Age ___ Do you smoke Y/N Will you get vaccinated Y/N

Jonathan Meer wrinkled my brain:

“Hospitalizations for COVID are almost entirely confined to those who are not vaccinated, often at the cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars…why should the vaccinated bear those financial costs? Insurers, led by government programs, should declare that medically-able, eligible people who choose not to be vaccinated are responsible for the full financial cost of COVID-related hospitalizations, effective in six weeks….Standing up for your beliefs means being willing to bear the consequences. Otherwise, it’s just cheap talk.”

In summary, anti-vaccination positions are effectively being subsidized by taxpayers, members of insurance pools, and the vaccinated. It’s an expressive form of moral hazard. It’s selfishness, signaling, and group identity as club good. It’s cheap talk. It’s at least 5 different chapters of your microeconomics textbook. It’s a great article and I want to talk about it.

  1. “Cheap talk” doesn’t mean “costless.”

“Cheap talk” means you don’t have sufficient costs or benefits committing you to follow through on the future behavior you are promising. But I think a lot of people have painted themselves in a very public corner. If you spend 6 months telling everyone who will listen that Covid is just the flu, that the vaccines are dangerous or don’t work, then you’ve got a lot of social capital within your peer network (or audience) that will be destroyed if you publicly change your mind or are observed getting vaccinated. For most private citizens, the answer may be found in a hat and fake moustache. Nonetheless, the talk isn’t that cheap. Only a 1/3 of unvaccinated people claimed they’d be more likely to get vaccinated for $100. What Meer proposes is to “uncheapen” their talk at a far greater level, where $25k to $100k price tags are not out of the question. I think such a policy would work specifically because it creates an expected incentive greater than either peer stigma or any feasible reward policy for vaccination, and at levels large enough where loss aversion may likely kick in. Funny thing about people – we don’t plan for low probability events very well, often treating ~1% negative events as an impossibility. I know it may sound crazy, but a 10% chance of being impoverished may actually be a more powerful incentive than a 0.5% chance of dying.

2. It’s really hard to write complete contracts i.e. your health insurance company desperately wishes it could have included vaccination in your premium calculus.

“Knightian Uncertainty” i.e. when you don’t know what you don’t know remains one of the all-time “obviously important, but hard to operationalize” concepts in an economic analysis. If you write an economic model where people are purely backward looking you will get a lot of pushback for making your agents too myopic, too stupid. At the same time, if anyone out there has started a museum of apartment leasing contracts, I have no doubt they have grown at a near perfectly linear rate over time, as tenants forever explore the space for unanticipated holes and landlords continue to supplement their contracts in response. Every new paragraph in a lease tells the story of a previously unanticipated cost. Your health insurance is the same. For decades you’ve had to tell them if you smoke. Here’s a prediction: In the future you’ll have to tell them if you’ll receive FDA-approved vaccines.

3. Given the state of modern democracy, even for problems where government mandates are the first-best solution, we may have little choice but to rely on market- and community-based solutions going forward.

One of the big advantages of government mandated solutions over market alternatives is completeness i.e. you can make everyone do it (with concomitant provision, monitoring, and punishment). What the pandemic has made clear is that simply isn’t the case anymore, for the simple reason that our politics are so polarized and, more importantly, so efficient in polarizing any policy. Any issue where a universal mandate is the optimal policy will immediately be polarized into for/against constituencies, which will slow down and eventually weaken any possible mandate.

I’m honestly not sure we could pull off the small pox vaccination program today, and it is arguably the greatest government program in world history. That was the first-best means to eradicating small pox. So what’s the second-best means to coping with Covid? If health insurance wrote separate premium contracts for vaccinated and unvaccinated customers, maybe that could get us to herd immunity. Medicare and Medicaid could have similar contingencies for reimbursement, but I suspect it’s hospitals that would end up on the hook. If hospitals refused care to unvaccinated Covid patients, I don’t think it would go down very well politically.

