Tag Archives: health insurance

How We Spend

It’s tax filing time, which in our home means it’s time for the annual “How the hell did we spend so much on THAT?” ritual. Maybe that’s why I found this snapshot of how the average American household spends its money so interesting:


Source: Digg.com

Apparently, the average household has 1.3 earners, 0.6 children and 0.4 seniors, which explains why there is Social Security included in income. What I found most surprising is the health insurance number at $3,414 per year. That works out to $285.50 per month which, quite frankly, I find almost unbelievable. Here’s why:

My wife and I have been married for 27 years and for almost all of those years we’ve both worked for small companies or been self-employed. As a result, we’ve not had access to large group health insurance or, better yet, the health insurance available to government employees. If I were to make a conservative estimate, without having the numbers in front of me, I’d say that we have averaged $8,400 per year ($700/month) in health care premiums alone. Throw in co-pays and deductibles and we were almost always in the $10,000/year range.

Now, we have three kids so that obviously put us beyond the average, but health insurance isn’t necessarily linear so you can’t draw a direct corollary between the number of kids (people) and premiums. If you’d asked me to guess what the average household spent before I’d seen this data I would have said something like $5,000-$6,000 a year. That just shows how my own experience has skewed my perception of what health insurance costs, and perhaps why I felt more strongly than many of my peers that the ACA (Obamacare), as imperfect as it was, was at least an effort towards reining in the exploding costs of health insurance and health care.

As for the other numbers? Well, let’s just say this time of year also features the annual “We eat out too much” ritual self-flagellation.

Measuring Success

There are many ways to measure success and/or failure, and it’s important to keep that in mind when you assess hot-button issues. For instance, this article in the Greensboro News & Record about Obamacare’s affect on insurance coverage in North Carolina:

In North Carolina, 16.7 percent of residents are now uninsured, compared with 19.6 percent before the onset of the ACA, according to a study conducted by the social network WalletHub.


North Carolina ranked 33 among states for its number of uninsured residents.

The Tar Heel state also ranked fourth among states with the most net new private insurance enrollees per capita.

WalletHub used data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Census Bureau to make its projections.

Those who supported Obamacare will likely tout this statistic as proof that Obamacare is working. On the other hand, those opposed to Obamacare can ask the question, “But at what cost?” That’s the crux of the issue: we can all probably agree that more people having health insurance is a good thing, but we’d probably have lots of heated debate over how much to pay for it, how to pay for it and how to structure the program. Does the phrase “socialized health care” ring any bells.

Quite frankly I think it’s far too early in the process to declare Obamacare a success or failure, but I’d say these numbers show a positive trend towards getting more people health insurance coverage. Long term who knows whether or not Obamacare will be a net success, but at a minimum we’ve seen thousands of North Carolinians moved off the roles of the uninsured and that’s a step in the right direction.


Health Care Rights

Have you heard about the SCOTUS decision in the Hobby Lobby case? If you live in American and haven’t heard about it then you might live in a cave, but here’s the gist of it:

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a decision whereby closely-held companies can request exemptions the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage provision for some contraceptives because of the corporations’ founding family’s religious beliefs…

Much of the controversy over today’s decision derives from the fact that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are not in the business of conducting religious services or overseas humanitarian missions as their primary business. They are for-profit companies. The ruling allows the corporations to refuse coverage because of the religious beliefs of individual leaders.

Beyond selectively singling-out women’s reproductive care, the decision raises the question of whether corporate leadership elsewhere might refuse coverage of other drugs due to religious beliefs.

A lot of the reaction I’ve seen online has focused on a couple of points: the weirdness of bestowing religious rights on closely held corporations using the argument that the corporation is an extension of the owners (that’s simplistic but I think gets to the heart of it); that the religious rights of the corporation/owners trumps the reproductive rights of their female employees.

I’d like to focus on the second point for a minute because I think the argument is a bit off and, quite frankly, misses the larger point. While it is regrettable that employers like Hobby Lobby would refuse to pay for insurance that covers all of their female employees’ contraceptive choices it doesn’t mean that those same employees can’t go out and get those contraceptives if they’re willing to pay for it themselves. Thus they aren’t denying them anything, they’re just not paying for it. That might seem like semantics, but I think it’s important because what it exposes is that corporate health insurance in this country is not a right for anyone.

Health insurance as we know it came into being in the World War II era as an incentive companies used to attract and retain employees who were in short supply at the time. As such, health insurance was never a “right” but was a benefit that came to be so commonplace that most employees started to view it as a right. Then something funny happened – companies realized they could shift the cost of health insurance back to employees and not suffer too many dire consequences and so they starting jacking up premiums and co-pays or simply doing away with health insurance all together. The result is a growing percentage of our population without access to health insurance, which means they forego preventive care and rely on ERs when they get sick, helping drive up health care costs for everyone.

The Clinton administration’s effort to deal with the rising health care problem twenty years ago was a notorious failure. ObamaCare started out as an ambitious plan to provide health care coverage for everyone, fought the “socialized medicine” stigma, went through a negotiation phase involving the health insurance cabal that resulted in the imperfect system being fought out in the courts today. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone happy with the system, except maybe for the millions of people who had NO access to health insurance pre-Obamacare and now at least have the option to buy it.

Long story short, while it’s easy to get hung up on the reproductive and religious rights arguments raised by the Hobby Lobby case, it would be a mistake to limit the scope of the conversation. The bigger question is why we can spend so much time and energy talking about our religious rights, women’s reproductive rights, our right to bear arms, etc. but we never seem to debate whether we should have a fundamental right to affordable, adequate health care and whether or not relying on private companies to provide it is the best way to approach it.

America – Home of Bizarro Health Care

Bizarro World is a fictional planet introduced by DC Comics where things are the opposite of what you expect, where Superman isn't super. That's an apt description for the health care system in the United States, which is likely the only place on Earth where this story in the Wall Street Journal would not be shocking:

A Better LA, a decade-old Los Angeles nonprofit, said last week it was signing up 50 low-income people for health plans in California's health-insurance marketplace. The charity, which said it has the blessing of the state agency overseeing the marketplace, will pay $50 to $100 a month to cover the share of the people's premiums not already financed by federal subsidies.

Those 50 people are at the vanguard of a push that could shift the balance between hospitals and insurers across the nation. Nonprofits, including some hospitals, say paying premiums would ensure coverage for people currently uninsured who can't afford even a small monthly payment for health insurance.

But insurers say they can't make a profit unless the health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act draw a balanced mix of healthy and sicker customers. The law's rocky start, many insurers fear, has already skewed the mix toward people in worse health. Help from nonprofits or hospitals could speed the arrival of less healthy customers into the exchanges, outpacing the arrival of younger, healthier people who might not cross paths with hospitals…

But such plans have drawn criticism. "It is a conflict of interest for hospitals and drug companies to pay patients' premiums and cost-sharing for the sole purpose of increasing utilization of their services and products," said Karen Ignagni, head of America's Health Insurance Plans, the health-insurance industry's trade group.


Health Insurance – Caveat Emptor

One of the problems with buying health insurance is that it's one of the most complicated purchase any one of us will make in any given year. With the advent of Obamacare scores of people will be buying insurance on an open market for the first time – versus opting from a limited set of options from an employer – and that means the complexity of the process will have an ever greater impact in the coming years. That's what makes this story on Planet Money so scary:

Any day now — assuming the government manages to fix HealthCare.gov — millions of people will start shopping for health insurance.

Will those shoppers know what they're doing? More to the point, if you're one of those shoppers, will you know what you're doing?

Here's a quick quiz, courtesy of economists George Loewenstein and Saurabh Bhargava, who study what people know (and what they think they know) about health insurance. The economists have used longer versions of these quizzes in their research…

While the share of people who answered each question correctly varied, the vast majority of people who took the quizzes got at least something wrong.

And this isn't just some academic artifact: Bhargava and Loewenstein are leading an ongoing study of some 50,000 real-world choices that people make when shopping for insurance — and found that 65 percent of the time, people choose plans that are more expensive than other options but don't provide more benefits.

You should go take the quiz. You might be surprises at how much you think you know that you really don't.

BCBSNC Affordable Care Plan Rates

Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC released their premium rates for their various Affordable Care Act plans and while the numbers are very general, which makes it impossible to compare directly to your current plan if you have one, and there's also no way of knowing which subsidies you might qualify for until you can plug your income numbers into the formula. Those subsidies will be significant for some people:

Consumers can purchase the same BCBSNC ACA health plans, and access subsidies, from the Exchange or directly from BCBSNC. BCBSNC’s buy online tool facilitates the transaction for those who qualify for a federal subsidy (consumers purchasing their own coverage with income levels between 100 percent and 400 percent of Federal Poverty Level2). The subsidy impact will be significant for some. For example, a person earning 100 percent of FPL could pay $19.15 per month for a Silver plan.

And then there's this tidbit:

ACA health plans generally offer richer benefits than plans many BCBSNC customers choose today, according to the insurer. In addition to requiring richer benefits, the ACA eliminates the use of gender or health status in setting premiums.

At work we have BCBSNC's Blue Options coverage. It's age-banded so every five years the rates go up pretty significantly – for instance when I turned 45 I cost a lot more to insure than when I was 44 – but when I compare my individual rate with the chart of sample plans on the BCBSNC announcement page I see that my premium is more than a 40 year old's platinum plan, but my coverage (70% of cost) is about the same as the silver plan. This leads me to believe that, all things being equal, my individual coverage might be cheaper under ACA than with Blue Options. 

Another factor working against us at the office is that we have a very small group of three families so we have experienced some very steep increases over the last few years as we each breach those five-year age bands. We've been lucky in that our employer has covered our individual coverage premiums – family/dependent coverage is 100% out of pocket – but the only way to continue that each year has been by increasing co-pays and deductibles, and reducing the percentage of expenses covered from 80% to 70%. If the premiums continue to rise at the 10-30% annual rate we've been seeing the last few years then we're likely going to have to start paying a percentage of premiums out of pocket as well.  Combine those increased costs with access to potential subsidies and all of the sudden those ACA rates look more and more appealing, especially if our employer agrees to raises in lieu of health coverage. 

My prediction? Lots of small employers will decide to forego the headaches of administering a health plan and save some money in the process by prodding their folks to utilize the marketplace. That, of course, is exactly what the marketplace administrators want.

Saving Money By Not Using Health Insurance

Wall Street Journal piece found via Freakonomics explains how not using your health insurance can save you some serious bucks:

I explained that just because he had health insurance didn’t mean he had to use it in every situation. After all, when people have a minor fender-bender, they often settle it privately rather than file an insurance claim. Because of the nature of this man’s policy, he could do the same thing for his medical procedure. However, had I been bound by a preferred-provider contract or by Medicare, I wouldn’t have been able to enlighten him….

Most people are unaware that if they don’t use insurance, they can negotiate upfront cash prices with hospitals and providers substantially below the “list” price. Doctors are happy to do this. We get paid promptly, without paying office staff to wade through the insurance-payment morass.

So we canceled the surgery and started the scheduling process all over again, this time classifying my patient as a “self-pay” (or uninsured) patient. I quoted him a reasonable upfront cash price, as did the anesthesiologist. We contacted a different hospital and they quoted him a reasonable upfront cash price for the outpatient surgical/nursing services. He underwent his operation the very next day, with a total bill of just a little over $3,000, including doctor and hospital fees. He ended up saving $17,000 by not using insurance.


It’s a Start

In the past I've written extensively about how frustrating our health care and health insurance systems are in the good ol' US of A.  As I see it one of the biggest obstacles to true health care reform in this country is the lack of transparency in the system, or in laymen's terms, the fact that you generally have no idea how bad you're screwed until well after you've received whatever treatment or service for which you visited the doctor.

That's why I was very interested in this piece at the Triad Business Journal's blog:

Passed last week in the waning days of this year's legislative session, the "Health Care Cost Reduction and Transparency Act of 2013" (House Bill 834) will create an online database of what hospitals are paid, on average, for the 100 treatments they perform most frequently. They'll also be reporting their costs for the 20 most common surgical procedures and 20 most common imaging procedures.

Take a case of pneumonia. N.C. consumers will now be able to go online and compare a variety of prices for that treatment. The database will tell them what Medicare pays for the treatment of pneumonia, what Medicaid pays and the average of what the five largest insurers in the state would pay the hospital.

Additionally, the database will offer up what the charge will be for a person with no insurance, and what the average price that the uninsured are able to negotiate with the hospital to pay.

That's a lot more info than is now available to N.C. consumers, though a clearer picture of what health care costs are in the state is still emerging.

This is what NC's attorney general had to say:

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who had advocated for several of the provisions included in the final transparency law,praised its passage.

“We recommend that consumers shop around for a good deal, but our health care system doesn’t make that easy to do,” Cooper said. “Giving consumers straightforward information on what medical services cost and what they owe will help them make better decisions about their health care.”

He's got that right, especially when you're talking about preventive or non-urgent care. Obviously if you're in an emergency situation the last thing you're going to think about is whether or not the hospital nearest to you is the cheapest, but when a consumer has time to think having accurate information is the most valuable tool at his disposal. 

What I hope we see in the very near future is an app on our phones that will be linked to a database of ALL medical procedures from all health systems. And while I'm dreaming I'd love to see our state have more viable health insurance options than the duopoly we currently "enjoy" in North Carolina.

Coverage Gaps

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about large companies in certain industries moving towards employing more part-time workers in reaction to provisions of the Affordable Care Act that will kick in in 2014. What's even more interesting is the graphic that shows the percentage of employees (not including professionals and managers) who are covered by employers' health insurance plans by industry. In other words, the percentage of hourly working stiffs whose employers provide health insurance in different industries. Here's the breakdown:

  • Agriculture: 34% 
  • Services: 41.5%
  • Construction: 46.9%
  • Professional and technical services: 51.4%
  • Wholesale and Retail Trade: 57.9%
  • Health and Social Services: 62.5%
  • Utilities and Transportation: 67.1%
  • Finance: 69.7%
  • Mining and Manufacturing: 71.1%
  • Information Communications and Education: 72.9%
  • Public Administration: 83.9%

That's a lot of working stiffs who don't have even partial coverage from their employers, and a pretty good indication that "Cadillac benefits" are increasingly rare. 

Will Obamacare Lead to a Part Time Nation?

Darden Restaurants, parent company of restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster, is experimenting with limiting the hours worked by some of its employees to see if it can avoid provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – a.k.a. Obamacare – that go into effect in 2014:

Analysts say many other companies, including the White Castle hamburger chain, are considering employing fewer full-timers because of key features of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to go into effect in 2014. Under that law, large companies must provide affordable health insurance to employees working an average of at least 30 hours per week.

If they do not, the companies can face fines of up to $3,000 for each employee who then turns to an exchange — an online marketplace — for insurance.

"I think a lot of those employers, especially restaurants, are just going to ensure nobody gets scheduled more than 30 hours a week," said Matthew Snook, partner with human-resources consulting company Mercer.

Darden said its goal at the test restaurants is to keep employees at 28 hours a week.

Analysts said limiting hours could pose new challenges, including higher turnover and less-qualified workers.

It would seem logical that employers would limit employees to part time status whenever possible in order to avoid fines for not providing health insurance, but on the other hand employers already spend much more than $3,000 per full time employee on health insurance – $10,522, of which the employees paid $2,204, according to the Society of Human Resource Management – so it would seem even more logical for them to stop providing health insurance altogether and lower their expenses by over 50% overnight. 

Here are some other questions:

  • How many companies, in industries that have not historically had high levels of part time employees, will start turning jobs that had been done by one full time employee into multiple positions filled by part timers? 
  • Are there provisions in the ACA that would prevent that?