Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Return of the Myth that Competition will Fix Medicare

Well, it seems as if Congressional Republicans are going to propose a complete refashioning of the Medicare program. Specifically, they are going to recommend scrapping Medicare as a provider of health insurance to seniors, and instead replace it with a system that will provide subsidies to individuals who will then buy health insurance from private insurance companies. In other words, they want to get the federal government completely out of the health insurance business for senior citizens.
GOP 2012: overhauls on entitlements and taxes, $6.2 trillion in cuts over decade

House Republicans plan to propose Tuesday historic changes to Medicare, Medicaid and other popular programs that pour federal money into Americans’ lives, arguing that a sacrifice now will keep those programs solvent for the future.

...On Medicare, Ryan will propose altering the plan so that the federal government no longer acts as a health insurer for seniors. Instead, he would create what’s called a “premium support plan.” Seniors would pick from a list of private insurance plans, and Medicare would subsidize their coverage.

The idea, again, is to use market competition to create a system with lower costs. Ryan’s plan would not apply to Americans age 55 and older, for whom Medicare would remain under the current system.
The notion that Medicare costs have been rising because it is a government-run health insurance program, or because it is not a "competitive" health insurance program, is odd. Theoretically, economists can list a number of very specific ways in which the markets for health care and health insurance are characterized by market failures. And for those of you who have forgotten your Econ 101 lessons, please recall that economic theory clearly predicts that when there are market failures there is no reason to necessarily expect that competition (i.e. the free market solution) will provide a good outcome.

Providing yet another example when economic theory actually matches what we see in the real world quite well, we find that there is absolutely no evidence that competition among private health insurance companies leads to lower costs. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducts a survey of employer-sponsored health insurance programs every year to estimate private health insurance premiums. Health insurance premiums for workers in large companies -- those employing 200 people or more, which encompasses about 65% of all workers covered by private, competitive, employer-sponsored health insurance plans -- rose by 135% over the ten year period 1999 to 2009.

Meanwhile, Medicare spending per person rose by about 103% over the same period. (Note that to get this figure I simply divided total Medicare costs from the CBO (pdf) by the number of Medicare enrollees as provided by Census (pdf).)

Given this, I'm really baffled by this repetition of the assertion that more competition in the market for health insurance is the answer. There's no theoretical justification for it, and no empirical evidence for it. The fact is that people in the US consume more health care services every year. So every year we pay more.


  1. Apinak3:27 AM

    "I'm really baffled by this repetition of the assertion that more competition in the market for health insurance is the answer"

    You have to first understand that it has nothing to do with balancing the budget. Paul Ryan cast the deciding vote for Medicare Part D so he has little standing as a budget cutter. This is about dismantling government. I've never understood the motivations but conservatives feel strongly that we would be better off as a nation if we adopted the policies of third world countries.

  2. Roger Merritt5:11 AM

    It's because 3rd World Countries are more hospitable to corruption and crony capitalism. The point is to divert money from the rest of the population to their own pockets. They definitely do not believe "a rising tide raises all ships." They believe that only they are hard-working and, thus, deserving. Everyone else is lazy and deserves to die. Also, if they create conditions so average wages are less than half what they are now, and unemployment is at 25% or better, they will be able to hire good servants again.

  3. Hi Kash.  Can you crosspost this one to AB?