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Posts Tagged ‘Health Care’

Senate Republicans have produced their Obamacare repeal legislation, though as I noted at the end of this interview, it’s really more a bill about Medicaid reform than Obamacare repeal.

While it’s disappointing that big parts of Obamacare are left in place, it’s definitely true that Medicaid desperately needs reform, ideally by shifting the program to the states, thus replicating the success of welfare reform.

But critics are savaging this idea, implying that “deep cuts” will hurt the quality of care. Indeed, some of them are even engaging in poisonous rhetoric about people dying because of cutbacks.

There’s one small problem with the argument, however. Nobody is proposing to cut Medicaid. Republicans are merely proposing to limit annual spending increases. Yet this counts as a “cut” in the upside-down world of Washington budgeting.

The Washington Post contributes to innumeracy with a column explicitly designed to argue that the program is being cut.

…the Senate proposal includes significant cuts to Medicaid spending…the Senate bill is more reliant on Medicaid cuts than even the House bill…spending on the program would decline in 2026 by 26 percent…That’s a decrease of over $770 billion on Medicaid over the next 10 years. …By 2026, the federal government would cut 1 of every 4 dollars it spends on Medicaid.

An article in the New York Times has a remarkably inaccurate headline, which presumably isn’t the fault of reporters. Though the story has its share of dishonest rhetoric, especially in the first few paragraphs.

Senate Republicans…took a major step…, unveiling a bill to make deep cuts in Medicaid… The Senate measure…would also slice billions of dollars from Medicaid, a program that serves one in five Americans… The Senate bill would also cap overall federal spending on Medicaid: States would receive a per-beneficiary allotment of money. …State officials and health policy experts predict that many people would be dropped from Medicaid because states would not fill the fiscal hole left by the loss of federal money.

“Loss of federal money”?

I’d like to lose some money using that math. Here’s a chart showing the truth. The data come directly from the Congressional Budget Office.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it’s not a cut if spending rises from $393 billion to $464 billion.

Federal outlays on the program will climb by about 2 percent annually.

By the way, it’s perfectly fair for opponents to say that they want the program to grow faster in order to achieve different goals.

But they should be honest with numbers.

Now that we’ve addressed math, let’s close with a bit of policy.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the important goal of giving state policymakers the power and responsibility to manage the program. The bottom line is that recent waivers have been highly successful.

…center-right and even liberal states have spent more than a decade improving a program originally meant for poor women and children and the disabled. Even as ObamaCare changed Medicaid and exploded enrollment, these reforms are working… The modern era of Medicaid reform began in 2007, when Governor Mitch Daniels signed the Healthy Indiana Plan that introduced consumer-directed insurance options, including Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Two years later, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri applied for a Medicaid block grant that gives states a fixed sum of money in return for Washington’s regulatory forbearance. Both programs were designed to improve the incentives to manage costs and increase upward mobility so fewer people need Medicaid. Over the first three years, the Rhode Island waiver saved some $100 million in local funds and overall spending fell about $3 billion below the $12 billion cap. The fixed federal spending limit encouraged the state to innovate, such as reducing hospital admissions for chronic diseases or transitioning the frail elderly to community care from nursing homes. The waiver has continued to pay dividends under Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo. …This reform honor roll could continue: the 21 states that have moved more than 75% of all beneficiaries to managed care, Colorado’s pediatric “medical homes” program, Texas’s Medicaid waiver to devolve control to localities from the Austin bureaucracy.

By contrast, the current system is not successful.

It doesn’t even generate better health, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars of annual spending.

Avik Roy explained this perverse result in Forbes back in 2013.

Piles of studies have shown that people on Medicaid have health outcomes that are no better, and often worse, than those with no insurance at all. …authors of the Oregon study published their updated, two-year results, finding that Medicaid “generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes.” The result calls into question the $450 billion a year we spend on Medicaid… And all of that, despite the fact that the study had many biasing factors working in Medicaid’s favor: most notably, the fact that Oregon’s Medicaid program pays doctors better; and also that the Medicaid enrollees were sicker, and therefore more likely to benefit from medical care than the control arm.

In other words, I was understating things when I wrote above that there was “one small problem” with the left’s assertion about Medicaid cuts hurting people.

Yes, the fact that there are no actual cuts is a problem with that argument. But the second problem with the left’s argument is that Medicaid doesn’t seem to have any effect on health outcomes. So if Republicans actually did cut the program, it’s unclear how anybody would suffer (other than the fraudsters who bilk the program).

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Back in 2015, I basically applauded the Congressional Budget Office for its analysis of what would happen if Obamacare was repealed. The agency’s number crunchers didn’t get it exactly right, but they actually took important steps and produced numbers showing how the law was hurting taxpayers and the economy.

Now we have a new set of Obamacare numbers from CBO based on the partial repeal bill approved by the House of Representatives. The good news is that the bureaucrats show substantial fiscal benefits. There would be a significant reduction in the burden of spending and taxation.

But the CBO did not show very favorable numbers in other areas, most notably when it said that 23 million additional people would be uninsured if the legislation was enacted.

Part of the problem is that Republicans aren’t actually repealing Obamacare. Many of the regulations that drive up the cost of health insurance are left in place.

My colleague at Cato, Michael Cannon, explains why this is a big mistake.

Rather than do what their supporters sent them to Washington to do – repeal ObamaCare and replace it with free-market reforms – House Republicans are pushing a bill that will increase health-insurance premiums, make health insurance worse for the sick… ObamaCare’s core provisions are the “community rating” price controls and other regulations that (supposedly) end discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions. …Community rating is the reason former president Bill Clinton called ObamaCare “the craziest thing in the world” where Americans “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Community rating is why women age 55 to 64 have seen the highest premium increases under ObamaCare. It is the principal reason ObamaCare has caused overall premiums to double in just four years. Community rating literally penalizes quality coverage for the sick… ObamaCare is community rating. The AHCA does not repeal community rating. Therefore, the AHCA does not repeal ObamaCare.

It would be ideal if Republicans fully repealed Obamacare.

Heck, they should also address the other programs and policies that have messed up America’s healthcare system and caused a third-party payer crisis.

That means further reforms to Medicaid, as well as Medicare and the tax code’s exclusion of fringe benefits.

But maybe that’s hoping for too much since many Republicans are squeamish about supporting even a watered-down proposal to modify Obamacare.

That being said, there are some reasonable complaints that CBO overstated the impact of the GOP bill.

Doug Badger and Grace Marie Turner, for instance, were not impressed by CBO’s methodology.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) launched its latest mistaken Obamacare-related estimate this week, predicting that a House-passed bill to repeal and replace the embattled law would lead to 23 million more uninsured people by 2026. …the agency’s errors are not only massive – one of their predictions of 2016 exchange-based enrollment missed by 140%… Undaunted by failure and unschooled by experience, CBO soldiers on, fearlessly predicting that millions will flock to the exchanges any day now.  …CBO measures the House-passed bill against this imaginary baseline and finds it wanting. …One reason CBO gets it so wrong so consistently is its fervent belief that the individual mandate has motivated millions to enroll in coverage.  …CBO’s belief in the power of the individual mandate is misplaced. …The IRS reports that in the 2015 tax year, 6.5 million uninsured filers paid the tax penalty, 12.7 million got an exemption and additional 4.2 million people simply ignored the penalty.  They left line 61 on their form 1040 blank, refusing to tell the government whether or not they had insurance.  …In all, that is a total of 23.4 million uninsured people – out of an estimated 28.8 million uninsured – who either paid, avoided or ignored the penalty.  That hardly suggests that the mandate has worked.

The Wall Street Journal also was quite critical of the CBO analysis.

…the budget scorekeepers claim the House bill could degrade the quality of insurance. This editorializing could use some scrutiny. Without government supervision of insurance minutiae and a mandate to buy coverage or pay a penalty, CBO asserts, “a few million” people will turn to insurance that falls short of the “widely accepted definition” of “a comprehensive major medical policy.” They might select certain forms of coverage that Obama Care banned, like “mini-med” plans with low costs and low benefits. Or they might select indemnity plans that pay a fixed-dollar amount per day for illness or hospitalization, or dental-only or vision-only single-service plans. CBO decided to classify these people as “uninsured,” though without identifying who accepts ObamaCare’s definition of standardized health benefits and why they deserve to substitute their judgment for the choices of individual consumers. …But the strangest part of CBO’s preoccupation with “high-cost medical events” is that the analysts never once mention catastrophic coverage—not once. These types of plans didn’t cover routine medical expenses but they did protect consumers against, well, a high-cost medical event like an accident or the diagnosis of a serious illness. Those plans answered what most people want most out of insurance—financial security and a guarantee that they won’t be bankrupted by cancer or a distracted bus driver. …under the House reform Americans won’t have any problem insuring against a bad health event, even if CBO won’t admit it. …CBO has become a fear factory because it prefers having government decide for everybody.

Drawing on his first-hand knowledge, Dr. Marc Siegel wrote on the issue for Fox News.

…23 million…will lose their health insurance by 2026 if the American Health Care Act, the bill the House passed to replace ObamaCare, is passed in the Senate and signed by President Trump. This number is concerning — until you look at it and the CBO’s handling of the health care bills more closely. …First, the CBO was wildly inaccurate when it came to ObamaCare, predicting that 23 million people would be getting policies via the exchanges by 2016. The actual number ended up being only 10.4 million… Second, many who chose to buy insurance on the exchanges did so only because they wanted to avoid paying the penalty, not because they needed or wanted the insurance. Many didn’t buy insurance until they got sick.

The Oklahoman panned the CBO’s calculations.

IN the real world, people who don’t have insurance coverage cannot lose it. Yet…the CBO estimates 14 million fewer people will have coverage in 2018 if the House bill is enacted than would be the case if the ACA is left intact, and 23 million fewer by 2026. …In 2016, there were roughly 10 million people obtaining insurance through an Obamacare exchange. The CBO estimated that number would suddenly surge to 18 million by 2018 if the law was left intact, but that far fewer people would be covered if the House reforms became law. Put simply, the CBO estimated that millions of people who don’t have insurance through an exchange today would “lose” coverage they would otherwise obtain next year. That’s doubtful. …At one point, the office estimated 22 million people would receive insurance through an Obamacare exchange by 2016. As already noted, the actual figure was less than half that. One major reason for the CBO being so far off the mark is that federal forecasters believed Obamacare’s individual mandate would cause people to buy insurance, regardless of cost. That hasn’t proven true. …In a nutshell, the CBO predicts reform would cause millions to lose coverage they don’t now have, and that millions more would eagerly reject the coverage they do have because it’s such a bad deal. Those aren’t conclusions that bolster the case for Obamacare.

And here are passages from another WSJ editorial.

CBO says 14 million fewer people on net would be insured in 2018 relative to the ObamaCare status quo, rising to 23 million in 2026. The political left has defined this as “losing coverage.” But 14 million would roll off Medicaid as the program shifted to block grants, which is a mere 17% drop in enrollment after the ObamaCare expansion. The safety net would work better if it prioritized the poor and disabled with a somewhat lower number of able-bodied, working-age adults. The balance of beneficiaries “losing coverage” would not enroll in insurance, CBO says, “because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated.” In other words, without the threat of government to buy insurance or else pay a penalty, some people will conclude that ObamaCare coverage isn’t worth the price even with subsidies. …CBO’s projections about ObamaCare enrollment…were consistently too high and discredited by reality year after year. CBO is also generally wrong in the opposite direction about market-based reforms, such as the 2003 Medicare drug benefit whose costs the CBO badly overestimated.

Here are excerpts from Seth Chandler’s Forbes column.

My complaints about the CBO largely revolve around its dogged refusal to adjust its computations to the ever-more-apparent failings of the Affordable Care Act. When the CBO says that 23 million fewer people will have insurance coverage under the AHCA than under the ACA — a statistic that politics have converted into a mantra —  that figure is predicated on an ACA that no longer exists. It is based on the continuing assumption that the ACA will have 18 million people enrolled on its exchanges in 2018 and that this situation will persist until 2026. I know no one on any side of the political spectrum who believes this to be true. The ACA has about 11 million people currently enrolled on its exchanges in 2017 and, with premiums going up, some insurers withdrawing from various markets, and the executive branch fuzzing up whether the individual mandate will actually be enforced. The consensus is that ACA enrollment will stay the same or go down, not increase 60%.

And here’s some of what Drew Gonshorowski wrote for the Daily Signal.

…reducing premium levels by rolling back regulations could actually have the effect of making plans more desirable for individuals looking to pay less. The CBO lacks any real discussion of these positive effects. …The CBO’s score on Medicaid…reflects that it assumes more states would likely have expanded in the future under the Affordable Care Act. Thus, its projection that 14 million fewer people would be insured due to not having Medicaid under the American Health Care Act might be overstated… CBO…assumes the Affordable Care Act will enroll 7 to 8 million more people in the individual market, when in reality it does not appear this will be the case

Last but not least, my former colleague Robert Moffit expressed concerns in a column for USA Today. The part that caught my eye was that CBO has a less-than-stellar track record on Obamacare projections.

The GOP should be skeptical of CBO’s coverage estimates. It has been an abysmal performance. For example, CBO projected initially that 21 million persons would enroll in exchange plans in 2016. The actual enrollment: 11.5 million.

The bottom line is that CBO overstated the benefits of Obamacare, at least as measured by the number of people who would sign up for the program.

The bureaucrats were way off.

Yet CBO continues to use those inaccurate numbers, creating a make-believe baseline that is then used to estimate a large number of uninsured people if the Republican bill is enacted.

This is sort of like the “baseline math” that is used to measure supposed spending cuts when the budget actually is getting bigger.

P.S. You may be wondering why Republicans don’t fully repeal Obamacare so that they can get credit for falling premiums. Part of the problem is that they are using “reconciliation” legislation that supposedly is limited to fiscal matters. In other words, you can’t repeal red tape and regulation. At least according to some observers. I think that’s silly since such interventions drive up the cost of health care, which obviously has an impact on the budget. Also, Republicans are a bit squeamish about reducing subsidies for various groups, whether explicit (like the Medicaid expansion) or implicit (like community rating). In other words, the Second Theorem of Government applies.

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In the Dirty Harry movies, one of Clint Eastwood’s famous lines is “Go ahead, make my day.”

I’m tempted to say the same thing when I read about politicians proposing economically destructive policies. Indeed, I sometimes even relish the opportunity. I endorsed Francois Hollande back in 2012, for instance, because I was confident he would make the awful French tax system even worse, thus giving me lots of additional evidence against class-warfare policies.

Mission accomplished!

Now we have another example. Politicians in California, unfazed by the disaster of Obamacare (or the nightmare of the British system), want to create a “single-payer” healthcare scheme for the Golden State.

Here’s a description of the proposal from Sacramento Bee.

It would cost $400 billion to remake California’s health insurance marketplace and create a publicly funded universal health care system, according to a state financial analysis released Monday. California would have to find an additional $200 billion per year, including in new tax revenues, to create a so-called “single-payer” system, the analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee found. …Steep projected costs have derailed efforts over the past two decades to establish such a health care system in California. The cost is higher than the $180 billion in proposed general fund and special fund spending for the budget year beginning July 1. …Lara and Atkins say they are driven by the belief that health care is a human right and should be guaranteed to everyone, similar to public services like safe roads and clean drinking water. …Business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, have deemed the bill a “job-killer.” …“It will cost employers and taxpayers billions of dollars and result in significant loss of jobs in the state,” the Chamber of Commerce said in its opposition letter.

Yes, you read correctly. In one fell swoop, California politicians would more than double the fiscal burden of government. Without doubt, the state would take over the bottom spot in fiscal rankings (it’s already close anyhow).

Part of me hopes they do it. The economic consequences would be so catastrophic that it would serve as a powerful warning about the downside of statism.

The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a crazy idea, and wonders if California Democrats are crazy enough to enact it.

…it’s instructive, if not surprising, that Golden State Democrats are responding to the failure of ObamaCare by embracing single-payer health care. This proves the truism that the liberal solution to every government failure is always more government. …California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner to succeed Jerry Brown as Governor next year, is running on single-payer, which shows the idea is going mainstream. At the state Democratic convention last weekend, protesters shouted down speakers who dared to ask about paying for it. The state Senate Appropriations Committee passed a single-payer bill this week, and it has a fair chance of getting to Mr. Brown’s desk.

I semi-joked that California was committing slow-motion suicide when the top income tax rate was increased to 13.3 percent.

As the editorial implies, the state’s death will come much faster if this legislation is adopted.

A $200 billion tax hike would be equivalent to a 15% payroll tax, which would come on top of the current 15.3% federal payroll tax. …The report dryly concludes that “the state-wide economic impacts of such an overall tax increase on employment is beyond the scope of this analysis.”

California’s forecasting bureaucrats may not be willing to predict the economic fallout from this scheme, but it’s not beyond the scope of my analysis.

If this legislation is adopted, the migration of taxpayers out of California will accelerate, the costs will be higher than advertised, and I’ll have a powerful new example of why big government is a disaster.

Ed Morrissey, in a column for The Week, explains why this proposal is bad news. He starts by observing that other states have toyed with the idea and wisely backed away.

Vermont had to abandon its attempts to impose a single-payer health-care system when its greatest champion, Gov. Peter Shumlin, discovered that it would cost far more than he had anticipated. Similarly, last year Colorado voters resoundingly rejected ColoradoCare when a study discovered that even tripling taxes wouldn’t be enough to keep up with the costs.

So what happens if single payer is enacted by a state and costs are higher than projected and revenues are lower than projected (both very safe assumptions)?

The solutions for…fiscal meltdown in a single-payer system…all unpleasant. One option would be to cut benefits of the universal coverage, and hiking co-pays to provide disincentives for using health care. …The state could raise taxes for the health-care system as deficits increased, which would amount to ironic premium hikes from a system designed to be a response to premium hikes from insurers. Another option: Reduce the payments provided to doctors, clinics, and hospitals for their services, which would almost certainly drive providers to either reduce their access or leave the state for greener pastures.

By the way, I previously wrote about how Vermont’s leftists wisely backed off single-payer and explained that this was a great example of why federalism is a good idea.

Simply stated, even left-wing politicians understand that it’s easy to move across state lines to escape extortionary fiscal policy. And that puts pressure on them to be less greedy.

This is one of the main reasons I want to eliminate DC-based redistribution and let states be in charge of social welfare policy.

Using the same reasoning, I’ve also explained why it would be good news if California seceded. People tend to be a bit more rational when it’s more obvious that they’re voting to spend their own money.

Though maybe there’s no hope for California. Let’s close by noting that some Democrat politicians in the state want to compensate for the possible repeal of the federal death tax by imposing a huge state death tax.

In a column for Forbes, Robert Wood has some of the sordid details.

California…sure does like tax increases. …The latest is a move by the Golden State to tax estates, even if the feds do not. …A bill was introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), asking voters to keep the estate tax after all. …if the feds repeal it, and California enacts its own estate tax replacement, will all the billionaires remain, or will high California taxes spark an exodus? It isn’t a silly question.

Of course billionaires will leave the state. And so will many millionaires. Yes, the weather and scenery are nice, but at some point rich people will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide it’s time to move.

And lots of middle-class jobs will move as well. That’s the inevitable consequence of class-warfare policy. Politicians say they’re targeting the rich, but the rest of us are the ones who suffer.

Will California politicians actually move forward with this crazy idea? Again, just as part of me hopes the state adopts single-payer, part of me hopes California imposes a confiscatory death tax. It’s useful to have examples of what not to do.

The Golden State already is in trouble. If it becomes an American version of Greece or Venezuela, bad news will become horrible news and I’ll have lots of material for future columns.

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I’m flabbergasted when people assert that America’s costly and inefficient healthcare system is proof that free markets don’t work.

In hopes of helping them understand what’s really going on, I try to explain to them that an unfettered market involves consumers and producers directly interacting with their own money in an open and competitive environment.

I then explain why that’s not a description of the U.S. system. Not even close. As I noted in Part I, consumers directly finance only 10.5 percent of their healthcare expenses. Everything else involves a third-party payer thanks to government interventions such as Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion, the Veterans Administration, etc.

Obamacare then added another layer of intervention to the existing mess. By my rough calculations, that costly boondoggle took the country from having a system that was 68-percent controlled and dictated by government to a system where government dictates and controls 79 percent of the system.

This is very relevant because Republicans in Washington are now trying to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but they’re confronting a very unpleasant reality. Undoing that legislation won’t create a stable, market-driven healthcare system. Instead, we’d only be back to where we were in 2010 – a system where government would still be the dominant player and market forces would be almost totally emasculated.

The only difference is that Republicans would then get blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world of healthcare rather than Obama and the Democrats (and you better believe that’s a big part of the decision-making process on Capitol Hill).

Yes, the GOP plan would save some money, which is laudable, but presumably the main goal is to have a sensible and sustainable healthcare system. And that’s not going to happen unless there’s some effort to somehow unravel the overall mess that’s been created by all the misguided government policies that have accumulated over many decades.

This isn’t a new or brilliant observation. Milton Friedman wrote about how government-controlled healthcare leads to higher costs and lower quality back in 1977, but I can’t find an online version of that article, so let’s look at what he said in a 1978 speech to the Mayo Institute.

I realize that many people won’t have 45 minutes of spare time to watch the entire video, so I’ll also provide some excerpts from a column Friedman wrote back in the early 1990s that makes the same points. He started by observing that bureaucratic systems have ever-rising costs combined with ever-declining output.

…a study by Max Gammon…comparing input and output in the British socialized hospital system…found that input had increased sharply, while output had actually fallen. He was led to enunciate what he called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement.” In his words, in “a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like `black holes,’ in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of `emitted production.'” …concern about the rising cost of medical care, and of proposals to do something about it — most involving a further move toward the complete socialization of medicine — reminded me of the Gammon study and led me to investigate whether his law applied to U.S. health care.

Friedman then noted how this bureaucratic rule operated in the United States after the healthcare exclusion was adopted during World War II.

Even a casual glance at figures on input and output in U.S. hospitals indicates that Gammon’s law has been in full operation for U.S. hospitals since the end of World War II… Before 1940, input and output both rose, input somewhat more than output, presumably because of the introduction of more sophisticated and expensive treatment. The cost of hospital care per resident of the U.S., adjusted for inflation, rose from 1929 to 1940 at the rate of 5% per year; the number of occupied beds, at 2.4% a year. Cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, rose only modestly. The situation was very different after the war. From 1946 to 1989, the number of beds per 1,000 population fell by more than one-half; the occupancy rate, by one-eighth. In sharp contrast, input skyrocketed. Hospital personnel per occupied bed multiplied nearly seven-fold and cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, an astounding 26-fold.

Friedman then explained that the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid hastened the erosion of market forces.

One major engine of these changes was the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. A mild rise in input was turned into a meteoric rise; a mild fall in output, into a rapid decline. …The federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care for the elderly and the poor provided a fresh pool of money, and there was no shortage of takers. Personnel per occupied bed, which had already doubled from 1946 to 1965, more than tripled from that level after 1965. Cost per patient day, which had already more than tripled from 1946 to 1965, multiplied a further eight-fold after 1965. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals, further increasing administrative expense.

Remember, Friedman wrote this article back in 1991. And the underlying problems have gotten worse since that time.

So what’s the bottom line? Friedman pointed out that the problem is too much government.

The U.S. medical system has become in large part a socialist enterprise. Why should we be any better at socialism than the Soviets?

And he explained that there’s only one genuine solution.

The inefficiency, high cost and inequitable character of our medical system can be fundamentally remedied in only one way: by moving in the other direction, toward re-privatizing medical care.

Some readers may be skeptical. Even though he cited lots of historical evidence, perhaps you’re thinking Friedman’s position is impractical.

So let’s fast forward to 2017 and look at some very concrete data assembled by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. He looks at medical costs over the past 18 years and compares what’s happened with prices for things that are covered by third-party payer (either government or government-distorted private insurance) and prices for cosmetic procedures that are financed directly by consumers.

As you can see, the relative price of health care generally declines when people are spending their own money and operating in a genuine free market. But when there’s third-party payer, relative prices rise.

Perry explains the issue very succinctly.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective 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. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most 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 far less than the 100.5% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2016 and the 176.6% increase in hospital services.

In other words, a free market can work in healthcare. And it gives us falling prices and transparency rather than bureaucracy and inefficiency. Maybe when they’ve exhausted all other options, Republicans will decide to give freedom a try.

P.S. If you want to get a flavor for how competition and markets generate better results, watch this Reason TV video and read these stories from Maine and North Carolina.

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I shared last year a matrix to illustrate Milton Friedman’s great insight about the superior results achieved by markets compared to government.

Incentives explain why markets work best. When you spend your own money on yourself (box 1), you try to maximize quality while minimizing cost. And that drives the businesses that are competing for your money to constantly seek more efficient ways of producing better products at better prices.

This system generates creative destruction, which sometimes can be painful, but the long-term result is that we are vastly richer.

Governments, by contrast, don’t worry about efficiency or cost (box 4).

Today, though, let’s  use Friedman’s matrix to understand the shortcomings of the US healthcare system. Way back in 2009, I opined that the most important chart in healthcare was the one showing that American consumers directly paid for less than 12 percent of health expenditures.

For all intents and purposes, instead of buying healthcare with their own money, they use other people’s money (box 2), a phenomenon known as third-party payer. And because most of their health expenses are financed by either government (thanks to Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) or insurance companies (thanks to the tax code’s healthcare exclusion), consumers focus only on quality and don’t care much about cost.

That 2009 column was written before Obamacare’s enactment, so let’s see if anything has changed.

Well, we know healthcare has become more expensive. But do we know why?

The answer, at least in part, is that consumers are directly financing an even smaller percentage of their healthcare expenses. In other words, the distortions caused by third-party payer have become worse.

Here’s the most-recent data from the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (specifically the National Health Expenditures by type of service and source of funds, CY 1960-2015). Consumers are now paying only 10.5 percent of healthcare costs.

Now let’s consider the issue of efficiency.

Are we getting better healthcare for all the money that’s being spent?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. Here’s another chart from the archives. It compares per-capita health spending in various nations with average life expectancy.

As you can see, the United States is not getting more bang for the buck. And I very much doubt an updated version of those numbers would show anything different.

Heck, we even have more government spending on healthcare, per capita, than many nations with fully nationalized systems.

So if we’re not buying better health outcomes with all this money, what are we getting?

The blunt answer is bureaucracy and inefficiency. Here are some excerpts I shared years ago from a column by Robert Samuelson.

There are 9 times more clerical workers in health care than there are physicians, and twice as many clerical workers as registered nurses. This investment has not paid off in superior outcomes or better customer service, however. …Every analysis of medical care that has been done highlights the significant waste of resources in providing care. Consider a few examples: one study found that physicians spent on average of 142 hours annually interacting with health plans, at an estimated cost to practices of $68,274 per physician (Casalino et al., 2009). Another study found that 35 percent of nurses’ time in medical/surgical units of hospitals was spent on documentation (Hendrich et al., 2008).

Let’s close with a chart from a left-wing group that wants a single-payer system.

And this chart clearly makes a compelling case that the current approach in the United States is very wasteful.

For what it’s worth, I’m slightly skeptical about the veracity of the numbers. Why, for instance, would there be a sudden explosion of administrators starting about 1990?

But even if the data is overstated, I’m sure the numbers are still bad. We see the same thing in other areas of our economy where government-instigated third-party payer enables waste and featherbedding. Higher education is an especially shocking example.

