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Tag: uninsured

Let Them Depend on Charity

Conservative economists writing in today’s Wall Street Journal dismiss the notion that the cost of providing medical care for the uninsured is eventually shifted onto those already insured. Citing an Urban Institute study that appeared in 2008 in Health Affairs, they claim the total cost shift is 1.7 percent at most, or $80 a year for the average plan. They also dismiss as flawed a Families USA study that found there was a significant rise in private insurance premiums to cover the cost of the uninsured.

How did the Democratic-controlled Congress that passed health care reform go wrong by accepting this premise?

Congress ignored the $40 billion to $50 billion that is spent annually by charitable organizations and federal, state and local governments to reimburse doctors and hospitals for the cost of caring for the uninsured. These payments, which amount to approximately three-fourths of the cost of such care, mitigate the extent of cost shifting and reduce the magnitude of the hidden tax on private insurance.

A few paragraphs later, they attack the health care reform law for relying on Medicaid to cover about half the uninsured who will receive coverage under the act:

Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals are so low that the program creates a cost shift of its own. In fact, a long line of academic research shows that low rates of Medicaid reimbursement translate into higher prices for the privately insured.

So patients who pay nothing or almost nothing do not shift costs because the providers — doctors and hospitals, primarily — get mostly reimbursed for that care by charities and the government. Yet discounted payments through Medicaid are made whole by cost shifting to private plans.Continue reading…

What Makes Health Care Different

As best as I can tell, the arguments at the Supreme Court did not touch on a critical part of the discussion about government’s role in health care: the broken market for private insurance. And I think I know why.

A key assumption underlying the arguments, questions and answers was that all uninsured people are uninsured by choice. Sure, some very ill people with preexisting conditions do not qualify. But the implication was clear: Most uninsured people either do not want to pay for insurance or cannot afford it. Justice Samuel Alito said, “You can get health insurance.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the point that people who don’t participate are making it more expensive for others, that their “free choice” affects others. The “free rider” problem is thoroughly examined.

It was as if the court forgot that the private insurance market does not function as a normal market. If you are not employed and you want to purchase insurance in the private market, you cannot unilaterally decide to do so. An insurer has to accept you as a customer. And quite often, they don’t. Insurers prefer group plans, with lots of people enrolled to spread the risk. Can you blame them? The individual consumer is a lot of work, is a higher risk and produces relatively little revenue.

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Price Tags and Haggling in an Exotic Market

A friend of mine recently took an exotic trip. While shopping in a market, she picked up an appealing item and asked the seller what it cost. She was given a price that seemed high, and paused to consider whether the impulse seemed justified. The shopkeeper grew confused in the silence. Finally he asked my friend, “Don’t you want to know if I can do better?”

Clearly this person was outside of her bargaining comfort zone. Many – perhaps most – Americans are accustomed to paying the price as written on a tag. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, or so I was told growing up in suburban shopping malls.

American consumers make the same assumptions as they search for transparency in health care costs. Obviously there are charges for these services – they are clearly written on the bills after the services are delivered. So why is it so hard to find out the cost of a service before it is performed? Here it is essential for the customer to understand that the charge and the price paid may be quite different; in fact, they are expected to be different. The health care consumer is not shopping in a chain store whose clerks forgot to stamp the items with their prices. On the contrary, the confused shopper has stumbled into an exotic market without a clue on how to haggle.

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What Do Women Know About Obamacare That Men Don’t?

Susan DentzerFor the second year running, more women than men have signed up for coverage in health insurance marketplaces during open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, enrollment ran 56 percent female, 44 percent male, during last year’s open enrollment season; preliminary data from this year shows enrollment at 55 percent female, 45 percent male – a 10 percentage point difference.

What gives? An HHS spokeswoman says the department can’t explain most of the differential. Females make up about 51 percent of the U.S. population, but there is no real evidence that, prior to ACA implementation, they were disproportionately more likely to be uninsured than men – and in fact, some evidence indicates that they were less likely to be uninsured than males .

