Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA: Is Greed Winning Over Welfare?

by EOS Intelligence

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA: Is Greed Winning Over Welfare?

by EOS Intelligence

by EOS Intelligence

Americans have been struggling with access to affordable healthcare for years, with thousands of stories of an unexpected illness driving a patient to bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the USA spends much more than European nations on healthcare but covers the smallest percentage of the healthcare costs. Wasteful spending, excessive administrative costs, no limit to medicines prices, lack of a single unified interface system, and passive attitude by the government are all building blocks of a wall separating Americans from the quality and affordable healthcare system expected from any developed country.

According to a 2020 article published by Harvard, the annual cost of healthcare in the USA was around US$3.5 trillion, of which around 33% is believed to have been squandered. Simultaneously, healthcare costs are soaring, contributing significantly to several issues around the delivery and affordability of healthcare in the USA. The same Harvard article revealed that about 40-44% of Americans decided to omit or postpone medical treatment, tests, or care owing to their high costs. Although the USA has the highest national healthcare expenditure, the country registers one of the lowest life expectancies among the developed economies. Additionally, around 10% of the population does not have health insurance.

This problem is so deep-rooted and widespread that the issue of healthcare costs was referred to as the “tapeworm of American economic competitiveness” by investor Warren Buffet. Almost 67% of the US population wishes the federal government to regulate healthcare prices in the country. Yet, despite it being such a grave problem, the US government does not seem to be taking any (visibly) constructive measures to resolve it. While significant political aspects are certainly at play, a deep dive into the cost drivers of the US healthcare system might shed some light on the complexity of this issue.

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA - Is Greed Winning Over Welfare by EOS Intelligence

Soaring Healthcare Costs in the USA – Is Greed Winning Over Welfare by EOS Intelligence

Healthcare administrative costs hold the lion’s share of total healthcare expenditure

One of the major components of healthcare costs in the USA is the annual cost of healthcare administration at US$1,055 per capita, according to a 2021 estimation by the Peterson Foundation. The US spending on healthcare administrative purposes is by far the highest globally. Compared with Germany, the second-highest spender on healthcare administration at US$306 per capita, the stark difference of US$749 per capita speaks volumes about the current situation in the USA. The country also registers the world’s highest share of administrative costs in total healthcare costs, at around 15-30% annually. Wasteful administrative spending is estimated to contribute about half of that share (7.5% to 15% of the country’s total healthcare spending), translating to anywhere from US$285 billion to US$570 billion in 2019.

The USA spent around US$950 billion in 2019 on healthcare administration, which translates to 25% of the national healthcare expenditure (NHE) that year. A significant part of the excessive administrative expenditure is billing and insurance-related costs (BIR), including overhead costs for medical billing and services such as claim submission, claim reconciliation, and payment processing. Profits made by the insurance companies account for the highest share of BIR costs. Healthcare providers also get part of these administrative costs for note-taking and record-keeping during the medical billing process. According to an article published by Harvard in 2020, there are occupations in US healthcare that do not exist elsewhere, such as medical-record coding to claim-submission specialists. Further, the article claims that in other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, where multiple payers and private providers exist, healthcare administration costs less than 50% of the USA equivalent.

As per 2019 McKinsey research, the USA could decrease healthcare administrative expenditure by 30% through automation and streamlining of the BIR processes. Claims processing software enables automation of BIR processes, however, only 15% of US hospitals employ such software, as per Definitive Healthcare tech data.

Healthcare services costs, including physicians’ salaries, empty patients’ pockets

A 2018 JAMA study revealed that physician salaries in the USA were higher than in other developed countries. A survey by Medscape in 2021 revealed that physicians earned the most in the USA compared to other developed countries. On average, the annual income of physicians in the USA was US$316,000, followed by Germany (US$183,000) and the UK (US$138,000).

As per 2019 Commonwealth Fund research, Americans are much less likely to consult a doctor in case of a health issue, at half the rate compared to other developed countries. This can be attributed to the fact that the cost of healthcare services is considerably higher in the USA vis-à-vis other developed nations. According to a 2017 report, the average cost of a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery in the USA was US$78,100, whereas the same procedure cost only US$11,700 in the Netherlands. While the procedure cost is already far lower, in the Netherlands, patients will likely have the procedure cost fully covered by insurance without any co-payment. The USA also reported higher costs for outpatient procedures such as MRI scans and colonoscopies compared with other developed countries.

Skyrocketing prescription drug prices further inflate healthcare costs

As per OECD, in 2019, the average spending on prescription drugs by an American was about US$1,126 per capita, which was over double that in other developed nations. As per CMS, prescription drug spending in the USA by the federal government is expected to grow by 6.1% through 2027.

