Sunday, December 16, 2007

Health reform: the time for happy chatter is over

Robert Samuelson -- Newsweek columnist and Washington Post op-editorialist -- had a typically fine piece in last Thursday's Post. Here's the nub of his argument:

We're told that the uninsured are our biggest health-care problem, but they aren't. Runaway health spending is. although politicians pay lip service to that, what they really enjoy is increasing spending.

It's understandable because expanding benefits is so much more politically rewarding than trying to control them. Everyone believes in adequate health care; people should have it when they need it. Politicians cater to these beliefs. But the intellectual and even moral laziness of this approach results in an invisible abdication of political responsibility. We are letting the unchecked rise in health spending determine national priorities. Consider:

  • Health spending already totals more than $2 trillion annually, about 16 percent of national income (gross domestic product). By 2030, it could easily exceed 25 percent -- one dollar out of four -- projects the Congressional Budget Office.
  • There's a massive transfer of income from young to old. Americans 65 and older now represent about an eighth of the population and account for about a third of all health spending. By 2030, their population share will be about a fifth, and they could account for nearly half of health spending, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has found.
  • Neither the government nor the private sector has succeeded in controlling health spending. From 1970 to 2005, average spending per Medicare beneficiary rose 8.9 percent a year. For similar services, spending for Americans with private health insurance rose 9.8 percent annually over the same period. The small difference may reflect cost shifting. When Medicare imposes price controls, doctors and hospitals increase prices for privately insured patients.

Samuelson argues for changes that illuminate rather than obscure the costs of care -- by increased cost-sharing by Medicare beneficiaries, a dedicated federal health-care tax to pay for all federal health programs (as the costs go up, the tax goes up), and elimination of the federal tax subsidy for employer contributions to employee health benefit plans. This is hardly new stuff: all of these ideas have been kicking around for years, and most health care economists seem to agree that cost control won't be possible without reducing the role of third-party payors and putting more of the cost of care on consumers.

Samuelson's contribution to the debate is to point out that the debate so far is largely missing a very big -- possibly the big -- point. Here's why:

These proposals would inflict "pain," and candidates who embraced them would invite political ruin. There's a consensus for evasion that most politicians echo. The impulse is to focus on a simpler problem -- say, the uninsured. In some ways, this is less serious than it seems. About 40 percent of the uncovered are young (18 to 34); most are healthy and don't need much care.

But for all the uninsured, the cost of coverage is a major obstacle. Health care is ultimately a political issue of making choices. Our present politics aims to camouflage the costs and skew the choices. Until we change that, our debates will lead to dead ends.

posted by tommayo, 11:36 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter