Trump’s Attack on Social Security

Trump famously promised in his 2016 campaign for the presidency that he would never cut Social Security.  He just did.  How much is not yet clear.  It could be minor or it could be major, depending on how he follows up (or is allowed to follow up) on the executive order he signed on Saturday, August 8 while spending a weekend at his luxury golf course in New Jersey.  The executive order (one of four signed at that time) would defer collection of the 6.2% payroll tax paid by employees earning up to $104,000 a year for the pay periods between September 1 and December 31 (usefully straddling election day, as many immediately noted).

What would then happen on December 31?  That is not clear.  On signing the executive order, Trump said that “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.  I’m going to make them all permanent.”  He later added:  “In other words, I’ll extend beyond the end of the year and terminate the tax.”

The impact on Social Security and the trust fund that supports it will depend on how far this goes.  If Trump is re-elected and he then, as promised, defers beyond December 31 collection of the payroll tax that workers pay for their Social Security, the constitutional question arises of what authority he has to do this.  While temporary deferrals of collections are allowed during a time of crisis, what happens when the president says he will bar the IRS from collecting them ever?  The president swore in his oath of office that he would uphold the law, the law clearly calls for these taxes to be collected, and a permanent deferral would clearly violate that.  But would repeated “temporary” deferrals become a violation of the statutory obligations of a president?  And he has clearly already said that he wants to make the suspension permanent and to “terminate the tax”.

There is much, therefore, which is not yet clear.  But one can examine what the impact would be under several scenarios.  They are all adverse, undermining the system of retirement benefits that has served the country well since Franklin Roosevelt signed the program into law.

Some of the implications:

a)  Deferring the collection of the Social Security payroll taxes will lead to a huge balloon payment coming due on December 31:

The executive order that Trump signed directs that firms need not (and he wants that they should not) withhold from employee paychecks the 6.2% that goes to fund the employee share of the Social Security tax.  But under current law the taxes are still due, and would need to be paid in full by December 31.

Suppose firms did decide not to withhold the 6.2% tax, and instead allow take-home pay to rise by that amount over this four-month period straddling election day.  Unless deferred further, the total of what would have been withheld will now come due on December 31, in one large balloon payment.  For those on a two-week paycheck cycle, that balloon payment would have grown to 54% of their end of the year paycheck.  It is doubtful that many employees would be very happy to see that cut in end-year pay.  Plus how would firms collect on the taxes due on workers who had been with the firm but had left for any reason before December 31?  By tax law, the firms are still obliged to pay to the IRS the payroll taxes that were due when the workers were employed with them.

Hence most expect that firms will continue to withhold for the payroll taxes due, as they always have.  The firms would likely hold off on forwarding these payments to the IRS until December 31 and instead place the funds in an escrow account to earn a bit of interest, but they would still withhold the taxes due in each paycheck just as they always have (and as their payroll systems are set up to do).  This also then defeats the whole purpose of Trump’s re-election gambit.  Workers would not see a pre-election bump up in their take-home pay.

b)  But even in this limited impact scenario, there will still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund:

Thus there is good reason to believe that Trump’s executive order will likely be basically just ignored.  There would, however, still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund, although that loss would be relatively small.

Payroll taxes paid for Social Security go directly into the Social Security Trust Fund, where they immediately begin to earn interest (at the long-term US Treasury rate).  Based on what was paid in payroll taxes in FY2019 ($1,243 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office), and adjusting for the fewer jobs now due to the sharp downturn this year, the 6.2% component of payroll taxes due would generate approximately $40 billion in revenue each month.  Assuming the $160 billion total (over four months) were then all paid in one big balloon payment on December 31 rather than monthly, the Social Security Trust Fund would lose what it would have earned in interest on the amounts deferred.  At current (low) interest rates, the total loss to Social Security would come to approximately $250 million.  Not huge, but still a loss.

c)  If collection of the 6.2% payroll tax is deferred further, beyond December 31, the losses to the Social Security Trust Fund would then grow further, and exponentially, and become disastrous if terminated:

Trump promised that “if re-elected” he would defer collection by the IRS of the taxes due further, beyond December 31.  How much further was not said, but Trump did say he would want the tax to be “terminated” altogether.  This would of course be disastrous for Social Security.  Even if the employer share of the payroll tax for Social Security (an additional 6.2%) continued to be paid in (where what would happen to it is not clear), the loss to Social Security of the employee share would lead the Trust Fund to run out in less than six years.  At that point, under current law the amounts paid to Social Security beneficiaries (retirees and dependents) would be sharply scaled back, by 50% or more (assuming the employer share of 6.2% continued to be paid).

d)  Even if the Social Security Trust Fund were kept alive by Congress acting to replenish it from other sources of tax revenues, under current law individual benefits would be reduced on those who saw their payroll tax contributions diminished:

There is also an issue at the level of individual benefits, which I have not seen mentioned but which would be significant.  The extent of this impact would depend on the particular scenario assumed, but suppose that the payroll taxes that would have come due and collected from September 1 to December 31 were permanently suspended.  For each individual, this would affect how much they had paid in to the Social Security system, where benefits are calculated by a formula based on an individual’s top 35 years of earnings (with earnings from prior years adjusted to current prices as of the year of retirement eligibility based on an average wage inflation index).

The impact on the benefits any individual will receive will then depend on the individual’s wage profile over their lifetime.  Workers may typically have 20 or 25 or maybe even 30 years of solid earnings, but then also a number of years within the 35 where they may have been not working, e.g. to raise a baby, or were unemployed, or employed only part-time, or employed in a low wage job (perhaps when a student, or when just starting out), and so on.

There would thus be a good deal of variation.  In an extreme case, the loss of four months of contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund from their employment history might have almost no impact.  This would be the case where a worker’s income in their 36th year of employment history was very similar to what it was in their 35th, and the loss in 2020 of four months of employment history would lead to 2020 dropping out of their employment top 35 altogether.  But this situation is likely to be rare.

More likely is that 2020 would remain in the top 35 years for the individual, but now with four months less of payroll contributions being recorded.  One can then calculate how much their Social Security retirement benefits would be reduced as a result.

The formulae used can be found at the Social Security website (see here, here, and here).  Using the parameters for 2020, and assuming a person had earned each year the median wages for the year (see table 4.B.3 of the 2019 Annual Statistical Supplement of Social Security), one can calculate what the benefits would be with a full year of earnings recorded for 2020 and what they would be with four months excluded, and hence the difference.

In this scenario of median earnings throughout 35 years, annual benefits to the retiree would be reduced by $105 (from $17,411 without the four months of non-payment, to $17,306 with the four months of the payroll tax not being paid).  Not huge, but not trivial either when benefits are tied to a full 35 years of earnings.  That $105 annual reduction in benefits would have been in return for the one-time reduction of $669 in payroll taxes being paid (6.2% for four months where median annual earnings of $32,378 in 2019 were assumed to apply also in 2020 despite the economic downturn).  That is, the $669 not paid in now would lead to a $105 reduction in benefits (15.8%) each and every year of retirement (assuming retirement at the Social Security normal retirement age).

The loss in retirement benefits would be greater in dollar amount if the period of non-payment of the payroll tax were extended.  Assuming, for example, a scenario where it was extended for a full year (and one then had just 34 years of contributions being paid in, with the rest at zero), with wages at the median level throughout those now 34 years, the reduction in retirement benefits would be $316 each year (three times as much as for the four-month reduction).  Payroll taxes paid would have been reduced by $2,007 in this scenario, and the $316 annual reduction is again (given how the arithmetic works) 15.8% of the $2,007 one-time reduction in payroll taxes paid.

All this assumes Social Security would continue to pay out retiree benefits in accordance with current law and assumes the Trust Fund remained adequate.  The suspension of these payroll taxes would make this difficult, as noted above, unless there was then some general bailout enacted by Congress.  But any such bailout would raise further issues.

e)  If Congress were to appropriate funds to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remained adequately funded, the resulting gains would be far greater for those who are well off than for those who are poor:

Suppose Congress allowed these payroll taxes to be “terminated”, as Trump has called for, but then appropriated funds to ensure benefits continued to be paid as per the current formulae.  Who would gain?

For at least this part of the transaction (the origin of the funds is not clear), it would be the rich.  The savings in the payroll taxes that would be paid in order to keep one’s benefits would be five times as high for someone earning $100,000 a year as for someone earning $20,000.  The tax is a fixed 6.2% for all earnings up to the ceiling (of $137,700 in 2020, after which the tax is zero).  The difference in terms of the benefits paid would be less, since the formulae for benefits have a degree of progressivity built-in, but one can calculate with the formulae that the change in benefits from such a Congressional bailout would still be 2.3 times higher for those earning $100,000 than for those earning $20,000.

One might question whether this is the best use of such funds.  Normally one would want that the benefits accrue more to the poor than to those who are relatively well off.  The opposite would be the case here.

f)  Importantly, none of this helps those who are unemployed:

Unemployment has shot up this year due to the mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, with the unemployment rate rising to a level not seen in the US since the Great Depression.  Unemployment insurance, expanded in this crisis, has proven to be a critical lifeline not only to the unemployed but also to the economy as a whole, which would have collapsed by even more without the expanded programs.

Yet cutting payroll taxes for those who have a job and are on a payroll will not help with this.  If you are on a payroll you are still earning a wage, and that wage is, except in rare conditions, the same as what you had been earning before.  You have not suffered, as the newly unemployed have, due to this crisis.  Why, then, should you then be granted, in the middle of this crisis where government deficits have rocketed to unprecedented levels, a tax cut?

It makes no sense.  Some other motive must be in play.

g)  This does make sense, however, if your intention is to undermine Social Security:

Trump pushed for a cut in the payroll taxes supporting Social Security when discussions began in July in the Senate on the new Covid-19 relief bill (the House had already passed such a bill in May).  But even the Republicans in the Senate said this made no sense (as did business groups who are normally heavily in favor of tax cuts, such as the US Chamber of Commerce), and they kept it out of the bill they were drafting.

The primary advisor pushing this appears to have been Stephen Moore, an informal (unpaid) White House advisor close to Trump.  He co-authored an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal just a week before Trump’s announcement advocating the precise policy of deferring collection of the Social Security payroll tax.  Joining Moore were Arthur Laffer (author of the repeatedly disproven Laffer Curve, whom Trump had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019), and Larry Kudlow (Trump’s primary economic advisor and a strong advocate of tax cuts).

Moore has long been advocating for an end to Social Security, arguing that individual retirement accounts (such as 401(k)s for all) would be preferable.  As discussed above, the indefinite deferral of collection of the payroll taxes that support Social Security would, indeed, lead to a collapse of the system.  Thus this policy makes sense if you want to end Social Security.  It does not otherwise.

Yet Social Security is popular, and critically important.  Fully one-third of Americans aged 65 or older depend on Social Security for 90% or more of their income in retirement.  And 20% depend on Social Security for 100% of their income in retirement.  Cuts have serious implications, and Social Security is a highly popular program.

Thus advocates for ending Social Security cannot expect that their proposals would go far, particularly just before an election.  But suspending the payroll taxes that support the program, with a promise to terminate those taxes if re-elected, might appear to be more attractive to those who do not see the implications.

The issue then becomes whether enough see what those implications are, and vote accordingly in the election.

The Plans for Medicare-for-All and Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It: A Comparison and a Path Forward

A.  Introduction

The US health care funding system is a mess.  One consequence is that despite spending far more than any other country in the world for its health care system (about 18% of GDP currently, where the next highest country spends only about 12%), US health care outcomes are mediocre at best.  Among OECD member countries, only a few countries, with incomes well below that of the US (some countries of Central or Eastern Europe or in Latin America), have worse outcomes than the US in such standard measures as life expectancy or infant mortality rates.

Bringing this to the level of individual families, the Kaiser Family Foundation found (based on a survey of firms) that the average cost of an employer-sponsored health plan in the US in 2019 came to $20,576 for family coverage.  Of this, the share covered directly by the employer (as part of its overall worker compensation package) came to $14,561 (71%) while the worker paid via premia an additional $6,015 (29%).  For 2018, the figures were a total cost of $19,616, with $14,069 for the employer share and $5,547 for the employee share.  Median family income in 2018 (the most recent year available) in the US was $80,663 (Census Bureau estimate).  Adding in the employer share of the cost of the health plan to cash family income, the total cost of an employer-sponsored health care plan came to 21% of this expanded family income.

On top of this, a family will have to pay out-of-pocket the costs of deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, and health care costs not covered under their insurance plan.  Milliman, a health care advisory firm, estimated that in 2018 such out-of-pocket costs were an average of an additional $4,704 for a family of four.  This would bring the total cost of health care for a family of four to $24,320, or 26% of expanded family income.  This is huge.  And the burden is of course proportionally larger for the 50% of the population with an income below the median.

Such a high cost for health care is in and of itself a giant problem.  But beyond this, not having effective access to the health care system, at whatever the cost, is even worse.  It can literally be a matter of life and death.

It should not therefore be a surprise that what to do about health care has become a prominent issue in the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020.  While each candidate has his or her own specific proposals, most are grouped around one of two alternatives:  A single-payer Medicare-for-All plan, where Elizabeth Warren has released the most detailed proposal on what she would seek to do; and plans which would add a public option to the Obamacare exchanges, which has been dubbed Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It by Pete Buttigieg, its most prominent proponent.

This blog post will review these two alternative proposals, focusing on the implications of each.  In addition, Elizabeth Warren has also released a detailed plan for what would be, under her proposals, a transition to a Medicare-for-All system during which she would add a public option to the Obamacare exchanges.  On the surface this would appear similar to the Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It proposals of Buttigieg and others, but there are in fact important differences in the specifics.  After discussing the Warren Medicare-for-All proposal and then the Buttigieg Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It proposal, this post will then review the Warren transition proposal and its differences with the Buttigieg plan.

To summarize very briefly, the implications of these different plans include:

a)  The Warren Medicare-for-All plan, while providing comprehensive and generous health care coverage for all in the US, would also imply massive shifts in how health care is funded.  Total costs would not rise (an increase due to the broader coverage would be offset, she argues, by efficiency gains of similar magnitude).  But the shifts in how health care would be funded are staggeringly large, potentially disruptive, and unrealistic in the view of many analysts.

b)  The Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It plan, in contrast, need not in principle cost much.  A public-managed option added to the Obamacare health insurance exchanges could be priced to cover its costs, just as private insurers on the exchanges do now (along with their profits).  And indeed, a careful analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (which will be discussed further below) concluded that the overall impact of allowing a public option would reduce the fiscal deficit significantly, due to indirect effects that would reduce public expenditures while increasing public revenues.  However, the specific Buttiegieg plan goes further than just adding a public option, by increasing the health care plan subsidies significantly and providing them to a broader range of families and individuals than receive them now.  With this as well as other measures, Buttiegieg estimates his proposals would lead to increased federal spending, but of only $1.5 trillion over ten years.  This would be well below the $26.5 trillion shifted to federal spending in the Warren Medicare-for-All plan.

However, while a Medicare-for-All approach (such as proposed by Warren) would lead to everyone enrolled in a similar (and comprehensive) health insurance plan with funding through federal government sources, the addition of a public option to the Obamacare exchanges would lead to what would still be a highly diverse and variable set of health insurance plans, with very different levels of coverage and very different costs.  Some enrollees would pay relatively little (if they are young and healthy, or of low income) while others would pay much more (if they are older, or of moderate or higher income).  The health care funding system would remain fragmented, extremely complex, and with widely varying costs for different families and individuals.  And from such a starting point it would then be difficult to transition to a Medicare-for-All system, even if the overwhelming majority choose to enroll in the public option.

c)  Finally, while the Warren transition plan would add a public option at the start of the process, her public option would be of a health plan that is very different from the public option of Buttiegieg, Biden, and others.  Her proposed public option would be for an insurance plan that is similarly comprehensive to what she has proposed for her Medicare-for-All plan.  It would also then receive, from the start, a high level of subsidy, benefiting those who choose to enroll in that public option.  These subsidies would be funded centrally by the government.  The overall expense would depend on how many would choose to enroll in the plans, but with the comprehensive coverage proposed by Warren coupled with high subsidies, it would be foolish for most not to enroll.  While this would then provide a path to a compulsory Medicare-for-All system, the funding that would need to be provided would be large.

B.  The Elizabeth Warren Medicare-for-All Plan

Elizabeth Warren has presented the most detailed proposal for how her Medicare-for-All plan would be set up, and importantly also how it would be paid for.  Medical costs covered would be expansive in her plan, and include not only that 100% of the cost of the medical services that Medicare currently provides for would be covered (i.e. no deductibles, no co-pays, no co-insurance), but so would medical expenses such as for dental and visual services, and for prescription drugs.  This would be much broader than what Medicare as it currently exists covers, as Medicare has a deductible, limits on the number of hospital days covered, and generally covers only 80% of doctor services.  Furthermore, Medicare does not cover expenses for dental, visual, and certain other areas of care, and while Medicare Part D now covers certain prescription drug costs, there are limits on how much it pays.

This expansive coverage is similar (indeed probably identical) to what Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed.  But while Elizabeth Warren has presented a detailed plan on how the costs of the expansive health funding program would be covered, Bernie Sanders has not.  Rather (at least as of this writing) Sanders has made available a six-page note titled “Options to Finance Medicare for All”.  But while the alternative funding sources outlined in that note are presented as options from which to choose, if one adds up the estimated amounts that would be raised by summing up all of the options presented the total of $16.2 trillion over ten years would not suffice to cover the costs of his Medicare-for-All program.  As we will see below, the shift in health care spending to the federal government, even after an assumed $7.5 trillion in savings through various measures, would come to $26.5 trillion over ten years.

We will therefore focus on the Warren plan, although on the cost side the figures would be similar to what Sanders has proposed.  And there will be a lot of numbers.  The key issue for the Warren (and Sanders) plans is that the dollar amounts involved are massive.  It is important to stress that this does not mean health care costs will be higher (other than certain costs from the increased access, to be offset by savings from several reforms), but rather that there will be shifts (and massive shifts) from how these costs are covered now to how they would be covered under the Medicare-for-All plan.

To see these shifts, it is best to start from estimates of what national health care expenditures would be should the US keep the current system.  A ten-year period is being covered (as is standard in most budget analyses), and for the purpose of this exercise the Warren team has come up with estimates of how those costs would then change if their plan were fully in place for the years 2020-29.  This is of course notional, as the full Medicare-for-All plan was not in place on January 1, 2020.  But use of the 2020-29 period is reasonable to demonstrate what would happen under such a plan, as reasonable estimates can be made for such a period.

For what health expenditures are expected to be under current law, most US analysts use the detailed forecasts provided each year by the professional staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  The most recent National Health Expenditure (NHE) projections, covering the period 2018-27, were released in February 2019, and the figures presented below are based on Table 16 of that set of forecast tables.  The NHE projections stop at 2027 and hence do not include 2028 and 2029, but for those final two years I extrapolated from the 2027 estimates based on the growth rates in the forecast numbers of the last few years before 2027 (specifically, 2025 to 2027).  Other analysts would use similar methods, and for the final two years of a ten-year series the totals will be close.

As we will see below, the Warren figures are mostly, although not entirely, consistent with these NHE forecasts.  The causes of the limited inconsistencies are not fully clear, as the Warren figures are mostly presented in terms of what the shifts would be from some base.  Despite this, it is still useful to review first the NHE numbers, as they will give one a sense of the magnitudes involved in the funding of our health care system as it currently exists.  And they are huge.

The NHE forecasts (extrapolated for the final years, as noted above) for health expenditures between 2020 and 2029 under current law will be:

in $ trillion

GDP share

Total National Health Expenditures under Current Law:  2020-29

$52.5

18.9%

A.  Federal Government

$15.8

5.7%

  Private insurance for government employees

$0.5

0.2%

  Medicare taxes for government employees

$0.1

0.0%

  Medicare from budget

$6.0

2.1%

  Medicaid

$5.5

2.0%

  Other health programs (CHIP, DOD, VA, more)

$3.8

1.4%

B.  State and Local Government

$8.7

3.1%

  Private insurance for government employees

$2.8

1.0%

  Medicare taxes for government employees

$0.2

0.1%

  Medicaid

$3.4

1.2%

  Other health programs

$2.3

0.8%

C.  Private Business

$10.1

3.6%

  Private insurance for employees

$7.7

2.8%

  Other (Medicare, disability, worker comp, more)

$2.4

0.8%

D.  Households

$14.3

5.2%

  Private insurance premia and employee share

$5.1

1.8%

  Medicare taxes

$4.0

1.4%

  Out-of-Pocket

$5.2

1.9%

E.  Other Private Revenue (philanthropy, more)

$3.5

1.3%

Total national health expenditures under current law are forecast to be $52.5 trillion dollars over the period 2020 to 2029.  This is huge.  It comes to an average of 18.9% of GDP over the period as a whole, rising from 17.9% in 2020 to 19.9% in 2029.  By way of comparison, the Congressional Budget Office forecast of total federal government tax and other revenues (including all income taxes, Social Security taxes, and everything else) will be less than this, summing “only” to $45.6 trillion over this period.  Addressing how health care spending is funded will unavoidably deal with huge dollar amounts.

