Why Isn’t Health Care More Like a Washing Machine?

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When shopping for a washing machine—or a car, or a DVD player, or a stroller—consumers have lots of options. Competition and innovation help bring prices down, and generally speaking, the products that give the most bang for the buck are successful in the long run. With health care as it is today, there is limited competition and ever-increasing prices, and the only innovations I’ve seen among insurers are inventive new ways to make money—namely, by not paying claims.

So here’s hoping that somehow, in all of this health care debate mess, we’re able to introduce genuine competition into the equation. The problem is that the winners of capitalist competitions are usually those who figure out how to make the biggest profits. With health care, the winners should be the ones who give us, well, the best health care. Strictly from a consumer perspective, we need to be getting the most bang for the buck—as individuals, as taxpayers, as a country as a whole. That’s certainly not the case now.

The country should be looking at health care from a savvy consumer perspective. The sort of perspective you get at Consumer Reports. And what do you know? The Consumer Reports August 2009 issue is all about health care. Among the eminently sensible recommendations is that health care reform should reward doctors and health providers for great care, not necessarily for conducting procedures, which is how doctors generally make money nowadays. It’s this overmedicating and overdoing of procedures that pushes health care costs up.

There’s also a list of common fears about reform, including the correlating—and reassuring—facts. Such as:

Fear Health reform will let faceless government bureaucrats come between you and your doctor.

Fact Private health insurance already comes between you and your doctor. And because each company sets its own rules, it’s hard to imagine a more bureaucratic system. Some insurers decide which doctors you can see, which hospitals you can visit, and what drugs you can take and still be covered. And they may require copious paperwork before approving a treatment you and your doctor want. Health-care reform would standardize claim procedures to cut down on all of that. And it would protect you from other abuses, like being rejected for coverage or paying exorbitant premiums if you get sick.

Another interesting consumer-style approach to health care is in the NY Times op-ed section today, with a call for choice, competition, and incentives to improve care and lower costs for everyone.

If nothing else, we Americans are really good consumers. Unfortunately, we often buy stupid stuff we don’t need, and worse, we overpay. When it comes to health care, I hope for my children’s sake that we can figure out what’s the best product to buy. Do you think there’s any chance Sony or Honda is going to release a health care policy alongside their other 2010 models?