Friday, June 26, 2009

Greatest Health Care System in the World - for investors

Forget the propaganda that America has the greatest health care system in the world. Focus instead on the fact that of some 330 million Americans, at least 500 thousand are uninsured and an estimated number much like that have insurance that is so poor that if they or their families have a major illness, they will be stuck with up to half or more of the bill. More than half of all bankruptcies are caused by major illness, most by people who are technically insured.

What's wrong with this picture? Ezra Klein writes about it.
The best way to drive down "medical-loss," explains Potter, is to stop insuring unhealthy people. You won't, after all, have to spend very much of a healthy person's dollar on medical care because he or she won't need much medical care. And the insurance industry accomplishes this through two main policies. "One is policy rescission," says Potter. "They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment."

And don't be fooled: rescission is important to the business model. Last week, at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Rep. Bart Stupak, the committee chairman, asked three insurance industry executives if they would commit to ending rescission except in cases of intentional fraud. "No," they each said.

Potter also emphasized the practice known as "purging." This is where insurers rid themselves of unprofitable accounts by slapping them with "intentionally unrealistic rate increases." One famous example came when Cigna decided to drive the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust in California and New Jersey off of its books. It hit them with a rate increase that would have left some family plans costing more than $44,000 a year, and it gave them three months to come up with the cash.

The issue isn't that insurance companies are evil. It's that they need to be profitable. They have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit for shareholders. And as Potter explains, he's watched an insurer's stock price fall by more than 20 percent in a single day because the first-quarter medical-loss ratio had increased from 77.9 percent to 79.4 percent.

The reason we generally like markets is that the profit incentive spurs useful innovations. But in some markets, that's not the case. We don't allow a bustling market in heroin, for instance, because we don't want a lot of innovation in heroin creation, packaging and advertising. Are we really sure we want a bustling market in how to cleverly revoke the insurance of people who prove to be sickly?
Only a government insurance system can set the priority where it belongs - on keeping and getting patients well. The free market will always put profits above the needs of the patients and sacrifice patients to get greater profits. The ideal system is government mandated single payer. That's politically impossible, so the next best alternative is universal health care with a strong public health insurance option available for everyone to choose.

That's what needs to come out of the Congress this Fall. It will be over the dead bodies of the Republicans and most of the Blue Dog Democrats. It's been too long already. Anyone who votes against health care should be targeted in their next election.

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