It is now well established that Americans, in large majorities, favor universal health coverage. As witnessed in the first two Democratic debates, how we get there (Single Payer vs. extension of Obamacare) is another matter altogether.
295 million Americans have some form of health coverage (though increasing numbers are under-insured and vulnerable to the crushing effects of medical debt). That leaves 28 million uninsured, an issue easily resolved, according to former Obama staffer, Ezekiel Emanuel MD, through auto-enrollment, that is changing some existing policies to “enable the government agencies, hospitals, insurers and other organizations to enroll people in health insurance automatically when they show up for care or other benefits like food stamps.”
If one accepts it’s as easy as that, does that really bring to heel a Medical-Industrial Complex that has systematically focused on profitability over planning, and cures over care, while expending twice as much as all other developed nations? In other words, can America successfully expand health care as a right to all of its citizens without focusing on cost efficiency?
The simple answer is “no”, for two reasons. First, excess profitability = greed = waste = inequity = unacceptable variability and poor outcomes. Second, equitable expansion of universal, high quality access to care requires capturing and carefully reapplying existing resources.
It is estimated that concrete policy changes could capture between $100 billion and $200 billion in waste in the short term primarily through three sources.
The impending closure of
Hahnemann University Hospital is a local tragedy. Eliminating a 170-year
old institution is certain to exaggerate the daily travails of the economically
disadvantaged inner-city population that Hahnemann serves as a safety-net
hospital. The closure is also a national tragedy. Hospitals are the
towering, visible monuments of our healthcare system, and closings imply that
something insidious ails that very system—that all is not well.
Hospitals are complex
entities with varied financial drivers, and the solution is never simple.
And the moment is too rich for politicians who see Hahnemann’s failure as the
culmination of their dystopian predictions. Bernie Sanders, most
prominently, stood on the hospital’s doorstep and pitched his deceptively
simple solution—Medicare for All. Medicare for All, Sanders said, would
ensure that every patient carries the same coverage, hospitals are paid a predictable
rate, and voila, no hospitals need to close. Private insurance would
disappear, and no one would be without coverage.
Even physicians have jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon. Some
doctors insist that once profit is removed as a motive for hospital bottom
lines, and government bodies decide which hospitals can buy a surgical robot,
build a new wing or offer proton beam treatment cancer treatment centers, then
all hospitals will do better.
But these arguments miss
a fundamental point: why pitch government insurance for all, like Medicare and
Medicaid (a federal and state insurance plan to cover low income adult and
children) as a remedy, when it is precisely government-run insurance that is
killing Hahnemann and other hospitals in distress?
In the 2nd night of the Democratic Primary debate on June 27, 2019, Pete Buttigieg was asked whether he supported Medicare-For-All. He responded, “I support Medicare for all who want it.”
In doing so, he side-stepped the controversial debate over shifts of power from states to the federal government, and trusted that logic would eventually prevail over a collusive Medical-Industrial Complex with an iron lock grip on a system that deals everyone imaginable in on the sickness profitability curve – except the patient.
On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law “Medicare,” a national insurance plan for all Americans over 65. He did so in front of former President Truman, who 20 years earlier had proposed a national health plan for all Americans, and for his trouble was labeled by the AMA as the future father of “socialized medicine.”
For Truman, there was a double irony that day in 1965. First of all, the signing was occurring at around the same time as our neighbor to the north was signing their own national health plan, also called “Medicare”, but their’s covered all Canadian citizens, not just the elderly.
The second incongruity was that Truman was fully aware that in 1945, as he was being tarred and feathered as unpatriotic by taxpayers for having the gall to suggest that health care was a human right, those very same citizens were unknowingly funding the creation of national health plans as democracy stabilizers in our two primary vanquished enemies – Germany and Japan – as part of the US taxpayer funded Marshall Plan.
A hot take on healthcare in the Democratic debate: They’re doing it wrong.
Healthcare is not a reason to choose between the Democratic candidates.
They are all for greater access and in some way to cover everyone, which is great.
None of their plans will become law, but if they are elected those plans will become the starting point of a long discussion and legislative fight. The difference in their plans (between, say, Buttigieg or Biden and Warren or Sanders) is more of an indication of their general attitude toward governance rather than an outline of where we will end up.
Democrats are focused on coverage, Trump is on cost.
Around 90% of Americans already have coverage of some sort. Polls show that healthcare is voters’ #1 priority. Read the polls more closely, and you’ll see that it’s healthcare costspecifically that they are worried about.
Democrats seem to assume that extending more government control will result in lower costs. This is highly debatable, the devil’s in the details, and our past history on this is good but not great.
The President, on the other hand, can make flashy pronouncements and issue Executive Orders that seem intended to bring down costs and might actually. It’s highly questionable whether they will be effective, or effective any time soon. Still, they make good headlines and they especially make for good applause lines at a rally and good talking points on Fox.
But, Ms. and Mr. Average Voter will hear that Trump is very concerned about bringing down their actual costs. The Democratic plans all sound to the untutored ear (which is pretty much everyone but policy wonks like you and me) like they will actually increase costs while taking away the insurance that 90% already have in one way or another.
It is important to take care of everyone. But it is a mistake for the Democrats to allow this to become a battle of perception between cost and coverage. Voters’ real #1 concern is about cost, not coverage.
Joe Flower has 40 years of experience in the healthcare world and has emerged as a thought leader on the deep forces changing the system in the United States and around the world.
Far more attention has been devoted to the ways in which
industry consolidation has driven up health costs than to proposals on how to
remedy the situation. But the introduction of Medicare for All and Medicare for
More bills—however dim their short-term prospects are—has changed the terms of
the debate. It is time to think about how we can eliminate the market power of health
systems without causing harmful dislocations in health care and the economy.
