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Archive for the ‘Health Reform’ Category

I feel compelled to comment on the Supreme Court’s latest Obamacare decision, though I could sum up my reaction with one word: disgust.

  • I’m disgusted that we had politicians who decided in 2009 and 2010 to further screw up the healthcare system with Obamacare.
  • I’m disgusted the IRS then decided to arbitrarily change the law in order to provide subsidies to people getting insurance through the federal exchange, even though the law explicitly says those handouts were only supposed to go to those getting policies through state exchanges (as the oily Jonathan Gruber openly admitted).
  • I’m disgusted that the lawyers at the Justice Department and the Office of White House Counsel didn’t have the integrity to say that handouts could only be given to people using state exchanges.
  • But most of all, I’m disgusted that the Supreme Court once again has decided to put politics above the Constitution.

In theory, the courts play a valuable role in America’s separation-of-powers system. They supposedly protect our freedoms from majoritarianism. And they ostensibly preserve our system of checks and balances by preventing other branches of the federal government from exceeding their powers.

To be sure, the courts – including and especially the Supreme Court – have not done a good job in some areas. Ever since the 1930s, for instance, they’ve completely failed to limit the federal government to the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court’s first Obamacare decision back in 2012 then took that negligence to a higher level.

Now we have a second Obamacare decision. And this one may be even more outrageous because the Supreme Court decided to act as a pseudo-legislature by arbitrarily re-writing Obamacare.

Here’s what George Will wrote about the decision.

The most durable damage from Thursday’s decision is not the perpetuation of the ACA, which can be undone by what created it — legislative action. The paramount injury is the court’s embrace of a duty to ratify and even facilitate lawless discretion exercised by administrative agencies and the executive branch generally. …The decision also resulted from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s embrace of the doctrine that courts, owing vast deference to the purposes of the political branches, are obligated to do whatever is required to make a law efficient, regardless of how the law is written. What Roberts does by way of, to be polite, creative construing (Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting, calls it “somersaults of statutory interpretation”) is legislating, not judging. …Thursday’s decision demonstrates how easily, indeed inevitably, judicial deference becomes judicial dereliction, with anticonstitutional consequences. We are, says William R. Maurer of the Institute for Justice, becoming “a country in which all the branches of government work in tandem to achieve policy outcomes, instead of checking one another to protect individual rights.

Here’s the bottom line, from Will’s perspective.

The Roberts Doctrine facilitates what has been for a century progressivism’s central objective, the overthrow of the Constitution’s architecture. The separation of powers impedes progressivism by preventing government from wielding uninhibited power.

Here’s how my Cato colleagues reacted, starting with Michael Cannon, our healthcare expert whose heroic efforts at least got the case to the Supreme Court.

…the Supreme Court allowed itself to be intimidated. …the Court rewrote ObamaCare to save it—again. In doing so, the Court has sent a dangerous message to future administrations… The Court today validated President Obama’s massive power grab, allowing him to tax, borrow, and spend $700 billion that no Congress ever authorized. This establishes a precedent that could let any president modify, amend, or suspend any enacted law at his or her whim.

Now let’s look at the responses of two of Cato’s constitutional scholars. Roger Pilon is less than impressed, explaining that the Roberts’ decision is a bizarre combination of improper deference and imprudent activism.

With Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion for the Court, therefore, we have a perverse blend of the opposing positions of the judicial restraint and activist schools that reigned a few decades ago. To a fault, the Court today is deferential to the political branches, much as conservatives in the mold of Alexander Bickel and Robert Bork urged, against the activism of the Warren and Burger Courts. But its deference manifests itself in the liberal activism of a Justice Brennan, rewriting the law to save Congress from itself. As Scalia writes, “the Court forgets that ours is a government of laws and not of men.”

And Ilya Shapiro also unloads on this horrible decision.

Chief Justice Roberts…admits, as he did three years ago in the individual-mandate case, that those challenging the administration are correct on the law. Nevertheless, again as he did before, Roberts contorts himself to eviscerate that “natural meaning” and rewrite Congress’s inartfully concocted scheme, this time such that “exchange established by the state” means “any old exchange.” Scalia rightly calls this novel interpretation “absurd.” …as Justice Scalia put it, “normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.” …like three years ago, we have a horrendous bit of word play that violates all applicable canons of statutory interpretation to preserve the operation of a unpopular program that has done untold damage to the economy and health care system.

Now I’ll add my two cents, at least above and beyond expressing disgust. But I won’t comment on the legal issues since that’s not my area of expertise.

Instead I’ll have a semi-optimistic spin. I wrote in 2013 that we should be optimistic about repealing Obamacare and fixing the government-caused dysfunctionalism (I don’t think that’s a word, but it nonetheless seems appropriate) of our healthcare system.

This latest decision from the Supreme Court, while disappointing, doesn’t change a single word of what I wrote two years ago.

P.S. Since today’s topic (other than my conclusion) was very depressing, let’s close by looking at something cheerful.

I’ve commented before that America has a big advantage over Europe because of a greater belief in self-reliance and a greater suspicion of big government.

Well, now we have further evidence. Here’s some polling data from AEI’s most recent Political Report. As you can see, there’s a much stronger belief in self-sufficiency in the United States than there is in either Germany or Italy.

Polling data like this is yet another sign of America’s superior social capital.

And so long as Americans continue to value freedom over dependency, then there’s a chance of fixing the mess in Washington. Not just Obamacare, but the entire decrepit welfare state.

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When I criticize government-run healthcare, I normally focus on programs and interventions that distort and damage the American health sector.

So I’ve written a lot on the failures of Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare, as well as the counterproductive effects of the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

But if some government is bad for the health sector, then lots of government must be even worse.

And that’s exactly what we find when we peruse stories about the British National Health Service.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable story in the U.K.-based Independent.

A London man whose leg was broken after thieves stole his bike was forced to take an Uber taxi to the hospital after he was told that his injury “wasn’t serious enough” to warrant an ambulance. …Suffering from a broken leg and lying on the ground in agony, he called 999, only for the person on the other end to tell him to call the 111 non-emergency number as his injury wasn’t sufficiently serious for an ambulance. Eventually, three police officers picked him up and drove him home. He then had to book an Uber taxi to take him to the hospital.

Though maybe this is an example of karma.

“That is the most disappointing thing. At the time I was incredulous. I’m always a defender of the NHS but I want to know why they didn’t listen to my call properly.”

Sort of like when a defender of the IRS experiences an audit.

So how does the government defend the fact that it ignored a man with a broken leg?

In a statement to the Standard, the LAS said: “From the information given us, the patient was concious and alert and had no immediately life-threatening injuries…”

Gee, how comforting. If you’re about to die, they’ll send an ambulance. But not for anything less than that.

I guess the National Health Service sets policy based on scenes from Monty Python movies. If you just have a “flesh wound,” you’re out of luck.

Some readers may be wondering if this is an isolated example of incompetence that shouldn’t be used to indict the British system.

That’s a fair point. Indeed, there are doubtlessly similar example of malpractice in the United States (particularly with Medicare and Medicaid) and other jurisdictions where government doesn’t run the entire healthcare system.

So let’s shift to a story in the U.K.-based Telegraph that is a searing critique of the overall track record of nationalized health care.

NHS delays diagnosing and treating cancer are costing up to 10,000 lives a year, experts have warned. …Britain has one of the lowest cancer survival rates in Western Europe.  Nice said too many GPs are “guessing” whether symptoms could mean cancer, with late diagnosis responsible for thousands of deaths. … Britain is eighth from bottom in league tables comparing cancer survival in 35 Western nations, latest research shows, on a par with Poland and Estonia. …Each year, the UK has around 10,000 more cancer deaths which could have been prevented, compared with similar countries in Europe.

Hmmm…, I guess I was right in my spat with a British television host.

The (potentially) good news is that there is an effort to address this terrible track record.

For the first time, GPs will be issued with checklists of symptoms to help them spot the disease, in a bid to prevent at least half of the needless deaths. …Roger Goss, from Patient Concern, said he was surprised that doctors needed to be given such advice.  “I would be quite worried if GPs don’t know the basics of common cancers and what to look out for,” he said.  He also said that in too many areas, family doctors were under pressure to reduce the number of patients referred for tests, in order to save money.

The last sentence in the excerpt is worrisome. One of the big problems with government-run healthcare is that everybody is playing with other people’s money, and healthcare providers don’t have much incentive to be efficient or to cater to the needs of patients.

Which is, unfortunately, quite similar to the problems we have in the United States thanks to pervasive government intervention, which has caused a huge third-party-payer problem.

