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Archive for the ‘Medicaid’ Category

The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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It must be fun to be a leftist.

You get to spend other people’s money. But that’s just for starters. Using the power of majoritarianism, you also get to tell the rest of the country what to do, how to behave, and even what to eat.

Best of all, you can be a complete hypocrite. Even if you’re in the public eye, like Hillary Clinton, that’s apparently no obstacle to behaving in one way and then insisting that the rest of us do the opposite.

I’m particularly impressed that statists feel no guilt about dodging taxes while insisting that the rest of us pay more. That’s true even if you’re Barack Obama’s first Treasury Secretary or his current Treasury Secretary.

And it’s definitely true if you’re part of the statist chattering class.

Jillian Kay Melchoir of National Review reveals that the pro-tax crowd at MSNBC must think they’re working at the OECD.

How else to explain that so many of them have unpaid tax bills?

Touré Neblett, co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, owes more than $59,000 in taxes, according to public records reviewed by National Review. In September 2013, New York issued a state tax warrant to Neblett and his wife, Rita Nakouzi, for $46,862.68. Six months later, the state issued an additional warrant to the couple for $12,849.87. …MSNBC’s hosts and guests regularly call for higher taxes on the rich, condemning wealthy individuals and corporations who don’t pay their taxes or make use of loopholes. But recent reports, as well as records reviewed by National Review, show that at least four high-profile MSNBC on-air personalities have tax liens or warrants filed against them.

And why is this hypocritical?

Because, as illustrated by this video from Washington Free Beacon, so many of them urge higher taxes on the rest of us and argue that paying taxes is a wonderful experience.

I guess the MSNBC hosts forget to mention that higher taxes are only good for other people, not for themselves.

Now let’s look at another example.

Though I confess I’m merely assuming hypocrisy in this case. It deals with actors, the vast majority of which almost surely would want to impose a higher minimum wage on, say, the fast-food industry.

But, writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Larry Elder points out that these actors in Los Angeles don’t want to be covered by the minimum wage because they understand it means less work for themselves.

In Los Angeles County, the minimum wage is $9 per hour. Theater actors, however, can be paid as little as $7 a performance, and an actor can even work long rehearsal hours with no pay. Three decades ago, L.A. County actors sued their union for an exception to union wages for theaters with 99 seats or fewer seats. Why do these stage actors work for so little? They want to work. By working, they improve their skills, stay sharp and or perhaps have a chance to get spotted by an agent. Some say simply having something to do is better than just sitting around and waiting for a casting agent to call. Actors Equity, the national union, wants to change this. …But then a very Republican thing happened — 66% of the union members voted against a higher minimum wage. Their rationale was simple: A higher minimum wage means fewer plays get performed. Fewer plays mean fewer opportunities for actors and therefore fewer opportunities to gain experience, stay in practice or get discovered. …When it comes to their own lives, these actors understand the law of economics: Artificially raise the cost of a good — in this case the price of an actor in a stage play — and you reduce the demand for actors.

Unfortunately, this episode of economic enlightenment doesn’t have a happy ending.

But the union’s national council ignored this advisory vote and ordered, with some exceptions, a $9 per hour minimum wage.

Mr. Elder also includes a very perceptive quote from a Hollywood celebrity.

Pat Sajak, host of “Wheel of Fortune,” recently offered a different perspective on the minimum wage. “When I had minimum wage jobs,” he tweeted, “my goal was to better myself, not to better the minimum wage.”

Kudos to Mr. Sajak. Too bad there are so many politicians (including many Republicans) who don’t understand that higher minimum wages mean fewer jobs for the less vulnerable.

Though, to be fair, maybe supporters do understand the harsh impact and simply don’t care.

P.S. I wrote yesterday about the impact of tax reform on the 2016 election, and I included a postscript about a healthcare issue that has resonance with voters.

Well, Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner makes the case for another healthcare issue that he hopes will motivate Republican primary voters to reject Ohio Governor John Kasich.

…not only did Kasich decide to participate in Obamacare’s fiscally destructive expansion of Medicaid, in doing so he also displayed a toxic mix of cronyism, dishonesty and executive overreach. …despite campaigning on opposition to Obamacare, Kasich crumbled under pressure from hospital lobbyists who supported the measure, and endorsed the expansion. When his legislature opposed him, Kasich bypassed lawmakers and imposed the expansion through a separate panel — an example of executive overreach worthy of Obama. Kasich cloaked his cynical move in the language of Christianity, and, just like a liberal demagogue, he portrayed those with principled objections to spending more taxpayer money on a failing program as being heartless. …Republican voters made a terrible miscalculation when they chose so-called compassionate conservative George W. Bush as their nominee, as he went on as president to push the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. …During this presidential primary season, Republican voters will have much better options than they did last time. They don’t have to settle for another champion of big government. By punishing Kasich for expanding Medicaid, conservative primary voters would be sending the message to state-level Republicans everywhere that if they choose to advance big government healthcare solutions, there will be consequences — and they will have no chance of rising to higher office.

It’s not my role to comment on which candidates deserve support, but I definitely agree that Kasich’s Obamacare expansion was very bad policy.

And it’s particularly galling that he made a religious argument for bigger government. I don’t think Libertarian Jesus would be amused.

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I’ve been fretting for a long time that poorly designed entitlement programs are going to turn America into a decrepit welfare state.

Medicare obviously is a big part of the problem, but the fraud-riddled Medicaid program may be even worse.

The program is a nightmare for both federal taxpayers and state taxpayers.

In an article for the Daily Caller, John Graham of the Independent Institute has some very grim analysis of the fiscal black hole otherwise known as Medicaid.

In 2014, total Medicaid spending is projected to grow 12.8 percent because Obamacare has added about 8 million dependents. A large minority of states have chosen to increase residents’ eligibility for Medicaid by expanding coverage to adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Unfortunately, more states are likely to expand this welfare program. This is expected to result in a massive increase in the number of Medicaid dependents: From 73 million in 2013 to 93 million in 2024. Medicaid spending is expected to grow by 6.7 percent in 2015, and 8.6 percent in 2016. For 2016 to 2023, spending growth is projected to be 6.8 percent per year on average. This comprises a massive increase in welfare dependency and burden on taxpayers.

But the actual numbers may be worse than these projections.

…official estimates often low-ball actual experience. This is because it is hard to grapple with how clever states are at leveraging federal dollars. …The incentive lies in Medicaid’s perverse financing merry-go-round. In a rich state like California, for example, the federal government (pre-Obamacare) spent 50 cents on the dollar for adult dependents. So, if California spent 50 cents, it automatically drew 50 cents from the U.S. Treasury. And most states had a bigger multiplier. Which state politician can resist a deal like that? …The situation will deteriorate because Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion significantly increases states’ perverse incentives to game Medicaid financing. …Newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries will be fully financed by the federal government for 2014 through 2016. Then, it slides down until the federal government funds 90 percent of their costs starting in 2020, with the states footing 10 percent. Recall the cunning with which states developed ways to abuse federal taxpayers when they could only double their money from Uncle Sam. The new normal is that they will be able to get nine times their money!

By the way, these numbers would be even worse if it wasn’t for the fact that many states refused the lure of “free” federal money to expand Medicaid.

So what’s the solution? Graham suggests federalism is the answer.

A reform in the right direction would be to get rid of the federal match in favor of a block grant, based on a simple measurement of the population in each state, and precisely define a limited federal commitment.

He’s exactly right, at least in the short run.

Let’s copy the success of welfare reform and turn over a fixed amount of money – along with concomitant authority and responsibility – to state governments and let them figure out the best way of delivering health care to lower-income populations.

In the long run, of course, I’d like to phase out the block grant so that states are responsible for both collecting the money and providing the services.

But before we get to the point of adopting health care policies for an ideal libertarian society, we first have to stop the bleeding (or, to be more accurate, hemorrhaging) and stabilize the program.

