Is the health insurance business a racket? Yes, literally — or so say two New York hospitals, which have filed a racketeering lawsuit against UnitedHealth Group and several of its affiliates.
I don’t know how the case will turn out. But whatever happens in court, the lawsuit illustrates perfectly the dysfunctional nature of our health insurance system, a system in which resources that could have been used to pay for medical care are instead wasted in a zero-sum struggle over who ends up with the bill.
So it’s an arms race between insurers, who deploy software and manpower trying to find claims they can reject, and doctors and hospitals, who deploy their own forces in an effort to outsmart or challenge the insurers. And the cost of this arms race ends up being borne by the public, in the form of higher health care prices and higher insurance premiums.
Like denial management, however, marketing and underwriting cost a lot of money. McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, recently released an important report dissecting the reasons America spends so much more on health care than other wealthy nations. One major factor is that we spend $98 billion a year in excess administrative costs, with more than half of the total accounted for by marketing and underwriting — costs that don’t exist in single-payer systems.
And this is just part of the story. McKinsey’s estimate of excess administrative costs counts only the costs of insurers. It doesn’t, as the report concedes, include other “important consequences of the multipayor system,” like the extra costs imposed on providers. The sums doctors pay to denial management specialists are just one example.
But the larger problem isn’t the behavior of any individual company. It’s the ugly incentives provided by a system in which giving care is punished, while denying it is rewarded.