Thursday, May 28, 2015

What’s Going on with Spending on Health Insurance Overhead?

Even as federal regulators take steps to constrain administrative spending by private health insurers, government overhead on health coverage has soared.

In a Health Affairs blog post published Wednesday, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler use actuarial estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to project that between 2014 and 2022, national spending on private insurance overhead and government administration will rise by $273.6 billion related to the health-care overhaul.

The authors both favor single-payer health insurance; Mr. Himmelstein co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program, an advocacy organization directed to that end. They close their piece by saying that “In health care, public insurance gives much more bang for each buck.”

Yet overhead in the public sector is growing much faster than in the private sector.

Mr. Himmelstein and Ms. Woolhandler combine two categories of spending—government administration and the net cost of private insurance (i.e., overhead)—to reach their estimates of administrative costs. Combining the two categories masks significant differences. While private insurance overhead is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 8.2% between 2014 and 2022, government administration is projected to rise at a 22.7% annual rate—nearly three times as fast. That’s consistent with my 2012 analysis, which noted that federal actuaries projected double-digit increases in spending on government administration for three of the first four years of Obamacare implementation (2011, 2012, and 2014).

This week federal regulators proposed extending medical-loss ratio requirements—a price control on overhead spending—to Medicaid managed-care plans. Meanwhile, several state-run insurance exchanges face financial difficulties, with structural challenges to their ability to attain self-sufficiency while limiting their charges on consumers to only a small share of premiums. The growing spending on bureaucracy reported in Health Affairs suggests that regulators should perhaps focus first on increasing efficiency and reducing government’s own costs before issuing more requirements on the private sector—such as the 653-page regulations issued Wednesday—that attempt to pass them on to consumers.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.