“How to Cure Health Care” – Milton Friedman’s 2001 essay on the subject is still remarkably relevant

If I suddenly discovered that I had a serious disease and was handed a medicine concocted in 2001 as the only antidote available, I would very likely panic, despairing that surely something more timely and up to date could have been developed in the intervening 15-16 years. Alas, it seems that America’s healthcare system has been stuck in a reverse funhouse of distorting mirrors for so long, that it is equal parts amazing and depressing to read an essay from Milton Friedman on the subject and discover that the same advice he had for healthcare in 2001 is precisely the advice that would have cured our ailments if only we had followed it. Unfortunately, as he predicted, we did just the opposite, just how we have been doing it for decades since World War II. Thus, for this particular disease, hand me that vial from 2001, because everything else from then on has been cooked up by quacks and witch doctors. The hard medicine from 2001 might be painful to swallow, but it is the right palliative for the long-run.

In the essay, Friedman begins by noting the most important features of modern healthcare. First, there have been major advances in technology and science, which is no bad thing. Second, for several decades we have witnessed rising costs in healthcare relative to overall economic growth on an inflation-adjusted basis. Finally, healthcare features a decreasing satisfaction level amongst both consumers and producers. Within this feature set, Friedman notes that healthcare is unique amongst many other industries in not catalyzing technological advancement to actually lower per unit costs over time.

What distinguishes health care from these industries? Friedman has the answer – government involvement. Unique amongst all industries, healthcare is the only industry in which government plays such a dominating role in the production, financing, and delivering of medical services. And despite the role of the nominal private insurers in the market, I would point out that government finances, whether directly through Medicare and Medicaid, or indirectly through subsidies, a critical mass of over 50% of healthcare finance. Where the government leads on payment models, commercial players, largely structured in local monopolies, inevitably follow, making a mockery of any claims that this is a “market” in any sense of the word. Commercial insurers are not much different than government directed contractors.

The role of third party payment models
Within this doleful narrative, we can firmly point the finger at third party healthcare payment models as the culprit for the out of control expenditures and the mess of unintended consequences we have found ourselves in. And how we got third party payments is another lesson in how one muddled government intervention leads to the need for yet another, building an unsustainable house of cards that always needs one more card stacked on top. In this case, wage controls in the World War II era led employers to provide medical coverage as a benefit to get around controls and to more effectively compete for talent. By the time the IRS got wind of it and attempted to tax these benefits, they had become so popular that Congress intervened to make them a non-taxable benefit. Here is the catch though- the tax exemption was only provided to employers. Any consumer out on the marketplace buying insurance on their own receives no such benefit. Thus, people are conditioned and majorly incented to look for health coverage from their employer. Friedman summarizes the ill logic behind reliance on third party payment models and employer-based insurance:

We have become so accustomed to employer-provided medical care that we regard it as part of the natural order. Yet it is thoroughly illogical. Why single out medical care? Food is more essential to life than medical care. Why not exempt the cost of food from taxes if provided by the employer? Why not return to the much-reviled company store when workers were in effect paid in kind rather than in cash?

The major perverse impacts of employer-based insurance are that people delegate their healthcare provisioning and decision making to entities and individuals ill-equipped to perform those responsibilities. Furthermore, employees inevitably give up the ability to achieve in direct wages what is now siphoned off to healthcare coverage.

Then in the 1960s the U.S. Government enacted Medicare and Medicaid, driving third party payment models across even more populations. What is the logical impact? As Friedman notes, “nobody spends money from someone else as frugally as his own.” The third party administration of healthcare costs means no incentives for the individual to control those costs. As Friedman observes:

Enactment of Medicare and Medicaid provided a direct subsidy for medical care. The cost grew much more rapidly than originally estimated—as the cost of any handout invariably does. Legislation cannot repeal the nonlegislated law of demand and supply: the lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded; at a zero price, the quantity demanded becomes infinite. Some method of rationing must be substituted for price, which invariably means administrative rationing.

Astoundingly, healthcare as a share of our national income has risen from 3 percent in 1919 to close to 20 percent in 2016. To put this in perspective, Friedman comments that in 1946 seven times as much was spent on food, beverages, and tobacco than on healthcare. By 1996, healthcare had passed these collective categories.

What is Insurance? In healthcare, it bears little resemblance to what it typically means

In every other aspect of our lives, insurance means coverage for the catastrophic, long tail events that we never expect to happen but which would wipe us out financially if they did occur. It is the hurricane that reduces our house to rubble or the wreck that totals someone else’s car and puts them in a hospital. In healthcare, government meddling has forced this to become coverage for everything, however routine the expense. Much of this is based upon the employer incentives to move compensation into healthcare coverage, but even more pernicious is government mandates on what health plans must cover. It is analogous to auto insurance covering oil changes by force of government mandates. In this event, we would not marvel at oil change prices spiraling out of control. Similarly, it is little wonder that healthcare costs have exploded; between third party payment obfuscation, administrative bloat, and mandated coverages of all healthcare expenses, it would be an economical gravity defying miracle if costs didn’t explode.

“The Black Hole of Bureaucratization” 

One malignant outcome of third-party based payment systems is the concomitant growth in administrative functions, be it comprised of the administrative state for government programs or administrative bloat from commercial insurers required to finance, provision, deliver, and indeed ration medical care. As Friedman indicates, since the patient no longer has an incentive to care about healthcare costs and since the provider of health services has to worry about whether a certain service is covered by the third-party payer, a middle layer is required. In this model, the physician becomes little more than an employee of the insurer or the government, taking their guidance on what can be performed for the patient. In turn, the patient’s voice is squelched, as they are merely told what can be done within the confines of their plans.

