Private insurance is health care’s pot of gold

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Private health insurance is a conduit for exploding health care spending, and there’s no end in sight.

The big picture: Most politicians defend this status quo, even though prices are soaring. And as the industry’s top executives and lobbyists gathered this week in San Francisco, some nodded to concerns over affordability — but then went on to tell investors how they plan to keep the money flowing.

 

Where it stands: More than 160 million Americans get private insurance through an employer or on their own, and per-person spending in that market rose by almost 7% in 2018, the highest annual growth rate in 14 years.

  • “Prices are definitely going up,” Owen Tripp, CEO of health tech startup Grand Rounds, told me this week during the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.
  • His company’s vast amount of commercial health data shows big increases in what companies are spending on hospitals, doctors, specialty drugs, devices and out-of-network services.

 

What they’re saying: Many in the industry admit price inflation has been hammering the commercial markets for years.

  • “Cost per unit is the primary driver,” Cigna CEO David Cordani said. He did not mention the exploding costs of administering health insurance.
  • One hospital system at the conference acknowledged that “the number one cause of personal bankruptcy is our industry” — before going on to tell investors about the hospital’s strong margins.

 

Multiple hospital executives claimed they charge commercial plans higher prices to make up for the lower rates they get from Medicare and Medicaid.

  • “Every health system I know of loses money on every Medicaid and every Medicare patient,” Amy Compton-Phillips, a top clinical executive at Providence St. Joseph Health, told me.
  • But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that hospitals’ explanation doesn’t hold water.

 

Drug spending has risen at a slower rate than hospital and physician spending.

  • But in the commercial market, drug companies also have tripled their spending on programs that cover all or part of patients’ out-of-pocket costs, then bill insurers for the full freight.
  • “It’s an intriguing theory,” said Stephen Ubl, CEO of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group. “But I would be shocked if we were a significant contributor” to the increased private spending.

 

The bottom line: The private market is the main pot of money that everyone is chasing at the J.P. Morgan conference, and most in the industry don’t see the ballooning spending within that market as a problem.

 

 

 

 

How the Health Insurance Industry (and I) Invented the ‘Choice’ Talking Point

It was always misleading. Now Democrats are repeating it.

There’s a dangerous talking point being repeated in the Democratic primary for president that could affect the survival of millions of people, and the finances of even more. This is partly my fault.

When the candidates discuss health care, you’re bound to hear some of them talk about consumer “choice.” If the nation adopts systemic health reform, this idea goes, it would restrict the ability of Americans to choose their plans or doctors, or have a say in their care.

It’s a good little talking point, in that it makes the idea of changing the current system sound scary and limiting. The problem? It’s a P.R. concoction. And right now, somewhere in their plush corporate offices, some health care industry executives are probably beside themselves with glee, drinking a toast to their public relations triumph.

I should know: I was one of them.

To my everlasting regret, I played a hand in devising this deceptive talking point about choice when I worked in various communications roles for a leading health insurer between 1993 and 2008, ultimately serving as vice president for corporate communications. Now I want to come clean by explaining its origin story, and why it’s both factually inaccurate and a political ploy.

Those of us in the insurance industry constantly hustled to prevent significant reforms because changes threatened to eat into our companies’ enormous profits. We were told by our opinion research firms and messaging consultants that when we promoted the purported benefits of the status quo that we should talk about the concept of “choice”: It polled well in focus groups of average Americans (and was encouraged by the work of Frank Luntz, the P.R. guru who literally wrote the book on how the Republican Party should communicate with Americans). As instructed, I used the word “choice” frequently when drafting talking points.

But those of us who held senior positions for the big insurers knew that one of the huge vulnerabilities of the system is its lack of choice. In the current system, Americans cannot, in fact, pick their own doctors, specialists or hospitals — at least, not without incurring huge “out of network” bills.

Not only does the current health care system deny you choice within the details of your plans, it also fails to provide many options for the plan itself. Most working Americans must select from a limited list made by their company’s chosen insurance provider (usually a high-deductible plan or a higher-deductible plan). What’s more, once that choice is made, there are many restrictions around keeping it. You can lose coverage if your company changes its plan, or if you change jobs, or if you turn 26 and leave your parents’ plan, among other scenarios.

This presented a real problem for us in the industry. Well aware that we were losing the “choice” argument, my industry colleagues spent millions on lobbying, advertising and spin doctors — all intended to muddy the issue so Americans might believe that reform would somehow provide “less choice.” Recently, the industry launched a campaign called “My Care, My Choice” aimed in part at convincing Americans that they have choice now — and that government reform would restrict their freedom. That group has been spending large sums on advertising in Iowa during this presidential race.

