Segment 7 – Healthcare Power, Politics & Philosophy

Segment 7 – Healthcare Power, Politics & Philosophy

 

This segment reviews preconditions for having a focused discussion of healthcare reform necessitated by powerful vested interests, and it discusses how to overcome political polarization.

In the first six Segments, we have reviewed the relentless growth of healthcare spending. And how rising costs are literally built into the system as it is now. This review should give us some ideas on how to fix the system.

But before we talk about how to fix the healthcare system, we must first tackle some landmines that lurk beneath the surface. The landmines are power, politics and philosophy. They are the subject of the next 2 Segments.

In this Segment, we will discuss both preconditions necessary for a calm, focused discussion of healthcare reform as well as what I call “loaded” political words. Then in the following Segment we will look at traditional American values and principles that can be brought to bear on resolving the core philosophical dilemma that has kept us from fixing US healthcare all these years.

Let’s start with preconditions. The idea here is that healthcare now comprises 1/6 of the entire US economy. So, there are powerful interests, lots of money, and fierce political convictions that could derail any discussion before it even gets started.

So, I suggest setting preconditions to be agreed on beforehand. Only then can we calmly get into the meat of the discussion. Here are the preconditions.

Slide21

First, for purposes of discussion, let’s agree to keep dollar spending at the 2017 level – no winners, no losers, everything the same.

Second, let’s keep power the same. Keep the AMA, the hospital association, the VA, Health & Human Services, etc. No power struggles.

Third, strive to keep partisan politics out of the discussion. Make it a joint problem-solving project. Give credit where it’s due: to politicians or policy writers who contribute constructively. The motto is: “U.S. spells us.” Healthcare employs 1/6 of us and touches all of us.

Fourth, here’s where I will insert a viewpoint from my 40 years experience as a doctor: Human beings all get the same illnesses, all suffer, all are interconnected mind/body/spirits. I – like all doctors — have taken care of rich and poor, all races and nationalities, religious and non-religious, social outcasts and VIPs, saints and sinners. In a hospital bed or in the doctor’s office, we’re all the same. We should remember, “We’re all in this together”

Lastly, since healthcare is “too big to fail,” whatever is done should be done deliberately, slowly, with monitoring along the way and mid-course corrections when needed. If we accept these preconditions, we can have a Win-Win Discussion.

This kind of discussion should look at Facts, Goals, Values and lastly Methods, the actual Fix.

We have already discussed the Facts. The key facts are:

– the US health system has grown to 3.2 trillion dollars, representing 1/6 of the entire economy

– Cost growth is built into the system, has always outpaced inflation, and has resisted attempts to restrain the growth

– Healthcare spending is draining vitality from the economy, government and individual household budgets

Slide12

Here are the key Goals:

– We must stop excess healthcare growth beyond the natural increase expected from population increase, aging, and innovation.

– To do so will require fundamental reform of the system, not just tinkering with public finance and private insurance

– Since healthcare is “too big to fail”, a key goal is Avoid short-term disruption, again proceed slowly.

Slide13

The last things to discuss before we get to specific Methods – what I am calling the Fix of healthcare – are Politics and Values.

We all know that our country is polarized to an unhealthy extent. This has contributed to political paralysis – not getting anything done. I’m not a political scientist and cannot tackle the whole subject of healthcare politics.

But I do want to look at what I call “loaded words” that creep into our debates on healthcare. These words lock us into a closed, rigid mindset and can shut down discussion.

Let’s look at a few “loaded words” and suggest more neutral words to help keep the discussion open-minded.

Slide16

First is “socialized medicine.” This terminology stirs up the negative connotations of the so-called “Prussian menace” after World War I and “Red scare” after World War II. A more neutral term would be “publicly financed medicine.” The truth of the matter is that currently almost 50% of healthcare is already publicly financed through Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs. The issues behind the loaded words, which do need thoughtful discussion, are accountability; and also advantages and disadvantages of uniformity and nationwide scale, instead of the current fragmented system.

The next loaded terms are “free market” and “competition.” The connotations are freedom from government interference, freedom from politics, consumer freedom, and efficiency. The grain of truth behind the terms is that the law of supply and demand does drive down prices to a balance point in pure markets. The reality, however, is that healthcare is not a pure market, as we saw in Segment 5. Also, markets sometimes leave aside consumers who are poor or powerless, which includes many of the sick. A more neutral term is commercial market.

Next is “rationing.” The connotation is forcibly withholding something from an individual. A more neutral term is “limit-setting” or “prioritizing.” We will talk more about this in the next Segment, and about the need for patients’ to consent to limits on their health service or health insurance. The reality is that we already have de facto rationing by zip code, income level, government budgeting, and hospital technology policies. Prioritizing is not bad – it’s necessary.

Slide18

Another loaded word is “choice.” The connotation is that the government will interfere in choice of doctor or into the doctor-patient relationship itself. This was one of the scare tactics used by the insurance association in 1993 to bring down the President Clinton’s health reform plan. But the reality is that insurance network plans restrict patient choice of doctor more than government rules do. In addition, doctor inclusion in Medicaid – and other insurance plans, for that matter — is often a matter of the pay scales set by Medicaid or insurance companies, not the choices made by patients.

And the last loaded term I’ll mention is “big government.” The connotation goes back to President Reagan saying, “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” We always hear about the Army’s 100-dollar toilet seats (in 1986 dollars) and the disastrous roll-out of the Obamacare website.

Slide19

And the truth is that government is big and can be just as flawed as any big institution. However, national government, unlike private companies, is legally transparent and accountable. Also, Government can fulfill some functions more effectively and efficiently than some private sector piecemeal approaches. Here are examples: FAA, FDA, FCC. Currently the military enjoys a high regard. Some examples of public-private partnerships are the moon shot, internet and healthcare research. Medicare has an enviable customer satisfaction rating of 77%.

The reality is that we are now a nation (and world) of big institutions – for-profit, non-profit, government, academic. All have institutional governance and administrative challenges, which are studied by the disciplines of public administration and business administration. Public administration and business administration tell us how best to run big institutions so as to fulfill their mission and to remain accountable and transparent. More neutral terms instead of “big government” are: public sector programs or taxpayer-funded program.

So we have some better neutral terminology to use for discussing healthcare to avoid inflammatory polemical words.

In the next Segment we will look at American values at stake in health care. We will also look at what philosophers say is a fair way to run US healthcare.

I’ll see you then.

 

 

Segment 2 – Brief History of U.S. Healthcare

Segment 2 – Brief History of U.S. Healthcare

Slide04

In Segment 2, I will answer the question, How Did We Get Here? I’ll give a whirlwind tour of the history of medical care in the U.S., and I’ll also look at the birth of health insurance.

Let’s start with looking at healthcare in the Colonial period. The most famous doctor at the time was Benjamin Rush. He – like most reputable professionals of the day – got his medical training in Europe, in his case Edinburgh, Scotland, the leading medical center of the time. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served in the Revolutionary Army. He became the “father of American psychiatry” because of his interest in mental illness as a disease, not demon possession.

Rush and other orthodox practitioners in the early Republic –trained in the scientific European tradition– faced competition from a panoply of practitioners in an unlicensed, unregulated “free market.” They peddled nostrums like snake oil and procedures such as blood-letting. Doctors of all types trained like apprentices. The sick were cared for in their homes, with the poor going to almshouses and mentally ill to asylums. Port cities did have public pesthouses for quarantines.

By mid-19th century, orthodox doctors began trying to solidify their place in the market. They did this through training at medical schools, beginning with Harvard, Dartmouth, College of Philadelphia (which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania) and King’s College (which eventually became Columbia). But by 1850 there were now 42 medical schools that often were little more than diploma mills. The course consisted of only two semesters of 3 months each. The medical school needed only 4 faculty, 1 classroom, 1 dissection lab and a charter to grant degrees. These schools were highly profitable.

In 1847, the AMA (American Medical Association) was founded by the orthodox physicians.

Meanwhile, the era of scientific medicine was blossoming in Austria, Britain, Germany and France. Here are some milestones – anesthesia, microbiology study of invisible germs, antiseptic surgery technique and x-rays.

In America, by the turn of the century, doctors and the AMA sought to further shore up their legitimacy by reforming medical education. States began requiring more formal education as a condition for licensure. The Association of Medical Colleges was founded in 1876. In 1893, Dr. William Welch brought to Johns Hopkins University the German model of education based on 3 or 4 years of training in clinical sciences. Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie hired Abraham Flexner in 1910 to draw up a blueprint for medical school reform. Flexner is widely credited with ushering in the era of modern medicine in this country.

In the early 20th century, doctors enjoyed prestige and independence. Courts rules against corporations practicing medicine, ensuring the pre-eminence of private practice. Doctors joined together in hospitals to take care of growing populations in big cities, and to exploit emerging surgical and diagnostic technologies.

This brings us to health insurance. Surgery (which made great advances during the Civil War and World War I) and hospitals were becoming expensive. So in 1929, Baylor College started the first pre-paid hospital insurance. Baylor’s 1,200 teachers each paid 50 cents per month to cover up to 21 days of hospitalization. Surgeons and hospitals quickly embraced this arrangement, and the Baylor plan became the Blue Cross plan in Minnesota in 1933 and Texas in 1934. By 1950, just 15 years later, Blue Cross covered 57% of the population.

Here’s how it happened. After World War I, the war-torn countries of Europe, like Germany, were in turmoil. Social insurance, including healthcare, helped reestablish some social stability there. But in this country, politicians opposed Teddy Roosevelt’s plan to set up national health insurance for factory workers, calling public insurance a “Prussian menace”. Labor unions saw public health insurance as an encroachment on their special role to ensure worker benefits. The AMA also opposed public health insurance as a potential “interference with the practice of medicine.

Then during World War II, wages were frozen, but companies were allowed to give health insurance benefits instead. This sewed the seeds of the employer-based health insurance system. In 1948 the Supreme Court decided that unions could use health benefits in collective bargaining agreements. Then in 1954 Congress made employer-paid health premiums non-taxable. By the mid-1960s employer-paid health insurance was nearly universal.

Let’s summarize the history of medicine from Rush to Medicare. In the Colonial period and early Republic there was intense competition among doctors of all stripes, those that tried to understand the scientific basis of disease and those who peddled remedies on a trial-and-error basis (referred to as “empirical”), relying mostly on their placebo effect. We still see vestiges of this early competition today in the rivalry between MDs, DOs, chiropractors and podiatrists. During the industrial period, little by little science-based orthodox physicians in the European tradition prevailed over their rivals introducing advances in surgery, diagnosis and infection control. They shored up their gains with institutions such as the AMA, hospitals, and eventually insurance.

In the next Segment, we will look at reform movements, starting with Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. We will also look at why later reforms failed and where that leaves us now.

I’ll see you then.

 

 

 

 

Healthcare Triage: Hospital Competition Can Impact Your Health

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/healthcare-triage-hospital-competition-can-impact-your-health/

Image result for Healthcare Triage: Hospital Competition Can Impact Your Health

It turns out, hospital and health system consolidations can result in worse outcomes for patients. These mergers reduce competition, and it turns out that hospitals compete more often on quality than they do on prices. The result is that quality suffers in markets with less competition.

