Posts Tagged ‘chart’


The Wall Street Journal refers to it as “insurers playing a game of thrones.”

Big U.S. insurers are courting one another for possible multibillion-dollar deals. How they pair off could have significant implications for the managed-care industry, its individual and corporate customers, and U.S. medical providers. . .

“Usually, fewer competitors means prices will be less advantageous for consumers,” saidGary Claxton, an insurance expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It probably means they’re going to be in a better position to maintain their margins,” he said.

Given the high costs of U.S. healthcare, insurance is obviously the way most Americans are able to gain some kind of access to the health system.

According to the latest (January–March 2015) National Health Interview Survey (pdf), about two-thirds of Americans below the age of 65 rely on private health insurance. The rest either don’t have health insurance coverage (10.7 percent) or have some kind of public health plan (24.2 percent).


The problem is, even without the latest proposed mega-mergers, the U.S. private health- insurance industry is already highly concentrated. Treating Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) affiliates as a single industry (since, with few exceptions, they have exclusive, non-overlapping market territories and hence do not compete with one another), and adding in Anthem (which operates the for-profit Blue plans across 14 states), the national market share of the four largest insurers increased significantly from 74 percent in 2006 to 83 percent in 2014. By comparison, the four-firm concentration ratio for the airline industry is 62 percent.


Much the same process of concentration has been confirmed by examining the so-called Herfindahl-Hirschman index.* Health insurance, as shown in the red line in the graph above, is the most concentrated industry (compared to, for example, hospitals and telecom). With a current index near 4,000 (having risen 79 percent between 2000 and 2014), and some states with indices exceeding 8,000, health insurance is easily considered highly concentrated.


It should come as no surprise that growing concentration in health insurance (based, mostly, on mergers and acquisitions) has meant both lower payments to providers (like physicians and hospitals) and higher premiums for payers (both employers and individuals)—thus boosting health-insurance profits.

So, within the U.S. healthcare system, Americans who don’t qualify for public programs are forced to rely (directly or indirectly) on a private health-insurance industry that is increasingly concentrated (and, if the proposed mergers go through, will rise even higher on the Herfindahl-Hirschman index) and is able to dictate both prices and the quality of policies.

Right now, if private health insurers suffer losses (as they claim has been the case under Obamacare, when they can’t pick and choose the healthiest customers in the exchanges), they can take their ball and go home. As James Kwak explains,

The obvious market-based solution is to keep increasing the penalties for not being covered until enough healthy people join the pool so insurers can make profits. But all that accomplishes is shifting more of the overall losses onto healthy people.

The obvious alternative is to reap the benefits of the current level of concentration and transform the existing private health-insurance programs into a public single-payer system.** That would succeed in creating universal coverage, lowering healthcare costs, and redistributing the losses across the society on the basis of an ability to pay.


*The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is used by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate the potential antitrust implications of acquisitions and mergers across many industries, including health care. It is calculated by summing the squares of the market shares of individual firms. Markets are then classified in one of three categories: (1) nonconcentrated, with an index below 1,500; (2) moderately concentrated, with an index between 1,500 and 2,500; and (3) highly concentrated, with an index above 2,500.

**It’s possible, of course, to imagine a middle ground, with higher marketplace subsidies for purchasing private insurance, stricter penalties for individuals who aren’t interested in purchasing insurance, and a limited government option. But that’s just an attempt to juggle the parameters of the existing institutional structure, without recognizing and overcoming the social costs of a system based on private health insurance.


On Tuesday, I began a series on the unhealthy state of the U.S. healthcare system—starting with the fact that the United States spends far more on health than any other country, yet the life expectancy of the American population is actually shorter than in other countries that spend far less.

Today, I want to look at what U.S. workers are forced to pay to get access to the healthcare system.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half of the non-elderly population—147 million people in total—are covered by employer-sponsored insurance programs.* The average annual single coverage premium in 2015 was $6,251 and the average family coverage premium was $17,545. Each rose 4 percent over the 2014 average premiums. During the same period, workers’ wages increased only 1.9 percent while prices declined by 0.2 percent.

