Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Appian road to autocracy

For Christmas, my wife bought me an excellent new history of ancient Rome, SPQR by Mary Beard, which has proved the best kind of present -- something I never would have bought myself that I'm enjoying immensely. It has the twin virtues of constantly acknowledging uncertainty and ambiguity while articulating a few memorable interpretive themes.

One of these should bring any American living in this moment up short. Previewing her treatment of a century of civil war leading to the end of the Republic, Beard writes:
Looking back over the period, Roman historians regretted the gradual destruction of peaceful politics. Violence was increasingly taken for granted as a political tool. Traditional restraints and conventions broke down, one by one, until swords, clubs and rioting more or less replaced the ballot box. At the same time, to follow Sallust, a very few individuals of enormous power, wealth and military backing came to dominate the state -- until Julies Caesar was officially made 'dictator for life' and then within weeks was assassinated in the name of liberty. When the story is stripped down to its barest and brutal essentials, it consists of a series of key moments and conflicts that led to the dissolution of the free state, a sequence of tipping points that marked the stages in the progressive degeneration of the political process, and a succession of atrocities that lingered in the Roman imagination for centuries (p. 216).

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Universal health insurance: A civilized society's single checkout line

This from Richard Mayhew triggered a flash image connected to a pet peeve:
Insurance (of any sort) has two major economic value propositions.  First, it pools risk so that unpayable costs become payable.  This encourages productive risk taking in the face of tail risk. Secondly, because of the pooling function, it reduces the variance faced by any individual in the pool.   Lower variance means more predictability which means less uncertainty.
The image is the single checkout line* in a New York Whole Foods, complete with lights signaling which of about 20 registers are free. That is, there's one line for all registers -- as at the post office, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

The pet peeve is large retail stores with lines at each register. There's a little anxiety cost for me in having to choose a line by eyeballing. It feels like defeat if someone in the line I've chosen asks to have the price of an item checked or uses a credit card that doesn't work.

The thought is that true universal health insurance is the unified checkout line of civilized life. What the single line does with customers' time, universal insurance does with money: spread the losses. More checkout counters equals a deeper risk pool. When there's twenty registers, the effect of one person's fifteen minute delay gets spread widely among the customers on the one line.  Ditto with one person's long-term kidney dialysis or diabetes management or multiple chemo rounds in a deep enough risk pool.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

#NoRepealWithoutReplace: Tweet to save the ACA

A quick review of the cliff's edge the ACA is up against -- and (perhaps) how to back off it:

1. Republicans are vowing to use budget reconciliation to repeal the core elements of the ACA by February, delaying the defunding of some or all benefits for 2-3 years while they allegedly craft and enact a replacement..

2. As Republicans will have a 52-48 majority in the 115th Congress, insta-repeal can be stopped if three or more Republican senators balk at repeal-and-delay, calling instead for simultaneous repeal-and-replace (none of them will take a stand outright for preserving and amending the ACA).

3. Eighteen Republican senators represent states that have enacted the ACA's Medicaid expansion, which has by itself cut the ranks of the uninsured by about 20% nationwide -- and by more than that in many expansion states.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The ACA's fate may be determined this week

While Republicans have made amply clear their intention to swiftly pass an ACA repeal-and-delay bill in early 2017, it seems to me that a few facts about this looming prospect have not fully sunk in.

The first is that success is not a foregone conclusion. If three Republican senators balk at ripping up the ACA without a replacement in hand -- or at least, without a clear blueprint of how to get to replacement without throwing the individual market for health insurance into turmoil -- then the process slows, and the damage may be mitigated or avoided entirely.

Second, Republicans will never pass "repeal" and "replace" together -- unless perhaps they win 60 senate seats in 2018. Repeal-and-delay is their only option for delivering on their promises.

Third,  the time to stop the train is now -- in the coming week, between Christmas and New Year's, when senators and members of Congress will be home. The ACA had its long hot summer of rabid town halls, demonstration and counter-demonstration. ACA repeal gets a cold short week. And a lot of action is in planning.

These rather basic points were confirmed to me by Christopher Condeluci, a healthcare consultant who was tax and benefits counsel to Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee in 2009, when the ACA was being drafted.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The other subsidy for those who buy their own health insurance

Troubled by the high price of unsubsidized health insurance in the individual market, I have wondered for some time what percentage of those who buy their own insurance without benefit of subsidy are self employed and so claim the self-employed health insurance tax deduction.

I needn't have speculated. Back in October, a google search quickly brought me to detailed estimates provided by the IRS. I've written up the upshot over at
In 2014, 4.2 million tax filers took the self-employed health insurance deduction, deducting a total of $28.1 billion from taxable income, according to a yearly estimate published by the IRS. That comes out to about $6,700 per filer, which indicates that a significant number are deducting premiums for more than one person. $6700 is a bit less than what a pair of 40 year-olds would pay for the average silver-level plan offered in the ACA marketplace 2014.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hmmmm...Team Trump queasy about ACA insta-repeal?

