In recent weeks, the government has intervened in the private sector to an unprecedented degree. Next up, some political leaders are hoping the feds will expand this activist posture to health-care reform.
But it would be a mistake to squelch the ingenuity in the private sector. Spurred on by competitive pressures, many health-care companies have devised impressive solutions to health needs while driving down costs and expanding access. Instead of suffocating this progress with a mountain of rules and regulations, government should get out of the way.
Last month, for example, UnitedHealth Group announced a product for insured people who want to hedge against losing their coverage due to job loss or early retirement. For a low up-front premium, a buyer can guarantee his ability to get insurance in the future. Essentially, it's insurance for insurance.
Insurers are also distinguishing themselves with cutting-edge technologies that give customers greater control over their coverage. Assurant Health offers an easy-to-use Web tool that lets users customize their health plans.
In 2005, Aetna launched a program that allows policyholders to research physician-specific pricing before going to a doctor's office. Aetna also offers online access to quality information and helps members find top specialists who deliver cost-effective care.
These and other companies are competing to give patients more control. One option has patients bearing much of the responsibility for routine medical services, such as physicals, while paying much lower premiums. The savings can help fund a consumer-owned, tax-advantaged Health Savings Account for future medical expenses.
A new Virginia company, nHealth, provides innovative financial incentives for patients to take care of themselves and make informed spending decisions.
Private firms also have responded to consumer demand for more accessible care. TelaDoc offers telephone consultations with physicians 24/7. A patient typically gets a call returned by a doctor in less than 40 minutes, for just $35.
Also witness the rise of low-cost walk-in medical clinics such as RediClinic and MinuteClinic. There are almost 2,000 nationwide. They are usually located in malls or chain stores and staffed by nurse practitioners working with area doctors to diagnose and treat common illnesses. They are open seven days a week, before and after work.
The market also is responding to the problem of hospital overcrowding. There are more than 8,000 walk-in urgent-care facilities nationwide, staffed by physicians. Customers frustrated with crowded emergency rooms can pay a set fee for streamlined services.
Competition also has forced down drug prices. In 2006, Wal-Mart began offering 30-day supplies of several hundred generic drugs for just $4. Competitors quickly followed suit. Today, several major retailers offer even better deals.
These examples show the private sector can respond deftly to consumer demands. Under a government-run system with centralized control over benefits and payments, the incentives for such innovation would vanish.
American health care is far from perfect. But before junking it entirely, reformers should take a look at the market's solutions to key problems. Reform should enhance the private sector's ability to serve patients, not get in its way.