From the obvious department, amIright? Yes, but not for the reasons you think. Healthcare cannot and never will be a free market. There are several reasons for this that I will elaborate on here.
Healthcare consists of micro-regulation in the form of the reimbursement structure. This is an artifact of two different systems combining to make things worse. First, because the Federal Government is big and has two different programs one for Federal Employees and one of those in need Medicare/Medicaid (I’m combining them here for simplicity), there’s also the VA, but that has much less influence on healthcare. These two programs set the terms on how the government will reimburse or even pay providers for care provided. These are based on Current Procedure Terminology (CPT Codes) and not based upon your diagnosis. Essentially the government sets a price they are willing to pay for a procedure. As one of the largest market players, this influences all of the other payers (IE insurance companies). Many insurance companies use Medicare payment rates to set their own, which drives down the cost of a procedure to the point, in many cases, where it’s below the cost of the actual care. This drive providers to select more expensive and more procedures in many cases to make up the short fall. This payment model also makes it hard for new procedure methodologies to be adopted as they may not be paid for.
Healthcare is a network economy – nearly all care happens close to home. This is why groups like the ACLU argue that driving more than an hour for an abortion is an unnecessary burden on women. Because of the proximity of the majority of care (10.2 miles) this creates a local network of care based on the original provider a patient sees. When you receive a referral, there are a few different routes this can go, best doctor the the referrer knows, another doctor in the same clinic, or in the same care network (such as UPMC in Pittsburgh or Kaiser Permanente in CA). This drives an incentive to send patients within the network leading to mutual referrals or money staying within that care network even if there are better doctors for that specific patient outside of that care network. In addition to the Doctor’s network there is, of course, your insurer’s network which may be in direct conflict with the professional network that your provider has.
Imbalances of knowledge – in typical free markets there’s an assumption that everyone has the same amount of knowledge. In Healthcare, it is abundantly clear that this isn’t true. Most patients have little to no understanding of their diseases when they are first diagnosed. On the other hand, both their insurer and provider has an extensive knowledge of the disease. This limits how well the patient is able to correctly make decisions about their healthcare. It also pushes reliance to the provider whenever there is a disagreement between insurer and provider. The member can’t effectively participate in those conversations about care. Furthermore, there maybe little penalty to the patient if they fail to follow the prescribed course of care until much later where neither the insurer or provider can enforce a change of behavior to reduce costs for the entire system now through treatment rather than later when there are more complications.
These are but three cases that highlight the lack of free market mechanisms in healthcare. Even in cases where a patient wants to seek the best care it’s typically the patient’s responsibility to pay for it if it’s not with in the insurer’s network. In many cases these clinics can reduce systemic costs through lower point of care and lower likelihood of readmission after care.
Over the course of the next few weeks I will discuss Exchanges and their potential, how healthcare can be made more affordable using process improvement tools and other mechanisms. I plan on writing weekly on healthcare. If you have any topics that interest you please comment and let me know!