Health


I guess Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan (aka the Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver) must be an avid reader of this humble blog[1], for within days of me posting a heart-felt plea for someone in the Republican camp to reveal their health policy principles, the GOP’s Granny-Starver-in-Chief gave a presentation on national TV to explain them. This presentation, intended to explain the Republicans’ Obamacare repeal-and-replace strategy (the American Health Care Act, or as Townhall.com call it, “Swampcare”), involves Ryan with his jacket off, a sure sign that he’s very serious, and it even has powerpoint! A fragment of it can be viewed here, and it’s clear from this monstrosity that Paul Ryan, the great and serious policy wonk of the Republican majority, doesn’t understand how health insurance works. Or worse still, he does understand, and he thinks that insurance is A Very Bad Thing.

From this presentation we can see two health policy principles that the Republicans appear to cleave to: That health insurance is bad and health savings accounts (HSAs) are good; and that the government should be the insurance provider of last resort for society’s sickest. Let’s look at these two principles and their implications.

Do Republicans really think health insurance is bad?

It appears from this keynote presentation of Ryan’s that they do. He makes clear that the healthy are subsidizing the sick and that this is a bad thing, and suggests that this is a bad thing and is the reason that Obamacare prices are rising. The tone of Ryan’s voice, the expression of exasperation, and the follow-up comment that “this is not working” and that the Republican plan will “fix this” are all keys to his belief that health insurance is a bad thing. The healthy, under his formulation, should not subsidize the sick. This is backed up by comments by Rep. Shimkus in the house energy and commerce committee, who when asked about requirements on insurance plans asked “What about men paying for prenatal care”, following up with the rhetorical “Should they?” (That Washington Post article also mentions similar comments from a 2013 committee, where a Republican asked why men should have to pay for maternity care). This isn’t just a glib and nasty comment, it’s a policy position. Note that Shimkus didn’t say anything along the lines of “Pregnancy is a lifestyle choice and our plan will not require insurance companies to cover lifestyle choices.” Rather, he gave an example of someone having to pay for coverage of a problem they will never themselves suffer.

But this is the entire point of insurance: Generally you buy insurance on the assumption that you will never have to use it, knowing that your insurance company will use your premiums to pay for someone who does have to use it. In the case of health insurance, since we all get sick everyone knows that their insurance is contributing to coverage for people who will suffer conditions that most of us will never suffer. Men pay for breast cancer treatment, women pay for prostate cancer treatment, people who are fated to die in a bus crash at 43 pay for alzheimers care that they themselves are doomed never to receive. That’s how insurance works. Once you start saying that people shouldn’t have to pay for things they won’t themselves experience then you are changing the entire nature of insurance. Or, you don’t understand how insurance works.

It’s clear to me from these comments that the Republicans are actually seeing insurance as a Health Savings Account. An HSA is designed so that no one can take out of it more than they have put in, and they use the money in the HSA only on care for the conditions they themselves face. With a well-run HSA the healthy don’t subsidize the sick – rather your current self subsidizes your future self. In this formulation, no one ever has to worry that their money will be used to pay for a treatment they themselves would not face, and no one can get angry about the healthy subsidizing the sick, since it’s only their own future sickness they’re subsidizing. HSAs never suffer from justice issues either – you won’t find a healthy supposed marathon-running non-smoker like Ryan being forced to use their premium payments to cover lung cancer for a sedentary smoker, because they won’t be subsidizing anyone.

So here we have Republican principle number one: Health insurance bad, Health Savings Accounts good.

Government as insurer of last resort

Paul Ryan also touted an alternative method for handling people who are rejected from health insurance plans due to pre-existing conditions, which he described as state-based insurance plans that would cover high risk people. Under this scheme the states get about $10 billion a year to run high risk insurance pools for those very sick individuals. This would enable the health insurers to reject these people, and/or would make a special form of insurance that was better able to handle these high cost cases, enabling health insurance funds to offer lower premiums to everyone else and thus to widen their risk pool. This insurer of last resort model is consistent with the idea of health insurers as a type of health savings account management company: They set a premium for people with pre-existing conditions that is prohibitively high, and then those people “choose” not to pay for the premium and instead run to the government’s high risk pool for coverage. Ryan touted the Wisconsin Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan (HISRP) as an example of a “good high risk pool” that was shut down by Obamacare, presumably suggesting this as a model for the AHCA.

This is unfortunate for several reasons. The first is that HISRP was cross-subsidized by a tax on all insurance premiums charged in the state, meaning that in fact the healthy were subsidizing this program for the sick; the second is that doctors and hospitals charged lower prices to HSIRP recipients, i.e. they allowed the state to regulate what they were able to charge, which is anathema to Republicans. This is also not an idea that is absent in Obamacare, which offers states funds to set up high risk pools[2], so it’s not clear how this policy is an innovation compared to the current policy.

The other big problem with this high risk insurance pool idea is that it doesn’t work precisely because the people in the pool are too sick. Recent assessments of Obamacare’s state-based pools found that they were running out of money far faster than expected, and many state pools have had to go back to the government for more money. Elsewhere I have read estimates that the AHCA’s proposed funds will only cover about 400,000 high risk individuals, when America has about 2 million people who need them.

Still, this is a policy principle, and it’s not necessarily bad in and of itself – but it does require that the government be willing to offer a potentially open-ended assurance to states that these risk pools will be funded. This might be a good policy idea, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be compatible with either a) the Republicans’ historical antipathy for welfare programs and b) the reconciliation process’s restrictions on what funds are available for the plan. It’s the sort of thing that is easily sold as a sop to people concerned about the impact of reform on high-risk individuals, and then easily defunded in practice. If you doubt that, remember this: Paul Ryan’s nickname among his critics is “Zombie-eyed Granny Starver.” Also remember that Ryan is a confirmed liar, who lied about his marathon times to make himself sound like a champion when in fact his marathon times are really average, and you can’t trust liars when they promise to pay you back in future.

What’s wrong with confusing health insurance and health savings accounts?

