Health Care Tax Would Hurt Middle Class

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Many Oregonians are now spending as much on health insurance and health care as they are on their mortgage payments. The Oregon legislature recently passed House Bill 2391 (signed by Governor Kate Brown) that will spike these costs even higher.

The law provides $605 million in new funds to the Oregon Health Authority. The money is meant to fill the fiscal hole made by the state’s costly expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Most of the money will come from taxes on health insurance providers, hospitals, managed care providers, and insurance provided through the Public Employee Benefits Board (PEBB).

Two of Oregon’s largest insurance providers on the ACA exchange have been approved for double-digit premium increases: Kaiser at almost 15 percent and Providence at more than 10 percent. For a 40-year-old with a Silver ACA plan, that amounts to an increased cost of about $500 a year.

The law explicitly allows the new taxes on health insurance providers to be passed on to consumers. With these new taxes, that Silver ACA plan will cost about $625 more in 2019 than in 2018. It’s not just 40-year-olds who will get hit with the insurance tax. Nearly 12,000 college students who buy their own health care as a requirement of attending a public college will pay the tax. Small group employers—such as the local coffee shop, auto repair, or bookstore—will pay the new tax.

Taxes on hospitals will raise the costs of care across the board. Emergency room visits, surgeries, diagnostics, and even childbirth will be hit with this new sales tax on hospital services. The cost of these taxes also will be passed on in the form of higher deductibles and premiums. Even if you don’t go to the hospital, you will be paying the hospital tax through higher insurance prices.

Because of the tax on the PEBB, local governments and school districts will also pay higher prices to insure their employees. These higher costs will lead to further cuts in staffing and services. Oregon’s already crowded classrooms will almost certainly get more crowded as districts struggle to fund the PERS crisis and higher insurance costs.

Medicaid providers are also hit with the tax. Because they do not have the pricing flexibility of other providers, they will have a harder time passing on the higher costs to consumers. Instead, they likely will reduce payments to doctors, nurses, and staff. With reduced payments, these professionals may decide to get out of the Medicaid market, thereby worsening the current shortage of Medicaid providers.

The Oregon Health Authority reports it recently removed nearly 55,000 people from its Medicaid program, after the state found they no longer qualified or failed to respond to an eligibility check. State auditors said in May that each of these Medicaid enrollees costs Oregon, on average, about $430 per month, or more than $550 million a biennium. These new savings alone more than cover the legislature’s tax increases.

While nearly everyone will be hit with the cost of these taxes, Oregon’s middle-class families will be hit the hardest. The Census Bureau reports that more than half of Oregon’s uninsured are adults between the ages of 25 and 64 who are not in poverty. These middle-class Oregonians surely want health insurance but have been priced out of the market. According to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half of the individuals buying insurance on the Obamacare exchange get no subsidies under the law. This has been called “the middle-class loophole of no help.” Adding the legislature’s new taxes will drive more of the middle class to take their chances with being uninsured. Is this really the state of health care we want for Oregon?

These taxes can be stopped. StopHealthCareTaxes.com is now collecting signatures to put Referendum 301 on the ballot, allowing voters to repeal about $320 million in new taxes on health insurance and health care. It would save the average household more than $200 a year in new taxes. Middle-class families will see even bigger savings. The referendum won’t stop the cost of health care from rising, but it will stop things from getting worse than they already are for Oregon’s middle class.


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on September 21, 2017.

ObamaCare Unraveling―And It Gets Worse in 2014

By Sally C. Pipes

With ObamaCare’s health insurance exchanges unraveling (especially HealthCare.gov, the federally run portal for the 36 states that decided not to set up their own exchanges), it’s safe to say that President Obama’s effort to expand coverage isn’t going well.

It’s about to get worse. Once the calendar flips to 2014, ObamaCare intends to expand Medicaid—the joint federal-state health insurance program for low-income Americans—to an additional 8.7 million people. But Medicaid isn’t working for the 62 million Americans it currently covers.

