For cost control, vouchers and Medicare don’t add up

The following appeared at Kaiser Health News on 19 August 2010. My announcement of the KHN version provoked many comments, to which I responded. In order to keep comments consolidated, I’ve turned the ability to comment off for this post. If you wish to comment, please do so on my announcement post. Please also read the other comments first and try not to repeat what has already been discussed. Also, this post is cited in the 2 September 2010 edition of Health Wonk Review.

With the ambition of reducing the federal debt, Congressman Paul Ryan has offered aproposal to convert Medicare to a voucher-based program. Under the plan, in time all Medicare beneficiaries would receive program benefits from private plans subsidized by government payments (vouchers). In principle, such a system could reduce federal Medicare costs if the subsidy grows more slowly than medical inflation, shifting more of the costs to care to individuals. The history of Medicare and its politics suggest it is unlikely to work out that way.

About Ryan’s plan, economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “[W]e already know, from experience with the Medicare Advantage program, that a voucher system would have higher, not lower, costs than our current system.” Krugman is correct: When it comes to Medicare, vouchers and cost control, it seems you can’t get all three.

Though rarely described this way, the private Medicare Advantage plans are a (voluntary) voucher system. When covering a beneficiary, an Advantage plan receives a fixed monthly payment from Medicare that depends on the beneficiary’s county of residence and health status. That fixed monthly payment is tantamount to a voucher. With it, beneficiaries can select from any Advantage plan operating in their county. They can also stick with traditional fee-for-service Medicare–and about three in four beneficiaries do so.

But today, the market-based arm of the program costs more, not less, per beneficiary. Those fixed monthly payments to Advantage plans are, on average, 13 percent above fee-for-service Medicare costs. It didn’t start out that way. Originally, private Medicare plans were paid 95 percent of per beneficiary fee-for-service costs. The logic was that private plans ought to be able to provide Medicare services more efficiently than traditional Medicare through a combination of controlling utilization and driving hard bargains with providers. So, Medicare used to take five percent off the top.

Then Congress began to ratchet up payments, first with the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and more recently with the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act. (This year’s health reform law aims to reduce Advantage payments, though still not below 100 percent of fee-for-service costs on average.) Ironically, traditional Medicare payment regulatory reforms–like the prospective payment of hospitals and home health agencies–have been more successful (even if not anywhere near successful enough) in mollifying the rate of growth in the program’s costs.

What’s going on? Why is the market-based Advantage voucher system not helping to control Medicare costs? The answer is that health care cost control is tough, technicallyand politically. Provider groups typically resist it. When it pertains to Medicare, beneficiaries resist it too. By adding another private-sector layer to the program–health insurers–the Advantage program invites a third source of political pressure. Rent-seeking by providers and insurers, as well as the power of the beneficiary constituency, align in their encouragement of higher Advantage payments. Congress, apparently, is willing to yield to that encouragement.

So, it’s really no surprise that Advantage plans have not, to date, been part of a Medicare cost control solution. Congress has not consistently been willing to say no to the combination of powerful interests that advocate for higher payments to private plans. Given the track record, it is also not unreasonable to conclude the mandatory voucher program Ryan advocates wouldn’t save money either. As Krugman suggests, it could even be worse because in time 100% of beneficiaries would be enrolled in vouchers, not the 24 percent that are enrolled today.

The politics of Medicare are such that Ryan’s idea, paying for care entirely through private plans, costs more. That’s not due to a market failure, but a political one. Congress likes to spend money; insurers, providers and beneficiaries like to receive it. Congress spends even more when it can satisfy those interests under the guise of a seemingly pro-market, pro-competitive program.

When it comes to cost control and considering the political calculus of Congress, vouchers and Medicare don’t add up.

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