The $52.5 trillion in total health care costs are then funded through a combination of the amounts spent by the federal government ($15.8 trillion), state and local governments ($8.7 trillion), private businesses for their employees ($10.1 trillion), households ($14.3 trillion), and other sources, including philanthropy ($3.5 trillion).  Taking the federal government expenditures as an example, the NHE forecasts are that the federal government will spend $0.5 trillion over the ten years for its payments to private insurers to cover health insurance for federal workers, and $0.1 trillion in Medicare taxes for those federal employees.  These are relatively minor amounts but are included for completeness.  The really major expenditures are then what the federal government will provide directly to Medicare from the budget ($6.0 trillion), will spend on Medicaid ($5.5 trillion), and will spend on other health programs such as for CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), for the Department of Defense, for the VA, and so on ($3.8 trillion).

The breakdowns in the other components of health care spending are similar, and will not be repeated here.  But it is useful to note that even under current law, the total being spent on health care by government (the federal $15.8 trillion as well as the state and local $8.7 trillion) would be expected to come to $22.5 trillion over the ten years, or 43% of the $52.5 trillion forecast to be spent.  Government is already heavily involved in health care funding in the US, even though the system is often described as “employer-based”.

This mix of health care funding sources would then differ dramatically under any Medicare-for-All proposal, even with total health care expenditures unchanged.  Elizabeth Warren provides specifics on what this would be under her plan (available at both her campaign website and identically also at this commercial website in case her website is eventually closed).  Additional detail is provided in two more technical notes, prepared by advisors to her campaign, first on the overall costs of her Medicare-for-All plan, and second on the taxes and other measures that would be implemented to fund the federal government expenditures in such a program.

The specifics on the costs are presented in the following table:

Warren Medicare-for-All Plan:  2020-29

in $ trillion

GDP share

A.  Base National Health Expenditures

$52.0

18.7%

  Increase in cost from expanded cover

$7.0

2.5%

B.  Total Health Expenditures if nothing else done

$59.0

21.2%

1) National health spending not affected by plan

$8.0

2.9%

2) Base level of Federal Govt Spending before plan

$17.0

6.1%

C.  Increase in Federal Govt Spending Before Savings

$34.0

12.2%

D.  Savings from Reforms

$7.5

2.7%

1) Lower Admin Costs (beyond Urban Inst estimate)

$1.8

0.6%

2) Lower Costs of Prescription Drugs

$1.7

0.6%

3) Lower Costs and Payments to Health Providers

$2.9

1.0%

4) Slower Growth of Medical Costs

$1.1

0.4%

E.  Net Increase in Federal Govt Spending

$26.5

9.5%

As a base from which to start, the Warren team used estimates made by analysts at the Urban Institute of what total national health expenditures would be under current law and then under a Medicare-for-All system (with the expansive cover proposed by Warren as well as by Sanders).  The Urban Institute forecasts that under current law, total national health expenditures would be $52.0 trillion for the period 2020-29.  This is a bit below the $52.5 trillion figure arrived at using the NHE forecasts of the staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), but close (99%).  The Urban Institute has its own model for forecasting health expenditures, but say that they use the CMS figures for certain components they do not directly model.

The $52 trillion in health expenditures would be under current law.  The more expansive cover under the Warren (and Sanders) plans would then make health care more widely available, and the Urban Institute estimated (in a separate, but linked, publication) that this would lead to a net increase in health care costs of $7 trillion over the 2020-29 period.  This is a net increase as the Urban Institute includes in the $7 trillion certain savings from a Medicare-for-All system, in particular savings from the far lower administrative costs of Medicare compared to the costs at private insurers in the US (savings I discussed in an earlier post on this blog).

Total national health spending would then be $59 trillion over the ten years.  To arrive at what the federal government would be funding out of this, the Urban Institute analysts first subtracted $8 trillion of health care costs that they estimate would not be affected under a switch to a Medicare-for-All funding system.  These include a variety of expenditures, such as medical care for the military and their families when deployed overseas, acute care for people living in institutions (such as prisons as well as nursing homes), certain state and local government direct expenditures, public health programs, and so on.

The Urban Institute then estimates that other federal government health expenditures (under current law) would total $17 trillion over the ten years.  This is higher than the $15.8 trillion forecast in the CMS NHE numbers discussed above, and it is not clear why (particularly as certain of the federal government expenditures, such as for military personnel, are included in the $8 trillion figure of costs that will not be affected).  The Urban Institute reports made publicly available are not technical documents, so many of the details are not explained and documented.  But based on the $17 trillion figure for federal health spending, the increase in federal health expenditures (due to shifts from others under a Medicare-for-All plan), would be $59t – $8t – $17t = $34 trillion.

The Warren advisors started from this $34 trillion figure.  From this, they estimated that savings from several measures that would accompany their plan would lead to $7.5 trillion in lower national health care costs over the period.  One would be further savings from the lower administrative costs of the far more efficient Medicare system.  The Urban Institute estimated that such administrative costs (as a share of total costs of the insurance plan) could, conservatively, be reduced to 6% under Medicare, down from the 12.2% that it costs private insurers to administer their insurance plans (in their high-cost business model, with its negotiated networks and other such costs).  The Warren team argued, reasonably, that this could be reduced further to just 2.3%, which is what it now in fact costs Medicare to administer its system.

The Warren advisors then estimated that other cost savings could be achieved through reforms of the prescription drug system in the US ($1.7 trillion), through lower costs incurred by health care providers when they need only to deal with one insurance provider (Medicare) rather than the complex system of private insurers they must now contend with (and then lower payments to reflect this – an estimated $2.9 trillion in savings), and an overall slower growth of health care costs ($1.1 trillion).

With the estimated $7.5 trillion in savings from such measures, the net increase in federal spending for health care over the ten year period would be $26.5 trillion ( = $34.0t – $7.5t).

This is still a giant number.  Recall that the CBO estimate of all federal government tax and other revenue over this period totals just $45.6 trillion, and $26.5 trillion is 58% of this.  So how would Warren cover this cost?:

Warren Plan:  Paying for the Shift to Federal Govt Spending

in $ trillion

GDP share

Net Increase In Federal Spending

$26.5

9.5%

A.  Taxes / Transfers from Current Health Care Spending:

$14.9

5.4%

1) Transfer from State/Local Govt health insurance savings

$6.1

2.2%

2) Tax Private Businesses amount of insurance savings

$8.8

3.2%

B.  Other New Taxes / Federal Govt Spending Reductions:

$11.7

4.2%

1) Taxes on worker income now spent on health insurance

$1.4

0.5%

2) Financial transactions tax of 0.1%

$0.8

0.3%

3) Systemic risk fee on large financial institutions

$0.1

0.0%

4) End accelerated depreciation for large businesses

$1.25

0.5%

5) Minimum tax on foreign earnings of 35% + tax on foreign firms in US

$1.65

0.6%

6) Additional tax of 3% on wealth over $1 billion

$1.0

0.4%

7) Capital gains (as accrued) taxed at regular rates for richest 1%

$2.0

0.7%

8) Better tax law enforcement

$2.3

0.8%

9) Tax revenues from normalization of immigrants

$0.4

0.1%

10) Reduction in military spending

$0.8

0.3%

C.  Reductions in Health Care Funding

$12.2 4.4%

1) Household savings on health costs (insurance + out-of-pocket)

$12.0

4.3%

2) Net private business savings on health costs

$0.2

0.1%

First, Warren would require that state and local governments transfer to the federal level what those governments are now spending out of their own budgets for private insurance for state employees ($2.8 trillion in the table above of the CMS NHE forecasts) plus what those governments spend out of their budgets for Medicaid ($3.4 trillion in the CMS NHE figures).  The total in the CMS NHE figures of $6.2 trillion is within roundoff of the $6.1 trillion in the Warren estimates.  Whether such a transfer is politically realistic is a separate question.  I can imagine that a number of the state governments (particularly those in Republican hands) would tell the federal authorities that it is great that they are now covering those health care costs directly (under a Medicare-for-All system), but that they will keep the savings in their budgets for themselves.  In any case, it would certainly be litigated in the courts.

Warren would then also set what would in essence (or in actuality) be a tax on private businesses, equal to 98% of what those businesses now spend for the employer share of the health care premia for the private insurance for their workers.  Warren’s team estimates that businesses would spend under current law a total of $9.0 trillion over the ten year period on their share of their employer-based health insurance plans, and 98% of this is $8.8 trillion.  The $9.0 trillion figure appears to be broadly consistent with the CMS NHE figures discussed above, which estimates that private businesses will spend $7.7 trillion over the period on private health insurance for its employees, and also some portion of a further $2.4 trillion in other health expenses the employers will incur.

But the main issue with the new $8.8 trillion tax on private businesses is that it would be set, business by business, to reflect what that business is currently spending for its share (or, more precisely, 98% of its share) of the private health insurance plans for its workers.  Thus firms with health insurance plans that are generous in what they cover and in what share of health care costs they pay (and hence are more expensive), will pay more.  Workers at such firms might be accepting lower wages than they could earn elsewhere, knowing that the generous health insurance plans cover more, including more of what they would otherwise need to pay out-of-pocket.  At the other end, there are firms with stingy plans that are cheap, or even with no health insurance plans at all (which is legal if the firm has fewer than 50 employees, although health insurance plans are still common among such firms).  These firms would pay much less, or even nothing at all, under the Warren proposal, even though their workers, like everyone, would be covered by Medicare-for-All.

Many would view this as inequitable:  Firms with strong health care plans would be penalized, as they would then pay more into the Medicare-for-All funding, while firms with stingy or no health care plans would pay less or even nothing at all.  While there would be some undefined phasing in period in the Warren proposal to more equal shares being charged across firms, this would only be implemented over several years.

Furthermore, knowing that at least for some initial period the firms with the more generous plans would pay more and the firms with the more stingy plans would pay less, would create a perverse set of incentives.  In the mid-November update on her plans (which will be discussed in more detail later in this post), Senator Warren said that she would not introduce legislation for her Medicare-for-All plan until her third year in office.  That would mean that the new Medicare-for-All system would not enter into effect until at least her fourth year in office, and more likely no earlier than two or three years after that (as any such major reform takes time to implement).  If firms expect this to take place at some point in the next several years, they would have a strong incentive to revise the health insurance plans they sponsor for their employees in the direction of making them more stingy, or dropping them altogether if they legally can.

It is therefore likely that at least this aspect of the Warren plan will be revised should it go forward.  An addition to the payroll tax we now pay for Social Security and for Medicare is one likely alternative, and will also give a sense of the magnitudes involved.  Currently workers pay on their wages (half directly and half by their employers on their behalf as part of their overall compensation package) a tax of 12.4% on wages up to $137,700 in 2020 ($132,900 in 2019).  In addition, they pay 2.9% to fund Medicare (with no ceiling), for a total payroll tax of 15.3% on wages up to the ceiling.

The Congressional Budget Office, in their August 2019 forecasts, estimated that the Social Security tax (of 12.4%) will raise $11,269 billion in revenues over 2020-29.  To raise $8.8 trillion on this same wage base, would therefore require a rate of 9.7% (based on the proportions).  The overall payroll tax would then increase from the current 15.3% to a new 25.0%.  Many might view this as too much to pay, but one should recognize that it reflects what is now, on average, being paid on wages once one adds together Social Security, Medicare, and what the average employer pays for its share (or more precisely, 98% of its share) of the private health insurance plans for its employees.  One should also note that while 25% might seem high, it is substantially less than the approximately 40% rate found for payroll taxes (employer and employee combined) in a number of European countries (including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Italy, and with France at over 50%).

Transferring to the federal government what is now being paid out by state and local governments for health insurance ($6.1 trillion, including the state portion for Medicaid), and by 98% of what private businesses are paying ($8.8 trillion), would then leave $11.7 trillion to be raised from other sources (where $11.7t = $26.5t – $6.1t – $8.8t, with rounding).  The Warren plan lists ten specific measures to do this:  six would be new taxes (or increases in existing or proposed taxes); one would be tax revenues from personal incomes that would become taxable with the move to Medicare-for-All; one would be increased revenues from better tax law enforcement; one would be taxes on incomes of immigrants who have had their status normalized; and one would be savings from reduced military spending.  A total of $10.9 trillion would come from higher taxes and $0.8 trillion from military spending reductions.

This is a wide, and diverse, set of funding sources.  I will not comment on each, but note that some analysts consider at least some of the revenue forecasts to be highly optimistic.  And one should always be skeptical when “better tax law enforcement” is assumed to raise a substantial share of the increased revenues needed ($2.3 trillion over ten years in the Warren plan, or 0.8% of GDP, which is huge).

Nevertheless, the Warren plan at least sets out proposals on how revenues might be raised (or expenditures reduced).  She should be commended for this, and it is in sharp contrast to, for example, the Republican / Trump tax cuts approved in December 2017.  Those tax cuts were forecast to lead to a loss in government revenues of $1.5 trillion over ten years (and it now appears that the losses will be even higher).  No effort was made by Trump or by the Republicans in Congress on how those revenue losses would be covered – the revenue losses would instead simply be added to overall government debt.  Warren, in contrast, has laid out specific proposals on how shifting health care expenditures to the federal level would be covered.  While one can be skeptical of certain of the figures, there is at least the recognition that something should be done to cover the shift in health costs.

It is also telling that the measures listed seek to avoid what might be obviously taxes on middle-class incomes.  Presumably this was done for political purposes, but one should recognize that at least some of the measures will impact middle-class incomes.  Specifically, it should be recognized that what employers pay for what is termed “the employer share” of health insurance premia for their employees is, in reality, a portion of the overall compensation package being paid to workers.  Over time, workers’ wages adjust to reflect this.  And while under the Warren plan this employer share (or 98% of it) would be transferred to the government, such a transfer would eventually become a uniform tax on employers (and as discussed above, this should probably be done immediately to avoid the perverse incentives of a gradual shift). The payroll tax would need to increase by 9.7% points to cover this, bringing the total payroll tax (for Social Security, current Medicare, and part of the cost of the new Medicare-for-All program) to 25.0%.  This is a tax on middle-class incomes.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it should be recognized.

Similarly, the Warren plan recognizes that since what workers now pay as their direct share of the cost of the employer-sponsored health insurance plans will go away under a Medicare-for-All system, the increase in income taxes on such incomes (as they are now largely income tax-exempt) would be substantial ($1.4 trillion over ten years in their estimate).  While fully reasonable, this is still a tax on middle-class incomes.

With total health care spending about the same ($7.0 trillion more for the increased access, offset by $7.5 trillion in cost reductions, for a net reduction of $0.5 trillion), but with $11.7 trillion in funding from new taxes and other measures, which groups will be spending less?  Under this plan, households would no longer pay health insurance premia nor out-of-pocket for most health care expenses.  The Warren campaign put this figure at $11 trillion over the ten-year period, which would then go to zero.  In addition, private businesses would gain the 2% from the requirement that they transfer 98% (not 100%) of what they now pay in health insurance premia, which would be an additional $0.2 trillion.  The total gain then by these two groups would be $11.2 trillion (ignoring, for this calculation, that some portion of the additional taxes would be paid by them).

But this does not add up properly.  After struggling with this for some time, I believe a mistake was made by the Warren advisors (which may have arisen as they were in a rush to get the plan out).  Assuming all the underlying numbers are correct, the $11.7 trillion raised by additional taxes (mainly) plus the $0.5 trillion net reduction in national health care spending under the plan ($7.0 trillion in more comprehensive coverage, minus $7.5 trillion in cost savings), would imply that the total gain by households and private businesses would be $12.2 trillion.  With the private businesses gaining $0.2 trillion (the 2%), this would imply a $12 trillion gain by households, not $11 trillion.  My guess is that instead of adding the net $0.5 trillion reduction in overall health care expenditures to the $11.7 trillion in increased funding (a total of $12.2 trillion), they subtracted it (a total of $11.2 trillion).

This is not fully clear as all the underlying numbers from the Urban Institute used by the Warren advisors have not been made publicly available (at least not from what I have been able to find).  Of relevance here is how they arrived at their figure that health care costs totaling $34 trillion would shift to the federal government under a Medicare-for-All plan such as that of Senator Warren (and Senator Sanders).  Nor did the Warren advisors present all the numbers on what each of the groups (state and local governments, private businesses, and households) would spend under current law and under their Medicare-for-All proposal.  Rather, they only provided how each of these would change.

[Side note:  There is possibly also another issue.  The CMS NHE figures discussed above forecast that total household expenditures over the period for private health insurance premia and for out-of-pocket expenses would total just $10.3 trillion.  On top of this, households would also spend $4.0 trillion in existing Medicare taxes (for old age cover).  While the Warren plan does not address this explicitly, implicit in her numbers is that the taxes gathered for old-age Medicare would remain as they are now (even though Medicare benefits would switch to the more generous cover of the Warren Medicare-for-All plan, such as no deductibles or co-pays).  But if households will be spending $10.3 trillion over the period for health care premia and other expenses, then their savings under the Warren plan cannot be $11 trillion, much less $12 trillion.  What is going on?  It is not fully clear, as the full set of underlying numbers have not been presented, but it is possible that the Warren advisors are working from a forecast that household spending on health care will total $11 trillion, rather than the $10.3 trillion forecast in the CMS NHE figures.  We would need to see the underlying numbers to sort this out.]

With the exception of this possible “glitch”, the Warren plan does, however, provide us with a good sense of the magnitudes of what the shifts in costs would be under a comprehensive Medicare-for-All plan.

In summary, with the US spending so much on health care ($52.0 or $52.5 trillion expected over the ten-year period under current law, or close to 19% of GDP), shifting how those costs are paid from private to public insurance will inevitably imply massive dollar amounts.  This does not mean higher amounts would be spent on health care.  Indeed, with Medicare far more cost-efficient than private insurers, total costs for a given level of coverage will go down.  But the shifts will still be massive.

The Warren plan covers these costs by three steps:  First, while an enhanced level of coverage would be provided (which by itself would increase overall costs by an estimated $7.0 trillion), these would be more than fully offset by measures which would save on costs (by an estimated $7.5 trillion).  Second, what state and local governments are now spending for health care coverage ($6.1 trillion), and 98% of what private businesses are spending as part of the wage packages for their employees ($8.8 trillion), would be transferred to the federal government, as the federal government would now cover these health care costs under the Medicare-for-All plan.  And third, the remaining $11.7 trillion needed to cover the additional federal level expenditures (of $26.5 trillion under the plan) would come from a wide range of measures, mostly of new or increased taxes, but also from a cut in military spending.

The net result would then be that households would no longer pay for health insurance directly, nor for current out-of-pocket costs.  These would be paid for through indirect means, as outlined above.  One can debate the extent to which these new taxes (in particular the transfer from private firms of what they are now paying for their employee health insurance) will impact households, but in the end there will be impacts.  Some households will end up spending less than they are now, and some will spend more.  And given the magnitudes of the underlying health care costs involved, those impacts will be huge.

C.  The Buttigieg Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It Plan

Pete Buttigieg, as well as several other of the Democratic candidates for president (notably former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar), have proposed instead adding a public option to the Obamacare market exchanges.  Buttigieg calls this Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It, and has said that if private insurers then do not respond with something dramatically better “this public plan will create a natural glide-path to Medicare for All”.  This option would be a publicly managed (perhaps by Medicare) insurance plan, with similar coverage to what is now offered by private insurers and made available through the Obamacare marketplace exchanges along with the private insurance plans.  Buttigieg’s basic proposal is available at his campaign web site, with more detail provided at this additional post.

To see how this would work, we will first review how prices and other features for the health insurance plans are currently set by private insurers on the Obamacare exchanges, and then how the public option as proposed by Buttigieg would fit into this system.  One can then draw the implications for the system that one would end up with – a system that would be quite different from a Medicare-for-All system such as that proposed by Senator Warren.  And an important question is whether a system with a public option such as that proposed by Buttigieg would in fact create a “natural glide-path” to Medicare-for-All.

The Obamacare marketplace exchanges allow individuals to choose, from among the private plans offered in their particular jurisdiction, a health insurance plan for themselves as an individual or for their family.  The plans offered on the exchanges are not (other than for a few exceptions for small businesses) for the health insurance offered through employers.  Thus they are priced by the insurance companies to reflect what the risk (health expenses) would be, on average, for the individual.  There are some restrictions on how the prices for the individual plans can be set, most notably by not charging different rates for males and females, nor excluding (or charging different rates) those with pre-existing health conditions.  But other than these restrictions, the premia that are charged to individuals vary, and vary widely, based on a number of factors.

