Hospital Leadership, Strategy, And Culture In The Age of Health Care Reform

With just eleven months to go before the Value-Based Purchasing component of the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to go into effect, it is an auspicious time to consider how health care providers, and hospitals specifically, plan to successfully navigate the adaptive change to come. The delivery of health care is unique, complex, and currently fragmented. Over the past thirty years, no other industry has experienced such a massive infusion of technological advances while at the same time functioning within a culture that has slowly and methodically evolved over the past century. The evolutionary pace of health care culture is about to be shocked into a mandated reality. One that will inevitably require health care leadership to adopt a new, innovative perspective into the delivery of their services in order to meet the emerging requirements.

First, a bit on the details of the coming changes. The concept of Value-Based Purchasing is that the buyers of health care services (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, and inevitably following the government’s lead, private insurers) hold the providers of health care services accountable for both cost and quality of care. While this may sound practical, pragmatic, and sensible, it effectively shifts the entire reimbursement landscape from diagnosis/procedure driven compensation to one that includes quality measures in five key areas of patient care. To support and drive this unprecedented change, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is also incentivizing the voluntary formation of Accountable Care Organizations to reward providers that, through coordination, collaboration, and communication, cost-effectively deliver optimum patient outcomes throughout the continuum of the health care delivery system.

The proposed reimbursement system would hold providers accountable for both cost and quality of care from three days prior to hospital admittance to ninety days post hospital discharge. To get an idea of the complexity of variables, in terms of patient handoffs to the next responsible party in the continuum of care, I process mapped a patient entering a hospital for a surgical procedure. It is not atypical for a patient to be tested, diagnosed, nursed, supported, and cared for by as many as thirty individual, functional units both within and outside of the hospital. Units that function and communicate both internally and externally with teams of professionals focused on optimizing care. With each handoff and with each individual in each team or unit, variables of care and communication are introduced to the system.

Historically, quality systems from other industries (i.e. Six Sigma, Total Quality Management) have focused on wringing out the potential for variability within their value creation process. The fewer variables that can affect consistency, the greater the quality of outcomes. While this approach has proven effective in manufacturing industries, health care presents a collection of challenges that go well beyond such controlled environments. Health care also introduces the single most unpredictable variable of them all; each individual patient.

Another critical factor that cannot be ignored is the highly charged emotional landscape in which health care is delivered. The implications of failure go well beyond missing a quarterly sales quota or a monthly shipping target, and clinicians carry this heavy, emotional burden of responsibility with them, day-in and day-out. Add to this the chronic nursing shortage (which has been exacerbated by layoffs during the recession), the anxiety that comes with the ambiguity of unprecedented change, the layering of one new technology over another (which creates more information and the need for more monitoring), and an industry culture that has deep roots in a bygone era and the challenge before us comes into greater focus.

Which brings us to the question; what approach should leadership adopt in order to successfully migrate the delivery system through the inflection point where quality of care and cost containment intersect? How will this collection of independent contractors and institutions coordinate care and meet the new quality metrics proposed by HHS? The fact of the matter is, health care is the most human of our national industries and reforming it to meet the shifting demographic needs and economic constraints of our society may prompt leadership to revisit how they choose to engage and integrate the human element within the system.

In contemplating this approach, a canvasing of the peer-reviewed research into both quality of care and cost containment issues points to a possible solution; the cultivation of emotional intelligence in health care workers. After reviewing more than three dozen published studies, all of which confirmed the positive impact cultivating emotional intelligence has in clinical settings, I believe contemplating this approach warrants further exploration.

Emotional intelligence is a skill as much as an attribute. It is comprised by a set of competencies in Self-Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management, all leading to Self Mastery. Fortunately, these are skills that can be developed and enhanced over the course of one’s lifetime.

Keeping the number of handoffs and individuals involved in delivering the continuum of care, let’s examine how emotional intelligence factors into the proposed quality measures the Department of Health and Human Services will be using come October, 2012:

1.) Patient/Caregiver Experience of Care – This factor really comes down to a patient’s perception of care. Perceptions of care are heavily shaded by emotions. Patients consistently rate less skilled surgeons that have a greater bedside manner as better than maestro surgeons that lack, or choose not to display, these softer skills. Additional research into why people sue over malpractice also indicates how perceptions of care are formed. People don’t sue over a medical mistake in and of itself. People sue because of how they felt they were treated after the error occurred. From the patient’s perspective (and often their family’s) there’s a difference between being cured and being healed. The difference often can be found in the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries.

This is a key driver in patient decision-making as well. Patients tend to choose a hospital based upon one or two criteria; the recommendation of their primary care physician (with whom they have an established relationship) and/or upon the recommendations from family members or friends that have experienced care in a particular hospital or an individual surgeon. A quick look into the field of Applied Behavioral Economics supports this finding. Economic decision making is 70% emotionally driven with the remaining 30% based in rational thought. In many instances, it would appear that a lot of hospital marketing initiatives don’t seem to reflect an understanding of this phenomena. Waiting room times in Emergency Rooms have little to do with why patients choose a hospital, yet we see billboards everywhere that have the actual E.R. wait times electronically flashing along the roadside.

A patient’s experience (and perception) of care can be highly impacted at the handoff points within the continuum of care. Any new model of care will require exceptional cross-organizational communications to emerge. This requires a high level of engagement and commitment to the new vision at every patient touch-point.

This metric also addresses the caregivers’ experience of care. This speaks largely to the experience of nurses that are delivering that care. The research related to the impact of cultivating emotional intelligence in nurses clearly demonstrates a reduction in stress, improved communication skills, improved leadership and retention, the ability to quickly connect and engage patients, as well as a reduction in nurse burnout (which leads to turnover and additional stress amongst the remaining staff).

2.) Care Co-ordination – Again, this will require optimal engagement and pro-active communication intra-organizationally and cross-organizationally. Each handoff introduces opportunities for variable care to emerge that must be seamlessly co-ordinated. Poor co-ordination also introduces the risk of eroding the quality of the patient’s experience.

3.) Patient Safety – Research shows that the cultivation of emotional intelligence competencies in nursing contributes to positive patient outcomes, lowers the risk of adverse events, lowers costs at discharge, and reduces medication errors, all while lowering nurse stress, burnout, and turnover. Each time a nurse resigns it adds to the nursing shortage on the floor, requires additional hours from other nurses, and costs the hospital approximately $64,000, on average, to backfill the open position. Improving how an institution cares for its nurses improves the level of patient care and safety as well. In many institutions, this will require a shift in leadership’s perspective in order to support a culture that embraces and values the critical role nurses play in maintaining patient safety.

4.) Preventive Health – Elevating Self-Awareness and Social Awareness in clinicians helps them quickly connect and effectively communicate with patients. Subtle, non-verbal cues become more readily apparent, helping clinicians understand the fears and emotions of their patients. Self Management and Relationship Management helps clinicians communicate appropriately and supports the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries. All of these factors come into play when speaking with patients about lifestyle choices, course of treatment, and preventive health care.

