Administrative costs in the US healthcare system are known to be higher than those in any other country, even than other countries with private health insurance systems. There also is widespread agreement the excessive US costs generate little, if any, value, and that they impose a tremendous burden on physicians. With administrative costs even for primary care services approaching $100,000 per year per physician, there is a growing recognition that reducing healthcare-related administrative costs is a policy priority.
Despite the longstanding concerns about these escalating costs, there is little understanding of what generates them and how we can reduce them. To the degree there has been any academic inquiry into administrative costs imposed on US providers, it has compared them to the much lower costs in other countries with nationalized systems. These comparisons are unflattering to the US system and are designed to encourage wholesale healthcare reform.
Our paper published in Health Services Research begins at the retail level, focusing on the specific administrative costs inflicted by our payment system on providers. We examine the complex contractual arrangements between insurers and physicians and measure the efforts that physicians must endure to get paid. It then offers a simulation model to estimate how certain policy reforms would result in nationwide administrative savings.
Currently, each health plan and each physician or physician group (and each hospital) negotiates over a contract for services on a periodic basis. Our analysis examines three separate costs that result from this type of market structure: architectural costs (the enormous number of contracts that are generated annually to provide services to patients), contractual complexity (the difficulty of following all of the requirements of each agreement to receive payment), and compliance costs (the costs of not following the rules in submitting a bill).
Based on this framework, we ask two questions: First, what if physicians entered into simpler contracts with insurers? And second, what if physicians (who accept patients with many kinds of insurance) agreed to a single boilerplate contract with all insurers rather than individualized contracts with each insurer? Put more simply, what if contracts were simpler and standardized?
Our simulation predicts that simplifying contracts would reduce billing costs by nearly 50%, standardizing contracts would reduce those costs by about 30%, and both simplifying and standardizing contracts would reduce those costs by over 60% percent.
We then used the model to estimate administrative cost savings from a single payer “Medicare-for-All” model. Consistent with claims made by advocates for nationalized health insurance, we estimate that a Medicare-for-All plan would reduce administrative costs between 33-53%, largely by standardizing contracts. But these cost savings are less than those generated from standardizing and simplifying contracts within our current system of private health insurance because we modeled that a Medicare-For-All plan would retain Medicare’s complex payment models and have increased compliance costs compared to private payers.
We think this is good news. Though we find that a single-payer system will reduce certain administrative costs, we also find that reforms to our current multi-payer system could generate at least as great a reduction.
There might be benefits to pursuing national health reform, but we can reduce burdensome administrative costs through much simple and less disruptive paths. The even better news from this study is that we can now have a more precise understanding of where administrative costs arise in our health system, and we have the means to evaluate the effects of other kinds of reforms. Understanding is the prerequisite to reforming.
Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.
It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.
But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. “The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”
If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.
Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye.Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.
UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.
While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.
On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”
Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.
Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.
Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.
To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.
Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.
Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.
Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.
Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”
In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.
UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.
Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”
The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.
The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”
There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”
Xavier Becerra narrowly won confirmation Thursday to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency pivotal to President Biden’s urgent goal of defeating the coronavirus pandemic and expanding access to health care.
Becerra, a congressman from Los Angeles for two dozen years and then California attorney general, squeaked by on a vote of 50 to 49, the closest margin for any of the Biden cabinet members the Senate has confirmed so far.
He becomes the first Latino secretary of HHS, the largest federal department in terms of spending. The department includes agencies at the core of the federal response to the pandemic that has infected more than 29.5 million people in the United States and killed more than 535,000. They include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine-approving Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the country’s vast public insurance programs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which considered the nomination, said that “after four years of going in reverse,” Becerra will make it “possible to go to drive and actually make progress for the American people, progress in terms of lowering the cost of health care.”
Republican Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), countered that Becerra is “an aggressive culture warrior from the radical left,” who is “out of touch with the views of the American people.” Barrasso noted that, as state attorney general, Becerra sued the Trump administration more than 150 times over immigration, environmental and health policies.
“In this time of crisis, our secretary of Health and Human Services may be the single most important member of the president’s cabinet,” Barrasso said, contending that “the president has chosen a nominee, no public health experience, extremely partisan record.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only member of the GOP to vote for Becerra’s confirmation along with a solid wall of Senate Democrats.
During his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Finance Committee, Becerra said, “The mission of HHS — to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans — is core to who I am.”