Specifically, they can vary by:

a)  The age of the individual (or of the family members in a family plan):  Health care costs are generally higher for older individuals.  While private insurers had lobbied to be able to charge prices for the oldest individuals that would be covered (age 64, as Medicare starts at age 65) of as much as five times the prices for the youngest, the final legislation set the limit at three times.  Still, this is a broad range.

b)  Location:  The price of the insurance plan varies by where the individual lives – not just by state but down to the county level within a state.  Health care costs can differ greatly across the country.  And while this is often attributed to general living costs being higher in some parts of the country than in others, a more important factor is the extent to which effective competition drives down (or not) the costs charged by doctors and hospitals on the one hand, and by the private insurers themselves on the other hand.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, much of the health care system in the US is characterized as a bilateral oligopoly in any given locality, where there might be only one or a few hospitals (where those few hospitals may themselves be part of a chain with common ownership), only a few doctors in particular medical specialties, and where there are also may only be a small number (including possibly just one) of health care insurers.

Health care prices charged will be high where such competition is limited, and low relative to elsewhere where such competition is more extensive.  Thus, for example, the premium rate for a 40-year old individual enrolled in the benchmark Obamacare insurance plan in 2020 in Minnesota is an average (across the state) of $309 per month (the lowest in the nation), while the benchmark rate in next-door Iowa is $742 per month (the second-highest in the nation) and $881 in not-so-far-away Wyoming (the highest).  The cost of living does not differ that much across these states.  The extent of competition does.

c)  Tobacco use:  While states can opt out of this (or limit it further), the Affordable Care Act allowed that health insurance plans offered on the marketplace exchanges could charge up to 50% more for those individuals who smoke.  This would partially compensate for the much higher health care costs of smokers.

d)  The extent of health care costs covered:  Finally, the Obamacare exchanges allowed for up to four bands or categories of insurance plans, designated by the labels Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.  They differed in terms of the share of health care costs that would, on average, be covered under the insurance plan, and the share that would then be covered by the individual (in terms of the premium to be paid for the plan, and through the deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, and other costs, up to some out-of-pocket maximum).  A Bronze level plan would be expected, on average over all the individuals enrolled in the plan, to cover 60% of medical care costs, a Silver plan would cover 70%, a Gold plan 80%, and a Platinum plan 90%.

But the plans offered within a band (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) can differ widely in what the mix would be between the deductible, the specific co-pay and co-insurance rates, the out-of-pocket maximum, and then in the premium to be paid.  The plans could also differ in exactly what medical costs they cover (e.g. some cover dental costs, some cover prescription drugs, etc.), which doctors and hospitals were in the network for that plan, and what (if any) costs would be covered if one obtained medical services from an out of network doctor or hospital.

The resulting prices for the plans will therefore differ markedly across individuals in the nation.  To illustrate how wide this variation can be, even within just one state, I looked at the cost of the insurance plans offered in two regions of Florida.  Florida was chosen because its average benchmark plan premium rate ($468 in 2020) is close to the US average ($462), and it is a largish state where up to six insurers compete in offering plans in some parts of the state, while in other parts of the state only one insurer offers plans.  Choosing each just at random, I looked at the plans offered in Wakulla County, in the northern part of the state, which has just one insurer offering plans, and in Hillsborough County, around Tampa in the central part of the state, where five insurers offer plans.  One can find the plans offered, with all the details on their prices and coverage, at the Affordable Care Act web site, HealthCare.gov.

The costs differ dramatically between the two regions, and are systematically higher in Wakulla County.  I priced what a family plan would cost, with a household of four:  a man of 35, a woman of 35, a boy of 12, and a girl of 10 (although sex will not matter).  The cost of the second-lowest cost Silver plan (the benchmark plan, which I will discuss further below) would be $2,451.12 per month ($29,413 per year) in Wakulla, or 80% higher than the benchmark plan rate of $1,358.94 per month ($16,307 per year) in Hillsborough.  But the effective price difference was even greater, as the deductible in the Wakulla benchmark plan is $11,900, versus a deductible of $8,000 in Hillsborough.  And the plans differed in various other ways as well.

At the low end of the price range, the least expensive plan offered in Wakulla (a Bronze level plan) would still cost $1,538.22 per month ($18,459 per year), which is 52% more than the least expensive plan offered in Hillsborough of $1,011.00 per month ($12,132 per year).  Both of these plans had a deductible of $16,300 for the family, and also an out of pocket maximum of $16,300.  That is, these were essentially catastrophic health care plans that would not cover any health care expenses unless very high health care costs ($16,300) were incurred in the year.  Furthermore, one would have to pay $34,759 in Wakulla ($28,432 in Hillsborough) for the monthly premia plus the out of pocket expenses in any year when one’s health care costs exceeded the out of pocket maximum.

These costs are huge but reflect the fact that, as discussed at the top of this post, health care costs are simply very high in the US.  The amounts paid in premia each year (of $29,413 in Wakulla and $16,307 in Hillsborough) span the average paid (in 2019) of $20,576 for a family plan in employer-sponsored coverage discussed at the top of this post.  The main difference is that a large share (71% on average in 2019) of the cost of the employer-sponsored plans is hidden as it is paid by the employer from the overall compensation package for the employees, but before what is then (residually) paid in wages to the workers.  But the cost is still there.

Competition (or lack of it) between insurers also matter.  The far higher costs in Wakulla relative to Hillsborough are not due to a much higher cost of living in that part of the state (indeed, the cost of living there is probably lower), but rather because only one insurer is offering plans in Wakulla versus five in Hillsborough.  But even with the benefit of competition between insurers, it would be difficult for most families to be able to afford, on their own, such health insurance costs.  Hence a key aspect of the Affordable Care Act are federally funded subsidies provided to individuals and households to be able to purchase such health care coverage.  But this also adds an additional layer of complexity.

There are two forms of these subsidies provided for under the Affordable Care Act.  One is a subsidy on the insurance premia paid.  This is set according to the cost of the second-lowest cost Silver level plan in the area where the individual lives (termed the “benchmark plan”), and sets the subsidy to be equal to the difference between the cost of that benchmark plan and some percentage of family income.  That percentage varies by family income, and starts low (2.08% of family income in 2019, for example, for family incomes of up to 133% of the federal poverty line), and rises up to 9.86% (in 2019) for a family income between 300 and 400% of the federal poverty line.  There is no subsidy for those with incomes above 400% of the federal poverty line.  The percentages are adjusted year to year according to a formula that reflects certain relative price changes.  The ceiling rate of 9.86% in 2019, for example, began at 9.5% in 2014, and in fact fell in 2020 to 9.78%.

[Technical Note:  Why the second-lowest price to determine the benchmark plan?  It follows from a basic finding of those who analyze how markets function best.  If you are selling a product, then one wants those who are bidding to buy the product to bid the highest price that they are willing to pay.  But if the price that they will pay in the end depends on the price they specifically offer, they will bias their bid price downwards in the hope that they will get the product at a somewhat lower price.  And since all the bidders follow the same logic, the price will be biased low.  By providing the product to the one who bids the highest, but at the price of the second-highest bidder, one will remove that systematic bias.  In the case here, where one is offering a product for sale (the insurance plan), the same logic holds, but it will be the second-lowest priced plan chosen to serve as the benchmark.  And while the issue here is a price to be used for setting the subsidy that will be provided to those participating in these markets, the same principle holds.]

The second subsidy, provided for those with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty line, covers a share of the out-of-pocket costs for deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance.  The insurance companies would initially provide these (i.e. not charge the individual for these when health costs are incurred), and under the Affordable Care Act would then be compensated by the federal government for these costs.  However, the Trump administration working with the then Republican-controlled Congress ended these payments to the insurance companies, by zeroing out the funds for these in the budget.

The insurance companies were, however, still obliged by law to provide these cost-sharing subsidies to the eligible (low income) enrollees in their plans.  The result was that the insurance companies were forced to raise their premium rates on the plans to everyone to cover those costs.

Here it is important to note a feature of how the Obamacare premium subsidies are structured.  Since the amount a person eligible for a premium subsidy (i.e. with income up to 400% of the federal poverty line) will pay is fixed at some percentage of their income, any increase in the cost of the benchmark insurance plan for that individual will be matched dollar for dollar by an increase in the premium subsidy.  Hence the decision by Trump and the Republicans in Congress to end the cost-sharing subsidies led directly to a similar amount of higher premium subsidies being paid, with little or no savings to the budget.

But it gets worse. While those receiving the premium subsidies (those with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line) would not be affected by the now higher plan prices, middle-income households with incomes above that 400% line would have to pay the higher prices.  As a result, some of those households dropped their coverage due to the higher cost.  This in turn led the insurance companies to raise the costs of their plans by even more (due to the more limited, and likely higher risk, mix of enrollees in their plans).  This in turn then led to even higher premium subsidies being paid to those eligible (those with incomes below 400% of the poverty line).  The end result of this effort by Trump and the Republicans in Congress to undermine the Obamacare exchanges was to increase the amount spent in the federal budget over what would have been the case had they continued to fund the cost-sharing subsidies.

The Buttigieg plan (and similarly that of others, such as Joe Biden) would then be to keep this basic structure, but add to it a publicly-managed health insurance option.  It would be sold on the Obamacare marketplace exchanges, in parallel with the private plans, and those seeking health care insurance in those markets would be able to choose whichever they preferred.

What would be the impact?  The Congressional Budget Office provided estimates in an analysis undertaken in 2013.  They concluded that a public option would be able to provide health plans similar to the private plans offered on the Obamacare exchanges, but at premium rates that would be 7 to 8% less.  That is, for similar coverage the greater efficiency that could be achieved by a publicly managed option (due to greater scale, the ability to piggy-back on the extremely efficient Medicare system, and by not paying the profit margins that the private health insurers demand), could provide insurance cover at a significantly lower cost.  Note this 7 to 8% lower cost would be an average across the country – it would be more in some areas and less in others.  And with the public option priced at this level, covering its costs, the CBO estimates (conservatively, it would appear) that 35% of those participating in the Obamacare exchanges would choose this public option.

And it gets better.  While there would be no direct effect on the net government budget by offering a public option priced to cover its costs (no more and no less), there would be significant positive indirect effects.  First, government outlays would be reduced, as the new competition brought on to the Obamacare exchanges by the public option would drive down overall prices on the exchanges, and in particular the price of the benchmark insurance plan (the second-lowest cost Silver plan).  At these lower costs, the amount the government would need to spend on premium subsidies for existing enrollees with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line would go down.  This would be partially (and only partially) offset, however, by a larger number of those currently with no insurance choosing now to enroll through the exchanges to obtain health care insurance.  A number of these individuals and their families would be eligible for premium subsidies.  However, while this would be a cost to the budget, increased enrollment is a good thing and was, after all, the primary objective of the Affordable Care Act.

Second, with some workers (and their employers) now finding the insurance options on the exchanges more attractive, a switch of some share of workers to the exchanges will lead to an increase in the taxable share of worker incomes.  Hence government revenues would go up.

The impact of these two sets of indirect effects would be significant savings to the government budget.  The CBO estimates were for the period 2014 to 2023, but assumed the program would be in effect only from 2016 to 2023 and with a ramping up period in 2016.  Hence this was not a true ten-year impact estimate.  But if one extrapolates the CBO figures for a full ten years, and for the period 2020 to 2029 (the same period as was used above for the Warren plan), the net savings to the budget would be about $320 billion.  This is not small.

Adding a public option to the Obamacare exchanges would therefore appear to be an obvious thing to do, and it is.  And indeed, a public option was included in the Affordable Care Act legislation as it was originally passed in the House of Representatives in 2009.  But it was then taken out by the Senate.  The Democrats had a majority in the Senate at that time, but still abided by the legislative rules that required a 60 vote majority to pass major pieces of legislation.  (This was later effectively changed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when Republicans took control of the Senate so that, for example, the major re-writing of the tax code in December 2017 was deemed to require only 51 votes to pass.)  But to get to 60 votes, the Democrats needed the vote of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.  Lieberman would only agree if the public option was taken out.  Lieberman represented Connecticut and insurers are especially influential in that state, providing significant campaign contributions and with several headquartered there.  And it is only the private insurers who will lose out by allowing competition from a public option.  As a consequence, the Affordable Care Act as ultimately passed did not include a public option.

Buttigieg’s full health care plan includes a number of other proposals as well.  Generally, all the candidates support them (even Trump says he does on some of them), including requirements such as ending surprise out-of-network billing (when care is provided at an in-network hospital by an out-of-network doctor or other provider, and then billed at often shockingly high out-of-network rates); limits on what those out-of-network rates can be (Buttigieg would set a ceiling of two times the Medicare rates); allowing Medicare to negotiate on prescription drug prices used in health care services it covers (Medicare is currently blocked from doing so by law); and more.  But while all the candidates support such reforms, there are powerful vested interests that have so far succeeded in blocking them.

Buttigieg would also lower the share of family income used to determine the premium subsidies they are eligible for.  As discussed above, that share is 9.78% in 2020 for those with incomes between 300 and 400% of the federal poverty line (and lower for those at lower income levels).  Buttigieg would set the ceiling rate at 8.5% (with lower rates for those at lower incomes), and importantly would also remove the limit on family incomes for eligibility.  This would be significant for many.  Take, as an example, the price of the benchmark plan being offered in 2020 in Wakulla County, Florida, of $29,413 for a family of four (at the ages specified, as discussed above).  With the federal poverty line in 2020 of $26,200 for a family of four, and hence $104,800 as 400% of this poverty line, such a family would be required to pay 9.78% of their income ($10,249) for their share of the cost should they choose the benchmark insurance plan, and would receive a subsidy of $19,164 (where $19,164 = $29,413 – $10,249).  If they earned $1 more than 400% of the poverty line, they would receive no subsidy and would have to pay the full $29,413 should they purchase the benchmark plan.

In the Buttigieg proposal, the share of income would be capped at 8.5%, so for someone at 400% of the poverty line their share of the cost would be $8,908 instead of $10,249.  Furthermore, it would not be restricted only to those with an income below 400% of the poverty line.  So if the benchmark plan cost were to remain at $29,413 (the CBO estimates it would go down by 7 to 8% if a public option is introduced, as noted above, but leave that aside for here), families with incomes of up to $346,035 would be eligible in this county of Florida for at least some subsidy, with the subsidy having diminished smoothly to zero at that point.

Another difference is that Buttgieg proposes that the benchmark plan be shifted from the second-lowest cost Silver plan to a Gold-level plan (presumably also second-lowest cost, although he does not say specifically in what is posted).  Gold-level plans have more generous benefits than the Silver plans, but at the cost of higher premia.  Hence the premium subsidies would be higher for any given level of income given the 8.5% cap.  Keep in mind also that the Affordable Care Act premium subsidies, while determined relative to the cost of the benchmark insurance plan, can then be used by the individual for any other plan offered on the exchanges.  The dollar amount provided under the subsidy will be the same.

Buttigieg would also auto-enroll into the public option (which could then later be switched by the individual to one of the private plans) those who would otherwise be eligible for free insurance.  This would be in cases where they would have been eligible for Medicaid had that state accepted the expansion under the Affordable Care Act but then refused to do so, or in cases where the individual or family would have been eligible for a zero-cost plan after the premium and cost-sharing subsidies are taken into account.  Possibly more problematic would be the Buttigieg proposal to enroll retroactively someone without a health insurance plan who would then need some health care treatment.  This could provide an incentive not to enroll in any insurance plan (with its associated monthly premia) unless and until some substantial health care cost is incurred.

How would this be paid for?  Buttigieg estimates that the 10-year cost would be $1.5 trillion, which is modest compared to the Medicare-for-All plans.  There is no way I can check that figure, but it appears plausible.  Part of the reason it is relatively modest is that for those workers enrolled in an employer-based plan but who choose to switch to the public option (as they would now be allowed to do), Buttigieg would require the employer to pay in an amount equal to what they would otherwise have paid for that employee’s health insurance plan.

While one should want to require something of this nature, exactly how it would work is not clear.  There could be an adverse selection problem.  If the employer was required to pay in an amount that is the pro-rated share of the cost of one worker in the company plan, and hence the same for each worker whether old or young or with a pre-existing condition or not, there would be an incentive to encourage (perhaps quietly) the workers with the more expensive expected health insurance expenses to switch to the public program.  How to set the prices of what the companies would pay to avoid such negative outcomes would need to be worked out.  There is also the issue that the system would create an incentive for companies to scrimp on the coverage of the health plans they offer, so that they would then both encourage workers to shift to the public option and pay less into that system when their workers do so.

But such issues should be resolvable, for example by tying what the employer would pay for an employee switching to the public option not to what the employer was spending before on their health plan, but rather to what providing health care coverage would cost in the public option for that worker.

The addition, then, of the public option would be a major improvement over what we have now.  Would it, however, provide as Buttigieg asserts a “natural glide-path to Medicare for All” if private health insurers “are not able to offer something dramatically better” than what they have now?  That is not so clear.

The addition of the public option to the present system would not fundamentally change the system.  One would continue to have a highly complex and fragmented system, with disparate plans where any individual’s cost of health insurance would depend on several factors.  Specifically, even for the same degree of coverage in terms of what medical costs are covered and for the same deductible, co-pays, and so on, the cost of their health plan would vary depending on the expected health care risks of the individual (their age), how much it then costs to address any consequent health care issues that arise (their location), and their income (for those eligible for subsidies).

Setting aside the income (health care subsidies) issue for the moment, we have noted above that health plan costs can vary by up to a factor of three based on age.  And the costs by location vary similarly.  Even using state-wide averages (the variation will be greater if one took into account the different costs at the county level within a state), the average cost of the benchmark insurance plan for a 40-year-old in 2020 is $881 per month in Wyoming but $309 in Minnesota.  This is a ratio (between the most expensive and the least) of close to three.  Putting just these two cost factors together, the range of costs for an individual across the country can vary by a factor of nine.  Taking within state variation in cost also into account would lead to an even higher ratio.

By what path would this then possibly transition to a Medicare-for-All system?  Suppose one is at the point where 90% or more of the population has chosen to enroll in the public option.  While almost all of the population might then be in a publicly managed health care plan, they would be in plans where either they (or other parties on their behalf, i.e. their employers or the government) are paying premia that could vary by a factor of nine or more for the exact same coverage.  Some (the young and healthy, living in areas where health care costs are more modest) would be paying relatively little, while others (the old and those living in areas where health care costs are especially high) would be paying much more.  This is not what most people envision when referring to Medicare-for-All.

Would this then transition to a true Medicare-for-All system?  That could be difficult.  In a Medicare-for-All system as most people view it, the amount paid for health care would vary only based on income.  The current Medicare system (for those aged 65 and older) is funded by a combination of taxes on wages (2.9% of wages of workers of all ages, technically half by the employer and half by the employee), and by monthly premia for those enrolled in Medicare (where these premia start at $144.60 monthly in 2020 per person, and rise to as much as $491.60 per person for those at high-income levels).

If the Medicare-for-All system were then funded, directly or indirectly, by taxes and/or premia that are based solely on income (such as a higher payroll tax, for example), the transition would imply that those who were before paying relatively modest amounts in premia for their health care plans (whether via the public option or in one of the private plans) would end up paying more.  And it could be much more given the factor of nine (or greater) range in the cost of these plans.  One should expect that they will scream loudly, and seek to block such a transition.

This would then not be a “natural glide path” to Medicare-for-All.  Rather, unless something major is done, and forced through despite the likely opposition of those who would end up paying more for their health care insurance, the system would likely remain as now, with a highly fragmented and complex system of multiple health care plans, at widely varying premium rates, with some paying relatively modest amounts and some an order of magnitude more.

[And a point of full disclosure:  I had myself, in an earlier post on this blog, not seen this issue.  I had argued that a system with an efficient public option could lead, through competition, to a Medicare-for-All system.  The proposal I had discussed there included that the publicly-managed option would be allowed also to compete on the market for employer-sponsored plans, and not just in the market for individual cover, but the issue would remain.  One would end up in a system with widely varying premia rates, based on the risk of those being covered, and it would then be difficult to move out of such a system to one where what is paid is linked solely to income.]

D.  The Warren Plan for a Public Option as a Transition to Her Medicare-for-All Plan

Senator Warren announced her Medicare-for-All plan (described in section B above) on November 1, 2019.  Two weeks later, on November 15, she announced that as first step she would seek to add a public option early in her administration, while postponing to the third year of her prospective administration seeking approval in Congress for her Medicare-for-All plan.  See the link here for this proposal at her campaign website, or here for the same proposal at an external website.

While there are a number of health care reforms she presents in this proposal, several of which she says could be implemented by executive order alone and not require congressional legislation, I will focus here on how she envisions her public option.  It is quite different from the public option as discussed by Buttigieg, Biden, and others, and indeed Warren labels it (somewhat confusingly) a “Medicare for All option”.  It would be offered on the Obamacare market exchanges, along with the private insurance plans that are there now, but would differ from them in key ways.

