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The Staggering Cost of US Health Care Bureaucracy

Yuval Rosenberg

Seemingly everyone has a horror story to tell about dealing with the bureaucracy of the U.S. health care system, from mundane matters like medical records to financial fights over surprise medical bills or insurance claims.

Those individual experiences come at a high collective cost, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine: U.S. health insurers and providers spent $812 billion on administration in 2017, representing more than a third of national health expenditures, or double the 17% percent that Canada spends under its single-payer system. The U.S. administrative costs translate to nearly $2,500 per person — or almost five times as high as in Canada.

“The gap in health administrative spending between the United States and Canada is large and widening, and it apparently reflects the inefficiencies of the U.S. private insurance–based, multipayer system,” the study’s authors conclude. “The prices that U.S. medical providers charge incorporate a hidden surcharge to cover their costly administrative burden.”

The study finds that U.S. could have saved more than $600 billion in 2017 if it were able to cut its administrative costs to match Canada’s. “The difference between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study, told Time. “And frankly to have money left over.”

Why it matters: This isn’t the first study to show that the U.S. system has higher administrative costs than other countries, but it is the first major study calculating those system-wide costs in almost two decades. The spending disparity detailed in the study “could challenge some assumptions about the relative efficiency of public and private healthcare programs,” writes Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times. “It could also become a hot political talking point on the American campaign trail as presidential candidates debate the pros and cons of government-funded universal health insurance.”

A steep rise in U.S. costs: Administrative costs have grown in both the U.S. and Canada over the last 20 years, but the increase in the United States has been much higher, mostly as the result of insurance overhead. “The study showed that private insurers contributed to most of the increase in administrative costs between 1999 and 2017,” Modern Healthcare’s Rachel Cohrs reports. “Of the 3.2 percentage point increase in administrative costs as a share of overall health spending, 2.4 percentage points were due to the expanding role that private insurers have assumed in Medicare and Medicaid.”

The insurance industry response: America’s Health Insurance Plans, a group representing private health insurance companies, told the Los Angeles Times that government-run systems aren’t as efficient as private ones, citing a recent report by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent body that advises Congress, that found that private Medicare Advantage plans deliver benefits at 88% of the cost of traditional Medicare. “Study after study continues to demonstrate the value of innovative solutions brought by the free market,” AHIP said in its statement. “In head-to-head comparisons, the free market continues to be more efficient than government-run systems.”

The researchers are single-payer advocates: Himmelstein and one of his co-authors, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, also of the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, have long advocated for a single-payer health-care system in the United States. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program and have been unpaid policy advisors to Sen. Bernie Sanders and have coauthored research manuscripts with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Both senators are calling for a transition to a single-payer Medicare-for-All system. But the researchers say that their conclusions in the new study are based on the data — and that their estimates of U.S. administrative costs are likely conservative.

"It's actually the data that guided us to the solution, the solution didn't give rise to the data," Himmelstein said, according to Modern Healthcare.

Himmelstein also says that, while it may be possible to reduce administrative costs without switching to a single-payer system, the benefits would be much smaller. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” he told Time.

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