Putting mandates on insurance companies is not a cure for scarcity. Sometimes, it makes things worse. Insurance companies operate by making a very careful study of actuarial information, which allows them to make remarkably accurate predictions about the medical needs of large populations with known demographic characteristics. Nobody knows whether any given 60-year-old man will have a heart attack this year, but stack up 10 million of them, and the pointy-headed actuarial nerds can tell you with a high degree of accuracy how many of them will.
But we want insurance to be something different: We want it to be the conqueror of scarcity. So we do things like mandate coverage of preexisting medical conditions, which is to say, we demand that they place bets against things that already have happened. The usual metaphor here is offering fire insurance after the house already has burned down, and that is apt. We are asking them to bet against the Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl after the fact, in 2018, in 2019, 2020, etc.
What might a health-care program that deals with reality look like? We could probably lower the cost of prescription drugs significantly by making the approval process less cumbrous and expensive, and maybe by tweaking a few intellectual-property procedures.
We could do the same with medical devices and the like, though the so-called Affordable Care Act took the opposite approach, taxing those devices and making them scarcer. If we want more doctors, there are probably 1 million top-shelf physicians from around the world who would immigrate to the United States yesterday if we gave them the go-ahead. (Yes, that probably would lower the incomes of native-born doctors; we are going to be adults for the moment, and this is a question of trade-offs.)We could reduce the regulatory burden on insurance companies in an effort to lure more of them into the market, whereas the ACA added to their burdens and drove many of them from the marketplace.
We could try to make ordinary, non-emergency medical care more of an ordinary product, one that people pay for the way they pay for food and housing and cars and World of Warcraft expansion packs and the other necessities of modern life, allowing insurance to be insurance: a financial product that helps to mitigate certain risks related to unexpected health-care costs. This would allow for the emergence of robust, competitive, consumer-oriented markets like we have in cellphones and pornography and other innovative markets where choices abound and prices keep going down because the consumer is king.
But there will be scarcity. Somebody will put his hand out and say, "Pay me."
This brings up something economists call "elasticity of demand." That is a fancy way of saying that when you roll into the local BMW dealer and find out that that i8 costs $150,000, you say, "No, thanks," and you get a Honda Civic instead, but when you are rolled into the emergency room with a broken leg or a non-functioning heart, you don't talk about prices at all, and, even if you did, you aren't normally going to say "No" to any price when the alternative is sickness and pain and death. But not every medical procedure is a life-and-death matter, and, even in the matter of serial chronic conditions such as diabetes, there is opportunity for comparison shopping and negotiating. The other kind of medical problem is why you have insurance.
We have perfectly functional markets in all sorts of life-and-death goods. They expect you to pay up at the grocery store, too, but poor people are not starving in the American streets, because we came up with this so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea of giving poor people money and money analogues (such as food stamps) to pay for food. It is not a perfect system, but it is preferable, as we know from unhappy experiences abroad, to having the government try to run the farms, as government did in the Soviet Union, or the grocery stores, as government does in hungry, miserable Venezuela. The Apple Store has its shortcomings, to be sure, but I'd rather have a health-care system that looks like the Apple Store than one that looks like a Venezuelan grocery store.
There is a certain libertarian tendency to look at messes such as the Affordable Care Act and the American Health Care Act and throw up one's hands, exclaiming: "Just let markets work!" We should certainly let markets work, but not "just." We aren't going to let children with congenital birth defects suffer just because they might have stupid and irresponsible parents, and we are not going to let old people who have outlived their retirement savings die of pneumonia because we don't want to spend a couple of thousand bucks treating them.
But we also do not have a society in which everybody is on Section 8 and food stamps, nor do we want one. Developing sensible, intelligently run, reasonably generous welfare programs for those who cannot or simply have not done it for themselves is a relatively small project, but trying to have government impose some kind of political discipline on the entirety of the health-care system — which is as explicit a part of the current daft Republican health-care program as it is of Obamacare — is a different kind of project entirely.
Scarcity is not an economic theory. You can experience it for yourself any time you like, on a desert island or the streets of New York City. It is an aspect of reality, and the health-care reformers eventually will have to get around to taking reality into consideration.
Commentary by Kevin Williamson, the National Review's roving correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNR.
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