Friday, April 7, 2017

ACA/Obamacare: Cross Subsidy as a Hidden and Inefficient Tax

“But the great puzzle of health care policy: Just why is it, to accommodate this worthy goal, must your and my health care and insurance be so deeply regulated and so thoroughly dysfunctional? As one small example, why does a 20 minute skin check with the resident of my dermatologist generate a phoney baloney bill for over $1000, meaning a cash and carry market for such a simple, elastically demanded, and perfectly predictable service is impossible?

Why, in order to provide for the unfortunate, do we not simply levy taxes, and pay for charity care, and leave the rest of us alone? Regular Americans have jobs, buy houses, buy TVs, cars, and smartphones, negotiate the complexities of 401(k) and IRA plans, cell phone contracts, frequent flyer programs; hire the complex professional services of contractors, car mechanics, lawyers and accountants, and deal with the insane complexity of our tax system.”

“I think the answer is relatively simple. Our political system is allergic to the word "tax." Instead of straightforwardly raising taxes in a non-distortionary way (a VAT, say), and providing charity care or subsidies -- on budget, please, where we can see it -- our political system prefers to fund things by forcing cross subsidies.

Medicare and medicaid don't pay what the service costs, because we don't want to admit just how expensive that service is. So, large hospitals make up the difference by overcharging you and me instead. The poster child (though not really a cost driver) is emergency room care. The government passed a law saying hospitals must provide emergency room care for free. But money does not grow on trees, so again you and me (via private insurance) must get overcharged to cross-subsidize. The ACA tried to force young healthy wealthy (not getting subsidies) to vastly overpay for insurance, to cross subsidize the poorer and sicker.

This might seem like a wash. OK, if instead of paying taxes, it makes you feel good to pay business class prices for health insurance, what the heck. Economically, a cross-subsidy works the same as a tax. In fact, we do have Europe-size taxes and subsidies, we just hide them.

But it's not a wash. Cross-subsidies are dramatically less efficient than taxes. Choosing cross-subsidies over taxes is indeed the second original sin of health care and insurance regulation. Cross-subsidies cannot stand competition.

If as now you and I are grossly overpaying for health care and insurance, to cross-subsidize others, a competitive market would come along and peel us off. A local skin-check clinic could offer that service for $50.

Low prices, efficiency, and innovation in the provision of services like health care come centrally from competition, and especially disruptive competition. With no competition -- especially no entry by new doctors, hospitals, clinics, insurance companies -- costs spiral up. As costs spiral up, the cost of the charity care spirals up. As that spirals up, the size of the cross-subsidies spirals up. As that spirals up, the need to restrict competition spirals up.”

“Bottom line: Much of the pathology of health care and health insurance comes from this second original sin, choosing cross-subsidies rather than straightforward taxes. Cross-subsidies require the government to stop competition, so an initially clever way of hiding taxes eventually builds into a monstrously inefficient system. (That's a key point. Initially, it is about the same. But the cross subsidy system gets more and more inefficient over time.)

We would be far better off to admit this; raise explicit taxes enough to provide the charity end of our care, and let health insurers and care givers compete for the rest of us, as airlines, computer makers, and everyone else does. The politician's job is to explain to people that what they pay more in taxes they will more than make up in lower health care and insurance costs.” - The second original sin of healthcare regulation, John Cochrane, 04/05/2017

Link to the entire essay appears below:




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