Over the last few months, I have become increasingly disheartened over the prospects for meaningful health care reform.
First, the process is terribly conflicted, and it shows. In the first quarter of 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that the health care industry contributed $128 million to Congress. Now that the tide has turned, this has gone mostly to Democrats who, as it turns out, are just as receptive as their Republican predecessors.
More than at any time in recent memory, powerful forces are buffeting
the health care sector. We are in
the midst of profound upheaval,
driven by market and policy responses to the industry's long-term
We can already see evidence that the dysfunction of our traditional
health system is accelerating. It also seems clear that the center
cannot hold indefinitely.
Dog Eat Dog
It is useful to remember that the health care industry's
different stakeholders are adversaries. While they clearly share a
common understanding that a wholesale meltdown is possible, there is
little real motivation for collaboration and no unity. Independent of
role, the industry as a whole has been focused on, and extremely
effective at, securing dollars from purchasers: government, employers
and individuals. But each silo within the industry has been separately
focused on growing its own slice of the health care pie. In every
niche, there are courteous conceits – access, appropriateness, efficiency and value – reserved
for the good manners of public relations. But these are meaningful in
practice only if they do not conflict with the professional's or the
firm's economic performance.
Now that the legislative language of the HITECH Act — the $20 billion health IT allocation within the economic stimulus package — has been set, it’s time to identify a National Coordinator (NC) for Health IT who can capably lead that office. As many now realize, the language of the Bill can be ambiguous, requiring wise regulatory interpretation and execution to ensure that the money is spent well and that desired outcomes are achieved. Among other tasks, the NC will influence appointments to the new Health Information Technology (HIT) Policy and Standards Committees, refine the Electronic Health Record (EHR) technology certification process, and oversee how information exchange grants and provider incentive payments will be handled.
“The requested data does not serve any (freedom-of-information-related) public interest in disclosure. Accordingly, we need not balance the nonexistent public interest against every physician's substantial privacy interest in the Medicare payments he receives.”
But in a strongly worded dissent, Judge Judith Rogers, the third member of the ruling panel, found that the request by the consumer group, Consumer Checkbook, represented “a commanding and important public interest in disclosure of the data.”
So far, Congress’ response to the health care crisis has been alarmingly disappointing in three ways. First, by willingly accepting enormous sums from health care special interests, our representatives have obligated themselves to their benefactors’ interests rather than to those of the American people. More than 3,330 health care lobbyists – six for every member of Congress – contributed more than one-quarter of a billion dollars in the first and second quarters of 2009. A nearly equal amount has been contributed on this issue from non-health care organizations. This exchange of money prompted a Public Citizen lobbyist to comment, “A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity.”
Second, by carefully avoiding reforms of the practices that drive health care’s enormous cost growth, Congress pretends to make meaningful change where little is contemplated. For example, current proposals would not rebuild our failing primary care capabilities, which other developed nations depend upon to maintain healthy people at half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to advance the easy availability and understandability of information about care quality and costs, so purchasers still cannot identify which professionals and organizations are high or low performers, essential to allowing health care to finally work as a market. They do little to simplify the onerous burden associated with the administration of billing and collections. The proposals continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards the delivery of more products and services, independent of their appropriateness, rather than rewarding results. Policy makers overlook the importance of bipartisan proposals like the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act that uses the tax system to incentivize consumers to make wiser insurance purchases. And they all but ignore our unpredictable medical malpractice system, which nearly all doctors and hospital executives tell us unjustly encourages them to practice defensively.
Most distressing, the processes affecting health care reflect all policy-making. By allowing special interests to shape critically important policies, Congress no longer is able to address any of our most important national problems in the common interest – e.g., energy, the environment, education, poverty, productivity.
Over the last four years, a growing percentage of individual and corporate purchasers has become unable to afford coverage, and enrollment in commercial health plans has eroded substantially. Fewer enrollees mean fewer premium dollars available to buy health care products and services. With diminished revenues, the industry is unilaterally advocating for universal coverage. This would provide robust new revenues. But they are opposing changes to the medical profiteering practices that result in excessive costs, and which often are the foundation of their current business models. And these two elements form the troublesome core of the current proposals.
Each proposal so far contemplates additional cost. But we shouldn’t have to spend more to fix health care. Within the industry’s professional community, most experts agree that as much as one-third of all health care spending is wasted, meaning that a portion of at least $800 billion a year could be recovered. There is no mystery about where the most blatant waste is throughout the system, or how to restructure health care business practices to significantly reduce that waste.
Make no mistake. A failure to immediately address the deep drivers of the crisis will force the nation to pay a high price and then revisit the same issues in the near future. It is critical to restructure health care now, without delay, but in ways that serve the interests of the nation, not a particular industry.