 

 

A review of health care costs: deck chairs and the Titanic, part 2

https://stateofreform.com/news/federal/2019/02/breaking-down-health-cares-cost-dilemma-part-ii/

Related image

This article is Part II of a two-part series on the cost of health care and its component parts. Part I explores the recent growth of health care costs in the United States as well as the utilization inputs in the cost equation. Part II breaks down the pricing component of cost, determined by market leverage and the cost of delivering services. 


The Titanic

This brings us to the second category of costs: the Titanic. Or, to use our equation here of THC = U x P, the Titanic I’m talking about is the pricing component of cost.

In other words, health care leaders should do everything they can to make sure that utilization is the right care at the right time in the right setting. This makes a meaningful difference in the quality of our health care system.

But, if we focus on health care utilization alone, the health care system is still going to sink under the weight of costs. Our efforts will still be deck chairs on the Titanic.

To keep our ship afloat, we have to address the pricing input of our cost equation.

Like our cost equation above, pricing also has a simple equation of two inputs that determine price. According to a seminal study out of Massachusetts, which has been reaffirmed in additional studies (and by the experience of many network relations vice presidents across America’s health plans), this equation is straightforward.

Pricing is determined by a combination of market leverage (ML) and service delivery costs (SDC), where market leverage is 75 percent of the pricing structure and the cost of delivering the service is 25 percent.

This is true for either the plan or the provider, depending on where market leverage exists. This equation looks like this: P = ML(.75) + SDC(.25).

If we put this together, the math equation would look like this: THC = U x (ML(.75) + SDC(.25)).

Here’s how the study put it:

Price variations are correlated to market leverage as measured by the relative market position of the hospital or provider group compared with other hospitals or provider groups within a geographic region or within a group of academic medical centers. 

While addressing the utilization component of the cost-growth problem is essential, any successful reform initiative must take into account the significant role of unit price in driving costs. Bending the cost curve will require tackling the growth in price and the market dynamics that perpetuate price inflation and lead to irrational price disparities.

But here is what the numbers say: between 2004 and 2017, adjusting for age and sex factors, 68 percent of the growth in overall national health care expenditures came from increases in medical prices. Only 32 percent of growth came from utilization of services.

In other words, pricing is more than twice as important as utilization in the growth of health care costs – costs that are increasing more rapidly than ever.

 

 

Put graphically, while we have two inputs into total health care costs or expenditures, it’s incorrect to think of them as weighted equally, as demonstrated in image 1 above. It’s more accurate to think of these two pieces weighted as shown in image 2. And, if we are honest about the role of market leverage in health care pricing, market leverage alone is more than half of the overall problem in health care costs – more than all of the service delivery costs and utilization combined.

 

Keeping the Titanic afloat

Let’s restate the challenge we face here in our trans-Atlantic metaphor. Cost is the biggest problem in health care today. Those costs are made up by pricing and utilization, where pricing is more than twice as impactful in cost growth as utilization, and where market leverage is three times more impactful to pricing than are service delivery costs.

In order to keep our health care system afloat, we must address costs. And to address costs, we must address pricing.  And to address pricing, we must address market leverage.

If we move every deck chair around, but fail to address the cost consequences of market leverage, our ship will sink.

In our capitalist economy, we view consolidated market leverage as a market failure. It’s why we have antitrust statutes and an active regulatory regime to manage and push back against consolidation. Where the market failure is in the area of a public good, the American political system has often regulated those consolidated markets like public utilities or quasi-public entities.

Think of energy and Enron, of railroads and BNSF, of telephones and Ma Bell.

As health care nears 20 percent of the US economy, and where even urban states like California suffer from a “staggering” concentration of market leverage among health care providers, the lesson for health care policymakers and senior health care executives is this: If you want to get your hands around cost, you’re going to have to address market leverage to do that. Everything else is just deck chairs.

 

 

UPMC fires back at state AG, seeks to join BCBS antitrust lawsuit

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/upmc-fires-back-at-state-ag-seeks-to-join-bcbs-antitrust-lawsuit/548993/

Image result for upmc building

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center filed a counter lawsuit on Thursday against the Pennsylvania attorney general, who is seeking to force the healthcare giant into contracting with rival Highmark. The system is also seeking to insert itself in a broader lawsuit over the ways Blues operate.

The flurry of filings taps into big questions over payer competition and underscores tensions seen throughout the country between insurance companies and providers as they negotiate contracts, particularly in highly concentrated markets. States have stepped up their enforcement of consumer protections against rising healthcare costs — but UPMC is saying its regulators have greatly overstepped their bounds. 

Earlier this month, Shapiro alleged Pittsburgh’s dominant medical provider wasn’t living up to its charitable mission as a nonprofit, accusing the health system of “forsaking its charitable obligations” in exchange for “corporate greed.”

The legal duel stems from a contract dispute between UPMC and its rival Highmark. Until June 30, the two have a legal agreement protecting consumer access to the other’s network through a consent decree. UPMC refuses to modify the decree and contract with Highmark, which risks in-network access to UPMC hospitals for Highmark members.

In response to the attorney general’s initial complaint, UPMC alleges that Shapiro’s attempt to renew and modify an expiring agreement between the Pittsburgh health system and Highmark is “unprecedented and unwarranted.”  The modification would, among other things, remove the majority of UPMC’s board of directors and force the integrated system to contract with any payer. 

The state AG responded on Friday, accusing UPMC of ignoring its mission and noting it would not be intimated by the healthcare behemoth.

“With their filings today, UPMC has shown they intend to spend countless hours and untold resources on a legal battle instead of focusing on their stated mission as a non-profit charity — promoting the public interest and providing patient access to affordable health care,” said Attorney General’s Office spokesman Joe Grace.

In its notice to the AG, UPMC lays out five examples it calls frivolous enough to get Shapiro’s motion dismissed — including previous testimony delivered by Deputy Attorney General Jim Donahue in 2014, when he told state representatives there is “no statutory basis” to make the two companies contract with each other without setting a dangerous economic precedent.

“If we force the resolution in this case, we really could not avoid trying to force a similar resolution in all those other situations, and that is simply and unworkable method of dealing with these problems,” Donahue said at the time. “We’d be putting our finger on the scale, so to speak … and we’re not sure what those effects would be.”

One effect is a class action lawsuit, which UPMC filed separately Thursday. It alleges Shapiro has violated at least four federal laws: Medicare Advantage statutes protecting competition, the Affordable Care Act’s nonprofit payer regulations and the Sherman Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

“Purporting to act in his official capacity, General Shapiro has illegally taken over nonprofit healthcare in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” UPMC’s class action states. “Without rulemaking, legislation or public comment, General Shapiro has announced new ‘principles’ that radically (and often in direct contravention of existing federal and state law) change how nonprofit health insurers and providers operate, now rendering the Attorney General the arbiter of how nonprofit health organizations should envision and achieve their mission.”

UPMC says Blues system bad for business

Separate from its battle with the state attorney general, UPMC is attempting to jump in the middle of a legal antitrust battle over how Blue Cross Blue Shield plans operate. UPMC is seeking both a preliminary injunction and a motion to intervene in the years-long federal case in Alabama.

UPMC is asking the Alabama court to stop the Blues plans from enforcing their own market allocation agreements that prevent UPMC from contracting with other Blues plans, according to the filing. UPMC says a significant chunk of its patients have a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan from a different provider other than Highmark.

Joe Whatley, co-lead counsel for provider plaintiffs in the Alabama case, told Healthcare Dive UPMC “presents a good example of how the Blues are abusing their illegal agreement for their benefit and to harm healthcare providers throughout the country.”

UPMC argues that it would contract with other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, separate from Highmark, but cannot due to the way Blues operate — or limit how they compete with one another. BCBS plans tend to stake out their own geographic areas and avoid competition with one another, a practice the Alabama court has already found is in violation of antitrust laws. A BCBS appeal to the Alabama judge’s opinion was already struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late last year.

UPMC is asking the Alabama court for an injunction, or to step in and stop the Blues plans from enforcing or complying with their own market allocation agreements that are preventing UPMC from contracting with other Blues plans, according to the filing. And because the hometown plan, Highmark, does not have a contract with UPMC after June 30, it means that other Blues plan members that have enjoyed in-network access to UPMC will soon lose access after the consent decree expires.

About 24% of UPMC’s hospital patients have a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan other than Highmark.

UPMC contends that it has tried to contract with other Blues but was turned down. “The average non-Highmark Blues patient does not know that UPMC has offered contracts to each of these plans and been turned down because the Blues’ illegal market allocation prevents them entering into such an agreement with UPMC,” according to the filing.

Without an injunction, UPMC alleges it will suffer irreparable harm to its reputation and will lose a significant number of patients who have a non-Highmark Blues plans.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has not responded to Healthcare Dive’s request for comment and UPMC declined to discuss the case further.

 

 

 

 

Market Concentration and Potential Competition in Medicare Advantage

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2019/feb/market-concentration-and-potential-competition-medicare

Market concentration and competition

ABSTRACT

  • Issue: Medicare Advantage (MA), the private option to traditional Medicare, now serves roughly 37 percent of beneficiaries. Congress intended MA plans to achieve efficiencies in the provision of health care that lead to savings for Medicare through managed competition among private health plans.
  • Goal: Two elements are needed for savings to accrue: a sound payment policy and effective competition among the private plans. This brief examines the latter.
  • Methods: We use data from 2009–17 to describe market structure in MA, including the insurers offering plans and enrollment in each U.S. county. We measure both actual and potential competitors for each county for each year.
  • Key Findings and Conclusions: MA markets are highly concentrated and have become more concentrated since 2009. From 2009–17, 70 percent or more of enrollees were in highly concentrated markets, dominated by two or three insurers. Since the payment system used to reimburse insurers selling in the MA market relies on competition to spur efficiency and premiums that more closely reflect insurers’ actual costs, these developments suggest that taxpayers and beneficiaries will overpay. We also find an average of six potential entrants into MA markets, which points to a source of competition that may be activated in MA. To tap into potential competition, further research is needed to understand the factors affecting entry into MA markets.

Introduction

Medicare Advantage (MA), the private option to traditional Medicare (TM), now serves roughly 37 percent of beneficiaries through health care plans. Federal subsidy of the premiums of MA plans is intended to create a “level playing field,” so that the government pays MA plans based on what beneficiaries would typically cost in TM. This approach is based on Alain Enthoven’s concept of “managed competition,” wherein private plans that provide better benefits and higher-quality care at a lower price than TM would attract beneficiaries. Two elements are needed for this approach to work: a sound payment policy and effective competition among the private plans. This issue brief examines the latter.

Recent data show that many MA markets are served by just one or a small number of insurers.1 In 2012, 97 percent of county markets in the MA program were designated as highly concentrated according to the definitions used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), with a Hirschman-Herfindahl Index (HHI) of greater than 2,500.2 In 2016, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission observed that local markets for MA plans were becoming increasingly concentrated.3 Recently, courts have blocked mergers that would further erode competition within the MA market.4

This issue brief updates information about the market structure in the MA program. We report on traditional measures of market structure, such as concentration ratios and the HHIs, and a simple count of the number of insurers offering plans in a market. We also include the “two-firm concentration ratio,” or the share of enrollment accounted for by the top two firms. We also offer new perspectives on competition in MA. First, we comment on competition and choice from the standpoint of a beneficiary by examining the number of plans available. Second, we introduce the idea of “potential competition” in an MA market. Potential competition, like actual competition, can constrain market power. Third, we consider the role of TM in constraining the market power of MA insurers.

