How American Health Care Killed My Father

After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.
Illustration by Stephen Savage

The Moral-Hazard Economy

Society’s excess cost from health insurance’s administrative expense pales next to the damage caused by “moral hazard”—the tendency we all have to change our behavior, becoming spendthrifts and otherwise taking less care with our decisions, when someone else is covering the costs. Needless to say, much medical care is unavoidable; we don’t choose to become sick, nor do we seek more treatment than we think we need. Still, hospitals, drug companies, health insurers, and medical-device manufacturers now spend roughly $6 billion a year on advertising. If the demand for health care is purely a response to unavoidable medical need, why do these companies do so much advertising?

Medical ads on TV typically inform the viewer that a specific treatment—a drug, device, surgical procedure—is available for a chronic condition. Many also note that the product or treatment is eligible for Medicare or private-insurance reimbursement. In some cases, the advertiser will offer to help the patient obtain that reimbursement. The key message: you can benefit from this product and pass the bill on to someone else.

Every time you walk into a doctor’s office, it’s implicit that someone else will be paying most or all of your bill; for most of us, that means we give less attention to prices for medical services than we do to prices for anything else. Most physicians, meanwhile, benefit financially from ordering diagnostic tests, doing procedures, and scheduling follow-up appointments. Combine these two features of the system with a third—the informational advantage that extensive training has given physicians over their patients, and the authority that advantage confers—and you have a system where physicians can, to some extent, generate demand at will.

Do they? Well, Medicare spends almost twice as much per patient in Dallas, where there are more doctors and care facilities per resident, as it does in Salem, Oregon, where supply is tighter. Why? Because doctors (particularly specialists) in surplus areas order more tests and treatments per capita, and keep their practices busy. Many studies have shown that the patients in areas like Dallas do not benefit in any measurable way from all this extra care. All of the physicians I know are genuinely dedicated to their patients. But at the margin, all of us are at least subconsciously influenced by our own economic interests. The data are clear: in our current system, physician supply often begets patient demand.

Moral hazard has fostered an accidental collusion between providers benefiting from higher costs and patients who don’t fully bear them. In this environment, trying to control costs is awfully tough. When Medicare cut reimbursement rates in 2005 on chemotherapy and anemia drugs, for instance, it saved almost 20 percent of the previously billed costs. But Medicare’s total cancer-treatment costs actually rose almost immediately. As The New York Times reported, some physicians believed their colleagues simply performed more treatments, particularly higher-profit ones.

Want further evidence of moral hazard? The average insured American and the average uninsured American spend very similar amounts of their own money on health care each year—$654 and $583, respectively. But they spend wildly different amounts of other people’s money—$3,809 and $1,103, respectively. Sometimes the uninsured do not get highly beneficial treatments because they cannot afford them at today’s prices—something any reform must address. But likewise, insured patients often get only marginally beneficial (or even outright unnecessary) care at mind-boggling cost. If it’s true that the insurance system leads us to focus on only our direct share of costs—rather than the total cost to society—it’s not surprising that insured families and uninsured ones would make similar decisions as to how much of their own money to spend on care, but very different decisions on the total amount to consume.

The unfortunate fact is, health-care demand has no natural limit. Our society will always keep creating new treatments to cure previously incurable problems. Some of these will save lives or add productive years to them; many will simply make us more comfortable. That’s all to the good. But the cost of this comfort, and whether it’s really worthwhile, is never calculated—by anyone. For almost all our health-care needs, the current system allows us as consumers to ask providers, “What’s my share?” instead of “How much does this cost?”—a question we ask before buying any other good or service. And the subtle difference between those two questions is costing us all a fortune.

There’s No One Else to Pay the Bill

Perhaps the greatest problem posed by our health-insurance-driven regime is the sense it creates that someone else is actually paying for most of our health care—and that the costs of new benefits can also be borne by someone else. Unfortunately, there is no one else.

For fun, let’s imagine confiscating all the profits of all the famously greedy health-insurance companies. That would pay for four days of health care for all Americans. Let’s add in the profits of the 10 biggest rapacious U.S. drug companies. Another 7 days. Indeed, confiscating all the profits of all American companies, in every industry, wouldn’t cover even five months of our health-care expenses.

Somebody else always seems to be paying for at least part of our health care. But that’s just an illusion. At $2.4 trillion and growing, our nation’s health-care bill is too big to be paid by anyone other than all of us.

In 2007, employer-based health insurance cost, on average, more than $12,000 per family, up 78 percent since 2001. I’ve run several companies and company divisions of various sizes over the course of my career, so I can confidently tell you that raises (and even entry-level hiring) are tightly limited by rising health-care costs. You may think your employer is paying for your health care, but in fact your company’s share of the insurance premium comes out of your potential wage increase. Where else could it come from?

Let’s say you’re a 22-year-old single employee at my company today, starting out at a $30,000 annual salary. Let’s assume you’ll get married in six years, support two children for 20 years, retire at 65, and die at 80. Now let’s make a crazy assumption: insurance premiums, Medicare taxes and premiums, and out-of-pocket costs will grow no faster than your earnings—say, 3 percent a year. By the end of your working days, your annual salary will be up to $107,000. And over your lifetime, you and your employer together will have paid $1.77 million for your family’s health care. $1.77 million! And that’s only after assuming the taming of costs! In recent years, health-care costs have actually grown 2 to 3 percent faster than the economy. If that continues, your 22-year-old self is looking at an additional $2 million or so in expenses over your lifetime—roughly $4 million in total.

Would you have guessed these numbers were so large? If not, you have good cause: only a quarter would be paid by you directly (and much of that after retirement). The rest would be spent by others on your behalf, deducted from your earnings before you received your paycheck. And that’s a big reason why our health-care system is so expensive.

The Government Is Not Good at Cost Reduction

Every proposal for health-care reform has featured some element of cost control to “balance” the inflationary impact of expanding access. Yet it goes without saying that in the big picture, all government efforts to control costs have failed.

Why? One reason is a fixation on prices rather than costs. The government regularly tries to cap costs by limiting the reimbursement rates paid to providers by Medicare and Medicaid, and generally pays much less for each service than private insurers. But as we’ve seen, that can lead providers to perform more services, and to steer patients toward higher-priced, more lightly regulated treatments. The government’s efforts to expand “access” to care while limiting costs are like blowing up a balloon while simultaneously squeezing it. The balloon continues to inflate, but in misshapen form.

Cost control is a feature of decentralized, competitive markets, not of centralized bureaucracy—a matter of incentives, not mandates. What’s more, cost control is dynamic. Even the simplest business faces constant variation in its costs for labor, facilities, and capital; to compete, management must react quickly, efficiently, and, most often, prospectively. By contrast, government bureaucracies set regulations and reimbursement rates through carefully evaluated and broadly applied rules. These bureaucracies first must notice market changes and resource misallocations, and then (sometimes subject to political considerations) issue additional regulations or change reimbursement rates to address each problem retrospectively.

As a result, strange distortions crop up constantly in health care. For example, although the population is rapidly aging, we have few geriatricians—physicians who address the cluster of common patient issues related to aging, often crossing traditional specialty lines. Why? Because under Medicare’s current reimbursement system (which generally pays more to physicians who do lots of tests and procedures), geriatricians typically don’t make much money. If seniors were the true customers, they would likely flock to geriatricians, bidding up their rates—and sending a useful signal to medical-school students. But Medicare is the real customer, and it pays more to specialists in established fields. And so, seniors often end up overusing specialists who are not focused on their specific health needs.

Many reformers believe if we could only adopt a single-payer system, we could deliver health care more cheaply than we do today. The experience of other developed countries suggests that’s true: the government as single payer would have lower administrative costs than private insurers, as well as enormous market clout and the ability to bring down prices, although at the cost of explicitly rationing care.

But even leaving aside the effects of price controls on innovation and customer service, today’s Medicare system should leave us skeptical about the long-term viability of that approach. From 2000 to 2007, despite its market power, Medicare’s hospital and physician reimbursements per enrollee rose by 5.4 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, per year. As currently structured, Medicare is a Ponzi scheme. The Medicare tax rate has been raised seven times since its enactment, and almost certainly will need to be raised again in the next decade. The Medicare tax contributions and premiums that today’s beneficiaries have paid into the system don’t come close to fully funding their care, which today’s workers subsidize. The subsidy is getting larger even as it becomes more difficult to maintain: next year there will be 3.7 working people for each Medicare beneficiary; if you’re in your mid-40s today, there will be only 2.4 workers to subsidize your care when you hit retirement age. The experience of other rich nations should also make us skeptical. Whatever their histories, nearly all developed countries are now struggling with rapidly rising health-care costs, including those with single-payer systems. From 2000 to 2005, per capita health-care spending in Canada grew by 33 percent, in France by 37 percent, in the U.K. by 47 percent—all comparable to the 40 percent growth experienced by the U.S. in that period. Cost control by way of bureaucratic price controls has its limits.

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David Goldhill is the president and chief executive officer of the cable-television network GSN, and the author of Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Health Care Is Wrong.

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