In keeping with Biden’s emphasis on portraying his administration’s top rung as diverse and having working-class roots like his own, Becerra told the senators his immigrant parents had insurance through his father’s laborers union, making his family more fortunate when he was a boy than many of their neighbors.
As a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Becerra testified, he worked on several major pieces of health-care legislation, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program created in the late 1990s and changes to the way Medicare is run and financed, as well as the Affordable Care Act.
He did not mention that he was a longtime advocate of a single-payer health-care system, akin to the Medicare-for-all proposals backed by several Democratic candidates in last year’s presidential election, but rejected by Biden. Becerra has renounced his previous support since his nomination, echoing the president’s view that affordable insurance coverage should be widened by building upon the ACA.
Becerra, 63, became a lightning rod for conservatives immediately after Biden announced his selection in early December.
Senate Republicans targeted his defense of abortion rights. They contended he is unqualified because he is not a physician, though few HHS secretaries have had medical training. And they have denounced his previous advocacy of a larger government role in health insurance.
An undercurrent running through opposition to his nomination was Becerra’s leadership in recent years of a coalition of Democratic attorneys general fighting to preserve the ACA. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, are seeking to overturn the 2010 law in a case now before the Supreme Court.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) lambasted Becerra, saying he has “an appalling track record disrespecting the sanctity of life. . . . He has no shame when it comes to his pro-abortion beliefs.”
Inhofe also criticized Becerra’s support last year for California’s ban on indoor worship services as part of the state’s efforts to slow the cornavirus’s spread. And the senator criticized Becerra’s position that undocumented immigrants should be allowed public benefits, such as Medicaid.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Republicans’ arguments against Becerra “almost verge on the ridiculous.”
Schumer said Republicans challenging Becerra’s qualifications for the job had embraced the nomination of Alex Azar as Trump’s second HHS secretary, though he was a pharmaceutical executive who also was an attorney and had no medical training.
In addition to working to tame the pandemic, which Biden has identified as the government’s job number one for now, Becerra will face many major decisions at the helm of the sprawling department over whether to continue or reverse policies established by the Trump administration.
CMS has already announced it was rescinding a significant Medicaid policy of the Trump era that had allowed states to require some residents to hold a job or be preparing for work to qualify for the safety-net insurance program. HHS officials are reviewing other Trump-era Medicaid policies.
Another HHS agency, the Administration for Children and Families, oversees the nation’s policies regarding welfare and unaccompanied children coming across the country’s borders — a flashpoint during the Trump administration.
The CDC, the government’s public-health agency, has been working to regain its footing and scientific moorings after repeated intrusions into its advice to the public by the Trump White House. The agency has been involved in the largest mass vaccination campaign in U.S. history to immunize the public against the coronavirus. And it is developing guidance on aspects of American life — and ongoing public safety measures — as research findings evolve for the virus and vaccine’s effects.
The FDA is in the thick of decisions about coronavirus vaccines, developed in record time, as additional manufacturers, such as AstraZeneca, have devised them and tested their safety and effectiveness. The three vaccines being given to about 2 million Americans a day — by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are being allowed so far for emergency use and have not yet secured full FDA approval.
Becerra almost certainly will continue to face hostility from social conservatives after his swearing in, expected Friday.
Roger Severino, who led HHS’s Office for Civil Rights during the Trump administration and created a division to promote “conscience and religious freedom,” is building an “HHS Accountability Project” within the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
While at HHS, Severino tangled directly with Becerra during his tenure as attorney general of the nation’s most populous state, twice citing him in violation of federal laws for upholding California statutes involving abortion rights.
Severino said this week he believes those on the right might find common ground with Biden health officials on disability rights. But on matters of abortion and deference to religion, Severino said, “We will be watching.”
“All countries successfully combatting this virus have robust public health systems, which provide for coordination of effort.”
A recent rise in cases of Covid-19 and the overt failure of the for-profit healthcare system throughout the pandemic in the U.S. are making the case for Medicare for All, advocacy groups and activists say, as countries with socialized systems see their infection rates decline.
“All countries successfully combatting this virus have robust public health systems, which provide for coordination of effort,” remarked a popular healthcare advocate who uses the @AllOnMedicare handle on Twitter.
Calls for the U.S. to adopt a single-payer heathcare system have increased as the pandemic has raged around the country. Cases and deaths in the U.S are now the highest in the world, a result critics blame on both the private healthcare system and the mismanagement of the crisis by President Donald Trump.
