What are the problems with our universal healthcare system (no one is denied the care they need “Health-care-plan-B”) that Congress is trying to fix? At the broadest level America’s health care costs much more than it should for the results it delivers and the distribution of its financing is neither efficient nor equitable. Six years ago Democrats made the mistake of sneaking through the Affordable Care Act without significant debate. This year Republicans committed the same error but failed to pass a law. This provides congress (thank you Senator McCain) with the opportunity to fashion a healthcare reform law the proper way (open committee hearings, etc.).
A new attempt to reform the system would no longer be restrained by the limitations of a budget law that limited what earlier attempts were able to do. In particular a new law should address the factors that drive up the cost of medical care in the U.S. These include relaxing legal limitations on who can provide what services and how they may be performed, requiring that the cost of services be transparent and requiring stronger incentives for customers (patients) to care about cost when choosing medical treatments. “Heath-care-reform-fatigue”
How medical services are paid for influences the incentives of both suppliers of these services as well as the users to seek and provide the most cost effective options. Medical services are paid for by patients (because they are uninsured, or pay deductibles or copays), insurance premiums, or taxpayers. Each provides its own set of incentives for choosing what is delivered. When patients pay for the services they have a financial incentive to choose the option with the highest benefit-cost ratio. When third parties pay for medical services, (insurance companies or government) they must impose choices that patients, in consultation with their doctors, would otherwise make.
Some commentators have complained that third party payers, whether a single payer (government) system or many insurance companies, introduce rationing. However, all scarce goods and services are necessarily rationed. The relevant issue is how they are rationed, whether on the basis of the preferences of patients or the judgment of the third party payer of what is reasonable.
To the extent that medical costs are paid for by taxpayers, the incidence of such financing depends on and is determined by the structure of the government systems of taxation. In the U.S. these are currently unfair and inefficient and in bad need of reform quite independently of the issues of healthcare delivery. Medical insurance financing is complicated by the ill advised post World War II tax incentive for employers to provide and help pay for medical insurance. This practice establishes insurance pools (the firms employees) that generally mix the number of healthy and sick policyholders in a representative way. The very purpose of insurance is for the healthy to share the costs of the sick and thus reduce the financial burden of medical surprises. Most Americans with health insurance buy it through their employers’ plans.
The most serious problem with the existing American health insurance system is for those not receiving insurance from an employer (or those changing employers and needing to establish new insurance policies). These people must use the so-called private market for which the Affordable Care Act established the insurance exchanges. The cost of insurance purchased in this private market depends on the mix of healthy and sick people that sign up. Employer provided plans are essentially mandatory for a firm’s employees (and enjoy a tax subsidy) and thus result in a well mixed (sick and healthy) risk pool. Private market plans were made mandatory by the ACA but with a penalty for remaining uninsured that was so low that large numbers of young healthy people choose not to join. Thus private market plans were increasingly populated by the sick (and those expecting that they were likely to become sick). This undermines the cost sharing the insurance exists to provide and thus drives up the premium cost. The simple cure for this problem is to make healthcare insurance mandatory as originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation.
Mandatory healthcare insurance should cover every health service for which society believes financial assistance should be given. It undermines the purpose of insurance to allow policy holders to pick and choose which services will be covered. Premiums might very with age, lifestyle choices that effect health (such as smoking or obesity) and the choice of the level of deductions and copays but policy holders should not be able to opt out of services society intends to provide and finance one way or another even if they never expect to need them. The issue of preexisting conditions would not arise when insurance is mandatory and policies are not linked to individual employers. “Health-care-in-America”
The individual policyholders’ choices of the level of deductions and copays (but not the scope of services covered) would determine the division of financing between patients and third party payers. In addition, government (the voting public) would choose the extent to which the cost of medical services would be taken over by taxpayers as a result of government financial assistance to the poor. A further policy option is whether the cost of catastrophic health care needs would be lifted from insurance premiums and paid for by taxpayers via a reinsurance plan. But the cost of medical services that must be paid over all (by patients, insurance premiums, or tax payers) can be greatly reduced by taking those measures that will lower the cost of these services in the first place.
Hopefully this time around congress will entertain open public discussion of all of these issues so that the public will understand the purposes and tradeoffs of the policies ultimately adopted.