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Double Whammy

By: 
Peter Schiff
Friday, June 26, 2009
Misguided government policies have already dealt vicious body blows to our economy, but that hasn’t stopped politicians this week from launching two new kicks to the groin: a national health insurance plan and a carbon emissions regulation system called “cap and trade.” Even if these plans could achieve their desired ends, which is highly unlikely, I would have hoped Washington would refrain from throwing more monkey wrenches into the economy until it shows some signs of resurgence. The last thing we need right now is to further encumber our economy with higher taxes and additional regulations.

The meteoric rise in health care costs, which has become an unending nightmare for U.S. businesses and consumers, is not an accident. This painful condition has arisen from excess government involvement in the system, tax provisions that encourage the over-utilization of health insurance, and government support of an out-of-control malpractice industry. Rather than allowing more bad policy to drive health care costs further upward, we should be looking at ways to allow market forces to reign them back in.

If left alone, the free market drives quality up and costs down. Government programs produce the opposite result. Despite the president’s claim that a federal plan will bring costs down, there is no historical precedent for such faith.

Simply providing more widespread health insurance, as the Obama plan offers, is not a solution. In fact, it will aggravate the problem. Since consumers no longer pay for routine medical expenses out of pocket, comprehensive health insurance creates a moral hazard for both patients and doctors. To maximize the value of the health insurance “benefit,” most workers opt for low deductibles and co-pays. Therefore, doctors learn that their patients are not concerned with the cost of care, and so they are free to bill insurance companies at the maximum allowable rates.

Given our current tax code, the simplest way to bring down medical costs would be to fully tax health care benefits as wages and simultaneously increase the personal deduction by an amount significant enough to neutralize the effect of the tax increase. This would do two things. First, the uninsured would get a huge pay increase, enabling them to buy reasonably priced catastrophic policies. Second, those currently insured could opt out of expensive employer-provided plans, trading premiums for extra wages, then buy a more economical plan. The savings would go right into their pockets.

The bottom line is that aggregate medical costs will never come down unless services are rationed more wisely. Rather than being used as a pre-payment plan for routine care, insurance should only cover unpredictable, catastrophic costs.

As a comparison, homeowners often carry fire insurance, but seldom maintenance insurance. You buy fire insurance to guard against a catastrophic loss, which is a low probability but high cost event. As a result, fire insurance is relatively affordable, since premiums paid by all those homeowners whose houses do not burn down more than pay for the losses on those few whose houses do.

On the other hand, no one carries home maintenance insurance to pay for a clogged drain or broken garage door. If insurance paid for the plumber visit every time a toilet overflowed, we would now have a plumbing crisis, and Congress would be looking to reign in runaway plumbing bills with “national plumbing insurance.”

In his press conference, President Obama claimed that government insurance would not drive private providers out of business. This is absurd. As the government provider will not have to produce a profit or accurately account for its contingent liabilities, it will provide insurance on an actuarially unsound basis. With taxpayer subsidies, the government provider can run losses indefinitely. If private insurers did this, they would either be shut down or go bankrupt. Therefore, the cost of government provided health insurance will not be confined to the premiums paid, but will include the taxpayers’ bill to continually bail out the government provider.

When Medicare was first proposed back in 1966, it cost $3 billion per year, and the projection was for inflation-adjusted annual costs to rise to $12 billion by 1990. The actual cost in 1990 was $107 billion, and the 2009 estimate is a staggering $408 billion! So much for government estimates on health care.

As if this were not bad enough, today the House votes on “cap and trade” legislation. Disguised as an environmental bill, this proposal would merely be another gigantic tax. The lion’s share of the new revenue is already committed to politically connected special interests that will reap windfalls at everyone else’s expense. To make matters worse, the bill before Congress amounts to a blank slate, with the EPA empowered to draft the details in any manner they see fit. If Congress is going to shoot the economy in the knee, they should at least be required to pull the trigger themselves.

“Cap and trade” will do nothing to reduce pollution, yet it will drive up production costs throughout the economy – rendering us even less globally competitive that we are today. In addition to the huge cost of paying the tax, its enforcement involves the creation of an entire new bureaucracy, the costs of which will be borne by American consumers in the form of higher prices.

Years of reckless borrowing and spending have left us in a gigantic hole. Getting out of it requires that we make the most effective use of all available resources. We need labor and capital to operate as efficiently as possible so we can save and produce our way back to prosperity. Unfortunately, national health insurance and “cap and trade” are two steps in the wrong direction. Rather than getting us out of this hole, they will merely cave in the walls around us.