I write a financial blog which is republished on the largely political Talking Points Memo. I thought I better write something for both my audiences sometime – so I am jotting down my thoughts – from an Australian perspective – on single-payer health care reform. After all the ongoing Fannie and Freddie series has a limited audience.
Warning – I am putting the positives of the Australian system up front. There are some very substantial losers too – those are discussed at the end of the post.
Much of what I write is a 12 year old perspective (and the data I have in my head is that age) because 12 years ago I worked at the Australian Treasury and followed the numbers more closely. Moreover I am normally a bank analyst – and am stepping (way) out of my area of expertise. There are bound to be some errors and the lack of (recent) quantification I would not normally tolerate. With that caveat – here goes.
Australia has a hybrid private-socialised medical system.
For reference I think the Australian system is superior to anything in Canada or the USA. I am less familiar with the European models. The Australian system is better thought through and will work better than anything Obama is proposing. However Australia had weaker incumbents than America, some advantages over America (which I will get to) and has had 20 years tweaking the system in lots of ways to make it work better. These systems require a lot of tweaking and if Obama implements something worthwhile the next twenty years will be spent reforming it.
The way I think about it is that the US has a fundamentally broken market system. We know it is fundamentally broken because it costs a lot and produces fairly poor outcomes in aggregate. Stories about failure of insurance companies to honour their promises are legion. Many people have conditions that make them uninsurable. America spends a greater proportion of GDP on health (and greater dollars) for worse outcomes almost no matter how you measure it. If you do not agree with that statement you simply refuse to acknowledge clear facts on the ground. Health coverage is one of the major issues for middle America and many are unsatisfied. By contrast political and general population satisfaction with the Australian system is high and has by-and-large been rising.
Australia has a system whereby primary medical care (general practice doctors), much specialist health care (for example a cardiologist) and almost all important pharmaceuticals are covered by the government but with a copayment by patient. Most the copayments are large enough to be annoying (the service is not free) but do not cover anything like the costs. The copayments differ sometimes due to your income status. For instance most people have a copayment for pharmaceuticals of about $20 – but for (low income) pensioners the copayment is $5.
There are also government run public hospitals – run by State Governments – but where the funding almost entirely ultimately comes from the Federal Government through transfer payments to the States. These hospitals have a public emergency room which rations via triage. [Turn up with a sprained ankle and you might wait twelve hours, turn up with chest pains and the waters part for you.]
After admission to the public hospital [either through a consulting specialist or through the emergency room] you will get a shared ward and no doctor of your own choice – but a very high standard of care by global standards. Non-urgent procedures are queue rationed – and the queue is long and annoying and was once the main issue at State Elections. But the treatments eventually happen. Queue rationed conditions can involve some pain and hence there is real annoyance at the queues. [Gall stone removal for instance is queue rationed. They are painful until removed.]
You can be admitted to a private hospital in the same way as the public hospital. The admission is either from a consulting specialist or through the emergency room at the public hospital. At a private hospital you have your choice of doctor, often a private room, sometimes slightly better food and distinctly less pressure to leave until you are recuperated. Most importantly, private hospitals are not highly queue rationed. When my wife needed knee surgery after a skiing accident the wait was two weeks at a public hospital or alternatively the next day the doctor was in surgery at the private hospital. That was an easy choice.
To go to a private hospital you will either need to pay for it or have private health insurance. Most people do it with private health insurance with a moderately large copayment. [It costs me $800 to go to a private hospital – as a one-off payment – and there might be additional copayments for particular doctor treatment in the hospital. Nonetheless I would get out of something dire like open-heart surgery for a couple of thousand dollars. And I would get a nice room to recuperate in… The cost to me of open heart surgery and a knee reconstruction in a private hospital to me are about the same – the various excesses on private insurance.]
Many people with private health insurance choose to be treated in public hospitals because the service is better in the public hospital. For instance I know of the husband of a medical specialists who chose to have his open heart surgery in a public hospital because the hospital had an excellent reputation (and they knew and trusted the surgeon they were getting). They chose however to recuperate largely in the comfort of the (attached) private hospital. Many people also buy private health insurance because of the tax-driven requirement to do so – but chose to get treated in the public hospital because the copayments are (much) lower.
Ostensibly all of this was paid for through a “medicare surcharge” on your tax – about 1.5 percent. If the medicare surcharge was going to cover it the tax would have had to be about 8 percent (or about 6 percent of GDP). Many Australians (though far fewer now) did not know that the medicare surcharge did not fund public provision.
Private health insurance was originally and remains almost entirely community rated. That means that a private health insurance company charges the same amount to a 31 year old as a 75 year old. Moreover there is (and remains) almost no exclusion for pre-existing conditions. (The exclusion for pre-existing conditions usually just applies a waiting period – including some which are prohibitive such as an exclusion longer than nine months for pregnancy.)
Anyway community rating and lack of exclusions meant that private health insurance became the province of the elderly and the ill – and eventually became basically untenable because no healthy people ever took private health insurance. To keep the cost of private health insurance down private hospitals wound up getting subsidized – but even that did not work well.
Eventually the obvious solution was adopted – which was that if you earn more than $50 thousand per year your medicare surcharge rises by 1.5 percent if you do not have private medical insurance. This means that the young and wealthy take private health insurance even if they not think they have a reasonable probability of using it. The private health insurance business again became viable. The legal inability of private health insurance to exclude pre-existing conditions means that the private health insurers do not spend money denying claims on the basis of pre-existing conditions. Legal and claims denial cost is more than 10 percent of costs in America – so that is saved. The resurrection of private insurance (and hence private hospitals) has meant that queue rationing in public hospitals is reduced. That has meant that “hospital waiting lists” are much less of an issue at State elections than they were a decade ago.
The community rating of health insurance has also changed in one more important way – which is that it used not to be age-rated – and it is still not age rated provided you took out private health insurance before you were 30 and you maintain it continuously. If you took it out for the first time at 35 you will pay a “five year surcharge” for the rest of your life.
There are thus strong incentives for the well to do and the young to buy community rated health insurance. Insurance companies are not allowed to price discriminate in favour of the young – but they do advertise in favour of the young. Health insurance adverts are targeted entirely at the young (with pictures of 25 year-olds with health insurance) – and believe it or not trying to match health insurance brands with ipods.
There are plenty of things not covered by either medicare or private health insurance. These are known as extras. Extras include things like physiotherapy and dental – and they are exclusively marketed to the young. Whilst the health insurance company is prohibited from bundling their marketing looks bundled. Also there are things like “sign up for extras and get an ipod”.
There have been plenty of tweaks around the edges over the years. For example the elderly on low incomes (who qualified for a full government pension) and a few other selected elderly (veterans, war widows mainly) were entitled to the primary health care and pharmaceuticals without any copayment. There arose a small number of (mostly) elderly women whose idea of a social life was to visit a different doctor and a different pharmacist each day to have a chat (and get a script and have it filled). These small numbers of women imposed enormous costs on the medical system and a very small copayment ($2) produced a very large saving. When the copayment was raised to $5 there was no correspondingly large saving. Just the $2 mattered, and it mattered a surprising amount.
Also – even with very low cost medicine there are some things that are still not delivered even though it they clearly represent cost-effective medicine. The best example is pap smears. Very few women would go to the doctor for a pap smear for a social activity. They do however represent very cost-effective medicine. Getting young women to take jabs (the new HPV vaccine) also requires a solid advertising campaign.
Also some drugs pose particular issues. Viagra for instance is not delivered at subsidy through the health care system (for obvious reasons). But you can get subsidized Viagra if you have certain medical conditions (paraplegia being the important one). I kid you not that there have been minor problems with paraplegics dealing in Viagra.
Still – on most measures – the Australian system is a resounding success. The cost (proportion of GDP, dollars) is about half the USA – but the outcomes are better across the board. And that is not diet or lifestyle related. Australians are almost as fat as Americans.
Surprisingly the outcomes are as good or better for the rich too. The only exception is Australia’s chronically disadvantaged native (aboriginal) population.
Political acceptance is very high. The conservatives have (totally) made their peace with the system as proposing to remove it is electoral suicide. The support of the populace is almost total.
A major American hedge fund that once tried to employ me included in their pitch their (superior) access to medical care (as they are big donors to medical charities). To an Australian that sounded odd. Nobody would advertise a job (any job) or a business relationship with access to health care. It is just assumed to be OK. The idea of going to the USA for a medical procedure is also absurd (except for revolutionary new procedures done only by say two doctors in the world). And it is just as likely that an American will come here for such procedures. We simply do not carry an inferiority complex with respect to our medical care.
Bluntly the system works in almost every sense that matters.
From an investment and policy perspective the more interesting question why does it work so well and how can you learn from that? I am NOT going to assert that socialist provision of services works well in general – indeed if you believe it does then you are also failing to observe facts on the ground.
