Health Care Reform – Why Are People So Worked Up?

Why are Americans so worked up about health care reform? Statements such as “don’t touch my Medicare” or “everyone should have access to state of the art health care irrespective of cost” are in my opinion uninformed and visceral responses that indicate a poor understanding of our health care system’s history, its current and future resources and the funding challenges that America faces going forward. While we all wonder how the health care system has reached what some refer to as a crisis stage. Let’s try to take some of the emotion out of the debate by briefly examining how health care in this country emerged and how that has formed our thinking and culture about health care. With that as a foundation let’s look at the pros and cons of the Obama administration health care reform proposals and let’s look at the concepts put forth by the Republicans?

Access to state of the art health care services is something we can all agree would be a good thing for this country. Experiencing a serious illness is one of life’s major challenges and to face it without the means to pay for it is positively frightening. But as we shall see, once we know the facts, we will find that achieving this goal will not be easy without our individual contribution.

These are the themes I will touch on to try to make some sense out of what is happening to American health care and the steps we can personally take to make things better.

A recent history of American health care – what has driven the costs so high?
Key elements of the Obama health care plan
The Republican view of health care – free market competition
Universal access to state of the art health care – a worthy goal but not easy to achieve
what can we do?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. This is not intended to be an exhausted look into that history but it will give us an appreciation of how the health care system and our expectations for it developed. What drove costs higher and higher?

To begin, let’s turn to the American civil war. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause ghastly results. Not generally known is that most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace and this caused severe delays in treating the wounded. Secondly, many wounds were subjected to wound care, related surgeries and/or amputations of the affected limbs and this often resulted in the onset of massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers who although well-intentioned, their interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and increasingly attempt risky surgeries (now largely performed in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic review of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Here is a critical point we need to understand; “nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in such a scenario costs are curtailed. The simple fact is that there was little for doctors to offer and therefore virtually nothing to drive health care spending. A second factor holding down costs was that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket, meaning by way of an individuals personal resources. There was no such thing as health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by an employer. Except for the very destitute who were lucky to find their way into a charity hospital, health care costs were the responsibility of the individual.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs has been, and remains to this day, absolutely enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight a great pool of money became available to pay for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. More Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare and Medicaid (1965). In addition funding became available for expanded veterans health care benefits. Finding a cure for almost anything has consequently become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today.

I do not wish to convey that medical innovations are a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended, enhanced and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology in the form of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostic tools and surgical procedures. So the result is that there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). Add an insatiable and unrealistic public demand for access and treatment and we have the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs. And by and large the storm is only intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to the key questions that will lead us into a review and hopefully a better understanding of the health care reform proposals in the news today. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? When we add politics and an election year to the debate, information to help us answer these questions become critical. We need to spend some effort in understanding health care and sorting out how we think about it. Properly armed we can more intelligently determine whether certain health care proposals might solve or worsen some of these problems. What can be done about the challenges? How can we as individuals contribute to the solutions?

The Obama health care plan is complex for sure – I have never seen a health care plan that isn’t. But through a variety of programs his plan attempts to deal with a) increasing the number of American that are covered by adequate insurance (almost 50 million are not), and b) managing costs in such a manner that quality and our access to health care is not adversely affected. Republicans seek to achieve these same basic and broad goals, but their approach is proposed as being more market driven than government driven. Let’s look at what the Obama plan does to accomplish the two objectives above. Remember, by the way, that his plan was passed by congress, and begins to seriously kick-in starting in 2014. So this is the direction we are currently taking as we attempt to reform health care.

Through insurance exchanges and an expansion of Medicaid,the Obama plan dramatically expands the number of Americans that will be covered by health insurance.

To cover the cost of this expansion the plan requires everyone to have health insurance with a penalty to be paid if we don’t comply. It will purportedly send money to the states to cover those individuals added to state-based Medicaid programs.

To cover the added costs there were a number of new taxes introduced, one being a 2.5% tax on new medical technologies and another increases taxes on interest and dividend income for wealthier Americans.

