Transaction Costs: The American Way

(Photo: shane_d_k)

(Photo: shane_d_k)

The rest of the world likes to say that everything in America is big: the cars, the CO2 emissions, the buildings, even the hamburgers. The farce at the U.S. government’s website for enrollment in health insurance under the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA) shows that we also supersize our transaction costs.

In a news report from NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network, and Kaiser Health News, even a computer programmer who had also created websites needed many attempts over many weeks to use the site to enroll for health insurance. And she still awaits the enrollment confirmation (with luck in the new year, said the radio version of the report). If it arrives, she gets affordable health insurance ($110 instead of $1200 per month), but then still has the joy of dealing with an insurance company and the claim paperwork.

This waste is not inevitable. I lived for 12 years of my life in England. The first few years were as a baby, but during the 9 years that I remember, I spent 1 hour dealing with health forms — mostly to register myself at a local medical practice. Even my medical records from infancy were still on file two decades later (though a decade later they burned up in a warehouse fire).

The Alaskan in the news story probably spent that hour on her first attempt to register for health insurance. In contrast, the U.K.’s National Health Service, by insuring everyone under one roof, eliminates these issues.

In a 2010 comparison of health care in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the U.K. system was rated as the most efficient, and the U.S. system the least efficient. Some of the gap lies in our absurd transaction costs.


ANTTI

Its question about aims and objectives really. Public health care systems try to allocate resources they have efficiently. While ones ran by insurance companies try to maximize profit by getting low risk customers and avoiding high risk ones.

The feet dragging comes because they have multiple criterias they need to look and check. Those also can change all a time. They wont totally automate it because everything can't be defined. On the other hand they can't hire lot of people handling the forms because it wont be cost effective.

So there will be this low paid person, propably a bit older woman, going through forms and looking latest criterias. And collecting information and maybe cross checking it in each case the information. She propably has deeper knowledge of the area but is overworked because bosses dont want to hire new people because cost. And if they can the the turnover can be really high still because its really hard and fast paced work. But not well paid.

Thats why it may take weeks. Most Western world insurance claims are handled in above manner.
Only very simple(like car insurances) can be automated and done fast.

Standardized form of insurance, propably public, is the most cost effective and simple solution. Anything that goes to private insurance side will generate tsunami of paperwork because they want to balance the risks with profits.

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Pshrnk

Funny how some who claim to worship at the altar of efficient markets theory are also those most opposed to efficient health care financing. Would that Friedman and Hayek could return and personally explain the error of theuir crony capitalist ways.

James

Couple of points here. First, being a computer programmer does not make it easier to navigate most web sites. Quite the opposite, in fact: in addition to the difficulties caused by web site designers designing to the lowest common denominator, add the frustration of knowing exactly how easy it would have been to do it right in the first place.

Second, note that the transaction costs are mostly for dealing with insurance companies, and are much the same for auto or homeowner's insurance. (I was rear-ended once: the other driver's insurance took nearly a year, with much hassle, to finally pay off my claim.) On the other hand, the few times I've had to deal with medical providers - or more frequently, veterinarians - I've found them perfectly happy to take a credit card with no hassle at all.

James

Expanding on my own comment a bit, imagine what the cost of car ownership would be if every little bit of maintenance & repair had to be funneled through an insurance company. Time for an oil change? Take it to the auto emergency room, spend an hour filling out paperwork, then pay $200 and argue with the insurance company about your deductible. Need new tires? Well, you'd better fill out the insurance company paperwork and get the operation pre-approved, or you're paying for it yourself.

See the point? With cars, we insure only for major losses. With medicine, somehow people have gotten the expectation that everything should be covered, not just major things. And naturally, that adds transaction costs.

Pshrnk

Three years ago a rock broke my windshield. I called about replacement and was told it would cost $795. I said, "Are you kidding me 795 for a Toyota Corolla?" She asked, "You are going to use your inurance aren't you?" When I replied "no" she said, "then we can do it for 199". And we wonder why health care costs are so high.

