became one of the great success stories in American crime. The sucker in this scheme was the U.S. government.The tool of the crime was the motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair. …The government paid. Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers.

Wow. Billions of dollars of fraud and the government to this day still can’t figure out the level of theft.

And wheelchair fraud is just a small slice of the problem.

…while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice. …Fraud in Medicare has been a top concern in Washington for decades, in part because the program’s mistakes are so expensive. In fiscal 2013, for instance, Medicare paid out almost $50 billion in “improper payments.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that fraud is so lucrative because the government routinely over-pays for items.

…The original equipment scam had sprung up in the 1970s, at a time when Medicare was young and criminals were still learning how to steal its money. Doctors, for example, could bill Medicare for exams they didn’t do. Hospitals could bill for tests that patients didn’t need. The equipment scam was the poor man’s way in, an entry-level fraud that didn’t require a medical degree or a hospital. …“Let me put it to you this way: An $840 power wheelchair, Medicare pays close to $5,000 for. So there’s a huge profit margin there. Huge,” said one California man who participated in a recent fraud scheme involving wheelchairs.

So this isn’t just a story about government incompetence and taxpayer ripoffs, it’s also a story which shows why third-party payer is a recipe for excessive healthcare spending.

The good news is that the wheelchair scam is slowly fading away.

The bad news is that the overall problem of a poorly designed entitlement system ensures that scammers and other crooks will simply come up with other ways to pillage taxpayers.

Today, even while the wheelchair scam is in decline, that same “pay and chase” system is allowing other variants of the Medicare equipment scam to thrive. They aren’t perfect. But they work.  In Brooklyn, for instance, the next big thing is shoe inserts. Scammers bill Medicare for a $500 custom-made orthotic, according to investigators. They give the patient a $30 Dr. Scholl’s.

Geesh.

When examining entitlements, I’ve  argued that Medicaid reform is the biggest priority.

But perhaps the rampant fraud means Medicare should be addressed first.

Though the right answer is to reform both programs, which is why I’m so pleased that the House of Representatives has approved the Ryan budget for four consecutive years, even if each new proposal allows more spending than the previous one. What matters most if that Ryan’s plan block grants Medicaid and creates a premium support system for Medicare.

Those reforms won’t eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, but the structural reforms will make it harder for crooks to take advantage of the programs.

P.S. If you want more background information on Medicare, here’s a post that explains why the program is so costly even though seniors don’t enjoy first-class benefits.

P.P.S. And here’s my video explaining why Medicare desperately needs reform.

But keep in mind we also need reform of Medicaid and Social Security.

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When government suppresses the free market and takes over the healthcare sector, you get some really odd results.

Consider these stories from Sweden:

 A man sewing up his own leg after getting frustrated with a long wait.

The government denying a wheelchair to a double amputee because the bureaucrats decided his impairment might not be permanent.

Speaking of amputations, an unfortunate man was put on such a long waiting list that his only treatment, when he was finally seen, was to have his penis removed.

Today, we’re going to augment that list. But not with another story from Sweden, which is actually a much better country in terms of public policy than most folks realize.

Instead, we’re going to look at some great moments in government-run healthcare in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Our first story is from the Chicago Tribune and it deals with Medicaid and Medicare spending.

But we’re not going to look at the aggregate data. Those numbers are very sobering, to be sure, and you can click here and here to learn more about that problem.

Instead, we’re going to drill down into the details and get some up-close evidence of why the programs are so costly. Simply stated, providers learn how to bilk the government.

A few years ago, Illinois’ Medicaid program for the poor noticed some odd trends in its billings for group psychotherapy sessions. Nursing home residents were being taken several times a week to off-site locations, and Medicaid was picking up the tab for both the services and the transportation.  And then there was this: The sessions were often being performed by obstetricians and gynecologists, oncologists and urologists — “people who didn’t have any training really in psychiatry,” Medicaid director Theresa Eagleson recalled. So Medicaid began cracking down, and spending plummeted after new rules were implemented.Illinois doctors are still billing the federal Medicare program for large numbers of the same services, a ProPublica analysis of federal data shows. Medicare paid Illinois providers for more than 290,000 group psychotherapy sessions in 2012 — more than twice as many sessions as were reimbursed to providers in New York, the state with the second-highest total. Among the highest billers for group psychotherapy in Illinois were three OB-GYNs and a thoracic surgeon. The four combined for 37,864 sessions that year, more than the total for all providers in the state of California. They were reimbursed more than $730,000 by Medicare in 2012 just for psychotherapy sessions, according to an analysis of a separate Medicare data set released in April.

Some of the specific examples are beyond belief. Keep in mind as you read the next passage that there are only 365 days in a year, and only about 261 workdays.

Of the Illinois OB-GYNs billing for group psychotherapy, Dr. Josephine Kamper had the highest number of sessions. She was paid for 10,399 sessions in 2012, at a cost to Medicare of $207,980. …Another OB-GYN, Lofton Kennedy Jr., billed for 9,154 group psychotherapy services. He declined to comment. The third-highest-billing OB-GYN, Philip Okwuje, charged Medicare for 8,584 group therapy sessions.  

Illinois isn’t the only place where taxpayers are getting ripped off.

A Queens, N.Y., primary care doctor, Mark Burke, was paid for more sessions than anyone else in the country — 20,841. He accounted for nearly one in every six sessions delivered in the entire state of New York in Medicare, separate data show. He did not return messages left at his office. Another large biller was Makeba Gordon, a social worker in Detroit. She was reimbursed for nearly 5,000 group therapy sessions for her 26 Medicare patients, an average of 190 each. She also billed for 2,820 individual psychotherapy visits for the same 26 patients, who allegedly would have received an average of 298 therapy sessions apiece in 2012. Gordon could not be reached for comment.

And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the bureaucracy in Washington doesn’t seem overly worried about this preposterous waste of money.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in an email that Medicare has no policy regarding which physicians may perform group psychotherapy. During such sessions, “personal and group dynamics are discussed and explored in a therapeutic setting allowing emotional catharsis, instruction, insight, and support,” according to rules set out by one of Medicare’s contractors.

The second story comes from the United Kingdom.

Regular readers know that the government-run healthcare system in the United Kingdom is an ongoing horror story of denied care, sub-standard care, and patient brutality (click here to see some sickening examples).

You would think the U.K.’s political class would respond by trying to use money more effectively.

You would be wrong. The bureaucrats somehow have decided that tax monies should be used to finance a sperm bank, even though private sperm banks already exist.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Daily Mail.

Britain is to get its first NHS-funded national sperm bank to make it easier for lesbian couples and single women to have children.For as little as £300 – less than half the cost of the service at a private clinic –  they will be able to search an online database and choose an anonymous donor on the basis of his ethnicity, height, profession and even hobbies. …The National Sperm Bank will be based at Birmingham Women’s NHS Foundation Trust, which currently runs an existing NHS fertility clinic and recruits sperm donors from the local population. Funded by a £77,000 Government grant, the bank will be run by the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) which this year received  an additional £120,000 of public money to organise egg and sperm donation.

Some have criticized the initiative because it will purposefully increase the number of fatherless children.

…the move – funded by the Department of Health – is largely designed to meet the increasing demand from thousands of women who want to start a family without having a relationship with a man. Critics last night called it a ‘dangerous social experiment’ that could result in hundreds of fatherless ‘designer families’. …Ms Witjens rejected suggestions that children suffer adverse consequences from lacking a father figure. …Ms Witjens pointed to the removal of the reference to a ‘need for a father’ in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, when taking account of a child’s welfare when providing fertility treatment.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that children do best in conventional households with fathers, but my main reaction to this story is that government shouldn’t try to either penalize or subsidize unconventional households.

And a government-sponsored sperm bank definitely falls into the latter category.

But I’m not surprised. Governments love to squanders other people’s money, and the U.K. government has considerable expertise (if you can call it that) in this regard.

Heck, the U.K. healthcare system is even financing boob jobs. But we’re not talking about reconstructive surgery for women who had mastectomies. They pay for breast augmentation for women who claim “emotional distress.”

Though maybe the U.K. government deserves a special prize. It developed a giveaway program that was so convoluted that nobody signed up to take the money.

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I had a very bad lunch today.

But not because of what I ate. My lunch was unpleasant because I moderated a noontime panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and my Cato colleague Chris Edwards.