The Obama plan also uses concepts such as evidence-based medicine, accountable care organizations, comparative effectiveness research and reduced reimbursement to health care providers (doctors and hospitals) to control costs.

The insurance mandate covered by points 1 and 2 above is a worthy goal and most industrialized countries outside of the U.S. provide “free” (paid for by rather high individual and corporate taxes) health care to most if not all of their citizens. It is important to note, however, that there are a number of restrictions for which many Americans would be culturally unprepared. Here is the primary controversial aspect of the Obama plan, the insurance mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear arguments as to the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate as a result of a petition by 26 states attorney’s general that congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution by passing this element of the plan. The problem is that if the Supreme Court should rule against the mandate, it is generally believed that the Obama plan as we know it is doomed. This is because its major goal of providing health insurance to all would be severely limited if not terminated altogether by such a decision.

As you would guess, the taxes covered by point 3 above are rather unpopular with those entities and individuals that have to pay them. Medical device companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors and insurance companies all had to “give up” something that would either create new revenue or would reduce costs within their spheres of control. As an example, Stryker Corporation, a large medical device company, recently announced at least a 1,000 employee reduction in part to cover these new fees. This is being experienced by other medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies as well. The reduction in good paying jobs in these sectors and in the hospital sector may rise as former cost structures will have to be dealt with in order to accommodate the reduced rate of reimbursement to hospitals. Over the next ten years some estimates put the cost reductions to hospitals and physicians at half a trillion dollars and this will flow directly to and affect the companies that supply hospitals and doctors with the latest medical technologies. None of this is to say that efficiencies will not be realized by these changes or that other jobs will in turn be created but this will represent painful change for a while. It helps us to understand that health care reform does have an effect both positive and negative.

Finally, the Obama plan seeks to change the way medical decisions are made. While clinical and basic research underpins almost everything done in medicine today, doctors are creatures of habit like the rest of us and their training and day-to-day experiences dictate to a great extent how they go about diagnosing and treating our conditions. Enter the concept of evidence-based medicine and comparative effectiveness research. Both of these seek to develop and utilize data bases from electronic health records and other sources to give better and more timely information and feedback to physicians as to the outcomes and costs of the treatments they are providing. There is great waste in health care today, estimated at perhaps a third of an over 2 trillion dollar health care spend annually. Imagine the savings that are possible from a reduction in unnecessary test and procedures that do not compare favorably with health care interventions that are better documented as effective. Now the Republicans and others don’t generally like these ideas as they tend to characterize them as “big government control” of your and my health care. But to be fair, regardless of their political persuasions, most people who understand health care at all, know that better data for the purposes described above will be crucial to getting health care efficiencies, patient safety and costs headed in the right direction.

A brief review of how Republicans and more conservative individuals think about health care reform. I believe they would agree that costs must come under control and that more, not fewer Americans should have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay. But the main difference is that these folks see market forces and competition as the way to creating the cost reductions and efficiencies we need. There are a number of ideas with regard to driving more competition among health insurance companies and health care providers (doctors and hospitals) so that the consumer would begin to drive cost down by the choices we make. This works in many sectors of our economy but this formula has shown that improvements are illusive when applied to health care. Primarily the problem is that health care choices are difficult even for those who understand it and are connected. The general population, however, is not so informed and besides we have all been brought up to “go to the doctor” when we feel it is necessary and we also have a cultural heritage that has engendered within most of us the feeling that health care is something that is just there and there really isn’t any reason not to access it for whatever the reason and worse we all feel that there is nothing we can do to affect its costs to insure its availability to those with serious problems.

OK, this article was not intended to be an exhaustive study as I needed to keep it short in an attempt to hold my audience’s attention and to leave some room for discussing what we can do contribute mightily to solving some of the problems. First we must understand that the dollars available for health care are not limitless. Any changes that are put in place to provide better insurance coverage and access to care will cost more. And somehow we have to find the revenues to pay for these changes. At the same time we have to pay less for medical treatments and procedures and do something to restrict the availability of unproven or poorly documented treatments as we are the highest cost health care system in the world and don’t necessarily have the best results in terms of longevity or avoiding chronic diseases much earlier than necessary.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or we drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about managing these known to be destructive personal health habits. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

There are a huge number of free web sites available that can steer us to a more healthful life style. A soon as you can, “Google” “preventive health care strategies”, look up your local hospital’s web site and you will find more than enough help to get you started. Finally, there is a lot to think about here and I have tried to outline the challenges but also the very powerful effect we could have on preserving the best of America’s health care system now and into the future. I am anxious to hear from you and until then – take charge and increase your chances for good health while making sure that health care is there when we need it.

Ten Tips for Comparing Health Care Policies

Australians already know that health coverage can provide security for individuals and families when a medical need arises. Many, however, do not know how to find the best value when comparing health insurance policies.

Below are 10 tips everyone should read before shopping for private health coverage.

1. Choose coverage that concentrates on your specific health needs, or potential health needs.

The first thing you should do before comparing your health plan options is determine which policy features best fit your needs. A 30-year-old accountant, for instance, is going to need very different coverage than a 55year-old pro golfer, or a 75-year-old retired veterinarian. By understanding the health needs that most often correspond to people in your age and activity level group – your life stage – you can save money by purchasing only the coverage you need and avoid unnecessary services that aren’t relevant. For instance, a young family with two small children isn’t going to need coverage for joint replacement or cataract surgery. A 60-year-old school teacher isn’t going to need pregnancy and birth control-related services.

Whether it’s high level comprehensive care you’re after, or the least expensive option to exempt you from the Medical Levy Surcharge while providing basic care coverage, always make sure you’re comparing health insurance policies with only those services that make sense for you and your family.

2. Consider options such as Excess or Co-payment to reduce your premium costs.

When you agree to pay for a specified out-of-pocket amount in the event you are hospitalized, you sign an Excess or Co-payment option that will reduce your health insurance premium.

If you choose the Excess option, you agree to pay a predetermined, specific amount when you go to hospital, no matter how long your stay lasts. With a Co-payment option, you agree to pay a daily sum up to a pre-agreed amount. For example, if Joanne has an Excess of $250 on her medical coverage policy and is admitted to hospital, regardless of how long her stay turns out to be, she will pay $250 of the final bill. If Andrew has signed a $75×4 Co-payment with his provider, he will pay $75 per day for just the first the first four days of his hospitalization.

For younger individuals who are healthy and fit with no reason to expect to land in hospital any time soon, either of these options are great ways to reduce the monthly cost of your medical insurance premiums.
Keep in mind that different private insurers have their own rules when it comes to Excess and Co-payments, including how many payments you will need to make annually on either option. It is important to read the policy thoroughly and ask questions in advance in order to have a clear understanding of what you are paying for, and what you can expect coverage-wise in the event that you are hospitalized. Also, make sure you choose an Excess option greater than $500 if you’re purchasing an individual policy, or $1,000 for family coverage, in order to be exempted from the Medicare Levy Surcharge.

3. Pay your health insurance premium in advance before the cost increases.

Each year insurance providers increase their premiums by approximately five percent sometime around the first of April, a practice approved by the Minister of Health. By instituting these annual increases, your health insurance provider retains the ability to fulfill their obligations to policyholders despite increasing medical costs.

Most private medical policy providers allow policy holders to pay for one year’s premium in advance, which locks them into the previous year’s rate for an additional 12 months – a great way to save money. In order to take advantage of the savings offered, most insurers require payment in full be made within the first quarter of the year, between January and March.

4. Lock in to low cost health insurance at an early age.

The most obvious advantage any Australian can take when it comes to saving money on your insurance premiums is to buy in early to the least expensive rate available. And by early, we mean before age 31. Everyone who is eligible for Medicare will receive at least a 30 percent rebate from the government on the price of their health care premium, no matter what age you are. However, by purchasing hospital coverage before the July first following your 31st birthday, you can be ensured the lowest premium rate available.

