Code Red: Two Economists Examine the U.S. Healthcare System

February 17, 2014

Advice that CMS Does Not Want to Hear

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 11:16 am

If there is one thing we have learned as health economists it is that whatever incentive scheme is placed in front of medical providers, some of them will find a way to game the system, making money without delivering value. We should note that this is actually not unique to health care firms, for example financial firms respond similarly to changes in financial regulations. It is only that many people cling to the belief that doctors and hospitals won’t respond to profit incentives.

The most recent, and largest, of all incentive schemes is the Medicare Accountable Care Organization (ACO) Shared Savings program. Sure enough, there is way to game this system that will result in large profits for some, without necessarily decreasing overall health care spending. It is a bit risky, and requires some careful calculation, but the payoff can be huge. So, at the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial, if you want to learn how to make a cool million bucks (or a lot more, depending on your skill and risk tolerance) and have a loose moral compass, then read on.

To explain our plan, we must first refresh your memory about the key details of the Shared Savings program. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has already approved several hundred ACOs, which come in all shapes and sizes. Some are organized by hospitals, others by multispecialty group practices, and still others simply represent loosely affiliated physicians. Importantly for our scheme, there is no regulatory hurdle that we are aware of that prevents a lay person from organizing a number of independent physicians into an ACO.
Patients are currently “assigned” to ACOs retrospectively, based on the delivery of primary care. In a nutshell, if providers in the ACO delivered at least 50 percent of the primary care services to a Medicare enrollee in the previous year, then that enrollee is assigned to the ACO for the current year. For each assigned enrollee, CMS predicts their annual health spending, using a risk prediction algorithm that accounts for the patient’s age, sex, and diagnostic conditions (based on the past year’s diagnostic codes that appear in Medicare’s billing records). If, during the current year, actual spending is less than predicted spending, CMS shares the savings with the ACO. Under current regulations, ACOs receive up to 60 percent of the savings and they are also responsible for up to 60 percent of losses if their beneficiaries end up having above average spending. The absolute magnitude of these gains and losses are capped, but the stakes are still large.

In a seemingly perpetual search for slower growth in healthcare costs, this is not the first time we have tried to introduce market incentives and reward providers who hold costs down. These shared savings are simply a variant of capitated payment systems in HMOs with two important differences. First, traditional capitated system only covered a portion of medical fees, i.e. all professional fees but not the more expensive facility fees. Second, under traditional capitation providers captured 100 percent of their savings (of an admittedly much smaller pie). Under this system it was well known that providers with relatively healthy patients stood to make a lot of money. Therefore, HMOs used proprietary risk prediction models in combination with various rules of thumb, combined with tough negotiation strategies, to set their capitated rates. Even so, many providers made a lot of money; a favorable patient mix was the provider’s best friend.

In creating the shared savings program, CMS faces the same problem previously faced by HMOs – rewarding efficiency without encouraging risk selection – as well as many new ones. Unlike private firms, CMS cannot rely on rules of thumb, because government agencies can never be seen to make arbitrary decisions. So CMS relies on a state of the art risk prediction algorithm (albeit one whose parameters are well known). However, it is hard to predict medical spending with purely objective data in billing records and as a result even the state of the art is mediocre at best. The R-squared for a regression of actual spending on predicted spending is no higher than about 0.4. That means that the risk prediction algorithm explains no more than 40 percent of the variation in health spending. What about the remaining 60 percent? Some of it may be pure random noise – which would be impossible for CMS or any provider to predict. For example, even the healthiest woman with the best prenatal care will sometimes give birth to a child who requires costly neonatal care.

More troubling is that some of the remaining variation is likely very predictable to individuals who have more information about the patient than the statisticians performing the risk adjustment. A risk prediction model may know that a certain percentage of women of child bearing age will, in fact, have a child in the next year. Each woman likely knows this probability with far greater certainty. For most other health conditions, patients may be less well informed than the statisticians. But their doctors, well that is a horse of a different color. Physicians are likely both more informed than patients about their broad health risks and more informed about their patients than the statisticians at CMS.

Historical precedent shows that this is likely the case. For example, consider the long standing controversy about third party utilization review. Independent panels establish norms for the appropriate treatment protocols based on available statistical research. This type of research is quite similar to the process used by CMS for risk prediction. Many physicians are reluctant to strictly adhere to these norms, arguing that their specific treatment plans account for idiosyncratic differences among their patients that are not captured by the statistical models.
Want another example? Consider the objections that providers raise to the creation of report cards for physician or hospital quality. Again, these report cards are risk adjusted, but the adjustments are necessarily imperfect. Some providers treat patients who are sicker than the data indicate, and this adversely affects their rankings. This is not just a statement of physician preferences. There is considerable evidence that providers game this system by avoiding patients who are more severely ill than is suggested by the risk adjusters. (For example, see the relevant section in this lengthy review article.)

These examples strongly suggest that physicians are able to out predict statisticians. We should be clear, this is not an indictment of the quality of the statisticians but simply reflect the fact that physicians have better information about the underlying health of their patients then is available through billing records. In most settings we find this greater familiarity with our health by our physicians comforting.

Of course, physicians were also able to out predict statisticians under traditional capitation plans. But the stakes in earlier capitation programs were small in comparison to the stakes in shared savings – professional fees versus the whole medical care kit and caboodle. Under shared savings, the right patient can be worth thousands of dollars. In addition, savvy providers in the capitated world were matched in a fairer fight against profit maximizing HMOs, whereas under shared savings government regulations often force CMS to fight with at least one hand tied behind his back.

And these conditions create the million dollar opportunity.

Anyone can access and use the CMS risk adjustment model or something very close to it. A clever statistician with decent access to extensive clinical data – the kind of data that a physician can help provide — can determine whether a given physician’s patients tend to cost more or less, on average, than is predicted by the model. Or physicians might just know this information at a gut level and may be willing to bet on their own instincts. The savings could be due to the physician’s efficient decision making, but is perhaps more likely due to the patients’ good health. It really doesn’t matter. Either way, there are opportunities to profit at CMS’ expense.

If we are correct, then the following is a formula for success. First, gather together millions of dollars. Second, approach a series of physicians who likely have healthy patients. Third, gather clinical data from candidates and identify those physicians whose patients consistently cost less than predicted by the CMS algorithm. Alternatively, invite physicians to identify themselves as efficient, with the proviso that they must take an ownership stake in the ACO. Fourth, organize these physicians into an ACO, using the millions of dollars as seed money to employ the physicians (or as a cushion in case it turns out that we are full of hot air.) Finally, wait for the checks from CMS to roll in and get ready for a life on a beach filled with those drinks with the tiny little umbrellas.

You may be wondering why we don’t undertake this plan ourselves. Perhaps it is because our moral compasses are firmly pointing north. (Yes, there are Republicans with moral compasses pointing north.) The adage “it takes money to make money” also has something to do with it. Maybe it is that our tolerance for risk doesn’t extend to exposing ourselves to the capricious whims of regulatory agencies. But if any of you want to give our idea a try, you have our permission if not our blessing. And remember that Dranove loves expensive dark chocolates (no nuts please) and Garthwaite has a taste for premier cru Burgundies (red or white). Our addresses are not hard to find.

