What we can learn from Singapore's health-care model
The Washington Post, March 3, 2010
We interrupt Washington's feud over the president's "way forward" for a brief word on a path not taken, courtesy of the only rich nation that boasts universal coverage with health outcomes better than ours while spending one-fifth as much per person on health care. Introducing (drum roll please): Singapore.
Yes, it's an island city-state of just 5 million people. Yes, it's more or less a benevolent dictatorship. And, yes, until recently, bringing chewing gum into Singapore could land you in jail
. But Singapore, a poor country a few decades ago, now boasts a higher per capita income (when adjusted for local purchasing power) than the United States. And here's the astonishing fact: Singapore spends less than 4 percent of its GDP on health care. We spend 17 percent (and Singapore's somewhat younger population doesn't begin to explain the difference). Matching Singapore's performance in our $15 trillion economy would free up $2 trillion a year for other public and private purposes.
Do I have I your attention?
Today we can't find cash to recruit a new generation of great teachers, rebuild our roads and bridges, pay down the national debt, or invest in better airports, high-speed rail, a clean energy revolution or any of a hundred other things sensible patriots know we should do to renew the country. We can't do these things in large part because the Medical Industrial Complex vacuums up every spare dollar in sight. It's only slightly melodramatic to assert that if we could run our health-care system as efficiently as Singapore's, we could solve most of our other problems.
So how does Singapore do it?
In health circles it's always conservatives who bring up Singapore, because of the primacy it places on personal responsibility. According to Phua Kai Hong of the National University of Singapore, roughly one-third of health spending in Singapore is paid directly by individuals (who typically buy catastrophic coverage as well); in the United States, by contrast, nearly 90 percent is picked up by third-party insurers, employers and governments. Singaporeans make these payments out of earnings as well as from health savings accounts. The system is chock-full of incentives for thrift. If you want a private hospital room, for example, you pay through the nose; most people choose less expensive wards.
Conservatives are right: Singaporeans have the kind of "skin in the game" that promotes prudence.
But that's only half the story. There's also a massive public role. For starters, adequate savings for retirement and health expenses are mandated by government (employees must sock away 20 percent of earnings each year, to which employers add 13 percent). Public hospitals provide 80 percent of the acute care, setting affordable pricing benchmarks with which private providers compete. Supply-side rules that favor training new family doctors over pricey specialists are more extensive than similar notions Hillary Clinton pushed in the '90s. And in Singapore, if a child is obese, they don't get Rose Garden exhortations from the first lady. They get no lunch and mandatory exercise periods during school.
There's more (including an ample safety net for the poor), but you get the gist: Singapore achieves world-class results thanks to a bold, unconventional synthesis of liberal and conservative approaches. It's further to the left and further to the right than what President Obama or his foes now seek. The island's real ideology is pragmatic problem-solving. It works thanks to cultural traditions that let this eclectic blend flourish. The system is nurtured by talented, highly paid officials who have the luxury of governing for the long-term without being buffeted much by politics.
We obviously can't transplant Singapore's approach wholesale to the United States. But the reason we can't emulate even some of Singapore's success has to do with that iron law of health-care politics: Every dollar of health-care "waste" is somebody's dollar of income. As a stable advanced democracy, we're so overrun by groups with stakes in today's waste that real efficiency gains are perennially blocked.
Any hope for something better starts with tallying the price of today's paralysis. Think about that $2 trillion the next time you see states, citing budget woes, shut the door to college on tens of thousands of poor American students. Or when the next firm moves jobs overseas because health costs here are soaring. Or when the next bridge collapses. Thanks, Medical Industrial Complex!
We return now to our regularly scheduled political battle, which (no matter the outcome, according to some projections) will leave health costs headed to more than 20 percent of GDP by 2019