Tag: hospitalization

HHS Plays Chicken Little — Again

USA Today reports on a new Obama administration study:

On average, uninsured families can pay only about 12% of their hospital bills in full. Families with incomes above 400% of the poverty level, or about $88,000 a year for a family of four, pay about 37% of their hospital bills in full, according to the Department of Health and Human Services study.

Oy, where to begin?

This is pre-existing conditions all over again.  In the hope of saving ObamaCare from the gallows, the Obama administration is blowing a real but relatively small problem way out of proportion.

The best data indicate that the problem of the uninsured not being able to pay their medical bills is real but relatively small.  “Uncompensated care” for the uninsured accounts for just 2.8 percent of health care spending. To put that in perspective, 30 percent of Medicare spending is pure waste, according to the Dartmouth Atlas. Moreover, studies show that the uninsured who do pay their bills pay so much more than private insurance does that they more than make up for the uninsured who don’t pay their bills.  That is, total uncompensated care may be negative.

This HHS report adds nothing to our understanding of this problem. Everyone already knows that nearly everybody would have a hard time paying an expensive hospital bill if they didn’t have health insurance.

In fact, this report detracts from our understanding of the problem. It essentially says that if all uninsured people were to experience a hospitalization, only some of them would be able to pay the entire bill for some hospitalizations—not necessarily their own hospitalization—with their liquid assets.  That’s as non-illuminating as saying that very few “D” students could afford to pay four years of college tuition (say, $100,000) with the money in their bank account:

  1. Just like few “D” students are headed to college, very few of the uninsured are going to be hospitalized.  Not only are most of the uninsured young and healthy, but most of them buy insurance as they get older.
  2. The “D” students who do go to college probably won’t be attending the most expensive colleges.  Likewise, the uninsured who are hospitalized are likely to have relatively less-expensive episodes of care.
  3. Of the “D” students who attend college, some would be able to pay for some of their tuition from their bank accounts.  But rather than tell us how much of these hypothetical medical bills the uninsured could pay, HHS reports the number that would be unable to pay these hypothetical medical bills “in full,” and that total billings for those hypothetical hospitalizations—not the unpaid amount—account for 95 percent of medical care provided to the uninsured.
  4. Some of those “D” students could obtain student loans and pay off their tuition over time.  Likewise, some of the uninsured will be able to borrow money or sell their houses or cars to pay their medical bills.  But HHS doesn’t account for the ability of the uninsured to borrow, nor does it count their ability to tap non-financial assets like cars and houses.

In short, HHS bent over backward to make this problem appear bigger than it is.  Moreover, they couched their misleading findings in ways that lent themselves to even greater exaggeration.  For example, the above quote from USA Today,

uninsured families can pay only about 12% of their hospital bills in full.

paints a far darker picture than what HHS actually found:

On average, uninsured families can only afford to pay in full for about 12% of the admissions to hospital (hospitalizations) they might experience.  [Emphasis added.]

It’s almost as if HHS was hoping reporters would misreport their findings in a way that made the problem sound worse.

‘Behind the Headlines’? Despite the Headlines!

STRATFOR—a group I hadn’t heard of before—provides, in their words, “geopolitical intelligence - independent, non-ideological and non-partisan analysis and perspective that is unavailable anywhere else in the world.” They also say they provide the “intelligence behind the headlines.”

Well, I was struck—delighted, really—to see them outright contradict the headlines in a report of theirs that mercilessly skewers H1N1 (swine) flu fears:

It has been five months since the A(H1N1) influenza virus — aka the swine flu — climbed to the top of the global media heap, and with the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual flu season just around the corner, the topic is worth revisiting.

If you take only one fact away from this analysis, take this: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that hospitalization rates and mortality rates for A(H1N1) are similar to or lower than they are for more traditional influenza strains. And if you take two facts away, consider this as well: Influenza data are incomplete at best and rarely cross-comparable, so any assertions of the likelihood of mass deaths are little more than scaremongering bereft of any real analysis or, more important, any actual evidence.

One would expect “intelligence” reporting firms to have the same incentives as politicians and other media: drum up fear to drum up business. But there is value in providing actual facts and sound strategies for responding to world events. As a non-expert, I’m not able to evaluate the substance of the STRATFOR report or its conclusions, but I give it credibility as a statement against interest.

After the early ineptitude shown by the Obama Administration, I was beginning to think that the steady drumbeat of news about preparation for flu season was appropriate societal girding for what could be a notable disease outbreak. I am more inclined now to believe that we are flushing more money down the drain because of fears the administration generated.

Overreaction harms the country, and it is the responsibility of governments—if they take a role—to quell impulses toward overreaction when incidents of national significance occur.

CER: A (Slightly) Different Perspective

My colleague, Michael Cannon, makes several good points about comparative effectiveness research (CER), both in his letter to USA Today and in his excellent paper on the subject. I strongly agree with him that we should not reflexively oppose CER—much of health care spending is wasteful or unnecessary, and it makes sense, therefore, to test and develop information on the effectiveness of various treatments and technology, giving consumers tools to evaluate the value of the care they receive. There is also a case for the use of CER in taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize health care that has not proven effective, nor can Medicare and Medicaid pay for every possible treatment regardless of cost-effectiveness.

However, I am more skeptical in general about CER than he is for several reasons.

  • First, “quality” and “value” are not unidimensional terms. In fact, such concepts are highly idiosyncratic with every individual having different ideas of what “quality” and “value” means to them, based on such things as a person’s pain tolerance, lifestyle, feeling about hospitalization, desire to return to work, and so forth. For example, a surgeon may tell you that the only way to ensure a cure for prostate cancer is a radical prostectomy. But that procedure’s side-effects can severely impact quality of life - so some people prefer a procedure with a lower survival rate, but fewer side effects. Who is better suited to determine which of those procedures represents “quality” and “value,” a government board or the person directly affected?
  • Second, comparative effectiveness research too often has a tendency to gear its results toward the “average” patient. But many patients are outliers, whose response to any particular treatment, for either good or ill, can vary significantly from the average. This matters little when the research is simply informative. However, if the research becomes the basis for more prescriptive requirements, for example prohibiting reimbursements for some types of treatment, the impact on patient outliers could be severe.
  • Third, comparative effectiveness research can create a time lag for the introduction of new technologies, drugs, and procedures. The FDA, for example, has already caused delays in introducing drugs that have resulted in unnecessary deaths. Depending on how the final program is structured, comparative effectiveness research could create another layer of bureaucracy and testing between the development of a new drug, for example, and its introduction into the health care system. One only has to look at the difficulty in expanding Medicaid drug formularies to see how this could become a problem.

The advocates of government-sponsored CER clearly intend for it to be used as a basis for rationing care, not just in government programs, but for private insurance as well.

Cannon points out that government-sponsored CER is likely to be corrupted under pressure from special interest lobbies and politicians. I couldn’t agree more. Government-sponsored CER, therefore, is liable to yield the worst of all possible worlds, not only rationing, but rationing that is based on special interest lobbying rather than science.

Health care, is of course, a finite good. Therefore, it will always be rationed in some fashion. But, it is far better if the rationing agent is the consumer himself, rather than the government or any other arbitrary agent. The private sector is already undertaking CER. To the degree that consumers, insurers, and providers make use of this information, that is a good thing. If consumers don’t like how an insurance company, for example, uses CER in determining its reimbursement policy, he or she can choose a different insurer.

Government-imposed fiat rationing allows for no such choice. Therefore, we should oppose any government involvement in CER, and any efforts by the government to use CER to restrict reimbursement, especially in private insurance plans.