February 10, 2014

The Real Health Reform Debate Starts Here (Warning: You Still Have to Pay for Lunch)

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 9:12 am

For the past five years our political leaders have pretended to be engaged in a great debate about the U.S. healthcare system. The President offered his vision for health reform. The Republicans offered a far less ambitious alternative and otherwise attempted to block any reform. Both sides claimed that their proposals would solve the problems of access and cost containment while the other side’s approach would accomplish nothing or worse. Neither side suggested that there could be any possible downsides to their promises of rainbows and ponies for every American.

While neither of us are naïve enough to suggest that politicians should present the flaws of their plans during a legislative debate, we’ve had several years where a responsible Administration would have been clearer about the inherent tradeoffs of their ambitious health care reform. At the same time, Republicans should have opposed the ACA on its merits instead offering knee jerk ideology and platitudes. This fervent and fact based opposition would have exposed many of the “problems” that are now emerging for the ACA – allowing a more fulsome discussion of these issues before the implementation of the legislation.

As we teach our first year MBAs here at Kellogg, no matter how much you hope it will be different every major policy decision facing businesses and governments involves trade-offs, and the best decisions come when you carefully evaluate the benefits and costs of these choices. Absent a serious debate about health insurance, neither the American people nor their elected officials seem to have fully considered the actual benefits and costs of the ACA. As these costs now emerge, the public appears to be shocked at what they are finding. We thought it would be useful to try and clear the air and rise above the purely partisan rhetoric about the trade-offs dominating the recent news. In our next blog, we will discuss other tradeoffs that are equally important, but have received less attention to date.

Tradeoff #1: Eliminating the employer-based insurance system versus encouraging labor supply.

This tradeoff received front page treatment last week after the Congressional Budget Office predicted that 2.3 million people would leave the labor force as a result of the ACA. Many people, including those who frankly should have known better, appeared surprised by this estimate. But economic theory tells us that this reduction in labor supply was inevitable, because an important feature of an employer-based system is that it encourages individuals to work. One reason for this, is it is often difficult (if not impossible) to obtain insurance in the individual market (a problem resolved by the ACA). Garthwaite and his co-authors have recently published a peer reviewed empirical study documenting this effect have just published a peer reviewed empirical study confirming this theory. Beyond access to insurance, the ACA’s need-based subsidies effectively drive up marginal tax rates, and drive down labor supply, for low wage earners.

Reaction to this CBO report has served as a Rorschach test of a person’s opinion of the ACA. Ardent ACA supporters such as the President’s chief economic advisor, Jason Furman, make a classic economic “revealed preference” argument that that we should respect the choices of those who opt out of the labor market. This rests on the fact that a primary benefit of the ACA is creating a non-employer option for health insurance and therefore many Americans who were working just to receive a fair price on benefits could now re-optimize without this inefficiency.

On the other hand, many opponents of the ACA have touted the CBO as a job killer. This may be a true about the law overall, but is certainly not what the CBO report says. More reasoned opponents have stated that it is disingenuous of the administration to suggest that this reduction in labor supply is a pure benefit. The CBO is clear to point out that the reduction in labor supply is also the result of negative incentives from the phase-out of means tested subsidies. This is true and also shouldn’t be surprising. Like other mean-tested transfer programs, the phase out of the ACA subsidies over time creates a disincentive for labor supply. At a minimum the ACA creates a large health insurance notch in an individual’s budget set at 400 percent of the poverty line. At this income level subsidies disappear entirely and, depending on a person’s age and location, earning a few dollars more could cost thousands of dollars in lost subsidies. This creates an artificial disincentive to supply labor and is something that everyone, including the economists at the White House, should be worried about.

Given declining trends in labor force participation, any policy that decreases labor supply should cause some concern. That being said, this is not something that is unique to the ACA. It is difficult to imagine how we can sever the link between employment and insurance through any type of insurance reform without providing tax subsidized coverage through exchanges and thereby reducing labor supply. Republicans and Democrats could have, should have, debated this issue. All Americans should have had an opportunity to weigh in. Instead, we are handed the Obama approach and told to like it.

Tradeoff #2: Lower premiums and overall health spending versus freedom of choice.

When the media weren’t concentrating on the labor supply effects of the ACA, this week also brought more stories about newly insured individuals from the exchanges realizing that their inexpensive plans had a relatively small number of providers. This is a feature of their plans – not some defect. As we have earlier blogged, most individuals could have opted for plans with broader networks, either through exchanges or the preexisting individual insurance market place, but chose instead for the low cost alternative. Perhaps some of these patients should think back to their excitement about finding a low cost plan on the exchange. This was not a gift from insurance companies, but instead is a direct result of narrow networks.

Again, the tradeoffs have been known for decades. Economists have long argued that selective contracting, and the creation of provider networks by insurers, is a powerful tool for reducing provider pricing, encouraging provider efficiency, and reducing overall health spending. Dranove has even written two books about this! Apparently the message of these books has not been fully understood by the general public or even policymakers. Selective contracting is ineffective unless insurers can credibly threaten high cost providers with exclusion from networks. Insurers first narrowed their networks in the 1990s, and health spending in the private sector moderated for the first time in decades. After the managed care backlash of the late 1990s, insurers felt compelled to offer broad networks. Unable to credibly threaten to exclude providers (especially those providers with market power), insurers could no longer extract deep discounts. Through most of the 2000s, right up until the Great Recession, health spending soared.

Once again, many insurers are offering narrow networks, and health spending seems to be trending down. Providers who have been excluded from networks are complaining and they have the ears of many politicians. There are proposals in state legislatures to compel insurers to expand their networks to include all providers willing to participate. And President Obama has floated the idea of mandating that insurers include certain designated safety net providers.

The tradeoffs here are a bit more obvious than for labor supply: If we want greater access we will have to pay for it. In most states, exchanges offer a choice of narrow and broad network plans, so patients can make their own choices. In those areas where plans don’t currently offer broad networks, if there is sufficient patient demand for these products at premium levels that are profitable, then at least one insurance company will create and offer such plans. And if no broad network plans can survive the cauldron of competition, this tells us how patients have evaluated this tradeoff.

Instead of allowing market forces to craft the types of plans that emerge, legislators are threatening to force insurers to broaden their networks. Describe as “any willing provider” legislation, these regulations are pitched as an attempt to improve access and support safety net providers. In reality, they are the camel’s nose under the tent that will destroy the potential benefits of narrow networks. If we want broad networks, we will vote with our dollars in the exchange marketplace. And we can support safety net hospitals through direct taxation and subsidies, rather than through the backdoor via insurance regulations. Unfortunately, our elected representatives seem inclined to decide on these tradeoffs for us. And as is so often the case, concentrated interest groups (namely, affected providers) are likely to sway the political debate, so that Americans are denied chance to make their own choices.

Forcing insurance companies to broaden their networks will undoubtedly increase premiums for many plans in the exchanges. Is it worth the higher cost to have broader access? Should Americans be allowed to make this choice, or are market forces too unreliable? We know how our elected officials feel about these issues, but what do the voters think? Who knows?