So I’m not overly optimistic that a new set of guidelines is going to have much effect on the quality of care on the other side of the Atlantic.

Oh, I almost forgot. Why does the title of this column include the parenthetical statement about not telling Paul Krugman about these examples of horrible results in the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system?

For the simple reason that we don’t want to burst his bubble. Krugman assured us back in 2009 that government-run healthcare was a good idea, writing that “In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

So I guess these horror stories we just reviewed are just a figment of someone’s imagination.

And I guess we have to also conclude that all the other horror stories we’ve previously shared (see here, here, herehere, herehere, here, hereherehere, here, hereherehere, herehere, here and here) also must be false.

P.S. We also have some horror stories about government-run healthcare in Sweden.

P.P.S. Though I should point out that there are good things about Sweden.

Heck, there are also good things to say about the United Kingdom.

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When one thinks about all the Obamacare lies, it’s difficult to identify the worst one.

In other words, just about everything we were told was a fib. Even the tiny slivers of good news resulting from Obamacare were based on falsehoods.

So I almost feel like I’m guilty of piling on by writing about another big Obamacare lie.

But Charles Krauthammer has such a strong critique of Obamacare’s mandate for electronic health records that I can’t resist. He starts by pointing out that doctors are unhappy about this costly new mandate.

…there was an undercurrent of deep disappointment, almost demoralization, with what medical practice had become. The complaint was not financial but vocational — an incessant interference with their work, a deep erosion of their autonomy and authority…topped by an electronic health records (EHR) mandate that produces nothing more than “billing and legal documents” — and degraded medicine.

Not just unhappy. Some of them are quitting and most of them are spending less time practicing actual health care.

Virtually every doctor and doctors’ group I speak to cites the same litany, with particular bitterness about the EHR mandate. As another classmate wrote, “The introduction of the electronic medical record into our office has created so much more need for documentation that I can only see about three-quarters of the patients I could before, and has prompted me to seriously consider leaving for the first time.” …think about the extraordinary loss to society — and maybe to you, one day — of driving away 40 years of irreplaceable clinical experience.

Then Krauthammer exposes the deceptions we were fed when Obamacare was being debated.

The newly elected Barack Obama told the nation in 2009 that “it just won’t save billions of dollars” — $77 billion a year, promised the administration — “and thousands of jobs, it will save lives.” He then threw a cool $27 billion at going paperless by 2015. It’s 2015 and what have we achieved? The $27 billion is gone, of course. The $77 billion in savings became a joke. Indeed, reported the Health and Human Services inspector general in 2014, “EHR technology can make it easier to commit fraud,” as in Medicare fraud, the copy-and-paste function allowing the instant filling of vast data fields, facilitating billing inflation.

A boondoggle on the back of taxpayers. Flushing $27 billion is bad enough, but the indirect costs also are large.

That’s just the beginning of the losses. Consider the myriad small practices that, facing ruinous transition costs in equipment, software, training and time, have closed shop, gone bankrupt or been swallowed by some larger entity. …One study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that emergency-room doctors spend 43 percent of their time entering electronic records information, 28 percent with patients. Another study found that family-practice physicians spend on average 48 minutes a day just entering clinical data.

Here’s the bottom line.

EHR is health care’s Solyndra. Many, no doubt, feasted nicely on the $27 billion, but the rest is waste: money squandered, patients neglected, good physicians demoralized.

Not much ambiguity in that sentence. To put it bluntly, “EHR” is the kind of answer you get when you ask a very silly question.

But on a more serious note, now read what Dr. Jeffrey Singer wrote about electronic health records. Simply stated, this is like Solyndra, but much more expensive. Instead of wasting a few hundred million on cronyist handouts to Obama campaign donors, EHR is harming an entire sector of the economy.

The only thing I’ll add is that neither Krauthammer nor Singer contemplated the possible risks of amassing all the information contained in EHRs given the growing problem of hacking and identity theft.

P.S. On another topic, I’ve written several times about the excessive pay and special privileges of bureaucrats in California.

Now, thanks to Reason, we can read with envy about another elitist benefit for that gilded class.

…a little-known California state program designed to protect police and judges from the public disclosure of their home addresses had expanded into a massive database of 1.5 million public employees and their family members… Because of this Confidential Records Program, “Vehicles with protected license plates can run through dozens of intersections controlled by red light cameras and breeze along the 91 toll lanes with impunity,” according to the Orange County Register report. They evade parking citations and even get out of speeding tickets because police officers realize “the drivers are ‘one of their own’ or related to someone who is.”