What this leaves are the smaller groups within our nesting doll of associations (state, local… church, synagogue, university, Rotary club, hockey league, pub trivia, the eight people you always see on the bus). It may be within these smaller, more voluntary groups, with their easier entry and exit, that we may observe that necessary accepted coercion to produce club immunity. And while vaccination mandates as a series of parallel club goods is clearly inferior to its provision as a monolithic national public good, its still superior to purely independent production.

4. Could HMO’s have their moment?

Health Management Organizations (HMOs) have been pretty stagnant for a while. Skepticism over management incentives to provide optimal healthcare has always lingered, combined with the fact that health insurance does seem to work pretty well for the people that have it (it’s the 28 million Americans that don’t have health insurance where the bulk of problems lie). Given limits on in-network care and the difficulties assuring prospective members that physician and patient interests are aligned, HMOs have always had a hard time presenting a compelling sales pitch relative to traditional insurance.

The club nature of HMO’s, however, may give them a new structural advantage in the post-Covid world. They can exclude people from membership, from taking up limited resources and sharing space with potentially vulnerable members. Would I at this very moment prefer being sent to a hospital that only allowed vaccinated people to work or receive care in it? Yes, I would. If Covid variants become seasonal, if we’re entering an age of pandemics, or if we’re simply watching the emergence of costly medical luddites as a significant portion of the population, then a lot of us might give HMO’s a second look. (NB: This ability of HMOs to “exclude” is, of course, also their potential downfall. The power to exclude is, historically, almost always abused. The idea that healthcare would become a domain not just characterized, but driven, by the power to exclude should cause trepidation. If you thought there were going to be solutions without tradeoffs to the problem of vaccine refusal, get used to disappointment.)

5. Would universal healthcare (or “Medicare for All”) mandate vaccinations? Can they?

I’m genuinely curious about where policy proponents sit on this. If vaccinations are required to receive care, then it requires denying sick people care. Healthcare policy is a great topic to argue about on twitter, but it’s all cheap talk until orderlies are shoving dying patients out the door.

I’m not the kind of person that reads a lot of philosophy, but that’s really what this boils down to– moral philosophy. It’s easy to call yourself a “libertarian” until your personal freedom not to get a shot in your arm is literally killing millions. It’s easy to call yourself a “socialist” until the newly created levers of power to coerce hundreds of millions into receiving a drug today will set the precedent for the “next Trump” to use those same levers for their own nefarious ambitions. There’s always a risk, a trade-off, no matter how many capital letters you use to yell at me.

It’s all cheap talk, but that doesn’t mean it’s costless.


3 thoughts on “Age ___ Do you smoke Y/N Will you get vaccinated Y/N

  1. John Thacker August 10, 2021 / 11:49 am

    The ACA literally made it illegal to alter premiums for any reason other than smoking, or a difference based on age (which is limited so that the highest age ban can be no more than 3 times the lowest, which is considerable compression from costs.) Altering this would require amending the ACA. Does your prediction including Congress and the President passing something that would change the law? If not, it’s not going to happen. (Now life insurance, yes, that’s different, because the ACA doesn’t apply to it.)

    Companies do retain have some ability to offer rewards, similar to those offered for participating in screening programs. So that might accommodate some small effect, but what you’re discussing is right now illegal.

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  2. tg56 August 14, 2021 / 11:15 am

    One thing missing here is a discussion of how much coronavirus treatment actually costs amortized across the population between unvaccinated and vaccinated people. The vast majority of unvaccinated won’t end up hospitalized especially given the age skew in vaccination. There’s societal costs and societal benefits but those are largely irrelevant to the insurance company except perhaps if it leads to enough geographic concentration either in a region or within a company pool that the insurance company is excessively exposed to.

    I just don’t know if coronavirus costs of treatment our most will die or recover after one stay in the hospital are comparable to say cancer or dying slowly of type 2 diabetes or the like chronic conditions which seem to drive a lot of the costs of medical care.

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  3. tg56 August 23, 2021 / 5:28 pm

    To reply to myself it looks like unvaccinated people cost the US healthcare system ~$2.3 billion dollars for direct costs in June and July 2021. So within the $3 trillion dollar / year US healthcare market it’s basically a non-factor.

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