I credit nothing said by Team Trump...but this does not sound like ACA repeal:
“The enrollment numbers announced today show just how important health care coverage is to millions of Americans,” said Phillip J. Blando, a spokesman for the Trump transition team. “The Trump administration will work closely with Congress, governors, patients, doctors and other stakeholders to fix the Affordable Care Act’s well-documented flaws and provide consumers with stable and predictable health plan choices.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

ACA afflicted by a deductible cliff

The Atlantic's Olga Khazan recently went to Trump country in central Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, and asked people what they thought of the Affordable Care Act.  A lot of the not-poor were resentful about the Medicaid expansion. Here's the owner of a hair salon who earns too much to qualify for a marketplace subsidy and is old enough to pay near-peak premiums:
Things got even worse for her this year, when several insurers pulled out of Pennsylvania’s Obamacare exchange, leaving her with just a few options, she said. Now, she pays $655 a month, and her deductible is $10,000. “Welcome to my shoes,” she said...

Monday, December 19, 2016

The wealth and health of states, cont.

In my most recent post at, I noted that the five states highlighted by the Kaiser Family Foundation as those with the highest percentages of residents with "declinable pre-existing conditions" under pre-ACA rules were also the five poorest states in the nation as measured by median household income. That is, by these broad measures, the sickest states are the poorest states. (Those with "declinable pre-existing conditions" are those who, according to Kaiser, would likely have been unable to obtain health insurance in the individual market prior to ACA enactment. Kaiser conservatively estimates that 27% of U.S. adults under age 65 have DPCs.)

The correlation between state wealth and health carries pretty well through the fifty states. The chart below plots the percentage of residents in each state with declinable pre-existing conditions (DPC, y-axis) against 2015 median household income, according to the Census Bureau.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Obama, dis-illusioner in chief

Obama's year-end press conference on Friday was preceded by breathless expectations, half-voiced, that he would, I don't know, call the election results illegitimate, suspend transition, call on electors not to cast their votes for Trump...the hopes were inchoate.  And the despair when Obama launched into his characteristic slow-talking, methodical, low-drama point-by-points was the Twitter equivalent of Lamentations.

Listening while watching Twitter (twistening?), at first I shared the disillusionment. But gradually I began to feel that Obama's performance was literally that -- dis-illusionment. Obama was telling us some hard truths about the degradation of our institutions. His meta-message was: Russia didn't do this to us - we did it to ourselves.

In fact he was explicit on that point. Here is where my own (wavering) reaction tipped from "he's explaining away his soft-touch response to Russian meddling" to "he's telling us the truth":

Friday, December 16, 2016

Where #the27percent are the 33 percent (with "declinable pre-existing conditions")

The Kaiser Family Foundation has released a report finding that at least 27% of American adults under age 65 have pre-existing conditions that likely would have made it impossible for them to obtain health insurance in the pre-ACA individual market. That's generated a hashtag mainly devoted to testimonials by those with pre-existing conditions (or loved ones who have them ) -- #the27percent.

At, I explore a corollary:  the states with the highest concentrations of "declinable pre-existing conditions are also the poorest states in the nation:
Of the six states with the highest “declinable pre-existing conditions” of 2015, Mississippi ranks last among the 50 states in median household income, Kentucky 49th, Arkansas 48th, West Virginia 47th, Alabama 46th and Tennessee 40th, according to the Census Bureau.
...and of course, the poorest states are the ones in most dire need of the benefits provided by the ACA. Of the six above, three have accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion -- and cut their uninsurance rates in half. In the other three, over 40% of marketplace enrollees have incomes under 139%, the cutoff for Medicaid eligibility in states that accepted the expansion.

Hope you'll take a look at the related points.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A mantra for Democrats in ACA 'replace' negotiation: "Save Medicaid First"

There's a lot of speculation just now over whether Democrats in the Senate will work with Republicans to pass an ACA replacement after swift repeal. While repeal can substantively be done with just 51 votes via reconciliation, a replacement bill would require 60 votes, and hence eight Democrats. Per Politico:
Twenty-five Democrats are on the ballot in 2018, including 10 in states that Donald Trump just won. The GOP is betting that many or most in the latter group will be under irresistible pressure to back an Obamacare replacement, if the alternative is leaving millions of people in the lurch without insurance.
Greg Sargent responds that if Republicans put forward a plan that covers far fewer people that the ACA (as expected), Democrats can counter that  "they will only support a more generous replacement plan that covers a lot more people than the GOP replacement would.

It seems to me that the major barrier to bipartisan cooperation is the Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid rolls have increased by 16 million since 2013. By Charles Gaba's estimate (updating Kaiser's), 12.3 million new enrollees were rendered eligible by the ACA, which makes Medicaid available to adults with incomes up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level in states that opt to implement the expansion (as 31 plus DC have done to date).

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Up and coming

I have a post up at that's frankly a more streamlined version of a prior post here -- comparing the average total value of government subsidies for health insurance in Medicare, the ACA and Tom Price's ACA replacement bill. I'm sure Price would be tickled pink by my conclusion:
In fact, the Price subsidy could be a welcome addition to the ACA if it were grafted onto the current subsidy structure as a kind of alternative minimum subsidy, available perhaps to shoppers with incomes up to, say, 600 percent FPL
 And coming soon (from me)  at a sidelight on Kaiser's finding that thanks to pre-existing conditions, 27% of Americans would likely be denied coverage in the individual market under pre-ACA rules. Hint: the states with the highest percentages of residents with  "declinable pre-existing conditions" are also the states with the lowest median family income -- and so with the most heavily subsidized ACA beneficiaries.  

Friday, December 09, 2016

Give PriceCare to the not-poor

As I noted last week, Tom Price's 2015 ACA repeal-and-replace bill, dubbed the Empower Patients First Act, is a grossly inadequate offering for the 20-plus million mostly poor and near-poor people who have so far gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.  Its limited premium subsidies for shoppers in the individual market, adjusted for age but not income, would leave coverage unaffordable for most of the 9 million subsidized enrollees in the ACA marketplace. Worse, by repealing the ACA's Medicaid expansion, it would un-insure virtually all of the roughly 12 million who have gained coverage through the ACA's expansion of eligibility.

Price's EPFA does, however, provide significant aid to those who earn too much to qualify for ACA marketplace credits -- which includes some younger buyers with incomes as low as 250% FPL and a considerable number in the 300-400% FPL range. Insurance seekers who are subsidy-ineligible (or close to it) but not wealthy fare worst under the ACA, as the Urban Institute's Linda Blumberg and John Holahan have highlighted:

Price's subsidies would cover, on average, about 40% of the premium for the average benchmark silver plan offered in the ACA marketplace, and a higher percentage of the premium for the skimpier plans that would be on offer in the deregulated individual market his replacement bill would create. Coupled with an HSA, and possibly with full tax deductibility for any plan purchased in the individual market (as Trump's campaign website proposed), and with continuous coverage protection, it's a program that could work for the modestly affluent (at least, with some compromise preserving essential health benefits as a broad outline while giving states more autonomy to flesh them out).

Monday, December 05, 2016

Cutting off CSR subsidies will hit red state enrollees especially hard

As Republicans gear up to repeal the ACA,  the Kaiser Family Foundation has helpfully broken out how many of the 9.4 million subsidized enrollees in the ACA marketplace (as of March 31) live in each state, and what share of an estimated $32.8 billion to be paid out in premium tax credits this year will be paid out for enrollees in each state.

Greg Sargent, assessing the potential political fallout of cutting off those subsidies, notes:
Some of the states with the highest populations of people getting subsidies are represented by GOP Senators. This includes Florida (more than 1.4 million); Texas (more than 913,000); North Carolina (more than 499,000); Georgia (more than 427,000); and Pennsylvania (more than 321,000). Many other states with GOP senators also have sizable populations getting subsidies.
Today also happens to be the day when a federal appeals court delayed further proceedings in House Republicans' suit to stop the executive branch from funding the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies that reduce out-of-pocket costs for 57% of marketplace enrollees. Since a lower court upheld the suit in May, but stayed any action to cut off the payments, the delay effectively leaves it up to the Trump administration whether to drop the Obama administration's appeal and thus cut off those subsidies, effectively crippling the marketplace instantly* (and disrupting Congressional Republicans' alleged "repeal-and-delay" plans, which would keep the marketplace functioning until a replacement plan is enacted).

It therefore seems appropriate to note that CSR subsidies are particularly prevalent in the 19 states that have refused to enact the ACA's Medicaid expansion -- most of which are Trump country. That's because in those states, a subset of those whom the ACA intended to make eligible for Medicaid, people with incomes between 100% and 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), are instead eligible for subsidized marketplace coverage.   And since they are in the lowest income bracket eligible for subsidized marketplace coverage, they get the highest level of CSR support for the lowest price.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tom Price will probably cut your health insurance subsidy in half

Last week, I noted that the federal government pays a bit more than two thirds of total medical costs for the average traditional Medicare enrollee. That is, the government pays about 85% of the premium(s) for insurance that covers a bit more than 80% of the average user's annual medical costs (that latter percentage is known as a health plan's actuarial value). Subsidies for those who chose Medicare Advantage plans are comparable.

In a followup post, applying the same calculation to subsidized enrollees in the ACA marketplace and prospective enrollees in HHS Secretary nominee Tom Price's ACA repeal-and-replace plan, I came up with the following total subsidy values:

Traditional Medicare:  85% of premium paid for AV 81% coverage = 69% of costs

Subsidized ACA marketplace: 73% of premium paid for AV 81% = 59% of costs (highly variable)

Tom Price ACA replacement: 59% of premium paid for AV 60% coverage = 35% of costs