Tag Archives: shareholders

Neoliberals Can’t Fix Health Care

Don McCanne’s Quote of the Day blog returns us to a previous post I wrote about the ACA and neoliberalism, as well as others. The reader might also want to review posts about MEMEnomics.

In the following article from The Milbank Quarterly, not known as a radical publication, but rather as a financial one, John McDonough discusses some of the other reasons why neoliberals cannot fix health care.

As his title suggests, it has a lot to do with the non-medical facets of the health care system in the US — namely, the shareholders and stakeholders who profit from the status quo, and not just the insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry.

That a pro-business publication would publish this article attests to the reality that the problem with enacting Medicare for All/Single Payer is not just a political one, nor one made difficult by the power and influence of the industry itself, by insurers, drug manufacturers, device manufacturers, durable medical equipment companies, etc.; but also the investor class.

Here is McDonough’s article in full:

The Milbank Quarterly
November 2019
Shareholders, Stakeholders, and US Health Care
By John E. McDonough

August 19, 2019 was a big day for The Business Roundtable (TBR), the Washington, DC non-profit association of chief executive officers of major US companies. The organization released a new “Statement on the Purpose of the Corporation” signed by 183 CEOs declaring that the interests of workers, customers, communities, and “other stakeholders” should be as important as the interests of a company’s shareholders. This represented a significant change from its 1997 Statement that declared “the principal object of a business is to generate economic returns to its owners.”

While actions, not statements, will reveal real intent over time, this change was noteworthy—including for the US health care sector. The subject has deep roots in American society, especially in the advocacy of the late economist Milton Friedman, who derided corporate social responsibility as “fundamentally subversive” and asserted that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Friedman’s notion powered a movement in the United States, Great Britain, and around the globe called “neoliberalism” that promoted deregulation, defanged labor unions, shrunken government, and ever lower taxes. From business schools to high cathedrals of capitalism “greed is good” became more than a movie line from Wall Street and its iconic Gordon Gekko. Binyamin Applebaum’s new book, The Economists’ Hour, lays out the neoliberal narrative, warts and all, in compelling detail.

What about US health care and this neoliberal era in which we still breathe? The connections are multiple, deep, and noteworthy. For starters, of the 183 CEO signers of the TBR statement, only 11 come from companies primarily embedded in the health sector, such as Pfizer, CVS Health, and Siemens, far less than a proportionate share of health care’s 18% jumbo slice of the US economy. And it is not difficult to view TBR’s statement as whitewash, especially when signers include CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, companies that are neck deep in the nation’s opioid marketing scandal.

Influential US political and economic historians refer to the period from the late 1970s through today as the “Reagan era,” crowned during the presidency of Ronald Reagan who declared in his inaugural address that “(i)n this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” His term in office ushered in the modern era of tax cuts, growing inequality, wage stagnation, diminished unionization, and repeated assaults on government legitimacy. The “Neoliberal Era” may be a better fit.

Coincidentally or not, in the early 1980s US national health spending as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) split from rates in other advanced nations toward its current extreme outlier status. US spending on health increased from about 8% of GDP in the late 1970s to 17.8% in 2017, far ahead of the nation with the second highest rate of national spending on health, Switzerland, at 12.2%.

In return for this massive societal investment in medical care, we have the world’s most technologically advanced health care system along with the highest prices in the world for any category of medical services or products one can imagine. The rush of private investment capital into our medical sector has resulted in cutting-edge medical care, advanced drugs and medical devices, and the highest salaries of any professionals in American society.

In these 40 years, we also have seen three consecutive years of declining life expectancy, a deep anomaly among our international peers, humiliating rates of infant and maternal mortality, shocking levels of gun violence, and extreme incidence of overweight and obesity. As economist John Komlos has documented, during World War II, native born Americans were the tallest among advanced nations, both men and women—we are now among the shortest. For good measure, Americans are also among the most dissatisfied with our health care system. For what it is worth, money doesn’t buy us good health or happiness.

In this epoch, we have seen enormous growth in private investor funding into a sector formerly dominated by nonprofits or government, in hospitals, physician practices, home health, hospice, air ambulances, and much more. The pharmaceutical industry has always been for-profit, yet its extraordinary concentration has ballooned its pricing structure. The for-profit health sector keeps evolving, assuming new forms. As Gondi and Song document, between 2010 and 2017 the value of private equity deals involving acquisition of health-related companies, mostly hospitals and physician practices, increased 187% reaching $42.6 billion.

Could the investor dominance of much of US health care explain at least part of our outlier status on health spending and outcomes? It is hard to imagine that the investor-driven corporatization of American society could have left medical care untouched. Even today, the most common complaint from conservatives and Republicans about US health care is that government regulation thwarts the free market.

The notion that we could put this massive bulk of toothpaste back into the tube seems preposterous. The economic and political power of the incumbent system would easily stymie any serious challenge, including the apparent one, a nationalized “Medicare for All” structure. Assuming anything of this magnitude could get through Congress—or the Supreme Court—is a daunting stretch. And yet, the real frustrations of Americans with a system organized first and foremost to serve money and power before patients deserve attention.

If, as the Business Roundtable advocates, we are embarking on a new national conversation concerning the role of the for-profit corporation in American society, perhaps we should also instigate a parallel and sustained national examination and conversation about the history, experience, and results from for-profit corporatization of our health and medical care sector. It is clear that this revolution produces good and bad results for American society and for the world. Is it time for a reckoning?