Here is where Friedman delivers what I believe to be one of his most innovative economics insights, what he calls Gammon’s Law – which is defined as bureaucratization that causes both a rise in inputs and expense alongside a decrease in outputs and outcomes. Gammon’s Law is based upon observations of a British physician named Max Gammon, who performed an extensive study of the British National Health Service and noted that in this bureaucratic system that there was both an increase in expenditure as well as a fall in production. He noted that such systems behave like ‘black holes,’ ‘sucking in resources’ and ‘shrinking in terms of emitted production.’

There are some astounding statistics from the U.S. healthcare system that I believe are so shocking that their true gravity is hard for the human mind to grasp and that demonstrates Gammon’s Law at work. Friedman observes that inflation adjusted costs per patient day since 1946 have increased from $30 to $1,200 in 1996. A more recent update for this from the Kaiser Foundation updates this number to $2,200. This is a stonking seventyfold increase! Further highlighting Gammon’s Law at work, hospital staff per bed increased ninefold from 1946 to 1996. Given other trends in the industry, I highly doubt that this force has dissipated in the intervening 20 years. This Hospital Staffing Ratio from Statistica suggests a great amount of staffing per bed in the U.S.

In order to head off any common simplistic conjectures that medical science and technological progress are the reasons for the dramatic increase in inputs and expenditures, Friedman observes the following:

….True, medical machines have become more complex. However, in other areas where there has been great technical progress—whether it be agriculture or telephones or steel or automobiles or aviation or, most recently, computers and the Internet—progress has led to a reduction, not an increase, in cost per unit of output. Why is medicine an exception? Gammon’s law, not medical miracles, was clearly at work. The provision of medical care as an untaxed fringe benefit by employers, and then the federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care of the elderly and the poor, provided a fresh pool of money. And there was no shortage of takers. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals and medical care, further increasing administrative costs and leading to the bureaucratization that is so prominent a feature of medical care today.

Friedman turns to the important question of what outputs are we getting for this increase in inputs? His answer is that it is almost impossible to tell given overall improvements in diet, clothing, housing, hygiene, sanitation, general improvements in public health, better diagnosis and treatment of conditions, etc. In short, while life span and life expectancy have increased, little of that is likely attributable to the increase in health system spend. In fact, the number of days people spend in a hospital have gone down over time. While obviously that can be a good outcome and a result of better care within the walls of a hospital, it is also directly correlated to cost pressures hospitals face – pressure that leads to a maniacal pursuit of getting patients out of beds and out of the door. In summary, we can’t point to any discernible improvements we have achieved in outcomes to pair with the seventyfold increase in expenditures. Again, Gammon’s Law of the black hole in all of its fearsome gravity sucking power.

Conclusions

In a comparison between the U.S. and other developed (OECD) countries, Friedman articulates that the hybrid system that America employs is particularly bad at controlling costs. In this respect alone, the U.S. has a relative disadvantage compared to peers such as the U.K. and Canada that have single-payer and monopoly over delivery systems. Of course, there is a tradeoff with these systems in access and innovation. Following the previously mentioned maxim on infinite demand when a good is effectively zero, the inherent tradeoff is administrative controlled rationing and inevitable queuing. Another major disadvantage of these systems is that the incentives push politicians to focus less on delivering best-in-class care to a primary focus on controlling costs.

At long last, we have arrived at the palliative against Gammon’s Law in healthcare. Of course, every classical liberal, of which Friedman is an apostle, a veritable “hero of the faith” whom we study and revere, dreams of a healthcare system that becomes as efficient and as consumer-centric as the likes of Amazon. We should be able to get on an intuitive dashboard and observe ratings of physicians and systems on the value that they drive. We should be able to observe both their pricing and outcomes, including being able to drill into the details by condition and procedure of concern to us in that moment. Competition should drive them to provide meaningful information to consumers in order to capture market share. We should have great care-based (not insurance-based) relationships with our primary care providers and other care planners and providers. A classical liberal is going to logically deduce, as does Friedman, that the idealistic path to get there is to eradicate Medicare and Medicaid, remove the tax exemption for employer-based coverage (in return for lower tax rates directly to consumers, of course) and a return of insurance to its proper role of covering catastrophes. Friedman observes that since these are going to be politically impossible in the short-run, we should aim for the next best thing – flexible health savings accounts. Friedman concludes his essay by outlining his policy proposals further:

A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense. As noted earlier, it eliminates third-party payment except for major medical expenses and is thus a movement very much in the right direction…

…Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.

A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible). Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And, third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance—hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns—the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe—and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become “What’s wrong?” not “What’s your insurance?”

In the aftermath of the surprise election putting Trump in charge of a unified GOP Congress, it is encouraging that the policy proposals developed under the moniker of “Better Way” produced by Paul Ryan and other Republicans in Congress make incremental gains in these areas. I have summarized these policy proposals in another post, and while they don’t go nearly as far as Friedman or I would want, it at least has the advantage of incremental gains, particularly in the area of health savings accounts. Given that Obamacare went even further in the wrong direction compared to Friedman’s prescriptions, further exacerbating the decades of bad decisions full of unintended consequences that is the hallmark of U.S. healthcare policy, getting at least a portion of that proverbial 2001 antidote vial is good momentum. Of course, Trump is the ultimate wild card on where he intends to take healthcare reform, but I hope he looks no further than some of the sensible plans that are already there. The ball is being handed off right in the gut. Don’t fumble it, Mr. President.

As bonus material, it is always a personal pleasure to observe the affable and remarkably quick on his feet Friedman address some of these questions and issues directly. Here are some great videos on this very subject.

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One thought on ““How to Cure Health Care” – Milton Friedman’s 2001 essay on the subject is still remarkably relevant

  1. Pingback: Reasons to care about our American health care crisis – 300 million personal and 3 trillion dollars of them – The Gymnasium

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