How health care could crash the U.S. economy

An excerpt from Flatlining:  How Healthcare Could Kill the U.S. Economy.

In recent history, the U.S. economy has experienced the near catastrophic failure of two major market segments. The first was the auto industry and the second was the housing industry. While each of these reached their breaking point for different reasons, they both required a significant government bailout to keep them from completely melting down.

What is also true about both of those market failures is that, looking back, it’s easy to see the warning signs. What happens if health care is the next industry to suffer a major failure and collapse? It’s safe to say that a health care meltdown would make both the automotive and housing industries’ experiences seem minor in comparison. While that may be hard to believe, it becomes clear if you look at the numbers.

The auto industry contributes around 3.5 percent of this country’s GDP and employs 1.7 million people. This industry was deemed “too big to fail” which is the rationale the U.S. government used to finance its bail out. From 2009 through 2014, the federal government invested around $80 billion in the U.S. auto industry to keep it from collapsing. Health care is five times larger than the auto industry in terms of its percentage of GDP, and is ten times larger than the auto industry in terms of the number of people it employs.

The construction industry (which includes all construction, not just housing) contributes about 6 percent of our country’s GDP and employs 6.1 million people. Again, the health care market dwarfs this industry. It’s three times larger in terms of GDP production and, with 18 million people employed in the health care sector, it’s three times larger than construction in this area, too.

These comparisons give you an idea of just how significant a portion health care comprises of the U.S. economy. It also begins to help us understand the impact it would have on the economy if health care melted down like the auto and housing industries did.

So, let’s continue the comparison and use our experience with the auto and housing industries to suggest to what order of magnitude the impact a failure in the health care market would cause our economy. The bailout in the auto industry cost the federal government $80 billion over five years. Imagine a similar failure in health care that prompted the federal government to propose a similar bailout program. Let’s imagine the government felt the need to inject cash into hospital systems and doctors’ offices to keep them afloat like they did with General Motors.

Since health care is five times the size of the auto industry, a similar bailout could easily cost in excess of $400 billion. That’s about the same amount of money the federal government spends on welfare programs. To pay for a bailout of the health care industry, we’d have to eliminate all welfare programs in this country. Can you imagine the impact it would have on the economy if there were suddenly none of the assistance programs so many have come to rely upon?

When the housing market crashed, it caused the loss of about 3 million jobs from its peak employment level of 7.4 million in 1996. Again, if we transfer that experience to the health care market, we come up with a truly frightening scenario. If health care lost 40 percent of its jobs like housing did, it would mean 7.2 million jobs lost. That’s more than four times the number of people who are employed by the entire auto industry — an industry that was considered too big to be allowed to fail. The loss of 7.2 million jobs would increase the unemployment rate by 5 percent. That means we could easily top the all-time high unemployment rate for our country.

OK, now it’s time to take a deep breath. I’m not convinced that health care is fated to unavoidable failure and economic catastrophe. That’s a worst-case scenario. The problem is that at even a fraction the severity of the auto or housing industry crises we’ve already faced, a health care collapse would still be devastating. Health care can’t be allowed to continue its current inflationary trending. I believe we are on the verge of some major changes in health care, and that how they’re implemented will determine their impact on the overall economic picture in this country and around the world. Continued failure to recognize the truth about health care will only cause the resulting market corrections to be worse than they need to be. I don’t want to diminish the pain and anguish that many people caught up in the housing crash experienced. I think an argument can be made, though, that if the health care market crashes and millions of people end up with no health care, the resulting fallout could be could be much worse than even the housing crisis.

Ron Howrigon is president and CEO, Fulcrum Strategies and the author of Flatlining:  How Healthcare Could Kill the U.S. Economy.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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