Reasons to care about our American health care crisis – 300 million personal and 3 trillion dollars of them

Image result for healthcare as percentage of gdp projections graph

Image result for healthcare as percentage of gdp projections graph

The Compelling Case for Change

Every individual in this country has a personal story of how they have witnessed dysfunction and brokenness in our American health care system. All 300 million+ Americans have in the very least suffered a really screwed up and indecipherable bill (or set of bills from an uncoordinated system for the same service) with little price transparency and with lack of clarity on what services were actually offered and why. Many of us have been subjected to the extremely frustrating lack of coordination across systems, forcing us to attempt to connect the pieces together. A depressing amount of us have even witnessed ourselves or a loved one being harmed by a medical error or a health system acquired infection. A doleful companion to these visible operational challenges is the fact that we are all increasingly paying inordinately growing sums, over $3 trillion and counting, into health care, while getting increasingly little in return.  The 18th Century Scottish philosopher, economist, and essayist David Hume once observed of public debt that, “It must, indeed, be one of these two events; either the nation must destroy the public credit, or public credit will destroy the nation. It is impossible that they both can subsist, after the manner they have been hitherto managed…” One can easily substitute Hume’s concerns with public debt to its modern American equivalent of health expenditures to develop the same sense of urgency. In fact, as the above graphs on cumulative projections of American health care costs and government spending on health entitlements reveals, public credit and health care expenditures are inextricably linked, unsustainable, and crowding out all other areas of government expenditure as well as crowding out what we as consumers would otherwise prefer to spend our dollars on.  As will be discussed later, the great tragedy is that we are pouring money into reactive systems of care that do little ultimately to increase our quality of life and life span. It is largely non-value added money that is siphoned off from other valuable areas of the economy. This has to change.

We have a crisis on our hands, and it will take a concerted and united effort combined with a sense of urgency to destroy it. Lately, I have been drawing a tremendous amount of inspiration and sense of personal urgency through the reading of David Goldhill’s Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know about Health Care Is Wrong.  For those like myself who are industry insiders, consider this a scathing and devastating indictment that we need to absorb, comprehend, and become devoted in our own little corners to remedying. Think of this book as the prosecution’s case against our industry. Do we have a defense? If not, how do we respond? Otherwise, I am afraid that the unsustainable industry as it stands today will be forced to deal with remarkable disruption and disintermediation when consumers and/or governments finally do revolt and demand change of a significant magnitude that will by then be required. Complacency should cease to be an option. For those who believe they are woefully inadequate to the task of understanding the complexity of health care (this group does not have to be mutually exclusive from the previously mentioned one of industry insiders), consider this book a remarkably easy layman’s guide that details what ails our health care system and why it should matter to you. In short, I find this book to be highly accessible and critical for all Americans to read. If it does not apply to you as a prosecution’s case, then it should easily apply to you as an easy to read and understand textbook that covers the range of issues that you as a consumer and voter should be familiar with as it relates to our broken health care systems.

The Prosecution’s Case

In of itself, Goldhill’s introduction is packed with enough vignettes and charges to make one think and feel deeply about the industry. Beginning with the visceral experiences, he presents his own personal stories of fears, frustration, and loss in the forms of how his son and father experienced health care. The former is a tragicomic string of inefficiencies, complacency, and poorly performing systems through an appendectomy, the latter a much more unfortunate set of circumstances that culminated in a hospital acquired infection and ultimately death. Along the way, Goldhill observes both technical and life-saving brilliance incongruously combined with administrative and operational incompetence. His pointed question, which should be our industry-wide challenging refrain is, “why does therapeutic excellence often exist side by side with such backwardness?”

It isn’t just the performance aspects of our health care system that causes alarm. The other side of the formula is the price of health care. It would be one thing if we could say, “sure, it’s bad, but at least it’s cheap!” But with health care creeping up on 20% of GDP, that is appallingly and depressingly not the case. Here is a thought experiment: what would be going on in the streets and in the media if we woke up tomorrow to $15.00 per gallon gasoline prices? I dare say this would inevitably become the subject for major political and social upheaval. And yet, this is exactly the type of inflation that has occurred over the last few decades in American health care. The critical distinction is that the dramatic inflation has been hidden from us, even though it still has just as significant of an impact to our bottom-line, take-home cash. In the book, Goldhill uses the simple example of a woman named Becky who works at his company: “Becky will actually contribute over $10,000 into American’s health care system this year – most of it through payments she is not aware of…even if we somehow tame the explosive growth in health care costs (literally reducing cost growth to zero), our system already assumes that Becky will pay well more than $1.2 million over her lifetime. And that’s assuming she never has a major illness, in which case she will almost certainly pay much more. Becky is pouring far more money into our health care system than she imagines.” Indeed, I would add that this out of sight and out of mind aspect of funding health care access is the primary reason we have increasing take home pay inequality in America, as I covered in a separate blog post.

“Why does therapeutic excellence often exist side by side with such backwardness?”

