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Why Do Our Health Insurance Rates Continue the Upward Climb?

Let’s state the obvious at the very beginning: The health insurance premiums we pay are a derivative of the healthcare (and administrative) costs we incur. As healthcare costs increase, so too, will our health insurance premiums.

One datapoint from the Iowa Employer Benefits Study© that has proven to be THE fixation each year is the rate health insurance premiums have increased. The results in 2018 are no exception. Iowa employers, regardless of employee size and industry, reported they experienced a size-weighted increase of 8.4 percent.

What this metric fails to tell us, however, is WHY this continues to happen every year – a phenomenon somewhat akin to what Bill Murray’s character experienced each day in the movie, ‘Groundhog Day.’ Like Murray, we continue to relive our past.

Healthcare spending in our country is quickly approaching 20 percent of our economy, about double what is found in other high-income countries. In 2019, this ‘crisis’ will be 50 years strong, with no signs of abatement. Worth noting, national health expenditures in 1969-70 was just 6.9 percent of GDP.

Unfortunately, finding comparable data that can easily provide insight on WHY healthcare consumes about one-fifth of our economy is difficult. If we can understand the fundamental reasons for higher costs, we can then make the necessary corrections to address the core problems that continue to plague our economy and adversely impact the personal purchasing power of most Americans.

We all have our own theories, credible or not, about this WHY question. Some of these theories typically include:

  • Americans are higher utilizers of care (compared to other industrialized countries) and that is WHY we pay more – because healthcare consumption is really a volume problem.
  • Tied closely to the theory above, is the belief that the U.S. lacks enough primary care physicians but has too many specialists who charge more for their services.
  • High usage of prescription drugs, in addition to our inability to negotiate favorable price concessions with drug manufacturers.
  • A fee-for-service reimbursement system that incentivizes healthcare providers to give us excess (and usually unnecessary) care.
  • A broken malpractice system that drives excessive defensive spending.
  • The U.S. under-invests in beneficial spending of social programs compared to other advanced countries. By not investing in the ‘social determinants of health,’ we pay the eventual price of having a sicker population that uses more healthcare and that drives high healthcare spending.
  • A national culture that refuses to face death, and instead, spends excessively at the end of life.

On the surface, any of the above theories have merit, perhaps merit that can even be substantiated. However, when taking a deeper dive, some theories may shake out as myths.

Unmasking Some Popular Myths

Recently, a report in JAMA indicated that healthcare utilization in the U.S. is not what we have historically believed. It turns out that, “When it comes to utilization, there is no compelling case that the U.S. rates are substantially higher than comparator countries.” Admittedly, we do have more CT scans, knee replacements and higher cardiac procedures than other countries. But we have fewer hip replacements, and overall hospital days, and physician visits per population. The authors of this work make the point that “we certainly do not overuse services at such a rate to meaningfully explain spending that’s twice as much as comparator countries.”

It is important to note, however, according to a 2017 article published in Health Affairs, there is excess utilization of many low-value services in the U.S. Because these low-value services are also low cost, this does not appear to impact the spending differences between the U.S. and other countries.

The fee-for-service (FFS) payment structure is widely believed by many to push health costs upward, but FFS does not have the impact on costs as popularly perceived. Rather, FFS adversely impacts accountability in how healthcare is delivered and undervalues the quality we expect to have. Eliminating FFS to keep costs down may provide some relief, but its demise is more about initiating better practices of care.

A 2016 article in JAMA basically found the spending for end-of-life utilization in the U.S. to be in line with other countries, meaning that it is also high everywhere. End-of-life spending occurs due to uncertainty about when a person is going to die – we spend a great amount of money on people who are really sick, but they die anyway. Because most other countries are similar to our perceived “unique culture” in the U.S., this narrative does not hold true on why costs are higher in the U.S. than elsewhere.

Two (Primary) Reasons for Grossly High Health Costs

I’ve just spent some time debunking commonly-held beliefs on why healthcare costs are high in the U.S. (and Iowa). Harvard professor and physician, Ashish Jha, one of the authors to the JAMA article that refutes high healthcare utilization in the U.S., provided a fascinating discussion about understanding healthcare costs to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions this past June.

Jha argues that two major culprits are responsible for gobbling up the U.S. GDP:

  1. Administrative Complexity
  2. High Medical Prices
Administrative Complexity: 

As consumers of goods and services, Americans love to have many choices available to them – and healthcare is no different.  We desire choices in the providers who perform the care we seek and in the various health plans we purchase – either individually or through our employers. But with choices come complexity and additional costs. In healthcare, how many choices become too many?

Fragmentation of our healthcare system centers around the number of health insurers – we have about 858 insurers in the U.S. With each insurer, there are various protocol requirements by physicians and hospitals when confronting billing and insurance-related activities. There is a myriad of different claim forms, hoops to jump through to ensure a claim will be paid, zillions of different benefit plans that require unique compliance procedures and varying challenges of claim denials.

