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In a brief respite from debates centering on the state of the economy and whether you're for Jon, Kate, or plus 8, health care has taken center stage at water coolers everywhere.
The Fool offices are no different. Our opinions are varied on the health-care reform plans President Obama and Congress are busily debating. So we asked a smattering of Fools: "Will Health-Care Reform Kill Capitalism?"
Seth Jayson, co-advisor, Motley Fool Hidden Gems: It absolutely won't kill capitalism. Remember, we don't have a "capitalist" health-care system now, not by any stretch. No one has any idea, for the most part, what health care costs them. Those covered by employer insurance plans don't know what their coverage costs. No one with insurance has any idea what procedures cost at a hospital. And there are separate prices -- often not even available until after you've gotten service -- for different people. What health care needs is more capitalism, and, ironically, if done right, a government reform could bring that back.
Tim Hanson, co-advisor, Motley Fool Global Gains: Lest we fail to deliver on a dramatic title, I'll start by saying it will take a lot more than one piece of legislation -- even a major piece of legislation -- to kill an economic system that's brought increasing prosperity to the world for the past 500 years. That said, capitalism, when it's working, thrives on competition. My fear with some of the plans and ideas working their way through the Congress (again, there is no final bill yet) is that they would limit competition.
That's because the two main ways any company can compete is on cost or quality of product. Wal-Mart and Southwest Airlines, for example, are two companies that cut the frills to deliver the lowest possible prices to consumers. Whole Foods, on the other hand, is a company that hopes consumers will pay a little for higher-quality food.
What does this have to do with health care? The current House health-care bill would set minimum benefit standards. This means that no insurer could offer coverage below what the government deems appropriate, and given where that line is likely to be set (pretty darn high), it could mean that all health plans end up looking pretty much the same.
At the same time, however, some are proposing a public option that, according to factcheck.org, "would set payment rates to doctors at Medicare rates plus 5 percent ... This would make the federal plan noticeably cheaper than the average for private insurance."
Thus, it would seem that if a public option is approved, private insurance would be able to compete neither on cost nor quality of product. Take that to the extreme and you end up with a government-owned monopoly on health care. Given the state of financial affairs for other large government-owned, -run, or -overseen programs (the post office, Social Security, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., etc.), that's a pretty frightening thought.
Brian Orelli, Motley Fool writer: I'm not sure what all the whining is about. If a government-sponsored public plan plays fair -- that is, the price of the plan isn't heavily subsidized by the government -- then health insurers shouldn't have any problem competing.
Sure, they'll have to figure out a way to make a profit while a government plan won't, but, come on, does anyone really think that the government is going to be able to run the program super efficiently? Have you been to a government-run office recently?
UPS (NYSE: UPS ) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) are able to compete with the post office by offering innovative services, and health insurers should be able to do the same. There's plenty of bloat in the health-care system; health insurers just need to figure out how to eliminate the extraneous expenses and take the savings as profit.
Kill capitalism? No. An additional costly program that we can't afford? Maybe.
Jim Mueller, Motley Fool editor: "The encouragement of scientific discovery [that capitalism] creates by the prospect of individual gain." That's one of seven pillars contributing to the "historic recuperative strength" capitalism has shown over time, according to Arthur Selden, author of the book The Virtues of Capitalism.
Health-care reform is not going to change that. Whether it's surgical advances being pioneered by Intuitive Surgical's (Nasdaq: ISRG ) products or the ability to target drugs such as Erbitux to those patients who will benefit the most because they lack a certain gene mutation, capitalism -- the desire to make money -- will continue. People are endlessly inventive and will find ways to do things better and make money while doing so. The landscape will end up being different, but no reform can kill capitalism.
Charly Travers, associate advisor, Million Dollar Portfolio: There will certainly be changes, but I don't see much to be overly concerned about and my main focus is on the investment opportunities arising out of this climate. Investors who have some appetite for risk should look around the health-care space with a selective eye. In general, I'm pretty sour on big pharma since a lot of them don't have deep enough drug pipelines to replace upcoming revenue losses from patent expirations. In that segment I do make exceptions for diversified companies like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) and Novartis (NYSE: NVS ) , both of which have complementary divisions like medical devices and consumer health products to go along with their branded drug segments.
For investors who really want to walk on the wild side, the health-care reform chatter has created significant opportunities to invest in managed health care. According to Capital IQ, the managed health-care industry is currently trading at just six times EV/EBITDA. It's easy to say investors should buy stocks that are out of favor, but when it comes time to make the trade it really can be psychologically difficult to go through with it.
To get over that mental hurdle it can help to lean on proven value tenets, and I do see value in the two largest managed health-care firms: UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH ) and WellPoint (NYSE: WLP ) . Fear over what may or may not happen with health-care reform has pounded these stocks, which are trading at about half of where they were just two years ago. We own shares of UNH in Million Dollar Portfolio and consider it a bargain at nine times this year's expected earnings.
We've told you what we think. Now tell us what you think in the comments section below. Or keep reading: