My last post, “Why Is American Healthcare So Expensive?” suggests that we don’t have enough “skin in the game” because most costs are paid for by third party insurance companies. One way to alleviate this problem is to subsidize insurance coverage only for catastrophic care with a high deductible and to encourage health savings accounts to pay for routine healthcare expenses. But the University of Chicago’s John Cochrane points out in “After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care” that getting to a true free market in healthcare “will be a long hard road” because “both supply and demand must be freed.”
Health care supply. Cost reduction only comes from new entrants into a business, not reform of old businesses. But in 36 states, for example, every new hospital or even major purchase requires a Certificate of Need issued by Hospital Equalization Boards which have explicit mandates to defend the profitability of existing hospitals.
Health care demand. True “need” is simply not a well-defined concept when a third party is paying the bills. The consumer must pay a lot closer to the full marginal cost of healthcare, or perhaps receiving the full financial benefits of any economies which he is willing to accept.
What are the objections to establishing a free market system?
The homeless and mentally ill, etc. Charity will always be needed for those who fall through the cracks. This doesn’t require a nanny state for the rest of us.
Adverse selection. In a free market sick people are more likely to buy insurance and healthy people to forgo it. Sick people would pay more but “health status” insurance and guaranteed renewability will mitigate this problem.
Shopping paternalism, i.e. people faced with serious illnesses are incapable of making cost-based decisions. These people and their families will simply have to learn to shop around. In a competitive market, a hospital which routinely overcharges cash customers will be “creamed by Yelp reviews.”
Conclusion. There are only two ways to get health care spending under control. A single payer system with rigid regulations and severe rationing or else a deregulated free market system where individuals have primary responsibility for their own care. Americans are likely to prefer the second option if given a clear choice.
My last two posts have been devoted to discussing the prospects for a true free-market healthcare system in the U.S. Let’s bring this discussion down to earth with two specific examples. In Omaha NE, where I live, there are three major hospital systems and one of them, Catholic Health Initiatives, is 30% more expensive than the other two. The major insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, has reacted by canceling its contract with CHI, making it out-of-network for Blue Cross policy holders.
As reported in today’s Omaha World Herald, “Non-CHI health clinics, hospitals handling influx,” the Nebraska Medical Center and Methodist Hospital System are seeing a large influx of Blue Cross insured patients. This is exactly what has been expected to happen and will eventually put pressure on CHI to lower its prices in line with the other two hospital systems.
The second example, “Unable to Meet the Deductible or the Doctor” is the title of an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The article reports that 7.3 million Americans are now enrolled in insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. However the average deductible for a bronze plan on the exchange – the least expensive coverage – is $5,081 for an individual. This compares to the average deductible of $1,217 for individual coverage in employer-sponsored plans.
Not surprisingly, relatively low-income people obtaining subsidized coverage through an exchange are likely to want a low cost policy. But with a high deductible they will then be hard-pressed to have to pay the full price of routine care out of there possibly meager budgets. This is going to be a larger and larger problem as more and more people obtain coverage through the exchanges.
Since all of an individual’s medical bills should go through the insurer for processing, insurance companies are in a position to, and should be expected to, help control costs by bargaining with providers to make sure that prices are not excessive.
Conclusion: here are two examples of price competition in today’s healthcare market place. This is the reality that more and more Americans are going to have to learn to live with. It is the only way that our excessive healthcare costs can be brought under control.
With a total national debt of $17.8 trillion, of which close to $13 trillion is public debt (on which we pay interest), it is easily understood that the U.S. has a very serious fiscal problem. At the present time the public debt is 74% of GDP and this already high percentage is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep growing indefinitely.
The biggest driver of spending growth going forward is the cost of healthcare. For example just the three programs, Medicare ($492 billion), Medicaid ($280 billion) and Veterans Healthcare ($54 billion), cost a total of $826 billion per year in federal dollars. And these costs are all increasing rapidly. Of course, private healthcare spending, currently about $2 trillion per year, is also growing rapidly. Overall, the U.S. spends 17.3% of GDP on healthcare spending, public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country.
How are we going to address this enormous cost issue going forward? The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) doesn’t do it. What it does do is to provide healthcare to more people under our current model of employer provided health insurance with Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. It is this model which is broken and must be reformed. Basically we have two choices for how to do this. Either we switch over to a “single payer” system like most of the other developed countries have or we establish a far more efficient free market system. As the above chart shows, right now we have a composite system and it is just not cost-effective. There are plenty of experts who claim that a free market cannot work in healthcare. For example, the tax lawyer, Edward Kleinbard, in a new book, “We Are Better than This: how government should spend our money” argues that what a free market gives us is: unavoidable controversy for excluded pre-existing conditions, moral hazard for risky behavior, uncertain premiums for permanent insurance, fragmented healthcare markets, monopoly provider organizations leading to price opacity, very high administrative costs, etc. The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has a different point of view. In his proposal, “Transforming Obamacare,” (http://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/mpr_17.pdf) he points out that there are two countries, Switzerland and Singapore, which operate highly regarded free-market healthcare systems at very low public cost. Stay tuned for further discussion!