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Friday, July 24, 2009

Paul Krugman: Costs and Compassion

Controlling costs is essential if we want to guarantee health care for all:

Costs and Compassion, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The talking heads on cable TV panned President Obama’s Wednesday press conference. You see, he didn’t offer a lot of folksy anecdotes.

Shame on them. The health care system is in crisis. The fate of America’s middle class hangs in the balance. And there on our TVs was a president with an impressive command of the issues... Mr. Obama was especially good when he talked about controlling medical costs. And there’s a crucial lesson there — namely, that when it comes to reforming health care, compassion and cost-effectiveness go hand in hand. ...

President Obama is trying to provide every American with access to health insurance — and he’s also doing more to control health care costs than any previous president.

I don’t know how many people understand the significance of Mr. Obama’s proposal to give MedPAC, the expert advisory board to Medicare, real power. But it’s a major step toward reducing the useless spending — the proliferation of procedures with no medical benefits — that bloats American health care costs.

And both the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have also been emphasizing the importance of “comparative effectiveness research” — seeing which medical procedures actually work. ...

Many health care experts believe that one main reason we spend far more on health than any other advanced nation, without better health outcomes, is the fee-for-service system in which hospitals and doctors are paid for procedures, not results. As the president said Wednesday, this creates an incentive for health providers to do more tests, more operations, and so on, whether or not these procedures actually help patients.

So where in America is there serious consideration of moving away from fee-for-service to a more comprehensive, integrated approach to health care? The answer is: Massachusetts — which introduced a health-care plan three years ago that was, in some respects, a dress rehearsal for national health reform, and is now looking for ways to help control costs.

Why does meaningful action on medical costs go along with compassion? ... When health insurance premiums doubled during the Bush years, our health care system “controlled costs” by dropping coverage for many workers — but as far as the Bush administration was concerned, that wasn’t a problem. If you believe in universal coverage, on the other hand, it is a problem, and demands a solution.

I’d suggest that would-be health reformers won’t have the moral authority to confront our system’s inefficiency unless they’re also prepared to end its cruelty. If President Bush had tried to rein in Medicare spending, he would have been accused, with considerable justice, of cutting benefits so that he could give the wealthy even more tax cuts. President Obama, by contrast, can link Medicare reform with the goal of protecting less fortunate Americans and making the middle class more secure.

As a practical, political matter, then, controlling health care costs and expanding health care access aren’t opposing alternatives — you have to do both, or neither.

At one point in his remarks Mr. Obama talked about a red pill and a blue pill. I suspect, though I’m not sure, that he was alluding to the scene in the movie “The Matrix” in which one pill brings ignorance and the other knowledge.

Well, in the case of health care, one pill means continuing on our current path — a path along which health care premiums will continue to soar, the number of uninsured Americans will skyrocket and Medicare costs will break the federal budget. The other pill means reforming our system, guaranteeing health care for all Americans at the same time we make medicine more cost-effective.

Which pill would you choose?

    Posted by on Friday, July 24, 2009 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Health Care | Permalink  Comments (84)


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