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Archive for the ‘Health Reform’ Category

Yesterday, I shared part of an interview that focused on Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s scheme to give more subsidies to colleges, thus transferring money from poorer taxpayers to richer taxpayers.

Here’s the other part of the interview, which revolved around a very bad idea to copy nations that impose price controls on prescription drugs.

In some sense, this is a debate on price controls, which have a long history (going all the way back to Ancient Rome) of failure.

But my comments focused primarily on the adverse consequences of Pelosi’s approach.

And if you want more details, Doug Badger explained how Pelosi’s approach would backfire in a report for the Heritage Foundation. He starts with an explanation of the legislation.

The Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019 (H.R. 3), introduced last week with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would double down on the failures of existing government policies that have distorted prescription drug prices and contributed to higher health care costs. …H.R. 3 would establish a system in which the U.S. government bases prices for cutting-edge drug treatments on those set by foreign governments. The measure would set an upper price limit at 1.2 times a drug’s average price in six other countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom). The secretary of health and human services then would seek to “negotiate” prices below that upper limit for at least 25—and as many as 250—drugs each year. …A manufacturer that declined to negotiate the price of any of its products would incur an excise tax of up to 95% of the revenues it derived from that product in the preceding year.

Doug then warns against an expansion of government power.

The bill represents an unprecedented exercise of raw government power. The federal government already imposes price curbs across a range of programs, requiring manufacturers to pay the government rebates… These provisions all are confined to federal programs, but nonetheless have distorted drug prices throughout the health sector. It’s one thing for the government to dictate the prices it pays in programs it finances. It is quite another for the government to impose a price for a product’s private sale and to extract money from a company on a long-ago settled transaction.

He then concludes by showing some of the negative consequences.

…aggressive government price-setting has damaged innovation and limited access to new treatments in all six of the countries whose price controls the bill would import. If the U.S. adopts price controls, it risks the same results here. Access to new drugs is much greater in the U.S. than in countries with price controls, in part because of having shunned price controls. …This lack of access can have damaging effects. A study by IHS Markit…concluded that Americans gained 201,700 life years as a result of faster access to new medicines. …Countries with price controls also suffer a decline in pharmaceutical research and development. In 1986, European firms led the U.S. in spending on pharmaceutical research and development by 24%. After the imposition of price control regimes, they fell behind. By 2015, they lagged the U.S. by 40%. …the president’s Council of Economic Advisers…concluded that while price controls might save money in the short term, they would cost more money in the long run. Government price-setting, it wrote, “makes better health care costlier in the future by curtailing innovation.”

As you can see, price controls have a deadly effect in the short run (the 201,700 life years).

But as I stated in the interview, the far greater cost – in terms of needless deaths – would become apparent in the long run as new drugs no longer come to market.

By the way, it’s not just me, or folks on the right, who recognize that there will be adverse consequences from price controls.

Writing for left-leaning Vox, Sarah Kliff acknowledges that there are trade-offs.

The United States is exceptional in that it does not regulate or negotiate the prices of new prescription drugs when they come onto market. …And the problems that causes are easy to see, from the high copays at the drugstore to the people who can’t afford lifesaving medications. What’s harder to see is that if we did lower drug prices, we would be making a trade-off. Lowering drug profits would make pharmaceuticals a less desirable industry for investors. And less investment in drugs would mean less research toward new and innovative cures. …In other words: Right now, the United States is subsidizing the rest of the world’s drug research by paying out really high prices. If we stopped doing that, it would likely mean fewer dollars spent on pharmaceutical research — and less progress developing new drugs for Americans and everybody else.

Here’s a chart from her article, which I’ve modified (in red) to underscore how other nations are free-riding because American consumers are picking up the tab for research and development.

By the way, I have no idea where the red lines actually belong. I’m just trying to emphasize that consumers who pay the market price (or closer to the market price) are the ones why underwrite the cost of discovering new drugs and treatments.

And Ms. Kliff definitely agrees this trade-off exists.

Every policy decision comes with trade-offs… If the United States began to price regulate drugs, medications would become cheaper. That would mean Americans have more access to drugs but could also expect a decline in research and development of new drugs. We might have fewer biotech firms starting up, or companies deciding it’s worth bringing a new drug to market. …Are we, as a country, comfortable paying higher prices for drugs to get more innovation? Or would we trade some of that innovation to make our drugs more accessible to those of all income levels?

