Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Employer Based Health Insurance

In 1965, the most fundamental of economic fundamentals reversed itself. America's international trade balance shifted from positive to negative, has remained negative ever since. It's irrelevant that international currency shifted backward to soften the blow; that's what floating currencies are supposed to do. The era of effortless and largely unchallenged American post-war world supremacy was over. From now on, it was to be everyone for himself, in Medicine as in every other trade.

A new triumvirate, consisting of hospitals, health insurance, and medical schools asserted medical leadership, fought against each other for domination, and consequently found themselves a prized destination for opportunists. The new name of the game was to gain control of the payment system, and through it control of hospitals, and through the control of the doctors. But the sponsors of the earlier system, the employer-based one, were still around, and to a large extent, still, dominate. No proposal for running healthcare could omit physicians from the center of control. Most who attempt it, seek to use medical schools as a surrogate for the practicing profession. However, medical schools are in competition with their alumni by owning hospitals, and the rest of the profession see medical school control as favoring a competitor. They resist it bitterly.

Meanwhile, the doctors had experienced entirely different socialization by going away to various wars, and discovering how little they needed hospitals. As shown in episodes of the TV series Mash, new bonds were formed between a medical band of brothers, operating successfully in tents, not medical centers. This experience comes and goes, but unfortunately, there has been such a succession of wars, the experience gets reinforced. One of the great paradoxes of the present medical upheaval is to see government and insurance doing their best to herd doctors back into hospitals so they can be controlled by salaries, rather than by their patients. And while they seem to have largely succeeded, the ACA ambition to control medical care by control of the payment system is appreciably undermined at its interface between institution and profession. It is always an uphill battle, to defend a more expensive, less satisfying, approach; eventually, it is a losing approach. The oppressive cost of everything, the collision between recessions and inflations, seemed to be keeping everybody under control for the time being. But it would be unwise to assume calm will prevail forever, or that a command-and-control arrangement would continue to work through the hospital, without fragmenting somewhere. In a larger sense, a lot of this history was irrelevant. The people really causing commotion were business leaders with an entirely different agenda; their model was Henry J. Kaiser.

Much of the resulting endgame depends on what Washington will be willing to do. Congress will have its own ideas, but Congress is often in a hurry. What isn't complicated, is often politically difficult, and it helps things along if the public has thought about them first. The Supreme Court gives itself more leisure to think, but sometimes that isn't a pure advantage. The President has more staff, but he can't always control it. Medical cost-cutting turns out to be like closing military bases; it has to be gradual, it has to be spread wide and thin, but it must show early benefits quickly. In its first six years, for example, a lot of people must see some benefit, and very few must see their jobs destroyed. All this can be done, but it can't be done repeatedly. The country cannot afford to keep using up its reserves with noble experiments. World affairs and world economics surely present enough distractions, without inventing artificial ones.

On medical affairs, Congress should learn to listen more to doctors and less to our ancillaries. But for this to happen, doctors will have to become more open about their experiences, rather than electing more doctors to Congress, where they become seen as competitors rather than experts. When Congress finally wakes up to the full dimension of what has happened, everybody is going to need some friends he can trust.

In the final section of this book, we will talk a little about some of the thorny transition problems to be expected. It's not a comprehensive discussion, but a wake-up to the healthcare industry and to Congress, about the complexity of some of the implementation problems they are abandoning to the Executive Branch -- at everyone's peril.

So, come along, let's learn a few hidden things. Start with employer-based health insurance. That's what we had for the past century but hardly noticed it. It even helps to know a little of its history.

A Short History of Employer-based Health Insurance. Instead of starting with Bismarck or some other link to a non-American, let's say health insurance in America began as a proposal of Teddy Roosevelt's during the Progressive Era just before the First World War, a century ago. The American Medical Association had a flirtation with Teddy's national health insurance but came to prefer something like the business community's Blue Cross system, as it eventually evolved during the 1920s. Business scarcely recognized it, but large American companies were beginning to shift control from founding families to stockholders, an evolution which advanced during the next three decades, as a way to extract capital gains taxes to float war debts. To a certain degree, growing shareholder control was a step toward meritocracy; in a human relations sense, it may have been a step backward. The shift extends to only about half of corporations even today. But health insurance and stockholder control of the big companies advanced side by side, scarcely realizing how diminished employer benevolence was undermining the process. We glorified the decline of a semi-feudal system, but we lost something in the process.