You may be thinking that the law surely was changed after it was exposed by the media.

And you would be right. But if you thought the law would be changed to cut back on this elitist privilege, you would be wrong.

…the legislature did worse than nothing. It killed a measure to force these plate holders to provide their work addresses for the purpose of citations — and expanded the categories of government workers who qualify for special protections. This session, the legislature has decided to expand that list again, never mind the consequences on local tax revenues, safety and fairness. …Given the overwhelming support from legislators, expect more categories to be added to the Confidential Records Program — and more public employees and their families being free to ignore some laws the rest of us must follow.

This is such a depressing story that I’ll close today with this bit of humor about bureaucracy in the Golden State.

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I’ve often complained that government-created third-party payer is the main problem with America’s healthcare system, and I was making that point well before Obamacare was imposed upon the country.

The issue is very straightforward. In a genuine free market, people pay “out of pocket” for routine expenses. And they rely on insurance only in cases where they may face large, unexpected costs.

But in our current healthcare system, thanks to Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, most of us buy services with other people’s money and that dramatically distorts incentives.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this messed-up approach back in 2009.

…our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. Last but not least, we need to consider how this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? …Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

As you can see, I’m frustrated.

I think the system is inefficient from an economic perspective. But I’m also a consumer, and I’m very dissatisfied whenever I have to deal with the healthcare system.

Fortunately, more and more people are adding their two cents on this topic.

Here’s some great analysis on the issue by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. He starts by pointing out how prices for health care generally climb much faster than the overall CPI price level.

Between 1998 and 2014 the price of medical care services in the US (as measured by the BLS’s CPI for Medical Care Services) has increased by 88.5%, or more than twice the 45.8% increase in consumer prices in general over that period… On an annual basis, medical care costs in the US have increased more than 4% per year compared to an average inflation rate of only 2.4% over the last 16 years.

He then explains that a big problem is third-party payer, which eviscerates normal market forces.

As a result, consumers are relatively insensitive to price, which means producers and providers can charge more and be relatively inefficient.

One of the reasons that medical care costs in the US have increased almost twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage is paid out-of-pocket by consumers. According to data from the Census Bureau, almost half (47%) of health care expenditures in 1960 were paid by consumers out-of-pocket, and by 1990 that share had fallen to 20% and by 2009 to only 12%. …Consumers of health care have no incentive to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical services when they only pay 10% themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t price sensitive.

Mark then asks what the world would look like if the free market was allowed to function. And he identifies a niche in the healthcare system where that happens.

How would the market for medical services operate differently if consumers were paying out-of-pocket for medical procedures in a competitive market? Well, we can look to the $7.5 billion US market for elective cosmetic surgery for some answers.

And the information he shares is remarkable.

The table…shows the top five most popular surgical procedures and top five most popular non-surgical procedures for 2014, the number of each of those procedures performed last year, the total expenditures for each procedure, the average price per procedure both in 1998 and 2014, and the percent increase in price since 1998 for each procedure. …For the top ten most popular cosmetic procedures last year, none of them has increased in price since 1998 more than the 45.8% increase in consumer price inflation…, meaning the real price of all of those procedures have fallen over the last 16 years. …For three of the top five favorite non-surgical procedures in 2014 (botox, laser hair removal and chemical peel), the nominal prices have actually fallen since 1998 by large double-digit percentage declines of -23.6%, -31.2% and -30.1%.  …none of the ten cosmetic procedures in the table above have increased in price by anywhere close to the 88.5% increase in medical care services since 1998.

Here’s Mark’s chart, and I’ve circled the relevant bits of data.

Just in case it’s not obvious, Mark then draws the should-be-obvious conclusions from this data.

Simply stated, when people spend their own money, they are careful shoppers. And when consumers are careful shoppers, that leads to competitive pressure on producers and providers to be much more efficient.

The competitive market for cosmetic procedures operates differently than the traditional market for health care in important and significant ways. Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying out-of-pocket for cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious, and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Because of that market competition, the prices of almost all cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars before adjusting for price changes. In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by less than the 88.5% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2014.

That last sentence is the key. Because of third-party payer, overall health care expenses have climbed about twice the rate of inflation.

