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Posts Tagged ‘Health’

The recent double-counting dispute isn’t just about politics; it also reveals a flaw in budgeting for Medicare Part A.

Budget experts are waging a spirited battle over the Medicare changes that helped pay for 2010’s health reform. In April, Chuck Blahous, one of two public trustees of the program, released a study arguing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would increase the deficit by at least $340 billion by 2021, a sharp contrast from the $210 billion in deficit reduction estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Chuck bases his estimates on several factors, but the item that has garnered the most attention is his charge that the ACA’s spending cuts and revenue increases in Medicare Part A are being double counted: once to help pay for the ACA’s coverage expansion and a second time to improve the finances of the Part A trust fund, whose predicted exhaustion was delayed by several years.

Chuck notes that those resources can be used only once: They can either offset some costs of health reform or strengthen Medicare, but not both. He believes those resources will ultimately finance additional Medicare spending and thus can’t offset any health reform costs. For that reason, he concludes that the ACA would increase deficits, rather than reduce them.

That argument inspired a host of commentary from leading budget experts, ranging from denunciation to affirmation. See, for example, Jeffrey Brown, Howard Gleckman, Peter Orszag, Robert Reischauer (as quoted by Jonathan Chait), and Paul Van de Water, and a follow up by Chuck and Jim Capretta.

Why does this dispute exist? It can’t just be politics. If it were, we’d have double-counting disputes about every program. But we don’t. We thus need an explanation for why this debate has erupted around Medicare Part A, which provides hospital insurance, but not around other programs. Part A is not unique in controlling spending by a “belt and suspenders” combination of regular program rules (the “belt”) and an overall limit (the “suspenders”). Such budgeting also applies to Social Security, Medicare Parts B and D (which cover physician visits and prescription drugs), and the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal debt limit acts as “suspenders” for the entire budget. But none of those give rise to double-counting disputes.

That suggests that there is something unusual—perhaps flawed—about budgeting for Medicare Part A. To see what that is, it helps to boil the dispute down to two basic questions about programs subject to “belt and suspenders” budgeting.
First, can spending reductions or revenue increases in the program offset spending increases or revenue reductions in other programs? In short, can budget savings pay for other programs? Or must they stay within the program itself?

Second, would hitting the overall budget limit affect program operations? In other words, do budget savings extend the period during which the program can operate at full capacity? Or is the limit operationally toothless?

As shown above, policymakers have answered these questions differently for different programs (for further details, see the appendix).

This comparison reveals the unique feature of Medicare Part A: It is the only one of these programs that allows budget savings to pay for other programs and has a trust fund with real operational teeth. It alone answers Yes to both questions. That is why Medicare Part A is the only program that creates the possibility of double counting and suffers from the reality of a double-counting dispute.

Double counting isn’t possible in Social Security or the NFIP because budget rules require that savings stay in the program. It isn’t possible for the budget as a whole since there are, by definition, no other programs to fund. And double counting isn’t possible in Medicare Parts B and D because its trust fund does nothing to limit operations.

But double counting is possible in Medicare Part A. That happens whenever someone claims that the health reform legislation both reduces deficits and provides additional resources to Medicare Part A. I will leave it to others to adjudicate whether any health reform proponents committed that error. I will note, however, that every budget expert, including Chuck Blahous, agrees that CBO didn’t do so (its baseline ignores the trust fund, so savings reduce deficits and have no effect on program operations).

Bottom line: The peculiar budget rules for Medicare Part A make it possible for analysts, pundits, and policymakers—whether willfully or inadvertently—to double count budget savings in Medicare Part A. That needless confusion is a significant flaw. To correct it, Congress could adopt the budget practices it uses in Social Security, Medicare B & D, or the NFIP. In a follow-up post, I will examine the pros and cons of these alternatives.

 Appendix: How “Belt and Suspenders” Budgeting Works

(more…)

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Rhetoric matters in economic policy debates. Would allowing people to purchase health insurance from the federal government be a public option, a government plan, or a public plan? Would investment accounts in Social Security be private accounts, personal accounts, or individual accounts? (See my post on the rule of three.) Are tax breaks really tax cuts or spending in disguise? Is the tax levied on the assets of the recently departed an estate tax or a death tax?

