By DANI BRADLEY MS, MPH
The United States is the only developed nation in the world with a steadily increasing maternal mortality rate — and C-sections are to blame. Nearly 32% of babies are born via C-section in the United States, a rate of double or almost triple what the World Health Organization recommends. While C-sections are an incredibly important life-saving intervention when vaginal delivery is too dangerous, they are not devoid of risks for mom or for baby. Hospitals and doctors alike are aware, as it’s been widely reported that unnecessary C-sections are dangerous — and hospitals and doctors agree that the number one way to reduce this risk is to choose a delivery hospital with low a C-section rate. However, information on hospitals’ C-section rates is incredibly hard to find, which leaves women in the dark as they try to make this important choice.
In an effort to help women make informed decisions about where to deliver their babies, we set out to collect a comprehensive, nationwide database of hospitals’ C-section rates. Knowing that the federal government mandates surveillance and reporting of vital statistics through the National Vital Statistics System, we contacted all 50 states’ (+Washington D.C.) Departments of Public Health (DPH) asking for access to de-identified birth data from all of their hospitals. What we learned might not surprise you — the lack of transparency in the United States healthcare system extends to quality information, and specifically C-section data.
Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with 47 million Americans uninsured, advocates and policy experts focused on expanding health insurance coverage for those who lacked it. Now that the law has broadened access to insurance, states are turning their attention to protecting enrollees from disruptions when they transition from one type of coverage to another, movement known as churn.
Churn is typically caused by a change in eligibility status, which itself stems from fluctuations in income, loss of a job, or changes in family circumstance, such as pregnancy. Short of a system, such as single-payer, where people may stay on the same plan for most of their lives, churn is inevitable. Indeed, in our fragmented health insurance system, millions of people naturally churn over the course of a given year, moving from employer-provided insurance to private insurance, or from private insurance to Medicaid, and so on. At low income levels, employment is particularly unstable, leading to high levels of churn among that population. For example, a newly-eligible Medicaid beneficiary (in an expansion state) who experiences a change in income over the course of a year—such as picking up an extra retail job during the holiday season—may lose his or her Medicaid eligibility as a result. Switching over to the exchange for new coverage could mean a totally different network of doctors, new drug formularies, and higher premiums and cost-sharing, not to mention the complexity and burden of going through a new and different enrollment process.
Is the ACA to blame for churn? No—in fact, the ACA directly reduces one form of churning, and offers tools to mitigate the impact of other forms. Before the ACA, millions churned off insurance coverage for all the reasons mentioned above. And after losing coverage, many people—especially those with preexisting conditions—found it hard, if not impossible, to get it back. Because the ACA makes the individual health insurance market more accessible and affordable, the law creates a new culture of coverage with a continuum of options, and actually cuts down on churning into uninsured status.
The otherworldy Obama Administration solution to the contraception firestorm might work politically but it makes no sense in the real world.
The President, hoping to quell a growing political firestorm, today announced a new policy that no longer requires religiously affiliated organizations to provide employees with contraception coverage in health-insurance plans.
Under the new policy, insurance companies will be required to offer free contraception for their employees and dependents. The administration’s idea is to shift the onus for the coverage from the employer to the insurer. Catholic leaders, and lots of other people, had objected to the requirement, which exempted churches but not hospitals, charities and universities with religious affiliations.
So, let’s just play a game here. The religious organization just pretends that it has nothing to do with it but the insurance company pays for it anyway. Hey, the insurance companies are rich.
Of course there is a cost. Today, contraception is almost universally covered in health insurance policies. The argument that forcing insurers to pay for it, without deductibles and copays, saves money because it avoids pregnancy costs is just plain silly.
My patient needed to be delivered. She had just developed eclampsia, a potentially fatal disease that afflicts women in the second half of pregnancy. She had suffered a seizure and dangerously high blood pressure, and was at risk for far worse, including a stroke. No one knows why this condition arises, but delivery sure clears it up in a hurry.
So we gave medication to start labor, and the nurses placed a fetal heart monitor.
Worn like a belt, but higher on the abdomen, the ultrasound monitor would play a crucial role in the hours to come. It prints a read-out strip of the baby’s heart rate, and the pattern would guide us in determining whether the delivery would be natural or through cesarean section.
As I suspected, the baby’s heart-rate strip showed worrisome changes soon after labor began, and I knew it would get worse as labor progressed. We would fight through the night to have a natural delivery. But ultimately that single heart-rate test, which is surprisingly unreliable, would be a key factor in whether my patient would get a C-section or not.
As I prepare for next week’s webinar on payment reform to align incentives with quality, I have been thinking a lot about how we pay for maternity care in this country, and the opportunities to rein in costs while improving the quality of care. I have concluded that we face both an unprecedented opportunity and an unprecedented responsibility to get serious about maternity care payment reform.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and newborn care are collectively the most common and expensive hospital conditions billed to both Medicaid and private insurers. The national hospital bill for maternity care totaled $98 billion in 2008 – and no other condition came close to this figure. (See more facts about costs on Childbirth Connection’s updated Facts and Figures page), With states across the country facing budget crises, strategies that responsibly reduce the Medicaid bill for births ought to be on the table, especially if we can do so while simultaneously improving quality. (More on that in a minute.)
What are the arguments for payment reform? They fall into a few categories:
- We’re paying too much
- Incentives and idiosyncrasies built into the current system virtually guarantee that we’ll continue to pay too much
- The payment system offers no accountability whatsoever for providing high quality care. In fact, it incents poor quality care.
Although maternity care seems to have been off the radar of those debating strategies to bend the cost curve, that seems to be changing. A flurry of recent articles and reports have demonstrated the points above: