What should the candidates tell us about controlling costs?

Editorial: Thank you for that question, Lester

By Merrill Goozner
Modern Healthcare, September 24, 2016

(Question for candidates, proposed by the New York Times): “Health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs are rising rapidly. What would you do to control them?”

If I were advising a candidate on how to respond to that question, here's what I'd recommend he or she say:


“Thank you for that question, Lester. I understand why many Americans think their insurance premiums are rising rapidly. There's been a lot of attention paid to next year's increases for the individual policies sold on the Obamacare insurance exchanges, which will rise about 9% on average, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey.”

“Employers are forcing individuals to pick up more of the cost of their plans.”

“The employer portion of your health insurance is going up just 4% next year on average. That means the family share has to go up more than 5.5% to make up the difference.”

“Employers are doing that by putting more of us in high-deductible plans. They're asking more of us to pay higher co-pays and deductibles. They are raising our portion of the premiums.”

“So what can we do about it? First, we have to recognize this is a big experiment that has been endorsed by economists associated with both political parties. They say by forcing patients and consumers to have more skin in the game, they will become wiser healthcare shoppers.”

“I say, to make that work, we have to have total transparency — in healthcare prices, in insurance prices, in which doctors and hospitals are in health plan networks, in quality ratings, and with good, easy-to-understand information about what constitutes the most effective and cost-effective care. I pledge to work night and day to give consumers the information they need to make smarter choices in the healthcare marketplace.”

“And if some people simply can't afford to put money into the health savings accounts accompanying these plans, let's remove some of the tax subsidies given high-income people for their health insurance so we can finance a generous federal match for what lower-income people contribute.”

“Let me now turn to what can we do about those rising individual rates for plans sold on the exchanges. The bottom line is we need more people to sign up. The No. 1 reason why rates are rising is that not enough healthy uninsured people signed up for coverage.”

“We need everyone who is uninsured to jump into the individual insurance pool.”



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Merrill Goozner certainly understands the political realities about health policy. To a question on health costs that could be part of tonight’s presidential debate, he suggests an answer for the candidates that aligns with the current financing system under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, because of the restrictions he apparently placed on himself, it’s a terribly deficient answer.

For the problem of high-deductibles he suggests making patients better shoppers through greater transparency in prices, in network composition and in quality ratings. But that would have almost no impact on making the deductibles and other cost sharing more affordable.

He accepts the dubious concept that health savings accounts should accompany these high-deductible plans, and further suggests that the accounts for lower-income individuals be subsidized. Health savings accounts are strictly an administrative tool that increases the complexity and waste in health care financing. When the accounts are depleted, beneficial health care services are forgone - not a desirable outcome. If you are going to have first dollar coverage built into the HSAs, why not instead save administrative hassles and expenses by building first dollar coverage into the insurance program itself?

For the high premiums of the exchange plans, he suggests enrolling more of the healthy to dilute the risk pool. But the low-lying fruit has been picked. The policy community is beside itself in trying to figure out how to bring more into the exchange plans, while having only negligible success in doing so.

Goozner is certainly highly respected by me and others, but we wish that he and others like him would move beyond feeble patchwork solutions and support a program that would make health care accessible and permanently affordable for all. Of course that would be a single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all. Goozner understands that we won’t hear that from either candidate tonight, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be asking for that response.