The Foundational Industry/Government Error

Goldhill articulates what he believes to be the primary culprit in our combined system of rising costs and operational backwardness – a funding and care selection model he indicates is defined by what he calls “Surrogates.” In this group, you could lump commercial insurers as well as government models such as Medicare and Medicaid. Goldhill observes that, “The dominant health insurance model requires us to turn over our role as consumers to what I call Surrogates: private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid. The theory is that only the Surrogates have enough knowledge to control excess care, enough market power to discipline rising prices, and enough vested interest in our health to drive greater safety and quality. But the past fifty years suggest the theory is wrong; the Surrogates themselves create many of the incentives for bad behavior in health care…American health care relentlessly expands the definition of medical need, engages in administratively complex and nontransparent practices, and overinvests in expensive technologies because these actually serve the institutional (and financial) needs of the Surrogates. Conversely, the health care industry underinvests in service, safety, and efficiency, because these are not the Surrogates’ priorities (even if they are our priorities).” Of course, there is a lengthy history here on how we got to this point of over-reliance on Surrogates, some of which is covered in a separate post, where I will admit to relying heavily on Milton Friedman, and another separate post where I borrow heavily from Dr. Michael Accad’s wonderful  Alert and Oriented blog.

The Insulated Island of Health Care

A large part of the appeal and readability of Goldhill’s account is that his analogies, connections, and consistently simplistic and relatable terms he coins keeps the reader engaged and understanding of typically complex themes. One such term is “The Island of Health Care.” Any time you see this, you know you are entering into the zone of incomprehensible and nonsensical ways of doing and defending the ways in which health care operates. On this topic, Goldhill levels these charges:

Health care experts often make confident, absolutist assertions that appear truly ridiculous when held up to the mirror of the world outside health care. For example, they write about how technology is inexorably driving up the cost of care, often while working on a powerful laptop for which they paid a few hundred dollars. The secretary of health and human services says that catastrophic health insurance isn’t real insurance because it doesn’t pay for routine expenses; apparently, she’s never had an auto or homeowner’s policy. Truly brilliant analysts argue that health care can never be a normal industry because the need for care is so concentrated that in any given year roughly 70 percent of care is used by only 10 percent of the population. But a far greater concentration of spending in any given year is the rule for almost every other universally-consumed expensive good or service; surely, they know that we don’t use insurance to pay for purchases of homes, cars, weddings, and college educations?…
…Sure a person hit by a bus or having a heart attack has a unique ‘demand curve’ for medical services. But the fact that some health care is truly urgent doesn’t mean that all of it is…most care is no longer of this type; the biggest share we spend on health care now goes toward identifying and managing long-term conditions…Yet this new reality as barely intruded into the way we think about, pay for, and manage care. It’s like organizing the entire care-service business to protect us against only the possibility of a tire blowout on a highway…
…Forget the rhetoric: our health care system isn’t an example of ‘socialism’ or ‘profit-driven medicine.’ In fact, it is such a strange beast, I’m not even sure we have an appropriate label for it. The best analogy might be the Galapagos Islands, set so far offshore from the mainland of industry evolution and economic laws that is has produced odd, anomalous creatures of policy and regulation.
All I can say to this litany is “Indeed!”

The “Imperial” Health System

“Imperial Health System” is another one of Goldhill’s lexicographical innovations. What I enjoy most about this section is his focus on what actually matters to our health, largely forgotten and neglected in all of our political rhetoric and tug of war – our society and our lifestyles. This is what health care industry parlance is increasingly calling “Population Health,” although a fair amount of this term is still very much being used for inside the four walls of the hospital activities. Speaking of the Imperial Health System, Goldhill states that, “of the 34 rich countries in the OECD, the United States ranks a low 27 in life expectancy. Whenever a new study on comparative life span is published, most commentators draw conclusions about the weaknesses of our health care system, especially our unique lack of guaranteed universal access. Many note that we rank low in life expectancy (and other measures of general health) ‘despite’ spending so much more on care than any other country. This casual and universal conflation of health care and health represents the greatest triumph of imperial health care – a true hijacking of language. Despite all truly extraordinary achievements of medicine – and its promise for our future – health care remains a relatively small factor in determining life spans. We know what really matters in both length of life and physical well-being: income and education; minimization of smoking and substance abuse; diet and exercise; family life and public safety. The reason Swedes, Japanese, and Italians live so long isn’t their (very different) health care systems; it’s that they live like Swedes, Japanese, and Italians. And the reason Americans and Britons are on the lower end of longevity rankings isn’t our (again very different) health care systems. It’s that we live – and eat and exercise – like Americans and Britons.”

One interesting tidbit that Goldhill serves up is the fact that although he is a lifelong Democrat, his stance on the Affordable Care Act is that it doubled down on everything that already existed that was wrong with health care. His skepticism is made evident when he indicates that, “The whole bill is based on the fundamentally weird (but apparently bi-partisan) idea that ever more expensive health care can somehow be made affordable to all by clever financial engineering. The ACA is less a reform of our health care system than an extension of its past principles to their logical end.”

