The impending closure of
Hahnemann University Hospital is a local tragedy. Eliminating a 170-year
old institution is certain to exaggerate the daily travails of the economically
disadvantaged inner-city population that Hahnemann serves as a safety-net
hospital. The closure is also a national tragedy. Hospitals are the
towering, visible monuments of our healthcare system, and closings imply that
something insidious ails that very system—that all is not well.
Hospitals are complex
entities with varied financial drivers, and the solution is never simple.
And the moment is too rich for politicians who see Hahnemann’s failure as the
culmination of their dystopian predictions. Bernie Sanders, most
prominently, stood on the hospital’s doorstep and pitched his deceptively
simple solution—Medicare for All. Medicare for All, Sanders said, would
ensure that every patient carries the same coverage, hospitals are paid a predictable
rate, and voila, no hospitals need to close. Private insurance would
disappear, and no one would be without coverage.
Even physicians have jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon. Some
doctors insist that once profit is removed as a motive for hospital bottom
lines, and government bodies decide which hospitals can buy a surgical robot,
build a new wing or offer proton beam treatment cancer treatment centers, then
all hospitals will do better.
But these arguments miss
a fundamental point: why pitch government insurance for all, like Medicare and
Medicaid (a federal and state insurance plan to cover low income adult and
children) as a remedy, when it is precisely government-run insurance that is
killing Hahnemann and other hospitals in distress?
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.
I could’ve been Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Marianne Williamson all rolled into one. That’s how I might have handled my first, only, and not-so-great presidential debate.
No, I wasn’t actually running for president. But I was involved in the campaign of someone who was: Barack Obama. In September, 2008, the campaign asked me to serve as a surrogate in a debate with John McCain’s health care adviser when one of Obama’s close advisers – as opposed to me, who’d met the candidate once at a campaign event – couldn’t make it.
As a policy wonk and politics junkie, I was ecstatic. Entering the debate, I was confident. Afterwards, metaphorically dusting the dirt off my clothing and checking for cuts and bruises, I was chastened.
Getting off the couch and onto the stage, even a small one, is tougher than it looks. Watching the cluster of Democratic presidential candidates go at it on health care, I scoffed and sneered along with other experts at their obfuscations and oversimplifications. (More on that in a moment.) But I also sympathized.
Amazon has quietly put together a syndicate including Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan to provide better and more affordable health care for their combined 1.2 million workers.
The joint effort, called Haven, makes sense because many companies of size today are self-insured to provide health care at lower costs. But this is different. Jeff Bezos, Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett seem to be personally involved in the development of Haven. So, what could they possibility have up their sleeves?
At the same time, many Democrats running for president are promising single payer health care (Medicare For All) as the solution to controlling costs and providing quality health care for everyone. Republicans argue that this is socialism and will result in unacceptable increases in taxes that will ruin our economy.
While politicians debate, Amazon’s real objective may be to create a health care payer to rival all payers with tens of millions of Amazon Prime Members as health plan members.
With Amazon’s buying power, scale and capabilities, the ecommerce giant could create a health payer offering that could render the need for a single payer system moot.
In the 2nd night of the Democratic Primary debate on June 27, 2019, Pete Buttigieg was asked whether he supported Medicare-For-All. He responded, “I support Medicare for all who want it.”
In doing so, he side-stepped the controversial debate over shifts of power from states to the federal government, and trusted that logic would eventually prevail over a collusive Medical-Industrial Complex with an iron lock grip on a system that deals everyone imaginable in on the sickness profitability curve – except the patient.
On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law “Medicare,” a national insurance plan for all Americans over 65. He did so in front of former President Truman, who 20 years earlier had proposed a national health plan for all Americans, and for his trouble was labeled by the AMA as the future father of “socialized medicine.”
For Truman, there was a double irony that day in 1965. First of all, the signing was occurring at around the same time as our neighbor to the north was signing their own national health plan, also called “Medicare”, but their’s covered all Canadian citizens, not just the elderly.
The second incongruity was that Truman was fully aware that in 1945, as he was being tarred and feathered as unpatriotic by taxpayers for having the gall to suggest that health care was a human right, those very same citizens were unknowingly funding the creation of national health plans as democracy stabilizers in our two primary vanquished enemies – Germany and Japan – as part of the US taxpayer funded Marshall Plan.
Far more attention has been devoted to the ways in which
industry consolidation has driven up health costs than to proposals on how to
remedy the situation. But the introduction of Medicare for All and Medicare for
More bills—however dim their short-term prospects are—has changed the terms of
the debate. It is time to think about how we can eliminate the market power of health
systems without causing harmful dislocations in health care and the economy.
