Posts tagged ‘IPAB’

What Is Wrong With Health Care, Though My Diagnosis is Opposite of the Left's

Note:  I did not like the way I first wrote this post so I have re-written it extensively.  

Progressives are passing around this chart from Brookings as an indicator of "what is wrong" with the US healthcare system.


This is how Kevin Drum interprets the chart:

In other words, the supposed advantage of PRT—that it targets cancers more precisely and has fewer toxic side effects—doesn't seem to be true. It might be better in certain very specialized cases, but not for garden variety prostate cancer.

And yet, new facilities are being constructed at a breakneck pace. Why? Because if they build them, patients will come. "They're simply done to generate profits," says health care advisor Ezekiel Emanuel. Roger that.

This is an analysis that may be true, but let's take a moment to consider how strange it is.  Forget health care for a minute.  Think about any other industry.  Here is what they are effectively saying:

  1. Industry competitors are making huge investments in a technology that has no consumer value
  2. The competitors in this industry are all making investments in this technology so rapidly that the industry is exponentially over-saturating with capacity.

And from these two facts they conclude that the profits of industry competitors will increase??

Let's for a moment say this is true -- an enormous investment that has no customer utility and that is made by so many players that the market is quickly over-saturated actually increases industry profits.  Let's take a moment to recognize that this is BIZARRE.  We have to be suspicious of some structural issue for something so bizarre to happen.  As is typical of progressives, their diagnosis seems to be that private actors are somehow at fault for being bad people to make these investments.  But these same private actors, even if they wanted to, could never make this work in any other industry, and besides there is no evidence that hospital managers are any worse people than, say, cookie company managers.  The problem is that we have fashioned a bizarre system through heavy government intervention that apparently makes these pointless investments sensible to otherwise rational actors.

One problem is that in any normal industry, consumers would simply refuse to buy, or at least refuse to pay a very high price, for services that have little or no value.  But in health care, we have completely eliminated any consumer visibility to prices.  Worse, we have eliminated any incentive for them to care about prices or really even the utility of a given procedure.  This proton beam thingie might improve my outcomes 1%?   Why not, it's not costing me anything.  Perhaps the biggest problem in health care is that the consumer has no incentive to shop.  Obamacare does nothing to fix this issue, and in fact if anything is taking us further away from consumer shopping and price transparency by working to kill high deductible health insurance and HSA's.

There is only one other industry I can think of where capital investment, even stupid capital investment, automatically translates to more profits, and that is the regulated utility business.  And that is what hospitals have become -- regulated utilities that get nearly automatic returns on investment.

In a truly free market, if these investments made no sense, one would expect very soon a reckoning as those who made these nutty investments go bankrupt.  But they obviously don't expect this.  They expect that even if it turns out to be a bad investment, they will use their political ties to get these costs built into their rate base (essentially built into reimbursement rates).  If any private or public entity refuses to pay, you just run around screaming to the media that they want to deny old people care and let sick people die.  Further, the government can't let large hospitals go bankrupt because it has already artificially limited their supply through certificate of need processes in most parts of the country.

The Left has proposed to fix this by creating the IPAB, a group so divorced from accountability that it can theoretically make unpopular care rationing decisions and survive the political fallout.  But the cost of this approach is enormous, as it essentially creates an un-elected dictatorship for 1/7 of the economy.  Which tends to be awesome if your interests and preferences line up with those of the dictator, but sucks for everyone else.  Which category do you expect to be in?  (Oh, and let's not forget how many examples we have from history of benevolent technocratic dictatorships - zero.)

The much more reasonable solution, of course, is to handle these issues the same way we do in cookies and virtually every other product -- let consumers make price-value tradeoffs with their own money.

Republican Fail on Obamacare

I find Republican strategy in the recent Obamacare and budget fight to have been insanely aggravating, and that is coming from someone who hates Obamacare.

Yes, I understand why things are happening as they are.  From a re-election strategy, their approach makes total sense.  A lot of these House guys come from majority Republic districts where their biggest re-election fear comes from a primary challenge to the right of them.  I live in one of these districts, so I see what perhaps coastal media does not.  In everyday conversation Republicans are always criticizing their Congressmen for not rolling back Obamacare.  Republicans need to be able to say in a primary, "I voted to defund Obamacare".  Otherwise I guarantee every one of them will be facing a primary opponent who will hammer them every day.

But from the perspective of someone who just wants the worst aspects of this thing to go away, this was a terrible approach.  Defunding Obamacare entirely was never, ever, ever going to succeed.  Obama and Democrats would be happy to have a shutdown last months before they would roll back his one and only signature piece of legislation.  They may have caved in the past on other issues but he is not going to cave on this one (and needs to be seen not caving given his recent foreign policy mis-steps that has him perceived as weak even in his own party).  And, because all the focus is on Obamacare, we are going to end up with a budget deal that makes no further progress on containing other spending.

The Republicans should have taken the opportunity to seek targeted changes that would more likely have been accepted.  The most obvious one is to trade a continuing resolution for an elimination of the IPAB, one of the most undemocratic bits of legislation since the National Industrial Recovery Act.  Another strategy would have been to trade a CR for a 1-year delay in the individual mandate, a riskier strategy but one the Administration might leap at given that implementation problems in exchanges are giving them a black eye.  Finally, an even riskier strategy would have been to tie a CR to a legislative acknowledgement that the PPACA does not allow subsidies in Federally-run exchanges.  This latter might not have been achievable (and they might get it in the courts some day anyway) but if one argues that any of these is unrealistic, then certainly defunding Obamacare as a whole was unrealistic.

I think as a minimum they could have killed the IPAB, but now they will get nothing.

Update:  This line from All the President's Men seems relevant:

You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away: you've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible. In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and go step by step. If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure. You've put the investigation back months.

Obamacare: Worse Every Time I Learn Something New About It

I am really sorry I read George Will's column this morning.  It is to depressing for words.   He discusses how Congress has, to my eye, un-Constitutionally delegated legislative power to the IPAB, an unaccountable organization that can basically write any law it wants regarding health care as long as it nominally can be justified as affecting costs (the only power Congress has is to vote such laws down, and it can only do so if it substitutes laws with equivalent cost savings).

Just to give one a flavor of just how undemocratic the folks were who crafted Obamacare, check this provision out:

Any resolution to abolish the IPAB must pass both houses of Congress. And no such resolution can be introduced before 2017 or after Feb. 1, 2017, and must be enacted by Aug. 15 of that year. And if passed, it cannot take effect until 2020. Defenders of all this audaciously call it a “fast track” process for considering termination of IPAB. It is, however, transparently designed to permanently entrench IPAB — never mind the principle that one Congress cannot by statute bind another Congress from altering that statute.

So, for the rest of eternity, there is theoretically only a single 31-day window six years hence when this board can be abolished.  Of course, I am not sure future Congresses can be bound in this way, but it shows you the heart of a dictator possessed by the folks who wrote this law.

By the way, not always a big fan of Justice Scalia, but there is little doubt he is smart and this dissent written 12 years ago certainly was prescient

“I anticipate that Congress will find delegation of its lawmaking powers much more attractive in the future. . . . I foresee all manner of ‘expert’ bodies, insulated from the political process, to which Congress will delegate various portions of its lawmaking responsibility. How tempting to create an expert Medical Commission . . . to dispose of such thorny, ‘no-win’ political issues as the withholding of life-support systems in federally funded hospitals.”

Postscript: Could the IPAB pass nanny-type rules under the justification they could reduce health care expenditures?  For example, what if the IPAB said that mandatory motorcycle helmets would reduce doctor spending, would that automatically become law?  How about limits on salt or fatty foods?  Many current dystopic novels begin with growth in government power, sometimes of one agency, due to security fears over terrorism (e.g, the movie V).  I bet I could write a good one with the core being the IPAB.

Inevitable Result of Price Controls, Health Care Edition

Well, it turns out that the laws of supply and demand do indeed apply in the health care field.  Obamacare and before it Romneycare combine government subsidies of demand with cost controls mainly consisting of price caps on suppliers.  The results are exactly what any college student could predict after even one week of microeconomics 101:  shortages.

First, from the WSJ

A new survey released yesterday by the Massachusetts Medical Society reveals that fewer than half of the state's primary care practices are accepting new patients, down from 70% in 2007, before former Governor Mitt Romney's health-care plan came online. The average wait time for a routine checkup with an internist is 48 days. It takes 43 days to secure an appointment with a gastroenterologist for chronic heartburn, up from 36 last year, and 41 days to see an OB/GYN, up from 34 last year....

Massachusetts health regulators also estimate that emergency room visits jumped 9% between 2004 and 2008, in part due to the lack of routine access to providers. The Romney-Obama theory was that if everyone is insured by the government, costs would fall by squeezing out uncompensated care. Yet emergency medicine accounts for only 2% of all national health spending.

The emergency room data is fascinating, as crowded emergency rooms supposedly overwhelmed by the uninsured was such an important image in the campaign to pass Obamacare.  More on this from Q&O:

Hospital emergency rooms, the theory goes, get overcrowded because people without health insurance have no place else to go.

But that’s not the view of the doctors who staff those emergency departments.
The real problem, according to a new survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians,isn’t caused by people who don’t have insurance — it’s caused by people who do, but still can’t find a doctor to treat them.