For cosmetic surgery, where normal market forces operate thanks to an absence of government-imposed and government-subsidized third-party payer, prices climb slower than overall inflation.

Here’s a video, produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, on the problem of third-party payer.

As you can see, Obamacare made the problem worse, but it’s just one small part of a really big problem caused by decades of government intervention.

P.S. The video expands upon the analysis provided in a previous CF&P video.

P.P.S. Setting aside the debate about whether it’s right or wrong, the abortion market also is an interesting case study of how prices don’t rise when consumers pay out of pocket.

P.P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also is screwing up the market for higher education.

P.P.P.P.S. Mark Perry not only is a good economist, as you can see above, but he’s also a brave guy for being willing to antagonize feminists.

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In the grand scheme of things, the most important development in health policy is the pending Supreme Court case revolving around whether subsidies can be provided to people obtaining health insurance from the federal exchange, even though the law explicitly says handouts are only available to people getting policies via state exchanges.

If the Court rules correctly (unlike, ahem, the last time the Justices dealt with Obamacare), it will then be very important that congressional reformers use the resulting mess to unwind as much of the law as possible.

That will be a challenge because statists already are arguing that the “only” solution is to re-write the law so that subsidies are also available via the federal government. For what it’s worth, my colleague Michael Cannon outlines the right strategy in Cato’s newly released Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress.

But let’s set aside that issue because we have a great opportunity to review another example of how government-run healthcare is a miserable failure.

Our topic for today is government-dictated electronic health records (EHRs). Dr. Jeffrey Singer is on the front lines of this issue. As a physician in Arizona, he deals with the real-world impact of this particular mandate.

And he’s so unhappy that he wrote a column on the topic for the Wall Street Journal.

Starting this year, physicians like myself who treat Medicare patients must adopt electronic health records, known as EHRs, which are digital versions of a patient’s paper charts. …I am an unwilling participant in this program. In my experience, EHRs harm patients more than they help.

By way of background, he explains that EHRs were part of Obama’s failed “stimulus” legislation and they were imposed on the theory that supposed experts could then use the resulting data to make the system more efficient and effective.

The federal government mandated in the 2009 stimulus bill that all medical providers that accept Medicare adopt the records by 2015. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that EHRs would facilitate “evidence-based medicine,” thereby improving the quality of care for patients.

But Dr. Singer says the real-world impact is to make medical care less effective and more expensive.

Electronic health records are contributing to two major problems: lower quality of care and higher costs. The former is evident in the attention-dividing nature of electronic health records. They force me to physically turn my attention away from patients and toward a computer screen—a shift from individual care to IT compliance.The problem is so widespread that the American Medical Association—a prominent supporter of the electronic-health-record program—felt compelled to defend EHRs in a 2013 report, implying that any negative experiences were the fault of bedside manner rather than the program. Apparently our poor bedside manner is a national crisis, judging by how my fellow physicians feel about the EHR program. A 2014 survey by the industry group Medical Economics discovered that 67% of doctors are “dissatisfied with [EHR] functionality.” Three of four physicians said electronic health records “do not save them time,” according to Deloitte. Doctors reported spending—or more accurately, wasting—an average of 48 minutes each day dealing with this system.

Here’s what he wrote about costs.

The Deloitte survey also found that three of four physicians think electronic health records “increase costs.” There are three reasons. First, physicians can no longer see as many patients as they once did. Doctors must then charge higher prices for the fewer patients they see. This is also true for EHRs’ high implementation costs—the second culprit. A November report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the average five-physician primary-care practice would spend $162,000 to implement the system, followed by $85,000 in first-year maintenance costs. Like any business, physicians pass these costs along to their customers—patients. Then there’s the third cause: Small private practices often find it difficult to pay such sums, so they increasingly turn to hospitals for relief. In recent years, hospitals have purchased swaths of independent and physician-owned practices, which accounted for two-thirds of medical practices a decade ago but only half today. Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one in Health Affairs published in 2014 found that, in the words of the latter, this “vertical integration” leads to “higher hospital prices and spending.”

Last but not least, Dr. Singer explains that electronic health records don’t reduce errors or increase efficiency, notwithstanding the claims of advocates.

