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The first post: What’s wrong with Medicare?

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For the first post, don’t expect a big essay despite that subject line. It came up because while I was away from the US for the first part of this year, yet another incarnation of NME or HCA — the two original for profit hospital chains of the 1970s that amalgamated into Columbia (now calling itself HCA again!) and Tenet — got caught with its hand in the cookie jar.  You’ll remember NME getting bad press and worse in the 1980s for imposing unwanted inpatient stays on “psychiatric patients”. After that NME morphed into Tenet. Columbia of course said that “health care had never worked like this before” and they were right — to the extent of the upcoding and fraudulent billing going on in its hospitals in the mid 1990s.  I remember one cover of Modern Healthcare in which Tenet’s strategy was encapsulated as “We’re not Columbia”.  Apparently only slogan deep. Last week they settled with the state and feds in California due to massive amounts of upcoding and worse at Redding Medical Center. Several other settlements are pending.

The New York Times’ description (registration req’d) of the level of unnecessary surgery at the Redding Medical Center is quite shocking. But I do recall Alain Enthoven at Stanford telling me in 1991 that one third of carotid andarterectomies in California were found to be counter-indicated after chart review.  Why were they done?  Well everyone — surgeons, hospitals, supplier– made money by doing them. Given the imbalance in knowledge between a patient and a doctor, it’s not too surprising that a very aggressive surgeon can do way more than he or she should.  Medicare is still basically a fee-for-service program with very little oversight, and so this type of thing is going to go on and on. And it has been going on for a while, as this partial list of whistlebower suits shows. Enthoven’s view was that everyone should be put into competing managed care plans which would act as patient (and payer) sponsors, and look after the money better than the government could.  It didn’t happen that way, and the backlash against managed care’s ham-fisted attempts to do so ensured that most health plans gave up on trying to control what providers did.  Medicare never really ever tried, as all its internal review cases were co-opted by providers.  Its only weapons were inquisitions and indictments from the FBI and others well after the fact. Eventually Medicare will have to have more controls, but that will need reform as well as more money. I’ll talk more about this when I get to drug coverage later this week.  Suffice it to say, don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, Uwe Reinhardt says in the NY Times article that (despite Wall Street’s desires) hospitals “can’t be a growth industry like some Internet company”. Well maybe not a “growth” sector, Uwe, but look at Yahoo’s stock price in 2000, Tenet’s this year, and tell me that you’re not getting some of that Internet fever coming back!

more on Medicare and drugs later this week….