Taxpayers are struggling to shoulder the program’s $400-billion-plus price tag. Beneficiaries, meanwhile, are finding that doctors won’t accept their coverage. Expanding the program will only exacerbate both problems. Fortunately, some states are experimenting with reforms that inject private-sector discipline into Medicaid, thereby improving access to care and reducing costs. Other states should take note and adopt similar reforms.

At present, states largely determine who qualifies for Medicaid. Next year, ObamaCare will instruct them to cover everyone earning less than 138% of the poverty level. To entice states to follow through, the feds will cover the cost of the expansion for new enrollees for the first three years. States will have to share in the cost thereafter. Nevertheless, over half the states are refusing to follow ObamaCare’s dictates and not taking federal funds, exercising the right the U.S. Supreme Court gave them in June 2012 to do so.

Many states are wary of expanding Medicaid because those already in the program struggle to secure care. Between 2011 and 2012, about a third of primary care physicians weren’t accepting new Medicaid patients. A study from 2011 found that two-thirds of children on Medicaid couldn’t get an appointment with a specialist.

Doctors are reluctant to accept Medicaid because the program pays them so little. The entitlement reimburses physicians a little more than half the amount that private insurers do. In some cases, Medicaid’s reimbursements don’t cover the costs doctors incur seeing beneficiaries.

It’s no surprise, then, that the program fails to improve its beneficiaries’ health. A randomized study of Oregon’s Medicaid program published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes.”

For a failing program, Medicaid costs a lot. States spend more on Medicaid than anything else in their budgets—and collectively shoulder approximately one-third of the program’s more than $400 billion in annual costs.

ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion will only add to these costs. A new survey of state Medicaid offices shows that, in 2014, spending on the program will increase by 13% in states that have agreed to broaden eligibility in accordance with the law. It’s no wonder that many state leaders are looking to buck the Medicaid status quo.

In September 2013, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe secured a waiver enabling his state to use federal funds set aside for Medicaid to provide private coverage to 218,000 residents. The state’s Department of Health reports that more than 56,000 people have asked to participate in the Arkansas Healthcare Independence Program.

Arkansas officials believe they’ll save $670 million over 10 years, thanks to the waiver. Leaders in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Tennessee have expressed interest in creating similar “private options.” Arkansas’s approach empowers individuals to shop for insurance that suits their needs, rather than settling for one-size-fits-all policies.

Privately delivered Medicaid also permits state officials and patients to expand the availability of tax-advantaged health savings accounts (HSAs) to low-income families. These accounts give families the ability to shop around for care—and to save tax-free for the future whatever they don’t spend now. Encouraging such consumer-driven behavior in the health care marketplace will be crucial to reducing overall costs.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has adopted a different approach, proposing that private managed-care firms administer his state’s Medicaid program. Dubbed “Comprehensive Care Entities,” these companies would be tasked with overseeing patient care in a way that improves health outcomes while keeping costs down. They’d also compete against one another, creating an incentive to improve customer service, economic efficiency, and quality of care.

More state leaders should look for ways to use choice and competition to move past Medicaid’s status quo. If they don’t, they’ll simply perpetuate ObamaCare’s strategy of expanding failed programs and calling it progress.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Taube Fellow in Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. She is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute. A version of this article was originally published by Investors Business Daily.

Is Being on Medicaid Better Than Having No Insurance at All?

By Roger Stark, MD, FACS

Does having health insurance actually save lives or improve health more than being uninsured? This question has not been answered until very recently.

In 2008, Oregon lawmakers decided they had enough additional public money to add 10,000 people to the state’s Medicaid program. So, Oregon officials held a lottery that ultimately signed up 6,400 new Medicaid enrollees. A further 5,800 people were eligible for the program but were not selected. People in this group had the same health and economic profile as the lottery winners. This created the perfect test case on the effectiveness of Medicaid in providing care. These 5,800 people became the control group in an objective, randomized study.

