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April 18, 2006

Health Care and Ideology

Part of our cultural orthodoxy hates government and loves the market. It typifies the all-or-nothing, either/or-ism of our times. For the Republican Right Wing, this means: Thumbs up to markets; thumbs down to government. (It only means that in their advertising. In real life, the Republican Government of Bush and pals have piled up the largest government spending and deficits ever. And, they happily savage the rule of law in favor of a government that knows no bounds.)

But, in the orthodoxy, the talking points and the assumptions always begin with market idolatry and government-bashing. We will not find a path out of this darkness without adopting a both/and view -- without seeing when and why markets work best and when and why governments work best and, most importantly, how markets and governments can collaborate to achieve optimal and sustainable solutions.

Health care provides a prime exhibit for our 'head in the sands, either/or' approach. Today, health care spending is out of control while the quality of our health care lags other that of other nations. Like so much else in contemporary life, health care is increasingly a haves vs. have nots affair. Those who can afford insurance and those who qualify for government help versus those who fall out of both buckets.

Chaos reigns. But, instead of sincerely tackling this grave and complex challenge, those who claim to be leaders instead demagogue about markets vs. government. Unfortunately for the orthodoxy, however, the private markets idolators are increasingly pushing a fiction. Consider only this: Overhead and other costs not spent on direct care account for 13% of the expenses of private sector insurers and only 2% for Medicare. Government is over 600% more efficient and effective than markets!

Why? Well, one reason has to do with the ideology of shareholder value fundamentalism. Instead of seeking sustainable returns that benefit shareholders, customers and employees in some reasonably blended fashion, the shareholder value radicals pursue profits and only profits in order to satisfy expectations of financial markets that, not coincidentally, they themselves shape. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom: we must have more profits because the financial markets -- that is, ourselves, say we must have more profits.

So, how does a private insurer insure steady and growing profits in health insurance? Well, by combining steady increases in premiums with steady increases in costs used to screen out unhealthy people as well as fight off claims from all people. Why do private sector health insurers spend 13% of their budgets on things that don't make us healthier? Because private health insurers are more in the business of making profits than the business of insuring people.

Medicare doesn't have this motivation. And, under the assault of the 'we hate goverment' crowd, Medicare has had decades of pressure to reduce any costs that cannot be linked to direct benefits. Which -- in the both/and spirit -- is both a good thing -- and also a bad thing in that such pressures have probably also led to reducing coverage that might be needed.

In any event, the orthodoxy celebrates markets for their efficiency -- yet also fuels the capital markets ideology of shareholder value fundamentalism that, in turn, drives up administrative costs of private insurers more bent on financial results than insurance results.

But, there's more. Our capital markets also support the market for corporate control. One way of gaining more leverage over the bottom line is through market consolidation. Healthy market competition disappears when markets are so concentrated that either monopoly or oligopoly power sits in the hands of too few. Which, of course, is just what has happened among private sector health insurers who now have dangerous amounts of market power in most of the United States.

And so how are you feeling right now? Have you been reading along and thinking to yourself, 'this is a severe criticism of markets and celebration of government?" I hope not. I'm not contending that either markets or governments are the single answer. Instead, I'm suggesting that our nation faces a health care crisis of great complexity. We can solve it. But, to do so, we must understand and deploy markets when they work best and government solutions when they work best. None of which will happen so long as the conversation remains one of our typical screaming matches.

Posted by Doug Smith on April 18, 2006 03:44 PM | Permalink