How Americans Drive Up Their Own Health Insurance Costs (UPDATE)

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This is not a defense or excuse for the exorbitant pricing or profits in the health insurance industry in the US.  As with most social issues, there is no single cause of a problem. The industry owns part of the issue, Congress owns a major part, but consumers also own a piece. It’s time to recognize that and do what you can do about it.

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I grew up in an advertising era touting “rugged individualism.” The icons of that era included John Wayne, the TV character Palladin, and the advertising “Marlboro Man,” all part of a mythology that people could cut their own path regardless of others.

Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. If your reading this, someone else probably had provided the electricity for  you. If you also write, the court system protects your intellectual property. If you have a retirment account, you depend on financial regulators to protect your assets. If you eat (and you’d better be doing that), there’s the farmers and fishermen who provide what you consume. We are a connected network of people, whether on the grid or not. Whether you like it or not.

That’s blatantly the case in health insurance. There was a time when health insurance didn’t exist and didn’t matter. There were relatively few doctors in the 1850s, medical knowledge was relatively crude, and life expectancy was short.

  • In the Americans, life expectancy from birth was only 35.1 years in 1850. Life expectancy for slaves was less, with estimates ranging from 22 to 30 years of age.
  • The shortness was due to childhood deaths. If one could make it to age 10, there was a reasonable prospect to live to age 60.

ourworldindata_life-expectancy-cumulative-over-200-years-768x548

Life expectancy has  increased dramatically in the last two years, as you can see from the chart above, from an excellent article by Max Roser. (1)

In most geographies, the major gain in life expectancy came after World War II.

Exponential-PHE-Growth-Irfan

However, the increase in life expectancy comes at a substantial cost. One estimate says that each day of additional life expectancy adds $1.6 billion to medical costs just in the US. (2) However, living longer is just one component of the story of rising health costs.

Behavior matters. Certain things some of us do add substantially to medical costs for each and every one of us. How does that work? It’s in built into the concept of insurance as conceived by Benjamin Franklin.

  • People — healthy and sick — pay into a fund that in turn pays people in their time of need.
  • The required size of the fund is determined by the number of claims and the size of claims. The required size of the fund determines what people who participate have to pay.

That might seem unfair to healthy people, but we have to remember that no one stays healthy forever. Everyone dies. Everyone gets a turn with illness, sometimes more than one turn.

What might be considered unfair is when people do things or allow things to happen that cause illness. For example,

  • The CDC estimates that 36.5 million Americans smoke cigarettes, and 16 million currently have a smoking-related illness. Not everyone who smokes gets sick, but a larger percentage do, and that adds $170 billion to total medical expenses in the US. (3, 4)
    • According to a recent Gallup survey, more than 28% of adults in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, Layfayette, Louisiana, Erie, Pennsylvania and Bristol, Tennessee smoke. The national incidence is 18.2%, down from more than 40% in the 1960s. (9)
  • Obesity is estimated to add $147 billion to national healthcare spending (2008 dollars). (5) That figure may be low due to the large number of undiagnosed diabetics in the US.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse adds another $64 billion to healthcare spending (7)
  • Distracted driving (there are no separate estimates of direct medical costs), but medical bills have been rising even as the severity of injuries has been declining. (6)

The medical expenses that result from these behaviors hit every consumer:

  • Rising healthcare charges (remember the principle of “supply and demand”?)
  • Rising insurance premiums to cover the rising healthcare costs
  • Rising taxes to cover the proportion of expenses the government pays

High spending doesn’t mean better medical results.

With development, health outcomes generally improve, but the U.S. is an anomaly. The U.S. and the U.K. are both high-income, highly developed countries. The U.K. spends less per person ($3,749) on health care than the U.S. ($9,237). Despite its high spending, the U.S. does not have the best health outcomes. [Life expectancy, for example, is 79.1 years in the U.S. and 80.9 years in the U.K. And while the U.S. spends more on health care than any country in the world, it ranks 12th in life expectancy among the 12 wealthiest industrialized countries, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on health issues.] (8)

Europeans and the Chinese government understand the impact of individual behavior on costs. Americans have been more reluctant to understand and accept personal responsibility for how their behavior affects themselves and everyone else. It’s time to grow up and put the myth of rugged individualism away.

 


Sources:

  1. Max Roser, “Life Expectancy,” Our World in Data, undated. https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy/
  2. Sean Davis, “8 Charts that Explain the Explosive Growth of U. S. Health Care Costs,” Media Trackers, 1 October 2013. http://mediatrackers.org/national/2013/10/01/8-charts-explain-explosive-growth-u-s-health-care-costs
  3. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Economic Trends in Tobacco,” last updated 17 June 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/economics/econ_facts/index.htm
  4. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults in the United States,” last updated 1 December 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm
  5. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adult Obesity Causes and Consequences,” last updated 15 August 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/causes.html
  6. Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, “Cost of Auto Crashes and Statistics,” undated. http://www.rmiia.org/auto/traffic_safety/Cost_of_crashes.asp
  7. National Institute of Drug Abuse, “Trends and Statistics,” last updated April 2017. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics
  8. NPR, “What Country Spends The Most (And Least) On Health Care Per Person?” 20 April 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/04/20/524774195/what-country-spends-the-most-and-least-on-health-care-per-person
  9. Samuel Stebbins, “Cities with the Most Smokers,” 24/7 Wall Street, 22 JUne 2017. http://247wallst.com/special-report/2017/06/22/cities-with-the-highest-smoking-rates/?utm_source=247WallStDailyNewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=JUN232017A&utm_campaign=DailyNewsletter

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