In a recent podcast about the future of telehealth, Lyle Berkowitz, MD, a technology consultant, entrepreneur, and professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, confidently predicted that, because of telehealth and clinical automation, “In 10-20 years, we won’t need primary care physicians [for routine care]. The remaining PCPs will specialize in caring for complicated patients. Other than that, if people need care, they’ll go to NPs or PAs or receive automated care with the help of AI.”
Berkowitz isn’t the first to make this kind of prediction. Back in 2013, when mobile health was just starting to take hold, a trio of experts from the Scripps Translational Science Institute—Eric Topol, MD, Steven R. Steinhubl, MD, and Evan D. Muse, MD—wrote a JAMA Commentary arguing that, because of mHealth, physicians would eventually see patients far less often for minor acute problems and follow-up visits than they did then.
Many acute conditions diagnosed and treated in ambulatory care offices, they argued, could be addressed through novel technologies. For example, otitis media might be diagnosed using a smartphone-based otoscope, and urinary tract infections might be assessed using at-home urinalysis. Remote monitoring with digital blood pressure cuffs could be used to improve blood pressure control, so that patients would only have to visit their physicians occasionally.
(This is the eighth and final installment in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
Medical technologies include drugs, devices, tests, and procedures. Considered as a whole, these technologies are the key driver of growth in health costs, according to Georgetown University professor Gregg Bloche and his associates.
Bloche, et al., view insurance coverage as the chief enabler of these technological innovations. In a 2017 Health Affairs Blog post, they said, “Drug and device developers, clinical researchers, and their financial backers anticipate coverage for new tests and treatments with little concern for whether they add substantial therapeutic value, and they make research and development decisions accordingly.”
In an interview, Bloche further explained, “If you’re a technology developer, you can reasonably anticipate that if your product achieves a low but significant health gain, insurers are going to be under pressure to pay for it.”
(This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
Even in a healthcare system dedicated to value-based care, there would be a few major barriers to the kinds of waste reduction described in this book. First, there’s the ethical challenge: Physicians might be tempted to skimp on care when they have financial incentives to cut costs. Second, there’s a practical obstacle: Clinical guidelines are not infallible, and large parts of medicine have never been subjected to rigorous trials. Third, because of the many gaps in clinical knowledge, it can be difficult for physicians to distinguish between beneficial and non-beneficial care before they provide it.
Regarding the ethical dimension, insurance companies often are criticized when they deny coverage for what doctors and patients view as financial reasons. Physicians encounter this every day when they request prior authorization for a test, a drug, or a procedure that they believe could benefit their patient. But in groups that take financial risk, physicians themselves have incentives to limit the amount and types of care to what they think is necessary. In other words, they must balance their duty to the patient against their role as stewards of scarce healthcare resources.
On the other hand, fee-for-service payment motivates physicians to do more for patients, regardless of whether it’s necessary or not. In some cases, doctors may order tests or do procedures of questionable value to protect themselves against malpractice suits; but studies of defensive medicine have shown that it actually raises health costs by a fairly small percentage. More often, physicians overtreat patients because of individual practice patterns or because they practice in areas where that’s the standard of care. As long as doctors believe there’s a chance that the patient will benefit from low-value care, they can justify their decision to provide that care.
(This is the sixth in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
As hospital systems become larger and employ more physicians, healthcare prices will continue to rise and independent doctors will find it harder to remain independent. Hospitals will never fully embrace value-based care as long as it threatens their primary business model, which is to fill beds and generate outpatient revenues. To create a viable, sustainable healthcare system, the market power of hospitals must be eliminated.
Federal antitrust policy is not adequate to handle this task. Even if the Federal Trade Commission had more latitude to deal with mergers among not-for-profit entities, the industry is already so consolidated that the FTC would have to break up health systems involving thousands of hospitals. Such a gargantuan effort would be practically and legally unfeasible.
The government could curtail health systems’ market power without breaking them up. For example, either states or the federal government could adopt “all-payer” models similar to those in Maryland and West Virginia. Under the Maryland model introduced 40 years ago, every insurer, including Medicare, Medicaid, and private health plans, pays uniform hospital rates negotiated between the state and the hospitals.
(This is the fifth in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
Real healthcare reform depends on an effective plan to reduce cost growth. To achieve this goal, it makes a whole lot more sense to cut waste than to limit access to necessary services or slash provider payments to the bone, noted Donald Berwick, MD, a former acting CMS administrator, and Andrew D. Hackbarth, a RAND Corp. researcher, in a 2012 JAMA article. In their telling, a significant reduction in waste would allow us to bend the cost curve without hurting healthcare quality or access.
Berwick shared with me that he doesn’t know how much unnecessary care physicians or hospitals could safely eliminate. “Some of it is marbled into the daily activities of healthcare organizations,” he said. “There would have to be systemic changes to get it done. But it’s a matter of will. With enough will, a lot of it could be eliminated. And when you’re talking about $1 trillion [worth of waste], even if you get 10% of it, that’s a tremendous amount that could be applied to other activities.”
Risk-based contracts, whether shared savings or capitation, can incentivize physicians to reduce waste. From the viewpoint of long-suffering primary care physicians, value-based-care agreements that let them share in the savings they generate are a godsend. Of course, not all primary care doctors are willing to take financial risk or change their practice patterns. But if maintaining their current income depends on it, most physicians will embrace change.
Specialists, too, can benefit by embracing the new paradigm. If they’re mainly being paid fee for service, they’ll have to forgo a lot of lucrative tests and procedures. But they can still keep their incomes up by delivering more-appropriate procedures and tests to a larger patient population.
(This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
Many other countries’ healthcare systems outperform ours for one simple reason: They place a much greater emphasis on primary care, which occupies the central place in their systems. “The evidence is that where you have more primary care physicians, where you coordinate care, and where you pay to keep people healthy, you get better outcomes at lower cost,” says David Nash, MD, founding dean of the College of Population Health, part of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
The evidence that Nash mentions includes studies by Barbara Starfield and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. In a 2005 Health Affairs paper, they showed that a higher ratio of primary care physicians to the population is associated with a lower mortality rate from all causes and from heart disease and cancer; in contrast, having more specialists in a particular area does not decrease the overall mortality rate or deaths from cancer and heart disease.
Another study of Medicare data found that states where a higher percentage of physicians were PCPs had higher quality care and lower cost per beneficiary. This factor alone accounted for nearly half of the variation in Medicare spending from one state to another. A separate study found that in the areas of the country that had the most primary care providers, the average Medicare cost per beneficiary was a third lower than in areas with the least PCPs.
One reason for this is that primary care doctors provide comprehensive, continuous care, including preventive and routine chronic care. Chronic illnesses drive 90% of health costs, and some studies show that intensive primary care can reduce ER visits and hospital admissions and improve the health of chronically ill people.
(This is the third in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
The American Medical Association (AMA) last year announced that, for the first time, more physicians were employed than were independent. While many of these doctors were employed by private practices, the AMA said, about 35% of them worked directly for a hospital or for a hospital-owned practice.25
This estimate was lower than that of other surveys. According to research conducted by the Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) and Avalere Health, a consulting firm, 44% of physicians were employed by hospitals in January 2018, compared to 25% in July 2012. More than half of U.S. physicians now work for or contract with fewer than 700 healthcare systems across the country, according to a new study in Health Affairs.
Many of the physicians employed by hospitals and health systems formerly were in private practice. They sold their practices to hospitals because of increasing overhead, dwindling reimbursement, and the rising administrative burdens of ownership, according to Jackson Healthcare, a physician recruiting firm.
