Tag Archive: price elasticity

Macroeconomics underlie debate over ACA successor

Set in the larger context, the current policy debate over a successor to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is grounded in the long term macroeconomics of declining widely shared prosperity and how much federal and state government should chip in to finance the medical care of more lower income households. These are households:

  • Hard hit by the 2008 economic downturn that reduced middle class economic security as the nation seeks a new post-industrial, post-WWII prosperity economy.
  • Not covered by generous employee benefit plans that were commonplace in decades past while at the same time more working age Americans are self-employed and thus ineligible for employee benefit plans.
  • Currently eligible for subsidies for plans sold on state health benefit exchanges and potentially for Medicaid if they live in a state that adopted the Affordable Care Act’s liberalized Medicaid eligibility guidelines.

Members of these households at the low end of the income scale are often lack stable incomes and have members in poor health who utilize a lot of medical services, reinforced by negative social determinants of health. That has contributed to a multi-billion dollar black hole of Medicaid as the program enrollment expanded dramatically, owing to the Affordable Care Act’s expanded eligibility rules.

In a letter to state governors last week, the Trump administration last week explicitly acknowledged the underlying economic challenges contributing to burgeoning Medicaid enrollment. The administration cast Medicaid as complimenting programs to assist low-income adult beneficiaries “improve their economic standing and materially advance in an effort to rise out of poverty,” adding that “[T]he best way to improve the long term health of low income Americans is to empower them with skills and employment.” The letter encourages state Medicaid program proposals “that build on the human dignity that comes with training, employment and independence.”

Heavy medical utilization has also led commercial non-group plan issuers to set premiums so high that those households that purchase non-group coverage are being clobbered by high premiums that rival monthly housing costs. Adding to the sticker shock is the lingering memory of the more generous plans of the HMO salad days of the mid-1970s to the early 2000s as well as individual plans that came with relatively high deductibles in exchange for low premiums. That tradeoff that has since greatly diminished with both premiums and deductibles high, stoking righteous anger against the Affordable Care Act’s non-group market reforms as well as resentment of those who qualify for Medicaid or substantial subsidies for exchange plans.

Simmering beneath the strum und drang of payer side policy is a coming pricing crisis on the provider side. With payers and households feeling pinched and even bankrupted by the cost of medical care and with dollars to pay for it in shorter supply and potentially being more restricted in the current administration and Congress (as well as by employers looking to cut employee benefit costs), substantial pressure will build on providers to reduce what they charge for services. That pressure will take on one or both forms as either falling demand based on the economic principle of price elasticity that holds as prices increase, demand falls — with high out of pocket costs aiding that dynamic. Or government expanding beyond Medicare its role as price arbiter or becoming a monopsony. It would easy to rationalize the latter since under the current split system of payers and providers negotiating reimbursement rates, price signals don’t pass directly between the providers and consumers of medical care and affords individual consumers little in the way of meaningful bargaining power.


Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

First step toward bending medical utilization cost curve is not equating medical care with health care

The Republicans’ primary strategy is to shift more expense to individuals through high-deductible plans and Health Savings Accounts. They hope people will seek services less often if they have to pay more for it. That’s a prescription for illness.

Source: Partisan battles shouldn’t afflict good health care | The Sacramento Bee

This assumes medical care is subject to the economic principle of price elasticity that holds demand for a product or service moves inversely to its price. But medical care isn’t a commodity like food, clothing and shelter. It’s not consumed on a regular basis throughout life. People generally use it only when they need it, not because they want to buy it at the mall. In addition, the vast majority of people tend toward health with healthy lifestyles and don’t require preventative care.

To begin bending the medical utilization cost curve, the first step is to not regard it as a consumer commodity. The goal is to avoid having to need medical care in the first place by taking good care of our health. That’s truly preventative care. Medical care isn’t a substitute for health care — something only people can give to themselves. Reducing its cost or making it more accessible won’t automatically translate to lower overall spending on medical care.


Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Are high deductibles truly a barrier to necessary medical care?

One of the goals of opening the government exchanges was to enable more Americans to get health insurance to help cover the costs of needed medical treatments. While many Americans have gained insurance, there has been no downturn in the percentage who say they have had to put off needed medical treatment because of cost. This may reflect high deductibles or copays that are part of the newly insured’s plans, although separate research has shown that most of the newly insured in 2014 are satisfied with their health coverage. (Emphasis added)

Variation in the pricing for medical treatments, not to mention differences in how much insurance plans cover, could be confusing Americans or making them fear a needed treatment is too expensive. And while the costs of medical procedures aren’t rising as rapidly as they once were, it is still too early to tell if that is an effect of the Affordable Care Act and how prices may change in the future

via Cost Still a Barrier Between Americans and Medical Care.


This excerpt is from a Gallup poll released last week. Being that this is a public opinion poll, a more nuanced view of the results is called for.

First, it is important to distinguish between individual health plans sold on state health benefit exchanges and employer-sponsored plans. Many of the latter category are increasingly coming with high deductibles. The distinction is important because employer-sponsored plans do not come with premium and out of pocket cost sharing subsidies for low and moderate income households like those sold in the exchange marketplace.

Second, according to the poll, 22 percent of Americans say they have put off medical treatment for a “very” or “somewhat serious” condition in 2014, the percentage having increased slightly since 2013. This is based on a subjective but undefined “serious condition,” so it’s not clear as to the nature of the underlying “serious” condition. If a serious condition was defined in terms of having a serious adverse affect on daily life functioning, it’s unlikely care for the condition would be deferred due to out of pocket costs so this is probably a highly subjective measure.

High deductible plans are being cited by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as a contributing factor to slowing spending on health care in 2013. (Click here for news release). This is based on the conventional wisdom that health care is like other consumer goods and services is subject to the economic principle of price elasticity: demand falls as cost increases and vice versa. But is it really? Do people reason, “Oh, I’ve got a low deductible plan. I think I’ll schedule a few medical appointments?” Highly doubtful since going to the doctor isn’t as an attractive form of spending as, say, going shopping at a retailer to take advantage of a sale providing an inducement to shop. 


Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

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