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Tag: Insurance

I Finally Understand US Health Policy

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.

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Not Really Insurance: The Pre-Existing Condition Debate

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.

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You Owe Me a BMW

flying cadeuciiDuring 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.

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After Months of Thought Senate Republicans Propose Obamacare Lite

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.

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Enabling the Health Care Locavore

Three juicy lemons came through my inbox this week. The NY Times published an expose of why hip replacement surgery costs 5-10 times as much in the US as in Belgium even though it’s the same implant. JAMA published research and a superb editorial on the Views of US Physicians About Controlling Health Care Costs and CMS put out a request for public comment on whether physicians’ Medicare pay should be made public. Bear with me while I try to make lemonade, locally, from these three sour economic perspectives.

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.

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A Health Plan for Rugged Individualists

In his “The Great American Health Care Divide,” Brad DeLong laments the great ideological divide that has so long prevented this great country from developing a coherent national health policy.

I am glad to have Brad’s company, because I have whined about the same divide for several decades now, as evidenced by my “Turning Our Gaze from Bread and Circus Games,” penned in 1995 and “Is there hope for the uninsured?

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.

As Jay Gaskill’s somewhat opaque reaction in “RUGGED INDIVIDUALLISM is NOT the Essential Value of Freedom” suggests, people who oppose the ACA as trampling on their freedom are not comfortable with my prescription, which does not at all surprise me.

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Health Insurance is Wasted on the Young

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!

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White House Delays Employer Mandate-But What About Small Employers?

The administration suddenly announced last night that the requirement that all employers with 50 or more workers offer health insurance has been delayed until 2015.

If an employer with 50 or more workers did not provide health insurance to their full time workers in 2014, they would have been subject to a fine of $2,000 per worker. The employer would have also been subject to a $3,000 fine for each worker that went to the insurance exchanges if the employer package was not affordable.

Why did the administration delay the large employer mandate?

Because many employers have been in the early stages of planning to cut back the hours of workers in order to avoid having to offer insurance to those customarily considered part time, those who work at least the 30 hours per week the law established for defining a full time worker––and they haven’t been bashful in telling their employees why. In addition, there has been growing evidence that some employers were holding back on hiring in order to avoid more of the mandate costs at a time of high unemployment.

While the administration cited employer administration issues with mandate reporting as the reason for the delay, the bottom line is that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was looking like it was about to be successfully labeled a job killer and the administration wanted to avoid that.

You also have to wonder if all of the reporting challenges were just with employers or was the administration also having trouble with the complex employer mandate information systems they will ultimately have to build?

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Bending the Cost Curve with Reference Pricing


Mitt Romney’s/Paul Ryan’s premium support/voucher plan was heavily derided during the dark days of Campaign 2012, but the devil was always more in the details than the theory. While the re-election of President Obama left premium support dead on the Medicare level, health insurers are increasingly turning to the ideas that drove it – choice, competition, and the power of a (carefully regulated) market – to address high costs on the procedural level. Call it the micro-voucherization of health insurance.

This is known by wonks as reference pricing, and its recent results in California are promising: the costs of hip and knee replacements fell by 19%, with no attendant decrease in quality. Using reference pricing is an assault on the status quo that holds the promise of “bending the curve” in a meaningful way, but it faces technical and political concerns that may consign it to the graveyard of promising-but-unfulfilled ideas.

Broadly-speaking, reference pricing is the act of offering a set amount of money for the purchase of a good, where the reference is an amount that can reasonably said to offer meaningful coverage for that good. Sometimes, reference pricing is focused on a given procedure – what I’ll refer to as “inputs-oriented reference pricing”; other times, a given outcome, or “outputs-based reference pricing.”

That’s pretty vague, so let’s use the colonoscopy procedure (which has recently received a lot of attention thanks to an informative New York Times article) to help color this in. The inputs-oriented approach would see the payer asking: given the choice to have a colonoscopy – a procedure which varies wildly in cost without varying wildly in quality – what’s a reasonable price to pay? It would decide this based on some combination of price, quality, and geography, and would inform consumers of its spending cap.

Say it finds that most of its insured population can reasonably access a high-quality colonoscopy for $10,000; if a consumer choose provider that charges $15,000, he or she would pay the $5,000 difference out of pocket. Choice is preserved, but at a cost. The simple chart above shows how this may work.

But, if you read the colonoscopy article, you may be asking a separate question: why pay for a colonoscopy at all?

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The Health Insurance Shell Game

The insurance industry had a rocky start a century ago. It was clear that there were untoward events that could befall any of us with catastrophic results, from the incineration of a home to the loss of the ability to maintain gainful employment from injury or death.

Insurance offers a mechanism to share this risk. The stumbling block was the possibility that the insured might burn down their home to collect. Once it was realized that “moral hazard” could be held at bay by investigating for fraud, there was little to hinder the growth of an industry designed to serve our risk adverse proclivities. Almost every adult has some experience valuing the expense of sharing risk for a variety of hazards. After all, automobile insurance is generally compulsory and most of us are familiar with notions of deductibles and riders when it comes to homeowners’ policies. The possibilities are not an abstraction; we can envision the house or its contents damaged, destroyed, or stolen leaving us bereft. What would reducing that prospect be worth to us? As is true for many value-based decisions, the answer brings a mix of reason and intuition (1)that can produce surprising outcomes (2).

Health insurance is even more complex, and has always been so. The industrial revolution saw the development of “Friendly Societies” in Britain and the Prussian “Krankenkassen”. These were trade-based institutions that allowed advantaged workers to purchase insurance to provide “sick pay” but there was little else. The sea change was the Prussian “welfare monarchy” (3), an extensive insurance scheme that encompassed universal health care and a complex approach to disability insurance (4). Modifications of the Prussian scheme spread across the industrial world. It made landfall in the United States in time for the presidential election of 1912. Only one component took root in America: Workers’ Compensation Insurance but not as a national insurance scheme. It fell to the each state to regulate an insurance scheme to compensate injured workers for lost income and medical expenses.

This set the stage for state-based regulation of employer-sponsored private health insurance schemes going forward. But forward momentum appears anything but swift or linear in a country that trusted physicians to charge “commensurate with the services rendered and the patient’s ability to pay” (AMA Code of Medical Ethics, 1957.) Health Insurance as both an industry and a product has become a frustrating web of inefficiency and confusion.

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