Like it or not, health care is an industry…

It may seem jarring and unseemly to think of institutions chartered with providing life-giving and life-saving care as also an industry focused on making money, but this is a reality and I would argue is a benevolent, not a malevolent force and we need to use it even more and in more transparent and consumer-driven ways. I could do a whole section on the fact that industry combines the virtue of profit-making prudence with many other virtues such as generosity, justice, mercy, etc., but for expediency I direct the interested reader to check out Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Virtues for more on that topic. For his part, Goldhill states that, “We may not like thinking of health care as an industry, but it is one. Roughly 15 million Americans now earn their living from health care; forty-eight of the Fortune 500 largest companies are in the health business. The majority of people in this industry are motivated by a desire to do good, to help others. But they are also driven by their economic incentives. As a business, health care has done very well by the conventional wisdom that care is fundamentally different from everything else (can you imagine anyone proposing with a straight face that antitrust laws be suspended so that a region’s oil producers, refiners, and distributors be allowed to cooperate to achieve lower prices? Well, that’s essentially the premise behind Accountable Care Organizations, a key structural reform in the ACA

The reason Swedes, Japanese, and Italians live so long isn’t their (very different) health care systems; it’s that they live like Swedes, Japanese, and Italians. And the reason Americans and Britons are on the lower end of longevity rankings isn’t our (again very different) health care systems. It’s that we live – and eat and exercise – like Americans and Britons.”

…so we need to create true consumers for the industry to function properly 

This post has the great risk of parting the reader into a natural left versus right camp, but one benefit of Goldhill’s book is that I sincerely believe he is trying to find and articulate a consumer-driven solution that might appeal to both the sides of the left/right political spectrum.  Goldhill consistently returns to the necessary role of consumers making decisions in the market in any industry, and no less so than in health care. He holds up the example of Singapore above all as the health care model he appreciates the most. There is a role for insurers there, but they are not the comprehensive surrogates that they have become in America. In other words, they actually function like insurance companies. Singapore subsidizes health care funding for the poor, but the consumers themselves make decisions on how to spend those dollars across all income spectrums. The contemporary equivalent of this in American policy debates would be funded health savings accounts for Medicare and Medicaid. To these ends, Goldhill strikes his balance between left and right forces here, and adds his observations on just how bad for consumers this market is today. Here is one health care consumer analogy that Goldhill pulls out that would be amusing if it were not so tragically true of how health care interacts with consumers: “Can you imagine taking your care to a body shop and, moths later, receiving a separate bill from the guy who reattached the fender? And the shop saying it couldn’t discuss the matter with you? The real premise behind restoring the primacy of customers is to force providers to chase us with lower prices, fewer errors, and better service. On the Mainland, we actually do relatively shopping around; sellers offering discounts and better service find us. It’s our current Surrogate-driven system that forces us to do the work and get pre-approval for reimbursement, to discover which facility is good at which treatments, to find a doctor, to coordinate the work of specialists, to negotiate price, to uncover safety records. Simply put, health care performs badly because it can get away with it.”

I really like this point about sellers here. Too often, health care experts make the point that consumers are not educated enough to make their own decisions. This assumes that consumers have to be perfectly informed, and since they can’t be, they might as well rely entirely on the Surrogates. Goldhill makes the point that we don’t have to be perfectly informed for a functioning market. In a consumer-driven market, sellers will be forced to innovate on the marketing and outreach and customer services aspects as well on the actual performance of their business. They will have it in their interests (of survival) to educate and inform the consumers. Competition will be driven by pricing and outcomes transparency. Only in this type of market paradigm will we see prices hurtle down and outcomes increase.

The ACA is less a reform of our health care system than an extension of its past principles to their logical end.

The Policy and Industry Changes Required

The health care mess is so complex and is several layers thick that there are many ways to propose consumer-driven corrections. Many of these that I am personally favorable to were highlighted in the early days of Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” set of plans for health care reform. Goldhill lays out his own proposals that I think have the merits of threading the left/right needle that might make it politically feasible. Much remains to be seen on what will come out of the united GOP’s ACA repeal and replace plans, and Goldhill’s ideas preceded the contemporary debates by a few years and may not have any impact on the debate. Still, given the choice between the status quo (assuming failure of the GOP to move replace all the way through), I would take Goldhill’s prescriptions, including government oversight and management of some forms of catastrophic insurance, any day of the week. The important factor is that the majority of the market should move to consumer-driven decision-making, which is the benefit of a Health Savings Account driven reform model. In Goldhill’s words, “…to recognize that change is inevitable and unpredictable; choice, dynamism, and competition of ideas (and business models) are essential to progress. Ironically, in the one service where the potential human benefit from innovation is greatest – health care – all our impulses have been to enact policies that impede choice, competition, and all the dynamism they unleash….Creating a more prominent role for consumers doesn’t mean eliminating that of the government’s: it means making consumers, rather than industry, the government’s partner in pursuing health policy. Even in Singapore, government plays an essential role in health care. Critics often label this attempt to rebalance forces as ‘free-market health care.’ Well, this book proposes national cradle-to-grave catastrophic health insurance, mandatory health savings accounts, large-scale health grants for the needy, rigorous enforcement of price transparency and antitrust legislation, and a national health database. Only on the Island of Health Care could this be described as ‘free market.'”