From our own personal lives we’ve all learned we cannot “fix” other peoples’ behaviors. We can, however, be in relationship and help support healthy changes they’re ready to embrace. Pro-actively moving to improve preventive health will require deeper, more authentic relationships to emerge between front-line health care providers and patients.

5.) At-Risk Population/Frail Elderly Health – Like preventive health, being measured on the care of the community’s at-risk population and elderly will require an innovative approach to community outreach and pro-active communication. These are not populations that can be easily reached via Facebook or Twitter. Building effective relationships with these demographics will require trustful, human contact and deep engagement with each population, both of which are supported through the development of a mindful approach (i.e. emotionally intelligent) to the challenges at hand.

It will be interesting to see how reform unfolds and how leadership within the health care delivery system chooses to respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Systems and hospitals that choose to take an honest, evidence-based look at how they choose to lead, how they create and execute strategy, and the organizational culture they’re cultivating will be well served in preparing to successfully navigate this unprecedented change.

© 2011, Terry Murray.

Terry Murray is a professional coach and business executive with twenty-five years of progressive experience in strategic development, executive leadership, and the deployment of highly profitable business teams. His executive leadership with Fortune 1000 and start-up companies has directly contributed more than $1 billion in market capitalization growth throughout his career.

Terry is the founder and president of Performance Transformation, LLC a Professional Coaching and Strategic Development firm focused on igniting breakthrough performance through the authentic engagement and development of human talent. The company’s evidence-based programs and philosophical approach employs their proprietary Adaptive Coaching Process. The organization’s engagements align the clients’ human capital with their strategic imperatives driving tangible results, delivering a sustainable competitive advantage and an exceptional Return on Investment.

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Patient Abandonment – Home Health Care

Elements of the Cause of Action for Abandonment

Each of the following five elements must be present for a patient to have a proper civil cause of action for the tort of abandonment:

1. Health care treatment was unreasonably discontinued.

2. The termination of health care was contrary to the patient’s will or without the patient’s knowledge.

3. The health care provider failed to arrange for care by another appropriate skilled health care provider.

4. The health care provider should have reasonably foreseen that harm to the patient would arise from the termination of the care (proximate cause).

5. The patient actually suffered harm or loss as a result of the discontinuance of care.

Physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals have an ethical, as well as a legal, duty to avoid abandonment of patients. The health care professional has a duty to give his or her patient all necessary attention as long as the case required it and should not leave the patient in a critical stage without giving reasonable notice or making suitable arrangements for the attendance of another. [2]

Abandonment by the Physician

When a physician undertakes treatment of a patient, treatment must continue until the patient’s circumstances no longer warrant the treatment, the physician and the patient mutually consent to end the treatment by that physician, or the patient discharges the physician. Moreover, the physician may unilaterally terminate the relationship and withdraw from treating that patient only if he or she provides the patient proper notice of his or her intent to withdraw and an opportunity to obtain proper substitute care.

In the home health setting, the physician-patient relationship does not terminate merely because a patient’s care shifts in its location from the hospital to the home. If the patient continues to need medical services, supervised health care, therapy, or other home health services, the attending physician should ensure that he or she was properly discharged his or her-duties to the patient. Virtually every situation ‘in which home care is approved by Medicare, Medicaid, or an insurer will be one in which the patient’s ‘needs for care have continued. The physician-patient relationship that existed in the hospital will continue unless it has been formally terminated by notice to the patient and a reasonable attempt to refer the patient to another appropriate physician. Otherwise, the physician will retain his or her duty toward the patient when the patient is discharged from the hospital to the home. Failure to follow through on the part of the physician will constitute the tort of abandonment if the patient is injured as a result. This abandonment may expose the physician, the hospital, and the home health agency to liability for the tort of abandonment.

The attending physician in the hospital should ensure that a proper referral is made to a physician who will be responsible for the home health patient’s care while it is being delivered by the home health provider, unless the physician intends to continue to supervise that home care personally. Even more important, if the hospital-based physician arranges to have the patient’s care assumed by another physician, the patient must fully understand this change, and it should be carefully documented.

As supported by case law, the types of actions that will lead to liability for abandonment of a patient will include:

• premature discharge of the patient by the physician

• failure of the physician to provide proper instructions before discharging the patient

• the statement by the physician to the patient that the physician will no longer treat the patient

• refusal of the physician to respond to calls or to further attend the patient

• the physician’s leaving the patient after surgery or failing to follow up on postsurgical care. [3]

Generally, abandonment does not occur if the physician responsible for the patient arranges for a substitute physician to take his or her place. This change may occur because of vacations, relocation of the physician, illness, distance from the patient’s home, or retirement of the physician. As long as care by an appropriately trained physician, sufficiently knowledgeable of the patient’s special conditions, if any, has been arranged, the courts will usually not find that abandonment has occurred. [4] Even where a patient refuses to pay for the care or is unable to pay for the care, the physician is not at liberty to terminate the relationship unilaterally. The physician must still take steps to have the patient’s care assumed by another [5] or to give a sufficiently reasonable period of time to locate another prior to ceasing to provide care.

Although most of the cases discussed concern the physician-patient relationship, as pointed out previously, the same principles apply to all health care providers. Furthermore, because the care rendered by the home health agency is provided pursuant to a physician’s plan of care, even if the patient sued the physician for abandonment because of the actions (or inactions of the home health agency’s staff), the physician may seek indemnification from the home health provider. [6]

ABANDONMENT BY THE NURSE OR HOME HEALTH AGENCY

Similar principles to those that apply to physicians apply to the home health professional and the home health provider. A home health agency, as the direct provider of care to the homebound patient, may be held to the same legal obligation and duty to deliver care that addresses the patient’s needs as is the physician. Furthermore, there may be both a legal and an ethical obligation to continue delivering care, if the patient has no alternatives. An ethical obligation may still exist to the patient even though the home health provider has fulfilled all legal obligations. [7]

When a home health provider furnishes treatment to a patient, the duty to continue providing care to the patient is a duty owed by the agency itself and not by the individual professional who may be the employee or the contractor of the agency. The home health provider does not have a duty to continue providing the same nurse, therapist, or aide to the patient throughout the course of treatment, so long as the provider continues to use appropriate, competent personnel to administer the course of treatment consistently with the plan of care. From the perspective of patient satisfaction and continuity of care, it may be in the best interests of the home health provider to attempt to provide the same individual practitioner to the patient. The development of a personal relationship with the provider’s personnel may improve communications and a greater degree of trust and compliance on the part of the patient. It should help to alleviate many of the problems that arise in the health care’ setting.

If the patient requests replacement of a particular nurse, therapist, technician, or home health aide, the home health provider still has a duty to provide care to the patient, unless the patient also specifically states he or she no longer desires the provider’s service. Home health agency supervisors should always follow up on such patient requests to determine the reasons regarding the dismissal, to detect “problem” employees, and to ensure no incident has taken place that might give rise to liability. The home health agency should continue providing care to the patient until definitively told not to do so by the patient.

COPING WITH THE ABUSIVE PATIENT

Home health provider personnel may occasionally encounter an abusive patient. This abuse mayor may not be a result of the medical condition for which the care is being provided. Personal safety of the individual health care provider should be paramount. Should the patient pose a physical danger to the individual, he or she should leave the premises immediately. The provider should document in the medical record the facts surrounding the inability to complete the treatment for that visit as objectively as possible. Management personnel should inform supervisory personnel at the home health provider and should complete an internal incident report. If it appears that a criminal act has taken place, such as a physical assault, attempted rape, or other such act, this act should be reported immediately to local law enforcement agencies. The home care provider should also immediately notify both the patient and the physician that the provider will terminate its relationship with the patient and that an alternative provider for these services should be obtained.

Other less serious circumstances may, nevertheless, lead the home health provider to determine that it should terminate its relationship with a particular patient. Examples may include particularly abusive patients, patients who solicit -the home health provider professional to break the law (for example, by providing illegal drugs or providing non-covered services and equipment and billing them as something else), or consistently noncompliant patients. Once treatment is undertaken, however, the home health provider is usually obliged to continue providing services until the patient has had a reasonable opportunity to obtain a substitute provider. The same principles apply to failure of a patient to pay for the services or equipment provided.

As health care professionals, HHA personnel should have training on how to handle the difficult patient responsibly. Arguments or emotional comments should be avoided. If it becomes clear that a certain provider and patient are not likely to be compatible, a substitute provider should be tried. Should it appear that the problem lies with the patient and that it is necessary for the HHA to terminate its relationship with the patient, the following seven steps should be taken:

1. The circumstances should be documented in the patient’s record.

2. The home health provider should give or send a letter to the patient explaining the circumstances surrounding the termination of care.

3. The letter should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, or other measures to document patient receipt of the letter. A copy of the letter should be placed in the patient’s record.

4. If possible, the patient should be given a certain period of time to obtain replacement care. Usually 30 days is sufficient.

5. If the patient has a life-threatening condition or a medical condition that might deteriorate in the absence of continuing care, this condition should be clearly stated in the letter. The necessity of the patient’s obtaining replacement home health care should be emphasized.

6. The patient should be informed of the location of the nearest hospital emergency department. The patient should be told to either go to the nearest hospital emergency department in case of a medical emergency or to call the local emergency number for ambulance transportation.

7. A copy of the letter should be sent to the patient’s attending physician via certified mail, return receipt requested.

These steps should not be undertaken lightly. Before such steps are taken, the patient’s case should be thoroughly discussed with the home health provider’s risk manager, legal counsel, medical director, and the patient’s attending physician.

The inappropriate discharge of a patient from health care coverage by the home health provider, whether because of termination of entitlement, inability to pay, or other reasons, may also lead to liability for the tort of abandonment. [8]

Nurses who passively stand by and observe negligence by a physician or anyone else will personally become accountable to the patient who is injured as a result of that negligence… [H]ealthcare facilities and their nursing staff owe an independent duty to patients beyond the duty owed by physicians. When a physician’s order to discharge is inappropriate, the nurses will be help liable for following an order that they knew or should know is below the standard of care. [9]

Similar principles may apply to make the home health provider vicariously liable, as well.

Liability to the patient for the tort of abandonment may also result from the home health care professional’s failure to observe, examine, assess, or monitor a patient’s condition. [10] Liability for abandonment may arise from failing to take timely action, as well as failing to summon a physician when a physician is needed. [11] Failing to provide adequate staff to meet the patient’s needs may also constitute abandonment on the part of the HHA. [12] Ignoring a patient’s complaints and failing to follow a physician’s orders may likewise constitute a tort of abandonment for a nurse or other professional staff member.

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Health Care Reform – Busting The 3 Biggest Myths Of ObamaCare

In the last few months we’ve seen a lot of Health Care Reform rules and regulations being introduced by the Health and Human Services Department. Every time that happens, the media gets hold of it and all kinds of articles are written in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the TV network news programs talk about it. All the analysts start talking about the pros and cons, and what it means to businesses and individuals.

The problem with this is, many times one writer looked at the regulation, and wrote a piece about it. Then other writers start using pieces from that first article and rewriting parts to fit their article. By the time the information gets widely distributed, the actual regulations and rules get twisted and distorted, and what actually shows up in the media sometimes just doesn’t truly represent the reality of what the regulations say.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what is going on with ObamaCare, and one of the things that I’ve noticed in discussions with clients, is that there’s an underlying set of myths that people have picked up about health care reform that just aren’t true. But because of all they’ve heard in the media, people believe these myths are actually true.

Today we’re going to talk about three myths I hear most commonly. Not everybody believes these myths, but enough do, and others are unsure what to believe, so it warrants dispelling these myths now.

The first one is that health care reform only affects uninsured people. The second one is that Medicare benefits and the Medicare program isn’t going to be affected by health care reform. And then the last one is that health care reform is going to reduce the costs of healthcare.

Health Care Reform Only Affects Uninsured

Let’s look at the first myth about health care reform only affecting uninsured people. In a lot of the discussions I have with clients, there are several expressions they use: “I already have coverage, so I won’t be affected by ObamaCare,” or “I’ll just keep my grandfathered health insurance plan,” and the last one – and this one I can give them a little bit of leeway, because part of what they’re saying is true — is “I have group health insurance, so I won’t be affected by health care reform.”

Well, the reality is that health care reform is actually going to affect everybody. Starting in 2014, we’re going to have a whole new set of health plans, and those plans have very rich benefits with lots of extra features that the existing plans today don’t offer. So these new plans are going to be higher cost.

Health Care Reform’s Effect On People With Health Insurance

People that currently have health insurance are going to be transitioned into these new plans sometime in 2014. So the insured will be directly affected by this because the health plans they have today are going away, and they will be mapped into a new ObamaCare plan in 2014.

Health Care Reform Effect On The Uninsured

The uninsured have an additional issue in that if they don’t get health insurance in 2014, they face a mandate penalty. Some of the healthy uninsured are going to look at that penalty and say, “Well, the penalty is 1% of my adjusted gross income; I make $50,000, so I’ll pay a $500 penalty or $1,000 for health insurance. In that case I’ll just take the penalty.” But either way, they will be directly affected by health care reform. Through the mandate it affects the insured as well as the uninsured.

Health Care Reform Effect On People With Grandfathered Health Plans

People that have grandfathered health insurance plans are not going to be directly affected by health care reform. But because of the life cycle of their grandfathered health plan, it’s going to make those plans more costly as they discover that there are plans available now that they can easily transfer to that have a richer set of benefits that would be more beneficial for any chronic health issues they may have.

For people who stay in those grandfathered plans, the pool of subscribers in the plan are going to start to shrink, and as that happens, the cost of those grandfathered health insurance plans will increase even faster than they are now. Therefore, people in grandfathered health plans will also be impacted by ObamaCare.

Health Care Reform Effect On People With Group Health Insurance

The last one, the small group marketplace, is going to be the most notably affected by health care reform. Even though the health care reform regulations predominantly affect large and medium-sized companies, and companies that have 50 or more employees, smaller companies will also be affected, even though they’re exempt from ObamaCare itself.

