Intensified by the early fight for money and backers among Democratic presidential hopefuls, Medicare for All and similar single-payer insurance programs have been promoted with increased volume. While there are differences among the “I’ll give you more for less” sales pitches, they share the common central premise that such plans have far lower administrative costs than private insurance, so their version of reform will produce a massive infusion of available resources.
However, the “proof” offered for those administrative cost savings claims mainly consists of constant repetition, with candidates then quickly moving on to the free lunches they would supposedly enable. But given that claim’s central place in their proposals, we must question that premise and with it, the glib answers claimed for it.
How Should We Measure Administrative Efficiency?
For health care plans, the standard measure of efficiency is administrative costs as a percentage of total costs. And in those comparisons, Medicare appears substantially more efficient. But that does not mean there would be savings if people were moved from private insurance to Medicare for All.
The primary reason is that Medicare beneficiaries are far older and less healthy than the population. That makes health care costs far higher per Medicare beneficiary. In fact, before Obamacare, medical expenditures per Medicare beneficiary were routinely more than double those for the privately insured. However, nonmedical administrative costs are only slightly related to total medical expenditures. They are primarily related to the number of persons covered. This causes the standard measure to grossly exaggerate Medicare’s relative administrative efficiency.
Consider an example. Say both Medicare and private insurance beneficiaries had identical administrative costs of $500 each, but the Medicare patient received $5,000 in benefits, while the private patient received $2,500 in benefits. Medicare would show a 10 percent share of administrative costs, and private insurance would show a 20 percent share. In other words, despite the same administrative cost per beneficiary—that is, the same actual efficiency—the standard measure makes private insurance administrative costs look twice as expensive as Medicare.
Simply ask what would happen to administrative expenses if one private insurance beneficiary was moved into Medicare in the example above. Despite Medicare supposedly being half as costly in that regard, administrative costs would not change. No resources would be freed up. And given that the administrative cost per Medicare beneficiary is actually higher than for private insurance, the shift of someone into Medicare would increase administrative costs—leaving fewer resources, rather than more—available for medical care.
What Should Be Included in Medicare’s Administrative Costs?
The public-private comparison also typically compares the administrative costs of private insurance to those that show up in Medicare’s budget. But many of the administrative costs do not show up there. They appear in other agencies’ budgets. The costs of collecting taxes appear in the IRS budget. The costs of collecting premiums appear in Social Security’s budget. Many of the accounting, building, and marketing expenses appear in the Health and Human Services budget. Including those costs would roughly double Medicare’s reported administrative costs.
How Should We Count Taxes on Private Insurance?
Private insurance administrative costs are generally defined as premiums paid in minus claims paid out. However, that means everything except claims payments are counted as administrative costs whether or not they have anything to do with administration. For example, many states impose a premium tax (averaging about 2 percent) on health insurers, and those tax payments are incorrectly categorized as administrative costs. This also makes Medicare, which is exempt from such taxes, look relatively more efficient than it really is.
How Should We Count Disease Management and On-Call Consultation Services?
As with taxes, counting private insurance administrative costs as total premiums minus claims paid introduces other measurement distortions, as well. Insurance companies offer disease-management and on-call nurse consultation services. However, those services do not generate insurance claims. Consequently, those costs are also counted as administrative rather than medical.
How Should We Count Fraud and Fraud Prevention Efforts?
Waste, fraud, and efforts at their prevention also complicate administrative efficiency comparisons. Consider what happens if Medicare (estimates of whose excess spending exceed $50 billion yearly) spent less on prevention efforts. It would look more efficient because its administrative costs would be lower and because undetected excess spending would be counted as medical expenses, not waste. In contrast, insurance companies, whose bottom lines are at stake, are much more diligent about eliminating such excess spending. But those efforts, even though they can generate very large overall savings ($1 of fraud prevention has been estimated to reduce those costs by as much as $15), raise their measured administrative cost percentage, making them look less efficient.
How Should We Treat the “Excess Burden” Caused by Switching to Single Payer Systems?
In addition to all these biases exaggerating private insurance administrative costs and understating Medicare’s administrative costs, another large difference should be noted. When people pay more to get better private insurance coverage, they don’t treat it as a tax, but as part of their employee compensation. Under Medicare for All, however, higher payments into the system will not provide greater benefits. That means that Americans will rationally start treating those payments as taxes in exchange for nothing.
It will, therefore, act as a large income tax increase with correspondingly large economic distortions. Those distortions, created by the wedges taxes impose between what buyers pay and what sellers keep, reflect the wealth destroyed by the reduction in mutually beneficial market arrangements that result, which economists call excess burdens. While not incorporated in official comparisons, they are very large added costs of single-payer systems compared to private medical insurance.
One study found that even the “lowest plausible assumption about the excess burden engendered by the tax system raises the true costs of delivering Medicare benefits to about 20-25 percent of Medicare outlays,” imposing costs far higher than any supposed private insurance administrative cost deficiency.
It is striking how much single-payer promoters rush past their repetitions of administrative cost savings claims before quickly turning to their vote-buying promises in large part funded by them. It almost seems that they don’t want voters to think carefully about those claims. And that might reflect an accurate judgment. If people questioned the basis of those promised solutions, it would reveal supposed administrative cost savings to be the opposite once the compounded mismeasurements are deciphered, and it would not be anyone’s ticket into the White House.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University and a guest columnist to the Penny Press. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). This piece was originally published on fee.orgm then pennypresslv, reprinted here in full, with permission.