EVERY year America spends about $5,000 more per person on health care than other rich countries do. Yet its people are not any healthier. Where does all the money go? One explanation is waste, with patients wolfing down too many pills and administrators churning out red tape. There is also the cost of services that may be popular and legitimate but do nothing to improve medical outcomes. Manhattan’s hospitals, with their swish reception desks and menus, can seem like hotels compared with London’s bleached Victorian structures.
The most controversial source of excess spending, though, is rent-seeking by health-care firms. This is when companies extract outsize profits relative to the capital they deploy and risks they take. Schumpeter has estimated the scale of gouging across the health-care system. Although it does not explain the vast bulk of America’s overspending, the sums are big by any other standard, with health-care firms making excess profits of $65bn a year. Surprisingly, the worst offenders are not pharmaceutical firms but an army of corporate health-care middlemen.
In crude terms, the health-care labyrinth comprises six layers, each involving the state, mutual organisations and private firms. People and employers pay insurance companies, which pay opaque aggregators known as pharmacy-benefit managers and preferred provider organisers. They in turn pay doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, which in turn pay wholesalers, who pay the manufacturers of equipment and drugs. Some conglomerates span several layers. For example on March 8th Cigna, an insurance firm, bid $67bn for Express Scripts, a benefit manager. A system of rebates means money flows in both directions so that the real price of products and services (net of rebates) is obscured.
To work out who is stiffing whom, Schumpeter has examined the top 200 American listed health-care firms. Excess profits are calculated as those earned above a 10% return on capital (excluding goodwill), a yardstick of the maximum that should be possible in any perfectly competitive industry. For drugmakers the figures treat research and development (R&D) as an asset that is depreciated over 15 years, roughly the period they have to exploit patents on discoveries. The data are from Bloomberg.
Total excess profits amount to only about 4% of America’s health-care overspending. But this still makes health care the second biggest of the giant rent-seeking industries that have come to dominate parts of the economy. The excess profits of the health-care firms are equivalent to $200 per American per year, compared with $69 for the telecoms and cable TV industry and $25 captured by the airline oligopoly. Only the five big tech “platform” firms, with a figure of $250, are more brazen gougers.
Everyone hates pharmaceutical firms, but their share of health-care rent-seeking is relatively trivial, especially once you include the many midsized and small firms that are investing heavily. Across the economy, average prices received by drug manufacturers have risen by about 5% per year, net of the rebates. But their costs have risen, too. As a result, even for the 15 biggest global drugs firms, returns on capital have halved since the glory days of the late 1990s, and are now barely above the cost of capital. As employer schemes get stingier, employees are being forced to pay more of their drug costs; they are price-conscious.