News & Opinion

Insurers put squeeze on those already in a hurt

Columbus Dispatch, Wednesday, January 9, 2008

By Froma Harrop

Crowding out sounds like a bad thing. The Bush administration uses that fearsome term in denying recent requests by Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and, no doubt, other states to expand Medicaid to families not considered poor. Bush argues that opening the government program to middle-class people would prompt many to drop their private coverage.

Where's the problem?

It's not about justice. For-profit insurers drop families when a member becomes sick, and Washington looks the other way.

It's not new. When Medicare was created, the government health plan replaced a lot of private insurance coverage bought by the elderly.

And it's not about preserving quality health care. You don't hear Medicare beneficiaries clamoring for a return to private coverage, do you?

Not just a few medical providers, meanwhile, would love to see the private insurers "crowded out." The following story illustrates why:

St. Joseph Health Services is a Catholic nonprofit that cares for many poor people in Rhode Island. Last year, UnitedHealthcare of New England tried to cut the hospital group from its provider network. The reason? After years of seeing little or no increases in payments for services, St. Joseph had demanded that the insurer raise its reimbursement levels.

UnitedHealthcare played hardball. It proceeded to threaten its customers with a huge 58-percent compounded increase in premiums if it had to start writing bigger checks to St. Joseph.

During the angry standoff, St. Joe's chief revealed these interesting numbers: In 2006, the former chief executive officer at UnitedHealth Group (the parent company in Minneapolis), William McGuire, made $124 million. That was 1.5 times the entire payroll of St. Joseph's 2,000 employees. That's right, one pooh-bah at one insurance company pulled in 150 percent of what everyone at St. Joe's three health-care facilities made put together -- not only the nurses, orderlies, administrators and floor-swabbers, but also the executives and surgeons. Everyone!

William McGuire may be a familiar name. Last month, he was forced to give back $418 million worth of UnitedHealth stock options on top of nearly $200 million in options he already surrendered. That was punishment for joining in an unseemly scheme to backdate the options.

Waste no tears on "Dollar Bill." McGuire holds another $875 million in options, though a judge has frozen them, pending further review. And as top boss at UnitedHealth from 1991 to 2006, he raked in $500 million, which he definitely keeps.

You see, health care has become just another racket by which clever operators can scoop up fortunes. There's a ton of money to be made nickel-and-diming doctors and hospitals while making sure you don't sell insurance to sick people -- and that's the legal part. Once government offers coverage, it's game over for the manipulators -- and more of our health-care dollars go for health care.

And so here's another way to look at the "crowding out" issue. Rather than create unfair competition for insurance executives, government can be seen as freeing the public and medical caregivers from their claws.

That's not to say that private interests shouldn't play a role. A Canadian-style single-payer system, where government is the only insurer, has problems that allowing private-coverage options would ease. The best government-run systems, such as France's, are multipayer. They allow participation by private insurers, but keep them on a leash.

The Bush administration's fight to keep moderate-income families out of Medicaid resembles its successful battle last year to stop the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. It used the crowding-out argument back then.

But when you see the insurers in action, crowding out doesn't seem so evil or even the right term for what's happening. Throwing out may be more like it.

Froma Harrop writes for Creators Syndicate.fharrop@projo.com

Even the Insured Feel the Strain of Health Costs

New York Times
May 4, 2008 By REED ABELSON and MILT FREUDENHEIM

The economic slowdown has swelled the ranks of people without health insurance. But now it is also threatening millions of people who have insurance but find that the coverage is too limited or that they cannot afford their own share of medical costs.

Many of the 158 million people covered by employer health insurance are struggling to meet medical expenses that are much higher than they used to be ­ often because of some combination of higher premiums, less extensive coverage, and bigger out-of-pocket deductibles and co-payments.

With medical costs soaring, the coverage many people have may not adequately protect them from the financial shock of an emergency room visit or a major surgery. For some, even routine doctor visits might now take a back seat to basic expenses like food and gasoline.

“It just keeps eating into people’s income,” said James Corbin, a former union official who works for the local utility in Tucson.

Mr. Corbin said that under their employer’s health plan, he and his co-workers are now obliged to pay up to $4,000 of their families’ annual medical bills, on top of about $1,600 a year in premiums. Five years ago, they paid no premiums and were responsible for only about $2,000 of their families’ medical bills.

“That’s a big jump,” Mr. Corbin said. “You’ve just lost a month’s pay.”

Already, many doctors say, the soft economy is making some insured people hesitant to get care they need, reluctant to spend a $50 co-payment for an office visit. Parents “are waiting longer to bring in their children,” said Dr. Richard Lander, a pediatrician in Livingston, N.J. “They say, ‘The kid isn’t that sick; her temperature is only 102.’ ”

The problem of affording health care is most acute for people with no insurance, a group expected to soon exceed 48 million, but those with insurance say they too are feeling the pain.

Since the recession of 2001, the employee’s average cost of an annual health care premium for family coverage has nearly doubled ­ to $3,300, up from $1,800 ­ while incomes have come nowhere close to keeping up. Factor in other out-of-pocket medical costs, and the portion of the average American household’s income that goes toward health care has risen about 12 percent, according to the consulting and accounting firm Deloitte, and is now approaching one-fifth of the average household’s spending.

In a recent survey by Deloitte’s health research center, only 7 percent of people said they felt financially prepared for their future health care needs.

Shirley Giarde of Walla Walla, Wash., was not prepared when her husband, Raymond, suddenly developed congestive heart failure last year and needed a pacemaker and defibrillator. Because his job did not provide health benefits, she has covered them both through a policy for the self-employed, which she obtained as the proprietor of a bridal and formal-wear store, the Purple Parasol.

But when Raymond had his medical problems, Ms. Giarde discovered that her insurance would cover only $22,000, leaving them with about $100,000 in unpaid hospital bills.

Even though the hospital agreed to reduce that debt to about $50,000, Ms. Giarde is still struggling to pay it ­ in part because the poor economy has meant slumping sales at the Purple Parasol. Her husband, now disabled and unable to work, will not qualify for Medicare for another year, and she cannot afford the $758 a month it would cost to enroll him in a state-run insurance plan for individuals who cannot find private insurance.

She recently refinanced her car, a 2002 Toyota Highlander, to help pay for her husband’s heart medicines, which cost some $400 a month.

Experts say that too often for the underinsured, coverage can seem like health insurance in name only ­ adequate only as long as they have no medical problems.

“There’s a real shift in the burden of health care to people who happen to be sick,” said Paul B. Ginsburg, the president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a research group in Washington.

Companies and policy makers have yet to focus on what the faltering economy means for employees’ medical care, said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, a Washington association of about 200 large employers.

“It’s a bad-news situation when an individual or household has to pay out-of-pocket three, four or five times as much for their health plan as they would have at the time of the last recession,” she said. “Americans have been giving their pay raise to the health care system.”

Sage Holben, a 62-year-old library technician with diabetes who is active in her local union in St. Paul, says that in 2003 union members agreed to a two-year freeze on wages to protect their health care coverage. But for the union, which will begin talks on the next contract this fall, it may be difficult to continue that trade-off, Ms. Holben said. “It’s at the point where we’re losing, anyway,” she said.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Ms. Holben, who makes close to $40,000 a year at Metropolitan State University.

When she took the job in 1999, she says, the health benefits required no co-payments for doctor visits. Now, her out-of-pocket cost per visit is $25, and she pays $38 a month for her diabetes medicine. She has not been to the eye doctor in two years, even though eye exams are crucial for people with diabetes and she knows she needs new glasses. Nor does she monitor her blood sugar as regularly as she should because of the cost of the supplies.

“It’s not an extravagant expense,” she said. “It just adds up.” And it comes atop the increasing cost of utilities, gasoline and food ­ and the few hundred dollars of repairs her 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier needs.

Many employers do recognize that their workers are struggling financially even as they are asking them to pick up more of their health-care bills.

