ACA Health Insurance Exchanges – Not All are Competitive

Download PDF Report >>> ACA Exchange Premium Extremes

SUMMARY

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) created state run Insurance Exchanges to stimulate competition among health insurers. Some believe that private insurers are better suited to manage the complex health insurance market. But are they?

Kaiser Health News (KHN) recently published premiums that private insurers charge on ACA Exchanges. KHN identified 10 ACA Exchanges with the highest premiums, and 10 with the lowest. They found extreme differences and attributed them to competition or lack thereof. This analysis confirms those conclusions by comparing actual Medicare costs for those same areas.

Detailed cost data published by Medicare show that medical costs for seniors are fairly consistent across these 20 ACA Exchanges. Though costs for seniors are much higher than for those under 65, they provide a valid proxy for all medical costs when comparing one market area with another.

Medicare payments are based on service costs with pricing input from the American Medical Association. Medicare adjusts for regional differences so costs are consistent across the nation. Medicare essentially ignores hospital and doctor billing prices.

Private insurers, on the other hand, derive their costs more from provider billing prices which have been shown to be highly inconsistent.  (http://insr.us/hospbill) Insurers do negotiate discounts from billing prices, but if the billing basis is inconsistent, it is harder to get a consistent result.

If there are few dominant providers, insurers have less leverage over discounts. If there are few dominant insurers, they are less inclined to aggressively set lower premiums.

Only one conclusion supports the enormous differences in premiums between the high and low cost ACA Exchanges. In areas where little competition exists, whether it be providers or insurers, private insurers are unable or unwilling to offer competitive pricing. The belief that private insurers are better suited to restrain market prices rings false in these instances.

METHODOLOGY

For years, health insurance markets have been divided into areas that coincide with county lines. The ACA insurance Exchanges continue to abide by these market boundaries.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) analyzed these “market areas” and found huge differences in ACA Exchange premiums. They identified 10 most expensive market areas and 10 least expensive areas (listed in Appendices 3 and 4).

ACA Exchanges insure people under 65, and premiums are derived from expected costs based on historical costs in the counties that make up each ACA Exchange.

Medicare publishes medical costs data down to the county level. Though Medicare costs apply primarily to seniors, one can map those costs to align with the 20 market areas. It does not matter that Medicare’s costs are much higher than for those under 65. The relative costs are what are important.

If two market areas have similar Medicare costs, it is fair to assume that medical costs for those not in Medicare will also be similar. Conversely, if Medicare costs are far different, one expects non Medicare costs will also be different.

Medicare data include all costs, while ACA Exchange data is only for premiums. Is this apples and oranges? Well no, because ACA requires insurers to offer plans identical in coverage and which differ only in cost sharing.

With identical coverage, the costs of each plan are identical. All that differs is the cost sharing. Plans called “Bronze” have premiums that cover 60% of expected costs, “Silver” which cover 70%, “Gold” – 80%, and “Platinum” – 90%.

Knowing this, one simply divides the premium by the percent coverage to derive total expected costs. If premiums for a silver plan are $280 per month, total expected costs would be $400 per month (280 / 70% = 400).

Since the KHN report applied to Silver plans for a 40 year old, premium costs were divided by 70% to get total expected costs. Direct cost comparisons can now be made between 40 year olds on ACA Exchanges and seniors on Medicare.

DISCUSSION

Kaiser Health News (KHN) recently published premiums that private insurers charge on ACA Exchanges. KHN identified 10 ACA Exchanges with the highest premiums, and 10 with the lowest. They found extreme differences but did not include an analysis of the causes.

The graph below shows monthly Silver Plan premiums for a 40 year old in the 10 LOWEST ACA Insurance Exchange Areas. As the labels at right show, those market areas occur over multiple geographic regions.

The green bar at bottom of the graph shows the average premium which is just over $170 per month.

Premiums 10 lowest

Like the first graph, the graph below shows monthly Silver Plan premiums for a 40 year old in the 10 HIGHEST ACA Insurance Exchange Areas. Again the labels at right show those market areas occur over multiple geographic regions.

The green bar at bottom of the graph shows the average premium which is more than $400 per month.

Premiums 10 highest

Combing the highest and lowest, the graph below compares the monthly premiums, gold for the highest cost areas and green for the lowest. The differences in premiums are huge. The lowest ACA Exchange areas have average premiums less than half (about 40%) the premiums of the highest.

Prem hi vs lo

Having a direct comparison between high and low premiums, the next step is to compare all these 20 ACA premiums with another measurement common to all the same market areas. Medicare spending fits that bill, as it not only occurs in every area, it also comprises half of ALL medical spending in them.

This works only if Medicare costs are an appropriate proxy for ACA Exchange costs. To test, one needs comprehensive data on personal health care (PHC) spending by age group. Medicare provides that data which covers millions of people though only through 2004 as shown in the graph below.

Health Spend all ages

The top line, seniors 65 and older, incurred a sharp increase in health care spending 1987 – 1996. Since 1996, cost increases have been proportional among all age groups. A closer look within Medicare age groups is done to assure Medicare is an acceptable proxy for all health care spending.

The following graph subdivides Medicare only costs into three age groups. The sharp rise in 1996 average cost was most affected by those 85 and older. Since 1996, all age group’s costs have risen proportionately. As cost trends for all age groups are similar since 1996, Medicare costs offer a good proxy for medical costs of other age groups as well.

Health Spend Medicare

The graph below combines the prior graphs of total Personal Health Care Spending per capita into seven age groups. The four left bars include all groups under 65 years old. The next three bars (aqua, gold and light blue) represent the three Medicare age groups. The last two bars on the right show national averages for all those under 65 (red) and all those 65 and older (green).

HC Spend all n avg

It is clear that health costs rise rapidly with age, accelerating more in senior years. The average costs for 40 year olds are included in the second (yellow) bar from the left which costs average less than $400 per month.

Averages for Medicare health costs, as shown in the far right green bar, are some three times greater than for 40 year olds. While this data is only through 2004, all medical costs have risen at about the same rate. One can expect Medicare costs today to still be about three times that of a 40 year old.

The above graph shows costs. To directly compare these total costs with ACA Exchange premiums, just covert premiums to total costs. As noted in the Methodology, divide premiums by 70% to get expected costs for each ACA Exchange.

The next graph shows these total estimated costs for each of the 20 market areas. For the 10 most expensive areas, costs average about $600 per month. For the 10 least expensive areas, total average costs are about $245 per month, 40% of the high cost areas. The graph is the same as that for premiums above, but with 40+% higher monthly costs.

