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Article

Vincenzo Atella and Joanna Kopinska

New sanitation and health technology applied to treatments, procedures, and devices is constantly revolutionizing epidemiological patterns. Since the early 1900s it has been responsible for significant improvements in population health by turning once-deadly diseases into curable or preventable conditions, by expanding the existing cures to more patients and diseases, and by simplifying procedures for both medical and organizational practices. Notwithstanding the benefits of technological progress for the population health, the innovation process is also an important driver of health expenditure growth across all countries. The technological progress generates additional financial burden and expands the volume of services provided, which constitutes a concern from an economic point of view. Moreover, the evolution of technology costs and their impact on healthcare spending is difficult to predict due to the revolutionary nature of many innovations and their adoption. In this respect, the challenge for policymakers is to discourage overadoption of ineffective, unnecessary, and inappropriate technologies. This task has been long carried out through regulation, which according to standard economic theory is the only response to market failures and socially undesirable outcomes of healthcare markets left on their own. The potential welfare loss of a market failure must be confronted with the costs of regulatory activities. While health technology evolution delivers important value for patients and societies, it will continue to pose important challenges for already overextended public finances.

Article

Michael Drummond, Rosanna Tarricone, and Aleksandra Torbica

There are a number of challenges in the economic evaluation of medical devices (MDs). They are typically less regulated than pharmaceuticals, and the clinical evidence requirements for market authorization are generally lower. There are also specific characteristics of MDs, such as the device–user interaction (learning curve), the incremental nature of innovation, the dynamic nature of pricing, and the broader organizational impact. Therefore, a number of initiatives need to be taken in order to facilitate the economic evaluation of MDs. First, the regulatory processes for MDs need to be strengthened and more closely aligned to the needs of economic evaluation. Second, the methods of economic evaluation need to be enhanced by improving the analysis of the available clinical data, establishing high-quality clinical registries, and better recognizing MDs’ specific characteristics. Third, the market entry and diffusion of MDs need to be better managed by understanding the key influences on MD diffusion and linking diffusion with cost-effectiveness evidence through the use of performance-based risk-sharing arrangements.

Article

Philip DeCicca, Donald S. Kenkel, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Erik Nesson

Smoking prevention has been a key component of health policy in developed nations for over half a century. Public policies to reduce the physical harm attributed to cigarette smoking, both externally and to the smoker, include cigarette taxation, smoking bans, and anti-smoking campaigns, among other publicly conceived strategies to reduce smoking initiation among the young and increase smoking cessation among current smokers. Despite the policy intensity of the past two decades, there remains debate regarding whether, and to what extent, the observed reductions in smoking are due to such policies. Indeed, while smoking rates in developed countries have fallen substantially over the past half century, it is difficult to separate secular trends toward greater investment in health from actual policy impacts. In other words, smoking rates might have declined in the absence of these anti-smoking policies, consistent with trends toward other healthy behaviors. These trends also may reflect longer-run responses to policies enacted many years ago, which also poses challenges for identification of causal policy effects. While smoking rates fell dramatically over this period, the gradient in smoking prevalence has become tilted toward lower socioeconomic status (SES) individuals. That is, cigarette smoking exhibited a relatively flat SES gradient 50 years ago, but today that gradient is much steeper: relatively less-educated and lower-income individuals are many times more likely to be cigarette smokers than their more highly educated and higher-income counterparts. Over time, consumers also have become less price-responsive, which has rendered cigarette taxation a less effective policy tool with which to reduce smoking. The emergence of tax avoidance strategies such as casual cigarette smuggling (e.g., cross-tax border purchasing) and purchasing from tax-free outlets (e.g., Native reservations in Canada and the United States) have likely contributed to reduced price sensitivity. Such behaviors have been of particular interest in the last decade as cigarette taxation has roughly doubled cigarette prices in many developed nations, creating often large incentives to avoid taxation for those who continue to smoke. Perhaps due to the perception that traditional policy has been ineffective, recent anti-smoking policy has focused more on the direct regulation of cigarettes and smoking behavior. The main non-price-based policy has been the rise of smoke-free air laws, which restrict smoking behavior in workplaces, restaurants, and bars. These regulations can reduce smoking prevalence and exposure to secondhand smoke among nonsmokers. However, they may also shift the location of smoking in ways that increase secondhand smoke exposure, particularly among children. Other non-tax regulations focus on the packaging (e.g., the movement towards plain packaging), advertising, and product attributes of cigarettes (e.g., nicotine content, cigarette flavor, etc.), and most are attempts to reduce smoking by making it less desirable to the actual or potential smoker. Perhaps not surprisingly, research in the economics of smoking prevention has followed these policy developments, though strong interest remains in both the evaluation of price- and non-price policies as well as any offsetting responses among smokers that may undermine the effectiveness of these regulations. While the past two decades have provided fertile ground for research in the economics of smoking, we expect this to continue, as governments search for more innovative and effective ways to reduce smoking.

Article

Joni Hersch and Blair Druhan Bullock

The labor market is governed by a panoply of laws, regulating virtually all aspects of the employment relation, including hiring, firing, information exchange, privacy, workplace safety, work hours, minimum wages, and access to courts for redress of violations of rights. Antidiscrimination laws, especially Title VII, notably prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Court decisions and legislation have led to the extension of protection to a far wider range of classes and types of workplace behavior than Title VII originally covered. The workplace of the early 21st century is very different from the workplace when the major employment discrimination statutes were enacted, as these laws were conceived as regulating an employer–employee relationship in a predominantly white male labor market. Prior emphasis on employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex has been superseded by enhanced attention to sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. Concerns over the equity or efficiency of the employment-at-will doctrine recede in a workforce in which workers are increasingly categorized as independent contractors who are not covered by most equal employment laws. As the workplace has changed, the scholarship on the law and economics of employment law has been slow to follow.

Article

Pharmaceutical expenditure accounts for approximately 20% of healthcare expenditure across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Pharmaceutical products are regulated in all major global markets primarily to ensure product quality but also to regulate the reimbursed prices of insurance companies and central purchasing authorities that dominate this sector. Price regulation is justified as patent protection, which acts as an incentive to invest in R&D given the difficulties in appropriating the returns to such activity and creates monopoly rights to suppliers. Price regulation does itself reduce the ability of producers’ to recapture the substantial R&D investment costs incurred. Traditional price regulation through Ramsey pricing and yardstick competition is not efficient given the distortionary impact of insurance holdings, which are extensive in this sector and the inherent uncertainties that characterize Research and Development (R&D) activity. A range of other pricing regulations aimed at establishing pharmaceutical reimbursement that covers both dynamic efficiency (tied to R&D incentives) and static efficiency (tied to reducing monopoly rents) have been suggested. These range from cost-plus pricing, to internal and external reference pricing, rate-of-return pricing and, most recently value-based (essential health benefit maximization) pricing. Reimbursed prices reflecting value based pricing are, in some countries, associated with clinical treatment guidelines and cost-effectiveness analysis. Some countries are also requiring or allowing post-launch price regulation thorough a range of patient access agreements based on predefined population health targets and/or financial incentives. There is no simple, single solution to the determination of dynamic and static efficiency in this sector given the uncertainty associated with innovation, the large monopoly interests in the area, the distortionary impact of health insurance and the informational asymmetries that exist across providers and purchasers.

Article

Helen Hayes and Matt Sutton

Contracts and working conditions are important influences on the medical workforce that must be carefully constructed and considered by policymakers. Contracts involve an enforceable agreement of the rights and responsibilities of both employer and employee. The principal–agent relationship and presence of asymmetric information in healthcare means that contracts must be incentive compatible and create sufficient incentive for doctors to act in the payer’s best interests. Within medicine, there are special characteristics that are believed to be particularly pertinent to doctors, who act as agents to both the patient and the payer. These include intrinsic motivation, professionalism, altruism, and multitasking, and they influence the success of these contracts. The three most popular methods of payment are fee-for-service, capitation, and salaries. In most contexts a blend of each of these three payment methods is used; however, guidance on the most appropriate blend is unclear and the evidence on the special nature of doctors is insubstantial. The role of skill mix and teamwork in a healthcare setting is an important consideration as it impacts the success of incentives and payment systems and the efficiency of workers. Additionally, with increasing demand for healthcare, changing skill mix is one response to problems with recruitment and retention in health services. Health systems in many settings depend on a large proportion of foreign-born workers and so migration is a key consideration in retention and recruitment of health workers. Finally, forms of external regulation such as accreditation, inspection, and revalidation are widely used in healthcare systems; however, robust evidence of their effectiveness is lacking.

Article

The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating. The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibria. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.

Article

Matteo Lippi Bruni, Irene Mammi, and Rossella Verzulli

In developed countries, the role of public authorities as financing bodies and regulators of the long-term care sector is pervasive and calls for well-planned and informed policy actions. Poor quality in nursing homes has been a recurrent concern at least since the 1980s and has triggered a heated policy and scholarly debate. The economic literature on nursing home quality has thoroughly investigated the impact of regulatory interventions and of market characteristics on an array of input-, process-, and outcome-based quality measures. Most existing studies refer to the U.S. context, even though important insights can be drawn also from the smaller set of works that covers European countries. The major contribution of health economics to the empirical analysis of the nursing home industry is represented by the introduction of important methodological advances applying rigorous policy evaluation techniques with the purpose of properly identifying the causal effects of interest. In addition, the increased availability of rich datasets covering either process or outcome measures has allowed to investigate changes in nursing home quality properly accounting for its multidimensional features. The use of up-to-date econometric methods that, in most cases, exploit policy shocks and longitudinal data has given researchers the possibility to achieve a causal identification and an accurate quantification of the impact of a wide range of policy initiatives, including the introduction of nurse staffing thresholds, price regulation, and public reporting of quality indicators. This has helped to counteract part of the contradictory evidence highlighted by the strand of works based on more descriptive evidence. Possible lines for future research can be identified in further exploration of the consequences of policy interventions in terms of equity and accessibility to nursing home care.

Article

Drug companies are profit-maximizing entities, and profit is, by definition, revenue less cost. Here we review the impact of government policies that affect sales revenues earned on newly developed drugs and the impact of policies that affect the cost of drug development. The former policies include intellectual property rights, drug price controls, and the extension of public drug coverage to previously underinsured groups. The latter policies include regulations governing drug safety and efficacy, R&D tax credits, publicly funded basic research, and public funding for open drug discovery consortia. The latter policy, public funding of research consortia that seek to better understand the cellular pathways through which new drugs can ameliorate disease, appears very promising. In particular, a better understanding of human pathophysiology may be able to address the high failure rate of drugs undergoing clinical testing. Policies that expand market size by extending drug insurance to previously underinsured groups also appear to be effective at increasing drug R&D. Expansions of pharmaceutical intellectual property rights seem to be less effective, given the countervailing monopsony power of large public drug plans.