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September 24, 2010

Talkin’ Health Insurance Rate Increase Blues

 A super-enormous spending bill gets press attention, so I’ve been talking with the media these days (1) regarding recent health insurance premium rate increases following the enactment of health reform, which is estimated to cost approximately $250 billion per year once fully realized.  While rate increases by Aetna and certain Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans correlate with the recent passage of health reform, it is hard to believe health reform is the cause, at least not entirely.  The fact is that health insurers have been raising premiums at hard-to-believe rates for well over a decade.  The primary cause then and now is runaway healthcare inflation.  It is true that for the most part insurers, like any other business, look to maximize profits, but most markets for health insurance are extremely price competitive.  Generally it is the increase in expected medical expenses that drive rate increases, and unfortunately demand for medical care has been increasing at approximately 3x the rate of general inflation.  From what I can tell this will continue forever until fundamental structures in the healthcare system change, so expect ongoing rate increases from insurers to persist, despite the political pressure.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while subtle in its presentation, is astounding in its exposition of runaway medical inflation’s impact on health insurance premiums.  Take a look at the charts below.

       

Compounded Annual Growth

   

Absolute 10 Year Growth

Total Health Insurance Premiums   7.8%   114%
Employee Contribution to Insurance Premium   9.5%   147%
Employer Contribution to Insurance Premium   7.3%   103%
US Inflation   2.4%   26.8%
US Real GDP (2000-2009)   1.6%   15.3%

From just this small amount of data it is clear that health insurance premiums have been sky rocketing for almost two decades.  US inflation averaged 2.4% per year, while health insurance inflation has averaged 7.8% per year, with the brunt of this premium increase being absorbed by employees at an average rate of 9.5% per year.  Wage increases have essentially kept up with inflation, meaning the annual disposable income of the average insured family, in real terms, was reduced by nearly $2,000 over the past decade as a result of medical inflation.  W/r/t employers, their bills rose at 7.8%, about 3.25x their ability to raise prices.  Result: employees and shareholders are getting squeezed.

Why so much medical inflation?

There are lots of little reasons that emanate from one major trend: we (the US and its medical profession) keep getting better and better at keeping people alive.

There are many definitions of the word “doctor,” the most relevant to understanding medical inflation being (from MWD – free version):

Doctor : (n) a person who restores, repairs, or fine-tunes things

Today there are an astounding number of ways to restore, repair and fine-tune humans. “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” is all but gone.  We now understand thousands of causes of the headache, from too much protein in the diet, to brain tumors, to meningitis, to stress, to something called Syringomyelia ($1 to the first reader that knows what this is, and no fair if you are Neurologist), and so on. 

We now know so much that we are increasing exponentially the things that doctors can restore, repair and fine-tune, creating treatments for ailments, many of which were once life-threatening that are now survived regularly, leaving us with an older and sicker population that costs more and more to fine-tune every year.  In short, much of our medical inflation is a symptom of our amazing technology and our wealth.  Modern medicine, while an awesome exposition of human inventiveness, is slowly and steadily eating away at the more productive sectors of our economy that created the means for such inventiveness in the first place.

Will it end?

If the “it” is invention, the answer is clearly no.  We will forever be extending our life expectancy and reducing the health and fitness levels necessary to achieve it.  Medical invention will not be stopped.

If the “it” is medical inflation, the answer is not anytime soon.

Much of the healthcare chat on this blog, and that of my business partner Lisa Suennen, involves the many structural changes that must take place within the healthcare economy in order for medical inflation to come under control without the government resorting to over-reaching measures like rationing of care and reimbursement controls.  Many changes are underway, and everyday we meet new companies designing new systems and technologies created to both reduce healthcare costs and improve quality.  Unfortunately it will be many years, perhaps decades before the healthcare system begins to function primarily around a cost/quality paradigm.  I would look for measureable changes in the following areas before expecting any meaningful downward shift in the medical inflation trends:

  1. Patients evolve toward more active, cost and quality conscience consumers of healthcare and health insurance.
  2. Insurers evolve to managers of health risk rather than pure underwriters.
  3. Providers evolve their business models from a strict fee-for-service reimbursement model to a more pay-for-performance model, like most advanced industries (will doctors offer one-year warranties? – why not?).

 Such an evolution spawns subsets of ideas like wellness, care management, value-based health insurance, healthcare information exchanges, insurance exchanges, provider pricing based on quality scoring, telemedicine, and on and on.  I have been and will be discussing them all with the understanding that without meaningful progress medical inflation is here to stay.  Expect it (healthcare inflation) to continue at about 8%, so in 5 years our average family will cost about $20,000 or more a year to insure.

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 (1) Here are a couple of links.  First an brief piece on medical inflation from TheStreet.com along with a podcast interview (download the podcast titled “Best (and Worst) Bonds, Insurers and Obama, Gold’s Rush” – my segment comes in around the 23:00 mark).

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March 23, 2010

A First Reaction to Our New Healthcare Reform Law

Getting health insurance for everyone in this country is a worthy objective that I have wanted to see achieved.  However, I believe the techniques used in the new law to accomplish universal health insurance create serious financial issues that its sponsors have avoided addressing, assuring that as a nation we are bound to confront a massive healthcare driven financial crisis in the very near future.

Recall that several weeks ago I put together a simple post titled “Follow the Money,” that explained that it would cost at least $200 billion to cover all 47+million of the uninsured under today’s average insurance premiums. Presumably the $200 billion would be financed by mandated individual payments and government subsidies (paid for by tax increases). These costs should be expected to grow annually by about 8% (which is the annual growth rate of HC costs, today).

It is fair to speculate, as some have, that using current HC costs and growth as a projection tool misses the latent demand for HC services present in the high-risk uninsured population.  As this manifests, it could create an immediate upward shift in demand for HC and in turn accelerate the rate of growth of HC costs.  As someone who deals with the actuarial realities of HC costs as part of many an investment analysis, I believe this concern has merit.  Over the past 20+ years, as private healthcare evolved from indemnity (80%/20% with a deductible) to first dollar insurance (HMOs, PPOs and POS plans), healthcare utilization accelerated massively, at a minimum demonstrating that HC consumption follows the law of moral hazard, i.e., it increases when HC is perceived as “free.”

As a matter of legislative necessity the new law “works around” this real economic problem and its analysis.  The mechanics of the law requires tax revenues to expand ahead of the provision of subsidies, creating a ten-year projection of net federal deficit reduction (about $134 billion, read, the plan is profitable for the first ten years).  This is exactly how the law had to be structured for it to pass the CBO test and be eligible to become law.  Unfortunately, at some point within or shortly after the 10-year projection period it seems certain that HC subsidies will overtake tax revenue, creating the same ongoing funding problem(s) we constantly face with the current Medicaid and Medicare programs.

On this basis, my first, and unfortunate, take on this law is that it will fail on a financial basis without significant modification to its financial sources, incentives and HC delivery mechanisms.  Such modifications need to be designed to curb moral hazard and HC cost inflation.

One of the main purposes of this Blog (and my professional life) is to explore (and invest in) solutions to these issues. This law accelerates the need for these solutions, almost to an uncomfortable extent.  It may be too much of a financial burden too soon in the technology cycle, which I see as only recently focused on simultaneously lowering costs and improving quality in the HC system.

For any HC reform that envisions universal coverage to work, both financially and medically, it will need eventually to include:

  1. Expansion of consumer accountability and engagement in HC purchasing decisions (HC cannot be perceived by anyone as “free” or a “right” – it is an individual and collective cost/liability that must be managed by the power of the consumer marketplace and the diligence of individual beneficiaries)
  2. Changing HC service compensation from fee-for-service to performance and quality based compensation (just like in almost every other American industry)
  3. Mandated reductions in medical errors and redundancy, especially in hospitals
  4. Deployment of technology and accountable care management designed to more efficiently care for the chronically ill, which represents 70+% of all healthcare costs, especially those insured individuals with 4 or more chronic illnesses

Unfortunately all of these necessities are materially absent from our new law, and as a result, I am unable to applaud its passage despite my genuine belief that universal coverage is a desired and ultimately obtainable goal.  With this legislation I am afraid we are headed down a path that does not portend eventual success.

February 25, 2010

Follow the Money – Re: Healthcare Reform

Approximately 47 million Americans are uninsured.

 The average individual health insurance premium is between $300-$400 per month, or $3600 – $4800 per year.

(Multiplying)  Today it would cost $188-$225 billion to provide health insurance to all of the uninsured.

 This cost is currently rising between 8-10% per year.

Generally tax revenue growth is proportional to GDP growth.

How can our government finance an additional $200 billion per year growing at 8+% per year when historically GDP growth has been well below 8+%. 

Can they keep raising taxes?

Most reasonable people would say no, we cannot raise tax rates year after year (or perhaps even now for that matter).

To accomplish universal coverage we need to discover enough healthcare initiatives that together result in reducing healthcare inflation to the level of inflation of the economy in general (about 0-4% over the last 10 years or so).

If we can achieve this goal, then we can realistically and responsibly begin to create proposals for getting everyone insured.

The two biggest areas of potential cost savings are: (1) waste and redundancy (estimated at a total cost of $700 billion/year) and (2) the expansion of the prevalence and cost of chronic illness (about 70% of the $2.4 trillion healthcare economy, or $1.7 trillion per year).

Initial approaches to healthcare reform should focus on measuring these costs and implementing initiatives to reduce them over time.  Many of the technologies and proven approaches  to tackling these issues are currently available, but are going largely ignored by lawmakers as they craft reform.  Many more are in development and will appear over the next 5-10 years.  Many of them cross my desk as potential investment opportunities everyday.

Look for insights on modern and novel approaches to improving healthcare quality and reducing costs as this blog develops.

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