A Few More Unrelated Health Care Reform Items

There’s always something happening related to health care reform in general and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in particular. As I continue my year end “clean-up” here’s some short takes on some of the more noteworthy events and ideas I’ve come across lately.

The AMA and the Individual Mandate:
The American Medical Association is of two minds when it comes to requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage  This individual mandate is at the heart of many of the law suits seeking to overturn the PPACA in court. During the health reform debate they supported this requirement. As reported over at the HealthAffairs blog, during their recent interim House of Delegates meeting the AMA voted to reverse this position. Only after “desperate scrambling by AMA leaders” the House voted to refer the issue to the AMA Board of Trustees and to hold a vote concerning their their position on the individual mandate when the House reconvenes again in June.

Both votes were close and reveal a deep schism within the AMA. Like the Wright on Health blog where I came across this item, I don’t believe the result will actually split the AMA, but if the organization abandons its support for the individual mandate it would be a serious political blow to the Obama Administration.

The PPACA and Medicare:
President Barack Obama and his allies argue that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will strengthen Medicare even though the health care reform package cuts about $500 billion from the federal health program over the next 10 years. The Associated Press did an interesting fact check that sheds some light on the PPACA’s impact on Medicare. The bottom line: unless there are offsetting cost reductions in Medicare, the cuts to the program required by the PPACA will simply need to be replenished by other sources. While the Associated Press’ Q&A points out another example of the financial gimmickry so common in Washington, it also highlights the need to reform Medicare, especially in terms of reining in medical spending. The PPACA creates some pilot projects and the like to do just that. Whether they will generate the savings necessary in time is the $500 billion question.

And for a lighter look at Medicare, feel free to check out “The New Medicare Drug Card” brought to you by the Onion.

Speaking of Controlling Medical Costs:
Health insurance premiums reflect the cost of health care. This is a fact that many lawmakers seems unable to grasp. Perhaps its a gap in their education or, at the risk of being appropriately cynical, perhaps it’s because it is easier – and better politics – to beat up on insurance companies than it is to take on hospitals and doctors.

One way to reduce costs is to reduce needless care. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, the potential savings from eliminating unnecessary medical treatment is huge, both in terms of dollars and in lives. Mr. Leonhardt, who writes the Economic Scene column for the paper, identifies three steps necessary to earn these savings: 1) “learning more about when treatments work and when the don’t;” 2) “give patients the available facts about treatments;” and 3) “changing the economics of medicine to reward better care rather than simply more care.”

What’s especially interesting, and especially for those who believe the PPACA does nothing to restrain health care costs, is Mr. Leonhardt’s point that the new health care reform law makes a good start down this path. As he makes clear, the PPACA doesn’t go as far as is needed, but it lays the groundwork for much of the hard work yet to come.

Physician Owned Surgery Centers:
Here’s a not surprising headline: “Doctors with ownership in surgery center operate more often: U-M study.” Shocking, no? The University of Michigan study shows the financial incentives gained by doctors when they have a financial stake in a a surgery center. One possible explanation the researchers mention for this is “that these physicians may be lowering their thresholds for treating patients with … common outpatient procedures.” Those financial incentives can be hefty, amounting to what the authors call a “triple dip.” Doctors with a stake in a surgery center “collect a professional fee for the services provided … share in their facility’s profits and [in] the increased value of their investment.”

Writing in Health Affairs, the data showed that “owners operated on an average of twice as many patients as non-owners” and their caseloads increased more rapidly and dramatically. Significantly, the study reports that doctors have a stake in 83 percent of surgery centers in the United States. To be fair, these out-patient centers often charge less for comparable treatments than hospitals do. But if they double the number of surgeries, how much do they really contribute to constraining health care costs?

The “Best of” CBO’s Health Care Reform Reports:
The Congressional Budget Office occupies a unique position in the legislative process. In a hyper-partisan Congress, they are an island of non-partisanship. (Of course, partisans in both parties only admit this when what the CBO reports supports their position, but that’s politics). This is not to say that the CBO is always right or that they’re not constrained by the questions asked or the data they are provided. But at the end of the day, when it comes to reliable information and analysis, there are few places better to turn to than the Congressional Budget Office.