The real issue is how to solve the problem. Our leftist friends think a single-payer healthcare system would solve the problem, but that would be akin to nationalizing grocery stores to deal with the inefficiencies created by food stamps and agriculture subsidies.

The real answer, as Julie Borowski explains in this video, is unraveling all the government interventions that caused the problem in the first place.

And if you want another video on the topic, here’s a Dutch expert making similar points. I also recommend this clever cartoon video that explains third-party payer. And this Reason video on how costs are lower when actual markets operate.

And if aren’t already numbed by lots of data, Mark Perry and Devon Herrick have more evidence of lower costs when third-party payer is reduced.

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A couple of years ago, filled with disgust at the sleazy corruption of the federal Leviathan, I put forth a simple explanation for what happens in Washington, DC.

I call it the “First Theorem of Government,” and I think it accurately reflects the real purpose and operation of government. Except I probably should have added lobbyists and contractors. And it goes without saying (though I probably should have said it anyhow) that politicians are the main beneficiaries of this odious racket.

I think this theorem has stood the test of time. It works just as well when Republicans are in charge as it does when Democrats are in charge.

But it doesn’t describe everything.

For instance, Republicans have won landslide elections in recent years by promising that they will repeal Obamacare the moment they’re in charge. Well, now they control both Congress and the White House and their muscular rhetoric has magically transformed into anemic legislation.

This is very disappointing and perhaps I’ll share some of Michael Cannon’s work in future columns about the policy details, but today I want to focus on why GOP toughness has turned into mush.

In part, this is simply a reflection of the fact the rhetoric of politicians is always bolder than their legislation (I didn’t agree with 98 percent of what was said by Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, but he was correct that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”)

But that’s just a small part of the problem. The real issue is that it’s relatively easy for GOP politicians to battle against proposed handouts and it’s very difficult to battle against existing handouts. That’s because government goodies are like a drug. Recipients quickly get hooked and they will fight much harder to preserve handouts than they will to get them in the first place.

And that’s the basic insight of the “Second Theorem of Government.”

Here’s a recent interview on FBN. The topic is the Republican reluctance to fully repeal Obamacare. I only got two soundbites, and they both occur in the first half of the discussion, but you can see why I was motivated to put forth the new theorem.

Simply stated, I’m disappointed, but I’m more resigned than agitated because this development was so sadly predictable.

And here are a couple of follow-up observations. I guess we’ll call them corollaries to the theorem.

  1. You break it, you buy it – Government intervention had screwed up the system well before Obamacare was enacted, but people now blame the 2010 law (and the Democrats who voted for it) for everything that goes wrong with healthcare. Republicans fear that all the blame will shift to them if their “Repeal and Replace” legislation is adopted.
  2. Follow the money – What’s partly driving GOP timidity is their desire not to anger many of the interest groups – such as state governments, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, etc – who benefit from various Obamacare handouts. That’s what is motivating criticism for politicians such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
  3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – The “Cadillac Tax” is the one part of Obamacare that’s worth preserving because it will slowly cut back on the distorting tax preferences that lead to over-insurance and third-party payer. For what it’s worth, the GOP plan retains that provision, albeit postponed until 2025.
  4. The switch in time that saved…Obamacare – I’m still upset that Chief Justice John Roberts (aka, the reincarnation of the 1930s version of Justice Roberts) put politics above the Constitution by providing the decisive vote in the Supreme Court decision that upheld Obamacare. If the law had been blocked before the handouts began, we wouldn’t be in the current mess.

For these reasons (as well as other corollaries to my theorem), I’m not brimming with optimism that we’ll get real Obamacare repeal this year. Or even substantive Obamacare reform.

P.S. Now you know what I speculated many years ago that Obamacare would be a long-run victory for the left even though Democrats lost many elections because of it. I sometimes hate when I’m right.

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The United States is going to become another Greece, and it’s largely because of poorly designed entitlement programs. As the old saying goes, demography is destiny.

Let’s look at just one piece of that puzzle. James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute has a very sobering summary of how Medicaid has metastasized into one of the largest and fastest-growing entitlement programs.

You should read the entire article, but if you’re pressed for time, I’m going to share two grim charts that tell you what you need to know.

First, we have a look at how the burden of Medicaid spending, measured as a share of national output, has increased over time.

What makes this chart particularly depressing is that Medicaid was never supposed to become a massive entitlement program.

It was basically created so the crowd in Washington could buy a few votes. Yet the moment politicians decided that it was the federal government had a role in subsidizing health care for the indigent, it was just a matter of time before the program was expanded to new groups of potential voters.

And every time the program was expanded, that increased the burden of spending and further undermined market forces in the health sector.

This is why entitlement programs are so injurious to a nation.

But Medicaid isn’t just a problem because of its adverse fiscal and economic impact.

The program also is exacerbating the redistribution culture in the United States as more and more people get trapped in the web of dependency.

Which brings us to our second chart from Capretta’s article. Here’s a look at the share of the population being subsidized by Medicaid.

As a fiscal wonk, I realize I should care more about the budget numbers, but I actually find this second graph more depressing. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from a nation where the federal government had no role in the provision of low-income healthcare, and now nearly one out of every five Americans is on the federal teat.

Even though we’re far richer than we were in the mid-1960s when the program was created, which presumably should have meant less supposed need for federal subsidies.

For further background on the issue, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

I urge you to pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending. This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs. But it also happens because the federal match gives states big incentives to manipulate the system to get more transfers.

P.S. All of which explains why I think Medicaid reform should be the first priority when looking at how to fix the entitlements mess, even before Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

P.P.S. I’m not overflowing with optimism that Trump will tackle the issue, but there is a feasible scenario for him fixing the program.

P.P.P.S. Regardless, one would hope all politicians would agree that it’s time to tackle rampant Medicaid fraud.

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With Christmas approaching, people are putting together their lists for Santa Claus.

I’m not sure I’ll find any of these things under my tree, but here’s what I want.

In the joyous spirit of the season, now let’s add to this collection by targeting the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The is the agency that put veterans on secret waiting lists, leading to needless and tragic deaths. And then the bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses (nice work if you can get it!).

And the shoddy treatment of America’s former warriors continues. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Daily Caller.

…almost 600 veterans who received dental care may have been infected with HIV or hepatitis. …the VA is notifying 592 veterans who had dental procedures from a particular dental provider… If any veterans test positive for HIV or hepatitis, they can receive free treatment.

Gee, that’s a great deal. You may get a life-altering illness, but the bureaucracy that enabled the illness will give you additional treatments.

Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that the VA dentist who potentially exposed the veterans is continuing to draw a government paycheck.

Instead of being fired, that dentist has been reassigned to an administrative role, despite potentially exposing almost 600 veterans to HIV or hepatitis.

Like I said, nice work if you can get it.

The VA’s penchant for secrecy wasn’t limited to waiting lists. The bureaucracy also has tried to cover up poor performance at dozens of local medical facilities.

Stars and Stripes has revealed the unseemly details.

A veterans group has blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs over leaked internal documents showing dozens of medical facilities performing at below-average levels. USA Today obtained the documents and published them Wednesday, revealing the secret system. The VA had previously refused to make the ratings public, claiming the system is for internal use only. It rates each of the VA’s medical centers on a scale of one to five, with one being the worst. …The worst performing centers are in Dallas and El Paso, Texas, and in Nashville, Memphis and Murfreesboro, Tenn. The documents also show that some medical centers have not improved despite scandals and scrutiny from Congress. The Phoenix VA still sits at a one-star rating despite a 2014 scandal revealing veterans died while waiting for care and that staff manipulated wait-time data there and at other VA hospitals across the country.

You’ll be happy to learn, however, that there were some consequences for the Phoenix division.

In response the malfeasance, neglect, and mistreatment of veterans, the leaders of the VA in Washington decided to punish the local bureaucracy by…well, take a wild guess.

The VA announced last October it plans to allocate $28 million to the Phoenix center in addition to its annual budget.

While these scandals are maddening, they are a distraction from the bigger problem. Simply stated, the core structure of the VA is misguided and the entire bureaucracy should be shut down.

Two of my colleagues, Michael Cannon and Chris Preble, explained the problem in a column for the New York Times.

Even when the department works exactly as intended, it helps inflict great harm on veterans, active-duty military personnel and civilians. Here’s how. Veterans’ health and disability benefits are some of the largest costs involved in any military conflict, but they are delayed costs, typically reaching their peak 40 or 50 years after the conflict ends. …when Congress debates whether to authorize and fund military action, it can act as if those costs don’t exist. But concealing those costs makes military conflicts appear less burdensome and therefore increases their likelihood. It’s as if Congress deliberately structured veterans’ benefits to make it easier to start wars. …The scandal isn’t at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The scandal is the Department of Veterans Affairs.

They proposed an idea which would lead to honest budgeting and make the Department of Veterans Affairs superfluous.

We propose a system of veterans’ benefits that would be funded by Congress in advance. It would allow veterans to purchase life, disability and health insurance from private insurers. Those policies would cover losses related to their term of service, and would pay benefits when they left active duty through the remainder of their lives. To cover the cost, military personnel would receive additional pay sufficient to purchase a statutorily defined package of benefits at actuarially fair rates. …Insurers and providers would be more responsive because veterans could fire them — something they cannot do to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans’ insurance premiums would also reveal, and enable recruits and active-duty personnel to compare, the risks posed by various military jobs and career paths. Most important, under this system, when a military conflict increases the risk to life and limb, insurers would adjust veterans’ insurance premiums upward, and Congress would have to increase military pay immediately to enable military personnel to cover those added costs.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review takes a different approach, but reaches the same conclusion.

He starts by pointing out more bad behavior by the VA.

There is only one guaranteed way to get fired from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Falsifying records won’t do it. Prescribing obsolete drugs won’t do it. Cutting all manner of corners on health and safety is, at worst, going to get you a reprimand. No, the only sure-fire way to get canned at the VA is to report any of these matters to authorities who might do something about it. …“Our concern is really about the pattern that we’re seeing, where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing are facing trumped-up punishment, but the employees who put veterans’ health at risk are going unpunished,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner recently told National Public Radio.

And he then says the only real solution is to eliminate the bureaucracy.

The real fix is to get rid of the VA entirely. The United States has an absolute obligation to do right by veterans. It does not have an absolute obligation to run a lousy, wasteful, unaccountable, corrupt, and inefficient bureaucracy out of Washington. …Imagine that the federal government simply gave all of the VA hospitals to the states they’re in. Instead of the VA budget, Congress just cut checks to states to spend on their veterans. You’d still have problems, of course. But what you would also have are local elected officials — city councilmen, state legislators, mayors, governors, etc. — whom voters could hold directly accountable. …this process would allow everyone to learn from both mistakes and successes in a way that a centralized bureaucracy cannot or will not. Personally, I’d rather see the money spent on veterans go straight to the veterans themselves, in the form of cash payments or vouchers to be used for health care in the private sector.

Amen.

National defense is a legitimate function of the federal government, so that means fairly compensating the people who give service to the country. Especially if they suffer wounds that require short-run or long-run care.

But as both my colleagues and Jonah Goldberg have explained, none of that means we need a cumbersome and blundering (and sometimes venal) bureaucracy.

Donald Trump shouldn’t be figuring out who to pick to head the VA, he should be putting together a plan to get rid of it.

To conclude, I found a nice chart that shows when various departments were created, which I have helpfully augmented by crossing out the ones that I’ve explained should be abolished. As you can see, there is still some low-hanging fruit to go after.

By the way, the White House website says the Small Business Administration has “the status of Cabinet-rank,” whatever that means. I guess it’s sort of like a participation trophy for the SBA.

In any event, I’ve also explained why that useless bureaucracy should be wiped out.

And I guess it’s good news that the Postal Service is no longer part of the cabinet, though that’s secondary to the more important issue of getting the government out of the business of delivering mail.

P.S. The VA also is capable of wasting money in ways that don’t involve premature deaths for veterans, so it’s a full-service bureaucracy!

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Economists are sometimes considered to be a bit odd, and the same thing is sometimes said about libertarians.

And since I’m a libertarian economist, I realize that makes me doubly suspect.

So when I’ve written about the desirability of market-based organ transplants (see here, here, and here), I realize some people will instinctively object because selling one’s organs is somehow distasteful and icky.

Or it makes people subject to exploitation. For instance, writing for the Washington Post, Scott Carney argues that organ sales would take advantage of the poor.

What would happen if the United States legalized the sale of human organs? …Whether we like it or not, we live in the era of globalization, and if the U.S. legalizes the market for body parts, there is no reason to think that international economies won’t play a role in how a patient decides to procure transplant organs. …According to the National Foundation for Transplants, a kidney transplant costs about $260,000. In the illegal organ markets in India, Egypt and Pakistan, the same procedure rings in at just shy of $20,000 — certified organ included. …The only thing stopping the typical American transplant patient from going abroad and buying an organ is the difficulty of making contact with a broker and the threat of what might happen if they get caught. …the market for human body parts is a lot like the one for used cars: They’re only worth what someone is willing to sell them for. …hundreds of thousands of people are available and willing to sell their flesh for pennies on the dollar.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that I shouldn’t be allowed (and the government shouldn’t be allowed) to block a willing seller and a willing buyer from engaging in a mutually beneficial exchange.

But folks like Mr. Carney think that poor people will get exploited.

…it’s helpful to review what happened in the market for human surrogate babies. In the United States, it is legal to pay a woman to carry a child… Once the market was clearly defined in the United States, other countries, with looser definitions of human rights, fought for their share of the market. In 2002, India became the go-to destination for procuring a budget surrogate womb. To the surprise of no one, the Indian industry soon began to cut corners. Women were housed under lock and key in houses known to the press as “baby factories.” …Late last year, India finally outlawed surrogacy tourism after non-stop incidents and official inquiries into the surrogates’ well-being. Now the commercial surrogacy boom seems to be moving to Cambodia where regulations are still loose.

So what’s his bottom line?