What many surveys and polls are starting to show is that some of the businesses that have 10 or fewer employees are going to look seriously at their option to drop health insurance coverage altogether, and no longer have it as an expense of the company. Instead, they will have their employees get health insurance through the health insurance exchanges.

In fact, some of the carriers are now saying they anticipate that up to 50% of small groups with 10 or fewer employees are going to drop their health insurance plan sometime between 2014 and 2016. That will have a very large effect on all people who have group health insurance, especially if they’re in one of those small companies that drop health insurance coverage.

It’s not just uninsured that are going to be affected by health care reform, everybody is going to be impacted.

Health Care Reform Will Not Affect Medicare

The next myth was that health care reform would not affect Medicare. This one is kind of funny because right from the very get-go, the most notable cuts were specifically targeting the Medicare program. When you look at Medicare’s portion of the overall federal, you can see that in 1970, Medicare was 4% of the U.S. federal budget, and by 2011, it had grown to 16% of the federal budget.

If we look at it over the last 10 years, from 2002 to 2012, Medicare is the fastest growing part of the major entitlement programs in the federal government, and it’s grown by almost 70% during that period of time.

Because of how large Medicare is and how fast it’s growing, it’s one of the key programs that ObamaCare is trying to get a handle on, so it doesn’t bankrupts the U.S. Medicare is going to be impacted, and in fact the initial cuts to Medicare have already been set at about $716 billion.

Medicare Advantage Cuts And The Effects

Of that $716 billion cut, the Medicare Advantage program gets cut the most, and will see the bulk of the effects. What that’s going to do is increase the premiums people pay for their Medicare Advantage plans, and reduce the benefits of those plans.

Increased Medicare Advantage Costs

Right now, many people choose Medicare Advantage plans because they have zero premium. When given a choice on Medicare plans, they view it as an easy choice because it’s a free program for them, “Sure, I get Medicare benefits, I don’t pay anything for it; why not.” Now they’re going to see Medicare premiums start to climb, and go from zero to $70, $80, $90, $100. We’ve already seen that with some of the Blue Cross Medicare Advantage plans this year. It’s going to get worse as we go forward in the future.

Reduced Medicare Advantage Benefits

In order to minimize the premium increases, what many Medicare Advantage plans will do is increase the copayments, increase the deductibles, and change the co-insurance rates. In order to keep the premiums down, they’ll just push more of the costs onto the Medicare Advantage recipients. Increased premiums and reduced benefits are what we’re going to see coming in Medicare Advantage plan.

Fewer Medicare Physicians

And then if that wasn’t bad enough, as Medicare doctors begin receiving lower and lower reimbursements for Medicare Advantage people, they’re going to stop taking new Medicare Advantage recipients. We’re going to see the pool of doctors to support people in Medicare starting to shrink as well, unless changes are made over the course of the next five years. So Medicare is going to be affected, and it’s going to be affected dramatically by health care reform. Everybody’s kind of on pins and needles, waiting to see what’s going to happen there.

Health Care Reform Will Reduce Healthcare Costs

The last one, and probably the biggest myth about health care reform, is everybody thinking that ObamaCare will reduce healthcare costs. That’s completely hogwash. Early on in the process, when they were trying to come up with the rules and regulations, the emphasis and one of the goals for reform was to reduce healthcare costs.

But somewhere along the line, the goal actually shifted from cost reduction to regulation of the health insurance industry. Once they made that transition, they pushed cost reductions to the back burner. There are some small cost reduction components in ObamaCare, but the real emphasis is on regulating health insurance. The new plans, for example, have much richer benefits than many plans today: richer benefits means richer prices.

Health Care Reform Subsidies: Will They Make Plans Affordable?

A lot of people hope, “The subsidies are going to make health insurance plans more affordable, won’t they?” Yes, in some cases the subsidies will help to make the plans affordable for people. But if you make $1 too much, the affordable plans are suddenly going to become very expensive and can cost thousands of dollars more over the course of a year. Will a subsidy make it affordable or not affordable is really subject to debate at this point in time. We’re going to have to actually see what the rates look like for these plans.

New Health Care Reform Taxes Passed On To Consumers

Then there’s a whole ton of new health care reform taxes that have been added into the system to help pay for ObamaCare. That means everybody who has a health insurance plan, whether it’s in a large group, a small group, or just as an individual, is going to be taxed in order to pay for the cost of reform. Health care reform adds various taxes on health care that insurance companies will have to collect and pay, but they’re just going to pass it right through to us, the consumer.

Mandate Won’t Reduce Uninsured Very Much

During the initial years of health care reform, the mandate is actually pretty weak. The mandate says that everyone must get health insurance or pay a penalty (a tax). What that’s going to do is make healthy people just sit on the sidelines and wait for the mandate to get to the point where it finally forces them to buy health insurance. People with chronic health conditions that couldn’t get health insurance previously, are all going to jump into healthcare at the beginning of 2014.

At the end of that year, the cost for the plans is going to go up in 2015. I can guarantee that that’s going to happen, because the young healthy people are not going to be motivated to get into the plans. They won’t see the benefit of joining an expensive plan, whereas the chronically ill people are going to get into the plans and drive the costs up.

Health Care Reform’s Purpose Is Just A Matter Of Semantics

The last portion of this is, one of the key things – and it’s funny, I saw it for the first two years, 2010, and ’11 – one of the key things that was listed in the documentation from the Obama administration was: Health Care Reform would help reduce the cost that we would see in the future if we do nothing today. That was emphasized over and over again. That was how they presented health care cost reduction, that it would reduce the future costs. Not today, but it would reduce what we would pay in the future if we did nothing about it now.

Well, that’s great, 10 years from now we’re going to pay less than we might have paid. And we all know how accurate future projections usually are. In the meantime, we’re all paying more today, and we’re going to pay even more in 2014 and more in 2015 and 2016. People are going to be pretty upset about that.

Conclusion

Those three myths, that health care reform is only going to affect the uninsured, that it won’t affect Medicare beneficiaries, and that ObamaCare is going to reduce healthcare costs, are just that. They are myths. There’s nothing to them.

It’s really important that you pay attention to what’s happening with health care reform, because there are more changes that are coming as we go through this year, 2013. Knowing how to position yourself so that you’re in the right spot to be able to make the best decision at the beginning of 2014 is going to be really important for everybody.

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A Prescription For the Health Care Crisis

With all the shouting going on about America’s health care crisis, many are probably finding it difficult to concentrate, much less understand the cause of the problems confronting us. I find myself dismayed at the tone of the discussion (though I understand it—people are scared) as well as bemused that anyone would presume themselves sufficiently qualified to know how to best improve our health care system simply because they’ve encountered it, when people who’ve spent entire careers studying it (and I don’t mean politicians) aren’t sure what to do themselves.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that if he had an hour to save the world he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes solving it. Our health care system is far more complex than most who are offering solutions admit or recognize, and unless we focus most of our efforts on defining its problems and thoroughly understanding their causes, any changes we make are just likely to make them worse as they are better.

Though I’ve worked in the American health care system as a physician since 1992 and have seven year’s worth of experience as an administrative director of primary care, I don’t consider myself qualified to thoroughly evaluate the viability of most of the suggestions I’ve heard for improving our health care system. I do think, however, I can at least contribute to the discussion by describing some of its troubles, taking reasonable guesses at their causes, and outlining some general principles that should be applied in attempting to solve them.

THE PROBLEM OF COST

No one disputes that health care spending in the U.S. has been rising dramatically. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), health care spending is projected to reach $8,160 per person per year by the end of 2009 compared to the $356 per person per year it was in 1970. This increase occurred roughly 2.4% faster than the increase in GDP over the same period. Though GDP varies from year-to-year and is therefore an imperfect way to assess a rise in health care costs in comparison to other expenditures from one year to the next, we can still conclude from this data that over the last 40 years the percentage of our national income (personal, business, and governmental) we’ve spent on health care has been rising.

Despite what most assume, this may or may not be bad. It all depends on two things: the reasons why spending on health care has been increasing relative to our GDP and how much value we’ve been getting for each dollar we spend.

WHY HAS HEALTH CARE BECOME SO COSTLY?

This is a harder question to answer than many would believe. The rise in the cost of health care (on average 8.1% per year from 1970 to 2009, calculated from the data above) has exceeded the rise in inflation (4.4% on average over that same period), so we can’t attribute the increased cost to inflation alone. Health care expenditures are known to be closely associated with a country’s GDP (the wealthier the nation, the more it spends on health care), yet even in this the United States remains an outlier (figure 3).

Is it because of spending on health care for people over the age of 75 (five times what we spend on people between the ages of 25 and 34)? In a word, no. Studies show this demographic trend explains only a small percentage of health expenditure growth.

Is it because of monstrous profits the health insurance companies are raking in? Probably not. It’s admittedly difficult to know for certain as not all insurance companies are publicly traded and therefore have balance sheets available for public review. But Aetna, one of the largest publicly traded health insurance companies in North America, reported a 2009 second quarter profit of $346.7 million, which, if projected out, predicts a yearly profit of around $1.3 billion from the approximately 19 million people they insure. If we assume their profit margin is average for their industry (even if untrue, it’s unlikely to be orders of magnitude different from the average), the total profit for all private health insurance companies in America, which insured 202 million people (2nd bullet point) in 2007, would come to approximately $13 billion per year. Total health care expenditures in 2007 were $2.2 trillion (see Table 1, page 3), which yields a private health care industry profit approximately 0.6% of total health care costs (though this analysis mixes data from different years, it can perhaps be permitted as the numbers aren’t likely different by any order of magnitude).

Is it because of health care fraud? Estimates of losses due to fraud range as high as 10% of all health care expenditures, but it’s hard to find hard data to back this up. Though some percentage of fraud almost certainly goes undetected, perhaps the best way to estimate how much money is lost due to fraud is by looking at how much the government actually recovers. In 2006, this was $2.2 billion, only 0.1% of $2.1 trillion (see Table 1, page 3) in total health care expenditures for that year.

Is it due to pharmaceutical costs? In 2006, total expenditures on prescription drugs was approximately $216 billion (see Table 2, page 4). Though this amounted to 10% of the $2.1 trillion (see Table 1, page 3) in total health care expenditures for that year and must therefore be considered significant, it still remains only a small percentage of total health care costs.

Is it from administrative costs? In 1999, total administrative costs were estimated to be $294 billion, a full 25% of the $1.2 trillion (Table 1) in total health care expenditures that year. This was a significant percentage in 1999 and it’s hard to imagine it’s shrunk to any significant degree since then.

In the end, though, what probably has contributed the greatest amount to the increase in health care spending in the U.S. are two things:

1. Technological innovation.

2. Overutilization of health care resources by both patients and health care providers themselves.

Technological innovation. Data that proves increasing health care costs are due mostly to technological innovation is surprisingly difficult to obtain, but estimates of the contribution to the rise in health care costs due to technological innovation range anywhere from 40% to 65% (Table 2, page 8). Though we mostly only have empirical data for this, several examples illustrate the principle. Heart attacks used to be treated with aspirin and prayer. Now they’re treated with drugs to control shock, pulmonary edema, and arrhythmias as well as thrombolytic therapy, cardiac catheterization with angioplasty or stenting, and coronary artery bypass grafting. You don’t have to be an economist to figure out which scenario ends up being more expensive. We may learn to perform these same procedures more cheaply over time (the same way we’ve figured out how to make computers cheaper) but as the cost per procedure decreases, the total amount spent on each procedure goes up because the number of procedures performed goes up. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is 25% less than the price of an open cholecystectomy, but the rates of both have increased by 60%. As technological advances become more widely available they become more widely used, and one thing we’re great at doing in the United States is making technology available.

Overutilization of health care resources by both patients and health care providers themselves. We can easily define overutilization as the unnecessary consumption of health care resources. What’s not so easy is recognizing it. Every year from October through February the majority of patients who come into the Urgent Care Clinic at my hospital are, in my view, doing so unnecessarily. What are they coming in for? Colds. I can offer support, reassurance that nothing is seriously wrong, and advice about over-the-counter remedies—but none of these things will make them better faster (though I often am able to reduce their level of concern). Further, patients have a hard time believing the key to arriving at a correct diagnosis lies in history gathering and careful physical examination rather than technologically-based testing (not that the latter isn’t important—just less so than most patients believe). Just how much patient-driven overutilization costs the health care system is hard to pin down as we have mostly only anecdotal evidence as above.

Further, doctors often disagree among themselves about what constitutes unnecessary health care consumption. In his excellent article, “The Cost Conundrum,” Atul Gawande argues that regional variation in overutilization of health care resources by doctors best accounts for the regional variation in Medicare spending per person. He goes on to argue that if doctors could be motivated to rein in their overutilization in high-cost areas of the country, it would save Medicare enough money to keep it solvent for 50 years.

A reasonable approach. To get that to happen, however, we need to understand why doctors are overutilizing health care resources in the first place:

1. Judgment varies in cases where the medical literature is vague or unhelpful. When faced with diagnostic dilemmas or diseases for which standard treatments haven’t been established, a variation in practice invariably occurs. If a primary care doctor suspects her patient has an ulcer, does she treat herself empirically or refer to a gastroenterologist for an endoscopy? If certain “red flag” symptoms are present, most doctors would refer. If not, some would and some wouldn’t depending on their training and the intangible exercise of judgment.

2. Inexperience or poor judgment. More experienced physicians tend to rely on histories and physicals more than less experienced physicians and consequently order fewer and less expensive tests. Studies suggest primary care physicians spend less money on tests and procedures than their sub-specialty colleagues but obtain similar and sometimes even better outcomes.

3. Fear of being sued. This is especially common in Emergency Room settings, but extends to almost every area of medicine.

4. Patients tend to demand more testing rather than less. As noted above. And physicians often have difficulty refusing patient requests for many reasons (eg, wanting to please them, fear of missing a diagnosis and being sued, etc).

