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The Health Care Crisis and What to Do About It

The view that Americans consume too much health care because insurers pay the bills leads to what is currently being called the “consumer-directed” approach to health care reform. The virtues of such an approach are the theme of John Cogan, Glenn Hubbard, and Daniel Kessler’s Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. The main idea is that people should pay more of their medical expenses out of pocket. And the way to reduce public reliance on insurance, reformers from the right wing believe, is to remove the tax advantages that currently favor health insurance over out-of-pocket spending. Indeed, last year Bush’s tax reform commission proposed taxing some employment-based health benefits. The administration, recognizing how politically explosive such a move would be, rejected the proposal. Instead of raising taxes on health insurance, the administration has decided to cut taxes on out-of-pocket spending.

Cogan, Hubbard, and Kessler call for making all out-of-pocket medical spending tax-deductible, although tax experts from both parties say that this would present an enforcement nightmare. (Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, put it this way: “If you want to have a personal relationship with the IRS do that [i.e., make all medical spending tax deductible] because we are going to have to investigate everybody’s home to see if their running shoes are a medical expense.”) The administration’s proposals so far are more limited, focusing on an expanded system of tax-advantaged health savings accounts. Individuals can shelter part of their income from taxes by depositing it in such accounts, then withdraw money from these accounts to pay medical bills.

What’s wrong with consumer-directed health care? One immediate disadvantage is that health savings accounts, whatever their ostensible goals, are yet another tax break for the wealthy, who have already been showered with tax breaks under Bush. The right to pay medical expenses with pre-tax income is worth a lot to high-income individuals who face a marginal income tax rate of 35 percent, but little or nothing to lower-income Americans who face a marginal tax rate of 10 percent or less, and lack the ability to place the maximum allowed amount in their savings accounts.

A deeper disadvantage is that such accounts tend to undermine employment-based health care, because they encourage adverse selection: health savings accounts are attractive to healthier individuals, who will be tempted to opt out of company plans, leaving less healthy individuals behind.

Yet another problem with consumer-directed care is that the evidence says that people don’t, in fact, make wise decisions when paying for medical care out of pocket. A classic study by the Rand Corporation found that when people pay medical expenses themselves rather than relying on insurance, they do cut back on their consumption of health care—but that they cut back on valuable as well as questionable medical procedures, showing no ability to set sensible priorities.

But perhaps the biggest objection to consumer-directed health reform is that its advocates have misdiagnosed the problem. They believe that Americans have too much health insurance; the 2004 Economic Report of the President condemned the fact that insurance currently pays for “many events that have little uncertainty, such as routine dental care, annual medical exams, and vaccinations,” and for “relatively low-expense items, such as an office visit to the doctor for a sore throat.” The implication is that health costs are too high because people who don’t pay their own medical bills consume too much routine dental care and are too ready to visit the doctor about a sore throat. And that argument is all wrong. Excessive consumption of routine care, or small-expense items, can’t be a major source of health care inefficiency, because such items don’t account for a major share of medical costs.

Remember the 80–20 rule: the great bulk of medical expenses are accounted for by a small number of people requiring very expensive treatment. When you think of the problem of health care costs, you shouldn’t envision visits to the family physician to talk about a sore throat; you should think about coronary bypass operations, dialysis, and chemotherapy. Nobody is proposing a consumer-directed health care plan that would force individuals to pay a large share of extreme medical expenses, such as the costs of chemotherapy, out of pocket. And that means that consumer-directed health care can’t promote savings on the treatments that account for most of what we spend on health care.

The administration’s plans for consumer-directed health care, then, are a diversion from meaningful health care reform, and will actually worsen our health care problems. In fact, some reformers privately hope that George W. Bush manages to get his health care plans passed, because they believe that they will hasten the collapse of employment-based coverage and pave the way for real reform. (The suffering along the way would be huge.)

But what would real reform look like?

5.

Single-payer and beyond

How do we know that the US health care system is highly inefficient? An important part of the evidence takes the form of international comparisons. Table 1 compares US health care with the systems of three other advanced countries. It’s clear from the table that the United States has achieved something remarkable. We spend far more on health care than other advanced countries—almost twice as much per capita as France, almost two and a half times as much as Britain. Yet we do considerably worse even than the British on basic measures of health performance, such as life expectancy and infant mortality.

One might argue that the US health care system actually provides better care than foreign systems, but that the effects of this superior care are more than offset by unhealthy US lifestyles. Ezra Klein of The American Prospect calls this the “well-we-eat-more-cheeseburgers” argument. But a variety of evidence refutes this argument. The data in Table 1 show that the United States does not stand out in the quantity of care, as measured by such indicators as the number of physicians, nurses, and hospital beds per capita. Nor does the US stand out in terms of the quality of care: a recent study published in Health Affairs that compared quality of care across advanced countries found no US advantage. On the contrary, “the United States often stands out for inefficient care and errors and is an outlier on access/cost barriers.”2 That is, our health care system makes more mistakes than those of other countries, and is unique in denying necessary care to people who lack insurance and can’t pay cash. The frequent claim that the United States pays high medical prices to avoid long waiting lists for care also fails to hold up in the face of the evidence: there are long waiting lists for elective surgery in some non-US systems, but not all, and the procedures for which these waiting lists exist account for only 3 percent of US health care spending.3

So why does US health care cost so much? Part of the answer is that doctors, like other highly skilled workers, are paid much more in the United States than in other advanced countries. But the main source of high US costs is probably the unique degree to which the US system relies on private rather than public health insurance, reflected in the uniquely high US share of private spending in total health care expenditure.

Over the years since the failure of the Clinton health plan, a great deal of evidence has accumulated on the relative merits of private and public health insurance. As far as we have been able to ascertain, all of that evidence indicates that public insurance of the kind available in several European countries and others such as Taiwan achieves equal or better results at much lower cost. This conclusion applies to comparisons within the United States as well as across countries. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the Urban Institute found that

per capita spending for an adult Medicaid beneficiary in poor health would rise from $9,615 to $14,785 if the person were insured privately and received services consistent with private utilization levels and private provider payment rates.4

The cost advantage of public health insurance appears to arise from two main sources. The first is lower administrative costs. Private insurers spend large sums fighting adverse selection, trying to identify and screen out high-cost customers. Systems such as Medicare, which covers every American sixty-five or older, or the Canadian single-payer system, which covers everyone, avoid these costs. In 2003 Medicare spent less than 2 percent of its resources on administration, while private insurance companies spent more than 13 percent.

At the same time, the fragmentation of a system that relies largely on private insurance leads both to administrative complexity because of differences in coverage among individuals and to what is, in effect, a zero-sum struggle between different players in the system, each trying to stick others with the bill. Many estimates suggest that the paperwork imposed on health care providers by the fragmentation of the US system costs several times as much as the direct costs borne by the insurers.

The second source of savings in a system of public health insurance is the ability to bargain with suppliers, especially drug companies, for lower prices. Residents of the United States notoriously pay much higher prices for prescription drugs than residents of other advanced countries, including Canada. What is less known is that both Medicaid and, to an even greater extent, the Veterans’ Administration, get discounts similar to or greater than those received by the Canadian health system.

We’re talking about large cost savings. Indeed, the available evidence suggests that if the United States were to replace its current complex mix of health insurance systems with standardized, universal coverage, the savings would be so large that we could cover all those currently uninsured, yet end up spending less overall. That’s what happened in Taiwan, which adopted a single-payer system in 1995: the percentage of the population with health insurance soared from 57 percent to 97 percent, yet health care costs actually grew more slowly than one would have predicted from trends before the change in system.

If US politicians could be persuaded of the advantages of a public health insurance system, the next step would be to convince them of the virtues, in at least some cases, of honest-to-God socialized medicine, in which government employees provide the care as well as the money. Exhibit A for the advantages of government provision is the Veterans’ Administration, which runs its own hospitals and clinics, and provides some of the best-quality health care in America at far lower cost than the private sector. How does the VA do it? It turns out that there are many advantages to having a single health care organization provide individuals with what amounts to lifetime care. For example, the VA has taken the lead in introducing electronic medical records, which it can do far more easily than a private hospital chain because its patients stay with it for decades. The VA also invests heavily and systematically in preventive care, because unlike private health care providers it can expect to realize financial benefits from measures that keep its clients out of the hospital.

