Notes on a health reform plan

Berkeley economist Brad DeLong offers a qualified (“coming from a guy who is not a real health economist but has an undeserved reputation because he was good at translating the economese spoken by real health economists”) proposal for health care reform. Here are the highlights:

  • 20% Deductible/Out of Pocket Cap
  • Single-Payer for the Rest
  • Sin Taxes [and public-health education, exhortation, etc.]
  • Serious Research on Best Public-Health, Chronic-Disease, and Hospital Practices

Here’s what’s good, what’s bad, and what can be improved:What’s good?

  • Single payer for the rest. Much of the current health care mess in the U.S. comes directly from the competitive private insurance market. Insurance companies reap rewards for avoiding sick patients and have little incentive to provide continuity of care (follow-up on patients with chronic illness, preventative care, etc.). Administrative costs and profits are also ridiculously high. Single payer, which means that the government or a quasi-governmental trust is the unique, universal insurer, is the obvious solution, a proven winner in one form or another in almost every other industrialized country.
  • Serious research (and development). Medical and information technology could be applied much more effectively to monitor and to ameliorate chronic diseases and other health risks. We can learn more at the cutting edge, we can better disseminate and reward the adoption of demonstrated good practices, and we can help people monitor and improve their own health (while respecting their privacy).

What’s bad?

  • 20% Deductible/Out of Pocket Cap. DeLong’s proposal would tax 20 percent of income for health care: 15 percentage-points worth would go into a personal health-spending account and 5 percentage-points worth would go into a health insurance pool. The phrase “for the rest” following single payer means that complete insurance would apply all health care problems in excess of 15 percent of income. At least there would be some means testing but there is little else to recommend this proposal. The impetus for high deductible is that patients should be encouraged to shop around and competitive pressures will contain costs. Otherwise, patients, or more likely their providers, face a moral hazard to overuse care. Some so-called cost sharing is compatible with single-payer, but here’s the problem. The 5 percentage points of income isn’t enough to provide insurance to people who need it. Health problems and the associated costs come in very concentrated bursts. According to the director of social scientific research at the Federal agency responsible for health research (AHRQ), “Nearly 30 percent of health care expenditures are accounted for by the top 1 percent of spenders, while more than half of all health care expenditure are accounted for by the top 5 percent of spenders.” Because health-care expenditure is about 16 percent of all income, the top 1 percent of spenders alone use up almost the entire 5-percent insurance pool (because 30 percent of 16 percent is 4.8 percent). There is essentially nothing left to pay for unexpected health care needs for the other 99 percent of the population beginning with the next sickest 4 percent. So we don’t need to debate the morality or excoriate the immorality of the “first out-of-pocket, and only then insurance” approach. Nor do we need to offer (perfectly reasonable albeit difficult to defend) opinions such as, “No one gets excess health care for fun.” Health care costs cannot be contained by widespread cost-sharing because of their fundamental distribution.

What can be improved?

  • Sin Taxes [and public-health education, exhortation, etc.] Reinvigorating the public-health approach makes lots of sense. DeLong smartly suggests increasing the employment, skills, and portfolio of nurses, other primary-care providers, health educators, health-care paraprofessionals, nutritionists, et al. A lot of the public-health problem may come from the time bind that Americans face. When the health educator knocks at the door (see the proposal), will anyone be home? We are more likely to be commuting, alone, in a car, to a distant job with long hours. The proposed sin taxes should include unequal incomes and long hours. And public health should include a vacation.