Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Can price competition cut health care costs? There are lessons to be learned from the airline industry.

Over thirty years, per capita health care costs, adjusted for inflation, have increased two and a half times. In the same period, despite a doubling of fuel prices, airline fares have fallen by more than half.

Why the five-fold disparity?

It’s obvious the two industries have followed very different paths. While airline travel has become an experience of packed planes, crowded airports, and peanuts (or less) meal service, health care has seen dramatic advances. Treatments that a few years ago seemed unimaginable are now commonplace: heart transplants, anti-depression drugs, artificial joints, laparoscopic surgery using miniature television cameras, and—of course—Viagra.

That’s only part of the story, though. While air travel is now safer and more convenient, with more frequent flights to more destinations, health care in some communities is so inadequate that morbidity and mortality rates are comparable to those of third world countries.

Why have airlines been apparently so much more successful in giving value for money?

Led by Southwest, the airlines that sprung up after deregulation recognized that individual flyers were price-sensitive, and cut their costs accordingly. They faced barriers, though, many of them analogous to those in today’s health care system. Business travelers flying on their employers’ nickel resisted efforts to move them to crowded peanut-only flights, frequent flyers resisted having to switch from their favorite mileage plan to that of another airline network, and travel agents much preferred to send their customers on airlines paying higher commissions.

Southwest and its peers succeeded by marketing directly to the public, through relentless emphasis on lower fares, and by maintaining standards that were, if not luxurious, acceptable to travelers. Few businesses are now sympathetic to employees’ preferences for more comfortable higher-cost flights, frequent travelers have adapted to low-cost airlines’ mileage programs, and travel agents and their commissions are almost a thing of the past.

And now, just as Southwest Airlines travelers found that they reached their destinations as reliably—if not quite as comfortably—as before, so recent studies have shown that there is little or no relationship, within the range of acceptable medical standards, between health care costs and quality.

So, what must health care reform do to emulate Southwest Airlines’ effect on fares?

First, just as deregulation ended most legacy airlines’ government subsidies, the tax exemption for employer-paid insurance should be reduced or eliminated. Not only is the $300 billion a year tax subsidy needed to help pay for reform, but cutting the exemption will discourage overly-generous coverage and remove the inequity between employer-paid and individual-paid insurance.

Second, just as travelers can compare airlines’ fares for the same itinerary using Orbitz or Expedia, insurers should be required to price the same basic benefits, perhaps through insurance exchanges. Supplemental benefits could be offered and separately priced, but being able to compare prices for the same basic coverage is essential.

Third, just as individuals purchase most airline tickets, so individuals should be responsible for choosing insurance to meet their own needs. In practice, this implies subsidies for the lower-income, and perhaps also some form of voucher model to facilitate the process. It may be appropriate, also, to allow self-insuring companies to continue to provide employee coverage since, with no insurer risk or profit involved, they typically provide better value.

Fourth, just as airlines’ pay is negotiated only with their own unions—not every other union in each airport—so there should be more effective constraints on provider monopolies in which specialists in an area group together to control prices.

Emulating Southwest Airlines won’t result in the cost of health care falling by half, but it offers a far more promising approach to cost control than the expensive band-aid solutions, superimposed on the worst features of our present system, apparently preferred by congressional committees.

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