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Was Grandma Ahead of Her Time?

It’s early Friday morning, a day that marks the beginning of a long holiday weekend, which will culminate on Monday – Christmas Day. In my office, I’ve just poured my third cup of java and started perusing newly-arrived emails from last night and this morning. One particular email caught my eye and I naturally opened it to learn more.

The content was about…coffee.

Grandma and Coffee

The aroma and taste of coffee, at least for me, became an acquired and ‘necessary’ habit over the years, beginning while I was in college. Late night cramming required that I not doze during the precious remaining critical hours prior to the exams. Caffeinated coffee became my best late-night friend.

The origin of my eventual coffee ‘addiction’ can be traced back to my grandparent’s farm – an acreage north of Detroit Lakes, MN. During the summer months in the late 1960s, my siblings and I would have the opportunity to spend time at the farm helping with chores and experience rural living – working in the garden, hitching a ride on a tractor, playing by the slough, and enjoying some of the best home-grown beef and vegetables at dinner. Without a doubt, the time spent on the farm provided some of my best childhood memories!

To begin their day, I noticed that my grandparents enjoyed a hot beverage that was prepared on their wood-burning stove. While percolating, the aroma of the black brew seemed somewhat odd to me, but my grandparents relished the benefits coffee provided to them when beginning their day. As an impressionable boy, I remember asking Grandma if I could have a sip of this ‘black magic,’ and she, very prudently, complied. I remember her telling me, “Someday, you may like the taste of this, David!” The taste, I quickly learned, was not what I had expected, and that was my first and last sip of coffee – until my college days.

Recent Findings about Coffee

The email I received about coffee came from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. According to a study recently published by Harvard, people with colorectal cancer (CRC) who drank at least four cups of coffee per day after their diagnosis had a ‘significantly lower’ risk of early death – either from this cancer or any cause – than those who didn’t drink coffee. According to the American Cancer Society, CRC is the second-leading cause of cancer in the U.S.

Just four days earlier, I had successfully completed my fourth colonoscopy since 2003. Needless to say, I instinctively poured myself another cup of java and continued reading.

Previous evidence suggested that coffee may help lower the risk of mortality, in addition to several chronic diseases, possibly due to its ability to fight inflammation and insulin resistance. Coffee contains anti-carcinogenic compounds that can benefit us in other ways. Although this newest finding cannot claim causality between drinking coffee and reduced mortality risk, the findings are nevertheless encouraging and are worth further exploration.

My grandparents have long since passed away, but what they shared with their grandson some 50 years ago continues to add to the priceless memories I have of them today. Without realizing it, perhaps grandma was ahead of her time regarding coffee’s taste and health benefits!

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Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance – An Impending Decline?

Americans partake in a variety of traditions. We throw tailgate parties, both before and after football games. During Halloween, our tradition involves children going door-to-door begging for candy, using the words, “Trick or treat!” Before Thanksgiving, our president and many state governors will pardon hand-selected turkeys from becoming the next meal. After Thanksgiving, Americans find the energy to start their annual Christmas gift list and go shopping on Black Friday…and/or wait until Cyber Monday.

During this time of year, millions of Americans will also perform the ritual of selecting a health plan for the new year – based on how much the new insurance plan will now cost them. In addition to the increased insurance premiums, Americans are forced to wrestle with climbing deductibles, copayments and out-of-pocket maximums. In some cases, working families are spending more of their income on insurance coverage that may not protect them compared to insurance plans from yesteryear.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is the largest-single source of health coverage in the U.S. – covering more than 150 million American workers and their dependents. By comparison, Medicaid, the second-largest source of coverage, insures about 70 million Americans, or less than half of job-based coverage. Medicare, health coverage for our seniors, covers 50 million Americans. Finally, the other 17 million American who have health coverage are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces and individual markets offered in each state.

Underinsured

As mentioned, adults with job-based health coverage are seeing higher deductible and out-of-pocket costs compared to prior years. In fact, relative to their income, a recent Commonwealth Fund report has found that working Americans are effectively “underinsured” – they spent more than 10 percent of their income, excluding premiums, on healthcare; spent more than five percent if they were low income; or they had a medical deductible that exceeded five percent of their income. According to the report, this is more than double what it was in 2003, and up sharply from just three years ago (2014).

The major factor for the rise in the underinsured is that employer plans (both small and large employers) are increasingly fighting rising healthcare costs by super-sizing their deductibles to keep the cost of premiums relatively reasonable. Commonwealth estimates that the number of ‘underinsured’ American adults (ages 19 to 64) is 41 million, or 28 percent of U.S. adults. This number is double the rate in 2003 and is up by 10 million since 2014.

In the U.S., health spending increased by 4.3 percent in 2016, outpacing overall spending for goods and services, which increased by 2.8 percent that same year. Additionally, healthcare costs continue to grow faster than American workers’ wages. Over time, this cost pressure recedes the workers’ paychecks, which negatively impacts other purchases workers need or desire to make. In Iowa, as an example, the average deductibles offered by employers has increased drastically, up 185 percent between 2004 and 2016. Using a linear regression equation, the average single and family deductibles could climb to $2,000 and $4,500 respectively, by the year 2020.

Despite being large purchasers of healthcare services for employees and their dependents, employer-sponsored plans run the long-term risk of being unable to control rising healthcare costs – which can exacerbate the rising discontent workers have of paying more but getting less in return. Unfortunately, employers seldom work together to increase their leverage with health providers – primarily due to employers lacking the staff and expertise to combat the complexities of healthcare markets. First and foremost, employers are in the business of focusing on their own core products and services and the associated challenges found within the markets they operate. By fiat, insurance companies continue to play the role of the purchaser on behalf of most employers and their employees.

Employee Discontent?

What will the future hold if more workers become dissatisfied about their receding take-home wages? Dr. David Blumenthal, President of the Commonwealth Fund, recently wrote: “With that discontent will likely come increased calls for dramatic reforms in our health insurance system, reforms that will better protect the millions of Americans who have long depended on protections they receive in the workplace. Some of these discontented Americans may become more receptive to government interventions in private health insurance markets.”

Assuming this discontentment is real, and it appears to be, employers will need to find new approaches to apply additional leverage when making future health coverage purchasing decisions. Being a reluctant purchaser may only prolong the inevitable. For employers, there’s no better time than the present to engage in activities that will provide value for their workforce. Otherwise, external cost pressures may eventually jeopardize health coverage at the workplace.

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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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