Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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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.

Co-Insurance (2)

New blog 2013-07-01 16:26:04 contents

It's a convenience for the insurance company perhaps since it reduces the insurance cost by 20% and is easily figured on the back of a salesman's envelope. Therefore it helps in the three-way negotiation between the employer, the insurance company, and the union. The union calculates how much income tax the employees save by how much income is split between the "fringe benefits" (non-taxable) and the "pay packet" (taxable), and the negotiations shift around these offsets, usually at the end of grueling collective bargaining.

It was once explained to me that Co-pay was very popular with negotiators for unions and management because it was easy to calculate the total cost of it for an entire self-insured corporation. If a proposed budget for the employees was known, and the budget for health benefits was agreed, the arithmetic was easy. If the company has a 20% co-pay, it can reduce the company's total insurance cost by 20%, and if it doesn't come out right, you can negotiate 18% or 22% or whatever. Late at night when these negotiations characteristically get serious, the cost of the offer and counter-offer can be quickly calculated. By contrast, if a deductible is proposed, you have to know how many people use the program, how often they would get sick per year, and even so the calculation is difficult, requiring actuaries or at least accountants. So, the explanation ran, everybody, likes co-pay, and everybody hates deductibles. The insurance people present especially like co-pay, because there will soon be a demand to add it to the package as second insurance, and the premiums for that are also easily quoted, up or down as the negotiations proceed. When it got to involve Medicare and Medicaid, the Congressmen were in essentially the same position of only wanting to know what bulk costs of the whole program would be. In short, co-pay is easy to "score". But the best that can be said for it is, it's just another short-term benefit for which long-term costs are increased because there are diminished incentives for the third-party to hold them back. Just kick the can down the road.

It has never seemed completely credible that anyone would base expensive decisions on considerations so trivial, but you never know. Having invented Medical Savings Accounts with John McClaughry in 1980, for me the mysterious resistance to high deductibles has never seemed adequately explained. Negotiators must easily see that two (or three) insurance policies will be more expensive to administer than just one. They must immediately acknowledge that being 100% insured will increase costs by making the beneficiary ignore the cost, and they are probably willing to accept (off the record) the American Actuary Association's estimate that costs are thereby increased 30%. That much alone would free up about 5% of the Gross Domestic Product since we are currently spending 18% of GDP on Health care. There has almost seemed no point to go on that wages could be increased by diverting this wasted money to the pay packet, to say nothing of the frustration many doctors feel at having no idea of the true cost of what they order, and hence little interest in making the number smaller. Obviously, if true costs are concealed, they go up. This blinding of the doctor to true costs is what makes cost-shifting easy to do without criticism. The absence of a pool of deductibles makes it impossible to generate compound interest, and that in turn makes it less practical to consider "portability" of health insurance from one employer to the next. It is at the very root of fictitious costs for medical care of all sorts, which somehow seem to the advantage of many participants in the health field. Eliminating co-pay would result in a small saving, and it probably would result in a big saving in healthcare costs. The aggregate national savings would be astonishing. Health Savings Accounts are slow to be adopted, not because they fail to save money, but because state laws have imposed mandatory insurance benefits for small-cost items, apparently passed for the main purpose of undermining deductibles.

Most people initially resist the idea of a high deductible on the ground that poor people can't afford it. When it is explained that what is intended is basically to give the poor the money to pay for it, most resistance disappears. A more correct description is that some method is constructed to give them the money, but in a way that allows them to spend money left over from healthcare, for something else they want to buy. The ability to buy something else is not the same as wasting it, and safeguards are only prudent. Retirement is the use most commonly considered. Because interest rates are being suppressed by the Federal Reserve, this proposal may be somewhat retarded for a year or two, until interest rates return to normal levels. Addition of an inflation-protection feature (like TIPS) might well enhance its attractiveness. Ultimately, the first step would be to eliminate Co-pays. Completely and permanently.

Originally published: Monday, July 01, 2013; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019