FEHBP as a model for exchanges

Posted by on Friday, Jun 8, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Federal Employees Health Program Experiences Lack Of Competition In Some Areas, Raising Cost Concerns For Exchange Plans

By Timothy D. McBride, Abigail R. Barker, Lisa M. Pollack, Leah M. Kemper and Keith J. Mueller
Health Affairs, June 2012

The Affordable Care Act calls for creation of health insurance exchanges designed to provide private health insurance plan choices. The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is a national model that to some extent resembles the planned exchanges. Both offer plans at the state level but are also overseen by the federal government. We examined the availability of plans and enrollment levels in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program throughout the United States in 2010. We found that although plans were widely available, enrollment was concentrated in plans owned by just a few organizations, typically Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans. Enrollment was more concentrated in rural areas, which may reflect historical patterns of enrollment or lack of provider networks.


Supporters of the Affordable Care Act claim that the the state insurance exchanges would provide a robust market of private plans. One need look only as far as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) – the largest employer-sponsored private health insurance program in the nation – to see that such markets tend to concentrate dominant players. Instead of the magic of market competition, we can anticipate only more pain characteristic of dysfunctional or non-existent markets.

Single payer, anyone?

Comment from QotD reader Joel Segal

I have been on FEHBP plan for the past 12 years, and therefore can credibly speak about the positive and negative aspects of the program.

With the FEHBP plan, I have been able to receive medically necessary care, and the program has covered a good percentage of the costs of my CPAP and bi-pap machines that I use for my severe obstructive sleep apnea. Before I was on the FEHBP plan, I could not receive medically necessary health care services for my sleep apnea and other chronic health conditions. I was forced to become a “health care beggar,” borrowing money from friends, family members, and people of good will just to pay for some of my most serious health care needs. However, despite my charitable friends, for years, I went without the needed care, and remained sick, disabled, and often unable to work a full time job or work at all.

Without the FEHBP plan, I would have become permanently disabled, or developed other serious life-threatening health complications such as heart problems, which often result from untreated sleep apnea. The worst aspect of the FEHBP plan are the steep out-of-pocket costs for hospital visits, doctor’s visits, and other treatment that I need to live a healthy life. Having a chronic illness such as sleep apnea, means high out-of-pocket costs for CPAP masks, sleep studies, and new machines — which are often several hundreds of dollars per year, and sometimes a few thousand dollars per year. My co-pays are often very steep, and there have been many times where providers tried to deny me care that I truly needed, because I could not afford to pay prior balanced billing charges. But, because I demanded that I be treated in their offices (or begged for care!) they let me get the care. Most people are very fearful of their health care providers, and often leave doctor’s offices having been denied medically necessary care due to unpaid bills. This is just a reality of our current for-profit health care system.

I owe approximately $8,000 in co-pays over the last 5 years under the FEHBP, and have paid out-of-pocket approximately $15,000 for medically necessary care over the last 12 years. The problem with the FEHBP plan is that it typically covers 70-80 percent of the bill, leaving the patient who uses the health care system the most with enormous co-pays and medical bills. For young and healthy persons who get sick with the flu or a cold, and see a doctor perhaps twice a year, the program works fine. The people who suffer the most under the FEHBP plan are government employees who have chronic illnesses, or have an emergency surgery or procedure, and must pay the 20 percent of the bill that the plan does not cover.

We need a universal single-payer program like H.R. 676 or H.R. 1200, which will contain rising health care costs, while providing the highest standard of universal health care to all Americans.


Joel Segal
Universal Single Payer Advocate

OIG catches PacifiCare red-handed

Posted by on Thursday, Jun 7, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Risk Adjustment Data Validation of Payments Made to PacifiCare of Texas for Calendar Year 2007

Office of Inspector General
Department of Health and Human Services, May 2012

Executive Summary


Under the Medicare Advantage (MA) program, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), makes monthly capitated payments to MA organizations for beneficiaries enrolled in the organizations’ health care plans (beneficiaries). Subsections 1853(a)(1)(C) and (a)(3) of the Social Security Act require that these payments be adjusted based on the health status of each beneficiary. CMS uses the Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) model (the CMS model) to calculate these risk-adjusted payments.

Under the CMS model, MA organizations collect risk adjustment data, including beneficiary diagnoses, from hospital inpatient facilities, hospital outpatient facilities, and physicians during a data collection period. MA organizations identify the diagnoses relevant to the CMS model and submit these diagnoses to CMS. CMS categorizes the diagnoses into groups of clinically related diseases called HCCs and uses the HCCs and demographic characteristics to calculate a risk score for each beneficiary. CMS then uses the risk scores to adjust the monthly capitated payments to MA organizations for the next payment period.

PacifiCare of Texas (PacifiCare) is an MA organization owned by UnitedHealth Group. For calendar year (CY) 2007, PacifiCare had multiple contracts with CMS, including contract H4590, which we refer to as “the contract.” Under the contract, CMS paid PacifiCare approximately $1.3 billion to administer health care plans for approximately 118,000 beneficiaries.