“It makes the work we have to do even more challenging,” said Anne Silverman, the vice president in charge of benefits in North America for the publishing company Reed Elsevier. “Employees are being stretched in terms of their disposable income.”

Even so, more companies may see themselves as having little choice but to require employees to pay even more of their health expenses, said Ted Nussbaum, a benefits consultant at the firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide. And when a weak economy undermines job security, he said, workers may simply have to accept reduced benefits.

While Mr. Nussbaum and other consultants say it is unlikely that significant numbers of employers will simply drop coverage for their workers, the weak economy could prompt more of them to push for so-called consumer-driven plans. Such plans tend to offset lower premiums with higher annual deductibles.

And while these plans often allow employees to put pre-tax savings into special health care accounts, they typically end up forcing the worker to assume a bigger share of overall medical costs. About six million people are now enrolled in these medical plans.

Among employers, the hardest pressed may be small businesses. Their insurance premiums tend to be proportionately higher than ones paid by large employers, because small companies have little bargaining clout with insurers.

Health costs are “burying small business,” said Mike Roach, who owns a small clothing store in Portland, Ore. He recently testified on health coverage at a Senate hearing led by Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon.

Last year, Mr. Roach paid about $27,000 in health premiums for his eight employees. “It’s a huge chunk of change,” he said, noting that he was forced to raise his employees’ yearly deductible by 50 percent, to $750.

Around the nation, some workers are simply priced out of their employee health plans.

After Brian Falacienski of Milton, Fla., was laid off last year from his job as a surveyor for a construction company, he found another position. But the cost of his new health plan ­ $800 a month for coverage with a $1,000 annual deductible ­ was beyond the means of Mr. Falacienski, 38, who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter.

His wife, Marianne, started researching individual insurance policies and was able to find policies for her husband and daughter offering basic, if minimal, coverage, costing $161 a month for father and daughter. But Ms. Falacienski, 32, who has arthritis and the severe digestive disorder Crohn’s disease, is now uninsured. Because of her conditions, she said, four major insurers rejected her.

“I even applied for Medicaid,” she said, “but I wasn’t low-income enough.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Providing health care for all shouldn't make insurers rich

By Milton Fisk and Kay Mueller

Herald-Times
Guest column
April 24, 2008

 
Government subsidies and outsourcing may be good for business without always being good for the public. Medicare outsources the administration of its prescription drug program, Medicare D, to private insurers. Medicare Advantage — Medicare C — subsidizes managed care insurance plans for seniors choosing them. Several current presidential aspirants — Clinton and Obama — would subsidize the purchase of insurance for the low-income uninsured. Each of these plans offers private insurers protection against a less wasteful plan, one that does without private insurers.
 
Involving the insurers in the Medicare drug and Advantage plans is a needless drain of Medicare funds.
 
The drug companies charge much more for the drugs used under Medicare D than they do for the same drugs bought by Medicaid. The law forbids Medicare to negotiate prices of Medicare D drugs with the pharmaceuticals. Medicaid bargains a 30 percent discount on drugs while the insurers running Medicare D bargain only a 5 to 10 percent discount. Medicare C’s Advantage Plan turns over managed care to private insurers, paying them 10 to 12 percent more than Medicare pays for seniors in its regular program.
 
Suppose one of those presidential aspirants wins. What would the subsidies they want cost? They want subsidies to help at least the poorest two-thirds of the 47 million uninsured buy insurance.
 
The insurers would be in for a windfall injection — from the government and low-income individuals — of about $150 billion each year. Any industry would love this. But would it serve the public interest?
 
The answer comes from looking at how to get quality health care to the uninsured for much less. The private insurers operate with enormous overhead. Profit is an essential part of it, since without it, investors turn away.
 
Then there is marketing, lobbying, paperwork, computer systems, colossal salaries for upper level managers and the expense of constantly merging and reorganizing. In sum, overhead accounts for roughly 25 percent of premium income, while overhead for Medicare is five times less!
 
The presidential aspirants who promote this kind of insurer protection plan recognize the waste involved. So what is their response? They would make subsidies contingent on reducing overhead. Sen.Clinton’s plan says premiums are not to be dedicated to “excessive profits and marketing.” This might reduce overhead from 25 percent down to 15 or 20 percent of premium income — still three or four times more than Medicare’s overhead. How can anyone stand before the public and say they want to waste billions of taxpayers’ dollars just to protect the insurers?
 
It is not right to use the uninsured as an excuse for making the insurers richer. We don’t need the insurers to provide the uninsured with health care.Those proposing insurance protection plans spread the view that we shouldn’t help the uninsured unless the corporations make a buck out of it. Whatever happened to the public interest?


This guest column was written by Milton Fisk and Kay Mueller, who are members of the research committee of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan. Fisk is also an author of a book on health care reform

Finding Health Insurance if You Are Self-Employed

New York Times

March 27, 2008

Shifting Careers

By MARCI ALBOHER

If there is one thing that separates the self-employed from those employed by others, it is their preoccupation with health insurance.

I was reminded of this on Feb. 14, when I wrote a post on the Shifting Careers blog asking small-business owners and would-be entrepreneurs what they were doing about health insurance. Within hours, scores of people posted comments about their own experiences and, if they had managed to find good resources, shared those. I have been reading e-mail messages and trying to make sense of the subject ever since. In short, it is not pretty out there.
 
A 43-year-old woman wrote about going without insurance in the first year of her business. “I lived in terror of needing a doctor visit or worse yet, lab tests or something more,” she said. She then moved to an H.M.O. for sole proprietors through a local chamber of commerce. The cost of that plan, which she said was $171 a month in 2001, has now risen to $500 a month. At the same time, she wrote, co-payments have increased and services have been cut.

That woman’s experience reflected the exasperated tone of several of the other writers. Many entrepreneurs seem to find health insurance after doing a lot of research, though they generally pay more than they think they should. Some who are in good health bet on remaining that way and forgo health insurance or get policies with low premiums and high deductibles, choosing to insure themselves for mostly catastrophic illness. Some are lucky enough to have a well-insured partner.
 
The unluckiest are those with chronic illnesses or the dreaded pre-existing condition that results in a denial of coverage. Many of these people abandon dreams of entrepreneurship altogether because they need jobs that come with a health plan and they cannot find a way to self-insure.The comments also revealed that the health care system is a state-by-state patchwork, with options varying based on where you live. A 60-year-old owner of a mail order business from Illinois wrote that she was unable to get insurance until about 10 years ago when Illinois started a high-risk pool with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
 
A woman in business with her 57-year-old husband wrote to say that her husband is presently uninsured because, as a diabetic with high blood pressure, she cannot find an insurance company in Florida that will cover him. The stories go on. There were reports from Americans happily insured while living in Europe and Canada. And, of course, there were numerous pleas to Washington.
 
Jennifer Jaff, a reader who happens to be an expert on health insurance issues, shared a valuable tool, healthinsuranceinfo.net. The site, maintained by the Georgetown Health Policy Institute, shows a map of the country and after clicking on a state, a document is downloaded that covers everything from what kinds of programs are available to small-business owners to whether there is a high-risk pool available for those who have been rejected by insurance providers. These primers are comprehensive and frequently updated, and they are a great place to start, especially if you have been wondering about the meaning of jargon that peppers insurance providers’ descriptions of their offerings.
 
Many readers shared recommendations based on where they buy their insurance. Popular sources were local chambers of commerce, the Small Business Service Bureau (sbsb.com), AARP (aarp.org) (for those over 50), industry-specific trade associations like a bar association or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In states that permit it, small-business owners can also start a group with as little as one member. In that case, a good insurance agent comes in handy.
 
For the reasonably healthy who know what they are looking for, ehealthinsurance.com got fairly good reviews. The site, which has the feel of an Expedia or Orbitz for purchasing health insurance, allows you to compare a variety of policies offered through about 70 insurance providers. One caveat, pointed out by several readers, is that ehealthinsurance.com does not serve consumers in all states. Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine and North Dakota are excluded. The company also covers only individuals. So if your company has employees, you will need to explore other options, like starting a group if your state permits that.
 
Another possibility for consultants and independent workers is the Freelancers Union, which won consistently good reviews in the reader comments. But the union also has some limitations. It operates in only 30 states, and you have to work in one of the industries or occupations it serves. While healthy business owners have to incur high costs and navigate a maze of choices, the truly unhealthy face the biggest challenges.
 
To learn more about options for those whose health is getting in the way of their self-employment, I spoke with Ms. Jaff, the woman who directed me to healthinsuranceinfo.net. Ms. Jaff, a lawyer who has worked on legal issues surrounding health care in both the public and private sector, now runs Advocacy for Patients With Chronic Illness (advocacyforpatients.org), a nonprofit organization in Farmington, Conn., that advises and advocates on behalf of the chronically ill. She says she works with about 1,000 patients a year, handling everything from battles to get insurance companies to pay for treatments prescribed by patients’ doctors to helping people figure out the best coverage.
 
Ms. Jaff speaks from experience. She suffers from Crohn’s disease, a condition so severe that she does not leave her house during flare-ups except to get to a doctor’s appointment or to the hospital. She wanted to find something she could do out of her home and as she went through the challenge of finding her own health insurance, she discovered what she calls “a community of patients in desperate need of help.”
 
Ms. Jaff qualified for the Municipal Employees Health Insurance Program, offered by Connecticut to cover small-business owners as part of a plan for state employees. She knew about the plan, which she recommends to all small- business owners in Connecticut, from her days as a lawyer in the attorney general’s office. Even with her extensive experience, Ms. Jaff has not been able to find the holy grail — good coverage at a great price. When she started on this insurance, her premium was $400 a month. Last year, the monthly payment went up to $800.
 
“I don’t know if people who don’t have chronic illnesses can really understand this,” she said. “But I have worked full time my entire adult life — generally 15 to 18 hours a day. I have paid into the system for all those years. And there is only one thing that could bankrupt me, and it is my health. I could lose every penny I own from one serious hospitalization without insurance. So I chose the plan that would give me the most possible coverage because the year I don’t is going to be the year I get really sick.”

Pushing the Single-Payer Solution

By Amy Goodman

King Features Syndicate
Posted on April 24, 2008

 

As the media coverage of the Democratic presidential race continues to focus on lapel pins and pastors, America is ailing. As I travel around the country, I find people are angry and motivated. Like Dr. Rocky White, a physician from a conservative, evangelical background who practices in rural Alamosa, Colo. A tall, gray-haired Westerner in black jeans, a crisp white shirt and a bolo tie, Dr. White is a leading advocate for single-payer health care. He wasn't always.

He told me in a recent interview: "Here I am, a Republican, thinking about nationalizing health care. It just went against the grain of everything that I stood for. But you have to remember: I didn't come to those conclusions with lofty ideals of social justice."
 
In the early 1990s, his medical group started falling apart. White, a keen student of economics and the business of medicine, determined that it wasn't just his practice but the system that was broken.
 
"You're seeing an ever-increasing number of people starting to support a national health program. In fact, 59 percent of practicing physicians today believe that we need to have a national health program. I mean, that's unheard of, even 10 years ago. It's amazing to see a new generation of physicians coming up who are disgusted with our current health-care system. You know, we're trained to be advocates of patients, we're trained to save lives, we're trained to practice medicine. And instead, what we're doing is we're practicing Wall Street economics."
 
Single-payer is not to be confused with universal coverage, which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both support. In fact, in a recent debate, when Clinton raised the issue of single-payer, the audience interrupted with applause. She immediately countered, "I know a lot of people favor [it], but for many reasons [it] is difficult to achieve."
 
Why? One of the most powerful industries in the country opposes it -- the insurance industry. Under universal coverage, insurance profits are preserved. Under single-payer, they are not.
 
Dr. Rocky White, who now sits on the board of the nonprofit Health Care for All Colorado, has switched his political affiliation. He also has updated and reissued Dr. Robert LeBow's book on single-payer called Health Care Meltdown: Confronting the Myths and Fixing Our Failing System.
 
He described possible solutions: "There are a lot of different types of single-payer systems -- you could have purely socialized medicine. That's kind of like what England has. The government owns the hospitals, the government owns the clinics, the government finances all the health care, and all the doctors work for the government. That is truly socialized medicine, as opposed to the Canadian system, where the financing comes through their Medicare program, but all the doctors are in private practice."
 
The economics are complex, but this plain-spoken country doctor explains it clearly:"You know, this industry is a $2-trillion industry, and the profits in the for-profit insurance industry are so huge and it's so deeply entrenched into Wall Street ... but until we move to a single-payer system and get rid of the profit motive in financing of health care, we will not be able to fix the problems that we have."
 
What would it take? Dr. White has spent his life dealing with the high winds on the high plains, from Nebraska to Colorado, and describes the challenge the country faces in familiar terms:"I think that our current presidential candidates understand that ideally single-payer would be the best, but they don't have the political will to move that forward. Their job is to feel which way the wind is blowing. Our job is to turn that wind."
 
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now! © 2008 King Features Syndicate All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/83420/

The Return of the Granny Bashers: More Attacks on Social Security and Medicare

By Dean Baker


t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 05 May 2008

 

Last month, a bipartisan group of prominent budget experts had a press event at the Brookings Institution where they argued that Congress had to make major cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They claimed large cuts in these programs were necessary in order to prevent the explosion in the budget deficit that is projected if these programs stay on their current course.

While these experts are right to point to the long-term fiscal problems facing the country, the real problem is not the budget and these key programs on which tens of millions of people depend. The real problem is the United States has a broken health care system, which is projected to get progressively more inefficient through time.

Since roughly half of the country's health care costs are paid by the government, primarily through Medicare and Medicaid, the projected explosion in health care costs is also projected to lead to an explosion in government spending. If the health care system is never fixed, the burden on the budget will eventually be unsustainable, with annual deficits running into the trillions of dollars, exactly as the Brookings contingent claimed.
 
However, it is crucial the public recognize that the problem is health care costs, not a growing population of elderly. The two issues are easily confused, especially since most public sector health care costs go to provide health care for the elderly. The projected increase in the ratio of retirees to workers will impose a strain on the budget, but it will not be qualitatively different than the strain that aging has imposed in prior decades.
 
The country has always been aging - we are living longer - we can easily cover the cost of a growing population of retirees as long as the economy is healthy. With normal productivity and wage growth, our children and grandchildren will be able to support a larger population of retirees and still enjoy a better standard of living than we do; just as most of us now enjoy a better standard of living than our grandparents, even though we support a much larger number of retirees than they did in their working years.
 
However, if health care costs follow the projected trajectory, then the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs will be unsustainable. Of course, in this scenario the rising cost of health care will also place an enormous burden on the private sector.
 
Our per person health care costs are already more than twice as high as the average in other wealthy countries like Germany, England and Canada. In the projected scenario, per person health care costs will be four or five times as high in the United States as in other countries by 2050. In this context, US firms will face an enormous competitive disadvantage if they pay for their workers' health care costs.
 
If the companies don't pay for insurance, then most workers will face an enormous struggle paying for insurance costs that will be almost as high as the typical wage of a worker today. In either case, workers will have far less money to spend on food, housing, education, and other necessary expenses, if health care costs grow as projected.
 
No one in the Brookings contingent would dispute the basic facts; we are all looking at the same numbers. If health care costs in the United States were brought in line with costs in other wealthy countries, all of which enjoy longer life expectancies than we do, then we would not be looking at scary budget projections 20 or 30 years down the road.
 
This suggests the urgency of fixing the US health care system. Health care reform is not only necessary to extend health care coverage to the uninsured, it is also essential for preventing our health care system from strangling the economy. Reform will require overcoming the opposition of extremely powerful lobbies, such as the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, but there really is no alternative.
 
As the Brookings contingent said, the current path is unsustainable. And it is not acceptable to tell our parents and grandparents they will just have to die because our health care system has made their care unaffordable.

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