Like waiting outside the Vatican for the puff of white smoke, the nation sits on edge awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The ruling, which is likely to be announced next week, could toss out the entire healthcare reform bill, chop off one of its limbs (probably the so-called individual mandate), or leave the ACA intact. Whatever the ruling, it will be chum for the blogosophere, particularly in the heat of presidential silly season.
The two fundamental challenges to American healthcare today are how to improve value (quality divided by cost) and how to improve access (primarily by insuring the tens of millions of uninsured people). The bill sought to address these twin challenges in ways that were complex and intertwined. I’ll argue that a decision by the Court to throw out all or part of the ACA will have a profoundly negative effect on the access agenda, but surprisingly little impact on the value agenda. To understand why requires that we focus less on the bewildering details (mandates, insurance exchanges, PCORI, CMMI, IPAB, etc.) and more on some big picture truths and tradeoffs.
The job of any healthcare system is to deliver high quality, safe, satisfying care to patients at the lowest possible cost. Although America certainly does specialty and high tech care like nobody’s business, on all of the key dimensions of value we aren’t very good. The numbers tell the sorry tale: we provide evidence-based care about half the time, there are huge variations in how care is delivered, we kill 44,000-98,000 patients per year from medical errors, and we spend 18% of our gross domestic product on medical care, far more than any other country.
Just over two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law purported to increase access to health care and to “bend down” the health care cost curve. A great debate over the implications of that law, especially in the areas of coverage, affordability, and quality of care, has arisen. Furthermore, a series of political and legal challenges have generated uncertainty about the law’s prospects within the health industry and at the state level. Despite this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the original 2,700-page law, leading to more uncertainty regarding how appointed and career federal officials will determine the exact shape of the law’s final requirements. All of this uncertainty raises real concerns about how the new law will impact the most crucial actors in any health care reform effort: doctors.
Doctors are demonstrably nervous about the new law and how it will affect their incomes, their access to technologies, and their professional autonomy. According to a survey by the Doctors Company, 60 percent of physicians are concerned that the new law will negatively impact patient care. Only 22 percent are optimistic about the law’s impact on patient care. Fifty-one percent feel that the law will negatively impact their relationships with patients. These statistics raise questions about how and whether doctors will participate in the new system.
Are the House and Senate giving us a false choice for how to control health care costs in Massachusetts? Aren’t there other options?
A few major themes have emerged from the two payment reform proposals and highlight the fact that they fail to align incentives for patients to be more involved in the purchase of their health insurance and their health care.
For example, even with full transparency of cost and quality (which is a huge lift on its own) for many patients, high-cost still correlates with higher quality in medicine. A recent report from Attorney General Coakley proved this theory wrong, but simply providing patients with cost data without placing the right incentives in their health plan to choose the low-cost high-quality provider will result in many selecting the most expensive care. As a result, these proposals will fall short of sustainably bending the cost curve.