Category Archives: Health Costs
Death is an unavoidable theme this time of year. Having just celebrated a great religious martyr, we move on to witness last January’s swaddled babe transformed into an ancient, arthritic geezer doomed to die at Thursday’s midnight toll. We ponder the lives of those who’ve passed this past twelvemonth—whether near, dear, or merely famous. And stories like the New York Times’ “Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death: Sedation” challenge us to ponder the process of dying itself. Such is the end of the year and a troubled decade.
Hence comes to mind “Life-Line,” the great Robert A. Heinlein’s first published science-fiction story (1939). In it, the ingenious Professor Pinero invented an apparatus that accurately predicted the exact moment of any person’s death. Although many of Heinlein’s speculative musings later came to pass (waterbeds, rail guns, travel to the moon), this one, thankfully, did not. Such a device (doubtless following a hideously expensive and lengthy FDA-approval process) would cause no end of mischief, including cutting billions from medical costs by simply denying care to people about to die.
This week’s deal on abortion-funding between pro-life Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and pro-reelection Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got me thinking about its fundamental economics. You probably know that, to secure Nelson’s essential 60th vote for the Senate’s health reform bill, the other 59 Democratic and independent senators agreed to his Read-My-Lips-No-Federal-Funding-For-Abortions ultimatum (plus an incidental $100 million in extra Medicaid funding for his native Nebraska). According to the deal, the individual states will decide for themselves whether to allow abortion coverage in their respective health insurance exchanges. But any state that allows it must also require that any women who choose it and who receive federal insurance subsidies must buy the abortion coverage separately as an extra-cost insurance policy, or “rider.” Nelson was satisfied that this will force all such women to pay for their abortion coverage with their own—not the government’s—money.
WE DON’T NEED AN INDIVIDUAL MANDATE TO BUY HEALTH INSURANCE: PART 2 – WHAT THE SENATE AND HOUSE BILLS MISS
People will game any economic system for their own benefit—whether medical care or anything else. It is this characteristic human behavior that makes markets thrive while assuring that no alternative, centrally-controlled mechanism will ever match markets’ ability to optimize the creation and distribution of economic goods. The necessary rules and top-down decisions that govern centralized systems can never be sufficiently detailed or flexible to match markets’ indescribably complex and dynamic interactions among millions of consumers, producers, and intermediaries—each gaming the system for his own advantage. No one really understands why this emergent property of human behavior works, but it does.
Thus, we should always seek minimally regulated market solutions for creating and distributing economic goods, even—or especially—in the presence of market failure. Accordingly, enacting health reform to correct the health insurance market failure requires setting up a new regulatory and safety-net framework that reforms the system to allow everyone to purchase (or not) affordable individual insurance while preventing people from killing the market with free-riding adverse selection.
The new breast cancer screening guidelines released last week, along with the supporting study, are among the most disputatious medical recommendations in recent memory. Critics on the right charge government rationing, while those on the left suspect an insurance company conspiracy to cut essential coverage. Adding gasoline to the fire is the even more heated health reform debate that has led its combatants to hijack the mammography issue to bolster their own particular views, pro and con.
To get past the politics, I read the study. It is hardly a page turner, but it’s a credible scientific analysis of the available data on breast cancer screening. A key question it addresses is how effective mammography is for women under age 50—an issue that has ping-ponged back and forth across the medical policy community for four decades. In this latest volley, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), citing the study, recommends “…against routine screening mammography in women aged 40 to 49 years.” But then it equivocates with, “The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account, including the patient’s values regarding specific benefits and harms.”
THE PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN HEALTH CARE REFORM – PART 3: HOW REGULATED CONSUMER MARKETS WILL SUCCEED
In Part 1, I describe the market failure that has caused all the major problems in our dysfunctional health care system. Part 2 recommends straightforward government regulatory reforms that will correct this failure. Now, Part 3 describes how these market reforms will allow all Americans—finally and sustainably—to get their necessary health insurance and high-quality medical care at less than half of today’s cost. This is not deregulation of health care, but enlightened re-regulation to correct a fundamental market failure that the government and economists have ignored for decades.
The key action is to place America’s consumers firmly in charge with the money and the authority to make their own purchase decisions from insurers and medical providers that will be forced to actively compete with better value—higher quality, better customer service, and lower cost. This also makes consumers responsible for living healthy lives or else paying higher premiums if they don’t.
I wrote in Part 1 that medical care is an economic good. More specifically, it is a consumer good delivered directly to patients, primarily in the form of services. Experience has taught us that the most effective, efficient, and fair way to create and distribute consumer goods and services is through open consumer markets that allow each customer to determine a product’s value before deciding whether to purchase it with her limited available funds. Such value assessments require consumers to consider the answers to two fundamental questions:
- Which sellers’ are offering me products and services that will provide the best quality for my needs?
- Of those best sellers, which offers the lowest price?
In (slightly) technical terms, value equals quality divided by price, meaning that the higher the quality and/or the lower the price, the higher the resulting value. The challenge in getting higher quality, lower priced health care, therefore, lies in creating a consumer market for it. Actually, it means creating two markets, one for health insurance and one for medical services. But if we do the insurance market right, the second will naturally follow.
There’s a common delusion making the rounds of Congress and The New York Times that says we must force employers to pay more of their employees’ health insurance costs in order to reduce the workers’ financial burdens. The problem is that employer insurance payments are simply one component of total employee compensation. Arbitrarily increasing this part will necessarily cut the funds available for wages and salaries. Mandating such behavior would constitute nothing less than an enforced reduction in worker pay for a government-favored use, i.e., to support a wasteful, inflationary, mediocre-quality medical system. Any way you cut it, the employer mandate burden would be borne squarely by America’s workers under the disingenuous guise of employer responsibility. Every reputable economist knows this. So do our cynical, dissembling members of Congress.
They would have us believe that the modern philosopher’s stone called legislation will magically make one plus one equal three. That’s the essence of the two Senate health reform bills and the House’s own 2000-page orgy of excess (HR-3962) that would exact penalties from employers that don’t provide enough health insurance.
The raging health reform debate has completely obscured recent disclosures by some medical providers of shocking information that has long been held among their most closely guarded secrets: their prices. These innovators are responding to the rapid four-year growth of high-deductible health plans that incentivize consumers to demand cost-effective solutions for their medical problems. Stated simply, a lot more patients want to know the prices of medical services before they buy them.
I recently discovered one striking example of this trend that promises an entirely different and brighter future for American health care than the one currently fermenting its way through the legislative bowels of our nation’s capital. It is the website for The Surgery Center of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Click on the link and see something extraordinary: a leading-edge medical facility that actually tells you its prices up front—but only for patients who pay them in full and in advance. Otherwise, if you want the Center to bill your insurance company and fight through its bureaucratic layers for uncertain payment at some distant time, the price will be higher.
Thursday’s (10/08/09) much heralded CBO report telling us that the Senate Finance Committee health care reform bill will cut the federal deficit by $81 billion over the next ten years is a diversion at best and accounting fiction at worst. Any way you slice it, this health reform bill is going to cost you more.
First of all, any second year accounting student could drive a homecoming float through the loopholes in the CBO’s numbers. Just one example: the analysis includes ten years of increased government taxes and fees, but only six years of health reform expenses. It also assumes that Medicare will cut Medicare doctor fees by a whopping 25% in 2011 and then make below-inflation-rate adjustments after that. The reality is that the Congress has scheduled cuts every year since 2003 but has cancelled them all at the last minute in the face of massive physician lobbying. But what if this time is different and these cuts actually do go through? If past is prologue, then doctors will simply intensify what many have already done in the face of Medicare’s increasingly punitive reimbursement rates:
I never had much hope that Senator Max Baucus’ Finance Committee would bring forth a sensible anodyne to the House’s fatally toxic Affordable Health Choices Act, although I admit that his earlier markup had some promising features. While it didn’t have anything that would ever bend the cost curve in any direction but skyward, there were some aspects of his approach to the insurance exchange that showed at least a modicum of respect for market realities—unlike Speaker Pelosi’s risible public option. But all that vanished yesterday with the Senator’s new markup.
I’m still wading through the bill, but one conclusion stands out: the insurance exchange, as described in the bill, will fail. Or more accurately, any private insurer or member-owned co-op that offers individual health insurance through the exchange will be quickly bankrupted unless it can get massive subsidies from the government.