Tag Archives: Medicare

Seven Years Good Luck

Despite LinkedIn’s algorithm to the contrary, today is the seventh anniversary of this blog. It was seven years ago that I began to write about Medical Travel and Workers’ Comp.

And although it has morphed into a blog about health care issues, and more recently, about Medicare for All, it is an accomplishment that it has lasted this long.

As I am sure happens to many a blogger or writer, one runs out of things to say, so they fall back on re-posting what others have written to keep themselves in the game. Such has been my experience of late.

This is no accident. Having been diagnosed with ESRD, and attending to the protocols involved with receiving treatment and dealing with it on a daily basis, I have had to slow down the pace of writing, concentrated on other issues, or just took a break from it by not working on it period.

However, with the Democratic primary campaign heading towards its next phase, I thought it would be a good idea to review the positions of each of the major candidates now debating regarding health care for Americans.

This review is a follow-up to previous posts on this blog about the Democratic debates and Medicare for All, namely Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates and The Debate Continues.

Since then, I have concentrated on posts that single out aspects of some of the candidates positions on providing health care to more people, but each and every article posted has shown that those positions will not lead to the outcome that will provide universal health care to all Americans.

So, here are the plans for health care of each of the candidates currently still debating:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/758172208/health-care-see-where-the-2020-democratic-candidates-stand

Since August, five of the last eight posts I wrote addressed some aspect of why those advocating a public option or keeping private insurance are wrong, and why we have not had universal health care.

The New York Times, as part of a series of articles published in their Sunday magazine about the year 1619, included an article as to why universal health care has been rejected in the US.

The article, Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with Race, traces the opposition to universal health care to after the Civil War, when the South was devastated, and the Freedmen’s Bureau addressed the smallpox virus that was spreading across the South. It was argued then by white legislators that it would breed dependence.

But, other articles posted since August, have criticized calls for a public option, such as the article, Public Option A Bad Policy, which was re-posted from The Nation earlier this month.

A second article, Private Insurance Failure to Lead to Medicare for All, re-printed from The New York Times two weeks ago, was written by a former CEO of a health insurance company, and currently professor of health care finance at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

His observations about where private insurance is leading us should be read by those who are supporting candidates who advocate keeping private insurance.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) president Adam Gaffney, in Boston Review, put it simply: “It’s the financing, stupid.

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, writing in The Guardian four days ago, stated that Medicare for All would cut taxes for most Americans, and that not only would universal healthcare reduce taxes for most people, it would also lead to the biggest take-home pay raise in a generation for most workers.

This is something that Elizabeth Warren has not been able to address in the debates, instead talking about how it will lower costs for people. She has not been wrong in doing so, because if the average family pays $5,000 in taxes and has medical costs twice that, moving to a single payer system will save them money, even if their taxes were to increase by a small percentage. Their medical bills would fall far below the $10,000 level. However, Warren will be releasing a plan to pay for it.

Saez and Zucman, in a chapter in their book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, called private insurance a poll tax.

According to Saez and Zucman,

“…private insurance premiums are akin to a huge private tax. Although most workers get insurance through their employers – and thus employers nominally foot the bill – the premiums are a labor cost as much as payroll taxes are. Just like payroll taxes, premiums are ultimately borne by employees. The only difference is they are even more regressive than payroll taxes, because the premiums are unrelated to earnings. They are equal to a fixed amount per employee (and only depend on age and family coverage), just like a poll tax. The secretary literally pays the same dollar amount as an executive.”

Listening to the candidates other than Sanders and Warren, they would rather keep the status quo so that stakeholders can profit from the dysfunction in the system than address the problem of health care head-on.

It is as if we said we wanted to go to the Moon, but opted to go part of the way, saying we will get there someday, but not now, as it is too expensive, people like looking at the Moon without knowing there are men up there and spacecraft parts, and that we shouldn’t mess with it until we clean up down here.

It is better to advocate going all the way, then not at all. If you fail, then you know you must do it again until you get what you want. Thus, was the case with passing the ACA. It did not happen overnight.

This video, from a president who knew how to speak in complete and intelligible sentences, illustrated what it took to get Medicare and Medicaid passed.

Just like President Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon in the 1960s, so too did he call for universal health care as far back as 1962 when he made this speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

We cannot afford to do anything less, because the stakes are that important. Medicare for All must be the one and only goal. Anything else is a half-measure destined to fail.

Private Insurance Failure to Lead to Medicare for All

Here is an article from The New York Times from a former insurance executive and professor of Health Care Finance, thanks to Don McCanne. Comment from Don to follow.

The New York Times

October 15, 2019

This Is the Most Realistic Path to Medicare for All

By J.B. Silvers

Much to the dismay of single-payer advocates, our current health insurance system is likely to end with a whimper, not a bang. The average person simply prefers what we know versus the bureaucracy we fear.

But for entirely practical reasons, we might yet end up with a form of Medicare for All. Private health insurance is failing in slow motion, and all signs are that it will continue. It was for similar reasons that we got Medicare in 1965. Private insurance, under the crushing weight of chronic conditions and technologic breakthroughs (especially genetics), will increasingly be a losing proposition.