When it comes to health care reform the CBO was instrumental in providing meaningful input to the debate. And now those reports – and other health care related studies – are compiled in a greatest hits collection entitled “Selected CBO Publications Related to Health Care Legislation, 2009-2010.” The information contained in this 364-page compendium is invaluable. But what will be even more fun five or 10 years from now will to look back on the CBO’s projections and see how rarely the world world abides by the predictions of even well-informed and well-intentioned economists.

Big Impact from Small Health Care Reform Initiatives?

Whether Congress will pass comprehensive health care reform is, shall we say, an “iffy” proposition at this stage. Members of Congress continue to meet, seeking to find a way to pass meaningful reforms through a House increasingly reluctant to support anything expensive and a Senate incapable of shutting off a filibuster. Not surprisingly, observers are looking for clues as to what Plan B … or C, D, E and F … might look like.

According to the Associated Press “President Barack Obama’s modest health care budget may be harbinger of what’s ahead if his overhaul plan dies in Congress.” “Modest” is the correct word. Among the items:

  1. Emergency funds for state Medicaid programs ($25.5 billion) to help handle the influx of program participants as a result of the recession.
  2. $290 million to community health centers, providers to much of the uninsured.
  3. Funds for Medicare to experiment with ways of treating chronic health problems.
  4. Increased funding for comparative effectiveness research to help identify the treatments most effective at addressing costly conditions
  5. A boost to existing efforts to speed adoption of computerized medical records.
  6. increasing anti-fraud personnel and programs within Medicare and Medicaid.

Any and all of these may be useful and necessary. None individually or all of them collectively can be called “comprehensive.” As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius describes them, the budget is “a platform.” And that is how it should be looked at. If comprehensive health care reform legislation dies in Congress, the game will shift to “small ball” in Washington, D.C. The goal will be to accumulate minor gains through the budget, to advance health care reform through executive orders, and to use existing programs to experiment with ways of improving medical care and reducing health care costs.

Comprehensive health care reform coming out of Washington is still possible, albeit far more unlikely now than just two weeks ago. As a result states are far more likely to move forward with more robust reform legislation than were considered in the past year or so. And Washington will continue to try to improve on the status quo through small efforts aimed at having a substantial cumulative effect. Significantly, because these more restrained proposals are less controversial, there’s a high likelihood at least some of these ideas will become law.

Devil Dwells in the Details of Health Care Reform Compromise

A critical health care reform compromise seems to have emerged from negotiations between five liberal and five moderate Democratic Senators (the so-called “Gang of 10”). They are putting forward a compromise that eliminates (or at least postpones) the creation of a government-run health plan while allowing Americans 55 through 64 years of age to purchase Medicare and tasking the Office of Personnel management to administer a program offering coverage through non-profit, private health plans. Of course, as with anything as complicated as health care reform, a solution or compromise on one issue creates new ones elsewhere – think of trying to flatten a partially inflated balloon. Push down on one part and the air pops up in another.

As I noted the other day, expanding Medicare is an idea that appeals to both liberals and conservative Democrats. For example, former Governor Howard Dean, a leading and vocal advocate for a government-run health plan called the compromise “a positive step forward” on the CBS’ “The Early Show.” Meanwhile, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had threatened to support a filibuster of any health care reform plan containing a public option signaled the compromise might be acceptable. According to MSNBC Senator Lieberman said he was “’open- minded’ about the deal” and indicated he was encouraged by what he’s heard so far about the compromise. In other words, he’s pretty much on board.

Senator Reid will be submitting the Gang of 10’s compromise to the Congressional Budget Office where its financial impact will be determined. In the interim, it’s worthwhile asking some questions about the impact of elements of the health care reform compromise as it is in the details that the devil likes to linger.

For example, how will allowing 55 through 64 years old enroll in Medicare impact private health insurance premiums?  It is widely accepted that Medicare often pays doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the actual cost of the care they provide. For example, “payment levels for hospital services under Medicare are equal to only about 71 percent of what is paid by private health plans for the same service,” according to a study by the Lewin Group. Medical care providers make up for the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by charging more to their insured patients. This cost shifting is reflected in higher health insurance premiums.

To the extent the 55-through-64 year olds signing up for Medicare previously were insured by private carriers the amount of dollars being shifted to private insurance will increase and the number of privately insured consumers absorbing this cost will decrease. The result, upward pressure on health insurance premiums.

