“As a small business owner, I’ve been following the arguments about Obamacare with a mixture of amusement and total horror. Just when you thought Washington couldn’t screw things up any worse, they find new and creative ways to do exactly that.
My question concerns the phenomenon of the “death spiral” the terrifying sounding scenario that observers predict will occur if not enough people buy insurance. According to this theory, if not enough people buy health insurance, insurers will be forced to abandon unprofitable markets. As a business owner myself, this argument resonates. But I still don’t get it. This seems like common sense.
It is certainly true that if nobody buys my goods and services, my business will go into a “death spiral.” I will no longer be able to make a living selling my widgets. I will be forced to invent a new widget. Or go get a new job. This is like my kid saying if he doesn’t to play more Call of Duty IV he will go into an “entertainment death spiral” and be unable to do his homework ever again or be a productive member of society.
Or McDonalds warning that if too many people take up vegetarianism, its business will go into a horrible “hamburger death spiral.” So what evidence do we have? I need documentation. Like, let’s say, a picture. Or a YouTube clip.
Seriously, when has this happened? Otherwise, the death spiral thing sounds like really good economic spin to me …”
We will be blunt. Hidden under the cloak of expanding health insurance, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has fostered a massive subsidization of healthcare goods and services.
These subsidies often have little or anything to do with what economists would consider the “insurance” part of health insurance – providing protection against financial catastrophe.
Perhaps more troubling, if the past is prologue these subsidies will continue to grow, transferring huge amounts of money to politically favored groups and doing very little to decrease aggregate health spending – a presumed goal of health reform.
In order to understand these claims, it is necessary to take a step back and explain why insurance (of any form) is a good thing in the first place. Simply stated, insurance provides individuals with protection against unpredictable financial hardships not of their own making.
Most of us don’t like risk, and therefore we are willing to pay other people to avoid uncertain outcomes. Therefore the benefits of insurance are to protect us from uncertain events.
The key here is the uncertainty. If something is not going to cause financial distress, or the expense is relatively predictable, then, by definition, the service is not insurable. A health plan could cover the service, but that is a subsidy, i.e. other people in the insurance pool or an outside actor such as the government are simply paying for your service. It is not insurance.
Sadly, most of the discussion around what constitutes “real” health insurance under the ACA bears only a passing resemblance to the protection against financial risk that is the hallmark of insurance. For example, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said: “Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don’t pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus … They’re really mortgage protection, not health insurance.”
What does Secretary Sebelius think insurance is? We don’t expect auto insurance to pay for our gasoline.
Risk adjustment is a key mechanism to ensuring appropriate payments for Medicare Advantage plans, Medicare Part D drug plans, and Medicaid health plans. Since health plans vary in their mix of healthy and sick enrollees, risk adjustment modifies premium payments to better reflect the projected costs of members served and compensate plans that enroll high-cost patients.
Historically, risk adjustment was only used in Medicaid and Medicare – in effect, redistributing some revenue from health or drug plans with a relatively healthier mix of members to those plans with a more costly enrollment profile. However, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) extends risk adjustment to the individual and small group health insurance markets starting in 2014.
A new brief from The Synthesis Project tackles the issue and makes several interesting recommendations for how to improve risk adjustment methods for the post-ACA market. Without accurate risk adjustment, health plans have a strong financial incentive to seek out only the healthiest enrollees, especially under ACA-mandated adjusted community rating. Under adjusted community rating, health plans may not vary premiums based on health status or sex and are limited in how much they may vary premiums based on age. Under ACA, the healthy, the young, and men subsidize the health costs of the unhealthy, the older, and women.
Risk adjustment is therefore a necessary factor in stabilizing the dramatically new post-ACA health insurance marketplace, particularly the new Health Insurance Exchanges. Even then, the ACA is a giant game of musical chairs. The market under ACA will be chaotic and challenging, with a mix of winners and losers once the music stops and the dust settles, which will take at least three to five years.