I do not have the numbers at hand – but I have a fair idea of this.
There are basically two ways Australia gets much better outcomes per dollar than America. They are the unimportant (but nice) one and the important one. Given Australia produces better health outcomes at spending maybe 7% of GDP less this is a very substantial economic issue. Translated to America those savings would be about a trillion dollars per annum. [Observation: getting this more-or-less right would be one of the most important things any government would ever do…]
The unimportant (but nice) way of getting lower health care costs in Australia
The advocates of the Australian system will note that lots of primary medical care is very cost effective. For instance pap smears stop cervical cancer. Cholesterol testing might lead to better lifestyles.
The primary health care is cheap compared to the cancers and the heart conditions. If you do better primary health care you can save money in aggregate.
I believe this – and it is important from a social perspective – but I remember chatting to the Treasury health care guys (a decade ago) and they thought that this was (at best) about 1 percent of the (then about) 7 percent cost advantage Australia had. [It may be very important though in the outcome advantage…]
The important way of getting lower health care costs in Australia
By contrast the main way getting lower health care costs in Australia is to squeeze the suppliers using government controlled and often government monopoly buying.
A very large part of the difference – the biggest single part when the Treasury guys took it apart – was that doctors were paid less in Australia. Doctors (not specialists) are middle income in Australia now – earning about 1.5 times average earnings. Thirty years ago doctors earnings were maybe 5 times average. The medical schools are now majority female reflecting in part the career aspirations of women versus men. General practice for instance can be performed part time (whilst the kids are school) and is thus a common women’s career. In regional areas Australia clearly does not pay doctors enough. Australia often imports doctors to work in remote areas and lack of doctors is a problem in aboriginal communities, mining towns and drier inland centres. Queue rationing is particularly bad in places that are less attractive to live. [As I live at the beach and have private health insurance queue rationing is not an issue for me – but it is a pivotal issue in many areas.]
Suppliers in general get squeezed. For instance the Australian government pays considerably less for most pharmaceuticals than is charged in the US. Margins in lots of research driven pharmaceutical would be squeezed. Badly.
Its not all bad though. Universal coverage means that volumes go up. A drug company may sell at a thinner margin – but the volume can offset this. In most prescription drugs the incremental costs are only about 10 percent – gross margins are 90 percent. Volume matters for profitability.
Reasons the US will never do this as well as Australia
The outcomes in Australia are surprisingly good – but they depend at least in part on the fact that Australia is small. Australia can shave margins for research driven medical products to very low levels because the research is not funded from Australia. If the US were to push margins too low they would crimp medical research.
I have no quantification of how important this is but if had to guess it would be
at least about 1 percent of GDP or a seventh of the the entire savings. It may well be 2 percent. In the US context that is $150 to 300 billion per annum. If anyone has a quantification could they please share it. [Modification due to someone making an entirely sensible comment on my blog…]
The second reason that America will not do this quite as well is the power of the American vested interests – and those vested interests have a lot to lose because the main way lower costs are achieved is by squeezing those interests.
Winners and losers
For medical industries there are two effects going in opposite directions.
1). The government – being a monopoly buyer – squeezes margins, and
2). Universal coverage expands usage.
It is entirely possible that something will be a big winner or loser – but the savings as a percent of GDP means that the losers will be significantly more prevalent. As a rule this is atrocious for investment in medical related businesses. The Bronte Capital blog was founded as an investment blog. So I should state that negative up front. However this saving – and it is a huge saving – is transferred in part to other businesses – and hence is not bad for investments in most the rest of the US economy. If you are a manufacturer with huge health costs in America this would be a great boon.
By contrast if you are part of the medico and medico-legal establishment then any decent semi-socialised medical system is long term poison for you. It has proven to be long term poison for doctors’ incomes in Australia. Dentists – where socialisation has not taken root – earn considerably more than doctors these days.
PS. The first comment on this post nailed one other major difference between Australia and the United States. Australia has a much less expensive tort regime. Insurance premiums are MUCH cheaper for Australian doctors and that benefit is passed on to patients.
PPS. I would like to thank Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism for the link and comments. Yves has lived in both NYC and Sydney and concurs with my article. However Yves experience of the Australian system would have been biased (upwards) in the same matter as mine as she too lived in a place which was attractive to live and she too would have had the income to queue jump had something required hospital treatment. John Barrdear’s comments are also accurate.