Now it’s true that in and of itself favoring HSAs over health insurance as a policy tool isn’t necessarily bad. Singapore uses them as part of its health financing system, and China tried them (though I think they moved away from them to a more standard social insurance system), and they could probably theoretically be made to work. They come with obvious equity issues for people born without money, and also they have their own free-rider issues when dealing with people who don’t pay into them but then become sick, but they can probably be made to work. But to make an HSA system work will almost certainly require that they be mandatory (as I think they are in Singapore) and government-subsidized for the young poor. They suffer from many the same problems as private superannuation plans, in that the people who should be paying the most into them – young people – are simultaneously the people with least need of them and the least money to do so, so typically the best way to implement them is mandatorily and by stealth. Of course the Republicans hate mandating anything (except unwanted pregnancies), so they won’t be fond of forcing people onto HSAs; but it is true that HSAs are consistent with general Republican ideas about personal responsibility, no free lunches, etc.

The problem though is that to make HSAs a centerpiece of American health policy requires a root-and-branch reform of how the private markets work. The new Republican bill doesn’t do this, and continues to leave the private markets in the hands of traditional health insurance companies. But it’s clear that the Republican policy-makers are thinking of health insurers as administrators of a kind of HSA program, while the health insurers think of themselves as (and actually are) traditional health insurance companies. This is a big problem, because the policy requirements of HSAs and health insurers are completely different, and confusing one for the other is a disaster. This means that health insurance companies are setting premiums on the basis of an assumption that the government will work to expand the risk pool, or at least not to impede its expansion, while republican policy makers are thinking that insurance companies are setting premiums on the basis of the future underwriting risk each enrollee’s individual future health risk profile presents. So the Republicans have no interest in setting policies that will encourage the healthy (i.e., poor young people) into the market, and may even be trying to find ways to encourage sick people to enrol and pay more (such as through the first-year penalty on insurance for people who let coverage lapse). For example, if they could set policy legislatively rather than through reconciliation, Republicans might pass a law that allows health insurers to set premiums based on each person’s individual future risk profile (so e.g. young women pay more than young men because they will get pregnant), but the insurance companies would prefer to set premiums on the basis of actuarial risk and the size of the risk pool, which is a more instantaneous calculation. This could create policy conflicts that prevent insurers from properly setting prices while simultaneously discouraging young people from entering the risk pool.

Health policy in America for the past 100 years has been built around health insurance markets, not HSA markets. The republicans, by thinking of health insurance as a type of HSA, risk making policies to encourage a market that doesn’t really exist, while the health insurance market struggles to function without proper government subsidies. A good example of this is the way the subsidy design in the Republican plan does not vary by state. Republicans seem to be completely ignorant of the fact that premium prices vary by state, since they depend on the size of the risk pool in each state and the relative balance of healthy and unhealthy, old and young, and also the cost of health services in each state. So Alaska is much more expensive than California. Lawmakers who understood health insurance as a risk pool mechanism would get this, but policy makers who think that health insurance premiums are set as if they were HSA fees will not – HSA fees depend on the future health risks faced by an individual, so may not vary much by state, while health insurance premiums depend on the instantaneous balance of healthy and high-risk individuals in a geographic area, so vary a lot by state.

This confusion is a recipe for trouble, and a sign that despite having six years to sharpen their understanding of these issues, supposedly intelligent and committed Republicans haven’t bothered.

What does this say about the media’s love of Paul Ryan?

The media love to treat Paul Ryan as a serious Republican policy thinker, when in fact he is nothing better than a fraud and a shonkster, a hired salesperson for the policy preferences of his rich patrons. He doesn’t have any deep policy ideas, and he doesn’t care to or need to – his only legislative goal is to dismantle welfare programs and spend the money saved on tax cuts for the rich. He is also a confirmed liar and a fantasist, with no personal integrity – hardly surprising since he comes from a party that has long suffered from “family values” politicians who cheat on their wives and anti-gay politicians who solicit in bathrooms. But the media is labouring under the impression that America has two serious parties, rather than one serious party and one gang of frauds and criminals who occasionally get hold of the machinery of the state long enough to loot it for the benefit of their rich patrons. We now know that these pirates in the GOP aren’t even patriotic – they’re tools of the Russians and the Turks, and have moved from selling their domestic policy to the highest bidder, to selling their foreign policy to whatever foreign agent will help them win power. But so long as the media needs to keep pretending that the Republicans are a serious party and not a gang of wreckers and criminals, they also need to find people within that party they can treat as serious even when they’re not. Paul Ryan, with his fake sincerity and his ability to act like an idiot’s idea of a smart person, and his sleazy aura of seriousness, offers them someone to elevate to the level of “thinker”, even though he has repeatedly shown himself to be incapable of the task. Charles Pierce, who invented the term Zombie-eyed Granny Starver, summarizes Ryan:

Every time he produces a “budget,” actual economists collapse in helpless laughter and other Republicans hide behind the drapes. As a vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden made him look like a child, and Ryan was unable even to carry his own precinct for the Republican ticket.

Since Obamacare reared its ugly head Ryan has consistently and repeatedly squibbed on the basic responsibility to produce an alternative policy, and now he has unveiled this one – and claimed it’s the best chance Republicans will get to repeal Obamacare – he has confirmed what anyone with any sense already knew: he hasn’t got a clue, and doesn’t care to make the basic effort required to have a clue. So will the media finally recognize this and give up on him – and hopefully by extension all the frauds and liars on his side of the chamber – or will they continue their love affair with him, and continue to sell the American people short? My money’s on the latter, because even though the past three months have made clearer than ever before that the Republican party is just a gang of crooks, the media will never admit their role in enabling these frauds and scoundrels over the past 30 years. They have to hit rock bottom before they can admit their problem and make amends, and I’ve no doubt that discovering their favourite policy wonk knows nothing about anything is nowhere near rock bottom for the US media.

We have a long way to go yet before the Republican party and its enablers are properly shamed for the damage they have done. Let’s hope that Obamacare repeal fails before we get there.

 


fn1: Maybe that’s why his health policy knowledge is so bad! But at least he won’t use OLS regression on count data like good ‘ole Barry

fn2: Funnily enough Ryan, a confirmed liar, didn’t mention that Obamacare set up a state-based high risk pool in Wisconsin when it closed the existing high risk pool. The new one has about 1100 enrollees – because most of the 21,000 enrollees in the previous one became eligible for Medicaid or individual insurance plans under Obamacare. This is an interesting bait-and-switch that Republican shonksters like Ryan use: at the same time as they are proposing to do away with a government entitlement and kick the poor over to the mercies of the free market, they attempt to gee up some outrage about how the Democrats unwound a government entitlement that people really liked. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a shameless liar like Ryan has no shame, but it still disappoints me every time I see it.

Reports have been filtering out recently of a study that found a relationship between US unemployment rates and deaths due to opioid use. The Washington Post reported on these results, suggesting that there is a connection between unemployment and death due to “diseases of despair” (their words), and citing the unfortunate Case and Deaton study that found increasing mortality rates among non-hispanic whites in the USA. The implication is that some kind of post-2008 economic depression-related despair has driven the white working class to drugs, with an attendant high death toll. This is particularly poignant in light of the recent election, since some of the states (like West Virginia) that voted heavily for Trump are also heavily affected by opioid abuse. The implication here is that the economic despair supposedly driving Trump voting is also driving high mortality in these communities, which have also supposedly been hollowed out by globalization, immigration and Democratic neglect (only Democrats can neglect poor white people; Republicans ride in to save them with trickle down economics while Democrats abandon them for groovy inner-city Black Lives Matter activists and funky Chicago law professors). But is any of this true?

The news reports are based on the findings of a study by Hollingsworth, Ruhm and Simon, Macroeconomic conditions and opioid abuse, published in my bete-noir, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working papers series. This is where economists publish their brain farts before they are shot down in peer review, and this paper is a typical economist brain fart. This study suffers from the usual problems of NBER papers: it has a ludicrous model, uses the wrong modeling approach, does some dubious data manipulation, and probably isn’t representative. Worse still, the study is based on a failed and useless model of drug addiction that eschews a balanced understanding of drug addiction in favour of a lazy just-so story about the causes of drug addiction that has no basis in reality. I will briefly discuss the modeling problems that make this study useless, and then discuss in more detail the problem of its underlying theoretical structure.

Modeling problems with the study

The study is a classic example of how economists just cannot handle data well. First, the authors have presented a ludicrous model which has an enormous number of explanatory variables – one for every county in their data set, one for every year, and an additional term for the combination of states and years – which means that the model has a huge number of terms to be estimated. Worse still, they do not include age or sex in the model, so they don’t adjust at all for differences in age structure between different counties and states or ethnic groups. Non-heroin opioid addiction in the USA seems to be clustered in rural whites, and probably reflects addiction pursuant to pain relief for real health problems. If so the problem is likely more prevalent in older groups (which have higher levels of chronic pain) who may well be more vulnerable to early death – so adjustment for age is important in these studies. The authors find mortality rates in whites increasing much faster than blacks or hispanics but this could well be because these groups are younger and thus earlier into their drug addiction, or simply less likely to die. This complexity is further compounded by the authors decision to impute drug types to drug-related deaths where the drug is not specified – they simply statistically estimate what drug caused the death, which makes all their results highly vulnerable to the quality of the model by which they impute 30% of all drug-related deaths. So the authors have estimated a model with a huge number of terms and have not properly adjusted for the age structure of the population. This is extremely important, since the CDC has shown that opioid-related mortality is much higher in older people, and if areas with many old people also have high unemployment there will be a spurious relationship between unemployment and mortality if age is not adjusted for.

Incidentally, this paper gives completely different crude opioid mortality rates to the CDC, probably because it uses a subset of states with unusually high mortality rates. So there is a huge generalizability problem right there.

The other big problem with the model is that, of course, being economists, the authors do not use the correct modeling approach. Opioid mortality is a rare even with very small numbers of deaths when disaggregated by race at the county level – even the authors admit that many of their data points have zero deaths – but the authors have chosen to divide the counts of mortality by the population of the area, to get crude rates, and then to model these using ordinary least squares linear regression. As I have repeatedly said here, OLS regression is completely the wrong method to use on data that is constrained. In this case the data is constrained to be greater than or equal to zero, and is likely very close to zero in most cases. OLS regression assumes a completely different probability structure to the correct method, Poisson regression, and applying OLS regression to rates means that you are assuming all zero rates have the same probability. In contrast, a Poisson regression adjusted for population size models a zero count with a different probability depending on the population size, so a zero event in a large population has a different meaning to a zero event in a small population. It also models a non-linear relationship between the underlying death rate and the unemployment rate, which is crucial to understanding how the underlying death rate is related to unemployment. By not using a Poisson regression for rare events the authors have mushed together a bunch of very different mortality patterns as if they were all the same, and completely changed the nature of the relationship between unemployment and mortality.

Big no no!

So the modeling is completely flawed, but this isn’t the worst part of this study. The worst part of this study is that the underlying theory is completely flawed.

Opioid use is not a disease of despair

The fundamental problem with this model is the assumption that macroeconomic conditions drive opioid use. Figure 1 shows the observed and modeled number of monthly deaths due to heroin overdose in New South Wales, Australia between 1995 and 2003, taken from Degenhardt and Day, Impact of the Heroin Shortage: Additional Research (I prepared this figure for this technical report).

Figure 1: Monthly observed and modeled heroin overdose deaths in New South Wales, 1995-2003

This figure shows a clear rapid peak occurring in 1999, followed by a gradual decline and then a sudden downward step in January 2001. This downward step is even more evident in heroin possession offences (Figure 2, also prepared by me, from Gilmour et al, Using intervention time series analysis to assess the effects of imperfectly identifiable natural events: A general method and example, BMC Medical Research Methodology 2006; 6:16).

