Thursday, April 1, 2010

Health Care Cost Avoidance: New Incentives for Congress

Now that the U.S. government has a bigger stake in the health care system, a move toward a greater emphasis on disease prevention is unavoidable. A Congressional committee that needs to find a few billion dollars to make the budget line up isn’t going to balk at measures to keep people healthy just because of a political theory that prevention should be a private sector function, or something like that, if the move will generate the cost savings that the committee is looking for.

As an example, it’s just a matter of time before the high fructose corn syrup lobby’s free ride is over. The epidemiological evidence connecting high fructose corn syrup to obesity and disease is clear enough, and politicians who look at the budgetary benefits New York City is already reaping from its very limited crackdown on soda may think to imitate that success when the late-night budget meetings are looking for answers.

Some of the more embarrassing failures of the health care system, like last year’s H1N1 flu vaccine debacle, may come in for more scrutiny now that the government is on the hook for a greater fraction of the failures caused by medical misadventures. The Food and Drug Administration (or its successor for drug regulation) may come under more pressure not to approve prescription drugs that are a risk to create serious or long-term illness in the people who use them. All this is the consequence of new economic incentives on Congress: keep people healthy, and the budget may balance. This now overrides Congress’s previous incentive to allow corporate profits in the hope that the tax revenue will make the budget balance. If corporate profit comes at the expense of people’s health, that’s no longer a good tradeoff for Congress.