This effectively means allowing government a role in ensuring that the person who has that urgent accident or that fatal disease are well-taken care of. It also means that the much more significant impact consumer, the one with diabetes and heart failure, begins to be a conscious consumer of how they interact with and the value they get out of the health system. Furthermore, it starts to provide the much-needed incentives to both consumers and health care industry players to actively seek and reward healthy lifestyle choices in much more meaningful ways than the current policy of tinkering at the margins with value-based payments.

For the industry’s part, much of the current market direction and focus is on interoperability of systems, cognitive computing/artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and preventive care. Let’s hope that the bulk of these efforts and industry innovation focuses less around volume targeting and billing/revenue optimization (where much of “innovation” has occurred in the recent past) and more around the health, wellness, and fabric of our community/social determinants of health that matter. Let Americans become more like the Japanese and Swedish, and let’s slay this health care monster, before it slays us.

To reduce earnings inequality, we must first reduce healthcare insurance coverage costs

Given the tremendous amount of focus on income inequality these days and the common knee-jerk reaction to push harmful and counterproductive wealth redistribution policies as a palliative, it is timely and important that Mark Warshawsky of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University recently published a working paper exploring the largely heretofore ignored impact to earnings inequality of employer-based healthcare coverage as a component of total compensation.

The punchline is this: healthcare coverage costs have consistently risen faster than wages for most Americans over the past four decades. Given that healthcare coverage is relatively equal across the income ranges (it is roughly the same cost to an employer to cover a family of four in the lower 30th decile of earners as that of a family of four in the highest 10th decile of earners), rising healthcare costs will harm and encroach more grievously on the employer’s ability to increase take home earnings for lower income earners. In other words, increasing healthcare costs, even if growing at the same rate for lower income workers as higher income workers, will eat up more of a percentage of total compensation and restrain actual take-home earnings for lower income workers. Furthermore, most studies, including the high- visibility and high impact to public policy book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, have used after-tax earnings data to compare wealthy and poor, resulting in loud alarm bells on inequality. The impact? Politicians across the globe, including President Obama, declared income inequality the defining issue of our time, but based upon partially constructed data! Warshawky’s research more appropriately focuses on total compensation, which provides a more comprehensive assessment of what is going on, and in this picture is revealed a more tightly coupled growth between the income poles. This is not to say that inequality in earnings is not a problem we should address, it is more to say that policies to address it should focus on the actual cause – which is not the perceived ability of the wealthy to extract wealth at the expense of the poor, but a direct result of the pernicious impact of rising healthcare coverage costs that crowd out earnings growth for those in lower income categories.

Warshawsky uniquely pulls directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides a full assessment of the total compensation aspects of American workers. Contrast that with most studies’ data sources from the IRS and Social Security that only include cash earnings, and one develops an understanding that Warshawsky has the superior data set. In previous research using BLS data from 1999-2006, Warshawsky was able to demonstrate that if it had not been for increases in healthcare coverage costs, earnings growth between income levels would have been roughly the same. In order to understand and present the data more clearly and in layman’s terms, I have taken Warshawsky’s data and plugged in and extrapolated where I could while backing into implicit assumption numbers on baseline earnings, healthcare coverage costs, and fringe benefits for middle decile income and comparing them to top 1% incomes from 1999-2006. The patterns revealed are that while overall total compensation increased in the same percentage range over the course of seven years (34% for middle income earners and 36% for high income earners), the differences were more substantial and divergent within the earnings and healthcare coverage components of total compensation. Whereas for middle income earners wages increased only 3.5% per year, wages increased by 4.4% per year for high-income earners. This may not seem like much for any given year, but over time the differences become pronounced – over the course of seven years, the compounded gain for high income earners was 35% growth in take home earnings compared to only 27% for lower income earners. The key constraint in earnings growth for middle income earners is the fact that healthcare coverage costs rose much faster as a percentage of total compensation – rising at an annual rate of 9.9% compared to a more modest 6% for higher income levels. As Warshawsky indicates, this meant a rise in healthcare coverage as a percentage of total compensation for middle income earners from 7.2% in 1999 to 10.4% by 2006. In comparison, higher wage earners saw a modest increase of 4.0% to 4.3%.Graphs 1 and 2 visually show the impacts. While the slopes of the topline are similar between the two income groups (both rising at annual rates just over 4%), the relative mix of earnings, healthcare coverage, and fringe benefits is dissimilar; healthcare coverage costs are constraining earnings increases for middle income earners. Graphs 3 and 4 represent the percentage of total compensation aspects of the different components of total compensation, further visual evidence of the forces at play here – healthcare coverage increases for middle income earners takes up a larger percentage of total income and constrains earnings growth.

Graph 1

middle-income-total-compensation

Graph 2

high-income-total-compensation

Graph 3

middle-income-compensation-components

Graph 4

higher-income-compensation-components

For anyone interested in a more fulsome review of the examples and scenarios I have created on top of Warshawsky’s values, I have attached the spreadsheet at health-care-costs-inequality. The detailed numbers simply provide another view in support of what Warshawsky states in the working paper, “Though rising healthcare costs eat away at wage growth for everyone, the effects will be largest for the working and middle classes because their healthcare costs are so large relative to the rest of their compensation package.”