However, to the extent that these new enrollees were previously uninsured it will reduce the cost of private coverage. Right now virtually all the costs incurred by the uninsured are shifted to private carriers. If Medicare pays for 71 percent of these expenses that’s 71 percent less in losses providers need to shift to their insured patients. How these two consequences balance out is as yet unknown – and may not be knowable until after the fact. But lawmakers should be aware of these consequences.

There’s another detail of the compromise potentially offering affordable housing to the devil.  Alison, a regular reader of this blog, pointed out a provision that would require private carriers to spend at least 90 percent of premiums on medical care. Forcing carriers to spend a high percentage of premiums on medical costs is one of those proposals that: 1) sounds great; and 2) emerges with the regularity of ground hogs in Pennsylvania in February. And it’s a seriously flawed proposal.

Consider: requiring carriers to maintain a specified medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) could reduce the availability of low cost plans. It costs just as much to process claims for a plan costing $300 per month as it does for one with a monthly cost of $100. If these fixed costs amount to $15, they represent 15 percent of the lower cost plan’s premium, but only 5 percent of the premiums for the more expensive plan. Need to get your medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) to 10 percent? Raise your premiums. It’s counter-intuitive, but do the math and you’ll see the danger.

There are several other potential dangers from requiring a high and specific medical loss ratio. Economic swings or flu outbreaks (or the lack of expected flue outbreaks) can greatly alter the percentage spent on claims. So can government-imposed mandates to cover certain conditions. Private carriers pay taxes and need lawyers to deal with government regulation. These costs are beyond their control, but they tend not to increase over time (taxes and regulations have a nasty habit of piling up), meaning these uncontrollable costs are likely to absorb funds needed for truly administrative costs – like answering the phone. Answering the phone, of course, speaks to customer service, a likely victim of mandated loss ratios.

And setting the medical loss ratio at 90 percent would certainly eliminate broker commissions. Brokers would either need to charge fees directly to clients (if that’s permitted) or go away, leaving consumers bereft of independent advocates and counselors.

The good news is that just because a provision is in the compromise doesn’t mean it will be part of the final legislation. Or that it can’t be improved upon before reaching President Obama’s desk. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an 85 percent medical loss ratio in his 1997 health care reform plan, lawmakers recognized the potential pitfalls. The provision was amended to make clear, for example, that taxes and disease management programs would be part of the claims side of the ledger. Eventually a workable compromise was was reached. (The bill did not pass the Legislature, however).

Of course, fixing California’s version of a mandated medical loss ratio didn’t happen of its own accord. Many interested parties, including the California Association of Health Underwriters, expended considerable effort to educate lawmakers about the implications of this provision. An effort of similar magnitude will be required to make sure that the devil is unable to take up residence in the details of the health care reform compromise shaping up in Washington.

New Elements Added to Health Care Reform Debate

I haven’t been writing much of late. The Senate debate has simply been too predictable to merit much comment. The partisan attacks could have been scripted months ago. The votes unsurprising, and the difficulty Democratic Leaders face in fashioning a 60-vote majority is to be expected.

Consider: Republicans charge the Democrats will destroy Medicare. The fact that not long ago it was the GOP wanting to eliminate waste and abuse from the program seems to be forgotten. Democrats, meanwhile, seem incapable of understanding the relationship between medical costs and insurance costs. Listening to their claims that cracking down on evil insurance companies will lower health care spending is disappointing. It would be nice if now and then a Senator would acknowledge that medical costs drives up premiums and not vice versa – a wish not likely to be realized any time soon.  I heard on the radio last week (sorry, not sure what station) a lawmaker complaining that health insurance companies use actuaries, an unfair advantage they wield to the detriment of consumers.

But in the past few days some ideas seem to be gaining traction that could mix things up considerably. One proposal is to allow 55 through 64 year olds to buy into Medicare. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein seems to be the first blogger to report the Medicare buy-in proposal is “attracting the most interest” as an alternative to creating a new government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. The under 65 cohort would not get basic Medicare coverage for free nor does it look like this approach includes subsidies not already on the table. It simply is a way to create access for some Americans to a public health plan without creating a new public health plan. And as with the public option, participation by 55 year olds would be voluntary.

That the idea of a Medicare buy-in option is gaining traction would seem to indicate that chances for a “true public option” are diminishing. Even liberal bloggers like AntonRobb at Benzinga.com are reaching this conclusion. “… proponents of the public option may be compelled to get behind this plan as an alternative. The severeley (sic) comprised … versions of the public option that have any chance of passing … would probably be worthless and probably do more damage politically to the Dems than good,” he writes.

