As the next act of the Massachusetts health care drama plays out on Beacon Hill, the same characters return to the stage with a tired script. The ostensible hero of the production, the patient, is left to watch the tragedy from the back row.
Legislation being debated on Beacon Hill ignores patient-centered health plans and health savings accounts, or HSAs, which are lower-premium insurance plans that direct pre-tax dollars into a bank account to cover an individual’s current health care and save money for future medical expenses. An HSA is the most direct way to engage patients in the health system. They cover out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses, are fully portable, and owned by individuals for their entire lives.
Unlike the self-interested solutions of insurers, providers, and government, HSAs are a proven way to contain the cost of care.
Nationwide, 11.4 million people of all ages and income levels purchase patient-centered plans, up over 250 percent from 2006, when they were created. Among HSA account holders, fully half earn less than $60,000; almost three-quarters have children; and about half are over 40.
Safeway, one of America’s largest supermarket chains, rolled out a patient-centered plan in 2006; per capita health care spending shrank 13 percent, and costs remained flat for four consecutive years.
Safeway’s plans have reduced employee obesity and smoking rates to roughly 30 percent below national averages. This health dividend is priceless as 70 percent of health care costs are directly related to lifestyle decisions.
We are entering the season of presidential politics, of bunting and cries of “What about the children?” and star-spangled appeals to full-throated patriotism.
So here’s mine: Do you count yourself a patriot? Do you care about the future of this country? (And while we are at it, the future of your hospital.) If so, bend your efforts to find ways to care for the least cared for, the most difficult, the chronically complex poor and uninsured.
“But we can’t afford compassion!” Wrong, brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to do without compassion. “But why should we pay to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves?” Because we are (you are) already paying for them — so let’s find the way we can pay the least.
The problem of the overwhelming cost of the “frequent fliers,” people with multiple poorly tracked chronic conditions, has always been that the cost was an SEP — “somebody else’s problem.” Now, increasingly, hospitals and health systems are finding that they are unable to avoid the crushing costs of pretending it’s not their problem, are not being paid for re-admits, and are finding themselves in one way or another at risk for the health of whole populations. They’re also facing more stringent IRS 990 demands that they demonstrate a clear, accountable public benefit.
At the same time, employers and payers are realizing that they end up paying the costs of the uninsured as well as those of the insured who are over-using the system because they are not being tracked. These costs become part of the costs of the system, and the costs are (and must be) shifted to those who do pay. There is no magic money well under the hospital.
Durably improving health is really, really hard.
I’ve discussed this in the context of drug discovery, which must contend with the ever-more-apparent reality that biology is incredibly complex, and science remarkably fragile. I’ve discussed this in the context of patient behavior, focusing on the need to address what Sarah Cairns-Smith and I have termed the “behavior gap.”
Here, I’d like to focus on a third challenge: measuring and improving the quality of patient care.
I’ve previously highlighted the challenges faced by Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins in getting physicians to adhere to basic checklists, or to regularly do something as simple and as useful as washing hands, topics that have been discussed extensively and in a compelling fashion by Atul Gawande and others.
Several recent reports further highlight just how difficult it can be not only to improve quality but also to measure it.
Consider the recent JAMA article (abstract only) by Lindenauer et al. analyzing why the mortality rate of pneumonia seems to have dropped so dramatically from 2003-2009. Originally, this had been attributed to a combination of quality initiatives (including a focus on processes of care) and clinical advances. The new research, however, suggests a much more prosaic explanation: a change in the way hospitals assign diagnostic codes to patients; thus, while rates for hospitalization due to a primary diagnosis of pneumonia decreased by 27%, the rates for hospitalization for sepsis with a secondary diagnosis of pneumonia increased by 178%, as Sarrazin and Rosenthal highlight in an accompanying editorial (public access not available).
Working in the health care space has forced me to give up many hopes and expectations that I had a few years ago. Forgive me for being cynical (it’s an easy feeling to have following the country’s largest health IT conference, as I reported a month ago), and indeed some positive trends do step in to shore up hope. I’ll go over the redeeming factors after listing the five tough lessons.
1. The health care field will not adopt a Silicon Valley mentality
Wild, willful, ego-driven experimentation–a zeal for throwing money after intriguing ideas with minimal business plans–has seemed work for the computer field, and much of the world is trying to adopt a “California optimism.” A lot of venture capitalists and technology fans deem this attitude the way to redeem health care from its morass of expensive solutions that don’t lead to cures. But it won’t happen, at least not the way they paint it.
Health care is one of the most regulated fields in public life, and we want it that way. From the moment we walk into a health facility, we expect the staff to be following rigorous policies to avoid infections. (They don’t, but we expect them to.) And not just anybody can set up a shield outside the door and call themselves a doctor. In the nineteenth century it was easier, but we don’t consider that a golden age of medicine.
Instead, doctors go through some of the longest and most demanding training that exists in the world today. And even after they’re licensed, they have to regularly sign up for continuing education to keep practicing. Other fields in medicine are similar. The whole industry is constrained by endless requirements that make sure the insiders remain in their seats and no “disruptive technologies” raise surprises. Just ask a legal expert about the complex mesh of Federal and state regulations that a health care provider has to navigate to protect patient privacy–and you do want your medical records to be private, don’t you?–before you rave about the Silicon Valley mentality. Also read the O’Reilly book by Fred Trotter and David Uhlman about the health care system as it really is.
If there’s one thing everyone in Washington can agree on it’s that prevention is good. And that’s about as far as the agreement goes.
As for the rest of it – who is responsible for prevention, how to define prevention, what is the government’s role in prevention, how much to spend on prevention and when to spend it – is not so clear, and wrapped up in the bitter politics (and difficult economics) of the day.
Then, there’s the question of the Prevention and Public Health Fund created by the Affordable Care Act to enable states and communities to try to prevent illness and promote longer, healthier lives. To backers of the law, the fund is an engine for public health, community transformation, and a pivotal part of the effort to create a “health care” system instead of a “sick care” system.
To foes, it’s a “slush fund”, a $13.8 billion monument to everything they don’t like about the 2010 legislation. It’s $13.8 billion that could easily end up on one of the deficit-cutting chopping blocks.