I spend most of my time thinking about health care, but a recent The New York Times article – How the American Unemployment System Failed – by Eduardo Porter, caught my attention. I mean, when the U.S. healthcare system looks fair by comparison, you know things are bad.
Long story short: unemployment doesn’t help as many people as it should, for as much as it should, or for as long as it should.
It does kind of remind you of healthcare, doesn’t it?
The pandemic, and the associated recession, has unemployment in the news more than since the “Great Recession” of 2008 and perhaps since the Great Depression. Last spring the unemployment rate skyrocketed well past Great Recession levels, before slowly starting to subside. Still, last week almost a million people filed for unemployment benefits, reminding us that unemployment is still an issue.
Keep in mind that unemployment rates do not tell the full story, as they don’t count those only “marginally attached” to the workforce – people who would like to work but have given up – and counts part-time workers who would like to work full time as “employed.” The “true” unemployment rate is reckoned to be much worse than the official rate.
Congress has enacted several COVID relief measures, including in late December, to extend duration, amount, and applicability of unemployment benefits, but our unemployment systems remain predominantly state designed and administered. The shortcomings of these systems have been severely exposed over the past few months: neither the processes nor the actual technologies supporting them proved robust enough for the volume of applicants. Last December Pew Trusts reported that “unemployment payments were weeks late in nearly every state.”
At kitchen tables everywhere, ordinary Americans have been grappling with the arcane language of deductibles and co-pays as they’ve struggled to select a health insurance plan during “open enrollment” season.
Unfortunately, critical information that could literally spell the difference between life and death is conspicuously absent from the glossy brochures and eye-catching websites.
Which plan will arrange a consultation with top-tier oncologists if I’m diagnosed with a complex cancer? Which might alert my doctor that I urgently need heart bypass surgery? And which plan will tell me important information such as doctor-specific breast cancer screening rates?
According to Matt Eyles, president and chief executive officer of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), insurers over the last decade have made a “dramatic shift” to focus more on consumers. That shift, however, has yet to include giving members the kind of detailed information available to corporate human resources managers and benefits consultants (one of my past jobs).
What’s at stake could be seen at a recent AHIP-sponsored meeting in Chicago on consumerism. Rajeev Ronaki, chief digital officer for Anthem, Inc., explained how the giant insurer is using artificial intelligence to predict a long list of medical conditions, including the need for heart bypass surgery. Information on individual patients is passed on to clinicians.
Ali Diab, CEO & Co-Founder of Collective Health, wants to talk about healthcare affordability and the fact that consumerism doesn’t really exist when it comes to healthcare because we don’t really have a functioning market. The “Real” buyers — from the federal government to large employers — have no idea what things cost in traditional health plans and are making healthcare purchases for their constituents without full price transparency. So, what has he and Collective Health learned now that they’re 6 years into trying to offer these buyers an alternative to that traditional health plan experience? Nothing is more complex than health insurance innovation, but Collective Health is making significant headway and, according to Ali, has made it past the “homicide phase” of being a digital health startup.
Filmed at HLTH 2019 in Las Vegas, October 2019.
Jessica DaMassa is the host of the WTF Health show & stars in Health in 2 Point 00 with Matthew Holt.
Get a glimpse of the future of healthcare by meeting the people who are going to change it. Find more WTF Health interviews here or check out www.wtf.health.
The following exchange occurred during an interview of President Trump with journalists of the NYT:
HABERMAN: That’s been the thing for four years. When you win an entitlement, you can’t take it back.
TRUMP: But what it does, Maggie, it means it gets tougher and tougher. As they get something, it gets tougher. Because politically, you can’t give it away. So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.
The recent debate over the potential repeal and replacement of the ACA, with the current focus on coverage for preexisting conditions, has drawn a great deal of attention to the concept of health insurance. While our political leaders are constantly talking about it, few of them seem to understand the “insurance” component of health insurance. As a result, much of what they say about preexisting condition coverage is gibberish. We are here to set the record straight.
At its most basic level, insurance provides protection against the risk of unexpected financial losses. We focus on the term risk because if we were risk neutral (i.e., we were indifferent between sure things and actuarially equivalent gambles), then we would not value this protection. But nearly all of us are risk averse, meaning that we would rather not face having to dramatically reduce consumption of everything we enjoy in the event we are hit with an astronomical medical bill. Because we are risk averse, health insurance improves our collective well-being by helping us collectively smooth our consumption. Everyone who purchases insurance consumes somewhat less of everything else when healthy, but does not have to consume dramatically less when sick.
During a move necessitated 20+ years ago by my change from a “private practice of medicine” life to a “back to school” life, I decided to undertake the move on my own using a rented van. I also had to affix a small trailer packed with furniture to the van. As I lifted the not so heavy trailer to the hitch, one of my children ran toward the trailer. I stopped my child’s progress with a holler and an out-stretched hand. As I did that, a disc in my back popped and dropped me to the ground. I have had back pain every day since. I have managed my back pain on my own. But, I now think it is time to start using my medical insurance to pay for the care of my back pain. So, fellow insured, you owe me a BMW.