After age 31, your health insurance rate is subjected to a two percent penalty rate increase for every year after age 30 that you did not have health insurance. Therefore, if you wait to purchase private health coverage until you’re age 35, you will pay 10 percent more annually than you would have if you had purchased it at age 30.

There are exemptions for some people who were overseas when they turned 30, or for new immigrants, and certain others under special exception status. However, if you purchased private insurance after age 30 and are paying an age loading penalty on your health coverage, you will be relieved of the excess penalty after 10 years of continual coverage.

The earlier in life that you lock in to a private health plan, the more money you will save both immediately and over your lifetime.

5. Choose a health care provider who already works with your health fund.

Determine which hospital you prefer if and when the need for treatment does arise, and seek out those health insurance providers that have an agreement with your hospital of choice before making a decision on your health insurance purchase.

It’s a good idea to also find out if your insurer has a list of “preferred providers,” which would include those physicians and practitioners who also have made arrangements with the health funds regarding their charges for services. Request this information from every provider when comparing health insurance policies. This way you can be sure you’ll receive the full gamut of benefits available at the lowest possible cost. These preferred providers often have “no gap” cover – special rates that reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket expenses to policyholders.

6. Double check your health insurance policy before you schedule any treatment or procedures to make sure you have coverage.

Any time you are headed to a private hospital for treatment, first check to see if the hospital and your health insurance provider have an agreement to be absolutely sure you have adequate coverage. At the same time, check with your insurance provider, physician and the hospital to see if there is a Gap between their fees and the government’s Medicare Benefits. This is extremely important because if your physician charges more than Medicare covers and you do not have a “no Gap” plan set up, you could find yourself responsible for a considerable bill. Simply contact your doctor and your insurance company to double check on these items, and avoid being saddled with an out-of-pocket expense your weren’t expecting.

7. File your expense claims promptly.

When you have a health insurance membership card, you can file a claim against your benefits at the time of treatment with no additional paperwork or filing to worry about, at least in most cases. Sometimes, you may still need to file a claim with your insurance provider. When that happens, make sure to file your claim promptly. The typical cut off for insurers to pay health care claims is two years. You can file your health insurance claim directly with your provider or at your area Medicare office, which has a reciprocal agreement in place with most insurance providers.

8. Whenever you travel overseas, suspend your health coverage.

Anytime you travel overseas for more than a few weeks but less than 24 months, certain medical insurance providers allow policyholders to suspend their memberships for the time they’re out of the country, freeing the policyholders from paying premiums during that time period. While your insurance policy is suspended, your Lifetime Health Cover status remains intact, so you do not have to worry about age loading added when you return home. Contact your health insurance provider to make sure of their policy and rules regarding waiting periods and re-activation.

Remember too that Australia has reciprocal arrangements in certain countries, including New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.K. For more information, visit http://www.smartraveller.gov.au.

9. Review your policy benefits annually.

Lifestyles change, individuals get married, have children, age – children grow up and move out on their own, couples separate. A lot can happen in the span of 12 months, which is why the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman recommends that everyone review their policy benefits once every year to make sure your coverage still fits your needs.

Regardless of your life changes, your Lifetime Health Cover status remains protected, and waiting periods for benefits that equal your current coverage are waived in compliance with the Private Health Insurance Act of 2007. This means you will be able to file claims related to features you had before you made any changes without interruption in benefits.

10. Compare policies to get the best price and the coverage you need.

To make sure that you are getting the best possible price on your health insurance premium, you must compare policies from different insurers, Make sure you are comparing policies that reflect the treatment plan and coverage you need, without filler services that you won’t need. The more you know about private health coverage and government sponsored Medicare, the more likely you will find the best value for your money when it comes time to purchasing or renewing your health coverage.

Author Liz Ernst writes on health insurance matters in Australia and the U.S.

Private health insurance is a cost Australians should at least consider factoring into their budget. Different funds have products that better suit different groups of people. Visit the Your Health Insurance website (http://www.yourhealthinsurance.com.au) to compare pricing and policies, and learn more about buying health insurance in Australia.

It really does pay to shop for health insurance.