Free Markets, Free People


Government and Markets

This story typifies, at least to me, the problem we can expect in the health care field if government becomes even more involved than it is now:

Obama administration officials, alarmed at doctor shortages, are looking for ways to increase the supply of physicians to meet the needs of an aging population and millions of uninsured people who would gain coverage under legislation championed by the president.

The officials said they were particularly concerned about shortages of primary care providers who are the main source of health care for most Americans.

One proposal — to increase Medicare payments to general practitioners, at the expense of high-paid specialists — has touched off a lobbying fight.

Family doctors and internists are pressing Congress for an increase in their Medicare payments. But medical specialists are lobbying against any change that would cut their reimbursements. Congress, the specialists say, should find additional money to pay for primary care and should not redistribute dollars among doctors — a difficult argument at a time of huge budget deficits.

The trend for years has been away from general practice and toward specialties. Part of that stems from the fact that specialists are paid more than generalists.

Most of us understand that most of our medical care will take place in our latter years with the obvious exception of certain genetic and chronic diseases which afflict a portion of the younger population. So Medicare, which kicks in at 65 whether you want it or not, is a major payer (and player) to family practice doctors who care for older Americans that make up the bulk of their practice.

With that being the case, we’re seeing fewer and fewer medical students option to become family practitioners, preferring the more lucrative pay specialists earn. The consequent result of low pay, huge patient loads and little recourse for changing that has seen family practice numbers in medical universities drop alarmingly. Why spend all that time and money learning a particular craft when the rewards aren’t as great as you want?

So here we have the market for family practitioners reacting to a distortion in the market created by the government refusing to pay at what the doctors feel is an adequate rate for the treatment of the majority of their patients. The market’s feedback mechanism sends the signal to the potential doctor to look at areas which would be more lucrative than family practice to receive adequate compensation. That area is specialization.

The reason I bring this particular example up is the competing proposals. One say, “hey, if you want more family practitioners, pay them more – that provide the incentive to become a generalist”. On the other hand, there’s a proposal to do that, but to accomplish that increase at the expense of specialists who take medicare.

How do you suppose specialists will react? Well if they do as two of mine have, they’ll simply say, “sorry, we don’t treat Medicare patients”.

And how do you suppose such a decision would effect the number of family practitioners. Well, that would depend on how much they’re willing to increase payments to them.

In the era of massive budget cuts and the promise by government to “decrease” the costs of health care, any increase in my estimation, would by minimal and not enough to change the tide concerning family practice. But taking that increase out of what is paid specialists certainly might be the tipping point for many of them to declare they’ll no longer treat Medicare patients.

Certainly our old friend the Law of Unintended Consequences again at work.

~McQ

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One Response to Government and Markets

  • This is precisely the problem Massachusetts is experiencing with its “universal coverage” experiment.  It doesn’t matter if you have coverage because there are so few primary care doctors.  As a result, very expensive ER visits have risen 17% which is EXACTLY the opposite effect that Beacon Hill was shooting for.  Unintended consequences, indeed.

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