In the rest of the paper, Warshawsky provides empirical evidence updates dating through 2014 using the same BLS approach as well as discussing supporting and conflicting studies. The conclusion is the same as the data above that cuts off in 2006, so I won’t drone on at length on it here. The policy implications are much the same as well – relief from healthcare coverage costs and decoupling health insurance from employer-based coverage, allowing American citizens to demand and receive higher wages with which they can then decide how to spend will do more for the lower and middle classes than any economically distorting wealth redistribution program.

 

 

 

A Fatuous Defense of the Affordable Care Act

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disraeli

The L.A. Times provides a nice set of cherry picked data to justify the Affordable Care Act. The author is also fond of the word fatuous to describe Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, so I feel compelled to maintain usage of the word my thoughts on the matter.Ignoring the long descent that healthcare has been on for decades now, and then claiming that slowing the growth rate of healthcare spend, while it still moves above the general rate of inflation and much of the decrease in observed to expected growth is related to the recession, is analogous to giving a kid a blindfold and a bat and told to hit the piñata in the tree in your backyard, meantime you have tied the piñata to a forest in the park two miles away. When the kid swings and misses, you take the blindfold off and tell him to try again, and declare success when he at least swings level at the air. The point being, even if Obamacare impacted these selective statistics, it is still miles from being where it needs to be.

To wit, there is many citations of costs decreasing, but the author conveniently ignores that those costs are going back up and projected to once again hit their stride of 6% a year, double the rate of inflation, for the foreseeable future. The recession was a temporary halt in healthcare spend, so it is really convenient to leave that fact out. Consider that in 1946 the average inflation adjusted hospital stay was $30 per day whereas today it is an astounding $2,200, a 70-fold increase. Trumpeting a modest decrease in this awful record is quite a bit like missing the forest for the trees.

Plus, while there is a lot of current debate about the tactics of repeal and replace given the slim Senate majority and how to use arcane Senate rules on budget reconciliation, Paul Ryan and others have come up with plans on replacing Obamacare, all under the banner of the Better Way moniker, which I detail in further detail elsewhere. Apparently this journalist is too lazy to look that up. But yes, I do hope that Republicans don’t take the risk of getting repeal without replace and do both at once. I honestly am not holding my breath given Republican ineptitude in the past.

It’s nice that the uninsured rate is going down, but of course a federal mandate to buy health insurance upon pain of hefty tax penalties is going to increase insurance rates. Would you praise a parent who upon their child spilling a drink or dropping food forced them to do 40 push-ups before eating again and then declaring to Facebook, “my child can do 40 pushups!”? No, I think not. At any rate, the real question is whether this metric on its own is the most important one and decoupled from the irrefutable evidence that healthcare costs and insurance premiums continue to skyrocket at a double-digit pace. Plus, recent research from economist Mark Warshawsky indicates that skyrocketing health insurance premiums have held down take home wages, as health insurance coverage has gone up for the lower and middle classes as a percentage of their total compensation from 4% to 12% in just a couple of decades – meaning they are not getting raises in take home pay because it is getting swallowed up in health insurance. Since inequality is a focus these days, look at the failures in our government run healthcare system as a main culprit.

If we are concerned with people not seeing the doctor, providing a stipend for catastrophic insurance and flexible Health savings accounts would have done the same thing without the enormous bureaucratic bloat that has led to skyrocketing premiums. And uncompensated care is an important gap to close, but this is all a bunch of cost shifting. What used to be covered through disproportionate share payments at the county and state levels, where great board oversight could be applied with local knowledge, is now being soaked up by cross-subsidies through the federal tax code – out of sight, out of mind, no accountability, and requiring hospitals to create a new administrative burden to work through the ACA and all its complexity.

This also ignores the many blatant failures of Obamacare, which I helpfully capture here. https://wordpress.com/post/gymnasiumsite.wordpress.com/117

“Medicaid reform, the elephant in the room”

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The American Enterprise Institute recently published a thought-provoking and helpfully brief primer on how Medicaid funding works, what it means to shift to state block grants, and why politically such a move will be tremendously challenging.

Alas, something much more radical would actually give the poor better access and would drive the competition in the marketplace that would start to incent health care delivery systems and insurers to compete for their dollars. To wit, why not simply focus on an individual income basis and fund catastrophic insurance for unexpected events (what insurance is designed to do in every other industry save healthcare) complemented with funding for a flexible with annual rollover features Health Savings Account? This seems to me to be the ultimate path out of Medicaid and all of its challenges, such as those raised in this post. It would provide purchasing power directly to individuals, get them out of narrow networks defined by states, and remove the massive costs of administering programs through federal and state bureaucracies.

 

“How to Cure Health Care” – Milton Friedman’s 2001 essay on the subject is still remarkably relevant

If I suddenly discovered that I had a serious disease and was handed a medicine concocted in 2001 as the only antidote available, I would very likely panic, despairing that surely something more timely and up to date could have been developed in the intervening 15-16 years. Alas, it seems that America’s healthcare system has been stuck in a reverse funhouse of distorting mirrors for so long, that it is equal parts amazing and depressing to read an essay from Milton Friedman on the subject and discover that the same advice he had for healthcare in 2001 is precisely the advice that would have cured our ailments if only we had followed it. Unfortunately, as he predicted, we did just the opposite, just how we have been doing it for decades since World War II. Thus, for this particular disease, hand me that vial from 2001, because everything else from then on has been cooked up by quacks and witch doctors. The hard medicine from 2001 might be painful to swallow, but it is the right palliative for the long-run.

