For the last three weeks, I have been writing about the information, incentive, and rent-seeking issues that will doom Obamacare -- for example, how its impossible for a centralized board to set prices, and why a complete end to individual shopping will doom us to both rising prices and increasing frivolous demand.
I really didn't have to bother, though, because it is unnecessary to hypothesize -- we can just look at Massachusetts, which embarked on a proto-Obamacare several years ago. John Calfee has a great column in the WSJ today. Some excerpts
- On costs
Massachusetts reformers deferred cost control to the vague prospect of a "Round 2" of reform—much as congressional Democrats did a year ago when they passed ObamaCare. Meanwhile, economists John Cogan, Glenn Hubbard and Daniel Kessler reported in the Forum for Health Economics & Policy (2010) that insurance premiums for individuals (alone or in employer-sponsored group plans) increased 6% to 7% beyond what they would have without the reform. For small employers, the increases are about 14% beyond those in the rest of the nation. Four years after reform, Massachusetts still has the highest insurance premiums in the nation, and the gap is getting wider.
In 2010, insurance firms announced premium increases of 10% to 30% in the individual and small-group market. Gov. Patrick, on the verge of a tough re-election race, had the state insurance commissioner deny the higher rates.
- On frivolous demand
But the number of emergency room visits, which everyone expected to drop once people had to purchase insurance, is still going up. Surveys show roughly half the visits are unnecessary. Surveys also indicate that finding a primary care physician is becoming more difficult.
- On the end game of a centralized price-control regime
Last month Round 2 arrived. Gov. Patrick introduced a bill that will impose de facto price controls on everyone from solo primary care doctors to prestigious academic hospital systems. An 18-member board will decide how and how much providers should be paid, and the bill gives regulators the power to force private insurers to accept these fiats. Some 30 states experimented with such rate-setting in the 1970s and '80s. Except for Maryland, all of them—including Massachusetts—deregulated in the 1990s because costs rose even as quality and choice declined
- On politicization of decision-making
Insurance firms protested that they increased premiums because they had to deal with entrenched providers, especially hospitals, most notably the academic giants of Boston and Cambridge. Then the state prepared to introduce highly intrusive price controls over those providers—only to discover that this would provoke formidable political opposition while encountering myriad practical difficulties
To the last point, what happens to prices when providers know that a) consumers aren't shopping any more; b) consumers will take the service at any price, because they aren't paying; and c) insurance companies have to pay the bill, not matter how high, based on government rules. Of course prices go up, because the entire price-discovery mechanism has been eliminated by government fiat. Then the government has to step in with a doomed-to-failure price-setting plan. In the end, those with political connections get the prices they want, and those who do not get throttled to make up the difference.