Americans spend about $3 trillion
per year on healthcare, or about $10,000 per person per year. Despite these
expenditures, Americans are worse off than their international counterparts
with respect to infant mortality, life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic
In policy debates, Republicans
mostly prefer to let the marketplace devise the appropriate outcomes, but this
approach ignores the market failures that plague the industry.
On the other hand, Democrats propose
a variety of solutions such as “Medicare for All” which nationalizes all
healthcare insurance or, as a variant, “Medicare as an Option for All” which further
extends the federal government into the provision of healthcare insurance. Such
approaches could actually result in a less efficient outcome, or worse yet, create
a market beset by political ping pong when Administrations change.
This paper proposes a new
standards-based approach for fixing the inefficiencies plaguing the healthcare
industry in the United States. As described herein, a non-profit standards body
would be established by Congress to bring a coordinated approach to healthcare
for each of the top ten chronic diseases.
Such an approach would establish consistent
priorities and practices across all of the components of the healthcare
industry affecting these chronic diseases, including standards of care, areas
of research emphasis and insurance guidelines.
Under such an industry structure,
patient care would improve and the overall costs for the provision of
healthcare would drop significantly.
The rather esoteric issue of a national patient identifier has come to light as a difference between two major heath care bills making their way through the House and the Senate.
The bills are linked to outrage over surprise medical bills but they have major implications over how the underlying health care costs will be controlled through competitive insurance and regulatory price-setting schemes. This Brookings comment to the Senate HELP Committee bill summarizes some of the issues.
Those in favor of a national patient identifier are mostly hospitals and data brokers, along with their suppliers. More support is discussed here. The opposition is mostly on the basis of privacyand libertarian perspective. A more general opposition discussion of the Senate bill is here.
Although obscure, national patient identifier standards can help clarify the role of government in the debate over how to reduce the unusual health care costs and disparities in the U.S. system. What follows is a brief analysis of the complexities of patient identifiers and their role relative to health records and health policy.
Leading lights of
the health insurance industry are crying that Medicare For All or any kind of
universal health reform would “crash the system” and “destroy
healthcare as we know it.”
They say that like
it’s a bad thing.
They say we should
trust them and their cost-cutting efforts to bring all Americans more
affordable health care.
We should not trust
them, because the system as it is currently structured economically is
incapable of reducing costs.
Why? Let’s do a
quick structural analysis. This is how health care actually works.
Health care, in the
neatly packaged phrase of Nick Soman, CEO of Decent.com, is a “system designed
to create reimbursable events.” For all that we talk of being
“patient-centered” and “accountable,” the fee-for-service, incident-oriented
system is simply not designed to march toward those lofty goals.
We begin by commending HHS, CMS, and ONC for skillfully addressing the pro-competitive and innovative essentials in crafting this Rule and the related materials. However, regulatory capture threatens to derail effective implementation of the rule unless HHS takes further action on the standards.
Regulatory capture in Wikipedia begins:
“Regulatory capture is a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. When regulatory capture occurs, the interests of firms, organizations, or political groups are prioritized over the interests of the public, leading to a net loss for society. Government agencies suffering regulatory capture are called “captured agencies.” (end of Wikipedia quotation.)
The extent to which HHS has allowed itself to be influenced by special interests is not the subject of this comment. This comment is just about how HHS and the Federal Health Architecture can act to more effectively implement the sense of Congress in the 21st Century Cures Act.
The high cost, low quality and systemic inequities of the U.S. healthcare system have been the impetus for its redesign. Our healthcare system is now controlled by Consolidated Healthcare institutions, Insurance companies, Pharmaceutical companies and Health Information Technology companies (CHIPHIT complex). The CHIPHIT complex, along with the Federal Government, will create and control our future healthcare system. Ominously missing from this list are independent healthcare policy experts, independent healthcare providers and members of the general public.
Historical precedents have demonstrated that the CHIPHIT complex is
incapable of creating the healthcare system we need.
Thus, if we hope to build a low cost, high quality, egalitarian
healthcare system, physicians and their professional organizations must take an
emphatic stand against the CHIPHIT complex today.
Consolidated Healthcare Institutions
There are innumerable mandates which make running a small medical practice very difficult. As a result, many younger physicians will no longer attempt to start a new medical practice and existing profitable practices, which are looking to off- load their regulatory burdens, are being acquired by large healthcare institutions and private equity firms.
While these consolidated healthcare institutions vocalize their desire
to improve our healthcare system, many enforce a uniformity on the practice
environment which belies the reality of patient care; that there is no “best” practice model, nor are there
information technology tools which work well for all physicians. This imposed
uniformity stifles physician innovation, which is a necessary precondition to
improve our healthcare system.
