Tag: "consumer driven health care"

Premiums For Employer-Based Family Health Insurance Up One Fifth Since Obamacare

The Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research Educational Trust has released its 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey. The survey covers almost 1,900 private and public (non-federal) employers. The results show Obamacare has not reduced premiums, which have increased by one fifth for family plans since 2011.

The good news is the proportion of beneficiaries with “High-Deductible Health Plans with a Savings Option” (HDHP/SOs) has increased from 20 percent to 29 percent in two years. Only four percent of covered worker were in such plans in 2006, and 17 percent in 2011. (In 2015, a HDHP had to have a minimum deductible of $1,300 for single coverage and $2,600 for family. The “Savings Option” would be a Health Savings Account or Health Reimbursement Arrangement.)

These plans were first available in 2005, and correspond with an immediate slowdown in the rate of growth of employer-based benefits. In real terms (adjusted for changes in the Consumer Price Index), dropped from double digits in the early 2000s to single digits after 2005 and bottoming out at an increase in premium of just two percent in 2009. There was an immediate jump of 11 percent in 2011, Obamacare’s first year. Since then, both High Deductible Health Plans and the burden of Obamacare have continued to grow. This struggle has resulted in mid-single digit premium growth.

See Figure I below the fold:

Consumer Driven Health Care Gets Messy: That’s the Good News

According to a new health benefits survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer coverage rose only about 3% in 2016. The low increase was due to rising deductibles. A slight majority (51%) of workers have a deductible of $1,000 or more. Two-thirds of workers in small firms do, while slightly less than half of large firm workers (45%) are covered by $1,000 or higher deductible.  About 10 years ago, only 4% of workers were enrolled in a high-deductible plan with a savings component. Now, nearly one-third are. [See the figure.]

The “Right to Shop” For Health Care

credit-card-2Anyone who has undergone a medical procedure knows it is very difficult to figure out how much an insured patient will pay out-of-pocket. It is often not clarified for months after the procedure, after a flurry of incomprehensible paperwork from insurers, doctors, labs, et cetera, has landed in the patient’s mailbox.

(Personal aside: A couple of years ago, my health insurer encouraged me to go paperless, and I signed up for electronic messages about claims. It was so confusing, I went back to paper after a few months. At least you can scrunch up a letter and throw it across the room with an anguished scream, which you don’t want to do with your computer.)

This problem has led to a bunch of state laws attempting to impose “price transparency” on medical providers. As discussed previously, they do not work, because relationships between insurers and providers inhibit transparency. Medical providers “customers” are insurers, which pay most of their claims, not patients. Further, the real problem with medical prices is not that they are opaque, but that they are not formed in a normal market process. Instead, they are negotiated by third-party bureaucracies.

A Bipartisan “Yes” On A Health Care Tax Credit

health-insurance(A version of this Health Alert was published by RealClearHealth.)

Ready for some good news on health reform? Both the presumptive Democratic candidate for President and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives agree people should be able to spend more money directly on medical care without insurance companies meddling.

Both sides would be shocked to have their respective health reforms described as sharing any common ground. However, identifying this common ground might be necessary if either side wants to fix the worst aspects of Obamacare.

If Republican politicians in Congress want to give people any relief from the burden of Obamacare, they need to be prepared for the possibility they will have to deal with Hillary Clinton’s White House next year.

Speaker Ryan’s recently released Better Way health reform plan would offer a refundable tax credit for health care, to anyone who does not have employer-based health benefits. This tax credit would increase with age, but be available regardless of income. It would be a fixed-dollar amount for each age bracket. This is superior to Obamacare for at least two reasons.

More Evidence Against Health Insurance

doctor-mom-and-sonDavid Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times, whose columns on health policy tilt heavily towards single-payer advocacy, has done a great service to the cause of consumer-driven health care, describing how much more sense it makes to pay cash prices for health services than pay what your health insurer “negotiates.”

Five blood tests were performed in March at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. The hospital charged the patient’s insurer, Blue Shield of California, $408. The patient was responsible for paying $269.42.

Tests that were billed to Blue Shield at a rate of about $80 each carried a cash price of closer to $15 apiece.

This is one of the dirty little secrets of healthcare,” said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “If your insurance has a high deductible, you should always ask the cash price.”

Not all medical facilities will be open to sharing their cash prices with an insured person, Kominski said, but many will.

Will You Ever Understand Your Medical Bill?

stress(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

It is hard to exaggerate how painful the medical billing process is for patients. Steven Brill, an entrepreneurial lawyer turned journalist, became one of the most famous critics of American health care when Time magazine published a long article by him in 2013. It was a wide ranging criticism of pretty much everything in U.S. health care, which grabs and keeps our attention because it uses the absurd hospital bill as the fulcrum for his case:

The first of the 344 lines printed out across eight pages of his hospital bill — filled with indecipherable numerical codes and acronyms — seemed innocuous. But it set the tone for all that followed. It read, “1 ACETAMINOPHE TABS 325 MG.” The charge was only $1.50, but it was for a generic version of a Tylenol pill. You can buy 100 of them on Amazon for $1.49 even without a hospital’s purchasing power. Dozens of midpriced items were embedded with similarly aggressive markups, like $283.00 for a “CHEST, PA AND LAT 71020.” That’s a simple chest X-ray, for which MD Anderson is routinely paid $20.44 when it treats a patient on Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.