The two-year results of the health comparison study were published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine. The conclusion is surprising. It turns out that having Medicaid health insurance does not improve health outcomes, nor does it improve mortality statistics, compared with having no insurance coverage at all. The Medicaid group had no improvement in the important objective measurements of blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. The study did find that vaguely defined “mental health” did improve. However, this was done via subjective telephone interviews, not objective clinical data. For those few people requiring prolonged medical and hospital treatment, having Medicaid did improve their financial status because their medical bills were covered by federal and Oregon taxpayers.

The existing Medicaid program has 60 million enrollees nationally at a cost of $430 billion per year. Looking forward, the cost is estimated to increase to $900 billion per year by 2019. Medicaid is an extremely inefficient program, and reimbursement for doctors and other providers is about half of what private insurance pays for the same services. Doctors are not able to pay their own overhead with these low payment rates. Consequently, existing Medicaid patients have trouble getting access to health care.

The Washington State Medical Association did a recent survey of primary care providers. Results showed 18 percent had dropped all Medicaid patients, and 24 percent were not taking new Medicaid patients, due to poor payment and the complexities of Medicaid cases compared with privately insured patients. Getting access to health care is a significant problem for people in the existing Medicaid program in Washington. It turns out that having insurance on paper is not the same as actually obtaining health care services.

The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, gives states the option to expand Medicaid to at least 16 million new patients nationally and 280,000 in Washington State. The law says that any adult over the age of 18 who earns less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for Medicaid. The estimated cost of this expansion to taxpayers is at least $450 billion over the first 10 years, beginning in 2014.

The Oregon study confirms that Medicaid does not provide better health care to people than having no health insurance at all. These terrible results not only come with a huge taxpayer cost, but also trap poor individuals in a virtually worthless health insurance plan.

The Washington State Legislature is considering expanding Medicaid in the current state budget negotiations. The federal government is bribing states with federal taxpayer money to expand Medicaid. Many state lawmakers support the expansion because it feels like “free” federal money, and they reason that Medicaid is better than no health insurance at all. The large, randomized Oregon study shows this is not true.

Of course, state taxpayers are also federal taxpayers, so ultimately the people of Washington State will pay for this Medicaid expansion. Medicaid is a pay-as-you-go program. The idea of leaving free federal money on the table makes no sense. If Medicaid doesn’t expand, the burden of taxes should be reduced for everyone.

Medical outcomes for people in the Medicaid program are no better than outcomes for people without health insurance. This fact makes it very difficult to argue that Medicaid is better than no insurance, especially considering the tremendous cost involved. Washington’s state legislators would do better to improve their existing Medicaid program; eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse; improve access; and make the program a real safety-net health insurance plan that provides quality care at a reasonable cost. Oregon’s state legislators should do the same.

Dr. Roger Stark is a health care policy analyst at Washington Policy Center in Seattle, Washington and a retired cardiothoracic surgeon. He has authored numerous in-depth studies on health care policy. Dr. Stark was one of the cofounders of the open-heart surgery program at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue and served on the hospital’s governing board. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

Personal Health Accounts Empower Medicaid Recipients

As Michael Sherraden pointed out 20 years ago in his book Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy, the key to getting ahead is not income but assets. People play better and smarter when they have a stake in the system.

According to research, assets not only provide financial security, but they cause people to lead more stable lives, think in longer time frames, be more involved in community affairs, and have more hope for the future.

While many government programs discourage asset accumulation, causing low-income individuals to miss the psychological and tangible benefits of asset building, some states are trying a new approach. South Carolina is testing personal health accounts in a pilot project for Medicaid recipients. Participants get high-deductible insurance paired with savings accounts for medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance, all funded by Medicaid. When program recipients increase their income and no longer qualify for Medicaid, they keep the balance in their health accounts.

The program realizes the benefits that higher income individuals (and businesses) have already seen from switching to high deductible insurance paired with health savings accounts: People make smarter decisions about what health care they need or want when they have “skin in the game.” That “skin” is the balance of their health savings account.

Isn’t it time that Oregon think outside the box to incorporate asset building into its safety nets?

