As enrollment in the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) new health care markets, or exchanges as they are also known, begins, much of the debate over the law is focused on insurance: Who will get coverage? How much will premiums cost? Should our state expand Medicaid? Yet health insurance is not an end in itself.
The point of insurance is to help people get the health care they need at prices they can afford and, in the event of serious injury or accident, to protect them from catastrophically high medical bills. What often gets lost in the debate is how the new law will affect Americans’ ability to buy health care.
While relatively little will change for most people who already get their insurance through employers, an estimated 49 million Americans will be affected by the new law, either becoming newly insured or changing their source of coverage. How will these changes affect consumer health care spending? Will the Affordable Care Act live up to its name?
Of course, ultimately only time and experience will tell. But in the meantime, the law is being implemented, and policymakers and consumers confronting the new health care market are seeking answers about the law’s likely impact, beyond politicized charges and countercharges about whether it will succeed.
Using the COMPARE microsimulation model, my RAND colleagues and I examined how the ACA will affect spending by consumers who are insured for the first time or who change coverage as a result of the law. Specifically, we looked at out-of-pocket spending (spending at the point of sale — copays, deductibles, and coinsurance, which is the fraction of spending not covered by insurance); total spending on health care, which includes out-of-pocket spending plus insurance premiums; and consumers’ risk of high medical care costs.
The analysis focused on 2016, the first year in which penalties for not complying with the individual mandate will be fully in effect, and considered two scenarios: one in which the ACA is fully in place and another that estimates outcomes without the ACA.
One hesitates to make too much of a single report, but the Altarum Institute’s July Report, “Health Care Price Growth at 20+ Year Low,” certainly commands one’s attention. According to Altarum’s analysis, the health sector pricing trend ran at a 1.0 percent annual rate in May 2013, lowest since January of 1990. What is striking about Altarum’s health care pricing trendline is that it has declined for the last three years in spite of an alleged economic recovery.
It also runs parallel to a subsiding utilization trend, suggesting that the health sector has been unable to offset reduced utilization with price increases. Since the beginning of the recession, pricing has subsided from double the rate of the GDP deflator to parity, and it has closely tracked the deflator with only two deviations for more than eight years. Clearly, something more than the recession is at work here.
These trendlines confirm what this observer sees from his contacts in multiple sectors of the health industry: a widespread and durable “top line flu”. The growth in enterprise revenue for most health providers and manufacturers has been static (e.g. very low single digits or actually declining) over the last two years. Most investor-owned hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and physician practices (pretty much everyone except the consultants and IT vendors) have reported both revenue stasis and earnings compression.
My economist friends point to rising consumer copayments as inhibiting price increases. The Kaiser Family Foundation has reported almost a quadrupling of the number of covered workers in high deductible health plans (from 5 percent to 19 percent) since the end of the recession. It is also possible that a disinflationary mindset has inhibited providers and suppliers from seeking outsized price increases to compensate for lost sales volume. For suppliers, the marked decline of “physician preference” marketing has also hurt both sales and margins.
Hospital pricing. Performance of hospital prices will provide more fodder for those concerned about hospital consolidation pushing prices up. On the one hand, overall hospital prices rose an annualized 1.8 percent for May 2013, fractionally higher than the consumer price index (CPI) at 1.4 percent. However, when one strips out the “administered price” portion (Medicaid and Medicare), hospital prices to privately insured patients rose 4.8 percent annualized in May, nearly five times rate of health prices as a whole. Altarum suggests that cost shifting might explain this significant disparity. However, even this increase to private patients was not enough to raise overall health costs significantly.
Government payment to hospitals has trended lower for multiple reasons. Many state Medicaid plans have cut hospital rates in the past several years to help balance state budgets. And in addition to the ACA’s mandated reductions in hospitals’ disproportionate share payments and DRG updates, the sequester took a significant further bite out of DRG payments during the winter.
Since most hospital contracts with private insurers are multi-year, it’s difficult to argue that compensating upward revisions in private health insurance contract rates would yet be reflected in national economic statistics. Moreover, not all hospitals are part of systems capable of exerting pricing power on private health plans. Have-not hospitals have had their prices constrained by payer contracts, compensating for the effect of leverage by market hegemons. We’ll have more evidence in a year to confirm or disconfirm the cost shifting/pricing power hypothesis.
