AHCA Update: Let Red States Secede from Universal Healthcare

The House is likely to vote today on an updated version of the AHCA (the GOP’s Obamacare replacement) today. I’ve written previously about the bill, and noted that for a GOP-introduced bill, it was originally quite moderate – it embraced the notion of universal healthcare.

The latest AHCA update is considerably more conservative, as it effectively allows states to eliminate most of the ACA’s universality. By bringing back medical underwriting, states will be able to roll the clock back to 2013 (pre-ACA exchanges), when individuals with pre-existing conditions generally could not obtain health insurance.

But several forces combine to make it highly unlikely that pre-existing conditions coverage will disappear from any American state:

  • Once the bill makes it to the Senate, it will likely have to be made considerably more moderate, as the GOP can only lose two GOP Senate votes, and a number of Senators have expressed reservations about the latest changes.
  • The bill will still have to pass through reconciliation between House and Senate, and might die in that process, or might emerge more moderate in that process. It appears unlikely that it will pass through Congress as currently written, or in more conservative form.
  • Even if the bill does become law as written, the 31 states that expanded Medicaid are unlikely to seek to remove pre-existing conditions coverage. Within the 19 remaining states, it’s unclear that state officials are willing to take the blame for rescinding that coverage.

At this point, assuming the bill does make it through the House, it’s the Senate modifications and reconciliation process that will determine whether the final product is worthwhile. If the Senate is able to preserve universality, while strengthening tax credits for older age groups, a credible final product may emerge.

AHCA: Insured to Rise by 7M by 2026 – CBO Misses Power of Free Plans

The CBO generally performs careful, in depth analyses – but their approach is susceptible to inaccuracy when policy proposals differ sharply from existing norms. The CBO projects that over 24m individuals will lose insurance coverage as a result of the AHCA, as older individuals and Medicaid recipients lose insurance faster than younger individuals gain it. This projection misses the power of free plans, however. The table below shows how much different age groups might pay for coverage under the AHCA, with prices based on 2017 ACA exchange prices for states with low (Oregon), medium (Ohio), and high (Nebraska) insurance costs [1]. As the table shows, the AHCA tax credits can provide catastrophic coverage to the majority of Americans below age 45.

Monthly Cost after AHCA Tax Credit
(Plan cost as found on healthcare.gov, cheapest available plan)
State Age 20 Age 30 Age 40 Age 50 Age 60 Family Ages 40,10,8 Family Ages 30,30,5,3
Oregon (Low Cost State, Zip 97035 Used) Free ($112) Free ($208) Free ($234) $35 ($327) $160 ($493) Free
($466)
Free
($648)
Ohio (Medium Cost State, Zip 43004 Used) Free ($121) $12 ($216) Free ($244) $49 ($341) $186 ($519) Free
($487)
Free
($677)
Nebraska (High Cost State, Zip 68010 Used) Free ($131) $66 ($274) $59 ($309) $139 ($431) $323 ($656) $33 ($616) $105 ($855)

Using the information compiled above, we can estimate the change in uninsured rates for each of the groups in the chart below. For age groups below 40, the uninsured rate is projected to drop close to the same level as that of children below 19, since these groups will have access to free plans paid for by tax credits (and insurance companies will market these subsidized free plans mercilessly). For age groups above 45, the uninsured rate will rise, though not quite to pre-ACA levels, when no support was provided.

Projected Uninsured Rate Under AHCAThe CBO estimates that 14 million Americans will lose Medicaid coverage, and that 9 million more will lose either individual or employer-based coverage.

Using population estimates for 2026, I calculate that the number of insured Americans aged 19-34 rises by 7 million, aged 35-44 rises by roughly 2 million, and aged 45-64 drops by roughly 2 million [2]. While it’s important to note that these plans will be much less generous than ACA-subsidized plans, the total number of insured actually rises by around 7 million under these estimates. The GOP will have installed universal, nearly-free catastrophic plans as the future of American health care – if the AHCA passes, as Mssrs. Trump and Ryan continue their struggle to get it through Congress.

P.S. If you are interested to find out more about how the AHCA might impact you or your clients’ investments, my company HiddenLevers has modeled that in our TrumpCare scenarios. Have a look through one of our free demo accounts.

 

[1] The 2017 ACA prices are a reasonable guide as the Trump administration plans to relax the essential benefits associated with plans, and to widen the max price differential between plans for young and old. The risk pool under the AHCA will also likely be healthier, as young, healthy Americans will be drawn into free AHCA plans – because they are free.

[2] Roughly 23% of the population is aged 19-34, and a 9% point drop in uninsured rate for this group in 2026, translates to a rise of 7m more insured Americans. A similar calculation for the 35-44 group yields another 2m insured Americans, while the 2.5% rise in uninsured among older Americans yields a loss of insurance for 2 million. The CBO appears not to contemplate that many of those losing Medicaid will receive tax credits sufficient to provide them with free catastrophic plans, as shown in the table above. This mitigates the Medicaid cuts to some extent.

[3] The original chart above can be found here at the CommonWealth Fund.

TrumpCare (AHCA) – Welcome to Universal Catastrophic Health Insurance

The AHCA would move the USA toward universal catastrophic healthcare coverage, by enabling insurance companies to sign up individuals to $0 monthly premium plans with high deductibles and limited coverage.

While healthcare analysts have been in overdrive commenting on the new GOP health plan, it appears that some key points have been lost in the noise. Whether on Medicaid, total enrollment, or tax credits, it seems that many analysts fail to understand the large-scale implications of the bill. As written, the AHCA has the potential to be transformative – it would retain the goal of universal coverage, while shifting tax credits toward universal high deductible insurance. If fully implemented, the AHCA could actually lead to gains in coverage – but the US healthcare market would be transformed by a move toward high deductible catastrophic coverage.

AHCA Key Changes:

  • Covered Benefits: The AHCA does not change the essential benefits list, but Secretary Price is interested in reducing essential benefits to lower costs.
  • Tax Credits: Tax credits will be less generous, but will cover more of the population, potentially leading to a shift toward catastrophic plans.
  • Medicaid: The Medicaid expansion ends after 2019, but tax credits will be available to all lower and middle-income Americans.
  • Employer Coverage: AHCA creates a strong incentive for employers to drop coverage, since most American workers will receive tax credits.
  • Universality: AHCA provides tax credits to virtually all Americans without other coverage, cementing the goal of universal health care in the USA.
Detailed Findings:

Covered Benefits:
With the exception of abortion coverage, the AHCA does not change the essential benefits under the ACA. HHS Secretary Tom Price has indicated that he will reduce regulations that increase costs – he can do this by limiting the definition of essential benefits.

Tom Price has indicated on multiple occasions that HHS will seek to reduce regulations on health insurance markets, and recently both he and President Trump indicated that these changes would be part of “phase 2 & 3” of their healthcare overhaul. In the past Secretary Price has indicated that he will seek to specifically limit the essential benefits requirement while at HHS.

The AHCA is particularly punitive towards abortion, barring the use of tax credits for any plan that covers abortion services (page 72 of bill pdf).

Tax Credits:
The AHCA offers up to $14k in tax credits per family, at 2k-4k per person depending on age (pages 90-92 of pdf). It also enables insurance companies to claim tax credits on behalf of enrollees, enabling them to offer cheap or free plans to the public.

Much has been written on winners and losers with the proposed tax credit changes. Analysts both left and right fear many will lose insurance. But look at page 106 of the bill: “Not later than January 1, 2020, the Secretary … shall establish a program … for making payments to providers of eligible health insurance on behalf of tax payers eligible for the credit under section 36C.”

Consider what this means – insurance companies will be paid between $2000 and $14,000 per year for each enrollment. In a similar situation in the for-profit university industry, tuition essentially matched federal loan programs, creating a no-money-down product for students. With the AHCA, insurers will be strongly incentivized by the market to offer $0 premium plans in order to maximize their signups of younger individuals in particular.

With the change of young-old ratio to 5:1 (page 66), and Tom Price’s expected reduction of essential benefits, new catastrophic plans will likely flood the market, providing a no cost option for many. See Appendix I for specific examples using 2017 exchange pricing.

Medicaid:
The AHCA ends the Medicaid expansion in 2019, but states may have some incentivize to jump in now, because the future funding they receive is based on the number of enrollees at the end of 2019. Beginning in 2020 the Medicaid expansion will be repealed, and only those enrolled under pre-ACA rules (with stricter income and asset tests) can be newly enrolled into Medicaid.

The AHCA does close a gap caused in non-Medicaid expansion states, where many workers make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid, but too little to qualify for ACA subsidies. These individuals will qualify for the new AHCA tax credits.

Employer Coverage:
The AHCA removes penalties for not providing insurance (page 84 of bill pdf), and could encourage employers to drop coverage as it provides tax credits to a much larger range of working age Americans.