Figure 2: Observed and modeled trend in heroin possession offences in New South Wales, 1995-2003

Is it really conceivable that trends in unemployment were so intense over the 8 years of this data series that they caused heroin possession offences to more than double, and heroin mortality to double, within 2 years, and to then decline by 50% before halving in one month? What are the macroeconomic effects driving this phenomenon? In fact youth unemployment in NSW declined consistently over the 1990s, and was at a historic low when heroin mortality peaked. What changed over the 1990s was the availability of heroin, which was flooding the market in the mid-1990s; and what changed in 2001 was that new models of drug interdiction and cooperation between police agencies led to unprecedented success in fighting drug traffickers, so that in the early ’00s they pulled out of Australia in favour of easier targets. The result was a sudden precipitous decline in heroin availability, a massive increase in cost, a temporary increase in street-based sex work and cocaine use, and a rapid flight of young people from the market. This occurred against a backdrop of readily available harm reduction services and widespread, free methadone treatment, to which many drug users fled when the price skyrocketed.

The reality is that drug addiction patterns are driven primarily by availability of the drug and availability of treatments for drug addiction. Far from being a “disease of despair” as the Washington Post described it, with patterns of use determined by social dislocation and poverty, heroin addiction is a disease of opportunity, driven primarily by the presence of the drug, its ease of use, and the economic potential to purchase it. There is no relationship between drug use and unemployment or poverty, and we have known this since Robin Lee did her groundbreaking work on returning heroin addicts after the Vietnam war. I suspect the truth of the American opioid epidemic is much more boring, and much more difficult to explain, than unemployment: It is a problem of availability. I don’t know what causes that problem but my guess is that sometime in the 2000s legislative changes made opioids much more easily available. In 2003 the Medicare Prescription Act was passed, and my guess is that it made it much easier for middle-aged poor people to get access to pain relief – pain relief they desperately needed for a wide array of real problems. With access to affordable opiates but with no corresponding access to specialist pain management professionals a cohort of middle-aged workers became addicted to opioids, and in the subsequent 10 years they started dying. It’s a boring health policy explanation for a terrible problem, and it can only be fixed by improvements in quality of care, access to specialists, and careful attention to modern strategies for pain relief.

Unfortunately this story doesn’t fit with a narrative – popular on left and right – of drug addiction as a disease of despair. In this narrative the left sees drug addiction as a product of an alienating and destructive society, best solved by improvements in welfare and labour rights, while the right sees drug addiction as a consequence of unemployment and poverty, which are best solved by getting everyone into work (since good welfare programs are anathema to the right). For economists both of these stories show the primacy of economics as a driver of social problems, and make a good just so story. But the reality of opioid addiction is that it is a complex health policy problem best solved by careful attention to the way that opioids are dispensed and pain is managed. True, this policy prescription requires potentially quite radical changes in the way that doctors approach chronic illness, poverty and occupational health – but it’s completely boring outside of health policy. Stories of a “generation left behind”, forced to vote for Trump because of the carnage sweeping through their blighted communities, are much more interesting than “oh yeah, we made dangerous drugs cheaper and didn’t train doctors how to manage them.”

This article and the interest it drove are another example of two pernicious problems in modern debate: economists can’t be trusted with health data, and journalists are too quick to believe economists. When this is tied with a problem that is easily amenable to sensationalism and patronizing assumptions, of course you get a narrative that is completely divorced from the truth. In this case we don’t know what the truth of the numbers is, since the economists in question made a model so bad it has no bearing on the truth; and we were led into believing that this model could ever explain the very real problems facing these communities by credulous economists and journalists all too willing to believe lazy stereotypes about drug users and drug use.

Let’s score that as another failure for two of the worst professions, and hope we can make some real changes to prescription laws and pain management so that the people affected by this problem can find better, safer ways of managing their chronic pain. And please, please please, can economists please stop touching health data until they learn a method other than OLS regression?

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The New England Journal of Medicine appears to have plunged deep into the debate on health insurance reform since Trump was elected, and in its 9th March issue has a series of articles and opinion pieces on Obamacare’s effects. This includes a piece pointing out that Obamacare expanded access to treatment for substance addiction, including opioid addiction (a big and growing problem in the US at the moment) and also a research article examining the impact of the medicaid expansion on specific health and health financing outcomes (the findings: it was broadly very positive). It also has a short research article examining the claim that the individual insurance markets have been thrown into a death spiral by the poor design of the law.

This claim has been going around for about a year now, and is generally based around the fact that some insurers have left some markets, and in some cases blamed Obamacare for their decision. For example, Zero Hedge made this claim in 2015, and the National Review took it up in July 2016. Articles discussing the alleged failings of the exchanges typically point to the withdrawal of big companies such as Aetna from some exchanges, suggesting that these companies are withdrawing because the fundamental dynamic of the exchanges prevents them from making a profit. This is important in the US context because for people earning above 138% of the federal poverty line who do not have employer-based insurance, the best and most efficient way for them to get insurance coverage is through a marketplace called an exchange, which is a special clearinghouse for selecting Obamacare-compliant insurance plans that is set up either by your state or by the federal government if your state refused to cooperate with the law. (An example of a generally well-liked exchange in a Republican-run state is Kentucky’s Kynect exchange). Obamacare’s defenders have pointed out that some consolidation is natural in markets when they change, and that new entrants or changing business practices will naturally force some businesses to fail or leave – that’s capitalism! Under this defense, the exchanges are working as intended and there’s nothing to worry about, except that in some smaller states this process may lead to a collapse of competition as only one or two insurers remain – a problem Clinton intended to fix by introducing a public provider in all markets if she won the presidential election.

The new article in the NEJM explores this issue in detail, by collecting data on all the plans that operated in exchanges from 2016 – 2017 and comparing those that left with those that remained. The authors make the particular point that once the exchanges opened the marketplace itself changed, and this had implications for insurers. They say:

In particular, the ACA’s insurance-market reforms required firms to develop and market new products that were attractive to low-income Americans who faced few access and pricing restrictions based on their underlying health status.

