Health Policy Responses to the Financial Crisis: update

A recently released report from the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies has produced a retrospective on what over 40 European countries did in

Finance

Financial policy trumps health policy (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

response to the financial crisis, triggered in 2007. The report “Health policy responses to the financial crisis in Europe” (by Mladovsky, Srivastava, Cylus, Karanikolos, Evetovits, Thomson, McKee) is here.

The report finds that a range of policy responses characterised what European countries did, ranging from doing nothing, spending more to spending less, from increasing benefits to cutting them, from cutting salaries, increasing co-payments, and curtailing capital spending. In many cases, plans to expand were put on hold, while in others, plans in place to drive efficiencies were accelerated. The price of medicines went up, down, reimbursements dropped, co-payments went up, retail prices were capped, prices to the pharmaceutical industry went down, or were modified. The response to crisis in some countries was hampered by powerful stakeholder groups (mainly clinical vested interest groups, e.g. pharmacists, doctors) resisting changes and governments backing down.

The authors note that, in the end, “…little has been done to enhance value through policies to improve public health…” We agree that this was a missed opportunity, though the continuing financial difficulties suggest the crisis is hardly over. My guess is that this will be a generational crisis, as the policy responses still need to feed through the system and lead to either increased ill-health, postponed treatment, or in some cases, simply delaying the inevitable future financial crunch.

Unfortunately, the report is a descriptive study; their assessment of the different policy choices made is based on research conclusions in the literature. What that means is that we don’t know whether the choices made were effective, appropriate, or mere compromise. The appendices provide useful summaries of individual country policy actions. I just wish the authors had assessed these actions.

I would also have liked to have known how individual governments made the policy responses they did; clearly some were unpopular, but that does not preclude making evidence-informed choices and sticking to them. What is evident is that political will in many cases is lacking, and the ability to leverage various policy instruments is seriously hampered by powerful vested interests. Clearly, the financial crisis and the need for austerity in indebted sovereign states, has not hampered the effectiveness of lobbying, only demonstrated that these groups are sufficiently powerful to resist reform even when it is most needed — what hope is there when change is optional?

On pages 28 and 29 the authors useful summarise policy tools that either promote or undermine health system goals, assuming of course that countries have in place strategies for their health systems that correlate with these instruments — it is not unusual for a country to require complex strategies simply to deal with the mis-behaviour of existing instruments — an example is where a country permits balance or extra billing, then needs public funds to cover the costs of underinsured individuals, then needs to have resource shifting policies simply because the co-payment/reimbursement system incentivises inappropriate prescribing or treatment, leading to serious regional variations in outcomes. Situations like this  (there are a number of countries in Europe with this specific problem) illustrate the failure to take a whole system approach to the use of health policy instrument selection. This report does not help either by failing to put the individual country policy responses into the context of the country’s system objectives. That might have produced a more useful report for policy-makers.

In the end, we are left undernourished and want to know whether any of these are likely to have perverse consequences (unintended consequences, perverse incentives, including increase in medical fraud and pharmaceutical crime).