Healthcare Stagnation

Healthcare Stagnation

We are facing a disastrous healthcare stagnation in the United States. Our hospitals are getting older, Medical providers are aging with too few young providers to replace them, and the quality of care that many of us experience is not getting much better. Despite this, the cost of healthcare has been soaring. Healthcare expenditures, including the costs of our deductibles, co-pays, and what our insurance pays out, has been going up at a rate reliably above inflation.

 

In The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, Dave Chase writes the following about our healthcare stagnation, “Unlike virtually every other item in our economy, where the value proposition improves every year, the norm in health care for decades has been to pay more and get less. Also, unlike nearly every other industry, healthcare hasn’t had a productivity gain in 20 years.”

 

Productivity is how much we produce per unit of time spent on production. A factory that makes 5,000 widgets per hour is more productive than a factory that makes 1,000 widgets per hour. Automation and new technologies have helped factories and offices become more productive, but our healthcare stagnation is evidence that we are not seeing the same gains in healthcare. Technology has improved, but not in areas that seem to produce more healthy patients given the same amount of time and effort from our medical providers. We have some new technologies, but somehow those technologies have not translated into a healthcare system that supports the same number of people with fewer resources.

 

Chase continues, “In other words, for the last two decades, there has been a redistribution tax from the working and middle class and highly efficient industries to the least productive industry in America.” 

 

As your job has become more efficient and more productive, your healthcare costs have risen. Chase equates this healthcare stagnation price increase to a tax. Factories that can work with fewer employees, software engineers, and other employees form highly productive sectors are paying more in healthcare for services that haven’t kept the same pace as the industries of the patients they treat. This is the cost of healthcare stagnation that chase wants to push back against by demanding better systems and structures from healthcare providers, insurance companies, and benefits brokers. Chase believes we can find a way to improve our healthcare system and help people live healthier lives for less cost, if employers are willing to make real investments in their employees healthcare, and are willing to hold their brokers and insurance providers accountable for the value their products provide.
Health Insurance Company Games

Health Insurance Company Games

Dave Chase’s book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call was an interesting read because Chase highlights many of the health insurance company games that add to the cost of healthcare in the United States without providing additional value. I’m skeptical of health insurance companies, and Chase’s book discusses some of the nitty-gritty details of misaligned incentives that lead to unending increases in healthcare premiums and costs.

 

An example that Chase highlights is early renewal discounts for companies that chose to stay with their current health insurance company or plan administrator. Throughout the book, Chase discusses how businesses are letting their employees down and allowing healthcare costs to skyrocket by accepting increasing healthcare costs from health insurance companies each year. Many companies don’t have someone who really understands healthcare or health insurance in charge of their benefits programs, and as a result those individuals are often more focused on not being yelled at by employees than on reducing costs and providing a valuable health insurance package. Insurance companies take advantage of this by pressuring businesses to accept increases in the cost of healthcare administration each year at rates far above inflation.

 

Insurance companies know that businesses don’t actually want to shop around for health insurance and they know that employees don’t want to have a change in insurance each year. Insurance companies will offer benefits for early renewals from companies, and as Chase writes, “Often these early renewals come with no-shop clauses. So, a 20 percent rate increase may only be a 15 percent if you sign today and agree not to shop the competition. This should be viewed as a red-flag, not a great deal on a premium reduction.”

 

Insurance companies position themselves as offering a good deal, but they are increasing the cost of the insurance plan by 15%. Busy employers with small HR staff often see this as a win because it reduces their effort and while employees see costs rise they don’t have to hassle with changing insurance and unknown insurance processes. This is part of why premiums in the United States are rising so fast. Insurance companies hide information and data, and make it difficult for overwhelmed staff to pick benefits that will truly help employees.
Healthcare Pricing Failures and Overtreatment

A Story of Healthcare Pricing Failures and Overtreatment

I don’t know anyone who would not agree if I said that there was a pricing failure with the way that healthcare operates in the United States. My personal favorite example of this was a story about a person who wanted some type of medical care, but couldn’t get it due to complications with payment between what he would pay and what his insurance provider would pay the provider. The individual one way or another found out what the charge was for someone who was uninsured, and asked if he could just pay that amount instead, but the provider couldn’t offer him the same rate because of the complications involving the private insurance, contracts, and all the confusing legal structures involved. The price of healthcare in the United States is not just high, it is completely opaque to even the people on the inside, it is apparently arbitrary in some instances. It is a pricing failure that is detached from the costs that anyone involved actually seems to face.

 

One of the worst parts of the pricing failure of healthcare, however, is that it isn’t even connected with the services we receive. Because no one knows what anything costs at a pure base level, consumers can’t easily shop around, and providers have no incentive to make sure they are actually providing value for the service they provide. I’ll use an example from my own life:

 

I had been getting vision checks and contact prescriptions done at Costco for several years, but thought I ought to actually get in for a full eye exam at an office a couple years back. Costco was cheap, it was easy, the service was quick, and the optometrist was a good communicator. In other words, the service and the value of the care I received were excellent. At the other office I paid substantially more for an eye exam, did a bunch of tests that seemed unnecessary and needed to be repeated, never got a great answer about why I was doing the tests, why I failed them, and if it was a problem with my eyes or the machine in use. The optometrist was less friendly, didn’t communicate as well, offered me fewer contacts to try on and conducted what felt like an unnecessary contact fit exam rather than letting me try out the contacts for a couple weeks before making a purchase. Where Costco gave me my prescription and sent me out the door, the office I went to had no intention of letting me have my actual prescription, in an effort to force me to purchase contacts through their office rather than someplace cheaper.

 

Dave Chase in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call writes, “Broadly speaking, the two biggest problems in the U.S. healthcare system are pricing failure (no correlation between price and health outcomes) and overtreatment.”

 

I experienced both of these in the example above. I (and my insurer) were billed for unnecessary services at the more expensive office. The services provided were worse, less convenient, and didn’t seem to be related to my actual eye health outcomes.

 

There are a ton of challenges to addressing these problems. Policies to reward good health outcomes often end up rewarding providers who serve more affluent populations, who tend to just be more healthy in general. Equating patient satisfaction and quality of services also are not always related to actual health outcomes, so measuring the quality of services from a patient standpoint is not always helpful and often full of bias. Nevertheless, it is clear we need more transparency, and more market mechanisms in the U.S. healthcare system so that quality, outcomes, and price can be taken into consideration and more directly linked to the services and products that medical providers offer.
Hiding the Cost of Healthcare

Hiding the Cost of Healthcare

In the United States, our current system of healthcare coverage is hiding the cost of healthcare. Anyone who has to go to physical therapy, get an MRI, has a child that needs treatment for a disability, or ends up in an ER knows firsthand that healthcare is expensive, but many of them probably don’t realize just how costly our healthcare system truly is. For the most part, in our country we have a system that pulls a third party into every payment scenario for healthcare, and as a result, the cost of healthcare is not reflective of a true market.

 

Many argue that our current system creates too much of a moral hazard, with people living unhealthy lifestyles because they know they won’t face the full cost of care if they need it. Some argue that the current arrangement leads to unnecessary care or over-treatment because people don’t pay the full cost of care, so they seek more of it. At the same time, groups argue that insurance and healthcare coverage are still prohibitively expensive, and that the stress of possibly having to go to a doctor and spend thousands of dollars (even if one is insured) genuinely harms people’s health.

 

I think all of these are true in their own way, and I think they are relatable because they are things that people have seen first hand or can easily imagine, but there is still a deeper level of healthcare costs in America that we don’t discuss. Our system of taxes is also hiding the cost of healthcare. As Dave Chase writes in The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “Today, the tax break for employer-paid benefits is estimated at over $600 billion, making it the largest tax break in the tax code, the nation’s second largest entitlement after Medicare, and the primary wage suppression driver.”

 

During World War II, wages to employees were frozen to prevent rapid inflation in the United States during the war. To attract and retain qualified employees, businesses turned to employer-paid benefits, and congress created a law which would allow those benefits to be tax-deductible for employers. This was a way to effectively give employees a bonus without paying them more, keeping inflation down, but still giving them something that economically and socially benefited them. Today of course, you are taxed on anything of value you receive from your employer as if it was straight cash, so your healthcare benefit basically still counts as wages, but that tax break for the employers is still in place for the health benefits they provide.

 

This is where we are hiding the cost of healthcare in America when it comes to private insurance. Most Americans receive healthcare through their employer, and the US government loses out on $600 billion in taxes to allow employers to offer health insurance. So the plan you are on that you might lose if you are fired, the plan you have this year that might not be offered again next year if the insurer changes, the plan that still has a $1,500 deductible and $4,000 out of pocket annual max, costs you and U.S. tax payers $600 billion per year.

 

Because this is a hidden cost, it is not something we discuss very often. We are afraid of the cost of a nationwide healthcare system, but we don’t discuss how much money is not being collected in taxes and being sheltered by a tax break that maintains a system that very few people are actually happy about. We face high costs ourselves, even if we are covered by a plan that fits within this $600 billion tax break system, and the system has warped the way that care is payed for and provided to the point where we don’t even know what knobs and levers to try to pull to get the who thing to be more transparent, provide real value, and to be less costly. We need to be honest about the ways that our current system is hiding the cost of healthcare in America, or we will never be able to make real changes to improve the system.

Marginal Charity – An Opportunity for Big Business

Big businesses strive for efficiency. If something can be reduced, eliminated, streamlined, and automated then at some point it will be. Each tiny advantage can be huge at scale, and can mean the difference between growing and laying off employees. Flaunting success, hiding failure, and maximizing at the margins are standard business operating procedures, but they create a void that could be filled for companies to do meaningful things that can be viewed in a charitable light. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about “marginal charity” an idea that you can do something that economically doesn’t add much cost to your own life, only marginally diminishes your efficiency, but provides a big element of charity to the business you are already doing.

 

In the book, the authors consider a high rise apartment building. Say 10 floors is the height to shoot for in order to achieve maximum efficiency. There may be situations where adding one more floor would not increase the cost by a significant amount, but would reduce the efficiency that the building owners and property developers expect from the complex, especially if the final floor was developed to allow for more low-income/affordable housing. Adding this extra story doesn’t make sense in a pure efficiency model, but if you are trying to add a touch of charity to the business you are already engaged in as the developer, you can do a lot of good by providing many additional affordable housing units with little marginal cost to yourself.

 

Hanson and Simler write, “In terms of providing value to others, marginal charity is extremely efficient. It does a substantial amount of good for others at very little cost to oneself. (In other words, it has an incredible ROD [Return on Donation]).” Finding a way to add a little extra while taking away from your own individual efficiency may make the entire system a bit more equitable, and a bit more efficient as a whole. Small tweaks to how to do things and create the systems that shape our lives can help provide for greater long-term benefit even if they slightly limit what is possible for us now.

 

Since we are not all property developers, we won’t all have this type of chance to make a big difference through small actions in a business context. But we can think about marginal charity in our own lives and try to set up systems and structures that help us default toward charitable behavior. I don’t think this looks like donating a dollar to the thing the grocery store check-out system asks you to donate to (I’d recommend saving that money and making a single larger donation to a charity featured on GiveWell), but it may look like picking up bottles or trash along the street you already walk down every day. It may look like increasing your recurring donation by an additional $5. It may look like making personal choices that add a little extra cost, but reduce energy use, plastic use, or single use item consumption. We can think about charity on a marginal level, encourage others to do so, and that will help build a spirit of looking for those marginal charity wins. They may not change the world, but they might help set up a culture and system that will.