At the heart of President Barack Obama's health-care plan is an insurance program funded by taxpayers, administered by Washington, and open to everyone. Modeled on Medicare, this "public option" will soon become the single dominant health plan, which is its political purpose. It will restructure the practice of medicine in the process.
Republicans and Democrats agree that the government's Medicare scheme for compensating doctors is deeply flawed. Yet Mr. Obama's plan for a centrally managed government insurance program exacerbates Medicare's problems by redistributing even more income away from lower-paid primary care providers and misaligning doctors' financial incentives.
Like Medicare, the "public option" will control spending by using its purchasing clout and political leverage to dictate low prices to doctors. (Medicare pays doctors 20% to 30% less than private plans, on average.) While the public option is meant for the uninsured, employers will realize it's easier--and cheaper--to move employees into the government plan than continue workplace coverage.
The Lewin Group, a health-care policy research and consulting firm, estimates that enrollment in the public option will reach 131 million people if it's open to everyone and pays Medicare rates, as many expect. Fully two-thirds of the privately insured will move out of or lose coverage. As patients shift to a lower-paying government plan, doctors' incomes will decline by as much as 15% to 20% depending on their specialty.
Physician income declines will be accompanied by regulations that will make practicing medicine more costly, creating a double whammy of lower revenue and higher practice costs, especially for primary-care doctors who generally operate busy practices and work on thinner margins. For example, doctors will face expenses to deploy pricey electronic prescribing tools and computerized health records that are mandated under the Obama plan. For most doctors these capital costs won't be fully covered by the subsidies provided by the plan.
Government insurance programs also shift compliance costs directly onto doctors by encumbering them with rules requiring expensive staffing and documentation. It's a way for government health programs like Medicare to control charges. The rules are backed up with threats of arbitrary probes targeting documentation infractions. There will also be disproportionate fines, giving doctors and hospitals reason to overspend on their back offices to avoid reprisals.
The 60% of doctors who are self-employed will be hardest hit. That includes specialists, such as dermatologists and surgeons, who see a lot of private patients. But it also includes tens of thousands of primary-care doctors, the very physicians the Obama administration says need the most help.
Doctors will consolidate into larger practices to spread overhead costs, and they'll cram more patients into tight schedules to make up in volume what's lost in margin. Visits will be shortened and new appointments harder to secure. It already takes on average 18 days to get an initial appointment with an internist, according to the American Medical Association, and as many as 30 days for specialists like obstetricians and neurologists.
Right or wrong, more doctors will close their practices to new patients, especially patients carrying lower paying insurance such as Medicaid. Some doctors will opt out of the system entirely, going "cash only." If too many doctors take this route the government could step in--as in Canada, for example--to effectively outlaw private-only medical practice.
These changes are superimposed on a payment system where compensation often bears no connection to clinical outcomes. Medicare provides all the wrong incentives. Its charge-based system pays doctors more for delivering more care, meaning incomes rise as medical problems persist and decline when illness resolves.
So how should we reform our broken health-care system? Rather than redistribute physician income as a way to subsidize an expansion of government control, Mr. Obama should fix the payment system to align incentives with improved care. After years of working on this problem, Medicare has only a few token demonstration programs to show for its efforts. Medicare's failure underscores why an inherently local undertaking like a medical practice is badly managed by a remote and political bureaucracy.
But while Medicare has stumbled with these efforts, private health plans have made notable progress on similar payment reforms. Private plans are more likely to lead payment reform efforts because they have more motivation than Medicare to use pay as a way to achieve better outcomes.
Private plans already pay doctors more than Medicare because they compete to attract higher quality providers into their networks. This gives them every incentive, as well as added leverage, to reward good clinicians while penalizing or excluding bad ones. A recent report by PriceWaterhouse Coopers that examined 10 of the nation's largest commercial health plans found that eight had implemented performance-based pay measures for doctors. All 10 plans are expanding efforts to monitor quality improvement at the provider level.
Among the promising examples of private innovation in health-care delivery: In Pennsylvania, the Geisinger Clinic's "warranty" program, where providers take financial responsibility for the entire episode of care; or the experience of the Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia, where doctors are paid more for delivering better outcomes.
There are plenty of alternatives to Mr. Obama's plan that expand coverage to the uninsured, give them the chance to buy private coverage like Congress enjoys, and limit government management over what are inherently personal transactions between doctors and patients.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D., N.Y.) has introduced a bipartisan measure, the Small Business Cooperative for Healthcare Options to Improve Coverage for Employees (Choice) Act of 2009, that would make it cheaper and easier for small employers to offer health insurance. Mr. Obama would also get bipartisan compromise on premium support for people priced out of insurance to give them a wider range of choices. This could be modeled after the Medicare drug benefit, which relies on competition between private plans to increase choices and hold down costs. It could be funded, in part, through tax credits targeted to lower-income Americans.
There are also measures available that could fix structural flaws in our delivery system and make coverage more affordable without top-down controls set in Washington. The surest way to intensify flaws in the delivery of health care is to extend a Medicare-like "public option" into more corners of the private market. More government control of doctors and their reimbursement schemes will only create more problems.
Scott Gottlieb, M.D., is a resident fellow at AEI.