A full 97 percent of ER doctors who responded to the ACEP survey said they treated patients "daily" who have Medicaid (the federal-state health plan for the low-income), but who can’t find a doctors who will accept their insurance…."The results are significant," said ACEP President Sandra Schneider in prepared comments. "They confirm what we are witnessing in Massachusetts — that visits to emergency rooms are going to increase across the country, despite the advent of health care reform, and that health insurance coverage does not guarantee access to medical care."

As I have been saying for a long time, the Obama health care nuts do not have any secret, magical idea or plan for cutting health care costs.  In fact, as I have written here and here, we should expect Federalization to exacerbate the bad information and incentives that make health care more expensive.  The only idea they have, in fact, is the only one that anyone ever has in government for this kind of thing -- price controls

Over the weekend, The Washington Postpublished a Q&A-style explainer on the Independent Payment Advisory Board—the panel of federal health care technocrats charged with keeping down spending growth on Medicare.

The details are complicated, but the gist is simple: If spending on Medicare is projected to grow beyond certain yearly targets, then it’s IPAB to the rescue: The 15-member panel appointed by the president has to come up with a package of cuts that will hold Medicare’s growth in check. If Congress want to override that package, it only has two options: Vote to pass a different but equally large package of cuts or kill the package entirely with a three-fifths supermajority in the Senate.

The Post lays out the basic framework above. But what it doesn’t explain in any detail is exactly how those cuts will be achieved. And that, of course, is where the difficulty begins: Here’s how The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board explained it last month: “Since the board is not allowed by law to restrict treatments, ask seniors to pay more, or raise taxes or the retirement age, it can mean only one thing: arbitrarily paying less for the services seniors receive, via fiat pricing.” Medicare already centrally sets the prices it pays for the services of doctors and hospitals. Given the board's limitations, the most likely cuts we’ll see from IPAB, then, will be arbitrary, quality-blind reductions in these payments (though hospitals will be exempt from cuts for the first couple years).

We know what happens next: Providers stop taking on new Medicare patients, or drop out of the system entirely. In Medicaid, which pays far lower rates than Medicare (which pays somewhat lower rates than private insurance), this is already common: As one emergency physician recently told The New York Times, “Having a Medicaid card in no way assures access to care.” If IPAB cuts Medicare provider payments down to the bone, it could end up transforming Medicare into a seniors’-version of Medicaid.

The Only Health Care Cost Control Idea the Democrats Have Ever Had

I think this article makes it clear that, no matter what the rhetoric, the only health care cost control idea Obama and the Democrats ever had was saying "no" to care.  Whatever one calls this (managed care, rationing, death panels) it is really not that much different from what insurance companies have been doing for years.  And it is areal irony that Democrats passed this legislation feeding off anger of voters with insurance companies saying "no", when their plan really depends on the government saying "no" even more often  (or else there won't be any cost savings).

The author argues that information is important for patients to make better decisions:

When patients are given information about potential benefits and risks, they seem to choose less invasive care, on average, than doctors do, according to early studies. Some people, of course, decide that aggressive care is right for them "” like the cancer patient (and palliative care doctor) profiled in this newspaper a few days ago. They are willing to accept the risks and side effects that come with treatment. Many people, however, go the other way once they understand the trade-offs.

They decide the risk of incontinence and impotence isn't worth the marginal chance of preventing prostate cancer. Or they choose cardiac drugs and lifestyle changes over stenting. Or they opt to skip the prenatal test to determine if their baby has Down syndrome. Or, in the toughest situation of all, they decide to leave an intensive care unit and enter a hospice.

I agree, but I would go further -- information and incentives are important.  And the absolute most important bit of information when it comes to cost control is price, and patients under Obamacare have absolutely no incentive to give a sh*t about price even if they were informed of it.  Exactly the opposite of the incentives I have had since I took on a high-deductible health care policy several years ago.

Update: Brad Warbiany discusses the proposed IPAB and its powers to shape health care spending in the context of Congress as an addict trying to control its impulses.  However, I think Brad underestimates the power of the board to be captured.  What will result is rulings for more coverage of procedures with powerful lobbies, offset by less coverage of procedures with weaker lobbies, irrespective of the science.   Just look at the diseases the NIH and NSF gives grant money for -- the grants have nothing to do with the science of where research could be most productive and everything to do with diseases that have large and powerful constituencies.

Update #2: Isn't it interesting to see the NY Times, after arguing for months that Obamacare was not about rationing, is now admitting that rationing is the key to success.  It reminds me of this that I wrote a while back:

I have decided there is something that is very predictable about the media:  they usually are very sympathetic to legislation expanding government powers or spending when the legislation is being discussed in Congress.  Then, after the legislation is passed, and there is nothing that can be done to get rid of it, the media gets really insightful all of a sudden, running thoughtful pieces about the hidden problems and unintended consequences of the legislation.