Most importantly, Warren’s public option would provide for a far more generous level of coverage than what is covered under the private health insurance plans, with this paid for in part by substantially more generous government subsidies than what would be provided to those who enroll in any of the private health insurance plans.  That is, this would no longer be a level playing field, with the public option priced to cover its costs and then competing on the basis of being able to operate more efficiently and at a lower cost than the private plans.

This then addresses the key question, discussed above, of how to transition from a system of multiple, competing, health plan options, to a single-payer Medicare-for-All system.  The answer is that the public option that Warren proposes to add in the first year of her administration would be so generous, and at such a low cost to the individual, that it would make little sense for almost anyone not to enroll in it.

Specifically, under her proposals:

a)  The Warren public option health insurance plan would be comprehensive in what it covers, matching what would be covered in Warren’s November 1 Medicare-for-All proposal.  That is, in addition to what the insurance options on the Obamacare exchanges are now required to include, her public option would include coverage for expenses such as for dental care, vision services, auditory, mental care, long term care, and more.  This would be far broader than what the current Medicare system covers for those over age 65 (but as part of her proposal, she would have Medicare expand its coverage to include these additional medical expenses as well).

b)  There would be a zero deductible from the start, and some unspecified (but low) cap on out-of-pocket expenses.

c)  The Warren public option would be free for those below the age of 18, and free as well for households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line (i.e. $52,400 for a family of four in 2020).  Note that in effect this makes Medicaid redundant, as all those now eligible for Medicaid (those with incomes up to 130% of the federal poverty line, but less in states that did not accept the expansion of Medicaid provided for in the Affordable Care Act) would be better off with the proposed Warren public option.

d)  The Warren public option plan premiums, co-pays, and co-insurance would then be set so that the plan would initially cover 90% of expected medical costs.  Note that while a Platinum level plan on the Obamacare exchanges also covers 90%, the public option plan proposed by Warren would cover a broader range of medical expenses (dental, etc.), so they are not fully comparable.

e)  Premium subsidies for the Warren public option (and usable only for this option) would be set so that households do not spend more than 5.0% of their incomes for the insurance plans (and less for those at lower incomes).  This would be well below the 9.86% ceiling in effect in 2019 on premium subsidies (9.78% in 2020) under the current Affordable Care Act system for those purchasing coverage on the exchanges.  Importantly, and as Buttigieg also proposes, these subsidies would be available for households of any income, and not capped at a household income of 400% of the federal poverty line.

The new subsidies would be generous compared to what is now provided.  While it is not clear how much it would cost on average for the comprehensive coverage (with zero deductible) as envisioned in the Warren public option (no estimate was provided in what was posted by the Warren campaign) if one assumes a modest plan cost of $25,000 per year for this expansive cover, the subsidies would be:

Family Income

5% of Income

Subsidy

$100,000

$5,000

$20,000

$300,000

$15,000

$10,000

$500,000

$25,000

$0

The subsidy would only fully phase out at an income of $500,000 in this example.  This would mean that even some households with an income in the top 1% in the US (incomes that started at about $475,000 in 2019) would be receiving subsidies to purchase their health insurance plan.

f)  Keep in mind as well that, as was discussed earlier, any increase in the cost of providing the insurance plan will be covered dollar-for-dollar with an increased subsidy (for those receiving any subsidy).  The amount the individual pays is capped at 5% of income.  This is important as Warren would have the 90% share of expected medical costs being covered by the insurance plan rising “in subsequent years” to 100%.  While this more generous cover would, in normal insurance, need to be paid for by higher premia, the 5% of incomes cap on what will be charged in effect means that the more generous cover would be paid for by higher government subsidies, dollar for dollar, for all those eligible to receive such subsidies.

g)  For those who choose to continue to enroll in one of the private insurance plans offered on the Obamacare exchanges, Warren has that the share of income required from the individual would be “lowered” from the 9.86% rate of 2019 (9.78% in 2020).  But she does not specify to what rate it would be lowered to.  Presumably if the intention is to lower it to the 5.0% rate that would apply for Warren’s public option, they would have said so.  And the subsidy would also be made more generous by benchmarking it to the cost of Gold level plans, rather than the second-lowest cost Silver plan.  Finally, the Warren plan says that for those choosing still to enroll in one of the private insurance plans they would also “lift the upper income limit on eligibility” for the premium subsidies from the current 400% of the federal poverty line.  But it is not clear if it would be removed altogether, or simply lifted to some higher level.

These measures would lead to an increased level of subsidies for those choosing to remain with one of the private plans on the Obamacare exchanges.  But while there is much that is not fully clear here, it does appear clear that the subsidies would not rise to what would be provided to those who choose instead to enroll in the Warren public option.  And what would certainly be the case is that the public option as proposed by Warren would provide a more comprehensive level of health cost cover than what is being covered in the private plans, and with a zero deductible, lower co-pay and co-insurance rates, and a lower out-of-pocket ceiling.

h)  Workers in firms that provide company-sponsored health insurance plans could opt to enroll in the Warren public option instead.  For those who do, their companies would be required to “pay an appropriate fee” to the government.  How that “appropriate fee” would be set was not specified.  If linked to what the employer would be otherwise paying for the company-sponsored plan for the worker, one would have the same adverse selection issue that was discussed above for the similar proposal in the Buttigieg plan.  But it should be possible to address this in some way.

How much would this cost, and how would it be paid for?  As noted above, no specific cost estimates (on neither the cost of a typical plan nor the cost of the overall proposal) are provided in what the Warren campaign posted.  All that is clear is that with the more comprehensive list of what is covered, along with the zero deductible, modest co-pays and co-insurance, and a low limit on out-of-pocket expenses, the Warren public option plans will cost more to provide than what the Platinum level plans offered on the exchanges cost.  This is true even though both would be priced to cover 90% of expected medical costs, since the list of medical costs covered would be broader.

But while the cost of providing the Warren public option plan would be higher, the cost to the individuals signing on to it would be lower due to the greater premium and other subsidies that would be made available for it (with the 5.0% limit on family income, with no ceiling on income for eligibility).  With such subsidies being made available, it is difficult to see why anyone would not wish to sign on to such a plan.  While technically voluntary, and with private insurance “allowed” to compete for such business, this would be far from a level playing field.

Thus there would be a significant cost to the overall government budget to cover the cost of the subsidies provided to those signing on to the Warren public option.  But as noted, no estimate was provided in what was posted by the Warren campaign of what this might be.  All that was provided was the statement that the cost would be less than what her full Medicare-for-All plan (as discussed in Section B above) would cost.  She notes that that proposal had listed a number of taxes and other measures to pay for the Medicare-for-All plan, and that the more modest cost of her proposed public option could make use of some subset of these.

But how much less would that cost be?  It would of course depend on how many people enroll, and that is not known.  But with the higher subsidies provided for a far more extensive cover than available in the private plans offered on the Obamacare exchanges, and indeed more extensive than in most employer-sponsored private health insurance plans, there are not many who would not be personally better off by switching to the Warren public option.

There would, however, be at least one key difference in the funding, at least to start.  While Warren has that individuals with incomes over 250% of the federal poverty line would pay premia for the public option she is proposing, with this capped at no more than 5.0% of family income, the full Warren Medicare-for-All plan would have no such premia.  But paying premia of 5% of income would generate significant funding.  While Warren says that the 5% rate would be scaled down over time (at some unspecified pace), a crude back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that a 5% charge (if applied throughout the 2020-29 period) could provide on the order of about 40%, and possibly more, of the $11.7 trillion in extra funding (for the 2020-29 period) that would be required in Warren’s Medicare-for-All plan

Specifically, the share of family income to be paid for premia (whether 5.0%, or the 9.86% in 2019 on the current Obamacare exchanges) is based on a share of taxable household income.  With some minor adjustments (which can be ignored for the purposes here), that income is the adjusted gross income shown on the family’s income tax return.  Using data for 2016 reported by the IRS, the total adjusted gross income shown on all tax returns filed in the US that year was $10,226 billion.  Of this, $1,960 billion was reported by households with incomes of less than $50,000 (which also accounted for 59.4% of all returns filed).  Since this is roughly what 250% of the poverty line would be (for a family of four), where Warren would not charge any premium rate, those incomes will be excluded.  And while the premium rate would then only be phased up with incomes to the full 5.0% rate, Warren does not say what the pace of that would be.  Taking the extreme case by assuming it would go immediately to the 5.0%, the total adjusted gross income on tax returns filed for 2016 for incomes of $50,000 or more would then be $8,266 billion (= $10,226b – $1,960b).

To make this comparable to the figures discussed in Section B above on the cost of Warren’s full Medicare-for-All plan, one can then take this as a share of GDP and apply it to the forecast value of GDP for the 2020-29 period.  Note first that the figure for overall adjusted gross income as reported on tax returns ($10,226 billion in 2016) is less than GDP (which was $18,715 billion in 2016) for a number of reasons.  Taxable income, as defined under tax law, differs from income as defined in the GDP accounts, and there are other factors as well (such as corporate income).  But the two will generally move together.  Applying then the share of GDP in 2016 accounted for by households with incomes of more than $50,000, to the forecast total GDP for the 2020-29 period ($261,911 billion) and then taking 5.0% of that, households would pay (assuming 100% enroll) about $5.8 trillion if applied to the full ten year period.  This would be a substantial portion of the $11.7 trillion that would need to be raised by new taxes or government spending reductions in the Warren Medicare-for-All plan.  That is, very roughly, half.

This assumes, however, that the premia paid will always be 5.0% of incomes.  But that will not be the case.  The premia will be set at some rate, and households would pay only up to whatever that rate is (but no more than 5.0% of their incomes).  As noted above, even with a premium rate of $25,000 a year (likely low for an average rate, given the generosity of what would be covered), households with incomes of up to $500,000 a year would be receiving subsidies.  And $500,000 a year for household income is approximately the break-point between the 99% and the 1% in terms of income ranking.  If one assumes that the 1% choose not to enroll in the Warren public option, but rather buy their health insurance directly from some private provider, the impact on health care costs incurred in the public plans would be negligible.  They are only 1% of the total (assuming the other 99% do enroll), plus they probably have lower per person health care costs than for those of lower incomes (the rich are generally healthier, with a lower incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and so on).

But the richest 1% do account for a significant share of overall household income.  Again using the IRS data for 2016, the richest 1% of households accounted for 17.2% of overall adjusted gross income of all households.  Taking this as a share of GDP, applying that share to the forecast 2020-29 GDP, taking 5% of it and subtracting that amount from what would be generated if all households paid the 5%, one arrives at a figure of $4.6 trillion for the funding that could be raised.  This would be close to 40% of the $11.7 trillion required.

These estimates are rough, and would apply only to the initial years of the program Warren is recommending as part of a transition to her Medicare-for-All plan.  But it suggests that 40% or more of the extra government funding required could be raised by charging a 5% premium to those with incomes over 250% of the poverty line.  Note that the $11.7 trillion in net funding needed (over ten years) already has taken into account a transfer from state and local governments of what they would otherwise be spending on Medicaid and other health insurance programs that would become redundant under Warren’s plans.  It is also net of transfers from private companies of what they would otherwise be spending on the employer shares of company-sponsored health insurance plans.  Thus the 5% premium would be a substitute for some share of the additional taxes that Warren has proposed in her Medicare-for-All plan.  But as that 5% premium rate is reduced to zero over time under her proposals, that full set of additional taxes would be needed.  Just not right away.

Still, the amounts involved are huge.  If everyone (other than the extremely rich) choose to enroll in Warren’s public option, as it would make sense for them to do, the 5% premia paid would come to 1.7% of GDP.  The $11.7 trillion required in the full Medicare-for-All plan comes to 4.2% of the ten-year GDP.  Thus there would be a need to raise from some set of sources an additional 2.5% (= 4.2% – 1.7%) of GDP.  GDP in 2020 will total about $22 trillion, and 2.5% of this is $550 billion.  That is a massive amount to be raised.  Keep in mind that this is not additional spending, but rather in effect a transfer from what would otherwise be spent on health care (through the insurance premia we now pay, plus out-of-pocket expenses).  Indeed, there would be a net saving by moving to a more efficient / lower-cost health care funding system.  But that $550 billion would still need to be raised.

E.  Summary, and a Path Forward

The health care funding system in the US certainly needs to change.  The US spends far more than any other country in the world on health care, but despite this health care outcomes are worse than elsewhere.

Fundamental reform is needed, and a number of proposals have been made.  The most far reaching would be to move to a Medicare-for-All system.  Senator Elizabeth Warren has made a detailed proposal on how this would work and what the funding needs would be, and is to be commended for this.  But the funding needs would be massive.  While overall spending on medical care would not go up (indeed it would go down under her plan), there would be massive shifts from how the payments are made now (via premia paid for private health insurance and out-of-pocket) to how they would be made in a single-payer Medicare-for-All scheme.

In Warren’s plan, the shift in spending through government accounts would total an estimated $34.0 trillion over the ten years of 2020-29 (12.2% of GDP), if nothing else is done.  However, Warren’s team estimates that there would be savings of $7.5 trillion from a number of reforms and other efficiency gains leaving $26.5 trillion (9.5% of GDP) to be funded.  To provide a sense of how large this is, it can be compared to the forecast by the CBO that individual income taxes over this period would in total raise less, at only $23.2 trillion.

Part of the $26.5 trillion would be covered by transfers from state and local governments of what they currently spend on health care programs out of their own budgets (primarily Medicaid), and part from transfers of 98% of what private companies spend on the employer share of company-sponsored health care plans for their employees.  But even assuming such transfers will be possible (it is likely they will be strongly resisted), there will still be a need to raise a further $11.7 trillion (4.2% of GDP).  Warren proposes to do this through a series of measures, mostly from new taxes.  In terms of 2020 GDP of about $22 trillion, that 4.2% would come to $920 billion.  This is huge.

Given such amounts to be raised, plus concerns over the possible disruption that any such plan might cause (where one especially never wants to face disruption when health is at stake), many prefer a more gradual and possibly more modest reform.  An obvious alternative would be to include in the Obamacare market exchanges a public option, similar to Medicare and possibly managed by Medicare itself.  Allowing also employees currently on a company-sponsored health insurance plan to opt in to the public option should they wish (with their company still paying a fee tied to what they otherwise would be spending for the worker), one would have that those who want a Medicare-like plan could choose it, and those who don’t don’t.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that such a public option could be provided at a cost that is, on average, 7 to 8% less than what private plans charge, as the public option would be more efficient.  On top of this, there would be significant indirect savings to the overall government budget.

But would this then provide “a natural glide-path” to a Medicare-for-All system, as Buttigieg asserts?  That is not so clear.  The reason is that the public option would price plans similar to how the private plans are now priced (just 7 to 8% lower on average).  Their prices would reflect the risks of the individuals being covered and the cost of providing health care where they live.  Thus even if the public option grew to dominate the market, one would still have a wide range of health care premia being paid, which could easily vary by an order of magnitude between the low risk / low cost individuals to the high risk / high cost ones.  And the system would then remain like this, complex and with a wide range of costs linked to factors other than income.  Moving that system to one where the costs depend only on income would lead to higher costs for the low risk / low cost individuals in the system, and they will likely complain loudly.

How was this addressed in the second plan that Warren put out, where (in addition to a long list of other reforms) a public option would be made available immediately, as a transition step to her full Medicare-for-All scheme?  The answer is that the “public option” Warren proposed was quite different from the public option referred to by Buttigieg (as well as by Biden, Klobuchar, and others).  The public option as normally presented has been an option that competes with the private plans on the Obamacare exchanges, priced to cover its costs and receiving no special advantages.

Warren’s public option is different.  It would be comprehensive in terms of what it covered, would not have a deductible, only low co-pay and co-insurance rates, and a low out-of-pocket ceiling.  And while the premium for such a plan would need to be relatively high to cover such benefits and low out-of-pocket costs, Warren would provide government subsidies so that no one would need to pay more than 5% of their incomes to cover those costs.  And at a 5% ceiling, those subsidies could go to some pretty rich people.  Assuming a premium of $25,000 a year would be required to cover the costs of the plans (a conservative estimate, given what it would cover), households with incomes of up to $500,000 a year would be eligible.  That is, all but the richest 1% would be eligible.

In such a system one could choose to continue with a private plan, but for most it would be foolish not to switch.  Thus while this public option as proposed by Warren would be competing with the private plans, it would not be on a level playing field.  Rather, those enrolling in the public option of Warren would receive subsidies substantially greater than what those enrolling in a private plan could.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it should be recognized.  And those subsidies would have to be funded from somewhere.

The Warren team provided no estimate of what the overall cost of this might be, but simply noted that it would be something less than the full Medicare-for-All plan she had earlier proposed.  And the premium of up to 5% of family income that would be paid to cover a portion of the cost would be a significant source of funds.  But even including this, and assuming most Americans (other than the rich in the top 1%) chose to enroll in Warren’s public option, there would be a need to find $550 billion in additional government funding (if this applied in 2020).

These amounts are all huge.  But given the amount the US is now spending on health care (about $4 trillion expected in 2020, or 18% of GDP), any fundamental shift in how health care is funded will involve massive amounts.  And again it should be emphasized that the amounts needed do not imply a net increase in what will be spent, as the reforms being considered can be expected to reduce overall health care costs.  Nevertheless, the amounts are large, and will lead to major interpersonal shifts (with some paying less than they are now, and some paying more and possibly much more).  Those impacts should not be downplayed.

Still, the Warren plan for a transition to a Medicare-for-All system would be a plan for how to move forward.  It may well not be possible to do this quickly, given the size of the shifts in funding sources.  But one can envision where one might start with a public option such as Warren has proposed (exhaustive in what it covers, and with a zero deductible), but where the ceiling on family income for the premia might start not at 5% but perhaps more like the 8.5% Buttiegieg has proposed.  Then this would be reduced over time, perhaps by 1% point per year while other funding sources are scaled up, with this eventually brought down to zero.  At that point we would be in a full Medicare-for-All system.

Andrew Yang’s Proposed $1,000 per Month Grant: Issues Raised in the Democratic Debate

A.  Introduction

This is the second in a series of posts on this blog addressing issues that have come up during the campaign of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, and which specifically came up in the October 15 Democratic debate.  As flagged in the previous blog post, one can find a transcript of the debate at the Washington Post website, and a video of the debate at the CNN website.

This post will address Andrew Yang’s proposal of a $1,000 per month grant for every adult American (which I will mostly refer to here as a $12,000 grant per year).  This policy is called a universal basic income (or UBI), and has been explored in a few other countries as well.  It has received increased attention in recent years, in part due to the sharp growth in income inequality in the US of recent decades, that began around 1980.  If properly designed, such a $12,000 grant per adult per year could mark a substantial redistribution of income.  But the degree of redistribution depends directly on how the funding would be raised.  As we will discuss below, Yang’s specific proposals for that are problematic.  There are also other issues with such a program which, even if well designed, calls into question whether it would be the best approach to addressing inequality.  All this will be discussed below.

First, however, it is useful to address two misconceptions that appear to be widespread.  One is that many appear to believe that the $12,000 per adult per year would not need to come from somewhere.  That is, everyone would receive it, but no one would have to provide the funds to pay for it.  That is not possible.  The economy produces so much, whatever is produced accrues as incomes to someone, and if one is to transfer some amount ($12,000 here) to each adult then the amounts so transferred will need to come from somewhere.  That is, this is a redistribution.  There is nothing wrong with a redistribution, if well designed, but it is not a magical creation of something out of nothing.

The other misconception, and asserted by Yang as the primary rationale for such a $12,000 per year grant, is that a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is now underway which will lead to widespread structural unemployment due to automation.  This issue was addressed in the previous post on this blog, where I noted that the forecast job losses due to automation in the coming years are not out of line with what has been the norm in the US for at least the last 150 years.  There has always been job disruption and turnover, and while assistance should certainly be provided to workers whose jobs will be affected, what is expected in the years going forward is similar to what we have had in the past.

It is also a good thing that workers should not be expected to rely on a $12,000 per year grant to make up for a lost job.  Median earnings of a full-time worker was an estimated $50,653 in 2018, according to the Census Bureau.  A grant of $12,000 would not go far in making up for this.

So the issue is one of redistribution, and to be fair to Yang, I should note that he posts on his campaign website a fair amount of detail on how the program would be paid for.  I make use of that information below.  But the numbers do not really add up, and for a candidate who champions math (something I admire), this is disappointing.

B.  Yang’s Proposal of a $1,000 Monthly Grant to All Americans

First of all, the overall cost.  This is easy to calculate, although not much discussed.  The $12,000 per year grant would go to every adult American, who Yang defines as all those over the age of 18.  There were very close to 250 million Americans over the age of 18 in 2018, so at $12,000 per adult the cost would be $3.0 trillion.