And I should hasten to add that they were splendid company. The unpleasant part of the lunch was the information they shared.

The Senator, in particular, looked at budgetary projections over the next 30 years and basically confirmed for the audience that an ever-expanding burden of federal spending is going to lead to a fiscal crisis.

To be blunt, he showed numbers that basically matched up with this Henry Payne cartoon.

Here’s a chart from his presentation. It shows the average burden of spending in past years, compared to various projections of how much bigger government will be – on average – over the next three decades.

The Senator warned that the most unfavorable projection (i.e., “CBO ALT FISC”) was also the most realistic one. In other words, federal spending will consume a much larger share of economic output over the next three decades than it has over the past two decades.

But our fiscal outlook is actually even worse than what you see in his slide.

The Senator’s numbers are based on average spending levels over the 2015-2044 period. That’s very useful – and sobering – data, but if you look at the annual numbers, you’ll see that the trendline gives us additional reasons to worry.

More specifically, spending for the major entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid) is closely tied to the aging population. So as more and more baby boomers retire over the next couple of decades, spending on these programs will become more burdensome.

In other words, our fiscal problem will be much larger in 2040 than it will be in 2020.

Here are the long-run numbers from the Congressional Budget Office. The blue line is federal spending on various programs and the pink line is total spending (i.e., programmatic spending plus interest payments). And keep in mind that these numbers don’t include state and local government spending, which presumably will chew up another 15 percent of our economic output!

In other words, America will become Greece.

And don’t delude yourself into thinking that CBO must be wrong. I’m not a big fan of the Congressional Budget Office (particularly CBO’s economic analysis), but these numbers are driven by demographics.

Moreover, CBO’s grim outlook is matched by similarly dismal numbers from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

By the way, CBO doesn’t do projections once federal government debt exceeds 250 percent of GDP, so the gray-colored trendline beginning about 2048 is not an official projections. It’s merely an estimate of the total spending burden assuming that the federal budget is left on autopilot.

Of course, we’ll never reach that level. We will suffer a fiscal crisis before that point. But when it happens to us, the IMF won’t be there to bail us out for the simple reason that the IMF’s credibility is based on the backing of American taxpayers.

And we’ll already have been bled dry!

So unless we find some very rich Martians (who are also stupid enough to bail out profligate governments), it won’t be a pretty situation. I’m not sure we’ll have riots, such as the ones that have taken place in Europe, but there will be plenty of suffering.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need is a modest bit of fiscal restraint so that government grows slower than the private sector. That would completely reverse Senator Johnson’s dismal long-run numbers.

And some countries have shown that multi-year periods of fiscal restraint are possible.

The real question, though, is whether politicians in America would be willing to adopt the entitlement reforms that are needed to control the long-run growth of spending.

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The Census Bureau just released a report on America’s aging population.

The big takeaway is that our population will be getting much older between now and 2050.

And since I’m a baby boomer, I very much like the fact that we’re expected to live longer.

But as a public finance economist, I’m not nearly as happy.

As I explain in this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Digital Network (and as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data), the United States is going to get deluged by a tsunami of entitlement spending.

I mentioned that it’s important to focus on the ratio of workers to retirees. This “dependency ratio” matters because economic output largely is a function of an economy’s working-age population.

To cite my famous cartoons, you need a sufficient number of people pulling the wagon to support those riding in the wagon.

Here’s a chart from the Census report to help you understand the magnitude of the problem. As you can see, both in the United States and other nations, the increase in the dependency ratio is almost entirely the result of aging populations.

Census Dependency Ratio

This is why I said that we face a slow-motion train wreck because of poorly designed entitlement programs.

But the good news is that there is time to reform those programs and avert a crisis.

Which explains why I probably sound like a broken record about the need for genuine entitlement reform.

In a column citing the new private pension system in the Faroe Islands, I gave the arguments for modernizing Social Security with personal retirement accounts.

But we also need to deal with the health entitlements.

Here’s how to fix Medicare.

And here’s how to fix Medicaid.

By the way, some of the damaging provisions of Obamacare can be de facto repealed by including them in the Medicaid block grant, so it’s a critically important reform.

Needless to say, I think these reforms are far better for the economy than the big tax hike Obama has endorsed to deal with the giant financing gap.

