Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

The Problem With Health Insurance

Something touched a nerve yesterday.  I kind of lost my composure when someone tried to defend the insurance industry and responded out of emotion – perhaps putting aside some reason in the process.

I used to get mad at myself or embarrassed when this happened, but now I stand back and try to analyze my reaction.  What is it that touched a nerve in me?  Why did I feel so strongly?  We don’t feel things without reason, and my reaction doesn’t necessarily betray weakness on my part, it shows the depths of my emotion.  That passion usually comes from something – most of the time it is personal experience; and my personal experience says that insurance companies are causing my patients harm.  That makes me angry.

I don’t think the people in the insurance industry are bad people.  I think vilifying people is the easy way out.  The people there feel like they are doing the right thing, and are no less moral than me.  But I do not think the way to fix our system is through letting them do their business as usual in the name of “free market.”  Defending the current system of insurance ignores some obvious problems in our system:

1.  They are financially motivated to withhold services

If you hire a contractor to work on your house, how wise is it to pay them 100% in advance?  You have just given them financial incentive to do as little work as possible, as it will maximize their profits to do so.  The insurance industry is in such a situation; despite any good intention, they are put in a position to decide between profits and level of service.  It is much better to pay more for better service, not worse; but that is what we have done with health insurance companies.

2.  They have been given the ability to withhold services

If all United Health Care (for example) did was to provide insurance, they would not be vilified as they are.  But since the only data available for medical care was the claims data they hold, they were put in a position to control cost.  This was sensible initially, as they had both the data and the means (denying unnecessary care) of cutting cost.  It’s OK that women aren’t kept in the hospital for a week after having a baby.  It’s OK that I can’t prescribe expensive brand-name drugs when there is a reasonable generic alternative.  There was a whole lot of fat to cut, and they did a good job cutting that fat.

The problem came when all the fat was gone and they were used to big profit-margins.  Once there was not any more unnecessary care to cut, they had two ways to keep their profit-margins: increasing premiums or cutting services.  They did both.  Both of these have hurt my patients.

  • Patients have had premiums increased or have been dropped because they were diagnosed with medical problems.  I have had patients beg me “don’t put that in my record,” as they know a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease will be disastrous.  I am then caught between the pleas of my patients and the demands of honestly practicing and documenting my care.
  • I do what I can to follow evidence-based standards, but there are times when people fall out of the norms.  Medicine is not science, it is applied science.  This means that I am trying to take an individual and somehow match them with the scientific data.  Sometimes it works, but everyone is different.  If something is true 90% of the time, 10% of the people will be exceptions to the rule.  I have repeatedly been told by “gnomes” (people with minimal medical education who sit in front of a computer screen with a protocol for care) what “good medicine” looks like.  They see things as black and white when it is just not that way.  This has caused people to be unnecessarily hospitalized, it has required them to get unnecessary tests to follow their rules.  There is no arguing with people in front of computers.

3.  They covertly ration

Dr. Rich Fogoros (whom I recently met) has coined this phrase to explain what happens in our system.  Because it doesn’t look good to deny necessary care, insurance companies (including government-run ones) resort to making things exceedingly complex.  This makes it look like care is being offered, but not taken advantage of.    What does this mean?

  • The burden of proof is put on the provider to show the tests ordered are necessary.  The assumption is that a test will be denied unless the doc can prove otherwise.
  • Tests are sometimes inappropriately denied.  They then can be appealed, but the appeal process is even more difficult than the initial approval process, and so some people give up.  Every time someone gives up, less is paid out by the insurance company and their profits go up.
  • The rules for coding and billing are so complex, that it is very easy to make mistakes.  This means that an appropriate test ordered by a doctor that is not perfectly coded doesn’t get paid for.  The patient gets the bill and must get the doctor to appeal the denial.  This appeal process, again, is difficult.

Because of this, I have to hire staff whose sole task is to learn all of the rules of the different insurance carriers (including public ones) and then play the game properly with them so that we get as few denials as possible.  I probably spend $70-80 thousand per year to deal with the frustratingly complex system we have.


I have health insurance.  I do understand why it needs to exist, but I also see how harmful the current state can be to my patients.  I get frustrated with Medicare and Medicaid as well, but that is not my point.  Just because government run insurance has problems doesn’t do anything to change the problems with private insurance.  The fact that you can be killed by firing squad doesn’t make the gallows any better.

The cost of care has gone up dramatically over the past 10 years while my reimbursement has dropped.  Where is that extra money?

But the system is very broken right now.  It needs to be fixed.  Things need to be changed in both the private and public sector.  When I was in DC I made the point that our ship is sinking and we are arguing about who will be the captain.  The problems in our system are not simply who is writing the checks.

Honestly, I don’t really care who writes the checks.  All I want is for the system to reward good care and to stop hurting my patients.  Those who deny the reality of either of these problems will invariably draw my ire.

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »