A One-Line Fix For Medicare Spending

My one-line Medicare / Medicaid spending fix:

Medicare should continue to pay 80% of health care costs for recipients’ care below $40,000 per calendar year, but should pay only 50% of health care costs above $40,000 per calendar year.

With the ongoing debt-ceiling debate and political discussions over how to cut spending dominating discourse, I thought I’d chime in with a simple plan to fix America’s long term budget crisis. The majority of America’s future budget deficits are a result of runaway growth in health care spending, despite reductions in Medicare spending put in place with the recently passed health care reform. Paul Ryan and other conservatives propose to fix this by ending the Medicare program, and replacing it with an insurance-voucher scheme. President Obama proposes to control cost growth through the IPAB, a board with the power to control Medicare reimbursement policies.

My plan is far simpler than either, and will preserve Medicare as it exists today for 90% of recipients. How does this plan work? Kaiser Foundation research shows that 90% of Medicare recipients receive less than 40k per year in health care. The remaining 10% of recipients actually spend 60% of the Medicare budget. The proposed change would require these recipients to either shoulder more of the cost of expensive treatments, or to utilize less expensive treatments. Note that Medicare would not leave any recipient high-and-dry, but it would require even cost sharing for expensive treatments.

When faced with higher cost-sharing, many Medicare recipients would opt not to receive the newest cancer drugs, or the latest titanium hip replacement. It’s also quite likely that when faced with this two tier reimbursement structure, many health care providers would change treatments and pricing to stay competitive within the new structure – there’s evidence that today, health care providers charge Medicare what they do simply because Medicare will pay.

How much money would the proposed change save? Assuming that most spending above the $40k mark is eliminated [1], then Medicare and Medicaid might save $200B in the first year alone. This kind of change would also reduce health care cost inflation, since high-cost care would be curtailed significantly. It’s quite likely that this change would completely eliminate Medicare’s unfunded liability, without changing the program significantly for the majority of beneficiaries. But clearly this is too simple and non-ideological a change to stand a chance [2]!

[1] According to CMS, in 2011 total Medicare and Medicaid spending will total $1 Trillion. If my proposal to cut government cost sharing to 50% above 40k eliminated most spending above the 40k line (since many Medicare patients would not be able to pay their increased share above 40k), then the federal government would save half of the money expended above the 40k line. In 2006 the average expenditure for the high spenders in Medicare was $48k – in 2011 this would likely be over $60k per year with inflation and cost growth totaling 5% per year. Assume that the entire 20k per year above the 40 line were saved from using a resume builder online – that would mean that the high spenders’ health care expenditures would be reduced by 33%, reducing total government health care expenditure by 20% (one-third of the 60% spend on these expensive patients).

[2] I should note that this plan would leave some patients with expensive conditions to make difficult choices. By ending the endless spigot of government health care money, 10% of current beneficiaries would have to decide whether they could afford to have certain expensive procedures. But patients, not regulators, would be able to decide – the patients would simply be required to pay an even share for expensive treatment.

[3] In actual implementation, such a plan would have to be phased in. For instance, Medicare could initiate a 1 percentage point reduction in cost-sharing for each of the next thirty years, gradually moving from 80% to 50% for expenditures over the threshold.

The End of Government Subsidized Medical Innovation

Most Americans don’t realize it, but America’s status as the world’s primary source of medical innovation is heavily government-subsidized. During the healthcare reform debate, many pointed out that America spends over 17% of its GDP on health care, far higher than any other nation, and almost double the average for OECD nations. This high rate of spending on health care has fostered the growth of high technology health care, from pharmaceuticals to biotech, medical devices, imaging equipment and even surgical robots. What would happen if the government were no longer able to spend at such a rate?

