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Critical Condition

NRO’s health-care blog.

Is Government-Driven ‘Cost Containment’ Our Only Option?



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President Obama continues to argue that it is crucial for Congress to pass a health-care bill because it will help slow the pace of rising costs. Perhaps the president and his aides actually believe that to be the case. But, in recent days, it has become abundantly clear that virtually no one else does.

Today, in a column in the Wall Street Journal, the dean of the Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey Flier, says the bills under consideration in Congress are not health reform bills at all, but just access expansion proposals. As he puts it, “I find near unanimity of opinion that, whatever its shape, the final legislation that will emerge from Congress will markedly accelerate national health-care spending rather than restrain it.”

Flier is just the latest commentator to sound the alarm on costs. Robert Samuelson and David Broder made similar points in columns published in recent days in the Washington Post, as did David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

So what do Obama apologists say in response to this chorus of criticism?

Here, a friendly discussion between the Post’s Ezra Klein and MIT Economics professor Jonathan Gruber is useful. Their counter-argument can be essentially boiled down to two points: There’s no real alternative to the kinds of government-driven cost controls favored by most Democrats, and, although the measures inserted into the House and Senate bills are perhaps weak, they’re directionally right and better than nothing.

Of course, in the current environment, with large Democratic majorities determined to pass a bill based on heavy, centralized governmental control, there is little prospect for bipartisan reforms that would rely on decentralized financial incentives and cost-conscious consumers to allocate resources in the health sector. But it is flat wrong to suggest there is no alternative to a clumsy and politicized governmental process for health-care cost control. There is. It’s just that Democrats don’t like it. They want full governmental control, not a functioning marketplace.

Indeed, that’s the debate we should be having this year. Are Klein and Gruber right? Or are their opponents? In other words, what process stands the best chance of bringing about continual improvement in the efficiency and quality of patient care? Can the federal government really root out wasteful spending in the health sector without harming the quality of American medical care?

Most Democrats seem to think so, but all of the evidence indicates otherwise. The federal government has been running the Medicare and Medicaid programs for more than four decades. There have been countless efforts to use the leverage of provider payment regulations to push doctors and hospitals to organize themselves differently and to change the way they care for patients. They haven’t worked. In fact, Medicare’s current payment systems are now rightfully seen as effectively underwriting the problems found in today’s arrangements. They encourage fragmentation and autonomy, not integration and coordination. The focus is on maximizing revenue from the government, not patient satisfaction. And yet, if the current bills in Congress were to become law, in ten years time, Medicare would look and operate pretty much just as it does today, except with even heavier reliance on fee-for-service medicine. In fact, the administration’s push for a new Medicare Commission with the authority to rewrite how providers are paid by the program is a tacit admission that neither Congress nor the executive branch can be trusted to run a governmental health insurance program efficiently. But there’s also little reason to assume a commission, accountable to its political patrons, would do any better.

The only thing the federal government can ever do well to cut costs is to impose arbitrary payment reductions. Of course, that’s exactly what the Democrats are proposing to do in the current health-care bills. These cuts aren’t calibrated based on the quality of patient care. All providers would get cut pretty much the same. If Obamacare passes, we can expect more of the same, just with worse consequences. At some point, price controls always lead to a reduction in the willing suppliers of services, which means queues and other barriers to accessing care.

There is an alternative, however. Congress could establish a decentralized approach to resource allocation — an arrangement in which consumers have strong financial incentives to pick lower-cost insurance and health delivery options, and in which insurers, hospitals, and physicians have strong incentives to reorganize for efficiency. Importantly, building such a marketplace would require converting today’s open-ended federal tax and entitlement arrangements into fixed contributions which the consumers, not the government, would control. That was the basic design of the prescription-drug benefit in Medicare, and it has worked far better to hold down costs than any other health program introduced in recent years.

The real debate in health care has always been the same: Should the country adopt full governmental control, or can a market deliver better value at lower cost? There is a choice, even if those currently in power don’t want to admit it.



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