The cost of healthcare in Delaware is again rising rapidly. It is looming as a major budgetary issue for the State of Delaware current employees and pensioners. Delaware's Medicaid budget is increasingly strained. There is a steady flow of articles in the News Journal about the rising cost of health insurance, the rising cost of pharmaceuticals, and the rapid rise in both co-pays and deductibles for patients. There are, however, a few elements in play that have been overlooked, and may have significant effects in the short-term on the overall costs of both insurance and actual healthcare delivery.
While it is abundantly obvious to everyone that utilizes healthcare services that both co-pays and deductibles have risen in an effort supposedly to keep the cost of the overall premium down, the complaint has been made that this discourages the use of health insurance for routine care because of the high out of pocket cost. This is only a part of the problem.
While it is true that discouraging the use of healthcare services saves money for the insurance carrier, there is another side to this disincentive. I am referring to a phenomenon that we see frequently in medicine. Patients, who are usually quite economically aware of the deductible are also very aware that once the deductible has been met, all further healthcare is essentially free for the rest of the year until their deductible resets.
As a consequence, those who have had some healthcare incident recently often then seek out other elective healthcare treatments, medications, and surgery they might otherwise postpone. "I might as well get it done now under this year's deductible." Whenever there is an uptick in elective medical services, there is also an uptick in the sheer number of expensive adverse outcomes, although the percentage still may be very small.
Thus costs to the insurer go up. We are seeing this more frequently in our office this year and it is very common toward the end of the year that our services for elective surgeries become highly demanded. In common terms, the patients want to get the elective surgery done before the end of the year when their deductible resets. This is a strong economic motivation.
Quite obviously this will cause a substantial increase in overall costs to Medicare, Medicaid, and the health insurance industry. All three of these entities have responded to the increasing costs of expanded coverage of the population by increasing the scrutiny over authorized services and increasing the frequency of denials of authorization, in short, rationing services.
The former of these two phenomena, elective utilization of health services after meeting the deductible, tends to raise overall spending on healthcare. The latter, rationing, of course, does the opposite and tends to lower overall expenditure. The question of which will be the dominant effect will be answered by the insurance actuaries when the next year rates are published. Most anticipate substantial rate increases.
There is, however, another phenomenon that we are seeing increasingly. This is the absolute lack of access to physicians. Increasingly, fairly young physicians are retiring from practice for a host of reasons. Dr. Ezekial Emanuel, one of Obamacare's chief architects, famously said last year on television when asked about this phenomenon that "They will have to work. We will make them". It turns out not to be true. What turns out to be reality is that doctors will not work under those circumstances and it further turns out that many doctors, especially those who are older and more experienced, easily have the wherewithal to retire.
In addition to this there is the phenomenon of "Community Care Plans". These are Medicaid plans offered through the Obamacare exchange. In our office we have been getting dozens of phone calls from people asking whether we participate in these plans and if we know anybody who does participate in these plans. The truth is there is a very thin panel of doctors. By my count, looking at the Delaware panel of doctors for United Healthcare "Community Care", fully one third of the listed entities were either not doctors, were duplicate listings, or were the names of facilities. Most of the family practices on the list are closed to new patients.
In my specialty, Orthopaedics, there are six surgeons listed who are all based at Crozier Chester Hospital in Pennsylvania. In short, there is very limited access to contracted physicians and surgeons. The net result is that the patient's have a heavily subsidized health insurance card which is not capable of giving them access to healthcare except under convoluted circumstances, usually the Emergency Room. This is of course a very effective mechanism for United Healthcare to control its costs and continue to receive subsidies from both the federal government and the State of Delaware who offers these plans. The State can then say it has expanded the pool of people with health insurance even though that insurance is unusable.
The actual number of previously uninsured people now receiving preventative care is surprisingly small. As the Oregon experiment demonstrated with over a decade of data, the addition of Medicaid insurance to the uninsured population does not change their pattern of choice of the emergency room for their care. In fact, the net result was quite the opposite, emergency room utilization increased. It is not yet clear if that is happening or will happen in Delaware but similar efforts in both Massachusetts and Vermont have had identical outcomes to Oregon.
The news is not bad for everyone. Large hospital systems are suddenly thriving because their previously uninsured patients are now covered by Medicaid. The insurance industry is consolidating and the large carriers are reaping windfall profits from subsidies. For the moment, Delaware continues to have its state Medicaid insurance program subsidized by the federal government.
Soon enough though, federal Medicaid subsidies to Delaware will cease and the full burden of cost will return to the Delaware budget. The insurance industries will be squeezed by the "Death Spiral" as healthy patients decline to purchase the ever more expensive policies_OLD and only the expensive chronically ill remain in the insurance pool. In 2018 penalties, fees, and taxes are set to essentially end the health insurance industry as we know it. Medicare has not yet been reformed and its insolvency has been accelerated by almost a decade. Small hospital systems will consolidate into large systems but will become defacto accountable care organizations, responsible for all community health, but presumably with highly restricted budgets based upon an insolvent single payor. Hospital care is costly and limited access to care is inevitable.
The "Affordable Care Act", clearly misnamed, appears to be yet another example of "The Uncannily Predictable Law of Unintended Consequences". Acronym TUPLUC.
C.D. Casscells, MD
Director, Center for Healthcare Policy