The growth in prescription drug spending could be attributed to increased focus on specialty pharmaceuticals and precision medicine. Specialty medicines are experimental therapies for treating cancers, autoimmune diseases, or chronic conditions. Some specialty medicines employ genetic data to provide highly targeted, personalized therapy. Owing to the complex nature of these drugs, they are generally expensive to develop and distribute.

For instance, a novel specialty drug called Hemgenix to treat hemophilia B is the most expensive drug ever approved by the FDA. The price of a single infusion of this gene therapy is around US$3.5 million. No healthcare providers have submitted a claim for Hemgenix so far in 2023.

Apart from specialty medicines, pricing strategies for drugs in general play a significant role in soaring healthcare costs in the USA. Drug producers set a list price based on their product’s estimated value, and the price list can be increased by the producers as they see fit. In the USA, there are few regulations to curb producers from increasing drug prices in this way.

Chronic diseases add fuel to the fire of escalating healthcare costs

As per the CDC, six out of ten adults in the USA have a chronic disease or condition. The most common chronic diseases or conditions in the USA include heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Furthermore, according to 2022 research published in the National Library of Medicine, of the population 50 years and older, the number with at least one chronic disease is estimated to increase by 99.5% from 71.522 million in 2020 to 142.66 million by 2050.

There is a robust correlation between the prevalence of chronic diseases and rising healthcare costs. As per a report from the American Action Forum, the USA spends about US$3.7 trillion annually for the treatment of chronic health diseases and the consequent loss of economic productivity. Routine office visits, prescriptions, outpatient treatments, or emergency care account for most of this healthcare spending in the USA.

Expanding geriatric population contributes to rising healthcare costs

According to the US Census Bureau, 21% of the US population is expected to be 65 years or older by 2030. The growing aging population is expected to drive healthcare costs in the USA in two ways: through Medicare enrollment growth and the increase in the prevalence of more complex and chronic conditions. Medicare had over 65 million beneficiaries as of March 2023, a number that is expected to increase by 2030 dramatically. This enrollment growth will impact NHE since Medicare is a publicly funded program. As per the CMS, in 2020, the USA spent US$900.8 billion on Medicare, and the CMS expects that Medicare spending will surge by 7.6% annually through 2028.

The elderly population is vulnerable to chronic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. According to the National Council on Aging, 80% of older Americans have a chronic condition, and 77% of older adults have two or more chronic conditions. These chronic conditions will require ongoing treatment or long-term care at a nursing home or assisted living facility. These outcomes will account for increasing healthcare costs and overall national healthcare expenditure in the USA.

Greed over welfare

Corporate avarice is another factor said to be responsible for the rising healthcare costs in the USA. Insulin list price in the USA is 10 times higher than that in Canada. Not only pharma companies but also renowned hospitals charge more for the same service compared with less renowned hospitals. This applies to various services, from complex surgeries to simple X-rays.

Price regulation is the only solution to this problem that could be implemented with enough political will. The US state of Maryland has introduced this regulation for hospital services, while most European countries have regulated the prices of pharmaceuticals. However, implementing price regulation would mean that the compensation of the top management executives or the CXOs would decline, or the budget for R&D would reduce. This causes much resistance among top management executives to arrive at a constructive decision of choosing between self or service. However, the fact that patients delay treatment because of rising prices speaks strongly in favor of introducing at least some level of price regulation.

EOS Perspective

Standardization is one of the key ways to decrease administrative costs. Just for comparison purposes, checking out of a grocery store is easy because all products possess bar codes, and all credit card machines are the same or uniform. Similarly, mobile banking and inter-banking are straightforward since the Federal Reserve has set standards for how banks should interface with each other.

However, the American healthcare system has been immune to such a standardization. Every health insurer needs a different bar-code-equivalent and payment-systems submission. In addition, it is tough to send electronic medical records (EMRs) from one hospital to another because there is no mandate by the federal government for them to be in compatible formats. Additionally, this lack of standardization benefits many healthcare providers, as they strive to avoid the interchange of EMRs to prevent patients from switching doctors.

Standardization is possible only when prominent stakeholders are involved in it, agree to it, and decide they need it. The largest stakeholder in the US healthcare system is the federal government. Buying capacity and administrative control to compel payers and providers to adopt billing and interface rules to standardize the process lies within the federal government’s responsibilities.

Similarly, a price cap regulation needs to be brought about in the pharmaceutical sector. Price regulation is the only way to lower the prices of prescription drugs. Apart from this, the federal government needs to implement price cap regulation in healthcare services such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, etc.

It is the government that should introduce regulations that put caps on drugs and services prices, at least in certain product and service groups. It is the government that should establish the infrastructure to materialize standardization and introduce a deadline by which all interactions must be standardized.

However, to date, the federal government only considers providing insurance – particularly Medicare and Medicaid – to people as its role rather than looking out for the entire healthcare system as a unit. This mentality needs to change if healthcare costs are to be brought down.