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It’s Up to Clinicians, Not the Government or Payers, to Control Health Care Costs

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Behind many of the economic and political tensions of our time lurks the growing burden of health care costs. Does that claim sound inflated? Consider: when the public complains of stagnating wages, we can put our finger on health care costs as the monster that gobbles up employee compensation. When economists fret over the future burden of Social Security and Medicare (a cry echoed across the world as populations age), we have to recognize the scourge of increased health care costs. Most of the current debates over the Affordable Care Act–a recurring issue during the presidential campaign–touch explicity or implicity on health care costs.

The upward curve in costs became less of a run-away trend during the recession. Although the ACA might take a bit of the credit, most observers attribute the softening of the cost rises to belt-tightening by patients, and perhaps also to lower inflation. Inexorably, though, costs do rise. Small businesses and people on individual plans suffer most–a burden for which the ACA is not responsible, but that it brought to public attention–and the rest of us are bedeviled by rising premiums and deductibles as well. A study found spending increases across the board in 2015 by individual households, businesses, and governments alike. A number of people give up on health insurance because it’s still too expensive and does not end up covering their needs.

Insurers are suffering too, which is why even major companies such as Blue Cross and UnitedHealth are abandoning some markets.

A Policy Agenda to Address New Unintended Adverse Consequences of EHRs

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flying cadeuciiIn large part due to the $35 billion, Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act incentives more than 80% of acute care hospitals now use EHRs, from under 10% just 7 years ago. Despite considerable progress, we have not achieved all that was originally envisioned from this transformation and there have been numerous unexpected adverse consequences (UACs), i.e. unpredictable, emergent problems associated with health IT implementation, use and maintenance. In 2006, we described a set of UACs associated with use of computer-based provider order entry (CPOE) (see Table 1).  Many of these originally identified UACs have not been completely addressed or alleviated, and some have evolved over time (e.g., more/new work, overdependence on technology, and workflow issues).  Additionally, new UACs not just related to CPOE but to all aspects of EHR use have emerged over the last decade.  We describe six new categories of UACs in this blog and then conclude with three concrete policy recommendations to achieve the promised, transformative effects of health IT. 

1. Complete clinical information unavailable at the point of care

Adoption of EHRs was supposed to stimulate a tremendous increase in availability of patients’ clinical data, anytime, anywhere. This ubiquitous increase in data availability depended heavily on the assumption that once clinical data were routinely maintained in a computable format, they could seamlessly be transmitted, integrated, and displayed between health care systems’ EHRs, regardless of differences in the developer of the EHR. However, complete clinical information on all patients is not yet available everywhere it is needed.

Price Transparency and All Its Very Large Warts

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Transparency – including price, quality, and effectiveness of medical services is a vital component to lowering costs and improving outcomes.  However, it is imperative transparency go hand-in-hand with financial incentives for patients and consumers; otherwise the quest will be in vain.  The single best way of reducing costs while not worsening health outcomes is to redistribute resources from less cost-effective health services to more cost-effective ones.  Americans are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of making decisions based on cost but we must become fluent in the language of cost and more comfortable making decisions based on price information for healthcare expenditures to stabilize. 

Legislators in more than 30 states have proposed legislation to promote price transparency, with most efforts focused around publishing average or median prices for hospital services. Some states already have price transparency policies in place. California requires hospitals to give patients cost estimates for the 25 most common outpatient procedures. Texas requires providers to disclose price information to patients upon request. Ohio passed price transparency legislation last year; however a lawsuit filed by the Ohio Hospital Association has delayed implementation.  The cost of a knee replacement is $15,500 at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, whereas the national average is $49,500

The Arc of Justice in Healthcare

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We all fear that phone call.  A medical report turns out the wrong way and life may never be the same.  When that call arrives we all have the same needs:  A doctor who cares, a place to go for treatment and the finances to afford what’s needed.  Starting on January 20th, some of my patients will join the 20 million whose lifeline to those fundamental needs becomes jeopardized.  