In the essay, Friedman begins by noting the most important features of modern healthcare. First, there have been major advances in technology and science, which is no bad thing. Second, for several decades we have witnessed rising costs in healthcare relative to overall economic growth on an inflation-adjusted basis. Finally, healthcare features a decreasing satisfaction level amongst both consumers and producers. Within this feature set, Friedman notes that healthcare is unique amongst many other industries in not catalyzing technological advancement to actually lower per unit costs over time.

What distinguishes health care from these industries? Friedman has the answer – government involvement. Unique amongst all industries, healthcare is the only industry in which government plays such a dominating role in the production, financing, and delivering of medical services. And despite the role of the nominal private insurers in the market, I would point out that government finances, whether directly through Medicare and Medicaid, or indirectly through subsidies, a critical mass of over 50% of healthcare finance. Where the government leads on payment models, commercial players, largely structured in local monopolies, inevitably follow, making a mockery of any claims that this is a “market” in any sense of the word. Commercial insurers are not much different than government directed contractors.

The role of third party payment models
Within this doleful narrative, we can firmly point the finger at third party healthcare payment models as the culprit for the out of control expenditures and the mess of unintended consequences we have found ourselves in. And how we got third party payments is another lesson in how one muddled government intervention leads to the need for yet another, building an unsustainable house of cards that always needs one more card stacked on top. In this case, wage controls in the World War II era led employers to provide medical coverage as a benefit to get around controls and to more effectively compete for talent. By the time the IRS got wind of it and attempted to tax these benefits, they had become so popular that Congress intervened to make them a non-taxable benefit. Here is the catch though- the tax exemption was only provided to employers. Any consumer out on the marketplace buying insurance on their own receives no such benefit. Thus, people are conditioned and majorly incented to look for health coverage from their employer. Friedman summarizes the ill logic behind reliance on third party payment models and employer-based insurance:

We have become so accustomed to employer-provided medical care that we regard it as part of the natural order. Yet it is thoroughly illogical. Why single out medical care? Food is more essential to life than medical care. Why not exempt the cost of food from taxes if provided by the employer? Why not return to the much-reviled company store when workers were in effect paid in kind rather than in cash?

The major perverse impacts of employer-based insurance are that people delegate their healthcare provisioning and decision making to entities and individuals ill-equipped to perform those responsibilities. Furthermore, employees inevitably give up the ability to achieve in direct wages what is now siphoned off to healthcare coverage.

Then in the 1960s the U.S. Government enacted Medicare and Medicaid, driving third party payment models across even more populations. What is the logical impact? As Friedman notes, “nobody spends money from someone else as frugally as his own.” The third party administration of healthcare costs means no incentives for the individual to control those costs. As Friedman observes:

Enactment of Medicare and Medicaid provided a direct subsidy for medical care. The cost grew much more rapidly than originally estimated—as the cost of any handout invariably does. Legislation cannot repeal the nonlegislated law of demand and supply: the lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded; at a zero price, the quantity demanded becomes infinite. Some method of rationing must be substituted for price, which invariably means administrative rationing.

Astoundingly, healthcare as a share of our national income has risen from 3 percent in 1919 to close to 20 percent in 2016. To put this in perspective, Friedman comments that in 1946 seven times as much was spent on food, beverages, and tobacco than on healthcare. By 1996, healthcare had passed these collective categories.

What is Insurance? In healthcare, it bears little resemblance to what it typically means

In every other aspect of our lives, insurance means coverage for the catastrophic, long tail events that we never expect to happen but which would wipe us out financially if they did occur. It is the hurricane that reduces our house to rubble or the wreck that totals someone else’s car and puts them in a hospital. In healthcare, government meddling has forced this to become coverage for everything, however routine the expense. Much of this is based upon the employer incentives to move compensation into healthcare coverage, but even more pernicious is government mandates on what health plans must cover. It is analogous to auto insurance covering oil changes by force of government mandates. In this event, we would not marvel at oil change prices spiraling out of control. Similarly, it is little wonder that healthcare costs have exploded; between third party payment obfuscation, administrative bloat, and mandated coverages of all healthcare expenses, it would be an economical gravity defying miracle if costs didn’t explode.

“The Black Hole of Bureaucratization” 

One malignant outcome of third-party based payment systems is the concomitant growth in administrative functions, be it comprised of the administrative state for government programs or administrative bloat from commercial insurers required to finance, provision, deliver, and indeed ration medical care. As Friedman indicates, since the patient no longer has an incentive to care about healthcare costs and since the provider of health services has to worry about whether a certain service is covered by the third-party payer, a middle layer is required. In this model, the physician becomes little more than an employee of the insurer or the government, taking their guidance on what can be performed for the patient. In turn, the patient’s voice is squelched, as they are merely told what can be done within the confines of their plans.

