Reed Abelson and Gardiner Harris in the New York Times are questioning some of the key assumptions behind the Dartmouth Atlas of Health, which for twenty years has documented wide variations in Medicare utilization rates across the country and used that to claim huge savings could be obtained by rooting out waste in high-spending regions. In February, Harris reported on a commentary by Sloan-Kettering’s Peter Bach in the New England Journal of Medicine that argued the Dartmouth analysis failed to adjust for illness severity. I reported on the Medicare Payments Advisory Commission’s similar analysis here.
This time, the Times’ two most thoughtful health care reporters bring quality into the discussion. After describing a map in Office of Management and Budget director Peter Oszag’s office that divided the nation into low-spending beige regions and high-spending brown regions, they write:
For all anyone knows, patients could be dying in far greater numbers in hospitals in the beige regions than hospitals in the brown ones, and Dartmouth’s maps would not pick up that difference. As any shopper knows, cheaper does not always mean better. . . The debate about the Dartmouth work is important because a growing number of health policy researchers are finding that overhauling the nation’s health care system will be far harder and more painful than the Dartmouth work has long suggested. Cuts, if not made carefully, could cost lives.
For documentation, the reporters used quality data generated by the Wisconsin Collaborative on Healthcare Quality, which I wrote about a month ago for The Fiscal Times.
This is an important debate. But as is often the case in journalism, the attempt to reduce complex realities into a single-factor analysis that can be summarized in a headline or a single “why this story is important” paragraph can leave a mistaken impression. Regional variation in Medicare spending is one indicator of gross overutilization. Something is happening when a hospital in McAllen, Texas does twice as many knee implants per Medicare beneficiary as a hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (An earlier version of this post compared McAllen to Rochester, MN, which actually has a slightly higher rate of knee implants per 1,000 Medicare enrollees.)