July 31 2009
Friedman on Health Care
In observance of what would have been his 97th birthday, I would like to bring attention to Milton Friedman's insights into "How to Cure Health Care." The words of the Nobel-Price-winning economist and champion of individual freedom ring as true today as they did when this essay was first published in 2001. Current policy-makers and voters can learn a tremendous amount about the reasons for the increases in spending, the rising dissatisfaction on the part of consumers and suppliers of medical care, the large gap between U.S. spending on health care and other industrialized countries, and the potential solutions to these problems from reading Friedman's essay. Here are a few of the highlights:
[...] A key difference between medical care and the other technological revolutions is the role of government. In other technological revolutions, the initiative, financing, production, and distribution were primarily private, though government sometimes played a supporting or regulatory role. In medical care, government has come to play a leading role in financing, producing, and delivering medical service. Direct government spending on health care exceeds 75 percent of total health spending for 15 OECD countries. The United States is next to the lowest of the 29 countries, at 46 percent. In addition, some governments indirectly subsidize medical care through favorable tax treatment. For the United States, such subsidization raises the fraction of health spending financed directly or indirectly by government to more than 50 percent.
Two simple observations are key to explaining both the high level of spending on medical care and the dissatisfaction with that spending. The first is that most payments to physicians or hospitals or other caregivers for medical care are made not by the patient but by a third party-an insurance company or employer or governmental body. The second is that nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely or as frugally as he spends his own.
Enactment of Medicare and Medicaid provided a direct subsidy for medical care. The cost grew much more rapidly than originally estimated-as the cost of any handout invariably does. Legislation cannot repeal the nonlegislated law of demand and supply: the lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded; at a zero price, the quantity demanded becomes infinite. Some method of rationing must be substituted for price, which invariably means administrative rationing.
Some years ago, the British physician Max Gammon, after an extensive study of the British system of socialized medicine, formulated what he called "the theory of bureaucratic displacement." He observed that in "a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like ‘black holes,' in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of ‘emitted production.'" Gammon's observations for the British system have their exact parallel in the partly socialized U.S. medical system. Here, too, input has been going up sharply relative to output. This tendency can be documented particularly clearly for hospitals, thanks to the availability of high-quality data for a long period.
[...] a number of large companies (e.g., Quaker Oats, Forbes, Golden Rule Insurance Company)[...] offered their employees the choice of a medical savings account instead of the usual low-deductible employer-provided insurance policy. In each case, the employer purchased a high-deductible major medical insurance policy for the employee and deposited a stated sum, generally about half of the deductible, in a medical savings account for the employee. That sum could be used by the employee for medical care. Any part not used during the year was the property of the employee and had to be included in taxable income. Despite the loss of the tax exemption, this alternative has generally been very popular with both employers and employees. It has reduced costs for the employer and empowered the employee, eliminating much third-party payment.
Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.
This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns-the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe-and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become "What's wrong?" not "What's your insurance?"
Happy Birthday, Milton Friedman!