Public Citizen’s health care policy advocate Eagan Kemp told Common Dreams that the current for-profit healthcare system that has driven millions of Americans in to bankruptcy and leaves millions more without care will only continue to exacerbate the pain of the outbreak.
“While no health care system can completely protect a country from Covid-19, the U.S. has failed to respond for a number of reasons, not least of which is a for-profit health care system where Americans are too afraid to go to the doctors for fear of the cost,” said Kemp. “Far too many Americans will face medical debt and even bankruptcy if they are lucky enough to survive getting Covid-19, something unheard of in all other comparably wealth countries.”
As University of Massachusetts professor Dean E. Robinson wrote in a piece that appeared at Common Dreams earlier this month, the coronavirus is impacting people of color at a disproportionate rate in cities and communities nationwide—a dynamic that bolsters the call for a universal Medicare for All program to help close those gaps.
“The obvious and immediate need of Black and other working class populations caught in the teeth of the pandemic is the right to health care treatment without the burden of cost,” wrote Robinson. “Even before the pandemic, lower-income, Latino, and younger workers were more likely to be uninsured. Undocumented workers had the highest rates of uninsurance.”
On June 18, Ralph Nader in an opinion piece for Common Dreamsexpressed his hope that the ongoing pandemic would make essential workers in the health field “the force that can overcome decades of commercial obstruction to full Medicare for All.”
As I was writing the draft of this article, I was checking my symptoms and awaiting the results of a test I underwent for Covid-19. This virus has upended my life, as it has for every last one of us, no matter where we fall on the socio-economic scale.
But the consequences fall more heavily on those at the bottom end of the wage distribution. That includes those risking their health as they sell us groceries, check our vitals, and sanitize our hospitals. Easily lost amid the chaos, however, is how this crisis may be an opportunity to improve employee protections — and not temporarily but permanently.
During bull markets, employers and policymakers often paint the hardships befalling low-wage workers as stemming from those workers’ personal failures. But when markets crash, we learn how these workers’ troubles were indicative of persistent, system-wide weaknesses.
As Warren Buffett wrote of the insurance failures exposed by 1993’s Hurricane Andrew, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Pundits cite Buffet to refer to firms that appear healthy during bull markets, only to get eaten alive during downturns. This month, however, the markets exposed a new group of skinny dippers: a government and an economic system that fail workers, and employers who haven’t or can’t fill this gap in public policy.
In response to the novel coronavirus, the stock market has been mostly in a free fall since late February. The low-wage service sector is facing widespread layoffs. And the tumbling markets have uncovered other deep inequalities among workers, who fall into two groups: those with access to employment protections like affordable healthcare, remote work accommodations, paid time off, and job security — and those without.
This second group, which includes the working class, often lack healthcare or face high out-of-pocket expenses. There are nearly 24 million uninsured working-age adults in the United States. Those with only a high school diploma or who did not complete high school are the least likely to be insured. Moreover, racial and ethnic minority groups face significant barriers to “good jobs.” They form 60% of the uninsured population but only 40% of the total population.
A quarter of all U.S. workers have no access to paid sick leave. Work-from-home options are slim, but many can’t afford not to work. Among workers at the bottom 10th of the earnings distribution, only 31% have paid sick leave. For comparison, 94% of the top 10% of earners have paid sick leave.
While many professionals enjoy protections that can help them ride out the pandemic with their livelihoods and family’s health intact, workers in the low-wage service sector have few options or resources to stay home to care for themselves, let alone their loved ones. And that burden to provide care largely falls on women. The workers lacking healthcare and paid sick leave are also the most vulnerable to layoffs and lost hours. The fate of service workers in travel and food services indicate what’s to come. Similarly, gig economy workers, migrant laborers, and those in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable.
How did we get here? Since the late 1970s, executives have prioritized boosting dividends for shareholders over protecting their employees, whose work has been outsourced, digitized, and downsized. In our book, Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, Ken-Hou Lin and I show how this shift in corporate governance undermined workers’ bargaining power. Although insurance coverage increased from the Affordable Care Act, overall working conditions, protections, and pay have diminished.
A more robust safety net would help to mitigate the consequences for workers today as it shores up the economy against future downturns. For years, U.S. policymakers have considered universal healthcare impractical because of its large scope and high startup costs. But as new unemployment claims surge to historical levels and Americans face the medical precarity of a pandemic, this crisis has laid bare the underlying problem of linking healthcare to employment.