There’s another indicator of a tougher hospital pricing environment. According to the Advisory Board’s Dan Diamond, hospital employment has actually contracted in one-quarter of the monthly jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics since January 2009, including a 6000 person force reduction in May, 2013. On balance, hospital executives would much rather raise rates than lay off staff, so the fact that the nearly unbroken decades-long expansion of hospital headcounts is faltering suggests a very difficult pricing environment for hospital services.
A recent report by the New York Times contained an excellent graphic showing the current percentage of uninsured people in each state. The range is from a high of 24.6% in Texas to a low of 4.4% in Massachusetts.I have combined this rate with the most recently reported CDC rate of obesity in each state to create what I call The Pain Index. It is a simple sum of the two numbers.
The theory behind the total is that obesity is a rough guide for the level of unhealthiness in the population. My hypothesis is that, when insurance is made available to people, they will use it, roughly in proportion to the degree they are unhealthy.
Yes, I know this is a crude metric, but I think it will be a relatively good predictor of the rate of increase in health care costs in each state over the coming years. This will show up in the insurance premium rates offered in the health care exchanges and will also affect the need for state appropriations to pay for newly eligible Medicaid subscribers.
States with a Pain Index in the top decile are: Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Others with scores over 45 are Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, Georgia, Alaska, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, and West Virginia.
My advice to policy-makers: Get ready! My advice to health care CEOs: This would be a really good time to focus on quality, safety, and front-line driven process improvement as the most effective way to reduce your costs and improve efficiency.
Conservatives call it the “malpractice crisis.” Public Citizen, a liberal non-profit consumer organization based in Washington D.C., calls it “The Great Medical Malpractice Hoax.”
No doubt you have read that ambulance-chasing lawyers have escalated their assault on health care providers, and that as a result, malpractice insurance premiums have been levitating, along with malpractice suits, further hiking the cost of medical care.
Various solutions have been floated, including “caps” on compensation for pain and suffering; “health courts” where expert judges replace juries; immunity for doctors who follow “best practice guidelines;” and “full disclosure” policies which urge doctors and hospitals to move quickly to disclose errors, apologize, and offer compensation.
In the end, the best solutions would make malpractice reform part of heath care reform. Our malpractice system should be redesigned to reduce medical mistakes, fully compensate patients who are injured by human error, reward doctors and hospitals that disclose errors, and penalize those that try to “cover up.” When it comes to the cost of malpractice, reform should slash the exorbitant administrative costs built into an adversarial process that moves at a snail’s pace, while subjecting both plaintiffs and defendants to what a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute rightly describes as “inhumane.”
Enactment of ObamaCare will open the floodgates for new federal mandates that insurers cover expensive wellness and alternative care services and send health insurance premiums soaring. While the New England Journal of Medicine says 50% of physicians will leave medicine because of ObamaCare, it’s more likely that the number of practicing physicians will shrink by 10% to 15% over the next five years. This will force Congress to boost payments to physicians to keep them in Medicine and to get them to accept more Medicaid and Medicare benefiaries. So taxes and Medicare premiums will rise even faster. ObamaCare encourages more people and employers to drop health insurance and game the system. Therefore, we’ll see as many uninsured Americans citizens who aren’t covered by various government programs as we see now. But they may be the higher-income folks who are smart enough to game the system.
Meanwhile, the hospitals who think that they will be the biggest winners because there will be fewer uninsured and few patients whose bills won’t be covered by the government will wind up the big losers. State and federal legislators will tax the not-for-profits and cut margins for the investor-owned hospitals to the bone. Long-run, they’ll lose physicians and money. Same for drug companies. Now that politicians control health insurance companies and markets more than ever, they’ll use the insurers and various forms of price and utilization controls to make the pharmas unprofitable.
Democrats who lose their seats in November will become rich lobbyists until Republicans take power and put them out of business.
People Who Are Smart About Money Won’t Buy Health Insurance Until They Get Sick
ObamaCare will give working Americans who are smart about money strong financial incentives to become and stay uninsured until they need catastrophically expensive health care. If they recover and no longer need insurance, they’ll drop it until the next time. The number of people who can afford to buy health insurance today but don’t is about 15 million. In five years, it could be several multiples of that.
Don Johnson blogs at The Business Word Inc. Between 1976 and 1986 he was editor of Modern Healthcare magazine. As its top editor, Don helped build Modern Healthcare, a Crain Communications Inc. publication, into the hospital industry’s leading business magazine and one of the top magazines in the country.