Manhattan Contrarian Public Service: The Easy Solution To "Surprise" Medical Bills

In the long list of unintended consequences of Obamacare, the latest one to attract attention is the so-called “surprise medical bill.” They have given you to think that your all-beneficent government has bestowed upon you that holy grail of healthcare “coverage.” Then you have to go to the hospital. No problem — you have “coverage.” But upon getting home you suddenly get hit with a completely unexpected bill for $2000 or $5000, or even $10,000 or more, and you are told that it is not covered by the “coverage.” What the hell is going on here?

I guess you didn’t read the fine print. The geniuses behind the design of Obamacare insisted that they could mandate both “affordable” premiums, and simultaneously third-party payment for every conceivable health issue (e.g., free birth control for eighty-year-olds). But something had to give. The remaining escape valves have turned out to be high deductibles and narrow networks in the healthcare policies. Thus, for your hospital visit, you may find that your deductible makes you responsible for the first $3000, or even $5000, of the bills. Or, even worse, you may find that even though you carefully selected a hospital that was “in network,” the doctor who treated you was “out of network,” and sends you a bill for $6000 that your “coverage” won’t pay.

This “surprise medical bill” issue has recently attracted enough attention that the Congress has swung into action. When Congress swings into action, it follows the fundamental principal that all human problems are to be solved by some kind of program, regulation, or mandate emanating from the federal government. This principal applies most particularly to solutions to those human problems that were caused by the last round of programs, regulations and mandates emanating from the federal government. And thus we have something called the Lower Health Care Costs Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Lamar Alexander (Republican of Tennessee) and Patty Murray (Democrat of Washington). Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, in a piece titled “Get Rid of Surprise Medical Bills” (probably behind pay wall), Benedic Ippolito of the American Enterprise Institute calls the proposed LHCCA the “most consequential bipartisan health-care reform of the ObamaCare era.” . . .

As a public service to our readers and to the Congress, the Manhattan Contrarian wishes to state that there is a far, far better and easier solution to this “surprise medical bills” thing than any of the three proposals in the LHCCA. And it is a solution that is already present in existing law. The solution is, . . .

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Get Ready For The Democratic "Pragmatists"

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed with the headline “Are All Democrats Socialist? Don’t Believe the Hype.” The authors are Gregg Hurwitz and Jordan Peterson. I hadn’t previously heard of Hurwitz (he is identified as the author of a series of “thriller novels”); but Peterson is the guy who has shot to great fame in recent years as a YouTube star who advocates for leading a life of personal responsibility and hard work as the route to success. From what I had previously seen of Peterson, I had been quite impressed. With this op-ed, he just sank about 7 notches out of 10 in my estimation.

The central assertion of the op-ed is that the “social media warriors” and explicit advocates of socialism, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who might seem to be the current stars of the Democratic Party, are not actually “representative” of its views. Rather, we should look to the views of those Democrats, here characterized as “quieter pragmatists,” who won the Congressional seats gained by the party in the last election. Among the 2020 candidates for President, our authors state that “voters would do well” to look to the “passionate moderate voices” ascending in the party. Like who? They name two: Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

Are any of the Democratic candidates, and most particularly Buttigieg and Klobuchar, fairly characterized as “pragmatists” or “moderates”? . . .

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Is New York's "Safety Net" A Success?

One of the many specialized publications here in New York is something called “Crain’s New York Business.” As its title suggests, Crain’s covers mostly the affairs of the business community, although from time to time it also dabbles in political and policy matters. Sometimes it even has some sensible things to say. And sometimes not.

This week’s issue of Crain’s is dominated by a cover story titled “The State of Inequality: A Program for Every Problem.” The article has the byline of Crain’s head editor Greg David (although I doubt he actually wrote it — it’s not his usual style at all). It purports to be a review of the state of the “safety net” and its many subsidiary programs here in New York, together with, to some degree, a comparison of same to similar programs in certain other states (Georgia, Texas, Washington).

This lengthy piece is a serious embarrassment to Crain’s. It could not be worse if they simply had published verbatim a pile of campaign propaganda fed to them by a Cuomo or a de Blasio — which may very well be what this actually is. I’ll first take you through what the article says, and then I’ll go over a few of the elephants standing around here that they have somehow missed.

The basic theme of the piece is that New York has the most extensive array of social safety net programs in the country, and THEY’RE WORKING !!!!!! And how do we know that THEY’RE WORKING !!!!! ? Because we have followed the basic journalistic technique of interviewing some of the beneficiaries of the programs, and some of the bureaucrats who run the programs. And, remarkably, those people are unanimous in declaring the great success of the programs that they benefit from and/or administer. QED! Now, has anyone thought to maybe go out and collect some data as to, for example, how New York compares to other jurisdictions in actually reducing poverty, or reducing income inequality, or (in the case of medical programs) extending life expectancy? Of course, you will not find any of that in this article. . . .

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The Cruel, Heartless Expansion Of Medicaid Under Obamacare

You have undoubtedly noticed that the official Democratic talking point about any and all efforts to repeal or even modify Obamacare is that this is "cruel."  OK, sometimes it's "heartless."  Or maybe "a human tragedy."  You are taking away "healthcare" from the people and leaving them to suffer in the streets!  People will die!!!!

Just to warm you up for this post, here is a small roundup:

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), commenting on the Graham-Cassidy bill on September 20:  "We are on the precipice of one of the most cruel and outrageous legislative acts in recent history."
  • Washington Post, July 20, commenting on the then-current Republican "repeal only" plan:  "CBO again confirms the cruelty of GOP’s ‘repeal-only’ plan."
  • The New Republic, March 14, commenting on another earlier version of Obamacare repeal/replace known as the American Health Care Act:  "[T]he incredible cruelty of the Republican legislation didn’t become clear until Monday, when the Congressional Budget Office . . . estimated it would undo nearly all of the coverage gains we’ve seen under the Affordable Care Act, creating human tragedy on a scale far greater than even pessimistic analysts imagined.
  • New York Magazine, September 5:  "[Trump's position on immigration] contains the same mix of cruelty and desperate incompetence as his position on repealing Obamacare."

Etc., etc., etc., etc.  I mean, isn't it completely obvious that people who have "healthcare" are going to have superior health outcomes to those who don't?

Well, some things that seem like they obviously must be true turn out not to be true at all.  I have linked many times to the famous randomized study from Oregon published in the NEJM in 2013 that spectacularly failed to demonstrate any health gains from putting people on Medicaid.  Then in a post from March of this year, I went through the then-just-published neighborhood-by-neighborhood health data for New York City for 2015 to examine whether those neighborhoods with very high Medicaid participation rates had better or worse health outcomes than the other neighborhoods in the City.  Uniformly and without exception, the high-Medicaid-participation neighborhoods had worse health outcomes, and by large amounts, and on every metric considered.  

And finally, in a post in August of this year, I noted that the full implementation of Obamacare in 2015 and 2016, instead of being accompanied by an increase in life expectancy, had been accompanied by a decrease in life expectancy.  How could that have happened?  I asked:

Could it be because expanded Medicaid is paying for opioids for the vulnerable?  That's a very reasonable hypothesis, although there are not yet enough data to prove it.

It's only been a little more than a month since that post, but some data are starting to trickle in.  And sure enough, those data strongly suggest that large numbers of new Obamacare Medicaid recipients are using their "healthcare" to obtain and use (or maybe sell) opioid painkillers, with very bad follow-on health effects.  An op-ed by Allysia Finley in Monday's Wall Street Journal, "Does Medicaid Spur Opioid Abuse?", collects some facts and figures, which were originally put together by CDC at the request of Senator Ron Johnson (who lost a nephew to a heroin overdose).  Some particularly dramatic examples:

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that overdose deaths per capita rose twice as much on average between 2013 and 2015 in states that expanded Medicaid than those that didn’t—for example, 205% in North Dakota, which expanded Medicaid, vs. 18% in South Dakota, which didn’t. . . .  Between 2010 and 2013, overdose deaths rose by 28% in Ohio and 36% in Wisconsin. Between 2013 and 2015, they climbed 39% in Ohio, which expanded Medicaid, but only 2% in Wisconsin, which did not.

I wouldn't call it definitive proof yet, but all data I have seen so far indicate that a big use of expanded Medicaid has been to obtain prescription painkillers.  Some -- indeed, many -- of those prescriptions will inevitably be abused.

Of course there has been some push back.  Here is an example from the AP, August 31, "Medicaid fueling opioid epidemic? New theory is challenged.":

[U]niversity researchers say Medicaid seems to be doing the opposite of what conservatives allege.  “Medicaid is doing its job” by increasing treatment for opioid addiction, said Temple University economist Catherine Maclean, who recently published a paper on Medicaid expansion and drug treatment. “As more time passes, we may see a decline in overdoses in expansion states relative to nonexpansion states.”

Seems like Ms. Maclean has no data to support her position, but speculates with great confidence that the government program will end up having a positive effect since, I guess, all government programs must inevitably have positive effects because their proponents are such great experts and such good people and so well-meaning.  Right!

Or there's the theory that people do much better in life striving to make it on their own than they do by accepting government handouts.  Anyway, if deaths keep going up more in the Medicaid expansion states than the others, then which one is "cruel" -- Medicaid expansion or not?


The Sad Cancer Of Third Party Pay Medical Care

As noted in my previous post a couple of days ago, almost all of the commentary about the recent defeat in Congress of the American Health Care Act proposal is about the immediate blow-by-blow of the ongoing political battle.  President Trump has suffered a huge defeat!  Paul Ryan is a loser and must be replaced immediately!  The Republicans can't govern!

Can we look at this with a little perspective?  Here's my perspective:  Third party pay for health care, whether it be government pay (Medicare, Medicaid), or near-universal insurance-company pay for ordinary and routine expenses, or a combination of both, cannot work for the long pull.  Unfortunately, like it or not, scarcity is the essential unavoidable condition of human existence.  No-questions-asked third party pay for healthcare ignores the fundamental grinding reality of scarcity.  We pretend that healthcare can be demanded and consumed in whatever infinite amounts somebody might want, without downside.  It's the usual illusion of socialism, seemingly confined to one small area of the economy; so, really, how much destruction can it wreak?  Unfortunately, the amount of destruction it can wreak is vast, and may only have begun.

Somehow it has become a shibboleth of the Left that third party pay for all or nearly all healthcare expenses is some kind of moral necessity of a decent society.  The official line is that without some form of universal "healthcare," some people will be stuck worrying about whether they can afford a treatment that may be important or even necessary; some people might lose most of their net worth or even be bankrupted by a health crisis; some people might forego necessary treatment.  Some people might even die!  (The part about excess deaths has proved remarkably difficult to demonstrate empirically.

But for these purposes, assume that all of these things are true, or at least somewhat true.  Meanwhile, in pursuit of the mirage of perfect cost-free healthcare for all, health spending has gone from about 7% of the economy in 1965 when Medicare and Medicaid were launched, to almost 18% today.  The incremental amount represents around $2 trillion per year to today's economy -- enough, for example, to cure all defined "poverty" about 6 times over.  The costs are buried all over the place -- some in insurance premiums paid by households, more in insurance premiums paid by employers that therefore never turn up in take-home pay, and still more in taxes at all different levels of government -- so that nobody can ever get a handle on how much they are paying and who gets the money.  And let's not kid ourselves that the "rich" do or can be made to pay all or even most of this mushrooming healthcare spending.  $2 trillion is more than the total income of the top 1% of taxpayers according to the most recent IRS data from the Tax Foundation!  There is no getting around the fact that medical spending has become a tremendous drag on the incomes of the middle class.  If you want to find the one main reason why middle class incomes do not go up, and why middle class families are angry at their inability to get ahead, this is it.

And they are right to be angry.  The moral necessity of universal third party pay healthcare is generally sold by presenting a small number of hardship cases to tug at the emotional heartstrings of the public.  OK, how much of the $2 trillion would actually be needed to take care of the bona fide sympathetic cases, and nothing for the bureaucrats and rent seekers?  5%?  Maybe 10%?  Unfortunately a socialist-model system has no ability to find the real need and spend only on that.  There is no known example of a socialist-model system not being taken over by the unproductive bureaucrats and rent seekers and run for their benefit.    

Among the dozens of articles during the last few days on this subject, I have managed to find just a couple that get past the immediate blow-by-blow and show a little perspective.  First, here is one from, titled "The Truth About Health Care."   It is definitely worth your time to read the whole thing, but I'm going to incorporate some significant quotes:

This is an iron law of economics. All goods and services are rationed. This is true for health care too. There are no exceptions to this law. Thus, the First Truth of Health Care: No health care plan or system can ever be taken seriously unless it addresses, up front, how it will say “No, you cannot have it” to people who want it. At some point, someone has to tell the patient they cannot have whatever it is they want or need. . . .  

Thus, the Second Truth of Health Care: The current insurance model is just a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the health care industry, in order to cover the cost of poor people and the metastasizing layer of people who live off the system. Th[is] is really just a tax. Most people use about 5% of their plan for themselves; the rest is used to pay for poor people and the army of people who work in the system. . . .  

Thus, the Third Truth of Health Care: Health services are a massive skimming operation. Today, the one area of the economy that “grows” is the health care industry. Every year, more and more people pile into that wagon, mostly in administrative roles. The number of nurses and doctors does not grow very much, but the number of bureaucrats grows like a weed.

