Today THCB is happy to publish a piece reflecting the learnings from Charles Silver and David Hyman’s forthcoming book Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much For Health Care, shortly to be published by the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. In subsequent weeks we’ll feature commentary from the
right radical libertarian zone on the political game board (Michael Cannon) and from the left (Andy Slavitt) about the book and its proposals. For now please give your views in the comments–Matthew Holt
There are many reasons why the United States is “the most expensive place in the world to get sick.” In Part 1 of Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much For Health Care, we show that the main reason is that we pay for medical treatments the wrong way. Instead of having consumers purchase these treatments directly, we route trillions of dollars through third-parties payers – both government and private insurers.
Relying on third party payers has many consequences — few of them good. To start with, this arrangement removes the budgetary constraint that would otherwise cap the amount consumers are willing to spend. By minimizing the direct cost of treatments at the point of sale, third party payment arrangements alter everyone’s incentives fundamentally. Consumers no longer need worry about balancing marginal costs against marginal benefits; instead, they have an incentive to use all treatments that have any potential to help, regardless of their prices. When millions of consumers act on these incentives, total spending skyrockets and consumers collectively wind up worse off, because their fixed costs spiral upward too. Heavy reliance on third party payers creates a classic failure of collective action.
It isn’t just consumers. Providers love third party payment as well. And why not? Once providers have access to the enormous bank accounts of third party payers, the sky is the limit, at least until third party payers start setting limits on the amounts they will pay and saying no to unproven and/or cost-ineffective treatments that doctors want to provide and patients want to receive.
Not surprisingly, it has turned out to be extraordinarily difficult and politically unpopular for third party payers to set such limits. Obamacare’s appeal derives largely from two requirements: health insurance plans must accept all comers, including applicants with preexisting conditions that require expensive medical treatments; and health plans must provide unlimited benefits (i.e., no annual or lifetime spending caps). From an individual consumer’s perspective, what could be better than having access to unlimited amounts of money to spend on medical needs? From society’s point of view, though, this combination is a recipe for disaster.