Vol. 169 April 15, 2017 “Free-market Health Care Doesn’t Work”

April 17, 2017

“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
-Donald Trump 2/27/17

Stephen Colbert responded with: “There was at least one person who knew that it was complicated, that tall, thin, greying guy who used to be in your office, Donald.”

Of course, there are lots of people who know how complicated it is. One of them is my old boss, Jim Lyons, founder and past-CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare, Inc. He is retired now and hasn’t lost his knack of making sense of the morass. He did just that in a recent Op Ed piece in the Cape Cod Times, and I’m shamelessly plagiarizing parts of it (in bold) for today’s blog.

“The fallacy [of the health care debate] is that necessary healthcare services is a free-market choice, as with buying a car, a house, or a kitchen table. If you have a stroke, break your hip or have an automobile accident [you don’t make] the same free-market choice for service”.

You could argue that if you want an elective procedure like a new knee, a new hip, or cancer treatment there is the opportunity for more choice, and that is true. Just take a look at the burgeoning advertising budgets of competing medical centers. The say they are competing on “quality”, and they are competing for your dollar, or more nearly correct the insurance company’s and the federal Medicare dollar. So far, in no U.S. health care market region has this “competition” led to lower costs. We recently wrote about the growing “lower-cost” market of medical tourism.

The two biggest reasons that health care costs keep rising are 1) we are all living longer and 2) better medical technology (both electronic and “better living through chemistry”).

 “New technology in health care almost always results in increased costs. In industry, new technology often lowers the cost of production. This is not the case for health care innovations.”

In fact, The Hastings Center estimates that 50% of our increasing health care costs is due to new technology. MRI exams have replaced  CT scans and other x-ray procedures in many instances, even in mammography; coronary surgery is being replaced in some instances by “simpler” medical devices inserted through a blood vessel; newer drugs with marginally better effects for heart disease and cancer are selling at much higher prices; PET scans are becoming the standard of care in certain cancer treatment protocols, etc.

Many years ago I remember the responses of a delegation of physicians and administrators from Great Britain who were touring American medical centers looking at our health care facilities. They were impressed, of course, with the MRIs and cardiac surgery units in Boston, but they “were just like what we had in London.” But, then they saw the same facilities in Worcester, Springfield, even Winchester and Burlington, and impossibly, Cape Cod, and they were impressed.

Efforts to control health care costs continue to be futile. “Republicare” was a political disaster and only attained a 17% approval rate in public polls. “Medicare For All” which calls for an incremental extension of Medicare coverage to those below 65 years of age has been in the House of Representatives (HR 676) since 2015. In Massachusetts there are now no less than four separate bills in the legislature calling for a single-payer Medicare For All in Massachusetts.

“One reason that it’s probably not politically possible to make a change to a single-payer system at this time is the more than 1,000 great buildings for servicing health insurance companies all over the country, full of many workers, many executives, and billions of forms.”

“Whether health care is a privilege or a right, we have made such great progress in the past 50 years that I don’t want to see any new health care plan that slows or reverses our progress. Please remember, health care is not a free-market choice like many of our other important decisions.”

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Vol. 163 January 16, 2017 From Zero to $7,500: One Consequence of Obamacare Repeal.

January 16, 2017

Hub thumbnail 2015

“As a doctor, I will take it and make it my mission
to heal the nation, reverse the course of Obamacare,
and repeal every last bit of it. ”
-Rand Paul

What exactly could happen if Obamacare was taken away? My daughter’s recent landing of a second part-time job offered an opportunity for me to understand the possible result in one case.

As a singer-songwriter, energy healer, and part-time retail clerk my daughter shares a common situation with many on Cape Cod; an annual income of less than $16,000, which is the current federal definition of poverty.  She is therefore eligible for Medicaid in Massachusetts. She pays no premium, has no deductible, and except for some named prescription medicines she has no co-pays. Preventative, pre-natal, and behavioral health services are covered. Her out-of-pocket cost per year is essentially zero. Some Obamacare repealers want to roll back the extension of Medicaid eligibility financed by federal subsidies. In many states that would strip this kind of  coverage from many of those newly covered under the ACA, but that is not a possibility in Massachusetts.

