March 20, 2017

What We Pay

The Princeton health economist, Uwe Reinhardt, first said it in 2004. The private think tank, the McKinsey Global Institute, persuasively demonstrated it was true in 2008. But maybe now that the Wall Street Journal is saying the same thing, policy makers will listen. The elephant in the room, the main factor accounting for the high cost of health care in the US, is prices.

The spending gap between the US and other developed countries remains huge. We spend 17 percent of GDP on health care (that’s all spending, public and private combined); our closest competitor, Switzerland, manages to spend 11 percent. Other OECD countries, such as New Zealand and Norway, spend closer to 9 percent. And despite all the excess spending, we don’t have better outcomes across a broad range of measures, from infant mortality to life-expectancy.

The main culprit, the WSJ reports, is higher prices in the US. The average price of most prescription drugs is higher here—by a lot. Avastin (an expensive medication but not the most expensive medication there is) costs $4000 for a 400 mg vial in America and less than $2000 in western Europe. Ditto for procedures: the cost of coronary artery bypass surgery in the US is $80,000, compared to half that in other OECD countries. And so on, down the line.  Elsewhere in the world, the WSJ explains, state run health systems set limits on prices or refuse to pay a supplier if the cost is regarded as excessive. Our free market system, far from keeping costs down, drives them up.

The McKinsey Report, though a few years old now, makes further adjustments based on a country’s wealth. It argues that richer countries may want to spend a larger proportion of their income on health care. But even adjusting for greater GDP per capita, the US spent $650 billion more than “expected” in 2006. The fastest growing part of the excess, the study showed, was due to outpatient care, both office visits and ambulatory surgery. And what was driving up costs in these domains wasn’t the frequency of visits—Europeans tend to go to the doctor at least as often as their American counterparts—it was the cost per visit. Other major contributors to the high cost of American health care are drug pricing (McKinsey found, as did the WSJ, that we pay more in the US for a given drug than we would in other OECD countries) and the cost of health administration (all the spending on marketing and administration of multiple private health plans boosts costs way over what they would be with a single payer).

I think it’s fair to conclude that the high cost of American medicine isn’t solely—or even mainly—due to waste. Targeting the use of less-than-optimal therapies in outpatient practice, as the Choosing Wisely campaign does won’t solve the cost problem. Nor will targeting expensive, burdensome, and unwanted treatment near the end of life. These are important efforts to improve quality of care. But if we want to do something about cost, we need to have an impact on prices. That means cutting payments made by insurers (both Medicare and private insurance companies) to pricey specialists. It means allowing the biggest and most influential insurer of all, Medicare, to negotiate with drug companies about price. It means allowing insurers such as Medicare to pay for devices based on their cost-effectiveness, not based on what the manufacturer charges. 

Introducing single payer health insurance would help, too. It happens to be the only other way to cover all Americans and make health insurance affordable and get rid of pre-existing conditions riders without use of the “mandate” that Republicans find so very unpalatable. But that’s a topic for another day.

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