One of my patients facing this threat lost his job and health insurance during the 2008 recession.   Because he’s a diabetic and has a special needs son, no insurance company would sell his family a policy.   Why would they?   Diabetics and others with serious illnesses pose high risks for future health expenses.  Insurance companies make money by avoiding such risk.   After exhausting all the options, he sweated out 18 months with no coverage.   Finally, the roll-out of the California Exchange, funded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), allowed him to buy an Anthem Blue Cross policy for his family.  

Do we really want millions of our fellow Americans to relive those nightmares?  We all benefit from the ACA’s fundamental commitment: That everyone deserves access to healthcare regardless of their ability to pay.  The policies guided by this principle moved us toward the achievement of universal coverage without changing the existing care of the majority of working families with employer based plans nor those with self-funded coverage.   

Who Won When the AHCA Failed?

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You may have heard that repealing and replacing Obamacare recently failed.  The analysis of what went wrong comes from many corners.  Andy Slavitt, former insurance executive and most recent director of CMS, writes that the ‘failure of Trumpcare can be seen as a rejection of policies that Americans judged would move the country backward.’  Apparently, the theory goes, moderate republicans, especially in states that expanded heavily and rely on Obamacare Medicaid expansion, were skittish of a repeal and replace plan that endangered the healthcare of millions of constituents.  The conservative David Frum writes in the Atlantic that most Democrats and Republicans have accepted the concept of universal health care coverage – and that the idea of a repeal of the right to healthcare is sheer anathema.  And if the Republicans were wavering, town halls filled with angry constituents were sure to provide an extra dollop of pressure.

The effort to get the messaging right is clearly important to many, but I find most of it functions as a smoke screen seeking to obscure the real battles being fought over your healthcare.

It is certainly true that Obamacare insures millions of Americans.  But it is also true that having health insurance and having health care are two very different things.  To be clear, the folks attempting to preserve the status quo want to preserve the ability to force all Americans to buy health insurance that costs hundreds of dollars per month.  Put another way, the folks attempting to preserve the status quo want to force Americans to give a monthly fee to health insurance companies.  Remember, these plans have deductibles so high that most of the cost of care delivered during the year in the form of labs, copays, and imaging studies falls on the hapless patient.  The insurer, for the average healthy person, doesn’t pay a dime.

Data For Improving Healthcare vs Data For Exasperating Healthcare Workers

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The phrase “healthcare data” either strikes fear and loathing, or provides understanding and resolve in the minds of administration, clinicians, and nurses everywhere. Which emotion it brings out depends on how the data will be used. Data employed as a weapon for purposes of accountability generates fear. Data used as a teaching instrument for learning inspires trust and confidence.

Not all data for accountability is bad. Data used for prescriptive analytics within a security framework, for example, is necessary to reduce or eliminate fraud and abuse. And data for improvement isn’t without its own faults, such as the tendency to perfect it to the point of inefficiency. But the general culture of collecting data to hold people accountable is counterproductive, while collecting data for learning leads to continuous improvement.

This isn’t a matter of eliminating what some may consider to be bad metrics. It’s a matter of shifting the focus away from using metrics for accountability and toward using them for learning so your hospital can start to collect data for improving healthcare.

Something Not So Terrific

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The brand new President Barack Obama, whether wittingly or not, invested his entire political capital in reforming health care in America. He gambled and he lost, not because he had nefarious intentions, but because he left the gory details to a corrupt Congress and a shady cadre of lying and conniving technocrats, ending up with something vastly different from what he campaigned on. From everything I’m reading now, Mr. Trump is about to walk in Mr. Obama’s footsteps, and if he does, the results will be unsurprisingly identical.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump repeatedly stated that Bernie Sanders forfeited his place in history when he “made a deal with the devil” and embraced the corrupt Democratic Party establishment that fought his candidacy in most abject fashion. Guess what? Mr. Trump seems to be making the same deal with the red version of the same devil. Mr. Trump’s cabinet choices indicate that he is now embracing the ultra-conservative factions of the Republican Party, the same people who actively or passive-aggressively opposed his candidacy. Nowhere is this peculiar and completely unnecessary capitulation more evident than in the beleaguered health care sector.