Sick leave and universal healthcare would ease the stressors workers face and ensure the sick have time to recover, making them more productive when they return to work. Without the costs of insuring workers, employers could pay more. An income boost would generate more spending and stimulate the economy.
Broader protections would also support the self-employed, contract workers, and prospective entrepreneurs. The United States has lower rates of self-employment (6.3%) than countries with universal healthcare (e.g., Spain has 16%), and a lower share of employment at small businesses than any OECD country except Russia. Reducing the reliance on big businesses would free workers to find jobs that better fit their skills, creating a more nimble and innovative economy.
The current moment provides an opportunity to make lasting changes to the status quo and improve conditions for all workers. As sociologists have theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding inequality. And history provides a clue for how crises can provide opportunities to transform society in ways that reduce inequality. After the Great Crash of 1929, unemployment spiked, reaching 25% by 1933. In less than three years, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reduced unemployment to 9%.The New Deal achieved this feat through a vast and broad range of public works and conservation projects.
The New Deal transformed American society — from erecting iconic buildings and statues, to saving the whooping crane, to developing the rural United States, to planting a billion trees. New Deal workers built and renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, and 700,000 miles of roads. The New Deal hired 60% of the unemployed, including 50,000 teachers and 3,000 writers and artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The New Deal modernized, preserved, and employed the country, while reducing inequality between the haves and have-nots.
Facing a similar economic threat in the wake of the pandemic, we have a comparable once-in-a-century opportunity to make lasting changes that address the pressing problems of today, from inequality to climate change.
In today’s crisis, we could double down on the “trickle-down” approach of the 2008 financial crisis: stimulus to the banks, corporations, and their investors combined with tax cuts and temporary wage support as a short-term Band-Aid for immiserated workers. But Lin and I find that this approach left many workers flailing and worsened inequality, because the banks deposited, rather than invested, the stimulus funding and corporations borrowed the money to buy back their stocks, enriching top executives and shareholders.
Last week, the president signed into law a sweeping $2 trillion plan that combines money for states, loans for distressed businesses, and tax relief, paid leave, unemployment benefits, and cash for most citizens. But this plan only gives workers temporary benefits. Although the bill has stricter oversight and restricts buybacks, it is unlikely to reduce inequality unless it addresses the structural conditions making some workers more vulnerable.
While a New Deal approach may be infeasible amid a contagious virus, we can and should enact permanent policies protecting all workers. Sick leave and healthcare should be universal rights. We could adopt a “flexicurity” labor policy modeled on the Danish one. The Danes provide both flexibility for employers to hire and fire workers as needed and security for workers through generous benefits and retraining opportunities during unemployment.
Meanwhile, in my household, after 2.5 weeks of symptoms—from a dry cough to a tight chest to a low fever—my test results came back negative. Thanks to the healthcare and insurance provided by my employer, I will continue to do the work I care about.
While I am on the mend, the workers who sell our groceries, serve us food, clean our workplaces, and drive us to the doctor also need to take care. In this pandemic, they are risking their health and lives. And they deserve the same level of care as the people they serve: access to both preventative medicine and comprehensive treatment, and time to take a break, recover, and care for their loved ones. The coronavirus is our chance to extend these protections during times of crisis and far into the future.
The past week in Presidential politics has been momentous—but not clarifying—for determining both the eventual Democratic nominee and the healthcare platform of the party. Between the first ballots cast in South Carolina and the last votes counted in California, the field of viable candidates for the nomination has been winnowed to two: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. The coming weeks will feature a knock-down, drag-out fight for delegates in the run-up to what is likely to be a contested convention in Milwaukee in mid-July, pitting Biden’s “establishment” wing of the party against Sanders’ “progressive” wing.
On the healthcare front, that means a continued debate between defenders of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), who want to extend coverage, as Biden does, using a government-run “public option” plan, and supporters of single-payer, “Medicare for All” (M4A) coverage, which Sanders advocates. That’s the same argument Democrats have been having since the campaign started, and while healthcare remains the top issue of concern for primary voters, polls indicate that both plans are popular with the electorate.
We continue to believe that the public option plan is a far more likely outcome than M4A, but only if the Democrats win control of the Senate—a prospect which appears more possible given billionaire Mike Bloomberg’s post-Super Tuesday endorsement of Biden, and plans to devote his substantial campaign resources to support Democratic candidates across the ballot. Some of that money will surely be spent in Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock is poised to announce plans to run against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), in a critical race that could be the most expensive Senate contest in history.
