With the midterm elections in the rear view mirror, and a divided government coming, there has been a lot of speculation that the most likely outcome would be a grinding stalemate in Washington. So I was surprised when I saw a headline in the New York Times last week that speculated that progress in Congress was still likely on a number of important personal finance issues. When I read past the headline, however, what really struck me was that so many of the issues they reported on were really not about personal finance, so much as about how the crazy state of health care in America is a financial nightmare for so many.
The authors cited 6 areas where Congress could still get its act together and pass meaningful reform despite the partisan rancor:
- Better data on college graduate earnings
- Reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers
- Expanded tax breaks for paid family or medical leave
- Expansion of medical expense tax deductions
- Elimination of surprise medical bills
- Curbs on black marks from medical debt
Continue reading Financial Health
All of the “players” in health care are getting bigger. Consolidation is the name of the game as hospital systems hire more physicians, multi-hospital systems merge, insurers develop their own “captive” provider networks and new hybrid organizations, like CVS/Aetna (and maybe Walmart/Humana) are coming with dizzying frequency. Some of this feels to me like an arms race, with size (and its attendant market power) itself the goal, rather than growth as a means to assemble the right combination of resources at the right scale to improve care.
Even so, I believe scale can improve care. Given where I sit, I don’t suppose that is much of a surprise, but I would go further to say that organizational heft is now necessary to provide high quality care through enhanced and better coordinated access to the right technology, the right providers and the right services, when and where patients need them.
It is in that context that I found a recent opinion piece in JAMA an important read. In it, the authors present a thoughtful theoretical framework for considering the potential downside of the growth of provider organizations. Titled “The Risks to Patient Safety from Health System Expansions” it includes new threats to patient safety and suggests potential strategies for mitigating them, summarized in this table:
(Click image to enlarge)
It is important to note that the authors do not advocate limiting the size of provider organizations or retreating from the prevalent plans for growth to avoid these risks. Rather, they conclude: “Institutions must actively plan for, monitor, and manage the resulting risks as part of a comprehensive strategy, including sharing data on quality and safety, and sharing oversight of care for the joint patient population.”
Makes sense to me. What do you think?
A couple of my recent blog posts have advocated for single-payer financing for health care in the United States as the most effective path to universal coverage and lower cost. This one is more personal, but also ends with the same conclusion.
My daughter Emily is an actor and singer. Like many artists, she gets by with a part-time job (without benefits) and professional gigs. And, until her recent 26th birthday, she had health insurance coverage as my dependent. She now faces the challenge of finding affordable coverage that will not disrupt her established patterns of medical care.
In many ways, she is fortunate. Until the ACA, she would have been booted off my insurance coverage after she graduated college, and would probably have found it impossible to get private insurance because of pre-existing medical conditions. And even now, I can extend her coverage through COBRA for up to 3 years (and can afford to do so) or she can buy insurance (with some help) on the NY State Health Insurance Exchange. So this is not a crisis for us, but it points out another fundamental flaw of how health insurance generally works in the United States – it is, uniquely among other developed countries, tied to employment.
Continue reading Happy Birthday Emily
A couple of months ago, I wrote that I favored transforming our complex hodge-podge of health care financing to a national single-payer system. It now seems as though a majority of physicians in the US feel the same way, with 42% strongly supporting the idea. This is a remarkable evolution from the days when the American Medical Association vociferously opposed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the early 1960s. Why the shift?
The folks who commissioned the poll cite 4 major reasons:
- Complexity fatigue. Back in the day, Medicare was seen as a threat to the simple and straightforward fee for service relationship that physicians had with their patients. Doctors resisted the intrusion of the “government into the exam room.” Now, the exam room is crowded with so many players, each with its own rules and demands, that having only the government to deal with would seem like a relief. This certainly rings true to me.
- Many feel as if the handwriting is on the wall about movement toward a single payer, so they grudgingly agree that we might as well do it sooner than later. I would say that another way to look at this is that few can articulate another alternative that reduces administrative complexity and expands coverage.
- Shifting demographics. Merritt and Hawkins cite a generational shift, with younger physicians more inclined to support a single payer. I don’t have the data they cite to judge the validity of the explanation, but I suspect it is not just about age, but about the changing nature of physician employment. As more and more physicians are employed by health systems or other large organizations, I believe they feel more financially secure, and more insulated from the details of reimbursement which makes them more open to single payer.
- Changing assumptions. One of the most remarkable aspects of the recent debacle in Congress over attempts to repeal the ACA is that public opinion has changed in a fundamental way. It now seems that there is a widespread belief that the government does have a legitimate role in guaranteeing access to health care, and physicians agree.
Another sign that physicians’ attitudes are changing: record membership in Physicians for a National Health Program.
I think the time has come. What do you think?
Back in March, I made some observations about the AHCA, the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act that was ultimately passed by the House of Representatives and both hailed and disparaged by the President. Some of the naked political calculus that facilitated the passage of such a truly despicable bit of legislation was the belief that the Senate would somehow rescue the Republican Party from itself and restore something “beautiful.” Well, it is now pretty clear that the Senate bill – cynically dubbed the “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017” – is no better than what the House threw over the fence.
The bill retains essential “features” of the House version: less funding for Medicaid, fewer constraints on bad behavior of insurers, leaner subsidies for the uninsured to buy insurance, and repeal of the mandate to buy insurance for those with neither employer provided insurance or eligibility for Medicaid or Medicare.
