Why Is Increased Health Care Spending “bad” And Increased Spending At Wal-mart “good”?

For those folks fascinated by increased health care spending in a stalled economy there is a nice article, Health Spending Unscathed In Shrinking Economy, at the NCPA Health Policy Blog. John Fembup asked the question why is increased health care spending “bad” and increased spending at Wal-mart “good”? Here is my reply.

Historically only a few sectors of the economy have a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy. The two best examples of this is housing construction and the growth of the Goods sector. Most economic recoveries have been led by one or both of these sectors. So when major companies in these sectors report increased sales, this is important economic news. The logic is that if GM, Target, Costco, and Wal-Mart are having good years then it is possible that a broad based expansion is underway.

Historically health care spending had a weak correlation with Personal consumption expenditures(PCE) growth. Until 2014 the Goods sector had a strong correlation with PCE growth. In 2014 the positions changed. Health care spending became the leading contributor to PCE growth and the rest of the PCE sectors look like they were in a stalled economy. Based on this limited data you would have to conclude that increased health care spending does not have a multiplier effect on the economy.

Finally most of the increases in our standard of living can be attributed to innovation and productivity gains in the Goods sector. Health care has a poor record for innovation and productivity gains. The most interesting productivity gain that I have seen in health care was a county project to manage diabetes. It provided better care and lowered costs. If health care acted more like a business then they would adopt a more distributed decision-making organization structure to encourage this type of productivity gain. Health care is inherently a local service requiring local decisions. Instead the government and industry have embraced a more command and control organizational structure that generally gets its productivity gains from economies of scale. Since the Affordable Care Act has not generated any cost savings and has blown every budget, it looks like we got the worst of both worlds, increased centralization with no cost savings. We tried, we failed! It is both sad and exciting to think that if we want to increase our standard of living then it has become imperative that the health care industry innovate and focus on productivity gains. If we want to grow the economy then we have to be smarter about our down health care spending so the sectors that have a multiplier effect can grow.