Three Cheers for Blue Cross Blue Shield Nebraska!


As I reported in my last post healthcare costs in the U.S. are expected to start climbing rapidly in next few years as the economy continues to recover and insurance coverage expands.
The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has proposed a comprehensive new plan, ”Transforming Obamacare” to achieve, at the same time, both near-universal coverage and stringent cost control for healthcare.  Mr. Roy emphasizes the need to regulate hospital system consolidation which is especially responsible for driving up the cost of healthcare.
CaptureIn Omaha NE, where I live, there are three hospital systems: Catholic Health Initiatives, the Nebraska Medical Center and the Methodist Hospital System.  According to the insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield Nebraska (OWH 9/6/14), “CHI prices are 10 to 30 percent higher than for the Nebraska Medical Center and Methodist Hospital System.”  BCBS insists that CHI cut its prices.  As of September 1, CHI hospitals are out of network for BCBS and so patients who are insured by BCBS have to pay higher hospital rates.
“We are ready and willing to meet with them when they propose an agreement that gets serious about the cost issue,” said Lee Handke, a senior vice-president for Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Reports the OWH  “Blue Cross’ biggest customers are the region’s employers, whose 560,000 workers and family members supply 80% of Blue Cross’ revenue each year.  A big share of these people are CHI customers, too. … Blue Cross has told us (an insurance benefits broker) they understand that they might lose some business over this deal, but they feel that the point they have to make on the cost disparity is more important.”
For one hospital system to charge 30% more than two others for the same services is totally unacceptable.  It means that customers for the other two systems are paying higher insurance costs in order to subsidize the system with the higher prices.
In the Omaha market, Blue Cross has the clout and the will to force CHI to lower its prices.  But many other communities may not be as fortunate.

The High Cost of U.S. Health Care and What To Do About It


The United States spends 17.2% of GDP on healthcare costs, public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country, and this percentage is gradually increasing.  In today’s New York Times there is a good discussion about these rising costs (see below).
Capture1My recent post, “Fixing Obamacare Rather Than Replacing It,” discusses a comprehensive new healthcare reform proposal by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute.  Mr. Roy’s plan both expands health insurance coverage beyond ACA levels as well as reining in the huge costs of healthcare. As Mr. Roy says “Among the industrialized member countries of the OECD, the average hospital stay cost $6,222 and lasted 7.7 days in 2009.  In the United States, the average hospital stay cost $18,142, despite lasting only 4.9 days.  In other words, the average daily cost of a hospital stay in the U.S. was 4.6 times the OECD average.”  Mr. Roy goes on to show that it is hospital system consolidation which is especially responsible for driving up the cost of health insurance.
CaptureThere is a clear example of this situation in Omaha NE where I live.  There are three hospital systems here: Catholic Health Initiatives, the Nebraska Health System and the Methodist Health System.  As stated by the CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska in the Omaha World Herald on August 28, 2014, “Our experience in addressing health care costs is precisely what led us to our current negotiations with Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives.  CHI’s Alegent Creighton Health network of hospitals and physicians charges our members up to 30 percent more than other providers in Omaha for the same services. … These numbers reinforce a simple truth: We cannot allow one provider group to charge our members more for the same services they can receive elsewhere.”
We are fortunate in Omaha to have a choice of three different hospital systems and an insurance company with sufficient clout and integrity to fight price gouging by one of these systems.  But not every community is as fortunate as Omaha in this respect.  This is just one simple example of why cost control needs to be at the center of healthcare reform.

Why Medicare Needs to Be Reformed and How to Do It


My last post, “Fixing Obamacare Rather Than Repealing It,”presents a comprehensive new healthcare reform proposal by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute.  His plan has the ambitious goal of expanding health insurance coverage beyond ACA levels and at the same time achieving a huge deficit reduction compared with current CBO projections.
Capture1Mr. Roy points out, for example, that for all of Medicare’s huge cost, $635 billion in 2014 alone, it does not provide catastrophic coverage against long-term hospitalizations.  The supplemental insurance program, “Medigap,” accelerates Medicare’s wasteful spending by wiping out cost-sharing features such as co-pays and deductibles.  Medigap has proven hard to change because it generates huge royalty fees for the AARP, $458 million in 2011, for example.  For all of these reasons and others, Medicare needs big changes.
The core Medicare reform of Mr. Roy’s Universal Exchange Plan is to increase the eligibility age by four months per year forever, beginning in 2016.  This means that current seniors can stay in the existing Medicare program but that future retirees will remain in the universal state-based exchanges for an increasing period of time.  This is estimated to save $6.5 trillion over 30 years.
Additional features of the new Medicare program are:

  • Reduce Medicare subsidies for hospital’s uncollected bills saving $4 billion per year.
  • Exempt Medicare Part C and Part D from state and local taxes.
  • Combine Part A and Part B into a single insurance product saving $30 billion per year by reforming Medigap.
  • Introduce additional means-testing into Part D premiums.
  • Reduce waste, fraud and abuse systematically, saving approximately $50 billion per year.
  • Restore the ability of seniors to opt out of Medicare.
  • Restore the pre-ACA tax subsidy for employer-sponsored retiree coverage (to encourage more employers to sponsor retiree health benefits).
  • Address the physician shortage through additional medical education funding costing $6 billion per year.

Medicare spends 30% of its overall budget on end-of-life care (for the last six months of life).  The reforms suggested by Mr. Roy will allow it to operate much more efficiently and thereby put a greater focus on the end-of-life care which is its fundamental purpose.

Fixing Obamacare Rather Than Repealing It


The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has just released a comprehensive and very impressive new study of the American healthcare system, “Transcending Obamacare: A Patient-Centered Plan for Near-Universal Coverage and Permanent Fiscal Solvency.”  By 2025 it will increase insurance coverage by 12.1 million above Affordable Care Act levels.  It will at the same time achieve a 30 year deficit reduction of $8 trillion compared to current CBO projections (see chart below).
CaptureMore specifically Mr. Roy’s new Universal Exchange Plan will

  • Expand coverage well above ACA levels without an individual mandate
  • Improve the quality of coverage and care for low-income Americans
  • Make all U.S. healthcare entitlement programs permanently solvent
  • Reduce the federal deficit without raising taxes
  • Reduce the cost of health insurance

The five core elements of Mr. Roy’s Plan are:

  • Exchange Reform. The ACA’s individual mandate is repealed. The Plan restores the primacy of state-based exchanges and insurance regulation. Insurers are encouraged to design policies of high quality tailored to individual need. By lowering the cost of insurance for younger and healthier individuals, the Plan will expand coverage without a mandate.
  • Employer-sponsored Insurance Reform. The employer mandate is repealed, thereby offering employers a wider range of options for subsidizing employees insurance.
  • Medicaid Reform. The Plan migrates the Medicaid acute-care population onto the reformed state-based exchanges with 100% federal funding. The Plan returns to the states full financial responsibility for the Medicaid long-term care population.
  • Medicare Reform. The Plan gradually raises the Medicare eligibility age by four months each year forever. The end result is to preserve Medicare for current retirees and to maintain future retirees on their exchange-based or employer sponsored health plans.
  • Other Reforms. The Plan tackles the growing problems of hospital system monopolies and malpractice litigation and also accelerates the pace of medical innovation by reforming the Food and Drug Administration.

These reform proposals are amazingly ambitious and far reaching in scope.  How can they possibly be achieved?  Stay tuned!