Here is where Friedman delivers what I believe to be one of his most innovative economics insights, what he calls Gammon’s Law – which is defined as bureaucratization that causes both a rise in inputs and expense alongside a decrease in outputs and outcomes. Gammon’s Law is based upon observations of a British physician named Max Gammon, who performed an extensive study of the British National Health Service and noted that in this bureaucratic system that there was both an increase in expenditure as well as a fall in production. He noted that such systems behave like ‘black holes,’ ‘sucking in resources’ and ‘shrinking in terms of emitted production.’

There are some astounding statistics from the U.S. healthcare system that I believe are so shocking that their true gravity is hard for the human mind to grasp and that demonstrates Gammon’s Law at work. Friedman observes that inflation adjusted costs per patient day since 1946 have increased from $30 to $1,200 in 1996. A more recent update for this from the Kaiser Foundation updates this number to $2,200. This is a stonking seventyfold increase! Further highlighting Gammon’s Law at work, hospital staff per bed increased ninefold from 1946 to 1996. Given other trends in the industry, I highly doubt that this force has dissipated in the intervening 20 years. This Hospital Staffing Ratio from Statistica suggests a great amount of staffing per bed in the U.S.

In order to head off any common simplistic conjectures that medical science and technological progress are the reasons for the dramatic increase in inputs and expenditures, Friedman observes the following:

….True, medical machines have become more complex. However, in other areas where there has been great technical progress—whether it be agriculture or telephones or steel or automobiles or aviation or, most recently, computers and the Internet—progress has led to a reduction, not an increase, in cost per unit of output. Why is medicine an exception? Gammon’s law, not medical miracles, was clearly at work. The provision of medical care as an untaxed fringe benefit by employers, and then the federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care of the elderly and the poor, provided a fresh pool of money. And there was no shortage of takers. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals and medical care, further increasing administrative costs and leading to the bureaucratization that is so prominent a feature of medical care today.

Friedman turns to the important question of what outputs are we getting for this increase in inputs? His answer is that it is almost impossible to tell given overall improvements in diet, clothing, housing, hygiene, sanitation, general improvements in public health, better diagnosis and treatment of conditions, etc. In short, while life span and life expectancy have increased, little of that is likely attributable to the increase in health system spend. In fact, the number of days people spend in a hospital have gone down over time. While obviously that can be a good outcome and a result of better care within the walls of a hospital, it is also directly correlated to cost pressures hospitals face – pressure that leads to a maniacal pursuit of getting patients out of beds and out of the door. In summary, we can’t point to any discernible improvements we have achieved in outcomes to pair with the seventyfold increase in expenditures. Again, Gammon’s Law of the black hole in all of its fearsome gravity sucking power.

Conclusions

In a comparison between the U.S. and other developed (OECD) countries, Friedman articulates that the hybrid system that America employs is particularly bad at controlling costs. In this respect alone, the U.S. has a relative disadvantage compared to peers such as the U.K. and Canada that have single-payer and monopoly over delivery systems. Of course, there is a tradeoff with these systems in access and innovation. Following the previously mentioned maxim on infinite demand when a good is effectively zero, the inherent tradeoff is administrative controlled rationing and inevitable queuing. Another major disadvantage of these systems is that the incentives push politicians to focus less on delivering best-in-class care to a primary focus on controlling costs.

At long last, we have arrived at the palliative against Gammon’s Law in healthcare. Of course, every classical liberal, of which Friedman is an apostle, a veritable “hero of the faith” whom we study and revere, dreams of a healthcare system that becomes as efficient and as consumer-centric as the likes of Amazon. We should be able to get on an intuitive dashboard and observe ratings of physicians and systems on the value that they drive. We should be able to observe both their pricing and outcomes, including being able to drill into the details by condition and procedure of concern to us in that moment. Competition should drive them to provide meaningful information to consumers in order to capture market share. We should have great care-based (not insurance-based) relationships with our primary care providers and other care planners and providers. A classical liberal is going to logically deduce, as does Friedman, that the idealistic path to get there is to eradicate Medicare and Medicaid, remove the tax exemption for employer-based coverage (in return for lower tax rates directly to consumers, of course) and a return of insurance to its proper role of covering catastrophes. Friedman observes that since these are going to be politically impossible in the short-run, we should aim for the next best thing – flexible health savings accounts. Friedman concludes his essay by outlining his policy proposals further:

A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense. As noted earlier, it eliminates third-party payment except for major medical expenses and is thus a movement very much in the right direction…

…Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.

A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible). Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And, third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance—hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns—the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe—and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become “What’s wrong?” not “What’s your insurance?”

In the aftermath of the surprise election putting Trump in charge of a unified GOP Congress, it is encouraging that the policy proposals developed under the moniker of “Better Way” produced by Paul Ryan and other Republicans in Congress make incremental gains in these areas. I have summarized these policy proposals in another post, and while they don’t go nearly as far as Friedman or I would want, it at least has the advantage of incremental gains, particularly in the area of health savings accounts. Given that Obamacare went even further in the wrong direction compared to Friedman’s prescriptions, further exacerbating the decades of bad decisions full of unintended consequences that is the hallmark of U.S. healthcare policy, getting at least a portion of that proverbial 2001 antidote vial is good momentum. Of course, Trump is the ultimate wild card on where he intends to take healthcare reform, but I hope he looks no further than some of the sensible plans that are already there. The ball is being handed off right in the gut. Don’t fumble it, Mr. President.

