Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2009

Abstract

The ultimate aim of health care public policy is good care at good prices. Managed care stalled at achieving this goal by trying to influence providers, so health policy has turned to the only market-based option left: treating patients like consumers. Health insurance and tax policy are now pressuring patients to spend their own money when they select health plans, providers, and treatments. Expecting patients to choose what they need at the price they want, consumerists believe that market competition will constrain costs while optimizing quality. This classic form of consumerism is today's watchword. This Article evaluates this ideal type of consumerism and the regulatory mechanism of which it is essentially an example-legally mandated disclosure of information. We do so by assessing the crucial assumptions about human nature on which consumerism and mandated disclosure depend Consumerism operates in a variety of contexts in a variety of ways with a variety of aims. To assess so protean a thing, we ask what a patient's life would really be like in a consumerist world. The literature abounds in suppositions about how medical consumers should behave. We look for empirical evidence about how real people actually buy health plans, choose providers, and select treatments. We conclude that consumerism, and thus mandated disclosure generally, are unlikely to accomplish the goals imagined for them. Consumerism's prerequisites are too many and too demanding. First, consumers must have choices that include the coverage, care-takers, and care they want. Second, reliable information about those choices must be available. Third, information must be put before consumers, especially by doctors. Fourth, consumers must receive the information. Fifth, the information must be complete and comprehensible enough for consumers to use it. Sixth, consumers must understand what they are told. Seventh, consumers must be willing to analyze the information. Eighth, consumers must actually analyze the information and do so well enough to make good choices. Our review of the empirical evidence concludes that these prerequisites cannot be met reliably most of the time. At every stage people encounter daunting hurdles. Like so many other dreams of controlling costs and giving patients control, consumerism is doomed to disappoint. This does not mean that consumerist tools should never be used It means they should not be used unadvisedly or lightly, but discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of error.


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