Monday, October 13, 2008

When tomorrow never comes... the rising cost of health care

"This weekend, I had the opportunity to read Matt Miller’s outstanding upcoming book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. In his chapter on the folly of employer-provided health insurance, Miller gives us today’s startling factoid: 'It’s crazy but true: Starbucks spends more on health care than on coffee; General Motors spends more on health care than on steel.'"

Daniel Pink

What is the world coming to when the cost of basic health care is so exorbitant? The National Coalition on Health Care has some startling facts:

"In 2007, total national health expenditures were expected to rise 6.9 percent — two times the rate of inflation.1 Total spending was $2.3 TRILLION in 2007, or $7600 per person. Total health care spending represented 16 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). U.S. health care spending is expected to increase at similar levels for the next decade reaching $4.2 TRILLION in 2016, or 20 percent of GDP."

When we look back at Starbucks and GM, we find that in 2007, employer health insurance premiums increased by 6.1 percent, which is two times the rate of inflation. The annual premium for an employer health plan covering a family of four averaged nearly $12,100. For many in more expensive cities that will only cover a family of two people.

Washington's focus on drug costs is in many ways displaced, because like earmarks it represents a very small proportion of the total budget. Meanwhile, the health care system is riddled with inefficiencies, excessive administrative expenses, inflated prices, poor management, and inappropriate care, waste and fraud. These problems significantly increase the cost of medical care and health insurance for employers and workers and affect the security of families.

But is anything done about this excessive waste and bloated administration?

Rising medical costs correlate to drops in health insurance coverage. That's not a good thing because ultimately, people who do drop coverage and then get ill will end up paying more for their health care if something goes wrong. If you get cancer or need a bone marrow transplant, it could wipe you out.

There is no doubt that health care reform is essential, the issue is what's the best way to go about it? In the current Presidential election, the two candidates have very different approaches to the problem. McCain is offering a $5,000 tax credit towards the cost of the annual health care plans. Obama believes that health care is a right and people should not be denied access, while there should be stricter rules for insurers.

In the McCain approach, one key detail missing from the plan is whether the tax credits created by eliminating employer-based tax benefits would keep up with the cost of medical care. This plan favours the young, fit and healthy. Those who are older, unfit and have a family history of medical problems will likely end up with higher costs.

In contrast, cost is the key detail missing from the Obama health reform plan. The campaign has not said how large the tax would be for businesses that opt not to offer insurance, or how small a business would have to be to be excluded from the requirement. If the payroll tax is too low, say 6 percent, many businesses may opt to pay it instead of offering insurance, sending their employees into the public program and boosting federal costs. Overall, it sounds very similar to the successful MA health care plan introduced by then Governor Mitt Romney, where no one was denied coverage, but the plan cost was adjusted according to people's means.

Either way, whichever candidate gets in will have to grapple with many of the same issues and the inertia that has confounded health reform for decades.

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