How American Health Care Killed My Father

After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.
A Way Forward

The most important single step we can take toward truly reforming our system is to move away from comprehensive health insurance as the single model for financing care. And a guiding principle of any reform should be to put the consumer, not the insurer or the government, at the center of the system. I believe if the government took on the goal of better supporting consumers—by bringing greater transparency and competition to the health-care industry, and by directly subsidizing those who can’t afford care—we’d find that consumers could buy much more of their care directly than we might initially think, and that over time we’d see better care and better service, at lower cost, as a result.

A more consumer-centered health-care system would not rely on a single form of financing for health-care purchases; it would make use of different sorts of financing for different elements of care—with routine care funded largely out of our incomes; major, predictable expenses (including much end-of-life care) funded by savings and credit; and massive, unpredictable expenses funded by insurance.

For years, a number of reformers have advocated a more “consumer-driven” care system—a term coined by the Harvard Business School professor Regina Herzlinger, who has written extensively on the subject. Many different steps could move us toward such a system. Here’s one approach that—although it may sound radical—makes sense to me.

First, we should replace our current web of employer- and government-based insurance with a single program of catastrophic insurance open to all Americans—indeed, all Americans should be required to buy it—with fixed premiums based solely on age. This program would be best run as a single national pool, without underwriting for specific risk factors, and would ultimately replace Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. All Americans would be insured against catastrophic illness, throughout their lives.

Proposals for true catastrophic insurance usually founder on the definition of catastrophe. So much of the amount we now spend is dedicated to problems that are considered catastrophic, the argument goes, that a separate catastrophic system is pointless. A typical catastrophic insurance policy today might cover any expenses above, say, $2,000. That threshold is far too low; ultimately, a threshold of $50,000 or more would be better. (Chronic conditions with expected annual costs above some lower threshold would also be covered.) We might consider other mechanisms to keep total costs down: the plan could be required to pay out no more in any year than its available premiums, for instance, with premium increases limited to the general rate of inflation. But the real key would be to restrict the coverage to true catastrophes—if this approach is to work, only a minority of us should ever be beneficiaries.

How would we pay for most of our health care? The same way we pay for everything else—out of our income and savings. Medicare itself is, in a sense, a form of forced savings, as is commercial insurance. In place of these programs and the premiums we now contribute to them, and along with catastrophic insurance, the government should create a new form of health savings account—a vehicle that has existed, though in imperfect form, since 2003. Every American should be required to maintain an HSA, and contribute a minimum percentage of post-tax income, subject to a floor and a cap in total dollar contributions. The income percentage required should rise over a working life, as wages and wealth typically do.

All noncatastrophic care should eventually be funded out of HSAs. But account-holders should be allowed to withdraw money for any purpose, without penalty, once the funds exceed a ceiling established for each age, and at death any remaining money should be disbursed through inheritance. Our current methods of health-care funding create a “use it or lose it” imperative. This new approach would ensure that families put aside funds for future expenses, but would not force them to spend the funds only on health care.

What about care that falls through the cracks—major expenses (an appendectomy, sports injury, or birth) that might exceed the current balance of someone’s HSA but are not catastrophic? These should be funded the same way we pay for most expensive purchases that confer long-term benefits: with credit. Americans should be able to borrow against their future contributions to their HSA to cover major health needs; the government could lend directly, or provide guidelines for private lending. Catastrophic coverage should apply with no deductible for young people, but as people age and save, they should pay a steadily increasing deductible from their HSA, unless the HSA has been exhausted. As a result, much end-of-life care would be paid through savings.

Anyone with whom I discuss this approach has the same question: How am I supposed to be able to afford health care in this system? Well, what if I gave you $1.77 million? Recall, that’s how much an insured 22-year-old at my company could expect to pay—and to have paid on his and his family’s behalf—over his lifetime, assuming health-care costs are tamed. Sure, most of that money doesn’t pass through your hands now. It’s hidden in company payments for premiums, or in Medicare taxes and premiums. But think about it: If you had access to those funds over your lifetime, wouldn’t you be able to afford your own care? And wouldn’t you consume health care differently if you and your family didn’t have to spend that money only on care?