As a former health insurance company C.E.O., I know how insurance is supposed to work: It has to be reasonably priced, spread risks across a pool of policyholders and pay claims when needed. When companies can’t do those fundamental tasks and make a decent profit is when we will get single payer.

It’s already a tough business to be in. Right now the payment system for health care is just a mess. For every dollar of premium, administrative costs absorb up to 20 percent. That’s just too high, and it’s not the only reason for dissatisfaction.

Patients hate paying for cost-sharing in the form of deductibles and copays. Furthermore, narrow networks with a limited number of doctors and hospitals are good for insurers, because it gives them bargaining power, but patients are often left frustrated and hit with surprise bills.

As bad as these problems are, most people are afraid of losing coverage through their employers in favor of a government-run plan. Thus inertia wins — for now.

But there’s a reason Medicare for All is even a possibility: Most people like Medicare. It works reasonably well. And what could drive changes to our current arrangement is a disruption — like the collapse of private insurance.

There are two things insurers hate to do — take risks and pay claims. Before Affordable Care Act regulations, insurance companies cherry-picked for lower-risk customers and charged excessive rates for some enrollees.

Those were actually the first indications of market failure. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, insurers have actually had to take these risks as they were supposed to all along and provide rebates of excessive profits.

With insurers under such pressure, we’re now facing another sort of market dysfunction. Insurance companies are doing what they can to avoid paying claims. A recent report says that Obamacare plans average an 18 percent denial rate for in-network claims submitted by providers. Some reject more than a third. This suggests that even in a regulated marketplace like the Obamacare exchanges, insurers somehow manage to dispute nearly one out of every five claims.

These are systemic failures that can and should be fixed by regulation of the exchanges, better information on plan performance and robust competition. Unfortunately, consumers often still can’t make informed choices, and the options they have are limited.

But even if we fix these problems, there are two bigger factors looming that threaten the integrity of the entire system. Insurance at its root assumes that the payout required cannot be determined for each individual but can be estimated for the whole group. We can’t predict who will be affected by trauma or a broken bone, but in the aggregate, it is possible to estimate what will happen to the insured group as a whole. Some will suffer losses while the majority will be fine, and all will pay a fair average premium to cover the expenses that result.

Yet with the increases in chronic conditions and the promise of genetic information, these insurance requirements are not met. Someone with diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis will have the same condition and similar costs in each future year. And the woman with a positive BRCA gene is much more likely to develop breast cancer. In these cases, known costs simply must be paid. Instead of spreading these across all enrolled populations, they must be financed across time for the increasing numbers with such conditions. Loading private insurance companies with these expenses results in uncompetitive rates and market failure.

There is only one solution: pooling and financing some or all of these at the broadest levels. In a nutshell, that is how we get a single-payer government system.

It is how we got Medicare. The cost of care to the elderly was known at the individual level for virtually everyone, so private insurance just wouldn’t work. So we had to finance this largely predictable cost through the government and its enormous pool of taxpayers.

It has been a tremendous, albeit expensive success. For the most part, people on Medicare like it a lot. This is the reason such a disruptive change is even a political possibility.

We will face the same need sometime in the future for the rest of us. Then a form of Medicare for All will look better than the alternative — a failing private insurance system.

J. B. Silvers is a professor of health care finance at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/opinion/medicare-for-all-insurance.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

About J.B. Silvers, PhD:

https://weatherhead.case.edu/faculty/j-b-silvers

Comment by Don McCanne

J.B. Silvers is both a former insurance executive and currently a professor of health care finance. What is his lesson for us? The indications of market failure of the private insurance model are already there, and private insurance “will increasingly be a losing proposition.”
“There is only one solution: pooling and financing some or all of these (health care costs) at the broadest levels. In a nutshell, that is how we get a single-payer government system.”
The sound bite? Private insurance has already failed us and establishing a single health care financing pool is the only solution that will work for all of us – Single Payer Medicare for All.

 

Public Option A Bad Policy

I’m back!

In case you missed me, I have been busy with personal matters and preparing for a trip out of town. Now that I am back, I have decided to pick up where I left off, and re-post an article from The Nation by Himmelstein and Woolhander on why private insurance or the public option is a bad policy choice. This article comes courtesy of Don McCanne, so thanks go to him.

Here is the entire article:

The Nation
October 7, 2019
The ‘Public Option’ on Health Care Is a Poison Pill
Some Democratic candidates are pushing it as a free-choice version of Medicare for All. That’s good rhetoric but bad policy.
By David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler
Health care reform has been the most hotly contested issue in the Democratic presidential debates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been pushing a single-payer Medicare for All plan, under which a public insurer would cover everyone. They would ban private insurance, except for items not covered by the public plan, such as cosmetic surgery or private rooms in hospitals. The other Democratic contenders favor a “public option” reform that would introduce a Medicare-like public insurer but would allow private insurers to operate as well. They tout this approach as a less traumatic route to universal coverage that would preserve a free choice of insurers for people happy with their plans. And some public option backers go further, claiming that the system would painlessly transition to single payer as the public plan outperforms the private insurers.
That’s comforting rhetoric. But the case for a public option rests on faulty economic logic and naive assumptions about how private insurance actually works. Private insurers have proved endlessly creative at gaming the system to avoid fair competition, and they have used their immense lobbying clout to undermine regulators’ efforts to rein in their abuses. That’s enabled them to siphon hundreds of billions of dollars out of the health care system each year for their own profits and overhead costs while forcing doctors and hospitals to waste billions more on billing-related paperwork.
Those dollars have to come from somewhere. If private insurers required their customers to pay the full costs of private plans, they wouldn’t be able to compete with a public plan like the traditional Medicare program, whose overhead costs are far lower. But this is not the case: In fact, taxpayers—including those not enrolled in a private plan—pick up the tab for much of private insurers’ profligacy. And the high cost of keeping private insurance alive would make it prohibitively expensive to cover the 30 million uninsured in the United States and to upgrade coverage for the tens of millions with inadequate plans.
Public option proposals come in three main varieties:
§  A simple buy-in. Some proposals, including those by Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, would offer a Medicare-like public plan for sale alongside private plans on the insurance exchanges now available under the Affordable Care Act. These buy-in reforms would minimize the need for new taxes, since most enrollees would be charged premiums. But tens of millions would remain uninsured or with coverage so skimpy, they still couldn’t afford care.
§  Pay or play. This variant (similar to the plan advanced by the Center for American Progress and endorsed by Beto O’Rourke) would offer employers a choice between purchasing private insurance or paying a steep payroll tax (about 8 percent). Anyone lacking employer-paid private coverage would be automatically enrolled in the public plan. The public option would be a good deal for employers who would otherwise have to pay more than 8 percent of their payroll for private coverage—for example, employers with older or mostly female workers (who tend to use more care and incur high premiums) or with lots of low-wage workers (for whom 8 percent of payroll is a relatively small sum). But many firms employing mostly young, male, or highly paid workers (e.g., finance and tech) would likely stay with a private insurer.
§  Medicare Advantage for All. The public option approach favored by Kamala Harris would mimic the current Medicare Advantage program. Medicare Advantage plans are commercial managed care products currently offered by private insurers to seniors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that administers Medicare, collects the taxes that pay for the program and passes the funds ($233 billion in 2018) along to the insurance companies. Under this approach, the public option would operate alongside the private Medicare Advantage plans and compete with them, as the traditional fully public Medicare program currently does.
No working models of the buy-in or pay-or-play public option variants currently exist in the United States or elsewhere. But decades of experience with Medicare Advantage offer lessons about that program and how private insurers capture profits for themselves and push losses onto their public rival—strategies that allow them to win the competition while driving up everyone’s costs.
IN US HEALTH INSURANCE, GOOD GUYS FINISH LAST
A public option plan that facilitates enrollees’ genuine access to health care can’t compete with private insurers that avoid the expensively ill and obstruct access to care. Despite having overhead costs almost seven times that of traditional Medicare (13.7 versus 2 percent), Medicare Advantage plans have grown rapidly. They now cover more than one-third of Medicare beneficiaries, up from 13 percent in 2005. Greed has trumped efficiency, and the efforts of regulators to level the playing field have been overwhelmed by insurers’ profit-driven schemes to tilt it.
Private insurers employ a dizzying array of profit-enhancing schemes that would be out of bounds for a public plan. These schemes, which continually evolve in response to regulators’ efforts to counter them, boil down to four strategies that are legal, in addition to occasional outright fraud.
§  Obstructing expensive care. Plans try to attract profitable, low-needs enrollees by assuring convenient and affordable access to routine care for minor problems. Simultaneously, they erect barriers to expensive services that threaten profits—for example, prior authorization requirements, high co-payments, narrow networks, and drug formulary restrictions that penalize the unprofitably ill. While the fully public Medicare program contracts with any willing provider, many private insurers exclude (for example) cystic fibrosis specialists, and few Medicare Advantage plans cover care at cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering. Moreover, private insurers’ drug formularies often put all of the drugs—even cheap generics—needed by those with diabetes, schizophrenia, or HIV in a high co-payment tier.
Insurers whose first reaction to a big bill is “claim denied” discourage many patients from pursuing their claims. And as discussed below, if hassling over claims drives some enrollees away, even better: The sickest will be the most hassled and therefore the most likely to switch to a competitor.
§  Cherry-picking and lemon-dropping, or selectively enrolling people who need little care and disenrolling the unprofitably ill. A relatively small number of very sick patients account for the vast majority of medical costs each year. A plan that dodges even a few of these high-needs patients wins, while a competing plan that welcomes all comers loses.
In the employer market, cherry-picking is easy: Private insurers offer attractive premiums to businesses with young, healthy workers and exorbitant rates to those with older, sicker employees. As a letter this summer to The New York Times put it, like casinos, health insurers are profitable because they know the odds of every bet they place—and the house always wins.
The CMS, in theory, requires Medicare Advantage plans to take all comers and prohibits them from forcing people out when they get sick. But regulators’ efforts to enforce these requirements have been overwhelmed by insurers’ chicanery. To avoid the sick, private insurers manipulate provider networks and drug formulary designs. Despite the ban on forcing enrollees out, patients needing high-cost services like dialysis or nursing home care have switched in droves from private plans to traditional, fully public Medicare. And as a last resort, Medicare Advantage plans will stop offering coverage in a county where they’ve accumulated too many unprofitable enrollees, akin to a casino ejecting players who are beating the house.
Finally, Medicare Advantage plans cherry-pick through targeted marketing schemes. In the past, this has meant sign-up dinners in restaurants difficult to access for people who use wheelchairs or offering free fitness center memberships, a perk that appeals mainly to the healthiest seniors. But higher-tech approaches are just around the corner. Will Oscar, the health insurer founded by Jared Kushner’s brother—with Google’s parent company as a significant investor—resist the temptation to use Google’s trove of personal data to target enrollment ads toward profitable enrollees like tennis enthusiasts and avoid purchasers of plus-size clothing or people who have searched online for fertility treatments?
§  Upcoding, or making enrollees look sicker on paper than they really are to inflate risk-adjusted premiums. To counter cherry-picking, the CMS pays Medicare Advantage plans higher premiums for enrollees with more (and more serious) diagnoses. For instance, a Medicare Advantage plan can collect hundreds of dollars more each month from the government by labeling an enrollee’s temporary sadness as “major depression” or calling trivial knee pain “degenerative arthritis.” By applying serious-sounding diagnoses to minor illnesses, Medicare Advantage plans artificially inflate the premiums they collect from taxpayers by billions of dollars while adding little or nothing to their expenditures for care.
Though most upcoding stays within the letter of the law and merely stretches medical terminology, the CMS’s (rare) audits of enrollees’ charts indicate that Medicare Advantage plans are collecting $10 billion annually from taxpayers for entirely fabricated diagnoses. And that’s only a small fraction of their overall take from upcoding. Private insurers keep most of this pilfered money for their profits and overhead, but they use a portion to fund added benefits (for example, eyeglasses or slightly lower co-payments for routine care) that attract new enrollees and help private plans to seemingly outcompete traditional Medicare.
§  Lobbying to get excessive payments and thwart regulators. Congress has mandated that the CMS overpay Medicare Advantage plans by 2 percent (and even more where medical costs are lower than average). On top of that, Seema Verma, Trump’s CMS administrator, has taken steps that will increase premiums significantly and award unjustified “quality bonuses,” ignoring advice from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission that payments be trimmed because the government is already overpaying the private plans. And she has ordered changes to the CMS’s Medicare website to trumpet the benefits of Medicare Advantage enrollment.
In sum, a public option insurer that, like traditional Medicare, doesn’t try to dodge unprofitable enrollees would be saddled with more than its share of sick, expensive patients and would become a de facto high-cost, high-risk pool. The CMS’s decades-long efforts to level the playing field have been thwarted by insurers’ upcoding, belying their promises of fair competition. And insurance companies have used their political muscle to sustain and increase their competitive advantage over traditional Medicare. The result: The public plan (and the taxpayers) absorbs the losses while private insurers skim off profits, an imbalance so big that private plans can outcompete a public plan despite squandering vast sums on overhead costs, CEO salaries, and shareholder profits.
SINGLE PAYER WOULD SAVE, PUBLIC OPTION WON’T
This year alone, private insurers will take in $252 billion more than they pay out, equivalent to 12 percent of their premiums. A single-payer system with overhead costs comparable to Medicare’s (2 percent) could save about $220 billion of that money. A public option would save far less—possibly zero, if much of the new public coverage is channeled through Medicare Advantage plans, whose overhead, at 13.7 percent, is even higher than the average commercial insurer.
Moreover, a public option would save little or nothing on hospitals’ and doctors’ sky-high billing and administrative costs. In a single-payer system, hospitals and other health facilities could be funded via global, lump-sum budgets—similar to the way cities pay fire departments—eliminating the need to attribute costs to individual patients and collect payments from them and their insurers. That global budget payment strategy has cut administrative costs at hospitals in Canada and Scotland to half the US level. The persistence of multiple payers would preclude such administrative streamlining, even if all of the payers are charged the same rates. (Under Maryland’s mislabeled global budget system, the state’s hospitals charge uniform rates but continue to bill per patient; our research indicates that their administrative costs haven’t fallen at all, according to their official cost reports.)
Similarly, for physicians and other practitioners, the complexity involved in billing multiple payers, dealing with multiple drug formularies and referral networks, collecting co-payments and deductibles, and obtaining referrals and prior authorizations drives up office overhead costs and documentation burdens.
The excess overhead inherent to multipayer systems imposes a hidden surcharge on the fees that doctors and hospitals must charge all patients—not just those covered by private insurance. All told, a public option reform would sacrifice about $350 billion annually of single payer’s potential savings on providers’ overhead costs, over and above the $220 billion in savings it could sacrifice annually on insurers’ overhead.
Finally, a public option would undermine the rational health planning that is key to the long-term savings under single payer. Each dollar that a hospital invests in new buildings or equipment increases its operating costs by 20 to 25 cents in every subsequent year. At present, hospitals that garner profits (or “surpluses” for nonprofits) have the capital to expand money-making services and buy high-tech gadgets, whether they’re needed or not, while neglecting vital but unprofitable services. For instance, hospitals around the country have invested in proton-beam-radiation therapy centers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. (Oklahoma City alone now has two.) Yet there’s little evidence that those machines are any better for most uses than their far cheaper alternatives. Similarly, hospitals have rushed to open invasive cardiology and orthopedic surgery programs, often close to existing ones. These duplicative investments raise costs and probably compromise quality.
Meanwhile, primary care and mental health services have languished, and rural hospitals and other cash-strapped facilities that provide much-needed care spiral toward closure. As in Canada and several European nations, a single-payer system could fund new hospital investments through government grants based on an explicit assessment of needs, instead of counting on private hospitals to use their profits wisely. That strategy has helped other nations direct investments to areas and services with the greatest need and to avoid funding wasteful or redundant facilities. Public option proposals would perpetuate current payment strategies that distort investment and raise long-term costs.
Because a public option would leave the current dysfunctional payment approach in place, it would sacrifice most of the savings available via single-payer reform. The bottom line is that a public option would either cost much more or deliver much less than single payer.
WHY NOT IMPORT GERMAN, SWISS, OR DUTCH HEALTH CARE?
Public option proponents often cite Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands as exemplars of how private insurers can coexist with thriving public health care systems. But they ignore the vast differences between those nations’ private insurers and ours.
The nonprofit German “sickness funds,” which cover 89 percent of the population (only wealthy Germans are allowed to purchase coverage from for-profit insurers), are jointly managed by employers and unions—a far cry from our employer-based coverage. The government mandates identical premium rates for all the sickness funds, takes money from those with low-risk enrollees and subsidizes others with older and sicker ones, and directly pays for most hospital construction. All sickness funds offer identical benefit packages, pay the same fees, and cover care from any doctor or hospital.
Although the details differ, a similarly stringent regulatory regime applies in Switzerland, whose system descended from Otto von Bismarck’s original German model, and as in Germany, the government funds most hospital construction. While for-profit insurers can sell supplemental coverage, only nonprofits are allowed to offer the mandated benefit package.
Since 2006, the Netherlands has been transitioning from the German-style universal coverage system to a more market-oriented approach championed by corporate leaders. However, the government pays directly for all long-term care, and a strong ethos of justice and equality has pressured both public and private actors to avoid any erosion of social solidarity. The Netherlands has long enjoyed ready access to care, and its system hasn’t descended (yet) into an American-style abyss. But under the new regime, hospital administrative costs have risen nearly to US levels, overall health costs have increased rapidly, doctors complain of unsustainable administrative burdens, and even in such a small nation, tens of thousands of people are uninsured. Insurers spend massively on marketing and advertising, and private insurers’ overhead costs average 13 percent of their premiums. Moreover, the United States and the Netherlands aren’t the only places where for-profit insurers’ overhead costs are high: They average 12.4 percent in Switzerland, 20.9 percent in Germany, and 26.2 percent in the United Kingdom.
Transforming the immensely powerful, profit-driven insurance companies of the United States into benign nonprofit insurers in the Swiss or German mold would be as heavy a lift as adopting Medicare for All. Nor can we count on the cultural restraints that have thus far softened the Dutch insurers’ rapacious tendencies and prevented a reversal of that country’s long-standing health care successes.
A final point: While allowing private insurers to compete with a public plan amounts to a poison pill, the same isn’t true for supplemental private plans that are allowed to cover only those items excluded from the public benefit package. While Canada bans the sale of private coverage that duplicates the public plan’s benefits, it has always allowed supplemental coverage, and that hasn’t sabotaged its system.
The efficiencies of a single-payer system would make universal coverage affordable and give everyone in the United States their free choice of doctors and hospitals. But that goal will remain out of reach if private insurers are allowed to continue gaming the system. Preserving the choice of insurer for some would perpetuate the affordability crisis that has bedeviled the US health care system for generations. Proponents of the public option portray it as a nondisruptive, free-choice version of single payer. That may be good campaign rhetoric, but it’s terrible policy.
David U. Himmelstein, MD and Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH are Distinguished Professors of Public Health at the City University of New York at Hunter College and are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Useless Health Insurance Companies

Don McCanne’s Quote-of-the-Day brings us an article from the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik about how useless health insurance companies are.

Los Angeles Times
August 5, 2019
Health insurance companies are useless. Get rid of them
By Michael Hiltzik

 

The most perplexing aspect of our current debate over healthcare and health coverage is the notion that Americans love their health insurance companies.

This bizarre idea surfaced most recently in the hand-wringing over proposals to do away with private coverage advocated by some of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. Oddly, this position has been treated as a vote-loser.

During the first round of televised debates on July 30 and 31, only four of the 20 candidates raised their hands when asked if they would ban private insurers as part of their proposals for universal coverage: Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Harris later backed away, releasing a “Medicare for all” proposal that would accommodate private insurers at least for the first 10 years.

Health insurers have been successful at two things: Making money and getting the American public to believe they’re essential.

HEALTH INSURANCE EXPERT WENDELL POTTER

She should have stood her ground. The truth is that private health insurers have contributed nothing of value to the American healthcare system. Instead, they have raised costs and created an entitled class of administrators and executives who are fighting for their livelihoods, using customers’ premium dollars to do so.

“Health insurers have been successful at two things: Making money and getting the American public to believe they’re essential,” says Wendell Potter. He should know, since he spent decades as a corporate communications executive in the industry, including more than 10 years at Cigna.

The insurers’ success in making themselves seem essential accounts for the notion that Americans are so pleased with their private coverage that they’ll punish any politician who dares to take it away. But the American love affair with private insurance warrants close inspection.

Let’s start by examining what the insurers say are their positive contributions to healthcare. They claim to promote “consumer choice,” simplify “the health care experience for individuals and families,” address “the burden of chronic disease” and harness “data and technology to drive quality, efficiency, and consumer satisfaction.” (These claims all come from the website of the industry’s lobbying organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).

They’ve achieved none of these goals. The increasingly prevalent mode of health coverage in the group and individual markets is the the narrow network, which shrinks the roster of doctors and hospitals available to enrollees without heavy surcharges. The hoops that customers and providers often must jump through to get claims paid impose costly complexity on the system, not simplicity. Programs to manage chronic diseases remain rare, and the real threat to patients with those conditions was lack of access to insurance (until the Affordable Care Act made such exclusion illegal).

Private insurers don’t do nearly as well as Medicare in holding down costs, in part because the more they pay hospitals and doctors, the more they can charge in premiums and the more money flows to their bottom lines. They haven’t shown notable skill in managing chronic diseases or bringing pro-consumer innovations to the table.

pareto

The vast majority of Americans have very little need for medical care in any given year; that’s why most people are satisfied with their coverage. But what if they have a big claim?
(NIHCM)

 

Insurers cite these goals when they try to get mergers approved by government antitrust regulators. Anthem and Cigna, for example, asserted in 2016 that their merger would produce nearly $2 billion in “annual synergies,” thanks to improved “operational” and “network efficiencies.”

The pitch has a long history. The architects of a wave of health insurance mergers in the 2000s also proclaimed a new era of efficient technology and improved customer service, but studies of prior mergers show that this nirvana seldom comes to pass. The best example may be that of Aetna’s 1996 merger with U.S. Healthcare in a deal it hoped would give it access to the booming HMO market.

According to a 2004 analysis by UC Berkeley health economist James C. Robinson, the merger became a “near-death” experience for Aetna. The deal was expected to bring about “millions in enrollment and billions in revenue to pressure physicians and hospitals” to accept lower reimbursement rates, he wrote.

“The talk was all about complementarities, synergies, and economies of scale… The reality quickly turned out to be one of incompatible product designs, operating systems, sales forces, brand images, and corporate cultures.” Aetna surged from 13.7 million customers in 1996 to 21 million in 1999, but profits collapsed from a margin of nearly 14% in 1998 to a loss in 2001.

Even when they don’t happen, insurance merger deals cost customers billions of dollars. That’s what happened when two proposed deals — Aetna/Humana and Anthem/Cigna — broke down on a single day in 2017. The result was that Aetna owed Humana $1.8 billion and Anthem owed Cigna $1.85 billion in breakup fees — money taken out of the medical treatment economy and transferred from one set of shareholders to another.

In reality, Americans don’t like their private health insurance so much as blindly tolerate it. That’s because the vast majority of Americans don’t have a complex interaction with the healthcare system in any given year, and most never will. As we’ve reported before, 1% of patients account for more than one-fifth of all medical spending and 10% account for two-thirds. Fifty percent of patients account for only 3% of all spending.

Most families face at most a series of minor ailments that can be routinely managed — childhood immunizations, a broken arm here or there, a bout of the flu. The question is what happens when someone does have a complex issue and a complex claim — they’re hit by a truck or get a cancer diagnosis, for instance?

“We gamble every year that we’re going to stay healthy and injury-free,” Potter says. When we lose the gamble, that’s when all the inadequacies of the private insurance system come to the fore. Confronted with the prospect of expensive claims, private insurers try to constrain customers’ choices — limiting recovery days spent in the hospital, limiting doctors’ latitude to try different therapies, demanding to be consulted before approving surgical interventions.

Indeed, the history of American healthcare reform is largely a chronicle of steps taken to protect the unserved groups from commercial health insurance practices.

When commercial health insurance became insinuated into the American healthcare system following World War II via employer plans, it quickly became clear who was left behind — “those who were retired, out of work, self-employed, or obliged to take a low-paying job without fringes,” sociologist Paul Starr wrote in his magisterial 1982 book, “The Social Transformation of American Medicine.”The process even left those groups worse off, Starr observed, because insurance contributed to medical inflation while insulating only those with health plans. “Government intervention was required just to address the inequities.”

Insurers wouldn’t cover the aged or retirees, so Medicare was born in 1965. Insurers refused to cover kidney disease patients needing dialysis, so Congress in 1973 carved out an exception allowing those patients to enroll in Medicare at any age. (So much for addressing the “burden of chronic disease.”)

Individual buyers were charged much more for coverage than those buying group plans through their employers — or barred from the marketplace entirely because of their medical conditions — the Affordable Care Act required insurers to accept all applicants and, as compensation, required all individuals to carry at least minimal coverage.

The health insurance industry’s most telling contribution to the debate over healthcare reform has been “to scare people about other healthcare systems,” Potter told me. As a consequence, discussions about whether or how to remove private companies from the healthcare system are chiefly political, not practical.

The Affordable Care Act allowed private insurers to continue playing a role in delivering coverage not because they were any good at it but because their wealth and size made them formidable adversaries to reform if they chose to fight it. They were sufficiently mollified to remain out of the fray, but some of the big insurers then did their best to undermine the individual insurance exchanges once they were launched in 2015.

Even as individual Americans fret over losing their private health insurance, big employers have begun to see the light. Boeing, among other big employers, is experimenting with bypassing health insurers as intermediaries with providers by contracting directly with major health systems in Southern California, Seattle and other regions where it has major plants. It would not be surprising to see the joint venture of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase try a similar approach in its quest to bring down costs.

That’s an ironic development, since the private insurers first entered the market precisely by offering to play the role of intermediaries for big employers. But instead of fulfilling the promise of efficiency and cost control, they became rent-seeking profiteers themselves.

There’s no doubt that it will take years to wean the American healthcare system off the private insurance model; Kamala Harris’s proposal may be merely a recognition of the necessary time frame. It’s true that some countries with universal healthcare systems preserve roles for private insurance, including coverage for services the government chooses to leave out of its own programs or providing preferential access to specialists, at a price.

But the private insurers’ central position in America’s system is an anachronism dating back some 75 years. The sooner it’s dispensed with, the better — and healthier — America will be. The next time a debate moderator asks presidential candidates if they favor doing away with private insurance, let’s see all the hands go up.

No Socialists Here

Dear Insurance company execs, pharmaceutical company execs, employee benefits consultants and executives, Wall Street investors, and all other stakeholders in the current dysfunctional, broken, complex, complicated, and bloated mess called the US health care system.

You have heard many politicians, and journalists, not to mention your own peers, or even you yourselves label the push for Medicare for All as “Socialism.”

We even have the Administrator of CMS, Seema Verma, calling it, and the public option plan,  “radical and dangerous for the country” recently when she spoke to the Better Medicare Alliance’s Medicare Advantage Summit in Washington, D.C.

Her solution, and probably yours as well, is to keep selling Medicare Advantage plans, which only makes the current system worse.

So, to help you get over your fear and loathing of Socialism, and to prove to you that the only reason why the US is the only Western, industrial nation to not provide its citizens with universal health care is because you are making money off of other people’s health, or lack thereof.

You are doing so, because you are greedy. There I said it. Now I hope you will pay attention to the following graphic:

Do you see any socialist countries? Do you see any radical and dangerous regimes that are hostile to the interests of the US? Well, maybe Slovenia. After all, they did send us Melania and her illegal family.

But back to the case at hand. I defy any of you hotshots in the health care space to prove to me that all of these Capitalist, free-market countries are flaming Reds, or even a bit Pinko.

You can’t, because it is not true. You and those who call Medicare for All, Single Payer, or even the so-called “public option” radical, just don’t want the government to interfere with your looting the pockets of the American people for your financial gain.

And that is why we are the only country with an “X”, instead of a check mark below our name.

16,000 Unnecessary Deaths Tied to Failure to Expand Medicaid

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that a new study found that Medicaid expansion brought appreciable improvements in health to enrollees, but also that full expansion nationwide would have averted 15,600 deaths among the vulnerable Medicaid-eligible population.

This is in contrast to the view of opponents of Medicaid expansion who have said that lack of evidence that enrollment in Medicaid improves health and saves lives, and therefore they believed that expansion was a waste of money.

In the 22 mostly red states that refused expansion, the cause of the 15,600 deaths of their state’s residents was attributed to failure to expand.

“This highlights an ongoing cost to non-adoption that should be relevant to both state policymakers and their constituents,” the authors of the study said.

Fourteen states are still holding out, States such as Wyoming and South Dakota, the article states, have a warped sense of “freedom.” States such as Maine and Louisiana, who have had a change in governors from Republican to Democrat, have recently adopted expansion.

medicaid

Fourteen states still resist Medicaid expansion, at great cost to their residents (Kaiser Family Foundation)

The article takes a dim view of the entire rationale for refusing to expand Medicaid, and cites a few noted Conservative voices against the entire idea of expansion and Medicaid itself.

Conservatives have worked hard to depict Medicaid as ineffective, the article reports. They’ve done so, it continues,  by overinterpreting limited studies such as a 2013 study of a Medicaid expansion in Oregon.

Critics focused on the researchers’ finding of “no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years” of expansion, but they overlooked the findings that the expansion did “increase use of healthcare services, raise rates of diabetes detection and management, lower rates of depression, and reduce financial strain.”

Conservative health policy Avik Roy has crowed, the article states, that the result “calls into question the $450 billion a year we spend on Medicaid, and the fact that Obamacare throws 11 million more Americans into this broken program.”

Another right-wing critic of Medicaid expansion, and not to mention, also of Medicare for All, and now more recently, the public option for Medicare, is CMS Administrator Seema Verma, a Trump flunky.

(Credit: Getty Images )  Picture worth a thousand words was never more true. What a piece of work!

Verma has argued that the expansion hasn’t been a success despite its enrollment figures and has been a leader in undermining the program by allowing states to impose premiums, work requirements and punitive disenrollments on patients. (Her efforts have been blocked by a federal judge, for now.)

This is why advocates for Medicare for All are so passionate and determined, in the face of even the slightest opposition to improving the health and lives of millions of Americans for small changes to our nation’s health care system.

Failure to expand Medicaid, failure to enact universal health care, even if it is a public option, is challenged from the right for morally indefensible and reprehensible reasons.

The cry of “freedom” from conservatives is a smoke-screen to hid their true purpose. To dismantle all social programs and funnel that money to the wealthy and corporations, as they have already done with the Trump tax giveaway.

Now they are trying to cut three million Americans off of food stamps.

All these schemes have one purpose in mind, to kill off their most ardent supporters in Southern and Midwestern states that continue to vote for these sociopaths. To them, freedom means, freedom for a company to profit off of your misfortune, whether that misfortune is due to poor diet, poor personal habits such as smoking and drug abuse, and poor health outcomes due to poverty and economic distress.

Naturally, any attempt to improve the health and lives of the poor, black or white, or Latino, etc., is viewed as “Socialism” and is deemed bad for the country, as Ms. Verma did this week to the Better Medicare Alliance’s Medicare Advantage Summit in Washington, D.C.

No, it’s not bad for the country. It’s bad for the profits of the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the benefit managers industry, the health care consultants, and Wall Street investors.

Wanting to cut of food stamps, fail to expand even Medicaid, tightening rules for who is eligible for these programs, is not only bad for the health of average Americans, it is bad for the economic vitality of the nation in an era of global competition.

The men and women at Trump rallies are angry, but they are angry at the wrong people. The clown on the stage is the person they really should be angry at, and his entire swamp of “the best people.”

Medicare Does Not Cover Retirees Overseas

A LinkedIn connection posted the following article yesterday from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and I thought that since it was a while since I wrote about medical travel issues, that this would be a good topic to discuss. In addition, it occurred to me that in all the talk of Medicare for All, there is no mention of retirees who retire outside of the US being covered by a MFA plan.

So the following article will have two functions: to stimulate interest in the medical travel industry for retirees who aren’t covered presently under Medicare as a new stream of revenue; and secondly, for those advocates of MFA to consider adding a provision in their plans to address this problem.

Here is the article in its’ entirety:

It’s Not an Accident Medicare Doesn’t Cover Retirees Overseas: No One in the Media Supports Free Trade!

Written by Dean Baker

Published: 18 July 2019

The New York Times ran a piece warning retirees thinking of moving overseas that Medicare will not cover their medical expenses in other countries. This is true, but the NYT piece never once pointed out that this is conscious policy, not something that just happened.

Readers of the paper may recall that it reports on trade agreements all the time. These trade agreements cover a wide range of issues, including things like enforcing patent and copyright monopolies and rules on Internet commerce and privacy.

If anyone in the United States in a position of power cared, then it would be possible to include transferring Medicare payments to other countries, to allow people to buy into other nations’ health care system on the list of topics being negotiated. This doesn’t happen because, unlike access to cheap labor for manufactured goods, there is no one in power who wants to make it easier for people in the United States to take advantage of lower cost and more efficient health care systems elsewhere.

While such a policy could potentially save the U.S. government an enormous amount of money on Medicare (costs in other rich countries average less than half as much per person), the health care industry would scream bloody murder if any politician attempted to implement free trade in health care services. “Free trade,” as it is conventionally used in U.S. policy debates, just means removing barriers that protect less educated workers from foreign competition.

The New York Times, like other mainstream publications will not even allow free trade to be discussed in its pages in contexts where it might hurt the interests of the wealthy.

http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/it-s-not-an-accident-medicare-doesn-t-cover-retirees-overseas-no-one-in-the-media-supports-free-trade?