Over the last few months, I have become increasingly disheartened over the prospects for meaningful health care reform.
First, the process is terribly conflicted, and it shows. In the first quarter of 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that the health care industry contributed $128 million to Congress. Now that the tide has turned, this has gone mostly to Democrats who, as it turns out, are just as receptive as their Republican predecessors.
In turn, the Congressional health care reform proposals so far are mostly about coverage entitlements and access – fair enough – but despite cost containment rhetoric, they mostly ignore the ever rising cost burden that has brought health care to its knees. As longtime health care crusader Paul O’Neill pointed out in last weekend’s NY Times, the proposals pay relatively little attention to adjusting the health system’s structural flaws that encourage and tolerate tremendous waste and excess: fee-for-service reimbursement; a specialist-dominated medical paradigm; and a lack of enterprise-wide infrastructure that can facilitate transparency, transactional streamlining, and evidence-based decision-support. It appears we could be headed for Massachusetts-style health care reform, in which all the concessions will be made by the people paying the bills, and virtually none are borne by the health industry itself.
The health care waste that has been glossed-over in these proposals is monumental, the result of millions of premeditated decisions made by real people. Consider, for example, the MedPac report issued a couple weeks ago that found that physicians who own or lease imaging devices order images at twice the rate of physicians who do not have a financial stake in them. Or the fact that, even though the majority of claims are auto-adjudicated and we live in the age of electronic fund transfers, it takes health plans – which earn interest while they hold onto the funds – more than a month on average to pay a physician’s practice and nearly two months to pay a health system. Or that many health plan brokers represent that they are independent consultants to employers, but steer their clients to health plans with whom they have a financial relationship.
There are literally thousands of examples like this tucked inside every health care sector: the supply chain, the IT sector, the care delivery system and the finance system. No one knows for sure what these excesses actually cost, but estimates vary between 30 percent ($800 billion) and 60 percent ($1.5 trillion) of our annual total health care expenditures. These are breathtaking numbers. We fork over these immense sums every year for services that provide little or no value.
In the process, we have eroded our national economic stability. The President and his health team have repeatedly noted that health care cost represents the single largest threat to the nation’s long term financial viability. The savings that presumably would accrue from meaningful reform are key to the success of their larger economic plan.
The American people may not understand the technical issues, but they’re also aware that the system is not working in their interests. In a recent NY Times/CBS poll, 72 percent of respondents – nearly 3 in 4 – said they favored “the government’s offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans.” While I doubt that the rank-and-file of respondants understands what a public option would really mean, the deeper message seems clear: the current system is dreadfully broken and we need a different approach.
But the Democratic proposals seem oblivious to how crucial the issue is to the President or the American people. And so their focus has been on two seemingly extraneous issues.
First is whether the proposals’ programmatic costs will come in at less than a trillion dollars over 10 years (rather than their long term impacts). Let’s leave aside the fact that a trillion dollars is less than 40 percent of our annual health care expenditure at the moment.
Internally, the Congressional Budget Office and then Congress scores each proposal – the most recent version of the Affordable Health Choices Act from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) came in at $611.4 billion over 10 years – even though the evaluations may not consider ancillary deals made to win the buy-in of powerful health care lobbies, or financing that offloads costs onto some part of the private sector.
Still, if 30-60 percent of all current health care cost is waste, it is not clear why we should spend another $60 billion a year to improve the system. Why can’t we recover and apply the wasted resources instead?
Second is whether the government offers a public option. This issue is worth a separate post, but suffice it to say that the cost growth of Medicare, a public option, has tracked closely with that of commercial health plans for 30 years. There is literally no evidence that the placing a program in the public domain – where it is highly susceptible to perverse influences like lobbying – is any guarantee of better performance.
In other words, one of the lessons of the last 50 years is that changing the financing model alone probably won’t fix health care. What’s needed – what is critical right now – are changes to the ways health care is supplied, tooled, delivered, managed and reimbursed, independent of any health plan’s sponsorship and legal structure.
So far, our current round of reform has conspicuously dodged those issues, presumably at the industry’s encouragement. The long term consequences of that avoidance, though, could prove disastrous.
One of the problems with taking on health care reform is that it is so complicated, with endless facets and special cases, and with stakes that are extraordinarily high. After all, we’re tinkering with an economic sector that represents one dollar in seven and one job in eleven. There is a tendency to suggest that the health care marketplace IS the problem, and that we can solve problems through policy alone.
But the truth is that the marketplace has not been allowed to work in health care, or at least not in the classical sense. Government has financed about half of health care over the last several decades, distorting market functions. And the most powerful organizational forces in the market – physicians, hospitals, health plans, drug companies, device companies – have consistently lobbied against transparency of cost and quality information, the one ingredient that markets need to work effectively. The hope is that good policy both empowers market innovation and constrains its propensity for excess.
What is really needed in situations like these, though it rarely appears, is a fresh approach from an unimpeachably non-partisan and credible source. That approach must cut through complexity to get at the root of the problem, preferably with a relatively simple, easy-to-understand idea. I believe Bob Laszewski has provided us with this kind of solution.
There are many excellent writers and thinkers in health care, but I doubt many would object if I suggest that Bob Laszewski is at the very pinnacle of this group. His articles, written plainly and clearly, are a model of lucid, informed thought. A former health insurance executive, he has deep expertise in health care finance. A longtime DC health policy advisor, he has extensive connections with and is highly regarded within that community.
Bob has written a summary piece and a detailed piece about the Health Care Affordability Model. These posts should be as high on the required reading list for everyone involved in the national health policy reform discussion as Gawande’s Cost Conundrum article was for the White House staff.
The Affordability Model posits a simple idea: Let’s use tax incentives to align everyone’s interest around driving out waste. If health plans and their health system partners hit targets, they keep their advantage. If they don’t, they lose them. He then provides sufficient underlying detail to convince us that it is a workable plan for attacking one specific, important piece of the health care crisis: unrelenting cost growth. He states it like this:
- The health plan would be placed at a substantial competitive disadvantage without it.
- Doctors, hospitals, and other providers who were not in a tax qualified health care network would lose patients to networks that did control costs.
- Employers and consumers would almost certainly purchase their health benefits only from qualified plans.
And, unlike most health care reform proposals, the Affordability Model would simultaneously reduce both public and private health care costs.The Health Care Affordability Model is not a standalone health care reform proposal. It could be attached to virtually any health care reform plan now on the table.