Philadelphia Reflections

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

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FOUR PRESCRIPTIONS: Proposals For Reform of Health Care Financing II Last-Year-of Life


When the idea of Last-Year insurance was presented to the AMA in December 1987, someone got to the microphone before I could. The AMA system is to publish meeting agendas in an advanced handbook. The subject had therefore been announced with a few spare sentences leading up to a proposal that the Association should look into the matter.

Whether the proposal was really unclear or whether a comedian just jumped at an opening, the subject was introduced with a mocking story. There was a little town outside Philadelphia, it seems, which used to have an ordinance about its fire hydrants. All hydrants were required to be inspected, one week before each fire. To follow that jibe with a description of insurance technicalities isn't the easiest position to in, but somehow the reference committee subsequently found the generosity to endorse the study.

Last year of life insurance is life insurance, paid after the death of the subscriber. The death benefit is paid to a health insurance company, reimbursement medical expenses incurred during the final year of the subscriber's life. The ultimate effect and the intention is to reduce the premiums of health insurance.

Since there can be no free lunch, it is clear this proposal will not reduce the cost of medicare care. The overall total cost of health insurance, therefore, is not changed by changing the form of premium collection. Indeed another layer of administration is required. What difference can it make whether you pay part of your premium to company A or company B? There are five answers.

Pre-Funding. As emphasized in the first section of this book, there is a great need to change our national system of health insurance from a pay-as-you-go system to a prefunded one. Such a radical shift in philosophy could be quite disruptive, so transitional steps are needed. each age group has a different point of view about pay-as-you-go. Young subscribers since their premiums are higher than their risks. Older subscribers feel thirty years of paying premiums creates a moral obligation for health insurance to carry them through their time of heaviest expenses. Consequently, established dominant health insurers have legitimate anxiety about new companies skimming off their healthy subscribers, leaving them with the sick ones and thus triggering an insupportable upward spiral of premiums and dropouts. The problem is to prevent this disaster for the private sector without precipitating it by changes which frighten away healthy subscribers. The problem is to fix the engine with the motor running.

Therefore, the initial reaction that last year insurance constitutes fragmentation is unfair; the segmentation is intentional, aimed at providing a gradual shift toward pre-funded health insurance in one area where it may be achievable. Ina segmented system, reducing the premium for a reduced unfunded component of health insurance means fewer remains at stake when you try to reduce the unfunded problem still further. Subscribers and insurers have more temptation but less latitude for gaming a system with fatal illness largely removed. When a greater proportion of claims represent randomized unpredictable acute illness or accidental injuries, the troublesome non-random risks are easier to see. The main difficulty is obstetrics, where family planning makes the insurance mechanism highly unstable; further ideas relating to obstetrics need to be developed and would be easier to develop if isolated underwriting of fatal illness proves a success.

Catastrophic Health Coverage. When Secretary of HHS Otis Bowen opened up the subject of catastrophic health insurance, he was probably as jolted as other physicians to watch the way this popular idea was instantly redefined. Once it became clear that catastrophic health coverage was a legislative slam-dunk, attempts were made to include domiciliary care of the aged, chronic illness of all sorts, mental retardation, and many other things which were expensive hence a catastrophe if you had to pay for them. Any hope Medicare could be restructured to pay for expensive illness first, paying for minor illness only if money was left over, went up in the smoke of special interest lobbying and revived hope among liberals of extending Medicare into a national health scheme.

This appalling example of what is out there on the other side of the gates, should at least remind serious students of health financing to use highly technical definitions when they make a proposal. There is, of course, plenty of room to argue that terminal care life insurance should cover expenses two years before death, or conversely that it should only cover two months. You can change the calendar definition of the coverage almost at will, and yet still intelligibly call it last-year insurance. The intent is clearly to cover the characteristically high costs of dying under medical supervision, as contrasted with saving lives with medical miracles, or nursing chronic invalids. if such coverage should pay for sunglasses, facelifts, or porcelain teeth, it would clearly be unintentional. Terminal care of fatal illness.

With the mechanism largely impervious to deliberate redefinition, and largely immune to manipulation for profit, isolation of the ethical issues of terminal care becomes a possibility. The cost of the problem gets held up for regular consideration, as premiums for the coverage get revised. Public attitudes about whether an extreme medical function is desirable would surely be reflected in the choices actually made between different coverage options. At different ages, one might feel a desperation to have every possible chance of survival, yet might later wish to be left to die in peace. Lawyers may argue about the legitimacy of living wills, but few would dispute that someone who spent his last-year insurance on something else, had made an important statement about his wishes. Deathbed discussions are almost invariably couched in slogans. The same relative, on the same day, may say "Let him die in peace," and then "Where there is life, there is hopes." Such expressions are usually made for the effect they have on the listeners and do not greatly illuminate underlying public attitudes about a serious subject. Observation of how much of their money they are collectively willing to spend is often a better guide to what people truly want that is the expression of opinion by their representatives. On one occasion, I happened to watch a large conf=gressional committee listening attentively to testimony on health insurance when unexpectedly the subject of euthanasia was introduced. Within two minutes, a majority of the congressmen had fled the room.

Pre-Existing Conditions. People change jobs with fair frequency, voluntarily and involuntarily. The tendency of young entrants into the job market is to take part-time or small-time employment in order to gain experience, but then if possible to work their way into permanent employment with a major employer. This progression is seen by them as moving into a better job, one "where the benefits are good."

This system has a sort of hidden equity to it since generous pay and generous benefits are definitely linked with the profitability of the firm. Unions have tended to be strong and aggressive in prosperous companies, while conversely companies in the rust belt losing out to foreign imports have found the industrial unions much more tolerant of givebacks. Fortune 500 companies definitely get a better quality of worker, because they pay up. With many exceptions, the tendency is to work for small struggling companies when you are young, and big prosperous ones when you get good at your work. This unofficial system provides health insurance directly to the working population, while the youngsters just entering the job market mostly don't have health problems. If such a young uninsured person does get suddenly sick, the larger companies may still pick up much of the cost involuntarily, courtesy of the cost-shifting mysteries within hospital accounting systems. Much against their will, the large prosperous companies do partially reinsure the system against risks being run within the pool of young people from whom their future employees will be drawn.

Obviously, such a system is unstable. One of its worst features is that those who develop extremely serious illness before they get into the employer health insurance mainstream, are probably permanently excluded from it. There is no way available to them or their parents to guarantee future insurability for health insurance. As long as health insurance remains so firmly linked to employment in a large firm, it is hard to imagine any solution except through modification of the life insurance mechanism. Even so, if large numbers of people are to be encouraged to protect their insurability for health insurance, some way must be found for them to get their investment back, once the huge majority of them eventually do acquire employer-paid health insurance. We will return to this issue in the next chapter.

If the average person lives to be 80, and that's almost true, only forty years of that time are spent in the workforce where employer-based group health insurance is the norm. Since this period of time includes the coverage of dependents children and has potential carry-over to retiree health benefits, it is critical for the individual worker and his family to lock up his health insurance protection. The most frightening aspect of sickness among active workers is the possibility they may not be able to get health insurance when they lose their jobs. To be sick and out of a job is to have a "pre-existing condition." Since the pre-existing condition is the one most likely to cause a problem, it is small consolation to be covered for everything else. To have a wife with leukemia or a child with cerebral palsy is a very strong reason not to switch jobs if there is any question of health insurance coverage. While the person who knows the condition exists may have some bargaining power or individual coverage options before he leaves the job. But to develop a serious health condition during a period of unemployment is a truly ominous situation. Insurance contracts do not include exclusions of coverage of pre-existing conditions as legal boilerplate, they really mean to exclude the risk to themselves. In fairness to them, it must be noted they cannot possibly allow people to get sick and apply for insurance. The situation needs some mechanisms for insuring against loss of health insurability, and last-year-of-life insurance might at least serve to reduce the range of potential uninsurability.

Portability. Our system of linking health insurance to the place of employment has the disastrous obverse that if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance. This particular issue periodically gets more attention when a recession in the economy leads to waves of layoffs. Employers of more than??? are required to maintain health insurance for ??? weeks after a layoff. Employees are entitled to continue their employer's group health plan at their own expense for ??? weeks more. However, such arrangements are complicated and unwelcome; it is not clear they are very popular with families who have suffered the bewilderment of losing their income. Last-year-of-life insurance would be as portable at your own expense, while funded life insurance is both portable and permanent as long as the cash values can carry the premium. Perpetual insurance is still better; the cash values have built to the point where the interest they generate is sufficient to pay the premium further contribution.

True, present income tax laws permit only term life insurance to be considered a business expense for an employer. In 1988 the Congress is undoubtedly in no mood for social legislation which increases the national budget deficit, such as by creating a tax shelter for cash-value life insurance. But laws can be changed when Congress wants to change them, and the experience with the catastrophic health insurance shows the public can sometimes whiplash congressional opinion very rapidly. A severe recession would immediately restore Keynesian ideas about budget deficits to fashion. The best present response to legislative defeatism on this subject is to examine the net effect on the deficit of replacing a portion of health insurance premiums with last-year life insurance premiums, transferring tax-deductibility from one to the other. If the two financial effects wash out, permitting last-year health premiums to be treated as business deductions should worry few practical politicians.

