Over at the Mirror of Justice website, Robert Hockett posted a thoughtful reply to my previous defense of Charles Krauthammer’s critique of the health-care legislation wending its way through Congress. Here (and cross-posted at Mirror of Justice) I offer a short reaction to some of the points he made.
First, there seems to be some confusion over what exactly is in these congressional health-care bills. Yes, they do contain many provisions related to reworking the nation’s approach to health insurance coverage and regulation. But that is far from all that they would do. The bills are called “health care reform” for a reason. A central argument of their proponents is that rising costs is a problem — a crisis, even — that must be addressed, and the presumption of most Democrats is that the federal government can, and must, help orchestrate a “cost-control” effort. Consequently, both the House and Senate versions of the legislation are filled to the brim with provisions that are aimed at the changing how medicine is practiced in this country. For instance, the bills would penalize primary-care physicians who are outliers in terms of specialist referrals. The bills would also try, through various disincentives, to discourage physicians from practicing in small groups. And the bills would create a new structure for hospital-physician affiliation, called Accountable Care Organizations. The ambition of the sponsors goes well beyond just “health insurance reform.”
Second, the most important question in the health-care debate is this: what process has the best chance to deliver continuous improvement in the productivity and quality of patient care? That’s the only way to slow the pace of rising costs without harming patients. The Obama administration and its allies in Congress believe a governmental process is the answer. That’s why the bills are so unwieldy and complex. If the government is the answer to rising costs, then the government is going to need to get involved in nearly every aspect of resource allocation in the health sector. This is what I mean by “central planning.”
There is an alternative to central planning. Mr. Hockett indicates that he would support converting today’s open-ended tax preference for employer-paid health insurance into refundable tax credits controlled by individuals, as proposed in 2008 by presidential candidate John McCain. The McCain proposal was not just a way to expand insurance coverage, although it would do that. It would also dramatically change the cost equation, creating millions of cost-conscious consumers who are today passive enrollees in job-based plans. The government can and should provide oversight of the health insurance marketplace. But the way to drive more efficiency in health care arrangements is with a functioning marketplace in which doctors and hospitals have strong financial incentives to reorganize how they do business. Getting there would require reform of federal tax laws and the Medicare and Medicaid programs so that beneficiaries have more control over the use of their entitlement resources.
Third, Medicare is not the solution to American health care. Indeed, it is really at the heart of the cost problem. Yes, the program provides valuable insurance coverage to seniors. But the program’s design is also a primary reason for widespread inefficiency in how care is delivered to patients. Medicare’s dominant fee-for-service insurance model encourages provider fragmentation instead of integration, and organizational autonomy instead of cooperation. Medicare’s per-service payment rates are low, but providers earn more by providing more services, and the Medicare program has no effective check on volume.
Even the Obama administration admits that Medicare is more problem than solution. That’s why they argue that changes in the way Medicare buys services can lead to cost reductions system-wide.
But that’s a lot of wishful thinking. Medicare’s administrators have been trying for forty years to move the program away from unmanaged fee-for-service, with no success whatsoever. The reason is politics: Politicians don’t want to pick winners and losers among the hospitals and physician groups in their states and districts, which would be necessary in building a high-quality network. In a budget crunch, they would rather have Medicare pay all licensed providers the same exact rate, even if it is low, than to leave someone out of a government plan. So that’s exactly what is happening in the current health care bills. Despite all of the talk of painless efforts to bend the cost curve, the real “savings” in the Democratic bills come from arbitrary price cutting in the Medicare program. All hospitals and other institutions would see cuts in their reimbursement levels, without regard to any metric of quality. In fact, Medicare’s fee-for-service design would be even more entrenched than it is today.
Fourth, Mr. Hockett argues that any deficiencies found in the current bills should be brought to the attention of the sponsors, not waved around as justification for scrapping the whole enterprise. For starters, the critiques I noted are on the public record, in prominent places. A conference was held at the American Enterprise Institute highlighting the disparate subsidies that would be created by the Senate bill, and opinion pieces have been published in, among other outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe highlighting the problem. Is that not prominent enough?
The truth is that the Democratic sponsors don’t want to fix this problem because it would blow a hole in their budget constraint. The bills provide generous subsidies to a relatively small segment of the population who would get their coverage in the exchanges, but nothing to those who would be forced to remain in job-based plans. Providing equitable treatment would drive the cost of the bills much higher, jeopardizing passage. Which is why you won’t find any Democrat mentioning it — or being able to deny that the problem exists.
Our country does need to reform our health care arrangements. But there are far better ways to do so than with the approach now emerging in Congress. A different bill, based on a different reform philosophy, would be more straightforward, less unwieldy, and less subject to influence by interested parties. Oh, and by the way, it would be more effective too.