February 27, 2024

Economix Blog: Uwe E. Reinhardt: The Role of Prices in Health-Care Spending


Uwe E. Reinhardt is an economics professor at Princeton. He has some financial interests in the health care field.

The term “health care” evokes different images in people’s minds. To patients who find a miraculous cure, health care may be almost sacred. For physicians, nurses and other health care professionals it is a compassionate human activity. To hard-nosed economists, health care represents just another exchange of favors embedded in a wider market economy that consists of exchanging favors.

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

The chart below illustrates this exchange. Some members of society surrender real resources — their time, amplified by their skill or the health care products they produce — to the process of patient care, which is meant to improve the patients’ quality of life. In return, society issues these providers of real health care resources generalized claims (money) on all the things included in gross domestic product.

Thus, the health care sector of any country always has the dual goals of enhancing the quality of life of patients as well as enhancing the quality of life of the providers of health care, and, charity care aside, patients are at once objects of compassion and biological structures yielding cash.

We express the generalized claims given to the providers of real health care resources either in dollar terms per-capita or as a percentage of G.D.P. The chart below illustrates the fraction of G.D.P. ceded to the providers of health care in a number of different countries over the last three decades.

Although not all countries can be featured in such a chart, the fact is that no other country cedes quite the slice of its G.D.P. to the providers of health care as does the United States. Current projections are that health care will claim every fifth dollar (19.8 percent to be precise) of G.D.P. in the United States by 2020.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2011

It follows from the first chart that the claim on G.D.P. that a nation cedes to its providers of real health care resources does not tell us what real resources patients receive in return, let alone what value these resources have to patients (see, for example, this report).

That is because the size of the claim on G.D.P. depends not only on the quantity of real resources surrendered to the process of health care, but also the price paid the providers per unit of real resource. In theory, it would be quite possible that in two otherwise identical countries exactly the same real resources are surrendered to health care and yet the slice of G.D.P. ceded to the providers of these resources in return could differ.

In this regard, a study by Miriam Laugesen and Sherry Glied, published last week in the health-policy journal Health Affairs warrants careful review. The authors assert:

Higher health care prices in the United States are a crucial reason that the nation’s health spending is so much higher than that of other countries. Our study compared physicians’ fees paid by public and private payers for primary care office visits and hip replacements in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. We also compared physicians’ incomes net of practice expenses, differences in financing the cost of medical education and the relative contribution of payments per physician and of physician supply in the countries’ national spending on physician services.

Public and private payers paid somewhat higher fees to United States primary care physicians for office visits (27 percent more for public, 70 percent more for private) and much higher fees to orthopedic physicians for hip replacements (70 percent more for public, 120 percent more for private) than public and private payers paid these physicians’ counterparts in other countries. U.S. primary care and orthopedic physicians also earned higher incomes ($186,582 and $442,450, respectively) than their foreign counterparts. We conclude that the higher fees, rather than factors such as higher practice costs, volume of services or tuition expenses, were the main drivers of higher U.S. spending, particularly in orthopedics.

Other studies point in the same direction. An early one, “U.S. Health Care Costs: The Untold Story,” by the health economist Mark Pauly, was also published in Health Affairs. Professor Pauly showed that a good many nations in Europe actually transferred more real human health-care resources to patients than did Americans – suggesting that the real-resource cost of European health care is higher than it is in the United States (or was, at the time of the study). But these other nations paid physicians and other health personnel less than do Americans.

Higher physician income, of course, cannot explain all or most of the total higher health spending in the United States, as payments for “physician- and clinical services” constitute only about 20 percent to total current health spending ($538 billion out of a total of $2.7 trillion in 2011) and close to half of those payments tend to go for practice expenses, including support staff, malpractice insurance and claims processing.

But prices of other, non-physician health-care services and products in the United States also seem to be higher than elsewhere, as is suggested by the annual surveys of health care prices conducted by the International Federation of Health Plans in their comparative price reports.

None of these cross-national studies are perfect, but together they do suggest that Americans pay more for individual health care services – not only physician services – than do residents of other countries, and that this must contribute to the higher level of health spending in the United States.

What one should make of this finding is another matter. Professor Laugesen and Ms. Glied refrain from going down that route. They merely present the facts as they see them.

Critics of this study will properly point out the enormous methodological hurdles one faces in making cross-national comparisons of this sort. But it is not a compelling argument to suggest that because a study of this sort cannot be done perfectly it should be ignored. My response to the critics: Try to do better!

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4ab1e57db59d9a35f12497332be92339

Speak Your Mind