IN the debate over health care reform, one issue looms large: whether to have a public option. Should all Americans have the opportunity to sign up for government-run health insurance? President Obama has made his own preferences clear. In a letter to Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana, the chairmen of two key Senate committees, he wrote: “I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans. This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest.” Even if one accepts the president’s broader goals of wider access to health care and cost containment, his economic logic regarding the public option is hard to follow. Consumer choice and honest competition are indeed the foundation of a successful market system, but they are usually achieved without a public provider. We don’t need government-run grocery stores or government-run gas stations to ensure that Americans can buy food and fuel at reasonable prices.
But what if you lived in an area where there was only one grocery store? Zachary Roth explains my query:
But the notion that most American consumers enjoy anything like a competitive marketplace for health care is flatly false. And a study issued last month by a pro-reform group makes that strikingly clear. The report, released by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), uses data compiled by the American Medical Association to show that 94 percent of the country's insurance markets are defined as "highly concentrated," according to Justice Department guidelines. Predictably, that's led to skyrocketing costs for patients, and monster profits for the big health insurers. Premiums have gone up over the past six years by more than 87 percent, on average, while profits at ten of the largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007. Far from healthy market competition, HCAN describes the situation as "a market failure where a small number of large companies use their concentrated power to control premium levels, benefit packages, and provider payments in the markets they dominate." So extreme is the level of consolidation, in fact, that one former top Federal Trade Commission official working with HCAN has sent a letter to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, asking for an investigation into the health insurance marketplace.