Category: Health Care Costs

Producer Prices: Health Goods & Services Lag

Last Friday’s Producer Price Index showed a jump from April to May of 0.5 percent (seasonally adjusted). When I last looked at the PPI, it looked like prices of health goods and services were outpacing other producer prices.

The latest data show them lagging (see Table 1). Although, looking at year-on-year data, pharmaceutical products, hospitals, and nursing homes have had relatively high price increases. Price inflation for health insurance has been moderate, according to the PPI.

Still No Transparency in Medical Pricing

Entrepreneur David Williams has good insight into the limits of Health Savings Accounts as tools of consumer empowerment, discussing:

…… a consumer who did his darndest to find a good deal on a CT scan, finally settling on the $475.53 price at Coolidge Corner Imaging.

But the bill he got later was for $1,273.02 — more than twice as much — from a hospital he had no idea was connected to the imaging center.

“I was shocked,” said White, a doctor of physical therapy who thought he knew his way around the medical system. “If I get tripped up, the average consumer doesn’t have the slightest chance of effectively managing their health expenses.”

The patient wasted tons of time and effort trying to get the problem cleared up. He cared since he had a high deductible plan.

In my view, high deductible plans are a pretty crude instrument to encourage cost consciousness and price transparency. (David Williams, MedCityNews, June 2, 2015)

I agree. NCPA has long championed HSAs. However, stories like the one discussed here are too common. HSAs need to become more than a way to shift costs from premium to out of pocket. Health insurers need to get out of the business of fixing prices.

If we had not been distracted by Obamacare, we might be there by now. Hopefully, we’ll be back on track before too long. I have proposed a “common law” solution to the problem of price transparency. Read more about it here.

Milliman: Health Costs Rising Again

The latest annual edition of the Milliman Medical Index (which estimates “the cost of healthcare for a typical American family of four covered by an average employer-sponsored preferred provider organization”) suggests that last year’s moderate rate of growth was idiosyncratically low.

Last year’s 5.4% growth rate was the lowest in the history of the Index. This year, the growth rate has climbed to 6.3 percent – exactly the same as 2013.

Milliman also concludes that the “Cadillac tax” is fast approaching, especially for workers at smaller firms.

Local Governments Must Disclose Retiree Health Liabilities Properly

U.S. state and local governments will have to report billions of dollars in health-care liabilities on their balance sheets under an accounting change aimed at improving disclosure of retiree benefits.

As a result of rules approved Tuesday by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, municipalities and states will have to record the cost of health insurance and other benefits besides pensions in financial statements, the board said in a statement. Such costs are currently disclosed only in footnotes. (Darrell Preston, BloombergBusiness, June 2, 2015)

This great news is the result of years of grinding out the issue. State and local authorities have had to carry pension liabilities on their balance sheets for years now. Allowing them to keep retiree health liabilities offside biased negotiations in favor of health benefits because they could be more easily disguised from municipal bond investors and taxpayers.

This is surely a major cause of inflated health benefits for current government workers as well (which we’ve discussed here and here.) The new rule will dampen these benefits, which should help keep health costs down.

(Read the entire rule here.)

Are Insurers Prevailing Over Drug Makers?

Variety of Medicine in Pill BottlesLess than a year ago, it looked like health insurers were sending up trial balloons to see if they could get the federal government to regulate the research-based pharmaceutical industry as a utility. This was a reaction to high prices for new drugs like Sovaldi®. Today, the issue is being dialed back:

Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefits manager in the U.S. initially refused to put Sovaldi® on its formulary. Now, it looks like both sides might have come to a businesslike accommodation:

That taught Amgen and other drugmakers a lesson. Avoiding hostility with insurers and PBMs is now a paramount industry goal. “Every company is saying, ‘We don’t want to replicate what happened with Sovaldi. So let’s sit down and talk,’ ” says Steve Miller, chief medical officer of Express Scripts. “It’s very clear that it has changed the dynamic in the marketplace.” (Arlene Weintraub, “Big Pharma and Insurers Play Nice,” BloombergBusiness, May 28, 2015)

Insurers’ newfound power is extending beyond drugs for Hepatitis C and cancer:

Health Spending Unscathed In Shrinking Economy

This morning’s terrible revision to first quarter GDP – from an initial estimate of 0.2 percent real growth to a real loss of 0.7 percent – confirms that health spending stands over our weak economy like a colossus.

