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Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Quest for Insurance Part I: The Search

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As you may recall, I previously posted about my recommendations for fixing health care (Part I, Part II, Part III). Recently, I had to navigate the current system and thought I’d share my experience in the context of those recommendations. You see, COBRA ran out on my health insurance from the last startup I founded and the new one hasn’t set up a company health plan yet. Thus I had the, um, “pleasure” of trying to obtain individual coverage.

I started by going to eHealthInsurance and hitting up the big three companies: Aetna, Anthem (BlueShield/BlueCross), and HealthNet. My first disappointment came when I discovered that there is no universal application. You have to type in roughly the same information in substantially different formats for each company. What value exactly is eHealthInsurance adding here?

My second disappointment came when they all rejected the applications for different reasons. There are four people in our family. One of them was rejected by two companies, two of them were rejected by one company, one of them was not rejected at all. The reasons were allergy shots, acne, possible acne, and being underweight. The first two are minor ongoing issues.  Considering we were applying for $10K deductible plans with no office visit or prescription coverage, it’s hard to see what the problem is. The second one was unconfirmed by the first doctor, totally minor, and subsequently excluded by a second doctor. The last one is the only one that should have been of any concerned and a check with that person’s doctor would have eliminated the concern.

My working hypothesis is that these companies don’t actually want to offer individual health coverage. For regulatory or political reasons, they have to appear to offer such coverage. But unless an individual is so low risk as to be obscenely profitable, why go to the effort? It’s so much easier to focus on selling group coverage to employers.  This is a side effect of the tax deductibility of premiums for most companies but not most individuals.

Luckily, there are niche providers that pursue opportunities that are not attractive to the largest players. One of them is Assurant Health. After filling out the online application at their Web site, I received a call from their underwriting department within two days. They wanted to review the medical records for the two family members receiving allergy shots to make sure these were not indicative of larger issues. No problem, we had signed a release and I had no objection to paying a premium based on actual risk.

Now, the story takes a funny turn. Apparently, HIPAA has made doctors so paranoid about penalties for breaching patient privacy, that they don’t want to give out your medical records to anyone. Despite the general release we signed, two medical clinics wanted us to sign special releases. It took a month to actually get these special releases so we could sign them. Even then, one of the clinics also required us to call them on the phone and give them verbal permission as well. Government intervention strikes again! If the government had clearly specified the mechanism for releasing medical records, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Even better, if the government hadn’t distorted the market for insurance toward employer-sponsored coverage, this transaction would be so routine that the free market would have solved the problem

The story has a happy ending.  In Part II, I will analyze the excellent coverage we got from Assurant in the context of my previous recommendations.

Written by Kevin

January 14, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Why You Should Be A Skeptic

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As you may have heard, an unknown hacker breached the Hadley Climatic Research Centre and disclosed a large volume of email and documents, thus giving us a peek inside the sausage factory. First, let me say that the breach itself rather concerns me. We’re talking about a government sponsored research facility. Somebody virtually waltzed right in and and took everything but the kitchen sink. Heads should roll in the information security department.

Second, the email correspondence is pretty damning. It won’t affect my position much because I was already fairly sure these types of shenanigans were going on. But if you put your faith in the “consensus”, you should consider updating your position. There are numerous instances of three types of egregious behavior from senior scientists:

  • Coordinated efforts to portray all results as supporting the conclusion that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a serious threat. Such efforts included the spinning of results, application of statistical “tricks”, and selective use of data.
  • Coordinated efforts to suppress professional dissent. Such efforts included going after editors of journals that published articles supporting a skeptical view and lobbying university administrations to pressure researches who didn’t toe the line.
  • Coordinated efforts to evade Freedom of Information Act requests and destroy data that might support the skeptical position if disclosed.

By themselves, these actions should be alarming because they obfuscate the real answer to the question of how serious a threat AGW presents .

But the real take home point is the tone of many emails. These are leading scientists in the field. Yet they clearly hold bitter contempt for colleagues who don’t agree with them. This isn’t business.  This is personal.  To paraphrase, Robin Hanson, climate science isn’t about the science of climate. It’s about social status. The AGW proponents see themselves as an “in group” and AGW skeptics as an “out group”. They are more concerned about destroying the out group than actually figuring out what’s going on with the climate.

Given this attitude, it’s hard to have any confidence that we’ll get a rational, scientific answer any time in the near future.

Written by Kevin

November 23, 2009 at 1:16 am

Posted in Climate, Government, Science

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Fixing Health Care III: Hospitals

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Having addressed the uninsured and doctor’s visits, the next health care problem on my list is hospital spending. It represents the largest share health care costs, $696.5B in 2007 or roughly 32%.

Now, it’s worth repeating that I don’t object to increased spending per se. It might be perfectly normal given personal preferences and growing wealth. I do object to distortions caused by the current system. I have identified three areas where we could save money through eliminating distorting policies.

Barriers to Competition

Hospitals are a highly protected industry.  I found this Forbes article an excellent overview of the problem. Generally, competition from so-called “specialty hospitals” improves care and reduces costs for both specialty hospital patients and community hospital patients (see this overview of the relevant research). However, like most businesses, community hospitals don’t like competition so they engage in anti-competitive practices and regulatory capture games.

Eliminating such abuses could save 2.4%, the cost reduction that the entrance of specialty hospitals into a market produces  according to this study.  That would be close to $20B/year.  But I would go farther.  I would require all hospitals to publish costs and outcomes for different treatments.  Moreover, they would have to further disclose the price discounts they offered to insurance networks. A more transparent market would drive costs down even farther.

The standard objections to these measures are typical anti-competitive propaganda. Opponents say specialty hospitals duplicate infrastructure, which drives up costs.  Tell that to PC manufacturers.  They had to duplicate all their infrastructure but look at how costs have plummeted due to competition.  Why are hospitals any different?  Opponents say that doctors who own hospitals have a conflict of interest.  Tell that to Apple who has to make phones that people really want if they are going to make any money.  Why are hospitals any different?  And the list goes on…

Drug Development Restraints

Excepting cosmetic procedures, almost everyone would prefer to avoid consuming hospital care if they could at reasonable cost. The biggest substitute for hospital care is taking drugs that prevent hospitalization. Unfortunately, the market for drugs (and medical devices) is tightly controlled, increasing costs and stifling innovation in the drug market. I contend that these factors increase hospitalization beyond the efficient level.

This review article claims that $100B/year worth of hospitalization stems from people not adhering to their medicine regimens. Obviously, formulations and devices that improved adherence would reduce this number.  Moreover, I believe it also implies that there are a substantial number of other hospital admissions that could be avoided if more drugs were available.

As I’ve advocated before, eliminating Phase III trials (in favor of some sort of probationary approval) and reducing the term of patent protection would accelerate drug discovery and reduce costs.  I also think that streamlining the approval of drug delivery devices in particular would help address the issue of adherence.

Inability to Commit to a Lower Standard of Care

Lastly, we the problem of end-of-life care. There has been a lot of angst over the so-called “Death Panels” discussed as part of health care reform. I admit that it gives me the willies.  But I think the problem is that the government is pursuing an interest in getting you to die quietly.

But consider a private alternative.  You’re somewhere between 40 and 60.  You’re pretty healthy.  You have a choice of two major medical insurance plans.  One covers heroic end-of-life measures for terminal conditions.  One doesn’t.  The second one is 30% cheaper.  Personally, an extra few months hooked up to machines in intensive care plus a vanishingly small chance of a miracle recovery isn’t worth it to me.  I prefer to spend my money on safety and prevention thank you very much.  But that’s just my personal choice.  You could chose differently.

This decision doesn’t give me the willies.  People make all sorts of decisions that statistically shorten their lives by this amount: where they live, what activities they pursue, and what jobs they do. This is a completely voluntary decision well in advance of the event.  The only problem is that providers must be convinced that such agreements are enforceable. Otherwise the providers can’t count on the savings and premiums remain high. This is a problem the government can do something about: assign rights and enforce contracts.

All in all, I think these three measures might save a couple of hundred billion per year.  They would certainly lead to a more efficient outcome.

Written by Kevin

October 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Must Read Paper On Overconfidence

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Via the indispensable Tyler Cowen, a new paper from Johnson and Fowler explores whether overconfidence is, in fact, adaptive. They show that it it is under some very reasonable assumptions.  They model competition for resources as a two-player game and then analyze the evolutionary dynamics of populations playing this game.

The basic result is that overconfidence is beneficial in proportion to two factors: (1) the size of the payoff relative to the cost to play and (2) uncertainty about competitor capabilities.  There are two optimal strategies for a population, overconfidence (which minimizes unclaimed resources) and underconfidence (which minimizes conflict costs).  Unbiased self-perception is always dominated by these strategies. However, an overconfident person can successfully invade an underconfident population while the reverse is not true.  So overconfidence is the stable solution.

The direct implication is that resources get destroyed.  It is optimal for an individual to be overconfident, but then he ends up fighting with other overconfident individuals, which imposes costs.  If you think about it for a minute, this is a pretty important fundamental problem.  All of the big societal decisions we face have potentially big payoffs (or avoidance of costs), but it’s really unclear who has the best expertise to make a recommendation.  So we get a bunch of “experts” telling us they are absolutely right.

Note that if it is public knowledge how “good” someone is, the “overconfidence premium” goes to zero.  This is why forcing experts to make public predictions is so important.  Then you can figure out how good they really are.

Written by Kevin

September 24, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Fixing Health Care II: Doctor’s Visits

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Now that we’ve solved the problem of the uninsured, it’s time to move on to the problem of doctor’s visits. Spending on physician and clinical services was $479B in 2007, 22% of total health care spending. Only hospital spending accounts for a larger share at 32% (I’ll be addressing this category in a subsequent post).

First, let me say that I have no problem with increased spending per se.  We’ve increased spending on entertainment as well as health care and almost nobody has a problem with that. They’re both signs of increased prosperity.  However, our current system encourages an economically inefficient level of spending. That’s the problem we need to fix.

If we want to get close to the efficient level of spending on doctor’s visits, here’s what we need to do:

  1. Eliminate insurance payment of primary care. The risk pooling benefits of insurance only work for rare events or unknown losses. When you use insurance to pay for common events of known magnitude, you are playing the Diner’s Dilemma and most people overconsume. Moreover, you get additional social losses from administrative overhead and reduced incentive to compete on quality. So we should tax any insurance plan that covers primary care (excepting organizations like Kaiser that are paying for essentially all of your care).
  2. Establish personal Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). To reduce the sticker shock of (1), we should give people the ability to pay into personal HSAs roughly the same way they pay into personal IRAs. They will still respond to pricing incentives in the outpatient services market, but the use of pre tax dollars will soften the blow and encourage saving.
  3. Require pricing disclosure. Partly due to strategic behavior in negotiating reimbursement from insurance companies and partly due to wanting to extract the maximum surplus from patients, doctors and labs are reluctant to disclose their prices.  Unfortunately, this behavior makes it difficult for patients to respond to pricing signals and decreases service innovation by obscuring differentiation. Therefore, we should require doctors and labs to publicly disclose their general price lists and give patients specific estimates before rendering services.
  4. Eliminate barriers to “Wal-Mart Medicine”. Doctor’s probably like (1). The are probably mixed on (3).  They probably won’t like this. One of the reasons that trips to the doctor’s office are so expensive is that they just aren’t very efficient operations. Normally, competition would squeeze out inefficiency but doctors are effectively insulated from competition through a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle regulations.  Among the biggest are local restrictions on “retailer clinics” through companies like Wal-Mart and state restrictions on the use of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs). Retailer clinics cost substantially less and provide equivalent care (at least for some basic needs) according to a recent study. Then if you look at salary data from PayScale, NPs and PAs cost about 40% less than family practice doctors. Here, I depart from my usual libertarian bent and advocate using the withholding of federal funds to blackmail encourage local and state authorities to comply.
  5. Fund startups in health advisory and tracking. The first four measures will create a much more open and transparent market for outpatient services. As in other such markets, there are probably a lot of advisory and tracking services that could improve decision making and efficiency. Imagine a self-help applications that advises when a trip to a Wal-Mart clinic is sufficient versus when it’s worth the money to go to a more boutique operation. Or a sophisticated rating and cost comparison services by zip code.

