September 30, 2009

Is Health Insurance as Important as Cable TV?

Screw the public option. We don't need it. Let's have good old-fashioned price regulation of health insurance, the way we had for cable tv. To recap, in 1992, Congress overrode President George H.W. Bush's veto and passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act. This law, among other things, regulated the price for basic cable television service. The arguments made in favor of cable regulation apply even more clearly today to health insurance.

The 1992 Cable Act essentially treated cable television service as a utility, something everyone needs, like water or electricity, but which is prohibitively expensive for smaller competitors to produce and distribute. Congress noted that a relatively small group of cable operators controlled the market for cable tv such they were able consistently to raise prices faster than the rate of inflation. According to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), "Before the 1992 Cable Act was passed, cable rates were rising three times faster than inflation rates. I do not think you can name a consumer in this country who did not feel that he or she was being gouged."
Sound familiar?

Price regulation of health insurance makes even more sense than it did for cable tv. First, cable tv has lots of substitutes. Cable competes with satellite dish tv service, which has been gaining more subscribers than cable for some time, as well as broadcast television, which still gets the most viewers ("So You Think You Can Dance," the Super Bowl, etc.), DVDs (on which one can rent movies, cable and broadcast television programs), the Internet, and other forms of entertainment, such as live sports events.

Second, it's hard to argue that cable tv is more of a necessity than health insurance. The majority of bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical bills.

Third, not only does the health insurance industry have no competitors, many health care companies themselves have little or no competition. They have been given an exemption from antitrust laws, and, surprise surprise, have developed into regional monopolies and some statewide monopolies . As a result, it can be no surprise that the price of employer-sponsored health insurance premiums has increased at four times the rate of inflation over the past decade.

So, much more than cable tv, health insurance is a product that (a) nearly everyone needs; (b) has no substitute; (c) is controlled by a small number of companies; and (d) has skyrocketed in price, way beyond the rate of inflation.

Is it time to take away the insurance companies' antitrust exemption and regulate their prices at the federal level? Do you care about your health as much as your cable tv?

Labels: , , ,

Read more!