The Economic Case for Health Care Reform

There’s an old Yiddish saying that, “If my bubba had wheels she’d be a trolley.” So goes the logic of the Obama administration in their paper released yesterday, “The Economic Case for Health Care Reform.” Their claim is that reducing health care costs would help the economy. Yes, if health care costs were reduced it would likely help the economy, though we should remember that the health care industry is part of the economy.

There is nothing in Obamacare, however, that will reduce costs. In fact, expanding coverage may cause costs to rise. One study by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein suggests that the prevalence of insurance itself has roughly doubled the cost of health care. So, if Obama succeeds in expanding insurance coverage, it’s very likely to increase the cost of care.

Take Massachusetts for example. Three years ago, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney signed into law one of the most far-reaching experiments in health care reform since President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated attempt at national health care. Proponents promised the reforms would reduce health care costs, suggesting the price of individual insurance policies would be reduced by 25-40 percent. In reality, however, insurance premiums rose by 7.4 percent in 2007, 8-12 percent in 2008, and are expected to rise 9 percent this year. This is compared to a nationwide average increase of 5.7 percent over the same three years. Nationally, on average, health insurance for a family of four costs $12,700; in Massachusetts, coverage for the same family costs an average of $16,897.

In fact, since the bill was signed, health care spending in the state has increased by 23 percent. Thus, despite individual and employer mandates, the creation of an insurance connector and other measures that increase insurance regulations, Massachusetts has failed to bring costs down.

President Obama and Congressional leaders have endorsed expanding coverage in similar ways to Massachusetts. The proposals would undoubtedly make it easier for some people to get coverage, but would also raise insurance costs for the young and healthy, making it more likely they would go without coverage. This leaves two choices: revert to the individual mandate (President Obama opposed the mandate as a candidate) or increase subsidies to try to cut costs to young and healthy individuals, thereby adding to the already substantial cost of the proposed plans.

Ultimately, controlling costs requires someone to say “no,” whether the government (as in single-payer systems with global budgets), insurers (managed care) or health care consumers themselves (by desire or ability to pay). In reality, any health care reform will have to confront the fact that the biggest single reason costs keep rising is that the American people keep buying more and more health care.