We may soon see the repeal or defunding of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”). No matter your political perspective, there is no doubt that rising costs of health care are a significant financial problem for many American families. These costs threaten our ability to save and accumulate, as well as to secure our retirement. In our financial plans, we calculate a higher rate of inflation for health care costs than other living expenses, but cost increases for those using individual plans on the ACA exchange have grown much faster than the overall 5-6% rate nationwide.
As a society, we are going to need to curb these costs while making sure all Americans have access to care. What concerns me today is that the new administration is pushing forward with the repeal while replacement plans remain vague and uncertain. We know what they are against, but what is the best solution?
Here’s a Financial Planner’s perspective on how America might reduce the cost of healthcare. My hope is that we can have a more educated and thoughtful conversation about this complex subject.
1) Covering Pre-existing Conditions
Requiring insurance companies to accept new participants and cover their “pre-existing conditions” is a fair and compassionate move from a consumer protection standpoint. But it’s a major change to the insurance model.
It means that insurers have to worry about self-selection bias, where people who are sick will sign up, but people who are healthy decide to forgo coverage. The more insurance premiums go up, the more self-selection occurs. That’s why the ACA included a provision to penalize people who do not have coverage, to create a financial incentive for everyone to participate.
The penalty is 2.5% of your income, with a floor of $695 and a ceiling of $2,085 per adult for 2016 and 2017. The ACA forces a painful decision between paying a penalty versus spending thousands more on coverage that has a high deductible and may offer little benefit unless you have a catastrophic illness or injury.
Unfortunately, requiring insurance companies to accept pre-existing conditions is like requiring auto insurers to cover your car after you’ve already had an accident. To afford covering pre-existing conditions, we need all Americans to participate in health insurance and not let healthy folks opt out. That’s why covering pre-existing conditions combined with rising costs is causing self-selection: people who are healthy are choosing to forgo coverage or cannot afford it.
Similarly, allowing young adults to stay on their parent’s coverage through age 26 under the ACA sounded like a great idea to keep those children insured. Unfortunately, it removed healthy young people from the pool, which made costs more expensive for everyone else who needed coverage through the exchange.
In this regards, the ACA coverage of pre-existing conditions has increased costs more than anticipated. Maybe the best solution would be a single-payer, government health plan, like in many European countries. Our tendency is to reject these plans out of hand, but maybe we should look more carefully at their costs, benefits, and features. We cannot afford to think we have nothing to learn from the rest of developed world.
2) Cost of insurance versus healthcare
Insurance companies have a mandate legally requiring a large, fixed percentage of their premiums go directly to medical costs and not to overhead. Insurance premiums have not been rising because of greedy insurance companies making profits. In fact, the opposite, companies are leaving the ACA exchange after losing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Insurance costs are going up because the costs of healthcare are skyrocketing.
What we need to be doing is looking at ways to reduce healthcare costs; insurance just passes through those costs to consumers. The US spends 50% to 100% more than other developed countries per person. We spent 17.8% of GDP on healthcare in 2015, the highest in the world. Universal healthcare programs in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere costs much less, no more than 10-11% of GDP.
Why do we spend so much on healthcare in the US?
- US patients may pay 3-4 times as much for medicines than in Mexico or Canada. This is frequently for drugs that were invented or manufactured in the US. We need to examine why the free market isn’t pushing those costs down.
- The threat of lawsuits, and magnitude of awards, hurts Americans two ways. Directly, the cost of malpractice insurance is ultimately passed on to consumers. Indirectly, doctors may order additional tests, procedures, or medications that may be unnecessary or more costly than other alternatives, because of the threat of malpractice, rather than medical need.
- To some extent, private insurance subsidizes hospitals who receive low reimbursements from Medicare and from uninsured patients who do not pay. Your insurance company is likely paying a hospital much more than they would receive from Medicare. Many public hospitals, like Parkland in Dallas, serve the 15% of Americans who are uninsured. And when the uninsured have a $50,000 hospital bill, that amount will seldom be collected.
- Patients often do not have any incentive to reduce costs or share in expenses. Once your deductible and out-of-pocket is met, for example, the patient’s cost of a $15,000 procedure is the same as a $50,000 procedure. Which procedure is a doctor or hospital more likely to recommend if you have good insurance?
- We spend a significant amount of our Medicare and Medicaid budget on caring for people in their last 3-6 months. Dying is a natural process, but modern medicine often assumes we should prolong life for as long as possible regardless of the quality of that life. I am glad that we do not tie end-of-life decisions to cost, but perhaps it would be both sensible and compassionate to focus on comfort rather heroic procedures for an elderly patient with significant health issues. Being hooked up to machines and tubes may keep you alive, but it is not the same as living.
- Many health issues such as heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes are exacerbated by the obesity problem in the US. An education on smarter food choices and more exercise should start at an early age. Prevention is less expensive.
We cannot expect the cost of health insurance to decrease unless we address the cost of healthcare. We need to encourage everyone to have health insurance coverage, because the very nature of insurance is spreading out risks so that the pooled money covers claims for those who need it. We are keeping our fingers crossed that whatever plan Washington develops, more people can be insured and that we look long-term to keep healthcare costs better under control.