Friday, May 31, 2019

Michael Bennet misrepresented his Medicare-X bill on CNN

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who entered the presidential race on May 2, made headlines yesterday for taking on Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All plan in a CNN Town Hall yesterday. Bennet claimed that it's impracticable to take employer-sponsored insurance away from "180 million people" currently insured through their employers ( a high estimate), especially from millions whose unions have negotiated good benefits.

It's a familiar line of attack. More noteworthy was the fact that Bennet misrepresented his own ACA reform bill, the Medicare-X Choice Act, which introduces a national public option into the ACA exchanges. Here's what Bennet said (my transcript and emphasis):
What we would be much better off doing to get to universal healthcare quickly is to finish the job we started with the Affordable Care Act and have a true public option...The one that I have designed would be administered by Medicare and it would give all of you the chance to choose what's right for you and your family. If you want a public option then you can have it. Basically it's Medicare for all if you want it. But if you to keep the insurance you have, which many people do, you'd be able to do that as well.
This is not literally untrue. As of the fifth year after enactment, anyone could buy into Medicare-X, which would be offered in all counties nationwide alongside private plans in the ACA marketplace. But only a limited number of people could buy in on a subsidized basis. Most people whose employers offer insurance would not be subsidy-eligible.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Medicare for all who want it: Potential and pitfalls

I have suspected for some time that the longest-lasting Democratic presidential candidates may converge on health care reform plans that enable any American to buy into a strong public option (probably deemed "Medicare") at an affordable price. That would include people whose employers offer coverage -- they would be subsidy-eligible if they opt into the public plan.

The existing bill that fits this description is the Medicare for America Act -- a bill that takes such an open-to-all public plan to its logical conclusion by phasing out Medicaid and revamping the Medicare currently available to seniors and the disabled -- and, crucially, adding long-term care insurance. The bill is rich in promise and not free from pitfalls, which I've been more or less live-blogging over the past couple of weeks. I thought I'd take some space here to index those posts, a step toward making something of a coherent whole of them (including some earlier posts). Here goes, then.

The plan that lets anyone buy into Medicare (3/21/19)
This overview at starts with my core question: Can Democrats bite off as much healthcare reform as Medicare for America encompasses? Might they pare it back to its core -- a public option buy-in for anyone who wants/needs it?

Medicare for America might let private insurance thrive (3/22/19)
The key condition is that healthcare providers would have to accept "Medicare" payment rates from commercial insurers.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Medicare for all who want it" raises the kludge question

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Given the "triple veto" imposed on legislators by the U.S. Constitution, U.S. policy is doomed to kludge. Policy design that's logical and internally coherent often can't survive the legislative process.

On the healthcare front, it's been evident since the early aughts that the logical, feasible, appropriately incremental way to improve access and control costs without throwing multiple healthcare industries into chaos and swiftly transitioning 150 million people out of employer-sponsored insurance is to offer a public plan on affordable terms to both employers and employees -- leaving employer insurance to either compete effectively or die on the vine.

Early iterations of such a "public option" included Helen Halpin's CHOICE program (2003), Rep Peter Stark's Americare bill (2006),and Jacob Hacker's Health Care for America plan (2007). All of these enabled any individual to buy in on an income-adjusted basis regardless of whether her employer offered insurance, and gave employers the option of paying into the public plan (e.g., via a payroll tax) rather than offering their own plans.  Instead we got the ACA -- with subsidy eligibility limited to those without access to employer insurance deemed "affordable" (by dubious standards), inadequate subsidies, and dependence on the whims, pricing, negotiated provider payment rates and plan designs of private insurers.

Now we're back to the future with the Medicare for America Act, introduced in late 2018 by Reps Rosa DeLauro and Jan Schakowsky and reintroduced last month. Medicare for America offers a revamped "Medicare" on affordable terms to any citizen or legally present noncitizen who opts in.

The kludge question: Does offering a truly comprehensive and affordable plan on affordable terms to anyone who wants it necessarily entail ending our existing mammoth and Byzantine public health insurance programs, Medicaid and as-currently-structured Medicare? Medicare for America's creators answered "yes."

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Folding Medicaid into Medicare for America: Will states pay their share?

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One of the many sweeping transformations of U.S. healthcare mandated by the Medicare for America Act is the absorption of all Medicaid programs -- currently serving some 72 million Americans -- into a revamped Medicare serving all ages. That would occur six years after enactment.

Medicare for America would be available to Americans of all ages and incomes -- and free to everyone in a household with an income below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). That's far above the eligibility threshold for Medicaid programs -- with the exception CHIP in some states, for which children in families with incomes as high as 400% FPL may be eligible. Families with incomes between 200% and 400% FPL would have to pay a percentage of income -- probably not higher than 4% -- to insure the whole family. The new program would include comprehensive disability services and 100% coverage for the medically frail and for chronic disease treatment, as well as dental, vision and hearing services.

State governments -- many of them sure to be deeply hostile -- would be subject to two major requirements: 1)  cede control of service for their Medicaid populations, and 2) reimburse the federal government with "maintenance of effort" payments equivalent to their current Medicaid responsibilities, adjusted annually for inflation. Those requirements are certain to be challenged in court, as was the ACA Medicaid expansion.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Seniors' costs under Medicare for America, continued

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In my last post I noted that while the revamped and expanded Medicare available to all under the Medicare for America Act of 2019 would serve most Americans very well, some people who turn 65 after full enactment would pay more in premium than they would today for traditional Medicare Parts B and D, or comparably priced Medicare Advantage.

They would get far more for the money -- most notably, long-term care insurance, dental, visual and hearing coverage, and 100% coverage for a host of vital services like chronic disease management, addiction and mental health treatment, and care for the medically frail. Still, higher premiums for seniors with incomes above about $50,000 for an individual or $80,000 for a couple is a political problem that needs to be thought out.  Here, I have a bit more data to sketch in.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

If Medicare for America passes, some seniors would pay more (and get more) than at present

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Medicare for America,  the bill that would allow anyone at any age to buy into a revamped Medicare at an income-adjusted price (e.g., $0 for the bottom 30% of the income distribution), would be a clear benefit to anyone under 65. Even for those who continue to get insured through their employers, it would offer the true freedom from job-lock that the ACA promised and largely failed to deliver.

Most seniors who turn 65 after the new program would come into full effect (2023 were it to pass this year) would be gainers too (those enrolled in current Medicare before the new program launches would have the option of continuing to pay their then-current premiums). A fair number of new enrollees, however, would pay far more in premium than they would for existing fee-for-service Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan. They would get more for their money. But the expectation that when you turn 65 you can get reliable insurance for under $200 per month is pretty hard-wired into Americans, I suspect. Violating that expectation for a substantial subset of the 3-4 million people who age into Medicare in year one (and every year following) is a political problem to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Would Medicare for America phase out employer-sponsored insurance?

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It's often regarded as an open question whether the Medicare for America Act, were it to become law, would lead to a phase-out of private insurance. The bill makes a revamped Medicare available to anyone of any age who wants or needs it, with premiums adjusted by income even if the enrollee has access to employer-sponsored insurance.

The revamped "Medicare" is free to anyone whose household income is below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) -- about 30% of the population. For those with incomes over 600% FPL, the premium is 8% of income. Those in the 200-600% FPL range will pay a sliding scale, topping out at 8%. Newborns are auto-enrolled, as are the uninsured. Employers can either pay an 8% payroll tax and direct their employees to the public program, or continue to offer their own health plans. Medicare Advantage continues alongside the public program.

I do not think the bill would kill of employer-sponsored insurance, though it would likely shrink the market to a kind of blue-chip perk for well compensated employees. ESI is likely to persist for several reasons:
  • The bill stipulates that medical providers have to accept "Medicare" payment rates (not identical to current rates, but based on them) from private insurers.

  • The employer tax exemption for health benefits persists. In fact, the ACA's "Cadillac Tax" on especially generous plan (long postponed) is repealed.

  • Most importantly, the 8% of income that affluent people would pay for the revamped "Medicare" is considerably more than many pay out-of-pocket for employer-sponsored insurance.
The average premium for family coverage in ESI was $19,616 in 2018, according the Kaiser Family Foundation's Employer Health Benefits Survey, with the employee footing $5,547, or 28%.  For a couple with one child earning $125,000 -- a shade over 600% FPL -- that's 4% of income.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A major fix in Medicare for America 2.0

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Medicare for America, the sweeping healthcare reform bill that allows anyone to buy into a revamped Medicare at an income-adjusted premium, has the potential to transform U.S. healthcare into either an all-payer or a single-payer system.

The bill, first introduced by Reps Rosa DeLauro and Jean Schakowsky in December 2018 and reintroduced on May 1 this year, allows both Medicare Advantage and employer-sponsored insurance to continue, and stipulates that healthcare providers must accept (revised) Medicare payment rates from those private programs.  But because employees can opt into "Medicare" on an income-adjusted basis even if their employers offer compliant private insurance, private insurance will have to establish a real competitive advantage if it's to survive alongside the generous public program.

The headline change in the reintroduced bill is elimination of deductibles, which were modest enough in the original bill (topping out at $350 individual/$500 family). But a more significant change improves the bill's financing and provides ballast for the competition between public and private sectors.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Benefit cliffs in the ACA marketplace

Dave Anderson highlights an important weakness in the subsidy structure for the ACA marketplace. As income rises, the enrollee's share of the premium for a benchmark silver plan is subject to sudden and irregular bump-ups, which Anderson compares to jolts in marginal tax rates.  Take the case of a couple looking to buy a benchmark silver plan:
From $17,000 to$20,000 this couple pays an extra $2 per month for every thousand dollars more they earn a year.  Annually this is about a 2% marginal tax rate on the additional income.  And then there is a huge bump from $20,000 to $21,000.  The benchmark premium suddenly becomes $256 more expensive.  This is a 25% marginal rate...

And then the marginal rate drops again when the family increases their earnings from $21,000 to $22,000.  The marginal rate for this slice is now about 11%.  The marginal rate for couples earning under 300% FPL is in the mid-teens, and then there is a drop in the marginal rate to just under 10% for 300% to 400% FPL and then a potential massive spike as soon as someone earns over 400% FPL.
The spikes in out-of-pocket (OOP) costs this couple is exposed to as income rises are even more sudden -- and, I think, potentially damaging to family finances -- than the premium spikes. The main benefit cliff is formed by the sudden fadeaway of Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies at 201% FPL, where the actuarial value of a silver plan drops from 87% to 73%.  CSR disappears entirely at 251% FPL, and the coverage offered by a benchmark silver plan with no CSR, which has an AV of 70%, is clearly underinsurance for those without significant financial resources.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Take a hike, xpost

I neglected to mention that I'm on vacation this week. I'll be back early next. I've been reluctant to spoil my frame of mind with news of our latest spasms toward oligarchy, authoritarianism and/or war, so I'm pretty out of it.  I gather Trump has taken a stand against balance billing. Does he know what it is?  I have long suspected that balance billing is the one healthcare abuse so egregious that even Americans won't tolerate it indefinitely. But watch our pols bipartisanly give away the store to providers.