And for an indication of how the politics of a public option would play out, look no further than Colorado, where the Democratic legislature moved forward with its version of the plan this week, over the objections of the hospital and insurance lobbies.
Finally, looming over the general election campaign will be the pivotal Texas vs. California case, which the Supreme Court agreed to take up in this fall’s term. That case will ensure that healthcare will remain the centerpiece of American political debates regardless of who leads the Democratic ticket. Buckle up.
Health economist William Hsiao PhD lays out two stark choices on healthcare reform facing Americans:
should health insurance continue being treated as a market-driven commercial product, or should it be changed to a government-regulated social good?
if Americans opt for change, should they alter the system quickly in a few years or slowly over decades?
In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Hsiao makes the case the healthcare market has failed – “Americans pay more and get less.” But he questions whether Americans currently have enough political will to undertake more than small incremental steps toward transforming it.
He acknowledges that changing to a single-payer approach would radically cut administrative costs, extend coverage to all, strengthen fraud control, and spread actuarial risk more evenly. He also acknowledges that doing so would reduce the overall national spending on healthcare and would relieve households from the financial threats of escalating premiums and illness.
But, he writes, the single-payer approach would encounter both public fear of major change as well as resistance from powerful interest groups like the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical firms. “Although Americans have begun to take a more favorable view of single-payer systems in recent years, it’s far from clear that the idea has enough popular support to clear such hurdles.”
He cites Canada and Taiwan as examples of rapid comprehensive reform undertaken in 1968 and 1995, respectively. He notes that these two systems have kept annual per-capita spending at $4,974 in Canada and $1,430 in Taiwan, compared with over $10,000 annually for Americans. And he notes that both countries enjoy longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the U.S.
But he questions whether such a radical approach is politically possible in the U.S. His admonitions should not be ignored, since he is a renowned international expert on healthcare financing and social insurance, with long-standing tenure at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Also, he is no stranger to healthcare politics as the prime architect of Medicare’s resource-based relative-value pricing schema.
The German Alternative
Professor Hsiao suggests another model – Germany.
Germany’s first “sickness funds” were created in 1883 by Chancellor von Bismarck (see my YouTube video, “Brief History of U.S. Healthcare”). Then, after World War I, the Reichstag mandated universal coverage for all citizens. In the 1990s, chaotic coverage packages were standardized by law. Since then, the hybrid regulated market consolidated down to just 115 insurers currently, all now using required uniform claims procedures. Administrative costs are low, drug costs are controlled, per-capital spending is $5,728, and life expectancy and infant mortality are better than in the U.S.
Professor Hsiao argues that an incremental approach like Germany’s is more politically feasible in the U.S. For example, implementing a uniform system of records and payments could streamline claims processing and improve control of duplication and fraud. He favors allowing a monopsony of insurers to collectively bargain on drug prices. Measures like these would predictably save $200 to $300 billion dollars annually, a comparatively small but worthwhile step.
Meanwhile, he favors state-level or federal-level risk pools and regional health budgets to cover the uninsured and underinsured. These measures would require modest tax increases along the way, but would sidestep the politically problematic issue of abolishing private health insurance.
Professor Hsiao astutely frames the question of healthcare reform as a debate over “the perfect and the good.” He implies that doing nothing is not an option. But he also astutely notes that the clash between public sentiment and the vested interests will drive the political power dynamic. Will Americans’ escalating pocketbook costs prevail over their fear of change and their tolerance for non-costworthy spending in the current system?
This blog has predicted that rising walletbook pain will push Americans to their political tipping point. Time will tell.
Iowa Democrats reported last night that their biggest priorities were beating President Trump and health care — but the meltdown of their election reporting systems left their presidential choices unresolved.
Why it matters: We’ve been writing for months that Democrats have a major choice ahead, either picking an advocate of Medicare for All — and siding with the plan that’s less popular with the rest of the country — or a public option advocate.
The Iowa debacle means the path the party will take won’t be clear for a while longer.
By the numbers: Several polls — including ones by NBC News, the National Exit Poll and AP Votecast — found that around four in 10 caucus voters said health care was their top issue.
Previous polling has found that Medicare for All is less popular overall than a public option, but both were popular among Democratic caucus-goers last night.
Seven in 10 said they back a single-payer plan, and almost nine in 10 said they support a public option, per AP Votecast, which was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press and Fox News.