This isn’t the first time the industry has made “choice” a big talking point as it fights health reform. Soon after the Affordable Care Act was passed a decade ago, insurers formed the Choice and Competition Coalition and pushed states not to create insurance exchanges with better plans.

What’s different now is that it’s the Democrats parroting the misleading “choice” talking point — and even using it as a weapon against one another. Back in my days working in insurance P.R., this would have stunned me. It’s why I believe my former colleagues are celebrating today.

The truth, of course, is that Americans now have little “choice” when it comes to managing their health care. Most can’t choose their own plan or how long they retain it, or even use it to select the doctor or hospital they prefer. But some reforms being discussed this election, such as “Medicare for all,” would provide these basic freedoms to users. In other words, the proposed reforms offer more choice than the status quo, not less.

My advice to voters is that if politicians tell you they oppose reforming the health care system because they want to preserve your “choice” as a consumer, they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re willfully ignoring the truth. Either way, the insurance industry is delighted.

I would know.

 

 

New York State Investigates Christian Health Cost-Sharing Affiliate

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Subpoenas have been issued to a company that solicits memberships for a health insurance alternative that offers no guarantees for covering medical bills.

New York State officials are investigating a business representing a major Christian group offering an alternative to health insurance, joining several states scrutinizing these cost-sharing programs that provide limited coverage.

On Wednesday, New York state insurance regulators issued a subpoena to Aliera, which markets the Christian ministry run by Trinity Healthshare, according to people who have seen the subpoena.

More than one million Americans have joined such groups, attracted by prices that are far lower than the cost of traditional insurance policies that must meet strict requirements established by the Affordable Care Act, like guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions.

 

These Christian nonprofit groups offer low rates because they are not classified as insurance and are under no legal obligation to pay medical claims. But state regulators are questioning some of the ministries’ aggressive marketing tactics, saying some consumers were misled or did not grasp the lack of comprehensive coverage in the case of a catastrophic illness.

Some members have paid hundreds of dollars a month, and then have been left with hundreds of thousands in unpaid medical bills in several states where the ministries, which are not subject to regulation as insurers, failed to follow through on pooling members’ expenses.

Numerous states are taking action against Aliera Healthcare, the for-profit company based in Georgia that was been the subject of an investigation by The Houston Chronicle. The Texas attorney general sued Aliera last summer to stop it from offering “unregulated insurance products to the public,” while Connecticut, Washington and New Hampshire are trying to stop Trinity and Aliera from doing business in those states.

Regulators say they are concerned that the ministry is, in fact, operating as an insurer. In New York, which has not previously investigated any ministries, there have been 15 to 20 complaints, including accusations that Aliera misrepresented the coverage being offered. It’s not clear how many customers Aliera has in New York.

“It’s deeply disappointing to see state regulators working to deny their residents access to more affordable alternatives offered by health care sharing ministries,” said Aliera in an emailed statement.

“We’re proud of the work we do to help ministries provide a more flexible method for securing affordable high-quality health care, and we will continue to vigorously defend against the false claims about our company, just as we expect the health care sharing ministries we serve to vigorously defend their members’ right to exercise their religious convictions in making health care choices,” it said.

Trinity, which was not subject to the subpoena, has said its website makes clear that the ministry does not offer health insurance.

 

 

 

The most expensive health care option of all? Do nothing.

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‘Medicare for all’ debate sidesteps cost of current system.

The projected multitrillion-dollar cost of “Medicare for All” has pitted Democratic presidential candidates against each other as they argue about the feasibility of single-payer health care.

But the reality is the current health system may cost trillions more in the long run and be less effective in saving lives.

Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, private health insurance and out-of-pocket expenses is projected to hit $6 trillion a year — and $52 trillion over the next decade. At the same time, the number of people with insurance is dropping and Americans are dying younger.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and other single-payer advocates say Medicare for All would cost the government far less — between $20 trillion and $36 trillion over a decade — by slashing overhead, eliminating out-of-pocket costs and empowering federal officials to bargain directly with hospitals and drugmakers. But the streamlined system would have to care for millions of currently uninsured people at a significant cost to taxpayers, and experts disagree whether it would actually save money in the long run.

Centrist Democrats are pushing narrower plans that would, among other things, expand tax credits for people just above the Obamacare subsidy threshold. Virtually no one is arguing for maintaining the status quo, but that’s precisely what could happen given that congressional gridlock has stymied even popular, and bipartisan, causes like halting surprise medical bills.