Per the Kaiser Foundation, the average employer contribution to individual employee healthcare is around $4800, with the employee contributing around $1200. At a 25% federal tax rate, this leads to a tax deduction value of $1500, versus a tax credit of $3000 for the median-age American worker. For family coverage, a tax deduction value (25% tax bracket) of roughly $4500 compares to a tax credit of $9000 for a family of four with adults in their 30s. In both cases, both the employer and employee would benefit if the employer dropped coverage, raised wages, and let the employee take advantage of the tax credit.

Appendix II presents a fully worked example for a family of four making $100k per year, and shows that the family would likely benefit under AHCA changes.

Universality:

The AHCA offers tax credits to all Americans without employer-based healthcare (except those with higher incomes), and as a result the AHCA accepts the ACA’s premise of universal health insurance.

The only Americans excluded from the new AHCA tax credits are those already receiving healthcare from a government program (Medicare, Medicaid, VA, etc) or from employer-based coverage (page 97 of bill pdf).

The GOP has produced a plan that implicitly accepts that universal healthcare is here to stay. The end game (relative to the ACA) will look very different, however, with large swaths of the population covered by high-deductible catastrophic plans.

Appendix I: Are $0 premiums for catastrophic plans really possible?

Is $2000 ($166/month) sufficient to offer a “free” plan to a young adult, or $10,000 ($833/month) sufficient to offer a “free” plan to a family of 4?

Using Healthcare.gov, in the Atlanta area the current cheapest plan for age 21 is exactly 1/3 of the $597 charged to a 64 year old, as a result of the ACA 3:1 limit on costs for older Americans. A bronze plan for age 20 is only $126/month in Atlanta, since the 3:1 limit doesn’t apply below age 21 (even in New York City, individual catastrophic plans are available from around $165/month). Since the AHCA raises the ratio limit to 5:1, this shows how $0 plans will fit within the $2000 tax credit.

How about for a family of four ages 31, 31, 4, and 2? This priced out at $713/month in Atlanta, below the $10k AHCA annual tax credit. Since the AHCA allows excess tax credits to be placed into an HSA, the family could bank around $1500 per year toward future medical expenses while paying $0 in premiums. In New York City, the family premium would be around $1050/month, leaving the family bearing around $200/month in premiums – but this is before accounting for the impact of the new 5:1 ratio and curtailment of essential benefits, which would likely bring net costs to $0 even in NYC.

What about older Americans? A $4000 ($333/month) tax credit will not cover a single 64 year-old’s $600/month premium in Atlanta. If HHS substantially reduces essential benefits, that may close the gap, but with a corresponding loss of benefits. Pre-Medicare age older Americans are clearly the biggest losers under the AHCA reform. But if the AHCA is able to substantially increase enrollment by the young and healthy due to $0 premiums, this may enable more affordable plans further up the age spectrum.

Appendix II: Why Employers May Drop Coverage – A Specific Example

Let’s consider again a family of four, ages 31, 31, 4, and 2. Using Kaiser numbers, on average the family and their employer spent a total around $18,000 on health insurance premiums, with the employer contributing roughly $13,000 of that amount. In the 25% tax bracket, the family is receiving $4500 in value from the existing tax deduction. In total, the family is spending about $500 out of pocket on health insurance when employer assistance and tax deductions are considered.

What if the employer were to drop coverage, enabling the family to receive a $9k AHCA tax credit, and to raise the employee’s salary by $13,000 instead? The employee would receive $9750 in new after-tax income (considering only a 25% federal rate) plus $9000 in tax credits, or $18,750 total. Assuming similar premiums, the family would then spend $18,000 on health insurance, leaving $750 unspent. In total the family might come out $1250 ahead versus the existing system, and the employer would be able to offload the risk and expense of managing benefits.

What Can Be Done About Skyrocketing Drug Prices?

The American government and even major insurers actually have a lot of levers they can pull to lower drug costs – but do politicians, insurers, and employers have the courage to try?

