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The Huge Waste in the U.S. Health System

Category: Finance,Health Care

“That doesn’t mean we have no ideas about how to reduce administrative costs,” said Don Berwick, a physician and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and author of an editorial on the JAMA study.

Moving to a single-payer system, he suggested, would largely eliminate the vast administrative complexity required by attending to the payment and reporting requirements of various private payers and public programs. But doing so would run up against powerful stakeholders whose incomes derive from the status quo. “What stands in the way of reducing waste — especially administrative waste and out-of-control prices — is much more a lack of political will than a lack of ideas about how to do it.”

While the lead author works for Humana, he also has experience in government and academia, and this is being seen as a major attempt to refine previous studies of health care waste. Reflecting the study’s importance, JAMA published several accompanying editorials. A co-author of one editorial, Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “It’s perfectly possible to reduce administrative waste in a system with private insurance. In fact, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other countries with private payers have much lower administrative costs than we do. We should focus our energies on administrative simplification, not whether it’s in a single-payer system or not.”

After administrative costs, prices are the next largest area that the JAMA study identified as waste. The authors’ estimate for this is $231 billion to $241 billion per year, on prices that are higher than what would be expected in more competitive health care markets or if we imposed price controls common in many other countries. The study points to high brand drug prices as the major contributor. Although not explicitly raised in the study, consolidated hospital markets also contribute to higher prices.

A variety of approaches could push prices downward, but something might be lost in doing so. “High drug prices do motivate investment and innovation,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

That doesn’t mean all innovation is good or worth the price. “It means we should be aware of how we reduce prices, taking into consideration which kinds of products and which populations it might affect,” she said.

Likewise, studies show that when hospitals are paid less, quality can degrade, even leading to higher mortality rates.


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