HC Cost hi vs lo

With total costs available for all, the graph below compares Medicare costs with costs of 40 year olds in each of the 10 lowest cost ACA Exchange areas. The low Medicare costs in the 4th series is Hawaii, which is the only outlier in this series.

In these competitive ACA Exchange areas, the average spread between Medicare and ACA is over four times. On a national average as shown above, the spread is around three times which shows competition really can reduce premiums.

Medicare vs 10 low

Before comparing total Medicare costs with the highest cost ACA Exchange areas, it is helpful to know what Medicare costs are in the highest cost areas relative to lowest cost areas. The graph below shows Medicare costs in all 20 market areas. While there are variations in total Medicare costs between market areas, there are no trends that favor either high or low cost ACA Exchange areas.

Medicare 20 hi n lo

The conclusion drawn from this graph is that high cost ACA Exchange areas have Medicare costs similar to low cost ACA Exchange costs. Nothing is inherently different for seniors.

The next graph compares total Medicare costs with total costs of 40 year olds in each of the 10 highest cost ACA Exchange areas. As expected, seniors’ Medicare costs are higher than are 40 year olds costs. However, with the national average spread around three times for this age group and Medicare, the difference here is one tenth of that, less than a 30%.

Since Medicare costs are not so different between high and low cost areas, the only conclusion is that ACA Exchange costs are too high. These high cost estimates have led to private insurer premiums far higher expected.

Medicare vs 10 hi

In conclusion, Medicare costs do not differ much between high and low cost ACA Exchange areas. By extension, health care costs for a 40 year old should not differ by much. Yet, the difference in premiums is huge.

If the insurer has near monopoly power, it has little reason to demand deep discounts. Insurers’ margins are constrained by ACA law to 20%. In short, 20% of a higher cost is more profitable than 20% of a lower cost. So why press harder for lower costs?

If the provider has near monopoly power, the insurer has little leverage since there are no competitive providers as an alternative. Either way, individuals in some ACA Exchanges are paying higher costs than expected.

Medicare doesn’t worry about either dominant insurers or dominant providers. It has a national payment scale, and with Medicare amounting to half a provider’s business, the providers are virtually forced to accept Medicare’s terms.

ONE SOLUTION IDEA

There is a solution that could remedy this situation. Amend the ACA with a proviso to apply only to any ACA Exchange market area in which the spread between insurers’ premiums and Medicare payments is greater than some threshold.

If the spread exceeds that maximum, ACA could create a public insurance option and where the public option requires providers to accept both Medicare and the option or neither. Public option premiums would key off Medicare payments plus an added profit margin to level the playing field with private insurers. This would force competition regardless of whether the insurer or the provider was dominant.

APPENDIX 1

One further check on Medicare as a proxy is a deeper dive into its major components to see if any are skewing total costs. The two graphs below highlight hospital admissions and emergency room visits per thousand beneficiaries in the 20 ACA Exchange areas. As expected, variations exist, but no consistent pattern appears between Medicare admissions between ACA Exchange areas.

CMS Hospital

CMS ER visit

There is one outlier and that is Medicare costs in the highest cost ACA Exchange area, a ski resort area. Here Medicare hospital and emergency room visits are markedly lower. It is likely that seniors living here may be more active in winter sports. This suggests they may be generally fit than the average senior, and thus incur fewer hospital and ER visits.

APPENDIX 2

Source for the 10 least expensive and 10 most expensive ACA Health Insurance Exchange areas were compiled by Kaiser Health News (KHN) from data developed by the Kaiser Family Foundation Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance, healthcare.gov, and ACA Exchanges. The costs analyzedwere for a 40 year old person.

KHN is a nonprofit news organization committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and is an editorially-independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit private operating foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., dedicated to producing and communicating the best possible analysis and information on health issues.

APPENDIX 3: 10 Least Expensive Areas (Counties)

$154: Minneapolis-St. Paul. Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Sherburne and Washington counties.

$164: Pittsburgh and Northwestern Pennsylvania. Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Crawford, Erie, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Warren, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

$166: Middle Minnesota. Benton, Stearns and Wright counties.

$167: Tucson, Ariz. Pima County.

$171: Northwestern Minnesota. Clearwater, Kittson, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk and Red Lake counties.

$173: Salt Lake City. Davis and Salt Lake counties.

$176: Hawaii. All counties.

$180: Knoxville, Tenn. Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier & Union counties.

$180: Western and North Central Minnesota. Aitkin, Becker, Beltrami, Big Stone, Cass, Chippewa, Clay, Crow Wing, Douglas, Grant, Hubbard, Isanti, Kanabec, Kandiyohi, Lac qui Parle, Lyon, McLeod, Meeker, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Otter Tail, Pine, Pope, Renville, Roseau, Sibley, Stevens, Swift, Todd, Traverse, Wadena Wilkin and Yellow Medicine counties.

$181: Chattanooga, Tenn. Bledsoe, Bradley, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.

Source: http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Stories/2014/February/13/10-Least-Expensive-Health-Insurance-Markets-In-US.aspx

 

APPENDIX 4: 10 Most Expensive Areas

$483: Colorado Mountain Resort Region. Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, home of Aspen and Vail ski resorts. Summit County premiums are $462.

$461: Southwest Georgia. Baker, Calhoun, Clay, Crisp, Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell, Randolph, Schley, Sumter, Terrell and Worth counties.

$456: Rural Nevada Esmeralda, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Elko, Mineral, Pershing, White Pine and Churchill counties.

$445: Far western Wisconsin. Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties. (across the border from St. Paul, Minn.)

$423: Southern Georgia. A swath of counties adjacent to the even more expensive region. Ben Hill, Berrien, Brooks, Clinch, Colquitt, Cook, Decatur, Early, Echols, Grady, Irwin, Lanier, Lowndes, Miller, Seminole, Thomas, Tift and Turner counties.

$405: Most of Wyoming. All counties except Natrona and Laramie.

$399: Southeast Mississippi. George, Harrison, Jackson & Stone counties. In Hancock County, the lowest price plan is $447.

$395: Vermont.* (Unlike other states, Vermont does not let insurers charge more to older people and less to younger ones. Its ranking therefore will differ depending on the ages of the consumers)

$383: Connecticut. Fairfield County. (The southwestern-most county, which includes many affluent commuter towns for New York City.)

$381: Alaska. All counties.

Source: http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Stories/2014/February/03/most-expensive-insurance-markets-obamacare.aspx?p=1

APPENDIX 5: Source-healthcare spending by age group:

http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/downloads/2004-age-tables.pdf

 

APPENDIX 6: Source-Medicare Costs and Utilization by geographic area:

Table_State County_All_December 2013.zip from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Website: http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Medicare-Geographic-Variation/Downloads/State_County_Table_All.zip

 

APPENDIX 7: Some Relevant Provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

It now appears that some market areas have less competition and the only way for an insurer to offer qualified plans is for ACA to ease a bit regarding condition (B) “ensuring sufficient choice of providers”.