(Steve Brill, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” Time, February 20, 2013)

It is hard not to get carried away on a wave of outrage when reading stories of patients faced with ridiculous bills, which (even if they can understand them) they might never be prepared to pay. A new crop of entrepreneurs is hoping to solve this problem.

Wrong Way for Consumer-Driven Health Care?

Peterson KaiserGary Claxton and colleagues, of the Kaiser Family Foundation, have written a concise analysis of the evolution in health payments from 2004 through 2015:

From 2004 to 2014, the average payments by enrollees towards deductibles rose 256% from $99 to $353, and the average payments towards coinsurance rose 107%, from $117 to $242, while average payments for copays fell by 26%, from $206 to $152.  Overall, patient cost-sharing rose by 77%, from an average of $422 in 2004 to $747 in 2014. During that period, average payments by health plans rose 58%, from $2,748 to $4,354. This reflects a modest decline in the average generosity of insurance – large employer plans covered 86.7% of covered medical expenses on average in 2004, decreasing to 85.3% in 2014. Worker’s wages, meanwhile, rose by 32% from 2004 to 2014.

I would quibble with Claxton, et al’s use of the noun “generosity” to describe the share of health costs paid by insurers. Insurers pass costs through: Claims they pay are covered by premiums, which are charged to either beneficiaries or employers. If the latter, beneficiaries pay through lost wages. Plus, because claims processed and paid by insurers add administrative costs (“load”) to the costs of actual medical care, total health costs are higher. Quibbling aside, the analysis gives great insight into how the way we pay for health care has changed.

Health Reform Through Tax Credits

health-care-costs(A version of this Health Alert was published by RealClearPolicy.)

Lost in the blur of the presidential campaign, the evidence indicates the Republican Obamacare replacement plan will include refundable tax credits. In its purest form, this means each person with employer-sponsored benefits, an individual health plan, or dependent on a welfare program like Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) will start with a clean slate and a fixed sum of taxpayer-funded money to choose health care of his choice. The Republican proposal will not likely go that far, but it will go a long way to introducing fairness in the tax treatment of health benefits, which is currently broken.

Chicken & Egg in Consumer-Driven Health Care

debtAn advocate of consumer-driven health care will often be challenged by this question: “So, when I am hit by a bus, or have a heart attack or stroke, or am suffering from dementia, you want me to go shopping around for medical care?”

Obviously not. Nevertheless, this is a serious challenge and invites the question: How much of our health spending can be meaningfully controlled by discriminating patients? Researchers at the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) recently addressed this. The HCCI has a unique advantage in producing such research, because has access to a database of claims for employer-based plans run by a number of insurers.

The research categorized “shoppable” versus “non-shoppable” services. It found:

  • At most, 43 percent of the $524.2 billion spent on health care by individuals with employer-sponsored insurance in 2011 was spent on shoppable services.
  • About 15 percent of total spending in 2011 was spent by consumers out-of-pocket.
  • $37.7 billion (7 percent of total spending) of the out-of-pocket spending in 2011 was on shoppable services.

So, it looks like only 7 percent of health spending is subject to price-conscious patients spending their dollars wisely. The researchers concluded that “Overall, the potential gains from the consumer price shopping aspect of price transparency efforts are modest.” That would be true if we were talking about just forcing price transparency on the current benefit design. However, that is a distraction.

When You Need Care Now But aren’t Likely to Die, Urgent Care is the Answer

According to a Wall Street Journal article, urgent care centers are becoming Americans medical home away from home – mainly evenings and weekends when their primary care providers are not available.  About two-thirds of patients at urgent care centers have a family physician.

There are an estimated 10,000 urgent care centers in the United States and another 1,400 are expected by 2020. Increasingly, traditional providers are getting in on the act. Hospitals are building, acquiring or partnering with urgent care providers. Walk-in patients are welcome, although many allow patients to make an appointment. Wait times are 30 minutes or less whereas a wait in the emergency room can run eight times that length. The average cost at an urgent care center is about $150, compared to $1,354 for an emergency room visit. Centers are usually open evenings and weekends when doctors’ offices are closed.

When a retail clinic won’t do, this sounds like a much better solution that non-emergent ER visits or waiting a week for a physician visit.  It would be even better if these facilities were integrated so you could choose the level of provider (and price level) you need. As one of the commenters said in the WSJ article, why doesn’t every hospital have one of these next to the emergency room?  I’d go even farther; why doesn’t every hospital have one of these with a retail clinic inside next to the ER?