This means that organizations that are unfamiliar with these market conditions might struggle. They explain this as follows:

Anecdotal evidence supports the argument that the skills of particular insurers may not have been well suited to these marketplaces. Many of the exiting firms, such as UnitedHealth, have primarily covered enrollees in the self-insured–employer market, in which insurers provide administrative services and are not primarily responsible for bearing actuarial risk or for developing products targeting low-income consumers. In addition, many of the assets that have proven quite valuable in the self-insured market — such as a large national footprint that is attractive to multistate employers — may not be particularly useful in state-based individual insurance marketplaces.

They then present the results of their detailed assessment of the properties of those businesses that entered or left the market place, which they summarize in a table, reproduced as Table 1 below.

Table 1: The characteristics of leavers

This table makes clear that the insurers who left the marketplace in 2016 were offering more expensive plans with narrower networks and lower levels of behavioral health coverage; they were also much more likely to be bigger actors in the market for fully-insured people and much less likely to have experience in Medicaid markets. Overall this suggests that these companies left the exchanges not because the exchanges were flawed, but because these companies were not experienced in targeting low-income Americans who make up a large share of the individual insurance market, and having made a play at the individual market decided to get out when they were out-competed by organizations with more experience in the marketplace. The authors further note that actually a lot of the insurers active in the exchange markets are making a profit and are aggressively targeting new marketplaces – but these insurers tend to be smaller organizations with experience in Medicaid services, and don’t attract the same attention as the big employer-market insurers who failed.

This study isn’t definitive and has some limitations – for example it did not compare leavers in 2016 with historical leavers before Obamacare was implemented, and it only compared silver plans (which are the most popular but not necessarily the most profitable, I guess). Nonetheless, it gives the lie to the claim that Obamacare’s exchanges are not working, or at least suggests that they are working well enough to warrant tweaks and improvements rather than complete abolition. Once again the NEJM has shown that Obamacare’s opponents are long on rhetoric and short on facts, and that although this health care law is not perfect, it is doing okay and is certainly a significant improvement on the status quo. Let’s hope that whatever reforms proceed over the next two years will lead to improvements in the areas that are not working, and not wholesale destruction of America’s best chance at universal health coverage in half a century.

It’s unlikely that this blog has any readers, and if it does it is unlikely that any of them are dyed-in-the-wool US Republicans, but just in case there are any out there, I would like to ask you a question. Can you articulate the objectives of a Republican healthcare policy? Can you describe what principles would underlie such a policy, and what methods would be used to achieve it? The new republican “alternative” to Obamacare has been released and it has attracted a lot of attacks from the right as well as the left, with many Republicans decrying it as “Obamacare lite” and complaining that it retains many of the key features of Obamacare: the mandate (now disguised as a fine), subsidies, and regulation. Some of the people attacking it (e.g. Erick Erickson at the Resurgent) seem to believe that repealing Obamacare now and working for a full replacement over the next year would be a good idea, which suggests that chaos in insurance markets is considered a small price to pay to achieve Republican objectives in healthcare policy. But what are they? A recent Vox article on the new plan suggests that it has mistaken the slogan (“repeal and replace Obamacare”) for the actual policy goal, because while the proposed plan would appear to meet the goals of the slogan it doesn’t actually offer any improvements on the actual plan. Many right-wing critics of the plan seem to agree. But none of them seem to be able to articulate what the objectives, principles and methods of a Republican healthcare policy would be. So what are they?

By way of comparison, most of the rest of the developed world and an increasing number of developing countries have achieved universal health coverage (UHC), and it is easy to identify the objectives, principles and methods of this movement. UHC has a specific objective, defined by the WHO as

ensuring that all people have access to needed promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative health services, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that people do not suffer financial hardship when paying for these services

This is a clear objective – you may not agree with it but you can’t fault that it is clear and definitive. If any quibbling is going to go on here (and it does) it will be over the definition of “financial hardship,” which varies from place to place and time to time, but is at least a thing that can be defined. What is the Republican equivalent of that definition? Where is the Republican equivalent of that webpage?

The movement to UHC has also defined specific principles of health coverage. There is a famous diagram that defines a nation’s health services in terms of the proportion of the country covered, the range of services covered, and the magnitude of financial coverage offered, summarized in the cube shown below.

These are the principles under which UHC is defined and changes in UHC are assessed. Typically as countries move towards UHC they will make sacrifices on one or more dimensions of this cube, but in principle they will be trying to expand the fiscal space to incorporate all of them. For example, the UK National Health Service covers all the cost of medical care and covers all the population, but doesn’t cover all services (e.g dentistry), while the Japanese system includes some co-payments (so doesn’t cover 100% of the fees), but includes dentistry in its services covered. In my opinion this cube needs a fourth dimension, timeliness, but at its basic level this cube describes the goals of the system. In addition UHC as defined by the WHO attempts to achieve equity, although that could be wrapped up in the dimensions of population covered and cost-sharing. In any case, every UHC program can be assessed in terms of how well it achieves the goals defined by the cube, and these constitute the principles of health coverage. This isn’t a perfect model (it excludes quality and timeliness, for example) but it’s a set of principles we can work with.

What is the Republican approach to defining a successful health policy, and how do you aim to assess progress towards your objectives?

Finally, UHC as it is supported by the WHO is supported by a variety of different payment and delivery mechanisms, which are well understood and frequently studied. The people working in this field understand that the goals of the UHC program can be achieved through a variety of methods, which will vary depending on the political, cultural and economic climate in which UHC is enacted. Generally we will see a mixture of general revenue, government-run services, social insurance mechanisms, private insurance mechanisms, out-of-pocket payments, and (in developing countries) NGO funding. The exact mix varies and the drawbacks of the different methods are understood. Within this framework there is a general agreement on the need for regulation and the dimensions we regulate (credentials of health care workers, financial robustness of providers, assessment of drugs and devices) and often the government intervenes to ensure that everything runs smoothly (often through price negotiations, workforce planning, and targets and rules for specific sectors or agencies). Countries select from a wide array of possible regulatory and financing frameworks but all these frameworks are understood and well studied, and as middle income nations move towards UHC they typically select a set of methods from amongst this suite of tools that they think will work best in their setting. Given that Republicans rule out some basic mechanisms – general taxation revenue, government run services, social insurance mechanisms – and a wide array of regulatory structures, what methods do Republicans propose as alternatives?

