When Patients Change, Do Providers Change Too?

Harvard’s David Cutler visited Cato yesterday to participate in a small group discussion about cost-effectiveness in medicine, and also in a panel on improving quality in Medicare. (You can watch the latter event here in a couple of days.) My colleague Arnold Kling blogs about issues discussed at both events. 

I am struck by one issue that emerged, which has to do with price-sensitivity, provider behavior, and health outcomes. Cutler argued that when patients are more price-sensitive (i.e., when they have to pay for more of the cost of their medical care), they tend to cut back both on care that would have done nothing for them, and on care that would have helped them. He postulates that if we were to move all Americans into health savings accounts (HSAs), thereby making patients more price-sensitive, we would see worse health outcomes than we see now. 

I am skeptical of that prediction. I think that if the move to HSAs were confined to a small, randomly selected subset of the population (call it “Rand II”), Cutler’s prediction would be more plausible — though by no means certain. There is precious little evidence that suggests — and it does no more than suggest — that for some patients, greater price-sensitivity leads to worse health outcomes. 

However, even if we assume that Rand II would show that greater price-sensitivity leads to worse health outcomes, it does not follow that we would get the same result were the entire population made more price-sensitive. The reason is that with a population-wide shift, the supply side of health care markets would respond to the enormous change on the demand side. Faced with patients who are less eager to consume medical care, providers would have to do a lot more to sell their services, including:

  • conducting research on the usefulness of their services,
  • improving the quality of their services,
  • lowering their prices, and
  • educating patients about the value of their services.

These responses should enable patients to make smarter decisions about what to consume and what to avoid. Instead of having patients cut back equally on beneficial and useless care, they would cut back on useless care more, having more help discerning between the two. Downward pressure on prices should make cutting back on beneficial care even less frequent.

MIT economist Amy Finkelstein demonstrates that the supply side of medical care does respond to demand-side changes. For 30 years, economists believed that the expansion of health insurance (which reduced price-sensitivity) had a relatively small impact on the growth of health spending. That belief was based on the effects of a demand-side study (Rand I), which was too small to induce or measure any supply-side responses to the change in price sensitivity. Using a data set that does capture and allow her to measure supply-side responses, Finkelstein estimates that the effect that the expansion of health insurance had on health spending is six times greater than the demand-side-only experiment Rand I suggests. 

Casual observation suggests that supply-side responses are helping price-sensitive patients make better choices right now. At the same time that HSAs and other insurance options are making millions of patients more price-sensitive, insurers and entrepreneurs are furnishing more of the price and quality information that patients need.

It would be foolish to claim that the supply-side response to price-sensitive consumers would be so great that patients would have perfect information and would never make mistakes. Yet most opponents of making patients more price-sensitive make the equally foolish assumption that there would be no supply-side response to the new incentives coming from the demand side. I say “most” because Cutler and others are not in this group. If I understood Cutler, he acknowledges that there will be such supply-side responses, and that we have no way of knowing whether or how much they would improve health outcomes.

True enough. But it’s something like 50 percent of the debate over HSAs and health outcomes. T’would be nice to have opponents of HSAs and the like acknowledge and engage it.