Our objective was to determine whether the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS for use in CMS’s risk score calculations complied with Federal requirements.

Summary of Findings

The diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS for use in CMS’s risk score calculations did not always comply with Federal requirements. The risk scores calculated using the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted for 57 of the 100 beneficiaries in our sample were valid. The risk scores for the remaining 43 were invalid because the diagnoses were not supported for one or both of the following reasons:

* The documentation did not support the associated diagnosis.

* The diagnosis was unconfirmed.

PacifiCare did not have written policies and procedures for obtaining, processing, and submitting diagnoses to CMS. Furthermore, PacifiCare’s practices were not effective in ensuring that the diagnoses it submitted to CMS complied with the requirements of the 2006 Risk Adjustment Data Basic Training for Medicare Advantage Organizations Participant Guide (the 2006 Participant Guide) and the 2007 Risk Adjustment Data Training for Medicare Advantage Organizations Participant Guide (the 2007 Participant Guide). UnitedHealth Group officials stated that the providers were responsible for the accuracy of the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS.

As a result of these unsupported and unconfirmed diagnoses, PacifiCare received $183,247 in overpayments from CMS. Based on our sample results, we estimated that PacifiCare was overpaid approximately $115,422,084 in CY 2007.


As you know, Medicare beneficiaries have the option of leaving the traditional Medicare program and obtaining their care through private insurers offering Medicare Advantage plans. These private plans receive from the government monthly capitation payments (a set dollar amount for each beneficiary enrolled). To protect the private insurers from the higher spending required for sicker patients, the capitation payments are adjusted upward based on how ill the patients are. This is known as risk adjustment. Sounds reasonable. So what’s the deal here?

Keep in mind that the traditional Medicare program is designed to serve patients whereas the private Medicare Advantage plans are private businesses designed primarily to make money. So how can these private plans meet their business obligation of keeping their spending down while increasing their revenues?

Quite simple. Game risk adjustment. Report many of the patients as having more serious disorders than they really do in order to increase the capitation payments. Although the insurers have denied that they do this, the Office of the Inspector General has caught them red-handed.

Based on this chicanery, UnitedHealth’s PacifiCare was overpaid about $115 million for this one contract alone. That is almost $1000 excess for each of the 118,000 beneficiaries enrolled!

The Affordable Care Act is perpetuating and expanding our fragmented health care financing system which is dependent to a great extent on private insurers. To avoid the problems of favorable selection (insurers enrolling only healthy patients and keeping the extra profits) and adverse selection (the government being stuck with the losses of high cost patients after the healthier are siphoned off), the Act calls for risk selection.

The problem is that we do not know how to detect and correct for all of the games that the insurers play to work risk adjustment to their own advantage. It has been estimated that risk adjustment captures only about 10 percent of the overpayments that the private insurers gain through this gaming. As further adjustments are added, the insurers simply find new ways around the system. These are not necessarily illegal maneuvers but are rather simply “good business practices.”

Our own government stewards from the OIG, working for us, have exposed this scheme that is being used to skim off our tax dollars. So what are we going to do about it? Don’t you think it’s time to get rid of the amoral business ethic in health care financing and instead place in charge people dedicated to a service ethic?  We can do this by establishing our own single payer national health program. But first we have to elect people who place public service above all. Supporting the 1 percent isn’t working.

John Geyman’s “Health Care Wars”

Posted by on Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Copernicus Healthcare

Health Care Wars: How Market Ideology and Corporate Power Are Killing Americans

By John Geyman, M.D.

From the Preface

We have been told from time immemorial in this country that free markets, unfettered by government interference, are the fix for any of our problems. The notion that a competitive private marketplace gives us more information, choice, efficiency and value has been repeated so often for so long that it has become a meme (a self-replicating idea that is perpetuated regardless of its merits). Although this idea has become as American as apple pie and might work in some sectors of the economy, it does not work that way in health care.

The shared prosperity that followed World War II gave rise to the American dream that brought new hope and opportunities for much of our population. But over the last 30 years, under a relentless attack by conservatives and willing Democrats, this dream is disappearing.

This book takes an evidence-based approach to assess and describe the track record of health care markets as they actually work. As you will see, it is a story of profiteering, greed and waste with very little accountability. I hope that this book is useful in informing the public, policymakers and politicians of the real problems with markets. We will need a strong and powerful unified grassroots movement to push our leaders toward real reform.


It has long been recognized that health care does not follow the rules of free markets, yet the United States continues to rely on a fragmented, dysfunctional financing system that fails to adequately correct for these market deficiencies. In Health Care Wars, John Geyman shows us how this has been a disaster, while providing us with hope through the prospect of our empowerment as both patients and taxpayers.

Jonathan Gruber: “We don’t know how to fix it.”

Posted by on Tuesday, Jun 5, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Health reform gets messy in Massachusetts

By Kyle Cheney and Jason Millman
Politico, June 3, 2012

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who advised the Legislature and Romney on the 2006 Massachusetts law, pleaded with stakeholders to accept that curbing health costs takes time.

“We don’t know the answer. We don’t know how to fix it now, and we have to experiment and be more patient,” Gruber told a health care conference in Boston in late May.



Hardball with Chris Matthews
MSNBC, March 27, 2012

Chris Matthews:  Single payer. Is that a better economic deal, with no profit motive?

Jonathan Gruber:  I think that single payer, if you could start over, I think that single payer has a lot to recommend it, but we can’t…


MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, speaking on curbing health care costs, told a Boston conference late last month, “We don’t know how to fix it.”

Why do we keep quoting MIT economist Jonathan Gruber? Because he was an authority upon whom both Governor Romney and President Obama relied for advice on comprehensive health reform. Yet his utterances seem to vitiate his previous advice.

He does concede that “single payer has a lot to recommend it,” but, he, like many others who know better, dismisses it simply on the basis of a lack of political feasibility. But in continuing to support a system that “we don’t know how to fix,” does that really represent critical thinking?

Conceding that “single payer has a lot to recommend it” is quite a concession coming from such a noted economist who has so strongly advocated for a system that we don’t know how to fix. If only President Obama and Presidential-candidate Romney would listen to him now – that is when Gruber speaks about the economics of single payer, not the politics.

Suppose the politics changed and we had a President, a Congress and an informed public fully in support of single payer. Do you think that Jonathan Gruber would insist that we continue with a system that we don’t know how to fix? After all, he does understand fundamental economics.

Himmelstein and Woolhandler explain savings from single payer

Posted by on Friday, Jun 1, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Single-payer health care would save billions for Massachusetts

By David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler
The Boston Globe, May 30, 2012

The House and Senate health care proposals would set imaginary limits for spending growth enforced by secret “improvement plans” and wrist slaps for hospitals that overcharge; establish tiered payment schemes to consign the poor and middle class to second-tier hospitals and doctors; push most residents of the Commonwealth into HMOs (oops, we forgot, now they’re called “accountable care organizations,” or ACOs); and wipe out small doctor’s offices by “bundling” their pay into ACO payments. Apparently the legislators’ theory is that forcing health care providers to consolidate cuts costs. Oligopoly saves money?

Here are six alternative steps the Legislature could take that would actually save money while still preserving care.

*  Cut out the middlemen. Why exactly do we pay private insurers 10 cents of every premium dollar? The plan that covers all 13 million residents of the Canadian province of Ontario has overhead of only 1 percent. Adopting that single-payer approach in Massachusetts would save about $2 billion in insurance overhead in 2013 alone.

*  Pay hospitals the way we pay fire departments: real global budgets that cover all operating costs, not the per-patient schemes that are masquerading as global payments. Billing, collections, and paperwork consume nearly one quarter of hospitals’ revenues. Eliminate billing for individual patients and you’d cut that nearly in half. The savings: about $3 billion in 2013.

*  End the medical arms race and enforce real health planning. Hospitals and clinics vie for affluent patients needing lucrative high-tech care. They reap surpluses, a.k.a. profit, which they use to buy fancy machines and superluxe buildings – usually situated where there’s already a surplus of such facilities. Inevitably, the surplus facilities induce unnecessary, even harmful overcare. Meanwhile, underserved communities and under-provided services like mental health and substance abuse are starved of investment. Hospital payments should go for patient care, not new buildings. Money for new buildings and technology should flow to a separate fund, and be allocated according to need, not profitability, through a transparent public process. Investing in what’s needed instead of what’s profitable would save billions and improve care for both the poor and the affluent.

*  Right-size the physician work force: more primary care, fewer specialists. Massachusetts hospitals take pride in training super-specialists who go on to provide profitable but often unneeded care (see above). Meanwhile, the primary care shortage persists. The public, through Medicare, already pays for residency training and should use the power of the purse to make hospitals train the doctors that the public needs. And physicians’ fee schedules should be altered to assure that best students are attracted to the most needed, important, and difficult fields – primary care – and that doctors make as much for talking to patients as for putting them through a scanner.

*  Negotiate drug prices statewide. Canadians pay 40 percent less for drugs than we do because they use single-payer buying power to drive down prices from pharmaceutical companies. Why can’t we?

*  Cap health executives’ incomes. Why should a hospital CEO make more than the president of the United States?

(David U. Himmelstein, M.D. and Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H. co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program. They are professors at the City University School of New York School Public Health and visiting professors at Harvard Medical School. They worked as primary care doctors in Massachusetts from 1982-2010.)


To explain simply what is meant by “single payer,” we often allude to an “Improved Medicare for All.” That seems to suggest that we merely need to tweak Medicare and then provide it to everyone – that simply eliminating private insurers is all we need to do. This article by PNHP co-founders David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler briefly describes how the single payer model is much more than that, especially pointing out how it would be tremendously effective in slowing the nearly intolerable increases in health care spending, while dramatically improving the functioning of our health care delivery system.

