One of the best kept secrets in the last election was John McCain’s health plan. When focus groups revealed that ordinary voters had a hard time understanding the McCain plan, his campaign decided it was better not to explain it at all.
Other than two editorials in the Wall Street Journal (one by yours truly), I believe no McCain backer of substance really explained the McCain plan anywhere in print. Also, the only clear explanation on the Internet of how it all might work was at my blog. This left the field open for Barack Obama supporters to distort and mischaracterize the McCain plan, including some ideas that Obama’s health advisors supported before they became Obama advisors!
Yet there may be a silver lining here after all. As it turns out, to even begin to make good on the promises he has made, Barack Obama needs key elements of the McCain plan. He also needs key elements of Mitt Romney’s health reform, about which he has already had complimentary things to say. He can also borrow an idea or two from Sens. Ron Wyden and Bob Bennett. For that matter, he needs Pauly and Goodman, too. Here is how it might work.
Note: I’ve done versions of this for the Health Affairs blog and for the National Journal’s health blog.Three Interesting Reform Plans. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health reform is the most revolutionary reform implemented anywhere at the state level. John McCain’s national health plan is far and away the most fundamental change proposed by any serious presidential candidate [link]. On the surface, the two plans seem very different from each other and from Barack Obama’s plan. In fact, elements of the Romney and McCain plans would make Obama’s plan work much better. And a combined Obama/McCain/Romney approach could be made better still with a few more changes.
The McCain Plan. There are two principal elements: (1) McCain would replace the current arbitrary, wasteful and unfair system of federal tax subsidies for health insurance with a system under which all families get the same tax relief for private insurance, no matter how it is obtained. (2) He would also allow people to buy insurance across state lines, effectively allowing a national market to develop. (See the NCPA analysis here.)
The Romney Plan. There are five main elements: (1) A required benefit package, defining what insurance everyone must have. (2) Subsidies for low-income families. (3) A pay-or-play choice, imposing a fine on anyone who continues to be uninsured. (4) A system parallel to employer-based coverage, in which individuals paying (essentially) group health insurance rates can choose among competing health plans. (5) The use of disproportionate share funds (previously used to subsidize care for the uninsured) to subsidize private insurance for low- and moderate-income families. (See the NCPA analysis here.)
The Obama Plan. There are four main elements: (1) Insurance required for children, but not adults. (2) Subsidies for low-income families. (3) A pay-or-play mandate for employers (and by implication their employees), but not for people on their own. (4) A system parallel to employer-based coverage in which individuals could buy insurance on their own.
What Obama Needs from McCain: A Consistent Subsidy. The greatest weakness in Obama’s approach is two completely unrelated subsidy systems: the current tax exclusion subsidy for people who continue to get coverage through an employer and an income-based subsidy for people who buy coverage in the parallel market. Because the two subsidy systems are not integrated, they can cause unstable movement back and forth — depending on their relative generosity. What McCain offers is a simple, seamless subsidy — available to all people and all forms of insurance: a lump sum, refundable tax credit of $2,500 (individual) or $5,000 (family).
What Obama Needs from Romney: A Consistent Mandate. Another weakness in Obama’s approach is the idea of imposing a pay-or-play mandate on employees (through their employers) but not on people who are not employees. As with the unintegrated subsidy, this distorts labor market choices. It also penalizes and discourages employment. Romney’s approach is better: treat everyone the same, whether employee, independent contractor or out of the labor market altogether. If you’re uninsured in Massachusetts, you pay a fine. Period.
What Obama Needs from Wyden/Bennett: A Financial Mandate. Forcing people to buy a package of benefits whose cost will grow at twice the rate of growth of their income is a formula for future trouble. Even if people can initially afford the mandated package in year one, they are likely to fall short in year two, even more so in year three, etc. [See further explanation here.] Wyden and Bennett have a better idea: Let the mandate be a financial mandate (you have to spend x dollars), not a prescribed set of benefits.
What Obama Needs from McCain and Romney: Funding Sources. The most attractive feature of the Romney plan was that it (initially) cut the number of uninsured in half without new spending. Reasonable estimates suggest that McCain’s (originally revenue neutral) plan would also cut the number of uninsured in half. Romney relied on redistributing “free care” (DISPRO) funds. McCain would redistribute existing tax subsidies. By contrast, Barack Obama would leave the current tax and spending subsidies largely in place, relying instead on the repeal of “tax cuts for the rich.” Yet those tax breaks fall short of the resources he will need by at least a factor of three, and they are scheduled for automatic expiration anyway. Plus, even that revenue source is wilting. Obama economic advisors have assured Wall Street that the new dividends and capital gains tax rates will go no higher than 20%.
What Obama Needs from McCain: Lower Regulatory Costs. By some estimates, as many as one out of every four uninsured people has been priced out of the market for health insurance by the cost-increasing effects of government regulation. By contrast, McCain’s national market would allow people to purchase insurance licensed in other states that have fewer special interest mandates. A study by University of Minnesota economists estimates that this reform alone would cut the number of uninsured by one-fourth.
What Obama Needs from McCain: Cost Control Incentives. As it now stands, the Obama plan would continue the current practice of extending tax subsidies to employer-provided health insurance — no matter how lavish or wasteful. These subsidies can amount to as much as 50 cents on the dollar. By contrast, McCain’s plan subsidizes the core insurance we want everyone to have, forcing them to buy additional insurance with unsubsidized dollars.
Additionally, the Obama approach proposes to limit the cost to people in the parallel market — probably to a fraction (say 5% to 10%) of their income. This means people would purchase core insurance with their own money and (potentially wasteful) marginal insurance with taxpayer money. The McCain approach is better: let taxpayers fund the core insurance and let people pay with their own money for the questionable add-ons.
Making the Hybrid Approach Better. All these ideas could be merged, as I have suggested here. However, a merged plan could be improved in three ways:
- Risk-Rate Insurance Premiums. The premium insurers receive should roughly equal the expected health care costs of the enrollees. Otherwise, health plans will try to attract the healthy and avoid the sick; and once people are enrolled the plans will be tempted to overprovide to the healthy and underprovide to the sick. The health plan for members of Congress and federal employees violates this principle. The Medicare Advantage plan for seniors wisely employs it. [See further explanation here.]
- Commit to Safety Net Institutions. Hospitals fear they will be required to take care of the uninsured without the resources to do so. The answer: The McCain $2,500/$5,000 amounts should be pledged to health care, not to just private insurance. If people choose not to be insured, the amounts should be made available to safety net institutions in their vicinity. [See further explanation here.]
- Adopt Roth HSAs. What is the role of Health Savings Accounts in this approach? Since the McCain tax credit causes people to buy additional insurance with after-tax dollars, deposits to HSAs should also be made after-tax. Hence, what is needed is a Roth account – with after-tax deposits and tax-free withdrawals. [See further explanation here.]