I think Paul Krugman explained pretty well why the current plans to dismantle parts of the ACA don’t work. The ACA is based on a few interdependent ideas:
- For insurance to be useful, it has to have certain features, like broad benefits and inclusion of people with pre-existing conditions
- To avoid the insurance “death spiral,” everybody has to be in the risk pool. Otherwise, only sick people would buy insurance, thereby pushing up the price and making those who are relatively healthier drop coverage, driving up the price further and driving more healthy people away, worsening the problem
- To facilitate getting everyone in the risk pool, subsidies are provided to those who can’t afford the premium
Remove any one of these and the system collapses. We are likely to end up with fewer people insured and worse coverage for those who buy insurance. As is true of the House bill, the Senate bill does nothing to address the real challenges facing our healthcare system today – access, quality, and affordability. As the President might say: “sad.”
What do you think?
Providers of medical care in the United States are consolidating. Hospitals are merging into “systems” and physicians are joining large physician groups, many of which are part of “vertically integrated” delivery networks that include hospitals.
Many forces are driving this consolidation, including the high capital requirements technologically advanced care, the challenge of meeting government regulations, the “arms race” consolidation of the commercial insurance industry, and the drive toward accountable care, in which providers take on some or all of the financial risk associated with the health outcomes of a population, and therefore need to work closely together to manage care delivery.
A recent paper in Health Affairs points out that structural integration does not necessarily translate into functional integration from the perspective of those who ought to matter the most – patients.
Continue reading Structure and Function
While Washington now seems consumed with the mess swirling around the White House that was triggered by the abrupt firing of the FBI director, I want to get back to the mess swirling around the latest effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Although the President stated that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” his apparent surprise is surely based on his own profound, willful ignorance. Anyone who has paid even the most cursory attention to American health care delivery and financing knows that our “system” is uniquely complicated (actually, it is complex). The complexity has been driven by many forces including, among others, the historical accident of employer-based health insurance, a mythic belief in “the market” to improve everything it touches, a corresponding skepticism that government can do anything effectively, and a lack of national consensus about what we, as citizens, owe each other to “promote the general welfare.”
The net result has been well documented. Health care in America is characterized by huge disparities in access to care, major failures of quality and safety, and unsustainable costs. It is, of course, also characterized by amazing life-saving and life-sustaining technology and millions of dedicated, compassionate people who struggle daily to overcome the dysfunction to deliver great care. So how to fix the bad without destroying the good?
Continue reading Back to Health Care
Everybody knows the old saw about how the legislative process resembles a sausage factory: even if you like the product, it may turn your stomach to see how it is made. I have been thinking about that metaphor a lot lately as I have watched the Republican caucus in the US House of Representatives slap together their plan to “repeal and replace Obamacare.”
As the House lurches toward a critical vote today, I offer a few personal observations:
- The Republicans have long complained bitterly about how the Democrats “rammed through” the ACA in 2009. This, despite the fact that there were months of negotiations and the bill incorporated many previously mainstream Republican principles (including the individual mandate, which now seems anathema), and the Republicans deliberately walked away as part of their obstructionist strategy to deny President Obama a legislative victory of any sort. It is therefore particularly disturbing to see them scramble to bring this dog of a bill to a vote on some arbitrary self-imposed deadline. What is the rush?
- Speaking of a dog of a bill (with apologies to dogs everywhere), the only “principle” or “goal” that it advances is checking a box that says “repeal Obamacare.” The challenges facing our health care system are pretty easy to categorize. We need to assure access to care, we need to improve care, and we need to control costs. This bill does none of those things and stands to reverse the progress made by the ACA in providing coverage for millions of Americans.
- Don’t be fooled by claims of “lower costs.” The only thing this bill would lower is coverage, mostly by throwing millions off of Medicaid, and by stripping covered services from ACA plans. Any accrued “savings” are achieved by just providing less care for those who are in need.
- The targeting of Planned Parenthood and of reproductive health services, in general, is a shameful demonstration of the deep hypocrisy in the Republican party that has stood for individual choice and limited government (well, at least back when the party stood for anything at all) until it comes to dictating women’s health choices.
- The proposal is demonstrably, clearly, unambiguously and completely at odds with the President’s stated goal of “repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something beautiful” that “covers everybody.”
- Mostly, I am saddened by this rush to do harm, driven by political expediency, facilitated by ignorance, and leavened by a callous disregard for the health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens
What do you think?
We held a retreat last week for the Board of Governors of Northwell Health Physician Partners. Because we have matured as an organization, the agenda was different from recent years. Instead of asking “big questions” about what the group is and should be, we focused on providing information to the Board, and on addressing ways in which we could reduce physician burnout.
Given the imminent inauguration of the new president, and his party’s pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act, one of the informational sessions was devoted to how the changeover in Washington may affect health care policy. We heard from Northwell Health’s head of government affairs, and from a former senate staffer who now works for a firm that provides our organization with insight into what is going on inside the beltway.
The speakers were knowledgeable and engaging, and I am confident that their description of the incoming administration and of the plans being laid by the new congress was accurate and insightful. It is no criticism of them to also say that I found their description appalling, frightening, and depressing.
Here are a few “highlights”:
Continue reading Repeal and… Then What?
Every clinician knows that “framing” – how we present information to patients – has a big impact on decisions they make about their care. Even something as simple and apparently transparent as talking about “survival” versus “mortality” is important, with “a 90% chance of living” sounding a lot better than “a 10% chance of dying” even if both phrases convey the same estimate of risk.
Things get even more dicey when doctors start talking to patients about more subtle concepts like risk-reduction or number needed to treat. The clinical impact of a big relative risk reduction operating on a low absolute risk can be hard for doctors to explain and patients to understand.
The impact of that complexity was the subject of a recent editorial in Circulation. In it, Diprose and Verster speculate that doing a better job of explaining these things to patients, which certainly seems like a good idea, may paradoxically lead to worse population health outcomes. Here’s how it could happen.
Continue reading Prevention Paradox