First, a little background. When the Massachusetts health reform legislation was ready to be enacted, it was criticized for failing to address one of the most important reasons for reform – it did not include effective measures to contain costs, a flaw challenged by single payer supporters. Rather than taking another look at single payer, Gov. Romney’s advisor, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, famously said that first we should get everyone covered by passing this, and then we’ll work on controlling spending.

Of course not everyone is covered in Massachusetts, while cost increases continue out of control. In response, the Massachusetts House and Senate have prepared separate but similar bills to control spending, while ignoring the remaining uninsured. Instead of adopting structural changes that would reduce waste – as Himmelstein and Woolhandler recommend – they would apply spending restrictions that could threaten solvency of components of the health care delivery system, while compounding the problems of patient access already evident in the inadequacies of the primary care infrastructure.

As everyone knows, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was patterned on the same model as used in Massachusetts. Single payer advocates were vehemently proclaiming that ACA would leave too many out of the system, and that it would fail to address rising health care costs – the two primary problems that motivated reform. But we were excluded from the process.

As our members of Congress toiled over the markup of the legislation, measures were included that nominally would control costs. However, with the possible exception of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), none of the included measures would have a significant impact on health care costs. Even the IPAB would have the serious flaw of cutting solely Medicare and not private insurer payments to the health care delivery system, threatening underfunding and likely impairing access due to the exodus of physicians from the Medicare program.

The primary reason that the meager measures to contain spending are inadequate is that ACA left in place and built upon our existing dysfunctional financing system with its profound waste. What we needed instead was a complete overhaul of the financing infrastructure, including not only changing to an administratively simplified single payer but also measures such as those listed by Himmelstein and Woolhandler.

Eliminating private insurers and switching to a single public insurer is the most important and effective measure of single payer, but the other measures are essential if we want to join the other wealthy nations that provide quality care to everyone at an average of half of what we are currently spending.

When you advocate for single payer by pushing an “Improved Medicare for All,” be sure in the same breath to let your listeners know the extent of our recommendations: “An Improved Medicare for All that would totally overhaul our dysfunctional financing system so that it works best for patients.”

In this age of sound bites, if you have another breath, you can point out that single payer would also have a highly favorable impact on the health care delivery system, by enhancing primary care, and by efficiently expanding facilities and high-tech capacity based on medical need instead of profit and extravagance.

Above all, it’s crucially important to communicate that single payer is not just your mother’s Medicare.

PwC predicts medical cost increases

Posted by on Thursday, May 31, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Medical Cost Trend: Behind the Numbers 2013

PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
Health Research Institute, May 2012

Healthcare spending growth in the United States has slowed considerably over the past three years. And despite expectations that the trend would bounce back up in 2012, it did not. In fact, we see no major change on the horizon for 2013.

Medical cost trend measures spending growth on health services and products—a critical factor in calculating insurance premiums for employers and consumers. For 2013 PwC’s Health Research Institute projects a medical cost trend of 7.5%. Perhaps most notably, the historically large gap between healthcare growth and overall inflation has closed slightly.

As a result, the United States finds itself at a crossroads with respect to medical inflation. History suggests that the current slowdown is merely a dip mirroring broader economic trends and that medical cost growth will return to “normal” when the rest of the economy recovers fully. Looking even further out, if the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, tens of millions of newly-insured Americans receiving care for the first time in years could cause a spike in spending in 2014 and beyond.

But across the healthcare landscape behaviors are beginning to change. Employers are pushing wellness programs with real enforcement muscle. Healthcare providers and drug makers are embracing the quest for value. And patients are becoming more cost-conscious medical consumers.

It is always dangerous to predict that medical cost trend could be approaching a more sustainable level. Yet if the structural forces in the industry take hold, the U.S. health system may be entering a “new normal.”

Executive summary

The focus on medical cost containment strategies is continuing, aided by the sluggish economy, reforms in the healthcare industry, and efforts by employers to hold down costs.

More than half of the employers surveyed by HRI are considering increasing employees’ share of health benefit cost and expanding health and wellness programs in 2013.

In estimating the medical cost trend growth for 2013, HRI relied on multiple sources including interviews with health plan actuaries and industry leaders, a review of available surveys and analyst reports, and PwC’s own 2012 Health and Well-Being Touchstone Survey of 1,400 employers from more than 30 industries. In this year’s report, we identified:

Four factors that will deflate medical cost trend in 2013:

* Medical supply and equipment costs abate under market pressure. Supplies can account for more than 40% of the cost of certain procedures. Recent hospital consolidation and physician employment are enabling administrators to move away from “physician preference” purchasing and negotiate for significant savings. In addition, insurers are pressuring hospitals to hold down these expenses.

* New methods to deliver primary care gain popularity. One of the slowest areas of cost growth has been in physician services, and this trend is expected to continue in 2013 as consumers choose alternatives to the traditional doctor’s office visit. Lower-cost options such as workplace and retail health clinics, telemedicine, and mobile health tools continue to gain market share because employers and consumers view them as cost effective and convenient.

* Price transparency exerts pressure. As comparative cost information becomes more readily available, purchasers such as employers and individual patients can shop for non-emergency services such as tests and elective procedures. Providers meanwhile are under pressure to justify prices. More than 30 states require some reporting of hospital charges and reimbursement rates. Congress is considering legislation that would prohibit cost confidentiality clauses in insurance and hospital contracting.

* The pharmaceutical patent cliff continues to foster the use of cost-saving generics. Many blockbuster drugs have recently gone off patent, which will have a major effect on lowering drug spending in 2013.

Two factors that will inflate medical cost trend in 2013:

* Uptick in utilization trend is expected in 2013. The recession of 2007–2009 contributed to a significant slowing in healthcare consumption, as many people who lost jobs or were afraid of losing employment delayed care. As the economy continues to strengthen, utilization is expected to rebound.

* Medical and technological advances accelerate growth of higher-cost care. Remarkable new discoveries and technological advances let many in society live much longer—but often at a significantly higher cost. New technologies, such as robotic surgery and positron emission tomography services, have grown rapidly, with 36% of hospitals performing robotic surgery in 2010. Several health plans reported an uptick in high-cost cases, many surpassing the million-dollar mark.

What this means for your business

Employers and insurers will want to capitalize on the recent slowdown, while doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies will need to retool their business models to succeed in the new environment.


This annual PwC projection of medical cost trends with employer-sponsored health programs seems to celebrate the slowing of cost trends at the 7.5 percent level for 2013. Yet that is well in excess of the rate of inflation. Our nation’s employers and their private insurer partners have remained ineffective in controlling health care cost escalation.

PwC discusses four factors that they say should deflate the medical cost trend, but when you look closer at them, they would barely tweak costs.

* Hospital consolidation may place administrators in a better negotiating position for purchasing supplies and equipment, but since these are not services but rather products with relatively fixed production costs, negotiable margins will be quite narrow. Very little savings will be reflected in the bottom line of total costs.

* Retail health clinics might charge lower fees than primary care practices, but not much lower. Also, most health care still needs to be delivered within the traditional system of primary care professionals, specialists, and hospital and outpatient services. A discount on flu shots and exams for common colds in a convenience clinic will not make much of a dent in spending on the 80 percent who are relatively healthy, yet still receive most of their care through traditional health care professionals and facilities. It won’t have any impact at all on the 80 percent of health care that is consumed by those with more significant health care problems.

* There is much discussion of price transparency, as if patient/consumers are going to drive down prices through health care shopping. Most prices paid are determined not by price checks but by administered rates of government programs or negotiated rates through third party payers, including private insurers and employers with self-insured programs. Ubiquitous price shopping is merely a dream of ideologues.

* It is true that many blockbuster drugs are coming off of patent and will be much less expensive as generics. But when you look at some of the newer agents and the research that is down the line, the quest of the pharmaceutical and biotech industry is for drugs and biologicals with five and six digit prices, or maybe four digits for products with low production costs and higher utilization. The PwC report mentions $300,000 and $400,000 drugs that are already on the market. The industry has no interest in producing new $20 drugs.

The report also mentions factors that will inflate health care costs, including increased utilization as the economy recovers, and increased spending on newer expensive technology. Also spending increases will occur if the states are successful in enrolling significant numbers of previously uninsured individuals in their insurance exchanges, and if employers increase coverage to avoid penalties should the Affordable Care Act survive its challenges.

Until we are ready to change to a much more efficient single payer national health program, we can anticipate that intolerable health care inflation rates will stay with us. As more of us suffer from the results – impaired access and financial hardship – we may finally reach a threshold wherein we are ready to act. Until then, don’t get sick.

Tradeoff between risk protection and moral hazard

Posted by on Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Estimating the Tradeoff Between Risk Protection and Moral Hazard with a Nonlinear Budget Set Model of Health Insurance

By Amanda E. Kowalski
The National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2012


Insurance induces a well-known tradeoff between the welfare gains from risk protection and the welfare losses from moral hazard. Empirical work traditionally estimates each side of the tradeoff separately, potentially yielding mutually inconsistent results. I develop a nonlinear budget set model of health insurance that allows for the calculation of both sides of the tradeoff simultaneously, allowing for a relationship between moral hazard and risk protection. An important feature of this model is that it considers nonlinearities in the consumer budget set that arise from deductibles, coinsurance rates, and stoplosses that alter moral hazard as well as risk protection relative to no insurance. I illustrate the properties of my model by estimating it using data on employer sponsored health insurance from a large firm. Within my empirical context, the average deadweight losses from moral hazard substantially outweigh the average welfare gains from risk protection. However, the welfare impact of moral hazard and risk protection are both small relative to transfers from the government through the tax preference for employer sponsored health insurance and transfers from some agents to other agents through a common premium.

4.3 The Estimated Tradeoff Between Moral Hazard and Risk Protection

The third panel of Table 10 gives the tradeoff between the welfare gain from risk protection and the deadweight loss from moral hazard. The distribution of the tradeoff at any quantile generally is not equal to the difference between DWL (deadweight loss) and RPP (risk protection premium) at those quantiles. However, as shown in the penultimate column, the mean tradeoff is equal to the mean DWL minus the mean RPP. For all offered and hypothetical plans considered, the results show that the average deadweight loss exceeds the gain from risk protection. The average net welfare loss in each of the offered plans is around $5, or 0.25% of money at stake.

We see that the welfare gains that we estimate from insurance in Table 11 are very similar to predicted insurer spending reported in Table 8; demographic groups with higher predicted insurer spending derive a larger welfare gain from insurance than demographic groups with lower predicted insurer spending. As we see in Table 12, demographic groups with larger predicted insurer spending also have larger deadweight losses. Risk protection does not appear to vary with predicted insurer spending because the magnitudes of the risk protection premium are so small, but there is also some variation in the risk protection premium across demographic groups.


Full paper (highly technical):

The mainstream policy community likely will take from this study the fact that it supports the prevailing notion that losses from insured patients using more health care than they otherwise would have (moral hazard) are greater than the gains in protecting personal finances in the face of medical need (risk protection). Such an interpretation would be unfortunate simply because it is inadequate and therefore misleading.

Most importantly, the net welfare loss of using more care when there is risk protection is so small that it is almost negligible. In fact, the population studied (employees of a large retail trade firm) did not have high health expenditures and therefore would be the most likely to respond to direct costs incurred below their deductibles. Yet the data show that mean value of the extra care obtained above the value of the risk protection premium was almost negligible.

Most of health care spending is incurred by those with greater health care needs, a group that was not represented in this study of healthier individuals. People with greater health care needs exceed their deductibles and consequently do not experience consumer sensitivity to most of their health care prices.

Another important issue is that the extra health care accessed as a result of moral hazard should not be automatically dismissed as excess care. Half of it is not since it includes beneficial services, even though these services risk being dismissed merely because they are not reflected in improved mortality data. Even the care that might not seem to be beneficial still provides reassurance to concerned patients that their presenting complaints do not warrant further diagnostic or therapeutic intervention. Reassurance provided by health care professionals should not be considered to be a moral hazard.

The lesson to take home from this study is that the cost of trading up for more risk protection is almost negligible when the price paid is a very small increment in additional spending on largely beneficial health care that might otherwise have been foregone.

This is crucial in the continued debate over health care reform. There is considerable political pressure to shift price sensitivity to health care consumer/patients through consumer-directed high-deductible plans, health savings accounts, vouchers for Medicare plans, lower-tier plans in insurance exchanges, and other devious innovations that insurers will no doubt introduce in the future. These concepts are to deter the false bogeyman of moral hazard, but at the profound cost of threatening financial security for those of us with health care needs.

Regular readers already know how we can circumvent this nonsense – simply enact a single payer national health program that eliminates cost sharing. Countries that spend on average only half of what we do have shown that it can be done. The moral hazard is in not doing it.

Bankruptcy as implicit health insurance

Posted by on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Bankruptcy as Implicit Health Insurance

By Neale Mahoney
The National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2012


This paper examines the implicit health insurance households receive from the ability to declare bankruptcy. Exploiting cross-state and within-state variation in asset exemption law, I show that uninsured households with greater seizable assets make higher out-of-pocket medical payments, conditional on the amount of care received. In turn, I find that households with greater wealth-at-risk are more likely to hold health insurance. The implicit insurance from bankruptcy distorts the insurance coverage decision. Using a microsimulation model, I calculate that the optimal Pigovian* penalties are similar on average to the penalties under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

5.2 Effect on Costs

To summarize, I find a strong positive relationship between seizable assets and out-of-pocket payments for households with higher utilization, a slightly downwardly sloping relationship for households with lower utilization, and zero effect on the extensive margin. Thus the impact of bankruptcy on financial risk is exactly what you would expect from a high-deductible health plan.


Understanding why households are uninsured is fundamental to positive and normative analysis of health insurance policy—yet the insurance-coverage decision is not well understood. The objective of this paper is to examine how the implicit insurance from bankruptcy bears on this decision.

In the first part of the paper, I argue that the fact that most medical care is provided on credit coupled with the fact that this debt can be discharged for seizable assets in bankruptcy provides households with implicit high-deducible health insurance.

I next evaluated the quantitative importance of this mechanism. Exploiting cross-state and within-state variation in asset exemption law, I show that uninsured households with greater seizable assets make higher out-of-pocket medical payments, conditional on the amount of care received. In turn, I find that households with greater wealth-at-risk are more likely to hold health insurance coverage. Health insurance is wealth insurance, to a certain degree, and is less valuable to those with fewer assets.

The final part of the paper examined ways in which the implicit insurance from bankruptcy might inform the design of health insurance policy. Because households do not pay for bankruptcy insurance, too many households choose to be uninsured on the margin. Using a utility-based, microsimulation model of insurance choice, I estimate that the optimal Pigovian* penalties are similar on average to the penalties under the ACA.