We cannot solve our own organ shortage by exploiting the poor and helpless people on the other side of the world.

I don’t doubt that there are shady people willing to exploit the poor by not giving them relevant information and/or not fully compensating them, though that’s not an argument against organ sales (just as similar periodic bad behavior by car salesmen and insurance brokers isn’t an argument against markets for automobiles and life insurance).

Instead, it’s an argument for governments in places such as India to do a better job at protecting and upholding the rule of law, which is one of the few proper and legitimate functions of a state.

A Wall Street Journal column by two attorneys from the Institute for Justice approaches the issue more dispassionately, noting that a market for bone marrow could save many lives.

Hemeos is aimed at one of the most pressing problems in medicine: the shortage of bone-marrow donors to combat deadly blood diseases. Thousands of Americans are waiting for a lifesaving donor, and thousands more have died waiting. Marrow donors provide blood stem cells, which reproduce continuously in the patient and restore the ability to make healthy blood. …Blood is drawn from one arm, the blood stem cells are skimmed out, and the blood is returned through the other arm. Donated marrow cells regenerate quickly and fully. Despite the ease of donating, thousands of patients with leukemia or other blood-related disorders are desperately searching for donors because a specific genetic match is required. …Hemeos plans to revolutionize donor recruitment by taking one simple step: compensating donors with a check for around $2,000. As with every other valuable thing in the world, we will get more marrow cells when we pay for them. It’s Econ 101.

Sounds great, right? A classic example of a win-win situation!

Except, well, government.

In 1984 the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) made it a federal crime to pay donors. Unlike plasma, sperm and egg donation—for which compensation is legal and common—paying marrow donors remains illegal. The result? Shortages, waiting lists and unnecessary suffering.

Fortunately, the courts have stepped in.

Ms. Flynn has three girls with Fanconi anemia, a genetic disorder that causes marrow failure. Wanting to do everything to save her girls and others, Ms. Flynn, along with several cancer patients in need of bone marrow, sued the Justice Department to end the ban on compensating marrow donors. A federal appeals court ruled in 2011 that because Congress expressly said that NOTA wouldn’t affect compensation for blood donation, …Congress couldn’t have intended the law to restrict compensation for marrow donations using modern, nonsurgical techniques.

But, still, government is government.

But a year after Ms. Flynn won her case, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it might enact a regulation effectively nullifying the court’s ruling—and thus Ms. Flynn’s victory. …And while HHS fiddles, patients die. Thousands of Americans have died awaiting a marrow transplant since HHS embarked on this needless diversion. How many could have been saved? And of those still alive, how many could have received a transplant faster and with a better-quality donor? This is a lesson in how a faceless, lumbering bureaucracy smothers innovation and optimism.

Here’s a very powerful video from IJ on this issue.

It’s hard to watch that video and think about what you would do if your children faced the risk of death.

Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute adds her two cents, writing on kidney sales from the unique perspective of being someone who has received two kidneys solely because of human kindness.

I am almost obscenely lucky. Within a 10-year period, two glorious women rescued me from years of grueling dialysis and a guarantee of premature death. …tremendous generosity allowed me to live many years in peace instead of constant worry. …I understood the general reluctance to donate. After all, giving a kidney is by no means risk-free (roughly a 0.02 percent, or 2 in 10,000 mortality rate, a 3–5 percent rate of serious complications, and perhaps a 25 percent chance of minor complications). Also, some people want to “save” their kidney lest, say, their own child needs it. Then, too, a lot of people are simply put off by surgery, and some handful—no one knows the extent of this group—can’t afford time off and lost wages. Of the 120,000 people waiting for organs, 101,000 are waiting for kidneys.

And for those who aren’t as lucky, Sally points out that current policy puts them in a very difficult position.

My transplants were a matter of private policy. My friends saved me—out of empathy, out of principle, out of affection. I’m beyond fortunate for them, because our public policy is failing far too many people who need organs. Twenty-two people die each day because they cannot survive the wait for an organ; 12 of those die from lack of a kidney in particular. The core of the problem is that prospective donors are legally required to relinquish an organ in the spirit of “altruism.” Despite the risk they take on, they are not allowed to benefit materially in any way. This mandate is part of the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, the law that established the national system of organ procurement and distribution. Any exchange of an organ for any sort of “valuable consideration,” is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.

Indeed, current policy is causing people to needlessly die.

The original law was intended in good faith. The point was to prevent a classic free market where only wealthier patients could afford to buy organs; it also sought to avert the scenario where poor donors were the “suppliers” for the well-off. …But more than enough time has now elapsed to conclude with certainty that an altruism-only system is sorely inadequate. And as in so many realms, it is the poor (especially poor minorities) that have suffered the most because of the deficit. They are less likely to be referred for transplant, more likely to die on dialysis, and less likely to receive an organ from the national pool even when they are referred.

One lawmaker is trying to push policy in the right direction.

In May, Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright introduced a bill called the Organ Donor Clarification Act of 2016. Its goal is to permit study of the effect of rewarding people who are willing to save the life of a stranger through living donation: Not through a free market with direct cash payments… Rather than large sums of cash, potential rewards could include a contribution to the donor’s retirement fund, an income tax credit or a tuition voucher, lifetime health insurance, a contribution to a charity of the donor’s choice, or loan forgiveness. Only the government, or a government-designated charity, would be allowed to distribute these benefits. (The funds could potentially come from the savings of stopping dialysis, which costs roughly $80,000 a year per person.) In other words, needy patients would receive kidneys regardless of their ability to reward donors out of their own pockets. …The donors’ kidneys would be distributed to people on the waiting list according to the rules now in place.

Congressman Cartwright’s proposal obviously wouldn’t create a genuine free market. But it would allow compensation to become part of the equation. So his proposal presumably would save lives compared to the current system.

Oh, by the way, it’s worth noting that criminalization of organ sales doesn’t fully stop the practice. Other nations step in, often with policies that are disgusting.

…one of the most horrific markets operating today: Communist China’s selling of organs harvested from prisoners of conscience. Ten thousand “transplant tourists” travel annually to communist China, where they pay top dollar to get organs transplanted on demand. …Free countries may not be able to stop this horrific practice, but they could reduce the demand for these organs by allowing free people to exercise the choice to sell their organs. Currently, free countries rely only on altruism, which has resulted in severe shortages of organs and black markets.

In other words, the policies advocated by Mr. Carney (the first story cited at the start of this column) would enhance the profitability of the Chinese organ-harvesting system. That doesn’t seem like a good outcome.

Here’s a map showing how the kidney trade works right now, with the underground economy playing a big role.

My bottom line is that poor people would get more money and have more legal protections if the system was fully legalized and operating above ground.

P.S. When I wasn’t busy causing trouble in college, I would sell my plasma twice weekly. The $15 I received from the medical company was sufficient to cover my food budget. They exploited me and I exploited them.

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Way back in 2009, some folks on the left shared a chart showing that national expenditures on healthcare compared to life expectancy.

This comparison was not favorable to the United States, which easily spent the most money but didn’t have concomitantly impressive life expectancy.

At the very least, people looking at the chart were supposed to conclude that other nations had better healthcare systems.

And since the chart circulated while Obamacare was being debated, supporters of that initiative clearly wanted people to believe that the U.S. somehow could get better results at lower cost if the government played a bigger role in the healthcare sector.

There were all sorts of reasons to think that chart was misleading (higher average incomes in the United States, more obesity in the United States, different demographics in the United States, etc), but my main gripe was that the chart was being used to advance the cause of bigger government when it actually showed – at least in part – the consequences of government intervention.

The real problem, I argued, was third-party payer. Thanks to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, government already was paying for nearly 50 percent of all heath spending in the United States (indeed, the U.S. has more government spending for health programs than some nations with single-payer systems!).

But that’s just party of the story. Thanks to a loophole in the tax code for fringe benefits (a.k.a., the healthcare exclusion), there’s a huge incentive for both employers and employees to provide compensation in the form of very generous health insurance policies. And this means a big chunk of health spending is paid by insurance companies.

The combination of these direct and indirect government policies is that consumers pay very little for their healthcare. Or, to be more precise, they may pay a lot in terms of taxes and foregone cash compensation, but their direct out-of-pocket expenditures are relatively modest.

And this is why I said the national health spending vs life expectancy chart was far less important than a chart I put together showing the relentless expansion of third-party payer. And the reason this chart is so important is that it helps to explain why healthcare costs are so high and why there’s so much inefficiency in the health sector.

Simply stated, doctors, hospitals, and other providers have very little market-based incentive to control costs and be efficient because they know that the overwhelming majority of consumers won’t care because they are buying care with other people’s money.

To get this point across, I sometimes ask audiences how their behavior would change if I told them I would pay 89 percent of their dinner bill on Friday night. Would they be more likely to eat at McDonald’s or a fancy steakhouse? The answer is obvious (or should be obvious) since they are in box 2 of Milton Friedman’s matrix.

So why, then, would anybody think that Obamacare – a program that was designed to expand third-party payer – was going to control costs?

Though I guess it doesn’t matter what anybody thought at the time. The sad reality is that Obamacare was enacted. The President famously promised healthcare would be more affordable under his new system, both for consumers and for taxpayers.

So what happened?

Well, the law’s clearly been bad news for taxpayers.

But let’s focus today on households, which have borne the brunt of the President’s bad policies. The Wall Street Journal had a report a few days ago about what’s been happening to the spending patterns of middle-class households.

The numbers are rather grim, at least for those who thought Obamacare would control health costs.

A June Brookings Institution study found middle-income households now devote the largest share of their spending to health care, 8.9%… By 2014, middle-income households’ health-care spending was 25% higher than what they were spending before the recession that began in 2007, even as spending fell for other “basic needs” such as food, housing, clothing and transportation, according to an analysis for The Wall Street Journal by Brookings senior fellow Diane Schanzenbach. …Workers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain of rising health-care costs. Employers still typically pay roughly 80% of individual health-insurance premiums… In 2015, 8% of Americans’ household spending went toward health care, up from 5.8% in 2007, according to the Labor Department.

Here’s a chart from the story. It looks at data from 2007-2014, so it surely wouldn’t be fair to say Obamacare caused all the increase. But it would be fair to say that the law hasn’t delivered on the empty promise of lower costs.

Let’s close with a few important observations.

First, there’s a very strong case to repeal Obamacare, but nobody should be under the illusion that this will solve the myriad problems in the health sector. It would be a good start, but never forget that the third-party payer problem existed before Obamacare.

Second, undoing third-party payer will be like putting toothpaste back in a tube. Even though there are some powerful examples of how healthcare costs are constrained when genuine market forces are allowed to operate, consumers will be very worried about shifting to a system where they pay directly for a greater share of their healthcare costs.

Third, there’s one part of Obamacare that shouldn’t be repealed. The so-called Cadillac Tax may not be the right way to deal with the distorting impact of the healthcare exclusion, but it’s better than nothing.

Actually, we could add one final observation since the Obama era will soon be ending. When historians write about his presidency, will his main legacy be the Obamacare failure? Or will they focus more on the failed stimulus? Or maybe the economic stagnation that was caused by his policies?

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At the risk of understatement, Obamacare is a mess.

It’s been bad for taxpayers, bad for consumers, and bad for healthcare.

It’s even been bad for some of the special interest groups that backed the legislation. The big insurance companies supported the law, for instance, because they thought it would be good to have the government force people to buy their products.

And these corrupt firms even got a provision in the law promising bailouts from taxpayers if the Obamacare system didn’t work.

Given the miserable track record of the public sector, that was probably a crafty move.

But the companies mistakenly assumed their sleazy pact with Obama, Pelosi, and Reid was permanent. Fortunately, their Faustian bargain appears to be backfiring.

Senator Marco Rubio has led the fight to stop bailouts for the big insurance companies.

Here are some excerpts from his recent column in the Wall Street Journal.

Six years after being signed into law, ObamaCare is a costly and unsustainable disaster. …ObamaCare is also bringing out corporate America’s worst crony-capitalist impulses. The health-insurance lobby has teamed up with trial lawyers to sue the federal government—through individual lawsuits and a $5 billion class action—for not following through on a sweetheart bailout deal buried in the law. This provision of ObamaCare would have required taxpayers to bail out insurers.

But in a rare victory for taxpayers, the Florida Senator got the law changed to restrict bailouts.

My conservative colleagues and I sounded the alarm about the likelihood of a taxpayer-funded bailout of health insurers (and were mocked as Chicken Littles for it). …When it came time to pass a spending bill at the end of 2014, we succeeded in making it the law of the land that the ObamaCare bailout program could not cost taxpayers a single cent—which ended up saving taxpayers $2.5 billion. In December of last year, we came back and repeated the feat. Now I am urging leaders in both the House and Senate to make this a priority and stop the bailout a third time.

As you might imagine, there’s a counterattack by the corrupt insurance companies that conspired with the White House to impose Obamacare on the nation.

…the health-insurance companies are suing to try to get their bailout…professional attorneys from the Congressional Research Service…said that the administration’s practice of making other payments to insurers under the ObamaCare reinsurance program “would appear to be in conflict with the plain text” of the law. …Health insurers can hire all the high-paid trial lawyers they want, but they will run into a constitutional buzz saw: America’s founding document grants Congress the power of the purse… Health-insurance companies need to wake up to the reality that this…money they are fighting for, and that the Obama administration is trying to weasel a way to somehow give them, belongs to taxpayers. Taxpayers get to decide—through me and others in Congress—whether to bail them out. And the people have spoken: No, we will not bail out health insurance companies for ObamaCare’s failures.

Amen to Senator Rubio.

Let’s hope Congress continues to oppose bailouts, and let’s also hope the White House isn’t successful in somehow giving our money to the big insurance companies.

Speaking of which, here’s what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the bailout controversy.

Right when you think Washington can’t get any worse, it does. That much was evident at a recent U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing into the Obama administration’s bailout of private health insurance companies. It’s a textbook case of government officials ignoring federal law to put special interests before the interests of American taxpayers and families.

