John Goodman of the NCPA has a great article about how the current healthcare system is heavily distorted by government policies that result in people making decision with other people’s money (or at least what they perceive as other people’s money). The excerpt below is a good summary of John’s key points, but I’ll add a couple of rhetorical questions. What do you think would happen if government created a tax break that made it attractive to expand auto insurance to cover the cost of oil changes and trips to the gas station? Would that make that market more efficient or less efficient? Would Jiffy Lube and Sunoco charge higher prices or lower prices? What would happen to administrative costs?
Almost everyone believes there is an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency in health care. But why is that? In a normal market, wherever there is waste, entrepreneurs are likely to be in hot pursuit — figuring out ways to profit from its elimination by cost-reducing, quality-enhancing innovations. Why isn’t this happening in health care? As it turns out, there is a lot of innovation here. But all too often, it’s the wrong kind. There has been an enormous amount of innovation in the medical marketplace regarding the organization and financing of care. And wherever health insurers are paying the bills (almost 90 percent of the market) it has been of two forms: (1) helping the supply side of the market maximize against third-party reimbursement formulas, or (2) helping the third-party payers minimize what they pay out. Of course, these developments have only a tangential relationship to the quality of care patients receive or its efficient delivery. The tiny sliver of the market (less than 10 percent) where patients pay out of pocket has also been teeming with entrepreneurial activity. In this area, however, the entrepreneurs have been lowering cost and raising quality — what most of us wish would happen everywhere else. …Wherever there is third-party payment, the goal of innovation is to produce more products that qualify for reimbursement, even if the effects on patient outcomes are only marginal. Wherever there is no third-party reimbursement, innovators are focused on ways to lower cost and raise quality. Take cosmetic surgery. Over the past two decades there has been an enormous amount of innovation in the field — all of the cost-lowering, quality-raising variety. That explains why the volume of cosmetic surgeries grew six-fold over the past 20 years, while the real price declined by more than one-third. Similarly, there has been remarkable innovation in LASIK surgery — another area where third-party payers are not. Yet the real price of LASIK surgery has declined by 25 percent over the past decade. The same principle can be seen at work in the international marketplace. For example, India has a potentially huge market for medical care. But 80 percent of health care spending in that country is private and there is very little health insurance. So some of the companies that make expensive technology for the developed world are now finding ways to produce the same services for a fraction of the price. GE Healthcare, for example, has introduced a portable electrocardiogram machine into the Indian market that will perform the heart exam for 20 cents (compared to a normal price of $50). Siemens (another maker of high-end, expensive equipment) has built mobile diagnostics units for the Indian market with X-ray, ultrasound and pathology systems.