Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Costs versus Efficiency

Advocates of government-run health insurance like to point to Medicare's low administrative costs (which, as I noted yesterday, is a controversial claim). But even if that factual claim were true, the argument would hardly be dispositive as to the greater efficiency of a publicly run system. As I put it in my recent Times article, "True, Medicare’s administrative costs are low, but it is easy to keep those costs contained when a system merely writes checks without expending the resources to control wasteful medical spending."

A reader finds support for this position in some recent testimony by Malcolm K. Sparrow, Professor of the Practice of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Professor Sparrow suggests that greater administrative costs aimed at uncovering medical fraud might be money well spent. Here is an excerpt:

The units of measure for losses due to health care fraud and abuse in this country are hundreds of billions of dollars per year. We just don't know the first digit. It might be as low as one hundred billion. More likely two or three. Possibly four or five. But whatever that first digit is, it has eleven zeroes after it. These are staggering sums of money to waste, and the task of controlling and reducing these losses warrants a great deal of serious attention....

By taking the fraud and abuse problem seriously this administration might be able to save 10% or even 20% from Medicare and Medicaid budgets. But to do that, one would have to spend 1% or maybe 2% (as opposed to the prevailing 0.1%) in order to check that the other 98% or 99% of the funds were well spent. But please realize what a massive departure that would be from the status quo. This would mean increasing the budgets for control operations by a factor of 10 or 20. Not by 10% or 20%, but by a factor of 10 or 20.

The bottom line: Low administrative costs are not to be confused with high administrative efficiency. In other words, administrators are not necessarily a deadweight loss to the system.