15 September 2009

What Is To Be Done?

Even knowing that I sometimes work with long lead times, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I'm still toying with a thought I first had about fifteen years ago. When Hillary Clinton was pushing for national health insurance -- and how times change -- she was asked about the effect compulsory health insurance for employees would have on employers. Her response was something to the effect of "Why should I worry about the fate of undercapitalized businesses."

I was struck then, and have been struck repeatedly since then, by the relationship (I would even say co-dependence) of big government and big business. Big government needs big business, because big businesses are a nice pot of assets that can be coopted for the purposes of big government without having to use the "t" word. Big business likes big government because (a) in a world where only big businesses can afford the cost of regulation only big businesses survive and (b) big government will be a big client.

Mix in some Olsen (Theory of Collective Action) and some Stigler (Regulatory Capture) and, hey presto, you've got the corporatist state not through right-wing fascism but as the most likely path from where we are (or were 20 years ago) to lefty nirvana.

It strikes me that there is some meaning to all this, and something should be done about it, but after 15 years, I'm just not sure what.

A Nice Illustration Of An Odd Rule Of Evidence

From a comment at Firedoglake:
How about when Wilson was asked about the outburst one of the first things out of his miserable pie hole was, “It was totally spontaneous.” He was never asked if it was planned or spontaneous; he volunteered that information right off the bat. That’s what made me first believe it was all planned. And who better to do it than a piece of work like Wilson?
One of the important rolls played by a jury at trial is to disbelieve evidence. The jury is supposed to watch the witnesses and, using their common sense and everyday experience, decide whether or not the witness is telling the truth. If they decide that the witness is lying, they can disregard that testimony.

But the fact that they decide that the witness is lying about a particular point is not evidence of the opposite. The usual example given is a trial in which whether it was raining at a particular time is important. If one party testifies that it was not raining, the jury can disbelieve him. But that is not evidence that it was raining; the other side still needs to enter its own evidence on that point, which the jury -- again -- can believe or disbelieve.

I think, though, that the comment illustrates a better example. We are free to disbelieve Joe Wilson's statement that his outburst was spontaneous. But that disbelief is not evidence of a plan to embarrass the president.

10 September 2009

Doh! Spoke Too Soon.

Apparently, I wasn't quite correct to concede, below, that the uninsured exist. After all, Barack Obama wiped 15 million uninsured off the map last night.

04 September 2009

US Health Insurance Myths

As we go along debating health insurance reform, I am constantly amazed by the myths people believe about US health insurance. As I run across these myths, I'll try to note them here.

1. Preexisting conditions: People seem to think that this limitation is some sort of trick. Instead, it is a fundamental part of insurance. You can't insure your car after the accident or your life after you die. But so long as you have insurance, a preexisting condition does not stop you from changing your insurance. You cannot get trapped in a job and you can't lose your insurance because your employer changes plans; so long as you have insurance, you can't be excluded from a new group plan. Under federal law (lots of states have more generous laws), preexisting condition exclusions only apply if you have been uninsured for at least 63 days, apply only to conditions for which you have sought treatment and only allow a look-back of one year. A nice primer on preexisting conditions and federal law is here.

2. What we have is "insurance": As implied above, insurance policies are basically bets we make against catastrophe. I bet that my house will burn down, the insurance company bets that it won't. I bet that I'm going to die in the next year, the insurance company bets that I won't. I bet that my car is going to get stolen, the insurance company bets that it won't. If I lose the bet, there I am with my life, my house and my car. If my car explodes when I plow into my house, my wife and kids have a big pot of money to sit up at family dinners and call "Daddy."

There are things I can do to adjust my odds in these bets. I can get an alarm for my car and garage it in Northampton Massachusetts rather than the Bronx. I can get an alarm for my house. I can stop smoking and flying airplanes. For each of these, my premiums go down. But note that I the insurance company doesn't take my higher premium and then pay for alarms. Because that would be nuts.

But my health insurance pays for costs that are entirely predictable. It pays towards my annual physical. It pays towards medicine for chronic conditions that are very common among men my age. There's no sense betting on my having an annual physical, so why am I insured against it? I'm sure that all of you know the answer, but note that, when it comes to paying for relatively small, foreseeable expenses, all of the carping about wasteful spending is entirely correct. It makes no sense for me to pay my employer (think about it) to pay the health insurer to pay my doctor for an annual physical. I should just pay for it directly.

3. People are dying because they don't have health insurance: OK, that's not exactly a myth, but the general conception of how people are dying from lack of insurance is wrong. People with acute conditions -- heart attacks, trauma, etc. -- don't die from lack of insurance. They get treatment regardless of insurance. Someone falls down clutching their chest, you call the ambulance, the paramedics start treatment and get him to an emergency room and they get to a hospital bed before anyone even starts to try to figure out if they have insurance. Outcomes from acute treatment are pretty much invariant by income status.

People die -- more exactly, their life-span is shortened -- because of chronic conditions. High blood pressure isn't treated, cancers aren't caught as early, high cholesterol isn't treated, diabetes isn't caught as early, etc. This is what people mean when they say that we substitute treatment for prevention.

The problem here is that "prevention" is of questionable value and is incredibly expensive. For every heart attack delayed (and delay is basically all that can be accomplished) by blood pressure or cholesterol drugs, a large number of potential victims have to be treated. It is that "unnecessary" but unavoidable treatment that will make reform incredibly costly -- and the costliness of reform will lead, in turn, to government guidelines that avoid new expensive drugs. But can the government really prohibit people with government insurance from getting access to the newest and best drugs available to people with private insurance? Isn't avoiding that the whole point of reform? So, in the end we either end up with incredibly expensive government insurance (the most likely result) or no new drugs (an even worse result).

4. Reform is meant to benefit the uninsured. For reasons we've discussed, the uninsured tend to be middle-class and young. Forty percent are between 18 and 34, as opposed to 23% of the population. Generally, the uninsured young are making a good bet; the average health insurance premium for an individual in the states is $4000 and the young -- barring acute need, for which they'll get care and then have to worry about paying -- never spend that much. Far from giving health insurance to these people, which seems to be what they assume is going to happen, the reform plans on offer now mandate that they buy insurance or pay a penalty for non-insurance. These premiums or penalties will be at "community rate," which is (more or less, we don't know the details yet) the average cost of health insurance in their county/state/region/nation. In other words, the purpose of reform isn't to provide free health care to the young uninsured as it is to force the young uninsured to subsidize health insurance for those who already get government funded health insurance.