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August 11, 2011

Will the Outlook Get Worse?

Summary:

Just as most of us thought things were improving and as the Dow was seemingly stabilizing with all of us hoping for a strong recovery, it happened. The elongated and painful negotiations regarding the debt limit, the downgrading of the US credit, and then a tumultuous stock market drop. What's next? The recent Health Affairs article from the CMS Office of the Actuary suggests that we are now faced with higher than average health care cost increases.

One of the “hoped for” outcomes of health care reform, known as PPACA or Obamacare, was reduced health care trends and more controlled healthcare costs. Although filled with controversy, the general understanding of the overarching and primary objective for reform was the goal of achieving health care cost savings.

The forecasts are not encouraging. The impact of rising health care costs on the federal budget and deficit is concerning at best, when at the same time the value of Treasury securities is declining in the financial markets. Perhaps one of the most disappointing predictions is the table below.

The authors suggest that PPACA has significantly increased the costs of all of the key sectors related to health care. Other than the projected increase in government administration, the two most significantly increasing categories were prescription drugs and net cost of health insurance. These increases are concerning and something that we cannot afford. The biggest increase occurs in 2014 when a major part of the program is implemented.

So what should we do? What steps should be taken to be sure we achieve some control on the rapidly escalating health care costs? I propose a three step plan, one that will reduce costs no matter what happens with health care reform. We need to take action and action that is effective! The three steps are:

  • Stronger focus on eliminating potentially avoidable health care services. We need to be sure we need to do what is being done. Ongoing studies show that as much as 50% of what is done in the hospital today is potentially avoidable. There are considerable opportunities to reduce length of stay without negatively impacting the quality of health care. Complementary information shows that as much as 35% of what physicians do in the ambulatory setting is potentially avoidable. Until we eliminate true medical “waste” we have no hope of reducing the cost of care.
  • Continue to negotiate additional discounts in reimbursement for health care services to be sure that we avoid paying for more than needed. Ideally it would be better to move to an all-payer system where health care providers are paid a common fee for their services no matter who is the payer (i.e., public or private). Studies show that the private sector has more than a 16% cost shift from public payers that are unwilling to pay their fair portion.
  • Introduce incentives that work to motivate everyone to reduce health care costs. This includes incentives to providers to limit services to those necessary, to patients to live healthier lifestyles, and employers/plan sponsors to consider appropriate plan designs that minimize over consumption of services.

Although the CMS actuaries are only projecting health care costs, the concerns they raise are important and need to be carefully considered. Our economy is fragile and it cannot survive continued surprises. Hopefully we will take the steps to avoid further problems. It is a time for action.

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About the Author

David Axene started Axene Health Partners in 2003 after a successful career at Ernst & Young and Milliman & Robertson. He is an internationally recognized health consultant and is recognized as a strategist and thought leader in the insurance industry. He earned an MS Degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Washington and a BS degree in Physics and Engineering from Seattle Pacific University.

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