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Cutting costs cannot lead to cutting care

Health Affairs, a prominent health care journal, proposed a useful-sounding idea: The government should create a new federal designation for “essential hospitals” — hospitals that, according to their own metrics, serve a safety-net role but aren’t currently recognized as such.

But it isn’t useful at all. The proposal is a thinly veiled attempt for these so-called essential hospitals to secure more government funds and protections without improving the quality or cost of care. The siren song for additional privileges from the government is all too common in health care, and it’s a key driver of the country’s health care cost crisis. Instead of granting special privileges, lawmakers should seek to establish a level playing field in health care by removing bad incentives.

The pandemic accustomed Americans to the idea that some people and services are “essential.” First, frontline workers were essential. Then the Uber drivers who gave them rides became essential. Suddenly, everyone from yoga teachers to pot shop owners started claiming essential status.

Trying to get the designation wasn’t just about garnering sympathy from the public; it was about securing real benefits, like early access to vaccines and continued employment under lockdowns. Now that things are returning to a new normal, the “essential” qualification has become obsolete — except, apparently, for hospitals.