5. In many settings, overutilization makes doctors more money. There exists no reliable incentive for doctors to limit their spending unless their pay is capitated or they’re receiving a straight salary.

Gawande’s article implies there exists some level of utilization of health care resources that’s optimal: use too little and you get mistakes and missed diagnoses; use too much and excess money gets spent without improving outcomes, paradoxically sometimes resulting in outcomes that are actually worse (likely as a result of complications from all the extra testing and treatments).

How then can we get doctors to employ uniformly good judgment to order the right number of tests and treatments for each patient—the “sweet spot”—in order to yield the best outcomes with the lowest risk of complications? Not easily. There is, fortunately or unfortunately, an art to good health care resource utilization. Some doctors are more gifted at it than others. Some are more diligent about keeping current. Some care more about their patients. An explosion of studies of medical tests and treatments has occurred in the last several decades to help guide doctors in choosing the most effective, safest, and even cheapest ways to practice medicine, but the diffusion of this evidence-based medicine is a tricky business. Just because beta blockers, for example, have been shown to improve survival after heart attacks doesn’t mean every physician knows it or provides them. Data clearly show many don’t. How information spreads from the medical literature into medical practice is a subject worthy of an entire post unto itself. Getting it to happen uniformly has proven extremely difficult.

In summary, then, most of the increase in spending on health care seems to have come from technological innovation coupled with its overuse by doctors working in systems that motivate them to practice more medicine rather than better medicine, as well as patients who demand the former thinking it yields the latter.

But even if we could snap our fingers and magically eliminate all overutilization today, health care in the U.S. would still remain among the most expensive in the world, requiring us to ask next—

WHAT VALUE ARE WE GETTING FOR THE DOLLARS WE SPEND?

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled The Burden of Health Care Costs for Working Families—Implications for Reform, growth in health care spending “can be defined as affordable as long as the rising percentage of income devoted to health care does not reduce standards of living. When absolute increases in income cannot keep up with absolute increases in health care spending, health care growth can be paid for only by sacrificing consumption of goods and services not related to health care.” When would this ever be an acceptable state of affairs? Only when the incremental cost of health care buys equal or greater incremental value. If, for example, you were told that in the near future you’d be spending 60% of your income on health care but that as a result you’d enjoy, say, a 30% chance of living to the age of 250, perhaps you’d judge that 60% a small price to pay.

This, it seems to me, is what the debate on health care spending really needs to be about. Certainly we should work on ways to eliminate overutilization. But the real question isn’t what absolute amount of money is too much to spend on health care. The real question is what are we getting for the money we spend and is it worth what we have to give up?

People alarmed by the notion that as health care costs increase policymakers may decide to ration health care don’t realize that we’re already rationing at least some of it. It just doesn’t appear as if we are because we’re rationing it on a first-come-first-serve basis—leaving it at least partially up to chance rather than to policy, which we’re uncomfortable defining and enforcing. Thus we don’t realize the reason our 90 year-old father in Illinois can’t have the liver he needs is because a 14 year-old girl in Alaska got in line first (or maybe our father was in line first and gets it while the 14 year-old girl doesn’t). Given that most of us remain uncomfortable with the notion of rationing health care based on criteria like age or utility to society, as technological innovation continues to drive up health care spending, we very well may at some point have to make critical judgments about which medical innovations are worth our entire society sacrificing access to other goods and services (unless we’re so foolish as to repeat the critical mistake of believing we can keep borrowing money forever without ever having to pay it back).

So what value are we getting? It varies. The risk of dying from a heart attack has declined by 66% since 1950 as a result of technological innovation. Because cardiovascular disease ranks as the number one cause of death in the U.S. this would seem to rank high on the scale of value as it benefits a huge proportion of the population in an important way. As a result of advances in pharmacology, we can now treat depression, anxiety, and even psychosis far better than anyone could have imagined even as recently as the mid-1980′s (when Prozac was first released). Clearly, then, some increases in health care costs have yielded enormous value we wouldn’t want to give up.

But how do we decide whether we’re getting good value from new innovations? Scientific studies must prove the innovation (whether a new test or treatment) actually provides clinically significant benefit (Aricept is a good example of a drug that works but doesn’t provide great clinical benefit—demented patients score higher on tests of cognitive ability while on it but probably aren’t significantly more functional or significantly better able to remember their children compared to when they’re not). But comparative effectiveness studies are extremely costly, take a long time to complete, and can never be perfectly applied to every individual patient, all of which means some health care provider always has to apply good medical judgment to every patient problem.

Who’s best positioned to judge the value to society of the benefit of an innovation—that is, to decide if an innovation’s benefit justifies its cost? I would argue the group that ultimately pays for it: the American public. How the public’s views could be reconciled and then effectively communicated to policy makers efficiently enough to affect actual policy, however, lies far beyond the scope of this post (and perhaps anyone’s imagination).

THE PROBLEM OF ACCESS

A significant proportion of the population is uninsured or underinsured, limiting or eliminating their access to health care. As a result, this group finds the path of least (and cheapest) resistance—emergency rooms—which has significantly impaired the ability of our nation’s ER physicians to actually render timely emergency care. In addition, surveys suggest a looming primary care physician shortage relative to the demand for their services. In my view, this imbalance between supply and demand explains most of the poor customer service patients face in our system every day: long wait times for doctors’ appointments, long wait times in doctors’ offices once their appointment day arrives, then short times spent with doctors inside exam rooms, followed by difficulty reaching their doctors in between office visits, and finally delays in getting test results. This imbalance would likely only partially be alleviated by less health care overutilization by patients.

GUIDELINES FOR SOLUTIONS

As Freaknomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner state, “If morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.” Capitalism is based on the principle of enlightened self-interest, a system that creates incentives to yield behavior that benefits both suppliers and consumers and thus society as a whole. But when incentives get out of whack, people begin to behave in ways that continue to benefit them often at the expense of others or even at their own expense down the road. Whatever changes we make to our health care system (and there’s always more than one way to skin a cat), we must be sure to align incentives so that the behavior that results in each part of the system contributes to its sustainability rather than its ruin.