Here’s how the mess was created…and how the Obama White House chose to respond.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s labyrinthine mandates, health insurance companies have collectively lost billions of dollars on the exchanges, leading to an increasing number of them limiting their participation in or exiting the exchanges altogether. As a result, many insurers have demanded larger subsidy payments. …responding to insurance industry demands — in November the Obama administration promised to “explore other sources of funding” for payments to insurers. Yet rather than work with Congress, the administration flouted the law entirely — and in this case, that means using tax dollars to bail out insurers left on the exchanges. CMS simply decided to ignore the law.

Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t have that option.

They simply pay more to get less.

Meanwhile, Americans rightly wonder who’s looking out for them. Premiums have actually risen faster in the five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act than in the five years before, while deductibles average nearly $3,000 for the most popular exchange plans.

Isn’t that typical.

Big government makes life worse for the average person while the special interests get special deals.

Speaking of special deals, let’s look at another Obamacare rescue for a privileged group.

Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation explains the contortions needed to keep health insurance subsidies flowing to Capitol Hill.

…one scandal is truly bipartisan: How key administration and congressional officials connived to create, under cover of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, special health insurance subsidies for members of Congress.

Here’s the background.

Rushing to enact the giant Obamacare bill in March 2010, Congress voted itself out of its own employer-sponsored health insurance coverage—the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. …But in pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, they also cut themselves off from their employer-based insurance contributions.

Subjecting themselves and their staff to Obamacare may have been smart politics, if only to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, but that created a different problem.

Obamacare’s insurance subsidies for ordinary Americans are generous, but capped by income. No one with an annual income over $47,080 gets a subsidy. That’s well below typical Capitol Hill salaries. Members of Congress make $174,000 annually, and many on their staff have impressive, upper-middle-class paychecks. …Realizing what they had done, congressional leaders sought desperately to get fatter taxpayer subsidies in the Obamacare exchange system. …The standard excuse was that, without a special “sweetener,” a Capitol Hill “brain drain” would ensue; the best and brightest would flee to the private sector to get more affordable employment-based coverage.

Gee, it would have been a shame if the people who have screwed up public policy had to get jobs in the private sector (or, more likely, the parasitic lobbying sector).

But the law oftentimes is not an obstacle when the Obama White House wants something to happen.

…at a July 31 closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats, President Barack Obama had promised he would “fix” the mess they made of their health coverage. So, on Aug. 7, 2013, just as Congress was getting out of town for the August recess, the Office of Personnel Management ruled that members of Congress and staff enrolled in the exchange program would get Federal Employees Health Benefits Program subsidies, even though they were no longer in the program.

But how exactly did the White House evade the law?

…the Office of Personnel Management declared that Congress and staff were eligible to enroll in the Washington, D.C., “SHOP” Exchange, a health insurance exchange reserved for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The exchange offers special insurance subsidies to participating small businesses. The problem was, of course, that Congress is not a “small business,” at least under any clinically sane definition of the term, and no section of the Affordable Care Act provided for any congressional exemption from the ban on large employer participation in the SHOP exchanges.

By the way, as a former staffer on Capitol Hill, I do have some sympathy for the lower-level folks who didn’t create the Obamacare mess and would suddenly be in a position of having to pay all their health costs out of pocket if the law was obeyed.

But that’s not a reason to engage in legal chicanery.

As part of tax and entitlement reform, by all means let’s shift to a system where we address the third-party payer crisis by having most health care expenses directly financed by consumers (reserving insurance for large, unpredictable expenses). That new system should include all people, including politicians and their staff.

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What’s the worst loophole (properly defined) in the cluttered internal revenue code?

I think the deduction for state and local taxes is very bad policy since it enables higher tax burdens in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois. The exemption for municipal bond interest is another misguided provision since it makes it easier for states to finance spending with debt.

Special favors in the tax code for ethanol also deserve scorn and disdain, and I’m also not a fan of the charitable deduction or the ways in which housing gets preferential treatment.

But if I had to pick just one tax preference to repeal, it would be the so-called healthcare exclusion. This is the policy that enables employers to deduct the cost of health insurance policies they buy for their employees.

You may think that deduction is reasonable. After all, employers also can deduct the wages and salaries they pay their employees. But here’s the catch. Employees pay tax on their wages and salaries, but they don’t have to pay tax on the value of their health insurance, even though such policies obviously are a form of compensation.

Moreover, since this type of compensation is shielded from both income taxes and payroll taxes, the playing field is therefore very tilted, which generates some very perverse results.

First, some background. As part of a broader analysis of the non-taxation of fringe benefits, Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation explains how government has created a big incentive to take income in the form of fringe benefits rather than wages and salaries.

…eighty years ago, it was relatively uncommon to offer workers compensation other than their regular wages and salaries. In 1929, only 1.9 percent of employee pay took the form of fringe benefits. By 2014, fringe benefits had risen to 19.2 percent of worker compensation.

Here’s a chart looking at the historical data.

Greenberg says this distortion in the tax code is unfair.

…the growing trend of unreported fringe benefits is “inequitable and inefficient.” This claim is spot on. For an illustration, imagine two employees, one of whom makes a salary of $100,000, and one of whom makes a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $20,000, which largely go unreported. Although both workers receive the same overall compensation, the first employee is subject to a significantly higher tax burden than the second, which seems plainly unfair.

Moreover, the distortion lures people into making economically foolish choices.

Furthermore, this arrangement incentivizes companies to shift more compensation towards benefits, to help employees avoid taxes. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources, towards services that employers might not have been willing to pay for in the absence of tax incentives.

He’s correct

Writing for the Weekly Standards, Ike Brannon looks specifically at the biggest tax-free fringe benefit.

…allowing employers to provide health insurance tax-free to their workers is terrible policy, a truism that any honest economist—whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise—would agree with. …First, workers end up with more health insurance than they would ever purchase on their own (since tax-free health insurance is worth more than income that’s taxed at 30%-50%), which gives people less take-home pay to spend as they see fit. Second, more generous health insurance entails lower co-pays as well as other provisions that insulate the worker from the actual cost of their health care. As a result, people become less sensitive to prices when seeking health care, and they consume more of it—most of which does nothing to improve health outcomes, numerous studies have shown.

For further details on this unfortunate tax preference, A. Barton Hinkle looks at the evolution of the health exclusion in a column for Reason.

…the original sin of the American health-care marketplace…was committed back in World War 2, when inflation led workers to demand higher wages – which many employers could not afford to pay because of price controls. …With wages frozen, employers needed another way to compete for labor made scarce by the draft. So some began offering health coverage. The practice took root, spread, and outlasted the war. In 1949 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that health benefits counted as wages for the purpose of union negotiations. Five years later, the IRS ruled that health coverage was not taxable income. The result was a double incentive for employers to offer fatter health benefits in lieu of fatter paychecks. …The result: a skyrocketing, ultimately unsustainable increase in national outlays for health care. …In short, for decades the federal government has encouraged employers to provide gold-plated health-care plans.

Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute explains how the “healthcare exclusion” is bad fiscal policy, bad health policy, and bad economic policy.

If we hope to move to an efficient healthcare system that is fair to everyone, Congress will have to take on the largest subsidy in the tax code. …Premiums paid for employment-based health insurance are excluded from federal income and payroll taxes.

When describing provisions that allow people to keep more of their own money, I would prefer to say largest distortion rather than largest subsidy, but I realize I’m being pedantic. Regardless of word choice, the net effect of this preference is negative.

The tax exclusion…fuels the rapid growth of health spending, contributes to stagnating wage growth, and disadvantages low-wage workers. Because there is no limit on how much can be excluded from taxes, workers are encouraged to buy more expensive coverage than they would otherwise…makes consumers less sensitive to prices and promotes the use of medical services, including services that may not provide much value to the patient.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems associated with the exclusion.

The exclusion has caused a shift in compensation from taxable cash wages to greater health benefits which are not taxed. Between 1999 and 2015, the average employer contribution for family coverage nearly tripled while wage rates increased by only about half.

By the way, our leftists friends should oppose the exclusion for class-warfare reasons.

…workers in higher tax brackets benefit the most from the exclusion. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the average savings for tax filers with incomes less than $30,000 was about $1,650 compared to about $4,580 for those with incomes over $200,000.

To deal with these negative effects, Antos proposes a modified version of the “Cadillac tax” from Obamacare combined with tax credits for consumers who purchase their own health insurance.

That’s better than the status quo, but the ideal solution is a flat tax, which would eliminate the deduction provided to employers for compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

In their book on tax reform, Professors Hall and Rabushka explain the obvious beneficial consequence of a level playing field for all forms of compensation.

The flat tax eliminates the distortion toward fringe benefits created by the fact that employers can deduct them, thereby receiving a subsidy that can be passed on to their employees. The best alternative, and one we expect your employer to select, is to offer you higher pay in exchange for lower fringes. You can then use the extra cash to buy whatever combination of benefits you desire.

This will make the healthcare marketplace much more efficient.

Here’s what I wrote about the healthcare exclusion way back in 2009, as part of a column on government-created inefficiency in the health sector.

…social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans.  …our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, 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. …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? (though it is worth noting that costs keep falling and quality keeps rising in the few areas – such as laser-eye surgery and cosmetic surgery – that are not covered by insurance) 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.

By the way, to make sure politicians don’t get a windfall of new revenue, the healthcare exclusion should only be repealed as part of a reform that also lowers tax rates.

Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that highlights how the healthcare exclusion is a major cause of the third-party payer problem.

And if you like videos, I strongly recommend this Reason TV explanation of how simple and affordable healthcare can be in the absence of government-created third-party payer.

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The ongoing cluster-you-know-what of Obamacare is a source of unhappy satisfaction.

Part of me is glad the law is such a failure, but it’s tragic that millions of people are suffering adverse consequences. These are folks who did nothing wrong, but now are paying more, losing employment, suffering income losses, and/or being forced to find new plans and new doctors.

And it seems we get more bad news every day, as noted in a new editorial from Investor’s Business Daily.

ObamaCare rates will skyrocket next year, according to its former chief. Enrollment is tumbling this year. And a big insurer is quitting most exchanges. That’s what we learned in just the past few days.

Why do we know these three bad things are happening? Because that’s what we’re being told by Mary Tavenner, the former head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the Obama Administration who has now cashed out and is pimping for the health insurance companies that got in bed with the White House to foist Obamacare on the American people.

IBD gives us the sordid details.

Why will 2017 rates spike even higher? In addition to the cost of complying with ObamaCare’s insurance regulations and mandates, there’s the fact that the ObamaCare exchanges have failed to attract enough young and healthy people needed to keep premiums down. Plus, two industry bailout programs expire this year, Tavenner notes. Oh, and she admits that people are gaming ObamaCare just like critics said they would: buying coverage after they get sick — since insurance companies can no longer turn them down or charge them more — then dropping it when they’re done with treatments. “That churn increases premiums. So you have to kind of price over that.”

And that’s just one slice of bad news.

Here’s more.

ObamaCare enrollment has already dropped an average of more than 14% in five states since February — a faster rate of decline than last year — as people get kicked off for not paying premiums. Finally, we learned on Tuesday that UnitedHealth Group (UNH) is planning to drop out of almost every ObamaCare market it currently serves after losing $1 billion on those policies. …Skyrocketing premiums, fewer choices in the marketplace, and people fleeing ObamaCare in droves after signing up. This isn’t exactly what Obama promised when he signed ObamaCare into law.

For those who were paying attention, none of this is a surprise. It was always a fantasy to think that more government intervention was going to improve a healthcare system that already was cumbersome and expensive because of previous government interventions.

By the way, IBD isn’t the only outlet to notice the ongoing disaster of Obamacare.

Let’s look at some other recent revelations.

Chris Jacobs writes that “For millions of Americans, the Left’s insurance utopia has rapidly deteriorated into a bleak dystopia” and that “the ‘cheaper prices’ that the president promised evaporated as quickly as the morning dew.”

John Graham explains that “CBO estimates Obamacare will leave 27 million uninsured through 2019 – an increase of almost one quarter” and that “CBO estimates 68 million will be dependent on the program this year through 2019 – an increase of almost one third in the welfare caseload.”

Betsy McCaughey opines that, “Obamacare is already hugely in the red. …over the next ten years Obamacare will add $1.4 trillion to the nation’s debt” and that “Insurers struggling with Obamacare are already drastically reducing your choice of doctors and hospitals to cut costs.”

Devon Herrick reveals that “Obamacare has caused more people to reach for their wallets after a medical encounter — not less” and that “all but the most heavily subsidized Obamacare enrollees would be better off financially if they skipped coverage and pay for their own medical care out of pocket.”

Jeffrey Anderson observes that “it seems possible that Obamacare has actually reduced the number of people with private health insurance” and that “Obamacare is basically an expensive Medicaid expansion coupled with 2,400 pages of liberty-sapping mandates.”

John Goodman notes that “Prior to Obamacare, many employers of low-wage workers offered their employees a “mini med” plan, covering, say, the first $25,000 of expenses” and that “Those plans are now gone… employees…are…completely uninsured”

The CEO of CKE Restaurants warns that “fewer people buying insurance through the exchanges, the economics aren’t holding up” and that “Ten of the 23 innovative health-insurance plans known as co-ops—established with $2.4 billion in ObamaCare loans—will be out of business by the end of 2015 because of weak balance sheets.”

Critics of Obamacare now get to say “we told you so.”

As the Washington Examiner opines:

…conservatives screamed a simple fact from the rooftops: Obamacare will not work. No one wanted to listen then, but their warnings are now coming into fruition. Obamacare, as constructed, attempted to fix a dysfunctional health care payment system by creating an even more complicated system on top of it, filled with subsidies, coverage mandates, and other artificial government incentives. But its result has been a system that plucked Americans out of coverage they like and forced them to pay more for less. …Taxpayers and insurance customers alike should demand replacing Obamacare with a system that reduces costs and improves quality by injecting actual choice and competition into the insurance market.

I especially like the last part of the excerpt. Which is why we need to go well beyond simply repealing Obamacare if we want to restore market forces to the healthcare sector.

P.S. I wrote about that it’s tragic that so many people are suffering because of Obamacare. I should add that there are some victims who actually are getting what they deserve.

P.P.S. In the long run, I fear taxpayers will be the biggest (and most undeserving) victims.

P.P.P.S.Though, in fairness, the law does have at least one redeeming feature.

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My colleague Michael Cannon has been a tireless advocated for market-based health reform. His research has helped pave the way for good Medicare and Medicaid reform proposals on Capitol Hill and he is justifiably famous for his dogged opposition to Obamacare.

With that glowing introduction, you may be surprised to learn that Michael has stirred up a hornet’s nest among conservatives by asserting that Marco Rubio’s healthcare reform legislation contains an Obama-like mandate.

…where is conservative outrage over Marco Rubio’s health plan, which actually contains an individual mandate? …The centerpiece of Rubio’s proposal… If you purchase a government-approved health plan, you could save, for example, $2,000 on your taxes. If you don’t, you pay that $2,000 to the government. That is exactly how Obamacare’s individual mandate works.

As you might expect, this rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

Writing for Forbes, Ryan Ellis argues that tax preferences aren’t mandates.

By this twisted, Orwellian logic, there is a government mandate to have kids (child tax credit), buy a house (mortgage interest deduction) and save for retirement (401(k) plans).

James Capretta is similarly critical in his column for National Review.

Cannon’s logic is absurd. Senator Rubio…wants to make sure that all Americans get a comparable tax break for health insurance, regardless of whether or not they get their insurance through their place of work. …No one would be required to do anything.

Grace-Marie Turner, in her column for Forbes, echoes those statements.

The Rubio plan does not and would not involve a mandate, and there are no enforcement penalties for not taking the credit. …Claiming that the Rubio plan is at least as bad as Obamacare is an irresponsible position.

Wow, Michael is apparently twisted, absurd and irresponsible. And these are statements from his friends and allies! When I get slammed, by contrast, it’s by leftists.

So what gives? At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed politician, I’m going to argue that both Michael and his critics are right and that this fight is not really about a “mandate” but instead is a battle over whether (and how) government should use fiscal policy to induce certain healthcare decisions.

First, let me explain why Michael is right. His core argument, as captured by this excerpt from his article, is very straightforward.

Rubio’s tax credit would…give the federal government as much power to force you to purchase unwanted coverage as Obamacare does.

And he’s basically right. Under Obamacare, you can choose to buy a health insurance policy in order to pay less to the IRS. Under Rubio’s plan, you can choose to buy a health insurance policy in order to pay less to the IRS.

To be sure, the mechanisms are different. Under Obamacare, you pay less to the IRS because you’re not being fined. Under Rubio’s plan, you pay less to the IRS because you’re taking advantage of a tax credit. But the net result is still somewhat similar, at least from an economic perspective.

Now here’s why Michael’s critics are right. Notwithstanding a degree of economic equivalence, most people do not think a penalty and a bribe are the same.

The average person probably won’t get offended if you tell them they can have $1,000 if they touch a hot stove. They may say yes or they may say no, and they may think you’re weird for making the offer, but there presumably won’t be hard feelings.

On the other hand, if you tell the average person that you will coercively deprive them of $1,000 if they don’t touch a hot stove, they will probably be upset that you’re putting them in an unpleasant position. And regardless of what they choose, they’ll resent you.

This helps to explain why many people don’t like Obamacare. It forces them to choose between two things they may not want.

But in Rubio’s plan, the choice is whether you should choose something in order to get something. That’s a more pleasing scenario.

Now let’s shift to the real issue, which is the degree to which fiscal policy should be used to encourage health insurance.

Michael is an advocate of large health savings accounts and most everyone else prefers tax credits (and they prefer refundable credits, akin to the EITC, which means Uncle Sam would give money to people who don’t earn enough to pay tax).

Digging into that issue is not the goal of today’s column. Suffice to say that if your long-run goal is to get government out of the health sector, you’ll probably be more sympathetic to Michael’s view. If you think getting government out of the health sector is a pipe dream, you’ll probably be more sympathetic to tax credits.

The bottom line is that this isn’t a fight between good guys and bad guys. It’s a tactical disagreement among people who realize that government intervention has screwed up our healthcare system and don’t fully agree on how to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

P.S. Shifting to a different topic, it’s time to savor a rare victory. Regular readers may recall the postscript in a column last year about the IRS stealing the bank account of a guy who runs a convenience store in North Carolina. That was horrible and disgusting (and there are many other examples of similar misbehavior by the feds). But the good news is that the bureaucrats have been forced to return the money.

But remember that this is just a victory in one battle. We won’t win the war until the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture is abolished.

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I wrote last June about an unfortunate British guy who, after his leg was broken by thieves, was told by the government that his injury wasn’t serious enough for an ambulance.

The poor chap eventually was driven home by some cops and then had to take an Uber to the hospital.

While writing about this story, I semi-joked about what would be required to get an ambulance.

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

Little did I realize that the bureaucrats would prove me wrong.

Here are some amazing excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Telegraph.

A dying pensioner wrote a heartbreaking ‘I love you note’ to his daughters while he waited two hours for an ambulance to respond to his call for help following a heart attack. …The retired mechanical fitter… pulled a cord in his flat in Prenton in Birkenhead, Merseyside, to sound an alarm in a 24/7 emergency call centre and could be heard by the call handler shouting: “Help”. …The call handler dialled 999 but Mr Volante’s case was given a low priority by the ambulance service and paramedics took 1hr 40mins to arrive. They found him dead on his living room floor.

ronald-volante-1_3563047bIn a touching but tragic gesture, the deceased spent some of his wait time writing a note to his daughters.

A heartbreaking note was found in Mr Volante’s flat after his death, which read: “I love you Rita, I love you Deb, Dad.” This was a reference to his two daughters, Debbie Moore and Rita Cuthell.

I suppose, to be fair, that we can’t fully blame Mr. Volante’s death on government incompetence. He may have died even if the ambulance arrived in a timely fashion.

But imagine what it would be like to place a very serious call and to be treated like an afterthought.

Though the government at least offered an insincere apology, so I guess that counts for…um, nothing.

…a North West Ambulance Service spokesperson said: “The Trust would like to express its sincere condolences to Mr Volante’s family during this difficult time.

But let’s look at the bright side. If the ambulance had been on time and Mr. Volante had been admitted to the hospital, the government may have starved him to death instead.

I’m guessing a heart attack – even one where it takes you 90 minutes to die – would be preferable.

Particularly since you can’t be sure whether government-run healthcare will kill you accidentally or kill you deliberately.

P.S. Here’s my collection of horror stories about the U.K.’s version of Obamacare: hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, herehereherehereherehere and here. By the way, Paul Krugman tells us that all these stories are false. So who are you going to believe, him or your lying eyes?

P.P.S. To be fair, some screw-ups are inevitable, even in a perfectly designed healthcare system. But I would argue that horror stories are more common when the profit motive is weakened or eliminated. If you’re a Brit and you die or suffer because of crappy government-run healthcare, there’s no feedback mechanism to punish the doctor and/or hospital (or, in the above case, ambulance service). Their budgets already are pre-determined. Likewise, if you’re an American and you die or suffer because of sub-standard Medicare or Medicaid treatment, there’s presumably no effective feedback budgetary mechanism.

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Even before it was enacted, it was obvious that Obamacare was going to have a negative economic impact.

From a fiscal policy perspective, the law was bad news because all the new spending and higher taxes increased the fiscal burden of government.

From a regulatory intervention perspective, the law was bad news because it exacerbated the third-party payer problem.

Form a jobs perspective, the law was bad news because it increased the attractiveness of government dependency compared to employment.

But those were just the slap-you-in-the-face impossible-to-overlook problems.

As Nancy Pelosi infamously noted, the law needed to pass so we could know what was in it.

And the more we learn about the contents, the more evidence we find that (as shown in this poster) that more government is never the answer.

A new empirical study by scholars at Harvard and Stanford finds that “free” goodies from the government actually have a hefty price tag.

The dependent care mandate…one of the most popular provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act…requires that employer-based insurance plans cover health care expenditures for workers with children 26 years old or younger. …there has been little scholarly work measuring the costs and incidence of this mandate and who pays the costs of it. In our empirical work, ….we find that workers at firms with employer-based coverage – whether or not they have dependent children – experience an annual reduction in wages of approximately $1,200. Our results imply that the marginal costs of mandated employer-based coverage expansions are not entirely borne only by the people whose coverage is expanded by the mandate.

Wow, this is worse than I thought. I assumed the pejoratively nicknamed “slacker mandate” wasn’t a big issue because the types of kids getting coverage (ages 19-26) presumably had very low health expenses.

But if average wages at affected firms are $1200 lower than they otherwise would be, that’s a big hit. Maybe Pajama Boys have physical health problems in addition to their mental health problems.

Now let’s look at another higher-than-expected cost, except this time the victims are taxpayers and other health care consumers rather than workers.

Politico has a depressing story of how people have figured out how to game the system

Obamacare customers are gaming the system, buying coverage only after they find out they’re ill and need expensive care… No one knows precisely how many might be manipulating the system, but the plans say they run up much higher medical bills and then jump ship, contributing to double-digit rate increases and financial losses. Health plans also complain some customers are exploiting a three-month “grace period” — when they can keep getting subsidized coverage even if they’ve stopped paying their share of premiums.

In other words, Obamacare is so poorly designed – thanks to subsidies, mandates, and other forms of intervention – that many people can basically wait until they’re sick before signing up.

Then they incur expenses that are covered by taxpayers and/or passed on to other healthcare consumers.

There’s also another group of victims, though I confess that part of me thinks that the insurance companies deserve to suffer since they (like Big Pharma) endorsed Obamacare.

…those trends make the risk pools skew toward sicker, costlier customers — and under Obamacare, plans can no longer deny coverage to those with expensive medical conditions. That problem has been exacerbated by the large numbers of healthier people who are choosing to stay uninsured rather than shell out money for coverage.

Yup, I experience a warm glow of schadenfreude after reading that passage. But I also know that it won’t be good for the American economy and the American people if the market for private health insurance entered an Obamacare-driven death spiral.

That being said, I also don’t want them to get any bailout cash.

In any event, if the health insurance companies have a meltdown, you could bet your last dollar that the crowd in Washington somehow will blame capitalism and say that the solution is single-payer health care (even though that system is so dysfunctional it was repealed by Bernie Sanders’ Vermont and even though that system leads to endless horrors in the United Kingdom).

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I will admit that there is a group that has benefited from Obamacare.

P.P.S. Actually, there’s another group, so we can say there are two winners from government-run healthcare.

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In 2009, Paul Krugman assured his readers 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.”

I guess one could argue that the determination of “scare stories,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

But if I was writhing in agony on a street because of a broken leg, I wouldn’t be happy with a healthcare system that told me I didn’t need an ambulance.

And if I was part of a system that rewarded hospitals for letting old people die, I might be tempted to say that was a scary system.

Moreover, I would be understandably irked if my I was stuck with a system for healthcare that treated patients with callous disregard.

But if you’re wealthy and well-connected, then perhaps you don’t think these results are scary because you know you’ll always be able to jump the queue in a government-run system and get good treatment for yourself.

In any event, it’s not just the healthcare system that’s scary on the other side of the Atlantic.

A report in the Telegraph paints a grim picture of dental care in the United Kingdom

Dental health standards are falling to “Third World” levels in parts of England because of a crisis of access to NHS treatment, more than 400 dentists claim today.In a letter to The Telegraph, a coalition of professionals from across the country argues that the system is “unfit for purpose” with millions of people seemingly going for long periods without even seeing a dentist, or ignorant of basic dental hygiene.The signatories accuse successive governments of hiding the problem behind a veil of spin and denial. They point to official figures showing large numbers of primary school children having to be admitted to hospital to be treated for serious tooth decay and other dental problems, many of which, they say, could be easily prevented.

As you might expect, the bureaucracy claims everything is just fine.

NHS England denied that there is a crisis…a spokeswoman for NHS England insisted: “These claims are wrong – more patients are getting the dental care they need, and 93 per cent of people got an NHS dental appointment when they wanted one in the last 24 months.”

But the numbers tell a different story.

NHS figures show that almost half the adult population of England (48 per cent) and a third (31 per cent) of children have not seen a dentist within two years. Crucially almost 62,500 people are admitted to hospital in England per year because of tooth decay – three quarters of them, or 46,400, children. …“The NHS dental system in England is unfit for purpose,” the dentists wrote. “Far from improving, the situation has worsened to such an extent that charity groups normally associated with providing dental care in Third World arenas now have to do so in England.

None of this sounds very good, though let’s acknowledge that the dentists in the U.K. are an interest group that presumably wants to get a bigger slice of government money.

So they presumably would have an incentive to exaggerate the downside of British dental care.

But this underscores the problem with government takeover of a sector. Instead of a system of voluntary and beneficial exchange, you suddenly have a zero-sum, third-party-payer-driven system where consumers, providers, and taxpayers suddenly have an incentive to squabble.

P.S. For other U.K. “scare stories,” see herehereherehereherehere, here,hereherehere, here, hereherehere, herehere, here and here.

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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Government intervention has messed up the healthcare sector, leading to needlessly high prices and massive inefficiency.

Fixing the mess won’t be easy since it would involve addressing several contributing problems, including Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion in the tax code, Obamacare, and the mess at the Veterans Administration.

But at least we know the right solutions. We need entitlement reform and tax reform in order to restore a genuine free market and solve the government-created third-party payer crisis.

And to bolster the case for reform, we’re going to look at three new examples of how government intervention makes the healthcare system worse rather than better.

For our first example, let’s look at a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis, which compares what happens when the federal government decides to build a hospital with a similar project constructed by a local government with private-sector involvement.

We’ll start with a look at Veterans Administration project.

…the VA hospital in Denver, Colorado, was run-down, crowded and outdated. …the VA considered renovating the medical facilities of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center at a cost of $30 million. Then, the University of Colorado Hospital offered to open jointly-operated facilities for $200 million. VA officials passed on both ideas due to cost concerns. Instead, officials sought and received approval for a stand-alone facility.

That decision was very costly for taxpayers.

The VA failed to produce a design that could be built for its budget of $604 million, ultimately causing a budget-busting $1 billion overrun. …Soon, the plan to build an affordable replacement morphed into the most extravagant and expensive hospital construction project in VA history.

And, as is typical of government projects, the cost to taxpayers was far higher than initial estimates used to justify the project.

Now let’s look at another project, this one in Dallas, Texas.

…the original Parkland Hospital was built in Dallas to serve the young city’s indigent population. …its aging facilities could no longer meet the demand of 1 million patients admitted each year. …The project to rebuild Parkland, split roughly 60/40 in revenue sources, was accountable to both the public and its private donors. …Project managers hired an independent auditor to monitor all project transactions. Budget progress reports were made available to both Parkland’s Board and the public.

The final outcome was far from perfect (after all, local governments are also quite capable of wasting money). But the involvement of the private sector, combined with the fact that the local government was spending its own money, created incentives for a much better outcome.

On the first day of construction, Parkland’s project team was $100 million over budget. But a flexible design, and a willingness to balance needs and wants, allowed the team to deliver a larger, more cost-effective hospital than originally conceived for a mere 6 percent increase in budget.

And here’s a chart from the NCPA report that perfectly captures the difference between the federal government and a project involving a local government and the private sector.

Can you think of a better argument for local private-public partnerships over the federal government?

Yet policy keeps moving in the wrong direction in Washington.

The Obamacare boondoggle was all about increasing the federal government’s control and intervention in the healthcare sector.

And this brings us to our second not-so-great example of government-run healthcare.

The New York Times has a story with a real-world example showing how the President’s failed legislation is hurting small businesses.

LaRonda Hunter…envisioned…a small regional collection of salons. As her sales grew, so did her business, which now encompasses four locations — but her plans for a fifth salon are frozen, perhaps permanently.

And why can’t she expand her business and create jobs?

Because Obamacare makes it impossible.

Starting in January, the Affordable Care Act requires businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees to offer workers health insurance or face penalties that can exceed $2,000 per employee. Ms. Hunter, who has 45 employees, is determined not to cross that threshold. Paying for health insurance would wipe out her company’s profit and the five-figure salary she pays herself from it, she said.

And Ms. Hunter is just the tip of the iceberg.

For some business owners on the edge of the cutoff, the mandate is forcing them to weigh very carefully the price of growing bigger. “There’s kind of a deer-in-headlights moment for those who say, ‘I have this new potential client, but if I bring them on, I have to hire five additional people,’” said Philip P. Noftsinger, the payroll unit president at CBIZ, a financial services provider for businesses. “They’re really trying to assess how much the 50th employee is going to cost. …Added to that cost are the administrative requirements. Starting this year, all companies with 50 or more full-time workers — even those not yet required to offer health benefits — must file new tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service that provide details on employee head count and any health insurance offered. Gathering the data requires meticulous record-keeping. “These are some of the most complex informational returns we’ve ever seen,” said Roger Prince, a tax lawyer.

Here’s another real-world example.

The expense and distraction of all that paperwork is one of the biggest frustrations for one business owner, Joseph P. Sergio. …He is reluctant to go over the 50-employee line and incur all of the new rules that come with it. That makes bidding for new jobs an arduous and risky exercise. …”If you ramp up, and it pushes you over 50, there’s all these unknown costs and complicated rules. Are we really going to be able to benefit from going after that opportunity? It freezes you at a time when you need to be moving fast.”

And don’t forget that while Obamacare discourages entrepreneurs from creating jobs, it also discourages people from seeking jobs.

That’s the kind of two-for-one special that’s only possible with big government!

Now that we’ve cited examples of bad policy from the Veterans Administration and Obamacare, let’s turn to Medicare for our third example.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center writes about rampant Medicare fraud in her syndicated column.

Medicare is rife with fraud, and every year, billions of dollars are improperly paid out by the federal government’s giant health care bureaucracy. According to the government’s latest estimates, Medicare fee-for-service (parts A and B) made $46 billion in improper payments last year. And Medicare Advantage (Part C) and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D) combined for another $15 billion in improper payments. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these numbers underestimate the annual losses to taxpayers from fraud and bureaucratic bungling. According to the work of Harvard University’s Malcolm Sparrow, fraud could account for as much as 20 percent of total federal health care spending, which would be considerably higher than what the government’s figures indicate.

None of this should be a surprise. Medicare has a notorious history of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But there is a glimmer of good news. There’s actually a program to identify and recover wasted funds.

The RAC program is geared toward correcting improper payments… The auditors thus pay for themselves with the money they recoup instead of simply being handed a lump-sum check. That the RAC program has an incentive to reduce wasteful spending and save taxpayers money makes it fairly unusual among government initiatives.

Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished in Washington.

…bureaucrats are set to greatly diminish the program’s effectiveness in 2016. Rather than empower these fraud hunters, they are drastically reducing the number of paid claims that auditors can review every 45 days (from 2 percent down to just 0.5 percent). The new limits will make it that much harder for auditors — whose cost already amounts to just a drop in the bucket — to recoup taxpayer losses.

I’ve also written about this absurd effort to curtail the RAC program, but Veronique makes a critically important observation that has widespread applicability to so much of what happens with government.

Agency failure is routinely rewarded in Washington with bigger budgets and greater authority, but here success will not be.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the private sector and the government.

In my speeches, I sometimes point out that people in the private economy make mistakes all the time, but I also explain that the incentive to earn profits and avoid losses creates a powerful incentive structure to quickly learn from mistakes.

That means resources quickly get reallocated in ways that are more likely to boost economic efficiency and increase growth and living standards.

In government, by contrast, this process is reversed. Bureaucrats and politicians reflexively argue that failure simply means that budgets should be expanded.

All of which explains why these cartoons are such perfect depictions of government.

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Like many Americans, I’m suffering from Obamacare fatigue.

Health Freedom Meter before ObamacareBefore the law was implemented, I repeatedly explained that more spending and more intervention  in the health sector would worsen a system that already was suffering from too much government.

And since the law went into effect, I’ve pointed out – over and over again – the predictably negative effects of Health Freedom Meter after Obamacaregiving the government even more control.

So I’m tempted to wash my hands of the issue.

But that would be wrong, particularly since advocates of statism disingenuously might claim that silence somehow means acceptance or approval.

Moreover, we need to continuously remind ourselves that big government doesn’t work just in case there’s a chance to enact good reforms after Obama leaves office.

With that in mind, let’s look at recent developments that underscore the case against government-run healthcare.

How about the fact that Obamacare is extremely vulnerable to fraud?

…the GAO report showed that federal auditors 11 out of 12 times were able to gain subsidized coverage with fictitious applications, three of the successful applications never provided citizenship or immigration documentation. The investigators in each case were able to obtain $2,500 or around $30,000 annually in advance premium tax credits.

And what about the fact that the Obamacare co-ops have been a big flop?

Nonprofit co-ops, the health care law’s public-spirited alternative to mega-insurers, are awash in red ink and many have fallen short of sign-up goals, a government audit has found. Under President Barack Obama’s overhaul, taxpayers provided $2.4 billion in loans to get the co-ops going, but only one out of 23 — the one in Maine — made money last year, said the report out Thursday. Another one…was shut down by regulators over financial concerns. The audit by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office also found that 13 of the 23 lagged far behind their 2014 enrollment projections.

Or what about the fact that deductibles have increased under Obamacare?

A survey released earlier this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that..deductibles have risen almost three times as fast since 2010 for employer-sponsored plans.

And should we care that Obamacare has meant rising health care costs?

…the actuaries estimated that health spending that year jumped by 5.5 percent, a bigger rise than the country had experienced in five years. …The actuaries cited three main reasons they think health spending is set to tick up. One is the aging of the population… Another is the improving economy… But the third, and a big one, was Obamacare’s coverage expansion.

All of the aforementioned things are contrary to what Obamacare supporters promised.

Though since I focus on policy rather than politics, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that higher deductibles in some ways are a good thing. Which is why I’ve defended Obamacare’s Cadillac tax.

But now let’s look at two additional Obamacare developments. And both represent very bad news.

First, new scholarly research shows that Obamacare will be bad news for all income levels, and even will be of questionable value to those getting big subsidies (h/t: Marginal Revolution).

…the average financial burden will increase for all income levels once insured. Subsidy-eligible persons with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty threshold likely experience welfare improvements that offset the higher financial burden, depending on assumptions about risk aversion and the value of additional consumption of medical care. However, even under the most optimistic assumptions, close to half of the formerly uninsured (especially those with higher incomes) experience both higher financial burden and lower estimated welfare.

In other words, people generally were making sensible choices when they had some degree of freedom.

But now that they’re being coerced into Obamacare, many of them are worse off. Even in many cases if they’re the ones getting subsidized!

Second, we now know that President Obama’s promise to lower health insurance premiums by $2,500 was laughably misleading.

But it’s not simply that the President exaggerated. As Investor’s Business Daily explains, the numbers actually have gone in the other direction

Since 2008, average family premiums have climbed a total of $4,865. The White House cheered the news, saying it was a sign of continued slow growth in premium costs. …Slightly less higher premiums aren’t what President Obama promised Americans when he ran for office touting his medical overhaul. He specifically said his plan would cut premiums. “We will start,” Obama said back in 2008, “by reducing premiums by as much as $2,500 per family.”

And keep in mind that Obama’s claim of big savings was not a one-time, off-the-cuff comment.

As you can see in this video, it was a pervasive part of his campaign for further government control of the health care system.

But the real story isn’t prevarication by a politician. That comes with the territory.

The real issue is that our healthcare system is more screwed up because government now is playing a bigger role.

And keep in mind that fixing the problem means a lot more than simply repealing Obamacare. We also need to deal with spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and address tax preferences and regulations that encourage over-insurance.

After all, never forget that our real healthcare crisis is a giant government-caused third-party payer problem.

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I’m a long-time advocate of “dynamic scoring,” which means I want the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation to inform policy makers about how fiscal policy changes can impact overall economic performance and therefore generate “feedback” effects.

I also think the traditional approach, known as “static scoring,” creates a bias for bigger government because it falsely implies that ever-higher tax rates and an ever-growing burden of government spending don’t have any adverse impact on prosperity.

There’s a famous example to show the lunacy of static scoring. Back in late 1980s, former Oregon Senator Bob Packwood asked the Joint Committee on Taxation to estimate the revenue impact of a 100 percent tax rate on income over $200,000.

When considering such a proposal, any normal person with even the tiniest amount of common sense is going to realize that successful people quickly will figure out it makes no sense to either earn or report income about that level. As such, the government won’t collect any additional revenue.

Heck, it’s not just that the government won’t collect additional revenue. Our normal person with a bit of common sense is going to take the analysis one step further and conclude that revenues will plunge, both because the government will lose the money it collected with the old income tax rates on income above $200,000 (i.e., the income that will disappear) and also because there will be all sorts of additional economic damage because of foregone work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

But the JCT apparently didn’t have any bureaucrats with a shred of common sense. Because, as shown in Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve, they predicted that such a tax would raise $104 billion in 1989, rising to $299 billion in 1993.

The good news is that both CBO and JCT are now seeking to incorporate some dynamic scoring into their fiscal estimates. Most recently, the CBO (with help from the JCT) released a report on the fiscal impact of repealing Obamacare.

Let’s look at what they did to see whether the bureaucrats did a good job.

I’ll start with something I don’t like. This new CBO estimate is fixated on the what will happen to deficit levels.

Here’s the main chart from the report. It compares what will happen to red ink if Obamacare is repealed, based on the static score (no macro feedback) and the dynamic score (with macro feedback).

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with this type of information. But making deficits the focus of the analysis is akin to thinking that the time of possession is more important than the final score in the Super Bowl.

What matters for more is what happens to the economy, which is affected by the size and structure of government. As such, here’s the most important finding from the report.

Repeal of the ACA would raise economic output…the resulting increase in GDP is projected to average about 0.7 percent over the 2021–2025 period.

There are two reasons the bureaucrats expect better economic performance if Obamacare is repealed. First, people will have more incentive to work because of a reduction in handouts.

CBO and JCT estimate that repealing the ACA would increase the supply of labor and thus increase aggregate compensation (wages, salaries, and fringe benefits) by an amount between 0.8 percent and 0.9 percent over the 2021–2025 period. …the subsidies and tax credits for health insurance that the ACA provides to some people are phased out as their income rises—creating an implicit tax on additional earnings—and those subsidies, along with expanded eligibility for Medicaid, generally make it easier for some people to work less or to stop working.

Second, the analysis also recognizes that there would be positive economic results from repealing the tax hikes in Obamacare, especially the ones that exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

Implementation of the ACA is also expected to shrink the capital stock, on net, over the next decade, so a repeal would increase the capital stock and output over that period. In particular, repealing the ACA would increase incentives for capital investment, both by increasing labor supply (which makes capital more productive) and by reducing tax rates on capital income. …repealing the ACA also would eliminate several taxes that reduce people’s incentives to save and invest—most notably the 3.8 percent tax on various forms of investment income for higher-income individuals and families. The resulting increase in the incentive to save and invest—relative to current law—thus would gradually boost the capital stock; consequently, output would be higher.

And here’s the most important table from the report. And it’s important for a reason that doesn’t get sufficient attention in the report, which is the fact that repeal of Obamacare will reduce the burden of spending and the burden of taxation. I’ve circled the relevant numbers in red.

