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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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Diving into the High-Risk Pool

R-I-S-K is a four-letter word that we experience in our daily lives with nearly every decision we make – whether it be driving a vehicle, eating unhealthy food, using tobacco products or boarding an airplane. Often, we don’t even think of these activities as being linked to safety or well-being risks.

High-Risk Pools

One key element to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is also related to risk – covering people with pre-existing medical conditions. In the days, weeks and months ahead, chances are you will be learning more about high-risk pools and how they can help mitigate the impact of high-need, high-cost individuals enrolled in the non-group health insurance market. High-risk pools are typically created by state legislatures with regulatory oversight by state insurance departments. They provide a safety net for the “medically uninsurable” population who have been denied health insurance coverage due to a pre-existing health condition.

The recently-passed Republican House bill known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA), was designed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and shift power to states to set important health insurance rules. One contentious provision of the bill allows for states to obtain a waiver to let insurers return to their pre-ACA practice of charging more to customers with pre-existing medical problems.

It is important to note that population healthcare is highly concentrated. In the U.S., the healthiest 50 percent of the population accounts for less than three percent of total health costs, while the sickest 10 percent account for about two-thirds of population health spending.

In December 2016, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 27 percent of adult Americans under age 65 have health problems that would likely make them uninsurable in an individual market lacking the ACA’s protection. Many of these individuals have access to employer-sponsored plans (or Medicaid) that provide protection to pre-existing conditions. However, for those who don’t have access to these plans, finding coverage at an affordable cost is similar to finding a unicorn in a reputable zoo.

Avalere recently projected that 2.2 million enrollees in the individual market today have some form of pre-existing condition. The AHCA allocated $23 billion ($15 billion over nine years and $8 billion over five years) to assist individuals with pre-existing conditions through high-risk pools. Avalere projects this amount will only cover about 110,000 individuals with pre-existing conditions, about five percent of those eligible.

The AHCA created another $100 billion over the next nine years, beginning in 2019, for the Patient and State Stability Fund – a program designed to provide flexibility to states to ensure stability within the insurance markets. This amount attempts to entice insurance plans to participate and offer lower premiums. However, according to Avalere, if this money was allocated to exclusively cover individuals with pre-existing conditions, only 600,000 individuals would be covered (27 percent of the 2.2 million enrollees with health problems). Most high-risk pools around the country have historically suffered financial hardships because the funding is often insufficient or poorly operated.

Before the ACA became law in 2010, high-risk pools existed in 35 states, and enrollees paid 150% to 200% above the standard non-group premiums. Additionally, according to Kaiser, 33 states with these pools included lifetime limits that capped the exposure of insurance carriers, with most limits in the $1 million to $2 million range. To ensure financial ‘integrity,’ many states also imposed waiting periods in these programs before insurance would cover medical claims considered to be pre-existing.

The Republicans in the U.S. Senate are now center-stage in this healthcare reform spectacle, making preparations to craft their own solution to repeal, replace or repair the ACA. They, too, will need to confront the high-risk component that is inherent in the insurance market. With this high-risk issue, will we find the high-reward results desired by many?

This discussion will continue to play out in the next weeks and months ahead…

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An Economic Dilemma – Healthcare Jobs vs. Costs

There’s a growing paradox in our healthcare world: Since the Great Recession hit in 2007, 35 percent of the nation’s job growth has come from the healthcare sector. In the year 2000, healthcare employed 1-in-12 Americans, but now employs 1-in-9, thanks partly to the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). Jobs are critical for any thriving economy, but it appears the U.S. economy has become increasingly dependent on one sector that has proven to be both highly inefficient and dysfunctional.

The dilemma? Maintaining affordable healthcare is not compatible with the health service sector’s job growth strategy.

A recent article in Health Affairs, “What’s Behind 2.5 Million New Health Jobs?” reported that from 2007 through 2016, there was about a 19 percent growth in new healthcare jobs. From this, hospital jobs grew by 11 percent, nursing and residential care by 12 percent, and ambulatory care by 30 percent.

