November 8, 2009

GOOD THING HE'S PRO:

Some Vaguely Heretical Thoughts on Health-Care Reform (John Cassiday, 11/04/09, The New Yorker)

I regard an expansion of the government safety net as ethically essential, economically justified, and long overdue. It is indefensible for a country as rich as the United States to fail to provide adequate health care for many of its citizens. In extending our health-care system, all we are doing is catching up with Otto Von Bismarck’s Germany, which recognized a hundred and twenty-five years ago that universal health and disability coverage, along with old age pensions and a system of public education, were essential elements of a modern society. Moreover, given the reluctance of “Blue Dog” Democrats, such as Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, to support anything that smacks of big government, and President Obama’s determination to coöperate with moderate Republicans, the proposed reform may be the most that can be accomplished today. But we will be dealing with its consequences for decades to come, and I think it’s important to be clear about what the reform amounts to.

Let’s remind ourselves of the basics. There are two big (and linked) problems with the current health-care system. It excludes 46.3 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau, and it is inordinately expensive. The proposed reform purports to tackle both of these problems; in fact, it only addresses the first one in any systematic manner. The future cost savings that the Administration and its congressional allies are promising to deliver are based on wishful thinking and sleight of hand. Over time, the reform, as proposed, would almost certainly add substantially to the budget deficit, thereby worsening the long-term fiscal crisis that the country faces. Financing this measure alone wouldn’t break the U.S. Treasury. Other elements of the fiscal picture, such as the looming increases in interest payments on the national debt and an explosive growth in Medicare spending as the baby boomers retire—are far larger. But the numbers involved in health-care reform are still significant—perhaps one per cent of annual G.D.P.

The Pelosi bill, in particular, wouldn’t do much, if anything, to address the overall escalation in health-care costs, much of which is rooted in the nature of insurance, where individuals consume costly health services, and different people—the other members of their risk pool—pay for them. This is the “moral hazard” problem that the economist Kenneth Arrow identified as long ago as 1963. [...]

What about the proposed cost savings? They, too, are questionable. Most of them consist of reductions in Medicare outlays, which, according to this C.B.O. analysis, would save four hundred and twenty-six billion dollars between 2010 and 2019 compared with current plans. Look a bit more closely, and you find that more than half of the Medicare savings (two hundred and twenty-nine billion dollars) come from cutting payments to providers of services under the regular program; most of the rest (a hundred and seventy billion dollars) come from changing the way payments are set in the Medicare Advantage program. Does anybody really believe that these savings will materialize? For decades now, Congress has been promising to reduce the growth of Medicare outlays, and yet every year they continue to go up. The reasons are straightforward: the population is aging; seniors are politically active; and health-care treatments, particularly for the aging, continue to evolve in complex and costly ways.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 8, 2009 6:22 AM
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