Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Right Angle Club: 2015
The tenth year of this annal, the ninety-third for the club. Because its author spent much of the past year on health economics, a summary of this topic takes up a third of this volume. The 1980 book now sells on Amazon for three times its original price, so be warned.

What I Have Learned (1)

This book has been an education for its author. Ordinarily, an author starts with a general principle and offers a specific example of how it works. But I repeatedly found this field changed so quickly, changes in the numbers made the example seem awkward, if not invalid. Or one component changed, and balancing numbers were unobtainable. But I believe the underlying principles remain valid. It's better to earn interest on idle money than not to earn it, for example. But when the circumstances shift, the amount of interest to be earned -- and consequently the proportion of healthcare costs it will cover -- also shifts, allowing opponents to bring the underlying principle into doubt. When this process repeatedly leads to rewriting a whole book before it can be published, it essentially stifles debate. So I finally decided it was better to open the debate than worry about ridicule from hired political consultants over "framing the question" , or protecting my offended feelings. At my age, what would I care about that, for heaven's sake?

So let's follow the trail of the book, and put together what I think I have learned, in the order in which it appears.

Pay for important things, first. Health insurance began a century ago, with good motives, but the wrong approach. It's upside down, in the sense it started with the problems of poor people and extended the approach to non-poor ones. Consequently, it offered "first dollar coverage" but threatened savings running out for truly expensive items, life-threatening ones. The most suitable way to get around this seems to be to have a high-deductible policy, which lets the patient decide what is truly most important. But two things then come in conflict: the higher the deductible, the lower the premium. That's good, but what's bad is the higher the deductible, the fewer people can afford its out-of-pocket component. So the Health Savings Account addressed this dilemma by linking high-deductible ("catastrophic") insurance to a tax-deductible savings account. In effect, the poor person could build up the deductible on-time payments. It isn't perfect, but it was enough better so 15 million people adopted it, and their premiums became 30% lower. And so, more people could afford it.

Earn interest on savings. Then the patients taught me a lesson. In spite of abnormally low interest rates, people seemed to perceive that major illnesses come late in life, and longevity had lengthened considerably this century. And they liked the ability to judge their own health, letting the healthy ones pick stock investments if they chose to because low-interest rates shift many investors from bonds to stocks, which then rise. Sickly people could choose bonds or tax-exempt savings accounts. Quite unique to American retirement funds, this one gives a second tax deduction when you spend it (if you spend it on health).

If there is money left over, you get to keep it. Conventional health insurance spends any left-over money to reduce premiums, they claim. This one gives any money you save back to you, as an incentive to be frugal. I suspect some people thought a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, which means they didn't exactly trust insurance companies to lower premiums fully, but might raise the salaries of insurance employees with some of the savings.

In time it develops a different significance: if you are lucky and healthy, you spend the left-overs at age 66, for retirement income. The news about the approaching insolvency of Social Security encourages that choice. At least, it begins to look as though Social Security benefits might not be raised, so you may need the money more at a later time; compound interest makes Health Savings Accounts worth more, later. Frugality early, leads to more income later.

If anybody gets a tax deduction, everybody wants the same. For eighty years, employees of corporations got health insurance with a tax exemption, but half of the population didn't. That amounts yearly to a couple of thousand dollars for a family, twice that much for the corporation itself (at its higher tax rates), and the possibility that even more of it escapes to foreign tax havens. By simply allowing the Health Savings Account to buy the catastrophic insurance which is required, this egregious inequity would disappear. If that gets blocked in Congress, then simply reduce the corporate tax rate, which corporations don't pay anyway because of the tax deductions. You might appear to be rewarding corporations, but you really are only shifting their deduction.

Save your deductions for later. It was a surprise to find 40% of subscribers to Health Savings Accounts paid for small health expenses out of pocket rather than take the tax deduction. It suddenly made sense that if the account would grow, and in any event, you would get it back at age 66. You should pay out of pocket when it is small, saving the deduction until later when it has grown.

Split the payment system. Cash for outpatients, insurance for helpless inpatients. When you take away someone's clothes, and he is too sick in the hospital to argue, competitive prices are meaningless to him. Prices should be set by outpatients, who are free to trade elsewhere. A surprising number of inpatient services are identical to outpatient services, which should set the price for both. Some are unique, so a relative-value scale should be constructed to include them in the relationship.

Both the DRG system and co-payments are abominations. Payment by diagnosis is akin to service benefits, wrapped in a rationing system. Pay a fair fee for a necessary service, don't pay for unnecessary ones. As for copayment, it simplifies collective bargaining, but creates two insurances for one service, and has been repeatedly shown to have no deterrence value.

Reverse the Maricopa Decision, preferably with legislation. Mrs. Clinton's plan of ten years ago was for a system of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO). She can thank her lucky stars it didn't pass because the public rejected them. HMOs were in fact invented by groups of doctors and worked quite well. The essence of why they didn't work lies in the Maricopa decision that doctors were forbidden to run them. The Maricopa decision (4/3 on the Supreme Court) was based on a motion for summary judgment and never had a trial of the facts. Let's see if Congress can improve on that.

Substitute Catastrophic health insurance for any and all versions of limited benefits, including the Affordable Care Act. Catastrophic insurance is now privately run, and it is difficult to obtain data on costs and expenses. No doubt the plans vary considerably. But the system of indemnity insurance is superior to that of service benefits, and high deductible is superior to mandatory benefits. Catastrophic plans seem vulnerable to kickbacks, and should be examined to minimize that; perhaps I am wrong. Nevertheless, catastrophic was seemingly the cheapest of what's available and is certainly more flexible. If we must have mandatory health insurance -- and I'm not saying we must -- mandatory Catastrophic coverage sounds better than any alternative. But if we go that way, we need better studies of it.>/p>

Originally published: Thursday, November 19, 2015; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019