As the health insurance exchanges find their footing and potentially millions of Americans gain access to insurance, this may be a good time to step back and take a longer term view of the ACA. When you get down to it, expanding health insurance coverage was the easiest and least controversial part of health reform. There is no shortage of ways to expand health coverage and almost any credible health reform proposal would have done the job, provided enough money was thrown at the problem.
In designing the ACA, perhaps as a result of political pressure, President Obama opted for a combination of heavily subsidized individual insurance exchanges and generous expansions of Medicaid. Freed from political constraints, he might have instead pushed for the single payer system that many of his most ardent supporters desired. Republicans inclined to expand coverage (at least one of us is proof that unlike the unicorn these do exist) might have pushed for a pure voucher program that harnessed market forces.
All of these options would expand coverage to the degree that policymakers were willing to fund them. So while we congratulate the President for his political success (we doubt the other options could have made it through Congress), it is a simplistic mistake to evaluate the implementation of the ACA by counting the numbers of uninsured or waiting for the monthly updates on the enrollment figures from the exchanges website. Any regulator with a big enough purse can, in the fullness of time, expand access. Frankly, that’s the “easy” part of healthcare reform.
But what about the other elements of the so-called “triple aim” of health reform: cost and quality? You see, while we agree that liberal, moderate, and conservative health reforms can all improve coverage, they each will have very different effects on the other important outcomes. Consider for example the oft-discussed “Medicare for all”; i.e. a single payer system. This would increase access without the messiness of the exchanges. It would also allow the government to flex its monopsonistic muscles and quickly reduce costs – though likely at the expense of quality. In contrast, relying on markets may not reduce costs in the short run, and may not necessarily reward real quality (though it has a better short than single payer in this regard).
Evaluating health reform in the context of the “Triple Aim” is important, but even that approach is not nearly enough. There is a broad consensus among that technological change is the most important long run driver of cost and quality. It follows that the most important element of health reform is its impact on technological change.
To understand how technological change affects all of us, consider the profound impact of the top ten medical advances in the last ten years, as listed by CNN:
1. Sequencing the human genome
2. Stem cell research
3. HIV cocktails
4. Targeted cancer therapies.
5. Laparoscopic surgery
Besides state and higher-level health care expenditures, county level HCE are useful, integral really. For example, to promote the Triple Aim (the best care for the whole population at the lowest cost) you need per capita HCE. And knowing those costs at the county level would help a lot. However, county estimates generally don’t exist. They didn’t in Washington State until a client needed cost estimates for our 39 counties. To supply those estimates I used a regression approach resulting in this model:
Washington State Context
Before discussing model rationale and county HCE estimation, here’s some context about Washington State and its counties. You might view Washington as a microcosm of the nation. It has mountains, forests, deserts, rivers and lakes, vast rural areas, major cities, diverse populations and industries, and a varied climate. It is distinguished by active volcanoes and a coastal border. There is a wide range of political, social and economic clusters. In 2010 King County, where Seattle is located, median annual household income was about $67 thousand (the U.S. median was roughly $50 thousand) yet there are state counties where one in three children live in poverty. The total population is approximately 7 million with half of those people living in just three of the 39 counties.1 At the other end about a third of the counties have populations of 30 thousand or less.
An Aside about Seattle Weather
You may have been told that it rains all the time in Seattle. I live in Seattle and can tell you that’s a myth. Seattle’s average annual rainfall is less than New York City’s. However, during a good part of the non-summer months Seattle, and Puget Sound generally, is grey and cloudy. I once heard a story about the original settlers who landed in November, 1851, at Alki near present-day Seattle. The story is they were there for months before the weather finally cleared and they saw Mt. Rainier for the first time. I don’t know if that story is historically true, but as a Seattleite it’s believable. Regardless, Seattle is a summer paradise. Seattle summers, like most of Puget Sound, are characterized by pleasant sunny days, cool nights and no mosquitoes.
Background for the County HCE Estimates
Last year Empire Health Foundation of Spokane, Washington, asked me to estimate HCE for the 39 counties in the state. The purpose was for an upcoming meeting of policy types such as county commissioners, members of various health organizations, and other stake holders. A theme would be Donald Berwick’s Triple Aim, so cost estimates were wanted for benchmarks and context. The CMS2 Office of the Actuary had recently developed state HCE.3 If I could build a reasonable regression model on state-level data to predict state HCE, and there were similar variables at the county level, I could use the state model to estimate county HCE. That’s the approach I took. A caveat is my understanding was that acceptance—believability and reasonableness of the estimates to a lay audience—were as important as accuracy.
That past month of debate over the botched launch of the health care exchanges has brought the programming geeks, and their hired mouthpieces, out in the open to defend the indefensible. As painful as this has been for so many Americans, we cannot help but be amused to hear so many commentators doing their best impression of Captain Renault and expressing their shock that the federal procurement system could have produced such an outcome. Of course, most of this is a sideshow, the opening act to an even more serious drama in the making.
Let us be clear from the outset, the rollout of Healthcare.gov is an embarrassment. However, this only becomes a real problem if it dissuades enough people who were already marginal customers with respect to their purchase of health insurance on the exchanges to simply pay the penalty and avoid the hassle of staring at a computer screen, waiting on hold for hours, or refusing to try again once the geeks get this all sorted out.
While the self-appointed technology experts on both sides of the aisle have been debating the causes of the web site debacle, attention has been diverted away from the necessarily frank discussions we must have about the real potential benefits and looming costs of the exchanges.
In a valiant attempt to steer the conversation towards the benefits of the ACA, President Obama held a rose garden press event where he repeatedly claimed that the health insurance on the exchanges is good product. But as is all too often the case, the President talked about the benefits and side stepped the difficult conversation about the costs.
At least he is half right. If they can ever fix the web sites, people with pre-existing conditions who shop on the exchanges will gain access to insurance at a more affordable price. Enrollees may save thousands of dollars. But let’s not kid ourselves.
The exchanges do not reduce the cost of medical care; they only change who pays for it. And we all know who that is.
Beholding David H. Howard’s rendering of the crazy-quilt of financial sources that have been tapped by the designers of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (hereafter ACA ’10) to finance the new entitlements they put in place – a little nuisance tax here, a little nuisance cut in other federal spending there – reminds me once more of the sincere, indeed touching, naiveté with which Democrats tend to go about enacting new entitlements.
It is a totally counterproductive and inelegant approach. To be sure, none of the added taxes or spending cuts in the bill seriously disrupt anyone; but they do spread a little pain all around. Therefore, it seems almost deliberately designed to maximize opposition to it from many quarters.
It also leads to acute embarrassments, such as having to postpone by a year (and perhaps more years) the unseemly penalty imposed on employers with 50 or more employees each working 40 your or more etc etc, even at the appearance of having broken the law – or so we are told.
Like many health policy experts, I’ve closely followed and participated in the debate over the Affordable Care Act. I’ve spoken at town hall events, fielded questions from reporters, and discussed the ACA with students, friends, and colleagues.I have been asked a wide range of questions about the ACA, but I am always amazed by the one topic that almost never seems to come up: how the deeply indebted federal government will pay the roughly $200 billion annual cost of expanding coverage.
The inattention to the financing of the ACA by the public, the media, and even Republicans is a testament to the skill of its drafters. The benefits of the ACA are highly visible, the costs are concealed.
Consider the ACA’s treatment of Medicare hospital reimbursements. Reimbursements to hospitals increase from year to year based on the projected increase in hospitals’ labor and capital costs. The ACA reduces the rate of growth in payments by 0.1 percentage points per year plus an additional factor based on projected economy-wide productivity growth. It is possible that the application of these factors will result in a net reduction in payments, but, more likely, payments will not increase by as much as they would have in the absence of the law.
This provision, which will raise $64 billion in 2020, may result in the closure of some hospitals and reduce quality in those that remain open. However, these effects are uncertain and difficult to summarize in a soundbite.
