It is beginning to look like Congress is going to vote to pass health care legislation on Sunday. According to the NYTimes, Democrats are practically celebrating already. (here) It is interesting, however, that no one is talking about providing benefits to the currently underserved. Rather, the “good news” is that the bill is supposed to be “the largest deficit reduction of any bill we have adopted in Congress since 1993,” according to House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. “We are absolutely giddy over the great news,” said the House’s number three Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. (Of course, deficit hysteria is nothing new. See here)
Who would have thought that health care “reform” would morph into deficit cutting?
As Marshall Auerback and I argue in a new policy brief (here), the proposed legislation is not “reform” and it will not reduce US health care costs. I will not repeat the arguments there. But very briefly, the most significant outcome of this legislation is the windfall gain for insurance companies—who will be able to tap the wages of the huge pool of nearly 50 million Americans who currently do not purchase health insurance. Since many of these are too poor to afford the premiums, the government will kick in hundreds of billions of dollars to line the pockets of health insurers. This legislation has nothing to do with improving health services for the currently underserved—it is all about increasing the insurance sector’s share of the economy.
You might wonder how Democrats can call this a deficit reduction deal? Elementary, dear Watson. They will slash Medicare spending. No wonder—it stands as an alternative to the US’s massively inefficient private insurance system, hence, needs to be downsized in favor of an upsized private system.
There is nothing in the deal that will significantly reduce health care costs. At best, it will simply shift more costs to employers and employees—higher premiums, higher deductibles, higher co-pays, and more exclusions forcing higher out-of-pocket expenses and personal bankruptcies. As we show in our paper, the US’s high health care costs (at 17% of GDP, double or triple the per capita costs in other similarly wealthy nations) are due to three factors. As many commentators have argued (especially those who advocate single-payer) part of the difference is due to the costs of operating a complex payment system that relies on private insurers—resulting in paperwork and overhead costs, plus high profits and executive compensation for insurance executives. This adds about 25% to our health care system costs. Obviously, the proposed legislation is “business as usual”, actually adding more insurance costs to our system.
In addition, Americans spend more for medical supplies and drugs. Since the Democrats ruled out any attempt to constrain Big Pharma through, for example, negotiating lower prices for drugs, there will not be any savings there.
Finally, and most importantly, the biggest contributor to higher US health care costs is our American “lifestyle”: too little exercise, too much bad food, and too much risky behavior (such as smoking). (here) This is why we spend far more on outpatient costs for chronic diseases such as diabetes—40% of health care spending and rising rapidly. Ending the subsidies to Big Agriculture that produces the products that make us sick would not only do more to improve US health outcomes than will the proposed legislation, but it would also reduce health care spending—while reducing government spending at the same time. That would be real health care reform! But, of course, no one talks about this.
Interestingly, according to the NYTimes article, President Obama likened the legislation to fixing the financial system or passing the economic recovery act. “I knew these things might not be popular, but I was absolutely positive that it was the right thing to do,” he said. That is an apt and scary comparison. This legislation will do as much to “fix” the US health care system as the Obama administration has done to “fix” the financial sector and to put the economy on the road to recovery?
Of course, we have not done anything to “fix” the financial sector, or to put Mainstreet on the road to recovery.
I think the President’s comparison is uncannily accurate. So far the main thing his administration has done is to funnel trillions of dollars to the FIRE sector in an attempt to restore money manager capitalism. The current legislation will simply continue that policy—the trillions spent so far to bail-out Wall Street have not been nearly enough. Hence, the effort to funnel billions more to the insurance industry.
But what is the connection between Wall Street and health insurers? As Marshall and I argue in our brief, they are “two peas in a pod” since the deregulation of financial institutions. We threw out the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial banking from investment banking and insurance with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 that let Wall Street form Bank Holding Companies that integrate the full range of “financial services”, that sell toxic waste mortgage securities to your pension funds, that create commodity futures indexes for university endowments to drive up the price of your petrol, and that take bets on the deaths of firms, countries, and your loved ones. (See also here)
Hence, extension of health care insurance represents yet another unwelcome intrusion of finance into every part of our economy and our lives. In other words, the “reforms” envisioned would simply complete the financialization of health care that is already sucking money and resources into the same black hole that swallowed residential real estate. (here)
Just as the bail-out of Wall Street was sold on the argument that we need to save the big banks so that they will increase lending to Main Street, health care “reform” was initially promoted as a way to improve provision of health care to the underserved. What we got instead is a bail-out for insurers and cuts to Medicare. Funny how that happens.