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Distributism and the Health Care System, Part 1: Free Market Confusions

Distributism would be of little practical use if it could not provide useful answers to practical problems of the type we face practically everyday. I believe distributism does indeed provide a useful set of tools to analyze these problems and to devise useful solutions. But the proof of this claim can only come in the analysis of an actual problem. For this example of distributist analysis, I choose the American health care system, which is experiencing great difficulties, difficulties for which no one has yet devised a workable solution.

Some sign of these difficulties is shown by the fact that in 2007, the United States spent 16.2% of its GDP on health care, up from 8% in 1975.[i] Of this amount, the government pays about 46%. Compare this with Great Britain, where they spend about half that amount, or 8.4% of the GDP (2006).[ii] In other words, the United States spends almost as much in public money as the English do in total, yet we do not have universal health care. We spend more in private funds than the English do in total, yet we do not have a free-market system. We spend more than any other country in the world on health care, but we have neither a truly public nor a truly private system. Rather, we have a Rube Goldberg contraption that combines the worst features of capitalism and socialism. And for all the money we spend, we leave a large percentage of the population without insurance. 15.3% in 2007 (about 46 million people) and that number has risen by at least 4 million in the last year due to our economic problems. Further, even people who have insurance often find that it is inadequate and that a medical emergency leaves them with crushing debts. The insurance companies maintain large staffs whose only job is to deny as many claims as possible; indeed, their compensation is not based on how accurately they assess claims, but solely on how many they deny. Any claims adjuster who fairly assesses claims will quickly find himself unemployed.

Spending twice as much on health care might be justified if the results were significantly better. Yet the opposite is true. By every objective measure, we do far worse when compared to other industrialized nations. In terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, preventable diseases, and many other categories, the United States falls far behind Japan, Canada, Western Europe, and nearly all the other industrialized nations of the world.

The problem is not only the large share of the GDP that the system consumes, but also the continuing growth of that share. Over the last 10 years, the growth in health care expenditures as a percentage of the GDP averaged 1.86% per year. Even during this current recession, the cost of health care has been the only thing that is growing. Obviously, this cannot continue; sooner or later the system must fall of its own weight, and my guess is that day is coming sooner rather than later.

Some Possible Causes

Of the myriad of possible causes cited for this phenomenon, two are often given great weight in the discussion: improved technology and an aging population. However, there are serious problems with both of these “explanations.” Concerning improvements in technology, it is certainly true that there have been great advances in medicines and machinery. However, improvements in technology normally lower costs, not raise them. Health care is the only industry where an executive could get away with saying, “Our technology has vastly improved, therefore we are far less efficient.” That being said, there is a case where improved technology actually raises costs; it is where the technology is provided under monopoly conditions. More of this in a moment.

An aging population seems a more plausible explanation, seeing that the problems of aging tend to be more chronic and expensive than those of easily repaired youth. However, this cannot be the full explanation, since aging is not a problem unique to the United States. All of the developed countries have similar demographics—or worse—yet still spend far less than the United States. So by itself, aging cannot be the problem. However, there is something unique about the American situation which raises the costs of aging, namely, senior health care is socialized while care for most of the rest of the population is not. This means that the elderly can outbid the young and middle-aged in competing for scarce medical resources, thereby raising the costs for everybody. You have, in effect, a socialized system competing with a private system (more or less), and the socialized system seems to have endless resources, since they are the resources of the United States government.

Many other causes are often cited: the cost of malpractice insurance, immigration, fragmentation, greed, regulation, and so forth. While each of these may play a role, neither any one of them nor all of them collectively are sufficient to explain the rapid and continuing rise in costs.

Free-Market vs. Socialist?

The debates on this issue usually take place within the framework of “free market” vs. “socialized” medicine, yet the system we have is neither and both. It cannot be a free market system because the supply of medicine and medical services is limited by licenses and patents. Milton Friedman advocated abolishing the licensing of doctors altogether. Friedman argued that medical licenses restrict the supply of doctors and thereby raise the cost. He believed that the free market would judge medical competence better than any license board, rewarding the competent doctors and punishing the incompetent.

The problem with Friedman’s argument is that we have already tried that. Right into the early 20th century, doctors were unlicensed; they took perhaps one or two years at a medical college, usually a for-profit institution run by local doctors who lectured at the college. After their course of lectures, and without ever having touched a microscope or a cadaver, they set up as doctors. The results were disastrous, as became evident in the great Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918; the level of medical training was simply inadequate to deal with the crisis. After that disaster, the move to improve education and require licenses gained public support to produce the system we have today, a system largely controlled by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Further, a free market solution depends on the availability of information and the ability to judge that information. In comparing doctors, information about them is hard come by, and even if I had such information, I would not be able to make an informed judgment. And if I am having a heart attack, I am in no position to do the comparison shopping that a free market requires.

Yet for all that, Friedman has a point. By limiting the number of doctors, we restrict the supply and raise the cost. Further, because of the high training requirements required for the license, the education of a doctor is long, arduous, and expensive. New doctors are frequently burdened with huge education loans, and setting up a practice requires a huge capital investment. This forces doctors to act more like businessmen than medical professionals; they have to turn a large profit just to break even on both their costs and the amount of income forgone while they were getting their educations. And it has frequently been charged that the AMA restricts the number of “slots” in medical schools so as to further restrict supply.

Licenses are not the only problem in making medicine a free-market service. A greater problem results from patents for medicines and medical technology. A patent is a government-granted monopoly right which gives the patent holder the exclusive right to manufacture some particular product. Currently, patents run 20 years, during which the patent holder may place any price he chooses on his product, and he usually chooses a monopoly price. Monopoly pricing is the antithesis of free-market pricing. A free market, in theory at least, prices products to produce the highest possible amount of goods at the lowest possible price; the equilibrium point between supply and demand, under conditions of perfect competition, guarantees the lowest practical price to the buyer and the lowest practical return to the producer. But none of this is true under monopoly conditions. The producer supplies the least amount of product for the greatest possible price, and in the case of medicines, it is like selling water to people dying of thirst in the desert: they will pay any price to save their lives.

Monopoly pricing also has another and more insidious effect. In a competitive market, price serves as an allocation signal. A price that is too high will leave some goods unsold; a price that is too low will result in a shortage of goods. The market will provide the proper signals to producers telling them how much product to supply to the market and at what price. But monopoly destroys this mechanism; the monopolist may demand a share of whatever funds are supplied to a given market, and the more funds supplied, the higher the prices go without increasing the supply of the product. This is sufficient to explain why medical expenses consume an ever increasing share of the GDP without increasing the number of people covered. More funding means only higher prices, not more actual goods supplied. But as the monopolists claim an ever-larger share of the total GDP, the system must sooner or later collapse.

The argument for patents is that they increase innovation; without the prospect of great wealth, people will have no incentive to develop the miracle drugs and marvelous technology that we enjoy. In other words, for the sake of science and progress, we must accept monopolies.

Health Insurance

It is often suggested that insurance can function as a middle term between the market and socialism. However, this involves a misunderstanding of what insurance is. Insurance can only be a means of cost-averaging; some must pay too much and others too little, but one way or another, the cost must be paid by the users, which, in a monopolistic market, will price many out of the market. And healthy purchasers will seek plans that eliminate as many “risky” applicants as possible; they will seek the safest “risk pool” which is reflected by the lowest cost. People with higher risks will be placed in higher risk pools with higher prices, which will price many out of the market. So nothing is gained towards a universal, affordable system.

Further, insurance works differently in a monopolistic market. Cars and homes can be efficiently insured because the home and car repair businesses are relatively free markets, which means that insurers can rely on the market to control costs. Insurance will have some inflationary effects, as people perform repairs they might otherwise have deferred, but in general the effects are mild. This is not true in the presence of monopolies; the monopolistic market cannot be relied on to control costs, quite the opposite: the more money supplied to a monopoly, the more the prices will rise. This in turn raises the cost of insurance, which drives more people out of the market. The effect is the prices rise while coverage shrinks, or precisely the effects we are seeing in the real world.

Some have suggested that these problems will go away if we make insurance mandatory and universal, as in the Massachusetts Plan. However, a mandatory purchase is just another name for a tax; since everybody is required to purchase the product, it cannot really be a free market. Again, some argue that even though the purchases are mandatory, the system is still “free-market” because of the variety of plans and prices provided. However, the price differences in the plans can only come from differences in coverage. Some will cover more, and some less; some will deny more claims, and others less. People will have to guess in advance what diseases and medicines they are likely to need, and to the extent that they guess wrong—which is inevitable—they will be uninsured. You will have, essentially, the same situation we have today but in a different form: instead of the insured and uninsured, you will have the fully insured and the partially insured, with partial insurance being the equivalent of non-insurance for many situations.

Again, some will counter that the government can require all the plans to cover the same things. However, a standard, compulsory plan is no different from socialized medicine, and is likely to be a good deal less efficient. There are likely to be high expenses for profit and marketing, even though profits are not justified for compulsory purchases, and the “marketing” can be no more than an effort to convince people to buy the same product with a different label on it; it serves no useful purpose and only adds useless expense. Finally, there is likely to be duplication in administrative expenses. If all the companies are selling and administering the same plan, there is simply no reason to have multiple administrative organizations. In such a case, a “single-payer” system makes more sense.

Some will argue that Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) combined with catastrophic insurance will go a long way towards solving the problem. HSAs allow people to put a portion of their income in tax-free savings accounts, usually up to about $6,000 per family, to pay for ordinary medical expenses and then buy high-deductible policies to cover anything beyond that. The benefits are that people will be paying for most care from their own funds and are thus likely to make better use of the funds. At the same time, high-deductible policies are much cheaper. Between the two, great efficiencies are gained.

However, HSAs or some variation have been in place for many years, but have done little to address the underlying problems. The reasons are not hard to find. The first problem is that the people who are least able to afford insurance are also those who are least likely to have a surplus that they can save. In an economy that has seen a stagnant median wage for 30 years, even in the face of rapidly rising productivity, this should not be surprising. HSAs will not help the unemployed or the underemployed at all. Further,the majority of those who cannot afford any insurance are already in the lowest tax bracket, hence the tax advantages are minimal. And the majority of taxes that they do pay are the FICA taxes, and HSAs are not exempt from these. The greatest advantages of HSAs go to those who need them the least. A person in the lowest tax bracket, assuming he can save $6,000, might get a $600 tax advantage, but a person in the 35% bracket gets a $2,100 government benefit. Although the intentions behind HSAs are laudable, in effect they are mere subsidies to those who already have sufficient surplus.

Notes

1. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “NHE Fact Sheet National Health Expenditure Data,”National Health Expediture Data, http://www.cms.hhs.gov/NationalHealthExpendData/25_NHE_Fact_Sheet.asp.

2. OECD, “OECD Health Data 2008 – Frequently Requested Data,” http://www.oecd.org/document/16/0,3343,en_2649_34631_2085200_1_1_1_37407,00.html


John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, edited Economic Liberty: A Profound Romanian Renaissance and just completed Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.


  • What we have in the US is a collusion of the “justice system” (all of them lawyers) + the ambulance chasers (all lawyers) + the insurance companies to bilk the public through tort law and the application of statistics.

    Someone sues a hospital capriciously, the judges approve the capricious litigation, the lawyers of the plaintiff and the insurance co. lawyers agree on a settlement, the judges approve it, the insurance rates go up, the lawyers’ cut is assured. This is fleecing the public by proxy while the government–lawyers that supposedly are elected to protect the public–look the other way. Recently a friend of mine was asked to pay $10,000 for a routine colonoscopy. The same exact procedure in a great private clinic in Latin America (one of the best in the world) $195.

    I wold not be surprised if one day the American people exterminate the above mentioned vermin in the most violent manner possible. This outrage is robbery no matter how you look at it.