The drumbeat of overpriced-drug stories has been continuous in America of late, from Martin Shkreli’s 5400% price hike last year, to the recent price hike and subsequent backpedaling of Mylan with respect to the EpiPen. With growing outrage over skyrocketing drug prices, it’s worth asking – what can be done about it? Drug pricing is not subject to typical market forces since a new drug often has exactly 0 direct competitors – enabling a drug company to set virtually any price. New cancer drugs often start list pricing at $300,000 per year, while groundbreaking new Hepatitis-C treatments like Gilead’s Sovaldi started out at $84,000 for a short term (curative) course of treatment. Insurance companies (and major employers) have been unwilling to say no, swallowing each hike and passing it on in higher premiums. Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, and other public entities have been banned from negotiating prices, leaving them powerless to get a better deal for those receiving care through their programs. Here are a few ideas on how to break the logjam, in order of increasing potential savings:

1. The Anti-Monopoly Approach

Making drugs, and in particular so-called small molecule drugs, is actually both inexpensive and easy. The primary protection that drug makers use to enforce their monopoly position on new drugs is the patent system. While this arguably makes sense for new drugs, what about long-generic drugs? In recent years certain drug companies (e.g. Valeant) began specializing in buying up the manufacturers of old drugs and immediately hiking prices. After gaining a monopoly position it became easy to hike prices by 50-100% per year and extract huge profits, while new entrants were stymied by
the FDA approval process required to certify the efficacy of their drug version. Why not streamline the FDA approval rules for generic drug manufacture? If a drug is tested and shown to be chemically identical, how much further testing is really necessary?

Alternately, the Department of Justice or FTC could bring suit to halt acquisitions which would leave zero competitors in the market for a generic drug. Special pharmacies called compounding pharmacies are also capable of making many drug compounds. Why not
allow compounding pharmacies to compete across all generic drugs, or specifically contract with them to make generic equivalents for the VA system or Medicaid system?

2. The “Title IX” Approach

Private American colleges and universities are not actually required by law to provide equity in women’s sports, or to follow any of a wide range of Department of Education edicts. The catch? In order to receive federal funding, institutions of higher education must comply with these rules. Since virtually all colleges make use of varying forms of federal assistance, they fall into line.

The American pharmaceutical industry does very little original research – most innovations originate in the university system, and most of the research funding (over $21B per year) comes from the National Institutes of Health [1]. The American government could utilize this lever to strongly influence drug pricing. Pharmaceutical companies might be required to adhere to certain pricing guidelines if they wished to license research originating from NIH funding.

Those guidelines might require drug makers to release drugs into the generic market on an accelerated timeline, for instance. Or the rules might require that drug makers adhere to a value-based pricing approach, as described further below. Drug makers could be required to pay a tiered tax on drug sales to fund NIH research – a tax of 25% on prices above $1000/patient/month and 50% above $4000/patient/month could simultaneously fund future research and encourage drug makers to keep pricing down. The advantage of the “Title IX” approach is that it preserves the liberty of drug companies – if they don’t want to conform with the rules, they can simply do their own basic research. Fiscal conservatives might find this approach palatable as it directly charges users (drug companies) for the government programs they use, and lowers the deficit in the process.

3. The Value-Based Approach

If insurers and government buyers (Medicare/Medicaid/VA) all insisted on paying for value, pharmaceutical companies might be compelled to go along. How do you define value? The UK’s NICE measures the efficacy of medical treatments by attempting to measure the number of “quality-adjusted life years” provided by that treatment. If a cancer drug postpones death by 2 years on average, and has mild side effects, then it can be said to provide 2 years of QALY. The NIH takes this a step further by quantifying how much it will pay per QALY (currently around 25,000 pounds per year), and it sets prices
on drugs using this approach.

American buyers could emulate this approach by offering to pay for measured improvements in outcomes. If a new cancer drug extends life by 2 years, but existing cancer drugs extend life by 1.5 years, then the value of the new drug is an additional half-year of life. Drug buyers could offer to pay a premium for the new drug based on this degree of improvement, and no more. Buyers could also use this as a way to foster competition between older and newer generations of drugs. The older drug is 75% as effective, so it can be placed into competition with the new drug, but at a discount. Express Scripts took this approach in the Hepatitis-C market and was among the first buyers to find a way to push back against Gilead’s $1000 per-pill asking price for Sovaldi.

Conclusion

As long insurers are happy to pass rising costs along in the form of higher premiums, and American politicians remain beholden to the pharmaceutical lobby, nothing will change. But the ideas outlined above show that America doesn’t need European style price controls to break the drug price spiral – a combination of relatively small policy changes and insurers’ willingness to negotiate are all that is required.

 

[1] This article investigates the breakdown of basic pharmaceutical research in detail, and concludes that big pharma companies contribute less than 25% of research dollars in the US, with most of the balance coming from the NIH.

