Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 8: Fixing the American Healthcare System

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Image credit: thepolicy.us

This is the final installment of the Building a Healthcare System from Scratch series, and it begins with the same caveat as Part 7—to understand the rationale behind the ideas presented, you need to read and understand all the prior parts of the series, beginning at Part 1.

Now that I have explained my framework (Parts 1 through 6) and described what various types of systems would look like that have implemented the principles of it (Part 7), we are ready to look at something more complex: rather than building an optimal system from scratch, how can this framework be applied to an existing system that needs fixing? The American healthcare system will be a perfect case study for this.

Where it sits right now, the American healthcare system seems to land somewhere in between the libertarian-type system and the single-payer system described in Part 7, except that it fails to implement the majority of the principles of the framework. It is also overly complex, which contributes greatly to its impressive administrative expenses. So what could a much-simplified American healthcare system look like that also maximally implements the principles of this framework? With consideration for and much guessing about Americans’ preferences regarding healthcare, here is an imagined description . . .

The United States eventually chose to strengthen its individual mandate. The government now mandates all people, without exception, to have a healthcare insurance plan that covers all services included on its list of “essential health benefits.” For those who forego insurance coverage, they pay a tax penalty that ends up being nearly the same as the premiums they would have paid. If uninsured individuals receive care that they cannot afford, they usually end up having to either go on long-term repayment plans or declare bankruptcy because there is no bailout available for them.

The website healthcare.gov has become the ultimate source for healthcare insurance shopping. All qualified insurance plans (i.e., plans that cover all the essential health benefits) are listed there, along with their coverage level (according to the metal tiers), prices, and a short description that highlights any other benefits the plan offers that may help prevent healthcare expenditures.

Premium subsidies are available to all whose premiums will exceed a certain percentage of their income, and the subsidy amount is pegged to the second-cheapest qualified insurance plan available to them. The subsidies are automatically applied at the time people are choosing a plan on healthcare.gov. Because this system worked so well and was basically duplicative of Medicare and Medicaid, both programs were slowly phased out, which decreased insurance churn and increased time horizons. However, a vestige of Medicaid remains in that, depending on an individual’s annual income, there are also limits on how much they can be required to pay out of pocket for care.

The government also did away with the employer mandate and somehow found the political willpower to repeal all tax breaks for healthcare expenditures, which eventually led to employers getting out of the business of providing healthcare insurance for their employees and just giving that money to employees directly as regular pay.

Altogether, these changes mean that all Americans shop for their healthcare insurance on healthcare.gov. For anyone who is unable to do this themselves, there is a phone number to call to connect with someone who can assist them in selecting the plan that seems best for them.

A few changes were also made to encourage more insurance options. First, many regulations were eliminated, including the medical loss ratio requirement and state insurance department approvals of rates. These became unnecessary after people began to be able to compare the value of different insurance plans and choose based on that because overpriced or low-value plans (either from too much overhead or too high of rates in general) lost market share and profit. State-specific insurance regulations were standardized so that insurers can easily expand to new markets. And a law was passed requiring transparency of all price agreements between providers and insurers, which made the process of forming contracts with providers in a new region easier. These policies led to almost all markets having multiple options for each coverage tier.

In this way, the United States achieved universal access to affordable healthcare insurance relying on the private market while preserving the ability and incentive for all people to select the highest-value insurance plan for them. As a result, insurance plans aggressively innovate to find ways to prevent care episodes so that they can offer lower premiums and attract higher market share. Insurers also found that implementing differential cost-sharing requirements led people to start choosing lower-priced providers, which also enabled the insurer to lower premiums further. Finding provider prices has become easier ever since the price transparency law was passed.

The government has had to help overcome the problems caused by a multi-payer system by enforcing some standardization, including uniform insurance forms/processes, standardized bundles of care that all insurers in a region either agree or disagree to implement together, and standardized quality metrics that providers are required to report. These quality metrics are not used for bonuses, so they have been changed to be more focused on what patients need to know to choose between providers for specific services.

These quality metrics are now reported on an additional section on healthcare.gov that lists all providers, their quality metrics, and their prices (seen as your expected out-of-pocket cost if you log in) in an easy-to-compare format. Due to patients’ differential cost sharing requirements for most services, as well as broad common knowledge of the existence and utility of this website, most patients have begun to refer to it before choosing providers. This part of healthcare.gov has even been developed into a highly rated smartphone app.

In response to these changes, providers found that their value relative to competitors largely determined their market share and profitability, which unleashed an unsurpassed degree of value-improving innovation. The cost of care in the United States was previously so high that the majority of those initial innovations led to much cheaper care, which led to much lower insurance premiums and eased the premium subsidy burden on the federal government. Thanks to these changes, the federal deficit has begun to sustainably diminish quicker than any budgetary forecasting model could have predicted, which has also helped stabilize the American economy.

There are still barriers to people being able to identify and choose the highest-value insurers and providers. There are many important aspects of quality that are unmeasurable. Many people do not have the health literacy required to figure out which insurance plan or provider would be best for their situation and preferences, despite the ease of comparison enabled by healthcare.gov. There are medical emergencies that do not allow shopping (although the number of these has turned out to be much less than was previously thought because most of what used to present to emergency departments were not actually emergencies).

In spite of these lingering barriers, enough patients are choosing the higher-value options that providers and insurers still have a strong incentive to innovate to improve their value so they can win the market share and profit rewards available to higher-value competitors. And the result is that Americans are being kept healthy more often and are receiving care that is higher quality and more affordable.

That concludes my imagined description of how the American healthcare system could look with the principles from this framework fully applied. Just as a reminder, it represents merely a guess of how it could end up given the current system. This is by no means the only way to apply the principles of my framework, nor is it my secret idealized version of how it could end up. But I hope it was useful and thought provoking as a case study!

We have come a long way in this series. Throughout it, I worked hard to make the principles of my framework clear, and I hope the concrete examples have helped solidify those as well as demonstrate their potential for sustainably fixing healthcare systems around the world. If you want a more academic treatment on this framework (at least the part of it that applies specifically to providers), I published that as a medical student.

I intend to help policy makers of all types find ways to apply the principles discussed in this series. Please contact me if you have questions or would like me to help work through potential applications. Contact info is on my About Me page. In the meantime, I hope you will follow along as I continue to blog about how to fix our healthcare system!

The Three Different Ways We Could Set Prices in Healthcare

Image credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Image credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Out of the three general ways we could set prices in our healthcare system, one is best. Too bad we’re using the other two.

First, I’ll describe each method:

  1. Administrative pricing: This one is very straightforward. The government says, “For procedure A, healthcare providers will be paid X dollars.” Usually the methods for coming up with that dollar amount are sophisticated and rely on the best available data, but not always because they are subject to various political influences and government budgets.
  2. Bargaining power-based pricing: This one is easiest to explain using an example. Think of a small town with only two family medicine docs. One, Dr. Awesome, treats 90% of the town’s residents; the other, Dr. Mediocre, treats the other 10%. All patients are insured by one of four different private insurers, each of which has approximately equal market share. Now think of Dr. Awesome sitting down at the bargaining table with one of the insurers to decide on prices. He says, “If you don’t pay me at least Medicare rates times 1.4, I won’t accept your insurance. I’m serious, I won’t accept anything less.” And the insurer says, “Hey, that’s a horrible deal, but if we stop covering care you provide then most of our policy holders in your town will just switch to one of our three competitors and we’d lose out on even more profit!” Now think of the conversation between Dr. Mediocre and that same insurer. Dr. Mediocre says, “Pay me Medicare rates times 1.4.” And the insurer responds, “No. We’ll pay you Medicare times 0.8. If you say no and we don’t have you listed as a provider in our network anymore, that’s okay because only a tiny percentage of our policy holders are your patients. And we know that you don’t have many patients, so you can’t afford to risk losing 1/4 of them by saying no to the price we offer.” Relative market share between the two parties is the primary determinant of bargaining power, so a bigger market share means you can get a better price.*
  3. Competitive pricing: This is the method used to determine prices in almost every other industry. Here’s basically how it plays out: Competitor A says, “Everyone knows that our product has similar quality to our competitor’s product, so we can’t price it higher than theirs without sacrificing quite a bit of market share. We could sell it for less than theirs to win more market share, but then the price is perilously close to our costs, so we’ll have to do some math to see what the profit-maximizing price/market share combination is likely to be.” Note the one huge condition that is required for this to work: Potential customers must be able to compare the price and quality of all their options, which is starting to happen more and more as better quality information is starting to become available and as prices are becoming more transparent.

Our healthcare system currently relies primarily on number 1 (think: Medicare and Medicaid) and number 2 (think: private insurers and providers setting prices with each other). But which method is best?

If you want to have the lowest possible prices, administrative pricing is the obvious best choice. But that’s only for the short term (as you’ll see), and it does nothing to encourage quality improvement unless you start getting into the treacherous area of performance incentives.

The only thing I’ll say about bargaining power-based pricing is that I don’t like it. I’d rather not have prices that are totally unrelated to costs or quality and instead are determined by relative market share.

Now let me tell you why I like competitive pricing so much. I want our healthcare system to deliver better value right now (Value = Quality / Price), and even more than that I want that value to go up over time as providers and insurers innovate in ways that allow them to decrease prices, increase quality, or both. Competitive pricing is the only method that provides an incentive for competitors to innovate because it rewards the highest-value offerings with increased market share and profit. The other two options don’t do that, which seems like a pretty big downside, don’t you think? I’d be willing to forgo short-term super-low administratively set prices in favor of stimulating innovation that will improve value way more over the long term.

In my next post, I’ll explain how we can shift from bargaining power-based pricing to competitive pricing.

* Do you ever hear those arguments that if public insurers lower their prices any more, providers will just raise their prices for private insurers? Well, now you know why those arguments are mostly hogwash. Providers are already leveraging their relative market share to get as high prices as possible from private insurers, and getting paid less by public insurers doesn’t change that relative market share.

Stupid Assumptions I Often See Healthcare Experts Make

Brief preface: Our healthcare system is a mixture of government-run stuff (e.g., Medicare, the VA system) and non-government-run stuff (e.g., the private insurance market, private hospitals).

Often I will read something written by a healthcare expert that says, “Turning healthcare completely over to the free market can’t fix our healthcare cost problems because spending in the private aspects of our healthcare system has been growing at an unsustainable rate.” That statement is often accompanied by its corollary, “And there is also no data that a completely government-run system can solve our increasing cost problem because Medicare hasn’t done so already.”

I’d just like to make explicit the major assumptions contained within those two faulty assertions:

  • Major assumption #1: The free-market aspects of our current system have no influence on the success of the government-run aspects of our system.
  • Major assumption #2: The government-run aspects of our current system have no influence on the success of the free-market aspects of our system.

An example: Our free-market system’s pricing is mostly based on the government-administered prices Medicare uses. This definitely hinders the free market’s ability to price things according to their real value to the market, which, in turn, affects what medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies choose to invest in.

Another example: Medicare is limited in how much it can reduce compensation to providers because they will just start rejecting Medicare patients in favor of seeing only private-insurance patients. This definitely hinders Medicare’s ability to price things according to what they view as sustainable.