Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GDP: Strong Health Spending in Weak Report

For those (like me) concerned about how much health spending continues to increase after Obamacare, today’s second report of fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product shows concern is still warranted. Because of revisions to the advance estimate, health spending accounted for a greater share of GDP than we had thought.

Overall, real GPD increased 1.8 percent on the quarter, while health services spending increased 5.6 percent, and contributed 36 percent of real GDP growth. Growth in health services spending was much higher than growth in non-health services spending (0.3 percent) and non-health personal consumption expenditures (2.4 percent). However, the implied annualized change in the health services price index increased by just 1.6 percent, lower than the price increase of 2.4 percent for non-health services, 2.0 percent for non-health PCE, and 2.1 percent for non-health GDP.

(See Table I below the fold.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Employer-Based Coverage Does Not Equalize Workers’ Access to Health Care

One reason public policy favors employer-based health benefits instead of individually owned health insurance is the former is supposed to equalize access to health care among workers of all income levels. Insurers usually demand 75 percent of workers be covered, which leads to benefit design that attracts almost all workers to be covered.

Employers do this by charging the same premium for all workers but only having workers pay a small share of the premium through payroll deduction. Most is paid by the firm. Last year, the average total premium for a single worker in an employer-based plan was $6,435, but the worker only paid $1,129 directly while the employer paid $5,306.

Although this suppresses workers’ wages, workers cannot go to their employers and demand money instead of the employers’ share of premium. The tax code also encourages this, by exempting employer-based benefits from taxable income.

Does this equal access to care? No, according to new research:

Friday, February 24, 2017

Louisiana Shows Coverage Does Not Equal Access

Readers know I disagree with using measurements of “coverage” as proxies for access to medical care. New data from the Louisiana Department of Health, which cheers the expansion of Medicaid dependency in the state, shows (unwittingly) exactly why.

Healthy Louisiana’s Dashboard shows 402,557 adults became dependent on Medicaid as a result of Obamacare’s expansion. The Department notes benefits for some sick people. For example, screening resulted in 74 people being diagnosed with breast cancer and 64 diagnosed with colon cancer.



The Dashboard stops there, not telling us how those newly diagnosed were treated. (Medicaid patients often receive treatment later than privately insured do.) However, there is another, likely bigger problem.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Health Administration At High Risk For Fraud, Waste, Abuse in Government Report

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published its biennial update of federal programs “that it identifies as high risk due to their greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…” Healthcare programs feature high on the list. Medicare, the entitlement program for seniors, and Medicaid, the joint state federal welfare program for low-income households, are longstanding members of the list; and the GAO notes that legislation will be required to fix them:

We designated Medicare as a high-risk program in 1990 due to its size, complexity, and susceptibility to mismanagement and improper payments.

We designated Medicaid as a high-risk program in 2003 due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight.

So, that would be 27 years for Medicare and 14 years for Medicaid. Seen any progress?

This is the second time the Veterans Health Administration has made the list of high-risk programs:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Health Spending & Prices to Rise Through 2025

Before the Affordable Care Act passed in March 2010, President Obama repeatedly promised the typical family’s health premiums would go down by $2,500 after implementing the expansion of health insurance we label Obamacare.

Nothing of the sort has happened, of course. Actuaries at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a government agency, have just updated their estimate of future health spending:

For 2018 and beyond, both Medicare and Medicaid expenditures are projected to grow faster than in the 2016–17 period, and more rapidly than private health insurance spending, for several reasons. First, growth in the use of Medicare services is expected to increase from its recent historical lows (though still remain below longer-term averages). Second, the Medicaid population mix is projected to trend more toward somewhat older, sicker, and therefore costlier beneficiaries. Third, baby boomers will continue to age into Medicare, with some of them dropping private health insurance as a result. And finally, growth in the demand for health care for those with private coverage is projected to slow as the relative price of health care—the difference between medical prices and economywide prices—is expected to begin gradually increasing in 2018 and as income growth slows in the later years of the projection period.