Actual and Potential Competition

News stories about consumers’ choices among Medicare Advantage plans often begin with a statement such as “On average, seniors will have a choice of 21 plans, although at least 40 plans will be accessible in some counties and large metropolitan areas of the country.”5 But such accounts give a misleading indication of competition in the MA program, because many insurers offer multiple health plan products in the same market. In this issue brief, we measure the number of MA plans but also focus on the number of different insurers in the market to assess competition at the insurer level.

An insurer needs to be wary of potential as well as actual competitors. Insurers that set premiums high may enable competitors to gain footholds in a market. A market is said to be “contestable” if it is relatively easy for a potential entrant to contest for market share.6Barriers to entry, the magnitude of one-time entry costs, and the availability of comparably efficient technology all influence contestability of a market. Here, we identify “potential competitors,” or insurers that are in a position to contest a county-defined market and therefore pose a competitive threat to incumbents. Insurers licensed to operate MA plans in a state have already crossed some local regulatory barriers and contract with some local providers. We therefore measure potential competition by the number of health insurers participating in some MA markets within the state but not in a particular county.

Data and Measurement

We use data from 2009–17 to describe market structure in MA, including the insurers offering plans in each county and the level of enrollment by county and plan. From these data we measure both actual and potential competitors for each county for each year. Actual competitors are those insurers that participate in MA in a specific county; potential competitors are the insurers participating in MA in a state but not in the county of interest. These data also allow us to compute concentration ratios and the HHI for each county and in each year. In some analyses we categorize the counties according to the HHI corresponding to the FTC/DOJ classifications of concentration: 1) not concentrated, HHI <1,501; 2) moderately concentrated, HHI=1,501–2,500; and 3) highly concentrated, HHI >2,500.

Results

As shown in Exhibit 1, in 2017 Medicare beneficiaries could choose from a relatively large number of private plans (roughly seven) by the standards of the private insurance market. The number of insurers declined from 2009 to 2011 then remained steady through 2017, averaging 2.5 in 2017. For comparison, in 2017, the average metropolitan area had two insurers competing in the health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

Insurer concentration increased from 2009 to 2011 (the number of insurers selling MA plans fell from 4.5 to 2.9) then remained at about the same, high level of concentration. The two-firm concentration ratio was already high in 2009 (81%); it rose to 91 percent by 2011 and stayed there through 2017. The average county-level HHI was 4,914 in 2009, rising to 6,360 in 2013, and declining slightly to 6,285 in 2017. To put this in perspective, a market with two equal-size health plans would have an HHI of 5,000. The average MA market is therefore even more concentrated than that. Notably, the number of potential competitors also fell over the same period. Nevertheless there are now more potential than actual competitors in each county.

Exhibit 2 shows that 70 percent or more of MA enrollees were in highly concentrated markets (HHI>2,500). Few MA enrollees were able to choose a plan in a market not dominated by two or three insurers.

Virtually all Medicare enrollees face MA markets that are moderately to highly concentrated. Exhibit 3 shows the distribution of all Medicare enrollees (in MA and TM) by the levels of MA concentration. We stratify markets (i.e., counties) into quartiles according to the size of the total population of Medicare beneficiaries. The table reports mean population and mean HHI for each quartile of the total Medicare population. Among sparsely populated markets, which are largely rural, the mean HHI is 6,684 — indicating that they are highly concentrated. This is in part because of the difficulty that managed care plans, like HMOs and PPOs, have in establishing provider networks in rural areas where providers are scarce and provider markets are highly concentrated. In highly populated markets, the average HHI shows that they too are highly concentrated HHI = 3,774), but the index value is considerably lower than in sparsely populated markets.

Exhibit 4 shows the average numbers of potential entrants in counties grouped by the three HHI ranges. In recent years, there has been little difference in the number of potential competitors in areas with high or low concentration, implying that potential competitors are no more attracted to highly concentrated markets and may not discipline competition any more strongly in areas with few actual competitors. This was not true in earlier years, during which the number of potential competitors was higher in areas with less current competition. The number of potential competitors in moderately concentrated counties has remained steady over the nine-year period.

While Medicare beneficiaries have a choice between TM and MA, in assessing the competitive forces on MA plans we assume that the actual or potential competition from other MA plans matters most. The market position of an MA insurer in relation to TM received examination in connection with two recently proposed mergers, between Aetna and Humana and between Anthem and Cigna. The U.S. Department of Justice challenged these mergers on antitrust grounds, arguing that the proposed consolidations would threaten effective competition in MA. In the Aetna-Humana case, Judge Bates observed: “The weight of the evidence presented at trial indicates ‘industry [and] public recognition’ of a distinct market for Medicare Advantage. Competition within that market, between Medicare Advantage plans, is far more intense than competition with products outside of it.”7 While the role of traditional Medicare in affecting competition in the MA market deserves further analysis, competition among MA plans is where most of market discipline is likely to arise. While the presence of TM likely affects the conduct of MA plans, existing evidence suggests that the primary drivers of consumer choices are differences in the premiums, quality of care, and benefits among MA plans.8

Implications of MA Market Concentration

Even though 37 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in private plans, when compared with employer-based health insurance Medicare’s transition to managed care has been slow. Traditional Medicare is the last major bastion of open-network, fee-for-service health insurance, although the fee-for-service component is beginning to change with the spread of accountable care organizations. Competition or lack thereof of in a market plays a role in accelerating or attenuating this shift. Consumer choices tend to be driven by the better value (premiums and quality) that can turn more favorable with increased competition.