The EHR system assumes that the patient in front of me is the “average patient.” When I’m in the treatment room, I must fill out a template to demonstrate to the federal government that I made “meaningful use” of the system. This rigidity inhibits my ability to tailor my questions and treatment to my patient’s actual medical needs. It promotes tunnel vision in which physicians become so focused on complying with the EHR work sheet that they surrender a degree of critical thinking and medical investigation. Not surprisingly, a recent study in Perspectives in Health Information Management found that electronic health records encourage errors that can “endanger patient safety or decrease the quality of care.” America saw a real-life example during the recent Ebola crisis, when “patient zero” in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, received a delayed diagnosis due in part to problems with EHRs.

Wow, not exactly an uplifting read.

Indeed, Dr. Singer’s perspective is so depressing that I hope he’s at least partially wrong. Maybe after a couple of years, and with a bit of luck, doctors will adapt and we’ll get some benefits in exchange for the $20 billion-plus of taxpayer money that has been plowed into this project (not to mention all the time and expense imposed on the medical profession).

But the big-picture lesson to be learned is that planners, politicians, and bureaucrats in Washington should not be in charge of the healthcare system.

Which brings us to the real challenge of how to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Government intervention is so pervasive in the healthcare sector that – with a few rare exceptions – normal market forces have been crippled.

As such, we have a system that produces higher and higher costs accompanied by ever-rising levels of inefficiency.

Amazingly, the statists then argue that more government is the only solution to this government-caused mess. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

But that path leads to single-payer healthcare, and the horror stories from the U.K. should be enough to show any sensible person that’s a bad outcome.

The only real solution is to restore a free market. That means not only repealing Obamacare, but also addressing all the other programs and policies which have caused the third-party payer crisis.

P.S. Just like yesterday, I want to finish a grim column with something uplifting.

Here’s a sign that will irk statists driving through one part of Pennsylvania.

Now take the IQ test for criminals and liberals and decide whether this means more crime or less crime.

If you’re having trouble with the answer, here’s a hint from Chuck Asay.

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Way back in 2010, immediately after Obamacare was rammed down our throats, I put together four guiding principles for a counter-offensive.

One of my goals was to help people understand that the problem was far greater than Obamacare. Indeed, the so-called Affordable Care Act was merely another step on a long (and very bad) journey to healthcare statism.

The way to think of Obamacare is that we are shifting from a healthcare system 68 percent controlled/directed by government to one that (when all the bad policies are phased in) is 79 percent controlled/directed by government. Those numbers are just vague estimates, to be sure, but they underscore why Obamacare is just a continuation of a terrible trend, not a profound paradigm shift.

Two years ago, I elaborated on this thesis and even put together a couple of charts to emphasize the point.

Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it was perceived to be a paradigm-shifting change in the healthcare system, even though it was just another layer of bad policy on top of lots of other bad policy. Immediately after the legislation was approved, I offered a rough estimate that we went from a system that was 68 percent dictated by government to one that was 79 percent dictated by government. …all of the same problems still exist, but now they’re exacerbated by the mistakes in Obamacare.

My numbers were just vague approximations, of course, but I think the basic premise was spot on.

And my theory is still accurate. But you don’t have to believe me.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein makes the critical point that repealing Obamacare wouldn’t result in a free-market system.

Instead, we’d be stuck with the pre-Obamacare system that was decrepit because of already-existing programs, mandates, regulations, and other forms of intervention.

…repeal is not enough. Even if simple repeal were politically obtainable, Americans would still be left with a broken healthcare system. Government regulations would still be stifling competition and individual choice and government healthcare programs would still be driving the nation’s unsustainable long-term debt problem. If Republicans achieved repeal without agreeing on a way to reform healthcare along free market lines, it’s inevitable that Democrats would eventually lead another overhaul of the system that would grant even more power to the federal government.

Philip is totally correct.

Before Obamacare, we had a system that didn’t work very well because of government. But in a horrifying example of Mitchell’s Law, many people decided that more government was the solution to the problems already caused by government.

Hence, we got so mis-named Affordable Care Act.

But if Obamacare is repealed, we’ll simply be back in the same unstable situation. And Philip is right that the statists will then simply argued for a different type of government expansion. Probably single payer, notwithstanding all the horror stories from places such as the United Kingdom.

Some may argue at this point that it doesn’t really matter because Obama is in the White House with a veto pen, so critics have a couple of years to figure out their next step.

