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Obama vs. McCain health care policies

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:20pm

Barack Obama and John McCain both believe that they know how to improve the American health care system. A policy brief by Michael Tanner has nice summary of the two candidates policies. I will review some of this paper today.

Obama’s general health care policy

Obama goal is to expand government provided health care and create a form of “managed competition” originally developed by Alain Einthoven. Obama supports expanding SCHIP and Medicaid eligibility. Although Obama does not support a health insurance mandate for adults, he does support a mandate for children and young adults (any one 25 or under). Obama’s goal to increase health care access, he would support a “pay-or-play” mandate. All but the smallest employers would be required to provide health insurance; those who didn’t would be compelled to pay into a national fund covering these uninsured workers. The mandate would likely require a minimum benefits package. Overall, Obama is pushing towards more government provided health care and more regulation.

McCain’s general health care policy

Compared to Obama, McCain is generally against more government participation and regulation. Instead of moving the U.S. to larger risk pools (e.g., government insurance, employer insurance) that are more severely regulated, McCain want to move the U.S. towards more individually provided health insurance. McCain’s main policy initiative is a $2,500 health insurance refundable tax credit for individuals ($5000 for families). The goal is to make health insurance more affordable, but make individuals incur the full cost of “better” health insurance at the margin. McCain is also considering risk-rating these vouchers so that individuals with severe health problems will receive a larger voucher. McCain would also allow individuals to buy health insurance from any state.

Side-by-side comparison

Obama McCain
Community Rating Yes No
Guaranteed Issue Yes No
Drug Reimportation Yes Yes
Expand SCHIP/Medicaid Yes No
Pay-or-play mandate Yes No
Government direct negotiations with drug companies? Yes No
End tax-exempt status of employer health insurance benefits? No, but capped Either eliminate or cap
Health Insurance Vouchers No Yes
Purchase out-of-state health insurance? No Yes
Allow non-traditional organizations to buy insurance (e.g., churches, professional organizations)? No Yes


So whose health insurance plan is better? If you are in favor of more government involvement in health care, you should support Obama. In the Audacity of Hope , Obama states that “the market alone cannot solve our health care woes–in part because the market has proven incapable of creating large enough insurance pools to keep costs to individuals affordable, in part because health care is not like other products or services (when your child gets sick, you don’t go shopping for the best bargain).” While Obama’s proposals will decrease insurance choice, increase regulation, and increase public funding of healthcare, Obama’s proposals are likely more progressive than McCains and will create larger risk pools. Obama’s plan is likely much more expensive. Further, an employer mandate may lead to higher unemployment levels (see Baicker and Levy paper).

If you are in favor of less government involvement, McCain is your man. McCain rejects “coercion and the use of state power to mandate care, coverage or costs.” The voucher system is similar to the one proposed by Victor Fuchs , and fairly similar to the Swiss managed competition system. A shift to individual–rather than employer-provided–health insurance accompanied by a decrease in regulation should: 1) reduce health insurance costs, 2) increase employment relative to Obama’s plan, 3) give insurance companies the incentive to create innovative products, 4) give workers more choice of their health insurance plan, and 5) be more fiscally sound for the government.

On the other hand, McCain’s plan will be more regressive and can adversely affect the ability of individuals with pre-existing conditions to buy health insurance (unless risk rating the voucher payment occurs). The McCain plan can only be successful if risk pooling can occur on the individual level. This is happening in Switzerland , but in Switzerland there is a standard benefit package which makes shopping for insurance coverage easier.

Additional Comment

Both candidates have proposals with respect to improving how medical care is delivered. Increased preventive care, EMR, and P4P are all popular measures. However, the NEJM states “Our findings suggest that the broad generalizations made by many presidential candidates can be misleading. These statements convey the message that substantial resources can be saved through prevention. Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not.” The ability of any President to directly affect the quality of medical care provided to the patient is likely small. P4P initiatives are good in theory, but since most of medical care involves unmeasurable outcomes, or outcomes which depend on multiple causal factors (e.g., the quality of medical care, baseline patient health, patient behaviors), it is very difficult to implement them on a large scale.

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