In an excellent piece in the New York Times, Eduardo Porter describes another important example, how we characterize differences in income:

Alan Krueger, Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, offers a telling illustration of the changing views on income inequality. In the 1990s he preferred to call it “dispersion,” which stripped it of a negative connotation.

 In 2003, in an essay called “Inequality, Too Much of a Good Thing” Mr. Krueger proposed that “societies must strike a balance between the beneficial incentive effects of inequality and the harmful welfare-decreasing effects of inequality.” Last January he took another step: “the rise in income dispersion — along so many dimensions — has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.”

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High-deductible plans are gaining market share.

Here’s another important fact from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent survey of the employer health insurance market. As shown in the chart above, health insurance plans with high deductibles and a saving option (HDHP/SO) have been gaining market share rapidly. Only 1-in-25 enrollees were in such plans in 2006; today that figure is more than 1-in-6.

The increased popularity of these plans–which involve Health Savings Accounts (HSAs, created by the 2003 tax law) or Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs)–has come at the expense of health maintenance organizations (HMOs, down from 21% in 2005 to 17% in 2011), preferred provider organizations (PPOs, down from 61% to 55%), and point-of-service plans (POS, an unfortunate acronym, down from 15% to 10%).

When paired with HDHPs, HSAs and HRAs are often called consumer-driven health plans because they give the patient / consumer more direct responsibility for health spending. In return for lower premiums, beneficiaries face higher cost-sharing. To help cover those out-of-pocket costs, beneficiaries make contributions to tax-advantaged saving accounts.

Bottom line: The employer market is moving toward more consumer-driven plans. Big question: Will translate into lower health spending?

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Family health insurance premiums surged 9% in 2011 according to new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s the fastest health insurance inflation since 2005:

Insurance premiums (in red) thus outpaced both general inflation (gray) and worker earnings growth (blue) by a wide margin.

That scary spike raises an obvious question: Is health insurance more expensive because of the health reform enacted last year?

Kaiser crunched the numbers and says yes, but only modestly:

The two provisions in the Affordable Care Act likely to have the greatest effect on the premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage in 2011 are allowing children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ plans and requiring plans that are not grandfathered to provide preventive services with no patient cost-sharing. Our analysis, based in part on estimates provided by federal agencies when regulations implementing these provisions were issued, suggests that these provisions are responsible for 1-2 percentage points of the 9% increase in family premiums in 2011. (emphasis added)

Stripping out those two specific ACA effects, premiums would still have increased by 7-8% according to Kaiser’s estimates.

But that isn’t the end of the story. A remaining question is whether other aspects of the ACA might also have contributed to the premium increase. Kaiser argues, plausibly, that the two factors it considered were the most direct link between the ACA and 2011 premiums. But perhaps there were indirect links as well?

I expect we will hear critics of the ACA make exactly that argument in the days ahead. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the first example I found came from the Administration. Writing on the White House blog, health adviser and deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle pins some of the blame for higher premiums on insurance companies overestimating what their costs would be:

[2011 health insurance] premiums were generally set in 2010, when insurance companies thought medical costs would be significantly higher than they turned out to be. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the health insurance employer cost index (a measure of the price of health care services) was the lowest it has been in over 10 years in the first half of 2011. Additionally, some insurers assumed  that the Affordable Care Act would dramatically raise their costs. In the end, both assumptions were wrong – but insurance companies still charged high premiums and earned impressive profits. Wall Street analysts’ review of results from the first quarter of 2011 found that 13 of the top 14 health insurers exceeded their earnings expectations, with profits that were over 45 percent higher than estimated. (emphasis added)

DeParle thus believes that the ACA did lead to higher premiums in 2011–beyond what can be explained by direct cost increases–but only because insurers overreacted. In other words, the ACA did cause premium increases beyond what can be explained by costs (since insurers would not have made the mistake about ACA costs otherwise), but the ACA doesn’t deserve the blame for those premium increases.

Without any numbers, we don’t know, of course, how much such misestimates might have contributed to the 7-8% rise that isn’t explained by the direct effects of ACA. Any such mistakes will, one hopes, be corrected in setting 2012 premiums. If so, that would soften health insurance inflation in 2012.

