Can the Public Option Raise Costs?

The public option is reborn, with Harry Reid promising a public option in the Senate health care reform bill, and Nancy Pelosi committed to a public option in the House bill.  Progressives are jubilant – they feel that a government plan is an important counter to the influence of private, largely for-profit, health insurance plans.  They note how well Medicare runs, and say (correctly in my belief) that Medicare helps contain medical care unit price. Conservatives are aghast --  the government is already doing more than enough to disturb the free market, thank you very much.

What does a public option mean for health care costs?

It depends on the public option.

The Congressional Budget Office suggested that a public option would substantially lower costs.  There’s a big “if", though.  The public plan would lower costs not through administrative savings, but rather through deeper discounts by enforcing the Medicare fee schedule (or Medicare + 5%).   Here’s a link to a good diagram from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation showing that currently  Medicare is a net deficit payer for hospitals, which “make it up” by extracting higher payment from commercial health plans.  If a substantial number of employed people were on a plan with Medicare or near-Medicare rates, either the extra costs passed on to remaining private insurers would escalate dramatically, or prices would come down.  And medical prices are higher in the US than in any other country

What if a public option had to play on a “level playing field?”  The level-playing-field public option would have

  • Higher costs for delivering care
  • A platoon of network contracting specialists across the country negotiating contracts
  • Difficulty convincing hospitals and physicians in rural areas to accept its preferred fee schedule
  • A much less complete network
  • A much larger challenge in marketing itself, which would lead to higher advertising and customer relations  costs

In some markets, the public option without leverage of enforcing Medicare-like prices or tying participation to Medicare eligibility might even raise unit prices.   This could happen because the new hobbled public option might actually fragment the insurer market further, in the context of a consolidated provider community.  Each of the insurers in this scenario has less leverage to demand price concessions, which could lead to prices for all insurers going up.

It would be ironic if the public option actually increased unit costs.

Background: A post in June about public option

Addendum: Nancy Pelosi has announced that the public option in the House bill will include a requirement to negotiate rates with providers.