Section 1311. AFFORDABLE CHOICES OF HEALTH BENEFIT PLANS (emphasis added)

1311(c) (1) Qualified Health Plans

(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary shall, by regulation, establish criteria for the certification of health plans as qualified health plans. Such criteria shall require that, to be certified, a plan shall, at a minimum—

(A) meet marketing requirements, and not employ marketing practices or benefit designs that have the effect of discouraging the enrollment in such plan by individuals with significant health needs;

(B) ensure a sufficient choice of providers (in a manner consistent with applicable network adequacy provisions under section 2702(c) of the Public Health Service Act), and provide information to enrollees and prospective enrollees on the availability of in-network and out-of-network providers;

(C) include within health insurance plan networks those essential community providers, where available, that serve predominately low-income, medically-underserved individuals individuals, such as health care providers defined in section 340B(a)(4) of the Public Health Service Act and providers described in section 1927(c)(1)(D)(i)(IV) of the Social Security Act as set forth by section 221 of Public Law 111–8, except that nothing in this subparagraph shall be construed to require any health plan to provide coverage for any specific medical procedure;

1311(c) (2) Rule of Construction

RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in paragraph (1)(C) shall be construed to require a qualified health plan to contract with a provider described in such paragraph if such provider refuses to accept the generally applicable payment rates of such plan.

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Download PDF Report >>> ACA Exchange Premium Extremes

DRG Summary for Medicare Hospital Payments


Download PDF Report >>> Medicare Hospital Payments

SUMMARY – Medicare Hospital Payments 

Medicare does not rely on hospital billings but on data built over decades as to the reasonable cost of services. Some may question the absolute amount of Medicare reimbursements but the relative payment scales are extensively validated by actual data.  Conversely, this analysis shows hospital pricing has inconsistencies that cannot be rationally explained.

However, private insurers negotiate discounts from these hospital pricings. If billed prices are inconsistent, then so are discounts based on them. A major constraint on medical costs will occur when patients can make informed cost decisions at the DRG level, not just for overall premiums and co-pays. Currently, few persons can make those informed decisions.

Many states have enacted legislation for hospitals to be more transparent about their prices, but enforcement is spotty.  This Medicare data suggests that the country would be well served if hospitals posted DRG prices for all to compare.

METHODOLOGY

In May, 2013 Medicare released its most comprehensive set ever of statistical data regarding hospital payments.  The data covered fiscal year 2011 and included the top 100 DRG’s (diagnostic related codes) based on inpatient discharges. Data excludes DRG’s for hospitals with fewer than 11 discharges for that DRG. This allows focus on higher volume services and their financial impact.  The final data set of the top 100 DRG’s results in over 166,000 records of nearly 7 million discharges from over 3,300 hospitals.

The data itself lists for DRG’s for each hospital, the number of discharges, the average covered (billed) charges, and the average total payment including Medicare. Each hospital, also includes its HRR (hospital referral region) which is the method governments use to determine “market areas”.

The chart below from Kaiser Foundation indicates that inpatient hospital is just over a quarter of Medicare spend or about $140 billion annually.

image001

This analysis examines inpatient service pricing. Step one was to reduce the extreme data, both high and low. To minimize billing overstatement, this analysis removed 51 discharges that were high cost outliers. To minimize billing understatement, the smallest states totaling 10 % of the population and which tend to be more rural and variable were skipped. The sample data covers 6.3 million discharges from over 145,000 records of 100 DRG bills and costs. Total inpatient payments are $61 billion or 40% of total spend.

The data itself was analyzed five different ways.

  1. Percent of average paid vs. average billed, grouped by percent paid quartile
  2. Percent of average paid vs. average billed, grouped by state
  3. Variance from average of billed charges, grouped by state
  4. Variance from average of paid charges, grouped by state
  5. Extremes of 15 largest DRG groups expressed as a ratio of the maximum to minimum billed, along with the number of discharges included in each group

DISCUSSION

% average paid vs average billed, by % paid quartile

The graph below shows 5 sets of bars representing four quartiles 0% to 100% plus a small number of DRG’s that paid more than was billed. The left (gold) bar is the average bill for the four quintiles while the right (blue) bar is the corresponding average paid for each group. The right axis shows average dollars per discharge. Total average billed dollars is $36,384 and ranges from $54,000 highest to $11,867 lowest. Total average paid dollars is $9,754 and ranges from $14,481 highest to $9,548 lowest.

Note the inverse relationship of billed versus paid. One might expect higher billings to result in a lower percentage paid. What was not expected is that the actual dollars paid goes up as the overbilling goes down closer to paid dollars. Clearly billings for lower cost DRG’s bear little resemblance to cost.

image002

% average paid vs. average billed, grouped by state

The graph below uses the same payment data above but groups results by state.  And rather than two separate bars for billed and paid, there is one bar representing the percent of bill paid. (i.e. paid/billed) equivalent to the blue bar above.

image003

This graph does highlight the extent of overbilling by state. It does not show either the billed amounts or the paid amounts.  The graph begins with the states with the highest overbilling (and hence lower paid percent) and extends to more realistic levels of overpricing. Maryland at the bottom has billed prices very close to paid, with only a 6% discount to bill.

In the above graph, Illinois payments of 27% billed is the average for these 30 states. States listed above Illinois have more severe overpricing issues than states following Illinois.

“Discounts” from billed rates can have serious side effects. Just to call them discounts is something of a misnomer.  For many, there seems little connection between what it costs and what is billed.  Medicare of course ignores billed prices and pays what the procedures cost plus a margin.  But private insurers do not have the extensive national database that Medicare has. Instead they negotiate “discounts” from billed or list price. But as this graph shows, and as one drills down deeper by hospital, these list prices are all over the map, and that alone can skew private insurance payment amounts.

But two other adverse factors also come into play. The most important is that billed rates are what uninsured people are charged when they require treatment. Most of the uninsured cannot afford the insurance, and should they be hospitalized, things get far worse. Over 60% of personal bankruptcies have medical bills as a significant factor.

Another adverse factor is that hospitals report the amount of uncompensated care that they provide, and are provided tax exempt status if that care exceeds a specific target, and/or get reimbursed for some of these expenses. The computations are far from transparent, and it is quite possible that taxes are avoided or reimbursements received that overstate actual uncompensated care were it calculated as Medicare does.