For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think there’s much of a trade-off. I choose markets, both for the moral reason and because I want to maximize long-run health benefits for the American people.

P.S. Because pharmaceutical companies got in bed with the Obama White House to support Obamacare, some people may be tempted to say Pelosi’s legislation is what they deserve. While I fully agree that it’s despicable for big companies to get in bed with big government, please remember that the main victims of Pelosi’s legislation will be sick people who need new treatments.

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I’ve always considered Senator Bernie Sanders to be the most clueless and misguided of all presidential candidates.

But I also think “Crazy Bernie” is actually sincere. He really believes in socialism.

Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, seems more calculating. Her positions (on issues such as Social Securitycorporate governancefederal spendingtaxationWall Street, etc).) are radical, but it’s an open question whether she’s a true believer in statism. It’s possible that she simply sees a left-wing agenda as the best route to winning the Democratic nomination.

Regardless of motive, though, her proposals are economic lunacy. So maybe it’s time to give her “Looney Liz” as a nickname.

Consider, for instance, her new Medicare-for-All scheme. She got hammered for promising trillions of dollars of new goodies without specifying how it would be financed, so she’s put forward a plan that ostensibly fits the square peg in a round hole.

But as Chuck Blahous of the Mercatus Center explains, her plan is a farce.

…presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her proposal to ostensibly pay for the costs of Medicare for All (M4A) without raising taxes on the middle class. As published, the plan would not actually finance the costs of M4A. …the Warren proposal understates M4A’s costs, as quantified by multiple credible studies, by about 34.2%. Another 11.2% of the cost would be met by cutting payments to health providers such as physicians and hospitals. Approximately 20% of the financing is sought by tapping sources that are unavailable for various reasons, for example because she has already committed that funding to other priorities, or because the savings from them was already assumed in the top-line cost estimate. The remaining 34.6% would be met by an array of new and previous tax proposals, most of it consisting of new taxes affecting everyone now carrying employer-provided health insurance, including the middle class.

Here’s a pie chart showing that Warren is relying on smoke and mirrors for more than 50 percent of the financing.

By the way, the supposedly real parts of her plan, such as the new taxes, are a very bad idea.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute unleashed a flurry of tweets exposing flaws in her proposal.

Since I’m a tax wonk, here’s the one that grabbed my attention.

Wow. Higher taxes on domestic business income, higher taxes on foreign-source business income, higher taxes on business investment, more double taxation of capital gains, a tax on financial transactions, and a very punitive wealth tax (which would be a huge indirect tax on all saving and investment).

If ever enacted, the United States presumably would drop to last place in the Tax Foundation’s competitiveness ranking.

And let’s not forget that Medicare-for-All would dramatically increase the burden of government spending. In one fell swoop, we’d become Greece.

Actually, that probably overstates the damage. Based on my Lassez-Faire Index, I’m guessing we’d be more akin to Spain or Belgium (in other words, falling from #6 in the rankings to the #35-#40 range according to Economic Freedom of the World).

P.S. Don’t forget that Medicare has a massive shortfall already.

P.P.S. Looney Liz’s plan is terrible fiscal policy, but keep in mind it’s also terrible health policy since it would exacerbate the third-party payer problem.

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When I followed public policy in my younger days, I periodically would see stories about legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives with only one dissenting vote.

My memory isn’t perfect, I’m sure, but it seems that Ron Paul was always that lonely member. And my recollection is that he was (as usual) always on the correct side, voting for liberty and against government.

Something similar happened yesterday, except this time six members of Congress voted against a repeal of the “Cadillac Tax” that is part of Obamacare.

It was an eclectic group, but it included Justin Amash and Chip Roy, who are two of the most committed and principled supporters of free markets and limited government in Congress.

I freely admit that this is not a slam-dunk issue. After all, it’s almost always a good idea to lower taxes and almost always a good idea to jettison provisions of Obamacare.

But since the healthcare exclusion is arguably the most damaging loophole in the tax code and a major cause of ever-rising costs (because of “third-party payer“), there’s actually a very strong case – from both sides of the ideological spectrum – for retaining the Cadillac Tax.

From the right, I recommend this analysis from Alan Viard at the American Enterprise Institute.

