Saturday, July 31, 2010

Costly Nelson Eye On Free Trade

In 1801 Horatio Nelson put a telescope to his blind eye to disregard signals to retreat from a naval battle.  His valor resulted in a crucial victory over the French fleet.  But the US turning a Nelson eye on solutions through free trade in health services is an act of cowardice and cynicism.

The "W" Bushies are also guilty of such neglect after the benefits of trade grew with the proliferation of world class medical facilities abroad, and the advent of the internet and better communications.  But the failure of Obama's team is more poignant when new laws covering the uninsured add to overall costs, as well as to the scarcity (and resultant leverage) of domestic providers.   

On trade in health services, Prof. Bhagwati and I in mid-2008 highlighted promising approaches and reiterated these in my December 2009 post. Four subsequent posts have elaborated on each category (or mode) and quantified potential savings.  The overall picture is compelling.

Highly qualified foreign doctors who have cleared the required US medical board exams can remotely consult through video-conference with a nurse at hand to assist with the patient, if necessary.  Diagnostic radiology does not even need direct patient contact.  This type of telemedicine can easily replace a fourth of primary care visits and diagnostic radiology readings, as well as a tenth of specialist visits, and all at a fifth of the cost.  This will not only help meet the crisis of additional demand due to health reforms and an aging populace, but also save $16B in 2006 terms.  This translates to $267B of savings over the next 10 years, $133B in public funds.  Even the states can authorize telemedicine within their areas, if the federal government doesn't act.

 In medical travel, US patients go to reputed hospitals abroad for major surgeries and medical procedures, often performed by US or UK trained doctors, at a fraction of the cost.  The movement can receive a huge fillip if lawmakers and the leadership reduce legal exposure through legislation, create protocols and procedures to select and qualify foreign hospitals, and identify procedures to be covered.  They should also send publicly funded patients and lay down the incentives for such patients to volunteer, so that private insurers can follow suit and get legal cover.  There are some 30 major procedures costing $300B in 2007 terms that are suitable for medical travel.  Assuming a fourth of these are off-shored the savings are $57B annually in 2007, which comes to $950B over the next 10 years, half of this in public funds.

The third way of trading in health services is to allow and encourage foreign entities to set up hospitals here.  This will allow under-served areas to be covered and introduce greater competition in MSAs, 90% of which face highly concentrated markets for hospitals.  But most importantly, this will bring badly needed reverse innovation to the egregiously expensive and inefficient US hospital system.  Policy changes needed include easing the process and shortening the time line for approval, creating standard guidelines and norms for facilitating this, and doing away with state regulations holding up such hospital creation.  The resultant savings due to competitive pressures and forced changes bringing US costs halfway down to European levels (or "just" 1.5 times instead of being twice as high) are $175B in 2007.  This comes to $2.73 trillion over the next 10 years, with $1.36 trillion of this in public funds.

The final piece is allowing highly qualified foreign doctors trained in one of the pre-approved list of accredited foreign institutions to practice in the US, without going through a US residency.  Other conditions can be imposed on them, like requiring them to clear the required US board exams, or tying their visas to practicing in designated under-served areas.  This will immediately boost doctor supply and should be undertaken in parallel with expanding the domestic pipeline that will start having an impact in 10 years. The US has 2.4 doctors per 1000 people compared to the OECD average of 3.4.  Boosting this US ratio from 2.4 to 3.0 will require 200,000 additional doctors, but this increased number will ensure better access by patients, as well as reduce the scarcity related prices for doctor services.  If these prices go down by 23.5% to the Medicare rates dictated by the (never implemented) SGR formula that are still generous by European standards, then the savings are $79B in 2007.  That is $1.26 trillion over the next 10 years, with $630B of this in public funds.

Therefore apart from the vital increase in access to badly needed services by US patients, the total savings from all four modes of trade are estimated at $5.2 trillion over the next 10 years.  Nearly half of this or $2.6 trillion will be in public funds.  To get some perspective, compare this with the $1 trillion projected added cost of the health reforms bill that created such a firestorm among Republicans.  Had they faced the trade option squarely (requiring them to face down their health industry lobbies which is why they didn't, of course) we'd have saved substantially even after the passage of health reforms.

There is hope yet.  Dr. Donald Berwick's appointment as Director of CMS (during Congressional recess, over Republican objections) is a positive development.  He has studied and talked extensively about the merits of foreign health systems, including Britain's.  If he can look not just at these systems, but to them for solutions (and carry the political will of the Obama team with him) then a lot of these desirable measures can become reality.

Trade of course is not the only answer.  Several unrelated domestic policy initiatives can make a huge difference (more on these later.)  But its potential and benefits are so large that Obama and the lawmakers should urgently look at it - with their good eye for a change - and act accordingly.

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