The NEJM discusses why the government can’t do …anything?

Quite a cool editorial in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine:

The conflagration over the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) offers a compelling example of Washington’s current inability to address even seemingly uncontroversial matters such as improved health care coverage for children.

Why would the President veto bipartisan legislation that does precisely what he insisted on — namely, aggressively enroll the poorest children? One might blame the poisonous atmosphere that pervades Washington these days, but other important social policy reforms have managed to get through.

One answer lies in a far larger dimension of SCHIP that is basic to any health insurance legislation — namely, the legislative architecture of the reform plan, its structural and operational approach. Viewed from this vantage point, the SCHIP battle turns out not to have been about family-income assistance levels or the mechanism for financing coverage subsidies (although both the Medicare managed-care industry and the tobacco companies weighed in noisily on the latter question).

Instead, the issue became the role of government in organizing and overseeing the health care marketplace (see graphs). SCHIP uses the power of government to form insured groups, select qualified plans, oversee plan operations, and measure results. It is this architecture to which the President was referring when he said that the legislation would move the health care system in the wrong direction.

The graphs in question are quite useful:

nejm graphs

So enrollment (the number of children being helped) is capped out and declining, while the cost is increasing. The problem? Not health insurance at all, but health care costs themselves.

So the identification that the architecture of government intervention/support, ideologically, is the sticking point, is quite correct. The real problem, in terms practical – meaning actually helping poor kids – isn’t insurance, but costs. As previously discussed, SCHIP is the wrong method by which to achieve this outcome, when it is unnecessarily cost-increasing.

Of course, this runs into the problem of letting the government manage such a thing as hospitals. Given how well they performed on something like the mere legislation towards such an end, how much do we trust them to do anything competently at all?

Post-script: a colleague and I had been discussing an interesting piece of analysis, which neither of us will ever find the time to undertake. It is this:

  1. How much money/resources were employed by the US government in pursuing this legislation? This means paper, ink, admin support, debating/voting hours – costing in entirety the politics played to get this legislation up and down the monkey-bars of “government”
  2. How much health-care-for-children could actually have been provided for that money?

The idea is that actually doing something was the opportunity cost of governmenting the thing into being. We believe the numbers would – very, entirely, rightly – thoroughly embarass this or any other body of politicians.

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1 comment so far

  1. chris on

    you should write a book about that…


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