Monday, January 31, 2011

Less Care or Greater Productivity?

There is a fundamental assumption in health care reform that "bending the cost curve" is synonymous with reducing care*. For example see this very thoughtful post from Donald Taylor**. I think this assumption leads most health care experts to focus on empowering some omniscient bureaucrat (whether employed by the federal government or by an insurer) to wisely decide how to maximize the returns on our health care dollar by only spending on high bang for the buck procedures. This view precludes the notion that productivity gains could drive down costs. In health care the conventional wisdom holds that technology only drives prices up (it may also enhance quality but at a significant premium). I wonder how much of this is driven by the fundamentals of health care financing as opposed to actual delivery? The areas of health care where insurance is not the normal means of financing care such as plastic surgery or dental care have shown significantly lower cost growth than the rest of health care. Or if you look at something like Lasik eye surgery there has been both an increase of quality, utilization accompanied with price decreases. Obviously insurance should play an important role in health care but the important question is what role? Should we be subsidized to purchase a product that adds parties to a routine and predictable transaction? No. We should focus on ensuring that when something that unexpectedly causes one to incur great expenses that he does not end up in the poor house.

*I do believe that part of bending the cost curve will be better utilization of care and this will necessarily entail some reduction in the care provided. But I can't help but wonder if how health care delivery is financed holds back some potential productivity enhancing measures.

**If you are interested in health care policy Donald Taylor's blog is a must read. He has considerable expertise in health care policy but also has a keen read on the politics of health care. He has a very provocative compromise proposal that I will blog in a bit but you should definitely read now.

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