By KIM BELLARD
Larry Levitt and Drew Altman have an op-ed in JAMA Network with the can’t-argue-with-that title Complexity in the US Health Care System Is the Enemy of Access and Affordability. It draws on a June 2023 Kaiser Family Foundation survey about consumer experiences with their health insurance. Long stories short: although – surprisingly – over 80% of insured adults rate their health insurance as “good” or “excellent,” most admit they have difficulty both understanding and using it. And the people in fair or poor health, who presumably use health care more, have more problems.
Health insurance is the target in this case, and it is a fair target, but I’d argue that you could pick almost any part of the healthcare system with similar results. Our healthcare system is perfect example of a Rube Goldberg machine, which Merriam Webster defines as “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.”
Health insurance is many people’s favorite villain, one that many would like to do without (especially doctors), but let’s not stop there. Healthcare is full of third parties/intermediaries/middlemen, which have led to the Rube Goldberg structure.
CMS doesn’t pay any Medicare claims itself; it hires third parties – Medicare Administrative Contactors (formerly known as intermediaries and carriers). So do employers who are self-insured (which is the vast majority of private health insurance), hiring third party administrators (who may sometimes also be health insurers) to do network management, claims payment, eligibility and billing, and other tasks.
Even insurers or third party administrators may subcontract to other third parties for things like provider credentialing, utilization review, or care management (in its many forms). Take, for example, the universally reviled PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers), who have carved out a big niche providing services between payors, pharmacies, and drug companies while raising increasing questions about their actual value.
Physician practices have long outsourced billing services. Hospitals and doctors didn’t develop their own electronic medical records; they contracted with companies like Epic or Cerner. Health care entities had trouble sharing data, so along came H.I.E.s – health information exchanges – to help move some of that data (and HIEs are now transitioning to QHINs – Qualified Health Information Networks, due to TEFCA).
And now we’re seeing a veritable Cambrian explosion of digital health companies, each thinking it can take some part of the health care system, put it online, and perhaps make some part of the healthcare experience a little less bad. Or, viewed from another perspective, add even more complexity to the Rube Goldberg machine.
On a recent THCB Gang podcast, we discussed HIEs. I agreed that HIEs had been developed for a good reason, and had done good work, but in this supposed era of interoperability they should be trying to put themselves out of business.
HIEs identified a pain point and found a way to make it a little less painful. Not to fix it, just to make it less bad. The healthcare system is replete with intermediaries that have workarounds which allow our healthcare system to lumber along. But once in place, they stay in place. Healthcare doesn’t do sunsetting well.
Unlike a true Rube Goldberg machine, though, there is no real design for our healthcare system. It’s more like evolution, where there are no style points, no efficiency goals, just credit for survival. Sure, sometimes you get a cat through evolution, but other times you get a naked mole rat or a hagfish. Healthcare has a lot more hagfish than cats.
I’m impressed with the creativity of many of these workarounds, but I’m awfully tired of needing them. I’m awfully tired of accepting that complexity is inherent in our healthcare system.Continue reading…