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Single-Payer Debate: Gaining Traction?

What do the terms ‘Single-Payer’ and ‘potato’ have in common?

The English language can be confusing at times. For example, the words, ‘either’ and ‘neither’ can be pronounced two different ways. What about ‘tomato’ and ‘potato?’ Yep, even song lyrics from ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ described the pronunciation conundrum of potato, potahto, tomato and tomahto.

But there’s another problem with words. We sometimes use different words or phrases interchangeably. This is certainly the case in healthcare. Many times, politicians and the media will use ‘health,’ ‘healthcare,’ and ‘health insurance’ as if they mean the same thing. Although they’re inter-related, they have different meanings.

Another healthcare issue that appears to be gaining some traction is the ‘Single-Payer’ debate. But what does ‘Single-Payer’ actually mean? Is it synonymous with ‘Universal Healthcare’ or ‘Medicare for All?’ These terms are thrown around quite loosely as we debate our country’s future on how to deliver and pay for the healthcare we consume. Do all three represent a ‘government takeover’ of our healthcare delivery and payment system?

Here is a primer of the three aforementioned terms:

Single-Payer

This plan creates a single source of payment to healthcare providers, typically through a state or federal program. Financed by taxes, a single-payer approach would cover basic healthcare costs for all residents regardless of income, occupation, or health status. It is important to note that single-payer systems may contract for healthcare services from private organizations (similar to Canada) or may own and employ healthcare resources and personnel (as found in the United Kingdom). ‘Single-Payer’ describes the mechanism by which healthcare is paid for by a single public authority, but not the type of delivery for whom physicians and providers work. The U.S., by contrast, uses a multi-payer approach that includes a mixed public-private system.

Universal Healthcare

This plan is often used interchangeably with ‘Universal Health’ and ‘Universal Care.’ This is a broad term for a program that makes some level of basic coverage available to everyone (most likely through a government program), but can also allow for private insurance. Universal Healthcare will typically refer to a healthcare system that provides healthcare and coverage (health insurance) to all citizens of a particular country. Such coverage provides a specific package of benefits to all members of a society with the goal of providing financial risk protection, improved access to health services and improved health outcomes. Contrary to detractors of Universal Healthcare, it is not one-size-fits-all and does not imply total coverage. In short, Universal Healthcare can be determined by three dimensions:

  1. Who is covered
  2. What services are covered
  3. How much of the cost is covered.

Usually some costs are borne by the patient at the time of consumption, but the bulk of costs come from a combination of compulsory insurance and tax revenues. In some cases, government involvement includes directly managing the healthcare system. However, many countries with Universal Healthcare use mixed public-private approaches to deliver this care.

Medicare for All

This is a universal system in which the basic coverage would be provided by an expansion of the federal Medicare program, but would still allow citizens to purchase private insurance (supplemental plans). It is a single-public or quasi-public agency that organizes healthcare financing, but the delivery of care remains largely in private hands. As we know, Medicare is a federal health insurance program (administered by privately-contracted organizations) for people who are age 65 or older and certain younger people with disabilities, including those with End-Stage Renal Disease. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation and other sources, the administrative costs under Medicare are lower compared to private plans. Bernie Sanders famously argued that correcting the inefficiencies within our current system would actually pay to expand coverage for all Americans. In lieu of designing a whole new healthcare system in the U.S., Medicare-for-All proponents suggest that disruption would be minimal to stakeholders and citizens by merely embracing a program that we already use for a segment of our population.

The nuances of all three approaches can vary immensely, even within each of the above healthcare categories. No two countries with single-payer systems are alike. As we all know, the devil will be in the details on who pays for the program, how will payments be determined (taxes vs. premiums), who will administer the health plan(s), and how will health providers be allowed to practice – either privately or government-employed.

As Senate Republicans attempt to cobble together 50 votes to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a handful of legislators in Democratic states have proposed some variation of single-payer bills – California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The likelihood of these states passing such measures are quite remote at this time, primarily due to divided political ideologies and funding estimates that wreak havoc on fragile state budgets. Not to be outdone, 112 of the 193 U.S. House Democrats are positioning themselves for the 2020 national elections by supporting a broader version of public health coverage – endorsing the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.

