Written by John Goodman
Cost-sharing in a fee-for-service health care system is almost universally recommended by health economists. The reason: When patients pay some part of the costs of their care, they are likely to be more conservative, prudent shoppers in the medical marketplace.
Under the new health reform legislation, for example, the out-of-pocket exposure can be as high as $5,950 for individuals and $11,900 for families (in today's dollars).
Yet, as I explained in a recent post at Health Affairs, there are three major problems with the current practice:
To make matters worse, all three problems are likely to escalate under ObamaCare - especially in the health insurance exchanges.
A Visual Representation of Health Reform
The best way to think about cost-sharing is to understand that there are two types of insurance: self insurance (say, through a general bank account or a Health Savings Account) and third-party insurance. The economic problem is to find the ideal division between the two. What bills (or proportion of bills) should be paid by the patient directly and which ones should be paid by the third-party insurer?
Ideal Health Insurance. In my original paper on this subject, I argued that there are three characteristics of medical care for which people should self-insure:
A broken leg, a ruptured appendix, cardiac arrest, the onset of a stroke - all of these are cases where patients cannot exercise discretion; and, even if they could, they probably shouldn't. In these instances, care decisions (including decisions about the resources needed for that care) need to be made by professionals.
On the other hand, almost all primary care - including general checkups and most diagnostic tests - fit the three criteria almost perfectly. Since experts disagree, for example, about when (and how frequently) people should get general checkups, mammograms, pap smears, PSA tests, etc., and since people differ a lot in their attitudes toward risk in general and medical care in particular - these are precisely the areas where individual decision-making and individual purchase makes sense.
Ideal health insurance, then, would carve out entire areas of care - where it is appropriate and desirable for patients to make their own decisions and it is understood and accepted that not all patients will make the same decisions. Patients would self-insure for these expenses through a Health Savings Account (HSA). Within this sphere of medicine, patients would bear the full costs and reap the full benefits of the decisions they make. (Think of this as the "live and let live" sector of medical practice.)
Where individual discretion is neither possible nor desirable, however, third-party insurance should be involved in the decisions and pay for their full cost. (Think of this as the "we're all in this together" sector of medical practice.) Here, of necessity, insurers will legitimately intervene in the practice of medicine from time to time, because when a patient draws money from an insurance pool, every other member of the pool has a legitimate interest in how the money is spent.
A third category of care combines features of the first two. These involve procedures that need to be done but for which patients can legitimately exercise discretion over where, how and when it is done. For expensive procedures of this type, a third party might make a lump sum available (calculated to cover almost all the cost for an efficient doctor and an efficient facility), leaving the patient free to make other choices and pay the marginal cost of those decisions from an HSA. (Think of this as the "casualty model" of insurance.)
The Role of Deductibles and Copayments. Nothing in the preceding discussion required us at any point to bring up the topic of deductibles and copayments. In fact, the way these are ordinarily used is completely inconsistent with ideal health insurance - which assigns 100% of the cost of each decision to the decision-maker. Certainly an across-the-board deductible, covering all procedures - both inpatient and outpatient - is completely inconsistent with ideal insurance. Ditto for across-the-board copayments (a percent of the provider fee), covering all procedures.
The Opposite of Ideal Health Insurance. Imagine an insurance plan that turns ideal insurance upside down. This is a plan where the decision-maker never pays the cost of his own decisions. In particular, imagine a plan such that (1) whenever the patient is making decisions, the third-party payer pays, but (2) whenever decisions are being made by someone other than the patient, the patient often pays. Sound like something out of a Marx Brothers movie? Believe it or not, this describes the most common form of insurance sold in the market today.
Under a typical plan, for example, most primary care, most diagnostic tests and most inexpensive drugs are available to the patient for free (or with nominal fees). This means, that where patients have the most discretion about care, they pay almost none of the cost directly. But these same plans often have high deductibles and hefty copayments above the deductible. This means a person could be hit by a truck and end up owing a hospital $5,000 or more in out-of-pocket payments, even though the patient exercised no discretion whatsoever over the care.
Perverse Reasons for Faulty Insurance Design. In my analysis of managed competition, I argued that when health plans are forced to community-rate their product and take all comers, they will try to attract the healthy and avoid the sick; and, after enrollment, they will be tempted to overprovide to the healthy and underprovide to the sick. The reason why that observation is important is that (loosely speaking) you can think of the entire employer market as managed competition writ large.
The employer, for example, cannot refuse coverage or charge a higher premium based on health status. Employers can, however, manipulate the design of their health insurance in order to attract the healthy and repel the sick. Of course, this is terrible from the point of view of efficient cost control. But as everyone in the trade knows, there is no plan design known to man that can control costs better than hiring only healthy employees.
How ObamaCare Will Make Things Worse. For all the criticism one can level at current health insurance designs, there is one overwhelming virtue of the current system: The government is not telling you that you have to be in a poorly-designed plan. All that is about to change.
What I have described as the "opposite of ideal health insurance" is about to be forced on the entire private sector. Eventually, every plan will be required to provide first-dollar coverage for "preventive care" and the only avenue left to keep premiums down will be to collect large deductibles and copayments from people who are sick enough to require hospital care.
To make matters worse, most other traditional cost control devices (such as choosing a more limited package of benefits) are being taken off the table. So the pressure on employers to have plans that are unattractive to sick people will intensify. And, as I have explained elsewhere, the perverse incentives will be even more intense in the exchange.
John C. Goodman is president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis. The Wall Street Journal and the National Journal, among other publications, have called him the "Father of Health Savings Accounts," and the Media Research Center credits him, along with former Sen. Phil Gramm and columnist Bill Kristol with playing the pivotal role in the defeat of the Clinton Administration's plan to overhaul the U.S. health care system. He is also the Kellye Wright Fellow in health care. The mission of the Wright Fellowship is to promote a more patient-centered, consumer-driven health care system.
Dr. Goodman's health policy blog is the only right-of-center health care blog on the Internet. It is the only place where pro-free enterprise, private sector solutions to health care problems are routinely examined and debated by top health policy experts throughout the country-conservative, moderate and liberal.