Health insurance companies are standing
in the way of many patients receiving affordable, quality healthcare. Insurance
companies have been denying patient claims for medical care, all while increasing
monthly premiums for most Americans. Many of the nation’s largest healthcare payers
are private “for-profit” companies that are focused on generating profits
through the healthcare system. Through a rigorous approval/denial system, health
insurance companies can dictate the type care patients receive. In some cases,
this has resulted in patients foregoing life-saving treatments or procedures.
In 2014, Aetna, one of the nation’s leading healthcare companies, denied coverage to Oklahoma native Orrana Cunningham, who had stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer near her brain stem. Her doctors suggested she undergo proton beam therapy, which is a targeted form of radiation that can pinpoint tumor cells, resulting in a decrease risk of potential blindness and other radiation side effects. Aetna found the study too experimental and denied coverage, which resulted in Orrana’s death. Aetna was forced to pay the Cunningham family $25.5 million.
In December of 2007, Cigna Healthcare, the largest healthcare payer in Philadelphia, denied coverage for Nataline Sarkisyan’s liver transplant. Natalie was diagnosed with leukemia and had recently received a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which caused complications to her liver. A specialist at UCLA requested she undergo a liver transplant, which is an expensive procedure that would result in a lengthy inpatient hospital stay for recovery. Cigna denied the procedure as they felt it was “too experimental and outside the scope of coverage”. They later reversed the decision, but Nataline passed away hours later at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.
Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:
Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.
Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.
Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.
Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.
It is commonly believed that deliberate, careful price regulation by enlightened technocrats trumps the haphazard and chaotic regulation of prices imposed by the free market—especially when the market is subject to greed and corruption.
A most interesting case study challenging that belief comes courtesy of the largest Democracy in the world: India.
In 2017, an arm of the Indian Government, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) took action to control the price of coronary stents in India by capping their retail price. The problem that stimulated this action was their exorbitant price that made them unaffordable to many Indians.
The retail prices of US made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 80,000 – 150,000 (~$1000 – ~$2000), while the price of Indian made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 45,000 – 90,000 (~$600 – ~$1200). Considering that a good job for 90% of the Indian labor force pays about Rs 180,000 per year, these prices put most coronary stents out of the reach of a vast swath of the populace.
What regulators knew, however, was that the price point at which coronary stents were being imported into India was a fraction of the price being charged to Indians. The up-charge had everything to do with what happened after the stent was brought onto Indian soil: The Indian subsidiary of the US stent manufacturer would sell its product to a domestic distributor that would then employ all means necessary to ensure their stent was chosen by cardiologists to be implanted.
Those that advocate for change in healthcare most often make their case based on the unsustainable cost or poor quality care that is sadly the norm. A 2018 article in Bloomberg highlights this fact by reporting on global healthcare efficiency, a composite marker of cost and life expectancy. Not remarkably, the United States ranks 54th globally, down four spots from 2017 and sandwiched neatly between Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. Unarguably, the US is a leader in medical education, technology, and research. Sadly, our leadership in these areas only makes our failure to provide cost-effective, quality care that much more shameful. For the well-off, the prospect of excellent accessible care is bright, but, as the Bloomberg article points out, as a nation our rank is rank. Anecdotally, I can report that as a physician I am called upon with some regularity to intervene on the behalf of family and friends to get a timely appointment or explain a test or study that their doctor was too busy to explain, and so even for the relatively well-off, care can be difficult and deficient.
The cost of care frequently takes center stage in arguments advocating change. The recognition that health care costs are driving unsupportable deficits and limiting expenditures in other vital areas is very compelling. Therefore, lowering the cost of care would seem to be an area in which there would be swift consensus. However, solutions to rein in costs fail to address the essential truth that most of us define cost subjectively. Arguments about the cost of care divide rather than unify as the discussion becomes more about cost shifting than controlling overall cost. Further, dollars spent on healthcare are spent somewhere, and there are many who profit handsomely from the system as it is and work aggressively sowing division to maintain the status quo.
Poor quality and access are additional lines of argument employed to win support for change. These arguments fail due to a lack of a commonly accepted definitions of quality and access to care. Remedies addressing quality and access issues are frequently presented as population level solutions. Unfortunately, these proposals do not engage a populace that cares first and foremost about their access to their doctor. The forces opposed to change readily employ counterarguments to population-based solutions by applying often false, but effective, narratives that population-based solutions are an infringement on a person’s fundamental freedoms. In that counterargument is the key to improving healthcare.