Health Affairs (web exclusive)
September 26, 2001
by Bradley C. Strunk, Paul B. Ginsburg, and Jon R. Gabel
This paper provides an update on trends in health care costs since 1999. Although the growth rate in overall costs has been stable since 1999, the trend in costs for hospital services rose, while that for prescription drugs declined, although it remains extremely high. Increased growth in hospital costs reflects the retreat from tightly managed care and labor shortages. The discrepancy between premium trends and cost trends has increased, which reflects the health insurance underwriting cycle. If these trends continue, likely responses by employers would lead to consumers’ facing higher out-of-pocket costs and an increase in the number of uninsured persons.
In a release from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC), Paul B. Ginsburg, Ph.D., the president of HSC:
“The volatile combination of rising costs, increasing premiums and a slowing economy have set the stage for consumers to pay more for care and an increase in the number of uninsured Americans.”
Comment: So is the glass half full or half empty?
Half full? * Increases in health care costs are not as great as the current premium increases would indicate since the premium increases reflect, in part, the health insurance underwriting cycle. * The trend in increasing costs for prescription drugs has declined. * The increases in hospital costs reflect a retreat from tightly managed care, most likely a transitional adjustment.
Half empty? * The trend in costs for prescription drugs remains extremely high, in spite of a decline. * The growth rate in overall costs has not improved since 1999. * The premium equivalents of self-insured firms, which tend to reflect true health care costs, dampening the effect of the insurance underwriting cycle, rose at 9.5% in 2001, well in excess of inflation.
Or maybe the glass is clear full or clear empty?
Clear full? * (No evidence.)
Clear empty? * True health care costs continue to increase at a rate significantly greater than the rate of inflation. * Consumers (i.e., patients) will assume a greater share of the financial burden of health care. * Current trends will increase the numbers of uninsured.
Obviously, the health care economics glass is clear empty. We do not have in place any mechanisms that are capable of preventing true health care costs from escalating beyond the rate of inflation. We have saturated the capacity, or at least the will, of the purchasers of health plans to absorb any more increases in costs. We are increasing the financial burden of the patient-consumers, a major segment of whom lack the levels of disposable income that will allow them to absorb the increased costs. Worse yet, there is no prospect of adding one drop to the empty glass as long as we depend on the current market models of health care asset allocation which have drained the glass dry. With an empty glass, we have nothing left but to chew up and spit out the patient-consumers, a cruel, inhumane, heartless substitute, when the glass could be filled full by merely adopting a publicly administered, universal health insurance program.