The Return of Austan-Power to the Obama Transition

Two advisers to Barack Obama, Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Powers, had their roles diminished during the campaign, but Austan and Powers are now back.

Goolsbee made some comments on trade policy during the campaign which some believe Barack Obama objected to, and more recently some writers such as Megan McArdle believed he was being thrown overboard. Late last week Obama announced that Goosbee will be heading his Economic Recovery Advisory Board along with being a member of his Council of Economic Advisers. The Chicago Tribune describes Goolsbee:

Goolsbee is a rising star in a generation of academic economists fluent in important new research about how policy and human behavior intermix…

When it comes to ideology, Goolsbee is widely considered an outlier at an institution long viewed as a monolith of right-leaning free-market economics. The school itself played up his left-leaning ways by staging debates between Goolsbee and Randall Kroszner, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and is now a Fed governor.

But for all his showmanship, colleagues say Goolsbee is a smart, pragmatic centrist who has an abiding respect for free markets and the power of data to reveal economic behavior. What he brings to the Obama campaign is not liberal ideology but a willingness to challenge orthodoxy—free market or otherwise.

When talking about Obama’s platform on trade, for instance, Goolsbee insists that the president-elect has a deep commitment to free markets. But he also recognizes that classic free-trade theory doesn’t account for consequences like job loss.

Samantha Power was forced to resign from the campaign in March for calling Hillary Clinton a monster. AP reports that Power is back:

State Department officials said Friday that Samantha Power is among foreign policy experts the president-elect’s office selected to help the incoming administration prepare for Clinton’s anticipated nomination as secretary of state.

The Obama transition team’s Web site includes Power’s name as one of 14 members of the “Agency Review Team” for the State Department.

It will be interesting to see if Power is given a position in the State Department should Hillary Clinton be named Secretary of State.

New York Times Calls For Elimination of Subsidies to Medicare Advantage Plans

Back in 2007, while campaigning in Iowa, I noted that Barack Obama criticized the extra money paid to care for patients in Medicare Advantage Plans compared to the regular Medicare Program. Obama cited the program at other times while campaigning when asked to name wasteful government programs which he would eliminate.

The government pays private insurance companies which run Medicare Advantage plans more than it costs to care for Medicare patients in the government Medicare program. Last year I also noted that the American Medical Association called for the elimination of these plans.

The New York Times has an editorial on Medicare Advantage plans today:

Medicare currently pays the private plans — now called the Medicare Advantage program — 13 percent more on average than the same services would cost in the traditional fee-for-service program. Some of the added payments are used to provide extra benefits for enrollees, like reduced cost-sharing or reduced premiums for such extra benefits as vision and dental care.

The added value averages more than $1,100 a year per patient. Not surprisingly, that makes them attractive to individuals and employers seeking coverage for retirees. It has fueled an explosive growth in enrollments. Almost a quarter of all Medicare beneficiaries, more than 10 million people, are enrolled in private plans.

The managed-care plans still arguably do a better job than traditional Medicare at coordinating care and eliminating duplicative services. Unfortunately, the fastest growth has occurred in private-fee-for-service plans, which do very little to coordinate care. They simply piggyback on the traditional Medicare program, relying on the same doctors and hospitals while using their subsidies to offer cost savings or extra benefits to enrollees.

As these plans have proliferated, Medicare’s costs to cover the subsidies have risen — with the taxpayers and the beneficiaries in traditional Medicare picking up the tab. The many competing plans have also increased Medicare’s bureaucratic burden and costs. And there is no sign that these plans provide better quality of care. Congress started this year to reduce the unjustified subsidies. But a lot more needs to be done. President-elect Barack Obama called during the campaign for eliminating the excessive subsidies and paying private plans only what it would cost to treat the same patients under traditional Medicare.

That would anger millions of enrollees as well as the insurance companies that use the subsidies to attract hordes of new customers. But it is only fair to treat all Medicare beneficiaries equally. Eliminating the subsidies could provide savings to help finance broader health care reform.

While some of the money goes towards extra benefits, most of it goes towards increasing profits for insurance companies at the taxpayers’ expense.

As the editorial notes, insurance companies as well as some enrollees, might be angered by elimination of these plans. Another group which would be angered by the elimination of these plans are insurance agents who are well paid for signing people up for these plans. The financial benefits paid to Medicare Advantage plans leads many to pay by the head for new enrollees while they look the other way when laws are broken. Some of the problems with fraud in the sales of Medicare Advantage plans were previously discussed here and here.

The attitude of insurance agents can be seen in the responses to some of my previous posts on Medicare Advantage plans, such as here. The post was linked on a board used by insurance sales people, leading many to attempt to defend their practices. While those responding are probably not the ones engaged in the more fraudulent practices noted in the other reports, it is alarming that the insurance agents did demonstrate considerable ignorance as to how Medicare really works, leading them to present incorrect information when selling these plans.

I Can See Kansas From My Window

I am currently in my nephew’s apartment in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where he recently took a job as assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony. Through the window I can see over the Missouri River into the state of Kansas. If being able to see Russia from part of Alaska made Sarah Palin an expert on foreign policy, I now am an expert in analying the problems in the red states.

Later this weekend we will probably actually go into Kansas. I already set my watch back an hour upon flying from Michigan to Missouri. I will set it back several additional decades upon passing into Kansas.