Posts Tagged ‘health mandates’

Health Mandates: A Talk With Obama Health Advisor David Cutler

December 1, 2007

Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama have each presented detailed proposals for health reform. The Clinton and Edwards plans include health mandates, which require Americans to obtain health care coverage or face (unspecified) sanctions. The Obama plan does not include mandates.

Health mandates are popular among many Democratic-leaning health policy analysts. The Clinton campaign has been going after Obama aggressively on this issue. They’ve said that the absence of mandates is a basic flaw in Obama’s plan; suggested a cynical political calculus behind Obama’s position said that his position feeds a Republican narrative; and took the position that Obama’s plan is politically vulnerable while theirs (and Edwards’) is a political plus in the general election.

(The preceding positions were echoed today by Paul Krugman – see my response, “Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong …“)

I don’t support any Democratic candidate, but I do have strong opinions about health mandates. As a long-time healthcare policy analyst and health manager in the private sector, I disagree with Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Jacob Hacker, and others who support mandates. My differences are based on policy effectiveness, issues of fairness, and Democratic political strategy. I think mandates pose more problems than they solve, and that they could be a political loser for Democrats in the general election.

I’ve been engaged in a collegial debate with Klein, blogger/consultant Joe Paduda and others on this topic for some time (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). During an exchange with Klein over the last week it became apparent that, while I had reasons to support Obama’s policy, it was unclear to me what his team’s current thinking was on the topic.

The team published a rebuttal to Clinton’s campaign late today. Earlier I spoke with David Cutler about mandates. Cutler is Professor of Applied Economics at Harvard, Obama’s senior health advisor, and the principal architect of the Obama plan.

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Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong About Health Mandates

December 1, 2007

Now there’s an intimidating headline to write. Paul Krugman slammed Barack Obama today on the issue of health mandates. Here’s why I believe he’s wrong:

From the beginning, advocates of universal health care were troubled by the incompleteness of Barack Obama’s plan, which unlike those of his Democratic rivals wouldn’t cover everyone.

Two misstatements in this opening sentence. First, while it’s true that Obama’s plan won’t “cover everyone,” neither will anyone else’s. Mandates have never achieved 100% effectiveness. The practical design problems of subsidies, exemptions, and benefit levels that accompany mandates are complex and unwieldy.  That’s why the Massachusetts Authority responsible for that state’s plan – which Krugman would describe as “covering everyone” – just exempted an estimated 20% of uninsured residents from the mandate.

Secondly, the absence of mandates is not necessarily an incompleteness in the Obama plan. I’ll be posting my conversation on this topic with Obama health advisor David Cutler shortly.

Here’s why: under the Obama plan, as it now stands, healthy people could choose not to buy insurance — then sign up for it if they developed health problems later. Insurance companies couldn’t turn them away, because Mr. Obama’s plan, like those of his rivals, requires that insurers offer the same policy to everyone.

As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care.

Mr. Krugman raises some valid concerns here. But what he doesn’t say is that this would only be a temporary problem under the Obama plan. If it failed to achieve enrollment rates high enough to offset this ‘selection effort,’ other measures would be used – including potentially mandates.

The main difference between Obama’s plan and his rivals’ is this: They would mandate health coverage first and fix cost problems later. Obama would do the opposite. While both approaches are problematic, there is a strong case to be made that Obama’s plan is fairer – and much more politically progressive.

Mr. Obama claims that mandates won’t work, pointing out that many people don’t have car insurance despite state requirements that all drivers be insured. Um, is he saying that states shouldn’t require that drivers have insurance? If not, what’s his point?

His point is that the Clinton and Edwards claim – that they provide “universal coverage” – is false. If mandates don’t result in “universal coverage” – and the Massachusetts experience seems to confirm that – than this statement is hyperbole, not fact, and the debate is really about how many people to cover and how fast .  It’s not the black-and-white issue the campaigns are making it out to be.

