Recently I wrote about how conservatives failed to articulate a coherent vision of health care, specifically issues related to pre-existing conditions, in the runup to the midterm elections. That article prompted a few Capitol Hill colleagues to ask an obvious question: What should a conservative vision for health care look like? It’s one thing to have answers on specific issues (i.e., alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations), but what defines the vision of where conservatives should look to move the debate?
Henceforth, my attempt to outline that conservative health-care vision on a macro level with three relatively simple principles. Others may express these concepts slightly differently—and I take no particular pride of authorship in the principles as written—but hopefully they will help to advance thinking about where conservative health policy should lead.
Liberals have their ultimate endgame in mind, about which they have become increasingly vocal in the past two years. They yearn for a single-payer health plan, where federal bureaucrats make all meaningful decisions about how to allocate resources for the more than $2 trillion health care system.
Conversely, conservatives believe in insurance purchased by individuals—or, as my former boss Jim DeMint likes to describe it, an insurance policy you can buy, hold, and keep. With most Americans still obtaining health coverage from their employers, a move to individually owned coverage would mean individuals themselves would decide what kind of insurance to purchase, rather than a business’s HR executives.
Conservatives should also promote the concept of portable insurance that can move from job to job, and ideally from state to state as well. If individuals can buy an insurance policy while young, and take it with them for decades, then much of the problem of covering individuals with pre-existing conditions will simply disappear—people will have the same insurance before their diagnosis that they had for years beforehand.
I wrote approvingly about the Trump administration’s proposals regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements precisely because I believe that, if implemented, they will advance both prongs of this principle. Allowing employees to receive an employer contribution for insurance they own will make coverage both individual and portable, in ways that could revolutionize the way Americans buy insurance.
A Sustainable Safety Net
Liberal rhetoric about “health care as a human right” and denunciation of profits within the health care system both imply that the federal government should provide to all Americans all the health care they wish to consume. But with our nation rapidly approaching $22 trillion in debt, money is—and will remain—very much an object in the health care system.
As it is, the Medicare program became functionally insolvent more than a year ago. The year before Obamacare’s passage, the Medicare trustees asserted the program’s hospital insurance trust fund would become insolvent in 2017. Only the double-counting included in Obamacare—whereby the same Medicare savings were used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare—has allowed the program to remain solvent, on paper if not in fact.
Reasonable people may disagree on precisely where and how to draw the line at the sustainability of our entitlements. For instance, I hold grave doubts that able-bodied adults belong on Medicaid, particularly given the way Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid has encouraged states to discriminate against individuals with disabilities and the most vulnerable.
But few could argue that the current system qualifies as sustainable. Far from it. With Medicare beneficiaries receiving more from the system in benefits than they paid in taxes—and the gap growing every year—policy-makers must make hard choices to right-size our entitlements. And they should do so sooner rather than later.
Appropriately Aligned Incentives
Economists and the political chattering class publicly fret about the way health care seems to consume an ever-growing percentage of the American economy. But they should focus first and foremost on fixing the broken incentives that have exacerbated the rise in health care costs.
Four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher hinted at the primary problem in health care when she noted that socialists always run out of other people’s money. Because third-party insurers—in most cases selected by HR executives at individuals’ place of business rather than the individuals themselves—pay for a large share of health expenses, most Americans know little about the price of specific health care goods and services (and care even less).
To state the obvious: No, individuals shouldn’t try to find health care “deals” in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. But given that much health care spending occurs not for acute cases (e.g., a heart attack) but for chronic conditions (i.e., diabetes), policymakers do have levers to try to get the incentives moving in the right direction.
Reforming the tax treatment of health insurance—which both encourages individuals to over-consume care and ties most Americans to employer-based insurance—would help align incentives, while also encouraging more portable insurance. Price transparency might help, provided those prices are meaningful (i.e., they relate to what individuals will actually pay out-of-pocket). Giving individuals financial incentives to shop around for procedures like MRIs, or even surgical procedures, also would place downward pressure on prices.
A health care system with individual, portable insurance, better-aligned incentives, and a fiscally sustainable safety net would wring inefficiency out in far better ways than a government-run system, which usually relies upon price controls and outright rationing to “control costs.” Conservatives should work to advance these principles now, while they still have the chance to do so.