There are many things that might have been done to reform healthcare in the United States after Barack Obama was elected. The Affordable Care Act does begin to address some of these problems:
It begins to break the bond of employers being the primary provider of health insurance coverage.
This was always an odd idea that exists as an artifact of the wage and price freeze of World War Two. Employers were not allowed to raise wages to attract workers, so they began offering “fringe” benefits instead.
Obamacare relieves smaller employers (under 50 workers) of any expectation of providing coverage and gives larger employers an affordable way out.
It begins to move away from the regressive tax subsidy available solely through employers and perversely benefitting higher incomes and richer benefits.
The value of employer-provided health benefits is “excluded” from income, so it is completely free of any taxes, state or federal, income or payroll. There is no similar advantage offered to health benefits purchased by individuals.
Obamacare offers lower-income people in the private market some tax assistance, too, through income-based premium assistance.
It embraces online marketing that is independent of insurance company-paid commissions through its health insurance exchanges. Currently agents and brokers are paid commissions on the insurance products they sell.
If Obamacare had confined itself to these three reforms we would all be applauding it and working to help improve it. Unfortunately, health reform has long been tainted by the bumper sticker slogan of “universal health insurance” in the minds of most Democrats. If health reform did not include universality it was not worth pursuing, in their view.
In an enormous, dynamic, and fluid nation like ours, it is impossible to get “everyone” to do anything. It doesn’t matter the size of the penalty. It doesn’t matter how easy compliance might be. There is always a contingent of the population that won’t do it.
Studies have been done about compliance with helmet laws, seat belt laws, laws against using cell phones while driving, speed limit laws, child support laws, auto insurance coverage, even tax laws. About 15 percent of the population won’t comply.
Interestingly, this is about the same as the rate of non-insurance for healthcare in a voluntary market. Every year about 84 percent of the non-elderly population has health insurance coverage and 16 percent does not.
In the case of health insurance, there is a good-sized portion of the population that is incapable of managing it. They might be illiterate or mentally ill or drug addicted or in the underground economy or simply have poor impulse control. They can’t read a contract, can’t keep an appointment to see a doctor, and can’t follow prescribed treatment programs.
These folks don’t need insurance; they need a source of healthcare services. They will wait till they feel poorly and roll down to the emergency room like they always have because that is where the doctors are.
In Massachusetts the use of emergency department services went up, not down, after the mandate went into effect there. Even a public insurance program like Medicaid isn’t the answer. Some one-third of the uninsured are already eligible for Medicaid but simply haven’t enrolled.
What about “free riders” (uncompensated care)? Obviously these people will continue to receive care whether they are insured or not, so the primary rationale for mandatory coverage – solving the “free rider” problem – will not be solved.
Yes, it may be reduced, but it would be reduced anyway if the subsidies were available without a mandate. More people would buy insurance on a voluntary basis because more people could afford it.
And uncompensated care is not an enormous problem in any event. Most serious studies place it at about 3 percent of total healthcare costs. This is not much different than the losses to retailers from shoplifting and employee theft. It is just a cost of doing business in a free society.
Further, while uncompensated care may raise costs for the insured, those costs do not disappear with a mandate. They are simply transferred over to the tax system and used to subsidize coverage rather than subsidizing the care itself.
Indeed, if we consider all of the federal subsidies paid out to various people, the costs to taxpayers makes the cost of uncompensated care seem trivial.
The American Hospital Association estimates that uncompensated care cost hospitals $41 billion in 2011, while the Urban Institute estimated the exclusion from taxes of employer-sponsored health insurance alone cost the federal government $268 billion in foregone revenues.
Throw in subsidies provided for Medicare, Medicaid and hundreds of other federal programs, the money you pay to subsidize other people through your taxes is massive compared to the extra premiums you might pay for uncompensated care. What should be done?
The goal of making health insurance coverage more affordable and more accessible is a good one, even if it will never be universal.
First, we should look at the uninsured as an untapped market with varying needs, preferences and resources, instead of as unified block of helpless supplicants. Rather than treating them like criminals for not doing what we think they should, we should treat them like potential customers.
And in fact the uninsured are a varied lot – 59.9 percent of them are workers, 26.1 percent are not and 13.9 percent are children. Of these workers, 21.1 percent are employed by very small firms (fewer than 10 employees), but another 21.1 percent work for companies with 1,000 or more employees: 29.2 percent are in service jobs, 21.6 percent are in sales or office work, but 17.6 percent work in “managerial or professional” capacities.
Even more interesting is the family income level of the uninsured: About 8 million earn under $10,000; 6.9 million earn over $75,000.
As interesting as the demographic breakdowns are, the “psychographic” profile is even more enlightening. Three years after enactment of the law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided to finally ask the question: Just who are these uninsured people and what are they looking for?
It turns out 92 percent of them can be divided into three segments:
The biggest cluster (47.8 percent of all the uninsured) is “healthy and young.” They are not much motivated to enroll and they take their health for granted.
The next largest group (28.9 percent) is “sick, active and worried.” These tend to be older and are pretty good candidates for coverage.
Finally we have the “passive and unengaged” group (15.3 percent). These folks tend to be older and have poor literacy skills.
These different people need different solutions. The first group is unlikely to want to spend a lot of money on services they can’t foresee needing. But they might like a Health Savings Account that allows them to be protected against catastrophe while building up a sum of money for the future when they are more likely to need it.
The middle group would probably embrace comprehensive coverage if their expenses could be subsidized and they were assured of getting coverage.
The final group is made up of the people not capable of understanding or navigating any health insurance system. They need the direct provision of care through neighborhood clinics and subsidized hospitals.
Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act seems to be aimed solely at the middle group – the 29 percent of the uninsured who are sick and worried. This is the stereotype rolled out by politicians who want to show off how much they care.
But their compassion seems to extend only to less than a third of the 16 percent of the population currently without insurance coverage – i.e., about 5 percent of the American population.
So 95 percent of the country is being put through the wringer to benefit the 5 percent this law was written for.
[This commentary is excerpted from an article by Greg Scandlen in The Federalist, “Mandatory Health Insurance: Obamacare’s Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Remedy.” Greg Scandlen is the founder of Consumers for Health Care Choices and a former staff member at the National Center for Policy Analysis. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]