Other financing provisions are only slightly less obtuse. About one quarter of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in private health plans, the so-called Medicare Advantage plans. The ACA will revamp the formula used to set payments to these plans for a savings of $19 billion in 2020. The ACA will reduce subsidies to so-called Disproportionate Share Hospitals (hospitals that serve a large number of low-income patients) for a 2020 savings of $9 billion.
My wisest and longest-time friend in health care, Jane Sarasohn-Kahn has a new project, new research and a new website called HealthcareDIY out today. I encourage all of you to look around her new site and consider the stories she is telling, as they matter to all of us.–Matthew Holt
We’re DIY’ing home renovations, photo development, music playlists, personal financial management, and travel reservations. Increasingly, we’re also DIY’ing health. Think: Maker Faire-Meets-Health.
My thinking about HealthcareDIY was first inspired by my mother Polly, who died 34 years ago this month. She was my first role model for an engaged patient. When she was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma in 1971, there was no internet for her to tap into for a patient network, a clinical trial, or a directory of oncologists or centers of excellence that were Top Doctors for treating the condition.
Polly did, however, absorb the books of Adelle Davis and her Let’s Get Well series on nutrition and health. Polly’s good friend, a librarian with whom she worked, tapped into the Index Medicus on her behalf and retrieved abstracts of articles on blood cancers that he printed out from the microfiche. Polly partnered with her doctor, an internist with a keen interest in hematology, for her care. She also had a huge and diverse social network (offline, of course) that surrounded her with a whole lot of love. Her M.O. was informed by Dr. Bernie Siegel, who started Exceptional Cancer Patients in 1978 and evangelized about patient engagement, living fully with cancer, and dying in peace, which she did, in October 1979.
Among many legacies Polly left me was her can-do attitude when faced with a six-month-prognosis upon diagnosis with Hodgkin’s. Mom worked full-time until the last two years of her life, wore beautifully tailored clothes and put on lipstick every day, and project-managed her health through eight years of treatment: primarily, radiation and blood transfusions. Polly figured out how to take control where she could, and she did it with grace, humor and sheer human will.
She DIY’d her health given the resources she had at-hand between 1971 and 1979: books, cassette tapes, in-person support groups, medical journals in print, a specialist and internist, and lots of love.
In the three decades since Polly’s death, two seismic forces have structurally changed consumers in America: the Great Recession beginning in December 2007, and the near-universal use of the internet in health. Ogilvy’s report, Eyes Wide Open, Wallet Half Shut, found two countervailing forces re-shaping U.S. consumers: re-trenching and re-imagining. On the retrenching side of behavior, people began to do more binging: in media consumption, drinking, and eating.
On the re-imagining front, some people looked to re-invent themselves, reconnect with others, and re-train to re-tool careers. This group of people has sought to be more active and more deliberate, and accept more complexity in daily living. These people are more mindful, more frugal, and open to trading down. 9 in 10 use coupons, shop at discount stores, and buy more store brands and generics.
For this latter group, Ogilvy said, “Self Reliance is the new insurance policy,” with a group ethos believing that, “Americans need to be strong, get their house in order, and protect themselves,” per the report.
One of the chief aims of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the expansion of insurance coverage to individuals who at present either cannot afford it or choose not to purchase it. Unfortunately, many Americans lack the financial literacy needed to navigate the numerous and complex options thrust upon them by the ACA.
The ACA contains a number of mechanisms through which coverage will be expanded, including the individual mandate, the state insurance exchanges, and the expansion of Medicaid.
Yet, while many more Americans will be able to obtain health insurance under the law, the new policies present a complex new choice environment for consumers, one that contains new penalties, new subsidies, and a potentially vast number of plans to choose from. Successfully navigating these choices requires consumers to be financially literate.
As recognized in research on related areas of financial decision-making – such as retirement planning, investing, and debt – consumers often lack the understanding, ability and confidence to make financial choices that are in their best interest.
To shed light on consumers’ ability to navigate the ACA, we recently examined the distribution of financial literacy by household income. Our findings were recently posted on the Health Affairs Blog and in a working paper by RAND’s Bing Center for Health Economics.