Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Health Insurance
Clinton Health Plan and its replacements.

Replacing Employer-Based Health Insurance

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Employer-group health insurance will surely decline because so many are dissatisfied with it. {bottom quote}
Dr. Fisher


It might take a hundred pages to describe America's dissatisfactions with its health insurance system, but we mean to limit the grousing to features which could usefully be changed. The present system served us well enough for sixty years, and we tip our hat to those who struggled during depressions and war years to cobble together some kind of health financing system, never claiming it would be perfect. For reasons that were sufficient at the time, we ended up with a dominant system which is employer-based and reflects that fact. In this book we skip the quaint history, going right to the advantages of gradually migrating to better systems, which surely means migrating away from employer group purchasing. An important word is gradual because we must fix this engine without turning the motor off.

Later on, we'll return to what's significantly awkward about employer group policies, but here let's summarize complaints in a paragraph. The predicament of employers, first, is that instead of pre-paying for health care which defines what it covers and how much the items will cost, employers now pay for "service benefits". That's merely a best-efforts description of the scope, while the associated prices no longer relate to either costs or the marketplace -- undefined scope and prices are blank-check health insurance indeed. Next, many employees feel they receive a poisoned pill. They get "job lock", where insurability is suddenly in doubt whenever they change employers. Even more, employees fear what might happen to their health care if the employer must suddenly reduce expenses. Third, being outside this system is no escape from it. Congressional tax preferences seem entirely unfair to anyone who doesn't get them. In fact, even those who do get tax breaks suspect hospital cost shifting merely taxes it back. Taken as a whole, employer group benefits are a third-party system twice removed: those paying the bills suspect their insurance vendor doesn't supervise enough. But employers are reluctant to pay insurance companies more money to supervise services because they know neither one of them can directly observe it. Economists mutter the insight that health benefits really aren't employer-stockholder money at all. The money belongs to employees in lieu of higher wages, so what right do employers have to constrain how it's spent? Both employers and employees view health benefits as a boomerang they can't even throw away without getting hurt. Fairness notwithstanding, the American Academy of Actuaries estimates the waste in the third-party arrangement is at least 30% more than people would pay with their own money; that's roughly what they get as a tax deduction. Finally, the uninsured don't complain about exclusion as bitterly as you might suppose; roughly half of them could afford to buy it. The country struggles to give health insurance to absolutely everyone, but a growing number of people absolutely don't want it. There's more to say, but this should get us started.

This book asks the reader to trace complaints back to causes, and unite around objectives. The employer-based system stands in the road of other approaches, some of them quite attractive. We could rather easily work for a system where each person selects and owns an individual policy. Right now, workers participate in a group policy owned and selected by an employer. As a matter of fairness, employees ought to own and select their own health insurance, and it wouldn't be terribly hard to do. Even if you regard fairness as a loser's argument, the switch might be made so that much better products --currently blocked -- can flourish. The main focus of this early chapter is on some potential opportunities within individual ownership of health insurance, gained by employers surrendering ownership of group policies, one by one, on request by each employee. The first of the advantageous opportunities, the Health Savings Account, already exists after a long struggle. Other alternatives which follow might be even better, but experience with this one teaches some important lessons. Primarily, almost all variants require legislation, because the existing system has resorted to the government to enforce its bargains. Furthermore, sufficient public enthusiasm must emerge to persuade insurance executives that enough market exists to justify the development effort. Both Congress and the Insurance industry must be persuaded the public is behind them, and both are tough to convince. By far the best way to convince anyone of anything is to conduct demonstration projects, experiments if you will, capturing what works and discarding what doesn't.

Health Savings Accounts

Health Savings Accounts started in 1980 and by 2007 have slowly grown to ensure 13 million persons. Because of impediments in various state laws, the distribution of HSAs is uneven geographically (see Figure 1). Since the pattern closely resembles the red and blue maps of the 2004 presidential election results, observers have perhaps unfairly attributed HSA resistance to devious politics. That may be true in part, but the pattern more likely follows the distribution of laws intended to foster employer group insurance, and thus reflects concentrated industries, especially the steel, coal, and auto businesses. HSAs, therefore, tend to be legally hampered in areas of heavy union influence, although seemingly they should not injure unions or provoke their opposition, and unions may not be mainly at fault.