The other interesting idea to emerge is to, as CBS News describes it, “establish national health insurance options, which would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) but operated by private, nonprofit insurers ….” Since the OPM already administers the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), which insures members of Congress and their staffs among others, this alternative to a public option is being viewed as the equivalent of opening up the FEHBP to non-government workers. (Incidentally, although the CBS reports implies the plans would be administered only by nonprofit carriers, this is far from certain. None of the other news reports mentioned this restriction – and there are for-profit carriers participating in the FEHBP.)

The “what’s good for Congress is good for the public” approach seems to appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats who have been objecting to the creation of a new government-run health plan run by the Department of Health and Human Services. As CBS notes, Senators like Ben Nelson describes this proposal as an alternative to, not a version of, a public option.

The import of these proposals go beyond the fact that new ideas are on the table. It also shows the influence likely to be wielded by the “gang of 10” Senators formed over the weekend. These 10 Senators, five liberals and five moderates, are charged with hammering out a compromise on the public option, according to MSNBC. While focused on the public option, it is likely this group of lawmakers will be called on to bridge the chasm that separates liberal Democratic Senators from their moderate and conservative colleagues. Remember, liberals have long claimed that health care reform without a public option is no reform at all. So if the gang of 10 manages to find a way to remove a government-run health plan from the legislation while still keeping liberals on board, they will position themselves to fashion compromises on other divisive issues as well.

(For those interested, the gang of 10 is comprised of Senators Sherrod Brown, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer from the liberal wing of the party and moderate Democratic Senators Tom Carper, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor).

As noted above, the momentum building behind the Medicare buy-in and an FEHBP-type proposal is that the public option is not going to make it into the Senate bill. Not with a trigger. Not with an opt-out. Instead it appears the public option won’t be in the legislation at all. This should mollify Senator Joe Lieberman who has promised to vote with Republicans against bringing a health care reform bill to the floor if it contains a public option.

All of this also makes clear the strong desire of Democrats, regardless of their ideology, to pass health care reform. The New York Times reports on various lawmakers’ description of President Barack Obama’s message to Senate Democrats on Sunday. “He reminded us why we are here. He reminded us why we run for office. And he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through.” “Decades from now this will be the kind of vote you remember. It will be written in the faces of children and families who are relieved of the burden of anxiety and sorrow.”

Democrats consider this a historic moment. While grasping it carries political risk in the upcoming 2010 elections, failing to seize the opportunity poses even greater dangers. And the crushing of a dream many of these lawmakers have held for decades.

There are still controversies that could scuttle health care reform. And there will enough political charges and counter-charges bandied about to satiate even the most verbose pundits. But Senators are serious about finding a path to passage and it is increasingly likely they will pass some version of health care reform before years-end. Of course, this will only set the stage for the real work to begin: the House-Senate Conference Committee likely to convene shortly after New Year’s Day.

Obama: Don’t Bet Against Health Care Reform This Year

A few hours ago I wrote about how President Barack Obama was ratcheting up the heat and pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive health care reform in August. Today he turned down the heat a bit, but kept the pressure on. In a skillful speech he laid out to the American people the benefits they will gain from health care reform, described the substantial areas of agreement already achieved by negotiators, reinforced his reasons for seeking reform, and pledged that reform will be enacted this year.

Some highlights from his speech.

Existing common ground: “We’re now at a point where most everyone agrees we need that we need to invest in preventive and wellness programs that save us money and help [us] lead healthier lives.We have an agreement on the need to simplify the insurance forms and paperwork that patients have to fill out every time they go to a hospital or see a doctor. We have an agreement on the need to reform our health insurance system so that if you lose your job, change your job or start a small business. you can still get affordable health insurance. We have an agreement on the need to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. And we have agreement on the need for a health insurance exchange, a marketplace where people can compare prices and quality and choose the health care plan that best suits their needs.”

On the benefits reform: “This is what health insurance reform will mean for the average American. It will mean lower costs, more choices and coverage you can count on. It will save you and your family money. You won’t have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won’t have to worry about one illness leading to your family going into financial ruin. Americans will have coverage that finally has stability and security. And Americans who don’t have health insurance will finally have affordable quality options.”

