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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Wasted Lunch

Tyler Cowen argues against single-payer health insurance:

Abolishing the Middlemen Won't Make Health Care a Free Lunch, by Tyler Cowen, Economic Scene, NY Times: Proponents of single-payer national health insurance note that private health insurance has overhead costs of 10 to 25 percent of expenditures. Medicare, by contrast, has overhead costs of about 2 to 3 percent, and socialized European health care systems generally have low overhead costs as well. That is why single-payer supporters claim that we can save money by substituting government for private insurance. But this would shift overhead costs, not reduce them.

The monitoring, marketing and overhead costs of private insurance are what allow more expensive medical treatments through the door. It is precisely because competing insurance companies spend money evaluating the appropriateness of claims that they are willing to pay for so many heart bypasses, extra tests, private hospital rooms and CT scans. ...

European systems are relatively good at providing prenatal care or mending someone hit by a car. Few people would try to get these services unless they were really needed. No one but an expectant mother, for instance, will show up for a prenatal checkup; nor would excess prenatal checkups cost a great deal. The unwillingness of European systems to spend on overhead means they will do best specializing in these kinds of services.

Health insurers cannot just offer expensive tests, technologies, hospital rooms and surgeries for older patients for the taking. Doctors will too often recommend these services and receive reimbursement, even to the point of financial abuse. Medicare has this problem to some extent.

When it comes to these discretionary benefits, European systems are more likely to make people wait for them, more likely to make the service inconvenient or uncomfortable, or simply not make the services available in the first place. All of these features discourage those who don’t really need care, and, of course, some people simply go elsewhere and pay out of their own pockets. Either way, the overhead costs have been shifted onto patients and their families.

On average, European systems are relatively good for the young, who are generally healthy and need treatment for obvious accidents and emergencies, with transparent remedies. European systems are less effective for the elderly, the primary demanders of discretionary medical benefits. ...

American citizens could, if they wanted, replicate many features of Canadian and European systems, but in the private sector. They, or their employers, could join stringent but cheap managed care plans. Health maintenance organizations were popular 15 years ago, but Americans didn’t like being told that they couldn’t have a treatment, or that they would have to wait. That experience showed that Americans are willing to pay for insurance company overhead costs, if it means they sometimes get more in return.

Private insurance also provided earlier access to prescription drugs ... for 20 years or more before Medicare did. The competition among private insurers may appear wasteful, but over time it stimulates better and more complete coverage.

Nor are Canadian and European health care systems as cheap as they look. Measuring health care expenditures as a share of national income does not count waiting costs or the lack of availability of many advanced technologies and treatments. ...

As ... populations age and the value of medical technology grows, the overhead costs of private insurance will prove an increasingly wise investment. ... In the long run, the hidden and indirect costs of single-payer systems are harder to measure and thus are ultimately harder to control.

Middlemen and marketing costs have long been viewed with suspicion by critics of commerce. But these practices are usually signs of market sophistication, not waste. The gains from abolishing private insurance and its overhead costs are an illusion. TANSTAAFL, or "There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch."

But TISATAAWL, or "There is such a thing as a wasted lunch," a lunch someone else could have eaten had it not been tossed in the trash.

Here are a few quotes in rebuttal from Paul Krugman who has written quite a bit about this. Quite a few resources are wasted simply fighting over who pays the bills, and in marketing and underwriting policies (while some of the overhead costs would be shifted to the private sector as noted above, there are still substantial savings from eliminating waste). Here's one estimate of what could be saved by switching to a single-payer system:

McKinsey & Company ... recently released an important report dissecting the reasons America spends so much more on health care than other wealthy nations. One major factor is that we spend $98 billion a year in excess administrative costs, with more than half ... accounted for by marketing and underwriting - costs that don't exist in single-payer systems. ... To put these numbers in perspective: McKinsey estimates the cost of providing full medical care to all of America's uninsured at $77 billion a year.

Another consideration is the savings that come from preventive care, something single-payer insurers have an incentive to provide, but private insures do not:

Americans spend more on health care per person than anyone else... Yet we have the highest infant mortality and close to the lowest life expectancy of any wealthy nation. How do we do it?

Part of the answer is that our fragmented system has much higher administrative costs than ... the rest of the advanced world. ... In addition, insurers often refuse to pay for preventive care ... because [the] long-run savings won’t necessarily redound to their benefit.

What about cost control from spending money on overhead, one of the benefits cited above from the up to 25% spent on overhead costs?:

[T]o get health reform right, we'll have to overcome wrongheaded ideas as well as powerful special interests. For decades we've been lectured on the evils of big government and the glories of the private sector. Yet health reform is a job for the public sector, which already pays most of the bills directly or indirectly and sooner or later will have to make key decisions about medical treatment. ...

Consider what happens when a new drug or other therapy becomes available. Let's assume that the new therapy is more effective ... than existing therapies ..., but that the advantage isn't overwhelming. On the other hand, it's a lot more expensive... Who decides whether patients receive the new therapy? We've traditionally relied on doctors to make such decisions. But ..., the high-technology nature of modern medical spending has given rise to a powerful medical-industrial complex that seeks to influence doctors' decisions. ...[D]rug companies in particular spend more marketing their products to doctors than they do developing those products ... They wouldn't do that if doctors were immune to persuasion.

So if costs are to be controlled, someone has to act as a referee on doctors' medical decisions. During the 1990's it seemed, briefly, as if private H.M.O.'s could play that role. But then there was a public backlash. It turns out that even in America, with its faith in the free market, people don't trust for-profit corporations to make decisions about their health.

Despite the failure ... to control costs with H.M.O.'s, conservatives continue to believe that the magic of the private sector will provide the answer. ... [I]s giving individuals responsibility for their own health spending really the answer to rising costs? No.

For one thing, insurance will always cover the really big expenses. We're not going to have a system in which people pay for heart surgery out of their health savings accounts and save money by choosing cheaper procedures. And that's not an unfair example. The Brookings study puts it this way: "Most health costs are incurred by a small proportion of the population whose expenses greatly exceed plausible limits on out-of-pocket spending."

Moreover, it's neither fair nor realistic to expect ordinary citizens to have enough medical expertise to make life-or-death decisions about their own treatment. A well-known experiment ... carried out by the RAND Corporation... found that when individuals pay a higher share of medical costs out of pocket, they cut back on necessary as well as unnecessary health spending. ... Eventually, we'll have to accept the fact that there's no magic in the private sector, and that health care - including the decision about what treatment is provided - is a public responsibility.

Next, what about the comparison to to other countries, are waiting times, etc. as bad as implied?

...Employment-based health insurance is the only serious source of coverage for Americans too young to receive Medicare and insufficiently destitute to receive Medicaid, but it's an institution in decline. ... The funny thing is that the solution - national health insurance ... - is obvious. But to see the obvious we'll have to overcome pride - the unwarranted belief that America has nothing to learn from other countries - and prejudice - the equally unwarranted belief, driven by ideology, that private insurance is more efficient than public insurance. Let's start with the fact that America's health care system spends more, for worse results, than that of any other advanced country. In 2002 the United States spent $5,267 per person on health care. Canada spent $2,931; Germany spent $2,817; Britain spent only $2,160. Yet the United States has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than any of these countries.

But don't people in other countries sometimes find it hard to get medical treatment? Yes ..., but so do Americans. ... The journal Health Affairs recently published ... a survey of the medical experience of "sicker adults" in six countries, including Canada, Britain, Germany and the United States. ... It's true that Americans generally have shorter waits for elective surgery ... although German waits are even shorter. But Americans ... find it harder ... to see a doctor when we need one, and our system is more, not less, rife with medical errors. Above all, Americans are far more likely than others to forgo treatment because they can't afford it. ...

And also:

The authors of the study compared the prevalence of such diseases as diabetes and hypertension in Americans 55 to 64 years old with ... a comparable group in England. Comparing us with the English isn't a choice designed to highlight American problems: Britain spends only about 40 percent as much per person on health care..., ... Moreover, England isn't noted either for healthy eating or for a healthy lifestyle.

Nonetheless, the study concludes that "Americans are much sicker than the English."... What's ... striking is that being American seems to damage your health regardless of your race and social class. That's not to say that class is irrelevant. ... In fact, there's a strong correlation within each country between wealth and health. But Americans are so much sicker that the richest third of Americans is in worse health than the poorest third of the English. ...

Finally:

[I]nsurance companies ... devote a lot of effort and money to screening applicants... This screening process is the main reason private health insurers spend a much higher share of their revenue on administrative costs than do government insurance programs like Medicare, which doesn't try to screen anyone out. ... [P]rivate insurance companies spend large sums not on providing medical care, but on denying insurance to those who need it most. What happens to those denied coverage? Citizens of advanced countries ... don't believe that their fellow citizens should be denied essential health care because they can't afford it. And this belief in social justice gets translated into action... Some ... are covered by Medicaid. Others receive "uncompensated" treatment, ... paid for either by the government or by higher medical bills for the insured. ...

At this point some readers may object that I'm painting too dark a picture. After all, most Americans ... have private health insurance. So does the free market work better than I've suggested? No: to the extent that we do have a working system of private health insurance, it's the result of huge though hidden subsidies. ...

I'm not an opponent of markets. ... I've spent a lot of my career defending their virtues. But the fact is that the free market doesn't work for health insurance, and never did. All we ever had was a patchwork, semi-private system supported by large government subsidies. That system is now failing. And a rigid belief that markets are always superior to government programs - a belief that ignores basic economics as well as experience - stands in the way of rational thinking about what should replace it.

For more, see the links here. Single-payer isn't perfect, but all things considered it's the better solution.

    Posted by on Thursday, March 22, 2007 at 12:41 AM in Economics, Health Care | Permalink  TrackBack (3)  Comments (102)

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