These HSA accounts have two components, the catastrophic health insurance policy, and the tax-sheltered savings fund. These two structures revolve around the familiar advantages of high-deductible insurance, which is considerably cheaper than fully inclusive insurance because it avoids the heavy processing costs of myriads of small claims which most people could afford to pay for in cash. That concentrates the coverage to high-cost claims which, although less common, present the dual catastrophe of often being unaffordable and almost always putting the beneficiary out of work. Almost everybody needs some kind of catastrophic protection, although the size of the deductible might vary among income levels. Secondly, to be attractive to young people and others without significant savings, the savings account feature was added, as a way of providing the funds to pay for small claims and deductibles, without losing the cost awareness of paying for services directly. This savings and insurance combination was made tax-exempt in an effort to enhance attractiveness in competition with the tax shelter now accorded to conventional health insurance provided by employers and covering the same range of services. The Health Savings Accounts, therefore, were a step in the direction of extending health cost tax exemption to everyone and shifting cost control decisions into the hands of the patient by awarding the savings to him. Permission to save unspent funds in the accounts from year to year created portability between jobs, and thus lifetime coverage. A final incentive, the ability, in theory, to strive for paid-up lifetime insurance, was thwarted in Congress by prohibiting the money in the accounts being spent on the premiums of the catastrophic insurance. It would be of some interest to know who in Congress promoted this prohibition, and what the reasoning was.

Proponents of this reform measure proceeded in their advocacy with the charming innocence of those who believed they had a splendid idea for the benefit of everyone. Anyone who resisted, must not understand the issue very well and needed only to have it explained in greater detail. This feeling was heightened by seeing groups oppose the HSA who would seemingly only stand to benefit from it. Since experience has shown that a third of those who enroll in HSAs have previously been uninsured, it would seem reasonable to expect the uninsured and those who work in their behalf, to support it. Sellers of individual health insurance were expected to recognize the enhanced commissions of selling lifetime portable insurance compared with the drudgery of flogging annual renewals. Insurance company risk was removed entirely except for the catastrophic coverage portion. Unions, who prize their ability to pressure health insurance companies on their members' behalf should welcome a role in advising members on the best choices for their money. Those who negotiate for higher wages and benefits would seemingly welcome the diminution of vague "service benefits" as a tool and the substitution of visible actual dollars into the accounts as a collective bargaining achievement. Union members individually would seem likely to carry their objections to managed care plans to the logical conclusion of reaping the rewards of cost containment for themselves, without impairing freedom to spend extra for luxuries if they please. One would have supposed union members would actively welcome the sort of insurance that gave them free choice of their doctor or hospital. Ultimately, you would suppose that union members would wish to lighten the burden of health costs of their employers if only to demand higher pay in return, or alternatively to preserve their jobs from the ravages of foreign competition. But alas, legislative experience has been quite different. Prohibiting the use of tax-sheltered accounts to pay health insurance premiums is an inexplicable clause inserted by opponents of the proposal. Prohibiting the use by employers of more than fifty employees was another. Limiting the number of people who could have these accounts to 750,000 was still another unaccountably restrictive Congressional feature. It is almost as though there was some strategy of inhibiting the spread of these policies, with the ultimate goal of calling for total elimination based on lack of interest. The original pioneers of this program, now twenty years older, trudge on in bafflement at resistance, but rather steadily enlisting new subscribers in the states where they are permitted by local law. One consequence would appear to be a resurgence of local state resistance to the interstate sale of health insurance.

In a certain way, other obstacles in the road of HSA accounts do contain some understandable logic. For the most part, they are the residuals of old state laws which once enhanced other projects with at least comprehensible goals. For example, mandatory benefits. Chiropractors, optometrists, physiotherapists and a host of other limited license practitioners fought long, hard, and expensively to lobby laws into existence mandating payment for their services as a condition for any health insurance in their state. These primarily outpatient groups see high deductible insurance as a way of raising the insurance threshold above the typical price of their services, thus excluding them from a federally subsidized system. Before ERISA was passed in 1973, special mandates were added in state legislatures by the hundreds each year. That led to interstate businesses going to Congress for relief from the need to satisfy varying requirements in fifty states. This difficulty was garrisoned by the McCarran Ferguson Act of 1945, which uniquely excludes the business of insurance from federal regulation. Just how we got here from the original antitrust dispute is hard to explain, but nevertheless, anyone can see that toppling this complicated structure would require a fierce political campaign. Therefore, by far the easiest pathway is to amend federal law to make it clear that conflicting state laws are pre-empted. Essentially, that is what ERISA accomplished, and when amendments are proposed, why employers regard ERISA as so untouchable.