We are not suggesting that individuals should have a voice on technical policy decisions. But these are not obscurities we are talking about. These are fundamental questions about our healthcare system that transcend party lines. Should employers provide insurance? Should we insist on freedom of choice? It is not clear where most Americans stand on these questions and their inherent tradeoffs, because no one thought to ask. Instead, Democrats have pretended that the ACA was a magical world where we can have our cake and eat it too, while Republicans have seen their own sort of magic in market forces. Most Americans have figured out that the real world of health care is messier, with difficult tradeoffs.

Is it too much for our elected officials to treat voters with a bit of respect, stop playing partisan games with the health economy, and start talking about real issues? Sadly, we think the answer is yes.

Our elected officials have not asked voters where they stand on these issues. So we are asking. Given the inherent tradeoffs, should government do what it can to sustain employer-sponsored health insurance? Should government mandate broad access to medical providers? Tell us what you think.

February 3, 2014

One and One Half Republicans Respond to the President’s Call for Ideas

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 3:06 pm

In the State of the Union, President Obama told Republican Members of Congress to stop holding votes to repeal the ACA and start proposing propose alternative ideas for health reform. In response, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised a vote in the House of Representatives in 2014 on a Republican alternative to the ACA. There were few specifics about what this alternative would entail.

Both of us would have preferred for this conversation to have happened over the past three years – before the ACA exchanges had gone into effect. While we agree with the President’s sentiment that the Republican’s quixotic efforts to repeal the ACA have been, at best, a distraction, it is disingenuous to suggest that there are not many existing ideas that would greatly improve the efficacy of the Affordable Care Act. Yet Representative Cantor’s comments make us wonder if any of those ideas are forthcoming from his side of the Congressional aisle.

It is not as if Republicans lack ideas for health reform. At least one of us is a Republican (the other waffles too much) and in the past three months we have offered numerous concrete proposals. So we thought we would take this opportunity to provide a “Republican” response to the President’s call.

In their blanket criticisms, Congressional Republicans have often failed to grasp that if you distill the ACA down to its most basic elements, perhaps its most important feature is the introduction of competition in private health insurance through the creation of exchanges. This is, at its core, a Republican idea, and unfettered by additional regulations, could lead to real innovation and cost savings. But the President, like most Democrats, appears to intrinsically distrust markets, and the exchanges are burdened by too many regulations. Here is just a partial list of those regulations, followed by our proposals to improve competition in the ACA:

1) Employers are mandated to continue offering health insurance

2) There is an exceptionally rich minimum benefit package

3) The ACA prohibits catastrophic health plans for the majority of enrollees

4) The ACA continues the tax subsidy for employer provided health benefits

Proposal 1: Repeal the employer mandate

In addition to being the largest expansion to of public health insurance since the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson, the ACA creates a realistic alternative to the system of employer provided health insurance that has dominated the American health insurance system since the 1940’s. In a prior blog we discussed at length the problems that employer-sponsored insurance creates for workers. The ACA has new regulations governing non-group insurance that should partially reduce these problems, yet still attempts to force employers to continue to offer employer provided benefits. Why add layers of new regulations to perpetuate this system when a more obvious and simpler solution is available? Allow all employers to opt out of offering coverage if they believe it is the right business decision. In all likelihood, employers would instead offer subsidies for purchases on the exchange (either through earmarked payments or higher wages). Not only would this unburden employers of a responsibility that they should never have borne, it would also greatly expand enrollments in the exchanges, leading to more stable risk pools and more affordable premiums.

Proposal 2: Scale back the minimum benefit package

As we have recently written, mandating exceptionally rich and homogenous coverage across all plans limits the ability of these plans to innovate on plan design. First, it prevents individuals from opting out of coverage for certain services or to at least choosing less generous cost sharing for things such as mental health coverage. Second, it limits the ability of insurers to tailor coverage to control the costs of services that provide uncertain benefits, such as robotic surgery or proton beam therapy. These mandates come at a time when academics and practitioners alike are experimenting with Value Based Insurance Design – creative alternatives to the traditional structures of deductibles and copayments. The ACA stops such innovation in its tracks. Any realistic alternative to the ACA should begin by reducing regulatory hurdles that allow insurers to innovate on the design of benefit packages. If we are concerned about the potential for cream skimming by plans offering less generous benefits, we can modify and extend existing reinsurance programs.

Proposal 3: Repeal the prohibition on catastrophic health plans and, if proposal 4 is not feasible, provide a level tax playing field for high deductible plans

Perhaps the biggest innovation in insurance design in the last ten years has been the high deductible health plan, coupled with Health Savings Accounts. (HSAs are accounts that allow for tax-free expenditures on health services and are meant to level the tax playing field versus more expensive, traditional insurance plans.) Currently, only individuals under the age of 30 or who have a hardship exemption are allowed to purchase high deductible plans in the exchanges. However, even those who are lucky enough to be allowed to buy these plans cannot use the ACA tax subsidies for lower income individuals for their premiums. This makes absolutely no sense. We propose that individuals purchasing high deductible plans receive the same tax subsidy as individuals purchasing plans for the “Silver” tier of the exchange, with any subsidy that is greater than their premium to be placed in qualified Health Savings Account. If we are unable to repeal the tax deductibility of employer provided insurance, expenditures from this account should be tax free. However, if we do level the tax playing field expenditures from this account should be taxed but limited to medical services. After age 65, any remaining balance in this account could continue to be used for health services not covered by Medicare or converted into an annuity for retirement spending.

Proposal 4: Level the tax playing field

Nearly all economists agree that the tax subsidy for employer sponsored insurance is inefficient, because more expensive plans enjoy larger subsidies, and regressive, because it disproportionately benefits the rich. Talk about having the worst of both worlds. We realize that it is probably easier to repeal the ACA than it would be to repeal the tax subsidy – a benefit that is currently supported by both big business and organized labor. But we are compelled to renew the call; here is a chance for Republicans to prove themselves as the voices of reason on economic policy. Couple this repeal with a reduction on marginal tax rates for all Americans, and we have a win/win/win for economic growth, reducing health spending, and increasing equity. Beyond this, the ACA continues a decades-long curiosity in the tax code: employer-sponsored health insurance enjoys the full tax subsidy, but insurance purchased by individuals receives a partial subsidy at best. These parts are the ACA are fighting against each other. We should also note that this change in tax policy is really just an expansion of the “Cadillac Tax” already included in the ACA.

So you see, it is possible for Republicans to offer concrete and realistic proposals for health reform. Now if only we had the email address for the President’s Blackberry …

January 21, 2014

The ACA: When Insurance Isn’t Insurance

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 8:51 am

We will be blunt. Hidden under the cloak of expanding health insurance, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has fostered a massive subsidization of healthcare goods and services. These subsidies often have little or anything to do with what economists would consider the “insurance” part of health insurance – providing protection against financial catastrophe. Perhaps more troubling, if the past is prologue these subsidies will continue to grow, transferring huge amounts of money to politically favored groups and doing very little to decrease aggregate health spending – a presumed goal of health reform.

In order to understand these claims, it is necessary to take a step back and explain why insurance (of any form) is a good thing in the first place. Simply stated, insurance provides individuals with protection against unpredictable financial hardships not of their own making. Most of us don’t like risk, and therefore we are willing to pay other people to avoid uncertain outcomes. Therefore the benefits of insurance are to protect us from uncertain events. The key here is the uncertainty. If something is not going to cause financial distress, or the expense is relatively predictable, then, by definition, the service is not insurable. A health plan could cover the service, but that is a subsidy, i.e. other people in the insurance pool or an outside actor such as the government are simply paying for your service. It is not insurance.

Sadly, most of the discussion around what constitutes “real” health insurance under the ACA bears only a passing resemblance to the protection against financial risk that is the hallmark of insurance. For example, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said: “Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don’t pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus … They’re really mortgage protection, not health insurance.” What does Secretary Sebelius think insurance is? We don’t expect auto insurance to pay for our gasoline. Indeed, we buy auto insurance precisely so that we can meet our mortgage payments (or similar vital financial obligations) in the event that our car is stolen or worse. For a Cabinet Secretary to preside over the largest expansion of insurance since Medicare and not understand or care what insurance is supposed to be for…well, frankly we are shocked (and not in a Casablanca sort of way).

Secretary Sebelius mistakenly believes that a health plan isn’t an insurance plan unless it covers things such as routine annual visits to a physician or other services that we expect will occur each year and that we can budget for in advance. These types of services (while valuable and necessary) carry little to no associated financial risk and as a result, there is little insurance benefit to forcing the coverage of these services. It should be noted, though some may not like this fact, that this is also the case for many maternity services or for contraception. These have been two of the more controversial mandated services and they are effectively uninsurable in most cases. In fact, when maternity services are covered by insurance, the payments for these services are largely a subsidy with little risk sharing benefits. Perhaps the most apparent example of this is when an individual seeks to purchase insurance when they are already pregnant. While insurance companies were castigated for considering pregnancy to be a “pre-existing condition,” they were entirely correct in their assessment. If Secretary Sebelius wishes to state, as a matter of policy, that Americans should subsidize maternity care, then she should say so. Perhaps the majority of Americans will agree. But let’s not invoke the myth that this is some sort of insurance. Furthermore, there are probably better ways to subsidize this care then forcing its coverage into the premiums of everyone on the exchanges.

Even when our health insurance plans provide protection against financial risk, this protection comes at cost known as moral hazard. Full insurance, which drives the marginal cost of a service to zero, will cause folks to buy medical goods and services even if they don’t really need it. (Either patients will demand more of it or their providers will prescribe more of it, knowing that cost is not an issue.) This drives up health spending without a commensurate increase in benefits. Moral hazard may be inconsequential for services such as open heart surgery, but it can be quite large for other services, such as many prescription drugs, eyeglasses, contraception and even mental health care. And if the latter are not too costly, or are predictable, then coverage entails a subsidy with little or no insurance benefit making the coverage mandate even more problematic.

Insurers counteract moral hazard by requiring deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. These measures balance risk spreading benefits and moral hazard. Low income individuals may feel the bite of financial uncertainty with relatively low medical spending. But most of these individuals will be enrolled in Medicaid and not in the exchanges. Most participants in the exchanges can plan for nontrivial annual deductibles and can bear the financial uncertainty associated with nontrivial cost sharing. Many of the lower tiered plans on the exchanges have relatively large amounts of cost-sharing – which makes them more like insurance than many products offered by employers. But actual catastrophic insurance plans are primarily available (likely for a political reason such as this long being a popular policy among the Republican opponents to the ACA) to individuals who are under 30 and these plans can’t be purchased using tax subsidies from the government.

Beyond limiting access to catastrophic plans, the ACA inhibits innovation in the design of health plans by setting a fairly rich set of minimum benefits for all insurance plans in the United States. This lack of innovation in plan design may be one of the largest and under discussed long term costs of the ACA. Perhaps more galling, Congress demonstrated their infinite wisdom by deciding to use the current employer-provided health system as a model for the future of health insurance. Under the ACA, the Secretary of HHS was tasked with determining a set of essential health benefits that were similar to a “typical employer.” Yes, the ACA has decided that the structure of benefits that has led to ever increasing health spending will be codified as the definition of insurance for every American.

The rule making process of determining the “typical employer” actually left Secretary of HHS with a good deal of latitude about what would be covered. There was an opportunity to move towards a mandate that each American have true insurance. But given Secretary Sebelius’ twisted definition of insurance, it shouldn’t be surprising that she ended up choosing a very generous package of services as the “minimum.” And coverage for some services known to be at risk for moral hazard, such as mental health and substance abuse coverage, must be covered with the same cost sharing as other services, which as we wrote about before has its own problems.

We believe that starting with generous existing employer plans as a basis for the services that should be covered is a fundamentally flawed strategy. Many features of these plans are more about quirks in the federal tax code than optimal insurance design. Employee health benefits are not taxed as income. Purchase eyeglasses on your own, and you use after tax dollars. Buy them through employer-sponsored insurance, and you use before tax dollars. Given these tax rules, it’s no surprise that employer provided health insurance evolved into pre-paid medical services plans. Of course, taxpayers pay for a good portion of these costs – a regressive subsidy that economists have long protested (in vain, of course.)

For a long time, individual insurance policies were far less generous than employer-sponsored policies. One likely reason is that these policies did not get the same tax deduction as employer-sponsored policies. As a result, many of these policies actually looked like true insurance. Lest sound economic thinking wear out its welcome, states have mandated minimum benefits standards for individual policies. (The mandates do not apply to the self-insured plans offered by the vast majority of large employers.) Today, the average state mandates 45 benefits, ranging from asthma management, alcoholism treatment, and treatment for HIV/AIDS to acupuncture, circumcisions, and mammograms.

A small percentage of these mandates are for services that economists would describe as insurable. Politics, not economics, explains the rest. A small number of providers and patients who pool resources to lobby for their cause prosper from these mandates. Taxpayers who are too diffuse to stand in opposition bear the costs. Congress will not be immune from this simple calculus and we expect the minimum benefit package to steadily grow. The ink was barely dry on the EHB rules from HHS before groups that were not included began their lobbying campaigns to demonstrate their importance. As this occurs, the ACA will be less and less about providing Americans with health insurance, and more and more about subsidizing favored interest groups.

The President has said that his second administration is all about creating jobs. What we didn’t realize that he must have been referring to creating lobbying jobs for healthcare interest groups.

December 18, 2013

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 1:39 pm

As the health insurance exchanges find their footing and potentially millions of Americans gain access to insurance, this may be a good time to step back and take a longer term view of the ACA. When you get down to it, expanding health insurance coverage was the easiest and least controversial part of health reform. There is no shortage of ways to expand health coverage and almost any credible health reform proposal would have done the job, provided enough money was thrown at the problem. In designing the ACA, perhaps as a result of political pressure, President Obama opted for a combination of heavily subsidized individual insurance exchanges and generous expansions of Medicaid. Freed from political constraints, he might have instead pushed for the single payer system that many of his most ardent supporters desired. Republicans inclined to expand coverage (at least one of us is proof that unlike the unicorn these do exist) might have pushed for a pure voucher program that harnessed market forces. All of these options would expand coverage to the degree that policymakers were willing to fund them. So while we congratulate the President for his political success (we doubt the other options could have made it through Congress), it is a simplistic mistake to evaluate the implementation of the ACA by counting the numbers of uninsured or waiting for the monthly updates on the enrollment figures from the exchanges website. Any regulator with a big enough purse can, in the fullness of time, expand access. Frankly, that’s the “easy” part of healthcare reform.

But what about the other elements of the so-called “triple aim” of health reform: cost and quality? You see, while we agree that liberal, moderate, and conservative health reforms can all improve coverage, they each will have very different effects on the other important outcomes. Consider for example the oft-discussed “Medicare for all”; i.e. a single payer system. This would increase access without the messiness of the exchanges. It would also allow the government to flex its monopsonistic muscles and quickly reduce costs – though likely at the expense of quality. In contrast, relying on markets may not reduce costs in the short run, and may not necessarily reward real quality (though it has a better short than single payer in this regard).

Evaluating health reform in the context of the “Triple Aim” is important, but even that approach is not nearly enough. There is a broad consensus among that technological change is the most important long run driver of cost and quality. It follows that the most important element of health reform is its impact on technological change.

To understand how technological change affects all of us, consider the profound impact of the top ten medical advances in the last ten years, as listed by CNN:

1. Sequencing the human genome
2. Stem cell research
3. HIV cocktails
4. Targeted cancer therapies.
5. Laparoscopic surgery
6. Smoke free laws
7. The HPV vaccine Gardasil
8. Face transplants
9. Drugs reducing or eliminating periods
10. Bionic limbs

Going forward, it is hard to imagine not enjoying the benefits of these advances. So we wonder which, if any, of these advances we would be enjoying today if a single payer system or even the ACA had been enacted 20 years ago. We can’t provide a precise answer to this question, but we have a strong intuition about the direction of the effect. Consider these three stylized facts:

1) Considerable private sector investments were required to translate most of the ten advances from the original basic research into viable medical treatments.
2) If researchers and private firms do not expect to cover the costs of their investments, then research will dry up as capital flows towards more productive ends.
3) In health systems that regulate prices (i.e., every industrialized country except the U.S.), governments are able to use their market power to reduce prices down close to marginal costs.

The stylized facts lead inexorably to the conclusion that medical innovation depends critically on profits reaped from American consumers. From a pure equity standpoint these facts are not great for Americans, as the rest of the world free rides off our largess. However much we lament this outcome, it is hard not to think of an even worse situation. Had the United States adopted single payer health reform in the 1980s, then by now, we would have largely solved our access problems. Unfortunately, what we might also find is that we’ve made sure that everyone has access to the essentially the level of technology available to the 1980s medical consumer, and the innovations on CNN’s list would look much different, and much less innovative. Imagine having to move forward without some of these innovations. Which would you sacrifice? Targeted cancer therapies? The HPV vaccine? Here is a situation where death is an option.

By changing the rules affecting payment rates and technology adoption, health reform affects the incentives for medical innovation. Leave the status quo, and incentives remain high. While we readily acknowledge that the current “market” based system might inappropriately reward technologies that provide few benefits, witness Da Vinci surgical robots and Proton beam therapy, it also leads to innovations like the ones on CNN’s list. We wonder how many of us would give up targeted cancer therapies and bionic limbs so as to avoid paying for Proton beam therapies. Not us. On the other hand, if we implement draconian rules, then the innovation pipeline may run dry.

Twenty years from now, some future version of CNN will publish a new list of the top medical advances. The health policy decisions that we make today will shape that list, yet no one is discussing them. How will planned reductions in Medicare payments affect innovation? Will efforts to promote pricing transparency, in the absence of comparable data on outcomes, drive consumers away from providers who use more costly technologies? Will narrow network plans be followed by narrow technology plans (that limit reimbursements for expensive technologies?) How will the newly created independent payment advisory board (IPAB) weigh the role of innovation incentives when establishing payment rates for existing technologies? Will further government encroachments into health care system, perhaps by taking a step closer to a single payer model, avoid draconian cuts in payments for technology?

In the absence of a debate about these issues, we worry that the federal government will take the politically expedient view by saving money today while sacrificing innovation in the future. After all, we will all reward politicians for the cost savings, but how can punish them for innovations that are never realized? If we implement the wrong policies, then Americans (and the rest of the world) might find themselves in a perverse version of Waiting for Godot, waiting in vain for medical advances that can only be dreamed of, because the innovators lack the financial incentives to turn dreams into reality.

As we continue to evaluate the launch of the exchanges, let us remember that expanding access is the easy part of health reform. Getting right the dynamics of technological change is much harder, and, we believe, much more important. Let’s start having that conversation before it is too late.

November 18, 2013

The Eye of the Needle

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 9:06 am

Last week President Obama announced that he will try to keep his oft repeated promise to Americans in the individual market that they can keep their plans if they like them … for a year. The media have done an excellent job explaining why President Obama’s temporary patch to the ACA may endanger its existence; in the process the American public has learned more than it ever wanted to about adverse selection, cream skimming, and most importantly crass politics. Though the full costs of adverse selection will be muted in the first year by risk corridors and reinsurance, it is clear that the failing website, the bad press, and the recently announced delay are placing maximal stress on even those backup provisions of the bill.

Even if the ACA survives this additional insult against the economics that support its very existence, we have witnessed yet another missed opportunity for positive reform to President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. And this time we can’t just blame intransigent tea-party Republicans and their quixotic efforts at repeal; here the buck stops at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW.

While many of the plans that are affected by the President’s temporary patch might actually be plans that don’t qualify as “insurance” (i.e. they have low lifetime caps on expenditures or don’t cover hospital services), numerous others actually offer quite good coverage that just don’t meet the exceptionally high standards of the newly developed minimum essential health benefit (EHB). In many ways, the first dollar coverage for preventive care and the wide ranging number of services covered by the ACA aren’t truly insurance either. Instead, these features amount to a very generous pre-payment plan for medical services supported by the United States treasury.

These elements of the EHB are too costly and unnecessary. Perhaps even more concerning, they are just the ante. As time goes on, vested interests for everything not included in the EHB will work tirelessly to insure that their favorite benefits are included. If you want evidence of this eventuality, you need look no further than the remarkably long and growing list of benefits mandated by most states. Keep in mind that as the EHB grows more generous the premiums and subsidies on the exchanges will also grow. And we know who will pay their “fair share” of those increases.

Given these facts, the President should have used the recent attention on the individual market as an excuse to pause, and carefully reconsider whether the EHB has actually been set far too high. Doing so would allow insurers to develop innovative benefit designs to create health insurance plans that provide quality coverage without exacerbating the growth of medical spending. Instead, the President chose the easy path. Let’s kick the can down the road and perhaps we can delay the next round of news stories about policy cancellations in the individual market until after the 2014 mid-term elections.

Beyond simply delaying the inevitable, the “policy” change announced last week could threaten the very existence of the ACA. To understand why, we provide a short history lesson. Stanford Professor Alain Enthoven described a prototype for health insurance exchanges in 1978. Over the next two decades, the idea for exchanges was fully developed; the estimable Jackson Hole Group of leading academics, policy wonks, and industry executives produced at least two serious national health insurance (NHI) proposals centered on exchanges. A bipartisan NHI proposal featuring exchanges was debated during President Reagan’s tenure, and again at the time of President Clinton’s ill-fated NHI proposal. Finally, in the mid-2000s, Massachusetts launched its exchange.

During this time, academics came to understand what it would take to have a viable exchange. The young and healthy would have to participate, which in turn meant there would have to be a complex system of subsidies and penalties. And while it would do a world of good to end employer- sponsored insurance (see our previous blogs), the short term disruption and political roadblocks would be severe. So exchanges would have to compete side-by-side with other insurance options, which would have to be regulated lest bare bones plans skim the healthy enrollees from the exchanges. This, in turn, would surely force many individuals to lose their current coverage, and a number of those individuals who don’t qualify for subsidies will likely face much higher premiums. This is how we ended up with the hybrid ACA proposal and, because the plain economic truth was hidden from us, the broken promises.

From the beginning, opponents of the exchanges fell into two camps. The first and by far the larger camp offered a purely political reaction to any proposal offered by President Obama. We could expect such a reaction from tea party Republicans who are still searching for the President’s birth certificate. But we are disappointed by the moderate, supposedly pro-business Republicans who failed to see how moving away from employer-sponsored insurance could unshackle America’s businesses, especially small companies and entrepreneurs. We would have hoped that the establishment members of the Republican Party would have taken the opportunity then, or at least now when President Obama appears to be more amenable to compromise, to make the exchanges into a positive economic force. For example, they could have crafted a compromise to lower the EHB and expand the availability of high deductible health plans on the Bronze tier of the exchanges.

Exchanges and their many rules may sound crazy, but there is method to the madness. The President may have lied about the implications of these rules, but they are at least internally coherent. At least they were internally coherent before the latest delay.

And that brings us to the second camp. From the beginning, we joined with many free-market economists and other skeptics in opposing the ACA because we feared that ugly politics would trump sensible economics. The heavy hand of politics appeared early on, when a variety of budgeting tricks were employed to make the ACA appear to be revenue neutral. (Does anyone recall that the tax increases to fund the exchange subsidies began fully three years before the first dollar in subsidies would be paid out?) States were supposed to launch their own exchanges, but the federal option was introduced to deal with political realities. Efforts to rein in spending on high cost/low value medical technologies were abandoned to avoid any notions of “death panels.” Finally, and more recently, the employer mandate for insurance was delayed by a year because of difficulties in implementation. We can now add to this list the “you can keep your plan” lie and the temporary patch for those who did not keep their plans. All of these are example of how the ACA has become much more about politics than about sensible policy. Both sides must take the blame for this result.

And so the greatest danger of large scale government intervention is laid bare for all to see. We greatly admire our colleagues who have diagnosed the ills of the U.S. health insurance system. We agree with them that “properly implemented” exchanges can assure that nearly all Americans obtain insurance coverage, promote competition among insurers, and liberate Americans from the yoke of tying insurance to employment. But in a two party system, especially with today’s two and a half (we can’t count the tea party as a distinct party but it is hard to lump them in with more sensible Republicans) parties, national politics continues to trump economic theory. Exchanges may be working reasonably well in Massachusetts, but nationwide? Good luck to that. (Wasn’t that Romney’s message? Like him or not, he sure got it right that solutions that work well in one state might not translate to the nation.)

As each day brings sadder news about the exchanges, we are reminded that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for politicians to properly implement complex economic policies.

November 11, 2013

This Fairy Tale is too Grim

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 9:15 am

The Obama administration announced on Friday that it will require parity for mental health insurance coverage. That means that health insurers must apply the same copayments, deductibles, and visit limits to mental healthcare as they do for physical health care treatment. Call it fair, call it political, but please don’t call it a good economic or health policy.

The story about how this is fair, or at least politically popular goes something like this: Health insurers are evil and powerful firms that can and will do whatever they want. On the other hand, patients with mental health problems are politically weak and must be protected from the powerful insurers that have no interest in taking care of them. In this story, the Obama administration rides in on its white stallion and rights the wrongs being perpetrated by the villainous insurance companies. All we need is a damsel in distress, an evil step-mother, and a catchy tune and Disney will sign the movie rights.

The problem with this simplistic story line is that you can replace “mental health” with nearly any other condition and the story would sound just as plausible. There is nothing particular to mental health about the story above. But this raises a question: why haven’t these greedy and powerful health insurers already instituted parity, in the form of high copayments, high deductibles, and strict visit limits for all services? The fairness/political story breaks down because it cannot explain why insurers “single out” mental health; it is actually hard to stitch together an explanation where insurers as a group have a grudge against individuals with mental health problems.

There is an alternative explanation for the lack of parity, one rooted in the dismal science. Basic economic theory offers a story that is less depressing, but perhaps more complicated, than the popular rhetoric. In this story, insurers are trying to do what is best for their entire enrolled population, saving money only when it makes sense to do so. Keep in mind, insurance companies are not setting policies in a vacuum – they are constantly competing with other companies for new clients.

It is important to start with the question of why we have copayments, deductibles and other restrictions on care. You could buy into the fairy tale that these measures are just attempts by insurance companies to deny care to people with a particular focus on individuals with conditions that they consider as unsavory or non-existent. Alternatively, you could consider an explanation in which these measures are attempts to rein in unnecessary spending by judiciously exposing patients to some amount of the marginal cost of care. Properly designed, such health plans should encourage more efficient consumption of health care services without exposing enrollees to excessive financial risk.

Given this basic theoretical understanding we can move forward. Intuition, formal theory, and mountains of empirical evidence indicate that when you make health care services free, patients purchase more of them. Sometimes the patients demand more services. Other times their doctors push them to receive more services and the insured patients have little reason to question the recommendations.

So far so good, but this still doesn’t explain why insurers single out mental health care. Here is the important economic reason why we might see different cost sharing for these treatments. Economic theory predicts that patients (and their doctors) will react differently to their exposure to the marginal cost of different types of treatments. Unsurprisingly, patients are not very price sensitive for more essential services such as inpatient hospital care and emergency care. However, they are far more sensitive to the price they face for services where the need is harder to define and the benefits of treatment are harder to prove. In these cases, cost sharing is an effective way to limit unnecessary care and maintain a balance between benefits and costs. The economic evidence for this latter is overwhelming, and is clearly spelled out in textbooks and research papers written by economists from across the political spectrum. This is a settled issue.

Mental health care is an exceptionally good example of this type of treatment. Definitive tests for many conditions, such as depression and ADHD, do not exist. In addition, existing treatments for these conditions have a mixed track record. Without cost sharing, visit caps, or other attempts to force patients and doctors to confront the marginal costs of their decisions, mental health treatments can become open ended with many successful treatments but also many failures. It follows from economic theory that cost sharing and visit restrictions for mental health should be tighter than for other services. We suppose that one might argue about the degree of restrictions for all services, but there is no theoretical argument to suggest that parity is preferred to discrimination.

We should be very clear. We are not denying the benefits of many mental health treatments nor are we trivializing the severity of these conditions. We both firmly believe that these conditions can often be addressed by both counseling and, if appropriate, pharmaceutical treatment. In fact, advancements in the treatment of these conditions are a real testament to the benefits of the American medical system. And we also believe that it is appropriate for insurance to cover some of the associated treatment costs.

However, we should also be able to recognize and rationally discuss the reality of the situation. Mental health services are far more difficult to empirically diagnose, the efficacy of the treatment is harder to measure, and as a result we should think it is not unreasonable that these services receive less generous coverage in an efficiently designed insurance plan. In this debate, you can opt for fairness, or you can opt for optimally balancing benefits and costs, but you cannot have both. Let’s not demonize insurers for pursuing that balance.

But this is really about a lot more than just the benefits for mental health coverage. This is yet another example of how the Affordable Care Act stifles innovation in benefit design for insurance plans. In addition to mandating a rather rich set of minimum benefits, federal regulators are now determining which services can receive differential cost sharing. It is hard to imagine this doesn’t result in even more health spending in subsequent years. And we thought the ACA was supposed to reduce health spending. Silly us.

Given the events of the last few weeks, we almost think that some of those charged with implementing the ACA want it to fail. “We tried market-based health reforms and they failed,” they might say, concluding that “the only sensible way to control costs is with a single-payer system.” That story is almost more believable than the evil insurance company fairy tale sketched out above.

We did say “almost.”

October 30, 2013

How the ACA Turns “Minimum” Standards into Maximum Costs

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 9:45 am

By now you’ve certainly seen the headlines: “Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance,” or “Report: Millions will lose health plans as ObamaCare takes hold.” This is not just the rumblings of right wing media outlets or scare tactics, it is now becoming clear that millions of individuals who used to buy their insurance in the individual market will not be able to keep their old plans. As a result of minimum standard for health insurance “quality,” between 50 and 75 percent of existing individual insurance plans will be canceled.

White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said that these cancellations will only affect “substandard policies that don’t provide minimum services.” But again, the devil here is in the undiscussed details. The “minimum services” bar for the Affordable Care Act is actually very high and as a result the new policies that replace those being canceled can be quite expensive. For people who are in the unsubsidized portion of the exchanges, or even those who qualify for smaller subsidies, these minimum requirements are going to result in large premium increases. While many people might all believe that these individuals be buying better insurance, this is not the argument used to gain public support for the ACA.

We’ve both been vocal in our support of moving people onto the exchanges and away from employer provided coverage. One reason for that support has been that the exchanges allow a far better matching of individual preferences for health insurance and the products that people can purchase. Certainly that was our basis for our strong support of narrow network plans on the exchanges. Beyond the size of the network, some people don’t want to pay for generous first dollar coverage. Instead, these consumers are willing to exchange lower premiums for higher deductibles or other forms of cost sharing. Others might not be interested in having coverage for every possible service, but instead might opt for a less generous set of benefits. They will be thwarted by the ACA.

There might be some method in this madness. Supporters of the ACA took a lot of flak for mandating that everyone buy insurance. By now, we all understand that the idea behind the mandate is to create stable risk pools. Minimum coverage requirements could serve much the same purpose; insurers may offer limited benefit plans in order to cream skim healthier enrollees. Banning limited benefit plans helps assure that the healthy and the sick are in the same risk pool. This argument is based on a time-honored economic theory, and we are somewhat sympathetic to it. (Frankly, we are skeptical about whether this is the rationale behind the plan restrictions; it may simply be the case that the ACA designers think they know best what constitutes a “good plan.”)

But our sympathy is limited. Plans that have extremely low annual and lifetime caps may be little more than exercises in cream skimming and perhaps should be banned. But bans on high deductible plans and broad benefit mandates for features such as free preventative care or contraceptive services fly in the face of other powerful economic theories. High deductible plans, and plans with substantial copayments, greatly limit moral hazard and hold down costs. At the same time, research evidence suggests that high deductible health plans are only weakly preferred by healthier enrollees. With little to fear in terms of cream skimming, why not let enrollees who prefer the low premium/high cost sharing tradeoff choose the plan that best matches their preferences? It seems that the architects of the ACA have let concerns about one economic theory (cream skimming) dominate another (moral hazard). And while plans that do not offer generous coverage of a wide range of medical services may enjoy some favorable selection, some enrollees may not value this coverage because of personal preferences independent of their medical needs.

A great benefit of exchanges is that they enable matching of consumer preferences and plan characteristics. This holds the potential for substantial cost savings. But the current regulations of the ACA force insurers must sell identical products, which is antithetical to matching. Once again we are reminded of President Obama’s promise when he was promoting the ACA: “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.” Surely the President knew this would not be the case. Not even close. But it sure made for a better sound bite than: “If you like your health plan, then we have bad news for you. You will only be able to keep your plan if it meets the United States government’s definition of what you need. We don’t believe that you are able to make the decision for yourself, so we took care of that for you.” This would be far less popular, but has the advantage of being more accurate. Were right wing claims about death panels any less accurate?

We have not even mentioned the impact of plan limitations on innovation. Had the ACA been in place 15 years ago, no one today would even know about high deductible health plans. We can only speculate about the plan designs that we will never see in the future thanks to the ACA.

Forgive us if we are not comforted by this paternalistic approach.

October 28, 2013

The Web Site Meltdown is Just the Opening Act

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 7:48 am

That past month of debate over the botched launch of the health care exchanges has brought the programming geeks, and their hired mouthpieces, out in the open to defend the indefensible. As painful as this has been for so many Americans, we cannot help but be amused to hear so many commentators doing their best impression of Captain Renault and expressing their shock that the federal procurement system could have produced such an outcome. Of course, most of this is a sideshow, the opening act to an even more serious drama in the making. Let us be clear from the outset, the rollout of Healthcare.gov is an embarrassment. However, this only becomes a real problem if it dissuades enough people who were already marginal customers with respect to their purchase of health insurance on the exchanges to simply pay the penalty and avoid the hassle of staring at a computer screen, waiting on hold for hours, or refusing to try again once the geeks get this all sorted out.

While the self-appointed technology experts on both sides of the aisle have been debating the causes of the web site debacle, attention has been diverted away from the necessarily frank discussions we must have about the real potential benefits and looming costs of the exchanges.

In a valiant attempt to steer the conversation towards the benefits of the ACA, President Obama held a rose garden press event where he repeatedly claimed that the health insurance on the exchanges is good product. But as is all too often the case, the President talked about the benefits and side stepped the difficult conversation about the costs. At least he is half right. If they can ever fix the web sites, people with pre-existing conditions who shop on the exchanges will gain access to insurance at a more affordable price. Enrollees may save thousands of dollars. But let’s not kid ourselves. The exchanges do not reduce the cost of medical care; they only change who pays for it. And we all know who that is.

