With the rising cost of living gripping America, families in Utah and across the country are going to have to make tough financial decisions in the new year. 

The Christmas 2023 season, for example, saw Americans only spend an estimated 2% more on gifts. This is a surprisingly lower figure than in years past and will ultimately mean fewer presents under the tree when record-high inflation and the reduction of year-over-year purchasing power are taken into account. But the rising cost of living isn’t just putting a damper on our end-of-year festivities: It is also making necessities such as transportation fuel, groceries and health care more expensive, placing them out of reach for some of our country’s most financially vulnerable.

Over the past decade, health care spending in the Beehive State grew by 33% to $5,735 per person. As a result, nearly 7 in 10 residents faced a health care affordability issue in the last year and 13% of residents now have medical debt in collections. Cost of care is something that clearly must be addressed, but it is only one piece of the health care puzzle.

Financial pressures facing rural health care facilities and the looming threat of closures risk exacerbating ongoing health care accessibility and affordability issues, both here in Utah and across the country. Today, 1 in every 3 rural hospitals in the state experienced a loss of patient services in the past year, a symptom of a broader trend over the last two decades that has led to more than 200 rural hospital closures and left millions of Americans without access to adequate health care. 

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Hospitals and clinics — especially those serving rural communities — struggle every day to keep their doors open and services available for their patients. Many are now on the verge of shuttering. With higher costs and today’s increased demand for care, they have been forced to choose between continuing day-to-day quality patient care and investing in up-to-date medical technology and systems to improve their capabilities. The system is not working and is putting the health and well-being of rural America at risk.

To ensure patients are cared for and their communities are served, many hospitals have responded by reorganizing into new systems or joining an existing provider network. Such arrangements can be beneficial for financially struggling hospitals because they often lead to economies of scale, where the combined entities can reduce costs by sharing resources, technology, and expertise. Additionally, these mergers often enhance bargaining power with suppliers and insurers, leading to better contract terms and improved revenue streams. But now some regulators at the Federal Trade Commission are standing in the way of what, in many cases, is the only available option for a hospital to survive.

Under the guidance of Chairwoman Lina Khan, the FTC is promoting a version of “health care competition” that is wedded to an outdated model. Its misguided understanding of U.S. anti-trust law has led it to conclude that mergers and acquisitions will increase prices for patients, but this is a poorly evidenced argument. Recent research has shown that health care consolidations not only lower costs for health care consumers but also improve multiple indicators of quality patient care.

By unleashing the free market and removing burdensome government red tape, care providers will be able to adapt and maneuver their evolving communities. A free market encourages quality and competition providing better care and more affordable prices. But they can only do so much if their access to resources and funds is limited by onerous government regulations. As such, the FTC must get out of the way and let the market work its course or Congress may have to get involved. 

As representatives in Washington examine the issues facing the health care system — particularly those from Utah who oversee health policy from their committee positions, such as Congressman John Curtis, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Congressman Blake Moore, who sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means — they must keep this in mind when debating such policy matters.

Patrick M. Brenner is the president of the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting and defending sound public policy solutions. Our mission is simple: to deliver better living through better policy.