The Healthcare Blues

March 8th, 2013
in Op Ed

Written by John Mauldin, Thoughts from the Frontline

For last week’s issue of Time magazine, the cover story is Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, by Steven Brill. I had to have something to read while the plane was taking off, and that turned out to be it. (Since I got my iPad I no longer carry books, so I make sure I have something to peruse while waiting to be able to use my electronics in the air.) I have read work by Steve Brill in the past and like his style, so even though I don’t usually read Time, I picked up this issue on health care.

Follow up:

I wish I could get every voter in America to read that article and then go to the Internet, Google the piece, and read the comments. I don’t agree with all he wrote, but he does a marvelous job of giving us the picture on just how broken the American healthcare system is in terms of costs. He goes into detail about how hospitals create those staggering bills. If you have private insurance or a government plan, you don’t have to pay those prices, but what if you don’t? The billing system is out of control: $1.50 for a 1.5-cent acetaminophen pill (Tylenol). A simple niacin tablet marked up 240 times. Routine products like gauze marked up 10 times. Billing for a lamp shade? Are you serious? Double and triple billing for routine items that no insurance company or government agency will pay for, but that you will be billed for if you are on your own. You have read the stories or heard them from friends, but Brill makes it real.

We spend almost 20% of our gross domestic product on health care in the US, and that figure continues to climb. I could quote at length from the article, but let me just excerpt six paragraphs:

Taken as a whole, these powerful institutions and the bills they churn out dominate the nation’s economy and put demands on taxpayers to a degree unequaled anywhere else on earth. In the U.S., people spend almost 20% of the gross domestic product on health care, compared with about half that in most developed countries. Yet in every measurable way, the results our health care system produces are no better and often worse than the outcomes in those countries.

According to one of a series of exhaustive studies done by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, we spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. We may be shocked at the $60 billion price tag for cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. We spent almost that much last week on health care. We spend more every year on artificial knees and hips than what Hollywood collects at the box office. We spend two or three times that much on durable medical devices like canes and wheelchairs, in part because a heavily lobbied Congress forces Medicare to pay 25% to 75% more for this equipment than it would cost at Walmart.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 10 of the 20 occupations that will grow the fastest in the U.S. by 2020 are related to health care. America’s largest city may be commonly thought of as the world’s financial-services capital, but of New York’s 18 largest private employers, eight are hospitals and four are banks. Employing all those people in the cause of curing the sick is, of course, not anything to be ashamed of. But the drag on our overall economy that comes with taxpayers, employers and consumers spending so much more than is spent in any other country for the same product is unsustainable. Health care is eating away at our economy and our treasury.

The health care industry seems to have the will and the means to keep it that way. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and health-care-product industries, combined with organizations representing doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, health services and HMOs, have spent $5.36 billion since 1998 on lobbying in Washington. That dwarfs the $1.53 billion spent by the defense and aerospace industries and the $1.3 billion spent by oil and gas interests over the same period. That’s right: the health-care-industrial complex spends more than three times what the military-industrial complex spends in Washington.

When you crunch data compiled by McKinsey and other researchers, the big picture looks like this: We’re likely to spend $2.8 trillion this year on health care. That $2.8 trillion is likely to be $750 billion, or 27%, more than we would spend if we spent the same per capita as other developed countries, even after adjusting for the relatively high per capita income in the U.S. vs. those other countries. Of the total $2.8 trillion that will be spent on health care, about $800 billion will be paid by the federal government through the Medicare insurance program for the disabled and those 65 and older and the Medicaid program, which provides care for the poor.

That $800 billion, which keeps rising far faster than inflation and the gross domestic product, is what’s driving the federal deficit. The other $2 trillion will be paid mostly by private health-insurance companies and individuals who have no insurance or who will pay some portion of the bills covered by their insurance. This is what’s increasingly burdening businesses that pay for their employees’ health insurance and forcing individuals to pay so much in out-of-pocket expenses.

I know about those business healthcare burdens. At my very small business, the fastest-rising cost is health care. I have my staff get bids on health care every few years and try to hold down costs. I should note that after reading the Brill article I am actually going to go back and check a few items to make sure we have proper coverage. You think you do until…

Let’s be clear: the US has the best medical care on the planet. Expensive, yes, but our best is truly the best. As I get older and as my kids have issues, having access to good health care seems a very good idea. I want to live a very, very long time. Which is why I worry. I don’t want to see our healthcare system get sidetracked.

Now, we are getting ready to dramatically change how we pay for 20% of our economy. I fear Obamacare is going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Before you consign me to some Neanderthal Republican hell, let me quickly state that any necessary reform is going to be disruptive and expensive. Even if we adopted Paul Ryan’s plan, it would be very disruptive. You simply can’t change the incentives and payment structures of 20% of the economy without creating macroeconomic problems. There are more unintended consequences than we can imagine lying hidden in the grass of healthcare reform, like hungry lions.
Having to cover pre-existing conditions is going to raise the costs of private insurers. In my business, we are getting reports that our cost will go up by as much as 50%. Individual rates may rise even more.

Under Obamacare, businesses may have sufficient incentive to drop insurance coverage and pay a $2,000-per-employee penalty. I am not certain where they came up with that number, but $2,000 is cheap insurance. Insurance companies are going to lose business customers as they raise prices. If your employees can get government health care (mine can’t, I hasten to add!), then from a financial perspective you are better off paying the penalty. When insurance costs rise, the pressure to drop coverage will rise as well, which will mean those still covered have to pay more. It will be an ugly trap until things get sorted out.

By the numbers, Medicare looks like a government program run amok. After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion in 1990. Its actual cost by then was $110 billion. It is likely to be nearly $600 billion this year. That’s due to the US’s aging population and the popular program’s expansion to cover more services, as well as the skyrocketing costs of medical services generally. (Time)

I fear that the Medicare budget will rise even further unless we get aggressive on holding down costs. But that will not be easy. The systemic and political incentives to effect change are just not there until there is a real crisis. And while Brill talks about the excess profit in the system, when you take that away, things will change. Some think they will change for the better, but I am afraid we are all indulging in wishful thinking.

Obamacare may have brought forward the crisis that we all knew was coming. Rather than runaway entitlement spending being a problem for the latter part of this decade, it may soon be a topic for your child’s “show and tell” time at school. We either get a handle on the problem this year or things could quickly spiral out of control. Medicare and Medicaid costs could quickly rise by 5-10%, which would blow a hole a mile deep in our national budget. Yes, that would mean that costs that had been absorbed by emergency rooms and picked up by charities would now be paid for by the government, but while they might amount to the same total (unlikely), they would not be part of cost and budget projections.

Maybe the government does a better job at estimating future costs than it did in 1965, but I worry that it won’t. And the consequences of being wrong could be very disruptive to a healthcare system that is as vital as food and energy. Honestly, I do not get a good feeling when I think of Washington DC and crisis management. Call me silly, but I worry about that.

I don’t have an answer, or at least not an easy one. Should we treat health care as a utility? That is anathema to my free-market sensibilities. Should people be without basic health care? That is also not acceptable. Can we afford universal health care? Not as costs are currently structured. Can we change? Sure, we will have to. But I expect a bumpy ride. I read and think a lot about health care because I am worried it is going to impact our economy in ways we simply don’t yet understand.

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