If we think way back to the debate about the ACA in 2009, policymakers and pundits waited with bated breath for the Congressional Budget Office score of the budget impacts of the bill. The CBO estimated the ACA would be effectively revenue neutral over its first 10 years. Both sides had a number of quibbles with this analysis. Supporters of the bill felt that not enough credit was given for savings from preventative care while opponents thought the Medicare cuts would ultimately prove illusory. But we believe both sides of this budget scoring debate refused to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The CBO assumed that the ACA would cause relatively few employers to stop offering health insurance. CBO estimated that only 3 million people with employer provided benefits would end up on the individual exchanges. This assumption, which directly fed into the CBO’s budget score, was based in part on the experience in Massachusetts. But there are dangers in assuming that the experiences of any one state will translate to a Federal policy change.

Given the economic incentives created by the ACA, we expect that well over 3 million Americans will lose employer-sponsored coverage. A recent paper by Doug Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith provides a simple calculation of the large number of Americans who would be made financially better off by their employer no longer offering health benefits. These numbers are compelling. Consider the case of a family of four earning 150 percent of the poverty line. If these individuals are currently receiving employer provided insurance, they will lose out on approximately $13,000 in federal subsidies. If your workforce is primarily made up of people eligible for subsidies, why continue to offer them insurance “benefits” in the face of these economic facts.

While numerous employers and employees would be made better off under this setting, and our previous commentary discusses why we think the economy might be better off, there is no free lunch here. Someone has to pay the piper, and in this case it will be the American taxpayer. Holtz-Eakin and Smith estimate that there could be an additional $1 trillion in additional subsidy payments as a result of these employer decisions. We both think that number is likely an over-estimate. However, we also realize that employer responses to the ACA are going to represent a real and growing cost to the American budget for which we are not adequately preparing. (Had the ACA cut the tax benefit for employer-sponsored insurance, we could have seen the same shift to exchanges with far less severe budget implications.) To make matters worse, the web site debacle will likely keep healthy enrollees out of the exchange unless additional subsidies are forthcoming.

The President clings to his belief that “good” employers should continue to offer health insurance. But employers aren’t in business to do good…they rightly leave that to the community and the church. Most employers are savvy, however, and are figuring out that they can increase profits by curtailing health benefits (to cut costs), increasing wages (to retain employees), and encouraging their employees to sign up for the exchanges (to take advantage of taxpayer-funded subsidies.) Perhaps more importantly, the new economic reality of the ACA is that it’s no longer even morally good for employers to provide health benefits to low income employees. This might have been the case before a real non-employer option, but now many employees will be far worse off financially if their “good” employer offers them benefits.

October 22, 2013

Broad Thinking about Narrow Networks

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Dranove and (from Oct. 11, 2013) Craig Garthwaite @ 8:59 am

It wasn’t long ago that the newly established health exchanges were being celebrated. Before the ongoing website catastrophe, politicians and policymakers were lauding the low premiums in these new health insurance market places. On September 24, President Obama said, “And the premiums are significantly lower than what they were able to previously get … California — it’s about 33 percent lower. In my home state of Illinois, they just announced it’s about 25 percent lower.”

How times have changed! Even supporters of the exchanges have rightly criticized the technical problems that have prevented millions of Americans from signing up. However, many critics are also complaining about the large number of health plan offerings with “narrow networks” of physicians that enrollees can visit for medical services. The Missouri Health Advocacy Alliance expressed “major concern” when Anthem excluded BJC HealthCare from its narrow network. Seattle Children’s Hospital, which was excluded from several exchange plans, has sued the Washington State Office of Insurance for “failing to ensure adequate network coverage.”

Criticism of narrow networks is misguided and counterproductive. As we explain below, narrow networks will be of little consequence to most of the individuals who sign up for the exchanges, and the elimination of narrow networks could eliminate our single best opportunity to harness market forces to reduce costs and improve quality. Indeed, narrow networks are largely responsible for the low premiums that were being celebrated just one month ago.

We admit that narrow networks may seem like a bad idea. They limit where patients can go to receive care and threaten to interrupt the physician/patient relationship. But there are two major flaws with this line of thinking. First, patients have a choice of many different health plans in the exchanges and these plans all have different network options. A provider who is not in one plan’s narrow network is likely to be another. Patients whose providers are not in any plan’s narrow network can always choose broad network plans in exchange for paying a higher premium. They will be no worse off than they are today, and if competition in exchanges works out as planned they may even be better off.

Once they sign up for a narrow network plan, there is no guarantee that patients will receive care from in-network providers. Big medical bills may result. But we doubt this is likely to be a big concern for very long, as patients learn to navigate the new networks. Seattle Children’s Hospital is rightly worried that some enrollees in narrow network plans will end up at their doorstep. But there are other high quality providers of pediatric services in Seattle. Once patients and referring doctors get used to the new networks, the only children who show up at Seattle Children’s Hospital will be those whose networks include the hospital, or those whose parents are willing to pay for out of network care.

If more of us move into exchanges (something that the Affordable Care Act actually stifles…see our previous op-ed on this topic), we may all have to get use to narrow networks. Employers rarely offer narrow networks because it is very hard to find a single network that appeals to all (or even a large fraction) of their employees and too expensive to offer a large number of different plans. Once individuals are buying insurance for themselves, one-size-fits-all insurance will go by the wayside and people can select the plan and network that best matches their needs.

Narrow networks are not some cruel attempt to limit patient choice foisted upon us by the insurance industry. Instead, these plans may provide our best opportunity for harnessing market forces to lower prices. Even high priced providers know they stand a good chance of being in broad networks. But insurers offering narrow networks can be picky about which providers they select. Across the nation, high quality/high price sellers like Seattle Children’s Hospital will have to prove their worth.

What if insurers ignore quality? If we have learned anything about quality in the past decade, it is that insured patients making their own provider choices have done little to reward measurable high quality, instead relying on more on brand names that may or may not indicate true quality. Will insurers be any worse? While it is theoretically possible that narrow network plans will focus on low costs, quality be damned, we are unaware of any narrow networks that include only the bottom of the quality barrel. It is also hard to imagine how it would be profit maximizing for all insurers or potential entrants to the exchanges to offer only low-quality narrow network plans. Rival insurers will surely be quick to point out the shortcomings of low quality competitors.

As a nation we have reached a consensus that we must lower medical spending. While this is often presented as a choice without trade-offs, that simply is not the case. Making our lower health care cost omelet is going to require breaking some eggs. Most Americans do not place must trust in insurers, but through narrow networks, insurers can introduce some much needed cost discipline on providers. And narrow networks can even include ACOs, should they offer proof of concept.

The intensified competition from narrow networks will be messy…patients will make mistakes, and quality will sometimes go unrewarded. This is not unlike our current system, only it will be less expensive and with greater access. The only sure fired alternative way to controlled cost is centralized planning. While some have faith in the ability of bureaucrats to choose what services to cover and how much to pay for them, we are less sanguine about the role of central planning in this and other settings.

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