Ratio of Prices to Underlying Audited Costs

Beginning this book with a discussion of the struggles of the Health Savings Account brings us to bang against what the reader will soon learn I consider the most intractable issue in American health care reform. It's an outward symptom of the issue which must be addressed if significant progress is to be made in health reform of any sort, and it won't be easy to address it. My plan is to defer analysis in depth until later, after first describing one by one how it blocks progress in every single promising proposal. Only when it seems likely the reader has become thoroughly fed up with it, will we attempt to lead through its very complicated analysis. Please be patient with a very brief introduction, first showing how destructive it is to Health Savings Accounts.

To be eligible for Medicare payment, every hospital must submit an audited Medicare Cost Report. That makes it public information, subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966, although rightly any competitive organization is uncomfortable about divulging business information. A significant item on the Medicare report is The Ratio of Posted Charges to Costs. That is, the audited costs are divided into posted charges of the same year. If a not-for-profit hospital just breaks even for the year, the ratio might be expected to be about 1.0. With the allowance of say 4% for bad debts, the ratio could be 1.04. Because Medicaid commonly underpays for its share, the ratio might have to be 1.20. But that reasoning gets you to the wrong conclusion; the ratio is commonly five or eight times greater than that. To make this idea more comprehensible, an electrocardiogram with costs of $25 carries a posted price of $380 in at least one hospital; that would create a Charge-to-Cost ratio of 15.02. Fifteen times its independently audited cost? There is considerable reluctance to defend or discuss this matter, so it, unfortunately, invites speculation, both fair and unfair.

The reason for introducing the charge to cost ratio at this point is to identify a vexing issue which makes health insurance seem so essential, while simultaneously interfering with making affordable insurance available. A person even a wealthy one must have health insurance to protect himself against overcharging. Those who cannot easily afford health insurance look to high-deductible Health Savings Accounts because that makes insurance cheaper. Unfortunately, cash savings within the accounts can be quickly eaten up by even moderate exposure to huge price mark-ups. The attractiveness of these accounts is thus limited to those young healthy people who have no real health expenses, and to residents of those regions of the country where the practice of massive overcharging is uncommon. Without encumbering this narrative with too much detail, that is the explanation for the slow steady progress of HSAs and their peculiar geographical distribution. If a representative charge for an electrocardiogram is $40, HSAs are a bargain. But if an electrocardiogram costs $380, purchase of HSAs is mainly restricted to those who have no great need for electrocardiograms. The outlook for HSAs is not completely bleak, however. At some time and in some areas the mass of subscribers will grow to a size where they can force the hospitals to confer a discount. Using collective purchasing power and the threat of publicity or even lawsuit, certain local brokers of HSAs have worked out arrangements for their members to receive market prices for their outpatient services. The most effective argument with hospitals has been that HSA holders do not create bad debts in their co-insurance. Unpaid deductibles and copayments are now the largest sources of bad debts for most hospitals.

While focused on the hospital markup issue, let's engage in some unproven conjecture about it. Hospitals actually construct these inflated prices, but at first glance, they would seem to have no great motive to antagonize cash paying clients this way, or to injure poor people, or to drive outpatient work toward free-standing clinics and doctor's offices. As a matter of fact, there is a small incentive in the rare wealthy foreigner who pays full freight, and the Medicare inpatient loophole of charge reimbursement for "outliers", cases with unusual costs. However, regulators are struggling to close such loopholes and cash payments are rare. I remember one oriental dignitary, reputed to own 8% of his country's Gross Domestic Product, who pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills to pay a hospital but totally befuddled the hospital clerk who didn't know what to do with real money. For every instance of this sort of thing, there are a hundred instances of hospital administrators genuinely distressed by their own mandate to collect seriously inflated bills from poor people.

Well, if hospital top management is conflicted by devising this practice, and mid-level employees are distressed to implement it, well, who else has a motive to continue this markup? The obvious suspects are two: health insurance companies and Medicaid agencies. Obviously, sellers of health insurance rejoice in a situation where even people without important need for health cost protection must nevertheless buy it to protect against gouging. Think of an insurance executive before his home television, watching Presidents of the United States searching for ways to make their product mandatory for every citizen, and weeping because it is unattainable. Yes, health insurance companies have incentive to favor high hospital posted prices, but still it is difficult to see why hospitals would cooperate. State Medicaid agencies might also develop a motive to increase their own Federal reimbursement, and have occasionally engaged in some questionable maneuvers to do so through the arcane formulas of federal-state cost sharing. What's more, state governments are often in a position to help hospitals who play nice. In a naughty world, some of that may go on, but massive conspiracy seems implausible. So, if those with potential incentives are unable to force compliance, why do hospitals do this? Why would they persist in something they privately deplore, silently biting their lips at the criticism it provokes?

Originally published: Friday, August 31, 2007; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019