In other cases, there is more time for loved ones to consider costs, but little emotional space to do so — no one wants to think there was something more they could have done to save their parent or child. It is not like buying a television, where you can easily comparison shop and walk out of the store, and even forgo the purchase if it’s too expensive. And imagine what you would pay for a television if the salesmen at Best Buy knew that you couldn’t leave without making a purchase.
“In my view, health is a business in the United States in quite a different way than it is elsewhere,” says Tom Sackville, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s government and now directs the IFHP. “It’s very much something people make money out of. There isn’t too much embarrassment about that compared to Europe and elsewhere.”
The result is that, unlike in other countries, sellers of health-care services in America have considerable power to set prices, and so they set them quite high. Two of the five most profitable industries in the United States — the pharmaceuticals industry and the medical device industry — sell health care. With margins of almost 20 percent, they beat out even the financial sector for sheer profitability.
The players sitting across the table from them — the health insurers — are not so profitable. In 2009, their profit margins were a mere 2.2 percent. That’s a signal that the sellers have the upper hand over the buyers.
This is a good deal for residents of other countries, as our high spending makes medical innovations more profitable. “We end up with the benefits of your investment,” Sackville says. “You’re subsidizing the rest of the world by doing the front-end research.”
But many researchers are skeptical that this is an effective way to fund medical innovation. “We pay twice as much for brand-name drugs as most other industrialized countries,” Anderson says. “But the drug companies spend only 12 percent of their revenues on innovation. So yes, some of that money goes to innovation, but only 12 percent of it.”
And others point out that you also need to account for the innovations and investments that our spending on health care is squeezing out. “There are opportunity costs,” says Reinhardt, an economist at Princeton. “The money we spend on health care is money we don’t spend educating our children, or investing in infrastructure, scientific research and defense spending. So if what this means is we ultimately have overmedicalized, poorly educated Americans competing with China, that’s not a very good investment.”