The many negative factors affecting primary care also have impelled a growing number of primary care physicians to seek employment in recent years. In 2018, 47% of general internists, 57% of family physicians and 56% of pediatricians were employed. There is evidence that this trend may be exacerbating the primary care shortage because employed doctors see fewer patients per day, on average, than do those in private practice.
(This is the second in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
In January 2015, then Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced lofty goals for the government’s value-based payment program. By the end of 2016, she said, 85% of all payments in the traditional Medicare program would be tied to quality or value, and 90% would be value-based by the end of 2018.
The government planned to tie 30% of Medicare payments to alternative payment models by 2017, according to Burwell, and hoped to reach the 50% mark by 2018. In March 2016, HHS said it had reached the 30% goal a year ahead of schedule, mainly because of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP).
More recent data on the value-based-care movement comes from the Health Care Payment & Learning Action Network (LAN), a public-private partnership launched in 2015 by the Department of Health and Human Services. The LAN reported in October 2018 that public and private payers covering 226 million lives, or 77% of insured Americans, had tied 34% of their payments to value-based care. According to the organization, only 23% of total payments had been value-based in 2016.A deeper analysis of the LAN data, however, shows that the vast majority of value-based payments—both in Medicare and in the larger healthcare system—were still limited to pay for performance, upside-only shared savings, and care management fees paid to patient-centered medical homes.
(This is the first in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)
Even before COVID-19, healthcare reform seemed to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, but there is a rational way forward. This approach, which I call “physician-led healthcare reform,” would engage doctors in building a healthcare system that was safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable, to use the Institute of Medicine’s set of foundational goals in its landmark book, Crossing the Quality Chasm: a New Health System for the 21st Century.Primary care physicians, rather than hospitals, would be in charge of the system, and they’d work closely with specialists and other healthcare professionals to produce the best patient outcomes at the lowest cost.
It would take a decade or more to restructure the healthcare system so that this goal could be achieved. Similarly, the transition to a single-payer insurance system needs to be accomplished gradually—although the pandemic might accelerate that timetable. Most people are not yet ready to abandon employer-sponsored insurance, and there’s still a lot of distrust of the government. Providers are more likely to accept changes in how they’re paid over time than all of a sudden. Additional benefits can also be brought online slowly. Ideally, we could transform healthcare financing over a 10-year period while rebuilding the care delivery system at the same time.
That is why implementing Medicare for America—a reform plan devised by the Center for American Progress and embodied in a current House bill–makes more sense than going directly to Medicare for All: it changes the system incrementally while achieving universal coverage fairly quickly. Medicare for America would do this by enrolling the uninsured, people who purchase individual insurance, and those now in Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). People would also be enrolled automatically at birth. Companies could enroll their employees in Medicare for America, and employees could opt out of employer-sponsored plans and enroll in the public plan.
In the strangest healthcare business story of 2020, the major health insurance companies are thriving despite—or because of—the pandemic. As the second quarter reports of United, Anthem, Cigna and other insurers reveal, their COVID-19-related costs were outweighed by the sharp drop in claims for other healthcare services.
As a result, the second quarter operating gain for Anthem, one of the largest national carriers, jumped 65% from the prior-year period, while the portion of its premiums spent on member benefits dropped to 78%. The earnings of UnitedHealth, similarly, vaulted 98% as the percentage of its premiums spent on health care fell to 70.3%. Such a low “medical loss ratio” has probably not been seen since the 1990s.
At the same time, the big insurers’ membership has been rising, but not among workers covered by employer-sponsored plans. Commercial insurance members served by United, for example, fell by 270,000 to 26.8 million, following a drop of 720,000 in Q1. In contrast, the number of people in United’s Medicaid managed care plans rose by 330,000.
These trends track with the short-time fallout of the pandemic. Families USA reported that 5.4 million workers who lost their jobs from February to May also lost their health insurance. Another study predicted that by the end of 2020, 10.1 million people will lose employer-based insurance tied to someone in their household.