(Reason) President-elect Joe Biden previewed several ways he plans to take bold action upon assuming office in January. Among the most immediately consequential would be his promise to appoint a “Supply Commander” to “take command of the national supply chain for essential equipment, medications, and protective gear.”
Overburdened hospital capacity was one of the primary concerns cited by proponents of lockdowns as the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam in spring 2020.
The system’s continued potential vulnerability is now a doubly contentious issue. On one hand, there are renewed calls for stricter lockdowns; on the other, there is criticism that the system did not improve under incumbent President Donald Trump’s watch.
“We can no longer leave this to the private sector,” proclaims Biden’s website. “The Supply Commander should work with every governor to determine their needs, and then coordinate production and delivery of those needs in a timely and efficient manner. And, the Supply Commander should direct the distribution of critical equipment as cases peak at different times in different states or territories.”
In reality, the health care industry uniquely confounds both sides of the oversimplified “market vs. government” debate. Markets are essential to allocate resources in a complex modern society, but the U.S. health care system lacks the chief vehicle through which markets accomplish this end: reliable and responsive prices.
The U.S. health care system’s combination of large private insurers and government mandates and subsidies fuels a system where both doctors and patients rarely consider the cost of services when making decisions––hardly a free market.
Reform allowing prices to act as reliable signals would require politicking, legislation, implementation, and learning by market participants that would long outlast the current pandemic.
This alone does not make the case for a command-driven medical supply chain, even in the very short run.