Impact on the deficit: “Health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it.”

On cost containment: “Our proposal would change incentives so that providers will give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care, which will mean big savings over time. This is what we mean when we say that we need ‘delivery system reform.’ I’ve proposed to Congress .. that an independent group of doctors and medical experts will oversee long term cost saving measures. Every year there’s a new report that details how much waste and inefficiency there is in Medicare, how best practices are not always used, and how many billions of dollars could be saved. Unfortunately, this report ends up sitting on a shelf. And what we want to do is force Congress to make sure that they are acting on these recommendations to bend the cost curve each and every year.”

What’s at stake and the timing of reform: “Now is not the time to slow down. And now is certainly not the time to lose heart. Make no mistake, if we step back from this challenge at this moment we are consigning our children to a future of skyrocketing premiums and crushing deficits. There is no argument about that. If we don’t achieve health care reform we cannot control the costs of Medicare and Medicaid and we can not control our long term debt and our long term deficits … If we don’t get health care reform done now then no one’s health insurance is going to be secure because you’re going to continue to see premiums going up at astronomical rates,  out-of-pocket costs going up at astronomical rates and people who lose their job or have a pre-existing medical condition or changing their jobs finding themselves in a situation where they cannot get health care. And that is not a future that I accept for the United States of America. And that’s why those who are betting against this happening this year are badly mistaken. We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen this year.”

A few observations:

The President referred to his effort as “health insurance reform” on more than one occasion. Every drama needs a bad guy. With hospitals and doctors supporting key elements of reform, prepare for a lot of the rhetoric to turn against the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

President Obama did not mention the month of August even once. As I wrote earlier today, he had been hammering at Congress to pass legislation next month. If the House and Senate were each to pass legislation that quickly it would still need to go to a conference committee, which means final passage would still be in the Fall. By emphasizing when the bill will get to his desk (“this year”) as opposed to when milestones are achieved in Congress, he shifts attention away from the inside baseball of the legislative schedule and returns it to the benefits of reform (“It will save you and your family money.”). That’s smart politics – it focuses on the benefits, not the features, and avoids appearing like he’s jamming reform through an unwilling Congress.

In his list of areas of agreement, the President included Exchanges, but did not mention a government-run health plan. Exchanges, as noted in a previous post, Exchanges can be a force for good or for not so good. Watching what kind of exchange emerges from the debate will be important. One should not read too much into his failure to mention public plans. He was simply being accurate – there’s no consensus on them. This doesn’t mean he’s giving up on the idea, just that the issue is still open.

President Obama also did not use his statement to threaten Republicans with an expedited process that would prevent them from filibustering on health care reform. This public restraint contrasts with the comments of his top aides. Coupled with his recent meetings with Senate moderates it indicates the Administration has not completely given up on the finding common ground critical for a bi-partisan solution.

The Obama Administration is deep into campaign mode on the health care reform issue. As he proved over the past two-plus years, it’s risky to bet against Barack Obama in a campaign. As the man said, “We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen this year.” If there’s any way to deliver on this promise, President Obama will find it.

The State’s Role in Health Insurance Rate Increases

The first part of the year is when the cost of most health insurance policies increase. Most medical plans in most places are seeing rate increases far greater than general inflation. This raises legitimate questions about the sustainability of private health insurance pricing. Increasing faster than other prices means health insurance costs represent a larger percentage of overall spending. This, in turn, impacts the competitive position of American firms and the spending power of American families. That’s one of the reasons comprehensive health care reform needs to be high on the nation’s agenda.

In fashioning reforms, it’s important policy makers look at the complete picture. For example, comparing the rate of rising health insurance premiums inflation to general inflation is misleading. What drives health insurance costs is a complex mix of new technologies, an aging population, increased consumer demand and expectations, greater utilization of medical treatment, the cost of prescriptions in this country and a horde of other factors. Those required to defend health insurance rate increases (no one volunteers for the job) usually point to medical care inflation as a more appropriate benchmark than using general inflation. The problem with this defense is that, recently, premiums have increased at rates higher than medical inflation. This discrepancy was pounced upon by some legislators during hearings on health care reform in California this year. Clearly, the lawmakers implied, this is evidence of the industry’s lust for profits. What’s required, they say, is a governmental smack down. (OK, they didn’t actually use the word “smack down,” but premium regulation amounts to the same thing).