In summary, then, the obvious way to make the US health care system more efficient is to make it more like the systems of other advanced countries, and more like the most efficient parts of our own system. That means a shift from private insurance to public insurance, and greater government involvement in the provision of health care—if not publicly run hospitals and clinics, at least a much larger government role in creating integrated record-keeping and quality control. Such a system would probably allow individuals to purchase additional medical care, as they can in Britain (although not in Canada). But the core of the system would be government insurance—“Medicare for all,” as Ted Kennedy puts it.

Unfortunately, the US political system seems unready to do what is both obvious and humane. The 2003 legislation that added drug coverage to Medicare illustrates some of the political difficulties. Although it’s rarely described this way, Medicare is a single-payer system covering many of the health costs of older Americans. (Canada’s universal single-payer system is, in fact, also called Medicare.) And it has some though not all the advantages of broader single-payer systems, notably low administrative costs.

But in adding a drug benefit to Medicare, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress were driven both by a desire to appease the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies and by an ideology that insists on the superiority of the private sector even when the public sector has demonstrably lower costs. So they devised a plan that works very differently from traditional Medicare. In fact, Medicare Part D, the drug benefit, isn’t a program in which the government provides drug insurance. It’s a program in which private insurance companies receive subsidies to offer insurance—and seniors aren’t allowed to deal directly with Medicare.

The insertion of private intermediaries into the program has several unfortunate consequences. First, as millions of seniors have discovered, it makes the system extremely complex and obscure. It’s virtually impossible for most people to figure out which of the many drug plans now on offer is best. This complexity, coupled with the Katrina-like obliviousness of administration officials to a widely predicted disaster, also led to the program’s catastrophic initial failure to manage the problem of “dual eligibles,” i.e., older Medicaid recipients whose drug coverage was supposed to be transferred to Medicare. When the program started up in January, hundreds of thousands of these dual eligibles found that they had fallen through the cracks, that their old coverage had been canceled but their new coverage had not been put into effect.

Second, the private intermediaries add substantial administrative costs to the program. It’s reasonably certain that if seniors had been offered the choice of receiving a straightforward drug benefit directly from Medicare, the vast majority would have chosen to pass up the private drug plans, which wouldn’t have been able to offer comparable benefits because of their administrative expenses. But the drug bill avoided that embarrassing outcome by denying seniors that choice.

Finally, by fragmenting the purchase of drugs among many private plans, the administration denied Medicare the ability to bargain for lower prices from the drug companies. And the legislation, reflecting pressures from those companies, included a provision specifically prohibiting Medicare from intervening to help the private plans get lower prices.

In short, ideology and interest groups led the Bush administration to set up a new, costly Medicare benefit in such a way as to systematically forfeit all the advantages of public health insurance.

6.

Beyond reform: How much health care should we have?

Imagine, for a moment, that some future US administration were to push through a fundamental reform of health care that covered all the uninsured, replaced private insurance with a single-payer system, and took heed of the VA’s lessons about the advantages of integrated health care. Would our health care problems be solved?

No. Although real reform would bring great improvement in our situation, continuing technological progress in health care still poses a deep dilemma: How much of what we can do should we do?

The medical profession, understandably, has a bias toward doing whatever will bring medical benefit. If that means performing an expensive surgical procedure on an elderly patient who probably has only a few years to live, so be it. But as medical technology advances, it becomes possible to spend ever larger sums on medically useful care. Indeed, at some point it will become possible to spend the entire GDP on health care. Obviously, we won’t do this. But how will we make choices about what not to do?

In a classic 1984 book, Painful Prescription: Rationing Hospital Care, Henry Aaron and William Schwartz studied the medical choices made by the British system, which has long operated under tight budget limits that force it to make hard choices in a way that US medical care does not. Can We Say No? is an update of that work. It’s a valuable survey of the real medical issues involved in British rationing, and gives a taste of the dilemmas the US system will eventually face.

