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Between 1998 and 2015 the price of medical care services in the US (as measured by the BLS’s CPI for Medical Care Services) increased nearly 93%, or more than twice the 45.4% increase in consumer prices in general over that period (data here), see the bottom of the table above. On an annual basis, medical care costs in the US have increased almost 4% per year compared to the average inflation rate of only 2.2% over the last 18 years. Probably the only consumer product or service that has increased more than medical care costs over the last several decades would be college tuition and fees, which have increased nearly 7% annually since 1998 for public universities.
One of the reasons that medical care costs in the US have increased almost twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage is paid out-of-pocket by consumers. According to government data, almost half (47.6%) of health care expenditures in 1960 were paid by consumers out-of-pocket, and by 1990 that share had fallen to 19% and by 2014 to less than 11% (see chart). It’s no wonder that health care costs have risen as the share of third-party payments has risen to almost 90% and the out-of-pocket share approaches 10%. Consumers of health care have no incentive to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical services when they only pay 10% themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t price sensitive.
How would the market for medical services operate differently if consumers were paying out-of-pocket for medical procedures in a competitive market? Well, we can look to the $13.5 billion US market for elective cosmetic surgery for some answers. In every year since 1997, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery has issued an annual report on cosmetic procedures in the US (both surgical and nonsurgical) that includes the number of procedures, the average cost per procedure (starting in 1998), the total spending per procedure, and the age and gender distribution for each procedure and for all procedures. Here is a link to the press release for the 2015 report, and the full report is available here.
(Note: Interestingly, there is a huge gender imbalance for cosmetic procedures – women accounted for 90.5% of the 11.5 million cosmetic procedures last year.)
The table above (click to enlarge) shows the top five most popular surgical procedures and top five most popular non-surgical procedures for 2015, the number of each of those procedures performed last year, the total expenditures for each procedure, the average price per procedure both in 1998 and 2015 (in current dollars), and the percent increase in price since 1998 for each procedure. Here’s what’s interesting:
1. For the top ten most popular cosmetic procedures last year, none of them has increased in price since 1998 more than the 45.4% increase in consumer price inflation (the price for the hyaluronic acid procedure wasn’t available for 1998), meaning the real price of all of those procedures have fallen over the last 18 years.
2. For three of the top five favorite non-surgical procedures in 2015 (botox, laser hair removal and chemical peel), the nominal prices have actually fallen since 1998 by large double-digit percentage declines of -25.2%, -43.8% and -23.5%. That is, those prices have fallen in price since 1998, even before making any adjustments for inflation.
3. Most importantly, none of the ten cosmetic procedures in the table above have increased in price by anywhere close to the 93% increase in medical care services since 1998. The 23.2% average price increase since 1998 for last year’s top five most popular surgical procedures, isn’t even close to half of the 93% increase in the cost of medical care services over the last 18 years.
MP: The competitive market for cosmetic procedures operates differently than the traditional market for health care in important and significant ways. Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying out-of-pocket for cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious, and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Because of that market competition, the prices of almost all cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars before adjusting for price changes. In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by less than the 93% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2015.
Question: If cosmetic procedures were covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, what would have happened to their prices over time? Basic economics tell us that those prices would have most likely risen at about the same 93% increase in the prices of medical services between 1998 and 2015. And perhaps another economic lesson here is that the greater the degree of market competition, price transparency and out-of-pocket payments, the more contained prices are, in health care or any other sector of the economy. On the other hand, the greater the degree of government intervention, opaque prices and third-party payments, the less contained prices are, in health care or any other sector of the economy.
Note: This post is an update of last year’s CD post on 2014 plastic surgery prices.
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