What is clear that many women were highly motivated to obtain coverage under the health reform law – most likely because they want it, and need it.

It’s widely accepted that women tend to be highly concerned about health and health care; they use more of it than men, in part due to reproductive services, and make 80 percent of health care decisions for their families . The early evidence also suggests that women who obtained coverage during open enrollment season last year actively used it.  Continue reading…

To Buy Or Not to Buy

Now that consumers can generally make an efficient health insurance purchase at HealthCare.gov and most of the state-run exchanges, we can finally get to the real question.

Are the healthy uninsured going to buy it?

The big health insurance changes Obamacare made to the individual and small group market were arguably done in order to get everyone, sick and healthy, covered in a more equitable system.

To be clear, no one I know of wants to go back to the prior health insurance market that excluded people from being covered because of pre-existing conditions.

But what if most of the uninsured literally don’t buy Obamacare?

Then people will question whether or not all of this change was worth it: Why did those who were in the old individual and small group market have to accept all of the expensive changes, narrower networks, higher deductibles, and fewer choices if the uninsured largely don’t want it?

Are we moving away from a system where only the healthy could buy health insurance to a system where only the sick want to buy it?

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Why the Supreme Court’s Healthcare Decision Will Mean a lot … and Not so Much

Like waiting outside the Vatican for the puff of white smoke, the nation sits on edge awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The ruling, which is likely to be announced next week, could toss out the entire healthcare reform bill, chop off one of its limbs (probably the so-called individual mandate), or leave the ACA intact. Whatever the ruling, it will be chum for the blogosophere, particularly in the heat of presidential silly season.

The two fundamental challenges to American healthcare today are how to improve value (quality divided by cost) and how to improve access (primarily by insuring the tens of millions of uninsured people). The bill sought to address these twin challenges in ways that were complex and intertwined. I’ll argue that a decision by the Court to throw out all or part of the ACA will have a profoundly negative effect on the access agenda, but surprisingly little impact on the value agenda. To understand why requires that we focus less on the bewildering details (mandates, insurance exchanges, PCORI, CMMI, IPAB, etc.) and more on some big picture truths and tradeoffs.

The job of any healthcare system is to deliver high quality, safe, satisfying care to patients at the lowest possible cost. Although America certainly does specialty and high tech care like nobody’s business, on all of the key dimensions of value we aren’t very good. The numbers tell the sorry tale: we provide evidence-based care about half the time, there are huge variations in how care is delivered, we kill 44,000-98,000 patients per year from medical errors, and we spend 18% of our gross domestic product on medical care, far more than any other country.

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Save the Country with Preventive Care

We are entering the season of presidential politics, of bunting and cries of “What about the children?” and star-spangled appeals to full-throated patriotism.

So here’s mine: Do you count yourself a patriot? Do you care about the future of this country? (And while we are at it, the future of your hospital.) If so, bend your efforts to find ways to care for the least cared for, the most difficult, the chronically complex poor and uninsured.

“But we can’t afford compassion!” Wrong, brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to do without compassion. “But why should we pay to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves?” Because we are (you are) already paying for them — so let’s find the way we can pay the least.

The problem of the overwhelming cost of the “frequent fliers,” people with multiple poorly tracked chronic conditions, has always been that the cost was an SEP — “somebody else’s problem.” Now, increasingly, hospitals and health systems are finding that they are unable to avoid the crushing costs of pretending it’s not their problem, are not being paid for re-admits, and are finding themselves in one way or another at risk for the health of whole populations. They’re also facing more stringent IRS 990 demands that they demonstrate a clear, accountable public benefit.

At the same time, employers and payers are realizing that they end up paying the costs of the uninsured as well as those of the insured who are over-using the system because they are not being tracked. These costs become part of the costs of the system, and the costs are (and must be) shifted to those who do pay. There is no magic money well under the hospital.

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GOP to Uninsured: (Feel Free to) Drop Dead

“We are now contemplating, Heaven save the mark, a bill that would tax the well for the benefit of the ill.”

That’s not a quote from oral arguments at the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act or from one of the earnest conservatives demonstrating against it outside. It’s actually the beginning of an editorial in the Aug. 15, 1949 issue of The New York State Journal of Medicine denouncing the pernicious effects of health insurance. To be clear: not government-mandated health insurance, but all third-party health insurance.

I wrote about that editorial in a July 16, 2009 blog entitled, “GOP to Uninsured: Drop Dead.” My blog was prompted by a Wall Street Journal op-ed the previous day from Dr. Thomas Szasz, an emeritus professor of psychiatry, who counseled readers not to confuse ethics and economics:

The idea that every life is infinitely precious and therefore everyone deserves the same kind of optimal medical care is a fine religious sentiment and moral ideal. As political and economic policy, it is vainglorious delusion….We must stop talking about “health care” as if it were some kind of collective public service, like fire protection, provided equally to everyone who needs it….If we persevere in our quixotic quest for a fetishized medical equality we will sacrifice personal freedom as its price.

This was a month before Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician, told a sobbing, middle-aged woman that “government is not the answer” after she confessed she couldn’t afford care for her brain-injured husband. The crowd of Coburn constituents gathered to discuss health care reform applauded. And it was before Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also a physician, responded evasively when asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer at a September, 2011 GOP presidential debate what should be done about an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma.

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Why Do You Care Whether I’m Insured?

If you care a great deal, I’ll give you an account number you can use to make a deposit.

[Note to Self: Send this Alert to the folks at Commonwealth. Also to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. CC Uwe Reinhardt as well. You never know what they might do. They certainly talk about this topic a lot.]

While you’re thinking about the initial question, here are a few follow-up questions:

Do you care whether I have life insurance?

What about disability insurance?

Homeowner’s insurance?

Auto casualty?

Auto liability?

What about retirement insurance? (A pension or savings plan.)

Do you care whether I keep my money at an FDIC-insured institution?

Or whether I bought an extended warranty on my car?

Or whether I bought travel insurance before taking my scuba diving trip to Palau?  (It pays off if you get sick and can’t go.)

I’m sure there are busybodies who would like to run everyone else’s life. But society as a whole has taken a more rational approach. We basically don’t care whether people insure to protect their own assets (at least we don’t care enough to make them do so). But we do care about events that could create external costs for other people.

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How We Ration Care

There are not very many good things you can say about a deep recession. But from a researcher’s point of view, there is one silver lining. This recession has given us a natural experiment in health economics — and the results are stunning.

But, first things first. Here is the conventional wisdom in health policy:

  • In the United States, we ration health care by price, whereas other developed countries rely on waiting and other non-price rationing mechanisms.
  • The U.S. method is especially unfair to low-income families, who lack the ability to pay for the care they need.
  • Because of this unfairness, there is vast inequality of access to care in the U.S.
  • ObamaCare will be a boon to low-income families — especially the uninsured — because it will lower price barriers to care.

As it turns out, the conventional wisdom is completely wrong. Here is the alternative vision, loyal readers have consistently found at this blog:

  • The major barrier to care for low-income families is the same in the U.S. as it is throughout the developed world: the time price of care and other non-price rationing mechanisms are far more important than the money price of care.
  • The U.S. system is actually more egalitarian than the systems of many other developed countries, with the uninsured in the U.S., for example, getting more preventive care than the insured in Canada.
  • The burdens of non-price rationing rise as income falls, with the lowest-income families facing the longest waiting times and the largest bureaucratic obstacles to care.
  • ObamaCare, by lowering the money price of care for almost everybody while doing nothing to change supply, will intensify non-price rationing and may actually make access to care more difficult for those with the least financial resources.

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