There are two key assumptions underlying the numbers that are highly implausible and reveal a systematic tilt toward government-run health care.
First, CBO says that in 2022 government-run Medicare could provide the standard package of health coverage for just 72 percent of what it would cost a private plan to do so. How could that possibly be? Simple: price controls, and especially the deep cuts in Medicare’s fixed prices imposed under Obamacare. If one assumes that there are no consequences whatsoever to paying ever-lower rates of reimbursement for medical services, then, sure, government-run Medicare, and for that matter government-run health care more generally, would look cheaper on paper than private health insurance.
And, in fact, this is not a new development. Health-care price controls have always looked good on CBO tables, which is a huge problem in the policymaking process. But they never look quite so good in the real world. Consider Medicaid. State governments have imposed extremely low rates for most medical services, and the program’s participants often have a difficult time securing access to needed care. Far too often, it’s insurance on paper and not in practice. Moreover, because the rates are so low, the quality of care provided to the Medicaid population is well below what most Americans would find acceptable.
CBO’s analysis makes none of these quality distinctions. Price-controlled Medicare, with payment rates as low as Medicaid’s today relative to private insurance, is assumed to provide the same quality of care as private coverage. It’s absurd.
Incidentally, it should be noted that in Medicare Advantage, private-sector HMOs were able in 2010 to provide the standard package of Medicare services for less than what government-run Medicare costs (according to MedPAC data). And that’s in spite of the price controls imposed by government-run Medicare. The reason is that government-run Medicare is a massively inefficient operation. Yes, it pays very little per service, but the volume of services provided has been soaring on an annual basis for years and years.
The second crucial assumption is that competition in Medicare has no effect whatsoever on the efficiency or cost of the options offered to Medicare participants. The whole point of the Ryan plan is to build a functioning marketplace, in which plans have to compete for the business of cost-conscious consumers. Ryan rightly believes that this is the key to genuine “delivery-system reform,” by which those delivering the services to patients find new, better, and more efficient ways of providing needed services at less cost. But CBO’s assessment assumes nothing will change at all.
Those who have been pushing for a market-based solution for health care have long complained that CBO’s analyses inevitably favor a command-and-control approach. This latest analysis only confirms that point of view. Unfortunately, it’s a sad reality that genuine reform of the nation’s health entitlements and broader health system are likely to be enacted in spite of analyses from CBO, not because of them.
— James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004.