Lowering Healthcare Costs: Supply and Demand

Most discussions around healthcare these days focus on covering all Americans, and on lowering healthcare costs. President Obama has recently focused on the second issue, noting that ballooning healthcare costs could cripple the federal government’s finances and kill economic growth. But how can healthcare costs be reined in? In the partially private US healthcare system, prices are still somewhat subject to the law of supply and demand. Healthcare prices (and therefore costs) can thus be lowered by either reducing demand or increasing supply. Here’s a quick list of ideas:

Increasing Supply:

1. Increase the number of medical professionals. Unemployment among healthcare professionals remains near 1%, far lower than any other field. Increasing the number of medical, dental, and nursing school seats in the US will increase supply over time, creating more balance in the healthcare work force and driving down wage increases.

2. Shorten the length of medical school. Doctors in the UK and other countries finish their medical education in six years or less before going on to training programs (residency), while US doctors spend eight years between college and medical school. Accelerated six year medical programs exist in the US, and there is no evidence that their doctors’ education suffers as a result. Shortening medical, dental, and pharmaceutical programs to six years will increase the supply of practitioners, and decrease the starting salaries they demand since their schooling and debt burden are lower.

3. Doctors aren’t needed for routine healthcare. Nurse practicioners, midwives, pharmacists, and other medical providers can provide much of the routine care needed. National laws (or at least guidelines) making it easier for these practitioners to do their jobs will further increase the supply of qualified medical professionals, driving down prices.

4. Warranties on Medical Care. While pay for quality has been heavily discussed, it is quite difficult to measure and implement in practice. It’s far easier to require warranties on procedures, so that medical providers must provide care free of charge when issues as a result of mistakes during a procedure. Medicare could put this in place, incentivizing the industry to move towards higher quality.

Decreasing Demand:

1. Measure cost effectiveness of treatments within Medicare. As long as Medicare pays for healthcare by quantity, without any regard for cost-effectiveness, expensive and marginally effective treatments will continue to drive health care inflation. Patients should be given the option to pay for treatments that are not cost-effective, should they desire.

2. End employer health care tax deduction. As I’ve previously discussed, this $250B+ subsidy inflates demand, causing price increases for all, including those without insurance. Removing this subsidy would decrease health care spending by up to 10% [1], and could provide funding for other initiatives including universal health care or deficit reduction.

3. End tax breaks on medical goods and services. Sales taxes are generally not levied on healthcare products like the $285B pharmaceutical industry, providing them with a $20B subsidy relative to other goods [2]. Property taxes and income taxes are not collected on many not-for-profit hospitals, though some generate significant income and serve very few uninsured patients. Ending these subsidies would further reduce demand and prices.

4. Enact consistent end-of-life guidelines for Medicare. 27% of Medicare spending (almost $100B) is incurred for patients in their last year of life. While higher costs towards the end of life are expected, there are wide variations in spending in different regions of the US. Enacting a consistent set of guidelines which emphasizes palliative care would help decrease end-of-life healthcare demand.

Why doesn’t this list mention the approaches typically touted like electronic medical records, administrative efficiencies, and the like? Unfortunately, while efficiency improvements would result in one-time reductions in cost, they would not change the supply-demand fundamentals of the US healthcare delivery system. The solutions mentioned above would address these issues, creating permanent decreases in healthcare costs while potentially expanding availability.

[1] $250B is slightly more than 10% of healthcare spending in the US today, so eliminating this subsidy would reduce spending by that amount at most. In practice, the reduction would be somewhat less, since falling prices would cause some offsetting increase in healthcare consumption.

[2] Assuming a 7% sales tax (most states’ sales tax is higher), 7% of $285B is roughly $20B.

One thought on “Lowering Healthcare Costs: Supply and Demand

  1. Property taxes on not-for-profit hospitals would break both legs of the industry. I know several that would fall on their faces if they had to pay the $200k – 400k that would be levied every year. Instead maybe a taxation on the hospitals that do not meet a certain % of un-insured care

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