The skyrocketing cost of health care is creating ‘a new type of pandemic,’ health VC says


After living through the first pandemic in over a century, Americans could be in the midst of another one. “We’re facing a new type of pandemic…the affordability crisis is a pandemic.” Lee Shapiro, managing partner at health care venture fund 7wireVenture, said Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference on Tuesday in Dana Point, Calif.

More than half of working age adults can’t afford health care, he said—and “when you can’t afford health care, you’re not buying your prescriptions, you’re delaying the delivery of care, you’re not making appointments… it’s a massive problem.”

The affordability crisis comes down to two things, according to Larry Levitt, executive vice president of health policy at Kaiser Family Foundation: cost, which in the U.S. is double its level in other high-income countries, and the structure of private insurance, and therefore high deductibles. 

Even with recent moves to expand insurance access, millions of Americans are underinsured, siad Meghan Fitzgerald, founder of Grey Ghost Capital and an adjunct professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “You can go bankrupt from cancer care,” she said. “You can imagine what a double whammy that is—to get diagnosed and then find out you get a $5,000 bill—and those are people that have insurance.” The country spends close to 20% of GDP on health care, Fitzgerald later noted. 

You can imagine, aside from affordability, its complexity, which makes it hard for people to navigate their benefits and understand what their out of pocket cost will be, said Levitt. Employers “are part of the problem as well,” even though they’re footing most of the bill, he said. Employers aren’t using economic or political leverage to attempt to bring health costs down, Levitt charged, adding that holding employers accountable could really help in alleviating the affordability crisis. Finally, transparency between employers and insurers can help, too, Shapiro noted.

And as Fortune senior writer Maria Aspan pointed out, moderating the discussion,  the U.S. is in an election year—so she asked what panelists hoped for regardless of outcome. “Bipartisan consensus on issues where that’s possible,” Levitt said, with almost no hesitation “I would hope that we can find some ways to make some progress on affordability issues,” he said. Shapiro, on the other hand, said he hopes the Affordable Care Act—an Obama-era reform that polarized Americans for a decade—is recognized for how many people depend on it for health access,  given how much of an issue that’s become.

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