For lower-income Americans who can’t fund all of their catastrophic premiums or minimum HSA contributions, the government should fill the gap—in some cases, providing all the funding. You don’t think we spend an absurd amount of money on health care? If we abolished Medicaid, we could spend the same money to make a roughly $3,000 HSA contribution and a $2,000 catastrophic-premium payment for 60 million Americans every year. That’s a $12,000 annual HSA plus catastrophic coverage for a low-income family of four. Do we really believe most of them wouldn’t be better off?

Some experts worry that requiring people to pay directly for routine care would cause some to put off regular checkups. So here’s a solution: the government could provide vouchers to all Americans for a free checkup every two years. If everyone participated, the annual cost would be about $30 billion—a small fraction of the government’s current spending on care.

Today, insurance covers almost all health-care expenditures. The few consumers who pay from their pockets are simply an afterthought for most providers. Imagine how things might change if more people were buying their health care the way they buy anything else. I’m certain that all the obfuscation over prices would vanish pretty quickly, and that we’d see an end to unreadable bills. And that physicians, who spend an enormous amount of time on insurance-related paperwork, would have more time for patients.

In fact, as a result of our fraying insurance system, you can already see some nascent features of a consumer-centered system. Since 2006, Wal-Mart has offered $4 prescriptions for a month’s supply of common generic medications. It has also been slowly rolling out retail clinics for routine care such as physicals, blood work, and treatment for common ailments like strep throat. Prices for each service are easily obtained; most are in the neighborhood of $50 to $80. Likewise, “concierge care,” or the “boutique” style of medical practice—in which physicians provide unlimited services and fast appointments in return for a fixed monthly or annual fee—is beginning to spread from the rich to the middle class. Qliance Medical Group, for instance, now operates clinics serving some 3,000 patients in the Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, areas, charging $49 to $79 a month for unlimited primary care, defined expansively.

It’s worth pausing over this last example. Many experts believe that the U.S. would get better health outcomes at lower cost if payment to providers were structured around the management of health or whole episodes of care, instead of through piecemeal fees. Medicare and private insurers have, to various degrees, moved toward (or at least experimented with) these sorts of payments, and are continuing to do so—but slowly, haltingly, and in the face of much obstruction by providers. But aren’t we likely to see just these sorts of payment mechanisms develop organically in a consumer-centered health-care system? For simplicity and predictability, many people will prefer to pay a fixed monthly or annual fee for primary or chronic care, and providers will move to serve that demand.

Likewise, what patient, when considering getting an artificial hip, would want to deal with a confusion of multiple bills from physicians, facilities, and physical therapists? Aren’t providers likely to organize themselves to provide a single price to the consumer for care and rehabilitation? And won’t that, in itself, put pressure on providers to work together as efficiently as possible, and to minimize the medical errors that would eat into their joint fee? I suspect we would see a rapid decline in the predominance of the fee-for-service model, making way for real innovation and choice in service plans and funding. And the payment system would not be set by fiat; it would remain responsive to treatment breakthroughs and changes in consumer demand.

Many consumers would be able to make many decisions, unaided, in such a system. But we’d also probably see the rise of health-care agents—paid by, and responsible to, the consumer—to help choose providers and to act as advocates during long and complex care episodes.

How else might the system change? Technological innovation—which is now almost completely insensitive to costs, and which often takes the form of slightly improved treatments for much higher prices—would begin to concern itself with value, not just quality. Many innovations might drive prices down, not up. Convenient, lower-cost specialty centers might proliferate. The need for unpaid indigent care would go away—everyone, recall, would have both catastrophic insurance and an HSA, funded entirely by the government when necessary—and with it much of the rationale for protecting hospitals against competition.

Of course, none of this would happen overnight. And the government has an essential role to play in arming consumers with good information. Congress should require maximum transparency on services, prices, and results (and some elements of the Obama administration’s reform plan would move the industry in this direction). We should establish a more comprehensive system of quality inspection of all providers, and publish all the findings. Safety and efficacy must remain the cornerstone of government licensing, but regulatory bias should favor competition and prevent incumbents from using red tape to forestall competition.