Imagine for a moment that America had a purely free-market health care system, with no Medicare, Medicaid, and without tax breaks for health care. The government currently pays for 62% of all health care spending, and without this support, our healthcare system would be much smaller. If a free-market approach to healthcare brought spending down to the OECD average, the US would spend $1.2 Trillion (48%) less on healthcare than it does today [1]. Without Medicare to pay for costly end-of-life care, it’s doubtful that $200,000 per year chemotherapy drugs would find a market, or that anyone would pay full price for replacements on hips implants. In short, a free market health care system would deliver less health care technology to America – though it would still deliver technology that proved itself worthy and affordable to patients.

Of course in the real world government-subsidized innovation isn’t going away – or is it? America’s long term budget problems are driven chiefly by health care spending, as acknowledged by the trustees of Medicare. The Soviet Union eventually went bankrupt by spending 40% of its GDP on defense. The United States is on track to spend 40% of its GDP on healthcare by 2050 [2], with much of that on high tech gadgetry with low marginal benefit, and with virtually all of that money coming from taxpayers. This is obviously not sustainable.

The newly enacted healthcare reform law begins cutting Medicare in earnest, but deeper cuts will be needed to prevent Medicare’s insolvency. These cuts will inevitably mean less spending, and less revenue opportunities for big pharma, biotech, and medical equipment companies. While many other countries already have highly regulated healthcare markets with lower profit margins, pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies have been able to achieve consistent growth by tapping the US market and US taxpayers. Regardless of how healthcare reform plays out, America’s huge and growing debt mean that this situation will come to an end. The golden age of subsidized medical innovation is drawing to a close.

[1] CMS estimates that 2009 health care expenditures were $2.5 Trillion, or 17.3% of GDP. If this were reduced to 8.9%, the OECD average, health care expenditures would be $1.29 Trillion, almost half of what they are today. While we don’t know exactly what US health care spending would be without government subsidies and programs, we do know that government spending and subsidies would drop by roughly $1.3 Trillion ($1.1 Trillion in direct spending plus $200 Billion in subsidies), leaving a number very similar to the OECD average.

[2] See Figure 4 of this CBO Report for long term health care spending projections.

The End Of Employer-Based Health Care?

The employer penalties in the health care law are low enough that many businesses will drop health coverage. This is a blessing in disguise, as it will lower costs in the long run.

The fiery rhetoric on both sides of the health care debate obscured the details of the actual reform bill. Now that it has become law, policy analysts and journalists have been combing through the bill and issuing predictions on whether it will raise or lower premiums, help or hurt businesses, and generally bring or not bring the Apocalypse. The bill will definitely change how health care is paid for in the United States, but perhaps not in the ways many expect. The following analysis shows that it’s possible that the new law will end the system of employer-based health care entirely!

The Kaiser Foundation has produced a nice summary of the law, including employer requirements:

  • Employers with less than 50 employees face no penalties.
  • Employers with more than 50 employees that provide no health care coverage must pay a tax of $2000 per employee (with the first 30 employees being exempt)
  • Employers with more than 50 employees that do provide care may have to pay a tax 0f up to $2000 per employee if  their employees use the new health care exchange subsidies.

Given these requirements, what are an employer’s options?

  1. Drop Employee Coverage: A company drops its health care plan, paying the $2k per head tax and leaving employees to buy their own plans. The company will save $10,000 per employee on average given the average cost of health insurance [1], and will also save by eliminating benefits administration expenses. The company could give each employee a $9000 raise and still increase profit by $500 or more per employee [2]. Employees will be mad about the loss of benefits, but not too mad as they can get coverage on the exchange using their new income and potentially subsidies.
  2. Keep Employee Coverage: The company will face the administrative burden of supplying vouchers to some employees who would like to opt out, of complying with minimum benefits requirements, and will potentially still have to pay $2000 in fines per employee if its health care plan is deemed insufficient. The company’s use of benefits as a recruiting tool will be diminished once benefits can be obtained on the health care exchange.

