Patients Are Not Consumers
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: April 21, 2011
Earlier this week, The Times reported on Congressional backlash against the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a key part of efforts to rein in health care costs. This backlash was predictable; it is also profoundly irresponsible, as I’ll explain in a minute.
But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”
Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.
What has gone wrong with us?
About that advisory board: We have to do something about health care costs, which means that we have to find a way to start saying no. In particular, given continuing medical innovation, we can’t maintain a system in which Medicare essentially pays for anything a doctor recommends. And that’s especially true when that blank-check approach is combined with a system that gives doctors and hospitals who aren’t saints a strong financial incentive to engage in excessive care.
Hence the advisory board, whose creation was mandated by last year’s health reform. The board, composed of health-care experts, would be given a target rate of growth in Medicare spending. To keep spending at or below this target, the board would submit “fast-track” recommendations for cost control that would go into effect automatically unless overruled by Congress.
Before you start yelling about “rationing” and “death panels,” bear in mind that we’re not talking about limits on what health care you’re allowed to buy with your own (or your insurance company’s) money. We’re talking only about what will be paid for with taxpayers’ money. And the last time I looked at it, the Declaration of Independence didn’t declare that we had the right to life, liberty, and the all-expenses-paid pursuit of happiness.
And the point is that choices must be made; one way or another, government spending on health care must be limited.
Now, what House Republicans propose is that the government simply push the problem of rising health care costs on to seniors; that is, that we replace Medicare with vouchers that can be applied to private insurance, and that we count on seniors and insurance companies to work it out somehow. This, they claim, would be superior to expert review because it would open health care to the wonders of “consumer choice.”
What’s wrong with this idea (aside from the grossly inadequate value of the proposed vouchers)? One answer is that it wouldn’t work. “Consumer-based” medicine has been a bust everywhere it has been tried. To take the most directly relevant example, Medicare Advantage, which was originally called Medicare + Choice, was supposed to save money; it ended up costing substantially more than traditional Medicare. America has the most “consumer-driven” health care system in the advanced world. It also has by far the highest costs yet provides a quality of care no better than far cheaper systems in other countries.
But the fact that Republicans are demanding that we literally stake our health, even our lives, on an already failed approach is only part of what’s wrong here. As I said earlier, there’s something terribly wrong with the whole notion of patients as “consumers” and health care as simply a financial transaction.
Medical care, after all, is an area in which crucial decisions life and death decisions must be made. Yet making such decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge. Furthermore, those decisions often must be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.
That’s why we have medical ethics. That’s why doctors have traditionally both been viewed as something special and been expected to behave according to higher standards than the average professional. There’s a reason we have TV series about heroic doctors, while we don’t have TV series about heroic middle managers.
The idea that all this can be reduced to money that doctors are just “providers” selling services to health care “consumers” is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 22, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Patients Are Not Consumers
ADDENDUM: On April 25, 2011, the Economist published a response to Krugman, entitled "Diagnosing Krugman." My further remarks can be seen, above, in an April 28 post, Why Patients are not Consumers, Part 2."