Then you have the pill makers, machine makers, research people and lawyers. There are always lots and lots of lawyers. The health care industry is massive and government dependent. It’s why rub rooms are now called message therapy centers. They are angling to get it on the racket, by having their service declared an essential health care service. . . .  

Third party pay health care is why the price of lasik surgery for your eyes (not covered by insurance) drops like a stone, while newly approved drugs that come to market (covered by insurance) now get priced at $50,000 or $100,000 for a course of treatment.  Hey, how are the government or insurers going to say no to the price if the drug might save somebody's life?  The government and insurers have infinite deep pockets -- otherwise known as what could and would have been increasing middle class incomes, now diverted to the parasites by the genius of socialism.

Returning from court today on the subway, I came across this ad, representing the dead end into which our healthcare system is headed by the irresistible incentives of third party pay:

You too can now get in on the racket!

A second article today with some sense of perspective on the situation is from Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute, appearing in the LA Times, titled "The original mistake that distorted the health insurance system in America."  That original mistake was the establishment, during World War II, of first-dollar or near-first-dollar healthcare "insurance" as a pre-tax employee fringe benefit.  With that foundational error, consumer cost-consciousness was banished from the medical arena, and the cancerous tumor got its start.  Tumor growth has proceeded from there.  Medicare and Medicaid represented the metastatic phase.  We are now well into Stage IV of the terminal disease.

Is there any possible cure at this point?  The only one I can see is a massive return to the states of responsibility for the healthcare issue.  If this occurs, those states brave enough to return to consumers the individual responsibility for low dollar health expenses will see a clear competitive advantage over those states that indulge in the socialist illusion.  Barring such a reform, the (now multiple) tumors continue their growth.  CMS here projects that healthcare expenditures in the U.S. will reach about 20% of GDP in the early 2020s.  I suspect that the growth will be even faster.  Don't count on much real growth of middle class incomes until this issue is addressed.   You will not find any organ of progressive journalism ever discussing this trade-off.

Here's What's "Cruel": Trapping The Poor In A Lifetime Of Dependency

Have you ever noticed that all Chinese menus are remarkably the same?  Moo shu pork.  General Tso's Chicken.  Beef with broccoli.  Sweet and sour pork.  In New York, everybody knows that it's because all the Chinese food is prepared in one massive central kitchen located beneath Times Square.  Of course it's all the same!

What hasn't been as widely recognized is that there is also one massive central newsroom, equally located just beneath Time Square (right next to the central Chinese kitchen), that prepares the progressive news talking points each day and distributes them to dozens of seemingly separate televisions networks, newspapers and websites.  How else to explain that you can go to literally any one of the so-called "mainstream" sites on any given day, and find not only the same stories, but generally also expressed in the exact same words?  Recently -- by which I mean, since January 20 -- the selected words always have been chosen to maximize the degree of evil attributed to the new President and Congress.

And thus, with the unveiling last week of the first proposal from the Republican Congress to start undoing Obamacare, we find the immediate emergence of the official progressive talking point clearly emanating from the central newsroom:  This is "cruel."  The CBO has estimated a likely increase in the number of people without healthcare "coverage."  Go literally anywhere, and you find this circumstance described with the same word -- "cruel" -- repeated, over and over. At the New Republic on March 14 it's "The Incredible Cruelty of Trumpcare" (subtitle "Republicans are willing to cause a humanitarian crisis just to give permanent tax cuts to millionaires").  At New York Magazine, it's "Trumpcare Is The Culmination of All the GOP's Healthcare Lies" ("they instead rushed out a plan that is shambolic and cruel").  At the Washington Post on March 8, it's "the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus . . . is terribly distressed by the fact that the Ryan bill is insufficiently cruel to poor people."  Paul Krugman of the New York Times put it in a tweet on March 14: "The first and most important legislative initiative [of the new Congress] is stupid as well as cruel . . . ."  There are dozens of other examples.

You get the idea.  The little people are incapable of facing any downside risk of life on their own.  Any failure of the federal government to accept and provide for any and all downside risks of life, right down to a couple of aspirin to help with a headache, is "cruel."  It's "heartless."  It's "a humanitarian crisis."  Government's job is to make sure that all people have free or affordable "healthcare," so that any healthcare issue that arises in their lives can be promptly treated, at public expense.   