A Dishonest Conversation on Healthcare

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The conversation our country is having about healthcare right now is not honest. It’s not just the Republicans, the Democrats are just as dishonest, in a different way. Republicans talk about government death panels denying care. Democrats talk about insurance company death panels. Both positions are intellectually dishonest. Both Republicans and Democrats know that a part of insurance is drawing boundaries around the care that would be paid for by the group.  Any care outside that boundary doesn’t get paid for.  You can frame it any way you want, but this is a critical part of any insurance. 

Insurance, whether healthcare or auto, is a risk pool.  A group of people pay into the pool and hope they don’t have to use it – hope they don’t have a wreck on their car, don’t have to go into the hospital.  Those few that do have to use it consume most of the money in the pool – the risk pool spends tens of thousands on the people that have serious car accidents, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on someone that has cancer.  That means that everybody else in the pool helps pay for the costs of the unlucky few.  Healthy me pays for the costs of tripped and broke his leg Bob.

The worst part of the Affordable Care Act that nobody talks about is its removal of caps on annual and lifetime awards.  There is no limit to the risk that the risk pool assumes.  Before the ACA, an annual cap for an insurance plan might be $500,000, with a lifetime cap of $2 million to $5 million.  Now those caps are gone – there is no limit to the amount of money a risk pool has to pay to keep someone alive.

Not Normal Chaos

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The short version of Vox’s Sarah Skiff on “Why Republican disarray on health care doesn’t doom repeal efforts” would read something like: “It always looks this way in the throes of preparing major legislation. Remember how wild and confusing it was when the Democrats were trying to put together healthcare reform in 2009? Joe Lieberman was insisting on a public option, ‘pro-life’ Democrats were insisting that anti-abortion language be written in? Just because it’s chaotic doesn’t mean it won’t get anywhere.”

She’s right, of course — and she’s wrong in a significant way: In 2009 Congress was debating different policy approaches and the tradeoffs involved. There was never a question whether what they were attempting was possible, just whether it was possible to find a political compromise that could garner enough votes to pass. This meant that it was reasonably predictable that they would come up with something they could call “healthcare reform.” 

Congressional Republicans are up a different creek right now: What they are attempting is mathematically impossible. The things they and President Trump have promised do not add up. Literally. Their problem is arithmetic. Getting more people covered, with better coverage, with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs — all that will cost more money, lots of it. Getting rid of the tax penalties for not having insurance (the “individual mandate” that is the most-hated part of Obamacare) and the taxes built into Obamacare on wealthy people and on segments of the healthcare industry — all these will cost the government revenue, the very revenue it would need to pay for the better coverage of more people. All this while they aim to cut taxes and lower the deficit. And of course they have on every Holy Book within reach that they will repeal Obamacare, so they can’t just leave it in place. This means it is highly unpredictable what they will come up with, or that they will come up with anything at all.

Should Doctors and Nurses Be Patient Activists?

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When the eminent physician Dr Cliff Cleveland wrote his memoir about his years in medical practice, he entitled his book, “Sacred Space.” Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, but he pays rightful homage to the idea that that relationship between patients and their doctors and nurses is something exceedingly precious. Medical professionals appropriately go out of their way to keep that space neutral, private and nonjudgmental, because patients are often at their most vulnerable.

A patient of mine recently told me about a genital symptom that was bothering her. She’d had it for two years, but had been too embarrassed to bring it up. We had to build up our trust bit by bit, until she felt comfortable revealing it to me. Happily, it was something easily treatable. It’s situations like these that remind me how critical it is to protect this space.

Like most doctors and nurses, I try to keep the outside world firmly outside the exam room. I don’t talk about politics, religion, money, or sports. I don’t even gripe about the mayor. Most medical professonals avoid political activism for the same reason. But could that reticence be harmful to our patients?

I grappled with this over the past few weeks, as the House passed its American Health Care Act and then the Senate put forth its Better Care Reconciliation Act. As one detail after another was revealed, I began to worry about my patients. The cuts to Medicaid would do real damage to them. I had a number of fragile patients in mind who could die if their care was disrupted.

What would I do, I asked myself, if I started to notice a dangerous side effect of a medication that my patients were taking. The answer, of course, is easy. And it wouldn’t even be a question; it would be an obligation. If I see a threat to my patients’ health, it’s in my job description to speak up.