I’ve never seen a week in health care policy like last week. The media reports have to be in the thousands, all trying to make sense of the furious debate between Obama and Romney over Medicare.
As someone who has studied this issue for more than 20 years, it has also been more than exasperating for me to watch each side trade claims and for the press to try to make sense of it.
This blog post is quite long because the subject matter is complicated. If you want to cut to the chase, see my conclusion and summary at the end of this post.
Allow me to list a few of the questions people are asking and give you my take on it.
Will current seniors suffer under the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan?
No. Let me start by saying something that will likely surprise you. If I could be king for a day, I would prohibit anyone over the age of 60 from voting in this election. This election is really about the future and the big decisions on the table are about the long-term government spending and entitlement issues that should be made by younger voters who will have to pay for them and will benefit or suffer from them.
Those in their 60s and older are almost surely going to cruise to the end with the benefits they now have.
Whether its Obama’s Medicare plan, based heavily on the Medicare cost control board imbedded in his health reform bill (which doesn’t begin to impact hospital costs until 2020), or the Romney/Ryan Medicare premium support plan (that has no effect on anyone now over the age of 55), today’s seniors’ benefits are insulated from this issue.
I was pleased to see the Chicago Tribune carry an op-ed piece this week by my friend and colleague Michael Millenson. The gist of the piece was that information about hospital quality is readily available online and we should use that information when choosing a hospital. Michael is right — there is no shortage of places to turn to get information about hospital quality. But I think he waxes too enthusiastic.
For one thing, it is not clear whether the widespread availability of quality information is a boon or a problem. Consider Medicare’s Hospital Compare website. Look up quality information for pneumonia and you are overwhelmed with nearly 20 different measures on four different web pages. I couldn’t possibly make sense of all this information even if I used sophisticated computer software; how could the average person sort through it all? One quality measure seems to stand out – mortality. But I wonder if this should be a major concern for pneumonia patients. Are we talking about 5 percent mortality rates, or 0.05 percent? I don’t know and Medicare won’t tell me.
HealthGrades.com is much simpler – it just reports mortality. The widely respected Leapfrog Group reports mortality for pneumonia and also reports another 8 general hospital quality measures, some of which are derived from even more measures.
When reading these report cards I find that my local hospital in Highland Park scores very well on mortality in the HealthGrades and Leapfrog reports but I can’t find it anywhere at the Medicare website. And I wonder if the low mortality rate is due to the hospital or due to the demographics of the patients. Michael Millenson pointed out that these report cards are risk adjusted, but he failed to mention that the available risk are pretty lousy – mostly controls for age, sex, and a few comorbidities. (Much better risk adjustment is possible but requires data not available to Medicare, HealthGrades, or Leapfrog.) Hospitals that get poor quality scores often report that their patients are sicker than the risk adjusters give them credit for. They might be right. Hospitals that get good scores never claim that their patients are healthier. Maybe they are hiding something.Continue reading…