Monday, February 20, 2017

U.S. Patients Have Much Greater Access to New Cancer Drugs Than Others Do

New research by scholars at the University of Pittsburgh shows how much better access American patients have to new cancer medicines than their peers in other developed countries:

Of 45 anticancer drug indications approved in the United States between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2013, 64% (29) were approved by the European Medicines Agency; 76% (34) were approved in Canada; and 71% (32) were approved in Australia between January 1, 2009, and June 30, 2014. The U.S. Medicare program covered all 45 drug indications; the United Kingdom covered 72% (21) of those approved in Europe— only 47% (21) of the drug indications covered by Medicare. Canada and France covered 33% (15) and 42% (19) of the drug indications covered by Medicare, respectively, and Australia was the most restrictive country, covering only 31% (14).
(Y. Zhang, et al., “Comparing the Approval and Coverage Decisions of New Oncology Drugs in the United States and Other Selected Countries,” Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy, 2017 Feb;23(2):247-254.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Repealing Obamacare Will Help California Jobs

(A version of this column was published by the Orange County Register.)

Obamacare was a cash cow for providers, which now argue it was a program for jobs and economic growth. They now say that repealing Obamacare will kill California jobs. That grabs any politician’s attention, but it is not true.

According to a study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which is promoted by the California Hospital Association:

“The majority (135,000) of these lost jobs would be in the health care industry, including at hospitals, doctor offices, labs, outpatient and ambulatory care centers, nursing homes, dentist offices, other health care settings and insurers. But jobs would also be lost in other industries. Suppliers of the health care industry, such as food service, janitorial and accounting firms, would experience reduced demand, leading to job loss. The lost jobs also include those lost due to the ‘induced effect’ of health care workers spending less at restaurants, retail stores and other local businesses.”

Such research relies on the so-called “multiplier effect,” a politically seductive but misleading type of voodoo economics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Health Prices Rose Two Thirds Less Than CPI

The Consumer Price Index rose 0.6 percent in January, while medical prices rose only 0.2 percent. This is the fifth month in a row we have enjoyed medical price relief in the CPI. Even prices of prescription drugs rose by only 0.3 percent. Prices of three components – medical equipment and supplies, dental services, and care of invalids and elderly at home even dropped. No category rose more than 0.1 percentage point more than all item CPI. Medical price inflation contributed only three percent of CPI for all items.

Over the last 12 months, however, medical prices have increased much more than non-medical prices: 3.9 percent versus 2.4 percent. Price changes for medical care contributed 13 percent of the overall increase in CPI.

See Figure I and Table I below the fold:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

PPI: Mixed News on Health Prices

January’s Producer Price Index rose 0.6 percent. However, prices for many health goods and services grew slowly, if at all. Nine of the 16 price indices for health goods and services grew slower than their benchmarks.* Prices for six of the categories of health goods and services deflated in absolute terms.

The outlier was pharmaceutical preparations for final demand, which increased by 1.1 percent (0.7 percentage points more than final demand services (less trade, transportation, and warehousing.) The largest decline (relative to its benchmark) was for prices of health and medical insurance for intermediate demand, which declined by 0.8 percentage points versus services for intermediate demand (less trade, transportation, and warehousing).

With respect to diagnosing whether health prices are under control, the January PPI is more mixed than December’s was. Nevertheless, although pharmaceutical prices stand out, most excess inflation is in health services, not goods.

See Table I below the fold:

Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrity Apprentice And Medical Innovation Have Something Important in Common

(A version of this column was published by Forbes.)

A new report should help President Trump find his way out of the confusion suggested by his very mixed signals on the role of medical innovation to American prosperity and patients. Last month, he said research-based drug-makers’ practices were “disastrous,” the industry was “getting away with murder,” and suggested the federal government should dictate prices of medicines.

A couple of weeks later, he told pharmaceutical executives: “You folks have done a terrific job over the years … The U.S. drug companies have produced extraordinary results...” To cap it off, he promised to end “global freeloading.” “Foreign price controls reduce the resources of American drug companies to finance drug R&D and innovation.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Republican Medicaid Reform Would Save $110 Billion to $150 Billion in 5 Years

Arguably more important than repealing and replacing Obamacare, a longstanding Republican proposal to change how Congress finances Medicaid would reduce the burden on taxpayers by $110 billion to $150 billion over five years, according to a new analysis by consultants at Avalere.

Currently, state spending on Medicaid is out of control because Medicaid’s traditional funding formula incentivizes the political class to overspend. For every dollar a state politician spends on Medicaid, the federal government pitches in at least one dollar via the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP). This actually rewards states for making more residents dependent on Medicaid.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Fixed-Dollar Tax Credits Would Reduce Individual Health Insurance Premiums

Sonia Jaffe and Mark Shepard of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) have written a new paper, which compares the effects of fixed-dollar subsidies for health insurance to subsidies that are linked to premiums. They conclude fixed-dollar subsidies reduce taxpayers’ costs and improve access. Unfortunately, the structure of subsidies in U.S. health insurance has moved in the other direction.

Tax credits that subsidize health insurance offered in Obamacare’s exchanges are based on the second-lower cost Silver-level plan in a region. Intuitively, this implies insurers will not compete too much because that would drive down subsidies. As long as subsidies chase insurance premiums, premiums will be higher than otherwise.

Jaffe and Shepard examine evidence from Massachusetts’ health reform (“Romneycare”), which dates to 2006. Its costs are still spiraling, and Jaffe estimates one factor is its design of subsidies, which is similar to Obamacare’s:

Friday, February 3, 2017

Slow Growth, Downward Revision in Health Jobs

Last month’s job report showed an explosion in health jobs versus non-health jobs. Revisions to previous data in this morning’s very strong jobs report indicate those data were not correct.

Health jobs increased only 0.12 percent in this morning’s jobs report, versus 0.16 percent for non-health jobs. With 18,000 jobs added, health services accounted for only eight percent of new nonfarm civilian jobs.

This is a welcome development. The previous disproportionately high share of job growth in health services was a deliberate outcome of Obamacare. If this trend persists, it will become increasingly hard to carry out reforms that will improve productivity in the delivery of care.

Ambulatory sites added jobs at a much faster rate than hospitals (0.41 percent versus 0.21 percent). This was concentrated in outpatient care centers and home health. This is a good sign because these are low-cost locations of care (Table I).

U.S. Health Insurance Is Upside Down

Writing in The Week, Ryan Cooper shares a chilling story about an Obamacare Gold-level health insurance policy that let its beneficiary down when he needed it most:

Stewart is 29 years old, and was pursuing his Ph.D in American history at Texas Christian University until ill health forced him to withdraw. He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, with his wife of six years, who is a junior high school teacher in a low-income district. They own their home. Before he came down with complications from cirrhosis caused by autoimmune hepatitis, he says he led a scrupulously healthy lifestyle — he does not drink or do any other non-medical drugs, he says, and was a devoted hiker before disaster struck. And he was insured — indeed, he had a gold plan from the ObamaCare exchanges, the second-best level of plan that you can get.
But now he faces imminent bankruptcy and possibly death.
(Ryan Cooper, “This is How American Health Care Kills People,” The Week, January 14, 2017.)

This exactly the type of catastrophic illness for which insurance should pay. Why does it not?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Health Construction Picked Up in December

Health facilities construction turned around in December, growing 0.6 percent versus a decline of 0.3 percent in starts for other construction. Health facilities construction accounted for almost 6 percent of non-residential construction starts. However, the growth was all in private health facilities.

See Table I below the fold:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Private Sector Health Benefits Grew 17 Percent Faster Than Wages Last Year

Released yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics quarterly Employment Cost Index showed private sector health benefits increased 2.7 percent in 2016, versus only 2.3 percent for wages.

Overall, private-sector benefits grew only 1.8 percent, indicating non-health benefits would have grown little if at all. State and local government workers’ benefits grew 3.1 percent, 72 percent faster than private-sector benefits!

Obamacare Is A Terrible Jobs Program

(A version of this column was published by American Thinker.)

As congressional Republicans embark on their promise to repeal and replace President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, they are being overwhelmed by claims that imply it’s a jobs program.  Scholars affiliated with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University estimate Obamacare repeal would kill 2.6 million jobs by 2019.  Almost a million jobs would be lost from health services, while the balance would be lost in construction, real estate, retail, finance, and insurance.

Unfortunately, such research relies on the so-called “multiplier effect,” a politically seductive but misleading type of voodoo economics.  It goes like this: Obamacare throws money at hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other health services.  Those recipients build new facilities and hire more workers, who spend their paychecks in their communities.  It is the same kind of research that developers seeking taxpayer-subsidized stadiums commission – and it is meaningless.