NZ

Some people fear that the first iteration of Obamacare was DESIGNED to fail so that people would become frustrated (the ACA was a compromise that didn't go far enough anyway, right?) and instead call for a simpler single-payer system to replace it--the system that Obama and the Democrats wanted all along.

The more rational and articulate conservatives dismissed this fear as paranoia. But is Sanjoy Mahajan out to help prove that the paranoid people had good reason to worry?

Rob

From the beginning, this was pretty clearly a case where the compromise was worse than either alternative. Before ACA, most of the problems in American healthcare were caused or aggravated by the dominant model of employer-provided health plans (NOT insurance). ACA attempted to fix all of these problems by extending that model. A fully socialized system would be more efficient and offer more freedom than the mess they handed us with that "compromise". It is literally impossible for me to believe that nobody in the Democratic Party saw this coming.

DESIGNED to fail? Probably not. Still, I have a hard time believing that anyone on the left expected it to succeed as is and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the Obama camp had a step 2 in mind from the beginning.

Nathan

I'm sorry, I love Freakenomics, and prefer the rational discussion of issues that economic analysis allows. So I'm greatly disappointed that they would allow a blog post to compare the costs associated with two completely different products with the presumption that the difference is transactional costs. This is lazy and not worthy of this website or Freakenomics.

Trish

What a strange collection of facts and anecdotes garbled together with no coherent theme.

Let's see if I can follow his train of thought.

Fact: The US pays more per capita in health care than other countries.

Assumption: Paying more for a category of goods or services is less efficient, regardless of the quality or quantity of goods and services provided.

Unsupported fact: One woman would pay less with a subsidized plan than she would with an unsubsidized plan

Assumption: If the taxpayers pay for a large portion of the costs of insuring an individual, that reduces the overall cost of health care. Health care costs are not dependent on the quantity or quality consumed.

Fact: It is difficult and time consuming to register for Obamacare.

Anecdote: He lived in the UK and only spent an hour on paperwork.

Assumption: The amount of paperwork required of the consumer is the cause of the transaction costs of the health care system, even though these opportunity costs are not included in the cost survey he cites.

Overall conclusion drawn by author: Transaction costs are the primary driver of the differences in per capita costs for health care in various countries.

My conclusion: He has no idea what he is talking about, but got to use some cute little buzzwords and link to wikipedia.

Suggestions for the author: Do some research on the financial position of the UK health system. Do some research on the availability of the newest medical technology in the UK. Try comparing the use of expensive technology (like an MRI) for routine injuries in the US to the use in the UK. Determine the proportion transaction costs play in the overall cost for health care. Examine access to the national health systems by non citizens in the nations cited. Examine difference in the route to citizenship (and therefore access to the health care system) in the nations cited.

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Alex in Chicago

Correct. The reason the United States Pays the most for healthcare in the world is because we are one of the only countries in the world that respects patent rights, and doesn't threaten companies/etc with being cut out of the market/losing rights/etc if they don't pay terribly discounted rates.

The reality is that the USA is subsidizing all those other countries, without us there would be NO reason to innovate in the medical field.

Ian Woollard

Actually, the evidence is that it's mostly the other way around, under the US system drugs companies have no incentive to see if existing drugs can work for other diseases; to produce a new drug that they can patent is much more profitable.

Meanwhile with government run health systems using an existing drug is *much* more cost effective, so it pays for the government body to actually try the experiment and measure how well it works; and if it does they can just hand out cheap older drugs. Drugs companies basically never do that, because it eats their profits.

This also works with new drugs as well, if the drugs work they will usually reduce overall costs (but the drugs companies will still do that research anyway).

Basically having a single payer makes them want to, and more able to reduce costs, having lots of cost-plus drugs companies and insurers tends to push costs only upwards.

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J1

Waste is not inevitable, but I'm not sure it's relevant either. Lots of vendors are extremely efficient delivering an inferior product. Third party payment probably reduces efficiency and increases cost, but it doesn't necessarily affect quality.

