For all the complaining of many citizens about managed care, it is important
to remember why this change has occurred within American health care. For
years, most doctors and hospitals have been paid on a 'fee-for-service' basis.
Like piecework payment in the garment industry, such arrangements have the
predictable effect of encouraging people to do more work - in order to make
more money. The result has been that the United States has the highest health
care costs in the world. Fully 60% to 100% higher than most other industrial
countries. In recent years, as those costs first approached, and then
exceeded, 14% of overall economic output, increasing pressure developed to
control those costs. And managed care is a response to those pressures. Both
companies purchasing health insurance for their employees and governments
purchasing coverage for Medicare and Medicaid recipients have been increasingly
interested in limiting what they spend. And managed care has succeeded in the
marketplace by offering health insurance at lower cost than the 'unmanaged
care' it has begun to replace.
Having said that, it is important to recognize that not all managed care is
the same and not all plans offer customers equal value for money. The largest
difference is between the for-profit and the not-for-profit plans. The former
often spend as little as 65% to 70% on actual medical care. The rest goes to
marketing expenses, profit and administrative costs. The not-for-profits, in
contrast, typically spend more than 90% of their premium income on patient
How have managed care plans been so successful - at least in some parts of the
country? Again, the situation varies with the plan. The best plans have
lowered the cost of care by organizing the care process cost effectively. The
worst have simply tried to bully doctors and hospitals into offering them price
discounts, and have also tried to limit cost by making it more difficult for
patients to receive care.
So the challenge of managed care today is not whether we should be for it or
against it. The alternative - totally unmanaged care - comes with the price
tag that neither the public sector, nor the private sector can afford. Global
economic competition and the impending retirement of the baby boom generation
means that neither corporations nor taxpayers can go back to the old
fee-for-service, use-whatever-you-want system. The task is to make sure that
we get more of the good kind of managed care and less of the bad. Plans that
offer value-for-money and good customer service need to be the ones that
succeed in the marketplace. To help insure that result will take effective
public/private cooperation. Government can play a role by requiring
information and disclosure that allows customers to know what they are getting
when they purchase health insurance - and by being a prudent buyer itself.
And the private sector has to recognize that there is more to selecting a
health care plan than just minimum price. Then we can use the force of the
market constructively to help ensure that an many citizens as possible do get
cost-effective, well-managed care.
viewer reaction .
for the health consumer .
pro and con from the experts .
malik hasan: a profile
the outlook for managed care .
what's happening to nurses? .
press reaction .
tapes & transcripts
pbs online .
FRONTLINE online .
New Content Copyright ©1998 PBS and WGBH/FRONTLINE
Some Images Copyright ©1998 Photodisc