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American health insurance traces back to President Teddy Roosevelt {bottom quote}

It makes a huge difference whether the boss is a paternalistic owner or the manager of someone else's company. In the first instance, he spends his own money, in the other instance, his only absolute mandate is to generate money for the stockholders. That's a measurement applied to every "good" manager. Plenty of owners were tight-fisted, and plenty of managers were benevolent. Even today, small businesses (less than a billion dollars in assets) are mostly "Subchapter S" corporations, and about 15% of really large "Subchapter C" corporations are still dominated by founding families. But in spite of frenzied rhetoric about the "rich owner", the shift in attitudes is clear; as founding generations move away from active involvement in their companies, they become less involved with employees. They themselves become more like their hired managers. Current investment trends, moving into index fund passive investing, further widen the distance between stockholders and owners-by-inheritance. The "silo effect" of specialized departments further isolates the core business from non-revenue support departments.

Cost-shifting was an early development, transferred from the business to the hospital. The concept originally underlying Blue Cross was that private rooms should produce enough profit for the hospital to support the poor folks in open wards, whereas semi-private rooms just break even. At first, only a handful of ministers and school teachers were in the semi-private category. When hospital finances improved, more working-class people moved into the semi-private category, the wards shrank in size, and semi-private -- became the standard clause in employee contracts. For two hundred years, multi-bed open wards were standard, but semi-private became standard in a single decade. Semi-private nevertheless acquired a charity flavor. The "Blue Cross discount" began to apply to semi-private beds, at the same time semi-private became readjusted to become "standard size" for "service benefits". That is, most employees of corporations started to be cared for at less than actual cost, at the Blue Cross discount-to-business rate, because their contract called for being provided certain services, no matter what they cost. In fact, what they appeared to cost was so distorted by cost-shifting, you couldn't tell who was subsidized. It would not take long for a new standard to be demanded: sharing a room with strangers was so low-class. Private rooms were going to be the only decent thing. Spending other people's money is fun.

And because Blue Cross organizations became dominant during the Second World War, their competitors in cash benefits ("indemnity carriers") greatly resented paying more dollars for the same semi-private room than Blue Cross patients did. Some of this was doubtless a response to wage and price controls during World War II, a way of raising wages without expanding the (taxable) "pay packet". The response of commercial indemnity carriers was to price their premiums on "experience rating", which especially cut into the profit margin of Blue Cross private-bed patients. The way that worked was, the insurer waited a year to see what inflation had done, and made a trailing readjustment in the following year's premium. One unexpected outcome of this price warfare was to make the hospital reluctant to reveal its tentative charges, where the employer demanded to be shown the actual costs of his employees, as well as prices to everybody else. When Blue Cross coverage reached government employees, a new power center gained possession of itemized hospital bills. A new employee representative could easily see how much or how little the government was actually subsidizing charity care. Naturally, as the new source of benevolence, they claimed they were paying too much.

When Group practices, or HMOs, started to pay for healthcare, they too demanded to see comparable bills or at least standardized prices. And so it went, with each new wrinkle in payment. Some people paid listed prices, but big groups could afford to send auditors to look at the books. There had long been a three-tier price list, and now there was a six-tier one because of having list prices and actual payments on each of three levels. Soon it began to seem there might be sixty prices for the same thing. Like a stag cornered by barking dogs, the hospital fended off the payers as best it could. Because of the long period of catch-up following the Great Depression and then the Second World War, hospitals usually needed new buildings and improved wage standards for employees. How were they to pay for this, when everybody seemed to be demanding to get backlogged services at the old prices?

For centuries, hospitals had existed on a system of collecting whatever they could, and delivering needed care as best they were able. Their deficits were covered by public subscription, by religions, and by tightening the belts of the charity-minded hospital volunteers. Sometimes the rich guy who lived in a mansion on the hill would donate, sometimes he wouldn't. Surely, the government had a responsibility to rescue such a deserving charity. The student nurses and the young doctors in white worked for no pay at all. That's right, after I graduated from medical school I worked for four years without a dime of pay. If hospitals overcharged a few insurance companies, well, there was nothing else they could do to keep the doors open. Until health insurance made a significant impact, hospitals ruled medical care. They were the only institutions which seemed to work, all new ideas seemed to come from them, and any new idea which came along was somehow centered within hospitals. Although it wasn't described as such, hospitals began to suffer the disease of conglomerates. If an organization takes on too many functions at once, it performs some of them poorly. Usually, one of the subsidiaries fails and drags the rest of the conglomerate down. That's essentially why the Supreme Court, in the State Oil v. Khan case finally decided vertical integration cures itself and usually does not require antitrust judicial action to break it up. That doesn't mean vertical integration is wonderful; it just has to be shown to be bad before you punish it. Unfortunately, high legal fees unbalance the situation. The corporation can usually afford the lawyers, the individual practitioner can't. Threatening to bankrupt the opponent is now a standard procedure in the courts of Justice.

