Unexpected expenses are never welcome and no one likes a costly surprise. So it's no wonder that there is a lot of talk in Washington and Congress about “protecting” patients from surprise medical bills. Current legislation — SB 1895 — sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) makes such claims. It sounds good until you realize that all the “protecting” talk is just that — talk. Even worse, is that rather than protecting consumers, it will make things worse.
The most common cause of a surprise medical bill is when a person uses a healthcare provider that is not in their insurance plan’s network of providers. While it doesn’t happen that often, it most typically happens in a hospital emergency room — either because the patient is not able to consent to care or because the patient received inaccurate information about insurance coverage.
Insurance companies have contracts with healthcare providers (both doctors and hospitals) to provide medical services at pre-negotiated discounted rates. That makes them “in-network.” The “out-of-network” providers charge a price without any pre-negotiated discounted rates, meaning the out of network costs are greater.
While it is true that most doctors are in most insurance networks and hospitals often have ways to shield their patients from higher costs, there are occasional gaps that remain. And while it is uncommon, it can be costly when it occurs. But despite their rarity, these circumstances are used by politicians to make us think they are proactively solving problems for our benefit. Sadly, they are doing nothing of the sort.
There are a number of proposals currently under consideration in the halls of Congress to fix surprise billing, but they have a couple important things in common. In one-way or another, all of these pieces of legislation entrust the government with the power to set prices. This will impose heavy costs even if executed properly, an idea that is almost laughable given the government’s track record on reducing costs.
This reminds me of the Obama-Biden repeated promise that they had a plan that would save us all thousands of dollars every year and allow us to keep our healthcare plan if that’s what we wanted. Obviously, Obama and Biden failed to deliver on that promise. It was the lie of the year even as judged by liberal fact checkers. Literally, millions of Americans lost their preferred plans and virtually everyone saw their health insurance costs increase, not decrease, by thousands.
So a healthy dose of skepticism about promises to fix surprise billing with government price controls is entirely justified. It should not be enough for politicians to repeat over and over the mantra that they’ve got the fix. We’ve seen this play before. It doesn’t end well.
Government-imposed price controls skew incentives and reduce the availability of quality healthcare. To make things worse, government-imposed price controls also reduce the likelihood of future healthcare innovations and slow the development of promising medicines and procedures. But the bad news doesn’t end there — current proposals shift more and more power to health insurance companies, rather than giving consumers more control over their own healthcare.
Regardless of what their true motives were or are, the results we have witnessed in the last 50 years from politicians promising “fixes” has been that things end up costing a lot more than promised, and government gets more and more control. Those who can afford lobbying efforts may escape the costly impact of these government mandates. But rarely do these promised fixes on balance help the average citizen.
The marketplace — and the negotiations that take place when you have two or more parties all trying to maximize the value that they receive — has a knack for providing high quality goods and services for the lowest possible prices. That is the process that has brought us smart phones that have more computing power than was used in the 1960s in the Apollo program. It’s also the process that allows consumers to own huge flat screen televisions at a cost of several hundred dollars. We need to harness that power and that drive to high quality and low prices in the medical arena.
Instead of continuing to empower government and those who can afford lobbyists to protect their interests, let’s try reforms that put economic power back in the hands of healthcare consumers. Let’s trust the marketplace to do what it does so well — boost quality and keep prices comparatively low. We trust the marketplace to provide us with food, housing, technology, and a thousand other things, why not our healthcare as well?
Today, the average American eats better and spends a lot less to feed themselves than our great grandparents did. As a result, we have access to all manner of foods — something even kings didn’t have a few generations ago. Additionally, we work far fewer hours to obtain that food. As a result, we have more money for larger, more comfortable homes, nice automobiles, vacations, and hospitals — something average Americans in 1776 didn’t even dream about.
So if we want to see more affordable and better quality healthcare available to us all — why not harness the power of the marketplace? Where’s the proof that government-run schemes produce the needed quality and low costs? In contrast, the marketplace has a strong track record. Let’s try it!