Category Archives: Health Care Costs

At the Bottom: A Work Comp Perspective on the Need for Single Payer

It is rare when someone from the work comp blogosphere crosses into health care and advocates that the US learn from other countries that have universal health care, in whatever form it takes in those countries.

Tom Lynch of Lynch Ryan’s Workers’ Comp Insider blog, did just that with a very detailed analysis of the US health care system compared to that of other Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) countries.

Here is Tom’s article:

What does a nation owe its citizens with respect to health care?

For nearly all members of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), the answer is guaranteed, high-quality, universal care at reasonable, affordable cost. For OECD founding member America, the answer seems to have become an opportunity to access care, which may or may not be of high-quality at indeterminate, wildly fluctuating and geographically varying cost.

It is indisputable that the US devotes more of its GDP to health care than other countries. How much more? For that answer we can turn to many sources, roughly all saying the same thing. The OECD produces annual date, as does the World Health Organization, among others. Another reliable and respected source is The Commonwealth Fund, which conducted a study of eleven high income OECD members including the US. The collection of health care cost data lags, so data from this study is mostly from 2014. Here is the cost picture:

As you can see, in 1980, US spending was not much different from the other ten OECD countries in the study. While high, it was at least in the same universe. But now, at 50% more than Switzerland, our closest competitor in the “how much can we spend” sweepstakes”, we might be forgiven for asking, “What in the name of Hippocrates happened?” As if this weren’t enough, the 2014 GDP percentage of spend, 16.6%, has now risen to nearly 18%, according to the CMS.

So, what do we get for all that money? We ought to have the highest life expectancy, the lowest infant mortality rate and the best health care outcomes in the entire OECD. But we don’t.

For many readers, it is probably galling to see both the UK and Australia at the top of the health care system performance measure and at the bottom of the spending measure. In the early 2000s, each of these countries poured a significant amount of money into improving its performance, and the results speak for themselves.

Consider all of this mere background to the purpose of this blog post.

Last week, we wrote about the terrible, 40-year stagnation of real wage growth in the US, pointing out that in that period real wages in 1982-1984 constant dollars have risen only 4.5%. But, as we have seen, health care spending did not follow that trajectory. This has resulted in tremendous hardship for families as they have tried to keep pace with rising health care costs. For, just as US health care spending has risen dramatically since 1980, so has what families have to pay for it.

To put this in perspective, consider this. Since 1999 the US CPI has risen 54%, but, as the chart above shows, the cost of an employer offered family plan has risen 338%. If a family’s health care plan’s cost growth had been inflation-based, the total cost to employer and employee would be $8,898 in 2018, not $19,616. In 2018, the average family in an employer-based plan pays 30% of the plan’s cost ($6,850), plus a $2,000 deductible, plus co-pays that average $20 whenever health care is accessed, plus varying levels of co-pays for drugs.

On top of all that is the enormous difficulty people have in trying to navigate the dizzying health care system (if you can call it that). American health care is a dense forest of bewildering complexity, a many-headed Hydra that would make Hesiod proud, a labyrinthine geography in which even Theseus with his ball of string would find himself lost.

With wages and health care costs growing ever farther apart, America has a crisis of epic proportion. Yet all we can seem to do is shout at each other about it. When do you think that will end? When will we begin to answer the question that this post began with: What does a nation owe its citizens with respect to health care? When will our nation’s leaders realize we can actually learn from countries like Australia, the UK, Switzerland and all the other high performing, low cost members of the OECD? Continuing on the present course is no longer a viable option.

 

Note: You may be questioning The Commonwealth Fund’s research. To put your mind at ease about that, here are the study sources:

Our data come from a variety of sources. One is comparative survey research. Since 1998, The Commonwealth Fund, in collaboration with international partners, has supported surveys of patients and primary care physicians in advanced countries, collecting information for a standardized set of metrics on health system performance. Other comparative data are drawn from the most recent reports of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Link: http://workerscompinsider.com/2018/11/at-the-bottom-looking-up/

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Health Care Costs Rising for Workers

Axios is reporting that health care costs for workers is rising while overall costs of employer-based health benefits is growing modestly from year to year.

This is slowly eating up all of the average workers wage increases, and then some, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s  2018 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

The survey covers the last ten years, from 2008 to 2018. Most of where the employees are paying for health care comes from deductibles, which has seen a +212% increase over that period, and is out of pocket. These costs, the survey said, is rising faster than inflation and wages.

Premiums for families have risen over this period +55%, while workers’ earnings have risen +26%, and inflation has risen +17%.

According to Kaiser, employees are paying an average of about $1,200 per year in premiums. That’s 65% more than what they paid in 2008, for single coverage plans that cover only the worker, no family members.

Besides the increase in deductibles, the number of employees who have a deductible has gone up, and the number of employees with above-average deductibles is up as well.

Three takeaways:

  • More patients are more attuned to the high costs of care.
  • The underlying cost of health care services is growing relatively slowly right now, compared to historical trends.
  • But there’s a sense, at least among some liberal-leaning health care experts, that employers have just about maxed out their ability to shift more costs onto employees — meaning that once price increases start to pick up steam again, businesses and workers will both feel the pain quickly.

What does this mean?

As workers’ wages are stagnant, and health care costs are rising, shifting the cost of health care onto the backs of workers is not only counterproductive to lowering the cost of health care, it puts an undue burden on those who can least afford to shell out more of their hard earned income on health care, especially when they have a serious medical issue to deal with.

Single payer will relieve the worker from having to pay out of pocket when wages are stagnant, and when wages rise again. This will enable them to have more money to spend on things that otherwise would have been prohibitive before.

To do no less is to saddle the working class with perpetual debt and decreased economic power. Not a good way to run an economy.

Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

A press release from Dr. Carol Paris of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) reported the following article from yesterday’s Health Affairs journal.

Two of the authors of the study, Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein are regular contributors to many articles appearing in Health Affairs, and you may remember them from my review of the book they published along with Howard Waitzkin and others, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health.

Here is the press release in full:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Despite recent claims that immigrants are a drain on the American economy and health system, a study published yesterday in Health Affairs shows that immigrants make a net contribution to private health insurance plans. The research team, which included several PNHP members, found that as a group, immigrants paid $88.7 billion in private insurance premiums but used only $64.0 billion in insurer-paid health care, generating a surplus of $24.7 billion in 2014.

In “Immigrants Pay More in Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive in Benefits,” researchers Leah Zallman, M.D., M.P.H., Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H., Sharon Touw, M.P.H., David Himmelstein, M.D., and Karen Finnegan, Ph.D. found that between 2008 and 2014, immigrants generated a cumulative surplus of $174.4 billion for private insurers, heavily subsidizing the the benefits of U.S.-born enrollees and boosting the profits of insurance companies. On a per-enrollee basis, immigrants provided an average premium-over-payout surplus of $1,123 each, while U.S.-born Americans incurred an average deficit of $163 each. Undocumented immigrants, who generally use little medical care, generated the largest surplus at $1,445 per enrollee.

While recent studies have examined the financial impact of immigrants on public health programs like Medicare, this project was the first to look specifically at immigrants’ role in financing private health insurance. Since undocumented immigrants or those residing legally in the U.S. for fewer than five years are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, private insurance is often immigrants’ only coverage option. Even so, many immigrants are afraid to use the coverage that they earn and pay for.

“Almost every day I see immigrant patients who avoid seeking the care they need to stay healthy,” said lead author Dr. Leah Zallman, who is director of research at the Institute for Community Health, physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Political leaders have created a climate of fear by blaming immigrants for driving up health care costs. However, this study and our prior research shows that by paying more into the system than they receive, immigrants actually subsidize both private insurance and Medicare for U.S.-born citizens.”

Don McCanne added the following on his post this afternoon about immigrants and private health insurance premiums.

From the Discussion

Immigrants contributed far more in premiums for private coverage in 2014 than their insurers paid out for their care, with undocumented immigrants generating the largest per enrollee surplus. This net surplus offset a deficit incurred by US natives and exceeded total insurance industry profits by about $10 billion that year. Our 2014 findings were not anomalous: Immigrants made large net contributions in every year in the period 2008–14, with little change over time.

While immigrants’ premiums were similar to those for US natives, immigrants incurred much lower expenditures—a disparity that was present in analyses limited to working-age adults. Among immigrants, expenditures increased with duration of time in the US, a phenomenon documented previously. This may reflect worsening health habits related to acculturation, increased care-seeking behaviors, and increased educational standing with time in the US. However, because premium contributions also increased with time in the US, immigrants made a net contribution to private health insurance regardless of their length of residence in the US.

Our findings contradict assertions that people born in the US are systematically subsidizing the medical care of immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. On the contrary, immigrants subsidize US natives in the private health insurance market, just as they are propping up the Medicare Trust Funds.

Immigrants’ subsidies to private insurance and Medicare likely reflect their relative youth and good health, as well as the reluctance of many to seek care. Policies that curtail the flow of immigration to the US are likely to result in a declining number of such “actuarially desirable” persons, which could worsen the private insurance risk pool.

Source: Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

Trends in Workers’ Compensation Claims: Some Things to Think About for Medical Travel

It is rare that I post articles from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) on this blog, and it has been some time since I discussed workers’ comp and medical travel in the same post, so I thought that this would be a good time to do so.

NCCI is the premier source for data collection in the workers’ compensation industry. Their focus is more involved with the factors that drive the cost of workers’ comp insurance, rather than specific issues in workers’ comp that one might find from reading the reports of the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI).

As the article will note, there has been a decrease in frequency of claims, but an increase in severity. Claim frequency is defined by NCCI as the number of claims involving lost wage benefits paid, divided by earned premium. For those of you in the health care and medical travel worlds, just know that it means there are more claims reported to insurance carriers.

Claim severity, on the other hand, is defined as losses incurred, divided by the number of claims, for lost wage benefits paid. This will be of importance to the medical travel industry, as they have found a +16% increase in medical severity from 2011 to 2016.

I will let you read the rest of the article here.

Ex-UN chief Ban Ki-moon says US healthcare system is ‘morally wrong’ | US news | The Guardian

Here is an article from The Guardian newspaper that spells out what is wrong with the American health care system.

We should pay attention to what Secretary General Ban said.

—————————————————————————

Exclusive: Former UN secretary general accuses ‘powerful’ health interests in the US of blocking universal healthcare

Source: Ex-UN chief Ban Ki-moon says US healthcare system is ‘morally wrong’ | US news | The Guardian

U.S. Near Bottom, Hong Kong and Singapore at Top of Health Havens – Bloomberg

Want medical care without quickly draining your fortune? Try Singapore or Hong Kong as your healthy havens.

Source: U.S. Near Bottom, Hong Kong and Singapore at Top of Health Havens – Bloomberg

Single Payer A Bargain

Another shout out to Don McCanne for the following.

On Friday, the Nation published an article by Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein, and Adam Gaffney.

You may recall these folks from my book review, “Health Care Under the Knife,” and it’s conclusion, “Some Final Thoughts on ‘Health Care Under the Knife.'”

Rather than regurgitate it for you, I am letting you read it in its entirety. But before I do, let me bring to your attention, an issue that is flying under the radar and has serious consequences for the country, our rights, and for the future of health care and other social programs.

Those lovable brothers from the Midwest, Charles and David Koch, are funding a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. One of the goals of ALEC is to call an Article V (of the Constitution, for those of you not familiar with the document) that allows for the creation of a convention in the event the government gets too much power.

I recommend you read up on it because it will radically alter our system of government for the benefit of the corporations and wealthy. Say goodbye to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and direct election of Senators, to name a few goals.

That brings me to a quote I must let you read from a man who has no clue what he is talking about, and is emblematic of the dysfunction of his party. That man is former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, himself a physician who said the following regarding a convention and why he and others feel it is necessary.

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.”

In case you missed that, let me repeat it:

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.” Violent, ain’t he?

Pray tell, what country in western Europe is Marxist? Last I heard, none. Folks, these guys not only want to take away health care, they are still fighting the Cold War and godless, Marxist Communism.  No, what they are really about is defending a system, both economic and health care-wise, that cannot be sustained.

Here is the article in full:

Last week, Charles Blahous at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University published a study suggesting that Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan would break the bank. But almost immediately, various observers—including Sanders himself—noted that according to Blahous’s own estimates, single payer would actually save Americans more than $2 trillion over a decade. Blahous doubled down on his argument in The Wall Street Journal, and on Tuesday, The Washington Post’s fact-checker accused Democrats of seizing “on one cherry-picked fact” in Blahous’s report to make it seem like a bargain.
The Post is wrong to call this a “cherry-picked fact”—it’s a central finding of the analysis—but it is probably right that single-payer supporters shouldn’t make too much of Blahous’s findings. After all, his analysis is riddled with errors that actually inflate the cost of single payer for taxpayers.
First, Blahous grossly underestimates the main source of savings from single payer: administrative efficiency. Health economist Austin Frakt aptly demonstrated the “bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States” in The New York Times last month, citing evidence that billing costs primary-care doctors $100,000 apiece and consumes 25 percent of emergency-room revenues; that billing and administration accounts for one-quarter of US hospital expenditures, twice the level in single-payer nations; and that nearly one-third of all US health spending is eaten up by bureaucracy.
Overall, as two of us documented recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a single-payer system could cut administration by $500 billion annually, and redirect that money to care. Blahous, in contrast, credits single payer with a measly fraction of that—or $70 billion—in administrative savings.
Our profit-driven multi-payer system is the source for this outlandish administrative sprawl. Doctors and hospitals have to negotiate contracts and fight over bills with hundreds of insurance plans with differing payment rates, rules, and requirements. Simplifying the payment system would free up far more money than Blahous estimates to expand and improve coverage.
Next, Blahous lowballs the potential for savings on prescription drugs. He assumes that a single-payer system couldn’t use its negotiating clout to push down drug prices, ignoring the fact that European nations and the US Veterans Affairs system achieve roughly 50 percent discounts relative to the US private sector. (Single payer’s only drug savings, he argues, will come from shifting 15 percent of brand-name prescriptions to generics.) Hence Blahous foresees only $61 billion in drug savings in 2022, even though tough price negotiations would likely achieve threefold higher savings.
Third, Blahous underestimates how much the government is already spending on health care. For instance, he omits the $724 billion that federal agencies are expected to pay for employees’ health benefits over the 10 years covered by his analysis, which would simply be redirected to Medicare for All. He also leaves out the massive savings to state and local governments, which would save nearly $3.6 trillion on employee benefits and another $5.3 trillion on Medicaid and other health programs. Hence, much of the “new money” needed to fund Sanders’s reform is already being collected as taxes.
Yes, there will need to be some new taxes—albeit much less than Blahous estimates. But those new taxes would just replace—not add to—current spending on premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Additionally, at least some of the new taxes would be virtually invisible. For instance, the $10 trillion that employers would otherwise pay for premiums could instead be collected as payroll taxes. Similarly, Medicare for All would relieve households of the $7.7 trillion they’d pay for premiums and $6.3 trillion in out-of-pocket costs under the current system.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here. But at the end of the day, even according to Blahous’s errant projections, Medicare for All would save the average American about $6,000 over a decade. Single payer, in other words, shifts how we pay for health care, but it doesn’t actually increase overall costs—even while providing first-dollar comprehensive coverage to everyone in the nation. The Post’s fact-checker is wrong: Single-payer supporters can and should trumpet this important fact.
Of course, the most important benefits of single payer are altogether invisible in economic analyses like the one performed by Blahous. No matter what injury or illness we faced, we would be forever freed from one great worry: the cost of our care. It’s hard to put a price tag on that kind of freedom. Yet, paradoxically, even the slanted analysis of a libertarian economist provides evidence that it would be fiscally responsible.