Monday, January 16, 2006

Health care shopping

I'm trying to stay focused on Hurricane Katrina issues, but this Sebastian Mallaby article in The Washington Post, reviewing a possible Bush administration approach to reforming health care, is too good for anyone to miss:

To make the health market work, the trick is to create and then empower consumers. You create them by making individuals pay more out of pocket. And you empower them by forcing hospitals and doctors to publish information on quality and price. ...

Imagine a world in which companies paid for their staffs' groceries: Employees would load up with more food than they needed; supermarkets would seize the chance to mark up groceries; pretty soon, they wouldn't even bother posting their prices. So it is today with medicine. You don't know the cost of your hospital visit until a few days later, when the bill arrives.

There's a weakness in this thinking. The country has moved far enough already toward out-of-pocket payments, which promise hardship for low-income people without much reduction in waste. Health is simply too complex for people to make smart, waste-reducing decisions; when you go to the hospital with screaming stomach pains, you have no idea how many tests you need -- and you're not in a fit state to embark on comparative shopping. ...

But the White House is right to press hospitals and doctors for better information on price and quality. Limited state-level experiments suggest that public ratings shame the poorest performers into rethinking their procedures; doctors want to help their patients, and if they are confronted with evidence that they are failing to do so they are willing to shake themselves up. ...

But this still raises a nagging question.

Beyond the imperative of restraining prices, the biggest challenges in health care are to get insurance to everyone and to create incentives for preventive treatment -- even though prevention may pay off 30 years later, by which time the patient will have gone through multiple switches in health plans. The most plausible subsidizer of universal insurance is government, and the only entity with a stake in lifelong wellness is the government. Is the administration ready to see that?


At 1/17/2006 07:21:00 PM, Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.


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