Peggy O’Kane has been running the NCQA for longer than she might care to remember. NCQA is an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of health care everywhere, but it’s best known for creating the HEDIS measures that rate health insurer and provider performance. I’ve been a fan of Peggy since I met her in the mid-1990s. Today she shows she’s still fighting the good fight. This is her first contribution to THCB —Matthew Holt
Suppose you’re one of the 22 million Americans living with diabetes and you have to decide where you want to live. Your choices: Providence, Rhode Island, or Houston, Texas. Providence is pretty and you’d have easy access to lobster dinners and weekends at the Cape. But Houston is warmer in the winter and just a hop, skip and a jump from a weekend in Cancun. A hard decision but you’re leaning toward Houston because, let’s face it, you hate shoveling snow!But then you take a look at the 13th annual State of Health Care Quality Report by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (plug alert: I run the place) and you find out the quality of care for diabetics is nearly 11 percentage points better in New England than it is in the South Central region of the U.S. and you begin to reconsider. In fact, you look at the newest data released October 22 and you find that the quality of care in the Texas region of the country is consistently the worst while care in New England is almost always the best. Providence here I come!
Here’s the problem: Most people don’t have a choice of moving from Texas or Oklahoma or Alabama to Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island. They have to live with the health care system they have. For a diabetic, those 11 points can translate into more kidney problems, loss of vision, toe or foot amputations or, heaven forbid, a shorter lifespan.The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. True, care isn’t going to be identical in all parts of the country. And, true, the population of Dallas may have a lot more health problems than the people in Hartford. But 11 points is too big a gap to explain away with demographics.
Regional variations in quality are just one part of this year’s State of Health Care Quality. After 12 years of steady and often remarkable improvements in care by our nation’s health plans, 2008 was marked by a stalling of progress. Care quality in commercial health plans as well as those serving Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries barely improved. For commercial plans, this may be the beginning of a plateau. For Medicare and Medicaid, which serve more than 100 million Americans, this is the third straight year of disappointing results. That’s never good news but these two safety net programs are slated to grow sharply in the next 5 to 10 years. Medicare will swell its ranks as the rest of my Baby Boom generation reaches 65 and becomes eligible. Medicaid is already growing due to the recession and is projected to gain 10 to 15 million more beneficiaries under most of the health reform plans on the Hill.
So what do we need to do?
First, I’d like the governors of the southern and south central states to join with me to develop a collective plan of action to improve health care quality. One or two states cannot do this alone. But working together we can turn the worst to first.Second, as Congress tries to turn five health reform bills into one for the President to sign, tell your elected representatives not to forget quality. The good news is that each of the bills contains good, solid provisions to improve quality. But I worry that as the sausage-making process reaches its final stages those provisions will be cast aside or watered down. The final bill must contain provisions that will:- Create insurance exchanges and require plans that participate to report on clinical quality (HEDIS®) and patient experience (CAHPS®) and maintain accreditation;
– Expand the experiments with the Patient Centered Medical Home so that more Americans can benefit from this “whole patient” approach to care;
– Create new payment systems that reward quality and penalize inefficiency. Medicare Advantage is one of the only payers that doesn’t use some form of pay-for-performance. That needs to change quickly. And Medicaid programs need some federal direction on the use of quality measurement and reporting to spur improvement. Twelve years of success taught us how to improve quality. One year of flat performance tells us we need to recharge our engines and go at this together.