As consumers, we like to get more for less – especially when it comes to our health. Usually we feel ripped off if we receive a lower-quality service for the same (or higher) cost of a better service. In a previous blog post, I discussed how, in some cases, certificate of need (CON) programs can be the very reason patients are forced to receive inferior care from less-skilled doctors. Additionally, CON regulations likely do not save patients much money, if any.
In a world of limited resources and virtually unlimited wants, we are forced to make trade-offs. A decrease in the quality of health care might be acceptable if CON led to lower costs. Proponents of CON argue that this regulation does contain the cost of care by preventing the “duplication of services” in a given geographic area. To illustrate this chain of reasoning, let’s say that Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Saint Louis University Hospital buy “too many” MRI machines – as a result, many of the new MRI machines go unused. Because of the outlay, CON proponents assume the two hospitals will probably charge higher prices for MRI scans to make up for the mistake.
There is evidence to suggest that theory is not well founded. One evaluation of Illinois’ CON program found that “there is little direct broad proof that overcapacity duplication leads to higher charges.” CON regulations may result in “tangible savings on the actual costs of specific medical technologies” but these programs tend to “redirect expenditures to other areas.” In other words, CON may actually prevent hospitals from spending too much on a certain type of medical technology, but any savings will be spent on other items instead of being passed onto patients. One study even suggests that strict CON programs may actually increase health care costs by as much as 5 percent.
What use is a program that can be delivering sub-optimal health care without cutting costs?