Justin Haskins: Coronavirus will dramatically worsen hospital bed shortage created by government regulations

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As coronavirus infections continue to increase across the U.S., policymakers and health care officials are quickly realizing that one of the biggest challenges that could soon face the nation is a massive shortage of hospital beds.

You can thank government regulations for creating the problem.

A 2018 American Hospital Association survey found that America’s hospitals had a combined total of about 924,100 beds – about 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people.

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By comparison, The Washington Post reports South Korea has 12 hospital beds per 1,000 people. Italy – a nation hit hard by the coronavirus – has 3.2 beds per 1,000 people.

Under normal circumstances, America’s severe hospital bed shortage would have a far-reaching, negative impact on health care access and cost. But today we are not facing normal circumstances, so the shortage is far more serious.

In New York state alone, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that his state currently has 53,000 hospital beds, but could need as many as 110,000 within 45 days to deal with a surge of hospitalizations of patients stricken by the coronavirus.

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that under a “moderate” pandemic influenza event, the United States would likely experience 1 million hospitalizations. That’s a great deal more than what the current system can handle, when you take into account that most hospital beds are already filled by patients being treating for other conditions.

Although there are many factors that contribute to the number of beds in any given hospital, one of the most important considerations is that 36 states and Washington, D.C., have what are called certificate of need laws.

These laws require health care providers – including hospitals – to get permission from government committees – which often don’t include any doctors – before offering a new health care service, building a new facility, adding machinery like MRIs, and increasing the number of beds in a hospital.

These laws are supposed to limit costs by preventing health care providers from unnecessarily expanding services. Proponents say that the laws improve access to health care by giving government greater control over where health care providers can operate.

However, a mountain of research shows that certificate of need laws have failed to achieve their goals. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, certificate of need laws have severely limited access to health care services, reduced the quality of care, and increased health care spending – both per procedure and per patient.

In fact, in a Mercatus report published in February, researchers found: “Controlling for other factors, relative to patients in non-CON [certificate of need] states, patients in CON states have access to fewer hospitals per capita, fewer hospital beds per capita, fewer dialysis clinics, fewer ambulatory surgical centers, fewer medical imaging services, and fewer hospice care facilities.”

During a pandemic like the one we’re experiencing now, these problems could be the difference between life and death for patients in many states.

Even in good times, as the Mercatus Center notes, there are simply no good reasons to keep these laws around. That’s why in the 1980s some 19 states eliminated or scaled back certificate of need regulations.

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But why haven’t more lawmakers done away with these ridiculous laws if they have failed so badly at achieving their goals?

Simply put, because once new government rules, regulations, and programs are put into place, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of them. This is exactly why many on the left are so willing to haphazardly impose new government regulations and laws without knowing the full ramifications of their decisions.

Certificate of need laws serve as further proof that government bureaucrats are terrible at managing complex systems, especially when it comes to health care. Supporters of a government takeover of the entire health care system should remember this.

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If government bureaucrats can’t even manage to figure out the right number of hospital beds and MRI machines to place in a given region, what makes them think they are capable of controlling the entire health care system?

It’s well past time to allow health care providers across the country to determine for themselves how to best manage their work and serve patients. If they are given that authority, it’s very likely that when the next pandemic comes our way lives will be saved that would otherwise be lost due to government incompetence.

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