Maybe, but it’s also possible that the Supreme Court will (for a change of pace) make the right ruling on a key Obamacare case later this year. And this would probably force policy makers to re-open the law.

…a Supreme Court decision expected by late June could invalidate Obamacare subsidies for millions of Americans. If Republicans don’t have an alternative ready, congressional leaders will be under tremendous pressure to pass a simple “fix” that would allow the subsidies to continue to flow, thus further entrenching Obamacare before a Republican president theoretically is able to act in 2017. For these reasons and many others it’s important for Republicans to unite around an alternative to Obamacare.

Philip (who has an entire book on this issue) then proceeds to categorize Obamacare critics as being in three different camps on the issue of how to proceed.

The first approach comes from those who believe that fully repealing Obamacare is probably unrealistic, but who still see an opening to reform the overall healthcare system in a more market-oriented direction. I call this the Reform School. The second approach comes from a crowd that believes full repeal is a necessity, but can only occur if opponents of the law create a market-friendly alternative with enough financial assistance to make health insurance widely available to those Americans who want to purchase it. I call this the Replace School. And finally, there is a third approach, which advocates repealing the law, returning to pre-Obamacare levels of taxes and spending, and then using that clean slate as the basis to overhaul the system in a free market manner to bring down costs. I call this the Restart School.

Since I focus on fiscal policy issues rather than healthcare, I don’t know if there are substantive – or merely strategic – differences among these three groups.

But I will say (assuming you actually want to solve the problem) that at some point you have to deal with the government programs and interventions that have given us a third-party payer crisis.

So I will reiterate what I wrote back in 2010 as part of my proposed counter-offensive.

The only way to fix healthcare is to restore the free market. That means going back to a system where people pay out-of-pocket for most healthcare and use insurance to protect against genuine risk and catastrophic expenses. The time has come to reduce the size and scope of government. …Change Medicare into a system based on personal health accounts and shift all means-tested spending to the states. …the flat tax is ideal from a healthcare perspective since it gets rid of the healthcare exclusion in the tax code as part of a shift to a tax system with low rates and no double taxation.

This video, narrated by Julie Borowski for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, looks at the Obamacare/third-party payer issue.

And if you want to examine some of the component issues of healthcare reform, we have videos on Medicaid, Medicare, and tax reform.

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One of the good things about working at the Cato Institute is that there’s never any pressure to put your thumb on the scale to help any political party.

Our loyalties are to libertarian principles, many of which are reflected in the Constitution, so we’re free to criticize or praise politicians based on their ideas rather than their partisan affiliation.

That’s why we criticized President Bush’s pro-centralization No Child Left Behind education scheme just as much as President Obama’s pro-centralization Common Core education scheme.

It’s also why I criticized Bush for being a big spender like Obama (indeed, Bush was a bigger spender, even for domestic programs!).

I’m giving this background because today I’m going to say something nice about Obamacare.

Not because I like the overall law, but because honesty is the best policy.

Regular readers know that our healthcare system is screwed up by bad government policy. More specifically, spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, combined with tax preferences and regulations that encourage over-insurance, have created a giant third-party payer problem.

Only 11 percent of health care spending in America is directly financed by consumers. The rest is paid for by taxpayers, insurance companies, and other third parties.

This has eviscerated the normal working of a competitive market. When people are spending their own money, they are careful and prudent. When they spend other people’s money, however, they are not overly concerned about cost.

As a result, we have a needlessly expensive system. And because third-party payer requires lots of administration and paper work, bad government policies also have caused absurd levels of inefficiency.

Well, there’s one small piece of Obamacare that actually is helping to mitigate this problem. The law includes a so-called Cadillac tax that caps the special tax preference for fringe benefits (if your employer provides you a health insurance policy as part of your compensation, that type of income isn’t taxed, unlike your cash wages).

And that reform is having a positive impact. Here are some passages from a Bloomberg story.

Large employers are increasingly putting an end to their most generous health-care coverage as a tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans looms closer under Obamacare. Employees including bankers at JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and college professors at Harvard University are seeing a range of moves to shift more costs to workers. …The tax takes effect in 2018, and employers are already laying the groundwork to make sure they don’t have to pay the 40 percent surcharge on health-insurance spending that exceeds $27,500 for a family or $10,200 for an individual. Once envisioned as a tool to slow the nation’s growing health-care tab, the tax has in practice meant higher out-of-pocket health-care costs for workers.

