It has become accepted economic wisdom, uttered with deadpan certainty by policy pundits and budget scolds on both sides of the aisle, that the only way to get control over America’s looming deficits is to “reform entitlements.”
But the accepted wisdom is wrong.
Start with the statistics Republicans trot out at the slightest provocation — federal budget data showing a huge spike in direct payments to individuals since the start of 2009, shooting up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase.
And Census data showing 49 percent of Americans living in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing — up from 44 percent in 2008.
But these expenditures aren’t driving the federal budget deficit in future years. They’re temporary. The reason for the spike is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.
If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically, including 22 percent of our children.
What about Social Security and Medicare (along with Medicare’s poor step-child, Medicaid)?
Health care had its own version of the LeBron James “Decision” last month with the Supreme Court upholding the critically important elements of the Affordable Care Act. Now that the uncertainty is behind us―at least until the November elections―health care leaders can continue preparing their organizations for the changes ahead.
Fixing the system requires reforms at the macro level. But it also takes a symphony of smaller actions happening in concert. As experience bears out, it is difficult to agree upon a collective action with so many competing interests in health care and the partisanship that has gripped politics. But there is a song that we can all agree upon, loud and in unison. Reduce the waste.
Nearly a third of our health care costs come from wasteful spending and inefficiencies that could be avoided. Left unchecked, this is a nail in the coffin of our system; but, if tackled, is a huge cost containing opportunity. By identifying waste in the delivery system and systematically reducing it, we could lower costs without resorting to budget cuts and fees that compromise the quality of care.
Cynics say Washington is the city where good ideas go to die. A promising strategy for holding down health care costs in the Obama administration’s reform bill – providing patients and doctors with authoritative information on what works best in health care – should provide a classic test of that proposition, assuming the law survives the next election.
Experts estimate anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the health care that Americans receive is wasted. It is either ineffective or does more harm than good. To put that in perspective, waste costs anywhere from $250 billion and $750 billion a year, or as much as three-fourths of the annual federal deficit.
Yet every effort to curb wasteful spending (health care fraud, though pervasive, is estimated at less than a quarter of the total) has come up short. Neither Medicare and Medicaid’s efforts at government price controls nor the insurance industry’s efforts at managing care has succeeded in stopping health care spending from rising at twice the rate of the overall economy. Only the recent deep recession curbed costs, and that was because people lost their insurance when they lost their jobs and stopped going to the doctor. The bill for that postponed maintenance isn’t in yet.
For over a decade, the health policy world has held out comparative effectiveness research – comparing competing approaches to treating disease – as one possible solution to eliminating waste in the health care delivery system. If only doctors and patients knew what worked best, knew what worked less well than advertised, and knew what didn’t work at all, they would, through better-informed choices, gradually eliminate much of the waste in the system.