November 18, 2005

Privatization and Medicare - No Choice for You

Paul Krugman's column this morning tackles the new Medicare prescription plan.

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Here's some background: the elderly have long been offered a choice between standard Medicare, in which the government pays medical bills directly, and plans in which the government pays a middleman, like an H.M.O., to deliver health care. The theory was that the private sector would find innovative ways to lower costs while providing better care.

The theory was wrong. A number of studies have found that managed-care plans, which have much higher administrative costs than government-managed Medicare, end up costing the system money, not saving it.

But privatization, once promoted as a way to save money, has become a goal in itself. The 2003 bill that established the prescription drug benefit also locked in large subsidies for managed care.

And on drug coverage, the 2003 bill went even further: rather than merely subsidizing private plans, it made them mandatory. To receive the drug benefit, one must sign up with a plan offered by a private company. As people are discovering, the result is a deeply confusing system because the competing private plans differ in ways that are very hard to assess.

[. . . ]

But confusion isn't the only, or even the main, reason why the privatization of drug benefits is bad for America. The real problem is that we'll end up spending too much and getting too little.

Everything we know about health economics indicates that private drug plans will have much higher administrative costs than would have been incurred if Medicare had administered the benefit directly.

It's also clear that the private plans will spend large sums on marketing rather than on medicine. I have nothing against Don Shula, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, who is promoting a drug plan offered by Humana. But do we really want people choosing drug plans based on which one hires the most persuasive celebrity?

Last but not least, competing private drug plans will have less clout in negotiating lower drug prices than Medicare as a whole would have. And the law explicitly forbids Medicare from intervening to help the private plans negotiate better deals.

Last week I explained that the Medicare drug bill was devised by people who don't believe in a positive role for government. An insistence on gratuitous privatization is a byproduct of the same ideology. And the result of that ideology is a piece of legislation so bad it's almost surreal.

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