Numbers often mask life’s reality. Politicians and policy experts speak about the unaffordability of health insurance and the high prices of health care, but what does that really mean? For many average American families, life’s reality is that insurance is traded off for something else. It could be taking on a second mortgage payment to send a kid to college. It could be buying a car to get to and from a second job. It could also be buying groceries. How did we get here? America is the richest country in the world when dividing the value of all goods and services produced by the total population. And yet half the population can’t afford to buy health insurance without trading off that purchase with something else. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, 20 years ago, only a small number of average American families couldn’t afford health insurance. The runaway price inflation is really a product of the past decade, what many of us think of as the lost decade. Lost because in the first time in 100 years, family income went down, not up. Home values went down, not up. Job prospects went down, not up. And at the same time health care prices went up, up, and away. While there are many reasons for this runaway price inflation, it’s not unlike some other inflation bubbles that have periodically ballooned. Think of the real estate price bubble, the “dot-com” bubble, and others. Health care prices have been in their own bubble, protected by a mix of bad regulation and bad incentives. Most strikingly, as has been reported many times this year, including in a front page feature of Time magazine, it’s easy to have a price inflation bubble when no one knows the price and those delivering the services refuse to provide it.
That’s probably the most shocking and outrageous side of this sad reality, and there’s no excuse for it. Consumers have had to make serious and difficult everyday life choices because health care organizations have been allowed to get away with stealing our wallets. It’s not right and should stop, but like in any other of life’s reality, only collective action will work. That’s why this week we are focusing on the Affordability of Health Care. In order to really understand just how out of hand this issue has become, we need to immerse ourselves into the magnitude of these numbers through consumer experiences and health care cost studies. So get engaged, know the numbers, and let’s work towards a new reality.