In my daughter’s case her new, second part-time job may push her annual income over $16,000. If so, she will no longer be eligible for Medicaid. As a part-time worker she is not be eligible for an employer-sponsored (and partially paid for) health plan. Her employer’s HR department told her she could buy a basic policy with a $2700 annual deductible for $226 a month through the school. “Co-pays varied and are difficult to predict.”  For her that is a new potential cost of $5400 out-of-pocket per year.

She got married last year and her spouse is in the same “low-income” bracket, so she inquired about a family policy (“for 2”). The answer: $400 a month at the same $2700 deductible amount for a $7,500 potential out-of-pocket cost. A $7,500 out-of-pocket cost “exposure” per year is a big nut for a family earning less than $22,000 a year.

Her other choice (besides going uninsured and paying a fine of $300-$2,085 in 2017 depending on income level) is buying an individual policy through an ACA Health Insurance Exchange. Under Obamacare any individual that is making less than 138% of the federal poverty level (about $22,000) can shop for a policy via a state or federal health insurance marketplace (also called health insurance exchange).  The exchanges can offer federally-financed subsidies of up to 60% of premium for eligible “working poor”. After lengthy website surfing, face-to-face help from the Health Connecter facilitator at a local hospital, and several phone calls with prolonged holding periods, she discovered that she could buy about the same basic policy of $2700 deductible for $226 a month through the health insurance exchange. BUT, despite providing all sorts of financial info they could not tell her…”yet” … what the premium would be and whether she was eligible for a premium subsidy. She was told that “things were in flux”, and that she could get a “call back in a week or two about that”. The enrollment deadline for signing up is January 31.

Just “for the fun of it” and to satisfy my curiosity I masqueraded online as my daughter to experience the health insurance application process via the Mass Health Connector. Over three different days I persisted on the internet and on the telephone to try to get the answer to : ”What would it cost to buy a basic individual health insurance policy?”  After reviewing and clicking on 5 to 7 different logos with unfamiliar company names, after entering the same information on multiple screens, after holding for more than 20 minutes on three separate phone calls, after being passed on to three different “responders” on one phone call, and after twice being hung up on after saying that “I was currently on Medicaid, but was looking for insurance to start February 1 when I would become ineligible”, I GAVE UP THE QUEST WITHOUT AN ANSWER.

Different sites had different definitions of “basic” and most had three or more different levels of benefits (coverage). Descriptions of benefits were quite lengthy and often complex.  For instance, the Bronze (basic) Level of “Access Blue Saver II“ (from Blue Cross; the easiest comparison charts to read) offered a 9 page policy offering no preventative or prenatal care with a $3,350 deductible and $60 co-pay for office visit and $1000 co-pay for an ER visit. Silver, Gold, and Platinum “Access” policies had different benefits. I could not get any information about actual premiums without further phone calls to “licensed brokers.”

Why is this so convoluted and confusing in contrast to the simpler processes of Medicaid and Medicare? One answer is that individual insurance policies are a gamble. For instance, a life insurance policy is really a bet between you and the insurance company. If you lose (die), you win (receive all the premiums back). If you win (out live the term), you lose and the company wins (keeps all the premiums). Another answer is that 400,000 people more than 2015  are flocking to sign up through health insurance exchanges.(1)

Obamacare has not changed the basic premise of individual health insurance policies, and the insurance companies are trying to make their  “best bets”. The betting odds are not as clear as the 1:6 of Russian Roulette, though we know that lack of health insurance can be lethal. The betting odds are more like those of Black Jack. The dealer (health insurance company) is using multiple decks, other players (consumers) at the table can affect your odds, the best odds are not always intuitively obvious, and the dealer (health insurance company) can change the betting rules every year.

Medicaid and Medicare are insurance programs based on large populations and therefore need less of the gambling “tricks of the trade” of writing individual polices. Hence my support for a health insurance program based on a large population, sometimes called a single-payor system. If not “Medicare For All”, then how about state-based programs of “Medicaid For All.” (2)

References:
1. Boston Globe, pg.2, December 22, 2016, from the NY Times.
2. NEJM, 375;26, December 29, 2016, “Maintaining Insurance Access Under Trump – A Strategy”


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