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Socialized Healthcare vs. The Laws of Economics

July 28, 2009

Tags HealthInterventionismOther Schools of ThoughtPrices

 

The government's initial step in attempting to create a government-run healthcare monopoly has been to propose a law that would eventually drive the private health insurance industry out of existence. Additional taxes and mandated costs are to be imposed on health insurance companies, while a government-run "health insurance" bureaucracy will be created, ostensibly to "compete" with the private companies. The hoped-for end result is one big government monopoly which, like all government monopolies, will operate with all the efficiency of the post office and all the charm and compassion of the IRS.

Of course, it would be difficult to compete with a rival who has all of his capital and operating costs paid out of tax dollars. Whenever government "competes" with the private sector, it makes sure that the competition is grossly unfair, piling costly regulation after regulation, and tax after tax on the private companies while exempting itself from all of them. This is why the "government-sponsored enterprises" Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were so profitable for so many years. It is also why so many abysmally performing "public" schools remain in existence for decades despite their utter failure at educating children.

America's Healthcare Future?

Some years ago, the Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman studied the history of healthcare supply in America. In a 1992 study published by the Hoover Institution, entitled "Input and Output in Health Care," Friedman noted that 56 percent of all hospitals in America were privately owned and for-profit in 1910. After 60 years of subsidies for government-run hospitals, the number had fallen to about 10 percent. It took decades, but by the early 1990s government had taken over almost the entire hospital industry. That small portion of the industry that remains for-profit is regulated in an extraordinarily heavy way by federal, state and local governments so that many (perhaps most) of the decisions made by hospital administrators have to do with regulatory compliance as opposed to patient/customer service in pursuit of profit. It is profit, of course, that is necessary for private-sector hospitals to have the wherewithal to pay for healthcare.

Friedman's key conclusion was that, as with all governmental bureaucratic systems, government-owned or -controlled healthcare created a situation whereby increased "inputs," such as expenditures on equipment, infrastructure, and the salaries of medical professionals, actually led to decreased "outputs" in terms of the quantity of medical care. For example, while medical expenditures rose by 224 percent from 1965–1989, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 population fell by 44 percent and the number of beds occupied declined by 15 percent. Also during this time of almost complete governmental domination of the hospital industry (1944–1989), costs per patient-day rose almost 24-fold after inflation is taken into account.

The more money that has been spent on government-run healthcare, the less healthcare we have gotten. This kind of result is generally true of all government bureaucracies because of the absence of any market feedback mechanism. Since there are no profits in an accounting sense, by definition, in government, there is no mechanism for rewarding good performance and penalizing bad performance. In fact, in all government enterprises, exactly the opposite is true: bad performance (failure to achieve ostensible goals, or satisfy "customers") is typically rewarded with larger budgets. Failure to educate children leads to more money for government schools. Failure to reduce poverty leads to larger budgets for welfare state bureaucracies. This is guaranteed to happen with healthcare socialism as well.

Costs always explode whenever the government gets involved, and governments always lie about it. In 1970 the government forecast that the hospital insurance (HI) portion of Medicare would be "only" $2.9 billion annually. Since the actual expenditures were $5.3 billion, this was a 79 percent underestimate of cost. In 1980 the government forecast $5.5 billion in HI expenditures; actual expenditures were more than four times that amount — $25.6 billion. This bureaucratic cost explosion led the government to enact 23 new taxes in the first 30 years of Medicare. (See Ron Hamoway, "The Genesis and Development of Medicare," in Roger Feldman, ed., American Health Care, Independent Institute, 2000, pp. 15-86). The Obama administration's claim that a government takeover of healthcare will somehow magically reduce costs is not to be taken seriously. Government never, ever, reduces the cost of doing anything.

All government-run healthcare monopolies, whether they are in Canada, the UK, or Cuba, experience an explosion of both cost and demand — since healthcare is "free." Socialized healthcare is not really free, of course; the true cost is merely hidden, since it is paid for by taxes.

Whenever anything has a zero explicit price associated with it, consumer demand will increase substantially, and healthcare is no exception. At the same time, bureaucratic bungling will guarantee gross inefficiencies that will get worse and worse each year. As costs get out of control and begin to embarrass those who have promised all Americans a free healthcare lunch, the politicians will do what all governments do and impose price controls, probably under some euphemism such as "global budget controls."

Price controls, or laws that force prices down below market-clearing levels (where supply and demand are coordinated), artificially stimulate the amount demanded by consumers while reducing supply by making it unprofitable to supply as much as previously. The result of increased demand and reduced supply is shortages. Non-price rationing becomes necessary. This means that government bureaucrats, not individuals and their doctors, inevitably determine who will get medical treatment and who will not, what kind of medical technology will be available, how many doctors there will be, and so forth.

All countries that have adopted socialized healthcare have suffered from the disease of price-control-induced shortages. If a Canadian, for instance, suffers third-degree burns in an automobile crash and is in need of reconstructive plastic surgery, the average waiting time for treatment is more than 19 weeks, or nearly five months. The waiting time for orthopaedic surgery is also almost five months; for neurosurgery it's three full months; and it is even more than a month for heart surgery (see The Fraser Institute publication, Waiting Your Turn: Hospital Waiting Lists in CanadaDownload PDF). Think about that one: if your doctor discovers that your arteries are clogged, you must wait in line for more than a month, with death by heart attack an imminent possibility. That's why so many Canadians travel to the United States for healthcare.

All the major American newspapers seem to have become nothing more than cheerleaders for the Obama administration, so it is difficult to find much in the way of current stories about the debacle of nationalized healthcare in Canada. But if one goes back a few years, the information is much more plentiful. A January 16, 2000, New York Times article entitled "Full Hospitals Make Canadians Wait and Look South," by James Brooke, provided some good examples of how Canadian price controls have created serious shortage problems.

  • A 58-year-old grandmother awaited open-heart surgery in a Montreal hospital hallway with 66 other patients as electric doors opened and closed all night long, bringing in drafts from sub-zero weather. She was on a five-year waiting list for her heart surgery.

  • In Toronto, 23 of the city's 25 hospitals turned away ambulances in a single day because of a shortage of doctors.

  • In Vancouver, ambulances have been "stacked up" for hours while heart attack victims wait in them before being properly taken care of.

  • At least 1,000 Canadian doctors and many thousands of Canadian nurses have migrated to the United States to avoid price controls on their salaries.

Wrote Mr. Brooke, "Few Canadians would recommend their system as a model for export."

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Canadian price-control-induced shortages also manifest themselves in scarce access to medical technology. Per capita, the United States has eight times more MRI machines, seven times more radiation therapy units for cancer treatment, six times more lithotripsy units, and three times more open-heart surgery units. There are more MRI scanners in Washington state, population five million, than in all of Canada, with a population of more than 30 million (See John Goodman and Gerald Musgrave, Patient Power).

In the UK as well — thanks to nationalization, price controls, and government rationing of healthcare — thousands of people die needlessly every year because of shortages of kidney dialysis machines, pediatric intensive care units, pacemakers, and even x-ray machines. This is America's future, if "ObamaCare" becomes a reality.

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