But the gap is even larger when looked at over the long run. Between 1999 and 2015, workers’ contributions to premiums increased by a whopping 221 percent, even more than the growth in health insurance premiums (203 percent), and far outpacing both inflation (42 percent) and workers’ earnings (56 percent).


Most covered workers face additional out-of-pocket costs when they use health care services. Eighty-one percent of covered workers have a general annual deductible for single coverage that must be met before most services are paid for by the plan.** Since 2010, there has also been a sharp increase in both the percentage of workers on health plans with deductibles—which require members to pay a certain amount toward their care before the plan starts paying—and the size of those deductibles. The result has been a 67-percent rise in deductibles (for single coverage) since 2010, far outpacing not only the 24-percent growth in premiums, but also the 10-percent growth in workers’ wages and 9-percent rise in inflation.

In recent years, the increase in U..S. health costs has in fact slowed down. But the slowdown has been invisible to American workers, who have been forced to pay much higher premiums and deductibles in order to get access to healthcare for themselves and their families.


*Fifty-seven percent of firms offer health benefits to at least some of their employees, covering about 63 percent workers at those firms.

**Even workers without a general annual deductible often face other types of cost sharing when they use services, such as copayments or coinsurance for office visits and hospitalizations, and when they purchase prescription drugs.


While I was finishing up the latest right-wing libertarian dystopian finance novel, I was also trying to figure out the dystopia that the U.S. healthcare system has become.

Clearly, for most Americans, the combination of private healthcare and private health insurance (and, now with Obamacare, public subsidies) is a nightmare. There is a glaring contradiction between healthy profits and the health of the U.S. population. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I plan to explore various dimensions of that system.

To start with, consider how much of an outlier the United States is in terms of expenditures and outcomes compared to other countries. As Max Roser explains,

the US spends far more on health than any other country, yet the life expectancy of the American population is not longer but actually shorter than in other countries that spend far less.

If we look at the time trend for each country we first notice that all countries have followed an upward trajectory – the population lives increasingly longer as health expenditure increased. But again the US stands out as the the country is following a much flatter trajectory; gains in life expectancy from additional health spending in the U.S. were much smaller than in the other high-income countries, particularly since the mid-1980s.

This development led to a large inequality between the US and other rich countries: In the US health spending per capita is often more than three-times higher than in other rich countries, yet the populations of countries with much lower health spending than the US enjoy considerably longer lives. In the most extreme case we see that Americans spend 5-times more than Chileans, but the population of Chile actually lives longer than Americans.


Everyone knows wealth in the United States is unequally distributed, even more than the nation’s income (and that’s saying something).

For example, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office [ht: ja],

In 2013, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held 1 percent. Average wealth was about $4 million for families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution, $316,000 for families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, and $36,000 for families in the 26th to 50th percentiles. On average, families at or below the 25th percentile were $13,000 in debt.

But, wait, it gets worse. The distribution of wealth among the nation’s families was more unequal in 2013 than it was in 1989. For instance, the difference in wealth held by families at the 90th percentile and the wealth of those in the middle widened from $532,000 to $861,000 over the period (both in 2013 dollars). The share of wealth held by families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution increased from 67 percent to 76 percent, whereas the share of wealth held by families in the bottom half of the distribution declined from 3 percent to 1 percent.*

Yes, that’s right: in 2013, the bottom half of U.S. families held only 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.


And it gets even worse: from 1989 to 2013, the average wealth of families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989. It declined by 19 percent (in contrast to the 153-percent increase for families in the top 10 percent). And the average wealth of people in the bottom quarter was thousands of dollars less in 2013 than it was in 1989.**

poor wealth

So, let’s get this straight. The share of wealth going to the top 10 percent of households, already high, actually increased between 1989 and 2013. And the share held by the bottom 50 percent, already tiny, fell. And, finally, the average wealth for families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989 and many more of them were in debt.

Now, to put things in perspective, the United States had Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) during thirteen of the twenty-four years when workers and the poor were being fleeced.

And now they’re being asked to vote for one more Democrat, with the same economic program, because it will “make history”?


*To be clear, a large portion of the decline in wealth for the bottom 50 percent occurred after the crash. Still, compared with families in the top half of the distribution, families in the bottom half experienced disproportionately slower growth in wealth between 1989 and 2007, and they had a disproportionately larger decline in wealth after the 2007-09 recession.

**In 1989, families at or below the 25th percentile were about $1,000 in debt. By 2013, they were about $13,000 in debt, on average. Overall indebtedness also increased during the same period: by 2013, 12 percent of families had more debt than assets, and they were, on average, $32,000 in debt.

Not so fast!

Posted: 18 August 2016 in Uncategorized
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real wages-revised

Everyone has read or heard the story: the labor market has rebounded and workers, finally, are “getting a little bigger piece of the pie” (according to President Obama, back in June).

And that’s the way it looked—until the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised its data. What was originally reported as a 4.2 percent increase in the first quarter of 2016 now seems to be a 0.4 decline (a difference of 4.6 percentage points, in the wrong direction).

What’s more, real hourly compensation for the second quarter (in the nonfarm business sector) is down another 1.1 percent.

So, already in 2016, the decline in real wages has eaten up more than half the gain of 2.8 percent reported in 2015 (and after a mere 1.1 percent gain in 2014).

And, since 2009, real hourly wages have increased only 4 percent.

Workers may be getting a little bigger piece of the economic pie since the official end of the Great Recession but the emphasis should really be on “little.”


P.S. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature. And I don’t plan to start now. As far as I’m concerned, the revision in the real-wage data should not be understood as any kind of deliberate manipulation by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it does represent a cautionary tale about the precision of the numbers we use to understand what is going on in the U.S. economy—and about the willingness of some (like Paul Krugman) to dismiss workers’ anxiety about the state of the economy.


The world economy only grew by 3.1 percent in 2015. But the world’s billionaires did much better. As David Barks, associate director of custom research for Wealth-X, understands, “Wealth helps accumulate more wealth.”

According to the latest Wealth-X report on the global billionaire population, the world’s billionaire population grew by 6.4 percent, to 2,473, last year. And their combined wealth increased by 5.4 percent, to a record $7.7 trillion.

Needless to say, the members of this group of ultra-wealthy individuals form one of the most exclusive clubs in the world; there is only one billionaire for every 2.95 million people on the planet.

social1 social2

So, what were the world’s billionaires doing in 2015? Well, they were busy taking money off the table (liquidity was up to 22.2 percent of their net worth), diversifying their business exposure and investments (finance, banking and investment represent just 15.2 percent of all billionaires’s investments compared to 19.3 percent in 2014), and planning their 2016 social calendar (from Davos to St. Bart’s).

The billions of people who are not in the billionaire club, meanwhile, had quite different worries, including capitalism’s slow growth, precarious employment, and flat or falling incomes.

That’s because they don’t have much in the way of wealth—and what little wealth they do have isn’t the kind of wealth that helps them accumulate more wealth.

Wrong track

Posted: 11 August 2016 in Uncategorized
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According to Gallup, only 17 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, which means more than 80 percent are dissatisfied. (That’s similar to other polls, such as the latest by Wall Street Journal/NBC News, which shows only 18 percent saying the nation is headed in the right direction.)


That perplexes the folks at the Wall Street Journal, who cite rising real wages and median incomes. So, in their view, “For many voters there are very serious and grim issues in this election, but it isn’t really about pocketbooks anymore.”

And while I don’t want to reduce citizen dissatisfaction to their incomes (because, I agree, there are plenty of other “serious and grim issues in this election”), the writers at the nation’s premier business newspaper might want to consider what the folks at Sentier Research (pdf), the source of their household income data, observe:

The June 2016 median is not significantly different than [sic] the median of $57,147 in December 2007, the beginning month of the recession that occurred more than eight years ago. And the June 2016 median is now 1.1 percent lower than the median of $57,826 in January 2000, the beginning of this statistical series. These comparisons demonstrate that despite the gains in income in recent months, we are still at a level of median annual household income that is about the same as the level that existed at the beginning of the great recession more than eight years ago and lower than the level at the start of the last decade more than sixteen years ago.

Why does anyone think American voters should be satisfied with a “median annual household income that is about the same as the level that existed at the beginning of the great recession more than eight years ago and lower than the level at the start of the last decade more than sixteen years ago”?