With these measures in place, we would most likely get a richer market that spans Wal-Mart clinics staffed primarily by NPs and PAs that cost $35-50 per visit to high end boutiques where a 30 minute consultation with a star doctor costs $300-$500. Each person would spend much closer to the economically efficient level given their personal circumstances and preferences.

Written by Kevin

September 21, 2009 at 2:00 pm

The Climate or the Uninsured?

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Declan McCullagh of CBSNews reports that a Department of Treasury analysis released under the Freedom of Information Act estimates that a cap and trade program would raise $100B to $200B a year in taxes. Those taxes come from us one way or another. Recall that my estimate of the cost to cover the uninsured is about 2/3rds of that amount ($63B to $126B).

So we have a fortuitous illustration of the tradeoffs we have to make.  There are two issues, priorities and effectiveness. It’s not that I don’t think there is some merit to reducing CO2 emissions.  Rather, I think there are other problems that are higher priority with solutions that are more likely to be effective.  Health care for the poor is one of those.  I’m willing to pay an extra $1000/year to solve health care for the poor.  I’m not willing to pay an extra $1500/year on top of that to address global warming.

Written by Kevin

September 16, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Two Important Links

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If you do nothing else intellectual this Sunday, do these two things:

(1) Read Tyler Cowen’s NYTimes column on how the bestowing of political favors was at the heart of the financial crisis and how we’re about to make the same mistake with health care.

(2) Remember Norman Borlaug.  He is the scientist who led the “Green Revolution“.  In my opinion, he would be a strong candidate for the man who did the most good for the most people in the second half of the 20th Century.  And the mainstream media will not make nearly a big enough deal of his death at 95 compared to that of Ted Kennedy.

Written by Kevin

September 13, 2009 at 10:51 am

Fixing Health Care I: The Uninsured

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Yes, I’ve decided to wade into the health care waters again.  One of the problems with the current debate is that it confounds several distinct problems.  So I’m planning to briefly address each one individually in the hopes of achieving some clarity.  First up, the uninsured.

Most of us don’t want people to die simply because they can’t afford basic health care.  So I ran the numbers on what it would cost to solve just this problem.  The most cost effective approach I know of is a major medical plan plus a health savings account (HSA).  According to this Forrester analysis of eHealthInsurance data, the average annual cost of an individual major medical plan in 2007 was $1896.

Premiums have obviously gone up since 2007.  However, let’s be optimistic and assume two points of cost savings: having a very large group and following my recommendation of not using insurance for primary care.  Let’s put the optimistic annual premium estimate at $1500.  Of course, we’re talking about poor people so a no-primary-care major medical plan isn’t enough.  We’ll also give them a $300 per year HSA allowance, enough to cover a couple of office visits and some generic drugs plus save up some to pay for a hospital stay.  Not that generous, but I’m trying to figure out the minimum cost.  Total cost per person: $1800/year.

So how many uninsured are there?  Well, estimates vary.  But the Census Bureau released a pretty detailed report in 2007.  Looking at Table 6 on page 22, we see that there were just over 28,000 uninsured with household incomes below $50K.  Now, if we offered a government program means tested to $50K, we’d probably get some  people dropping their private insurance for the government insurance.  I think only a 25% cross-over would be optimistic.  So we have to cover a minimum of 35,000 people at $1800/year.  Total cost: $63B/year.

Call it an even $100B due to my optimistic estimates.  It will probably add close to $1000/year to my tax bill.  I’m willing to pay that.  So let’s just do it and then move on to the next problem.

Written by Kevin

September 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Fantastic Book on Terrorist Interrogation

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Thanks to a pointer from Sandeep Baliga over at Cheap Talk, I recently Kindled Matthew Alexander’s How to Break a Terrorist. If this were a novel, it would be in the top 10% of thrillers I’ve read in the last 5 years.  But it’s a true story.

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Written by Kevin

June 9, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Government

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More on the California State Budget

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A number of people responded to my recent post on the California budget. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the issue. The three points I’d like to address at the moment are whether spending as a percentage of income is rising, where the extra spending is going, and whether the extra spending is beneficial.

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Written by Kevin

May 25, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Posted in Economics, Government

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