Looking at how the Republican response to Obamacare has panned out over the past six years, and reviewing the new proposed plan, it seems to me that Republicans have rejected almost all the principles and methods of UHC. They appear to have done so on the grounds of “freedom”, but have never defined what a “free” health system would be. They also haven’t defined the objectives of their healthcare policy at any stage in the debate. Given this inchoate approach to a complex and important policy issue, it’s difficult to understand why they opposed Obamacare – with no objective or principles, how can they argue for or against any policy? I know it’s a fruitless task to expect Republicans to respond to any issue seriously when all they really are is a pack of grifters and con artists, but while those epithets almost certainly are true of the party I do think a lot of its voters are serious about their beliefs. So I want to ask you – what are your objectives, principles and methods? What does a Republican healthcare plan look like and what will it ultimately achieve?

I think the Republican leadership haven’t put even a moment’s thought into these questions, and I don’t get the feeling their “intellectual” wing in the bought-and-paid-for think tanks has either. But maybe there are ordinary Republicans who can answer my questions? If so, have at it! I’ll take a lack of comments as proof you don’t have a clue, rather than evidence that this blog has no readers. So let me know! What do you want, and how are you going to get there?

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After six weeks of waiting and watching the Republicans flail about trying to figure out a way to deliver on their campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare we have a policy! The Republicans have delivered on their promise to “simultaneously” repeal the law and replace it with something better, wisely choosing not to go down the repeal-now replace-later path that would have made them responsible for two years of madness. Instead they have decided to use the budget reconciliation process to revise the law, pushing their amendments straight into committees without giving anyone a proper chance to assess the law – including the Congressional Budget Office, whose decision on the law is essential in order for it to actually reach the committee stage. Apparently it’s a shocking piece of political cynicism when Democrats push a law through congress before anyone has a chance to read it, even after they spent months hashing out the content in public, but it’s okay for Republicans to push the law straight to the committee stage without any debate or public discussion at all …

Putting aside the dirty politics of the law, the law itself seems to be pretty dirty. Vox has an explainer, but in essence the basic details are:

  1. It repeals the mandate, a tax penalty on people who do not take out insurance, and replaces it with a fine applied to the cost of subsequent health insurance. This means that if you drop your plan and don’t take up another one within 63 days you suffer a 30% increase in the cost of your next insurance plan.
  2. It replaces Obamacare’s income-based subsidies with age-based subsidies, that are means-tested to disappear above a certain income. These credits are smaller than Obamacare’s and obviously intended to favour the wealthy and Republican voters (younger people are poorer than older people). In combination with the changes to the mandate, these subsidies will push insurance markets into a death spiral (see below) and are vastly more regressive than the Obamacare system (which was far from perfect).
  3. It doesn’t undo the Obamacare bans on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, but it does relax the rules on higher charges for the elderly, so that insurers can charge the elderly up to 5 times as much as the young
  4. It removes regulations on the products insurers can sell, enabling them to again offer insurance which offers no protection against financial catastrophe
  5. It retains the Medicaid expansion until 2020, after which it will stop new admissions to medicaid under the expansion rules, basically enabling the Republicans to repeal the Medicaid expansion by stealth and to put off the electoral consequences of the repeal by making sure it doesn’t affect those currently receiving medicaid. The Medicaid expansion probably increased the number of people insured by 10-20 million – this will be reversed slowly over the next 10 years
  6. It changes Medicaid funding to block grants for the states, which will mean that states give less funding to Medicaid, further restricting its effectiveness and/or driving more people off Medicaid. It also hands out money to Republican states that did not take the Medicaid expansion, to ensure they are not disadvantaged by their decision not to take the expansion over the past 6 years. Given that this decision was a political decision taken in collaboration with the federal Republican party, and that this decision directly disadvantaged state budgets, the decision to reward these states for their intransigence is breathtakingly cynical
  7. It abolishes a range of Obamacare taxes that were crucial to funding Obamacare
  8. It delays the so-called “Cadillac tax” (which all health economists agree is a really good policy) until 2025, effectively ensuring that this excellent piece of pro-equity, cost-containing legislation never happens

Aside from the decision to allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26, there is essentially nothing about this health financing policy that is good. In particular, decisions 1 and 2 are very stupid decisions that will hasten the descent of insurance markets into death spirals. Consider the example of a 26 year old healthy man with no pre-existing conditions who is leaving his parents’ insurance, and is on 150% of the poverty line. This young fellow is not eligible for Medicaid (which is restricted to people earning less than 138% of the federal poverty line) but will get a $2000 subsidy under the new plan. If he does not find himself a plan within 63 days he will be charged 30% extra on the plan he chooses. The internet tells me 150% of the federal poverty line is about $18,000. The average cost of a silver plan for this man would be about $350[1]. Under Obamacare, if this chap didn’t take up insurance he would be faced with a tax penalty every month of his life for the rest of his life until he chose to purchase a plan; but his plan would be subsidized so that he would not be paying much for it, so the difference between the tax penalty and his plan cost would likely be minimal – his decision about whether to take a plan would largely come down to his personal health seeking behavior[2]. In the case of a 26 year old man we can be fairly confident he would choose not to take a plan, but that’s a story for another day. Under the Republican plan, this young man would suffer a 30% penalty on his next plan, for one year. Using Obamacare coverage costs as a guide, he would face a $110 a month penalty for one year, or $1320. Given that this man is healthy with no pre-existing conditions, and can assume that any significant health issues he faces in the next five years will be emergency issues (i.e. being shot) and best handled by free emergency care, he has no special reason to get health coverage. So from his perspective waiting four months with no coverage is no big threat to his health, and saves him more than the fine – and the longer he waits, the more he benefits. The Republican plan actively encourages young, healthy people to avoid taking insurance for as long as possible, because there is a cap on their liabilities that is determined by the price of the insurance they ultimately take. Given that no one in their 20s needs high cost coverage and salaries rise as you get older, a 30% fine is no inducement to take coverage – and the higher this fine gets, the stronger the inducement to delay purchasing coverage. This fine will encourage young people to avoid markets, except for a small group of people who hate taking risks, who will likely already be sick or at risk of getting sick. The healthy will stay away until they are old enough to need coverage – especially if the new deregulation of products enables insurers to remove maternity care from coverage, since maternity care would encourage 30-something women to take insurance.