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The latest must-read New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande describes recent efforts to cut costs and improve quality by coordinating patient care – in particular that of the most expensive patients. In “The Hot Spotter” (gated), he follows several innovators, including Rushika Fernandopulle, who directs a clinic-based program in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Fernandopulle and his team face many challenges in managing costs and improving the care of his patients. But:

Their most difficult obstacle, however, has been the waywardness not of patients but of doctors-the doctors whom the patients see outside the clinic. … The Atlantic City casino workers and hospital staff … had the best-paying insurance in town. Some doctors weren’t about to let that business slip away.

Fernandopulle told me about a woman who had seen a cardiologist for chest pain two decades ago, when she was in her twenties. It was the result of a temporary, inflammatory condition, but he continued to have her see him for an examination and an electrocardiogram every three months, and a cardiac ultrasound every year. The results were always normal. After the clinic doctors advised her to stop, the cardiologist called her at home to say that her health was at risk if she didn’t keep seeing him. She went back.

The clinic encountered similar troubles with some of the doctors who saw its hospitalized patients. One group of hospital-based internists was excellent, and coordinated its care plans with the clinic. But the others refused, resulting in longer stays and higher costs.

Any guesses which internists were on salary and which were fee-for-service?

Commentators often worry that third-party payment leads to moral hazard and overconsumption by patients. That’s true, but we should also keep an eye on the providers. Payment reform is one of the key challenges in future health care reform.

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What is Health Care Reform?

Health care reform increases the federal deficit over the next ten years. The health care reform legislation, however, reduces the deficit.

Greg Mankiw set off a vigorous discussion in the blogosphere (see, e.g., Ezra Klein, Clive Crook, and the Austin Frakt) with a provocative analogy about health care reform:

I have a plan to reduce the budget deficit.  The essence of the plan is the federal government writing me a check for $1 billion.  The plan will be financed by $3 billion of tax increases.  According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, giving me that $1 billion will reduce the budget deficit by $2 billion.

Now, you may be tempted to say that giving me that $1 billion will not really reduce the budget deficit.  Rather, you might say, it is the tax increases, which have nothing to do with my handout, that are reducing the budget deficit.  But if you are tempted by that kind of sloppy thinking, you have not been following the debate over healthcare reform.

I read Greg as raising an important rhetorical / pedagogic question which, judging by some responses, may have been overshadowed by his satire.

That simple question is “what is health care reform?”

The policy community and commentariat often equate health care reform with the legislation (actually two pieces of legislation) that President Obama signed into law last year. As everyone knows, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that those two laws would, if fully implemented, reduce the federal budget deficit by $143 billion from 2010-2019. That’s the basis for the claim that “health care reform would reduce the deficit over the next ten years.” (CBO also discussed what would happen in later years, where the law, if allowed to execute fully, would have a bigger effect, but let’s leave that to the side right now.)

The complication, which Greg’s post partly addresses, is that the health care reform legislation included many provisions. Greg notes, for example, that some expanded health insurance, while others raised taxes. In his view, only the first part constitutes health care reform — an effort that by itself would widen the deficit — while the tax increases are what made the legislation deficit-reducing.

In fact, it’s more complicated than that. By my count, the two pieces of health care reform legislation combined seven different sets of provisions:

1. Expanding health insurance coverage (e.g., by creating exchanges and subsidies and expanding Medicaid)

2. Expanding federal payments for and provision of health care services (e.g., reducing the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare drug benefit)

3. Cuts to federal payments for and provision of health care services (e.g., cuts to Medicare Advantage and some Medicare payment rates)

4. Tax increases related to insurance coverage (e.g., the excise tax on “Cadillac” health plans)

5. Tax increases not related to insurance coverage (e.g., the new tax on investment income)

6. The CLASS Act, which created an insurance program for long-term care

7. Reform of federal subsidies for student loans

(The House Republicans’ effort to repeal health care reform would overturn 1-6, but leave the student loan changes in place.)

To capture these complexities, I occasionally refer to the legislation as the health care / tax / student loan / long-term care legislation. But whenever I write that for publication, my editors take it out. Although my lengthy description is accurate, it doesn’t work for friendly conversation. So the law (which again, was really two laws) gets called the health care reform law.

Greg’s point, I think, is that this rhetorical convention creates confusion when talking about the law’s budget impacts. To say “the health care reform law reduces the deficit over the next ten years according to CBO” is absolutely true. But it often gets elided to “health care reform reduces the deficit over the next ten years” which isn’t true if, like Greg, you think the revenue raisers, student loan changes, and CLASS Act aren’t really health care reform.

