Sunday, December 18, 2011

Of Competition in Health Care, and Law Schools Too

Yesterday I wrote that not much had been said about the new Wyden/Ryan “defined contribution” plan for Medicare. I guess I had not searched enough, for later I came across this piece by Krugman, Ron Wyden, Useful Idiot and in it he references a posting by Ezra Klein, Competition Hasn't Worked in Health Care.

Krugman's title is certainly choice, but besides that, we have these additional tidbits:
... Sen. Ron Wyden did indeed do a bad, bad thing in his joint proposal with Paul Ryan...So why would anyone who isn’t a right-wing ideologue propose that kind of degradation?
Also, Krugman states that
Looking both within the United States and across countries, if you ask which systems are best at cost control, the ranking looks like this:

Government provision as well as financing (socialized medicine) > single payer > market competition
The problem here is that Krugman is very careful to do his ranking only in regard to cost. The problem of Medicare is not just one of cost, although the public debate is focused on that. Everyone knows that there are consequences of holding down costs in the wrong way, for example, if the "doc fix" did not go into effect and doctors' reimbursements were to fall by 30%, there would be quality/access consequences. Even I have said that in the UK, with health care providers being employees of the government and all prices set by the government, you should be able to keep prices low. The problem of Medicare is one of providing high quality care at a cost that is politically acceptable. By framing the debate only around cost, Krugman simplifies things too much.

Krugman also states as his first reason for why competition can't work in health care: "Patients by and large don’t have the information to evaluate medical treatments... and he attributes this, rightly, to Kenneth Arrow some time ago. I will return to this "lack of information" idea below.

Ezra Klein is a little less vitriolic, but his thesis is that competition has never worked in health care and he asks for examples. Klein suffers from the same limitation of Krugman, which is that he focuses on the role of competition in helping to hold costs down, rather than the more relevant question of whether competition helps produce a (cost, quality) package that is more preferred. Klein crosses the border sometimes, however, and is less careful than Krugman to say that he is only talking about the ability of competition to hold cost down.

But let me take a shot at some that have worked even just on the cost side: Any self-insured employer with any sense puts its third party administrator contract up for bid occasionally, and lets health plans compete on price and quality. Health plans actually worry a lot about trying to control cost and improve care. Take a look at some of the cost control plans by BC/BS in Massachusetts. Or look at the number of instances in the past several years where a health plan has cut a hospital out of its network because that hospital's costs were too high. In my neighborhood, a company spun out of work from researchers at The Dartmouth Institute, Health Dialog, was sold to Bupa, a private for-profit British company with health insurance interests, for $775 million. One of the goals of Health Dialog is to help patients make more-informed decisions, which will result in better quality of care and often in lower cost. Folks might not look at something like Health Dialog as part of competition, but it is: It was a for-profit startup, funded by venture capital, and sold in a competitive marketplace to a larger company. The number of for-profit health care startups in our economy is large, and many of them are focused on cost control as well as better quality. In Hanover, we just had Iora Health, a for-profit startup, announce that it will be opening a new kind of primary care facility. I know that the intent here is to not only improve the coordination of care, but also to reduce cost. This is competition! In a government-financed and government-provided system, would we get such innovation?

Klein tries to negate the idea that the competitive bidding process for Medicare Part D is not responsible for its good performance, but there is no way he is going to succeed at that...just as I cannot succeed at saying the bidding process is mostly responsible for the good performance. However, there is a competitive bidding process, it works in establishing prices and giving choice, and I do know that companies think very seriously about how to bid in these auctions (this from talking to people who have advised companies in the bidding process). Note that I am NOT saying there are not issues with Medicare Part D, especially in regard to its complexity and some specific faults of its bidding process.

Consumer choice and competition "works" not just in Medicare Part D but also in the Federal employees health plan (competing plans with consumer choice) and in many countries, particularly Switzerland, where citizens (under an individual mandate) choose privately offered health insurance plans. Does "works" necessarily mean lower costs? No, of course not -- in what marketplace or for what product or service do we care only about cost (some, sure, but none with the complexity and importance of health).

Other areas where competition has worked in health care, to produce lower costs and/or higher quality? Production and marketing of generic drugs? Drug competition it really from the good will of the pharma companies that we get less costly ways to produce drugs? How about even much of the competition between hospitals? Yes, there are stories about how competition between hospitals results in an arms race for advanced medical equipment, but even in my local area there is some competition (smaller hospitals) for certain services in the hospital market, and it gives local consumers a cheaper and different alternative to the big medical complex known as Dartmouth Hitchcock. Local private practice doctors also provide a competitive -- yes, competitive -- alternative to doctors employed by DH. In the Boston market, it is at least legitimate to raise the question of whether the merger of major hospitals into the Partners group caused a significant decline in competition and increased medical prices -- see here, for reference to the MA Attorney General report on prices in Boston.

I could actually go on for some time showing where competition works in health care. Even given the unfair tilt towards focusing only on cost reductions, it is easier to answer than I thought it might be.

The better question is what things would look like if we did not have competition at all, say with a single government financed, government provided health care system.

At the heart of Krugman's dislke for a defined contribution Medicare plan (and Klein's too, I think) is this idea that consumers are just not informed and rational enough to make good decisions.

Instead of arguing about that one directly, let me note this other story from the NYT this morning, on how the American Bar Association puts all kinds of accreditation standards onto law schools. The thrust of the article's thesis is that the ABA makes all law schools meet very high quality standards (such as the number of full time vs. parttime faculty) so that there are no cheap law school alternatives.

Ah, but what would happen if we loosed different kinds of lawyers onto the ill-informed, irrational citizens that inhabit Krugman's and Klein's world? Obviously, the public needs to be protected from competition:
Members of the A.B.A. Section say the point of the standards is not to raise the cost of law school, or to limit competition. The point is to ensure that lawyers are well trained and that the public gets quality legal services.

”It’s pretty basic, and more or less the accreditation function that you’ll see for any profession,” says John O’Brien, chairman of the Section and dean of the New England School of Law. “You want to make certain that a school that is nationally approved is providing students with what they have a right to receive in terms of education. And at the other end you want to protect the public and make certain that graduates who offer themselves as qualified lawyers know what they’re doing.”


John Lott said...

So if consumers are so dumb that they can't make their health care decisions, how come they are smart enough to pick the right politicians to make the correct decisions for them?

BTW, why can't the standardized bar exams "protect the public and make certain that graduates who offer themselves as qualified lawyers know what they’re doing.” How are the final exams in law school better at determining that knowledge than the several days the bar exam takes? That is assuming that you think that function is necessary.

metal detectable ear plugs said...

That is main think about competition in health care. The Section is the world’s biggest association devoted to competition. Your article such a very informative.