Congress ultimately must be accountable to the American people. The American people must prevail on Congress to revise the current proposals, build on the lessons gleaned throughout the industry over the last 25 years, and directly address the structural flaws in our current system. True, most health industry groups will resist these efforts over the short term, but the result would be a more stable and sustainable health system, health care economy and national economy, outcomes that would benefit America’s people, its businesses and even its health care sector.
Finally, the American people should demand that Congress revisit and revise the conflicted lobbying practices that have so corroded policymaking on virtually every important issue. Doing so would revitalize the American people’s confidence in Congress, and would re-empower it to create thoughtful, innovative solutions to our national problems.
Brian Klepper is a health care analyst and industry advisor. David C. Kibbe is a family physician and a technology consultant to the industry. Robert Laszewski is a former senior health insurance executive and a health policy analyst. Alain Enthoven is Professor of Management (Emeritus) at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
A few weeks ago, I joined five of my peers in health care leadership throughout the country to help launch Health CEOs for Health Reform, a coalition dedicated to transforming health care and creating a more sustainable health system.
In mission, we committed to moving past policy concepts toward a detailed blueprint that would reconcile legislative goals with operational realities of the health care system. Our goals are lofty and the challenges immense. What struck me in recent months, with the current state of the economy, is the tremendous sense of urgency we all feel and the confidence we have that now is the time to truly transform health care.
The report that Mr. Obama’s Surgeon General choice might be neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta produced an upwelling of strong opinion, particularly in the medical community. Some argued that Dr. Gupta has clearly demonstrated his abilities as an able communicator.
But others said that Gupta lacks the experience, seriousness and focus on public health. (I can’t help thinking that anyone who has achieved working neurosurgeon and national TV commentator status is pretty capable and serious, demeanor notwithstanding.)
The header reads: “We need a physician with the gravitas and the moral credentials and authority to use this bully pulpit position to speak for science and values based priority public health issues for all Americans. Dr. George Lundberg fits the bill.”
The letter provides a brief bio of Dr. Lundberg, the brilliantly eclectic, progressive, Alabama-born, down-to-earth physician who has been a visible mainstay of American medicine for decades. Dr. Lippin doesn’t mention Dr. Lundberg’s landmark 2002 book on American health care and reform, Severed Trust. (The title alone provides a lot of insight into Dr. Lundberg’s view of the world.)
But Dr. Lippin does believe the Surgeon General choice is about healing both America and American medicine, He writes, “we have a genuine crisis on many levels in US Medicine. Also we need desperately for the medical profession to regain its moral and ethical foundations and furthermore we also need medical leaders who must regain the trust of the American Public which has been dangerously eroded.
I agree with Dr. Lippin that those are the tasks, and I agree that Dr. Lundberg is a terrifically suitable candidate. Over many years, I have developed a warm friendship with him. It is impossible to not be bowled over by his range and grasp of issues, and by his unswerving willingness to stand clearly and openly for approaches that are tied to evidence and reason. The ultimate critical thinker, his judgments are founded most closely to merit, possibility and an unshakable belief in the correctness of the pursuit of excellence in health.
He is also bold and politically savvy. You don’t become the longest running Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association (until he got politically at odds with them) and then build Medscape into the most widely read Web resource for clinicians worldwide unless you can continuously strike the delicate balances between science, sensibility and moral imperatives among your peers.
I can’t say whether Dr. Lundberg would be the best candidate for the job ahead. He has a huge following in the medical community, nationally and worldwide, the result of many, many years of consistently high performance infused with unassailable integrity. Whether he’s the right person for this moment is another issue, though, fraught with the complexities of political consideration, a vision consistent with the larger plan of the Obama team, fluency with the bewildering array of new technologies that are changing the face of medicine and the patient-physician relationship, and so on.
But Dr. Lippin makes an important point. American medicine is demoralized in the field. Overt, rampant financial conflict has caused many to believe that the profession has lost its compass. With that loss, the trust of patients and the authority that trust conveys have also diminished.
Restoring that trust and authority isn’t simply a matter of leadership or preaching, but will depend on fundamentally changing the business of medicine, a much larger task indeed that will require an orchestrated effort by all of us, not just physicians.
But the new Surgeon General, whoever he or she is, should be grounded first in science, evidence and best practice, in tirelessly advocating and maneuvering for a care delivery system that is as advanced and nuanced as the diagnostic and treatment approaches we’ve developed, and on advancing the health of ALL our people in ways that leverage rather than squander increasingly precious resources.
While there is no question that Dr. Lundberg is worthy, I’d be surprised if the call for his consideration is heard in the din of this transition. Even so, it is deeply gratifying to see an outpouring of support by his peers, the result of successfully dedicating his life to advancing medical knowledge and its best application.