In Washington, It's Always Opposite Day


Remember that time when trucker hats were cool?

Unintended consequences seem to be the order of the day: In addition to Martin Feldstein's piece positing that health-care reform might actually incentivize people to drop their insurance until they get sick (thus shrinking the risk pool and increasing premiums), former Bush budget official James Capretta has a useful post explaining how the a Medicare payment system originally designed to encourage more doctors to become general practitioners produced the opposite result—and led to the situation we have today, in which Congress is trying to simultaneously fix one major health-care mistake and pass another one:

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Medicare bureaucracy set out to reform the way physicians are reimbursed for providing services to the program's enrollees. The idea was to shift more resources toward generalists, who were then thought to be undercompensated for spending time with patients, and to control overall costs by limiting the growth of aggregate payments to growth in the size of the U.S. economy. After several years of study, lengthy payment regulations were issued, including a predecessor to the SGR formula, which had immediate and profound financial consequences for nearly every practicing physician in the United States.

And so what happened? The exact opposite of what was intended. Instead of encouraging more physicians to enter into primary care, the Medicare physician-fee schedule has rewarded more specialization. The fee schedule only controls prices, not volume. As Medicare's administrators have tried to hold down costs with fee cuts, specialists increased their share of the pie with more tests and procedures, at the expense of primary-care reimbursement rates. Not surprisingly, the trend of physicians entering specialist practices has accelerated dramatically in the last twenty years. Moreover, overall costs have never been brought under control. With volume soaring, the SGR formula governing annual fee updates has gone completely off the rails. In 2010, fees are supposed to get cut by 21 percent unless Congress overrides it yet again. To secure the AMA's endorsement of their health-care bill, House leaders are planning to scrap the SGR component of the physician fee system altogether, at a cost of more than $200 billion over a decade.

The irony of the situation seems to be lost on House Democrats: Congress is moving to repeal a prime example of health-care central planning run amok while simultaneously extending federal control to every corner of American health care.