This is far from a small amount.  With GDP of approximately $20 trillion in 2018 ($20.58 trillion to be more precise), such a program would come to 15% of GDP.  That is huge.  Total taxes and revenues received by the federal government (including all income taxes, all taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and everything else) only came to $3.3 trillion in FY2018.  This is only 10% more than the $3.0 trillion that would have been required for Yang’s $12,000 per adult grants.  Or put another way, taxes and other government revenues would need almost to be doubled (raised by 91%) to cover the cost of the program.  As another comparison, the cost of the tax cuts that Trump and the Republican leadership rushed through Congress in December 2017 was forecast to be an estimated $150 billion per year.  That was a big revenue loss.  But the Yang proposal would cost 20 times as much.

With such amounts to be raised, Yang proposes on his campaign website a number of taxes and other measures to fund the program.  One is a value-added tax (VAT), and from his very brief statements during the debates but also in interviews with the media, one gets the impression that all of the program would be funded by a value-added tax.  But that is not the case.  He in fact says on his campaign website that the VAT, at the rate and coverage he would set, would raise only about $800 billion.  This would come only to a bit over a quarter (27%) of the $3.0 trillion needed.  There is a need for much more besides, and to his credit, he presents plans for most (although not all) of this.

So what does he propose specifically?:

a) A New Value-Added Tax:

First, and as much noted, he is proposing that the US institute a VAT at a rate of 10%.  He estimates it would raise approximately $800 billion a year, and for the parameters for the tax that he sets, that is a reasonable estimate.  A VAT is common in most of the rest of the world as it is a tax that is relatively easy to collect, with internal checks that make underreporting difficult.  It is in essence a tax on consumption, similar to a sales tax but levied only on the added value at each stage in the production chain.  Yang notes that a 10% rate would be approximately half of the rates found in Europe (which is more or less correct – the rates in Europe in fact vary by country and are between 17 and 27% in the EU countries, but the rates for most of the larger economies are in the 19 to 22% range).

A VAT is a tax on what households consume, and for that reason a regressive tax.  The poor and middle classes who have to spend all or most of their current incomes to meet their family needs will pay a higher share of their incomes under such a tax than higher-income households will.  For this reason, VAT systems as implemented will often exempt (or tax at a reduced rate) certain basic goods such as foodstuffs and other necessities, as such goods account for a particularly high share of the expenditures of the poor and middle classes.  Yang is proposing this as well.  But even with such exemptions (or lower VAT rates), a VAT tax is still normally regressive, just less so.

Furthermore, households will in the end be paying the tax, as prices will rise to reflect the new tax.  Yang asserts that some of the cost of the VAT will be shifted to businesses, who would not be able, he says, to pass along the full cost of the tax.  But this is not correct.  In the case where the VAT applies equally to all goods, the full 10% will be passed along as all goods are affected equally by the now higher cost, and relative prices will not change.  To the extent that certain goods (such as foodstuffs and other necessities) are exempted, there could be some shift in demand to such goods, but the degree will depend on the extent to which they are substitutable for the goods which are taxed.  If they really are necessities, such substitution is likely to be limited.

A VAT as Yang proposes thus would raise a substantial amount of revenues, and the $800 billion figure is a reasonable estimate.  This total would be on the order of half of all that is now raised by individual income taxes in the US (which was $1,684 billion in FY2018).  But one cannot avoid that such a tax is paid by households, who will face higher prices on what they purchase, and the tax will almost certainly be regressive, impacting the poor and middle classes the most (with the extent dependent on how many and which goods are designated as subject to a reduced VAT rate, or no VAT at all).  But whether regressive or not, everyone will be affected and hence no one will actually see a net increase of $12,000 in purchasing power from the proposed grant  Rather, it will be something less.

b)  A Requirement to Choose Either the $12,000 Grants, or Participation in Existing Government Social Programs

Second, Yang’s proposal would require that households who currently benefit from government social programs, such as for welfare or food stamps, would be required to give up those benefits if they choose to receive the $12,000 per adult per year.  He says this will lead to reduced government spending on such social programs of $500 to $600 billion a year.

There are two big problems with this.  The first is that those programs are not that large.  While it is not fully clear how expansive Yang’s list is of the programs which would then be denied to recipients of the $12,000 grants, even if one included all those included in what the Congressional Budget Office defines as “Income Security” (“unemployment compensation, Supplemental Security Income, the refundable portion of the earned income and child tax credits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [food stamps], family support, child nutrition, and foster care”), the total spent in FY2018 was only $285 billion.  You cannot save $500 to $600 billion if you are only spending $285 billion.

Second, such a policy would be regressive in the extreme.  Poor and near-poor households, and only such households, would be forced to choose whether to continue to receive benefits under such existing programs, or receive the $12,000 per adult grant per year.  If they are now receiving $12,000 or more in such programs per adult household member, they would receive no benefit at all from what is being called a “universal” basic income grant.  To the extent they are now receiving less than $12,000 from such programs (per adult), they may gain some benefit, but less than $12,000 worth.  For example, if they are now receiving $10,000 in benefits (per adult) from current programs, their net gain would be just $2,000 (setting aside for the moment the higher prices they would also now need to pay due to the 10% VAT).  Furthermore, only the poor and near-poor who are being supported by such government programs will see such an effective reduction in their $12,000 grants.  The rich and others, who benefit from other government programs, will not see such a cut in the programs or tax subsidies that benefit them.

c)  Savings in Other Government Programs 

Third, Yang argues that with his universal basic income grant, there would be a reduction in government spending of $100 to $200 billion a year from lower expenditures on “health care, incarceration, homelessness services and the like”, as “people would be able to take better care of themselves”.  This is clearly more speculative.  There might be some such benefits, and hopefully would be, but without experience to draw on it is impossible to say how important this would be and whether any such savings would add up to such a figure.  Furthermore, much of those savings, were they to follow, would accrue not to the federal government but rather to state and local governments.  It is at the state and local level where most expenditures on incarceration and homelessness, and to a lesser degree on health care, take place.  They would not accrue to the federal budget.

d)  Increased Tax Revenues From a Larger Economy

Fourth, Yang states that with the $12,000 grants the economy would grow larger – by 12.5% he says (or $2.5 trillion in increased GDP).  He cites a 2017 study produced by scholars at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning non-profit think tank based in New York, which examined the impact on the overall economy, under several scenarios, of precisely such a $12,000 annual grant per adult.

There are, however, several problems:

i)  First, under the specific scenario that is closest to the Yang proposal (where the grants would be funded through a combination of taxes and other actions), the impact on the overall economy forecast in the Roosevelt Institute study would be either zero (when net distribution effects are neutral), or small (up to 2.6%, if funded through a highly progressive set of taxes).

ii)  The reason for this result is that the model used by the Roosevelt Institute researchers assumes that the economy is far from full employment, and that economic output is then entirely driven by aggregate demand.  Thus with a new program such as the $12,000 grants, which is fully paid for by taxes or other measures, there is no impact on aggregate demand (and hence no impact on economic output) when net distributional effects are assumed to be neutral.  If funded in a way that is not distributionally neutral, such as through the use of highly progressive taxes, then there can be some effect, but it would be small.

In the Roosevelt Institute model, there is only a substantial expansion of the economy (of about 12.5%) in a scenario where the new $12,000 grants are not funded at all, but rather purely and entirely added to the fiscal deficit and then borrowed.  And with the current fiscal deficit now about 5% of GDP under Trump (unprecedented even at 5% in a time of full employment, other than during World War II), and the $12,000 grants coming to $3.0 trillion or 15% of GDP, this would bring the overall deficit to 20% of GDP!

Few economists would accept that such a scenario is anywhere close to plausible.  First of all, the current unemployment rate of 3.5% is at a 50 year low.  The economy is at full employment.  The Roosevelt Institute researchers are asserting that this is fictitious, and that the economy could expand by a substantial amount (12.5% in their scenario) if the government simply spent more and did not raise taxes to cover any share of the cost.  They also assume that a fiscal deficit of 20% of GDP would not have any consequences, such as on interest rates.  Note also an implication of their approach is that the government spending could be on anything, including, for example, the military.  They are using a purely demand-led model.

iii)  Finally, even if one assumes the economy will grow to be 12.5% larger as a result of the grants, even the Roosevelt Institute researchers do not assume it will be instantaneous.  Rather, in their model the economy becomes 12.5% larger only after eight years.  Yang is implicitly assuming it will be immediate.

There are therefore several problems in the interpretation and use of the Roosevelt Institute study.  Their scenario for 12.5% growth is not the one that follows from Yang’s proposals (which is funded, at least to a degree), nor would GDP jump immediately by such an amount.  And the Roosevelt Insitute model of the economy is one that few economists would accept as applicable in the current state of the economy, with its 3.5% unemployment.

But there is also a further problem.  Even assuming GDP rises instantly by 12.5%, leading to an increase in GDP of $2.5 trillion (from a current $20 trillion), Yang then asserts that this higher GDP will generate between $800 and $900 billion in increased federal tax revenue.  That would imply federal taxes of 32 to 36% on the extra output.  But that is implausible.  Total federal tax (and all other) revenues are only 17.5% of GDP.  While in a progressive tax system the marginal tax revenues received on an increase in income will be higher than at the average tax rate, the US system is no longer very progressive.  And the rates are far from what they would need to be twice as high at the margin (32 to 36%) as they are at the average (17.5%).  A more plausible estimate of the increased federal tax revenues from an economy that somehow became 12.5% larger would not be the $800 to $900 billion Yang calculates, but rather about half that.

Might such a universal basic income grant affect the size of the economy through other, more orthodox, channels?  That is certainly possible, although whether it would lead to a higher or to a lower GDP is not clear.  Yang argues that it would lead recipients to manage their health better, to stay in school longer, to less criminality, and to other such social benefits.  Evidence on this is highly limited, but it is in principle conceivable in a program that does properly redistribute income towards those with lower incomes (where, as discussed above, Yang’s specific program has problems).  Over fairly long periods of time (generations really) this could lead to a larger and stronger economy.

But one will also likely see effects working in the other direction.  There might be an increase in spouses (wives usually) who choose to stay home longer to raise their children, or an increase in those who decide to retire earlier than they would have before, or an increase in the average time between jobs by those who lose or quit from one job before they take another, and other such impacts.  Such impacts are not negative in themselves, if they reflect choices voluntarily made and now possible due to a $12,000 annual grant.  But they all would have the effect of reducing GDP, and hence the tax revenues that follow from some level of GDP.

There might therefore be both positive and negative impacts on GDP.  However, the impact of each is likely to be small, will mostly only develop over time, and will to some extent cancel each other out.  What is likely is that there will be little measurable change in GDP in whichever direction.

e)  Other Taxes

Fifth, Yang would institute other taxes to raise further amounts.  He does not specify precisely how much would be raised or what these would be, but provides a possible list and says they would focus on top earners and on pollution.  The list includes a financial transactions tax, ending the favorable tax treatment now given to capital gains and carried interest, removing the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security tax, and a tax on carbon emissions (with a portion of such a tax allocated to the $12,000 grants).

What would be raised by such new or increased taxes would depend on precisely what the rates would be and what they would cover.  But the total that would be required, under the assumption that the amounts that would be raised (or saved, when existing government programs are cut) from all the measures listed above are as Yang assumes, would then be between $500 and $800 billion (as the revenues or savings from the programs listed above sum to $2.2 to $2.5 trillion).  That is, one might need from these “other taxes” as much as would be raised by the proposed new VAT.

But as noted in the discussion above, the amounts that would be raised by those measures are often likely to be well short of what Yang says will be the case.  One cannot save $500 to $600 billion in government programs for the poor and near-poor if government is spending only $285 billion on such programs, for example.  A more plausible figure for what might be raised by those proposals would be on the order of $1 trillion, mostly from the VAT, and not the $2.2 to $2.5 trillion Yang says will be the case.

C.  An Assessment

Yang provides a fair amount of detail on how he would implement a universal basic income grant of $12,000 per adult per year, and for a political campaign it is an admirable amount of detail.  But there are still, as discussed above, numerous gaps that prevent anything like a complete assessment of the program.  But a number of points are evident.

To start, the figures provided are not always plausible.  The math just does not add up, and for someone who extolls the need for good math (and rightly so), this is disappointing.  One cannot save $500 to $600 billion in programs for the poor and near-poor when only $285 billion is being spent now.  One cannot assume that the economy will jump immediately by 12.5% (which even the Roosevelt Institute model forecasts would only happen in eight years, and under a scenario that is the opposite of that of the Yang program, and in a model that few economists would take as credible in any case).  Even if the economy did jump by so much immediately, one would not see an increase of $800 to $900 billion in federal tax revenues from this but rather more like half that.  And other such issues.

But while the proposal is still not fully spelled out (in particular on which other taxes would be imposed to fill out the program), we can draw a few conclusions.  One is that the one group in society who will clearly not gain from the $12,000 grants is the poor and near-poor, who currently make use of food stamp and other such programs and decide to stay with those programs.  They would then not be eligible for the $12,000 grants.  And keep in mind that $12,000 per adult grants are not much, if you have nothing else.  One would still be below the federal poverty line if single (where the poverty line in 2019 is $12,490) or in a household with two adults and two or more children (where the poverty line, with two children, is $25,750).  On top of this, such households (like all households) will pay higher prices for at least some of what they purchase due to the new VAT.  So such households will clearly lose.

Furthermore, those poor or near-poor households who do decide to switch, thus giving up their eligibility for food stamps and other such programs, will see a net gain that is substantially less than $12,000 per adult.  The extent will depend on how much they receive now from those social programs.  Those who receive the most (up to $12,000 per adult), who are presumably also most likely to be the poorest among them, will lose the most.  This is not a structure that makes sense for a program that is purportedly designed to be of most benefit to the poorest.

For middle and higher-income households the net gain (or loss) from the program will depend on the full set of taxes that would be needed to fund the program.  One cannot say who will gain and who will lose until the structure of that full set of taxes is made clear.  This is of course not surprising, as one needs to keep in mind that this is a program of redistribution:  Funds will be raised (by taxes) that disproportionately affect certain groups, to be distributed then in the $12,000 grants.  Some will gain and some will lose, but overall the balance has to be zero.

One can also conclude that such a program, providing for a universal basic income with grants of $12,000 per adult, will necessarily be hugely expensive.  It would cost $3 trillion a year, which is 15% of GDP.  Funding it would require raising all federal tax and other revenue by 91% (excluding any offset by cuts in government social programs, which are however unlikely to amount to anything close to what Yang assumes).  Raising funds of such magnitude is completely unrealistic.  And yet despite such costs, the grants provided of $12,000 per adult would be poverty level incomes for those who do not have a job or other source of support.

One could address this by scaling back the grant, from $12,000 to something substantially less, but then it becomes less meaningful to an individual.  The fundamental problem is the design as a universal grant, to all adults.  While this might be thought to be politically attractive, any such program then ends up being hugely expensive.

The alternative is to design a program that is specifically targeted to those who need such support.  Rather than attempting to hide the distributional consequences in a program that claims to be universal (but where certain groups will gain and certain groups will lose, once one takes fully into account how it will be funded), make explicit the redistribution that is being sought.  With this clear, one can then design a focussed program that addresses that redistribution aim.

Finally, one should recognize that there are other policies as well that might achieve those aims that may not require explicit government-intermediated redistribution.  For example, Senator Cory Booker in the October 15 debate noted that a $15 per hour minimum wage would provide more to those now at the minimum wage than a $12,000 annual grant.  This remark was not much noted, but what Senator Booker said was true.  The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.  This is low – indeed, it is less (in real terms) than what it was when Harry Truman was president.  If the minimum wage were raised to $15 per hour, a worker now at the $7.25 rate would see an increase in income of $15.00 – $7.25 = $7.75 per hour, and over a year of 40 hour weeks would see an increase in income of $7.75 x 40 x 52 = $16,120.00.  This is well more than a $12,000 annual grant would provide.

Republican politicians have argued that raising the minimum wage by such a magnitude will lead to widespread unemployment.  But there is no evidence that changes in the minimum wage that we have periodically had in the past (whether federal or state level minimum wages) have had such an adverse effect.  There is of course certainly some limit to how much it can be raised, but one should recognize that the minimum wage would now be over $24 per hour if it had been allowed to grow at the same pace as labor productivity since the late 1960s.

Income inequality is a real problem in the US, and needs to be addressed.  But there are problems with Yang’s specific version of a universal basic income.  While one may be able to fix at least some of those problems and come up with something more reasonable, it would still be massively disruptive given the amounts to be raised.  And politically impossible.  A focus on more targeted programs, as well as on issues such as the minimum wage, are likely to prove far more productive.

Market Competition as a Path to Making Medicare Available for All

A.  Introduction

Since taking office just two years ago, the Trump administration has done all it legally could to undermine Obamacare.  The share of the US population without health insurance had been brought down to historic lows under Obama, but they have now moved back up, with roughly half of the gains now lost.  The chart above (from Gallup) traces its path.

This vulnerability of health cover gains to an antagonistic administration has led many Democrats to look for a more fundamental reform that would be better protected.  Many are now calling for an expansion of the popular and successful Medicare program to the full population – it is currently restricted just to those aged 65 and above.  Some form of Medicare-for-All has now been endorsed by most of the candidates that have so far announced they are seeking the Democratic nomination to run for president in 2020, although the specifics differ.

But while Medicare-for-All is popular as an ultimate goal, the path to get there as well as specifics on what the final structure might look like are far from clear (and differ across candidates, even when different alternatives are each labeled “Medicare-for-All”).  There are justifiable concerns on whether there will be disruptions along the way.  And the candidates favoring Medicare-for-All have yet to set out all the details on how that process would work.

But there is no need for the process to be disruptive.  The purpose of this blog post is to set out a possible path where personal choice in a system of market competition can lead to a health insurance system where Medicare is at least available for all who desire it, and where the private insurance that remains will need to be at least as efficient and as attractive to consumers as Medicare.

The specifics will be laid out below, but briefly, the proposal is built around two main observations.  One is that Medicare is a far more efficient, and hence lower cost, system than private health insurance is in the US.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, administrative expenses account for only 2.4% of the cost of traditional Medicare.  All the rest (97.6%) goes to health care providers.  Private health insurers, in contrast, have non-medical expenses of 12% of their total costs, or five times as much.  Medicare is less costly to administer as it is a simpler system and enjoys huge economies of scale.  Private health insurers, in contrast, have set up complex systems of multiple plans and networks of health care providers, pay very generous salaries to CEOs and other senior staff who are skilled at operating in the resulting highly fragmented system, and pay out high profits as well (that in normal years account for roughly one-quarter of that 12% margin).

With Medicare so much more efficient, why has it not pushed out the more costly private insurance providers?  The answer is simple:  Congress has legislated that Medicare is not allowed to compete with them.  And that is the second point:  Remove these legislated constraints, and allow Medicare-managed plans to compete with the private insurance companies (at a price set so that it breaks even).  Americans will then be able to choose, and in this way transition to a system where enrollment in Medicare-managed insurance services is available to all.  And over time, such competition can be expected to lead most to enroll in the Medicare-managed options.  They will be cheaper for a given quality, due to Medicare’s greater efficiency.

There will still be a role for private insurance.  For those competing with Medicare straight on, the private insurers that remain will have to be able to provide as good a product at as good a cost.  But also, private insurers will remain to offer insurance services that supplement what a Medicare insurance plan would provide.  Such optional private insurance would cover services (such as dental services) or costs (Medicare covers just 80% after the deductible) that the basic Medicare plan does not cover.  Medicare will then be the primary insurer, and the private insurance the secondary.  And, importantly, note that in this system the individual will still be receiving all the services that they receive under their current health plans.  This addresses the concern of some that a Medicare-like plan would not be as complete or as comprehensive as what they might have now.  With the optional supplemental, their insurance could cover exactly what they have now, or even more.  Medicare would be providing a core level of coverage, and then, for those who so choose, supplemental private plans can bring the coverage to all that they have now.  But the cost will be lower, as they will gain from the low cost of Medicare for those core services.

More specifically, how would this work?

B.  Allow Medicare to Compete in the Market for Individual Health Insurance Plans

A central part of the Obamacare reforms was the creation of a marketplace where individuals, who do not otherwise have access to a health insurance plan (such as through an employer), could choose to purchase an individual health insurance plan.  As originally proposed, and indeed as initially passed by the House of Representatives, a publicly managed health insurance plan would have been made available (at a premium rate that would cover its full costs) in addition to whatever plans were offered by private insurers.  This would have addressed the problem in the Obamacare markets of often excessive complexity (with constantly changing private plans entering or leaving the different markets), as well as limited and sometimes even no competition in certain regions.  A public option would have always been available everywhere.  But to secure the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate, the public option had to be dropped (at the insistence of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut).