Furthermore, while the Obamacare mandate returns the penalty for not taking insurance to the tax payer, the Republican plan returns it to the insurer – to use on covering their losses as the death spiral begins. It’s a disaster for insurers and it shows the fundamental silliness of trying to manage a universal health coverage (UHC) system through a classical private market place governed by Republican ideology – these market places rely on a large pool of low risk individuals, but Republican ideology opposes forcing anyone to spend their money in any specified way. So on the one hand you have a classical market demanding a certain pattern of expenditure that can only be guaranteed through government coercion, and a ruling party that fundamentally opposes that coercion, on both moral and practical grounds.

Madness.

It’s worth noting that a lot of right-wing commentators are angry at this new plan, calling it Obamacare lite and objecting to the subsidies and the mandate. Eric Erickson at The Resurgent opposes the mandate and sees the Republican plan as no different, giving a clear example of the fundamental conflict between modern Republicanism and basic health care policy. You can’t have a functioning health insurance system if healthy low-risk people don’t opt in, but they will never have an incentive to opt in if they aren’t forced to. Sensible systems (i.e. all the rest of the developed world) force people to opt in through the tax system, using government coercion to ensure the risk pool works; if you don’t do this you get a shrinking risk pool and sick people preferentially buying in, leading to escalating costs and a death spiral. That Republicans don’t understand this fundamental aspect of health policy makes them as stupid as their orange shitgibbon president, who just noticed that health policy is “unbelievably complicated.” They’ve had 6 years to figure this out, and they still don’t understand a single thing about one of the most crucial aspects of modern policy.

Fortunately, this bill won’t pass – the Freedom Caucus will sink it from the right, and the Medicaid expansion states from the left. The Republicans have had 6 years to sort this shit out, and they have failed in every way. Truly, Americans are uniquely poorly served by their elected representatives!


fn1: My god American health stuff is so complex. In every other developed country you just pay a certain predetermined proportion of your income as part of your tax and get coverage. How in any way is this market-based stuff better?!

fn2: Because under Obamacare costs and subsidies depend on age, sex and location (to the nearest zip code) it’s impossible to give precise numbers to any of these issues. Suffice it to say that in Japan or Australia no one earning $18,000 would have to pay anything resembling $350 for their insurance (or even $35, I suspect). But we don’t even have free access to guns, so don’t listen to us about healthcare policy!

What the American people have to look forward to

What the American people have to look forward to

We’re a week away from the inauguration of the 45th President, but the Senate and House seats have changed so that the Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and one of their first actions has been to begin repealing Obamacare. They’ve been salivating over this prospect for six years and making a big fuss about it, as have all their adjutants in think tanks and conservative media, so you would think they would be ready to roll with a coherent plan. Unfortunately it appears that they don’t, and the first week of their attempts to begin the process have been rather shambolic. Since they don’t control 60 Senate votes they are trying to enact the repeal through some arcane process called reconciliation, but that is just the start of the rolling drama that is coming; Vox has an explainer about the whole process, and is running a fairly good series of articles watching as the Republicans attempt to wreck Obama’s signature achievement.

The Republicans’ first plan seemed to be “repeal and replace”, in which they would unravel all the key parts of Obamacare now but put some kind of deadline on when they would take effect, then begin working on a replacement plan in the meantime. Unfortunately this was patent madness, that they were warned about for months, which would tip many insurance markets into a death spiral and create chaos for both insurance companies and millions of insurance holders. Trump stepped on this with the announcement that repeal and replacement would happen simultaneously and soon, which is something of a problem for the Republicans since they don’t have a plan and working one up in a couple of weeks is going to be kind of challenging (Obamacare took about 15 months to happen, I think). Even more challenging for the Republicans is their lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate – they can repeal the law’s components with 51 votes, but they can only put in place a replacement with 60 votes. If the Democrats decide to act in exactly the same way that the Republicans have for the past 6 years, they will prevent any replacement plan for the next two years, and unless the Republicans can hold them responsible in the mid-terms, potentially kill any future replacement. This would be a disaster for the Republicans, since they would create an insurance death-spiral with no ability to legislate a repair, and go to the mid-terms with several million people suddenly losing their insurance. Given this their choices all seem very unpleasant.

This is incredibly irresponsible politics. Health care reform has been a Democratic party priority – and part of national debate – since the 1990s, and Obamacare was passed in 2010. The Republicans have had 25 years to think about this stuff, and have tried more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare while they were in opposition, yet over that whole time they haven’t come up with a single plan that will do anything to improve health insurance coverage. One Republican even admitted that the plans they have tried to pass during Obama’s administration were only pushed because they knew they wouldn’t get passed – they aren’t serious plans. Paul Ryan has been saying the Republicans will release a plan “soon” for years, and although there are a couple of different ideas floating around out there none of them is near the level of a properly designed plan – and none were pushed during the election. The Heritage Foundation was able to scour the whole country looking for complainants in a Supreme Court case – and fight that case – to gut one part of Obamacare, but didn’t appear to have time to come up with an alternative plan that was worth putting to Congress. The Republicans have known this day is coming for at least six years and they have nothing coherent to offer the American people. We all know the reason for this, of course – Republican political ideology simply cannot produce a reform of the American healthcare system that will give more people affordable coverage, because the Republicans’ fundamental position is that government should not be interfering in healthcare markets, and it is impossible to make healthcare affordable and accessible without extensive government interference in markets.

