Of Cab Fares and Health Care: Markets with Uncertainty Require Competition between Payment Systems

Last week, I was late for a briefing on Capitol Hill. Some would say that was because traffic snafus caused by the March for Life blocked the usual route from the Cato Institute to Capitol Hill, requiring our cabbie to circle back to Cato and take another route. I say the real reason was the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission requires all cabbies to use the same fare system. Until recently, the commission required cabbies to use a zone system. Under the zone system, the fare from Cato to Capitol Hill was the same flat rate, no matter what route the cabbie chose or how long the ride. If a cabbie encountered a traffic obstruction that slowed him down, then he bore the cost of that lost time. He received no additional money for waiting in traffic or taking a longer route, and the lost time meant that he would collect fewer fares. Therefore, a cabbie that charges according to zones, or any fixed price per trip, has an incentive to learn about and avoid significant traffic obstructions.

Recently, however, the D.C. Taxicab Commission required all cabs to switch from zones to meters that charge by the minute and by the mile. Under the meter system, the passenger bears the cost of delay, because meters charge additional money for every extra minute and every extra mile. Therefore, cabbies have little incentive to learn about and avoid significant traffic obstructions.

In sum, if our cabbie were paid a fixed price for taking us from Cato to Capitol Hill, he probably would have paid more attention to traffic conditions – on the radio, his mobile phone, etc.. He would have known that the usual route was blocked, because he would have borne the cost of delay. But because the D.C. Taxicab Commission requires him to use a meter, he cared a lot less about delay.

The problem is not the meter system. The old zone system probably had its own perverse outcomes, perhaps dead zones where you couldn’t catch a taxi or cabbies who drove too fast. The problem is that the DC Taxicab Commission dictates a single payment system for all taxis. Absent that mandate, cabbies would use different payment systems and competition would force each to offer better service. “Zone” taxis would slow down and pick up fares in more areas, while “meter” taxis would try to avoid unnecessary delays.

Incidentally, that’s the same reason America spends too much on health care and so few Americans have electronic medical records.

The federal government is the largest purchaser of medical services and it effectively dictates a single payment system for most providers. Medicare pays providers on a fee-for-service basis, which is akin to paying cabbies on the basis of meters. (The federal tax code further encourages fee-for-service payment by insulating consumers from the cost of their health insurance.) As a result, doctors and hospitals have little reason to invest in things (e.g., comparative-effectiveness research, electronic medical records) that help avoid unnecessary services, because Medicare pays for unnecessary services. In contrast, prepaid group plans like Kaiser Permanente receive a fixed amount per patient, which is akin to paying cabbies on the basis of zones. Kaiser conducts comparative-effectiveness research and provides electronic medical records to its enrollees because Kaiser bears the cost of unnecessary or duplicative services.

Markets use competition between different payment systems to improve quality and reduce costs, particularly in markets with uncertainty. That form of competition is usually lost when government runs the show.