It could, and should, be introduced now.  Such a public option could be managed by Medicare, and could then piggy-back on the management systems and networks of hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers who already work with Medicare.  However, the insurance plan itself would be broader than what Medicare covers for the elderly, and would meet the standards for a comprehensive health care plan as defined under Obamacare.  Medicare for the elderly is, by design, only partial (for example, it covers only 80% of the cost, after a modest deductible), plus it does not cover services such as for pregnancies.  A public option plan administered by Medicare in the Obamacare marketplace would rather provide services as would be covered under the core “silver plan” option in those markets (the option that is the basis for the determination of the subsidies for low-income households).  And one might consider offering as options plans at the “bronze” and “gold” levels as well.

Such a Medicare-managed public option would provide competition in the Obamacare exchanges.  An important difficulty, especially in the Republican states that have not been supportive of offering such health insurance, is that in certain states (or counties within those states) there have been few health insurers competing with each other, and indeed often only one.  The exchanges are organized by state, and even when insurers decide to offer insurance cover within some state, they may decide to offer it only to residents of certain counties within that state.  The private insurers operate with an expensive business model, built typically around organizing networks of doctors with whom they negotiate individual rates for health care services provided.  It is costly to set this up, and not worthwhile unless they have a substantial number of individuals enrolled in their particular plan.

But one should also recognize that there is a strong incentive in the current Obamacare markets for an individual insurer to provide cover in a particular area if no other insurer is there to compete with them.  That is because the federal subsidy to a low-income individual subscribing to an insurance plan depends on the difference between what insurers charge for a silver-level plan (specifically the second lowest cost for such a plan, if there are two or more insurers in the market) and some given percentage of that individual’s household income (with that share phased out for higher incomes).  What that means is that with no other insurer providing competition in some locale, the one that is offering insurance can charge very high rates for their plans and then receive high federal subsidies.  The ones who then lose in this (aside from the federal taxpayer) are households of middle or higher income who would want to purchase private health insurance, but whose income is above the cutoff for eligibility for the federal subsidies.

The result is that the states with the most expensive health insurance plan costs are those that have sought to undermine the Obamacare marketplace (leading to less competition), while the lowest costs are in those states that have encouraged the Obamacare exchanges and thus have multiple insurers competing with each other.  For example, the two states with the most expensive premium rates in 2019 (average for the benchmark silver plans) were Wyoming (average monthly premium for a 40-year-old of $865, before subsidies) and Nebraska (premium of $838).  Each had only one health insurer provider on the exchanges.  At the other end, the five states with the least expensive average premia, all with multiple providers, were Minnesota ($326), Massachusetts ($332), Rhode Island ($336), Indiana ($339), and New Jersey ($352).  These are not generally considered to be low-cost states, but the cost of the insurance plans in Wyoming and Nebraska were two and a half times higher.

The competition of a Medicare-managed public provider would bring down those extremely high insurance costs in the states with limited or no competition.  And at such lower rates, the total being spent by the federal government to support access by individuals to health insurance will come down.  But to achieve this, Congress will have to allow such competition from a public provider, and management through Medicare would be the most efficient way to do this.  One would still have any private providers who wish to compete.  But consumers would then have a choice.

C.  Allow Medicare to Compete in the Market for Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Cover

While the market for individual health insurance cover is important to extending the availability of affordable health care to those otherwise without insurance cover, employer-sponsored health insurance plans account for a much higher share of the population.  Excluding those with government-sponsored plans via Medicare, Medicaid, and other such public programs, employer-sponsored plans accounted for 76% of the remaining population, individual plans for 11%, and the uninsured for 14%.

These employer-sponsored plans are dominant in the US for historical reasons.  They receive special tax breaks, which began during World War II.  Due to the tax breaks, it is cheaper for the firm to arrange for employee health insurance through the firm (even though it is in the end paid for by the employee, as part of their total compensation package), than to pay the employee an overall wage with the employee then purchasing the health insurance on his or her own.  The employer can deduct it as a business expense.  But this has led to the highly fragmented system of health insurance cover in the US, with each employer negotiating with private insurers for what will be provided through their firm, with resulting high costs for such insurance.

As many have noted, no one would design such a health care funding system from scratch.  But it is what the US has now, and there is justifiable concern over whether some individuals might encounter significant disruptions when switching over to a more rational system, whether Medicare-for-All or anything else.  It is a concern which needs to be respected, as we need health care treatment when we need it, and one does not want to be locked out of access, even if temporarily, during some transition.  How can this risk be avoided?

One could manage this by avoiding a compulsory switch in insurance plans, but rather provide as an option insurance through a Medicare-managed plan.  That is, a Medicare-managed insurance plan, similar in what is covered to current Medicare, would be allowed to compete with current insurance providers, and employers would have the option to switch to that Medicare plan, either immediately or at some later point, as they wish, to manage health insurance for their employees.

Furthermore, this Medicare-managed insurance could serve as a core insurance plan, to be supplemented by a private insurance plan which could cover costs and health care services that Medicare does not cover (such as dental and vision).  These could be similar to Medicare Supplement plans (often called a Medigap plan), or indeed any private insurance plan that provides additional coverage to what Medicare provides.  Medicare is then the primary insurer, while the private supplemental plan is secondary and covers whatever costs (up to whatever that supplemental plan covers) that are not paid for under the core Medicare plan.

In this way, an individual’s effective coverage could be exactly the same as what they receive now under their current employer-sponsored plan.  Employers would still sponsor these supplemental plans, as an addition to the core Medicare-managed plan that they would also choose (and pay for, like any other insurance plan).  But the cost of the Medicare-managed plus private supplemental plans would typically be less than the cost of the purely private plans, due to the far greater efficiency of Medicare.  And with this supplemental coverage, one would address the concern of many that what they now receive through their employer-sponsored plan is a level of benefits that are greater than what Medicare itself covers.  They don’t want to lose that.  But with such supplemental plans, one could bring what is covered up to exactly what they are covering now.

This is not uncommon.  Personally, I am enrolled in Medicare, while I have (though my former employer) additional cover by a secondary private insurer.  And I pay monthly premia to Medicare and through my former employer to the private insurer for this coverage (with those premia supplemented by my former employer, as part of my retirement package).  With the supplemental coverage, I have exactly the same health care services and share of costs covered as what I had before I became eligible for Medicare.  But the cost to me (and my former employer) is less.  One should recognize that for retirees this is in part due to Medicare for the elderly receiving general fiscal subsidies through the government budget.  But the far greater efficiency of Medicare that allows it to keep its administrative costs low (at just 2.4% of what it spends, with the rest going to health care service providers, as compared to a 12% cost share for private insurance) would lead to lower costs for Medicare than for private providers even without such fiscal support.

Such supplemental coverage is also common internationally.  Canada and France, for example, both have widely admired single-payer health insurance systems (what Medicare-for-All would be), and in both one can purchase supplemental coverage from private insurers for costs and services that are not covered under the core, government managed, single-payer plans.

Under this proposed scheme for the US, the decision by a company of whether to purchase cover from Medicare need not be compulsory.  The company could, if it wished, choose to remain with its current private insurer.  But what would be necessary would be for Congress to remove the restriction that prohibits Medicare from competing with private insurance providers.  Medicare would then be allowed to offer such plans at a price which covers its costs.  Companies could then, if they so chose, purchase such core cover from Medicare and additionally, to supplement such insurance with a private secondary plan.  One would expect that given the high cost of medical services everywhere (but especially in the US) they will take a close look at the comparative costs and value provided, and choose the plan (or set of plans) which is most advantageous to them.

Over time, one would expect a shift towards the Medicare-managed plans, given its greater efficiency.  And private plans, in order to be competitive for the core (primary) insurance available from Medicare, would be forced to improve their own efficiency, or face a smaller and smaller market share.  If they can compete, that is fine.  But given their track record up to now, one would expect that they will leave that market largely to Medicare, and focus instead on providing supplemental coverage for the firms to select from.

D.  Avoiding Cherry-Picking by the Private Insurers

An issue to consider, but which can be addressed, is whether in such a system the private insurers will be able to “cherry-pick” the more lucrative, lower risk, population, leaving those with higher health care costs to the Medicare-managed options.  The result would be higher expenses for the public options, which would require them either to raise their rates (if they price to break even) or require a fiscal subsidy from the general government budget.  And if the public options were forced to raise their rates, there would no longer be a level playing field in the market, effective competition would be undermined, and lower-efficiency private insurers could then remain in the market, raising our overall health system costs.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed in any insurance system, and was addressed for the Obamacare exchanges as originally structured.  While the Trump administration has sought to undermine these, they do provide a guide to what is needed.

Specifically, all insurers on the Obamacare exchanges are required to take on anyone in the geographic region who chooses to enroll in their particular plan, even if they have pre-existing conditions.  This is the key requirement which keeps private insurers from cherry-picking lower-cost enrollees, and excluding those who will likely have higher costs.  However, this then needs to be complemented with: 1) the individual mandate; 2) minimum standards on what constitutes an adequate health insurance plan; and 3) what is in essence a reinsurance system across insurers to compensate those who ended up with high-cost enrollees, by payments from those insurers with what turned out to be a lower cost pool (the “risk corridor” program).  These were all in the original Obamacare system, but: 1) the individual mandate was dropped in the December 2017 Republican tax cut (after the Trump administration said they would no longer enforce it anyway);  2) the Trump administration has weakened the minimum standards; and 3) Senator Marco Rubio was able in late 2015 to insert a provision in a must-pass budget bill which blocked any federal spending to even out payments in the risk corridor program.

Without these measures, it will be impossible to sustain the requirement that insurers provide access to everyone, at a price which reflects the health care risks of the population as a whole. With no individual mandate, those who are currently healthy could choose to free-ride on the system, and enroll in one of the health care plans only when they might literally be on the way to the hospital, or, in a less extreme example, only aim to enroll at the point when they know they will soon have high medical expenses (such as when they decide to have a baby, or to have some non-urgent but expensive medical procedure done).  The need for good minimum standards for health care plans is related to this.  Those who are relatively healthy might decide to enroll in an insurance plan that covers little, but, when diagnosed with say a cancer or some other such medical condition, then and only then enroll in a medical insurance plan that provides good cover for such treatments.  The good medical insurance plans would either soon go bankrupt, or be forced also to reduce what they cover in a race to the bottom.

Finally, risk sharing across insurers is in fact common (it is called reinsurance), and was especially important in the new Obamacare markets as the mix of those who would enroll in the plans, especially in the early years, could not be known.  Thus, as part of Obamacare, a system of “risk corridors” was introduced where insurers who ended up with an expensive mix of enrollees (those with severe medical conditions to treat) would be compensated by those with an unexpectedly low-cost mix of enrollees, with the federal government in the middle to smooth out the payments over time.  The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2014 that while the payment flows would be substantial ($186 billion over ten years) the inflows would match the outflows, leaving no net budgetary cost.  However, Senator Rubio’s amendment effectively blocked this, as he (incorrectly) characterized the risk corridor program to be a “bailout” fund for the insurers.  But the effect of Rubio’s amendment was to lead smaller insurers and newly established health care coops to exit the market (as they did not have the financial resources to wait for inflows and outflows to even out), reducing competition by leaving only a limited number of the large, deep pocket, insurers who could survive such a wait, and then, with the more limited competition, jack up the insurance premia rates.  The result, as we will discuss immediately below, was to increase, not decrease, federal budgetary costs, while pricing out access to the markets of those with incomes too high to receive the federal subsidies.

Despite these efforts to kill Obamacare and block the extension of health insurance coverage to those Americans who have not had it, another provision in the Obamacare structure has allowed it to survive, at least so far and albeit in a more restrictive (but higher cost) form.  And that is due to the way the system of federal subsidies are provided to those of lower-income households in order to make it possible for them to purchase health insurance at a price they can afford.  As discussed above, these federal subsidies cover the difference between some percentage of a household’s income (with that percentage depending on their income) and the cost of a benchmark silver-level plan in their region.

More specifically, those with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line (400% would be $49,960 for an individual in 2019, or $103,000 for a family of four) are eligible to receive a federal subsidy to purchase a qualifying health insurance plan.  The subsidy is equal to the difference between the cost of the benchmark silver-level plan and a percentage of their income, on a sliding scale that starts at 2.08% of income for those earning 133% of the poverty line, and goes up to 9.86% for those earning 400%.  The mathematical result of this is that if the cost of the benchmark health insurance plan goes up by $1, they will receive an extra $1 of subsidy (as their income, and hence their contribution, is still the same).

The result is that measures such as the blocking of the risk corridor program by Senator Rubio’s amendment, or the Trump administration’s decision not to enforce (and then to remove altogether) the individual mandate, or the weakening the standards of what has to be covered in a qualifying health insurance plan, have all had the effect of the insurance companies being forced to raise the insurance premium rates sharply.  While those with incomes up to 400% of the poverty line were not affected by this (they pay the same share of their income), those with incomes higher than the 400% limit have been effectively priced out of these markets.  Only those (whose incomes are above that 400%) with some expensive medical condition might remain, but this then further biases the risk pool to those with high medical expenses.  Finally and importantly, these measures to undermine the markets have led to higher, not lower, federal budgetary costs, as the federal subsidies go up dollar for dollar with the higher premium rates.

So we know how to structure the markets to ensure there will be no cherry-picking of low risk, low cost, enrollees, leaving the high-cost patients for the Medicare-managed option.  But it needs to be done.  The requirement that all the insurance plans accept any enrollee will stop this.  This then needs to be complemented with the individual mandate, minimum standards for the health insurance plans, and some form of risk corridors (reinsurance) program.  The issue is not that this is impossible to do, but rather that the Trump administration (and Republicans in Congress) have sought to undermine it.

This discussion has been couched in terms of the market for individual insurance plans, but the same principles apply in the market for employer-sponsored health insurance.  While not as much discussed, the Affordable Care Act also included an employer mandate (phased in over time), with penalties for firms with 50 employees or more who do not offer a health insurance plan meeting minimum standards to their employees.  There were also tax credits provided to smaller firms who offer such insurance plans.

But the cherry-picking concern is less of an issue for such employer-based coverage than it is for coverage of individuals.  This is because there will be a reasonable degree of risk diversification across individuals (the mix of those with more expensive medical needs and those with less) even with just 100 employees or so.  And smaller firms can often subscribe together with others in the industry to a plan that covers them as a group, thus providing a reasonable degree of diversification.  With the insurance covering everyone in the firm (or group of firms), there will be less of a possibility of trying to cherry-pick among them.

The possibility of cherry-picking is therefore something that needs to be considered when designing some insurance system.  If not addressed, it could lead to a loading of the more costly enrollees onto a public option, thus increasing its costs and requiring either higher premia to subscribe to it or government budget support.  But we know how to address the issue.  The primary tool, which we should want in any case, is to require health insurers to be open to any enrollees, and not block those with pre-existing conditions.  But this then needs to be balanced with the individual mandate, minimum standards for what qualifies as a genuine health insurance plan, and means to reinsure exceptional risks across insurers.  The Obamacare reforms had these, and one cannot say that we do not know how to address the issue.

E.  Conclusion

These proposals are not radical.  And while there has been much discussion of allowing a public option to provide competition for insurance plans in the Obamacare markets, I have not seen much discussion of allowing a Medicare-managed option in the market for employer-sponsored health insurance plans.  Yet the latter market is far larger than the market for private, individual, plans, and a key part of the proposal is to allow such competition here as well.

Allowing such options would enable a smooth transition to Medicare-managed health insurance that would be available to all Americans.  And over time one would expect many if not most to choose such Medicare-managed options. Medicare has demonstrated that it is managed with far great efficiency than private health insurers, and thus it can offer better plans at lower cost than private insurers currently do.  If the private insurers are then able to improve their competitiveness by reducing their costs to what Medicare has been able to achieve, then they may remain.  But I expect that most of them will choose to compete in the markets for supplemental coverage, offering plans that complement the core Medicare-managed plan and which would offer a range of options from which employers can choose for their employer-sponsored health insurance cover.

Conservatives may question, and indeed likely will question, whether government-managed anything can be as efficient, much less more efficient, than privately provided services.  While the facts are clear (Medicare does exist, we have the data on what it costs, and we have the data on what private health insurance costs), some will still not accept this.  However, with such a belief, conservatives should not then be opposed to allowing Medicare-managed health insurance options to compete with the private insurers.  If what they believe is true, the publicly-managed options would be too expensive for an inferior product, and few would enroll in it.

But I suspect that the private insurers realize they would not be able to compete with the Medicare-managed insurance options unless they were able to bring their costs down to a comparable level.  And they do not want to do this as they (and their senior staff) benefit enormously from the current fragmented, high cost, system.  That is, there are important vested interests who will be opposed to opening up the system to competition from Medicare-managed options.  It should be no surprise that they, and the politicians they contribute generously to, will be opposed.

The Savings from Lower Administrative Costs in a Medicare-for-All System

 

A.  Introduction

One of the most important issues facing the US is our high cost of health care.  We have a terribly inefficient system, with the highest costs in the world (reaching 18% of GDP, which is 50% more than in the second most expensive country and close to double the average of the OECD countries), yet with only mediocre results compared to other countries.  It is a market-based system, with competing health care providers (doctors, hospitals, and so on) and competing private health insurance companies.  However, the extremely wide variation in prices for the same treatments and procedures (often varying by a factor of ten or more) is a clear sign that this market is not working as it should.  And those skilled at exploiting these inefficiencies are able to profit handsomely, with CEOs and other senior staff of the major private insurance companies paid well.  Indeed, total compensation packages have occasionally even topped $100 million.

Despite so much spending, the US is still far from providing affordable access to health care for our entire population.  While the situation improved substantially following the introduction of Obamacare (with the share of the US population without any form of health insurance falling by about 40% after Obamacare went into effect), the Trump administration is doing all it can to reverse these gains.

Faced with these issues, a number of analysts and politicians (Senator Bernie Sanders as just the most prominent) have proposed that the US move to what is termed a “single-payer” system, such as what they have in Canada, France, and a number of other countries.  In a single-payer system, doctors, hospitals, and healthcare service providers remain as they are now, as independent and typically private agents serving their patients.  The only difference is that there is only one insurer, run as a government agency.  This is what the US has in the popular Medicare system, but Medicare is restricted only to those aged 65 and above.  Hence in the US context, a single-payer system for all is often referred to as “Medicare-for-All”.

A key question is whether a Medicare-for-All system would reduce the high cost of healthcare in the US.  Those opposed to any such government managed programs have argued that costs would rise.  And they have issued reports with headline findings that can only be interpreted as being deliberately misleading.  For example, in late July, Charles Blahous (a former Bush administration official) issued an analysis through the Mercatus Center of George Mason University (a center that has received major funding from the Koch Brothers) that concluded government spending would rise by $32.6 trillion over ten years under a Medicare-for-All system.  This has received a good deal of press coverage, and is being used (as I write this) in a number of ads being televised by Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.

But while worded carefully, this claim is misleading in the extreme.  First of all, that such high amounts will be spent on health care should not be a surprise, when added up over ten years.  Total US health care spending is expected to reach $3.7 trillion this year, would rise to $5.7 trillion by 2026 if nothing is done, and would total $45.0 trillion over the ten-year period of 2017 to 2026 (using National Health Expenditure data and forecasts, which will be discussed in detail below).  The portion of this covered by various forms of personal health insurance (both private and public, such as Medicare, but excluding the military and the VA) is expected to reach $2.7 trillion this year, $4.2 trillion by 2026, and would sum to $33.1 trillion over the ten years 2017 to 2026.

So high amounts will be spent on health care, unless measures are taken to improve efficiency and reduce costs.  In per capita terms, the US population will be spending in 2018 an average of $8,190 per person through the various forms of personal health insurance our system currently employs.  This is, without question, a lot.  It will be an estimated 17.9% of the median wage this year.  But if we had the far lower administrative costs that Medicare has been able to achieve for the health insurance it manages directly, instead of the significantly higher administrative costs incurred under a variety of mostly private health insurance plans (discussed below), the average per capita cost would be just $7,480 per person in 2018.  There would also be other savings (such as what health care providers will enjoy from a simplified system, which we will also discuss below), but the savings from those sources, while certainly significant, are harder to estimate.  The $7,480 figure simply reflects savings from lower administrative costs on the part of the insurers if we were able to achieve what Medicare already does.

Thus the correct question is whether we should prefer sending a check for $8,190 per person to Aetna, Cigna, United Healthcare, and the other insurers (and including what is paid through taxes for Medicare and other publicly managed insurance), or a check for $7,480 just to Medicare under a Medicare-for-All system.  The doctors we see would be the same, and the treatments and procedures would also be the same as what we have now.  The savings here is purely from more efficient administration of our health insurance.  That the check in one case goes just to the government, and in the other to a mix of private and public insurers, should not be, in itself, of consequence.  But the Blahous argument, in saying that we cannot afford the $32.6 trillion he forecasts for healthcare spending over ten years, is that for some reason a larger check (of $8,190) to our current mix of insurers is fine while we cannot afford to send instead a smaller check (of $7,480) if that check goes to a government entity.  This is silly.

For the nation as a whole, the savings from the greater efficiency of a Medicare-for-All system is substantial.  As we will see, it would add up to $204 billion in 2016, had this system been in place that year, growing to $365 billion by 2026.  For the ten year period from 2017 to 2026, the savings would sum to $2.9 trillion.  This is not a small sum.

This main point is that we should look at the data, and not presume certain outcomes based on ideology or political beliefs.  We will thus start in this blog post with an examination of what administrative costs actually are, for Medicare and for private insurance.  We will see that the cost for administering Medicare, for the portion of Medicare managed directly by government, is far less than what is spent to administer other health insurance, including in particular private health insurance.  There are many reasons for this, where the most important is the relative simplicity and scale of the Medicare system.  An annex to this blog will discuss in detail what these various factors are for the different health insurance systems that could be folded into a Medicare-for-All system.  We will also discuss in that annex why Medicare is able to achieve its far lower administrative costs, and address some of the arguments that have mistakenly asserted that this is not the case, despite the evidence.

Taking the administrative costs that Medicare has been able to achieve as a base, we will then calculate what the savings would add up to, per year for the US as a whole, under a Medicare-for-All system.  The basic result is depicted in the chart at the top of this post, and as noted above, the savings from greater administrative efficiency would rise from $204 billion in 2016 (had the system been in place then) to $365 billion in 2026.

These savings are substantial.  But there are also other savings, which are, however, more difficult to estimate.  The penultimate section of this post will discuss several.  They include savings that will be possible in the administrative and clerical costs at doctor’s offices and at hospitals and other healthcare facilities.  Doctors, hospitals, and other facilities must hire specialist staff to deal with the complex and fragmented system of insurance in the US, and the costs from this are substantial.  There will also be savings on the part of employers, who must now manage and oversee the contracts they have with private insurers.

A final, concluding, section will summarize the key issues and discuss briefly why such an obvious and large saving in costs has not been politically possible in the US (at least so far).  The short answer:  Vested interests profit substantially under the current fragmented system, and it should not be a surprise that they do not want to see it replaced.  With extra spending in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year, there is a lot to be gained by those skilled at operating in this fragmented system.

B.  The Cost of Administering Current Health Insurance Plans

It is often difficult to estimate what costs and savings might be under some major reform, as we do not yet know what will happen.  But this is not the case for estimating administrative costs for health insurance.  We already have excellent data on what those costs actually are for a variety of different health insurance providers, including Medicare.

The primary sources of the data are the National Health Expenditure Accounts (NHE), produced annually by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Annual Report of the Medicare Trustees.  The current NHE (released in February 2018) provides detailed historical figures on health expenditures (broken down in numerous ways) through to 2016, plus forecasts for many of the series to 2026.  And the Annual Report of the Medicare Trustees (with the most recent released in June 2018), provides detailed financial accounts, including of government administrative costs, for the different components of Medicare and the supporting trust funds (with past as well as forecast expenditures and revenues).

Table 19 of the historical tables in the most recent NHE provides a detailed break down of health care expenditures in 2016 by payer (mostly various insurance programs, both public and private).  The expenditures shown include what is spent on administration by government entities (separately for state and federal, although I have aggregated the two in the table below), and for what they term the “net cost of health insurance”.  The net cost of private health insurance includes all elements of the difference between what the private insurer receives in premium payments, and what the insurer pays out for health services provided by doctors, hospitals, and so on.  Thus it includes such items as profits earned by the insurer.  For simplicity, I will use “administrative costs” to include all these elements, including profits, even though this is a broad use of the term.

Table 19 of the NHE shows Medicare expenditures for all components of Medicare on just one line.  While it shows separately the administrative costs incurred by government in the administration of Medicare (with all of it federal, as states are not involved), and the administrative costs (as defined above) incurred by private insurers for the Medicare programs that they manage, the NHE does not show separately which of those costs (government and private) are linked to which Medicare programs.

For those figures one must turn to the Medicare Trustees Annual Report.  Medicare Parts A and B are managed directly by Medicare officials, and provide payments for services by hospitals (Part A) and doctors (Part B).  Medicare Part C (also now called Medicare Advantage) is managed by private insurers on behalf of Medicare, and cover services that would otherwise be covered by Medicare directly in Medicare Parts A and B.  And the relatively recent Medicare Part D (for prescription drugs) is also managed by private insurers, either as a stand-alone cover or folded into Medicare Advantage plans.

Any such combination of numbers from two separate sources will often lead to somewhat different estimates for those figures that can be compared directly with each other.  There might be slight differences in definitions, or in concepts such as whether expenses are recorded as incurred or as paid, or something else.  But the figures which could be compared here were close.  In particular, the figure for total Medicare expenditures in calendar year 2016 was $678.8 billion in the Trustees report and $672.1 billion in the NHE, a difference of just 1%.  Of greater relative importance, the Trustees report has a figure for government administration (for all Medicare programs combined) of $9.3 billion, while the NHE has a figure of $10.5 billion.  However, while the difference between these two figures may appear to be large, what matters is not so much the difference between these two, but rather the difference (as a share of total costs) between either of these and the much higher cost share for privately managed insurance (as we will see below).  We will in any case run scenarios in Section C below with each of the two different estimates for government administrative costs in Medicare, and see that the overall effect of choosing one rather than the other is not large.

Based on these sources, the costs paid in 2016 under most of the major health insurance programs in the US were:

Current Expenditures for Health Care and for Administrative Costs 

   2016 data ($ billions)

Gross Cost

Gov’t Admin

Private Admin

Total Admin

Total   as %

Private Health Insurance

$1,123.4

$129.6

$129.6

11.5%

Medicare:

$678.8

    Gov’t Administered

$390.7

$9.3

$9.3

2.4%

    Privately Administered

$288.1

$36.3

$36.3

12.6%

Medicaid

$565.6

$24.2

$36.1

$60.3

10.7%

CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program)

$16.9

$1.5

$1.4

$2.9

17.3%

Worker’s Compensation

$50.7

$2.3

$16.4

$18.8

37.0%

Total: 

$2,435.3

$37.4

$219.8

$257.2

10.6%

* Medicare Gov’t Admin –   NHE estimate

$390.7

$10.5

$10.5

2.7%

Sources:  Medicare expenditures, other than private administrative costs, are from the 2018 Medicare Trustees Annual Report.  All other figures are from the NHE accounts, Table 19 (historical), released in February 2018.

 

The table leaves out the health care programs of the Department of Defense and the Veterans’ Administration (as they operate under special conditions, with many of the services provided directly), as well as a number of smaller government and other programs (such as for Native Americans, or worksite or school-based health programs).  Those programs have been set aside here due to their special nature.  But while significant, the $2,435.3 billion of expenditures in the programs listed in the table account for 89% of the total spent in the US in 2016 on all health care services to individuals covered through either some form of health insurance or third-party payer.  While some portion of the remaining 11% could perhaps be folded into a Medicare-for-All system (thus leading to even higher savings), we will focus in this post on the 89%.

The table shows that the administrative cost ratios vary over a wide range, from just 2.4% for the health insurance Medicare administers directly (using the Medicare Trustees figures, or 2.7% based on the NHE figures), up to 37% for the administration of the health portions of Workers’ Compensation.  The administrative cost for direct private health insurance is 11.5% on average, while the administrative cost for the privately managed portions of Medicare (Medicare Part C and Part D) is a similar, but somewhat higher, 12.6%.

This wide variation in administrative cost ratios provides clues on what is going on.  These will be discussed in the Annex to this post for those interested.  Briefly, the programs (other than government-administered Medicare) are complex, fragmented, have to make case by case assessments of whether the claim is eligible (as for Workers’ Compensation plans) or whether the individual meets the enrollment requirements (as for Medicaid and CHIP – the Children’s Health Insurance Program), and do not benefit from the scale economies that Medicare enjoys.

But while such explanations are of interest in understanding why Medicare can be provided at such a lower cost than private and other insurance, the key finding, in the end, is that it is.  The data are clear.  The next section will use this to calculate what overall savings would be at the national level if we were to move to a system with the cost efficiencies of Medicare.

C.  National Savings in Administrative Costs from a Medicare-for-All System

Medicare (for the portion managed directly by government) costs far less to administer than our current health insurance system with its complex and fragmented mix of plans (most of which are privately managed).  Only 2.4% of the cost of the portion of Medicare managed directly by government was needed for administration of the program in 2016, while the costs to administer the other identified health insurance programs range between 10.7% (for Medicaid) and 11.5% (for private health insurance) to 37% (for workers’ compensation plans).  With $2.4 trillion spent on these health insurance plans (in 2016), the savings from a more efficient approach to administration will be significant.

An estimate of what the nation-wide savings would be can then be calculated based on figures in the NHE forecasts of health expenditures (by health insurance program) for the 2017 to 2026 period (Table 17 of the forecasts), coupled with the Medicare system forecasts provided in the Medicare Trustees Annual Report.  Applying the share of administrative costs in the portion of Medicare managed directly by government (2.4% in 2016, but then using the year by year forecasts of the Medicare trustees for the full forecast period), rather than what the administrative cost ratios would have been for the other programs that would be folded into a Medicare-for-All system (private health insurance, Medicaid, CHIP, and Workers’ Compensation), using their 2016 cost ratios, yields the savings shown in the chart above.

Had a Medicare-for-All system been in effect in 2016, we would have saved $204 billion in administration, with this growing over time (with the overall growth in health expenditures over time) to an estimated $365 billion by 2026.  The savings over ten years (2017 to 2026) would be $2.9 trillion, and would by itself bring down the cost of health care (for the programs covered) from a ten year total of $33.1 trillion forecast now, to $30.2 trillion with the reform.  There would be other savings as well (discussed in the next section below), but they are more difficult to quantify.  However, a very rough estimate is that they could be double the magnitude of the savings from the more efficient administration of health insurance alone.  See the next section below for a discussion.

The calculations here required a mix of data from the NHE and from the Medicare Trustees report, and as I noted above, the estimates of the cost of government administration in these two sources were not quite the same.  The Medicare Trustees report gave a figure for government administrative costs of the overall Medicare system of $9.3 billion in 2016 (and then year by year forecasts going forward to 2026), while the NHE estimate was $10.5 billion in 2016.  As shown in the last line of the table above, the $10.5 billion figure would lead to an administrative cost share of 2.7%, compared to the 2.4% figure if the cost was at the NHE figure of $10.5 billion.  The savings in moving to a Medicare-for-All system would then not be as large.

But the impact of this would be small.  One can calculate what the cost savings would be assuming government administration would cost 2.7% rather than the 2.4% figure in the Medicare Trustees report (with also its forecasts going forward), using the same process as above.  The total national savings would have been $199 billion in 2016 rather than $204 billion, growing to savings of $345 billion in 2026 rather than $365 billion.  The ten-year total savings would be $2.7 trillion rather than $2.9 trillion.  The savings under either estimate would be large.

D.  Other Efficiency Savings in a Medicare-for-All System 

The $2.9 trillion (or $2.7 trillion) figure for savings over ten years from moving to a Medicare-for-All system comes solely from the lower administrative costs that we know can be achieved in a Medicare type system – we know because we know what Medicare in fact costs.  But there are other savings as well that will be gained by moving to this simpler system, and this section will discuss several of them.  How much would be saved is more difficult to estimate, so we have kept these savings separate.  But some rough figures are possible.

But before going to these other sources of efficiency gains, we should mention one possible source of lower costs which has often been discussed by others, but which I would not include here.  It has often been asserted that Medicare pays doctors, hospitals, and other health service providers, less than what other insurance plans pay.  But first, it is not clear whether this is in fact true.  It might be, but I have not seen reliable data to back it up.  The problem is that most of what is paid to doctors, hospitals, and others by private health insurance plans is now at network negotiated rates, and these rates are kept as trade secrets.  It is not in the interest of the doctors and other health care providers to reveal them (as it would undermine their bargaining power with other insurers), nor in the interest of the insurance companies to reveal them (as other insurers would gain a competitive advantage in their negotiations with the providers).  Indeed, secrecy clauses are common in the negotiated agreements.

In the absence of such publicly available data, one is limited to citing either anecdotal cases, or statements by various health care providers who have a vested interest in trying to persuade Medicare to pay them more.  Neither will be reliable.

But second, and aside from this difficulty in knowing what the truth really is, the focus in this blog post is solely on the gains that could be achieved by moving to a more efficient system.  If doctors and hospitals are indeed paid less under Medicare, costs would go down, but this would be in the nature of what economists call a transfer payment, not an efficiency gain.  Efficiency gains come from being able to do more with less (e.g. administer more at a lower cost).  Transfers are a payment from one party to another, with no net gain – the gain to one party is offset by a loss of the same amount to the other.

Excluding such transfers (if they in fact exist), what are other efficiency gains that one would obtain with a Medicare-for-All system (other than the gains from lower administrative costs for the health insurance itself, which we estimated above)?  There are several:

a)  Doctors offices now need to employ specialists in handling billing, who are able to handle the numerous (and often changing) health insurance plans their patients are enrolled in.  These specialists are critical, and good ones are paid well, as they are needed if the doctors want to be paid in full for the services they provided.  Based on personal experience, I am often amazed that the staff good at this are indeed able to stay on top of the numerous health insurance plans they must deal with (I find it difficult enough to stay on top of just my own).  While essential to ensuring the doctors can survive financially, such staff are a significant cost.  While one will still need to ensure proper billing under any Medicare-for-All system, it would be far simpler.

b)  Similarly, hospitals and other medical facilities need to employ such specialist staff to handle billing.  The same issues arise.  They must contend with numerous health insurance plans, each with its own set of requirements, and ensure the bills they file with the insurers will compensate the facilities properly (and from their perspective most advantageously) for the services provided.  This is not easy to do under the present highly complex system, and would be far simpler under Medicare-for-All.

c)  There are also costs that must be borne by employers in managing the primarily employer-based health insurance system used in the US.  The employer must work out which health insurance provider would work best for them, negotiate a complex but critical and expensive contract, and then oversee the insurer to ensure they are providing services in accordance with that contract.  Firms must often hire specialist (and expensive) consultants to advise them on how best to do this.  With the cost of healthcare so high in the US, these health insurance contracts are costly.  It is important to get them right.  But all this necessary oversight is also a major cost for the firm.

How much might then be saved from such sources by moving to a more efficient Medicare-for-All system?  This is not so easy to estimate, but one study looked at the costs in the US from such expenses and compared them to similarly measured expenses in Canada, which has a single-payer system.  As noted above, a Medicare-for-All system is a single-payer system, and thus (along with the other similarities between the US and Canadian economies, such as the similar levels of income) the difference between what the costs are in the US and the costs in Canada for the same services can provide an estimate of how much might be saved by moving to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All system.

The study was prepared by Steffie Woolhander (lead author – Harvard Medical School), along with Terry Campbell, and David Himmelstein, and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, August 2003.  They drew from a variety of sources to arrive at their estimates, and some had to be approximate.  The data is also from 1999 – almost 20 years ago.  Things may have changed, but with the upward trend in costs over time in the US, the cost shares now are likely even worse.  The authors presented the basic figures in per capita terms (and all in US dollars), and I have scaled them up to what they would be in 2016 (assuming the shares are unchanged) in accordance with the overall growth in US personal health care spending (from the NHE accounts).

The results are:

Admin costs 1999/2016

Per capita in $

Per capita in $

Per capita     in $

Total in $ billion

US –    1999

Canada – 1999

US excess – 1999

US excess – 2016

Insurance overheads

$259

$47

$212

$156.9

Doctors, hospitals, other

$743

$252

$491

$363.3

    Doctors only

$324

$107

$217

$160.6

    Hospitals & other facilities

$419

$145

$274

$202.8

Employers’ admin costs

$57

$8

$49

$36.3

Total:

$1,059

$307

$752

$556.5

Total excluding Insurance overheads

$399.6

Source:  Calculated from Woolhander, Campbell, and Himmelstein, “Costs of Health Care Administration in the United States and Canada”, New England Journal of Medicine, 349: 768-775, August 21, 2003.

Note:  “Insurance overheads” exclude health insurer profits as well as certain expenses (such as for advertising and marketing).

 

The first three columns show the estimated spending in per capita terms (and in US dollars) for each category of costs, for the US, for Canada, and then for the difference between the two.  US spending is always higher.  Thus, for example, for the line labeled “doctors”, the authors estimate that doctor’s offices have to spend an average of $324 per every US resident for expenses related to billing and other dealings with health insurance companies in 1999.  The cost in Canada with its single-payer system, in contrast, is on average just $107 per resident (in US dollar terms).  The difference is $217 per person, in 1999.  Grossing this up to the US population, and rescaled to total health care expenditures in the US in 2016 relative to 1999, the excess cost in the US in 2016 is an estimated $160.6 billion.  This is what would be saved in the US in 2016 if doctor’s offices were able to manage their health insurance billings with the same efficiency as they can in Canada.

The other lines show the estimated savings from other sources.  The top line is for insurance overheads.  The estimate here is that the US would have been able to save $156.9 billion in 2016 if health insurance administration were as efficient as what is found in Canada with its single-payer system.  While on the surface this appears to be less than the $204 billion savings estimated (for 2016) if the US moved to a Medicare-for-All system, they are in fact consistent.  The estimate in Woolhander, et. al., of the excessive cost of health insurance administration excludes what is paid out in insurance company profits and certain other expenses (such as advertising and marketing).  As discussed in the Annex below, insurance company profits can add one-third to administrative costs, so a $150 billion cost would become $200 billion when one uses the same definitions for what is encompassed.  The two estimates are in fact surprisingly consistent, even though very different approaches were used for the estimation of each.

Overall, the US would have saved about $400 billion (excluding the savings from lower expenses at the insurance companies) had a single-payer system been in effect in 2016, according to these estimates.  That is double the estimated $204 billion in savings from lower administration costs at the health insurers alone, estimated in the section above.  These additional cost savings from moving to a Medicare-for-All system are clearly significant, but are often ignored in the debate on how much would be saved from efficiency gains in a Medicare-for-All system.  They are (I would acknowledge) rough estimates.  They cannot be estimated with the same precision as one can for the savings from the more efficient administration of health insurance alone under a Medicare-for-All system.  But neither should they be forgotten.

E.  Summary and Conclusion

Medicare is a well-managed and popular program.  It is a single-payer system, but currently restricted to those aged 65 and above.  And administrative costs, on that portion of Medicare managed directly by government, are only 2.4%.  This 2.4% is far below the 11.5% administrative cost share for regular private health insurance, or 12.6% for that portion of Medicare that is managed through private health insurance companies.

And even with such low costs, Medicare is a popular program, where numerous surveys have found Medicare to be more highly rated (including in terms of user experiences with the program) than private health insurance plans (see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

Creating a Medicare-like system to cover also those Americans below the age of 65 would not be difficult.  We already have the model of Medicare itself to see what could be done and how such a system can be managed.  And we also have the examples of other countries, such as Canada, that show that such systems are not only feasible but can work well.  It is also not, as conservative critics often assert, a government “takeover” of healthcare (a criticism also often used in attacks on Obamacare):  Under a single-payer system, the providers of health care services (doctors, hospitals, and so on) remain as they are now, as private or non-profit entities, competing with each other in the services they offer.

Nor would an extension of health insurance under a Medicare-like system to those below age 65 lead to issues for the current Medicare system.  This has now become an attack line being asserted in numerous Republican political campaigns this fall, including in a signed piece by President Trump published on October 10 by USA Today.  This was in essence a campaign ad (but published for free), which fact checkers immediately saw contained numerous false statements.  As Glenn Kessler noted in the Washington Post, “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood”.

There is no reason why extending a Medicare-like system to those below age 65 should somehow harm Medicare.  The cost for the health insurance for those below age 65 would be paid for by sending the checks we currently must send to private insurers (such as Aetna or United Healthcare), instead to the new single-payer insurer.  As noted above, with such an entity copying the Medicare management system and achieving its low administrative costs, we would have been able to reduce the average per person cost of healthcare in 2018 from the $8,190 we are paying now, to $7,480 instead, a savings of $710 for each of us.  That $7,480 would still need to be paid in, but it is far better to send in $7,480 to the single-payer (for the same health care services as we now receive) than to send in $8,190 to the mix of insurers we now have.

