Reflections on Impending Obamacare
Reform was surely needed to remove distortions imposed on medical care by its financing. The next big questions are what the Affordable Care Act really reforms; and, whether the result will be affordable for the whole nation. Here are some proposals, just in case.
Insurance in Philadelphia
Early Philadelphia took a lead in insurance innovation. Some ideas, like life insurance, flourished. Others have faded.
Old Age, Re-designed
A grumpy analysis of future trends from a member of the Grumpy Generation.
Right Angle Club: 2013
Reflections about the 91st year of the Club's existence. Delivered for the annual President's dinner at The Philadelphia Club, January 17, 2014. George Ross Fisher, scribe.
The Attitude of Big Business. In order to preserve maximum flexibility as long as possible, many important features of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) remain unrevealed, and some are perhaps still unsettled. Furthermore, attitudes change with experience. At the formation of the Obamacare idea, the leaders of big business (at the time) were more concerned about foreign competitors than about employee attitudes. The traditional goal of a "level playing field" led them to favor an employer mandate to provide employee healthcare. It probably was presented to them that they could only have their desires by agreeing to a universal individual mandate for everybody. Although it was uncertain whether the employees would agree, universal was the price to be paid, and they paid it. Whether new leadership supports this compromise or not, it is generally assumed that big business feels obliged to support Pete Stark's universal mandate until it is tested. Only time will tell whether businesses will withdraw their support in the face of events, but fragile beginnings certainly do not assure permanent support. Since it was the withdrawal of this group's support which destroyed the Clinton plan in 1994, a significant issue hangs in the balance. Therefore, when conflicts were discovered with the ERISA laws under which big business works, the inclusion of big businesses in the framework of the Affordable Care Act was postponed for a year. How it will emerge next year or whether the ACA can survive for a year without major business inclusion, both remain to be seen.
The Rising Voice of the Uninsured. A financial recession usually increases the number of health uninsured, but at present unemployment is slowly falling. However, decades of scientific medical advances are not only extending longevity but reducing non-fatal illness among the young and uninsured. Although it is unclear whether youthful perceptions match the actual changes in their morbidity, young healthy people who rebel at paying health insurance premiums may actually increase in number substantially during the coming decade. Although overall inflation has been moderate, discomfort from competing costs of college debts and items such as gasoline have escalated. When the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, youthful perception may make the first serious test of its usefulness. Those among them who actually get sick may get an opportunity to sample Medicaid and report their experiences to their friends. To some extent, this will be a race between efforts to improve Medicaid in order to forestall complaints, and the tendency of young people to try to get their way by pounding the table with their shoe. If successfully managed, it could promote some badly needed improvements in Medicaid. Handled poorly, however, it could bring the program down.
Cost of the Program. The fact must be squarely faced that insurance almost always increases costs. That is true of all casualty insurance, whether auto, homeowners, or maritime. Correctly applied, it can indeed redistribute costs, but insurance imposes extra administrative expenses, and it produces "moral hazard", so total costs are increased by insurance. Moral hazard is a term of art, signifying that nobody spends someone else's money as carefully as his own. Actuaries calculate the extra cost imposed by present American forms of health insurance to be at least 30% of the total service, and arguments can be made it will be so much more, that level historical costs cannot conceal the appreciably higher premium level. Longevity is improved by reducing the number of brushes with life-threatening illnesses in a lifetime; costs go up because prices go up.
Universal coverage now introduces its own uniquely unwelcome issue, that eliminating non-insurance market benchmarks for medical prices also eliminates the cost guidance they formerly provided. Crippled though it may have been, the partial cash market did set benchmarks, if not prices, which insurers then had to match -- and those benchmarks will possibly soon be seriously diminished. That development will be welcome to those who wish to receive higher prices, but cause dismay among those who have to pay for them. The result is predicted to lead to price controls, which will, in turn, provoke shortages, possibly demonstrations or worse. Matters may not follow that path, but it is hard to see why not. As to any reduced overhead like marketing costs, employer-basing has already reduced them to a small opportunity for streamlining. In the past, a resort to price controls has almost invariably led to shortages. Even in 2013, there have been shortages of cancer drugs, an almost unheard-of event in the past century.
To put it mildly, rationed healthcare is politically disadvantageous for those who attempt to enforce it. The most conservative projections now suggest that Obamacare will increase healthcare costs by 22%. Since the following proposals would by contrast almost surely reduce costs by a conservative 30%, it is not impertinent to suggest that no matter remains closed while a 50% overall cost swing remains credible. That would be particularly true when it concerns 17% of gross domestic product (GDP) during a recession. In fact, no one has even contemplated what it would mean to inject 5% of American GDP back into the world economy, especially by the mechanism of releasing a paralyzed medical system.
