The Ryan health care proposal

The Ryan budget proposal achieves the bulk of its savings by cutting health care outlays, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. The mechanism sounds a lot like a firm’s transition from a defined benefits pension plan to a defined contribution scheme. Medicaid becomes a system of block grants to states, and Medicare becomes a system of flat-rate vouchers. Along the way, it has some useful aspirations: to separate health insurance from employment and eliminate health’s favored tax status.

Reading some of the finer print, though, I don’t think it really fixes the fundamental flaws of the current system. It’s billed as “universal access” but that’s a misnomer. It guarantees universal access to a tax credit or voucher that can be used to purchase coverage, but not universal access to coverage. That’s because it doesn’t solve the adverse selection problem. As a result, any provider that doesn’t play the usual game of excluding anyone who’s really sick from coverage (using preexisting conditions and rotating plan changes) will suffer a variant of the utility death spiral: increasing costs drive the healthy out of the plan, leaving it to serve a diminishing set of members who had the misfortune to get sick, at an escalating cost.

Universal access to coverage is left to the states, who can create assigned risk pools or other methods to cover the uncoverable. Leaving things to the states strikes me as a reasonable strategy, because the health system is so complex that evolutionary learning is likely to beat the kind of deliberate design we’ll get out of congress. But it’s not clear to me that the proposal creates any real authority to raise money to support these assigned risk pools; without money, the state mechanisms will be rather perfunctory.

The real challenge seems to me to be to address three features of health:

  • Prevention beats cure by a long shot, in terms of both cost and quality of life. In the current system, patient churn through providers eliminates most of the provider-side incentive to address this. Patients have contributed by abdicating responsibility for their own health, and insurance exacerbates the problem by obscuring the costs of the quadruple bypass that follows from a life of Big Macs.
  • Health care expenditures are extremely skewed over one’s lifetime and within age cohorts. Good behavior can’t mitigate all risk, particularly the risk of getting old. (See below for a peek at the data.)
  • In some circumstances, the health care system is capable of expending an extremely large amount of resources on a person – sometimes for a miraculous outcome, and sometimes for rather marginal end-of-life extension.

What’s needed is a distributed way to share risk (which is why it’s called insurance), while preserving incentives for good behavior and matching total expenditures to resources. That’s a tall order. It’s not clear to me that the Ryan proposal tackles it in any serious way; it just extends the flaws of the current system to Medicare patients.

healthExpendAgeIncomeMEPSPer capita annual medical expenditures from the MEPS panel, by age and income. There’s surprisingly little variation by income, but a lot by age. The bill terminates the agency that collects this data.

healthExpendAgeDecileMEPSHealth expenditures by age and decile of cohort, showing the extreme concentration of expenditures at all ages.

The really fine print, the text of the bill itself, is daunting – 629 pages. This strikes me as simply unmanageable (like the deceased cap and trade legislation). There are simply too many opportunities for unintended consequences, and hidden agendas, in such a multifaceted approach, especially with the opaque analytic support available. Surely this could be tackled in a series of smaller bites – health, revenue, other expenditures. It calls to mind the criticism of the FAA’s repeated failure to redesign the air traffic control system, “you can’t design a system that evolved.” Well, maybe you can, but not with the kind of tools and discourse that now prevail.

3 thoughts on “The Ryan health care proposal”

  1. First, it’s not worth thinking too hard about the Ryan plan in detail as you point out w/ reference to the revenue side, it’s hard to see if any serious analysis went into making it.

    Similarly, on the economic impacts, a bunch of trustworthy thinkers have already picked it apart. For example, see the review by Macroeconomic Advisors who called it “flawed and contrived” (

    But putting the lack of rigor aside, an interesting aspect of the health-care part of the plan is the reality that the privitization of Medicare almost certainly won’t work as intended as insurers will simply drop out if (when?) covering seniors becomes unprofitable.

    This also implies an interesting political angle: That the indurance industry will almost certainly be opposed.

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