Saturday, August 15, 2009

What's wrong with U.S. healthcare, and how to fix it

This article on U.S. healthcare in the Atlantic Monthly by media and technology executive David Goldhill is the best I've read to date. Please read it yourself. The below excerpts don't do it justice.

On the idiocy of first-dollar health insurance coverage:
But health insurance is different from every other type of insurance. Health insurance is the primary payment mechanism not just for expenses that are unexpected and large, but for nearly all health-care expenses. We’ve become so used to health insurance that we don’t realize how absurd that is. We can’t imagine paying for gas with our auto-insurance policy, or for our electric bills with our homeowners insurance, but we all assume that our regular checkups and dental cleanings will be covered at least partially by insurance. ...

Insurance is probably the most complex, costly, and distortional method of financing any activity; that’s why it is otherwise used to fund only rare, unexpected, and large costs. Imagine sending your weekly grocery bill to an insurance clerk for review, and having the grocer reimbursed by the insurer to whom you’ve paid your share. An expensive and wasteful absurdity, no?

Is this really a big problem for our health-care system? Well, for every two doctors in the U.S., there is now one health-insurance employee—more than 470,000 in total. In 2006, it cost almost $500 per person just to administer health insurance. Much of this enormous cost would simply disappear if we paid routine and predictable health-care expenditures the way we pay for everything else—by ourselves.
On the false promise of government cost curve-bending:
Whatever their histories, nearly all developed countries are now struggling with rapidly rising health-care costs, including those with single-payer systems. From 2000 to 2005, per capita health-care spending in Canada grew by 33 percent, in France by 37 percent, in the U.K. by 47 percent—all comparable to the 40 percent growth experienced by the U.S. in that period. Cost control by way of bureaucratic price controls has its limits.
The real reason electronic medical records aren't widely used:
Why has adoption of clinical information technology been so slow? Companies invest in IT to reduce their costs, reduce mistakes (itself a form of cost-saving), and improve customer service. Better information technology would have improved my father’s experience in the ICU—and possibly his chances of survival.

But my father was not the customer; Medicare was. ...

Of course, one area of health-related IT has received substantial investment—billing. So much for the argument, often made, that privacy concerns or a lack of agreed-upon standards has prevented the development of clinical IT or electronic medical records; presumably, if lack of privacy or standards had hampered the digitization of health records, it also would have prevented the digitization of the accompanying bills. To meet the needs of the government bureaucracy and insurance companies, most providers now bill on standardized electronic forms. In case you wonder who a care provider’s real customer is, try reading one of these bills. ...

The Rand Corporation has estimated that the widespread use of electronic medical records would eventually yield annual savings of $81 billion, while also improving care and reducing preventable deaths, and the White House estimates that creating and spreading the technology would cost just $50 billion. But in what other industry would an investment with such a massive annual return not be funded by the industry itself? (And while $50 billion may sound like a big investment, it’s only about 2 percent of the health-care industry’s annual revenues.)
Why technological progress in healthcare doesn't work like technological progress elsewhere:
One of the most widely held pieces of conventional wisdom about health care is that new technology is relentlessly driving up costs. Yet over the past 20 years, I’ve bought several generations of microwave ovens, personal computers, DVD players, GPS devices, mobile phones, and flat-screen TVs. I bank mostly at ATMs, check out my own goods at self-serve supermarket scanners, and attend company meetings by video­conference. Technology has transformed much of our daily lives, in almost all cases by adding quantity, speed, and quality while lowering costs. So why is health care different? ...
Recall the MRI my wife needed a few years ago: $1,200 for 20 minutes’ use of a then 20-year-old technology, requiring a little electricity and a little labor from a single technician and a radiologist. Why was the price so high? Most MRIs in this country are reimbursed by insurance or Medicare, and operate in the limited-competition, nontransparent world of insurance pricing. I don’t even know the price of many of the diagnostic services I’ve needed over the years—usually I’ve just gone to whatever provider my physician recommended, without asking (my personal contribution to the moral-hazard economy).

By contrast, consider LASIK surgery... The surgery is seldom covered by insurance, and exists in the competitive economy typical of most other industries. So people who get LASIK surgery—or for that matter most cosmetic surgeries, dental procedures, or other mostly uninsured treatments—act like consumers. If you do an Internet search today, you can find LASIK procedures quoted as low as $499 per eye—a decline of roughly 80 percent since the procedure was introduced.
How to fix the system:
The most important single step we can take toward truly reforming our system is to move away from comprehensive health insurance as the single model for financing care. And a guiding principle of any reform should be to put the consumer, not the insurer or the government, at the center of the system. ...

First, we should replace our current web of employer- and government-based insurance with a single program of catastrophic insurance open to all Americans—indeed, all Americans should be required to buy it—with fixed premiums based solely on age. ... A typical catastrophic insurance policy today might cover any expenses above, say, $2,000. That threshold is far too low; ultimately, a threshold of $50,000 or more would be better. ...

How would we pay for most of our health care? The same way we pay for everything else—out of our income and savings. ...

Anyone with whom I discuss this approach has the same question: How am I supposed to be able to afford health care in this system? Well, what if I gave you $1.77 million? Recall, that’s how much an insured 22-year-old at my company could expect to pay—and to have paid on his and his family’s behalf—over his lifetime, assuming health-care costs are tamed. Sure, most of that money doesn’t pass through your hands now. It’s hidden in company payments for premiums, or in Medicare taxes and premiums. But think about it: If you had access to those funds over your lifetime, wouldn’t you be able to afford your own care? And wouldn’t you consume health care differently if you and your family didn’t have to spend that money only on care?

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