Healthcare Reform: The Brutal Reality of Aging Demographics

June 30, 2009 at 4:00 am 3 comments

The global population is aging and that is a bad trend for healthcare costs.

The global population is aging and that is a bad trend for healthcare costs.

There’s no question healthcare reform is required. The Economist’s cover story, This is Going to Hurt, addresses this problem head-on:

“Even though one dollar in every six generated by the world’s richest economy is spent on health—almost twice the average for rich countries—infant mortality, life expectancy and survival-rates for heart attacks are all worse than the OECD average. Meanwhile, because health insurance is so expensive, nearly 50m Americans, an obscene number in such a rich place, have none; those that are insured pay through the nose for their cover, and often find it bankruptingly inadequate if they get seriously ill or injured.”

 

The real question is not whether we have a problem, but rather how are we going to approach it? Estimates of the current healthcare congressional plans put estimates for reform between $1.2 trillion and $1.6 trillion over 10 years. I tend to side with George Will when discussions center on costs, “If you think health care is expensive now, just wait until it is free.”

One of the reasons healthcare costs are exploding is because of our aging demographics. The 76 million “Baby Boomers” are entering their golden years, and as a result are consuming more healthcare products and services. Because our system is so convoluted and opaque, true healthcare competition cannot flourish. Rather, patients expect a cheap “all-you-can-eat” smorgasbord of services without consideration of cost. Unfortunately, the aging trend of our global population (especially in the developed countries like the U.S.) has put our economy on track for a disastrous train-wreck.

The Economist’s article, A Slow Burning Fuse, crystallizes the aging trend into proper perspective by providing some interesting statistics.  At the beginning of the last century, in 1900, the average life expectance at birth was approximately 30. Today, the average life expectancy has more than doubled to 67 years (and 78 years in richer developed countries).

Read Full Economist Article, A Slow Burning Fuse

A second major cause of aging societies is the decline in number of children families are having. During the early 1970s, women on average were having 4.3 children each. Now the average is about 2.6 children (and 1.6 children in developed countries). What these statistics mean is that the taxable younger workforce is shrinking (growing slower), therefore unable to adequately feed the swelling appetites of the aging, healthcare-hungry global populations.

My solution would focus on the following:

Technology:  Yes, chopping down trees, wasting years of our lives filling out and storing library-esque piles of medical forms is so 20th Century.  

Consolidation of Insurers: And do we need dozens of different insurers on different billing platforms? Reducing inefficient and undercapitalized competitors down to a common technological digital record and billing platform makes common sense to me. Although I love competition, if I look at things like cell phones, cable, or even local grocery stores, there is a law of diminishing return whereby inefficiencies eventually outweigh benefits of competition. 

Fewer Late Life Benefits:  Nearly 30 percent of Medicare spending pays for care in the final year of patients’ lives, according to George Will. Does it really make sense to pay such a high proportion of costs for the last 1-2% of our lives? Other countries, including European ones, deny certain costly services for elderly patients. Does spending over $50,000 on certain cancer treatments for a few extra months of life seem equitable? If elderly ill patients are in the financial position to pay, then that’s great. Otherwise, at some point, the ethical question has to be faced – what is an extra month of human life worth?

Not really a rosy subject, but an important one. I’m confident we can solve these problems, if addressed immediately, or else future generations will be saddled with a more disastrous problem to heal.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®               www.Sidoxia.com

Entry filed under: Government, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , .

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