The last sentence in the excerpt, by the way, is economically illiterate.

The Cadillac tax will restrain health spending because it means higher out-of-pocket costs for consumers. They are going to have more authority and responsibility of how to spend their own money.

Think of this analogy. Will you eat more if I give you $25 to buy a meal or if I give you a pre-paid voucher for a $25 all-you-can-eat buffet?

If you’re a normal person, you’ll take the $25 cash, buy a meal for less than that amount, and save the extra money for something else.

But if you’re given a pre-paid voucher for the buffet, you’ll pig out because there’s no additional cost for consuming more items.

And the Bloomberg story includes evidence that giving consumers more control over their income is having the predicted positive effect.

The tax on Cadillac plans — named after the luxury vehicle to denote their lavishness — is one reason the growth in health-care premiums has slowed since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act took effect in 2010. …The tax “is having the effect that was intended, which is the cost of these plans are being reduced,” Christopher Condeluci, a former Senate Republican aide who helped design it, said in a phone interview. …Premium increases for employer-provided health insurance, which covers about 48 percent of Americans, “slowed markedly” in 31 states since 2010, the year the Affordable Care Act became law, the New York-based Commonwealth Fund reported today. Nationally, premium growth fell by about a percentage point after the law, to 4.1 percent a year on average, the report said.

By the way, I should hasten to add that I’m not happy about the way the Cadillac tax was adopted, for a major reason and a minor reason.

The major reason is that it was part of a law that is otherwise a very expensive disaster.

The minor reason is that, for reasons of both good tax policy and good health policy, I want to eliminate loopholes and tax preferences only if we can use every penny of revenue to finance lower tax rates.

And that’s exactly what you get with a flat tax, which is a system where you don’t even need a Cadillac tax because there’s no healthcare exclusion.

Under Obamacare, by contrast, the Cadillac tax limits the healthcare exclusion, but politicians used the money to finance bigger government.

Now let’s say something bad about Obamacare.

John Goodman of the Independent Institute has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal. He points out that the law is hurting many of the people it was supposed to help.

…the law is already hurting some of the people it was intended to help. By this time next year, we may find that many workers who earn within a few dollars of the minimum wage have less income and less insurance coverage (as a group) than they did before the mandate began to take effect.

How does John justify these assertions?

Because he did some real-world research, surveying 136 fast-food restaurants with 3,500 employees.

The results are not encouraging, at least for the workers.

Before 2014 about half the employees were “full time” as defined by ObamaCare; that is, they worked 30 hours or more a week. The potential cost to the employers of providing mandated health insurance to their full-time staff would have been about $7 million a year. But by the time the employers took advantage of all their legal options they were able to reduce their cost to less than 1% of that amount. The first step was to make all hourly workers part time. …workers in the survey whose hours were reduced to part time…can get subsidized insurance through an exchange, but they will be asked to pay up to 9.5% of their income for what is unattractive coverage. Some of them previously had mini-med plans, but this kind of insurance is no longer available to them. …Those few remaining full-time employees will get mini-med insurance for themselves, but they are unlikely to be able to afford coverage for any dependents they have. They will not get an ObamaCare bronze plan unless they fork over about one-tenth of their take-home pay, and they won’t be able to get bronze coverage for other family members unless they forfeit more than half their income. Out of 3,500 employees, only one that we know of got the kind of insurance that the architects of the Affordable Care Act wanted everyone to have.

One out of 3,500? Sounds like the typical success rate for a government program.

But we shouldn’t joke. It’s not funny that low-income workers are being hurt. Just like it’s not funny that young adults, retirees, and kids are being disadvantaged by Obamacare as well (on the other hand, it is somewhat amusing that politicians, IRS agents, and Harvard professors are upset about the law).

The bottom line is that an overwhelming percentage of Obamacare provisions make the healthcare system more expensive and less effective.

Yes, there are some positive effects of the Cadillac tax, but those are easily offset by all the features of the law that increase the size and scope of government.

P.S. Since I mentioned that third-party payer has messed up our healthcare system and caused prices to rise, I should point out that there are a few sectors where consumers are still in charge. And in those areas, such as cosmetic surgery and abortion, prices are falling in relative terms.

P.P.S. The folks at Reason TV put together a must-watch video on how a hospital can be more efficient and affordable in the absence of third-party payer.

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