How Government-Run Health Care Worsened The Coronavirus Crisis

How Government-Run Health Care Worsened The Coronavirus Crisis

One of the major causes of the dearth of testing over the past several months: Low payments from Medicare, which led to low payment rates from private insurance plans.
Christopher Jacobs
By

Leftist politicians have spent a great amount of time over the past two months attacking President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. But instead of reflexively criticizing the administration, those liberals might want to examine how the left’s dream of government-run health care has exacerbated the crisis within the United States.

One of the major causes of the dearth of testing over the past several months: Low payments from Medicare, which led to low payment rates from private insurance plans. It may come as a shock to people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but guess what labs did when low payments meant they suffered a financial loss for every coronavirus patient tested? They performed fewer tests.

Low Reimbursements Equals Fewer Tests

A recent expose in USA Today highlighted how Medicare “lowballed payments” to labs for coronavirus tests, leading those labs to restrict the number of tests they performed. An executive at one lab, Aaron Domenico, told the paper that “I’m an American first, and if I could do it for cost, I’d be happy to do it for the people at cost.” But Medicare initially reimbursed laboratories only $51 for a coronavirus test, much less than Domenico’s costs of $67 per test.

Paying $51 for a diagnostic test sounds like a lot, but Medicare gives laboratories nearly twice that amount, or approximately $96, to test for the flu. And government bureaucrats setting unrealistically low prices meant that private insurers followed Medicare’s lead. Little wonder that the head of the National Independent Laboratory Association said “a number of labs are holding back” on performing additional tests “because they didn’t want to lose money.”

Thankfully, on April 14 Medicare raised its reimbursement for a coronavirus test from $51 to $100. Unsurprisingly, the number of tests performed daily has roughly doubled since that point. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said she “recognized that there may have been some issues with reimbursement” discouraging labs from performing coronavirus tests.

Bureaucrats Can’t Micromanage Health Care

Therein lies one of the major problems with government-run health care: The notion that federal bureaucrats can determine the correct price for every prescription drug, laboratory test, physician service, or hospital procedure across the country. Donald Berwick, a former CMS administrator who helped develop Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s single-payer proposal, once said, “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

Berwick’s comments suggest that the federal government can determine the “right” amount of MRI units in each city, and use policy levers to achieve that “correct” outcome. But the coronavirus testing fiasco demonstrates how federal bureaucrats often do a poor job of trying to micromanage health care from Washington. Paying doctors and laboratories too much will encourage over-consumption of care, while paying too little discourages providers from even offering the service.

Low Payments Lead to Job Losses, Too

The problems with coronavirus testing also preview the left’s efforts to expand government-run health care. For instance, Joe Biden’s campaign platform calls for a government-run health plan that “will reduce costs for patients by negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health care providers.”

But all these proposals—whether they would abolish private insurance outright, as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders support, or offer a government-run “option,” as in Biden’s platform—would have the government “negotiate” prices by forcing doctors, nurses, and hospitals to accept less money. By lowering payment levels, those plans would lead to massive job losses—as many as 1.5 million jobs in hospitals alone under a transition to single-payer, according to one estimate in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

The pay cuts and furloughs affecting many front-line health workers—the health-care sector lost 1.4 million jobs during the month of April—provide a preview of the future. Instead of suffering temporary revenue declines due to the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals and medical practices would face permanent reductions in revenue from lower-paying government programs.

Worse yet, care will suffer when people cannot access the care they need at the paltry prices government programs will pay. While the left lays the coronavirus testing flaws at the feet of President Trump, they should look instead at the government-run programs they support as a major source of the problem. Voters being asked to endorse the movement towards socialism in November should take note as well.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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