By KOUSIK KRISHNAN, MD
As recent events in northeastern Syria make clear, the number of displaced people in the world is rising — as are their health needs.
In 2018 I went with a team of other doctors to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. At one stop, a woman offered us homemade bread as we examined her husband, although the couple had very little money and not enough food for themselves. As we ate the bread, she asked if we could leave them extra medications since they didn’t know when the next humanitarian mission would come through their camp.
Her request was reasonable in the situation – indeed, many other refugee families we treated asked us the same thing. Their host countries’ healthcare systems are simply not equipped to handle their needs. Lebanon alone has almost 1.5 million refugees, an increase of 1/4 of their population.
But expecting vulnerable and displaced people to hoard needed medicine is neither sustainable nor humane. Instead, we must make it part of the social contract for healthcare corporations to use some of their massive wealth to help reduce disparities in global access to healthcare. Pharmaceutical companies and the retail industry have already created efficient models healthcare corporations could follow.
Hospitals need to overhaul their processes so they can help the un- and under-insured stay healthy.
Many people running health care institutions tell me that they have been fighting the fight, learning to be nimble, transforming their cultures, making big changes as the landscape rearranges itself like a really bad day along the San Andreas Fault.
But in comparison with the actual scale of the problems, most of the business models and strategies in health care have been sleeping like overfed dogs. It’s wake-up time in America.
Nowhere is the problem defined more clearly than in this question: How can we deal with the tens of millions of new Medicaid recipients, the tens of millions of still-uninsured poor, and the increasing numbers of the underinsured?
Today’s hospital executives formed their careers around the “volume” question: “How do we get more and better-paying customers into and through our system?”
This is a different era. Most markets do not have enough medical care to go around, between an aging population, expanded Medicaid in 25 states, and expanded numbers of insured in all states.
When there is not enough of what you are selling to go around, operating inefficiently leads to choking on volume. In order to survive under any business model we must get the volume down and the value up.
First: What can we expect in the coming years?
The Future of Medicaid, the Uninsured and the Underinsured
Medicaid numbers are astonishing if you are not used to them. Even before the projected expansion, at some time during an average year about 72 million people, close to a quarter of all Americans, are on Medicaid. At any given moment, it’s over 50 million. Medicaid is an open-ended program:
When more people are eligible, or sick, or have more complex diseases, the states and the federal government pay more.
Much has already been written about the Oregon Medicaid study that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine. Unfortunately, the vast majority is reflex, rather than reflection. The study seems to serve as a Rorschach test of sorts, confirming people’s biases about whether Medicaid is “good” or “bad”.
The proponents of Medicaid point to all the ways in which Medicaid seems to help those who were enrolled – and the critics point to all the ways in which it didn’t. But, if we take a step back to read the study carefully and think about what it teaches us, there is a lot to learn.
Here is a brief, and inadequate, summary (you should really read the study): In 2008, Oregon used a lottery system to give a set of uninsured people access to Medicaid. This essentially gave Kate Baicker and her colleagues a natural experiment to study the effects of being on Medicaid.
Those who won the lottery and gained access were compared to a control group who participated in the lottery but weren’t selected. Opportunities to conduct such an experiment are rare and represent the gold standard for studying the effect of anything (e.g. Medicaid) on anything (like health outcomes).
Two years after enrollment, Baicker and colleagues examined what happened to people who got Medicaid versus those who remained uninsured. There are six main findings from the study. Compared to people who did not receive Medicaid coverage:
- People with Medicaid used more healthcare services – more doctor visits, more medications and even a few more ER visits and hospitalizations, though these last two were not statistically significant.
- People with Medicaid were more likely to get lots of tests – some of them probably good (cholesterol screening, Pap smears, mammograms) and some of them, probably bad (PSA tests).
- People with Medicaid, therefore, not surprisingly, spent more money on healthcare overall.
Wang Li is a 48-year-old farmer from Dalian, China. After a two-day trip to the major provincial hospital, he’s heading home to his village to die. Wang has lung cancer, and even with insurance, his surgery will cost him 20,000 RMB — $3,000, which is twice his annual salary. The surgery would be curative, but it doesn’t matter. “I cannot burden my family,” he said.
I am a Chinese-born, American physician who just returned from a two-month research trip spanning twelve cities and nine provinces in China, where many of the health care reforms in contention in the U.S. have already been tried. As Americans contemplate the decisions ahead, consider China’s cautionary tale.
Today’s China is one of great disparity. The wealthy minority receives top-notch care, while the poor majority suffers from little access to care and no way to pay for it. Stories abound of patients like Wang Li who sign out of hospitals when they run out of savings, knowing they will die without treatment.
With over a dozen conservative states leaning against expanding Medicaid to cover poor workers without health insurance, perhaps it is time to resuscitate an idea embraced by President Ronald Reagan. Let the federal government take over Medicaid lock, stock and barrel.
In 1982 the president who ushered in the modern conservative era offered to assume federal responsibility for the program that now consumes over 22 percent of state government budgets in exchange for states taking over welfare. His offer built on a series of recommendations going back to 1969 by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which called for a federal takeover of all public assistance programs.
President Obama’s health care reform law, if it survives the final hurdle of next November’s election, could give that idea new life. Under the Affordable Care Act, states are responsible for creating insurance exchanges where individuals and businesses can buy individual or group health plans.
While it’s comforting to just blame the GOP for the unhappiness with health reform threatening the president’s re-election, the truth is that Barack Obama repeatedly botched, bungled and bobbled the health reform message. There were three big mistakes:
The Passionless Play
While Candidate Obama proclaimed a passionate moral commitment to fix American health care, President Obama delved into legislative details.
When a Baptist minister at a nationally televised town hall asked in mid-2009 whether reform would cause his benefits to be taxed due to “government taking over health care,” Candidate Obama might have replied that 22,000 of the minister’s neighbors die each year because they lack any benefits at all. Instead, President Obama’s three-part reply recapped his plans for tax code fairness.
While Republicans railed about mythical “death panels,” and angry Tea Party demonstrators held signs showing Obama with a Hitler moustache, the president opted to leave emotion to his opponents. The former grassroots organizer who inspired a million people of all ages and ethnicities to flock to Washington for his inauguration never once tried to mobilize ordinary Americans to demand a basic right available in all other industrialized nations. In fact, he hasn’t even mobilized the nearly 50 million uninsured, who have no more favorable opinion about the new law than those with health insurance!
In the olden days, doctors would travel from house to house when community members fell ill. Now, we usually expect patients to come to our office-based clinics. The modern model of care is certainly more efficient for us as physicians. But it’s also a barrier for patients to receive medicine; the highest-risk people usually make it to our clinics after being discharged from their first or second hospitalization, well after high blood pressure or diabetes has already taken its toll on their bodies. Our latest research suggests that we can statistically predict which people are most likely to end up having chronic diseases five or ten years from now. We can pinpoint these people right down to which house they live in. Such predictive models present a new opportunity to prevent disease before it becomes costly or deadly. In this week’s post, we look at a new idea for community-based disease prevention in medicine: the geographical mapping of chronic disease risks, and preemptive visits of healthcare workers to households where people are likely to become ill in the future.
The physician Jeffrey Brenner became famous for piloting a model of healthcare that would attempt to simultaneously improve services while reducing healthcare costs in his city of Camden, New Jersey. His model, recently profiled in Atul Gawande’s popular New Yorker article “The Hot Spotters”, was based on a simple observation: that sick people with poorly-treated diseases tend to be clustered in certain parts of the city.