Tag: Economists

Economists Gone Wild

Economists are so embedded in their training with the concept of ceteris paribus — “all other things held equal” — that their policy prescriptions often go awry. Here are two recent examples:

First, in the March 10, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, David Cutler and Leemore Dafney argue against transparency of pricing in the health care sector.

The rationale for price transparency is compelling. Without it, how can consumers choose the most efficient providers of care? But though textbook economics argues for access to meaningful information, it does not argue for access to all information. In particular, the wrong kind of transparency could actually harm patients, rather than help them.

Applying the sunshine rule in the provider–payer context, however, could have the opposite of the intended effect: it could actually raise prices charged to patients.

[T]he sunshine policy would create a perverse incentive for the hospital to raise prices (on average), and as a result its rivals could do the same. This adverse effect of price transparency would arise only in cases in which the buyer or supplier in question had some leverage (market power), but such leverage is fairly common in health care settings, including many local hospital markets.

What’s the flaw here? In markets like Eastern Massachusetts, there is a dominant provider which uses its market power to garner above average prices from the insurance companies in its service area. That provider, in turn, can use those revenues to offer higher salaries than its competitors, drawing doctors into its orbit. It also has more resources to expand its ambulatory care facilities. Both steps serve to further expand its market power.

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