Variance from average of billed charges, by state

The graph below offers a more close-up view of overbilling. It shows how each state’s average dollar amounts differ from the 30 state billing average of $36,384.

image004

Data is sorted from the most overbilling at the top to the least at the bottom. Note that Massachusetts, which state closely resembles the Affordable Care Act, has less overpricing (though still 50%) than all other states except Maryland.

Variance from average of paid charges, by state

The graph below is the same format as the prior except using paid instead of amounts. Its scale is also much lower. In the former graph, Maryland had the least overbilling. But as shown below, Maryland has the second most expensive payments following only slightly behind California.

This graph, more than any other highlights the cost-of-living differences between different parts of the country. Larger urban states tend to have higher costs than smaller less urban states. Nevertheless, the $5,000 difference between the extremes reflects costs nearly double from the lowest cost states to the highest.  The financial effect (+30%/-40) seems larger than justified by differences in cost-of-living alone.

image005

The most obvious difference would be intensity where higher cost states are able to justify more services. Another factor could be the use of more expensive equipment and methods.

Extremes of 15 largest DRG groups expressed as a ratio of maximum to minimum billed, along with the number of discharges included in each group

The graph below represents two different data, each with its own range of values.  The grouping is a selection of 15 of the most frequent DRGs. The wider (green) bars have their value scale shown along the top. The wide bar represents the ratio of the maximum billing divided by the minimum billing – in other words, the ratio of maximum to minimum, the extremes of over-pricing. For instance, the second DRG, “Cellulitis” has its highest billing more than 70 TIMES that of the lowest bill. Bad as that is, the extreme for septicemia is over 100 times the lowest billing. These are extreme differences for closely related illnesses. Sure there are differences in how serious the illness is, but high-low factors greater than 50, not even considering ratios greater than 100 are hard to explain.

image006

Then there are the narrow (gold) bars. They represent the number of discharges in each DRG group and whose values are shown below the graph. There are over 3.6 million discharges in the data.  One may reasonably conclude that hospital pricing bears little relationship to costs of service. While deep discounts mitigate some of this, discounting just reduces the magnitude but not the irrational pricing itself.

Download PDF Report >>> Medicare Hospital Payments

Link to Medicare Provider Charge Data

MSNBC misses on Medicare reforms

Lawrence O’Donnell commented on Medicare reforms in Obama’s State of the Union speech. He seemed to imply that Obama was shifting from “fee for service”, the current model, to  “capitation”, or HMO model. That is neither what Obama said nor implied.

What the Affordable Care Act (ACA) promotes is not the HMO or capitation model, but “payment for results”. This is something of a hybrid of “fee-for-service” and “capitation”. Fee-for-service IS unsustainable while a Medicare HMO would put the entire cost risk on the providers — both the risk [1] for the cost of each incident AND [2] for the frequency of incidents.  That is too much risk for Providers. But there is a middle road.

“Payment for results” in the ACA “constrains” the cost for an incident but for NOT the frequency of incidents. So if twice as many seniors got the flu, providers would receive flu reimbursement for each senior treated.  Just as occurs now, there is no added risk to providers if more people get sick or injured.

What changes is the reimbursement for an individual incident.  “Payment for results” ends the one-for-one fee-for-service where hospitals and doctors are reimbursed a dollar for every eligible dollar billed.

However, Medicare’s “results” payments would apply only to combined groups of hospitals and doctors called “Accountable Care Organizations” (ACO). To encourage formation of ACO’s, ACA offers a carrot. If the ACO members working together can treat, for example, a flu incident for less, Medicare will first pay the ACO that lower cost but it will also share with the ACO the savings between billed cost and an imputed fee-for-service cost.  Further, Medicare would make one combined payment to the ACO and not be involved in how the ACO divides that payment between hospitals and doctors.

Along with the carrot is a stick. If the ACO over-treated (higher cost) or mistreated that led to a relapse (poor result) and additional treatments,  the ACO would not get reimbursed the full amount for these “extra” services. The ACO’s have a two-edged incentive to become more efficient.

With fee-for-service, efficient providers that bill less are paid less. Medicare keeps ALL the savings, so why should providers bust their butts to lower costs. Under ACA these ACO providers now get to share in the savings.  This idea is not only good for providers and Medicare, but the entire health insurance industry. Providers are rapidly forming ACO’s across the country, not just for Medicare patients but for the entire population. Even some insurers are forming ACO’s, becoming both the insurer and provider.

For decades, hospitals or doctors have competed somewhat “softly” in that you never see price wars between providers.  The business model of for-profit insurers closely mirrored the “cost-plus” model of some  military contracts that led to $600 toilet seats.  Insurers had limited incentive (or success) to put heavy pressure  on providers. Instead, insurers spent more time cherry picking their membership to reduce claims instead of constraining  provider costs.

Under ACA’s prohibition of excluding people with pre-existing conditions, insurers will no longer be able to cherry pick their membership. To compete, they will have to focus more attention on lowering provider costs. Hence, their incentive is also to promote ACO’s.

Finally, the ACA made payment for results a pilot program since this model is untested in the United States. Not being mandatory, the CBO has not factored in any savings arising from this program.  The savings could be substantial and we have some evidence that savings will occur.

One analyses on this site, “Medicare – Fewer Benefits or Less Waste” compares Mayo Clinic’s all-in costs versus the highest cost 20% of hospitals. Mayo’s prices are higher than industry average, but their intensity was lower (fewer days, fewer treatments). If the 20% highest cost hospitals had costs comparable to Mayo’s, the savings could exceed $250 BIllion over 10 years. A significant savings indeed.

Response to Essential Health Benefits Bulletin

Download PDF Report >>> Response to Essential Health Benefits Bulletin

SUMMARY

Health and Human Services (HHS) Bulletin sets guidelines for defining Essential Health Benefits (EHB). It ingeniously allows each State to have a say in its own EHB definition, yet provides a method to bring closure to the process should any State not reach an agreement. It also allows States to add benefits, but at their own expense. With federally providing premium assistance to lower income enrollees, it is important that only minimum State EHB premiums be supported.

The bulletin will likely require every State to add or enhance some services that are not now offered to small groups and individuals. This may lead to a premium increase for small groups and individuals not eligible for premium assistance.  Until actuarial efforts identify these costs, this remains an unanswered issue.  Everyone is concerned about higher costs, but Insurers have added concerns about adverse selection. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mitigates this concern by reinsurance and risk adjustment provisions in the act. Continue reading

Government Medical Spend Forecasts

Download PDF Report >>> Government Medical Spend Forecasts

Open Google Motion Chart >>> Total Public Medical Spend

Open Google Motion Chart >>> Medicare Spend

SUMMARY

There is a close relationship between the current concerns over government debt and prior years’ controversies over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or health reform.  The link between them is that Medicare costs will rise significantly above current levels. That will put pressure on entitlement spending that will be nearly impossible to offset with other spending cuts.  Medicare itself will need significant reform.