Experience-Rated Unfairness: The AIDS Epidemic.If a company had a policy of paying all medical bills of its employees, the cost to the company would vary with the amount of sickness there happened to be. Since self-insurance of this type represents at least half of all health insurance in America, health insurance companies must offer a comparable cost if they are to have any hope of selling insurance. Rather than establish a single premium rate for the community, the usual practice is to offer "experience rating", sometimes also called "merit rating." In an experience-rated group, the premium is adjusted up or down to reflect the cost of the claims actually submitted. From the point of view of the subscribing employer, the cost is the same as it would be to pay the claims directly, and the administrative profit of the insurance company may well be less than the cost of processing the claims in the employer's personnel department. Adjust this cost somewhat to recognize the interest earned or lost on the premiums and claims, and you pretty much have a formula for the dominant American health insurance system. The cost of fatal illnesses, the last year-of-life costs, are thus buried in a system which emphasizes the yearly costs of employers while making little analysis of the individuals who are included in the coverage.

From time to time, reformers have tried to force health insurance companies to charge a uniform community rate to all subscribers, but are immediately confronted with a rush by low-cost employers to drop out of insurance and adopt a self-insuring approach. As long as health insurance is unfunded and carries no future guarantees, it is not easy to convince lucky people they should pay more than they have to, just to lower the premiums of those who have bad luck. An earlier section of this book dealt with the pernicious effect on intergenerational risk-sharing which is exacted by the tax code in return for treating premium costs as business expenses. Many people see the wisdom of paying a higher premium when they are young and healthy so they will not be stranded when they are middle-aged and sick. A fair number of people are willing to pay more for their health insurance if remain healthy than if they happen to get sick. But almost no one wants to pay more for his health insurance when he is well while relying on the unenforceable voluntary generosity of future generations for support if he gets sick himself. Everyone distrusts the possibility that future generations might go self-insured and leave the present generation hanging out to dry.

Experience-rated health insurance, therefore, is an evil for which there are few obvious remedies. Since employment groups delimit final boundaries, experience-rating is inherent in basing health insurance on the employer. Last-year-of-life insurance contains the potential for the major cost risk of fatal illness to escape voluntarily from that employer-based partition. There is no way to know how much-hidden age, sex, race, or other discrimination there is in job recruitment, and certainly no. way to know how much the potential health costs are weighted in the equation. NOr is there any way to know how much American Business are unsuccessful with foreign competition because of these immeasurable issues is dramatically illustrated by the current epidemic of a contagious venereal virus, HIV...

AIDS is invariably fatal, its complications are expensive to manage, and it is relatively easy to surmise who is likely to catch it. This combination of features creates strong incentives for insurance companies to exclude the condition from coverage, or exclude high-risk groups from the subscriber base. Since the average cost of treating a single case is???, several HMOs have been driven out of business by having a run of cases of AIDS. From an insurance viewpoint, the most treacherous feature of AIDS is that the distribution of cases is not random throughout the population. If even a financially strong insurer is careless or altruistic about accepting high-risk groups, it's premium structure may rapidly become overpriced by comparison with competitors who somehow did not have so many cases. To be perfectly frank, homosexuals are overrepresented in the entertainment, fashion, and advertising industries, as well as the art world in general. It is almost impossible to imagine such industries maintaining an employment-based health insurance system in the future except if they somehow exclude paying for the risk of AIDS. If the epidemic spreads, and particularly if legislatures seek to prevent the exclusion of certain industries, then cities like San Francisco may simply not have any health HMOs or states like New York may not have any health insurance. Whether the exclusion is applied to people with positive blood tests, or to unmarried males, or to the entertainment industry, to cities or to whole states, insurers will find a way to protect their own solvency. If not, the whole country will be without health insurance until a cure is found.

Consider now the advantages of last-year-of-life health insurance for coping with this problem. Since AIDS is invariably fatal, it has the grisly advantage that no one is going to recover from the condition, only to contract a second expensive fatal illness later. Everybody else who doesn't get AIDS is also going to have a last year of life, and for the majority, it will be an expensive year. Medicare finds that ??% of its claims over the last 60 days of someone's life. Because the AIDS victims are young they have fewer years for compound interest to reduce premium costs, but having said that it remains true the population-wide risk of fatality at a young age is very small. Community premiums could double or triple without discouraging potential subscribers who have the cost of terminal cancer in mind. Actuarial costs of last-year insurance for the whole population can be calculated much more accurately than any individual can guess his own risk. Risk-avoidance strategies might somehow evolve, but with so little annual mortality in employer groups, yearly experience-rating could not be their mechanism.

Originally published: Monday, October 22, 2018; most-recently modified: Monday, May 20, 2019