The operative word, however, is “eventually.” Reading Can We Say No?, one might come away with the impression that the problem of how to ration care is the central issue in current health care policy. This impression is reinforced by Aaron and his co-authors’ decision to compare the US system only with that of Britain, which spends far less on health care than other advanced countries, and correspondingly is forced to do a lot of rationing. A comparison with, say, France, which spends far less than the United States but considerably more than Britain, would give a very different impression: in many respects France consumes more, not less, health care than the United States, but it can do so at lower cost because our system is so inefficient.

The result of Aaron et al.’s single-minded focus on the problem of rationing is a somewhat skewed perspective on current policy issues. Most notably, they argue that the reason we need universal health coverage is that a universal system can ration care in a way that private insurance can’t. This seems to miss the two main immediate arguments for universal care—that it would cover those now uninsured, and that it would be cheaper than our current system. A national health care system will also be better at rationing when the time comes, but that hardly seems like the prime argument for adopting such a system today.

Our Princeton colleague Uwe Reinhardt, a leading economic expert on health care, put it this way: our focus right now should be on eliminating the gross inefficiencies we know exist in the US health care system. If we do that, we will be able to cover the uninsured while spending less than we do now. Only then should we address the issue of what not to do; that’s tomorrow’s issue, not today’s.

7.

Can we fix health care?

Health policy experts know a lot more about the economics of health care now than they did when Bill Clinton tried to remake the US health care system. And there’s overwhelming evidence that the United States could get better health care at lower cost if we were willing to put that knowledge into practice. But the political obstacles remain daunting.

A mere shift of power from Republicans to Democrats would not, in itself, be enough to give us sensible health care reform. While Democrats would have written a less perverse drug bill, it’s not clear that they are ready to embrace a single-payer system. Even liberal economists and scholars at progressive think tanks tend to shy away from proposing a straightforward system of national health insurance. Instead, they propose fairly complex compromise plans. Typically, such plans try to achieve universal coverage by requiring everyone to buy health insurance, the way everyone is forced to buy car insurance, and deal with those who can’t afford to purchase insurance through a system of subsidies. Proponents of such plans make a few arguments for their superiority to a single-payer system, mainly the (dubious) claim that single-payer would reduce medical innovation. But the main reason for not proposing single-payer is political fear: reformers believe that private insurers are too powerful to cut out of the loop, and that a single-payer plan would be too easily demonized by business and political propagandists as “big government.”

These are the same political calculations that led Bill Clinton to reject a single-payer system in 1993, even though his advisers believed that a single-payer system would be the least expensive way to provide universal coverage. Instead, he proposed a complex plan designed to preserve a role for private health insurers. But the plan backfired. The insurers opposed it anyway, most famously with their “Harry and Louise” ads. And the plan’s complexity left the public baffled.

We believe that the compromise plans being proposed by the cautious reformers would run into the same political problems, and that it would be politically smarter as well as economically superior to go for broke: to propose a straightforward single-payer system, and try to sell voters on the huge advantages such a system would bring. But this would mean taking on the drug and insurance companies rather than trying to co-opt them, and even progressive policy wonks, let alone Democratic politicians, still seem too timid to do that.

So what will really happen to American health care? Many people in this field believe that in the end America will end up with national health insurance, and perhaps with a lot of direct government provision of health care, simply because nothing else works. But things may have to get much worse before reality can break through the combination of powerful interest groups and free-market ideology.

—February 22, 2006

Letters

V.A. Care Is Better November 2, 2006

What to Do about Health Care October 19, 2006

  1. 2

    Cathy Schoen, Robin Osborn, Phuong Trang Huynh, Michelle Doty, Kinga Zapert, Jordon Peugh, and Karen Davis, “Taking the Pulse of Health Care Systems: Experiences of Patients with Health Problems in Six Countries,” Health Affairs Web exclusive, November 3, 2005.

  2. 3

    Gerard F. Anderson, Peter S. Hussey, Bianca K. Frogner, and Hugh R. Waters, “Health Spending in the United States and the Rest of the Industrialized World,” Health Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 4 (July/August 2005), pp. 903–914.

  3. 4

    Medicaid: A Lower-Cost Approach to Serving a High-Cost Population,” policy brief by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, March 2004.

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