In the final act of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the eponymous villain king arrives on the battlefield to fight against Richmond, who will soon become Henry VII. During the battle, Richard is dismounted as his horse is killed and in a mad frenzy wades through the battlefield screaming “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Richard shows us how market value can change drastically depending on the circumstances, or your mental state, and even the most absurd exchange rate can become reasonable in a moment of crisis.
This presumably arbitrary nature of prices should be the first thing about the US healthcare market that catches the attention of any student of economics. Prices for the same procedure vary greatly between hospitals on opposite sides of the street and even then appear to have no basis in reality. Further investigation reveals many other features of the healthcare market that economics teaches us will increase transaction costs and the misallocation of resources. The prices we discussed are generally not paid by the patient, but by a third party insurer. Often the patient isn’t even able to select the insurer but is assigned one by his or her employer. What the patient thinks of the insurer’s ability as a steward of his or her premiums is irrelevant. Further, contracts between providers or pharmacies and the insurer completely hide the true price from the patient’s view. In addition, anti-competitive certificate of need laws limit competition between providers and expensive regulations compel providers to merge to compete in a nuclear arms race with the insurers, although the real victim is the patient’s wallet over which the providers and insurers fight their proxy wars. The best way to explain the US healthcare system is if you took every economic best practice and then did the opposite. How does one get out of this mess?
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Obama advisor Ezekiel Emanuel attempts to ease the minds of millions of Americans who may be selecting narrow network plans in the exchanges.
In defending narrow networks, Emanuel cites the well-known example of Kaiser, which has for decades required enrollees to choose among only Kaiser-owned hospitals and Kaiser-employed physicians.
He goes on to propose some “safeguards” for plans in the exchanges such as mandating that insurers disclose the criteria used to establish their network of providers and requiring that insurers pay for second opinions from elite out-of-network providers.
Perhaps surprisingly given our previous commentary, we agree with the general thrust of Emanuel’s argument, which is that freedom of choice is overrated. And while we do not agree with many of his recommended safeguards, our quarrel today is not with his proposals for even more new rules and regulations.
Rather, our primary quarrel is with the vast majority of the individuals who chose to comment on, and often lash out at, Emanuel’s article. These comments are emblematic of the general misunderstanding of the role of narrow network plans in controlling the future growth of health care expenditures.
In a nutshell, this is the archetypal response against Emmanuel’s claim: “Evil insurers have given us narrow networks. The government must intervene in this bloodthirsty lust for profits. Give us freedom of choice! (And preferably with the government taking over the business of insurance altogether).”
Given previous comments on this site, we suspect that many readers of our blog might share similar sentiments. So we would like to take our readers on a stroll down memory lane to explain how insurers ended up creating networks, and why we are all better off for it.
A THCB reader writes in with a question and a pretty disruptive suggestion. @NorCal Exchange writes:
“I’m a small business owner. I’m also a card-carrying Democrat. Frankly, I’m pretty pissed off about the way things have gone with this roll-out so far. This was our one chance to get health reform right. And from what I can tell, we’ve totally screwed it up. Here’s one more thing a lot of the media coverage is missing. Even though THCB readers understand how open enrollment works, I’m guessing a lot of ordinary Americans don’t realize that under the new rules once they’ve applied for coverage they’re basically stuck with what they’ve got until the next enrollment period. This was a pretty big change in the first place. With all of this insanity, I’m guessing people are probably not reading the fine print and don’t know they’re locked in.
My prediction: there are going to be a lot of really unhappy people in the early part of 2014, when people realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. Why not allow people to change their plans? If you want an Amazon.com for healthcare, make the market for health insurance the same way as the market for anything else. If people decide to upgrade their coverage let them. If they get pissed at UnitedHealth’s customer service, let them cancel their policy and switch to AETNA or CIGNA. If I’m an idiot and don’t want preventative coverage let me build my own plan. If I’m worried that my daughter might get cancer let me add the Mayo clinic to my network. If my kid plays sports, let me add better ortho coverage. Yeah. Yeah. I know. This will turn the traditional underwriting model upside down. And a couple of health plans may even go out of business. But so what? My business may end up going out of business. These guys are smart. They’ll figure out twenty new ways to make money and they’ll end up thanking us for disrupting their precious monopoly …”
Since 2010, when the Affordability Care Act was signed into law, the American mainstream media has insisted that President Obama’s bill provides the most at-risk Americans, low income families and seniors, with better health care. And that must mean, by any logic, better access to doctors, more access to the modern tools of diagnosis and treatment, and ultimately better health outcomes. That poor Americans benefit greatly from the ACA, and that seniors will be more secure under the president’s law, has seemed so obvious to the left-leaning news outlets that this fact has yet to be critically examined by them.
President Obama’s ACA law purports to provide new health coverage to upwards of 16 million low income Americans by way of Medicaid. We already see in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that many, if not most, states simply cannot be burdened with massive increases in their Medicaid outlays, regardless of the promise of financial support from the federal government (itself a financially unsustainable funding source).
But President Obama’s assertion about new insurance for the poor and all it brings is, in fact, a grand deception. We know that 55 percent of primary care physicians and obstetricians already refuse all or most new Medicaid patients (about four times the percentage that refuse new private insurance patients), and only half of specialist doctors accept most new Medicaid patients. Clearly, granting poor people Medicaid is not equivalent to providing access to doctors.
If “Obamacare” was a federal takeover of health care, states failed to get the memo.
The House Republicans and three Democrats who voted to “repeal and replace” it with something that provides “lower health care premiums through increased competition and choice” might want to take a look at Utah. Its new internet-based insurance exchange was designed by free-market advocates.
It provides small businesses, individuals and even some large employers with access to competitive insurance plans. The state’s Republican leadership, aided by Michael Leavitt, the state’s former governor and secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration, believes their exchange “could be a national model for market-based health care reform.”
Closer to where they go to work every day, the “repeal and replacers” in Washington might also want to follow onrushing events in Virginia, whose state attorney general sued to void the individual mandate in the national law. Last month, using a $1 million planning grant from the federal government, the state’s Republican secretary of health Bill Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon, issued a “Virginia Health Reform Initiative” that outlined the state’s vision of reform under the federal Affordable Care Act.
It’s centerpiece? The proposal, which was introduced in both houses of the state legislature this month with bipartisan support, calls for setting up a health care insurance exchange that will “try to promote effective competition” within the state, said Len Nichols, a professor of health policy at George Mason University, who consulted with Hazel in coming up with the proposal. Virginia desperately needs some competition since one carrier – Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield – currently controls over 60 percent of the market, Nichols said.
The story was front page and above the fold in The New York Times. Six teachers in Newark are leaving the traditional school system to start a public school of their own.
If the product was something other than education, this would have been no news at all. I would guess that the vast majority of businesses in this country were started by people who walked away from an employer, convinced that they could make a better product on their own. Teachers rarely have the opportunity to do the same, however. They are usually trapped in a system that does not allow innovation or experimentation and is ordinarily hostile to entrepreneurship.
What does all this have to do with health care? A lot. Doctors are just as trapped as teachers. And that is the most important defect in the health care system.
This, of course, is not the conventional view. The received wisdom in the health policy community is that doctors have too much freedom, not too little. Witness the wide variation in medical practice patterns — from city to city and region to region — all seemingly unrelated to medical outcomes. How can anyone defend that? Certainly not me. Where I part company with so many of my colleagues is that they blame the doctors for this problem — I blame the third-party payers.
Were we to look into the matter, I’m sure we would find wide variations in the practice of teaching from school to school, district to district and state to state. Yet I still maintain the teachers are essentially trapped. This may appear to be an oxymoron, but it’s really not. Both in education and in health care, the practitioners have a great deal of freedom to waste resources. But they have virtually no freedom to profit by discovering innovative ways of lowering costs and raising quality.
In trying to think about the future of health care, thoughtful, intelligent people often ask, “Why can’t we just let the free market operate in health care? That would drive down costs and drive up quality.” They point to the successes of competition in other industries. But their faith is misplaced, for economic reasons that are peculiar to health care.
More “free market” competition could definitely improve the future of health care in certain areas. But the problems of the sector as a whole will not yield to “free market” ideas – never will, never can – for reasons that are ineluctable, that derive from the core nature of the market. We might parse them out into three:
True medical demand is wildly variable, random, and absolute. Some people get cancer, others don’t. Some keel over from a heart attack, get shot, or fall off a cliff, others are in and out of hospitals for years before they die. Aggregate risk varies by socioeconomic class and age – the older you are, the more likely you are to need medical attention; poor and uneducated people are more likely to get diabetes. Individual risk varies somewhat by lifestyle – people who eat better and exercise have lower risk of some diseases; people who sky dive, ski, or hang out in certain bars have higher risk of trauma. But crucially, risk has no relation to ability to pay. A poor person does not suddenly discover an absolute need to buy a new Jaguar, but may well suddenly discover an absolute need for the services of a neurosurgeon, an oncologist, a cancer center, and everything that goes with it. And the need is truly absolute. The demand is literally, “You obtain this or you die.”Continue reading…