In the initial estimate, personal consumption spending on health services increased by $23 billion (chained 2009 dollars). Today’s second estimate reports $24.2 billion (Table 3, line 17). So, we can be pretty confident that the folks at the Bureau of Economic Analysis who do this good work have mastered how to measure spending on health services.

This emphasizes how much of our prosperity is being devoured by a health system that is still driving everyone crazy, post-Obamacare. The real drop in GDP was a loss of $30.6 billion.

Breast Cancer Screening Update

Women joggingYou may recall controversy circa 2009 and 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, about whether women in their 40s would get “free” mammograms every year. In 2009, the US Preventive Services Task Force issued guidelines recommending annual mammograms starting at 50 years, not 40 (as previously recommended).

Needless to say, this upset many people. The American Cancer Society maintained its recommendation that preventive screening start at 40, as did the Mayo Clinic. Politicians took note, and made an exception in Obamacare for mammograms, such that the 2009 USPSTF revision was ignored when it came to Obamacare’s “free” preventive care.

The USPSTF looks ready to re-issue its guideline, which means “free” mammograms for women in their 40s will not be mandated by Obamacare. Avalere Health has published a study estimating that this could “eliminate guaranteed coverage” for 17 million women.

Commonwealth Fund: “Underinsurance” Unchanged Under Obamacare

Yet another pro-Obamacare organization has had to publish a study indicating that Obamacare is failing to achieve its objectives. I recently discussed Families USA’s report that one third of low income families cannot afford care under Obamacare.

This time it is the Commonwealth Fund, inventor of the notion of “underinsurance,” which is defined as out-of-pocket health costs (excluding premiums) comprising at least 10 percent of household income, or five percent if household income is less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

In 2014, the proportion of so-called “underinsured”, aged 18-64, was 23 percent – exactly the same as in 2012 and just one percentage point more than in 2010.

Ex2

High U.S. Health Prices From “Market Power”?

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) recently published a consensus report on provider consolidation. Basically, we have a growing problem in that hospitals are buying each other up and also physician practices, which leads to reduced competition and higher prices.

The report was promoted with an op-ed in The Hill by the esteemed Robert A. Berenson (Urban Institute) and G. William Hoagland (Bipartisan Policy Center):

The use of market power—or the ability to raise and keep prices higher than would prevail in a competitive market – is the key reason the United States spends so much more on healthcare than other countries.
For policymakers, tackling the lack of competition is like climbing a mountain. Even the initial steps — creating more competition – may be difficult, but they must be explored before more regulatory action further down the path is considered.

These are remarkable statements; and difficult to accept uncritically.

Did a Health Insurer Pay Ten Times the Cash Price for Surgery?

A story from Arizona is a cloud with a silver lining:

Teresa Anderson was pleasantly surprised how quick and hassle-free her eyelid-lift surgery was at Havasu Regional Medical Center’s outpatient-surgery facility in April 2014.

Weeks later, the bills arrived at her Lake Havasu City home. Her surgeon, anesthesiologist and X-ray provider submitted bills and were paid nearly $2,250.

Only one remained: Havasu Regional’s bill. When it finally arrived last May, what she saw shocked her. An explanation of benefits from her insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, showed she and Blue Cross had been billed $38,526 by Havasu Regional for prep work, surgery and recovery lasting less than three hours.

Anderson, who worked for a health-insurance company before her retirement, believes hospital charges like hers explain why the economics of health care are askew. And she isn’t alone. Consumer advocates say such experiences point to the need for more transparency in the pricing of medical procedures.

Before the surgery, Anderson had asked her surgeon’s staff to estimate all costs associated with the surgery. She was considering paying on her own if her insurer denied coverage. The surgeon’s staff quoted a price of $3,500 for the surgery, anesthesia and facility fee if she paid on her own without insurance.