POLICY: User fees, employer-based insurance and why it won’t go away

Suddenly it feels very like 1991 again. Imagine that the 49ers and Joe Montana has suddenly become human and the newspapers are full of stories about how the high cost of health care is the cause of all the world’s troubles.  The NYT is back with an article asking Do Some Pay Too Little for Health Care?  So managed care has run its route, gotten clobbered by Lawrence Taylor with a vicious hit in the open field, and coughed up the ball just like Roger Craig in the 1991 NFC championship. The west coast offense led by Kaiser, Pacificare and the rest has run up against the Bucs and Redskins defensive combination of medical power and government intervention, and its tactics have broken down in dis-array.

OK, enough with the hackneyed football analogy.  We all now accept that "managed care", which never really made it out of California and was killed by a combination of Wall Street greed and popular discontent, is not the secret to cost control. The old chestnut that has returned, as this week’s flavor of the month, is the issue of what used to be called "first dollar coverage".  The argument is essentially that if you charge people to use the relatively cheap services provided by physicians, it’ll prevent them from using those services and save the system money.

I had a similar conversation with another blogger, Medpundit*, last week (and have liberally repeated myself here!). Medpundit’s solution (scroll down a ways), is to make people pay for preventative (and I assume routine) care, and carry catastrophic insurance. Although I have some sympathy with this approach in three-tier drug coverage, and in helping to avoid what economists call moral hazard (i.e. unnecessary use of services because they are free) Canadian economists Bob Evans and Morris Barer have proved to my satisfaction that point of service user fees only really discourage the very poor from seeking care, and are as such discriminatory. But the real point is that although the testing of the healthy that Medpundit sees too much of may be increasing costs, the real money is spent on the care of those who are very sick. The NY Times article and even the normally sage Uwe Rheinhardt, who’s quoted in the article, miss this.  But in health care 80% of the money is spent on 20% of the people.  Even if you got the other 80% to cut half their use of medical care by charging them for it, you’d only save 10% of the costs.  It’s in the 80% of the costs you need to look if you want to save money.

Meanwhile, as Harris reported last week, apparently to the surprise of the NY Times, employees want to keep their health benefits rather than take cash in exchange.  Just when I didn’t believe that I could say any more about the tax advantages for employees of getting their benefits in health insurance rather than in cash, and the disadvantages of buying insurance in the individual "market", the self same NY Times provides this horrendous story of the complete fraud going on in that individual "market".  As if it was needed this provides one more reason for employees to stay huddled in their protective groups. Hence, trying to make employees pay more out of pocket is the only real option for employers, even if it does little to change the overall dismal cost picture.

*Incidentally, this week Medpundit has turned her attention  to the problems of Medicare, and added some comments from a rather misguided reader slamming "Hillarycare", which–not that it ever existed– was NOT a central single payer model like Medicare.

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