Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Health Reform and Premiums

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released estimates for the Senate health bill, and what they've said about premiums has caused some argument among the experts. And by "argument", I mean they take entirely opposite views on what direction the CBO suggests premiums are moving in. Gruber, Krugman, and Yglesias all contend that premiums will actually go down. The CBO report itself seems to say in several places that premiums will go up. What's going on? Gruber, Krugman, and Yglesias's claim should sound strange to people. The Senate bill is sort of like Massachusetts health reform writ large, and we didn't see premiums decline there.

I think Megan McArdle is largely on target in her explanation of what's going on, and she is firm but fair with the dissenters. Basically, if you look at the same type of plan before and after reform the premiums are reduced - that's what Krugman and Gruber are emphasizing. That means something for sure, but there's a reason why the CBO didn't highlight that. If people were free to choose what health insurance they wanted, it would be meaningful to have the same plan have lower premiums as a result of reform.

The problem is, they aren't free to choose (to borrow a Milton Friedman line). A slew of mandates are included in reform, not the least of which being the mandate to simply have insurance. So risk pools are wider, which does provide the opportunity to furnish the same insurance for less money. But if you're not allowed to buy the same insurance, what does that matter? If everyone had the same options available to them that they did before the reform, I would say look at how the premium of different types of plans change before and after reform. But they don't have the same options - they are forced to buy more. So looking at the change in the same plan is meaningless - instead you have to look at the change in the premiums people will actually end up paying.

And that is supposed to increase. And we shouldn't be surprised - as I've said for a while now, the mandate dumps tens of millions of people into the insurance market. You can't have a demand shock like that and reasonably expect a drop in prices. It just doesn't pass the smell test. Does this mean it's a bad bill? Well it's at the top of the list of arguments you would make for why it's a bad bill. I think your ultimate position on the bill itself is going to have to be based on more than that. The bill does a lot of other things that I think are good. The mandate, in my mind, is a very bad idea. But if premiums continue to climb the mandate can always be adjusted later. The question for people (who feel the way I do on the mandate) is - are all the Medicare reforms, all the advances in tax policy, all the expansions of Medicaid, the exchange, etc. still better than the status quo even if they're burdened with an odious mandate? That's a question that people have to answer for themselves. I think on balance we need to do something, and I'd prefer we didn't jump into an expansive public option. This seems like the best way to do that. The problems associated with the mandate seem smaller to me than the problems associated with doing nothing. But reasonable minds may disagree.

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