Great article by self-identified Democrat David Goldhill in the Atlantic on health care reform. It is well worth your time to read the whole thing, but this section on how our dependence on third party payments (including employer sponsored health insurance and government programs) drives up health care costs is a good highlight:
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.