Mr. Obama accuses his rivals of not explaining how they would enforce mandates, and suggests that the mandate would require some kind of nasty, punitive enforcement: “Their essential argument,” he says, “is the only way to get everybody covered is if the government forces you to buy health insurance. If you don’t buy it, then you’ll be penalized in some way.”

Well, John Edwards has just called Mr. Obama’s bluff, by proposing that individuals be required to show proof of insurance when filing income taxes or receiving health care. If they don’t have insurance, they won’t be penalized — they’ll be automatically enrolled in an insurance plan.

That’s a “terrific idea” with no penalties, Mr. Krugman says. Okay, let’s amend Obama’s choice of words slightly: when people are enrolled in a plan automatically and then don’t pay the premiums they’ll be “penalized in some way.” That’s not hair-splitting – it’s a huge difference. If a family of four is enrolled in a health plan with $10,000 annual premiums, that’s a burden. What will happen if they don’t pay?

We’ll fix that with subsidies, says the mandate crowd. But how much will people actually pay? They’re not saying.

I recently castigated Mr. Obama for adopting right-wing talking points about a Social Security “crisis.” Now he’s echoing right-wing talking points on health care.

I agree with Mr. Krugman about the Social Security issue. And I understand the concern about the use of words like “forced” by the Obama campaign. I understand the concern about the use of words like “forced” by the Obama campaign.  But that’s mild compared to the words the GOP will use in 2008 – and they’ll say them no matter what Obama does or doesn’t do. So rather than crying “foul” when someone challenges them, the Clinton campaign and others should use this as an opportunity to sharpen their talking points – or primary voters may conclude they don’t have it in them to make their case when the going gets tough.

Even More On Mandates – and the 80% Solution

November 28, 2007

The mandate question won’t go away because it’s central to most health reform proposals on the books today. And yet in a little-known development, the best known “mandate plan” is no longer “universal,” since Massachusetts has decided not to impose mandates on everybody.

Ezra Klein has responded to my take on his Obama slam. He echoes the pro-mandate consensus when he says this: “You can’t actually have this wonderful system everyone’s talking about without full buy-in.”

Buy-in … buy-in … that word keeps haunting me like a ghost from Dickens, and I don’t know why. Oh, wait … I do know why. Because no other industrialized nation has forced people to “buy” something that is usually provided as a social service. Which gets to my underlying problem with mandates, something I haven’t fully articulated until now:

Insurance premiums as we use them in this country are a market-driven, private-sector mechanism.* Advocates want to mandate that people pay premiums, rather than taxes, to meet a social goal. That’s a functional mismatch between the way governments typically address social goals – through taxation – and the way markets establish the price to be paid for transferring risk.

The end result? Elaborate mechanisms for trying to protect people from unfairly shouldering more of that social cost than they can personally bear. When you factor copayments and deductibles on top of premium costs, that gets very difficult.

As noted by the Progressive States Network, total health costs for some Massachusetts residents could exceed 23% of income – at a wage level where that could have a profound impact. The PSN also notes this:

… although 200,000 previously uninsured residents have obtained health insurance in the past 16 months, anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 residents have yet to sign up with an insurance plan. …. Any uninsured residents will be penalized in 2008 by losing a $210 tax exemption. In 2009, the penalty will jump to “half the monthly cost of the least expensive plan available …” But officials recognize that the still-high costs of health care in Massachusetts make imposing this penalty unfair.

In other words, mandates are being phased in – just as Obama had initially promised to having a universal coverage law by the end of his first term. (Although, come to think of it, haven’t heard about that pledge lately.) The escalating penalties also indicate that, at least in Massachusetts, officials believe mandates have to be quite severe before enrollment increases significantly.

“The Connector authority is granting waivers to 20% of the state’s uninsured residents,” the PSN adds, “or roughly 65,000 individuals, exempting them from the individual mandate.” So the “universal coverage” plan has become the “80% solution” for the state’s uninsured.

In other words, the Massachusetts universal coverage plan is no longer “universal.”

And Massachusetts is an easy state compared to California and some others. When you’re talking about the entire country, the problems become massive.