Several forces may have driven greater concentration in MA markets since 2009. First, consolidation in the health insurance industry generally may have affected the MA market structure.9 Concentration in provider markets also has been increasing, which has made price negotiations for health care services more difficult for insurers, especially smaller ones.10 Medicare policy changes over these years may have inadvertently limited the supply and market entry of MA insurers. When Medicare rules were changed to require all MA plans to create networks of providers, the effect of provider concentration was heightened and some health insurers were less willing to remain in and/or enter MA markets. This effect may have been especially significant in rural areas.11 At the same time, there appears to be a substantial number of potential MA insurer entrants in most moderate to highly concentrated markets, yet there appears to have been little clear impact on market outcomes in terms of premiums and quality.

Together, the confluence of these forces continues to push MA markets in the direction of greater concentration. Since the payment system used to reimburse insurers selling in the MA market relies on competition to drive premiums toward insurers’ actual costs, these developments suggest that taxpayers and beneficiaries will overpay for MA products, compared with what they might have paid in markets with more robust competition.

Need for Further Analysis

A competitive market is intended to deliver good products to consumers at low prices. Ultimately, the effect of Medicare Advantage market power on prices or quality of care needs to be assessed empirically. There is some, but limited, evidence on the exercise of MA market power.12 Further research is needed to understand how potential competitors affect the actions of existing competitors. It also will be important to understand the barriers to market entry for potential competitors, especially those that might be lowered to spur greater competition.

 

 

Health Insurance Coverage Eight Years After the ACA

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2019/feb/health-insurance-coverage-eight-years-after-aca

Fewer Uninsured Americans and Shorter Coverage Gaps, But More Underinsured

What does health insurance coverage look like for Americans today, more than eight years after the Affordable Care Act’s passage? In this brief, we present findings from the Commonwealth Fund’s latest Biennial Health Insurance Survey to assess the extent and quality of coverage for U.S. working-age adults. Conducted since 2001, the survey uses three measures to gauge the adequacy of people’s coverage:

  • whether or not they have insurance
  • if they have insurance, whether they have experienced a gap in their coverage in the prior year
  • whether high out-of-pocket health care costs and deductibles are causing them to be underinsured, despite having continuous coverage throughout the year.

As the findings highlighted below show, the greatest deterioration in the quality and comprehensiveness of coverage has occurred among people in employer plans. More than half of Americans under age 65 — about 158 million people — get their health insurance through an employer, while about one-quarter either have a plan purchased through the individual insurance market or are enrolled in Medicaid.1Although the ACA has expanded and improved coverage options for people without access to a job-based health plan, the law largely left the employer market alone.2

Survey Highlights

  • Today, 45 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 are inadequately insured — nearly the same as in 2010 — though important shifts have taken place.
  • Compared to 2010, many fewer adults are uninsured today, and the duration of coverage gaps people experience has shortened significantly.
  • Despite actions by the Trump administration and Congress to weaken the ACA, the adult uninsured rate was 12.4 percent in 2018 in this survey, statistically unchanged from the last time we fielded the survey in 2016.
  • More people who have coverage are underinsured now than in 2010, with the greatest increase occurring among those in employer plans.
  • People who are underinsured or spend any time uninsured report cost-related problems getting care and difficulty paying medical bills at at higher rates than those with continuous, adequate coverage.
  • Federal and state governments could enact policies to extend the ACA’s health coverage gains and improve the cost protection provided by individual-market and employer plans.

The 2018 Commonwealth Fund Biennial Heath Insurance Survey included a nationally representative sample of 4,225 adults ages 19 to 64. SSRS conducted the telephone survey between June 27 and November 11, 2018.3 (See “How We Conducted This Study” for more detail.)

WHO IS UNDERINSURED?

In this analysis, we use a measure of underinsurance that accounts for an insured adult’s reported out-of-pocket costs over the course of a year, not including insurance premiums, as well as his or her plan deductible. (The measure was first used in the Commonwealth Fund’s 2003 Biennial Health Insurance Survey.*) These actual expenditures and the potential risk of expenditures, as represented by the deductible, are then compared with household income. Specifically, we consider people who are insured all year to be underinsured if:

  • their out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, over the prior 12 months are equal to 10 percent or more of household income; or
  • their out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, over the prior 12 months are equal to 5 percent or more of household income for individuals living under 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,120 for an individual or $49,200 for a family of four); or
  • their deductible constitutes 5 percent or more of household income.

The out-of-pocket cost component of the measure is only triggered if a person uses his or her plan to obtain health care. The deductible component provides an indicator of the financial protection the plan offers and the risk of incurring costs before someone gets health care. The definition does not include other dimensions of someone’s health plan that might leave them potentially exposed to costs, such as copayments or uncovered services. It therefore provides a conservative measure of underinsurance in the United States.

Compared to 2010, when the ACA became law, fewer people today are uninsured, but more people are underinsured. Of the 194 million U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 in 2018, an estimated 87 million, or 45 percent, were inadequately insured (see Tables 1 and 2).

Despite actions by the Trump administration and Congress to weaken the ACA, our survey found no statistically significant change in the adult uninsured rate by late 2018 compared to 2016 (Table 3). This finding is consistent with recent federal surveys, but other private surveys (including other Commonwealth Fund surveys) have found small increases in uninsured rates since 2016 (see “Changes in U.S. Uninsured Rates Since 2013”).

While there has been no change since 2010, statistically speaking, in the proportion of people who are insured now but have experienced a recent time without coverage, these reported gaps are of much shorter duration on average than they were before the ACA. In 2018, 61 percent of people who reported a coverage gap said it has lasted for six months or less, compared to 31 percent who said they had been uninsured for a year or longer. This is nearly a reverse of what it was like in 2012, two years before the ACA’s major coverage expansions. In that year, 57 percent of adults with a coverage gap reported it was for a year or longer, while one-third said it was a shorter gap.

There also has been some improvement in long-term uninsured rates. Among adults who were uninsured at the time of the survey, 54 percent reported they had been without coverage for more than two years, down from 72 percent before the ACA coverage expansions went into effect. The share of those who had been uninsured for six months or less climbed to 20 percent, nearly double the rate prior to the coverage expansions.

Of people who were insured continuously throughout 2018, an estimated 44 million were underinsured because of high out-of-pocket costs and deductibles (Table 1). This is up from an estimated 29 million in 2010 (data not shown). The most likely to be underinsured are people who buy plans on their own through the individual market including the marketplaces. However, the greatest growth in the number of underinsured adults is occurring among those in employer health plans.

WHY ARE INSURED AMERICANS SPENDING SO MUCH OF THEIR INCOME ON HEALTH CARE COSTS?

Several factors may be contributing to high underinsured rates among adults in individual market plans and rising rates in employer plans:

  1. Although the Affordable Care Act’s reforms to the individual market have provided consumers with greater protection against health care costs, many moderate-income Americans have not seen gains. The ACA’s essential health benefits package, cost-sharing reductions for lower- income families, and out-of-pocket cost limits have helped make health care more affordable for millions of Americans. But while the cost-sharing reductions have been particularly important in lowering deductibles and copayments for people with incomes under 250 percent of the poverty level (about $62,000 for a family of four), about half of people who purchase marketplace plans, and all of those buying plans directly from insurance companies, do not have them.4
  2. The bans against insurers excluding people from coverage because of a preexisting condition and rating based on health status have meant that individuals with greater health needs, and thus higher costs, are now able to get health insurance in the individual market. Not surprisingly, the survey data show that people with individual market coverage are somewhat more likely to have health problems than they were in 2010, which means they also have higher costs.
  3. While plans in the employer market historically have provided greater cost protection than plans in the individual market, businesses have tried to hold down premium growth by asking workers to shoulder an increasing share of health costs, particularly in the form of higher deductibles.5 While the ACA’s employer mandate imposed a minimum coverage requirement on large companies, the requirement amounts to just 60 percent of typical person’s overall costs. This leaves the potential for high plan deductibles and copayments.
  4. Growth in Americans’ incomes has not kept pace with growth in health care costs. Even when health costs rise more slowly, they can take an increasingly larger bite out of incomes.

It is well documented that people who gained coverage under the ACA’s expansions have better access to health care as a result.6 This has led to overall improvement in health care access, as indicated by multiple surveys.7 In 2014, the year the ACA’s major coverage expansions went into effect, the share of adults in our survey who said that cost prevented them from getting health care that they needed, such as prescription medication, dropped significantly (Table 4). But there has been no significant improvement since then.

The lack of continued improvement in overall access to care nationally reflects the fact that coverage gains have plateaued, and underinsured rates have climbed. People who experience any time uninsured are more likely than any other group to delay getting care because of cost (Table 5). And among people with coverage all year, those who were underinsured reported cost-related delays in getting care at nearly double the rate of those who were not underinsured.

There was modest but significant improvement following the ACA’s coverage expansions in the proportion of all U.S. adults who reported having difficulty paying their medical bills or said they were paying off medical debt over time (Table 4). Federal surveys have found similar improvements.8 However, those gains have stalled.

Inadequate insurance coverage leaves people exposed to high health care costs, and these expenses can quickly turn into medical debt. More than half of uninsured adults and insured adults who have had a coverage gap reported that they had had problems paying medical bills or were paying off medical debt over time (Table 6). Among people who had continuous insurance coverage, the rate of medical bill and debt problems is nearly twice as high for the underinsured as it is for people who are not underinsured.

Having continuous coverage makes a significant difference in whether people have a regular source of care, get timely preventive care, or receive recommended cancer screenings. Adults with coverage gaps or those who were uninsured when they responded to the survey were the least likely to have gotten preventive care and cancer screenings in the recommended time frame.

Being underinsured, however, does not seem to reduce the likelihood of having a usual source of care or receiving timely preventive care or cancer screens — provided a person has continuous coverage. This is likely because the ACA requires insurers and employers to cover recommended preventive care and cancer screens without cost-sharing. Even prior to the ACA, a majority of employer plans provided predeductible coverage of preventive services.9

Conclusion and Policy Implications

U.S. working-age adults are significantly more likely to have health insurance since the ACA became law in 2010. But the improvement in uninsured rates has stalled. In addition, more people have health plans that fail to adequately protect them from health care costs, with the fastest deterioration in cost protection occurring in the employer market. The ACA made only minor changes to employer plans, and the erosion in cost protection has taken a bite out of the progress made in Americans’ health coverage since the law’s enactment.

Both the federal government and the states, however, have the ability to extend the law’s coverage gains and improve the cost protection of both individual-market and employer plans. Here is a short list of policy options:

