He graduated from Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, thinks “choc-o-tastic” qualifies as a food group, and has a strange habit of jumping out of windows when called to the coroner’s office. He’s also an animated character, for what it’s worth. So what does Dr. Nick Riviera, Springfield’s resident quack on “The Simpsons,” have to do with Obamacare?
As it happens, plenty. Dr. Nick provides a humorous example of what may happen in future years, as cascading reductions in reimbursements due to Obamacare wreak havoc on our health care system—and could make “doctors” like Dr. Nick the only access option for some patients.
Productivity Adjustments Ahead
Most economists consider health care a superior good. That is, as income rises, people want more of it. Moreover, in many cases patients equate price with quality. People generally want the most, and best, health care money can buy, even if the most expensive care does not always equate to the best care. In Springfield, that high-cost care gets provided by giggling physician Dr. Julius Hibbert.
Obamacare included several major changes to reimbursement systems that attempted to change this drive for more, and more expensive, care, but also included arbitrary payment reductions that will lead to abysmally low payment levels. Most notably, the law included so-called “productivity adjustments” to the Medicare formula for hospitals and other providers, reducing the growth of their payments every year.
The CEO of a major hospital trade association admitted back in 2010 that this trade-off—a one-time increase in insured patients for hospitals in exchange for lower payments from Medicare forever—probably didn’t amount to a great deal for his industry in the longer term. Nonpartisan budget experts agree.
The Congressional Budget Office in September 2016 released an analysis showing the Obamacare productivity adjustments could more than double the number of unprofitable hospitals nationwide by 2025. In the longer term, the independent Medicare actuary believes that the productivity adjustments will become unsustainable. As Medicare payment levels keep dropping relative to private insurance, they will make 70 percent of skilled nursing facilities and 80 percent of home health agencies unprofitable, “raising the prospect of access and quality-of-care issues for Medicare beneficiaries.”
Although set by another formula—one created in 2015 rather than in Obamacare itself—Medicare physician payment rates face the same dilemma, as simulations also project payments to decline substantially over time when compared to other forms of coverage.
‘You’ve Tried the Best—Now Try the Rest!’
Into this payment breach steps none other than Dr. Nick Riviera. In season three of “The Simpsons,” the title family had to rely on Dr. Nick to perform open-heart surgery on Homer. Because Homer’s insurance wouldn’t cover the operation, the family turned to Dr. Nick upon seeing his television ad, in which he pledged to undertake any surgery for the ridiculously low price of $129.95. (“Call 1-600-DOCTORB—The B is for bargain!”)
The following scenes show an inept Dr. Nick attempting to learn bypass surgery on the fly. Only a well-timed intervention from smarty-pants daughter Lisa allows Dr. Nick to complete the surgery successfully, resulting in a happy ending for the Simpson clan.
Coming to a Hospital Near You?
Liberals might argue that this episode makes the case for Obamacare, by preventing the kind of care denials that led Homer to Dr. Nick in the first place. But in reality, Obamacare insurance plans currently provide increasingly narrow provider networks that could impede access to care. Moreover, the law’s productivity adjustments, by making hospitals and other providers unprofitable, will increasingly limit access to care for seniors in Medicare over time.
Democrats claim Obamacare made no changes to Medicare, and that reducing reimbursement levels amounts to no more than cutting “waste” out of the system. “Your guaranteed benefits won’t change,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argues.
That argument only holds merit to the extent that providers will accept lower and lower reimbursement levels in perpetuity. Medicare could lower payments for all surgeries to $129.95, but I doubt anyone other than our good friend Dr. Nick will perform them at that price.
So the next time Democrats try to argue that Obamacare didn’t harm Medicare, or will have a positive effect on our health-care system, think of Dr. Nick. In less time than you expect, his real-life equivalent could be coming to a doctor’s office or hospital near you.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.