Yes, a BMW. I know that my back pain is a subjective complaint and you can’t prove or disprove that I have it. I also know that there is no measure of my back pain; I can grade it on a scale from 0-10, as some do, but that is such a difficult task that I can’t internally come up with a number. I am sure, though, that the number changes daily. Even if I could assign a number to my pain, there is no guarantee that you would assign the same number should you suffer the exact pain as me, or that you could assign a number to my complaint better than I could. The pain is there, though. I feel it and alter my activities to not exacerbate.
Recently, a friend gave me a ride in his BMW. The seats fit my back to a t and as I sat there, my pain abated. I asked him to turn on the heated seats. Even more remarkable pain relief followed. In fact, after the ride in his car, I had no back pain for over 3 weeks, the first 3-week, pain-free stretch of time in over 20 years. So, since insurance plans often pay for some types of interventions such as heaters, buzzers, or needles, as examples, to help people with their back pain, so, then, shouldn’t insurance pay for a BMW for me? I think so.
No-one can say any longer that Senate Republicans are entirely deaf to calls to describe how they would replace the much maligned Affordable Care Act.
This week, three senior GOP senators (Orrin Hatch, Tom Coburn, and Richard Burr) announced their proposed Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility, and Empowerment (or Patient CARE) Act. Given that each of this group is a heavyweight mainstream Republican and that Senator Coburn is one of the few physicians in the Congress, the draft Act deserves a serious look.
Although the first part of the draft would repeal the ACA, other parts would continue a number of the ACA’s reforms while introducing some changes in attempts to control costs and reduce the numbers of uninsured, creating a kind of Obamacare Lite.
The draft proposes to continue the ACA’s ban on lifetime insurance caps, its coverage of dependents up to the age of 26, and the ACA’s savings in Medicare costs. It also continues, although in a weaker form, the ACA’s subsidies for low-income individuals and the ban on medical underwriting, and allows states to continue to operate insurance exchanges (although without any federal funding).
On the other hand, the three parts of the ACA that have taken the most heat from Republicans – the individual mandate, the Medicare IPAB, and the expansion of Medicaid eligibility – would all be eliminated.
Here’s a super-concentrated summary of the three articles: The hip surgery is more expensive because, in the US, as many as 10 intermediaries mark-up the price of that same hip prosthesis. Then, Tilburt et al said in JAMA that “physicians report that almost everyone but physicians bears responsibility for controlling health care costs.” The physicians reported that lawyers (60%), insurance companies (59%), drug and device manufacturers (56%), even hospitals (56%) and patients (52%) bear a major responsibility to control health care costs. Finally, CMS is trying to balance the privacy interests of physicians with the market failure that my other two lemons illustrate.
Can we apply local movement principles to health reform? How much of our money can we keep with our neighbors? What policies and technologies would enable the health care locavore? The locavore health system couldn’t possibly be more expensive than what we have now and, as with food and crafts, more of the money we spend would benefit our neighbors and improve our community.
Finally, after a nice visit with my friends at the Cato Institute and reading the often amazing commentary on John Goodman’s NCPA blog , I was moved to pen a post on The New York Times blog Economix entitled “Social Solidarity vs. Rugged Individualism.” It was inspired by the often hysterical description of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a government takeover of U.S. health care or a trampling on the freedom of Americans, as in mandating individuals to have minimally adequate health insurance, lest they become freeloaders on the system.
The basic idea of my proposal is simple.
In 2009, Paul Starr had warned Democrats of a potential voter backlash against the individual mandate and proposed instead a nudging arrangement. Uninsured Americans would be auto-enrolled into health plan, if they chose not to select one, but could opt out of it with the proviso that for the next five years they could then not buy insurance through the insurance exchanges established by the ACA at community-rated premiums, and potentially with federal subsidies.
My proposal is to make that a lifetime exclusion. An individual would have to choose one or the other system by age 25. Should individuals opting out fall seriously ill and not have the means to pay for their care, we would not let them die, of course, but to the extent possible we would cover their full bill – possibly at charges — by expropriating any assets they might have and garnishing any income above the federal poverty level they subsequently might earn. Something like that.
There has never been a time in my life when I’ve owed a lot of money. That certainly has changed these past two years as my husband and myself find ourselves with medical debt that we may never pay off . As you can guess, we have no health insurance – we can’t afford it and even if we did have an extra $650 a month we couldn’t obtain it due to our pre-existing conditions.
Briefly, I had emergency surgery to remove a cyst on my ovary in 2010, a diagnosis of an auto-immune disease in 2011 and two bladder cancer surgeries in 2012. My husband has had high blood pressure for over 25 years due to a heart defect discovered in his 30’s.
My husband and I live very simple lives and have little debt. For the past 18 years we’ve been self-employed, owning a retail music store, and for many of those years I worked for other companies. Some offered medical coverage, some did not. And for some of those years I was able to offer medical coverage for our few employees which also covered my husband and myself. The group coverage was minimal and started out being affordable but with increases it was impossible to afford for long. I tried catastrophic coverage but that was almost as expensive as regular coverage but with a higher deductible. Of course, neither my husband nor I needed the coverage when we had it! They say youth is wasted on the young. I say health insurance is wasted on the young!