My last two posts, here and here, have discussed major intrinsic problems with the Affordable Care Act. It has been set up in an actuarially unsound manner and the cost of insurance coverage through the exchanges is growing very fast. The rapidly rising cost of American health care, public and private, is in fact one of our country’s biggest problems. It is an affordability issue for millions of American households. Furthermore the rapidly rising cost of the entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid is the fundamental driver of our exploding national debt problem.
As I see it there are two different routes we can take to solve this problem. One way is to move towards a true free-market approach where healthcare consumers (all of us!) have more “skin in the game” in the sense that we move away from third party payment for routine care. It is quite interesting that this is already starting to happen under Obamacare!
The other way of getting costs under control is to adopt a single-payer system, like much of the rest of the developed world. But this would necessarily involve stringent cost controls and severe rationing and would be a lot more difficult than just enrolling everyone in Medicare. For example:
American doctors and nurses are very well paid. The average family physician in the U.S. earns $207,000, double the rate for general practitioners in Great Britain, which has a single-payer system. Are we going to arbitrarily chop doctor salaries in half in order to control costs?
The State of Vermont recently backed away from implementing its own single-payer system because the needed tax increases would have more than doubled Vermont’s annual budget. Colorado will vote in November on a petition-supported single-payer proposal, ColoradoCare, which would be paid for by a $26 billion annual state tax increase, and is therefore unlikely to pass. For a state to implement its own single-payer system at least requires budget honesty, since all states are required to balance their budgets. There is no such requirement for our federal government and so a single-payer system would be financed just like Medicare, with deficit spending. Bad idea!
Conclusion. American healthcare needs radical reform but adopting a single-payer system is not the best way to do it.
The New York Times is running a series of articles, “Paying Till It Hurts,” giving many examples of the very high cost of healthcare in the U.S. today. The latest article “As Hospital Prices Soar, A Single Stitch Tops $500”, focuses on the high cost of emergency room treatment around the country.
We spend 18% of GDP on healthcare, twice as much as any other country in the world. It is specifically the cost of healthcare entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid, which is driving our huge deficits and rapidly growing national debt. But to limit the cost of these entitlement programs, we first have to address the more fundamental problem: how to control the overall cost of healthcare in general.
Our current healthcare system, a combination of private insurance and government programs, is very inefficient. The basic problem is that the tax treatment of employer provided health insurance takes away the incentive for individuals to control the cost of their own care. And Obamacare does not solve this problem, because it just extends the present system to more people, rather than revamping it.
There are essentially two different ways to transform our current healthcare system to make it far more efficient. One way is to turn it into a single payer system, like what most of the rest of the world has. This could be accomplished by simply expanding Medicare to everyone. Costs would then be controlled by government regulation which would, of course, include rationing. Given the unpopularity of Obamacare, with all of its mandates and uniform coverage requirements, it is unlikely that Americans would be happy with such a highly proscribed single payer system.
The alternative is to change over to a truly consumer based, market oriented system. This could be accomplished by limiting the present tax exemption for employer provided insurance. For example, the current system could be replaced by a (refundable) tax credit equal to the cost of catastrophic insurance (i.e. insurance with a very high deductible). All other healthcare costs, whether paid for directly by consumers or through insurance, would be with after tax dollars. Subsidies could be provided to lower income people through the Obamacare exchanges. Once such a system is set up and running smoothly, it could fairly easily be extended to encompass Medicare and Medicaid.
Insurance companies selling catastrophic coverage would negotiate with hospitals and other healthcare providers to get the lowest possible prices for their customers. In other words, both insurance companies and providers would compete in the open market to deliver healthcare products at the lowest possible cost.
Something along this line will have to be done and the sooner we get started the better!