ZNet Commentary

HMO'sDoug Dowd

November 13, 2003   By Doug Dowd

The HMOs and their managed care systems -- first supported in the Nixon years -- ballooned from a headache to a plague beginning about ten years ago. Their pitch was that they would end the inefficiencies of the past. Down However, the period in which they have come to dominate the health care system is precisely that in which its costs -- and its inefficiency (unless you count mountains of paperwork something other than waste -- began the acceleration that continues.

Some of the rising costs were due to factors other than the HMOs, not least the gouging prices set by the pharmaceutical giants. OK, but all of them are part and parcel of the "for-profit health care system." Nonetheless, the HMOs have done at least their share in bringing about today's mountainous costs.

What started out as annual one-digit overall cost increases became two-digit as the 1980s ended, rising to 15.3 percent for 2002. Not good enough: In mid-2002 the NYT reported that "Health maintenance organizations are demanding rate increases of 22 percent in their ongoing negotiations with employers for 2003... which will be passed on to consumers." They were "passed on," and they continue to be.

As the tendency of always higher costs and prices continues, it needs repeating that the provision of health care to the average person has decreased both quantitatively and qualitatively. What's good for their profits is bad for our health.

What is it about the HMOs that such is the case? What was the system they presumed to replace with great savings to all, and profits to them as a reward? It was called the "fee-for-service" system: Other than those covered by Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance for those who had it was selected and paid by one's employer, which used to be so for about two-thirds of workers.

As the numbers of insured rose from the 1950s on, so did doctors' incomes: the insured could choose their own doctors and the doctors soon realized that the more treatments they gave the better off they -- but not necessarily their patients -- were. As Ellen Frank pointed out two years ago, "American doctors performed invasive tests and procedures at rates far exceeding international norms....Caesarean sections, surgerized ulcers, hysterectomies and tonsillectomies far above the rates in other countries, etc." (Dollars & Sense, 5/6, 2001)

Adding to that, past and present, is the friendly corruption between doctors and labs and drug companies. The pleasant consequence for doctors from 1960 to 1990 was that their incomes rose two to three times faster than the nation's, bringing them up to a lovely $200,000 annual average. So that's what the Hippocratic Oath was about!

One might think that such an evolution -- or, better, devolution -- would have led everyone but the doctors and labs and drug companies to open their minds to a national health service/single-payer system. But that overlooks certain large facts:

1) Employers as a whole tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction against anything do with government (unless it is in the nature of a subsidy), and just as "instinctive" a response in favor of "private enterprise," which is what HMOs are;

2) the average citizen lives in the same society, and has been taught to think in much the same way, if not for the same reasons;

3) the major insurance companies have always been opposed to any form of social insurance -- beginning with their adamant fight against social security from 1935 to the present; and

4) this created a new industry for thousands of lobbyists. They have been very successful indeed in their efforts on behalf of the "Big Five" insurance companies (Aetna, Cigna, Metropolitan, Prudential and Travelers) and related managed care companies -- which, taken together, now "cover" 90+ percent of those receiving care. Here a lucid and crisp summary review of what brought us to our present state, and how it happened (as related by Ellen Frank):

The early 1990s saw a wave of mergers and acquisitions among health insurers that left large regions of the country with only two or three competing health plans. Their superior bargaining power allowed insurers to negotiate sharp reductions in fees, which were passed on to employers in the form of lower premiums. In 1994 the average health-insurance premium /paid by employers/ fell for the first time in years; premiums increased at or below the inflation rate for the rest of the 1990s.

Hospitals, facing lower reimbursement rates, cut staff and beds for traditional inpatient care while expanding facilities for expensive services like outpatient surgery. Still, hospitals throughout the country suffered operating losses. Large urban hospitals in low-income areas were especially hard-hit.../some like that of Los Angeles, closing entirely/. For-profit hospital chains moved in quickly, buying up scores of non-profit community hospitals.

So, with patients and providers (doctors, labs, and hospitals) getting the dirty end of the stick, that leaves the HMOs, drug companies, and top insurance companies getting the sweet end -- their owners, their CEOs and their countless lobbyists, that is.

Business being business, another rising tendency is that of HMOs dropping Medicare patients, more than 2.5 million 1998 to the present. Plus, "Medicare patients can expect 'major changes -- that is, reductions of -- benefits, even if they are still enrolled: cutbacks in drug coverage /already cruelly inadequate/, and increases in premiums and co-payments." (ibid.)

So there we are. Or are we? Although there is a rising tide of anger, frustration, and worry among our people at the costs of medical care in the USA, with some emerging movement toward universal coverage, most still see the U.S. system, though costly, as the best.

The best is none too good: "According to a recent study of the Institute of Medicine, medical errors in hospitals kill up to 98,000 patients yearly, while injuring perhaps a million more." (Washington Post, Editorial, "America's medical scandal," 12-10-02). Such deaths and injuries are called "iatrogenic"; that is, caused by the docs themselves.

That was a few years ago. Now, as the USA's entire health care system becomes always more privatized and always more expensive to those needing it, those years are coming to look like paradise lost; and we ain't seen nothin' yet.

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