Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Medicare's future, for those under age 55

People like me:

What no one is telling you about Medicare
[...] Cuts are inevitable. The real battle is over who bears the cost.

This spring the House passed a budget resolution designed by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that radically overhauls Medicare. The plan is unlikely to become law in its present form, but the ideas behind it will play a pivotal role in shaping Medicare reform.

Here's how the system would work: If you are younger than 55 today, your Medicare insurance would be replaced with a fixed voucher, or what Ryan calls "premium support," which you'd use to buy a private health insurance plan. In 2022 a typical 65-year-old would get about $8,000. Plans would have to take all comers, regardless of their health, and would charge the same price to people of the same age. Your premium support would go up as you got older or sicker. Low-income seniors would get extra cash.

You get skin in the game...

Premium support attempts to fight what economists call the moral hazard problem. If your insurance picks up a lot of your medical bills, you don't have much incentive to be a picky consumer. Your doctor prescribes, you comply. Even if there might be a cheaper way to get better results.

"Medicare has inherent in it inflationary pressures that push costs up very high, very rapidly," says Jim Capretta, a former George W. Bush administration budget official now at a think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Ryan's approach would force you to make choices about what to do with your $8,000. You could pay a lot on top of that to get a generous plan or buy a cheap one that lets you see doctors within an HMO network and leaves you with a high deductible.

How much would that system reduce the cost of care? The answer is hotly contested. Some people would spend less but might also forgo care they really needed, says Juliette Cubanski, a Medicare policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Gail Wilensky, who ran the Medicare system during the George H.W. Bush administration, thinks a market dynamic will help a lot, but cautions that much spending is concentrated on the very sick, whose costs have blown past any reasonable deductible. "The serious spenders are always going to be using someone else's money," she says.

Shifting to private plans also has costs: Insurers have to charge enough to pay for administration and marketing while clearing a profit. The CBO, which concedes a lot of uncertainty about how vouchers would change the market, believes total costs would go up. It estimates that private plans will be so expensive that in 2022 a typical 65-year-old would spend twice as much to get the same benefits Medicare provides. That's an extra $6,240 to you.

...but a shrinking benefit.

The voucher is also a tool to cap government spending on health care. In 2022, once the feds send you $8,000, they're done paying for the year. "What we do in Medicare today is say, 'We're going to set in motion an open-ended entitlement, and the government's going to subsidize whatever it takes to provide that package,'" says Capretta. "The Ryan budget says, 'Why don't we build a budget that sets a level of taxation that we can afford, and here's the level of entitlement spending that will fit within that?'"

The idea of imposing a limit isn't inherently conservative or liberal. Most other rich countries, with their universal insurance, set a health care budget; the reform law signed by President Obama last year tries to cap spending too. But Ryan's cap is remarkably austere.

Social Security checks to rise 3.6%

The value of his voucher would grow at the level of inflation, which is almost always less than the growth of the economy. But no industrial country keeps health spending growth below GDP growth.

"It's implausible to think costs would inflate at that level," says Boston University health economist Austin Frakt. If so, then over time premium support would buy you less and less insurance -- and less and less care.

There are countless ways to moderate the severity of the Ryan plan. Wilensky suggests a cap that grows a little faster than GDP, for instance. What's most important about the proposal, though, is not the specific growth target; it's the philosophical stake in the ground planted about how much of the cost of paying for health care should be shared collectively, through taxes, and how much should be a responsibility for you, the individual, to bear. The Ryan plan says clearly: more on you. [...]

Hmmm. I do believe that costs have gotten so far out of control, because once the "government" is paying, instead of an individual, then nobody cares about the costs or questions what is being charged and why. But if it goes too far the other way, then people under 55 might be getting a lot less, even though they payed into Medicare the same as people over 55.

Is there a happy medium, a balance, somewhere? One will have to be found, because it sure can't continue like it is; unsustainable.

It's quite a long article. From PART 2:

Medicare: How much more will they cut?
For all the chatter about how politicians have to buckle down and get serious about reining in Medicare, you might have missed this development: Last year's health reform bill cut $500 billion out of two big Medicare programs over a decade, while increasing the number of high-income retirees who have to pay larger Part B premiums.

"It's as if that never happened," says Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina.

To be sure, health reform wasn't a let's-shrink-the-government project. The reason Democrats got their hands grimy and made cuts to the program was to help pay for a new health care entitlement, making it easier for Americans under 65 to buy their own insurance. Still, the new law shows that liberal lawmakers will slice into Medicare if needed, and offers a glimpse into how they'll try to do it.

The central idea behind the maze of cost-control provisions health reform establishes: Focus on trimming fat before reducing benefits. One approach is to reduce the power of providers to drive spending. When your doctor says you need this test or that surgery, you tend to take his word for it, even if you have hefty out-of-pocket costs. Hospitals, meanwhile, have consolidated in recent decades, giving them considerable price-setting power.

Results: There's substantial evidence that doctors at times over-treat, and you overpay for just about everything. "For a long hospital stay we pay $18,000, vs. $4,000 or $5,000 in Germany or Japan," says Gerard Anderson, director of the Center.


In coming months one idea you'll hear debated a lot is imposing a numerical cap on future government spending or revenue -- say, 21% of GDP or even 18%.

No matter what the specific numbers proposed are, growing health care costs are on a path to push the size of government well beyond those limits. If that happens, Medicare would go from long-term challenge to immediate crisis. Big changes would have to happen fast. Budget hawks ought to be specific about what those changes will be.

All you can know for sure now: This country, not just the government, but each of us as individuals -- is facing a monster of a doctor's bill, and there's no easy way to get around paying it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i'm 53 and i guess i need to go back to the old ways and seek help from the local Wiccans. get a little clove oil for my toothache maybe offer up some prayers that my fellow humans will treat each other better - one day.