Looking at the alternatives, why wouldn’t a company drop its health care plan? Particularly for employers with middle-income employees (who may qualify for federal subsidies), it makes more sense to drop health care coverage and raise wages than it does to continue the status quo. While the employer-based health care tax deduction still exists, for many families its appeal will be neutralized by subsidies available in the new health care exchanges. And since all Americans will be guaranteed access to insurance starting in 2014, benefits will no longer be the employment draw that they are today.

The health care reform bill will thus reduce the share of employer-based healthcare in the US market. This is an excellent change for a couple of reasons: first, it breaks the link between employment and health care, providing more stability to all Americans; and second, it slowly weans Americans off the employer health care tax deduction, which contributes significantly to health care cost inflation. Ironically, the bill’s writers did not intend it to be the demise of employer-based health care. But if this trend does accelerate, the bill may be successful in controlling health care costs. [3]

[1] The average employer contribution for a family insurance plan was $9860 in 2009, according to Kaiser Foundation research. With health care inflation averaging above 4% in recent years, this will rise to roughly $12,000 by 2014. If an employer chooses to pay the $2000 penalty rather than buy insurance for an employee, it can thus save $10,000.

[2] An employer could cancel insurance, saving $10,000 per employee, and then give each employee a $9000 raise. Payroll taxes (7.65%) would add another $688 to this sum, leaving a net profit of $312 per employee if an employer took this approach. Benefits administration expenses would also be eliminated, however, and these savings could be significant. Eliminating a single $40,000 salary HR position at a 200 person company would save another $200 per employee, for instance. So a net profit of over $500 per employee is quite possible – the actual profitability of the move would depend on how much of the health care savings the company chose to pass on in the form of higher wages for its employees.

[3] Why will the shift from employer to direct purchased health care coverage lower costs? First, when you spend your own money, you are more likely to be judicious about it. Second, when tax deductions are replaced with tax credits, the cost inflation effect will drop, since a deduction rises with every additional dollar spent, while a credit does not.

Do Doctors Really Lose Money on Medicare?

The media often reports that doctors are dropping Medicare patients because they are “losing money on Medicare.” Given the vagaries of the Medicare fee-setting process, it’s definitely the case that certain medical procedures are under-reimbursed, and that others are over-reimbursed, creating winners and losers within the medical profession. More generally, do doctors really lose money by simply seeing a Medicare patient for an office visit? This American College of Physicians blog post claims that is the case.

It’s possible to perform some simple calculations to check the veracity of this claim. Assume that a doctor sees 16 patients a day for half an hour each, for 8 hours of patient time per day. With two hours of overtime work that makes for a 10 hour day, or 50 hours per week. That’s busy, but not an uncommon workweek for many professionals in the US. If the physician works 48 weeks per year, 5 days a week, that’s a potential 3840 patient visits a year. Assuming a 10% vacancy rate in appointments, whether due to cancellations, additional vacation, or otherwise, this leaves 3456 appointments per year.

Medicare reimburses office visits at around $85 per visit [1], though precise reimbursements vary by region. At $85 per visit, a primary care physician seeing nothing but Medicare patients could expect to receive $293,760 in annual reimbursements. Subtracting out the physician’s annual overhead provides an estimate of the physician’s salary. According to this physicians’ overhead spreadsheet, 50% is a good target for a primary care physician’s overhead. Overhead cannot fall below 100-150k for most physicians, as many expenses are fixed. This would leave our example physician with net income of roughly $147,000 annually.

This isn’t a terrible income, as it’s more than triple the average American income, but it is slightly less than primary care physicians’ average pay nationwide. These numbers do show conclusively that it is possible for a family practice physician to make a living on Medicare patients alone!

While Medicare reimbursements may be sufficient for a primary care physician to make ends meet, what is the situation with Medicaid reimbursements? Medicaid pays significantly less than Medicare, with reimbursements averaging roughly 60% of Medicare. This implies that Medicaid would pay less than $50 for an office visit. If our example doctor saw only Medicaid patients, they would gross $172,800 in annual reimbursements. Unfortunately, overhead costs tend to be fixed, so the doctor would still have around $147,000 in overhead, leaving a net income of only $26,000! This helps explain why only 40% of doctors nationwide will accept all Medicaid patients.

