Health insurance companies are standing
in the way of many patients receiving affordable, quality healthcare. Insurance
companies have been denying patient claims for medical care, all while increasing
monthly premiums for most Americans. Many of the nation’s largest healthcare payers
are private “for-profit” companies that are focused on generating profits
through the healthcare system. Through a rigorous approval/denial system, health
insurance companies can dictate the type care patients receive. In some cases,
this has resulted in patients foregoing life-saving treatments or procedures.
In 2014, Aetna, one of the nation’s leading healthcare companies, denied coverage to Oklahoma native Orrana Cunningham, who had stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer near her brain stem. Her doctors suggested she undergo proton beam therapy, which is a targeted form of radiation that can pinpoint tumor cells, resulting in a decrease risk of potential blindness and other radiation side effects. Aetna found the study too experimental and denied coverage, which resulted in Orrana’s death. Aetna was forced to pay the Cunningham family $25.5 million.
In December of 2007, Cigna Healthcare, the largest healthcare payer in Philadelphia, denied coverage for Nataline Sarkisyan’s liver transplant. Natalie was diagnosed with leukemia and had recently received a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which caused complications to her liver. A specialist at UCLA requested she undergo a liver transplant, which is an expensive procedure that would result in a lengthy inpatient hospital stay for recovery. Cigna denied the procedure as they felt it was “too experimental and outside the scope of coverage”. They later reversed the decision, but Nataline passed away hours later at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.
Say you want to know which baseball players provide the most value for the big dollars they’re being paid. A Google search quickly yields analytics. But suppose your primary care physician just diagnosed you with cancer. What will a search for a “high value” cancer doctor tell you?
Public concern over bloated and unintelligible medical bills has prompted pushback ranging from an exposé by a satirical TV show to a government edict that hospitals list their prices online. But despite widespread agreement about the importance of high-value care, information about the clinical outcomes of individual physicians, which can put cost into perspective, is scarce. Even when information about quality of care is available, it’s often unreliable, outdated, or limited in scope.
For those who are sick and scared, posting health care price tags isn’t good enough. The glaring information gap about the quality of care must be eliminated.
“When people are comparison shopping, knowing the price of something is not enough,” notes Eric Schneider, a primary care physician and senior vice president of policy and research at the Commonwealth Fund. “People want to know the quality of the goods and services they’re buying.”
While it’s comforting to just blame the GOP for the unhappiness with health reform threatening the president’s re-election, the truth is that Barack Obama repeatedly botched, bungled and bobbled the health reform message. There were three big mistakes:
The Passionless Play
While Candidate Obama proclaimed a passionate moral commitment to fix American health care, President Obama delved into legislative details.
When a Baptist minister at a nationally televised town hall asked in mid-2009 whether reform would cause his benefits to be taxed due to “government taking over health care,” Candidate Obama might have replied that 22,000 of the minister’s neighbors die each year because they lack any benefits at all. Instead, President Obama’s three-part reply recapped his plans for tax code fairness.
While Republicans railed about mythical “death panels,” and angry Tea Party demonstrators held signs showing Obama with a Hitler moustache, the president opted to leave emotion to his opponents. The former grassroots organizer who inspired a million people of all ages and ethnicities to flock to Washington for his inauguration never once tried to mobilize ordinary Americans to demand a basic right available in all other industrialized nations. In fact, he hasn’t even mobilized the nearly 50 million uninsured, who have no more favorable opinion about the new law than those with health insurance!
Of all the provisions of the ACA, probably none has received greater attention from health insurers than the exchanges. Though the exchanges are expected to be the conduit for just a small fraction of all the insured at their start in 2014, they will be where most of the growth in health insurance lies. Given the rule that the individual exchanges must be integrated with Medicaid, their role will be critical for any insurer that wants to compete and grow in the individual or Medicaid markets. The dominance of the exchanges for growth in the small group and even the Medicare markets may not be not far behind. It should be no surprise if, eventually, all fully-insured business goes through the exchanges, leaving only self-insured plans outside.
So getting it right matters. Now is the time to think hard about getting it right, before the exchanges are created and inertia sets in. And, as some have argued, getting it right means that we think about the exchanges as places for people to choose their health care, not just their health insurance. So how should we do that?