Here then is a summary of what I consider the best recommendations I’ve come across to address the problems I’ve outlined above:

1. Change the way insurance companies think about doing business. Insurance companies have the same goal as all other businesses: maximize profits. And if a health insurance company is publicly traded and in your 401k portfolio, you want them to maximize profits, too. Unfortunately, the best way for them to do this is to deny their services to the very customers who pay for them. It’s harder for them to spread risk (the function of any insurance company) relative to say, a car insurance company, because far more people make health insurance claims than car insurance claims. It would seem, therefore, from a consumer perspective, the private health insurance model is fundamentally flawed. We need to create a disincentive for health insurance companies to deny claims (or, conversely, an extra incentive for them to pay them). Allowing and encouraging aross-state insurance competition would at least partially engage free market forces to drive down insurance premiums as well as open up new markets to local insurance companies, benefiting both insurance consumers and providers. With their customers now armed with the all-important power to go elsewhere, health insurance companies might come to view the quality with which they actually provide service to their customers (ie, the paying out of claims) as a way to retain and grow their business. For this to work, monopolies or near-monopolies must be disbanded or at the very least discouraged. Even if it does work, however, government will probably still have to tighten regulation of the health insurance industry to ensure some of the heinous abuses that are going on now stop (for example, insurance companies shouldn’t be allowed to stratify consumers into sub-groups based on age and increase premiums based on an older group’s higher average risk of illness because healthy older consumers then end up being penalized for their age rather than their behaviors). Karl Denninger suggests some intriguing ideas in a post on his blog about requiring insurance companies to offer identical rates to businesses and individuals as well as creating a mandatory “open enrollment” period in which participants could only opt in or out of a plan on a yearly basis. This would prevent individuals from only buying insurance when they got sick, eliminating the adverse selection problem that’s driven insurance companies to deny payment for pre-existing conditions. I would add that, however reimbursement rates to health care providers are determined in the future (again, an entire post unto itself), all health insurance plans, whether private or public, must reimburse health care providers by an equal percentage to eliminate the existence of “good” and “bad” insurance that’s currently responsible for motivating hospitals and doctors to limit or even deny service to the poor and which may be responsible for the same thing occurring to the elderly in the future (Medicare reimburses only slightly better than Medicaid). Finally, regarding the idea of a “public option” insurance plan open to all, I worry that if it’s significantly cheaper than private options while providing near-equal benefits the entire country will rush to it en masse, driving private insurance companies out of business and forcing us all to subsidize one another’s health care with higher taxes and fewer choices; yet at the same time if the cost to the consumer of a “public option” remains comparable to private options, the very people it’s meant to help won’t be able to afford it.

2. Motivate the population to engage in healthier lifestyles that have been proven to prevent disease. Prevention of disease probably saves money, though some have argued that living longer increases the likelihood of developing diseases that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred, leading to the overall consumption of more health care dollars (though even if that’s true, those extra years of life would be judged by most valuable enough to justify the extra cost. After all, the whole purpose of health care is to improve the quality and quantity of life, not save society money. Let’s not put the cart before the horse). However, the idea of preventing a potentially bad outcome sometime in the future is only weakly motivating psychologically, explaining why so many people have so much trouble getting themselves to exercise, eat right, lose weight, stop smoking, etc. The idea of financially rewarding desirable behavior and/or financially punishing undesirable behavior is highly controversial. Though I worry this kind of strategy risks the enacting of policies that may impinge on basic freedoms if taken too far, I’m not against thinking creatively about how we could leverage stronger motivational forces to help people achieve health goals they themselves want to achieve. After all, most obese people want to lose weight. Most smokers want to quit. They might be more successful if they could find more powerful motivation.

3. Decrease overutilization of health care resources by doctors. I’m in agreement with Gawande that finding ways to get doctors to stop overutilizing health care resources is a worthy goal that will significantly rein in costs, that it will require a willingness to experiment, and that it will take time. Further, I agree that focusing only on who pays for our health care (whether the public or private sectors) will fail to address the issue adequately. But how exactly can we motivate doctors, whose pens are responsible for most of the money spent on health care in this country, to focus on what’s truly best for their patients? The idea that external bodies—whether insurance companies or government panels—could be used to set standards of care doctors must follow in order to control costs strikes me as ludicrous. Such bodies have neither the training nor overriding concern for patients’ welfare to be trusted to make those judgments. Why else do we have doctors if not to employ their expertise to apply nuanced approaches to complex situations? As long as they work in a system free of incentives that compete with their duty to their patients, they remain in the best position to make decisions about what tests and treatments are worth a given patient’s consideration, as long as they’re careful to avoid overconfident paternalism (refusing to obtain a head CT for a headache might be overconfidently paternalistic; refusing to offer chemotherapy for a cold isn’t). So perhaps we should eliminate any financial incentive doctors have to care about anything but their patients’ welfare, meaning doctors’ salaries should be disconnected from the number of surgeries they perform and the number of tests they order, and should instead be set by market forces. This model already exists in academic health care centers and hasn’t seemed to promote shoddy care when doctors feel they’re being paid fairly. Doctors need to earn a good living to compensate for the years of training and massive amounts of debt they amass, but no financial incentive for practicing more medicine should be allowed to attach itself to that good living.

4. Decrease overutilization of health care resources by patients. This, it seems to me, requires at least three interventions:

* Making available the right resources for the right problems (so that patients aren’t going to the ER for colds, for example, but rather to their primary care physicians). This would require hitting the “sweet spot” with respect to the number of primary care physicians, best at front-line gatekeeping, not of health care spending as in the old HMO model, but of triage and treatment. It would also require a recalculating of reimbursement levels for primary care services relative to specialty services to encourage more medical students to go into primary care (the reverse of the alarming trend we’ve been seeing for the last decade).

* A massive effort to increase the health literacy of the general public to improve its ability to triage its own complaints (so patients don’t actually go anywhere for colds or demand MRIs of their backs when their trusted physicians tells them it’s just a strain). This might be best accomplished through a series of educational programs (though given that no one in the private sector has an incentive to fund such programs, it might actually be one of the few things the government should—we’d just need to study and compare different educational programs and methods to see which, if any, reduce unnecessary patient utilization without worsening outcomes and result in more health care savings than they cost).

* Redesigning insurance plans to make patients in some way more financially liable for their health care choices. We can’t have people going bankrupt due to illness, nor do we want people to underutilize health care resources (avoiding the ER when they have chest pain, for example), but neither can we continue to support a system in which patients are actually motivated to overutilize resources, as the current “pre-pay for everything” model does.

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Health Care Reform – Why Are People So Worked Up?

Why are Americans so worked up about health care reform? Statements such as “don’t touch my Medicare” or “everyone should have access to state of the art health care irrespective of cost” are in my opinion uninformed and visceral responses that indicate a poor understanding of our health care system’s history, its current and future resources and the funding challenges that America faces going forward. While we all wonder how the health care system has reached what some refer to as a crisis stage. Let’s try to take some of the emotion out of the debate by briefly examining how health care in this country emerged and how that has formed our thinking and culture about health care. With that as a foundation let’s look at the pros and cons of the Obama administration health care reform proposals and let’s look at the concepts put forth by the Republicans?

Access to state of the art health care services is something we can all agree would be a good thing for this country. Experiencing a serious illness is one of life’s major challenges and to face it without the means to pay for it is positively frightening. But as we shall see, once we know the facts, we will find that achieving this goal will not be easy without our individual contribution.

These are the themes I will touch on to try to make some sense out of what is happening to American health care and the steps we can personally take to make things better.

A recent history of American health care – what has driven the costs so high?
Key elements of the Obama health care plan
The Republican view of health care – free market competition
Universal access to state of the art health care – a worthy goal but not easy to achieve
what can we do?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. This is not intended to be an exhausted look into that history but it will give us an appreciation of how the health care system and our expectations for it developed. What drove costs higher and higher?

