|Illustration by Stephen Savage
“Money is honey,” my grandmother used to tell me, “but health is wealth.” She said “health,” not “health care.” Listening to debates over health-care reform, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there is a difference.
Medical care, of course, is merely one component of our overall health. Nutrition, exercise, education, emotional security, our natural environment, and public safety may now be more important than care in producing further advances in longevity and quality of life. (In 2005, almost half of all deaths in the U.S. resulted from heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, homicide, suicide, and accidents—all of which are arguably influenced as much by lifestyle choices and living environment as by health care.) And of course even health itself is only one aspect of personal fulfillment, alongside family and friends, travel, recreation, the pursuit of knowledge and experience, and more.
Yet spending on health care, by families and by the government, is crowding out spending on almost everything else. As a nation, we now spend almost 18 percent of our GDP on health care. In 1966, Medicare and Medicaid made up 1 percent of total government spending; now that figure is 20 percent, and quickly rising. Already, the federal government spends eight times as much on health care as it does on education, 12 times what it spends on food aid to children and families, 30 times what it spends on law enforcement, 78 times what it spends on land management and conservation, 87 times the spending on water supply, and 830 times the spending on energy conservation. Education, public safety, environment, infrastructure—all other public priorities are being slowly devoured by the health-care beast.
It’s no different for families. From 2000 to 2008, the U.S. economy grew by $4.4 trillion; of that growth, roughly one out of every four dollars was spent on health care. Household expenditures on health care already exceed those on housing. And health care’s share is growing.
By what mechanism does society determine that an extra, say, $100 billion for health care will make us healthier than even $10 billion for cleaner air or water, or $25 billion for better nutrition, or $5 billion for parks, or $10 billion for recreation, or $50 billion in additional vacation time—or all of those alternatives combined?
The answer is, no mechanism at all. Health care simply keeps gobbling up national resources, seemingly without regard to other societal needs; it’s treated as an island that doesn’t touch or affect the rest of the economy. As new tests and treatments are developed, they are, for the most part, added to our Medicare or commercial insurance policies, no matter what they cost. But of course the money must come from somewhere. If the amount we spend on care had grown only at the general rate of inflation since 1970, annual health-care costs now would be roughly $5,000 less per American—that’s about 10 percent of today’s median income, to invest for the future or to spend on all the other things that contribute to our well-being. To be sure, our society has become wealthier over the years, and we’d naturally want to spend some of this new wealth on more and better health care; but how did we choose to spend this much?
The housing bubble offers some important lessons for health-care policy. The claim that something—whether housing or health care—is an undersupplied social good is commonly used to justify government intervention, and policy makers have long striven to make housing more affordable. But by making housing investments eligible for special tax benefits and subsidized borrowing rates, the government has stimulated not only the construction of more houses but also the willingness of people to borrow and spend more on houses than they otherwise would have. The result is now tragically clear.
As with housing, directing so much of society’s resources to health care is stimulating the provision of vastly more care. Along the way, it’s also distorting demand, raising prices, and making us all poorer by crowding out other, possibly more beneficial, uses for the resources now air-dropped onto the island of health care. Why do we view health care as disconnected from everything else? Why do we spend so much on it? And why, ultimately, do we get such inconsistent results? Any discussion of the ills within the system must begin with a hard look at the tax-advantaged comprehensive-insurance industry at its center.
How often have you heard a politician say that millions of Americans “have no health care,” when he or she meant they have no health insurance? How has a method of financing health care become synonymous with care itself?
The reason for financing at least some of our health care with an insurance system is obvious. We all worry that a serious illness or an accident might one day require urgent, extensive care, imposing an extreme financial burden on us. In this sense, health-care insurance is just like all other forms of insurance—life, property, liability—where the many who face a risk share the cost incurred by the few who actually suffer a loss.
But health insurance is different from every other type of insurance. Health insurance is the primary payment mechanism not just for expenses that are unexpected and large, but for nearly all health-care expenses. We’ve become so used to health insurance that we don’t realize how absurd that is. We can’t imagine paying for gas with our auto-insurance policy, or for our electric bills with our homeowners insurance, but we all assume that our regular checkups and dental cleanings will be covered at least partially by insurance. Most pregnancies are planned, and deliveries are predictable many months in advance, yet they’re financed the same way we finance fixing a car after a wreck—through an insurance claim.
Comprehensive health insurance is such an ingrained element of our thinking, we forget that its rise to dominance is relatively recent. Modern group health insurance was introduced in 1929, and employer-based insurance began to blossom during World War II, when wage freezes prompted employers to expand other benefits as a way of attracting workers. Still, as late as 1954, only a minority of Americans had health insurance. That’s when Congress passed a law making employer contributions to employee health plans tax-deductible without making the resulting benefits taxable to employees. This seemingly minor tax benefit not only encouraged the spread of catastrophic insurance, but had the accidental effect of making employer-funded health insurance the most affordable option (after taxes) for financing pretty much any type of health care. There was nothing natural or inevitable about the way our system developed: employer-based, comprehensive insurance crowded out alternative methods of paying for health-care expenses only because of a poorly considered tax benefit passed half a century ago.
In designing Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the government essentially adopted this comprehensive-insurance model for its own spending, and by the next year had enrolled nearly 12 percent of the population. And it is no coincidence that the great inflation in health-care costs began soon after. We all believe we need comprehensive health insurance because the cost of care—even routine care—appears too high to bear on our own. But the use of insurance to fund virtually all care is itself a major cause of health care’s high expense.
Insurance is probably the most complex, costly, and distortional method of financing any activity; that’s why it is otherwise used to fund only rare, unexpected, and large costs. Imagine sending your weekly grocery bill to an insurance clerk for review, and having the grocer reimbursed by the insurer to whom you’ve paid your share. An expensive and wasteful absurdity, no?
Is this really a big problem for our health-care system? Well, for every two doctors in the U.S., there is now one health-insurance employee—more than 470,000 in total. In 2006, it cost almost $500 per person just to administer health insurance. Much of this enormous cost would simply disappear if we paid routine and predictable health-care expenditures the way we pay for everything else—by ourselves.