As bonus material, it is always a personal pleasure to observe the affable and remarkably quick on his feet Friedman address some of these questions and issues directly. Here are some great videos on this very subject.

Trump’s first 100 Days

I could write my own treatise on Trump’s first 100 days, or I could just link to one that already says exactly what I think written by an eminent University of Chicago trained economist and Hoover Institute fellow named  John Cochrane instead.

For today, I choose the latter option. The only addition I would make is that he should look no further than Cochrane when appointing a Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.

http://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2016/11/no-100-days-please.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+TheGrumpyEconomist+(The+Grumpy+Economist)&m=1

The central government planners behave as conflicted madmen, creating a muddle of healthcare

madman

The federal government created the “Affordable” Care Act, which by this point is a laughable misnomer in the face of never ending premium increases, alongside the creation of payment and delivery reform structures such as Accountable Care Organizations, knowing full well that it would drive health system consolidation. In fact, one might argue this consolidation was a specific goal of the reforms in the government planners belief that newly minted behemoths would drive cost down due to scale and drive care quality up through better coordination across the system continuum up. Meantime, the same federal government is also fighting against that urge to consolidate through the Federal Trade Commission, as this Modern Healthcare Article indicates.

If we were to view a man trying to push the walk button at a busy intersection with his right hand while his left hand tugged it back, we would think him a madman. Well, this is our own government intervention into the healthcare “market” at its finest.

Explaining the EpiPen (hint – the company can jack its prices up because of government intervention, not because of the lack of it)

This author does as admirable of a job as any I have seen, so I am sharing it. http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/08/29/reverse-voxsplaining-drugs-vs-chairs/

The only point he leaves out that I would like to make is the laughable hypocrisy of government officials, including one candidate for President, claiming we need more government intervention and price controls. I have a better idea for policymakers – how about trying something that comes completely unnatural to you – get out of the way and let innovators do what you could never do, actually create products that people want at lower cost and higher quality, if only you would let them. I promise it will be more effective and help the poor and middle class a lot more than your prescriptions (lame pun intended.) But I suppose that is the point, your job security is only justified if you are seen as hyperactive in your “protection” of the people. If only the people knew that the only protection we often need is actually precisely from you – the paternalistic functionary.

Here is the key crux of his argument, wrapped into a simple market analogy of chairs:

Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.

(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)

Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA spends millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you’ve got really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.

And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.

 

 

 

Healthcare isn’t a marketplace

A great summation exhorting us to stop using the term “marketplace” to describe healthcare.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/quit-using-word-marketplace-when-you-talk-healthcare-america-hull?trk=hp-feed-article-title-publish

The key point and question that the author goes on to answer is:

A market is a place where buyers and sellers, functioning as independent agents in pursuit of their self interest, meet to negotiate a mutually agreeable exchange of money for products/services.  At Wharton, they taught us, furthermore, that an efficient market has three basic qualities: A critical mass of buyers and sellers, low transaction fees, and information transparency between buyers and sellers.   Do either of those two scenarios remind you of the American healthcare system?

The rest of the post is succinct and on point.

Government – the only sphere on earth where abject failure leads to more power and responsibility

It is a curious and novel tendency that government failures don’t lead to accountability and a search for knowledge and truth, but rather inexorable demands for yet more powers. Witness the increasing calls for the public option in healthcare insurance. Are we really going to trust the powers who gave us the VA and the monumental failures of Obamacare with even more arbitrary and market upending powers that will be impossible to claw back? This is a remarkable centrifugal force unique to government. Try getting away with this in the private sector and see how long it lasts.

The problem isn’t the scapegoated free market (that has not actually existed in healthcare for decades) or insurance companies when we witness rising premiums, the failure of insurance exchanges, and the decades-long march of healthcare costs rising faster than the rate of inflation. Although one can’t help but engage in just a tiny bit of schadenfreude at insurance companies groaning under the weight of their own Faustian bargains with the government in support of the Affordable Care Act (the tradeoff being forced and locked in customers in exchange for standardized coverage plans coverage of pre-existing conditions, and an overall environment of cross-subsidization of low-risk policyholders to higher risk ones). Too bad that there are real lives at stake and 20% of our economy continuing its long rapid descent into a massive government intervention – making this no small laughing matter.

The problem is the unintended (and often intended, as is the case of the mergers of health systems and the demise of the private physician practice) consequences of strangulating regulations and inept government policies foisted on the market by the tyranny of experts who are too arrogant to perceive that no individual or collection of elite individuals could ever effectively replace the collective and mysterious emergent order of free individuals making free choices. This aforementioned comedy of errors was entirely predictable, at least among those not within tenured positions within CMS and HHS and the rent-seekers that lobby them for rules that further entrench their monopolies (ahem, large insurers and large health systems).

Speaking of the tyranny of experts, I can’t help but view them as analogous to the competing architects in a Monty Python sketch in which one accidentally designs a slaughterhouse and one designs something that does exactly the opposite of what he says it will do – still somehow winning the contract. For the time-strapped for comedy, the best analogy occurs starting at the 3:15 mark.