Learning from Mistakes in Health Insurance Policy

By Michael Bastasch

The Oregon Health Plan (OHP) was implemented in 1994 as Oregon’s attempt to improve health care for the state’s low-income Medicaid population. The program set out to increase access to health coverage, ensure early preventative treatment and reduce premium increases for the insured. Despite its lofty goals, the program largely failed as financial instability forced it to impose higher costs on its own beneficiaries and to disenroll many participants.

Recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a controlled study analyzing the effects of “expanding access to public health insurance on the health care use, financial strain, and health of low-income adults” in Oregon. In 2008, the state expanded Medicaid enrollment by 10,000 under the Oregon Health Plan (OHP) Standard program. The Standard program covers only a limited number of uninsured adults ineligible for traditional Medicaid programs and charges monthly premiums but no copayments. This recent study has been trumpeted by some as a vindication for the national Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but the results simply echo a return to the same failed approach to health insurance that Oregon has already experienced with the OHP.

The results of the 2008 study were as follows: There was an increase in utilization of health care services among those who received insurance. The probability of having a hospital admission increased 30%, the probability of having an outpatient visit increased 35% and the likelihood of taking any prescription drugs increased 15%. Likewise, there was an increase in reported compliance with recommended preventative care including mammograms and cholesterol monitoring.

As for financial strain, there was a 25% decline in the probability of having unpaid medical bills sent to collection agencies and a 20% decline in having to pay any out-of-pocket medical expenditures.

In terms of the benefits of insurance to physical health, the results show a 13% increase in the likelihood that someone reported feeling “good, very good, or excellent;” and the likelihood of screening positive for depression fell as well.

All of these would seem to indicate that the program was successful, yet a closer examination reveals the fundamental problems with the program. First, the increases in the utilization of health services and the reduced financial strain add significantly to overall costs. In fact, average annual individual expenditures increased by 25% ($778). This isn’t surprising, given that merely a decade after OHP was implemented expenditures per enrollee had increased 58[SB1] %. OHP’s total Medicaid expenditures increased 113% from 1994 to 2008[SB2] , well over the rate of medical inflation for that time period. These huge cost increases put heavy burdens on the system which eventually resulted in large-scale disenrollment of beneficiaries.

Second, the push for preventative care did not decrease emergency room visits or generate cost-savings. Proponents of preventative care argue that expanded public insurance should encourage preventative treatments in order to reduce health care costs as fewer people use hospital emergency rooms for preventable diseases. They believe that emergency room visits are often the most expensive form of health care provision. However, the recent study points out that there was no such decrease in emergency room use, despite the fact that compliance with recommended preventative care increased. In fact, OHP has never caused any measurable change on emergency room usage over its lifetime.

Third, self-reported measurements of health indicated improvements. However, two-thirds of the increase in self-reported health came shortly after enrollment and before enrollees began utilizing any medical services. Also, the increase in self-reported health doesn’t mean enrollees were actually physically healthier. In fact, the report indicated it is most likely that the increase in self-reported health reflects a general sense of improved wellbeing. In other words, people feel better off with insurance even if they are not physically healthier.

 

The recent study provides a clear insight into the effects of expanded public health coverage in Oregon, and the results of the study provide additional evidence to the failure of OHP. However, proponents of Obamacare see the Oregon experiment as vindication for their nationwide endeavor. Comparing Oregon’s results to the national stage is premature, as even this report’s researchers have warned: “[C]onsiderable caution must be exercised in extrapolating from our estimates of the causal impact of insurance eligibility and coverage to other settings.”

Policymakers should use the study as a blueprint for how not to go about reforming health care. The Oregon experience has shown that further centralization of health coverage and layering of subsidies ultimately fails. Instead, it would be prudent to decentralize health coverage to promote competition and consumer choice.


Michael Bastasch is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Individual Accounts Can Save Medicare

Eric FruitsCascade Commentary

Click here to read the full report in PDF format

Summary:Medicare is a “pay-as-you-go” system in which today’s workers are taxed to pay for today’s spending. Unfortunately, demographics and economic reality make this model unsustainable. A pay-your-own-way system of individual accounts will ensure that today’s workers receive high quality medical care when they become tomorrow’s retirees.

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