“It’s really hard to see anything breaking through, especially when the industry interests and the money they’re willing to spend on lobbying and campaign contributions is just mind-boggling,” said Sabrina Corlette, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “And, without question, we are on an unsustainable trajectory.”

With Medicare for All and its price tag likely to come up in the next Democratic debate Jan. 14 in Iowa, here are five of the costliest consequences of inaction:

National health spending keeps rising

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that nationwide health spending will hit $6 trillion a year by 2027 absent any changes in law. That would be nearly a fifth of the economy. In total, the United States is slated to spend about $52 trillion over the coming decade.

The cost drivers include hospitals, physician and clinical services and prescription drugs. Some local health systems have become monopolies that can largely set prices as they please — leading to higher premiums and more out-of-pocket spending for consumers.

“Even the biggest insurance plans are not big enough to bargain down the cost of services, and they don’t have an incentive to,” said Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive-turned whistleblower and single-payer advocate.

An aging population is driving up Medicare spending, but the rising cost of private insurance is the biggest factor. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found per capita spending for private insurance grew by nearly 53 percent over the last decade, or more than double the hike in per capita Medicare spending.

More people will be uninsured

The Census Bureau reported in September that the number of Americans without insurance grew by 2 million people since 2017 — the first increase in nearly a decade. Even with a healthy economy and low unemployment, more than 27 million people weren’t covered at any point last year. That could grow to 35 million by 2029, per the Congressional Budget Office, under current law.

The number of people enrolling in the Obamacare marketplace has declined, and more people are dropping employer-sponsored insurance due to cost and other concerns.

Part of this is President Donald Trump’s doing — the administration has slashed efforts to push Obamacare enrollment and rolled back the massive marketing effort that the Obama administration rolled out for years.

There are also more than 400,000 additional uninsured children than just two years ago — and 4 million in all — and states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are seeing the biggest spikes.

“What we also miss in the debate is the number of people temporarily uninsured, who miss open enrollment, who are between jobs, who fall through the cracks,” said Adam Gaffney, a Harvard Medical School researcher and the president of Physicians for a National Health Program. “I see people all the time in my practice in that situation who don’t fill prescriptions and experience serious complications.”

Going without insurance hits patients and health care providers: Average hospital spending on care for the uninsured was $13 million in 2018 up roughly 3 percent annually since 2016.

Coverage will be skimpier

As the cost of health care has skyrocketed, insurance companies have squeezed patients, charging higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays, and creating narrow networks of providers and aggressively billing for out-of-network care.

Since 2009, the amount workers have had to pay for health insurance has increased 71 percent, while wages have only risen 26 percent over that time.

More than 80 percent of workers now have to pay a minimum amount out of pocket before insurance kicks in — and the amount of that deductible has doubled over the last 10 years, now standing at an average of $1,655, though many workers have to pay a lot more.

These costs are putting care out of reach for millions.

new Gallup poll found that a full quarter of adults have put off treatment for a serious medical condition due to the cost — the highest since Gallup began asking the question three decades ago. A full third say they’ve delayed or deferred some kind of health care service over the past year. Another Gallup and West Help survey found that 34 million people know at least one friend or family member who died over the past five years after skipping treatment due to costs.

 

Needed drugs will become more out of reach

U.S. patients pay vastly more for prescription drugs than people in other developed countries and the disparity is set to grow. The United States spent $1,443 per person on prescription drugs in 2018, while other developed countries fell somewhere between $466 and $939.

In just five years, national spending on prescription drugs increased 25 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office, and CMS expects that increase to “accelerate” over the next several years.

Increasingly, patients are responding by forgoing their medications. Gallup found in November that nearly 23 percent of adults — roughly 58 million people — said they haven’t been able to “pay for needed medicine or drugs that a doctor prescribed” over the past year.

This widespread inability to take needed medication, a government-funded study found last year, is responsible for as much as 10 percent of hospital admissions. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that medication nonadherence accounts for somewhere between $100 and $300 billion in national health spending every year.

 

Americans will continue to get sicker and die younger

The cost of maintaining the status quo is evident not only in dollars but in human lives.

Life expectancy in the United States has declined over the last three years, even as other developed countries around the world saw improvements.

Though the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as other high-income countries, there’s been a stark increase in mortality between the ages of 19 and 64, with drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicide and organ diseases driving the trend. It’s cut across race and gender with the worst effects felt in rural areas.

The opioid epidemic only accounts for a fraction of the problem. The National Research Council found that the United States has higher mortality rates from most major causes of death than 16 other high-income countries.

Researchers at USC estimate that if these trends continue, it would take the United States more than a century to reach the average life expectancy levels other countries hit in 2016.