NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Future of U.S. Health Care

December 13, 2011

Amid enormous pressure to cut costs, improve care and prepare for changes tied to the federal health care overhaul, major players in the industry are staking out new ground, often blurring the lines between businesses that have traditionally been separate, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • Hospitals are bulking up into huge systems, merging with one another and building extensive new doctor work forces.
  • They are exploring insurance-like setups, including direct approaches to employers that cut out the health-plan middleman.
  • On the other side, insurers are buying health care providers, or seeking to work with them on new cooperative deals and payment models that share the risks of health coverage.
  • And employers are starting to take a far more active role in their workers' care.

Such shifts have been gathering force for a while, but the economic downturn has accelerated the push for efficiency.  The federal legislation may unleash additional demand for health care once it fully takes effect in 2014.  Even if the Supreme Court unwinds part of the law, the changes occurring now aren't likely to stop because the pressure to reduce the price of health coverage won't go away.

The trends have crystallized over the past year in a series of high-profile deals and quiet, under-the-radar developments.  For a close look at what they mean, the Wall Street Journal provides snapshots of five people -- a doctor, a hospital CEO, an insurance-company official, a human resources executive and a patient -- on the front lines as much of the $2.6 trillion U.S. health care industry tries to remake itself.

Their stories show where health care is trying to go.  The picture wouldn't be complete without a reminder of where it has been.  Many of these same efforts were attempted in the 1990s, and they often failed.  Experts caution that there are many signs the current flurry of activity could result in the same problems, with less margin for error in today's unforgiving economic environment.

Source: Anna Wilde Mathews, "The Future of U.S. Health Care," Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2011.

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