Disregard for the Tenth Amendment in the 1937 Court-packing incident greatly injured the Tenth Amendment's Constitutional requirement that health and health-related activities should be regulated at the state level. But it also heightened public attention on the Constitutional issue, since hospitals, nurses, doctors, pharmacies, and the Blue Cross organizations were all organized along state lines. Only when the Federal government under Harry Truman began to sound serious about central control of medical care, did health insurance begin to cross state lines, and thus weakened hospital and Blue Cross domination of it. By the time Lyndon Johnson began his piecemeal assault in 1965 with Medicare and Medicaid, the insurance industry had broken healthcare into four "markets":

Large-employer groups. The healthiest groups, and hence the cheapest to insure, became the low-hanging fruit. Union pressure combined with the passage of ERISA expanded and somewhat fragmented the groups, but large employers were first and dominant in the planning.

Small-employer groups. Curiously, this often became the most expensive silo of the markets, because of successful pressure to expand -- even mandate -- benefit packages, and the fact that certain expensive cost generators can be selectively insured when the personnel manager knows them by name.

Individuals. Because of adverse self-selection, "non-group" had the highest marketing costs, and often the highest medical costs. It was possible to eliminate the worst abuses, such as figuratively buying insurance while riding to the hospital in an ambulance. But subscribers to non-group insurance move freely between employers and thus can avoid being dropped from the insurance when they change jobs. What is generally touted as a great disadvantage of employer-based insurance, could easily be called the exploitation of being in a position to select only healthy people for jobs. Insurance companies obviously and regularly "prefer to work with groups". Circumvention wears many disguises. When an insurer tells you this is "his company's policy", be sure to kick him in the shins. His company is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Executive "Cadillac" plans. are mentioned for completeness, although they could also be grouped with steak dinners and baseball tickets, as mere sales promotion kickbacks for the people who make decisions on behalf of members of a large group. They often had "first dollar coverage", essentially paying for everything even faintly describable as medical care, down to the last penny. It should prompt some concern to learn that health insurance for college professors and politicians is often of this variety. In terms of aggregate medical cost, of course, Cadillac plans are negligible. However, as long as they exist, they light the way for those fortunate who can focus on Henry Kaiser gimmicks rather than the treatment of illness and eventually migrate to the rest of the tax-deductible group.

The general purpose of market stratification is to offer much the same product at different prices. Like other concessions which vice makes to virtue, they constrain admiration for the essential, desirable, feature of insurance in the first place: it spreads the risk and lessens the cost of what is supposedly an unpredictable random health catastrophe. If the insurance industry is really serious about this mission, it would start with one outstanding example of it: catastrophic coverage. Remember, the higher the deductible, the lower the premium. Let's repeat that: the higher the deductible, the lower the premium. Are insurance companies really motivated to have lower premiums? That's like saying Insurance Companies want to lower legal costs in order to preserve the impartiality of the courts.

Almost nobody can withstand a million-dollar illness, but almost anybody can afford a hundred dollars a year. Once you have that minimum feature, you can then start to talk about more expensive, more common coverage -- until we eventually reach first-dollar coverage for non-essentials, at wildly unaffordable premiums. By the way, if you would like to know why I didn't acquire catastrophic coverage back in the days when it was widely available, it was because I already had first-dollar coverage given to me by the University where I worked, I couldn't use extra catastrophic coverage even if it was free. This is no longer pre-1965. Everyone should have catastrophic coverage. Only if he can afford it, should anyone have more than that? Since the logic is beyond dispute, has it occurred to anyone to ask why that isn't the usual case? Read on.

Originally published: Tuesday, April 07, 2015; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 16, 2019