And that’s why I fully agree that the federalism approach, in the form of block grants, is the right policy.

Here’s my video on the topic.

And since I’m sharing videos, I can’t resist commenting on the latest “Gruber-gate” scandal. The MIT professor and Obamacare insider (he got $400,000 of taxpayer money to help design the plan) has become an embarrassment for the left because he has been caught on tape saying that the legislation relied on deception. He even said that proponents of Obamacare took advantage of the “stupidity” of American voters.

You can watch the most well-know example by clicking here. But he also denigrated supposedly “stupid” Americans in this video.

I want to defend one small component of Gruber’s statement.

But I want to be completely clear that I’m not defending his elitist disdain for ordinary Americans. Indeed, I don’t think voters are stupid. Instead, to the extent they’re uninformed, it’s the result of serial dishonesty from Washington or because they’ve decided it’s not worth their time to pay attention to the crowd in DC (the “rational ignorance” hypothesis).

The part of Gruber’s statement that has merit is that he’s talking about the fact that there’s a big loophole in the tax code for fringe benefits. To be more specific, tens of millions of Americans get part of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits such as health insurance. Yet while workers are taxed on their “cash” income, they are not taxed on their “fringe benefit” income (a policy sometimes called the “healthcare exclusion”).

And this has created, over time, a very inefficient system of over-insurance.

To understand why this system doesn’t make sense, just think about your homeowner’s insurance or auto insurance. Those policies, unlike health insurance, work reasonably well and costs remain relatively stable. Why is there a big difference?

The difference is that employee income that is diverted to health insurance avoids both income tax and payroll tax, so there is a significant monetary incentive for gold-plated plans. And these plans often include insurance coverage for ordinary medical expenses, which contributes to the problem of third-party payer.

No wonder health insurance is so costly. After all, imagine what would happen to the price of your homeowner’s insurance if it had to cover the cost of a new couch? Or repainting the hallway? Or what about the cost of your auto policy if it covered the cost to fill up with gas or get an oil change?

We instinctively recognize that this would be insanely inefficient and expensive, yet that’s how our health insurance system operates thanks to a giant tax preference.

So Gruber was right to say it’s a problem. And I’ve even said that addressing the exclusion is a very tiny silver lining in the awful dark cloud of Obamacare.

But now that I’ve bent over backwards to say something nice, now let me point out that Gruber (and Obama and other statists) didn’t have the right solution. Yes, they wanted to cut back on the tax exclusion, but only because they wanted to use the money for other purposes (such as subsidies that also exacerbate the third-party payer problem).

The right approach, by contrast, is to phase out the healthcare exclusion and use every penny of revenue to “pay for” lower tax rates. That way you get a win-win situation for the economy. A more rational, market-based healthcare system and a less punitive tax code for productive behavior.

Now that we’ve addressed a serious point, let’s laugh about the fact that Gruber’s comments have created a big headache for the White House. We’ll start with this Steve Kelley cartoon.

And here’s Gary Varvel’s take on the honesty of the Obama White House on the topic of health care.

Last but not least, Lisa Benson optimistically suggests that the serial dishonesty of Obamacare supporters may be undone by the Supreme Court.

Which would be poetic justice, since Professor Gruber also was caught on tape – over and over again – stating that Obamacare only allowed subsidies for people getting insurance policies through state-based exchanges.

And now the Supreme Court will decide whether those subsidies, notwithstanding statutory language, can be provided via the federal exchange.

Though I’m not holding my breath since certain Justices on the Court already have demonstrated that they’re willing to put politics above the law.

P.S. Just in case I wasn’t sufficiently clear, good tax reform also is good health reform. That was one of the points I made in my tax reform speech at the Heritage Foundation and I suspect I’ll continue making that argument until we win or I’m dead (and I don’t want to take odds on which happens first).

P.P.S. On a more upbeat note, the House of Representatives approved budgets in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 that assume Medicaid gets block-granted to the states. So that reform may actually happen while I’m still breathing.

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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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