  • Expand Medicaid without restrictions. The 2018 midterm elections moved as many as five states closer to joining the 32 states that, along with the District of Columbia, have expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the ACA.10 As many as 300,000 people may ultimately gain coverage as a result.11 But, encouraged by the Trump administration, several states are imposing work requirements on people eligible for Medicaid — a move that could reverse these coverage gains. So far, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has approved similar work-requirement waivers in seven states and is considering applications from at least seven more. Arkansas imposed a work requirement last June, and, to date, more than 18,000 adults have lost their insurance coverage as a result.
  • Ban or place limits on short-term health plans and other insurance that doesn’t comply with the ACA. The Trump administration loosened regulations on short-term plans that don’t comply with the ACA, potentially leaving people who enroll in them exposed to high costs and insurance fraud. These plans also will draw healthier people out of the marketplaces, increasing premiums for those who remain and federal costs of premium subsidies. Twenty-three states have banned or placed limits on short-term insurance policies. Some lawmakers have proposed a federal ban.
  • Reinsurance, either state or federal. The ACA’s reinsurance program was effective in lowering marketplace premiums. After it expired in 2017, several states implemented their own reinsurance programs.12  Alaska’s program reduced premiums by 20 percent in 2018. These lower costs particularly help people whose incomes are too high to qualify for ACA premium tax credits. More states are seeking federal approval to run programs in their states. Several congressional bills have proposed a federal reinsurance program.
  • Reinstate outreach and navigator funding for the 2020 open-enrollment period. The administration has nearly eliminated funding for advertising and assistance to help people enroll in marketplace plans.13 Research has found that both activities are effective in increasing enrollment.14 Some lawmakers have proposed reinstatingthis funding.
  • Lift the 400-percent-of-poverty cap on eligibility for marketplace tax credits. This action would help people with income exceeding $100,000 (for a family of four) better afford marketplace plans. The tax credits work by capping the amount people pay toward their premiums at 9.86 percent. Lifting the cap has a built in phase out: as income rises, fewer people qualify, since premiums consume an increasingly smaller share of incomes. RAND researchers estimate that this policy change would increase enrollment by 2 million and lower marketplace premiums by as much as 4 percent as healthier people enroll. It would cost the federal government an estimated $10 billion annually.15 Legislation has been introduced to lift the cap.
  • Make premium contributions for individual market plans fully tax deductible. People who are self-employed are already allowed to do this.16
  • Fix the so-called family coverage glitch. People with employer premium expenses that exceed 9.86 percent of their income are eligible for marketplace subsidies, which trigger a federal tax penalty for their employers. There’s a catch: this provision applies only to single-person policies, leaving many middle-income families caught in the “family coverage glitch.” Congress could lower many families’ premiums by pegging unaffordable coverage in employer plans to family policies instead of single policies.17

REDUCE COVERAGE GAPS

  • Inform the public about their options. People who lose coverage during the year are eligible for special enrollment periods for ACA marketplace coverage. Those eligible for Medicaid can sign up at any time. But research indicates that many people who lose employer coverage do not use these options.18 The federal government, the states, and employers could increase awareness of insurance options outside the open-enrollment periods through advertising and education.
  • Reduce churn in Medicaid. Research shows that over a two-year period, one-quarter of Medicaid beneficiaries leave the program and become uninsured.19 Many do so because of administrative barriers.20 By imposing work requirements, as some states are doing, this involuntary disenrollment is likely to get worse. To help people stay continuously covered, the federal government and the states could consider simplifying and streamlining the enrollment and reenrollment processes.
  • Extend the marketplace open-enrollment period. The current open-enrollment period lasts just 45 days. Six states that run their own marketplaces have longer periods, some by as much as an additional 45 days. Other states, as well as the federal marketplace, could extend their enrollment periods as well.

IMPROVE INDIVIDUAL-MARKET PLANS’ COST PROTECTIONS

  • Fund and extend the cost-sharing reduction subsidies. The Trump administration eliminated payments to insurers for offering plans with lower deductibles and copayments. Insurers, which by law must still offer reduced-cost plans, are making up the lost revenue by raising premiums. But this fix, while benefiting enrollees who are eligible for premium tax credits, has distorted both insurer pricing and consumer choice.21 In addition, it is unknown whether the administration’s support for the fix will continue in the future, creating uncertainty for insurers.22 Congress could reinstate the payments to insurers and consider making the plans available to people with higher earnings.
  • Increase the number of services excluded from the deductible.Most plans sold in the individual market exclude certain services from the deductible, such as primary care visits and certain prescriptions.23As the survey data suggest, these types of exclusions appear to be important in ensuring access to preventive care among people who have coverage but are underinsured. In 2016, HHS provided a standardized plan option for insurers that excluded eight health services — including mental health and substance-use disorder outpatient visits and most prescription drugs — from the deductible at the silver and gold level.24 The Trump administration eliminated the option in 2018. Congress could make these exceptions mandatory for all plans.

IMPROVE EMPLOYER PLANS’ COST PROTECTIONS

  • Increase the ACA’s minimum level of coverage. Under the ACA, people in employer plans may become eligible for marketplace tax credits if the actuarial value of their plan is less than 60 percent, meaning that under 60 percent of health care costs, on average, are covered. Congress could increase this to the 70 percent standard of silver-level marketplace plans, or even higher.
  • Require deductible exclusions. Congress could require employers to increase the number of services that are covered before someone meets their deductible. Most employer plans exclude at least some services from their deductibles.25 Congress could specify a minimum set of exclusions for employer plans that might resemble the standardized-choice options that once existed for ACA plans.
  • Refundable tax credits for high out-of-pocket costs. Congress could make refundable tax credits available to help insured Americans pay for qualifying out-of-pocket costs that exceed a certain percentage of their income.26
  • Protect consumers from surprise medical bills. Several states have passed laws that protect patients and their families from unexpected medical bills, generally from out-of-network providers.27A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has proposed federal legislation to protect consumers, including people enrolled in employer and individual-market plans.

Health care costs are primarily what’s driving growth in premiums across all health insurance markets. Employers and insurers have kept premiums down by increasing consumers’ deductibles and other cost-sharing, which in turn is making more people underinsured. This means that policy options like the ones we’ve highlighted above will need to be paired with efforts to slow medical spending. These could include changing how health care is organized and providers are paid to achieve greater value for health care dollars and better health outcomes.28 The government also could tackle rising prescription drug costs29 and use antitrust laws to combat the growing concentration of insurer and provider markets.30