Almost every morning on the way to work I go through the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru and get a large coffee. On an average day there are two or three cars in line. If it is a school day and my timing is off there may be 4-5 cars in line. But every now and then there are 10-15 cars in line. The first time I saw the big line I thought they were short-handed. However, when I pulled up to the drive thru speaker and ordered my large coffee I was asked what kind of free donut I wanted with that. Yes, it was buy a large coffee and get a free donut day. My first thought was that I needed to lose fifteen pounds and don’t need the donut. My second though was that I could not believe how many people changed their morning routine to get a free high calorie food item that costs $1.20 because they purchased a coffee. As a psychology major I came to the simple realization that this is real human behavior in action.
This gets me to what I have always believed about the U.S. health insurance and health care market. I believe that the major obstacle to achieving significantly lower costs are laws and rules that prohibit normal and instinctive human behavior. If we simply unleashed the power of an individual to act in their own self-interest as they do to get a free donut, the entire market would react to meet the demand that this behavior created. Costs would drop like a rock as insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, and drug companies restructured their businesses to accommodate this new buyer. These lower costs would also free-up needed capital to cover those that need a safety net.
Most can’t imagine this new world because their minds are stuck in the current model. The new models would be very different. Maybe insurance products would not be as complex. I often reference how Steve Jobs was a uability fanatic. He cared about the fonts on the cell phone. If the iPhone wasn’t easy nobody would use it. Apply the same logic to health insurance. Would some company design an easy to understand product? I always make fun of a prescription drug plan that I saw that had 12 different ways to get reimbursed for a prescription. Does anyone really understand what a non-formulary non-network drug is?
A few years ago, I read that 87% of employees had one health insurance option through their employer. That may be a little higher today but still a low number. With almost every other product I purchase I have dozens of options. Dunkin Donuts has 20+ donut options. The local ice cream place has 30 flavors and that is just one place. How many different cars can I buy? A buddy of mine owns a vodka business. How many types of vodka or beers are there? Yet with health insurance I have one option and the price is going up 15% every year. Maybe there is a relationship between these two stats.
I read all these articles by brokers and others about working with employers to try and control health care costs. In my opinion, while it is necessary in today’s world, it is all garbage. It is a temporary fix. I know this may be blasphemous to say such things in the world that I travel but I really don’t think employers want to be going to work and worrying about how to control the claims of their employees. I often say that the best way to control costs is to not hire old fat people. The current market does promote that type of discrimination.
The two areas in then U.S. where there is easy access to capital are in health care and college education. These are also the two areas where costs are exceeding inflation by a mile and are the biggest burdens on our society. In health care employers pay a large part of the premium taking the obligation away from the individual. In education the student loan programs give loans in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to young people who have no job, no credit, and have no idea what $150,000 in debt really feels like. The solution to both is to change the incentives to drive down costs. It seems so simple that I really can’t understand what is preventing this from happening. If a free donut can change human behavior in this way then why not try it in health care and education. I bet it would work.