Before lawmakers get too carried away, however, they should look at their contribution to rising health insurance costs. Leave aside the costs related to mandated benefits, regulatory compliance and the like. Those are significant, but obvious. What’s less apparent is the government’s use of private insurance to subsidize public programs.

Medicare and Medicaid make up 55-to-60 percent of the average hospital’s revenues according to Richard Umbdenstock, president and chief executive of the American Hospital Association. As reported by the Todelo Blade, Mr. Umbdenstock said this would require providers to shift more costs to private insurance. In other words, when government budgets get tight, they cut back on what they pay doctors and hospitals to provide care to Medicare and Medicaid enrollees. Some of those providers reduce the number of such patients they’re willing to see — or stop serving them all together. That’s bad enough.

Others, however, shift the cost to those with private coverage. With more than half their income generated by government programs, it means a disproportionate amount of increase on private plans is required to make up for public cutbacks. If 60 percent of a hospital’s income flows from public programs, a 10 percent reduction in reimbursement rates requires increasing charges to private insurers by 15 percent. And that’s before increases based on medical cost inflation, general inflation or any other factors. It’s a rate increase entirely generated by governmental action.

This system actually works well for politicians. They get to cut government spending by undercompensating medical providers treating public program patients and they get to complain about “indefensible” rate increases by greedy private health plans. In other words, they get to pitch the problem, avoid having to catch it, and they can criticize the people that do.

Politicians who want to control both sides of the equation — cut back on public program funding and regulate private health insurance premiums — should be careful about what they wish for. Their own contribution to skyrocketing medical insurance premiums will be much more obvious. They’ll have to catch the problems they create  and they’ll be on the receiving end of the criticism, too.

Medicare Administrative Expense Reality Check

Discussions concerning the cost carriers incur in administering health insurance often compare the private sector to similar costs incurred by Medicare. Many claim the cost of Medicare administration is about two percent of claims costs. Meanwhile, the private sector is accused of spending 20, 25 percent or more. These charges are made so often and with such conviction that they’ve taken on the aura of truth. Thus the question: is it true or just an urban myth?

The answer is that the cost of administering Medicare is substantially higher than stated and the cost of administering private insurance is lower. At least that’s the conclusion of a January 2006 study entitled Medicare’s Hidden Administrative Costs: A Comparison of Medicare and the Private Sector. To be sure, the cost of administering Medicare is substantially less than the cost of administering private coverage (although this doesn’t count the the free-ride Medicare receives on the cost of its capital and customer service services provided by Congressional offices). 

The study concludes the actual comparison is more like 5.2 percent versus 16.7 percent (or 8.9 percent if commissions, profits and premium taxes are excluded). However, the Medicare percentage benefits from the higher cost it pays out per beneficiary which increases the denominator. The payout per beneficiary is in turn driven by the average age of those participating in Medicare — and even it’s younger beneficiaries incur higher than average claims.  In 2003 the average medical cost per beneficiary for Medicare was estimated at about $6,600; the average per person medical cost for those in private health insurance was closer to $2,700 (out-of-pocket costs are excluded from both figures).  When adjustments are made to equalize these differences the Medicare administrative costs would be closer to 6-to-8 percent range.

The report identifies several hidden expenses surrounding Medicare. For example, Medicare reports its administrative costs as a percentage of identified administrative costs divided by claims. Seems simple enough, but as the report points out, there’s a lot more to administering a health plan than just paying claims. For example, there’s an entire bureaucracy involved in managing Medicare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Yet the salaries of these professionals are not included in Medicare’s administrative costs. Nor are the marketing costs incurred by CMS to promote Part D. Nor Medicare’s use of the tax apparatus to collect “premiums.” By overlooking these and other hidden costs, advocates of government-run health care greatly underestimate the true cost of administering Medicare.

The report also points out another myth inherent in the whole cost of administration argument: some administrative costs add value. Disease management programs can help reduce overall medical care spending while improving the quality of life for insureds. The private sector also pays taxes, government fees and incurs the cost of compliance with government mandates and reports. Good or bad, these costs are beyond the control of private health plans.

What all this comes down to is that administrative costs are inherent in any system. And not all administrative costs are bad. The key question is whether a health care coverage provider — public or private — is efficient or not. Artificial ratios don’t get to that question.