This cover story in the current Atlantic "How American Health Care Killed My Father" by David Goldhill has attracted a lot of attention. David Brooks in the NY Times in a September 2 column even calls it "brilliant." But I find its conclusions about required steps to be misleading and adding to the confusion about health care reforms.
It has some nuggets of insight. Like health insurance is currently not just insuring against unforeseen events as other kinds typically do, but generally paying for almost all care however routine or minor. Or that patients don't concern themselves with expenses or limit needless treatment, when someone else (the insurer) is picking up the tab. Or that hospitals restrict competition by lobbying against new entrants and through consolidation, and deliberately overprice emergency room care to inflate their charitable services component. Or that for hospitals and providers, the real customer is not the patient - it's the payer of their bills.
Goldhill summarizes at one point: "A wasteful insurance system; distorted incentives; a bias toward treatment; moral hazard; hidden costs and a lack of transparency; curbed competition; service to the wrong customer. These are the problems at the foundation of our health-care system, resulting in a slow rot and requiring more and more money just to keep the system from collapsing. "
Goldhill then suggests starting completely afresh, taking a lot more time to think and plan, and "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." His outlined solution is to essentially tweak the marginally successful system of individual consumer health savings accounts (HSA) coupled with catastrophic insurance that has been in place since 2005.
Even some smart and logical people seem to have been swayed by Goodhill's logic. Here for example is the reaction of Hari, a seasoned Silicon Valley engineer:
"Despite some flaws in the solution the author proposes, I actually agree with his description of the fundamental problem of why medical costs are so high, medical care is not commensurate with cost and all solutions from insurance to government will eventually lead to cost overruns. I actually think that a combination of private HSA savings account, catastrophic-only insurance and government maintenance of Medicaid is the way to go..."
Why is this HSA approach so deficient? Jonathan Starr, also an engineer and a single payer advocate, gave this apt response to Hari that captures a lot of my thinking as well:
"The author identifies some important concerns regarding cost-control, good-practice, and accountability. But, I do not agree with the solutions he offered, such as the ones you mention.
Regarding reliance on HSA accounts as a major part of paying for health care:
1) Assuming these are tax-deductible accounts, they are inherently regressive. The higher a person's income, the more that person can afford to put into such a tax-sheltered account. The higher the person's marginal tax-bracket, the larger the tax-deduction that person receives for any amount put into that account.
2) For most people, it is impossible to predict future medical needs, and how much they will cost, so it is impossible to determine how much any particular person should put into an HSA account.
3) Insurance, single-payer or otherwise, pools risk to make coverage available when some members of the pool need it. By pooling the financial resources of a large group, most of whom at any one time are healthy enough not to need to draw significantly on those resources, those who do need to draw heavily on the pooled resources are able to do so. With HSA accounts, there is no pooling of risk. Resources are distributed in as fragmented a manner as possible. So, financial resources in most accounts may sit around unused, while those people who need health care service exhaust their own little financial pool quickly. Pooling of risk through some type of insurance is a great innovation with enormous public benefit, all of which relying on HSA accounts forgoes.
4) Individual customers, with just their own HSA accounts, have little leverage, or expertise, for negotiating for favorable prices and rates for pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and health care. Large aggregations of resources, such as in insurance plans (again, single-payer or otherwise), can have far greater expertise and leverage in negotiating and pressuring for such cost-reductions.
5) Fragmenting the customer pool reduces the capacity for aggregating information about health care outcomes and for advocating and enforcing best-practices.
In short, there is great power in numbers for controlling costs through bulk-purchasing and negotiation, and for gathering, evaluating, and distributing information and requirements about best-practices to control costs and improve outcomes. This is increased with large insurance programs, and maximized with a single-payer program; in contrast, it is minimized through reliance on individual HSA accounts, which maximize the fragmentation of the pool of end-users.
Also, the low-hanging fruit reducing health care costs is in reducing administrative overhead. Hospitals and other care-providers must pay large costs to handle the billing of innumerable insurance policies. If instead, they have to bill an exponentially larger number of individual people and HSA plans, that makes this administrative overhead even higher. Furthermore, care-providers must build into their price-structure higher fees to those who do pay in order to cover those who do not. If every person is being billed individually, the number who ultimately do not pay undoubtedly will increase. This not only increases the costs for collection, it also inevitably raises the fees that must be paid by those who do pay.
In a single-payer system, the need for such billing overhead is drastically reduced. There is a single program to deal with, instead of innumerable policies, or even more innumerable individuals. Furthermore, payment by single-payer systems are reliable, so that fees do not need to be padded to cover those who do not pay. In practice, one of the reasons doctors and other care-providers have been willing to accept the lower-than-market-rate fees paid by Medicare is precisely this reliability of payment.
If the HSA-based system still includes reliance on, or even just availability of, private insurance, then not only is there the administrative overhead that must be built into healthcare costs, there is also the profit, marketing, billing, lobbying, and administrative costs of the insurance companies themselves. This is more money that is paid nominally for healthcare, but actually goes to something else, which adds to the cost of the system.
Also, providing insurance, or even just administering HSA accounts, is a competitive burden on American companies. With a single-payer system, this burden is relieved; with everyone having HSA accounts, it instead could be increased."
President Obama is (finally) set to exercise leadership and press his own specific proposals for health care reforms for Congress to pass, rather than passively let a bill bubble out for him to sign. That's the good news. But he has already failed to strongly speak out for a strong public option (if not an outright single payer system) so that public support has eroded due to the propaganda and misinformation by reform opponents. There are signs that he's willing to drop insistence on this option that is vital to cost containment. If that happens it may be a big indicator not only of his success on health reforms, but of his vision and overall ability to lead.