Fixing Health Care II: Doctor’s Visits
Now that we’ve solved the problem of the uninsured, it’s time to move on to the problem of doctor’s visits. Spending on physician and clinical services was $479B in 2007, 22% of total health care spending. Only hospital spending accounts for a larger share at 32% (I’ll be addressing this category in a subsequent post).
First, let me say that I have no problem with increased spending per se. We’ve increased spending on entertainment as well as health care and almost nobody has a problem with that. They’re both signs of increased prosperity. However, our current system encourages an economically inefficient level of spending. That’s the problem we need to fix.
If we want to get close to the efficient level of spending on doctor’s visits, here’s what we need to do:
- Eliminate insurance payment of primary care. The risk pooling benefits of insurance only work for rare events or unknown losses. When you use insurance to pay for common events of known magnitude, you are playing the Diner’s Dilemma and most people overconsume. Moreover, you get additional social losses from administrative overhead and reduced incentive to compete on quality. So we should tax any insurance plan that covers primary care (excepting organizations like Kaiser that are paying for essentially all of your care).
- Establish personal Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). To reduce the sticker shock of (1), we should give people the ability to pay into personal HSAs roughly the same way they pay into personal IRAs. They will still respond to pricing incentives in the outpatient services market, but the use of pre tax dollars will soften the blow and encourage saving.
- Require pricing disclosure. Partly due to strategic behavior in negotiating reimbursement from insurance companies and partly due to wanting to extract the maximum surplus from patients, doctors and labs are reluctant to disclose their prices. Unfortunately, this behavior makes it difficult for patients to respond to pricing signals and decreases service innovation by obscuring differentiation. Therefore, we should require doctors and labs to publicly disclose their general price lists and give patients specific estimates before rendering services.
- Eliminate barriers to “Wal-Mart Medicine”. Doctor’s probably like (1). The are probably mixed on (3). They probably won’t like this. One of the reasons that trips to the doctor’s office are so expensive is that they just aren’t very efficient operations. Normally, competition would squeeze out inefficiency but doctors are effectively insulated from competition through a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle regulations. Among the biggest are local restrictions on “retailer clinics” through companies like Wal-Mart and state restrictions on the use of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs). Retailer clinics cost substantially less and provide equivalent care (at least for some basic needs) according to a recent study. Then if you look at salary data from PayScale, NPs and PAs cost about 40% less than family practice doctors. Here, I depart from my usual libertarian bent and advocate using the withholding of federal funds to blackmail encourage local and state authorities to comply.
- Fund startups in health advisory and tracking. The first four measures will create a much more open and transparent market for outpatient services. As in other such markets, there are probably a lot of advisory and tracking services that could improve decision making and efficiency. Imagine a self-help applications that advises when a trip to a Wal-Mart clinic is sufficient versus when it’s worth the money to go to a more boutique operation. Or a sophisticated rating and cost comparison services by zip code.
With these measures in place, we would most likely get a richer market that spans Wal-Mart clinics staffed primarily by NPs and PAs that cost $35-50 per visit to high end boutiques where a 30 minute consultation with a star doctor costs $300-$500. Each person would spend much closer to the economically efficient level given their personal circumstances and preferences.