How Much Will Insurance Cost Under Obamacare?

May 28, 2013 Update: California’s just-released prices for ACA coverage are close to my 2012 estimates, with an unsubsidized bronze plan (for a 25 year-old) available for $142/month in Los Angeles.

Health insurance premiums for minimum coverage will likely be around $150/month for 27 year-olds under the ACA, since the ACA includes relatively high-deductible plans under the Bronze plan option.

Now that the dust has settled on the Supreme Court ruling, let’s attempt to answer a simpler question – how much will health insurance cost under the ACA (Obamacare)? Individuals purchasing health insurance via the new health insurance exchanges will be able to select from four plan levels: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The law dictates that plans falling into these categories must have 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90% “actuarial value”, respectively. The concept of “actuarial value” dictates that the plan must cover the specified percentage of health care costs for enrolled individuals. Individuals enrolled in a bronze plan can expect their insurance to cover 60% of their health costs, for instance [1].

The Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a study to determine the structure of plans that might meet the 60% actuarial value standard for the Bronze plan.  The study found that the following individual health care plans might qualify (all plans have a cap of around $6350):

  • A plan with a $6350 deductible and 0% coinsurance
  • A $4350 deductible with 20% coinsurance
  • A $2750 deductible with 30% coinsurance

How much would plans like these cost in 2014? We will focus on adults aged 27 in this example, since young adults more frequently go without insurance, and since young adults can now stay on their parents’ plans until 26. We can shop online for similar plans and get some results for comparison [2]:

  • $67.26 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old male
  • $98.21 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old female [3]
  • $129 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Silicon Valley for 27 year-old men and women
  • $73.22 and $95.07 for a $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Chicagoland for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively
  • $95 for a $2750 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old man
  • $132 for a $2500 deductible / 10% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old woman
  • $70.75 and $90.46 for $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Hartford, CT for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively

Here are two market quotes for 63-year old females in relatively expensive markets:

  • $302 for $1200 deductible / 10% coinsurance HMO plan in New York, NY for a 63-year old woman
  • $516 for $3500 deductible / 10% coinsurance PPO plan in Santa Clara, CA for a 63-year old woman

The ACA stipulates that the most expensive policies for older individuals can be no more than 3 times the price of policies for younger adults. The data above show that a 27-year old can get a plan similar to the exchange bronze plan for around $100 per month today, but this is less than 1/3 the cost for older Americans. Using 1/3 of the cost of the plans for older women as a price floor, we get an estimate of $150 per month as the lower limit for plan prices [4].

This estimate is lower than the commonly-cited CBO estimate of $4500 per individual for bronze plans via the ACA exchanges. The CBO estimate is for 2016, and so it builds in two additional years of premium inflation (roughly 15%). The CBO number is also an average across all age groups – since young adults’ plans can cost 1/3 as much as the oldest (non Medicare-age) Americans, 27 year-olds’ plans will be much cheaper than the average. While the ACA should have allowed for more high deductible plans, it’s good to know that the bronze plans do provide for some affordable coverage options within the new health insurance exchanges.

[1] The 60% bronze plan threshold and other thresholds are applied to each plan considering the average expenditures for plan members. Given the deductible and copay structure of a particular plan, it’s possible that the plan spends a higher (or lower) percentage on a particular individual’s care. For instance, if you don’t use your plan at all in a given year, then your plan spent 0% on your care. At the other extreme, if you are diagnosed with cancer, and incur $100k in costs in a year, even a bronze plan would cover  perhaps 90% of that amount.

[2] All plans were found on ehealthinsurance.com on 8/2/2012.

[3] The wide discrepancy between plan prices for men and women will be eliminated by the ACA. For these purposes, averaging men and women’s prices enables us to get closer to a representative price under the ACA.

[4] Since health insurance is more expensive for women, and more expensive for older Americans, we used a 63 year-old woman as the prototype for an expensive risk in the existing private health insurance market. At age 65 virtually all Americans gain entry into Medicare (or Medicaid for seniors), and so 63 is the oldest age for which insurance quotes can reliably be obtained (some insurers won’t write short-dated policies, and no insurer writes non-Medicare policies for 65+ Americans). The average price from the two expensive quotes thus obtained was $409. After adding in 10% in premium inflation between now and January 2014, we get a premium estimate right around $450 per month. By law, one-third of this is the minimum that the exchanges can charge for any adult – and this equals $150 per month.

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.