Yes, but: Caucus-goers said they prefer a Democratic candidate who can beat Trump over one that agrees with them on issues, CNN reports.
The big picture: Republicans are more than happy to talk about Medicare for All — and its subsequent tax increases and expanded government role in health care — instead of protecting and building on the Affordable Care Act.
Whereas the former gives them an opportunity to go on offense, the latter puts the GOP on defense against its 2017 repeal-and-replace efforts and ongoing lawsuit that would strike down the whole health care law, including its protections for pre-existing conditions.
Whether it’s interpreting medical bills, struggling to get hospital records, or fighting with an insurance provider, Americans are accustomed to battling bureaucracy to access their health care. But patients’ time and effort are not the only price of this complexity. Administrative costs now make up about 34% of total health care expenditures in the United States—twice the percentage Canada spends, according to a new study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.
These costs have increased over the last two decades, mostly due to the growth of private insurers’ overhead. The researchers examined 2017 costs and found that if the U.S. were to cut its administrative spending to match Canadian levels, the country could have saved more than $600 billion in just that one year.
“The difference [in administrative costs] between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study. “And frankly to have money left over.”
Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
Research has long shown that the U.S., which uses a disparate system of private providers and insurers, has higher administrative costs than other developed countries that use single-payer systems. But the Annals study puts a finer point on it: as the first major effort to calculate administrative costs across the U.S. health system in nearly two decades, the researchers found that the gap between the U.S. and Canada has widened significantly.
The U.S. now spends nearly five times more per person on health care administration than Canada does. The U.S. administrative costs came out to $812 billion in 2017, or $2,497 per person in the U.S. compared with $551 per person in Canada, according to the Annals study.
Along with Himmelstein, co-authors Steffie Woolhandler and Terry Campbell examined administrative costs for insurance companies and government agencies that administer healthcare, as well as costs in four settings: hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and hospices and physician practices. For each category, the researchers determined which costs were administrative and conducted analyses to adjust comparisons between relative costs in the U.S. and Canada.
Insurers’ overhead, the largest category, totaled $275.4 billion in the U.S. in 2017, or 7.9% of all national health expenditures, compared with $5.36 billion in Canada, or 2.8% of national health expenditures. The American number included $45 billion in government spending to administer health care programs and $229.5 billion in private insurers’ overhead and profits, which covers employer plans and managed care plans funded by Medicare and Medicaid.
This insurance overhead accounted for most of the total increase in administrative spending in the U.S. since 1999, according to the study. While the share of Americans covered by commercial insurance plans has not changed much, private insurers have expanded their role as subcontractors handling what are known as “managed care” plans for Medicaid and Medicare. The study notes that most Medicaid recipients are now on private managed care plans and about one third of Medicare enrollees now have Medicare Advantage plans. Both of these types of plans have higher overhead costs than the publicly administered alternatives.
“We were struck, and frankly hadn’t expected it until we delved into the data, by the huge increase in insurance overhead,” Himmelstein told TIME.
Other reports, including one by the Center for American Progresspublished last April, have identified ways to reduce administrative costs without moving the U.S. to a single-payer health care system. But Himmelstein says his study shows that a public option that preserves private insurance wouldn’t provide the same savings as a traditional single-payer system. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” Himmelstein says, adding, “If the Medicare public option includes the Medicare Advantage plans, it’s actually conceivable that the public option would increase the bureaucratic costs.”
Most of the public option plans proposed by Democratic presidential candidates are not detailed enough to determine exact costs, Himmelstein says. But overall, he believes they won’t result in significant cost savings.
In addition to their research, Himmelstein and Woolhandler have been longtime advocates for single-payer health care. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer system. They also conducted the initial health administrative costs study on 1999 data and have published other studies comparing hospital administrative costs in the U.S. and other countries.
Himmelstein says his team’s estimates of total U.S. administrative costs in the Annals study are likely conservative. When estimating physicians’ administrative costs, the researchers relied on a 2011 study of time spent by physicians and their staffs interacting with insurers. And he notes that while 2017 data was often the latest available when they were conducting this study, 2018 health spending numbers have since come out showing further increases in insurance overhead.
“We can afford universal coverage with a single payer plan, not just universal coverage but first dollar coverage for everybody in our country if we adopted a single-payer Medicare for all approach,” Himmelstein says. “If you’re going to cover everybody without getting those savings you’re going to have to spend more or you’re going to have to have big co-payments and deductibles that deter people from getting the care that they actually need.”