So what about fairness? One economist said: “”What the Massachusetts decision will do is put down a marker that other advocates will use to say that costs can’t be more than 10%.”

Let’s think about that for a second: Let’s say that society has decided that the total Federal taxation burden for a middle-class family is 28% of income. Now, through mandates, that could become 38% . How can an “opportunity society” candidate argue that a vital need like healthcare should create a usurious burden on the middle class, yet cost the wealthy a small amount of their income (and nothing for the poor)?

Ezra also repeats his assertion that a plan without mandates will be a political liability. And I repeat mine – that mandates themselves will be a liability. I can see the Republicans scoring huge points with something like this: “They’ll be watching you – every time you go to the doctor’s office, or pay your taxes, or get a driver’s license. And they’ll raise your taxes by 40%. Why? Because they think you shouldn’t decide for yourself how much insurance to have.”

Good luck with that.

The alternative is to say: “We’ll invest in making the system better. Then we’ll figure out a way to finance universal coverage that everyone can live with.” Do I like kicking the financing issue down the road? No. Do I recognize that adverse selection will be tough to manage? Yes. But the only alternative is to say that every American deserves a base level of medical coverage paid for out of general tax revenues. And I don’t see any of the leading candidates saying that any time soon.

In short, there are two ways to do this: If it’s optional, it’s Obama’s plan, or something like it. If it’s universal, it’s taxation. (Maybe with vouchers, and employer tax offsets for offering benefit plans.) The in-between approach – mandates – still seems problematic to me.


*There are countries with very different premium models, like Germany, and those are models we should seriously consider.  But that’s another day’s work to write about …

Democratic Debate Reaction: Health Mandates Are a Bug, Not a Feature

November 16, 2007

Hillary Clinton and John Edwards may have attacked one another last night, but they’re in agreement about the health care mandate issue – and that’s unfortunate. Most Democratic health reform plans include mandated coverage, and that’s a mistake on both policy and political grounds (although the Edwards plan offsets that somewhat with some interesting use of public insurance).

The Las Vegas Democratic debate was long on play-acting, short on substance. Meaningful exchanges about policy were hard to come by, and only three come to mind: Clinton vs. Obama on Social Security, Clinton vs. Obama on health mandates, and Clinton vs. everybody on her Iran vote.

Re health mandates, Obama may well be on the right track. When Clinton boasts, as she did last night, that her plan provides universal healthcare, what she’s not saying is that it does that by punishing people who don’t pay usurious prices to private companies in order to obtain coverage. Obama had the right response, althouch he expressed it in a passionless and somewhat detached way.

The New York Times is correct when it says that “many experts agree that that without a mandate, some people would not get coverage.” In addition, a voluntary enrollment plan will suffer from “adverse selection”: The sick will be more likely to enroll than the healthy, which will make the plan financially unstable.

But I disagree with many of my fellow “health wonks” on mandates. I’ve said they’re the wrong solution. They address the “selection” problem, but only partially. Compliance will continue to be a problem under the “mandate” approach unless fairly Draconian enforcement rules are put in place. (That’s what Obama was alluding to with his “garnishing wages” comment, which many viewers may not have understood.)

Secondly, mandates could become a political disaster. They could turn a Democratic political positive – public frustration with healthcare – into a negative. It’s easy to picture the Republican candidate talking about “nanny state” rules that “invade your privacy and seize your wages.”

No health plan will succeed if it forces Americans to overpay for insurance, on the hope that selection issues and other initiatives bring prices down in the future. It makes more sense to provide every American with a basic government-funded health plan. From there, policy options might include trading plan credits for enrollment in a private plan, or the purchase of supplemental private insurance.

But mandating that Americans buy insurance from private companies is a political and policy mistake. It’s true that mandates are the conventional wisdom today – but then, so was the wisdom of Massachusetts’ mandate-driven health reform initiative. We disagreed then, and said that the “Massachusetts miracle” would have serious problems. It now appears that – sadly – we were right (see here and here and here).

It remains to be seen whether mandates are a “feature” or a “bug” in the Democratic platform.