Furthermore, these savings are solely from the more efficient administration of health insurance that we see can be done in Medicare.  There will also be very substantial savings from other sources in a Medicare-for-All system, including in what doctors and hospitals must now spend to deal with our currently highly fragmented and complex health insurance system, and savings by employers in what they must spend to manage their employer-based private health insurance plans.  The magnitude of such additional savings are more difficult to estimate, but they might be on the order of double the size of savings from the more efficient administration of the health insurance itself.  That is, total savings in 2016 might have been on the order of $600 billion, or three times the $200 billion in savings from more efficient administration of health insurance alone.

And such savings (or rather the lack of it under our current complex and fragmented system) can account for a significant share of the far higher cost of health care in the US than elsewhere.  As noted before, health care costs about 18% of GDP in the US, or 50% more than in the second most expensive country where it is just 12%.  Had the US been able to save $600 billion in health care expenditures in 2016 by moving to a Medicare-for-All system, US healthcare spending would have been reduced from 18% of GDP to below 15% (more precisely, from 17.9% in 2016 to 14.7%).  This, by itself, would have gotten us over halfway to what other countries spend.  More should be done, to be sure, but such a reform would be a major step.

So why has it not been done?  While the lower costs under a Medicare-for-All system would be attractive to most of us, one needs also to recognize that those higher costs are a windfall to those who are skilled at operating within our complex and fragmented system.  That is, there are vested interests who benefit under the current system, and the dollar amounts involved are massive.  Private health insurers, and their key staff (CEOs and others), profit handsomely under this system, and it should not be surprising that they lobby aggressively to keep it.  Under a Medicare-for-All system, there would be no need (or a greatly reduced need, if some niches remain) for such private health insurance.

This is not to deny that there will be issues in any such transition.  Just the paperwork involved to ensure everyone is enrolled properly will be a massive undertaking (although for all those currently enrolled in some health insurance plan, mostly via employer-based plans, the paperwork could presumably be transferred automatically to the new program).  Nor can one guarantee that while on average health care consumers will save, that each and every one will.  But the same is true in any tax reform, where even if taxes on average are being cut, there are some who end up paying more.

One should also acknowledge that many doctors and hospitals are concerned that in a Medicare-for-All system they will have little choice but to agree to the Medicare-approved rates for their services.  However, it is not clear this is much different from the current system for the doctors, where they must either agree to accept the in-network rates negotiated with the private health insurers, or expect few patients.  And surveys of doctors on their support for a Medicare-for-All system show a turnaround from earlier opposition to strong support.  A survey published in August 2017 found 56% of physicians in support (and 41% opposed), a flip from the results of a similar survey in 2008 (when only 42% were in support, and 58% opposed).  A key reason appears to be the costs and difficulties (discussed above) doctors face in dealing with the multiple, fragmented, insurance plans they must contend with now.  Even the American Medical Association, a staunch opponent of Medicare when it was approved in the 1960s, and an opponent ever since, may now be changing its views.

Finally, 70% of Americans now support a Medicare-for-All system, according to a recent Reuters survey.  It is time for such a system.

 

 


Annex:  The Causes of the Wide Variation in Administrative Cost Shares

a.  The Wide Range of Administrative Cost Shares

Administrative cost shares vary enormously across different health insurance programs, from just 2.4% for government-managed Medicare to 37% for health insurance provided through Workers’ Compensation plans.  The figures are shown above in the top table in the post.  Some might say that this cannot be – that they are all providing health insurance so why should the differ by so much.  But they can and they do, and this annex will discuss why.

Take the case of Workers’ Compensation first.  Workers’ Compensation insurance was established by states in the US starting in 1902 (Maryland was the first).  Most states passed laws between 1910 and 1920 requiring businesses to arrange for such insurance, and by 1920 all but five states (all in the South) had such coverage (and by 1948 all states had it).  And in most (but not all) states, health care benefits are provided through the purchase of privately managed insurance.

But these programs are expensive to administer.  Each individual claim must be scrutinized to determine that it was in fact due to a covered workplace injury.  This leads to the extremely high (37%) administrative cost share.  If the injury is indeed covered, the workers’ compensation insurance arranged by the business will pay for the associated health care costs.  But if it is not, the injury will now normally be covered by the individual’s regular health care insurance.  The treatment is still needed, and is provided.  The issue is only who pays for it.

Hence the time and effort spent to ascertain whether the injury was in fact due to a covered workplace injury is a pure social cost, and would not be needed (at least for the health care treatments) in a Medicare-for-All system.  The injuries would still be treated, but funds would not need to be spent to see whether the costs can be shifted from one insurer to a different one.  And when each individual claim must be assessed (with many then rejected), the administrative costs for Workers’ Compensation plans can be a high share of what is in the end paid for healthcare treatments.

When workers’ compensation programs were first set up, in the early 20th century, individual health insurance was not common.  Such health insurance (set up through employers) only began to be widespread during World War II, when the Roosevelt administration approved favorable tax treatment of such insurance by businesses (who were trying to attract workers, but were subject to general wage and price controls).  But workers’ compensation programs continue to exist, despite their high administrative costs.  And from the point of view of the private insurer providing the workers’ compensation cover, spending such money to assess liability for some injury makes sense, as (from the private perspective of the individual insurer) they would gain if the health treatment costs can be shifted to a different insurer.  But such expenditures do not make sense from the perspective of society as a whole.  They are just a cost.  And under a Medicare-for-All system the injury would simply be treated, with no need to ascertain if one insurer or a different one was responsible for making the payment.  Overall costs would be less, with the same health care treatments provided.

There are similar socially wasteful expenditures in other health insurance programs, which drive up their administrative costs.  CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) has a relatively high administrative cost share (17.3% in 2016) in part because it is relatively small ($16.9 billion in expenditures in 2016, which can be compared to the $678.8 billion for Medicare), so it does not enjoy the economies of scale of other programs, but also because eligibility for the program must be assessed for each individual participating.  While rules vary by state, children and teens are generally eligible for CHIP coverage up to age 18, for families whose incomes are below some limit, but who are not receiving Medicaid (or in coordination with Medicaid in certain cases).  The CHIP insurance for the children and teens is then either free or low-cost, depending on family income.

Confirming that children to be enrolled under CHIP meet the eligibility requirements is costly.  Hence it is not surprising that this (along with the lack of the economies of scale that larger programs can take advantage of) leads to the relatively high share for administrative costs.  But this eligibility question would not be an issue that would need to be individually assessed in a Medicare-for-All system.  It is a socially wasteful expenditure that is required only because the program needs to confirm those enrolled meet the specific eligibility requirements of this narrow program.  And a Medicare-for-All system would of course enjoy huge economy of scale advantages.

Medicaid also has to bear the cost of assessing whether eligibility requirements have been met, and certain states are indeed now making those eligibility requirements even more burdensome and complex (in the apparent hope of reducing enrollment).  Most recently, the Trump administration in early 2018 issued new rules allowing states to impose work requirements on those enrolled in Medicaid, and several states have now started to impose such restrictions.  But such requirements are themselves costly to assess.  While enrollment in Medicaid may then fall (leading to the health care costs of those individuals being shifted on to someone else), administrative costs as a share of what is spent will rise.  But from the point of view of society as a whole, shifting the cost of health treatment for those individuals who would otherwise be enrolled in Medicare on to someone else does not save on the overall cost of health care.  And indeed, if it shifts such treatment from doctor’s offices to treatment in emergency rooms, the cost will go up, and probably by a lot.

This would no longer be an issue in a Medicare-for-All system.  There would be no need to waste funds on assessing whether the individual meets the eligibility requirements of some specific health insurance program or another.

Despite such special costs. the overall costs of administration for Medicaid were 10.7% in 2016.  This is a bit below the cost for regular private insurance of 11.5%, and probably reflects the significant economies of scale Medicaid is able to benefit from.  And while a significant share of the Medicaid administrative costs are incurred by private insurers contracted to manage the Medicaid programs in many of the states ($36 billion of the $60 billion total for administration according to the NHE figures), government itself takes on a significant share of the administration.  And the overall administrative cost combined is still less than what private health insurance requires (as a share).

b)  The Cost of Administering Private Health Insurance

Which brings us to the question of why private health insurance costs so much to administer, at 11.5% of the total paid for such insurance.  Medicare, when administered directly by government, has a cost of just 2.4%.  Why does private insurance cost so much more?

First, a note on terminology.  Up to this point, as we have discussed various government health insurance plans (such as Medicaid or CHIP), we have not had to distinguish the total cost of the health insurance plans (the total of what is paid out in benefits to health care providers, plus what is paid for administration) from the total paid for the insurance cover.  We need to be more precise for private insurance cover.  One has the total paid in any period (a year in these figures) in insurance premia by the subscribers, and the total in what is paid by the private insurer in each such period to cover benefits.  The NHE has estimates for each of these, and then calculates the difference between the two as the “net cost of health insurance”.  We have referred to this as a broad concept of administrative costs, as it includes any profits earned by the insurers as part of their current operations.  But private insurers have an additional source of earnings, and that is from revenues on invested capital.  Premia are paid upfront and benefits paid out later (in overall probabilistic terms), and an important source of income to insurers comes from what they earn on those funds as they are invested in various asset markets, such as stocks and bonds, real estate, commodities, and so on.

For private insurance we should therefore be clear that what we have so far referred to as the “total cost” of the health insurance is synonymous with the total premia paid (which some sources refer to as “underwriting revenue”).  Subtracting the total paid to health care providers under the insurance policies from the total paid in premia will then lead to the broad concept of administrative costs, including profits earned from the current period insurance operations.  On top of this, private insurers will generate earnings from investments on their accumulated capital (obtained, in part, from premia being paid in before benefits are paid out).  For the figures here we are excluding these latter earnings.  Such earnings will be on top of those obtained from their current insurance operations.

Why then, do private insurers incur administrative costs (as defined here) of 11.5% when government-administered Medicare has a far lower cost of just 2.4%?

There are a number of reasons.  First, private health insurance is a tremendously fragmented system, where health plans are mostly organized at the individual firm level.  This is costly, and the cost share varies systematically by firm size.  Administrative costs (including insurer profits) will typically range between 5 and 15% of the total paid for the insurance in firms with greater than 50 employees, between 15 and 25% in firms with fewer than 50 employees, and (in the period before the Obamacare market exchanges were set up) between 25 and 40% of the total for individuals seeking health insurance (see, for example, this report from the Commonwealth Fund).

These high and rising costs (in inverse direction to firm size) arise as there are significant fixed costs in setting up any such system at some firm, which leads to a high cost-share when there are fewer workers to spread it over.  Commissions paid to insurance brokers also play a role, as the use of brokers is typical and especially significant for the small-group market.  The Commonwealth Fund report cites figures indicating these commissions can account for 4 to 11% of the total in premia paid for insurance in such markets.  And in those cases where the insurers themselves take on the risk (as opposed to simply managing the claims process while the firm itself pays the claims – this is called “self-insurance”, and is typical in large firms with 1,000 employees or more, as it ends up cheaper for such firms), the insurers must then invest significant resources in assessing the risk of the pool of workers covered in order to price the policy appropriately.  The costs the insurance company will need to pay out will depend not only on the local cost of health care services (which can vary tremendously across different parts of the country), but also by the industry of the firm (as the health risks of the typical workers employed will vary by industry) and specifics of the firm being covered (such as the average age of the workers employed, the male/female ratio, and other such factors).

There are also high fixed costs of the insurers themselves under their business model.  They typically offer dozens of insurance plans, each with different features on what is covered and by how much.  And most of the plans are built around networks of care providers (doctors, hospitals, and so on) with whom they have individually negotiated “in-network” prices for subscribers of the particular health insurance plan.  These in-network prices can still vary tremendously (even by a factor of ten or more, for those I have been able to check with my own insurer, and all for the same metropolitan area), and are set through some negotiation process.  The price eventually agreed to reflects some balance in negotiating strength.  If you are a hospital chain that dominates in some metro area, you will be able to negotiate a price close to what you wish to charge as the insurer has to include hospital services.  Similarly, if you are an insurance company that dominates in some metro area, then the hospitals have to agree to charge something close to what you are willing to pay, as otherwise they will not have many patients.  And individual doctors operating in private practices will generally have very little negotiating power.

But such negotiations (for each and every health care provider, and then for each possible service) are expensive to carry out, regardless of the outcome.  And while some argue that such negotiations hold down the cost of health care, it is not at all clear that such is the case.  The US, after all and as noted before, has by far the most expensive health care services in the world (close to double the average in OECD countries, as a share of GDP), and yet achieves only mediocre results.  Furthermore, the actual volume of health care services provided in the US (as measured, for example, by doctor consultations per capita per year, or hospital beds per 1,000 of population, and so on) has the US at close to the bottom among OECD countries.  The problem is not excessive health care services utilized, but rather their high cost in the US.  Negotiated in-network pricing has not helped, and quite possibly (due to the resulting fragmentation into non-competing markets) has hurt.

This complex and fragmented system does lead, however, to high rewards to those who are good at operating in it.  Hence CEOs (and other senior staff) of insurance companies skilled at this are rewarded handsomely, with such CEOs typically receiving compensation of more than $10 million a year, and in some cases far more.  Indeed, as recounted in an earlier blog post, the CEO of UnitedHealth Care personally received total compensation of more than $1.3 billion over his 15-year tenure of 1991 to 2006 (even after the SEC forced him to forfeit stock options worth a further $620 million due to illegalities in how they were priced).  Such salaries are reflected in the administrative costs of the health insurance plans offered, and account for a substantial share of it.

Finally, this complex and fragmented market has also led to high profits for the private health insurance companies.  If this were due to the exceptional efficiency of certain of the health insurance firms as compared to others, all in a competitive market, then such high profits of such firms might be explained.  But there is no indication that health insurance markets operate anywhere close to what economists would call “perfect competition”.  The extremely wide variation in prices for the same health care services (often by a factor of ten or more) is a clear sign of markets that are nowhere close to perfectly competitive.

And the amount paid to cover such profits is high.  For example, an examination of health insurance markets in New York State found (in data for 2006) that profits from underwriting (i.e. excluding profits from capital invested) accounted for 4.9% of total underwriting revenue (the total premia paid) before taxes, or roughly one-third of the total 14.9% in administrative costs (including underwriting profits).  After taxes, it would be roughly one-quarter of the total.  Applying that ratio to the 11.5% administrative cost share found in the NHE accounts for the nation as a whole in 2016, the charge to cover profits would be close to 3% points.  That, by itself, would be greater than the 2.4% cost share for government-managed Medicare.

c)  The Cost of Administering the Portion of Medicare Managed Directly by Government

Why, then, does the portion of Medicare (Parts A and B) managed directly by government cost so little?  It is fundamentally because Medicare does not bear many of the costs discussed above for the other insurance plans, and can spread the costs that remain over a far larger enrollment base.  Specifically:

1)  Medicare enjoys huge economy of scale advantages:  The portion of Medicare managed directly by government is huge, at $390.7 billion spent in 2016 ($381.4 billion of which went to health care providers, and only $9.3 billion to administration).  And this is for a single plan.  Private health insurers instead each manage dozens of plans covering millions of firms (at rates which vary firm to firm, depending on the risk pool).

2)  Medicare does not have to make a determination for each individual claim as to whether it will be covered (as Workers’ Compensation plans must), nor whether the individual is eligible (other than whether they are of age 65 or more, and have paid the relevant premia and taxes).  That is, Medicare does not need to contend with the complex (and now being made increasingly complex) eligibility requirements for participants in Medicaid, CHIP, and other such programs.

3)  Medicare has one set of compensation rates, which doctors and hospitals accept or not.  The compensation rates vary by region and other such factors, but they are not individually negotiated each year with each of the possible providers.

4)  And Medicare does not have the costs private insurers need to pay to retain the CEOs and other senior staff who are skilled at operating within the fragmented US healthcare system, nor do they pay large amounts for marketing and such.  Nor does Medicare pay profits, and profits, as noted above, are high for private health insurers in the US.

It is this “business model” of Medicare which keeps its costs down.  It is a relatively simple model (relative to that of private insurers – no health care payment system is simple in an absolute sense), and enjoys great economies of scale.  Thus Medicare can keep its costs down, and needs to spend on administration only a fraction of what private health insurers spend.

d)  The Conservative Critics of Medicare Costs

There are critics who contend that Medicare costs are not in fact low.  These critics have issued analyses through such groups as the Heritage Foundation (conservative, with major funding from the Koch brothers), the Cato Institute (conservative – libertarian), lobby groups with a vested interest, and publications that link back to these analyses.  But these arguments are flawed.  Indeed, some of the responses to the assertions are so obvious that one must assume that ideology (a view that it is impossible for government to be more efficient) was the primary driver.

These critics make three primary arguments:

1)  First, several contend that Medicare does not pay for, nor include in its recorded administrative costs, the costs incurred by Social Security and other government agencies that provide services that are essential to Medicare’s operations.  For example, initial enrollment in Medicare at age 65 is handled through the Social Security Administration, and Medicare premia payments (for Parts B and D) are normally collected out of Social Security checks.

However, while it is true that Social Security provides such services to Medicare, it is not true that Medicare does not pay for this.  A simple look at the Medicare income and expenses tables in the Medicare Trustees Annual Report will show what those payments are.  For example, for fiscal year 2017, Tables V.H1 and V.H.2 (on pages 217 and 218 of the 2018 report) indicate that $980,805,000 was paid to the Social Security Administration under the Medicare HI Trust Fund (“Hospital Insurance”, for Part A) and $1,247,226,000 under the Medicare SMI Trust Fund (“Supplementary Medical Insurance”, for Parts B and D).  These are substantial amounts, and they are not hidden.

And the tables similarly show the amounts paid by Medicare (as components in its administrative costs) to other government agencies for services they provide to Medicare.  These include payments made to the FBI and the Department of Justice (for fraud and abuse control), to the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS, for oversight) as well as to other HHS offices (such as the Inspector General), to the US Treasury, and to a number of others.  They are all shown.  The conservative critics who assert Medicare expenses do not include payments for such services simply never looked.

2)  Second, the critics argue that while private insurers must raise the capital they need to fund their operations, and that that capital has a cost, the costs of funding Medicare’s “capital” are not counted but rather are hidden away in the overall government budget.

But this reflects a fundamental confusion on the capital requirements of established insurers, whether private or public.  Insurers are not banks.  Banks raise funds (at a cost) and then lends them out.  Insurers take in premia payments from those insured, and at some later time make payments out under the insurance policies for covered costs.  On average, the payments they make come later than the payments they receive in premia, and hence they have capital to invest.  That capital is invested in stocks and bonds, real estate, commodities, or whatever, they make a return on those investments, and that return is factored into, and can reduce (not raise), the premia they need to charge to cover their overall costs.

Private insurers hence generate earnings from their capital, as it is invested as an asset.  It is not a cost.  Furthermore, Medicare operates in fundamentally the same way as other insurers.  The Medicare Trust Funds (HI and SMI) reflect funds that have been paid in and not yet expended in covered claims or other expenses, and they earn interest on the balances in those trust funds (at the long-term US Treasury bond rate).  The accounting is all there to be seen, for those interested, in the Medicare Trustees Annual Report.

3)  Probably most importantly, the conservative critics of Medicare assert that it is incorrect to calculate administrative costs as a share of the total costs paid.  Rather, they say those costs should be calculated per person enrolled.  Since older people have far higher medical costs each year than younger people do (which is certainly true), they argue that the low administrative cost share seen in Medicare (when taken as a share of total costs) is actually a reflection of the high health care costs of the elderly.

But there are two problems with this.  First, when elderly people see doctors at a pace of say 10 times a year rather than perhaps once a year when younger, they will be generating 10 times as many bills that need to be recorded and properly paid.  Each bill must go through the system, checked for possible fraud, and then paid in the correct amount.  That will cost more, indeed one should expect it will cost 10 times as much.  And if anything, medical procedures are more complicated for the elderly (as they have more complicated medical conditions), so it should be expected that the costs to process the more complex bills will indeed go up more than in proportion to the amount spent.  The conservative critics assert the costs of administering this do not go up with the more frequent billing, but rather are the same, flat, rate per person regardless of how many, how complex, and how costly the medical interventions are that they have in any given year.

Second, one has data.  The Medicare Parts C (Medicare Advantage) and D (for drugs) are managed via private health insurers.  And this Medicare is for the same elderly population that government-managed Medicare covers.  If what the conservative critics assert is correct, then the cost of administering these privately-managed Medicare programs should be similar to the cost of administering the portion of Medicare that government manages directly.  But this is not the case.  Government-managed Medicare spent only 2.4% on administration in 2016, while privately-managed Medicare spent 12.6%.  These are far from the same.

Indeed, the 12.6% administrative cost share for the privately-managed portion of Medicare is similar to, but a bit more than, the 11.5% share seen with regular private health insurance.  This is what one would expect, where the somewhat higher cost share might well be because of the greater complexity of the medical interventions required for the elderly population.

The government-managed portion of Medicare has a far low administrative cost share than private health insurance.  The conservative critics have not looked at the data.