Currently, our health care system has high-cost and low-cost areas; the high-cost areas have no better outcomes than the low-cost areas. So theoretically we can solve our health care cost problem by making the high-cost areas behave like the low-cost areas.
However, the market incentives go in the other direction; the economically rational thing for providers (doctors, hospitals, etc.) to do is to run up procedures and thereby costs. It would be better if providers focused more on patient outcomes or organized themselves into accountable care organizations, as Gawande prefers; but there is no economic reason for them to do so. People are not magically going to become more altruistic overnight. Even shame has only a temporary effect on behavior. Here’s Gail Wilensky from a Health Affairs roundtable:
It’s only by being able to offer compelling evidence that it’s the physician that is the outlier relative to his or her peers, that the patients really aren’t different, and in fact they are not having better outcomes, that you are able to pull back physician behavior — although there seems to be a high recidivism rate.
In some ways McAllen isn’t the aberration; according to the old Chicago economics department, everywhere should be like McAllen.
Remember all the people who said that you can’t blame mortgage brokers and investment bankers for being greedy, because that’s how a capitalist economy works? Well, you could make the same defense for the McAllen doctors. We long ago stopped expecting lawyers and accountants to behave contrary to their economic interests; now we simply expect them to conform to the law and to certain professional codes of conduct, and otherwise make as much money as possible. Why should we expect anything different from doctors?
In a capitalist economy, the thing that is supposed to keep prices in check is the buyers. If someone offers me a product that costs more than it is worth to me, then I won’t buy it. But we can’t count on patients to play this role in health care, because there is no way to make patients internalize all of the costs of their care; they simply don’t have the money. Furthermore, most people don’t understand the health production function (the relationship between treatments and outcomes), so they don’t have the ability to select treatments that provide benefits that are worth their costs. (And, in many cases, it’s not obvious even to professionals that a treatment isn’t worth the cost; it’s only obvious when you look at the data in aggregate.)
What about payers (health insurers?) A “market” solution would be to change the reimbursement rates for different procedures – increase payment for things that doctors should do more of and reduce payment for things that doctors should do less of. Theoretically, payers should be doing this already. However, in the current situation, a private payer who tried to reduce the rates for popular, expensive procedures would find itself unable to attract providers. The only payer with any real negotiating power is Medicare. The private payers have little ability to control costs. Or, if they have the ability, they aren’t exercising it.
In short, prices will only go up. As a result, the cost of health insurance goes up, and the market finally kicks in in the crudest possible form: people who can’t afford it become uninsured. At some point, if we have enough uninsured people, the health care industry will hit a point where it cannot increase revenues anymore, because it has fewer and fewer paying customers.
The proposed public health insurance plan would have the power to negotiate lower rates with providers. That’s why some providers don’t like it. That’s also why private payers don’t like it; they would be at a cost disadvantage to the public plan. (They can live with Medicare because Medicare leaves them the entire under-65 market.) Maybe that’s unfair. But the current situation isn’t working.