Given the inability of Congress to come to a consensus on replacing Obamacare, will a single-payer or some hybrid-approach ultimately emerge as an alternative? A January study published by the Pew Research Center indicated that a sizeable majority – about three in five Americans – said the government had a responsibility to ensure everyone had healthcare (compared to 38 percent who said it is not the government’s responsibility). A few influential business leaders, such as Warren Buffett and Charles Munger, appear to have some interest in the idea of a single-payer approach, primarily because health costs continue to be a drag on the economy.

As I write this blog about single-payer nuances, the three approaches appear to be synonymous with one another. Any future state and national proposals will no doubt be a hodge-podge of all three approaches.

When that time comes, it will most likely become one hot potato!

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Senate GOP Healthcare Plan – Comparing Two Iowa Counties’ Health Insurance Premiums

The 2017 blizzard continues this summer, not with blowing snow, but with political maneuvering taking place in Washington on ‘healthcare reform.’ For the record, it is really not ‘healthcare’ that is being addressed by the Republicans, but a ‘health insurance’ makeover – specifically for non-employer coverage purchased by individuals and Medicaid (for low-income Americans).

Real ‘healthcare’ reform would aggressively attack the root causes that make insurance grossly expensive. Instead, the political insanity continues by focusing on the symptoms of the core problems – the exorbitant health insurance premiums we pay. In lieu of reducing the enormous waste built into American healthcare (waste that is an unnecessary cost to many of us but an entitled revenue to entrenched players in the healthcare arena) we continue to confront the never-ending battle downstream of “who should pay and how much?” This problem will continue to persist because of the unwillingness to confront the brutal facts about waste. Einstein’s definition of insanity fits this issue remarkably well.

But I digress…

After Senate Republicans test-launched their trial balloon on June 22, also known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), we now have a better understanding of the impact it will have on each state regarding insurance premiums, the number of those who will be insured and uninsured, and, to a lesser extent, the financial tension on state budgets. Additionally, insurance companies, health providers and other stakeholders have watched with bated breath on how their business world will be impacted by political alterations to health coverage.

After scoring the BCRA, the most notable news coming from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report was the projection that 22 million people would lose health insurance by 2026, in addition to millions more seeing increased out-of-pocket costs. (The Urban Institute projects that Iowa will have 232,000 more uninsured by 2022.) The national increase in the number of uninsured equates to the combined populations of Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Arkansas, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. Given the recent backlash to the CBO score, Senate Republicans have delayed their vote on this legislation until sometime after the holiday break.

A new Kaiser Family Foundation map compares county-level projections of premiums and tax credits for marketplace enrollees under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2020 with estimates for the BCRA. Both the ACA and BCRA include tax credits that factor in family income, local cost of insurance and age. Eligible enrollees pay a certain percentage of income towards the cost of a benchmark plan, while tax credits cover the remainder of the premium. Further assumptions of the map are explained in the Kaiser link above.

Using the Kaiser map, the following slides suggest that coverage losses would be borne disproportionately by people with low-and-moderate incomes and by older people who purchase their own coverage – prior to becoming eligible for Medicare.

As an example, under the ACA, a 60-year-old enrolled in a silver-level marketplace plan in Polk County with an income of $20,000 has an average premium of $8,600. His tax credit covers all but $950 of his costs. Under the BCRA, the premium for this same person would be almost $3,000 higher than it is under the ACA. And, even after receiving the tax credit, he would be paying $2,340 – an increase of 246 percent over the ACA plan. If he lived in Appanoose County, he would be paying $3,520 more under the BCRA plan versus the ACA plan – an increase of 371 percent.

Below are two other summaries of how people compare based on age (27, 40 and 60), income ($40,000 vs $60,000) and location (Polk and Appanoose counties). Generally speaking, the comparisons suggest that as income increases, the younger people will pay less premium under the BCRA when compared to being enrolled in the ACA. Older enrollees, especially those in higher-cost counties, will pay more under the BCRA plan.

Below is the comparison for individuals earning $40,000.

Below is the comparison for individuals earning $60,000.

As the summer continues to heat up, so too will the blizzard of activity toward fixing the symptoms of a much bigger problem.

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The Cost of Having Healthcare Choices

Throughout our lives, each of us must make choices between unpleasant options. For example, our backyard deck is due for a major overhaul since many boards have rotted.  Should we hire a reputable carpenter to replace our deck, which can be very expensive? Or, should I perform the work myself, which may take longer and not look as great? Given my lack of carpentry experience, neither choice is desirable, yet a new deck must be built.

