Slate, March 23, 2015
Five years ago this week, Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, and we’ve been debating it ever since. Like many Americans, I oppose Obamacare, and I think we ought to repeal it and replace it. Over the past few months, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the fight over Obamacare is a distraction from a much deeper problem, which is that America’s hospitals are robbing us blind.
I realize that this is an impolitic thing to say. What kind of lousy ingrate doesn’t love hospitals? Go to any big American city, including cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh that have been devastated by deindustrialization and joblessness, and you’ll find a mammoth hospital complex in the center of town, buzzing with activity. Forget about big cities—there is a hospital in every congressional district in America, and local hospitals are often among the largest employers in the district. One of the reasons President Clinton’s 1993 health reform effort failed is that he never won over the hospital lobby. President Obama learned from the Clinton debacle; hospitals were among his most important allies. Republicans get in on the act too. Right now, for example, a number of GOP lawmakers are pushing a Medicare “reform” that guarantees higher payments to doctors and hospitals today in exchange for the promise of spending reductions a decade or two from now. Good luck with that.
You can hardly blame them though. The health sector employs more than a tenth of all U.S. workers, most of whom are working- and middle-class people who serve as human shields for those who profit most from America’s obscenely high medical prices and an epidemic of overtreatment. If you aim for the crooks responsible for bleeding us dry, you risk hitting the nurses, technicians, and orderlies they employ. This is why politicians are so quick to bash insurers while catering to the powerful hospital systems, which dictate terms to insurers and have mastered the art of gaming Medicare and Medicaid to their advantage. Whether you’re for Obamacare or against it, you can’t afford to ignore the fact that America’s hospitals have become predatory monopolies. We have to break them before they break us.
What do I mean by that? Last fall, Mark Warshawsky and Andrew Biggs made a striking observation: From 1999 to 2013, the cost to employers of an average family health policy increased from $4,200 to $12,000 per year. In an alternative universe in which employer premiums had remained flat, salaries would have been $7,800 higher, a life-changing difference for most low- and middle-income families. To protect these families, many people want the government to pick up a bigger share of our hospital bills. But this just shifts the burden from employers to taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office expects federal health spending to almost double as a share of GDP between now and 2039. With the exception of interest on the debt, all other federal spending will shrink. What this means in practice is that high medical prices charged by hospitals will gobble up taxpayer dollars that might otherwise have gone to giving poor people more cash assistance, welfare-to-work programs, and Pell grants; fixing potholes; sending missions to Mars; and who knows what else.
When you survey the health systems of other rich countries, you’ll find some that rely a bit more on private insurance markets than ours (like Switzerland) and others that rely a bit more on centralized bureaucracies (like Britain), but what you won’t find is a country where hospitals dare to charge such obscenely high prices. Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a conservative health reform guru, has observed that although the average hospital stay in the world’s rich countries is $6,222, it costs $18,142 in the U.S. Guess what? Spending three times as much doesn’t appear to yield three times the benefit.