Thursday, January 10, 2008

Avner on Health Savings Accounts

The January 9, 2008 Denver Post published the following opinion piece by Jackie Avner on personal responsibility and Health Savings Accounts:
Inventions of prudence
By Jackie Avner

To what degree are we, as individuals, personally responsible for the health care crisis?

Americans blame insurance and pharmaceutical companies, doctors and the government — and perhaps rightly so. But curiously missing from the list of culprits is us. Are we to blame for skyrocketing costs, as well?

Some Americans choose to buy things other than health insurance. Nearly 40 percent of the uninsured reside in households with earnings greater than $50,000. Their health care costs are spread among everyone else.

Most Americans choose to overeat. According to the World Health Organization, 74 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Obesity contributes to expensive, chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Americans over-consume pharmaceutical drugs, tests and procedures from the buffet of health care options, including those our doctors think will be marginally effective. Our reasoning is, "If it doesn't cost me anything extra, why not try it?"

We over-consume emergency room services. One extensive study showed 74 percent of patients who sign themselves into the ER have health issues that could be treated by a primary care doctor. Most ER visits occur during hours when less expensive alternatives for care are available. When surveyed, patients explain their preference for the ER by citing easy access to diagnostic testing, higher quality of care, access to specialists, and convenience. There's little incentive to take overall cost into consideration.

Annual U.S. health care expenditures are $5,711 per person, far greater than in any other country. But spending the most money doesn't give us the longest lifespan. We rank 38th in life expectancy. Cuba ranks 37th — and has a per capita health care expenditure of $229.

All of us should be more responsible. We should acknowledge that death, pain and illness are a part of life and can't be avoided through copious consumption of health care services. We should have a living will so we won't be subject to treatments we consider inappropriate. We should show a greater willingness to care for our elderly parents at home, rather than placing them in expensive assisted living or nursing care facilities.

But we're all spoiled, and pointing it out isn't likely to transform our "health care consumer" mind-frame into a "good citizen" mind-frame.

Don't fight human nature

Our own history may offer a solution. America's founding fathers designed the Constitution around an ingenious concept: Don't fight human nature; work with it. Harness our selfishness with "inventions of prudence" such as checks, balances, and wide dispersal of power, and make self-interest work for the public good. Why not apply the same principle to health care reform?

In 1993, Congress introduced Health Savings Accounts, which provide financial incentives for people to make responsible, cost-effective health care decisions. My family signed up for an HSA last year. We now have a health insurance policy with a high deductible, and use our HSA to pay for all medical expenses we incur before meeting that deductible. Our annual costs and health benefits are exactly the same as before. However, each year we get to keep whatever money we contributed to the HSA but didn't spend. These savings will grow, tax-deferred, for us to use in retirement.

I now shop for the best prices in dental and eye care. I buy generic drugs, and consider costs as well as benefits when choosing among treatment options presented by my doctors. My behavior is entirely different, and entirely more responsible as a result of a simple incentive from the government.

America's founding fathers would applaud the way the HSA plan can change individual attitudes and behavior without reducing individual liberty. Why can't the government offer similar financial incentives to Medicare and Medicaid patients, and to doctors and insurance companies?

Human nature may never change, but the right incentives can change human behavior for the better. That's health care reform.

Jackie Avner of Highlands Ranch ( worked in the U.S. Senate and is now a full-time mom. Her husband is a physician.
I liked her piece quite a bit. My only major comment is that I don't believe one has to justify encouraging rational self-interest in the name of fostering "the public good". Instead I would say that it is morally good for individuals seek their rational self-interest (which includes respecting the rights of others), and that this is justification enough, without having to also invoke any further collective good.