Is Obamacare Pulling the Plug on Medical Innovation?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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One of the open questions around Obamacare is the impact it will have on innovation. That has been one of my biggest concerns all along about a large expansion of the government's role in the health-care system: The U.S. is the driver of a lot of health-care innovation, and while some of it is wasteful, a lot of it helps us live longer and healthier lives. I would hate to see the government price-control that innovation away.

But how likely is that? Supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act argue that it's not a big risk. Some argue that what they call "excess spending" in the U.S. doesn't actually fund that much beneficial research on new drugs and medical technologies, but instead lines the pockets of vendors. Others say that adding more patients to the system also adds more money to the system (though it's not clear how much benefit this adds if those patients come in at greatly reduced prices or crowd out other patients willing to pay for cutting-edge treatments). And with the productivity of drug research apparently declining for other reasons, how much does it matter anyway?

The only way to find out, of course, is to wait (though really, we'll still end up arguing: If medical innovation falls, the law's supporters can always say it would have fallen anyway; if it goes up or stays steady, the opposition can always argue that it would have risen further). But here's one sign to watch: Venture-capital investment in medical technology seems to be falling fast.

Is this related to Obamacare? Frustratingly, it's hard to tell. It's not mentioned among the reasons cited in the Wall Street Journal article. But that doesn't mean that it's not among the reasons that venture capitalists are disinvesting; it just means it wasn't mentioned. And one supposes that a tax on medical devices and a more stringent cost-control environment could hardly help.

And at some level, it doesn't really matter whether it's caused by Obamacare; disinvestment in medical technology probably means a slowdown in innovation no matter what its cause. If that's the natural result of slowing research productivity, or a population that would rather invest its money in other things, then that's as it should be. But it's still disappointing to contemplate fewer life-saving new technologies in the future.

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