Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If you read one thing on health care . . .

. . .  read this.

Ezra Klein: An insurance industry CEO explains why American health care costs so much
On Friday, I sat down with Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson to talk about health-care reform. The conversation was long and ranging and will take a while to transcribe. But before we really got into the weeds, Halvorson handed me an astonishing packet of charts. The material was put together by the International Federation of Health Plans, which is pretty much what it sounds like: an association of insurance plans in different countries. But it showed something I've never seen before, at least not at this level of detail: prices.
The packet's 36 pages are mostly graphs showing the average prices paid in different countries for different procedures, diagnostics and drugs. There is a thudding consistency to the pages: a series of crude bars, with the block representing the prices paid by American health-insurance plans looming over the others like a New York skyscraper that got lost in downtown Des Moines.
There is a simple explanation for why American health care costs so much more than health care in any other country: because we pay so much more for each unit of care. As Halvorson explained, and academics and consultancies have repeatedly confirmed, if you leave everything else the same -- the volume of procedures, the days we spend in the hospital, the number of surgeries we need -- but plug in the prices Canadians pay, our health-care spending falls by about 50 percent.
In other countries, governments set the rates that will be paid for different treatments and drugs, even when private insurers are doing the actual purchasing. In our country, the government doesn't set those rates for private insurers, which is why the prices paid by Medicare, as you'll see on some of these graphs, are much lower than those paid by private insurers. You'll also notice that the bit showing American prices is separated into blue and yellow: That shows the spread between the average price (the top of the blue) and the 90th percentile (the top of the yellow). Other countries don't have nearly that much variation, again because their pricing is standard.
The health-care reform debate has done a good job avoiding the subject of prices. The argument over the Medicare-attached public plan was, in a way that most people didn't understand, an argument about prices, but it quickly became an argument about a public option without a pricing dimension, and never really looked back. The administration has been very interested in the finding that some states are better at providing cost-effective care than other states, but not in the finding that some countries are better at purchasing care than other countries. "A health-care debate in this country that isn't aware of the price differential is not an informed debate," says Halvorson. By that measure, we have not had a very informed debate. But download this pack of charts (pdf), and you'll be a bit more informed.

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