Obama’s ‘Best’ Idea? Rationing Care via Clinton-esque Price Controls

Hoping to revive his increasingly unpopular health care overhaul, President Obama has invited Republicans to a bipartisan summit this Thursday and plans to introduce a new reform blueprint in advance of the summit.  On Sunday, the White House announced that a key feature of that blueprint will be premium caps, a form of government price control that helped kill the Clinton health plan when even New Democrats rejected it.

The New York Times reports on President Obama’s blueprint:

The president’s bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators.

It bears repeating what Obama’s top economic advisor Larry Summers thinks about price controls:

Price and exchange controls inevitably create harmful economic distortions. Both the distortions and the economic damage get worse with time.

For example, as I have written elsewhere, artificially limiting premium growth allows the government to curtail spending while leaving the dirty work of withholding medical care to private insurers: “Premium caps, which Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is currently threatening to impose, force private insurers to manage care more tightly — i.e., to deny coverage for more services.”  No doubt the Obama administration would lay the blame for coverage denials on private insurers and claim that such denials demonstrate the need for a so-called “public option.”

As the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Kendall explained in a 1994 paper, the Clinton health plan contained similar price controls.  Kendall explains why they would be a disaster:

In spite of the late hour in the health care debate, Congress has not yet decided how to restrain runaway health care costs. The essential choices are a top- down strategy of government limits on health care spending enforced by price controls or a bottom-up strategy of consumer choice and market competition. History clarifies that choice: Previous government efforts to regulate prices in peacetime have invariably failed. Moreover, government attempts to control prices in the health care sector would undermine concurrent efforts to restructure the marketplace…

The idea of controlling costs by government fiat is seductively simple. But it rests on a conceit as persistent as it is damaging: that government bureaucracies can allocate resources more wisely and efficiently than millions of consumers and providers pursuing their interests in the marketplace. The alternative – one rooted in America’s progressive tradition of individual responsibility and free enterprise – is to improve the market’s ground rules in order to decentralize decision-making, spur innovation, reward efficiency, and respect personal choice.

As centrally planned economies crumble around the world, many in the United States seem bent on erecting a command and control economy in health care. This policy briefing examines the reasons why government price regulation would fail to constrain health care costs and create many adverse side effects…

Ultimately, government price regulation will always fail because it does not change the underlying economic forces driving up prices. If we are serious about slowing the growth of health care costs, we have to change the ways we consume and provide medical care. Price controls evade the hard but essential work of structural reform in health care markets: They are a quintessentially political response to an economic problem. The alternative is to allow well-functioning markets to set prices and allocate resources, while ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care coverage. The market-oriented approach leaves decisions to cost-conscious consumers and health care providers rather than bureaucrats.

Any of that sound familiar?  It’s worth reading the whole thing.

This is not hope.  This is not change.  (Much less a game-changer.)  It is, to pinch a phrase, a return to “the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis.”