In the face of rising health care prices, price control may appear a reasonable means to keep health care accessible to the masses. If health care is becoming too expensive, why not lock in prices to a rate that will insure that everyone gets the care that they need? To answer the question, let's apply it to a field that appears much more simple and economically fundamental. Let's apply it to apple selling.
Suppose that a late frost killed the blossoms of the apple trees of North America. By late summer, the shortage really starts to show as prices triple what they were in previous years. We understand why prices are high because we remember the supply and demand curves taught us in high school economics courses. The curves really work in the real world. Apple supply has fallen and demand has remained the same. There is a relative shortage of apples and price goes up.
Let's suppose the Secretary of Agriculture declares an apple state of emergency and appeals to Congress for help. The poor who depend on apples for survival are going hungry. The rich who can afford high prices are hording apples for themselves. Congress must recognize that a disaster is at hand and take stringent measures. Congress responds to the national crisis by establishing price controls in the apple industry. By law, apples can not sell above a given price. Problem solved and constituents appeased.
We, with our rudimentary understanding of supply and demand, can anticipate what effect the new law will have on the apple shortage. The past high price of apples had ensured that they stayed stocked in supermarkets. They were available so that those who really needed them got them. As Congress stomps down the price, consumers rush to stores to buy apples. The precious few apples are squandered on ordinary uses. The produce section of grocery stores are emptied and there are no more apples to replace those sold. The prices that kept apples available are now gone and we have a real shortage on our hands.
Empty shelves are evidence enough that demand for apples is greater than available supply. In a free economy, this would push up the price of apples and encourage suppliers to produce more of them. But in our economy, Congress has set the price of apples. It cannot rise. Suppliers had very few to sell in the first place and selling at an artificially low price, they cannot make up their losses and many of them go out of business.
What's more, Congress did not realize that the international trading partners of the United States were shipping apples to our apple-starved country even as the price control was being passed. They had seen the high prices and realized that they could make a profit by selling their apples here. Had those apples arrived, supply would have increased to meet demand and the prices of apples would have fallen. However, when news got out that had Congress passed the price control bill, those apple-laden ships turned around and returned to their own countries without selling a single apple. With price controls in place, it was no longer worth it to sell their apples here.
After the first year of price controls, many apple growers are unable to stay in the market. They leave the business and further decreased the available supply. Those still in the market still face the price control. They are unable to invest in their apple crop as they would other years because they know they will have to sell low. They try to cut production costs to make up for their low selling price. They skimp on fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, it is a crop of puny, wormy apples that hit stores that summer.
It is plain to see that without price controls, the apple market would have soon recovered. The high prices would have rationed the use of apples to the most important uses. The prices would have helped apple growers survive a hard year to be able to grow in the next. The high prices would have ensured that quality apples continue to be grown (with a variety of lower-quality apples available at lower prices). What's more, the high prices would have attracted additional suppliers who would have ended the shortage of supply and brought down the price.
The lessons learned from price controls in the apple market apply to all free markets, even the supposedly impossible-to-understand medical market. As with all other goods and services, the price of health care is determined by the balance of supply and demand. If supply is high compared to demand, prices drop to increase demand for the product. If supply is is low relative to demand, high prices ensue which dictate a natural rationing of the the product. It is reserved for the most urgent purposes and a true shortage never occurs.
Just as in the apple business, the imposition of price controls in the medical market will cause an increase in demand. Artificial low prices will ensure that available medical care is "used up" instead of being reserved for the most important purposes. Here a real shortage will occur (think of the stories of 7 month waits to use an MRI in Canada).
Just like in the apple business, the imposition of price controls will decrease available supply. It will make the delivery of health care services financially unattractive, if not impossible for many providers. They will drop out of business and the shortage will worsen. Remaining available services will drop in quality. What's more, medical providers who would otherwise be willing to come to the rescue for financial motives will no longer have any incentive to do so. The care they would provide and the resulting price relief will never come.
It is interesting to note that government programs that provide "free care" to patients have many of the same effects as price controls. They lead to unbridled consumption of available health care resources by enrolled patients. Reimbursement for these services is a price control- reimbursement rates are set by Congress. These artificially low prices discourage medical care suppliers from providing services and further aggravate the medical "shortage." I would be fascinated to see a study demonstrating how much of the "high" price of health care for privately-paying citizens can be directly attributed to federal aid programs.
We live in a time of rising prices and decreased medical availability. Our legislators may be tempted to consider price-control as a means to improve access to medical care. But we know that price controls will cause true shortages. A free economy regulates itself, increasing supply to meet demand to ensure access to care by all paying customers. The solution to high prices is high prices.