Imagine you are eight years old, and you want to go into the business of selling lemonade. When walking around the neighborhood, you determine that all of the competitors are making sour lemonade, even though most people prefer sweet lemonade. Unfortunately, the neighborhood association denies your application for an operating permit to sell sweet lemonade—saying that there already are too many lemonade stands in the neighborhood.
It does not take a Ph.D. in economics to realize this is a foolish regulation. In the absence of proper competitive incentives, the other lemonade stands will continue serving sour lemonade.
Now replace the words “lemonade stand” with “three-bed hospital” and “your eight-year-old self” with “Paul McKee,” and you have a real-life situation.
McKee, a well-known real estate developer in the area, has been working on a project to renovate a portion of North Saint Louis City. On July 9, he unveiled a plan to establish a three-bed urgent care facility within the redevelopment area. According to state law, a certificate of need (CON) must be obtained in order to open a new hospital with costs of at least $1 million. It appears his proposal meets this threshold. However, requiring McKee to obtain a CON to open a small urgent care hospital in an underserved and impoverished area is a totally unnecessary government regulation.
CON programs initially were implemented in order to prevent the duplication of health services in a given geographic area, thereby controlling costs. The reasoning was that an excess supply of medical services would compel hospitals to increase prices in order to cover the high fixed costs associated with medical treatment.
There have been many different studies on how CON regulations impact the cost of care. A thorough survey of the relevant data reveals that CON regulations do very little, if anything, to control the overall cost of care. Furthermore, with respect to certain procedures, CON regulations have been shown to limit patient choice, resulting in worse care delivered from less capable doctors. Additionally, these regulations can create an inefficient market structure and grant existing hospitals monopolies over certain regions.
Some may even argue that McKee will attempt to use the regulatory program to prevent competitors from entering the market in North Saint Louis. Given CON rules, if his project is approved, it likely will be more difficult for new medical facilities to open nearby. But doesn’t the potential to abuse and use CON regulations to create a monopoly give all the more reason to eliminate them?
Additionally, Missouri’s CON program delays groundbreaking on new hospitals. McKee said he intends to submit his proposal by Aug. 22 and, in all likelihood, his application will not be reviewed until early November.
Christien West is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.