U.S. Healthcare Spending

The United States, on a per capita basis, spends much more on health care than other developed countries; the chief reason is not greater health care utilization, but higher prices, according to a study from a team led by a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researcher. webpage

The paper finds that the U.S. remains an outlier in terms of per capita health care spending, which was $9,892 in 2016. That amount was about 25 percent higher than second-place Switzerland’s $7,919. It was also 108 percent higher than Canada’s $4,753, and 145 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) median of $4,033. And it was more than double the $4,559 the U.S. spent per capita on health care in 2000—the year whose data the researchers analyzed for a 2003 study.

Economist Yarek Waszul says that an unavoidable part of the high cost of U.S. health care is how much we pay doctors — twice as much on average as physicians in other wealthy countries. Because our doctors are paid, on average, more than $250,000 a year (even after malpractice insurance and other expenses), and more than 900,000 doctors in the country, that means we pay an extra $100 billion a year in doctor salaries. That works out to more than $700 per U.S. household per year. We can think of this as a kind of doctors’ tax. webpage

>However, as an economist, I look for structural explanations for pay disparities like this. And when economists like me look at medicine in America – whether we lean left or right politically – we see something that looks an awful lot like a cartel.

A cartel means that the suppliers of a good or service have control over the supply. This control can be used to ensure quality, as is the case with many agricultural cartels around the world. However, controlling supply also lets the cartel exert some control over price.

As Waszul suggests, a problem is that Americans have convinced themselves they have the best healthcare in the world and that justifies the high prices we pay. We want to think that healthcare is a free market when that just not true.