I think Greg is right to worry about this distinction. Because of the information loss as the details of CBO scores get transmitted through various layers of speakers and media (including this blog), some people are indeed under the mistaken impression that health care reform, by itself, reduces the budget deficit over the next ten years. It doesn’t.

However, Greg’s analogy has a flaw: it presumes that none of the tax increases count as health reform. I disagree.

Our current tax system provides enormous ($200 billion per year) subsidies for employer-provided health insurance. They should be viewed as part of the government’s existing intervention in the health marketplace. And rolling back those subsidies strikes me as essential to future health care reform. I would count any revenues raised from doing so as part of health care reform.

That didn’t happen, but the legislation did include a tax on “Cadillac” health plans as a partial substitute. That will clearly affect health insurance markets, and it offset a portion of existing tax subsidies. For both those reasons, it should be viewed as part of health care reform.

The key thing is not the difference between spending and revenues, but between provisions that fundamentally change the health care system and those that do not.

Happily, I am not alone in this view. Indeed, it has been endorsed by none other than the Congressional Budget Office. CBO grappled with this issue during the health care debate. And after much thought, it came up with a useful measure of the health care reform part of the legislation: the “Federal Government’s Budgetary Commitment to Health Care“. This measure combines the spending and tax subsidies that the government provides for health care.

Taking all the health care provisions into account, CBO concluded that the health care reform legislation would increase the federal government’s budgetary commitment to health care. But not as much as many critics suggest. Adding together items (1) through (4) on my list, CBO concluded that the health care reform parts of the legislation would increase the deficit by about $400 billion over ten years. That would then be more than offset by the other provisions — primarily taxes but also the student loan provisions and the CLASS Act. (In later years, by the way, CBO projects that the legislation would actually reduce the federal commitment to health care.)

Bottom line: Health care reform increases the federal deficit over the next ten years, but the health care reform legislation reduces the deficit. What could be simpler?

P.S. I hope it goes without saying–but will say it anyway–that one should not evaluate the health care reform legislation on its fiscal impacts alone … or even predominantly. The legislation has a wide range of benefits (e.g., 32 million more people with health insurance) and costs. The key question is how they net out.

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Last spring, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the new health legislation would reduce the deficit by $143 billion over ten years. Yesterday, CBO estimated that repealing that legislation would increase the deficit by $230 billion over ten years.

What gives? Why would it cost $87 billion more to repeal the law than was saved by enacting it?

The main reason is that the 10-year budget window moved. The health debate started in 2009, so CBO used a 10-year window that ran from 2010 to 2019. It’s now 2011, so the repeal law will be judged against a 10-year window that runs from 2012 to 2021. The $230 billion figure reflects that longer window. Through 2019, the cost would be $145 billion.

The second reason is that the legislation President Obama signed last spring wasn’t the final word on health reform. In December, Congress was struggling to find a way to pay for the infamous Medicare “doc fix”, which now runs through the end of 2011. To do so, Congress decided to cut $15 billion from the subsidies created by the health legislation. Because those cuts reduced future subsidies, it is now $15 billion more expensive to repeal the overall health reform.

The third reason is that the original health legislation wasn’t just about health policy. It also included fundamental reforms to the way the government subsidizes college loans. The repeal bill wouldn’t undo those changes, which resulted in budget savings of $19 billion over 2010 to 2019.

Finally, the original health reform included about $7 billion in net budget costs during 2010 and 2011. It’s unlikely (to say the least) that the health repeal bill would be enacted in time to avoid those costs.

Bottom line: CBO estimated that the original legislation would reduce deficits by $143 billion over 2010-2019. CBO now estimates that repeal would increase deficits by $145 billion over the same period; the slight difference reflects the education provisions in the original legislation, the 2010 and 2011 costs that can’t be avoided, and the December 2010 changes to the law. The jump from $145 billion to $230 billion then reflects the addition of two years to the budget window.

P.S. The $230 billion figure is preliminary and subject to change once CBO has an opportunity to update its calculations to reflect the latest information about the economy, health care markets, etc.

P.P.S. Aficionados of the health debate will recall that many differences of interpretation surround CBO’s cost estimates for health reform. You can see some of my discussion here.

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