However, the principal factor behind the enormous cost increases is the huge increase in the senior population.  The population for those 0 to 54 years is expected to rise just 16% between 2010 and 2050.  The population of those 55 and over is expected to grow nearly 70% over that same period and the older the age, the greater the increase.  This major shift in the aging population is the main cause of higher Medicare costs. Higher per-capita costs just add to the problem. Continue reading

Individual Mandate not necessary – But will you like the alternative?

Download PDF Report >>>Individual Mandate Alternative

SUMMARY

Of all the issues in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or PPACA), one that has drawn an extraordinary amount of attention is the Individual mandate. Looked at in isolation, it may seem like an overreach. However, a broader view indicates why this provision or similar was included at all.

It is included because another section of ACA prohibits Health Insurers from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions as they do now. Some medical conditions may be avoidable, but the vast majority of pre-existing conditions occur through no fault of the individual. Insurance of all types is to spread risk, and the more skewed the risk the greater the need for insurance. Health costs are extremely skewed making health insurance vital to a modern economy.

ACA mandated that everyone buy insurance and that makes sense. However, the objection is forcing people to buy from a private company. There are several options to resolve that. One is to create a government-run insurer. That would eliminate forcing people to buy from a private insurer. A second is to make payment for any service obtained by an uninsured person a loan similar to student loans that could not be discharged for any reason. They would carry interest and be payable in full no matter the circumstances.

DISCUSSION

The percent of people with pre-existing conditions is small and to the majority of folks without such a condition, it may seem like a trivial matter. However, the number of people with pre-existing conditions is in the millions, and the cost to them has been and can be horrific. Medical expenses for these people have led to thousands of bankruptcies as health care costs sapped all their savings and more.

Insurers soon will be required to insure ALL persons regardless of medical condition. There is the very real risk of some people will avoid buying insurance, and then when they have an injury, or find they have a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, they would only buy health insurance AFTER they know they have a medical condition.

One would think that any notion of personal responsibility would have all persons get insurance in order to spread health costs risks over the greatest population. The more people that buy insurance, the lower the cost per person. However, experience has shown that some people will NOT buy insurance if they feel they will not get sick or injured.

Fortunately, many employers offer health insurance for their employees, and by law, health insurers covering insurance through work (group insurance) MAY NOT exclude people with pre-existing conditions after some limited period of time, usually less than a year. However, the same did not apply to individuals until health care reform.

Note that employed individuals usually have access to health insurance.  Full time employees, that is. With rising costs, what have many employers done including some of the largest?  They have reverted to greater use of part time employees who do not enjoy the same privilege and access to health insurance as do full time employees. This is putting more pressure on reforming individual insurance plans.

People do not just dream up laws in a vacuum. Most fall into two categories. One is responses to maintain clean food, air and water, or help disadvantaged people, often the result of some abuse (social laws). The second are financial laws, like taxes or efforts to reduce taxes via special treatment for some (loopholes). ACA addresses the former by adding a financial provision, the individual mandate.

Everyone who works pays into social security and Medicare. Since Medicare is health insurance, there already is a mandate for working individuals to buy health insurance from the government. The only distinction is that Medicare is government-run insurance, while the ACA mandate applies to buying insurance from private companies.

ALTERNATIVE ONE

In the state run insurance exchanges to which any health insurer can join, add a government-run health insurer. Then the individual mandate does not require buying from a private insurer. However, if an individual decided against all private insurers they would have to buy the government-run insurance plan, just like Medicare and clearly legal.

However, politics intervened. Draft legislation DID INCLUDE a government-run insurer. They called it the “Public option”. It would operate on the same level field as private insurers and not be subsidized in any way. Private and government insurers would compete for business. Still, critics objected, and politicians stripped this provision from the final bill.

Why the objections?  Perhaps it was fear of competition.  To understand the public option, all one has to do is look at Medicare. Different in that it would cover people under 65 years old. In addition, women over 65 do not get pregnant, so there would be some differences in coverage.

What few know is government manages Medicare entirely through private health insurers. Insurers use a term Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) do describe how much of a premium dollar goes to pay health care costs. For Medicare, the MLR is over 95% meaning over 95 cents per premium dollar goes for health benefits. For private insurers, not so much. Their average MLR is in the low 80% range, and for individual insurance, which Medicare is, the MLR is even lower. How can private insurers compete with someone whose costs are less than one quarter of their own?

The honest answer is they cannot, at least not as currently structured. However, where does the constitution guarantee private enterprise continued profitability or even existence? “Destructive renewal” is a term used by business to explain competition that virtually by definition requires companies to fail as other more efficient companies market their goods and services for less; or whose new goods and services make prior ones obsolete (think cassette tapes).

It is worth noting that private health insurers used to have MLR’s in the mid 90%, but that was 30 years ago when nearly all insurers were non-profit.  Over time, for-profit insurers became more prevalent, and as they did, they had to show a profit for their investors. Some admin efforts were devoted to marketing. Some to reducing costs. Some to profits. The net effect, however, is that far fewer dollars went for health care costs and more went for overhead and profits. Yet some of these same companies administer Medicare contracts for less than 5 cents on the dollar. What is apparent is that insurers could cut back on what it now costs them to weed out people with pre-existing conditions, but more efficiency are needed to compete.

ALTERNATIVE TWO

Set the ground rules for individual insurance similar to that of group insurance obtained through work. If a person elects not to purchase insurance, and gets sick or injured, a person could still buy insurance but the law would allow pre-existing exclusions to extend for one year. Also like group insurance, if a person previously had health coverage, and not more than 60 days elapsed without coverage, then the person could buy health insurance with no waiting period.

This alternative needs to have a bit more teeth to be effective. This is because there is a law that hospitals have to treat EVERYONE, regardless of ability to pay, and a healthy person could delay for years purchase of health insurance. They would only buy insurance when they get sick.

The current Medicare drug program provides a template for solving this issue. If a senior fails to purchase drug insurance, the premium continues to rise for as long as one remained uninsured. One can apply a similar index to health insurance. But how does one provide assurance of payment? Since the person required services, it should be legal to require the person to purchase insurance to pay for those services, and if the person is unable or unwilling to pay, the government could advance a loan similar to student loans.

That loan would bear interest, need to be paid over time (though shorter than for student loans), and could not be discharged by bankruptcy. If not paid by retirement, payments would be deducted from that person’s social security, just like student loans.  Gone is the mandatory requirement. Replacing it is an automatic loan that the individual must repay in full with no exits.

Since the government would initially pay the hospital, it also could determine the ability to pay of the person getting treatment. If that person was indigent, they could be put on Medicaid, and no medical loan would be created.  If the person’s income were within the subsidized amount, they would have been eligible for had they carried insurance, the loan would be reduced by the amount of the subsidy. Since the hospital is paid in full, there would be no cost shifting to those who bought insurance.

ALTERNATIVE THREE

As noted above, a law requires hospitals to treat EVERYONE, regardless of ability to pay. One could rescind that law and force everyone to either have insurance, pay for service, or be denied service. But few would be willing to take that backward step. From a practical standpoint, this is not a viable option.

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Stroger Hospital 11/02/2009 Chicago Press Conference

Download PDF Report >>> Stroger Hospital Press Conference

The following comments were delivered at a gathering at Stroger Hospital (Cook county’s primary hospital)  The public option was dropped from the health reform law.  Like all legislation, compromise is paramount.  The comments below explaining the merits of the public option remain relevent regardless of the legislative outcome.  – Andrew Kurz

Today I would like to speak in support of the issue of public option.  Whenever you spend over two trillion dollars affecting three hundred million people each year, you have something very complex.  To discuss health reform, it helps to break it down into smaller chunks.

First, what is the public option?  Is it a whole new bureaucracy, or is it similar to anything out there today?  A fair comparison is Medicare but for people under 65 … though not exactly the same.

Administration could be the same and if it is, it could leverage the infrastructure and computer programs that already exist for Medicare.  Using them would greatly simplify matters and allow an easier startup.  Management could also be contracted out to private insurers, just as is done now with Medicare.

Who is public option for?  The initial targets are the millions of self-employed, unemployed and under 65 retired, who cannot afford the high cost of individual policies. It also includes small business groups and workers whose employers don’t offer health insurance.

Note this does not include large group employers and the millions who have health insurance with these employers.

There needs to be a balance of people in the plan.  If too many join at once, you overwhelm the system.  If you restrict public option to too few people, you get what insurers call “adverse selection”, overloaded with sicker folks. That could drive premiums so high that we are right back to square one.

What is the taxpayer cost of public option as this IS a government program?  There would be one loan to fund initial medical payments. But it would be repaid over 10 years from surplus with minimal cost to the taxpayer.

Beyond that, public option would have to operate just like any other non-profit insurer.  Premiums must cover medical payments and overhead expenses. Rates must rise if there is a deficit. But if costs fall, the savings must be passed back.

How does this save you Chicagoans money?  As just noted, costs have two parts: medical payments and overhead.

Twenty five years ago overhead expense was not a problem. Most health insurers then were non-profit with low overhead.  Over the years, this shifted to more “for profit” insurers with higher overhead. The result is fewer premium dollars going for health care. How much less?

Overhead went from less than 10 cents on the premium dollar to 20. Now a 10 cent increase may not sound like much until you apply it to billions of insurance premium dollars. That thin dime of new overhead devours 50 billion dollars annually, much of which wasn’t there years ago.

Even bigger savings for you would be to lower medical payments. All insurers negotiate discounted rates with medical providers. The more the competition, the harder they negotiate, just like any other business enterprise.

Like politics, all competition is local. It doesn’t matter if America has thousands of insurers. If Peoria has only one or two large insurers, that is not a competitive area.  And in many areas of many states, just a few insurers have a concentrated hold on the market.

There are two ways to bring down costs in concentrated markets. You can force them down with government controls, or you can increase competition and let the market do the work for you.

The ideal competitor is a non-profit insurer who would enter all areas of all states. Right now, the only entity that would or could do that is public option.

It is not subsidized with tax dollars. It plays by the same rules as all current non-profit insurers. But it allows all of you, all of Illinois, and all of America to have more choices.

More choices leads to lower costs as insurers compete for your business.  I would even bet that anyone who has doubts now will sign on later.

Last question. How would public option set prices with providers?  Worst case would be to negotiate every service with every provider.  Better would be to negotiate a single complete package of services with those providers.

For that package, we look to Medicare. For years they have been adjusting for cost differences, urban and rural, north and south, rich and poor, and more. They built a relative rate structure to equalize medical service costs for all states. They built a level playing field.

If the field is not high enough to meet providers’ demands, a simple multiplier raises the entire field.  One hopes that public option will find an efficient way to negotiate with providers.

In closing, there is a lot to like in public option once you understand what it is. I hope you like it and will support it too.

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Medicare – Fewer Benefits or Less Waste

Download PDF Report >>> Medicare Waste

 SUMMARY

If the highest cost 20% of hospitals were to cut in half the differences in price and utilization between them and the distinguished Mayo Foundation, and if all Medicare cost savings were proportional to Medicare cost savings of the last two years of life, annual savings could potentially reach $26 Billion. Over ten years and without cutting benefits, Medicare costs could be reduced by $260 Billion.

No one would complain about Mayo whose Medicare composite quality score ranks among the highest in the nation.  Key to Mayo’s success has less to do with pricing than with utilization.  Length of hospital stays and physician visits are significantly less than average, yet they handle some of the toughest cases in medical care. It is also noted that health care delivery in other countries is closer to the Mayo model than the more typical fee for service provider.

DISCUSSION

What senior would object to having medical coverage by the Mayo Clinic?  The Mayo Foundation manages 20 hospitals in its network, and has a world-wide reputation as a very high quality institution handling the toughest cases.  Less well-known, is that they provide this coverage at below average costs. For Medicare reimbursements within 2 years of death, Mayo costs average $28,000 per patient.  

This sounds expensive, and it is.  However, the national average to cover the last 2 years costs was just over $30,000.  Multiply that by 930,000 average (2001-2005) annual Medicare deaths and Medicare costs for just this segment are about $28 Billion per year.  This is some serious money.  The first question is where is it going?

The following graph consists of two groups of bars. On the left are hospital cost differences from U.S. average for the highest and lowest 10% of hospitals, and the highest and lowest 10% of physicians. The 5th bar in each is Mayo. The bars at right are the same except they show physician cost differences from average.

The highest 10% of hospitals incur nearly $19,000 more hospital costs compared to the U.S. average while the lowest 10% of hospitals incur almost $9,000 less than the average, a high/low difference of $28,000. Physician cost differences are similar, but the magnitude in dollars is smaller.

Costs become even more serious when one considers quality scores.  Hospitals whose costs are in the top 10% of all hospitals had lower average quality scores.  Yet, their costs were more than $50,000 per patient.  Similar results occur for hospitals sorted by Physician costs.  In all cases, higher cost providers had lower average quality scores than lower cost providers.  In short, more may not mean better as shown below

 

So how do providers like Mayo Foundation and other similar quality hospital and physician systems attain such high quality scores while holding the line on costs?  It may help to first show these costs as percent differences between the highest and lowest cost providers. The graph below uses the same data from the 1st graph but presents cost differences as a percent.

Those hospitals and physicians whose costs are in the highest 10% are nearly 75% above average, while those with lowest costs are more than 30% below average.  Mayo’s hospital costs are slightly below average but its physician costs are significantly lower.

Seniors are worried that proposed reforms and reductions in Medicare spending will reduce benefits.  A greater worry should be why there are such large reimbursement disparities now between providers.  Either some are being over-served or others are being under-served. Neither should be acceptable.

Medicare recipients might rightly ask, since all people pay into Medicare at about the same rate, why isn’t the payout more evenly distributed between high and low cost providers.  The difference between the highest and lowest hospitals and physicians almost equals the average cost of $30,000 per patient. Despite the huge cost differences, the result is the same.  The patient died.

Just as showing percents is more meaningful than dollars, the above cost differences can be further broken down into two components. One component is price and the other is volume or utilization.

Remember when gas prices were over $4.00 per gallon? People cut back on driving so their gasoline consumption (volume) went down. Fewer miles driven helped people offset some of the high price per gallon. A similar outcome occurs in healthcare. 

Hospital costs are affected by the cost per day (price) times how many days a patient stayed (volume or utilization).  For physicians, the analogy is the cost per physician patient visit (price) times the number of visits by the physician (volume).  Volume times price equals total cost, and “all in” costs equal total hospital costs plus total physician costs. The graph below shows the four components of price and volume.

Hospital Volume (utilization – length of stay)

The first group of  bars shows differences in hospital days.  Patient stays at the most expensive hospitals were nearly 40% more than average while those at the least expensive hospitals were some 20% less than average. From a utilization view, there is a significant difference in hospital (days) at higher cost hospitals. Higher cost hospitals tend to be larger, more complex and more intensive.  Yet, Mayo hospital days are comparable to the lowest cost hospitals.

Hospital Price (average daily cost)

The second group of bars shows differences in Hospital cost per day, or pricing.  Here both high cost hospitals and Mayo are more than 20% above average reflecting the sophisticated and expensive equipment and procedures performed.  In hospitals where physician costs are high or low, hospital pricing tends closer to the national average.  But Mayo more than not offsets their higher daily hospital costs with shorter length of stays.  The higher cost hospitals compound higher prices with more lengthy stays for a total hospital cost 75% higher than average.

Physician Volume (visits) and Price (cost per visit)

The remaining two groups show differences for physician volume and price.  Visits at high cost hospitals deviate even more from average than length of stays.  Physician visits at low cost hospitals mirror shorter hospital stays.  Physician costs per visit do not vary nearly as much as do hospital costs.

With regard to Mayo, utilization is also below average (fewer visits), but here physician pricing (cost per visit) is also below average.  Combining fewer patient visits AND lower costs per visit, yields a cost difference 30% below average for Mayo.

Medicare Reductions Need not Lower Benefits

What conclusions to draw?  Some legitimate cost differences should be expected.  But data suggests that if the high cost hospitals changed some of the care delivery nearer to Mayo’s performance, significant savings could occur with NO loss in benefits.  The graph below shows the potential savings if these higher cost hospitals had the same price and utilization structure as Mayo.  If the cost structure of the top 50% of all hospitals were the same as Mayo, annual savings would be nearly $4 Billion.

But there is more.  The savings described apply only to the Medicare costs associated with the last 2 years of patient life.  Those costs were noted at some $28 Billion per year.  However, Medicare annually reimbursed over $400 Billion in total. If total savings were comparable to the last two years of life costs, the savings could be 15 times larger than in the above graph. 

The graph below shows a 15X multiplier effect with annual savings for 6 groups of hospitals: the highest 10%, 20% and 50% of hospitals filtered on total hospital costs.  Plus a similar 10%, 20% and 50% of hospitals filtered on total physician costs.  Significant in this graph is that the differences between the highest cost and the more average cost hospitals are fairly extreme.  If one were to focus reform efforts on just these extremes, Billions could be saved.

The graph shows total theoretical savings. A more reasonable assumption would be to halve the theoretical savings. Thus, if the highest cost 20% of hospitals were to cut in half the differences in cost and utilization between them and the distinguished Mayo Foundation, and if all Medicare cost savings were proportional to Medicare cost savings of the last two years of life, then the annual savings could potentially reach $26 Billion. Over ten years and without cutting benefits, Medicare costs could be reduced by $260 Billion.  Actually achieving this level of savings would be a challenge. But Billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse could be safely removed without affecting real benefits. 

Why will those levels of savings not likely occur?  It would require hospitals, physicians and insurers to change their “business model” to achieve significant savings and that is a very broad challenge.  There needs to be a major shift from the “fee for service” model where every procedure, item and encounter are tracked and billed, to a more managed care model.

Insurers are familiar with managed care in the form of HMO policies. In HMO’s, the risk is on the insurer that premiums that are fixed per enrollee are sufficient to cover the health care costs of enrollees.  Some insurers are also providers so they would carry the insurance risk as well as the provider risk.

For health care providers, the risk of managed care is similar. For any specific encounter, like an appendectomy, the provider is paid a fixed amount from the insurer, and the hospitals and physicians are responsible for dividing up the payment and are at risk to deliver quality patient care for that amount.

While much focus has been on insurance reform to make it available to more people, attention must also be paid to wringing waste and abuse out of the system. Some of the currently proposed Medicare reforms include pilot programs to gradually shift the heavily “fee for service” orientation towards manage care.  In fact, of the 1,000 pages in House bill 3200, half are devoted to reducing waste in Medicare and Medicaid and pushing towards less skewed reimbursements than exists in the current environment.

