During the presidential debates, Tom Brokow asked, “Is healthcare a right, a privilege or a responsibility?”The candidates did not answer the question, but now would be a good time for Congress and the Obama Administration to balance the rights being offered as part of reform with corresponding responsibilities.
We are the only developed country that does not assure all of its citizens basic medical care insurance access – shame on us. We spend more per capita for medical care than any other developed country yet our outcomes are not the best – shame on us. We mostly use price controls to try to slow rapidly escalating costs. They not only don’t work but leave patients with less than adequate care and huge bureaucratic frustrations – not logical. All too many individuals find that they are denied coverage because of a preexisting condition when they move from one job to another or find themselves unemployed – unacceptable. As a population we have all too many adverse behaviors such obesity, lack of exercise and smoking that are leading to expensive, lifelong chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart failure – killing ourselves. And primary care physicians find that they do not have time to offer good preventive care nor care coordination to those with chronic illnesses because insurance does not pay for these essential activities, thereby resulting in more visits to specialists, more expensive prescriptions when life style changes could have been effective, more procedures and tests – all of which lead to higher total costs of care.
Howard County, Maryland has instituted a program called Healthy Howard that offers the uninsured access to primary care for a minimal fee along with specialist care given pro-bono and hospital care for no charge. But in return, each patient works with a health coach to develop a set of goals for the year such as weight control, smoking cessation, exercise enhancement or stress reduction. Patients also are expected to receive appropriate vaccines and obtain basic screening such as checks for high blood pressure. The health coach assists the patient to overcome barriers to success such as helping to find a free smoking cessation program or an inexpensive gym. Patients have been pleased with the program and responded well to the responsibility element. It is a model balancing rights with responsibilities that is worth emulating.
Congress is rightly seeking to assure all of access to care regardless of ability to pay. It is not inappropriate for the tax payer to expect the individual in return to lead a reasonably healthy lifestyle as a means to not only maintain and improve health but to lessen the cost of care? Congress also plans to ban the practice of insurers excluding individuals with predisposing conditions. A reasonable expectation [responsibility] in return is that everyone participates in insurance so as to keep the risk pool large and the costs down. In another pairing of rights with responsibilities, commercial insurers and Medicare should be able to incent patients to hold down costs with premium reductions for those who do have an appropriate weight, do exercise, do not smoke, do get their vaccinations and do have screenings done.
Primary care physicians should be able to have a reasonable income without a huge patient load nor the necessity of short visit times but in return the insurer/payer should be able to expect excellent preventive services and good coordination of the care of those patients with chronic illnesses. In this model, both doctor and insurer each have their rights and each their responsibilities, resulting in better care, healthier patients and reduced total costs to the system. Government, and therefore the taxpayer, in accepting the responsibility of universal coverage for those who cannot afford it should have the right in return of a reasonably healthy lifestyle by those covered. The result is better health with lower costs over the long term.
This combination of rights and responsibilities can assure that everyone has access to care and incentives to better health. Yet, it will reduce expenditures through improved quality and eliminate many of the current frustrations with the “system.” It satisfies the legitimate arguments of those who insist that medical care is a right with the equally important argument that we all have to accept a meaningful level of responsibility for our health and its costs.
Dr Schimpff, who blogs at http://medicalmegatrends.blogspot.com, is the retired Chief Executive Officer of the University of Maryland Medical Center. He is a consultant to the United States Army on mechanisms to interdigitate high technology into improved patient safety in the “operating room of the future.” In 2007, Dr. Schimpff authored “The Future of Medicine”, a book focusing on genomics, technology, imaging, stem cells, and the future of the OR and information management. Learn more about The Future of Medicine book and podcast at http://www.medicalmegatrends.com.