The first part of the year is when the cost of most health insurance policies increase. Most medical plans in most places are seeing rate increases far greater than general inflation. This raises legitimate questions about the sustainability of private health insurance pricing. Increasing faster than other prices means health insurance costs represent a larger percentage of overall spending. This, in turn, impacts the competitive position of American firms and the spending power of American families. That’s one of the reasons comprehensive health care reform needs to be high on the nation’s agenda.
In fashioning reforms, it’s important policy makers look at the complete picture. For example, comparing the rate of rising health insurance premiums inflation to general inflation is misleading. What drives health insurance costs is a complex mix of new technologies, an aging population, increased consumer demand and expectations, greater utilization of medical treatment, the cost of prescriptions in this country and a horde of other factors. Those required to defend health insurance rate increases (no one volunteers for the job) usually point to medical care inflation as a more appropriate benchmark than using general inflation. The problem with this defense is that, recently, premiums have increased at rates higher than medical inflation. This discrepancy was pounced upon by some legislators during hearings on health care reform in California this year. Clearly, the lawmakers implied, this is evidence of the industry’s lust for profits. What’s required, they say, is a governmental smack down. (OK, they didn’t actually use the word “smack down,” but premium regulation amounts to the same thing).
Before lawmakers get too carried away, however, they should look at their contribution to rising health insurance costs. Leave aside the costs related to mandated benefits, regulatory compliance and the like. Those are significant, but obvious. What’s less apparent is the government’s use of private insurance to subsidize public programs.
Medicare and Medicaid make up 55-to-60 percent of the average hospital’s revenues according to Richard Umbdenstock, president and chief executive of the American Hospital Association. As reported by the Todelo Blade, Mr. Umbdenstock said this would require providers to shift more costs to private insurance. In other words, when government budgets get tight, they cut back on what they pay doctors and hospitals to provide care to Medicare and Medicaid enrollees. Some of those providers reduce the number of such patients they’re willing to see — or stop serving them all together. That’s bad enough.
Others, however, shift the cost to those with private coverage. With more than half their income generated by government programs, it means a disproportionate amount of increase on private plans is required to make up for public cutbacks. If 60 percent of a hospital’s income flows from public programs, a 10 percent reduction in reimbursement rates requires increasing charges to private insurers by 15 percent. And that’s before increases based on medical cost inflation, general inflation or any other factors. It’s a rate increase entirely generated by governmental action.
This system actually works well for politicians. They get to cut government spending by undercompensating medical providers treating public program patients and they get to complain about “indefensible” rate increases by greedy private health plans. In other words, they get to pitch the problem, avoid having to catch it, and they can criticize the people that do.
Politicians who want to control both sides of the equation — cut back on public program funding and regulate private health insurance premiums — should be careful about what they wish for. Their own contribution to skyrocketing medical insurance premiums will be much more obvious. They’ll have to catch the problems they create and they’ll be on the receiving end of the criticism, too.