Here is what we should not do: make it easy to choose care without considering both the quality and the cost of care delivered by the care system. It would be an enormous lost opportunity to improve consumer attitudes towards health care if we built the exchanges to make it easy for people to reason: “I like doctor A. Doctor A accepts insurance products X, Y and Z. Of these three, insurance product X seems to have the lowest cost, so I’ll choose product X.”
Don’t you think our military veterans deserve decent health care? I certainly do. That’s why I like Mitt Romney’s idea of setting the veterans free. Give them the opportunity to choose private health care alternatives to the Veterans Health Administration (V.H.A.), a system that too often fails them.
Why can’t we do for veterans what we do for seniors? About one in every four Medicare beneficiaries is not actually in Medicare. They have enrolled instead in private health insurance plans operated by such entities as Aetna, United Health Care, Cigna, etc. Why can’t we give people who risked their lives for the rest of us similar options?
You would think this idea is a no-brainer. But, just like the Grinch at Christmas time, you can always count on Paul Krugman of The New York Times to argue that being trapped is good, free to choose is bad, and government medicine is all anyone should ever have or need.
According to Krugman, “the V.H.A. [is] providing better care than most Americans receive” and it does so at a lower cost. He doesn’t stop there. Here is Krugman’s view of health care, worldwide:
The most efficient health care systems are integrated systems like the V.H.A.; next best are single-payer systems like Medicare; the more privatized the system, the worse it performs.
In other words, in the best of worlds we all would be getting veteran’s care, courtesy of the U.S. government!
The idea that physicians are going to be far less important in the medicine of the future seems to be a central assumption of many next-generation health companies, an assertion that, like undergraduate Shakespeare productions set in the present day, may once have felt daring and original, but now seems merely tedious.
The logic goes something like is: Patients are accustomed to seeking insight from their doctors but doctors are far less good at providing this advice than most patients realize. As more consumer-based tools for managing health become available, patients will recognize that they now have the means and the motivation to take care of their health better than their physicians, and medical care will move directly into their hands.
Arguably, a form of this already happens today, as patients make extensive use of non-prescription products (e.g. the Vitamin Shoppe reported net sales of $750 million in fiscal year 2010), non-traditional practitioners (e.g. total revenue received by chiropractors is estimated by Hoovers to be about $10 billion), and seek medical advice from friends on Facebook (which may have directly saved at least one life).
What these data don’t convey, however, is something I’ve had the privilege to experience first-hand: Doctors enjoy an exceptionally durable bond with patients — especially those patients with chronic illnesses. The level of trust reported by patients for their physicians is remarkable, and the role of physician as trusted adviser is difficult to overstate. It’s a huge burden to manage disease on one’s own, and it’s generally reassuring to know your physician is with you at every step — something I believe still happens, by the way, although obviously not in every case.
There have been a number of research studies published that question the value of Electronic Health Records (EHRs), particularly as it pertains to improving quality of care and ultimately outcomes. Chilmark has always viewed these reports with a certain amount of skepticism. Simple logic leads us to conclude that a properly installed (including attention to workflow and thorough training) of an enterprise software system such as an EHR will lead to a certain level of standardization in overall process flow, contribute to efficiencies and quality in care delivery and ultimately lead to better outcomes. But to date, there has been a dearth of evidence to support this logic, that is until this week.
Last week the New England Journal of Medicine published the research paper: Electronic Health Records and Quality of Diabetes Care, which provides clear evidence, albeit a little fuzzy around the edges, that physician use of an EHR significantly improves quality metrics over physicians who rely on paper-based medical record keeping processes.
The research effort took place in Cleveland as part of Better Health Greater Cleveland from July 2009 till June 2010 and included 46 practices representing some 569 providers and over 27K adults with diabetes who visited their physician at least twice during the study period. Several common quality and outcome measures were used to assess and compare EHR-based care to paper-based. On composite standards of quality, EHR-based practices performed a whooping 35% better than their paper-based counterparts. On outcome measures, which are arguably more difficult for physicians as patients’ actions or lack thereof are more integral to final outcomes, EHR-based practices still outperformed their paper-based peers by some 15%. The Table below gives a more detailed breakout.