With hard work, it is possible to make an extraordinary living even from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. I know a family practice physician who works incredibly hard, seeing patients 6 1/2 days a week for 10-12 hours a day, and averaging close to 40 patients a day! He lives in a poor community with many Medicaid patients, but his patient volume (due in part to his efficiency, seeing a patient every 15 minutes) makes up the difference since overhead is relatively fixed. By having over 12,000 appointments a year, this doctor is able to take home roughly half a million per year, likely in the top 1% of all family practice doctors nationwide. While this cannot be expected of all doctors, it is possible to make money while serving the poor on Medicaid!

[1] This link provides example reimbursement amounts for pediatricians in Colorado based on both Medicaid and Medicare schedules. While reimbursement varies by type of procedure and geography (Medicare bases reimbursement in part on local costs), $85 seems appropriate based on this data. Physicians are sometimes able to bill multiple codes for a single visit, increasing their potential reimbursement.

How to Balance the Federal Budget

Can the US federal budget be balanced? It is obviously physically possible to balance the budget by either lowering spending, raising taxes, or a bit of both. But can the budget be balanced in a manner that is fiscally prudent while maintaining adequate funding for government’s most important operations?

I have attempted to balance the 2008 budget below while obeying the following constraints:

  1. No tax increases
  2. No spending shifts between departments, only spending cuts
  3. All spending, including entitlements spending, is fair game

The actual federal deficit for 2008 was $459 Billion, which forms the goal for the cost cutting exercise outlined in the table below [1].

Category 2008 Spending ($Billions) Proposed Cuts Proposed Spending
Defense 612 Cut by $150 Billion, maintaining US defense spending at a level that exceeds the entire World excluding NATO. [2] 462
Social Security 612 Phase out social security benefits for upper income seniors, cutting roughly $110 Billion annually. [3] 500
Medicare + Medicaid 587 Introduce 20% coinsurance for medical spending above $40,000 per year for Medicare and Medicaid recipients, saving $110 Billion. End Medicare Advantage subsidies, saving $17 Billion. [4] 460
Non-defense Discretionary 508 Make an across-the-board 9% cut in non-defense discretionary spending, saving $46 Billion. [5] 462
Other Mandatory Programs [5] 411 End agricultural commodity subsidies and crop insurance subsidies, saving $15 Billion. Modify student loan programs to cut out private middlemen, saving $9 Billion. [6] 387
Interest Payments 253 This cannot be cut without a US government default. 253
Totals 2,983 459 2523

As the table shows, the US federal budget cannot be balanced without deep cuts in Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the Department of Defense. Roughly 60% of the budget is allocated to these major programs, making a balanced budget impossible without reductions here.

A rationale for each major budget cut is provided in the footnotes below. I invite readers to share their balanced budgets as well, or to suggest changes in the cuts that I’ve suggested. Just make sure that the numbers add up, as cutting $459 Billion from the federal budget is harder than it looks!

[1] The core budget data for the table comes from Table S-3 of the US Budget Summary Tables. The 2010 budget document is used, as actual spending for 2008 is not available in earlier versions. The 2009 fiscal year data is incomplete, and also has significant one-time items like TARP and Stimulus package spending, so I chose to focus on the finalized 2008 numbers instead.

[2] The US defense budget represents almost 50% of the entire world’s defense spending, leaving ample room for cuts without jeopardizing US security. Over time the US defense apparatus has become particularly bloated, and cuts may actually improve the DoD’s efficiency over time. It’s worth noting that the US won the Cold War with much lower defense budgets than today.