* A Pigovian tax is a tax levied on a market activity that generates negative externalities. The tax is intended to correct the market outcome. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product. A Pigovian tax equal to the negative externality is thought to correct the market outcome back to efficiency. In the presence of positive externalities, i.e., public benefits from a market activity, those who receive the benefit do not pay for it and the market may under-supply the product. Similar logic suggests the creation of Pigovian subsidies to make the users pay for the extra benefit and spur more production. (Wikipedia, accessed 5/29/12)


Full paper (highly technical):

At the risk of oversimplification, this paper demonstrates that personal bankruptcy can serve as a form of health insurance in individuals who are otherwise uninsured and have negligible wealth that is at risk and negligible assets that can be seized in a bankruptcy proceeding.

What a terrible thesis this is to study – suggesting that bankruptcy can suffice for health insurance in people with no wealth and no seizable assets. Maybe that is acceptable if impaired health care access due to lack of funds is not important, or if we accept that the costs of uninsured care should be shifted to insured individuals, or, above all, if we assume that the indignity of personal bankruptcy is small price to pay for this perverse form of “insurance.”

Perhaps one of the most alarming sentences in this paper is the following: “Thus the impact of bankruptcy on financial risk is exactly what you would expect from a high-deductible health plan.”

Wow! On financial risk, bankruptcy works as well as a high-deductible plan!

Instead of trying to figure out whether or not Pigovian penalties are similar to penalties under the Affordable Care Act, why don’t we instead move forward with a health care financing system that doesn’t ever involve bankruptcy, or Pigovian penalties for that matter – a single payer national health program. Not only would that be much simpler, we would all get the health care that we need.

Half of individual plans fall below 60% actuarial value

Posted by on Thursday, May 24, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

More Than Half Of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short Of What Can Be Sold Through Exchanges As Of 2014

By Jon R. Gabel, Ryan Lore, Roland D. McDevitt, Jeremy D. Pickreign, Heidi Whitmore, Michael Slover and Ethan Levy-Forsythe
Health Affairs, May 23, 2012


The Affordable Care Act creates state-based health exchanges that will begin acting as a market place for health insurance plans and consumers in 2014. This paper compares the financial protection offered by today’s group and individual plans with the standards that will apply to insurance sold in state-based exchanges. Some states may apply these standards to all health insurance sold within the state. More than half of Americans who had individual insurance in 2010 were enrolled in plans that would not qualify as providing essential coverage under the rules of the exchanges in 2014. These people were enrolled in plans with an actuarial value below 60 percent, which means that the plans covered less than that proportion of the enrollees’ health expenses. Many of today’s individual health plans are below the “bronze” level, the lowest level of plan that can be sold through exchanges. In contrast, most group plans in 2010 had an actuarial benefit of 80–89 percent and would qualify as highly rated “gold” plans in the exchanges. To sell to ten million new buyers on the exchanges, insurers will need to redesign benefit packages. Combined with a ban on medical underwriting, the individual insurance market in a post–health reform world will sharply contrast with the market of past decades.

From the Discussion

Using simulated claim payments, we found that the average actuarial value of group plans in 2010 was 83 percent, and the average for individual plans was 60 percent. For an average family, annual out-of-pocket expenses were $1,765 with group coverage, compared to $4,127 with individual coverage. For people in poor health who incurred high medical expenses, the differences between the group and individual markets were even more dramatic.

Our findings have notable policy implications. First, the majority of Americans with individual insurance coverage today are enrolled in a plan whose actuarial value is too low to qualify for a state-based exchange. Insurance reforms that went into effect September 23, 2010, raised the financial protection offered by exchange plans. For example, lifetime maximum benefits were eliminated, effective preventive services must now be offered without cost sharing, and annual limits on insurance coverage were removed. But to qualify for exchanges, insurers will need to lower the average deductible level for individual tin plans, which today average nearly $3,900 for a single person.

Second, about two-thirds of today’s employees are enrolled in a gold or platinum plan. Families with coverage through the exchanges are likely to have less financial protection than employees with employer-based coverage enjoy today. Employers choosing to buy insurance coverage for their employees through the small-employer exchange, which could eventually include employers with more than a hundred workers, will probably obtain less extensive coverage if they opt to buy a plan in the silver tier than if they now offer a plan typical of those provided in the employer-based market today.

Third, very sick patients—those in the top 1 percent of medical spending—incur sizable out-of-pocket expenses regardless of coverage. For example, these top spenders face out-of-pocket expenses of nearly $3,800 in a group platinum plan. But there are substantial differences in out-of-pocket spending between plans with high actuarial value and plans with low value. A family in the top 1 percent of medical spenders with tin coverage in the individual market incurs annual out-of-pocket expenses of more than $27,000. (“Tin coverage” is a fifth tier created exclusively for this study. It is a level below the bronze tier – below 60 percent actuarial value – a level that will not be permitted in the state insurance exchanges.)