John E. McDonough, DrPH, MPA, is a professor of public health practice at the Harvard University TH Chan School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

Shareholders, Stakeholders, and US Health Care

References

  1. The Business Roundtable. Statement on the Purpose of the Corporation. Washington, DC. August 19, 2019. https://opportunity.businessroundtable.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/BRT-Statement-on-the-Purpose-of-a-Corporation-with-Signatures.pdf. Accessed October 30, 2019.
  2. Friedman M. The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine. September 13, 1970.
  3. Fink L. Larry Fink’s 2019 letter to CEOs: profit and purpose. BlackRock. January 2019. https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter. Accessed October 30, 2019.
  4. Komlos J, Buar M. From the tallest to (one of) the fattest: the enigmatic fate of the American population in the 20th century. Economics and Human Biology. 2004;2:57-74.
  5. Gondi S, Song Z. Potential implications of private equity investments in health care delivery. JAMA. 2019;321(11):1047-1058.

 

Published in 2019
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12432

Health Care Is Not a Market

For the next twenty-one months, there will be a national debate carried on during the presidential campaign regarding the direction this country will take about providing health care to all Americans.

However, to anyone who reads the articles, posts and comments on the social media site, LinkedIn, that debate is already occurring, and most of it is one-sided against Medicare for All/Single Payer. The individuals conducting this debate are for the most part in the health care field, as either physicians, pharmaceutical industry employees, hospital systems executives, insurance company executives, and so on.

We also find employee benefits specialists and other consultants to the health care industry, plus many academics in the health care space, and many general business people commenting, parroting the talking points from right-wing media.

That is why I re-posted articles from my fellow blogger, Joe Paduda last week and yesterday,  who is infinitely more knowledgeable than I am on the subject, and has far more experience in the health care field, that not only predicts Medicare for All (or what he would like to see, Medicaid for All), but has vigorously defended it and explained it to those who have misconceptions.

For that, I am grateful, and will continue to acknowledge his work on my blog. But what has caused me to write this article is the fact that most of the criticism of Medicare for All/Single Payer is because those individuals who are posting or commenting, are defending their turf.

I get that. They get paid to do that, or they depend on the current system to pay their salaries, so naturally they are against anything that would harm that relationship.

But what really gets me is that they are deciding that they have the right to tell the rest of us that we must continue to experience this broken, complex and complicated system just so that they can make money. And that they have a right to prevent us from getting lower cost health care that provides better outcomes and does not leave millions under-insured or uninsured.

However, not all these individuals are doing this because of their jobs. Some are doing so because they are wedded to an economic and political ideology based on the free market as the answer to every social issue, including health care. They argue that if we only had a true free market, competitive health care system, the costs would come down.

But as we have seen with the rise in prices for many medications such as insulin and other life-saving drugs, the free market companies have jacked up the prices simply because they can, and because lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have forced Congress to pass a law forbidding the government from negotiating prices, as other nation’s governments do.

Yet, no other Western country has such a system, nor are they copying ours as it exists today. On the contrary, they have universal health care for their citizens, and by all measures, their systems are cheaper to run, and have better outcomes.

None of these countries can be considered “Socialist” countries, and even the most anti-Socialist, anti-Communist British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said the following, “Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country irrespective of means, age, sex or occupation shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.”

Notice that Sir Winston did not say, free market competition. He knew that competition is fine for selling automobiles, clothing, food, and other goods and services. But not health care.

He also said that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else. We’ve tried the free market in health care, and drug prices and other medical prices are through the roof.

However, another thing they have not done, and I believe none of the other OECD countries have done about health care, is to divide the “market” into silos such as the elderly with Medicare, the poor with Medicaid, children with CHIP, veterans with the VA, and their families with Tricare, etc.

No, they pay for all their citizens from a global budget, and do not distinguish between age level, income level, or service in the armed forces.

And their systems do not restrict what medical care their people receive, so that no only do they have medical care, but dental care, vision care, and hearing care. It is comprehensive. And if they have the money to pay for it, they can purchase private health insurance for everything else.

In the run-up to the debate and vote in the UK on Brexit, the point was raised that while Britain was a member of the EU, their retirees who went to Spain to retire, never had to buy insurance because the Spanish providers would bill the NHS.

However, once Britain leaves the EU, they will have to buy insurance privately, because the NHS won’t pay for it. But not all retirees can afford private insurance, so many British citizens will have a problem.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I was diagnosed with ESRD, and am paying $400 every three months for Medicare Part B. I was doing so while spending down money I received after my mother passed away in 2017. My brother and I sold her assets and used that money to purchase property so that she could go on Medicaid, and eventually into a nursing home when the time came for her to be cared for around the clock.

Since my diagnosis, and prior, I was not working, so spending $400 every three months, and paying for many of my meds, has been difficult. I am getting help with some of the meds, and one is free because my local supermarket chain, Publix gives it for free (Amlodipine).

I hope to be on Medicaid soon, but would much rather see me and my fellow Americans get Medicare for All, and not have to pay so much for it. (a side note: we have seen that Medicaid expansion has been haphazard, or reversed, even when the government is paying 90% of it)

So why are we not doing what everyone else does? For one thing, greed. Drug companies led by individuals like Martin Shkreli, who is now enjoying the hospitality of the federal government, and others are not evil, they are following the dictates of the free market that many are advocating we need. No thanks.

For another, Wall Street has sold the health care sector as another profit center that creates a huge return on investment by investors and shareholders in these companies and hospital systems. Consolidation in health care is no different than if two non-health care companies merge, or one company buys another for a strategic advantage in the marketplace.

There’s that word again: market. We already have a free market health care system, that is why is it broken. What we need is finance health care by the government and leave the providing of health care private. That’s what most other countries do.

So those of you standing in the way of Medicare for All/Single Payer, be advised. We are not going to let you deny us what is a right and not a privilege. We will not let you deny us what every other major Western country gives its people: universal, single payer health care.

Your time is nearly up.