Do Americans need health insurance? The short answer is no — at least not in the form it currently exists in America.
It is true that in many wealthy countries private insurance companies are used in the financing of universal health care systems. But they are nothing like American companies. They are regulated public utilities and are told by their governments who to insure, what to cover and how much and when to pay. Most are prohibited from making a profit and are required to pay any willing provider. Not exactly the American model.
The purpose of health care financing systems should be — and is in all other wealthy countries — to facilitate the delivery of health care services, to protect individuals and families against huge medical care expenses and to avoid breaking the national bank while they do so. But in America, our private insurance system actually interferes with the delivery of health care and is rapidly becoming too expensive.
Last month I argued for adopting a universal health care system on moral, ethical and economic grounds. It is not only more humane but cheaper to cover everybody. We have moved in fits and starts toward that goal since the enactment of Medicare in 1965.
The recent federal health reform law took a few steps forward. But we are now taking a couple steps back, especially in Maine. Last week Gov. Paul LePage proposed disqualifying 65,000 beneficiaries of MaineCare. Earlier this year, the Legislature enacted PL90 that rolls back regulations intended to spread the financial risks of illness and improve access to health care for those most in need of it.
A little history may be informative. Private employment-based health insurance in America was not a planned system, but grew out of World War II wage and price controls. It was one of the few ways employers could attract and retain employees in a tight labor market. The spread of these benefits received a boost when the federal government exempted them from federal taxes.
Private health insurance was dominated by nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans until about 1990. That changed when Blue Cross plans across the country began to convert to for-profit status, arguing that it would improve their efficiency. Maine Blue Cross made that transition in 2000 when it changed from a company whose mission was facilitating health care to one whose mission was maximizing shareholder wealth.
The business model of for-profit insurance companies is pretty simple. The creation of wealth for shareholders, including many of their executives, depends upon profitability. To maximize profitability they must charge premiums as high as the market will bear, offer skimpy policies that limit coverage, impose high deductibles and minimize what they must pay out for the services they do cover.
Maximizing premiums, imposing high deductibles and limiting the scope of coverage are pretty straightforward. Minimizing payouts for services they do cover is a little more complicated. Four techniques are used. First companies try to avoid insuring people likely to require health care, such as those with a history of illness or who are elderly or in dangerous occupations.
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Second, they dispute the need for health care that is recommended or has already been provided to their customers by micromanaging the decisions of doctors and patients and denying as many claims as they can. This is a very expensive and contentious process that often damages the quality of care.
Third, they bargain down the prices health care providers charge as much as possible, shifting costs to other payers. This has created the curious and uniquely American situation where uninsured people pay the highest prices for health care products and services.
Fourth, many companies try to find a reason to retroactively dump sick customers who have filed claims by asserting that they have failed to accurately state their health care history, therefore defrauding the insurance company.
These people end up on public insurance or on the roles of the uninsured. This practice, called “rescission,” is particularly unfair but nevertheless appears to have become widespread. It has been banned by the new federal health care reform act.
What is the problem with this picture? It is not that for-profit insurance companies are failing in their mission. In fact, they are doing a very good job of exactly what their mission demands, maximizing the wealth of shareholders. The problem is that their mission fundamentally conflicts with the mission of a decent health care system.
What can we do to fix this problem? The obvious first step — but not the last — is to replace for-profit insurance companies. They are like a camel entered into the Kentucky Derby. No matter how much it is trained, how hard it tries, how hard it is whipped or who the jockey is, it never wins. It just wasn’t designed for the job.
Although insurance companies could play a role in a redesigned system by becoming public utilities, that is not the most efficient way to finance a system that includes everybody. For example, private insurance companies are currently fighting the new federal health care law’s requirement that they keep their overhead below 20 percent. Medicare, financed through publicly mandated premiums and taxes, spends less than 5 percent on overhead and interferes with health care decisions much less than private carriers.
Maybe it’s time to replace that camel with a racehorse. While we’re at it, why not go for a thoroughbred? An improved Medicare-like system for all could provide better coverage while spending less. What’s not to like about that?