Before we get to that, here are the main facts about
consolidation: As a handful of health insurers have become dominant in many
markets, health systems have done likewise in order to maintain or improve
their negotiating positions. That has proved to be an effective strategy in
many cases. Even dominant health plans cannot do without the largest hospital
systems in their areas, especially when they employ many of the local
According to a Kaufman Hall report, 90 hospital and health system deals were publicly announced in 2018. This was a decline from the 115 deals unveiled in 2017, but the average size in the revenue of sellers hit a high of $409 million.
The biggest provider mergers are staggering in scale. In February 2019, for example, Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health formed a new organization called CommonSpirit Health, which has 142 hospitals, 150,000 employees and nearly $30 billion in revenues. The union of Chicago-based Advocate Health Care and Wisconsin’s Aurora Health Care in April 2018 created a giant with 27 hospitals and $11 billion in revenues. A month later, Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas Healthcare System) joined with Wake Forest Baptist Health to form a system with 49 hospitals and combined revenues of $7.5 billion.
Within the ever-widening array of Democratic contenders for the Presidency, the “Medicare-for-all” debate continues to simmer. It was only six weeks ago that Kamala Harris’s vocal support drew fire from not one, but two billionaire political rivals. Michael Bloomberg, looking for support in New Hampshire declared, “I think we could never afford that. We are talking about trillions of dollars… [that] would bankrupt us for a long time.” Fellow billionaire candidate Howard Schultz added, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.”
Remarkably, neither man made the connection between large-scale health reform’s potential savings (pegged to save 15% of our $4 trillion annual spend according to health economists) and the thoughtful application of these newly captured resources to all U.S. citizens without discrimination. Bloomberg’s own 2017 Health System Efficiency Ratings listed the U.S. 50th out of 55, trailed only by Jordan, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia. Yet he seemed unable to connect addressing waste with future affordability.
Schultz was similarly short sighted. While acknowledging that the
manmade opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and income inequality are
“systemic problems” and at levels “the likes of which we have not had in a long
time”, he failed to connect the cause (a remarkable dysfunctional and
inequitable health care system) with these effects.
As I outline in “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/ June 4, 2019), today’s greatest risk to continued progress and movement toward universal coverage and rational health planning is sloppy nomenclature. To avoid talking past each other, we need to define the terms of this debate while agreeing on common end points.
Jeanette Brown had lost twenty pounds, and she was worried.
“I’m not trying,” she told me at her regular diabetes visit as I pored over her lab results. What I saw sent a chill down my spine:
A normal weight, diet controlled diabetic for many years, her glycosylated hemoglobin had jumped from 6.9 to 9.3 in three months while losing that much weight.
That is exactly what happened to my mother some years ago, before she was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that took her life in less than two years.
Jeanette had a normal physical exam and all her bloodwork except for the sugar numbers was fine. Her review of systems was quite unremarkable as well, maybe a little fatigue.
“When people lose this much weight without trying, we usually do tests to rule out cancer, even if there’s no specific symptom to suggest that,” I explained. “In your case, being a former smoker, we need to check your lungs with a CT scan, and because of your Hepatitis C, even though your liver ultrasounds have been normal, we need a CT of your abdomen.”
The official 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are out, and there are some good news: The annual growth rate of health care spending is slowing down, and is the lowest since 2013 at 3.9%—it was 4.3% for 2016 and 5.8% for 2015. The bad news is that our health care cost increases are still well above inflation, and that we spent $3.5 trillion in this area, or 17.9% of GDP. Americans spent $10,739 on health care in 2017, more than twice as much as of our direct economic competitors: This per capita health care spending was $4,700 in Japan; $5,700 in Germany; $4,900 in France; $4,200 in the U.K.; $4,800 in Canada; and an average of $5,300 for a dozen such wealthy countries, according to the Peterson -Kaiser health system tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and OECD data. Spending almost a fifth of our GDP on health care, compared to 9-11% for other large developed economies (and much less in China), is like having a chain tied to our ankles when it comes to our economic competitiveness.
Could 2019 be the year when our health care spending actually decreases, or at least grows at a slower pace than inflation? Or will we see instead an uptick in costs for health care consumers?
To answer these questions, we need to look in more detail at the largest areas of health care spending in America, and at the recent but also longer term spending trends in these areas. Using the annual statistics from the DHHS, we can compare the growth in spending in half a dozen critical health care categories with the growth in total spending, and this for the last three years as well as the last decade. Over the last decade, since 2007, these costs grew 52% in aggregate (from $2.3T to $3.5T) and 41% per capita (from $7,630 to $10,740).
The message comes in over the office slack line at 1:05 pm. There are four patients in rooms, one new, 3 patients in the waiting room. Really, not an ideal time to deal with this particular message.
“Kathy the home care nurse for Mrs. C called and said her weight yesterday was 185, today it is 194, she has +4 pitting edema, heart rate 120, BP 140/70 standing, 120/64 sitting”
I know Mrs. C well. She has severe COPD from smoking for 45 of the last 55 years. Every breath looks like an effort because it is. The worst part of it all is that Mrs. C just returned home from the hospital just days ago.
A Trump administration regulation issued just hours before the partial federal shutdown offers quiet hope for civility in government.
What happened, on its face, was simple: an update of the rules governing a particular Medicare program. In today’s dyspeptic political climate, however, what didn’t happen along the way was truly remarkable – and may even offer some lessons for surviving the roller-coaster year ahead.
A regulatory process directly connected to Obamacare and billions in federal spending played out with ideological rhetoric completely absent. And while there were fervid objections to the draft rule from those affected, the final version reflected something that used to be commonplace: compromise.
Think of it as Survivor being replaced by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or, perhaps, a small opening in the wall of partisan conflict.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s briefly examine the specifics.