As Republicans prepare legislation to repeal Obamacare, the health care industrial complex has raised a host of concerns. Notably, two hospital associations recently released a report highlighting the supposed negative implications of the reconciliation bill Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, late last year.
While the hospitals allege that repealing Obamacare would decimate their industry, their report cleverly omits four inconvenient truths.
1. They Pushed Bad Ideas Because They Expect Bailouts
In August 2010 at an American Enterprise Institute forum, then-Medicare actuary Rick Foster engaged in a discussion with Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, about the effects of Obamacare. The non-partisan actuary asked Kahn a simple question: Why did his industry agree to a series of so-called productivity adjustments, which lower hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement rates every year forever, in exchange for a one-time increase in their number of insured patients?
Kahn gave a simple, yet cynical, reply: “You could say, did you make a bad deal, and fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020 [Laughter.]….I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”
Fast-forward those six years to earlier this fall, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of various Obamacare provisions on hospital margins. The report concluded that even under the best-case scenario—in which hospitals achieve a level of efficiency non-partisan experts doubt they can reach—the revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the negative effects of the productivity adjustments. Under the worst-case scenario, more than half of hospitals could become unprofitable by 2025, and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.
Responding to the CBO report, the Federation of American Hospitals put out a statement from none other than Chip Kahn, wailing that “Medicare cuts are taking a punishing toll on the hospitals that serve all of us.” Translation: “Save me from my own stupidity—and the bad deal I cut six years ago!”
Kahn knew full well in August 2010 that Obamacare would eventually decimate his industry, through the cumulative effect of year-over-year reductions in Medicare payments. The laughter during his comments demonstrates Kahn thought it was one big joke. He and his colleagues cynically calculated first that they wouldn’t be around when those payment reductions really started to bite; and second that Congress would bail the hospitals out of their own bad deal—essentially, that hospitals are “too big to fail.”
2. Hospitals Supported Raiding Medicare to Pay for Obamacare
Last year’s reconciliation bill essentially undid the fiscal legerdemain that allowed Obamacare to pass in the first place. In the original 2010 legislation, Democrats used savings from Medicare both to improve the solvency of Medicare (at least on paper) and to fund the new entitlements.
The reconciliation bill would have repealed the new entitlements, and—in a truly novel concept—used Obamacare’s Medicare savings to…save Medicare. Instead, the hospital industry wants to continue the budget gimmickry that allows Medicare money to be spent twice and used for other projects.
3. Hospitals Believe Entitlements Are for Them, Not You
Last year, researchers from MIT released a major paper using the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—in which winners of a random lottery won the right to Medicaid benefits, while others did not—to calculate the utility of Medicaid coverage. The study found that most beneficiaries valued their coverage at between 20 and 40 cents on the dollar. In other words, if given the choice between Medicaid coverage valued at $3,000 and cash in the amount of $1,500, most beneficiaries would take the cash.
In theory, individuals receiving cash contributions in lieu of Medicaid coverage could improve their health in all sorts of ways—buy healthier food, obtain transportation to a higher-paying job, move to a better apartment closer to parks and recreation. But who would object to giving patients cash to improve their health instead of insurance? You guessed it: Hospitals.
Hospitals view Medicaid as their entitlement, not their patients’. That’s why hospitals have worked so hard for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. It’s also why they wouldn’t support diverting money from coverage into other programs (e.g., education, housing, nutrition, etc.) that could actually improve patients’ health more than insurance, which has been demonstrated not to improve physical health outcomes.
4. Insisting Health Care Is Their Personal Jobs Program
Hospitals will claim that repealing Obamacare will cost industry jobs, just as they pushed for states to expand Medicaid as a way to create jobs. But economic experts on both sides of the aisle find this argument frivolous at best. As Zeke Emanuel, a former Obama administration official, has noted: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”
Likewise, conservative economist Katherine Baicker has questioned “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy.” All spending will create jobs, one way or another. After all, if you’re looking to keep people employed, paying them to dig ditches and fill them in again will do the trick. But Baicker notes that it’s a far different thing to argue that health care represents the best and most efficient use of resources—better than, say, building roads and bridges, lowering taxes, or even repaying the deficit.
The health-care sector seems to believe they have a God-given right to consume at least one-sixth of the economy (and growing). Rebutting hospitals’ argument—that they, and only they, can create jobs—might represent the first step in lowering health costs, which would help non-health sectors of the economy grow more quickly.