Government Intervention Gone Awry

Peter Suderman, writing for Reason, suggests that Obamacare, far from being the cost saver the Progressives insist it to be, actually is a cost increaser.  It seems that Obamacare is inflating health benefit costs at a sharply more rapid pace than was the rate of increase before Obamacare’s ram-through.  According to a series of Kaiser Foundation annual surveys of employee health benefits, in 2008, the cost increase for employer-provided family health benefits was 5%.  In 2009, the cost increase was 5% again, and in 2010—the year Obamacare was passed before anyone was allowed to know what was in it—the cost increase was only 3%.  But in 2011, that cost increase was 9%.  And it’s going to get worse.

This is reminiscent of another government intervention into our health care system: the creation of Medicare.  Under the Johnson administration, Medicare (and Medicaid) were established as interventions in the market for medical services because government Knew Better then, too, how markets should work.  Far from reducing costs, though, these programs also made the situation worse.  In the year before Medicare was passed, the cost of a hospital bed was rising at 5% per year—three percentage points above the overall rate of inflation for that year.  By the fifth year following Medicare’s enactment, the cost of that same hospital bed was rising at 8% per year, a 60% increase in the rate of inflation for that bed, against a baseline, still, of just 4% overall inflation—the relative cost of a bed had doubled.  Further, the combined “advantage” of Medicare and Medicaid, through 2001, accounted for fully 25% of the inflation in the overall cost of medical care.  The tax exempt status of employer-provided medical coverage (another “boon” for the individual), accounted for another 33% of the inflation in total medical services cost: these two government interventions were responsible for nearly 60% of the inflation in the cost of medical care.

Medicare premiums themselves have risen rapidly since the inception of the program.  1965’s $3 per month premium had risen to $94.60 in 2011.  If the premiums had only risen with general inflation, they would be in the $14-$15 per month range today.  Additionally, the doctor and hospital reimbursement rates—those Medicare-approved amounts—are too low to allow the doctors and hospitals involved to recover their costs.  As a result, these health service providers are driven increasingly to refuse Medicare patients altogether.  Despite this, Medicare participation is mandatory: Americans must purchase Medicare, whether they want it or not, even in the face of this dwindling service, and this artificially elevated demand for a decreasing supply also contributes heavily to cost increases.

Mandatory participation in Medicare has not achieved the goal claimed for it: an overall reduction in the cost of health services.  It is, though, succeeding in reducing the availability of medical services generally.

And so it is with Obamacare.  New mandates—the Individual Mandate, requirements that insurance companies cover people’s health condition, regardless of risk and at government mandated price ranges—increase demand.  Although there are those price controls, the regulations will drive insurers increasingly out of an increasingly unprofitable market, and this will drive costs upward in the form of inaccessibility of health services and long waits.  Further, Obamacare’s tax hikes will be passed on to consumers.  There are those price controls, but as we saw with the Nixon price controls, ways will be found around them.

Rest assured, also, the quality of care will fall through the floor, too.  There’s another Obamacare regulation: medical loss ratios, whose values are mandated under Obamacare, require insurers to spend a high percentage of their premium revenue on federally defined clinical services (Government-mandated, not market-driven, and so not necessarily wanted by us), and this is at the direct expense of R&D.  And of course health insurers are interested in research—not only in how to better provide insurance products to customers (there are profits to be made in offering better products and doing so more efficiently, and without those profits, the search for more and better won’t occur), but also in medicine itself.  Medical research is part of that search for profit: more, and more efficiently provided, medical services also are profitable, as is a long-lived, healthy customer base.  Only now there’ll be less money available for that research.

Once again, we’re stuck with an artificially elevated demand for dwindling supplies, and this time supplies of decreasing quality as well as quantity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *