By Aobo Dong
The rhetoric of “choice” has been pervasive in U.S. health care reforms and the consumerist health care culture for a long time. The idea is that giving patients more choices over doctors and insurance plans would increase competition in the industry and consequently improve the quality of health care patients receive. However, Allison Hoffman made a convincing case debunking this seemingly intuitive idea in this week’s HLS health law workshop. She argued that reform efforts aimed at increasing consumer choice often fail to empower patients to make better health care choices, and instead, create a wasteful market bureaucracy that is anathema to free market ideals. Her argument reminds me of one of my earlier blog posts on U.S. drug prices, where I compared insurance companies to the Central Planner in a socialist economy. Indeed, there are ironically many institutions and features in the so-called market-driven U.S. health care system that resemble authoritarian and technocratic practices that are directly against the principles of a laissez-faire health care economy.
I will expand Professor Hoffman’s argument by making a few additional points. First, her presentation discusses a number of revealing ways in which the market-based competition creates a false sense of choice in health care. Even Obamacare, which is supposed to offer patients more choices in the Exchange, fails to transcend the falsity of consumer choice. Most patients do not make the best available choice, even when they’re “nudged” by experts in the decision-making process. I’d like to also point out that even if consumers are capable of making the best choice for themselves, whether by thinking with perfect rationality or by accepting “expert opinions,” the choice they ultimately make could still be suboptimal or even disastrous. To understand why this might be the case, it is important to realize that the target population for Obamacare is the minority of people who do not have adequate employer-sponsored plans. Thus, many people enrolled in Obamacare may not have stable jobs and income levels. Nonetheless, the mechanism that determines how much premium for which one qualifies is predicated on an estimation of that individual’s projected annul earnings – a number that is hard to know in advance for those without stable income levels. Hence, a person who made the “right choice” by selecting a silver plan with only $100 monthly premium after receiving a $900 subsidy to cover a $1,000 plan at the beginning of a year may find herself owing the federal government thousands of dollars at the end of the tax year, if she happens to end up with a much higher income level. Had she known the future outcome, she would have chosen a less expensive plan to begin with, but either choice would be a gamble for her. This arbitrariness must be attended to in future health reforms. Continue reading