Paul Krugman weighs in this morning on the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as to whether we should be trying to get universal Medicare or whether the best route forward is to try to extend and improve the Affordable Care Act. Krugman comes down clearly on the side of Hillary Clinton, arguing that it is implausible that we could get the sort of political force necessary to implement a universal Medicare system.
Getting universal Medicare would require overcoming opposition not only from insurers and drug companies, but doctors and hospital administrators, both of whom are paid at levels two to three times higher than their counterparts in other wealthy countries. There would also be opposition from a massive web of health-related industries, including everything from manufacturers of medical equipment and diagnostic tools to pharmacy benefit managers who survive by intermediating between insurers and drug companies.
Krugman is largely right, but I would make two major qualifications to his argument. The first is that it is necessary to keep reminding the public that we are getting ripped off by the health care industry in order to make any progress at all. The lobbyists for the industry are always there. Money is at stake if they can get higher prices for their drugs, larger compensation packages for doctors or hospitals, or weaker regulation on insurers.
The public doesn’t have lobbyists to work the other side. The best we can hope is that groups that have a general interest in lower health care costs, like AARP, labor unions, and various consumer groups can put some pressure on politicians to counter the industry groups. In this context, Bernie Sanders’ push for universal Medicare can play an important role in energizing the public and keeping the pressure on.
Those who think this sounds like stardust and fairy tales should read the column by Krugman’s fellow NYT columnist, health economist Austin Frakt. Frakt reports on a new study that finds evidence that public debate on drug prices and measures to constrain the industry had the effect of slowing the growth of drug prices. In short getting out the pitchforks has a real impact on the industry’s behavior.
The implication is that we need people like Senator Sanders to constantly push the envelope. Even if this may not get us to universal Medicare in one big leap, it will create a political environment in which we can move forward rather than backward.
The other point has to do with an issue that Krugman raises in his blogpost on the topic. He argues that part of the story of lower health care costs in Canada and other countries involves saying “no,” by which he means refusing to pay for various drugs and treatments that are considered too expensive for the benefit they provide.
While there is some truth to this story, it is important to step back for a moment. In the vast majority of cases, the drugs in question are not actually expensive to manufacture. The way the drug industry justifies high prices is that they must recover their research costs. While the industry does in fact spend a considerable amount of money on research (although they likely exaggerate this figure), at the point the drug is being administered this is a sunk cost. In other words, the resources devoted to this research have already been used; the economy doesn’t somehow get back the researchers’ time and the capital expended if fewer people take a drug that is developed from their work.
Ordinarily economists treat it as an absolute article of faith that we want all goods and services to sell at their marginal cost without interference from the government, like a trade tariff or quota. However in the case of prescription drugs, economists seem content to ignore the patent monopolies granted to the industry, which allow it to charge prices that are often ten or even a hundred times the free market price. (The hepatitis C drug Sovaldi has a list price in the United States of $84,000. High quality generic versions are available in India for a few hundred dollars per treatment.) In this case, we are effectively looking at a tariff that is not the 10-20 percent that we might see in trade policy, but rather 1,000 percent or even 10,000 percent.
This sort of gap between price and marginal cost leads to exactly the sort of distortions that economists predict when the government intervenes in a market with trade tariffs, except the distortions are hugely larger with drugs. Companies have incentive to engage in massive marketing efforts, they push their drugs for conditions for which they may not be appropriate, and they conceal evidence suggesting their drugs may be less effective than advertised, or possibly even harmful. They also lobby politicians for ever longer and stronger patent protection, and they use the legal system to harass potential competitors, both generic and brand. Even research is distorted by this incentive structure, with large portions of the industry’s budget being devoted to developing copycat drugs to gain a share of a competitor’s patent rents.
Perhaps the worst part of this story is that the patent monopolies put us in a situation where we might have to say no. The industry’s monopoly allows it to say that it will not turn over a life-saving drug for less than $100,000, $200,000, or whatever price tag it chooses. However, if there was no patent monopoly, we would be looking at buying this drug at its cost of production. That will rarely be more than $1,000 and generally much less. At those prices, it will rarely make sense to say no. (The same issue arises with most medical equipment – once we have the technology, producing an MRI is relatively cheap, as would be the cost of an individual screening.)
We do have to pay for the research, but the way we are now doing it is incredibly backward. It is like paying the firefighters when they show up at the burning house with our family inside. Of course we would pay them millions to save our family (if we had the money), but it is nutty to design a system that puts us in this situation.
We should be looking for a system that pays for the research upfront. There are various mechanisms to accomplish this goal. (Here’s my plan for a system of publicly funded clinical trials.) Obviously overhauling our system for financing drug research is not something that is done overnight, but it is an issue that needs attention. The current system is incredibly wasteful and it needlessly puts in a situation where we have to say no in contexts where the costs to society of administering treatment are actually very low.
This doesn’t mean that we would pay for everything for everybody. There are some procedures that actually are very expensive, for example surgeries requiring many hours of the time of highly skilled surgeons. But we should be trying to design a system that minimizes these sorts of situations, rather than making them an everyday occurrence.