Notes

Sources

Dartmouth 2005 Atlas of Health Care    DAP_Hosp_HRR_ST_01_05.xls

Table 1. Hospital information (2001-05) – Number of deaths among chronically ill patients assigned to hospital

Table 2. Medicare spending per decedent by site of care during the last two years of life (deaths occurring 2001-05)   (HOSPITAL)

Table 3. Medicare Part B spending by type of service (BETOS category) per decedent during the last two years of life (deaths occurring 2001-05)  (PHYSICIAN)

Table 4. The Medical Care Cost Equation: Disaggregation of hospital (facility) reimbursements per decedent into contributions of volume (patient days per decedent) and price (average reimbursements per day in hospital) during the last two years of life (deaths occurring 2001-05)

Table 5. The Medical Care Cost Equation: Disaggregation of payments for physician visits per decedent into contributions of volume (physician visits per decedent) and price (average payments per physician visit) during the last two years of life (deaths occurring 2001-05)

Table 6. Resource inputs per 1,000 decedents during the last two years of life (deaths occurring 2001-05)

Table 8. CMS Hospital Compare technical process quality measures (all patients, 2005)   (QUALITY COMPOSITE SCORE)

Centers for Disease Control:  Table 128. Personal health care expenditures, by source of funds and type of expenditure:  United States, selected years 1960-2006

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Medicare Trends

Download PDF Report >>> Medicare Trends

SUMMARY

Medicare became law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. In the pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had fallen below the poverty level. In the intervening years, the percent of seniors with income below poverty level has dropped nearly three times.

While the benefits to seniors have dramatically improved their lot, the cost to society is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed in Congress.  This report looks at the components that are driving up Medicare costs as well as increasing seniors’ out-of-pocket expenses.

 Overall population is increasing demands for care

As expected, growing populations result in growing health care costs. What is evident from the graph below is that in addition to overall growth, the percent of people 65 years and old is increasing.

Two factors are contributing. One is that the baby boomers as a group are beginning to move into the senior group. They are followed by a drop off (percent wise), in younger people.  Projections refer to the increasing mix of older people with fewer people working to pay into Medicare. But this trend is not permanent, and once the baby boomer “bubble” works its way through the population, the mix of retirees to workers stabilizes.  But that is out past the year 2040, beyond the range of most forecasts.

In short, solve the Medicare problem expected for the next 30 years and only minor changes will likely be needed after that.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

Greater life expectancy adds to aging population

The second factor contributing to the growth of seniors is their increasing life expectancy.  The graph below  shows that all major groups of seniors have benefited from better health care. Life expectancy at birth show lower increases.

The question is whether these significant increases will continue into the future.  If they continue, then the percent of seniors will continue to increase.  If trends tend to slow, then the population age mix may stabilize.

On the other end of the age scale, if birth rates rise, this will create a greater percentage of younger people.  And there is some evidence of this occurring, though not equally among different races. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 14 

It may be 30 years before age group % stabilizes

On the assumption that the mix of aged people stabilizes in the 2040-2050 range, this still represents a significant change from today where less than 15% of population is 65 and over.  By the time it stabilizes, seniors will represent over 20% of population and may for some time to come beyond that.

Current Medicare premiums assessed on workers is not enough to cover those future costs. Two events clearly need to happen. One is to increase the “premiums” paid into the system.  Options include raising all rates uniformly or raising the wage ceiling on which premiums are based. The other is to take costs out of Medicare.

Another analysis has shown huge discrepancies being paid in Medicare indicating excess care being provided to some and not others that needs to be addressed.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

As people get older, their health demands increase

It is common knowledge that seniors slow down as they age.  The graph below shows the five most common reasons seniors reduce their activity level.  As they age, each factor grows in significance.

 Nearly 3 in 10 seniors over 85 will become limited by arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions.  2 in 10 seniors over 85 will be limited by heart or circulatory conditions.  Though climbing with age, vision, hearing and senility are factors in less than 1 in 10 seniors 85 and older.

While the graph shows the number of medical conditions increasing with aging, it does not indicate severity.  But on volume alone, seniors require more health care. This can be mitigated somewhat by more exercise and healthier diets, the two largest slowdown factors. Less can be done about vision, hearing, senility or dementia.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 13 

Medicare a major factor in improving poverty levels

Medicare came law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. The success of Medicare was dramatic as shown in the graph below. With pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had family income below the poverty level. In the short span of 7 years, the percent of seniors with family income below poverty level dropped to 15%, roughly in half. Gradual reductions since have lowered that threshold to about 10%.  This could partially explain why older seniors are often very protective of their benefits. They remember when there was no safety net.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 04 

 Price inflation creates higher bills for seniors

The graph below highlights cost trends for four groups of people from 1996 to 1996. Except for a slight break around, 1998 – 2000, costs have trended upward every year for every age group. Within each age group there is another consistent trend. Seniors 65-74 years incur only about half the expense that seniors 85 and over do, while those 75-84 years incur more than half again as much as seniors 65-74. This confirms the comments above that as people age, their health demands increase.

Now these data are per enrollee. So price inflation is causing costs for all seniors to rise. As seniors age, their costs continue to rise. And finally, as the baby boomer bubble moves into the senior ranks, the total number of seniors increases dramatically. It is sort of a “perfect storm” where all factors are pointing towards Medicare costs consuming more and more of the nation’s economic output.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 143 

Cost sharing of Medical Expense Also Rising

In nearly all cases where medical expense is incurred, insurance picks up a large share of the costs, but not all. Amounts paid by individuals is called “cost sharing” or deductibles and co-payments, or out-of-pocket expense. Below are 6 age groups that incurred over $2,000 in out-of-pocket expense. This threshold allows a focus on the more expensive medical encounters. Cost sharing for all seniors has consistently risen over the entire period.  Any solutions to rising Medicare costs that reduce benefits, shifting more costs to seniors should at least take into account that seniors have for years, been paying higher out-of-pocket costs for health care. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 133

 One Good Example of Government Run Medicare

While overall Medicare costs have continued to rise, there is one component that is trending favorable – Administrative Expense. Early on, there were inefficiencies in Medicare part B as these tended to be smaller dollar claims but the same amount of manual effort to record claims into the system.  As automation and standardization increased, these costs came down such that since 2000, the administrative costs per claim dollar for both hospitals and doctors are roughly equal.

What is far mor telling is that since 2000, these administrative costs have (a) stayed level and (b) averaged just two (2%) of total costs.  In the 1980’s private insurers, primarily non-profit, had administrative costs of about 5%. Today, insurers are frequently incurring administrative costs of more than 20% on large blocks of their businesses.  In at least one area, government appears to have done better.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 142

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Government Bureaucracy?

Download PDF Report >>> Government Bureaucracy

Some people say any Government health plan is a huge bureaucracy. Below are two application forms for personal health insurance. The first is representative of private insurers. The second is from the Government.  Help me out here.  Which one is the bureaucracy?

Private insurer Personal Health Insurance Application Form

8 pages of questions


Government Medicare Personal Health Insurance Application Form

8 questions

Date of Birth:  
Marital Status:  
Type of Medicare Coverage:  
Do you have Medicaid:  
Are you living outside of the U.S.:  
Household Income Range:  
Are you receiving health benefits from employer:  
Retirement type:  

Download PDF Report >>> Government Bureaucracy

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