Monday, September 14, 2009

How American Health Care Killed my Father

Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.


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.