Billy Beane, Two Other Guys, and Healthcare

In Friday’s New York Times, Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane, along with two politicians, co-wrote an op-ed arguing for the use of greater statistical analysis to bring down the costs of healthcare, while also increasing its efficacy. While the oddball pairing of former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) are the powerhouse names on the letter, it’s Billy Beane’s that should inspire the most confidence.

There are some people who are so talented that they make things more interesting no matter what the medium or format. If you are a Tony Kornheiser devotee, you probably have gone to great lengths to follow him in print, radio and TV. I feel this way about Billy Beane. I was intrigued to learn that Beane has already turned his analytical eye on soccer (my favorite sport), and now it turns out that he has a plan to fix healthcare. What’s next? Is it possible Beane would be willing to serve on a presidential commission to fix the Metro escalators?

Beane has revolutionized our national pastime by challenging its long-held orthodoxies and fundamental assumptions through the pioneering use of statistical analysis. Beane discovered that much of the way we evaluate baseball players, through stats like batting average, are actually poor measurements of their on-field performance. Beane employed a fraction of the professional scouts that most major league teams keep and instead relied on a group of Ivy League-educated economists and mathematicians to apply rigorous objective analysis to evaluate players. His leadership of the Oakland Athletics was detailed in the superb best-seller Moneyball by Michael Lewis (it was recently reported that Brad Pitt is set to play Beane in the forthcoming big-screen adaptation).

Whether a Moneyball-like approach to healthcare could produce the same results that propelled the Athletics is another matter. Like baseball, healthcare is a big business that has entrenched interests that are resistant to change. Further, the ethics of baseball differ from the ethics of healthcare. We don’t seem to mind if the Athletics let an aging player sign with another team to make way for a younger, cheaper player, because most players are millionaires. In healthcare, we have to be willing to pay for more coverage for the vulnerable and disabled, even if they don’t meet our models of efficiency.

However, the forces that make our healthcare system ripe for a transformation are overwhelming. The growth of healthcare costs are staggering, and as the op-ed points out, we seem to be getting few health benefits from the increased costs. Additionally, the long-term budget outlook means there is going to be significant pressure to either reduce benefits (a highly unpopular alternative), or look for greater efficiencies. Let’s all be happy that we have Billy Beane on the case.


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.