Before we get to that, here are the main facts about
consolidation: As a handful of health insurers have become dominant in many
markets, health systems have done likewise in order to maintain or improve
their negotiating positions. That has proved to be an effective strategy in
many cases. Even dominant health plans cannot do without the largest hospital
systems in their areas, especially when they employ many of the local
According to a Kaufman Hall report, 90 hospital and health system deals were publicly announced in 2018. This was a decline from the 115 deals unveiled in 2017, but the average size in the revenue of sellers hit a high of $409 million.
The biggest provider mergers are staggering in scale. In February 2019, for example, Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health formed a new organization called CommonSpirit Health, which has 142 hospitals, 150,000 employees and nearly $30 billion in revenues. The union of Chicago-based Advocate Health Care and Wisconsin’s Aurora Health Care in April 2018 created a giant with 27 hospitals and $11 billion in revenues. A month later, Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas Healthcare System) joined with Wake Forest Baptist Health to form a system with 49 hospitals and combined revenues of $7.5 billion.
Within the ever-widening array of Democratic contenders for the Presidency, the “Medicare-for-all” debate continues to simmer. It was only six weeks ago that Kamala Harris’s vocal support drew fire from not one, but two billionaire political rivals. Michael Bloomberg, looking for support in New Hampshire declared, “I think we could never afford that. We are talking about trillions of dollars… [that] would bankrupt us for a long time.” Fellow billionaire candidate Howard Schultz added, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.”
Remarkably, neither man made the connection between large-scale health reform’s potential savings (pegged to save 15% of our $4 trillion annual spend according to health economists) and the thoughtful application of these newly captured resources to all U.S. citizens without discrimination. Bloomberg’s own 2017 Health System Efficiency Ratings listed the U.S. 50th out of 55, trailed only by Jordan, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia. Yet he seemed unable to connect addressing waste with future affordability.
Schultz was similarly short sighted. While acknowledging that the
manmade opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and income inequality are
“systemic problems” and at levels “the likes of which we have not had in a long
time”, he failed to connect the cause (a remarkable dysfunctional and
inequitable health care system) with these effects.
As I outline in “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/ June 4, 2019), today’s greatest risk to continued progress and movement toward universal coverage and rational health planning is sloppy nomenclature. To avoid talking past each other, we need to define the terms of this debate while agreeing on common end points.
The demise of the ACA individual mandate, along with Trump’s and Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare in 2017, will trigger in election year 2018 a new phase of the long-running, bitter battle over the fate of ACA, the insurance marketplaces, and the direction of health reform in general.
Surprisingly, the Democrats appear to have the upper hand for the moment. Republican efforts to repeal the ACA in 2017 were deeply unpopular—only about 20 percent of the U.S. population supported them. Independents and moderate Republicans, in Congress and among voters, were notably opposed. And in the Senate, moderates killed the various ACA repeal bills (albeit by narrow margins).
The Republican tax bill is also unpopular.
Recent special election results in Virginia and Alabama—put Republicans off-balance and on-notice as well. In particular, the Alabama result bends the vote math in the Senate against any repeat ACA repeal efforts in 2018, and very likely beyond.
But, perhaps most surprising, the resurgence of interest in “coverage for all,” universal coverage, and “health care as a right” that started with Bernie Sander’s campaign in 2016 has continued to gain traction, even among some conservatives.
Remember back in 2012 when then Vice-President Joe Biden told us, “Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive”? The good old days. Also around the time Senators John McCain and Lisa Murkowski promised to repeal Obamacare. Along with a bunch of other Republicans seeking reelection to Congress.
Fast forward to 2017. The new catchphrase is “GOP is dead, Obamacare is alive.” At least their credibility is dead. Buried in the rubble of broken campaign promises. Not only Obamacare repeal, but also tax cuts, immigration enforcement, balanced budgets, reduced spending, and so on.
Repeal and replace, as a promise was simple enough on the campaign trail. We heard this promise in 2010, when voters gave the House to Republicans. We heard it again in 2012, when voters gave them the Senate. Despite controlling Congress, Obamacare remained alive and well. Candidate Donald Trump, along with most Republican members of Congress, promised repeal and replace last year.
Eight months into the Trump administration, Obamacare is still kicking. Congress had three bites of the apple this year and each time came up with a worm instead. This week was their third attempt to fix Obamacare. Not the promised repeal, instead only financial window dressing to keep Obamacare alive in some shape or form.
A seasoned colleague recently told me that some PowerPoint presentations have no power and make no point.
But sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Or maybe — in the case of any meaningful discussion of health reform, thanks to its density and complexity — it might be worth 10,000 words. Hence our handy little exhibit.
This picture captures the 10,000 words it would require to explain with technical precision where President Obama’s Affordable Care Act fits relative to all health reform plans. It places “ObamaCare” along an ideologically scaled continuum of all serious reform options developed, debated and discarded or ignored since the 1980s.
They are all here: from the single-payer, centrally controlled models popular with those who detest corporations and the influence of money in medicine — two actual, not imagined “government takeovers of health care” — to two free market, laissez-faire models favored by those who detest regulation and the heavy hand of government in medicine.