Medicare Trends

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SUMMARY

Medicare became law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. In the pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had fallen below the poverty level. In the intervening years, the percent of seniors with income below poverty level has dropped nearly three times.

While the benefits to seniors have dramatically improved their lot, the cost to society is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed in Congress.  This report looks at the components that are driving up Medicare costs as well as increasing seniors’ out-of-pocket expenses.

 Overall population is increasing demands for care

As expected, growing populations result in growing health care costs. What is evident from the graph below is that in addition to overall growth, the percent of people 65 years and old is increasing.

Two factors are contributing. One is that the baby boomers as a group are beginning to move into the senior group. They are followed by a drop off (percent wise), in younger people.  Projections refer to the increasing mix of older people with fewer people working to pay into Medicare. But this trend is not permanent, and once the baby boomer “bubble” works its way through the population, the mix of retirees to workers stabilizes.  But that is out past the year 2040, beyond the range of most forecasts.

In short, solve the Medicare problem expected for the next 30 years and only minor changes will likely be needed after that.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

Greater life expectancy adds to aging population

The second factor contributing to the growth of seniors is their increasing life expectancy.  The graph below  shows that all major groups of seniors have benefited from better health care. Life expectancy at birth show lower increases.

The question is whether these significant increases will continue into the future.  If they continue, then the percent of seniors will continue to increase.  If trends tend to slow, then the population age mix may stabilize.

On the other end of the age scale, if birth rates rise, this will create a greater percentage of younger people.  And there is some evidence of this occurring, though not equally among different races. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 14 

It may be 30 years before age group % stabilizes

On the assumption that the mix of aged people stabilizes in the 2040-2050 range, this still represents a significant change from today where less than 15% of population is 65 and over.  By the time it stabilizes, seniors will represent over 20% of population and may for some time to come beyond that.

Current Medicare premiums assessed on workers is not enough to cover those future costs. Two events clearly need to happen. One is to increase the “premiums” paid into the system.  Options include raising all rates uniformly or raising the wage ceiling on which premiums are based. The other is to take costs out of Medicare.

Another analysis has shown huge discrepancies being paid in Medicare indicating excess care being provided to some and not others that needs to be addressed.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

As people get older, their health demands increase

It is common knowledge that seniors slow down as they age.  The graph below shows the five most common reasons seniors reduce their activity level.  As they age, each factor grows in significance.

 Nearly 3 in 10 seniors over 85 will become limited by arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions.  2 in 10 seniors over 85 will be limited by heart or circulatory conditions.  Though climbing with age, vision, hearing and senility are factors in less than 1 in 10 seniors 85 and older.

While the graph shows the number of medical conditions increasing with aging, it does not indicate severity.  But on volume alone, seniors require more health care. This can be mitigated somewhat by more exercise and healthier diets, the two largest slowdown factors. Less can be done about vision, hearing, senility or dementia.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 13 

Medicare a major factor in improving poverty levels

Medicare came law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. The success of Medicare was dramatic as shown in the graph below. With pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had family income below the poverty level. In the short span of 7 years, the percent of seniors with family income below poverty level dropped to 15%, roughly in half. Gradual reductions since have lowered that threshold to about 10%.  This could partially explain why older seniors are often very protective of their benefits. They remember when there was no safety net.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 04 

 Price inflation creates higher bills for seniors

The graph below highlights cost trends for four groups of people from 1996 to 1996. Except for a slight break around, 1998 – 2000, costs have trended upward every year for every age group. Within each age group there is another consistent trend. Seniors 65-74 years incur only about half the expense that seniors 85 and over do, while those 75-84 years incur more than half again as much as seniors 65-74. This confirms the comments above that as people age, their health demands increase.

Now these data are per enrollee. So price inflation is causing costs for all seniors to rise. As seniors age, their costs continue to rise. And finally, as the baby boomer bubble moves into the senior ranks, the total number of seniors increases dramatically. It is sort of a “perfect storm” where all factors are pointing towards Medicare costs consuming more and more of the nation’s economic output.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 143 

Cost sharing of Medical Expense Also Rising

In nearly all cases where medical expense is incurred, insurance picks up a large share of the costs, but not all. Amounts paid by individuals is called “cost sharing” or deductibles and co-payments, or out-of-pocket expense. Below are 6 age groups that incurred over $2,000 in out-of-pocket expense. This threshold allows a focus on the more expensive medical encounters. Cost sharing for all seniors has consistently risen over the entire period.  Any solutions to rising Medicare costs that reduce benefits, shifting more costs to seniors should at least take into account that seniors have for years, been paying higher out-of-pocket costs for health care. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 133

 One Good Example of Government Run Medicare

While overall Medicare costs have continued to rise, there is one component that is trending favorable – Administrative Expense. Early on, there were inefficiencies in Medicare part B as these tended to be smaller dollar claims but the same amount of manual effort to record claims into the system.  As automation and standardization increased, these costs came down such that since 2000, the administrative costs per claim dollar for both hospitals and doctors are roughly equal.