Reports of this study likely will celebrate the fact that very low actuarial value plans which are commonplace in the individual market today – those below 60 percent value (plan pays less than 60 percent of covered health costs) – will have to reduce their deductibles and perhaps make other changes to qualify under the Affordable Care Act. But is this enough?

The study compared group plans with individual plans. Group plans have an average actuarial value of 83 percent, whereas the average actuarial value for individual plans is 60 percent, with 51 percent of them falling below that threshold. Only 14 percent were silver (70% AV) and 2 percent gold (80% AV), and there were no platinum (90% AV) plans in the individual market.

The lower half of all individual plans will have to either bring their value up to 60 percent or drop out of the exchange market. This means that average actuarial values of plans in the individual market – those available through the exchanges – will still be in the low 60s – far below group plans with their average actuarial value of 83.

Further, it is likely that smaller employers will rely on the exchanges to provide coverage for their employees – again with lower actuarial value plans than is typical of employer-sponsored group plans. The impact on patients will be significant.

Repeating a quote from above, “… very sick patients—those in the top 1 percent of medical spending—incur sizable out-of-pocket expenses regardless of coverage. For example, these top spenders face out-of-pocket expenses of nearly $3,800 in a group platinum plan (the very best coverage available). But there are substantial differences in out-of-pocket spending between plans with high actuarial value and plans with low value. A family in the top 1 percent of medical spenders with tin coverage in the individual market incurs annual out-of-pocket expenses of more than $27,000.”

Although “tin coverage” (plans under 60% AV) will be prohibited in the exchanges, the financial burden on patients who need significant amounts of health care will still be great, even with the subsidies and the elimination of maximum lifetime benefits. Instead of adding to the burden of illness, we should be attempting to preserve the financial security of patients, as we would be if we had a single payer national health program – an improved Medicare for all.

Amartya Sen on government austerity

Posted by on Wednesday, May 23, 2012

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

The Crisis of European Democracy

By Amartya Sen
The New York Times, May 22,2012

The worthy but narrow intentions of the European Union’s policy makers have been inadequate for a sound European economy and have produced instead a world of misery, chaos and confusion.

There are two reasons for this.

First, intentions can be respectable without being clearheaded, and the foundations of the current austerity policy, combined with the rigidities of Europe’s monetary union (in the absence of fiscal union), have hardly been a model of cogency and sagacity. Second, an intention that is fine on its own can conflict with a more urgent priority — in this case, the preservation of a democratic Europe that is concerned about societal well-being. These are values for which Europe has fought, over many decades.

The cause of reform, no matter how urgent, is not well served by the unilateral imposition of sudden and savage cuts in public services. Such indiscriminate cutting slashes demand — a counterproductive strategy, given huge unemployment and idle productive enterprises that have been decimated by the lack of market demand.

There is, in fact, plenty of historical evidence that the most effective way to cut deficits is to combine deficit reduction with rapid economic growth, which generates more revenue.

There are surely lessons here from John Maynard Keynes, who understood that the state and the market are interdependent. But Keynes had little to say about social justice, including the political commitments with which Europe emerged after World War II. These led to the birth of the modern welfare state and national health services — not to support a market economy but to protect human well-being.

Though these social issues did not engage Keynes deeply, there is an old tradition in economics of combining efficient markets with the provision of public services that the market may not be able to deliver. As Adam Smith (often seen simplistically as the first guru of free-market economics) wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” there are “two distinct objects” of an economy: “first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services.”

Participatory public discussion — the “government by discussion” expounded by democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot — could have identified appropriate reforms over a reasonable span of time, without threatening the foundations of Europe’s system of social justice.

Europe cannot revive itself without addressing two areas of political legitimacy. First, Europe cannot hand itself over to the unilateral views — or good intentions — of experts without public reasoning and informed consent of its citizens.

Second, both democracy and the chance of creating good policy are undermined when ineffective and blatantly unjust policies are dictated by leaders. The obvious failure of the austerity mandates imposed so far has undermined not only public participation — a value in itself — but also the possibility of arriving at a sensible, and sensibly timed, solution.

This is a surely a far cry from the “united democratic Europe” that the pioneers of European unity sought.

(Amartya Sen is a Nobel laureate and a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard.)


Although Amartya Sen warns of the threat of unilateral austerity programs to the united democratic Europe, his words can also apply to the current political efforts in the United States to reduce the role of government through austerity measures. The current attack on Medicare exemplifies the fact that the austerity agenda does not spare our government health programs.

Perhaps the most important warning we should extract is implied by Professor Sen’s concern about the undermining of public participation. We should take heed of the fact that a united democratic nation requires not only public involvement but also public awareness of the proposed policies and their ramifications. As he writes, political legitimacy of nations requires “public reasoning and informed consent of its citizens.”

The public has to understand that the rhetoric of unilaterally “reducing taxes” equates with imposing government austerity. They then have to understand what government austerity truly means. It does not mean, “cut my taxes, but leave my Medicare alone.”

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