Of course, it is a given that government-provided health care is a moral imperative.  Without it, people who are poor and of low income will go without needed medical treatment.  They will suffer, and then die.  Right?  I mean, everybody knows that people who go without healthcare "coverage" have a higher death rate than people who are "covered."  Everybody knows that because, back in 2002, the Institute of Medicine estimated 18,000 excess deaths per year among the "uninsured," based on an assumption that uninsured people had a mortality rate higher than that of the insured.  In 2009, in the run-up to enactment of Obamacare, a Harvard "study" upped the estimate of annual excess deaths among the uninsured to some 45,000, again based upon an assumption that the "uncovered" must have higher mortality.

And yet.  First came that controlled study in Oregon where thousands of people were randomly assigned to Medicaid and non-Medicaid groups.  The results were reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013:

This randomized, controlled study showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes . . . .    

But here is what is even more significant.  Look at reports of health data among high-Medicaid recipient populations of poor people.  What you will find is that their health outcomes are universally inferior to national or city norms on any measure you can think of.  As discussed here several days ago, last year New York City published health data for 2015 broken down by neighborhood.  Look up the data for the poor and majority-black neighborhoods, where Medicaid is pervasive, and you can see how well Medicaid is working -- or not.  After 50+ years of massive and ever-growing spending, has Medicaid succeeded in bringing health outcomes among the poor up to national norms, or are the poor stuck in a rut of persistently inferior health outcomes?  It's not even close.  Here is the report for Central Harlem; here's the one for Mott Haven/Melrose in the Bronx; here's the one for Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn; and here's the one for Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.

  A sample of some of the results:  

  • U.S. life expectancy in 2016 was 78.8 years.  But in Harlem it was 75.1 years; in Mott Haven/Melrose 76.1 years; in Bed-Stuy 75.1 years.  And in the ultimate public housing, Medicaid, and food stamp dependency utopia of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, life expectancy was just 74.1 years, almost five full years less than the national norm.  
  • Obesity and diabetes rates are far higher in these neighborhoods than elsewhere in New York City.  In the four cited neighborhoods, obesity rates range from 28% of the population in Central Harlem to 33% in Bed-Stuy, against a city norm of 24%.  Diabetes rates are 50% above the city-wide norm of 10% of the population in all of Mott Haven/Melrose, Bed-Stuy, and Brownsville, and 30% above in Harlem.
  • These neighborhoods far exceed city norms for drug and alcohol-related hospitalizations.  Brownsville is again the "leader," with 2,285 alcohol-related hospitalizations per 100,000 population in 2015, and 2682 drug-related hospitalizations per 100,000, as against city-wide norms of 1019 and 907 per 100,000 respectively.  The best of the four is Bed-Stuy, with "only" 1713 alcohol-related hospitalizations per 100,000, and 1830 drug-related.
  • Medicaid beneficiaries supposedly have infinite free pre-natal care and obstetrical services.  Yet somehow, infant mortality is far higher in all of these neighborhoods than city-wide norms.  The city-wide norm for infant mortality per 1000 births is 4.7.  But the rate is 8.1 in Central Harlem, 8.0 in Brownsville, and 6.6 in Mott Haven/Melrose.  Only Bed-Stuy, at 5.0 is near the city norm.
  • In the category of "premature mortality," where the city-wide rate is 198.4 per 100,000, Brownsville leads the city with a rate of 367.1.  Bed-Stuy ranks third at 309.2, and Mott Haven/Melrose fourth at 305.7.  Central Harlem is closest to the city norm -- not very close -- at 293.1.

Do you maybe get the idea that something is not working here?  While no association of Medicaid "coverage" with better health outcomes can be demonstrated, it is glaringly obvious that what can be demonstrated is an association between widespread dependency on government programs for the poor (of which Medicaid is the largest and most widely available) and worse health outcomes.  Much worse health outcomes.

I don't know why high dependency on government programs in general, and Medicaid in particular, is so closely associated with much higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, higher death rates and shorter life spans.  But the best hypothesis is that no-questions-asked handouts take away human independence and act as a "subtle destroyer of the human spirit."  (The phrase comes from the 1935 Address to Congress of Franklin Roosevelt.)  If you can't improve your life by working hard, why not just take drugs? 

Anyway, if we are to take it as established that subjecting the poor to worse health outcomes is "cruel," then the path forward is obvious.  The thing to do is to lower rates of dependency.  Get as many people as possible off of Medicaid, and for that matter food stamps and subsidized housing.  Bring back some striving to the lives of the poor!  Anything else is "cruel"!

Somehow, I don't think that anyone has yet written this story in the central newsroom beneath Times Square.