In healthcare, given the paucity of price and outcomes information, we frequently face unpleasant options between the providers (physicians and hospitals) we use and the health plan coverages available for purchase.  Both provide uneasy choices that test our abilities to become full-fledged ‘consumers.’

To become knowledgeable consumers, Americans want to have numerous options available before making a purchase. This is the nature of a market-based economy that allows transparency to keep vendors honest and accountable for their products and services. In a functional marketplace that allows for cost and quality transparency information, sellers are nudged to provide the best possible ‘product’ at the most competitive cost – a winning recipe for delivering ‘high value.’

Cost of Healthcare

According to a recent article, “Healthcare Costs are Bankrupting Us,” by H. Gilbert Welch and Elliott Fisher, among the 54 prescription drugs commonly-used by Americans age 65+, Medicare pays “nearly twice as much per dose as do the government systems in Canada, England and Norway.” Open heart surgery costs 70 percent more than the next highest country, while an appendectomy is over two times more. We pay five times as much in our hospitals than other developed countries. Why? According to the authors, we have a complicated insurance system that requires “an army of billing clerks – employed by hospitals and physicians on one side and private insurance companies on the other.” Because of this, U.S. employer-sponsored health costs continue to outpace other developed countries.

Similarly, another article written by Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, “Those Indecipherable Medical Bills? They’re One Reason Health Care Costs So Much,” paints the picture of a costly “coding war” between healthcare providers who hire legions of consultants to find ways to “upcode” procedures in medical bills. Not to be outdone, insurers hire their own coding consultants to protect their interests. Meanwhile, the patient gets lost in the complicated claims process – another reason why prices are not transparent to the public.

Cost of Health Insurance

As we all know, rising health insurance premiums have eaten into take-home pay over the years. In Iowa, the 2016 premium for family health coverage was $15,743, which is 186 percent higher than the family premium in 1999 ($5,508). This family premium is 28 percent of the Iowa household income (adjusted for inflation). In the next 10 years, using the average five-year premium growth rate in Iowa (7.7 percent), the family premium would climb to $33,056 – growing to 52 percent of the household income (assuming a 1.5 percent annual increase).

About two-thirds of the Iowa family premium is paid by the employer. Because of high-premium growth over the past decades, incomes of workers are suppressed. After paying for health premiums, take-home money is then used to pay for escalating health-plan deductibles, copayments and coinsurance. This financial tension contributes to personal bankruptcy and emotional stress – not to mention impairing the overall health and well-being of the workforce – a primary purpose for employers offering health coverage.

The Premium Dollar

In March, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a national association of health insurers, released a simple chart showing where the premium dollar has been spent during 2014. This chart is based on national data for insured patients under age 65 for commercial and nonprofit health insurance companies. The breakdown of the premium dollar is as follows:

  • Prescription Drugs – 22.1 cents
  • Physician Services – 22.0 cents
  • Outpatient Services – 19.8 cents
  • Inpatient Services – 15.8 cents
  • Operating Costs – 17.8 cents
  • Net Margin – 2.7 cents

Aside from Medicare and Medicaid, which have lower operating costs compared to private (commercial) insurance, almost 80 cents of the premium dollar for private plans is used for medical expenses, while the remaining 20 cents flows to operating costs and net margin. The operating costs for private plans in the U.S. are about twice as high as the overhead costs in other less-complex healthcare systems around the world.

Medical Loss Ratio Status?

Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, many insurers who sold individual health policies admitted that between 55 – 65 cents of the premium dollar was spent on medical expenses, and the remaining amount was retained by the carrier. The ACA established the “medical loss ratio (MLR),” so that at least 85 percent was spent for medical services by large insurers and at least 80 percent was spent by smaller insurers. Of note, should the ACA be repealed, replaced or repaired, whether the MLR remains intact or not is yet another issue to be addressed.

When it comes to health insurance, Americans ‘appear’ to be willing to pay for the privilege of having choices among health insurance carriers and the multitude of plans offered by each carrier. But will having these choices really provide the added ‘value’ in the care we seek? In some cases, thanks largely to limited provider networks, we may (unknowingly) give up the freedom to choose among healthcare providers, such as physicians, hospitals and others. Will this undermine the competition we wish to have among our market providers?

As I ponder the unpleasant choices we have in healthcare, I must also focus on the backyard deck that awaits my attention.

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