Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dear Joe Lieberman: Educate Yourself

I could write a book about why competition among private insurers is bad for consumers, gives you less choice, worse health care, and costs you more money, but let me start with one simple example that everybody can grasp, which I think is very powerful.

My previous insurer, which happened to be Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, charges $250 for a colonoscopy in its standard plan. That's a pretty standard copay for what is classified as outpatient surgery. It is more than enough money, obviously, to discourage a lot of people from getting one. Every foregone colonoscopy saves them quite a bit of money, since the provider is probably charging them close to a grand. It means they can offer a lower premium compared to a hypothetical competitor that charged a more affordable co-pay, or none at all.

Now, Republicans like to argue that co-pays like that are good, because they make us think twice about getting health care services and will therefore combat overutilization and keep overall costs down.

Sadly, no. It is difficult to imagine that anyone would go out of his or her way to get a colonoscopy that wasn't medically indicated just because it was cheap. We would only consider undergoing such an onerous experience because our doctor told us it was in our own best interest. The $250 can only make us refuse.

Some readers may dispute this, but it is generally accepted by the people who study these matters that screening colonoscopy, starting at age 50 and then at intervals depending on what is found the first time, is highly cost-effective from a social standpoint. It can actually prevent cancer from occurring in the first place, because the doctor removes pre-cancerous lesions during the procedure. That puts it way ahead of a mammogram. And it can detect cancers at an early stage when they are highly curable, whereas colon cancer detected after it becomes symptomatic is very bad news indeed.

So why doesn't the insurance company want me to have a colonoscopy? Because they figure, by the time I get cancer, I won't be their problem any more. I'll probably be on Medicare, actually, but even if I'm not there is a very good chance I will have changed jobs and be on a different private plan. (As indeed turned out to be the case.)

So what is cost effective from the point of view of society as a whole is that there be no cost barrier to getting a colonoscopy; when it's indicated, people should do it, because the cost is well worth it and indeed, it might even save money in the long run. But that is not cost effective from the point of view of the insurance company, which doesn't want to pay for my colonoscopy on the pretty good bet that ultimately, they won't have to pay for my cancer.

Guess what makes that problem go away? Universal, comprehensive, single payer national health care.

1 comment:

roger said...

maybe joe's wife has already "educated" him, helped along by generous donations from various "stakeholders."