Prevention, Health Costs, and Value

Cost has played a leading role in the policy debate over health care / health insurance. That’s appropriate since private health costs put such a burden on workers and families, and public health costs place such a burden on state and federal budgets.

I worry, however, that the focus on costs and spending sometimes overshadows what ought to be the real goal: getting as much value as possible from our health care system.

A case in point is the debate over preventative care.

Policymakers are desperate for painless ways to pay for expanded health care coverage. Many of them have therefore become enamored of the idea that increased spending on preventative care could reduce overall health spending. As I noted yesterday, however, there’s a problem with that idea: it generally isn’t true.

If your only goal is paying for expanded health care, that finding is both unwelcome and fatal – the search for painless pay-fors will have to look elsewhere.

If your goal is increasing the value we get from our health system, however, your inquiry isn’t done. Instead, you should say “That’s too bad; I was hoping it would save money. But while we’re talking about it, do the benefits of preventative care justify the higher spending?”

Good question.

In its recent analysis of preventative care, the Congressional Budget Office answers as follows:

Of course, just because a preventive service adds to total spending does not mean that it is a bad investment. Experts have concluded that a large fraction of preventive care adds to spending but should be deemed “cost-effective,” meaning that it provides clinical benefits that justify those added costs: Roughly 60 percent of the preventive services examined in the review cited above have additional costs that many in the health care community consider to be reasonable relative to their clinical benefits. Still, providing that preventive care would represent a net use of resources rather than a source of funding for other activities. (About 20 percent of the services reviewed have costs that are large relative to their benefits, and a small fraction actually impair health while adding to costs.)

In other words, some types of preventative care are worthwhile even if they don’t reduce spending. An obvious point, to be sure, but one that often gets lost in the hunt for painless budget pay-fors.