Patient Participation in Claims Costs, Generally Speaking. For the insurance industry, this is an old story. Industry survival has depended on success in answering it effectively. In health insurance, the traditional approaches have mainly been 20% co-pay and about $500 annual deductible. The first means 20% of all benefits cost, the second means the first $500 of benefit costs in a year. These figures evolved out of countless negotiations between labor and management, or within legislatures, are now accepted as traditional, and are accepted by the public. These figures also represent how much each side thinks it can afford since they see themselves as ultimately paying the bill. Until recently, however, patient participation at such small levels has not reached a point where it significantly influences patient behavior, which is set by entirely different forces and is now the main long-term cause of healthcare cost inflation. As mentioned above, business negotiators seldom pay much heed to imposed costs, just so long as their major competitors must pay the same costs; in fact, that is one of the flaws in our corporate system. However, governments as third-party payers enjoy no such luxury, and most of the complaining about healthcare cost inflation has originated with governments. Consequently, businesses not infrequently drag governments to higher cost levels, and this must be recognized as a reality of entitlement programs. Furthermore, attempts at raising patient cash contributions have always had political rather than economic origins, usually loudly characterizing any cost constraints at all as crippling the intent of insurance, making false promises, and depriving the poor of humane treatment. If patient contribution ever reaches 50% of costs, the program will likely be called a failure (Insurance exchanges please take note.).
However, it would appear incentives cannot affect overall patient behavior very much until patient payments to reach a much higher point, and we may well see some experiments to test what that level may be. (As it is argued here, this dilemma need not be completely dispositive.) More recently, steadily rising healthcare costs have actually led to employer increases in co-pays and deductibles, and the Obama administration has been giving signs of yielding to the behavior modification argument. However, these approaches cannot be called a success until they seriously reduce long-term healthcare cost inflation, and that remains a doubtful outcome.
In fact, no desperately sick patient should ever be expected to pay much attention to costs. The restraint of partial cash payment should be reserved for lesser conditions, and even provider discipline should be reserved for what are provably individual provider decisions, whether at the institutional level or the professional one. There are certainly broad areas where no patient cost restraint whatever can be justified, and program design should recognize that premise. Nevertheless, much more could be done with patient participation in costs than is done at present.
Targets for Cost Restraint Requiring Two Distinctive Approaches. There are two factors in overall medical costs: the item price, and item volume. Above a certain level of sickness severity, only item prices can be legitimately constrained, not the volume of service. Before any of that happens, of course, all published prices should be audited and forced to conform to standard cost-to-price ratios, because cost-shifted indirect costs are so prevalent. For minor conditions and illnesses, volume control on the patient remains legitimate, particularly for conditions where patients are usually responsible for inciting them. Patient cost-sharing is, therefore, a legitimate out-patient approach. Officials given the right to set such boundaries will almost surely be assailed as having a conflict of interest, or untrained for the decisions; it is an unpleasant role, attractive only to unpleasant people.
The healthcare market segments itself into two quite different approaches and successful administration consists of accurately distinguishing the two. As soon as the patient enters a hospital, his control of cost creation is taken away along with his clothes. Therefore, payment by diagnosis is a sensible approach for inpatients and could be even more effective if the diagnosis codes were revised to include greater stratification by the additional use of laboratory and other billing sources as confirmatory evidence. An argument can be made that fee for service to a helpless patient operates without cost resistance. But having removed incentives for abuse, the laboratory data becomes even stronger evidence of underlying diagnostic distinctions. Since Obamacare has apparently not fully examined such distinctions, there remains hope it can be persuaded to see the codes need expansion. At present, DRG codes are very crude and rely heavily on errors on the high side canceling out errors on the low side. Furthermore, they are derived from (ICD), the International Classification of Disease, which identifies individual diseases only if they are common, responding to the needs of medical records librarians who complained that usage did not justify the effort of coding every case. This combination of short cuts and errors is too crude for the advanced use now planned for them and would benefit from substituting the coding system called SNOMED3. A case can be made for both lumping and splitting; perhaps two codes are required, a crude one derived by computer-lumping precise ones of the same average cost -- rather than by similar etiology. As matters now stand, teaching hospitals have no way to assert a need for greater reimbursement for greater case complexity, specialty hospitals are able to select inexpensive cases within expensive categories, and rural hospitals are left without satellite cash cows.
However, this is tinkering around the edges of volume measurement. Much greater savings are immediately possible from attention to prices, through billing for direct and indirect costs separately, recognizing indirect costs as the present main locus of cost-shifting. Some serious thought should be given to the growing shift of profitability to the outpatient area, with inpatient care transformed into a loss-leader. As that is increasingly true, it becomes wiser to shift attention to the prices of outpatient and emergency room services. Going all the way to Health Savings Accounts would be ideal because it enlists patient incentives to the side of prices restraint. HSA also comes inherently segmented, between outpatient and inpatient hospital. Beyond segmenting price and utilization controls, however, consideration should also be given to segmenting health insurance itself, to match natural cost segmentations. Prison inmates, persons mentally impaired, and illegal immigrants account for nearly 30 million persons, and require specific ministrations, not patchwork exceptions to what the rest of the population requires.