What is far mor telling is that since 2000, these administrative costs have (a) stayed level and (b) averaged just two (2%) of total costs.  In the 1980’s private insurers, primarily non-profit, had administrative costs of about 5%. Today, insurers are frequently incurring administrative costs of more than 20% on large blocks of their businesses.  In at least one area, government appears to have done better.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 142

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Medical Loss Ratio

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Medical Loss Ratio or MLR is a ratio used to measure what percent of Premium revenue for health insurance is paid out in medical claims.  The remainder of premium is used to cover selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses as well as operating margin or profit.

In the early 1990’s, the average MLR was over 90% and in 1992-1993 the MLR approached 95%.  Though that may have been a high water mark for MLR, it was not unusual for MLRs in the 1980’s and earlier to be above 90%.  Health insurance companies ran the business with leaner overhead than is seen in more current times.

Wall Street frequently uses the Medical Loss Ratio measure to determine profitability for health Insurers.  For Wall Street, a lower MLR is considered good as it indicates that the insurer has control over its medical claims.  Higher MLR’s may
suggest that the insurer either has a bad book of business or is not so well managed, either or both which could adversely affect profitability.

MLR’s dropped fairly rapidly in the 1990’s and continued a more gradual decline to the low 80% levels in recent years.

Health care reformers have focused on increasing MLR’s as a way to control health care costs. Since MLR by definition is a ratio of two numbers, one can increase the MLR by either reducing premium revenue, or by paying more claims from the same revenue.  Since no one arbitrarily pays claims, forcing an increase in the MLR should put downward pressure on premiums. In that case, what expenses need to be cut.

For them to focus on reducing claims does them little good as lowering claims does nothing to increase the MLR.  For insurers to retain some measure of profitability, they have to look at cutting their general and administrative expenses.

Medical Loss Ratio declining over time

The graph below shows MLR trends from 1992 to 2007.  In the early 1990’s, the average MLR was over 90% and in 1992-1993 the MLR approached 95%.  Though that may have been a high water mark for MLR, it was not unusual for MLRs before 1990 to be above 90%.  Then again, as one goes back in time, more health insurers were non-profit than there are now.  These companies ran the business with leaner overhead than is seen in more current times.

A critical question for health care reform is how fast and how far can these trends be reversed so that more of the premium dollar goes to medical claims instead of overhead expenses and profits.

 Source: Price Waterhouse Coopers Medical Loss Ratio Annual

 MLR includes multiple variables to control

The graph below shows three cases, each with three bars.  The base case is typical of today, the second assumes lower claims, and the third assumes higher claims. 

 The first bar in each case represents claims, SG&A expense  and profit margin. The second bar represents premiums and a small investment income (green). By definition, profit plus expenses must equal revenue so those two bars are always equal length.  The third bar of each case is the MLR. 

In the second case, claims are lower. But unless premiums are reduced, the MLR will go down. Further the premium reduction will eat into profits to maintain the MLR. If claims rise as in the third case, and if the market will bear, higher premiums will generate added profits without incurring a reduction in MLR.

Effect on MLR if profits & expenses held constant

The graph below shows the same three case format as the prior graph. The base case is the same as above.  In the second case, however, both claims and premiums are reduced by 5%.  It also assumes no change in profit or expense.  In an environment of falling costs and claims, the MLR will decline by nearly one %.

But the health care prices have been in an ever increasing trend.  If overhead and profits are held constant, a 5% increase in both claims and premiums will raise the MLR by almost 1%.  But as was shown above, the MLR continues to decline. Unless there is competitive downward pressure on premiums, the profits will tend to rise and MLR’s decline.

A key unanswered question is whether there exists enough competition to drive prices down or at least keep them from rising faster than general inflation. 

Raise the minimum MLR as a step to Cost Control

California is one state that is considering raising the MLR to a minimum of 85%, and increase from about 82%.  The graph below shows two ways this can occur. 

