VA Scandal Proves My Contention: The Only Government Health Care Cost Reduction Ideas are Rationing and Price Controls
I feel like I was way ahead of the pack on May 1 reminding everyone that the Left until recently held up the VA as a model for government health care. I pointed to articles by Kevin Drum and Phil Longman in 2007, but since then others have highlighted articles by Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein that made the same point. Klein said:
If you ordered America's different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.
Paul Krugman said
Well, I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system's success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn't just pay the bills in this system -- it runs the hospitals and clinics.
No, I'm not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.
Supposedly, the reason for this success according to Drum and Longman was that ever-popular Lefty magic bullets, electronic medical records and preventative care. On medical records:
"Since its technology-driven transformation in the 1990s...the VA has emerged as the world leader in electronic medical records — and thus in the development of the evidence-based medicine these records make possible." Hospitals that joined Longman's "Vista network" (his name for the VA-like franchise he proposes) would have to install the VA's electronic medical record software and would "also have to shed acute care beds and specialists and invest in more outpatient clinics." By doing this they'd provide better care than any current private network and do it at a lower cost.
On preventative care:
How is a supposedly sclerotic government agency with 198,000 employees from five separate unions outperforming the best the private market has to offer? In a word: incentives. Uniquely among U.S. health care providers, the VA has a near-lifetime relationship with its patients. This, in turn, gives it an institutional interest in preventing its patients from getting sick and in managing their long-term chronic illnesses effectively. If the VA doesn't get its pre-diabetic patients to eat right, exercise, and control their blood sugar, for example, it's on the hook down the road for the cost of their dialysis, amputations, blindness, and even possible long-term nursing home costs....The VA model is that rarest of health care beasts: one with a perfect alignment of interest between patients and providers.
Neither of these have ever proven in real life to actually lower costs in anything but tiny pilot programs, and there is a lot of reason to believe that while preventative care can improve health outcomes, it tends to increase costs.
I have said for years that at the end of the day, the only ideas government planners have for cost control are rationing (which leads to queuing) and cost controls on things it buys from private markets, like doctor time (which leads to shortages and more queuing). This is why every health care system that offers free care to all comers, whether it be socialist systems in other countries or the VA or even an urban emergency room, has long queues.
In fact, the situation, as I think we will find at the VA, is worse. Not only is the old pie being allocated differently (shifting from price-sensitivity to queue tolerance) but the pie of available supply is likely getting smaller as resources are consumed by government red tape and price controls drive suppliers out of the market. The next stories will be about the staggering waste of money on red tape in the VA system, and the stories after that will be about a few VA users jumping the queue because of political connections.
This stuff is so inevitable that it was all addressed years ago in my three part series of Obamacare. In that series, the issues were not failing exchanges and the mess we have seen so far, but the issues we are more likely to see over the long term. The VA is merely a preview, but we shouldn't have needed a preview because we could have looked at countries like England. Of course, if the media had any desire to honestly tell these socialized medical stories we would not get fawning profiles of the horrendous system in Cuba.
My Forbes series:
- part 1: Information issues when one tries to replace prices with command and control
- part 2: Incentives issues in government management of health care
- part 3: Rent-seeking and special favors for the connected in health care