To begin, let’s turn to the American civil war. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause ghastly results. Not generally known is that most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace and this caused severe delays in treating the wounded. Secondly, many wounds were subjected to wound care, related surgeries and/or amputations of the affected limbs and this often resulted in the onset of massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers who although well-intentioned, their interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and increasingly attempt risky surgeries (now largely performed in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic review of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950′s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Here is a critical point we need to understand; “nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in such a scenario costs are curtailed. The simple fact is that there was little for doctors to offer and therefore virtually nothing to drive health care spending. A second factor holding down costs was that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket, meaning by way of an individuals personal resources. There was no such thing as health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by an employer. Except for the very destitute who were lucky to find their way into a charity hospital, health care costs were the responsibility of the individual.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs has been, and remains to this day, absolutely enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight a great pool of money became available to pay for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. More Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare and Medicaid (1965). In addition funding became available for expanded veterans health care benefits. Finding a cure for almost anything has consequently become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today.

I do not wish to convey that medical innovations are a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended, enhanced and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology in the form of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostic tools and surgical procedures. So the result is that there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). Add an insatiable and unrealistic public demand for access and treatment and we have the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs. And by and large the storm is only intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to the key questions that will lead us into a review and hopefully a better understanding of the health care reform proposals in the news today. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? When we add politics and an election year to the debate, information to help us answer these questions become critical. We need to spend some effort in understanding health care and sorting out how we think about it. Properly armed we can more intelligently determine whether certain health care proposals might solve or worsen some of these problems. What can be done about the challenges? How can we as individuals contribute to the solutions?

The Obama health care plan is complex for sure – I have never seen a health care plan that isn’t. But through a variety of programs his plan attempts to deal with a) increasing the number of American that are covered by adequate insurance (almost 50 million are not), and b) managing costs in such a manner that quality and our access to health care is not adversely affected. Republicans seek to achieve these same basic and broad goals, but their approach is proposed as being more market driven than government driven. Let’s look at what the Obama plan does to accomplish the two objectives above. Remember, by the way, that his plan was passed by congress, and begins to seriously kick-in starting in 2014. So this is the direction we are currently taking as we attempt to reform health care.

Through insurance exchanges and an expansion of Medicaid,the Obama plan dramatically expands the number of Americans that will be covered by health insurance.

To cover the cost of this expansion the plan requires everyone to have health insurance with a penalty to be paid if we don’t comply. It will purportedly send money to the states to cover those individuals added to state-based Medicaid programs.

To cover the added costs there were a number of new taxes introduced, one being a 2.5% tax on new medical technologies and another increases taxes on interest and dividend income for wealthier Americans.

The Obama plan also uses concepts such as evidence-based medicine, accountable care organizations, comparative effectiveness research and reduced reimbursement to health care providers (doctors and hospitals) to control costs.

The insurance mandate covered by points 1 and 2 above is a worthy goal and most industrialized countries outside of the U.S. provide “free” (paid for by rather high individual and corporate taxes) health care to most if not all of their citizens. It is important to note, however, that there are a number of restrictions for which many Americans would be culturally unprepared. Here is the primary controversial aspect of the Obama plan, the insurance mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear arguments as to the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate as a result of a petition by 26 states attorney’s general that congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution by passing this element of the plan. The problem is that if the Supreme Court should rule against the mandate, it is generally believed that the Obama plan as we know it is doomed. This is because its major goal of providing health insurance to all would be severely limited if not terminated altogether by such a decision.

As you would guess, the taxes covered by point 3 above are rather unpopular with those entities and individuals that have to pay them. Medical device companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors and insurance companies all had to “give up” something that would either create new revenue or would reduce costs within their spheres of control. As an example, Stryker Corporation, a large medical device company, recently announced at least a 1,000 employee reduction in part to cover these new fees. This is being experienced by other medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies as well. The reduction in good paying jobs in these sectors and in the hospital sector may rise as former cost structures will have to be dealt with in order to accommodate the reduced rate of reimbursement to hospitals. Over the next ten years some estimates put the cost reductions to hospitals and physicians at half a trillion dollars and this will flow directly to and affect the companies that supply hospitals and doctors with the latest medical technologies. None of this is to say that efficiencies will not be realized by these changes or that other jobs will in turn be created but this will represent painful change for a while. It helps us to understand that health care reform does have an effect both positive and negative.

Finally, the Obama plan seeks to change the way medical decisions are made. While clinical and basic research underpins almost everything done in medicine today, doctors are creatures of habit like the rest of us and their training and day-to-day experiences dictate to a great extent how they go about diagnosing and treating our conditions. Enter the concept of evidence-based medicine and comparative effectiveness research. Both of these seek to develop and utilize data bases from electronic health records and other sources to give better and more timely information and feedback to physicians as to the outcomes and costs of the treatments they are providing. There is great waste in health care today, estimated at perhaps a third of an over 2 trillion dollar health care spend annually. Imagine the savings that are possible from a reduction in unnecessary test and procedures that do not compare favorably with health care interventions that are better documented as effective. Now the Republicans and others don’t generally like these ideas as they tend to characterize them as “big government control” of your and my health care. But to be fair, regardless of their political persuasions, most people who understand health care at all, know that better data for the purposes described above will be crucial to getting health care efficiencies, patient safety and costs headed in the right direction.

A brief review of how Republicans and more conservative individuals think about health care reform. I believe they would agree that costs must come under control and that more, not fewer Americans should have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay. But the main difference is that these folks see market forces and competition as the way to creating the cost reductions and efficiencies we need. There are a number of ideas with regard to driving more competition among health insurance companies and health care providers (doctors and hospitals) so that the consumer would begin to drive cost down by the choices we make. This works in many sectors of our economy but this formula has shown that improvements are illusive when applied to health care. Primarily the problem is that health care choices are difficult even for those who understand it and are connected. The general population, however, is not so informed and besides we have all been brought up to “go to the doctor” when we feel it is necessary and we also have a cultural heritage that has engendered within most of us the feeling that health care is something that is just there and there really isn’t any reason not to access it for whatever the reason and worse we all feel that there is nothing we can do to affect its costs to insure its availability to those with serious problems.

OK, this article was not intended to be an exhaustive study as I needed to keep it short in an attempt to hold my audience’s attention and to leave some room for discussing what we can do contribute mightily to solving some of the problems. First we must understand that the dollars available for health care are not limitless. Any changes that are put in place to provide better insurance coverage and access to care will cost more. And somehow we have to find the revenues to pay for these changes. At the same time we have to pay less for medical treatments and procedures and do something to restrict the availability of unproven or poorly documented treatments as we are the highest cost health care system in the world and don’t necessarily have the best results in terms of longevity or avoiding chronic diseases much earlier than necessary.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or we drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about managing these known to be destructive personal health habits. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

There are a huge number of free web sites available that can steer us to a more healthful life style. A soon as you can, “Google” “preventive health care strategies”, look up your local hospital’s web site and you will find more than enough help to get you started. Finally, there is a lot to think about here and I have tried to outline the challenges but also the very powerful effect we could have on preserving the best of America’s health care system now and into the future. I am anxious to hear from you and until then – take charge and increase your chances for good health while making sure that health care is there when we need it.

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