Returning to something I touched on earlier, the CBO report gives inordinate attention to the fact that there’s a projected increase in red ink because the burden of spending doesn’t fall as much as the burden of taxation.

My grousing about CBO’s deficit fixation is not just cosmetic. To the extent that the report has bad analysis, it’s because of an assumption that the deficit tail wags the economic dog.

Here’s more of CBO’s analysis.

Although the macroeconomic feedback stemming from a repeal would continue to reduce deficits after 2025, the effects would shrink over time because the increase in government borrowing resulting from the larger budget deficits would reduce private investment and thus would partially offset the other positive effects that a repeal would have on economic growth. …CBO and JCT…estimate that repealing the act ultimately would increase federal deficits—even after accounting for other macroeconomic feedback. Larger deficits would leave less money for private investment (a process sometimes called crowding out), which reduces output. …The same macroeconomic effects that would generate budgetary feedback over the 2016–2025 period also would operate farther into the future. …the growing increases in federal deficits that are projected to occur if the ACA was repealed would increasingly crowd out private investment and boost interest rates. Both of those developments would reduce private investment and thus would dampen economic growth and revenues.

Some of this is reasonable, but I think CBO is very misguided about the importance of deficit effects compared to other variables.

After all, if deficits really drove the economy, that would imply we could maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates (or, if JCT has learned from its mistakes, by setting tax rates at the revenue-maximizing level).

To give you an idea of why CBO’s deficit fixation is wrong, consider the fact that its report got a glowing review from Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Matt, you may remember, recently endorsed a top tax rate of 90 percent, so if he believes A on fiscal policy, you can generally assume the right answer is B.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Let us now praise Keith Hall. …his CBO appointment was bound up with a push by the GOP for more “dynamic scoring” of tax policy. …Yet today Hall’s CBO released its first big dynamic score of something controversial, and it’s … perfectly sensible.

Yes, parts of the report are sensible, as I wrote above.

But Matt thinks it’s sensible because it focuses on deficits, which allows his side to downplay the negative economic impact of Obamacare.

…the ACA makes it less terrible to be poor. By making it less terrible to be poor, the ACA reduces the incentive to do an extra hour or three at an unpleasant low-wage job in order to put a little more money in your pocket. CBO’s point is that when you do this, you shrink the overall size of GDP and thus the total amount of federal tax revenue. …The change…is big enough to matter economically (tens of billions of dollars a year are at stake) but not big enough to matter for the world of political talking points where the main question is does the deficit go up or down.

Yes, you read correctly. He’s celebrating the fact that people now have less incentive to be self-reliant.

Do that for enough people and you become Greece.

P.S. On a totally different topic, it’s time to brag about America having better policy than Germany. At least with regard to tank ownership.

I’ve previously written about legal tank ownership in the United States. But according to a BBC report, Germans apparently don’t have this important freedom.

The Panther tank was removed from the 78-year-old’s house in the town of Heikendorf, along with a variety of other military equipment, including a torpedo and an anti-aircraft gun, Der Tagesspiegel website reports. …the army had to be called in with modern-day tanks to haul the Panther from its cellar. It took about 20 soldiers almost nine hours to extract the tank… It seems the tank’s presence wasn’t much of a secret locally. Several German media reports mention that residents had seen the man driving it around town about 30 years ago. “He was chugging around in it during the snow catastrophe in 1978,” Mayor Alexander Orth was quoted as saying.

You know what they say: If you outlaw tanks, only outlaws will have tanks.

I’m also impressed the guy had an anti-aircraft gun. The very latest is self defense!

And a torpedo as well. Criminals would have faced resistance from the land, air, and sea.

If nothing else, he must have a big house.

One that bad guys probably avoided, at least if they passed the famous IQ test for criminals and liberals.

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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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What’s the most effective way of screwing up a sector of the economy? Since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I’m tempted to say that bad tax policy is the fastest way of causing damage. And France might be my top example.

But other forms of government intervention also can have a poisonous effect. Regulation, for instance, imposes an enormous burden on our economy.

Today, though, we’re going to look at how subsidies can result in costly distortions. More specifically, using examples from the health sector and higher-ed sectors, we’re going to see how “third-party payer” is a very expensive form of intervention.

We’ll start with the example from the healthcare sector. Writing for the Institute for Policy Innovation, Merrill Matthews has a must-read article about an unintended consequences of Obamacare.

He starts with a very sensible point about the effect of third-party payer.

Health care actuaries will tell you that when people have to spend more out of pocket for health care, they tend to spend less. And when a third party—employers, health insurers or the government—insulates consumers from the cost of care they tend to spend more. Just imagine how much more people would spend on cars if they could have any car they wanted for a $20 copay.

The car-buying example is great. I’ve previously tried to make the same point about third-party payer by using the examples of home insurance and car insurance, but I may have to steal Merrill’s argument since it’s so intuitively effective.

But that’s a digression. Merrill has a far more important point about what’s actually happening today in the health care sector.

…out-of-pocket spending on health care has declined for decades—until the Affordable Care Act kicked in. In 1961, Americans forked over 43 cents out of their own pocket for every dollar spent on health care. That out-of-pocket spending steadily declined over the years so that by 2010 consumers were only spending about 12 cents out of pocket.Enter Obamacare in 2010. By 2012 out-of-pocket spending had risen to 14.8 percent of total health care spending, and by 2013 it was up to 15.2 percent, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. With people spending more out of pocket, they will naturally curb their spending. And expect to be spending more out of pocket in the future. That’s in part because so many Americans have had to shift to very high deductible policies in order to afford Obamacare’s very expensive coverage. Thank you, President Obama! …The upshot of these higher deductibles is that people will spend less on health care, and that is helping to slow the growth in health care spending—giving Obama his boasting point. Rising deductibles aren’t the only factor, but they are an important one.

Yet Obama doesn’t really deserve to boast.

But here’s the irony: Obama never intended any of this. He thought Obamacare would reduce out-of-pocket spending. And he and most Democrats have railed against high-deductible policies for years, claiming that greedy health insurers were taking people’s money but didn’t have to pay any claims (because of the high deductibles). And yet under Obamacare deductibles have never been so high. The fact is that moving to higher deductibles, especially when accompanied by a tax-free health care spending account for smaller and routine expenditures, is good policy.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s “Cadillac tax” on employer-provided health insurance also is good policy (though it was implemented the wrong way).

So maybe, as that policy also takes effect, we’ll get even further reductions over time in third-party payer!

Which might cause me adjust my overall assessment of Obamacare. In the past, I’ve said it was awful policy because it expanded the Medicaid entitlement while also mucking up the private insurance market.

All that’s still true, but we’re getting some unintended consequences that are positive. Not only are some states refusing to expand Medicaid, but Merrill’s big point is that the private insurance market is evolving in ways that have some good effects.

So maybe instead of Obamacare shifting us from a 68-percent-government-controlled healthcare system to one where government has 79-percent control, as I speculated back in 2013, maybe we’ll wind up with a system that’s “only” 73-percent dictated by government.

Not a victory, to be sure, but at least we’re going in the wrong direction at a slower pace.

Now let’s shift to the higher-ed sector.

Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, writes in The Atlantic about the surging level of subsidies for higher education.

…when considering government support for American higher education as a whole, subsidies for colleges and universities are—even on a per-student basis and despite the enrollment explosion—greater than ever before. In particular, per-capita government subsidies are far higher now than they were 35 years ago, when tuition was drastically lower. …The federal government is currently spending approximately $80 billion per year on subsidies for higher education—a figure that almost exactly matches the combined higher-ed spending of the 50 legislatures. …The Pell grant program has expanded rapidly, more than tripling in size since 2000.  …What’s far less known…is the remarkable extent to which the federal tax code has been amended in ways that benefit colleges and universities. According to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation’s most recent estimates of federal tax expenditures, the IRS is currently redistributing approximately $45.7 billion annually in tax revenue in ways that directly and indirectly support American higher education. (This represents a 675 percent increase in such spending since 1990.)

Even though I agree with his analysis, I get agitated when tax preferences are referred to as “spending.”

But that’s not particularly relevant today. What matters is that there’s been an unbroken increase in handouts and subsidies for the higher-ed sector over the past few decades.

Here’s a chart from his article.

Now let’s look at the policy implications. Mr. Campos outlines a series of problems in the higher-education sector.

…total per-student government support for higher education has increased. Yet this increase has failed to stop or even slow massive tuition increases at both public and private schools. …many higher-ed institutions have become increasingly bloated and inefficient—even as they’ve relied on a growing population of poorly paid contingent faculty members and on hundreds of billions of dollars of federal student loans, only a small percentage of which are currently being repaid in a timely manner. …roughly half of recent college graduates in the U.S. find themselves either unemployed or seriously underemployed. And many graduates struggle to pay educational debts that, unlike almost all other debts in American society, typically can’t be settled via bankruptcy.

But he doesn’t really connect the dots, other than to point out that it is absurdly dishonest when some people (like Senator Bernie Sanders) want others to believe that we need even more intervention and more handouts to compensate for non-existent budget cuts.

Claiming that skyrocketing tuition has been caused by “cuts” in government subsidies only helps delay American higher education’s inevitable day of fiscal reckoning.

If he did connect the dots, he would have explained that the higher-ed sector is needlessly expensive and pointlessly inefficient because of all the subsidies from government.

He may even agree with that assessment, though he isn’t explicit about the connection. Though Professor Richard Vedder doesn’t hesitate in pointing out that bad government policy deserves the blame.

And if you want to learn more, here’s a great video from Learn Liberty explaining why subsidies have translated into higher tuition.

Last but not least, here’s my two cents on the issue, including my dour prediction that the higher-ed bubble won’t pop until and unless we stop the handouts from government.

Yet another reason why we should dismantle the Department of Education.

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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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My Cato Institute colleague Michael Tanner has produced some first-rate substantive research on issues.

He produced a study showing that personal retirement accounts would have been a better deal than Social Security even for people who retired at the depth of the financial crisis and stock-market collapse.

He authored another study showing that overly generous welfare systems in most states make productive work relatively unattractive compared to government dependency.

And I’ve also cited his analysis and commentary on issues such as Obamacare and obesity.

Today, I want to cite him for the simple reason that I admire his cleverness.

For those of us who suffered through President Obama’s State of the Union address, you may recall that the President proposed a thawing of America’s relationship with Cuba on the basis that if something “doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

Since I’m not a foreign policy person, I didn’t pay close attention to that passage.

But perhaps I should have been more attentive. It turns out that Obama created a big opening.

Writing for National Review, Tanner decided to hoist Obama on his own petard.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama defended his Cuba policy by pointing out, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.” As it happens, I agree with the president on Cuba. But it seems to me that his advice should be applied to a number of other issues as well

Mike starts with the ill-fated War on Poverty.

Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in January 1964, just three years after the start of the Cuban embargo. Since then we’ve spent more than $20 trillion fighting poverty. Last year alone, federal and state governments spent just under $1 trillion to fund 126 separate anti-poverty programs. Yet, using the conventional Census Bureau poverty measure, we’ve done nothing to reduce the poverty rate. …And, whatever success we’ve achieved in making material poverty less uncomfortable, we’ve done little to help the poor become independent and self-supporting.

He then points out the utter failure of the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs has been going on even longer than the War on Poverty, with a similar lack of success. …in the last ten years alone we have spent some $500 billion fighting this “war,” and arrested more than 16 million Americans for drug offenses. The vast majority of arrests have been for simple possession, not sale or other drug crimes. While filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders, destabilizing countries like Mexico and Colombia, wrecking our own inner cities, and making the cartels rich, the drug war has failed to reduce either violence or drug use.

Mike also reminds us that we’ve had five decades-plus of government-run healthcare.

…we’ve suffered from government-run health care in this country for more than 50 years as well. Medicare and Medicaid started in 1965. Others would point out that we are still suffering the consequences of the IRS decision in 1953 to make employer-provided insurance tax-free, while individually purchased insurance has to be paid for with after-tax dollars. No matter how you want to measure the starting point, the government now pays for roughly 52 percent of U.S. health-care spending, and indirectly subsidizes another 37 percent. The result has been steadily rising health-care costs, a dysfunctional insurance market, and a growing shortage of physicians. …a study out of Oregon suggests that being on Medicaid provides no better health outcomes than being uninsured. Meanwhile, Medicare is running up more than $47.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities. And let us not forget the VA system and its problems.

And his article merely scratches the surface.

One could go on and on. Fannie and Freddie? Social Security and its almost $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities? Stimulus spending? Green energy? We won’t even mention the National Weather Service’s apparent inability to accurately predict snowstorms. If we are looking for lessons to learn from the last 50 years, here is one: Bigger government has not brought us more security, more freedom, or more prosperity. Yet, President Obama still sees the answer to every problem, no matter how small, as more government, no matter how big. …President Obama not only seems unable to learn from history, but apparently doesn’t even listen to his own speeches. If big government hasn’t worked for 50 years, 100 years, or for that matter pretty much the whole of human history, maybe it’s time to try something else.

The final sentence in that passage is not just a throw-away line.

I have my own two-question challenge for leftists, which is basically a request that they identify a nation – of any size and at any time – that has prospered with big government.

Mike does something similar. He basically points out that big government has an unbroken track record of failure, and not just for the past 50 years.

I suppose the question to ask is whether any big-government program can be considered a success? In other words, what has any government done well, once it goes beyond the provision of core public goods such as enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, and upholding the rule of law?

To be fair, there are some nations, such as Switzerland, that have enjoyed very long periods of monetary stability and peace. And jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have experienced decades of prosperity and tranquility.

In all of those jurisdictions, I think government is too big, but they are considered small-government by modern-world standards.

In any event, the point I’m making is that some governments seem semi-competent, but there also seems to be a relationship between the size and scope of government and the failure of government.

It will be interesting to read the comments.

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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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