More than half of the $3.4 trillion we spend on healthcare in this country is spent on labor, much of it on those who provide care. However, a growing segment of healthcare jobs come from our increasingly complex ‘system’ that can be described as an administrative nightmare. Data-entry clerks, revenue-cycle analysts and medical billing coders provide busy backroom work to a multitude of payers concerning the procedures that were performed on behalf of patients. Put another way, for every U.S. physician, there are 16 other healthcare workers. Half of those 16 are in administrative and other nonclinical positions. This is becoming a monster of a problem.

According to a report by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, administrative costs in the U.S. healthcare ‘system’ are the highest in the industrialized world. While the average global administration cost average is 3 percent, it is almost three times this amount in the U.S. (8 percent).

In Iowa, the Iowa Hospital Association (IHA) serves the advocacy role for 118 hospitals. From this, IHA conducts a frequent report to validate the economic impact hospitals have within their communities, which is presumably performed to counter public concerns or scrutiny about hospital behaviors and outcomes. We are often reminded that “hospitals are the economic engines that employ thousands of Iowans” and “create an enormous economic impact across the state.” In short, hospitals are a vital ‘jobs program’ that provide an economic “multiplier” effect to our communities.

On the surface, the presence of hospital jobs is extremely beneficial to having healthy and productive communities. After all, it does provide a boost to the local economies. But portraying hospital jobs as the “economic engine” in communities may be somewhat disingenuous – if not grossly misguided.

Salaries and benefits for healthcare jobs are essentially funded by those who pay taxes, higher-health premiums and higher out-of-pocket medical costs – all of which consequently result in stunting the growth of take-home pay from other parts of the economy. Having additional healthcare jobs creates a financial void. It reduces monies Americans have available to pay for groceries, mortgages, college tuition and other discretionary items that benefit families – including philanthropic causes. Equally important, local, state and federal governments are hard pressed to find additional money to pay for other critical functions that profoundly affect our communities and the future of our country – namely, our infrastructure and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

The problem with linking healthcare jobs with economic growth is perplexing. If having more healthcare jobs is the end goal because it creates more wealth within our communities, then maybe we should spend more on healthcare and allow the jobs component to flourish. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There is an opportunity cost, or trade-off, that will rob other (more efficient) alternative resources within our economy.

Instead of measuring the economic value of healthcare by counting the number of jobs it creates, how about accurately measuring the commensurate value in the outcomes we receive from the jobs we have financed? If we don’t receive greater ‘value’ from the care provided, then why create more jobs – or keep the existing jobs? The arguments made by the healthcare sector, therefore, should not be about job creation and growth, but rather, whether we are using our limited financial resources wisely. If not, we should put those resources to better use. I’m not an economist, but this should spark a basic economic discussion.

Rising employment in healthcare does not correlate with the goal of improving our health and economic well-being. In healthcare, unlike many other sectors of our economy, there are tradeoffs with the amount we can afford. It’s no surprise that the healthcare sector’s lobbying efforts are formidable. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization, healthcare companies spend millions annually on lobbying efforts to influence government officials and legislators, with the American Hospital Association (AHA) ranking second highest among all healthcare lobbyists (behind the American Medical Association) and fifth highest among all lobbyists since 1998 – a total of $332 million spent by the AHA. In 2016 alone, the AHA spent over $22 million to ‘educate’ public officials. Other health-related organizations, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, the pharmaceutical industry and the AMA appeared very high on this Top Spenders List.

Despite the U.S. healthcare system being the most expensive in the world, the Commonwealth Fund reports the “U.S. underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance.” In America, we pay world-class prices for care that cannot be substantiated due largely to lax reporting requirements.

The healthcare sector’s primary purpose is not to be a jobs program, but rather, to safely deliver high-quality care to patients in our communities – and, do so responsibly, efficiently and transparently.

What are your thoughts?

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