[3] Social Security was enacted to ensure that American seniors did not starve in their last years, but later grew into a mandatory retirement program. Cutting Social Security payments to upper income seniors would bring the program closer to its original goal. There are 5 million senior households with income greater than $50,000, and they represent the top 20% of all seniors in income terms. These seniors likely draw maximum social security benefits, around 30k annually if there is slightly more than one senior per household on average.  Phasing out these benefits for the wealthiest 20% of seniors would save around $110 Billion. Gross benefits reductions would be around $150 Billion (5 million * 30,000), with an offsetting loss of tax revenue from the reduction in benefits.

[4] Along with defense spending, Medicare and Medicaid are the fastest growing parts of the federal budget.  Since government resources are limited, government benefits must also be limited. Medicare and Medicaid spending can be contained by requiring individuals to pay 20% of their own health care bills beyond $40,000 per year. This change would affect only 5% of Medicare recipients, but would yield huge savings as many patients would decline expensive treatments once cost became a consideration. 32% of all Medicare spending occurs above the $40,000 line; if requiring coinsurance cut this in half, roughly $110 Billion would be saved. This analysis assumes that the breakdown in Medicaid spending is similar to that of Medicare.  An additional $17 Billion annually could be saved by ending subsidies to Medicare Advantage, which is part of current health care reform proposals under debate.

[5] Non-defense discretionary spending includes almost all other federal departments. A 10% across-the-board cut would force all departments to shrink and increase efficiency. Alternately, targeted cuts could be used to shrink certain programs, but these cuts would still have to total $51 Billion annually. Health care cost growth could be reined in through heavy cuts at the NIH, which heavily subsidizes health care and pharmaceutical research. Cutting NIH’s $30 Billion budget in half would enable other departments to get by with a 6% cut instead. One more alternative would involve eliminating Congressional earmarks, which would reduce spending by $20 Billion.

[6] Other Mandatory Programs includes federal funding for food stamps, unemployment insurance, farm subsidies, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and other miscellaneous programs written into law with automatic spending formulas. Farm subsidies in particular deserve heavy cuts, as they distort the economy while worsening Americans’ health. Eliminating commodity crop payment programs and crop insurance subsidies would save $15 Billion annually (see page 4). An additional $9 Billion in savings is possible through the removal of middlemen in federally-backed student loans. Since the federal government assumes all risk on these loans, there’s no reason to compensate private banks to issue the loans.

What Percentage of US Healthcare Is Publicly Financed?

Public, taxpayer-funded health care spending will pay for for 53% of US health care in 2009. If health care tax breaks are included, this figure rises to 62%.

Of the $2.5 Trillion dollars expected to be spent in the United States on health care this year, what percentage is paid by taxpayers? The Kaiser Family Foundation calculates that 46% of health care spending was publicly financed in 2006, but this number seems to exclude health care for government employees. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services collects data on health care spending in its National Health Expenditure survey, which can be used to perform a direct calculation on the government share of health care financing. The following table summarizes the 2007 NHE data, the latest year for which a detailed breakdown is available:

Category Amount (2007 $ Billions)
Medicare [1] 418
Medicaid (Including State Funding) 340
Other Public Health Programs [2] 189
Federal, State, and Local Employee Health Care 134
NIH and FDA Budgets [3] 32
Total Public Spending 1113
All Private Health Spending 1018
2007 Total US Health Spending 2131

The 2007 data show that 52% of all health care in the United States is publicly financed. The NHE data also show that from 1987 to 2007, the government’s share of health care financing has risen by ten percentage points, or about half a percentage point per year. This means that in 2009, the public share of health care spending is likely at 53%, or perhaps higher as a result of rising unemployment due to the recession. If health care subsidies (primarily tax exemptions) are included as government financing of health care, they add another $200 Billion to the total, raising the government’s share of health care spending to 62%.

With the government already paying for the majority of US health care, one thing is clear about the current health care reform debate: The debate is not about whether the government will take control of the health care system, as that has quietly taken place over the last 40 years. The real debate is about how the government should distribute its health care spending, and on whether it will be able to rein in endless health care cost growth.

[1] The detailed NHE data split up by source of payment can be found here:

In calculating the numbers in the above table, I used Table 1 in the pdf. I allocated all costs associated with Medicare to the public sector, unlike the table in the pdf, which counts Medicare premiums and contributions as private sector payments. From a standpoint of determining government involvement in the health care system, it makes more sense to count all Medicare dollars as public financing, particularly since paying Medicare taxes is precisely how most of the Medicare system is funded!

[2] According to the NHE pdf, other federal, state, and local health programs “Includes maternal and child health, vocational rehabilitation, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Indian Health Service, Office of Economic Opportunity (1965-74), Federal workers’ compensation, and other miscellaneous general hospital and medical programs, public health activities, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and State Children’s Health Program (SCHIP)” and “Includes other public and general assistance, maternal and child health, vocational rehabilitation, public health activities, hospital subsidies, and state phase-down payments.”

[3] The NIH budget is $30 Billion, and can be classified entirely as health care spending, though it’s often left uncounted. But isn’t research to cure disease health care spending? If it’s not, then what exactly is it? I have also included two-thirds of the FDA budget, as that is the portion related to drug and medical device supervision.

The Mystery of Health Care Pricing

Many economists, think tanks, and politicians have been agitating for more consumer-driven health care in the US. They argue that if consumers have to spend their own money for care, they will tend not to waste health care resources, and they will shop around for cost-effective care. The first part of this argument appears valid, as individuals will always spend their own money most carefully. Studies have validated this hypothesis, showing that individuals with high-deductible insurance and health savings accounts (HSAs) tend to spend less than those on traditional insurance.

But are individuals able to shop for health care in a competitive marketplace? Personal experience and numerous reports indicate otherwise. In the US, most health care providers can’t tell you the price of any particular health care service until after it’s been performed! I recently shopped around for a health care service, and called four doctors’ offices in total. One office told me that they “aren’t allowed to provide that sort of information.” Two more offices were flabbergasted, and attempted to ease their way out of the conversation. Only one office was able to answer with an actual price quote.

Why is this so difficult for medical providers? Virtually all chargeable medical services have associated CPT Codes, which are defined by the American Medical Association [1]. Hospitals, labs, and most medical practices have a chargemaster, which is essentially a price list. Even small practices without explicit chargemasters know the rate their doctor charges for his time. When insurers and medical providers negotiate payment structures, they negotiate using the chargemaster rates (and usually Medicare rates) as starting points for negotiation.

The currently proposed health care reform plans have missed this essential element: require all health care providers to publish standardized price lists, and market competition can begin [2]. For doctors, a simple hourly rate should be enough to satisfy this requirement. Hospitals and labs should be required to initially publish online price lists for their most common charges, with the list expanding over time. While this information is irrelevant to patients in emergency situations, the great majority of health care spending is pre-planned [3].

Put another way, why not include a mandate on medical price lists as part reform? The cost of the mandate to providers is extremely low, as the information is available, and publishing the information online eliminates distribution costs. While price transparency is making slow progress, Congress has an opportunity to make this happen, and should do so as part of the health care reform package.

[1] The AMA would likely be a primary opponent of free publishing of CPT code-based price lists, since it derives signicant ($70M per year) income from its copyright on CPT codes. If the government is to open up the pricing market, it may have to break this monopoly by buying the copyright at fair value and putting it in the public domain.

[2] Consider a scenario in which all doctors are required to provide price lists. Since most small practices would find this difficult, they might just quote a maximum hourly charge. One surgeon might quote $1000 per hour, and another $2000 per hour. And there you have it, competition on price can begin, just as it occurs for plastic surgery, Lasik, and other out-of-pocket services today!

[3] According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 70% of health care expenditures are non-hospital expenses. Since many hospital expenses are planned, it appears that significantly less than 30% of health care expenses are emergencies in which consumers have no choice of provider. According to ACEP, only 3% of health care costs are emergency-related.