The first is to hold premiums constant as claims rise to 85%.  This will result in significantly lower profits unless overhead is sharply reduced, from around 16% to 13%.

The second method is to reduce premiums to more quickly reach 85% MLR with no changes in claims. If insurers want to maintain current levels of profits, this method will require even steeper cuts in overhead expenses than in the prior case.  Insurers can be expected to resist these moves.

Still, one does not have to go back that many years to find total overhead and profit to be less than 10%.

 

Sensitivity in MLR to changes in overhead and profit

The graph below shows 5 bars representing decreasing levels of overhead and profit and their effect on MLR.  Or conversely, how much do overhead and profit need to be reduced to reach higher MLR levels.

For insurers to reach an 85% MLR without increasing premiums, they will need to reduce overhead and profits by some 20%. An 88% minimum MLR would require reductions of 33%.  Health care reform should allow for significant cuts in general and administrative expenses. With insurance exchanges, selling expenses may be reduced. But it is hard to imagine the levels of cuts needed to help bring about cost control without some reduction in profits as well.

If this nation is serious about reform, it is optimistic to think that insurers’ profits will remain relatively unaffected by these changes. But the high tech industry had a nice ride to new highs, before it was brought back to reasonable levels.

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Selected Industries Financial Ratios

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A publication in its 40th year titled Almanac of Business and Industrial Financial Ratios tracks 50 operating and financial factors in nearly 200 industries. 4 measures for 8 industries are highlighted in the graphs below. They reflect tax return data (IRS Form 1120) through June of 2006.  In addition, selected 2007 financial data from the nation’s Top 10 for-profit health insurers came from their SEC 10K reports.  The Almanac industries include tax returns for the following:

Industry Tax Returns Revenues
Hospitals , Nursing Care 10,498 $76.0B
Outpatient  Care Centers 4,453 $24.8B
Engineering 60,986 $133B
Computer Systems  Design 62,135 $117.8B
Management Consulting 134,243 $138.7B
Commercial Banking 30,534 $55.4B
Credit Card Issuers 46,735 $28.7B
Investment Banking 5,402 $29.4B

The Top 10 health insurers had revenues of $242.5B. When comparing net income as a % of sales, these insurers ranked lower than other industries as shown in the first two graphs below.  The top 10 are in red below.

The Top 10 pay a higher % in taxes so their before tax ratio is slightly better (upper left graph) than after tax ratio (upper right graph.)  But is % of sales a proper comparison across industries?  Higher revenue industries all tend to have lower Income as a % of sales than do lower revenue industries.

Rather than dividing net income by sales, one can divide net income by equity.  Equity is how much shareholders’ money is invested in the business.  It takes into account loans.  And it puts firms of different size on a more equal footing.

Return on equity or ROE is a recognized way for comparing companies in different industries.  The two lowest graphs show average ROE for the Top 10 compared to 8 industries. Though not the highest before/after tax, Top 10 returns exceed hospitals, outpatient care centers, computer systems design, credit card issuers and investment bankers.  Returns trail highly profitable, engineering, management consulting, commercial banking, and physicians and lawyers (not shown).

In summary, health insurers are fairly profitable enterprises as currently structured.  But some ask whether at least part of that profitability is derived from questionable denials of claims made by their subscribers.

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For every 100 people …

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For every 100 people:

50 will spend   3% of  Total Healthcare Dollars

39 will spend 13% Total of Healthcare Dollars

10 will spend 63% of Total Healthcare Dollars

1 will spend 21% of Total Healthcare Dollars

Or …

For every 100 people:

50 will spend ~ $500/year

39 will spend ~ $2,700/year

10 will spend ~$51,000/year

1 will spend ~ $171,000/year

Health care spending is highly skewed. For 9 out of 10, your health care is fine. If you are the 1 in 10, you could be bankrupted without adequate health insurance. Averages don’t tell the story, a bit like the infamous words of Clint Eastwood, “Do you feel lucky?”    If you had to pick from two guns, one with all empty chambers and the other chambered with a single round, your odds would be lower of selecting a gun with a loaded chamber than of being bankrupted or nearly so if you had inadequate health insurance.  The average is very low, but would you gamble those odds with your family’s health?

But it also explains why so many people do not understand there is any health problem. Being so highly skewed, most people have never encountered a serious illness or accident, and some of them wonder what all the fuss over reform is about.

Source Kaiser Family Foundation: Trends in Health Care Costs and Spending March 2009

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