Bad Debt Is the Pain Hospitals Can’t Heal as Patients Don’t Pay
By John Lauerman
Bloomberg Business, February 23, 2016
A type of pain that hospitals thought they had relieved has come back with a vengeance: it’s called bad debt.
Hospitals have long struggled to collect bills when patients aren’t covered by insurance — creating delinquent accounts. The Affordable Care Act was supposed to relieve some of that strain by helping pay for coverage for millions of Americans and expanding Medicaid in some states to cover the poor.
Yet while millions of people have gained coverage since Obamacare became law in 2010, there’s also been an increase in insurance that comes with high deductibles and cost-sharing. Under those plans, the first few thousand dollars of annual medical expenses come out of patients’ wallets. That’s money that hospitals like Childress Regional Medical Center in the Texas Panhandle region are unlikely to collect.
“It feels like a sucker punch,” said John Henderson, the nonprofit hospital’s chief executive. “When someone has a really high deductible, effectively they’re still uninsured, and most people in Childress don’t have $5,000 lying around to pay their bills.”
The rate of uninsurance in the U.S. has fallen to 9.1 percent from 15.7 percent in 2009. Yet in the first nine months of 2015, about 36 percent of the U.S. insured were covered by high-deductible or consumer-directed health plans that can require considerable out-of-pocket payments, compared with about 25 percent in 2010, according to a CDC survey.
Hospitals are feeling the pressure from those patients. Community Health Systems Inc. operates 195 hospitals in 29 states and is the U.S.’s second-biggest for-profit U.S. hospital chain. This month, it revised its fourth-quarter 2015 provision for bad debt up by $169 million — and said that 40 percent, or about $68 million of that amount, was from patients being unable to pay deductibles and co-payments. Patient bankruptcies also contributed, the company said.
While higher out-of-pocket charges can lower what insurance costs up front, it means more costs for patients on the back end. Under individual Obamacare mid-level “silver” plans, the annual deductible was $2,556, and under less expensive, low-level “bronze” plans it was $5,328 in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Outside of Obamacare, deductibles are becoming more common, as well. Last year, 81 percent of coverage people got through work came with a deductible, up from 70 percent in 2010, according to Kaiser. The average deductible in a high-deductible, individual plan gained through work was $2,099 last year.
Rural hospitals have been hit particularly hard. Minnesota has long had high rates of care coverage, and many employers have switched to high deductible offerings, according to Joe Schindler, vice president of finance for the Minnesota Hospital Association. Last year, bad debt rose by 20 percent to $425 million at the association’s 140 member hospitals.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was supposed to make health care affordable, yet many hospitals are finding that patients are generating more bad debt. A large portion of that is due to the inability of patients to pay the high deductibles and other cost sharing required by their insurance plans. Patient bankruptcies also compound the problem.
Deductibles are used by insurers to shift some of the spending to patients so that the insurers can keep the premiums for their plans competitive. But much has been written about how these deductibles create financial burdens for patients. And when the patients cannot pay the deductibles, physicians and hospitals are faced with bad debt. With greater use of higher deductibles, the problems with debt will surely increase.
This is a problem inherent in the model of reform perpetuated by ACA. Various policies such as the deductibles are developed to comply with the private insurance model. How would the incrementalists fix this problem? There are too many moving levers.
What we should have instead is a system in which the policies are developed to comply with the needs of patients. Deductibles can be eliminated if we do away with premiums as a means of financing health care.
The financing of a single payer system is not through individual premiums but rather is through a single universal risk pool that is funded equitably through progressive taxes, making health care affordable for everyone. Medical debt simply goes away.