Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Wyden/Ryan Medicare Plan

Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan have a new plan for Medicare. It has gotten a surprisingly low amount of attention -- maybe the Republican primary is taking media precedence.

The proposal can be read here.

The main components of the plan are, in my order of interest/importance:

1. Seniors would choose their health coverage from competing plans on an exchange (the Medicare Exchange), similar to the way Medicare Part D works now. (Medicare Part D is prescription drug coverage. Companies wanting to offer drug coverage under the plan bid in regional markets and enrollees select their coverage from the offers made.) Plans would have to be approved, meaning that they would have to meet certain minimum standards of coverage.

2. The amount to be given to each enrollee as a subsidy for buying insurance would be determined by the auction. This subsidy would be either the second-lowest bid in the auction or the standard Medicare fee for service plan. See point 3 next.

3. One of the options would remain the standard Medicare fee for service option. This is not clear to me, but I guess the meaning is that the Federal government would have to put in a bid just like a private company. I am not sure what would prevent the government from always winning the auction, since they play with OPM (other people's money).

4. Exchanges would be on a regional basis, as for Medicare Part D.

5. If costs rose faster than 1% above nominal GDP growth, unspecified cost controls would kick in.

The idea deserves serious consideration. Moving Medicare toward a voucher/defined contribution plan makes a lot of sense to me. Such a change would get the government out of specifying how much providers are paid, leaving that to private insurers as is currently done (private insurers negotiate with hospitals and doctors to determine contract prices). Using a competitive bidding process to both select plans and to determine the subsidy amount seems to work well for Medicare Part D, so let's extend the model.

One of the interesting things will be if the subsidy is determined regionally or nationally. If done nationally, there will be some pain as enrollees in the high cost regions (see the Dartmouth Atlas) discover that their subsidy is not enough to buy any plan in that region. That would probably put more effective pressure on the high cost regions than anything the Center for Medicare and Medicaid seems able to do.

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