Moving from the system we’ve got now to the one I’ve outlined would be complicated, and would take a long time. Most of us have been paying into an insurance system for years, expecting that our future health-care bills would be paid; we haven’t been saving separately for these expenses. It would take a full generation to completely migrate from relying on Medicare to saving for late-life care; from Medicaid for the disadvantaged to catastrophic insurance and subsidized savings accounts. Such a transition would require the slow reduction of Medicare taxes, premiums, and benefit levels for those not yet eligible, and a corresponding slow ramp-up in HSAs. And the national catastrophic plan would need to start with much broader coverage and higher premiums than the ultimate goal, in order to fund the care needed today by our aging population. Nonetheless, the benefits of a consumer-centered approach—lower costs for better service—should have early and large dividends for all of us throughout the period of transition. The earlier we start, the less a transition will ultimately cost.

Many experts oppose the whole concept of a greater role for consumers in our health-care system. They worry that patients lack the necessary knowledge to be good consumers, that unscrupulous providers will take advantage of them, that they will overspend on low-benefit treatments and under-spend on high-benefit preventive care, and that such waste will leave some patients unable to afford highly beneficial care.

They are right, of course. Whatever replaces our current system will be flawed; that’s the nature of health care and, indeed, of all human institutions. Our current system features all of these problems already—as does the one the Obama reforms would create. Because health care is so complex and because each individual has a unique health profile, no system can be perfect.

I believe my proposed approach passes two meaningful tests. It will do a better job than our current system of controlling prices, allocating resources, expanding access, and safeguarding quality. And it will do a better job than a more government-driven approach of harnessing medicine’s dynamism to develop and spread the new knowledge, technologies, and techniques that improve the quality of life. We won’t be perfect consumers, but we’re more likely than large bureaucracies to encourage better medicine over time.

All of the health-care interest groups—hospitals, insurance companies, professional groups, pharmaceuticals, device manufacturers, even advocates for the poor—have a major stake in the current system. Overturning it would favor only the 300 million of us who use the system and—whether we realize it or not—pay for it. Until we start asking the type of questions my father’s death inspired me to ask, until we demand the same price and quality accountability in health care that we demand in everything else, each new health-care reform will cost us more and serve us less.

$636,687.75

Ten days after my father’s death, the hospital sent my mother a copy of the bill for his five-week stay: $636,687.75. He was charged $11,590 per night for his ICU room; $7,407 per night for a semiprivate room before he was moved to the ICU; $145,432 for drugs; $41,696 for respiratory services. Even the most casual effort to compare these prices to marginal costs or to the costs of off-the-shelf components demonstrates the absurdity of these numbers, but why should my mother care? Her share of the bill was only $992; the balance, undoubtedly at some huge discount, was paid by Medicare.

Wasn’t this an extraordinary benefit, a windfall return on American citizenship? Or at least some small relief for a distraught widow?

Not really. You can feel grateful for the protection currently offered by Medicare (or by private insurance) only if you don’t realize how much you truly spend to fund this system over your lifetime, and if you believe you’re getting good care in return.

Would our health-care system be so outrageously expensive if each American family directly spent even half of that $1.77 million that it will contribute to health insurance and Medicare over a lifetime, instead of entrusting care to massive government and private intermediaries? Like its predecessors, the Obama administration treats additional government funding as a solution to unaffordable health care, rather than its cause. The current reform will likely expand our government’s already massive role in health-care decision-making—all just to continue the illusion that someone else is paying for our care.

But let’s forget about money for a moment. Aren’t we also likely to get worse care in any system where providers are more accountable to insurance companies and government agencies than to us?

Before we further remove ourselves as direct consumers of health care—with all of our beneficial influence on quality, service, and price—let me ask you to consider one more question. Imagine my father’s hospital had to present the bill for his “care” not to a government bureaucracy, but to my grieving mother. Do you really believe that the hospital—forced to face the victim of its poor-quality service, forced to collect the bill from the real customer—wouldn’t have figured out how to make its doctors wash their hands?

David Goldhill is a media and technology executive.
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David Goldhill is the president and chief executive officer of the cable-television network GSN, and the author of Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Health Care Is Wrong.

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