P.S. For a clever look at the worker-dependency ratio, check out the party ship produced by a Danish think tank.

P.P.S. The interviewer also mentioned that America’s racial composition is changing, which gives me an excuse to point out that Social Security reform is particularly beneficial for blacks because of differences in life expectancy.

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Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

By the way, I have mixed feelings about the final sentence in that excerpt. Yes, Republicans oftentimes have displayed grotesque levels of fiscal irresponsibility. Heck, just look at the new farm bill. Or the vote on the Export-Import Bank. Or the vote on housing subsidies. Or…well, you get the point.

On the other hand, GOPers have voted for three consecutive years in favor of a budget that restrains the growth of federal spending, in large part because it includes much-needed reforms to major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But Republican inconsistency isn’t our focus today.

I want to address other parts of Samuelson’s column that left a bad taste in my mouth.

He argues that you can’t balance the budget merely by cutting discretionary programs. That’s technically untrue, but it’s an accurate assessment of political reality.

I’m much more worried about his assertion that you can’t balance the budget even if entitlement spending also is being addressed.

Let’s look at what he wrote and then I’ll explain why he’s wrong.

Eliminating many programs that are arguably marginal — Amtrak, subsidies for public broadcasting and the like — would not produce enough savings to balance the budget. The reason: Spending on Social Security, Medicare and other health programs… But even plausible benefit trims for affluent retirees would still leave deficits. There would still be a need for tax increases.

This is wrong. Not just wrong, but demonstrably inaccurate.

The Ryan budget, for instance, balanced the budget in 2023. Without a single penny of tax hikes.

Senator Rand Paul and the Republican Study Committee also have produced balanced budget plans. Even as scored by the statists at the Congressional Budget Office.

By the way, you don’t even need to cut spending to balance the budget. Spending cuts would be desirable, of course, but the key to eliminating red ink is simply making sure that government spending climbs at a slower rate than revenues.

And since revenues are expected to grow by about 6 percent per year, it shouldn’t take advanced knowledge of mathematics to realize that the deficit will fall if spending grows by less than 6 percent annually.

Indeed, we could balance the budget as early as 2018 if spending merely was restrained so that the budget grew at the rate of inflation.

But never forget that the goal of fiscal policy should be shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, not fiscal balance.

Ask yourself the following questions. If $1 trillion floated down from Heaven and into the hands of the IRS, would that alter in any way the argument for getting rid of wasteful and corrupt parts of the federal leviathan, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

If the politicians had all that extra money and the budget was balanced, would that mean we could – or should – forget about entitlement reform?

If there was no red ink, would that negate the moral and economic imperative of ending the welfare state?

In other words, the first part of Samuelson’s column is right. We need a debate about “the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving.”

But we’re not going to come up with a good answer if we don’t understand basic fiscal facts.

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One of the challenges of good entitlement reform (or even bad entitlement reform) is that recipients think they’ve “earned” benefits.

If you tell them that programs such as Medicare are unsustainable and need to be changed, some of them suspect you’re trying to somehow cheat them. After all, they were forced to cough up payroll taxes during their working year.

That’s true, but the real issue is how much did they pay in tax and how much are they getting back.

Here’s a very sobering chart from the recently released Long-Term Fiscal Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office.

It shows that people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s paid, on average, between $45,000-$65,000 of taxes into Medicare. That’s a big chunk of money, but it’s far less than the $160,000-$270,000 that Medicare will spend on them.

Medicare individual tax spending

I’m tempted to say that current retirees and older workers are being charged for a hamburger but they’re getting a steak.

But that’s not accurate. As most recipients will tell you, Medicare leaves a lot to be desired, which is what you might expect with a government-run system.

So the right way to look at the program is that recipients are being charged for a hamburger, they’re getting a hamburger, but taxpayers (the ones who make up the funding gap) are being charged for a steak.

Which is why structural reform is the only good way of dealing with the program’s giant unfunded liability. As explained in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As discussed in the video, the reform (which has been part of the Ryan budget that’s been approved by the House) basically leaves the program as is for current retirees and older workers, but younger workers are allowed to move to a new system that gives them – upon retirement – the ability to choose their preferred health policy.

P.S. Don’t forget that we also need to reform Medicaid and Social Security, the other two big entitlement programs.

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