One of the most widely held pieces of conventional wisdom about health care is that new technology is relentlessly driving up costs. Yet over the past 20 years, I’ve bought several generations of microwave ovens, personal computers, DVD players, GPS devices, mobile phones, and flat-screen TVs. I bank mostly at ATMs, check out my own goods at self-serve supermarket scanners, and attend company meetings by videoconference. Technology has transformed much of our daily lives, in almost all cases by adding quantity, speed, and quality while lowering costs. So why is health care different?
Well, for the most part, it isn’t. Whether it’s new drugs to control previously untreatable conditions, diagnostic equipment that enhances physician productivity, or minimally invasive techniques that speed patient recovery, technology-driven innovation has been transforming care at least as greatly as it has transformed the rest of our lives.
But most health-care technologies don’t exist in the same world as other technologies. Recall the MRI my wife needed a few years ago: $1,200 for 20 minutes’ use of a then 20-year-old technology, requiring a little electricity and a little labor from a single technician and a radiologist. Why was the price so high? Most MRIs in this country are reimbursed by insurance or Medicare, and operate in the limited-competition, nontransparent world of insurance pricing. I don’t even know the price of many of the diagnostic services I’ve needed over the years—usually I’ve just gone to whatever provider my physician recommended, without asking (my personal contribution to the moral-hazard economy).
By contrast, consider LASIK surgery. I still lack the (small amount of) courage required to get LASIK. But I’ve been considering it since it was introduced commercially in the 1990s. The surgery is seldom covered by insurance, and exists in the competitive economy typical of most other industries. So people who get LASIK surgery—or for that matter most cosmetic surgeries, dental procedures, or other mostly uninsured treatments—act like consumers. If you do an Internet search today, you can find LASIK procedures quoted as low as $499 per eye—a decline of roughly 80 percent since the procedure was introduced. You’ll also find sites where doctors advertise their own higher-priced surgeries (which more typically cost about $2,000 per eye) and warn against the dangers of discount LASIK. Many ads specify the quality of equipment being used and the performance record of the doctor, in addition to price. In other words, there’s been an active, competitive market for LASIK surgery of the same sort we’re used to seeing for most goods and services.
The history of LASIK fits well with the pattern of all capital-intensive services outside the health-insurance economy. If you’re one of the first ophthalmologists in your community to perform the procedure, you can charge a high price. But once you’ve acquired the machine, the actual cost of performing a single procedure (the marginal cost) is relatively low. So, as additional ophthalmologists in the neighborhood invest in LASIK equipment, the first provider can meet new competition by cutting price. In a fully competitive marketplace, the procedure’s price will tend toward that low marginal cost, and ophthalmologists looking to buy new machines will exert downward pressure on both equipment and procedure prices.
No business likes to compete solely on price, so most technology providers seek to add features and performance improvements to new generations of a machine—anything to keep their product from becoming a pure commodity. Their success depends on whether the consumers will pay enough for the new feature to justify its introduction. In most consumer industries, we can see this dynamic in action—observe how DVD players have moved in a few years from a high-priced luxury to a disposable commodity available at discount stores. DVD players have run out of new features for which customers will pay premium prices.
Perhaps MRIs have too. After a long run of high and stable prices, you can now find ads for discount MRIs. But because of the peculiar way we pay for health care, this downward price pressure on technology seems less vigorous. How well can insurance companies and government agencies judge the value of new features that tech suppliers introduce to keep prices up? Rather than blaming technology for rising costs, we must ask if moral hazard and a lack of discipline in national health-care spending allows health-care companies to avoid the forces that make nonmedical technology so competitive.
In 2002, the U.S. had almost six times as many CT scanners per capita as Germany and four times as many MRI machines as the U.K. Traditional reformers believe it is this rate of investment that has pushed up prices, rather than sustained high prices that have pushed up investment. As a result, many states now require hospitals to obtain a Certificate of Need before making a major equipment purchase. In its own twisted way, this makes sense: moral hazard, driven by insurance, for years allowed providers to create enough demand to keep new MRI machines humming at any price.
But Certificates of Need are just another Scotch-tape reform, an effort to maintain the current system by treating a symptom rather than the underlying disease. Technology is driving up the cost of health care for the same reason every other factor of care is driving up the cost—the absence of the forces that discipline and even drive down prices in the rest of our economy. Only in the bizarre parallel universe of health care could limiting supply be seen as a sensible approach to keeping prices down.
A wasteful insurance system; distorted incentives; a bias toward treatment; moral hazard; hidden costs and a lack of transparency; curbed competition; service to the wrong customer. These are the problems at the foundation of our health-care system, resulting in a slow rot and requiring more and more money just to keep the system from collapsing.
How would the health-care reform that’s now taking shape solve these core problems? The Obama administration and Congress are still working out the details, but it looks like this generation of “comprehensive” reform will not address the underlying issues, any more than previous efforts did. Instead it will put yet more patches on the walls of an edifice that is fundamentally unsound—and then build that edifice higher.
A central feature of the reform plan is the expansion of comprehensive health insurance to most of the 46 million Americans who now lack private or public insurance. Whether this would be achieved entirely through the extension of private commercial insurance at government-subsidized rates, or through the creation of a “public option,” perhaps modeled on Medicare, is still being debated.
Regardless, the administration has suggested a cost to taxpayers of $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years. That, of course, will mean another $1 trillion or more not spent on other things—environment, education, nutrition, recreation. And if the history of previous attempts to expand the health safety net are any guide, that estimate will prove low.
The reform plan will also feature a variety of centrally administered initiatives designed to reduce costs and improve quality. These will likely include a major government investment to promote digitization of patient health records, an effort to collect information on best clinical practices, and changes in the way providers are paid, to better reward quality and deter wasteful spending.
All of these initiatives have some theoretical appeal. And within the confines of the current system, all may do some good. But for the most part, they simply do not address the root causes of poor quality and runaway costs.
Consider information technology, for instance. Of course the health system could benefit from better use of IT. The Rand Corporation has estimated that the widespread use of electronic medical records would eventually yield annual savings of $81 billion, while also improving care and reducing preventable deaths, and the White House estimates that creating and spreading the technology would cost just $50 billion. But in what other industry would an investment with such a massive annual return not be funded by the industry itself? (And while $50 billion may sound like a big investment, it’s only about 2 percent of the health-care industry’s annual revenues.)
Technology is effective only when it’s properly applied. Since most physicians and health-care companies haven’t adopted electronic medical records on their own, what makes us think they will appropriately use all this new IT? Most of the benefits of the technology (record portability, a reduction in costly and dangerous clinical errors) would likely accrue to patients, not providers. In a consumer-facing industry, this alone would drive companies to make the investments to stay competitive. But of course, we patients aren’t the real customers; government funding of electronic records wouldn’t change that.
I hope that whatever reform is finally enacted this fall works—preventing people from slipping through the cracks, raising the quality standard of the health-care industry, and delivering all this at acceptable cost. But looking at the big picture, I fear it won’t. So I think we should at least begin to debate and think about larger reforms, and a different direction—if not for this round of reform, then for the next one. Politics is, of course, the art of the possible. If our health-care crisis does not abate, the possibilities for reform may expand beyond their current, tight limits.