Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the state of health - 1

There was an interesting comment over at TF's place stating (and I can't for the moment think of a reasonable response to it) that the Federal government "has no place in providing health services". As should be well known to readers here, that is certainly not the case in NZ. Mind you, the commenter did continue to say that it was a State responsibility, and that perhaps is the reason why I am at a bit of a loss about it.

There is one very direct parallel between NZ and the US though, and it centres on the role of the private system and medical insurance providers.

To that end there was a very interesting and somewhat blood-chilling little article in SST this week...
RISING HEALTHCARE costs have reached crisis point, pushing families to give up their health insurance and fall back onto the straining state system, says Ian McPherson, chief executive of Southern Cross Medical Care Society.

The not-for-profit insurer saw claims rise by $61 million in the year to June and McPherson said factors behind the claims blowout included the amount private surgeons earned and costly new medical technologies with little or no proven clinical benefit.

For the time being, my salary package includes medical insurance through Southern Cross at a cost of something like $35 per week. That looks like increasing by a bit in the near future.
"How much will people be able to continue to pay and not object?" McPherson asked.

"We have seen a significant downgrading from policies that are far more general to policies covering the extreme emergencies. It is difficult for people to downgrade any more. There is a significant number sitting on the bottom rung and about to jump off into the public system again."

Rising costs for Southern Cross could also feed the already rapid rise in the state's healthcare bill. Consultant Paul Winton, author of a report in August – Health, New Zealand's untreated addiction – said current trends suggested healthcare costs could grow from 20% of core government spending to 40% in 15 years.

McPherson said Southern Cross had begun engaging with GPs on the premium-affordability crisis, and the subtext is clear – the insurer wants to see GPs direct patients away from the more expensive private surgeons.

"We are not going to tell GPs who to refer their patients to," McPherson said, but "we would like GPs to be mindful about the cost rather than referring out of habit. Giving them an incentive to help manage our budgets is something we are exploring with them now."

Southern Cross has been developing a network of affiliated providers, but McPherson said as yet it would be a step too far to require their use in the same way a car insurer would require a claimant to go to an approved panelbeater.

Now there is little wrong with the Southern Cross response to the problem so far as I am concerned.

The truth of the matter is though that McPherson's prognosis in the opening paras is only too true. Even given the present premium levels there is little chance that I will be able to afford the present cover into my retirement. There is no question that I will become increasingly reliant upon the public health service. Not that I have any problem with that, as it has certainly been "good value" for me.

McPherson said there were instances where it appeared that profit motive and not clinical outcomes were driving that price upwards.

He cited the example of robot-assisted prostatectomy surgery which costs $30,000 compared to the $15,000-$20,000 of conventional surgery, without evidence of faster recovery or better clinical outcomes.

Southern Cross's reaction in this case was to pay only a "contribution" to the cost of the robot-assisted surgery.

Why were surgeons using it? "Because it is fun. Because it is interesting. Because you can get a margin on your investment."

Hmmm, sounds a bit like "boys toys" no?

Let's set the parameters here.

First, medicine is about curing diseases, mending injuries, and providing palliative care for the dying.

Second, it is a very highly skilled and for most a stressful occupation. (I am basing that on the comments made to me by the three medical doctors in the club I belong to). People who fit those parameters in any field deserve to earn more than those of us who cruise below the radar doing little more than subsist. There is also, as any capitalist will tell you, the need and justification for recovering a return on capital invested; let's face it, I will tell you that as an accountant.
Terry Moore, president of the Private Surgical Hospitals Association, said: "We are conscious of the increases in costs which ultimately, if left unchecked will mean fewer people will be able to afford to go private themselves."

Moore said uncontestable clinical proof of new technologies could take years to emerge, but acknowledged they were stoking cost escalation along with wages and surgeons' fees.

McPherson also hit out at fees in his annual report to members last month. "We hear the argument that [surgeons] are part of a globalised workforce; we point out that if their prices increase to reflect overseas rates, fewer New Zealanders will be able to afford private surgical services."

Boscawen [right wing MP] is of similar mind, arguing that the globalised workforce is more of a westernised workforce, because the wages earned by quality doctors from India, for example, where cataract surgery is cheap, are having no effect on the fees charged by private surgeons here.

Moore countered: "Surgeons are generally independent practitioners and contractors so they pretty much set their own fees in a competitive market, but I don't think the fees have gone up much more than the medical inflation rate. They have become more efficient so they are probably earning more, but probably working harder for it and doing more procedures."

He said rising premium costs for health insurers were also driven by the sheer number of procedures being done, not just the cost of each one.

All true, well I have difficulty disagreeing with most of it so it must be. No confirmation bias here!

But there are some interesting contradictions. For example, the hospitals (Moore, above) are trying to argue that "economies of scale" ideas do not apply; "rising premium costs for health insurers were also driven by the sheer number of procedures being done, not just the cost of each one." I would have thought that (as my wife found out when she had cataracts removed from one eye) being able to "mass produce/production line" operations would lead to some savings. If it costs the insurer $4M to provide 1100 cataract operations then does increasing the number by 20% mean a 50% increase in cost? It does if "industry" is currently running at or above capacity.

There is a secondary impact too, coming out of the combination of developing technology (and that is everything including drugs and personal skills) together with societal expectations. The best indicator I can give for this effect I wrote on some while back (2006?? Sheesh!) is the example of herceptin - a treatment drug for a specific kind of breast cancer. That example ended up as a $3 million programme to treat roughly 20 women per year or about $150,000 each.

No one can blame those women for wanting (or deserving) the best possible treatment, and outcome. Exactly the same justification existed in the 1970's when open heart surgery was being developed by the likes of Barratt-Boyes and the other researchers in US, Europe and South Africa. Today, that surgery is routine. Auckland Hospital does two or three operations per day at a cost each of (I was told) about $75,000.

[To be continued...]

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