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Medicare decreases spending without changing volume, compared to private insurers

Traditional Medicare Versus Private Insurance: How Spending, Volume, And Price Change At Age Sixty-Five

By Jacob Wallace and Zirui Song
Health Affairs, May 2016

Abstract

To slow the growth of Medicare spending, some policy makers have advocated raising the Medicare eligibility age from the current sixty-five years to sixty-seven years. For the majority of affected adults, this would delay entry into Medicare and increase the time they are covered by private insurance. Despite its policy importance, little is known about how such a change would affect national health care spending, which is the sum of health care spending for all consumers and payers—including governments. We examined how spending differed between Medicare and private insurance using longitudinal data on imaging and procedures for a national cohort of individuals who switched from private insurance to Medicare at age sixty-five. Using a regression discontinuity design, we found that spending fell by $38.56 per beneficiary per quarter — or 32.4 percent — upon entry into Medicare at age sixty-five. In contrast, we found no changes in the volume of services at age sixty-five. For the previously insured, entry into Medicare led to a large drop in spending driven by lower provider prices, which may reflect Medicare’s purchasing power as a large insurer. These findings imply that increasing the Medicare eligibility age may raise national health care spending by replacing Medicare coverage with private insurance, which pays higher provider prices than Medicare does.

http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/35/5/864.abstract

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

This study looked at the changes in spending and volume of services for individuals who, at age 65, transferred from private insurance to the traditional Medicare program. The authors showed that the volume of services remained the same, but spending went down, which reflects the lower provider prices that Medicare pays compared to private insurers.

One suggestion that has been made to “save Medicare” from future federal budget deficits would be to increase the eligibility age from 65 to 67. They showed that this would actually increase our national health expenditures without changing the volume of services, not exactly the health care cost containment that we are seeking.

Conservatives and neoliberals might think that the increase in spending would be worth it just to advance their ideological goal of relying less on government spending and more on the private sector. But a portion of the reduction in federal spending would be offset by increased Medicaid coverage for those eligible, and increased ACA premium tax credits and  cost-sharing subsidies, resulting in tax revenue losses and greater outlays. Not a good deal at all.

Others have suggested that we should expand Medicare enrollment, perhaps by reducing the eligibility age in 5 year increments. Although it would be an extrapolation of this study, it is not unreasonable to assume that we could significantly reduce our expenditures without any change in the volume of services for those who otherwise would have been privately insured.

Or go all the way. Replace the private insurers with a Medicare for all program. Not only is Medicare a more efficient purchaser of health care services, the recovery of much of the profound administrative waste of our fragmented financing system would be enough to fully fund a health care system for all without increasing our national health expenditures from the current level.

Remember who the patient is. It is not the government budget. It is the people who need health care. Establishing a well-designed single payer Medicare-for-all system would take care of the people, and the government budget would perk along just fine.