When compared to other high-income countries, the costs of administrative inefficiencies in the U.S. are enormous. One aggressive 2014 report puts this cost at 30 percent of total healthcare spending. Another more cautious report from the OECD uses a narrower definition of administrative costs and estimates the U.S. to be at eight percent, which is over twice the average of other advanced countries.

High Medical Prices:

Reinhardt et al. (2003) argued in a Health Affairs article, “It’s the prices, stupid.” Again, compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. has the highest prices for medical goods, services and labor – and nearly all brand-name drugs. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why Americans Spend So Much on Health Care,” states that “Among the reasons (for high medical prices) is the troubling fact that few people in health care, from consumers to doctors to hospitals to insurers, know the true cost of what they are buying and selling.”

Primary care doctors are paid, on average, $218,000 in the U.S. – about $85,000 more than similar physicians in advanced countries. Computed tomography (CT) scans, MRIs, colonoscopies and many other procedures are about double the cost compared to other countries. As an example, I recently had a CT scan performed at a Des Moines hospital, taking no more than five minutes. I learned a month later through my insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits, that the charge was a whopping $8,323.01, while the network ‘savings’ was $7,608. I would love to learn how that charge (and write-off) was determined!

Jha points out in his comments to the Senate committee that Prince Louis, the “royal baby” born to Kate Middleton and Prince William earlier this year, was delivered in a “luxurious private maternity ward in expensive London.” The Economist article cited by Jha indicated the cost was $8,900 for this delivery, while the ‘average’ delivery cost in many U.S. communities is around $10,800 – but can be much higher depending on the location. Even the cost of the best and most luxurious delivery care in London pales to what us common folk have in this country. Put another way, the delivery cost of the ‘royal baby’ was comparable to the exaggerated charge of my five minute CT scan!

Of course, it might be somewhat of an equalizer if the care we received in the U.S. outperformed care in these other countries. It does not. In 2017, The Commonwealth Fund ranked the U.S. as the lowest performing country when compared to 10 other countries. Healthcare outcomes, in addition to access, administrative efficiency and equity placed a dismal 10 or 11 in these categories.

Administrative inefficiencies and high medical prices are two simple evils found in the healthcare cost crisis. Sounds as though the solutions should also be simple – tackle the factors that determine prices and simplify administrative services. We must combat a dysfunctional healthcare ‘system’ that desperately needs infusion of common sense and the embracement of the right incentives to perform efficiently. Doing so would drive competitive battles to reduce costs to a more reasonable level.

Until then, the premium increases experienced by employer-sponsored plans will continue into the foreseeable future.

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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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The Healthcare Price-Quality Conundrum

Price and Quality

As Americans, one thing is certain – we continue to pay a larger share of our medical bills through higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Proponents of ‘having more skin in the game’ suggest that we will eventually become better ‘consumers’ to drive down healthcare costs. The debate about whether this will happen continues.

When shopping for colonoscopies, mammograms or childbirth procedures, people are more likely to conduct cost information searches before seeking care. But will higher-priced doctors and hospitals result in higher quality of care?

Two recent reports approached this question differently. The first report, “The Price-Quality Paradox in Health Care,” generated by the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI), looked at actual claims data to determine whether higher prices are indicative of receiving higher ‘quality of care.’ For this report, quality measures were based on whether ‘recommended’ services were provided.

As we know, quality can be evaluated many different ways. For example, even if treatment delivered is recommended care, was this care delivered appropriately, safely and to the patient’s satisfaction? There are a host of other qualitative measures that help define the quality of care we hope to consistently receive. The HCCI report did not use other methods because such information is difficult (or impossible) to cull from mere claims data.

HCCI’s conclusion is that “price alone may not be sufficient for identifying quality.” In some cases, higher prices are associated with lower quality, meaning that high-prices are not indicative of high-quality of care. HCCI concludes with an obvious statement:

If policy makers and health care industry leaders expect transparency efforts to have real impacts on the health care system, making quality information more accessible and useable by stakeholders is also necessary.

The second report comes from an April article in Health Affairs, “Most Americans Do Not Believe That There Is An Association Between Health Care Prices and Quality Of Care,” that analyzes how Americans perceive the healthcare price-quality conundrum based on behavioral economics. The findings indicate that a majority of consumers (58-71 percent) don’t believe that price and quality are associated with one another, meaning that paying higher prices does not guarantee higher quality of care. A hefty minority of respondents (21-24 percent) indicated there was an association between price and quality, while an additional 8-16 percent did not know if there was a correlation between price and quality.

Respondents who said they had compared prices before receiving care were more likely to think that higher prices are related to higher quality of care, compared to people who did not price shop before seeking care (37 percent vs 12 percent). Avoiding low-price care because it is perceived to be low-quality, is a detriment to having an efficient delivery system that beckons consumer decision making.

Due to the intricacies of behavioral economics, it appears that how price-quality information is communicated to the patient/consumer may very well determine whether healthcare prices are indicative of care quality.

The findings in this second report relating to our purchasing behaviors, are a good complement to HCCI’s findings. This emerging subject will generate a great deal of interest from many stakeholders in the future.

For now, the price and quality metrics are still being hotly debated to determine whether we can become informed consumers who make rational healthcare decisions.

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