As if that were not bad enough, their president-elect campaigned on a promise not to cut medicare or medicaid, and recently his spokesperson said that no one would lose their existing plan (a promise that has been held against Obama by Republicans for six years!) Trump has also said he likes Obamacare’s provisions on pre-existing conditions. So now the Republicans have to come up with a free market plan that somehow keeps Medicaid in place, doesn’t take away anyone’s insurance, and forces insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, while bringing prices down and giving individuals greater choice (the latter two points being raised by Paul Ryan recently as part of what he described as a “rescue mission” to make health care more affordable than it is under Obamacare). And if they follow Trump’s timeline they have to do it in a few weeks or months.

It’s not clear what colour everyone’s unicorn will be, but we know it will be a free market unicorn.

So what can we expect this plan to contain? It’s not clear, because there have been multiple Republican “plans” or “policies” in the past couple of years, but based on the major ones that have floated around and some of the major policy discussions we have seen, the plan will likely include some or all of the following.

  • Abolishing the mandate: The mandate is the Obamcare rule that hits people with a tax penalty if they do not take out health insurance, in an attempt to force young and healthy people to take up insurance. This mandate is key to Obamacare, since forcing young and healthy people to take up insurance will ensure that the insurance risk pools are large enough to keep costs down and keep insurance companies viable. The mandate hasn’t been as successful as its planners envisaged, probably because the plans young people are likely to choose to take up are “Bronze” plans with very poor benefits, and many young people probably don’t think they’re worth the effort of filling in forms, given the size of the tax penalty. Republicans hate the mandate and want to get rid of it but of course don’t have an alternative method for forcing people to take up health care. If you abolish the mandate but force insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions then they have to raise prices for everyone else – which means the care won’t be affordable, a key goal of Ryan’s “rescue mission.”
  • Deregulating insurance markets: Trump was big on allowing insurers to operate across state lines, and most Republican plans want to see some kind of reduction of conditions on insurers. In the repeal of Obamacare this will likely involve removing the restrictions placed on plans that can be marketed on exchanges – when Obamacare was introduced, a set of minimum standards was established for insurance plans which guaranteed people buying them would get a certain minimum level of benefits, and enabled people to choose between plans that were rated as either Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum. By deregulating markets and the rules on how insurers market their plans, the insurance companies will be able to return to the pre-Obamacare era of selling absolutely shonky packages at a low price – which, if they’re required to offer coverage to people with pre-existing plans, is the only way they’ll cover their costs. Many Republicans also think insurance companies should be able to compete across state lines, ostensibly because this will increase competition in smaller states and rural areas where currently only one insurer operates, and also to allow more mergers. This is unlikely to encourage competition in the long-term, but will lead to large insurers merging and creating multi-state monopolies – monopoly pricing being another way to cover costs. There is no universal health coverage system in the world which operates successfully with a deregulated private market, and it’s not going to magically happen in the USA.
  • Reforming subsidies: Another aspect of some Republican plans has been to change subsidies so that they are not income-based. Currently under Obamacare anyone with income below a certain level receives a subsidy towards the cost of their health insurance, with the subsidy growing as income decreases, to ensure the plan remains affordable. This is the natural compensation for the mandate, and is one of the pillars of Obamacare. Republicans like Tom Price have proposed replacing these income-based subsidies with age-based subsidies, which means Bill Gates gets the same subsidy as a minimum-wage 61 year old labourer in Louisiana. This policy is part of a new rhetoric the Republicans are developing based on “equality of access” rather than equality of coverage. The natural consequence of this will be that poor people will decline to take up insurance, since the subsidy won’t be enough for them – especially in a deregulated market with no mandates.
  • Block-granting medicaid: As part of Obamacare the Medicaid program was expanded, with states being offered financial support to extend Medicaid to a larger pool of people (Medicaid is the USA’s free health coverage for very poor people). Republicans hate this because it’s straight-up welfarism, and the Heritage Foundation ran a successful challenge in the Supreme Court that enabled states to refuse the expansion. Unfortunately for the Republicans a lot of states – including some Republican-ruled swing states – took the expansion, and about 5-12 million people gained health coverage through it (estimates vary). If the Republicans take away this expansion they will piss off a lot of people, including people in Republican swing states that could damage them in future elections, so they need to find a way to take away the Medicaid expansion from safe Democrat and safe Republican states, and enable swing Republican states to keep it. Their answer is block-grants, in which the money for Medicaid is granted to the states but not earmarked for Medicaid only. Since some deep Republican states like Kansas and Louisiana are in big financial trouble, they can then use the Medicaid money to bail out their failing state finances, and pare back Medicaid in their states; while swing states can keep using the money for Medicaid and avoid creating a large pool of angry voters. Even then it is likely that the block grants will be smaller than the funds currently available so all states will have to cut Medicaid coverage or reduce the quality of care offered – but the Republicans don’t care because Medicaid is for poor people, so just need to make sure they don’t cut it away from so many people that it swings an election.

Any single one of these reforms in isolation would probably be enough to radically roll back recent gains in insurance coverage in the USA, but it’s likely that whatever misbegotten, evil plan the Republicans come up will have all of these reforms to some extent. This is why Republicans have started talking about equality of access rather than coverage, because if everyone theoretically has a subsidy and the right to purchase healthcare, then you can blame them if they decide they can’t afford it. In this rhetorical model they will force insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, abolish the mandate, deregulate the market in such a way that insurance companies can offer absolutely shonky products at inflated prices, cut subsidies so that no one takes them, and then blame poor people for “choosing” not to take up the healthcare they had “equal access” to.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will be able to get away with this – either because Trump takes a personal interest in a reform that actually works, and vetoes anything they offer, or because the Democrats drag out the replacement strategy until they can again win control of Congress. In any case it’s going to be fascinating to watch the Republicans try to behave like responsible adults now that they have the levers of power, even though for the past six years they have shown themselves pathologically incapable of dealing with the contradictions and challenges their ideology has thrown up.

Of course, what’s “fascinating” to those of us who live in countries with sane governments and universal health coverage, is going to be very terrifying to a very large number of poor and chronically ill people in America. Good luck to all of you!

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …

 

 


fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

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