Whether Obamacare is fully implemented or collapses under the weight of its 906 pages of law, its 15,000 pages of regulations, and the well-publicized glitches in its rollout, the underlying, ineluctable problems with health insurance remain largely unresolved. How we respond will determine whether we hit the iceberg and sink or veer away in time to save our private health care system.
To understand some of the real cost drivers for health insurance, let’s look at the “Doe” family. John and Jane Doe pay $600 per month for health insurance for their family of four. Most states have a list of benefits, or “mandates,” that, by law, insurers must cover – from gastric electrical stimulation to breast implant removal. While some states have fewer mandates, others have piled them on. (Utah has 26, while Rhode Island, Maryland, and Minnesota all have at least 65.) The Doe family could see savings up to 50% or more on their insurance rates if they could just buy a basic health plan without the mandates. That could drop their monthly premium to as low as $300.
Premiums would come down even further if tort reform ended “jury lotto,” where patients get large, unjustifiable settlements or jury awards for medical treatment gone awry. While doctors are human and are certainly capable of errors, the legal system allows for these big settlements even when doctors are not at fault.
Here’s the scenario: Imagine that Doctor Smith treats a woman who complains of an ear infection and gives her a prescription, telling her to call if the condition doesn’t improve. The woman dies a few days later from a brain tumor. The family sues, alleging the doctor should have been able to diagnose the tumor. The jury sympathizes with the grieving family, believes that doctors should be omniscient, and reasons that rich doctors and their insurers can easily afford a large payment, so the family receives a $10 million award. The pestilential result is that everyone’s health insurance rates go up to cover such settlements, the doctor’s malpractice rates increase, and he now orders extra tests for the next patient to protect himself from the next lawsuit.
Tort reform could provide significant savings to the health care system, resulting in insurance premiums dropping as much as 10%. The Doe family might now see its insurance rate go down to as low as $240 – a whopping 60% drop in their monthly premium.
(Some have talked about allowing consumers to buy across state lines to reduce premiums even further by increasing competition and making it easier to buy policies in states that mandate fewer benefits, though this has not yet been shown to be true.)
A third way to drive insurance rates down is consumer engagement – changing the dynamic so that people actually know and care about what their health care costs. As long as it is Other People’s Money (OPM), there is little incentive to lower the cost of care, which continues to rise and, in turn, drives up insurance rates. (Contrary to public opinion, a recent analysis by the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that health insurers pay an average of 87 cents to providers of medical and pharmaceutical services out of each premium dollar and, after expenses, earn just three cents in profit. The problem, then, with health insurance isn’t that insurers are gouging people; it’s that costs are high, and consumers are generally unaware and unconcerned.)
So how can we get engaged? Even while we wait for the regulatory and legal changes that will need to occur to reduce mandates and rein in unjustified malpractice awards, here are two things for consideration in lowering health care costs.
First, we need to change our mindset as consumers when it comes to health insurance. What if we treated health insurance more like homeowner’s insurance? In other words, what if we bought coverage for the unexpected (illness or injury), while paying for our day-to-day medical needs out of pocket, as we do for home repair and maintenance? Great insurance options to consider include high-deductible health plans with linked Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). In general, we need to shift our thinking on health care from OPM (Other People’s Money) to MM (My Money).
Second, how about a radical “Groupon” type of approach? Let’s say John Doe is diagnosed with a hernia and needs an operation. There are three hospitals in town. All three are fully credentialed and meet quality standards. John’s surgeon can admit to them all. Hospital 1 is an older, traditional facility in a more frugal setting, with an estimated cost for the surgery at $10,000. Hospital 3 is a new, state-of-the art “Hyatt” hospital with high end amenities and a fancier environment – estimated cost: $50,000. Hospital 2 is in the middle, with an estimated $25,000 price tag. Here’s what John’s health insurance company tells him:
“You are covered at all three hospitals. But if you go to hospital 3, you have an additional $2,000 copay. If you go to hospital 2, we’ll cover the cost at 100%. If you go to hospital 1, we’ll pay you $2,000. Your choice.”
John is comfortable at hospital 1 and likes the idea of getting rewarded for choosing a lower cost setting. He has his surgery done there. He gets the $2,000, while the insurance company saves $38,000 off the cost of hospital 3.
This kind of savings will eventually be reflected in lower premiums for everyone. Decisions like John’s will also encourage hospitals to lower costs, as market forces come into play, leading to even more reductions in insurance costs.
We are not going to reform the health care system and resolve our health insurance problems overnight. And even if Obamacare is fully implemented, we still need to make fundamental changes, including how we see and use health insurance as consumers. If we are going to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg, we as consumers need to change our mindset and get engaged – and have financial incentives to do so, leading to powerful market forces. Once the sleeping giant of the American consumer awakens, watch out.