…employer-provided health insurance gets a big tax break. Workers pay income and payroll taxes on their cash wages, but not on their health insurance benefits. …the tax break is poorly targeted because it applies even to high-cost “Cadillac” health plans. The tax system should not artificially encourage Cadillac plans, which boost demand for medical services and drive up health care costs for everyone. Although the Cadillac tax does not directly change the tax break for high-cost employer plans, it offsets the break by imposing a separate 40 percent tax on those plans. That round-about approach is far from ideal, but it gets the job done. …the Cadillac tax has won support from economists across the ideological spectrum.

From the left, here’s some of what Bruce Bartlett wrote for the New York Times.

Although obviously a form of income to the worker, the Internal Revenue Service nevertheless ruled that it was not taxable, although businesses could still deduct the cost. This anomalous tax treatment was a fabulous tax loophole for both businesses and workers… Congress codified the I.R.S. ruling.. Various tax expenditures for health cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue per year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Eliminating them could finance a significant reduction in tax rates. …If the Republicans are serious about using tax reform to improve the competitiveness of American businesses, the best thing they can do is reform employer-based health insurance.

For honest folks on the left, they should be motivated by the fact that this exclusion overwhelmingly benefits upper-income taxpayers.

This chart from the Tax Policy Center has the details about this reverse form of class warfare.

I’m more concerned about the fact that the healthcare exclusion is bad policy. Along with Medicare, Medicaid, and other forms of government intervention, it has crippled free markets and contributed to a very inefficient and costly healthcare system.

Like other loopholes, it should be repealed. But not so politicians get more money.

Every single penny should be returned to taxpayers as part of pro-growth tax reform that lowers marginal tax rates and reduces the tax bias against saving and investment.

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In addition to speaking on tax competition at the European Resource Bank in Moldova, I also appeared on a panel about healthcare.

I used the opportunity to explain how government-created “third-party payer” has crippled market forces in the United States and produced inefficiency and needlessly high costs.

There are two visuals from my presentation I want to highlight.

First, I took Milton Friedman’s explanation of the how people care about cost and quality depending on whether they’re spendingf their own money and whether they’re buying for themselves, and I then showed how it applies to America’s healthcare system.

Ideally, purchases are made in quadrant 1. Thanks to government distortions, however, most health spending in America occurs in quadrants 2, 3, and 4.

When purchases occur in quadrant 1, buyers and sellers directly interact and there are incentives on both sides to get the most value.

That’s not the case, though, with purchases in the other quadrants.

I illustrated the problem with a slide that looks at the layers that exist between health consumers and health providers.

I also shared data on how third-party payer causes higher prices in every sector where it exists and also pointed out that we see falling prices in the few parts of the healthcare sector where people actually buy with their own money.

But that’s old news.

Let look at some new information.

Doctor Scott Atlas, in a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, concisely explains the problem of government-created third-party payer.

In an effort to bring down the costs of medical care, the Trump administration wants to make prices visible to patients, and it’s moving aggressively to make that happen. …A new executive order will require providers paid by Medicare to post prices for a range of procedures. Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently finalized its mandate requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to disclose the list price of prescription drugs in direct-to-consumer television advertisements. …Yet these moves won’t be enough to bring down prices. Transparency, though essential, is not sufficient. Nor does it always need to be legislated. Laws aren’t required to force sellers of food, computers or clothing to post prices. That information is driven by consumers who actively seek value for their money. …But patients typically don’t even ask about prices, because they figure “it’s all covered by insurance.” The harmful U.S. model is unfortunately that insurance should minimize any out-of-pocket payment. Health care may be the only good or service in America that is bought and used without knowing its cost. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act instilled even broader coverage requirements and added counterproductive subsidies that encouraged more-widespread adoption of bloated insurance, reinforcing a model of coverage that prevents patients from caring about prices.

How do we fix the problem?

Dr. Atlas says people need to have control over their healthcare dollars.

To bring prices down, …patients must have stronger incentives to consider price. …But as long as insurance minimizes the patient’s share of cost, the patient won’t bother price shopping. For price-transparency to have the most impact, it must increase visibility of the only price relevant to patients—out-of-pocket costs at the time of purchase. Cheaper insurance policies with higher deductibles, coupled with large, liberalized-use, permanently owned health savings accounts, are also important to motivate consideration of price. …We can make medical care more affordable without moving to a single-payer system. Centralized models uniformly regulate costs by restricting health-care use, generating lengthy delays for needed care, limiting access to important drugs and technology, and ultimately resulting in worse disease outcomes. The better path will involve reducing the cost of medical care itself by creating the conditions that bring down prices in every other area of the economy: incentivizing empowered consumers and increasing the supply of medical care to stimulate competition among providers.

Amen.

That means reforming Medicare and Medicaid, where the government directly creates third-party payer.

And it means reforming the tax code, where the government indirectly creates third-party payer with a big preference for over-insurance.

At the risk of upsetting some people, it even means defending the “Cadillac tax,” a provision of Obamacare.

And even agreeing with the Washington Post, which opined today in favor of that provision.

Consider the House supermajority, made up of Democrats and Republicans favoring repeal of the excise tax on high-cost health insurance plans, which would otherwise take effect in 2022. …the bill is backed by a potent lobbying coalition including insurance companies, labor unions — and even ExxonMobil. …Known as the “Cadillac tax” because it applies to especially generous “Cadillac” health plans, the tax equals 40 percent of the value of private-sector health benefits exceeding $11,200 for single coverage and $30,150 for family coverage in 2022. Albeit indirectly, the tax chips away at one of the largest subsidies in the health-insurance system, the tax exclusion for employer-paid health insurance… A wide consensus of economists identifies the tax exclusion as a major source of distortion in the U.S. system, building a higher floor under costs… The Cadillac tax would curb these tendencies… killing the Cadillac tax… The United States’ already out-of-whack health-care system will become more so, and bipartisan profligacy and pandering will have triumphed again.

Let’s close with a bit of dark humor.

One of my many frustrations is that people blame the free market for the various government-caused problems in healthcare. Here’s a way of visualizing it.

Government intervenes, which causes problems, and those problems are then used as an excuse for additional intervention. Sort of a turbo-charged version of Mitchell’s Law.

Ultimately, this process may lead politicians to adopt something really crazy, such as “Medicare for All.”

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The so-called Green New Deal is only tangentially related to climate issues.

It’s best to think of it as the left’s wish list, and it includes a paid leave entitlement, government jobs, infrastructure boondoggles, and an expansion of the already bankrupt Social Security system.

But the most expensive item on the list is “Medicare for All,” which is a scheme concocted by Bernie Sanders to have the government pay for everything.

Would this be a good idea? In a column for Forbes, Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute explains that government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom has some very unfriendly features.

Nearly a quarter of a million British patients have been waiting more than six months to receive planned medical treatment from the National Health Service, according to a recent report from the Royal College of Surgeons. More than 36,000 have been in treatment queues for nine months or more. …Consider how long it takes to get care at the emergency room in Britain. Government data show that hospitals in England only saw 84.2% of patients within four hours in February. …Wait times for cancer treatment — where timeliness can be a matter of life and death — are also far too lengthy. According to January NHS England data, almost 25% of cancer patients didn’t start treatment on time despite an urgent referral by their primary care doctor. …And keep in mind that “on time” for the NHS is already 62 days after referral.

If this sounds like the VA health care system, you’re right.

Both are government run. Both make people wait.

And both produce bad outcomes. Here’s some of the data from the British system.

Unsurprisingly, British cancer patients fare worse than those in the United States. Only 81% of breast cancer patients in the United Kingdom live at least five years after diagnosis, compared to 89% in the United States. Just 83% of patients in the United Kingdom live five years after a prostate cancer diagnosis, versus 97% here in America.

Just like I told Simon Hobbs on CNBC many years ago.

The best part of Sally’s column is that she explains how the flaws in the U.K. system are being copied by Bernie Sanders and other supporters.

Great Britain’s health crisis is the inevitable outcome of a system where government edicts, not supply and demand, determine where scarce resources are allocated. Yet some lawmakers are gunning to implement precisely such a system in the United States. The bulk of the Democratic Party’s field of presidential candidates — including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren — co-sponsored Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2017 “Medicare for All” bill. That plan would abolish private insurance and put all Americans on a single government-run plan… Britons face long waits for poor care under their country’s single-payer system. That’s not the sort of healthcare model the American people are looking for.

The bottom line is that Medicare for All would further exacerbate the third-party payer problem that already plagues the health care system.

And that means ever-escalating demand, rising costs, and inefficiencies.

There are only two ways of dealing with the cost spiral. One option is huge tax increases, which would result in a massive, European-style tax burden on the lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Taxpayers in the U.K. endure higher burdens than their counterparts in America, But they also suffer from the second option for dealing with the cost spiral, which is rationing.

Some of the data was in Ms. Pipes’ column.

If you want more examples (and some horrifying examples), you can click stories from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

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America’s healthcare system is a mess, largely because government intervention (Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and the tax code’s healthcare exclusion) have produced a system where consumers almost never directly pay for their medical services.

This “third-party payer” system basically means market forces are absent. Consumers have very little reason to focus on cost, after all, if taxpayers or insurance companies are picking up the tab for nearly 90 percent of expenses.

As a result, we get ever-higher prices.

But we also get a lot of featherbedding and inefficiency because providers want to take advantage of this system.

Athenahealth offered some sobering analysis on the system last year.

The number of physicians in the United States grew 150 percent between 1975 and 2010, roughly in keeping with population growth, while the number of healthcare administrators increased 3,200 percent for the same time period. Yes, that’s 3,200 percent in 35 years…the growing number of administrators is…driven by…ever-more-complex regulations. (To cite just a few industry-disrupting regulations, consider the Prospective Payment System of 1983; the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996; and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Act of 2009.) Critics say the army of administrators does little to relieve the documentation burden on clinicians, while creating layers of high-salaried bureaucratic bloat in healthcare organizations.

And here’s the chart that succinctly captures so much of what is wrong with America’s government-distorted healthcare regime.

By the way, the chart implies that the rising number of administrators is driven by additional regulations from Washington. I certainly won’t disagree with the notion that more red tape is counterproductive, but I suspect that third-party payer is the primary cause of the problem.

Third-party payer is what causes prices to climb, and then the government and insurance companies respond with various cost-control measures that require lots of paperwork and monitoring. Hence, more administrators.

In other words, third-party payer is the problem and regulations and administrators are both symptoms.

I’ll close by noting that I shared a version of this chart last year and warned that the numbers might be exaggerated. But there’s no question about the trend of more bureaucracy, red tape, and inefficiency.

P.S. Because it’s so important to fix the third-party payer problem, I’ve actually defended one small provision of Obamacare.

P.P.S. Here’s how genuine free markets result in lower costs for healthcare.

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I very much suspect Obama partisans and Trump partisans won’t like this column, but the sad reality is that both Obamacare and Trump’s protectionism have a lot in common.

  • In both cases, government is limiting the freedom of buyers and sellers to engage in unfettered exchange.
  • In both cases, the fiscal burden of government increases.
  • In both cases, politicians misuse statistics to expand the size and scope of government.

Today, let’s add another item to that list.

  • In both cases, the Washington swamp wins thanks to increased cronyism and corruption.

To see what I mean, let’s travel back in time to 2011. I wrote a column about Obamacare and cited some very persuasive arguments by Tim Carney that government-run healthcare (or, to be more accurate, expanded government control of healthcare) was creating a feeding frenzy for additional sleaze in Washington.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists.

I then pointed out that the sordid process of Obamacare waivers was eerily similar to a passage in Atlas Shrugged.

Wesley Mouch…issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. …One was not supposed to speak about the men who…possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

Well, the same thing is happening again. Only this time, as reported by the New York Times, protectionism is the policy that is creating opportunities for swamp creatures to line their pockets.

The Trump administration granted seven companies the first set of exclusions from its metal tariffs this week and rejected requests from 11 other companies, as the Commerce Department began slowly responding to the 20,000 applications that companies have filed for individual products. …several companies whose applications were denied faced objections from American steel makers. …companies that have applied for the exclusions criticized the exercise as both long and disorganized. “This is the most screwed-up process,” said Mark Mullen, president of Griggs Steel, a steel distributor in the Detroit area. “This is a disservice to our industry and the biggest insult to our intelligence that I have ever seen from the government.”

From an economic perspective, it certainly is true that this new system is “disorganized” and “a disservice” and an “insult to our intelligence.” Those same words could be used to describe the welfare state, the EEOC, farm subsidies, the tax code, and just about everything else the government does.

But there’s one group of people who are laughing all the way to the bank, The lobbyists, consultants, fixers, and other denizens of the swamp are getting rich. Whether they’re preparing the applications, lobbying for the applications, or lobbying against the applications, they are getting big paychecks.

And the longer this sordid protectionist process continues, we will see a repeat of what happened with Obamacare as senior-level people in government move through the revolving door so they can get lucrative contracts to help clients manipulate the system (yes, Republicans can be just as sleazy as Democrats).

Washington wins and we lose.

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