The efficiency argument is also spurious given realities in the US; anybody who thinks more U.S. government involvement in any industry is going to reduce cost needs a drug test (preferrably covered by their policy...). The implicit argument that the US would spend less on healthcare under single payer reflects a detachment from reality only somebody completely unfamiliar with the US government could achieve.

Some gripes with the article/post: The $1200 quote is a non-specific approximation (and apparently one of multiple quotes not presented for comparison), she doesn't have insurance yet so there's no guarantee it will cost $110/mo, and there's no comparison of coverage, so we have no way of knowing whether the ACA policy is a better or worse deal. The report uses some odd, possibly incomplete standards. To take just one example, the "Effective Care" standard includes preventive (US is leader) and chronic care, in which the example cited to demonstrate how great the UK system is " U.K. physicians are most likely to report it is easy to print out a list of all their patients by diagnosis" (?). I'm all for greater use of IT, but emergency care and single event treatments seem a little more important. I urge everybody to read the report; this is the sort of "study" being used to promote single payer. Check it out.

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crquack

It is instructive to consider the human costs of the UK NHS "efficiency". Google "Mid-Staffordshire", "Liverpool Care Pathway" or read any of the recent articles in the Daily Telegraph.

I worked in the NHS for 9 years some 30 years ago. It was bad then but not as bad as I perceive it to be now.

Ivan Ransom

Whenever a private corporate insurance enterprise is involved in any health service, the first priority will be to maximise profit. This will be achieved by any or all of the following: 1. Delay any payout to retain cash-flow 2. Impose restrictive, even "unwritten", rules to avoid payout 3. Minimise payout using bureaucratic chicanery 4. Take punitive unjust legal action against weak, defenceless claimants to discourage other claimants 5. Collude with competitors to inflate premiums 5. Pressure medical professionals to take cheaper options even if less satisfactory 6. Reduce their office staff 7. Lower staff wages 8. Offer bonuses (payola) to "successful" sales agents. ... And on it goes !
Policing this "animal farm" is impossible. The victim is the consumer every time.
Obamacare is a sad political compromise to keep the Free Market Loonies onside.
Australia's Medicare is halfway between Obamacare and Britain's National Health Scheme and it has it's problems, believe me.

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Trish

Ivan,

You points 1-5 are illegal in the US. Health insurance is highly regulated.

Jason

If you have lots of choices, you are more likely to have transaction costs (since you have more and more complicated transactions). With only one choice for health care, you would not need a complex website that requires lots of input and then returns lots of options. If you are a member of a high-quality HMO, your medical records will be saved, you will rarely fill out forms, etc., but you also are limited to certain doctors and hospitals. Same goes for other fields - it is great to have all of your finances with one bank because you can easily move funds around, there are fewer fees for making moves, etc., but you are stuck with that bank. There are many other examples where we trade transaction costs for choice - it's the American way.

civisisus

No question transaction costs are currently a muddle with the US health care financing system - but it's important to keep in mind that they have been a wreck for well over a generation. The happy note is we would be hard-pressed to get much worse.

And as for this:

"...even a computer programmer who had also created websites needed many attempts over many weeks to use the site to enroll for health insurance"

what exactly in blue Hell would being a computer programmer have to do with "being able to use the site"?

The energy field of the confusion concentrated in that formulation could lower the average IQ of everyone using the internet

Arthur Denzau

Efficiency involves outputs and inputs - our system may be great on outputs (world quality) but we spend more than any other country on medical care. But before we raise NHS in Britain to star category, you might look at British newspaper accounts of hospital patients starving to death, others denied water, others getting bed sores. The latest information about NHS suggests another problem - UK cancer rates have not been improving, and are now well below France and Germany, at the level of Eastern Europe.

GIGI

The expression "transaction costs" is used in the way economists use it. The costs you describe are are mainly nonmonetary costs associated with certain activities.

Cheers

GIGI

Erratum: I should have written "The expression “transaction costs” is NOT used in the way economists use it"