Earlier this month, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz engaged in a televised debate over the state of health care in the United States. While both politicians agreed with the assessment that health care as it stands now requires great reform, their solutions, not unexpectedly, fell along party lines. Americans were offered two, predictably partisan, options: Sanders called for more government involvement, while Cruz suggested cutting regulations as the key to reducing the burden of the costly system now in place. Implementing lasting reform in our broken health care system, however, will require a different approach—one guided by proper incentives and economic evidence rather than restrained by ideology.
Both sides of the debate took an important first step when Sanders and Cruz rightly noted the shortcomings of the current system. Health care costs make up 17.1% of U.S. GDP, the highest in the world by a significant margin. Health outcomes, unfortunately, do not reflect this reality. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is only 78.7 years, ranking 26th relative to other countries in the world. Effectively, the United States is paying more for health care that does not deliver any significant improvement in health indicators. Americans are rightfully unhappy about this situation, but significant strides can be made to solve this problem in a manner that is largely nonpolitical.
In fact, many of the problems Sanders and Cruz recognized with the current system have solutions that do not fall squarely into any political ideology. Proposals like mandatory health savings accounts (HSAs) provide one instance of such policy fixes.
By ensuring citizens save money specifically for health care expenses, HSAs help eliminate financial roadblocks to health care access without limiting the ability of consumers to choose the health care provider and plan that best suits their needs. At the heart of nonpartisan improvements like this is the desired goal of a more effective, less expensive health care system, driven by the establishment of proper incentives guiding both corporations and consumers.
During the debate, for example, both politicians lamented the tragic results of unaffordable deductibles for patients with severe illnesses. However, ideologically polarized health care overhauls are not the only ways to solve this issue. One need only look at the structure of health care in a country like Singapore for a potential solution. On its face, Singapore’s policy to address the problem of unaffordable deductibles appears counterintuitive. Government funding for health care requires that no health service be provided for free.
In practice, this raises the cost of basic, day-to-day treatments like doctor visits for a mild illness, discouraging unnecessary use of medical care. This policy frees up medical resources to treat more life-threatening cases in a time-efficient and affordable manner.
Singapore also requires citizens to put money into tax-exempt health savings accounts in a program called Medisave, which has the result of discouraging spending on unnecessary medical procedures. The proper alignment of incentives for consumers in Singapore ensures that medical resources can be allocated to the most severe cases, rather than wasted on frivolous or overly expensive medical procedures.
The American health care system could also benefit from incentivising companies that provide medical services and insurance to cut unnecessary costs, without the need for heavy-handed government control. Again, the U.S. can look to the transparent system of Singapore, in which private health care providers are required to publish the prices of their policies.
By providing more information to consumers, this policy creates an environment that encourages health care providers to pursue more cost-effective policies without compromising health outcomes. This relatively light regulation of the industry can have outsized benefits, motivating cutbacks on expensive but ineffective medical procedures that contribute to the United States’ excessive spending on health care.
Another point of agreement between Sanders and Cruz was what they deemed to be the excessive costs of pharmaceuticals, a reality that prevents many Americans from receiving life-saving medicines. Sanders prescribed a greater use of the federal government’s market power as a large purchaser of drugs, while Cruz targeted excessive FDA regulation as the culprit behind high drug prices.
Rather than demonizing corporations as greedy evildoers or decrying safety regulations for drug approval as unnecessary, both parties should once again look to the establishment of proper incentives to craft policies that protect consumers without denying them affordable access to important drugs.
The Swiss system of approving pharmaceutical drugs provides one possible method to properly align incentives to benefit consumers, while still allowing companies to operate without excessive government control. In Switzerland, drug approval is contingent not only on meeting safety standards, but also on satisfying an objective calculation of cost-effectiveness for the new drug when eligible for reimbursement under health insurance plans. A system like this would discourage companies from creating overly expensive drugs, without requiring rigid price controls enacted by the government.
Out of current partisan stonewalling emerges a third, pragmatic path for health care reform in the United States: a focus on properly aligned incentives. Policies like the ones proposed here are driven not by ideology, but by economic evidence. Adopting these measures would be the first step toward the pursuit of a health care system that delivers better results at lower costs—an outcome that would be amenable to politicians and constituents across the political spectrum.