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Which firms profit most from America’s health-care system

Which firms profit most from America’s health-care system

EVERY year America spends about $5,000 more per person on health care than other rich countries do. Yet its people are not any healthier. Where does all the money go? One explanation is waste, with patients wolfing down too many pills and administrators churning out red tape. There is also the cost of services that may be popular and legitimate but do nothing to improve medical outcomes. Manhattan’s hospitals, with their swish reception desks and menus, can seem like hotels compared with London’s bleached Victorian structures.

The most controversial source of excess spending, though, is rent-seeking by health-care firms. This is when companies extract outsize profits relative to the capital they deploy and risks they take. Schumpeter has estimated the scale of gouging across the health-care system. Although it does not explain the vast bulk of America’s overspending, the sums are big by any other standard, with health-care firms making excess profits of $65bn a year. Surprisingly, the worst offenders are not pharmaceutical firms but an army of corporate health-care middlemen.

In crude terms, the health-care labyrinth comprises six layers, each involving the state, mutual organisations and private firms. People and employers pay insurance companies, which pay opaque aggregators known as pharmacy-benefit managers and preferred provider organisers. They in turn pay doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, which in turn pay wholesalers, who pay the manufacturers of equipment and drugs. Some conglomerates span several layers. For example on March 8th Cigna, an insurance firm, bid $67bn for Express Scripts, a benefit manager. A system of rebates means money flows in both directions so that the real price of products and services (net of rebates) is obscured.

To work out who is stiffing whom, Schumpeter has examined the top 200 American listed health-care firms. Excess profits are calculated as those earned above a 10% return on capital (excluding goodwill), a yardstick of the maximum that should be possible in any perfectly competitive industry. For drugmakers the figures treat research and development (R&D) as an asset that is depreciated over 15 years, roughly the period they have to exploit patents on discoveries. The data are from Bloomberg.

Total excess profits amount to only about 4% of America’s health-care overspending. But this still makes health care the second biggest of the giant rent-seeking industries that have come to dominate parts of the economy. The excess profits of the health-care firms are equivalent to $200 per American per year, compared with $69 for the telecoms and cable TV industry and $25 captured by the airline oligopoly. Only the five big tech “platform” firms, with a figure of $250, are more brazen gougers.

Everyone hates pharmaceutical firms, but their share of health-care rent-seeking is relatively trivial, especially once you include the many midsized and small firms that are investing heavily. Across the economy, average prices received by drug manufacturers have risen by about 5% per year, net of the rebates. But their costs have risen, too. As a result, even for the 15 biggest global drugs firms, returns on capital have halved since the glory days of the late 1990s, and are now barely above the cost of capital. As employer schemes get stingier, employees are being forced to pay more of their drug costs; they are price-conscious.

Meanwhile the effectiveness of R&D seems to have fallen. Richard Evans of SSR, a research firm, tracks the number of high-quality patents (defined as those cited in other patent applications) that drug firms generate per dollar of R&D. This metric has dropped sharply over the past decade. Shareholders may groan, but for the economy overall the system seems to be working. Big pharma is still splurging on R&D but not making out like a bandit.

As the drug industry has come back down to earth, the returns of the 46 middlemen on the list have soared. Fifteen years ago they accounted for a fifth of industry profits; now their share is 41%. Health-insurance companies generate abnormally high returns, but so do the wholesalers, the benefit managers and the pharmacies. In total middlemen capture $126 of excess profits a year per American, or about two-thirds of the whole industry’s excess profits. Express Scripts earns billions while having less than $1bn of physical plants and no disclosed investment in R&D. This year the combined profits of three wholesalers that few outsiders have heard of are expected to exceed those of Starbucks.

The dark view is that pockets of rent-seeking have become endemic in America’s economy. Wherever products are too complex for customers to understand, and where subsidies and complex regulation add to the muddle, huge profits can opaquely be made. Remember mortgage-backed securities?

In the case of health care, consolidation has probably made things worse by muting competition. There are now five big insurance companies, three big wholesalers, three large pharmacy chains and three big benefit managers. The current vogue is for “vertical mergers” in which firms expand into different layers. As well as Cigna and Express Scripts, Aetna, another insurer, and CVS, a pharmacy and benefits manager, are merging. All these firms insist competition will be boosted. But they are also projecting the deals will boost their combined profits by $1.4bn.

Amazon and the health-care jungle

Yet perhaps capitalism is not broken and new contenders will eventually be tempted in. Amazon has acquired wholesale pharmacy licences in multiple states. It is also teaming up with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to create a new health system for their staff. These initiatives are at an early stage, but investors are sufficiently worried that they value the intermediaries on abnormally low multiples of profits, suggesting earnings may fall. People often get upset when conventional industries are hit by digital competition. Few would lament it in the case of health-care middlemen.

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