The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recent announcement to move the Medicare program toward value-based payments is among the most promising recent developments in health care.
While changing the way we pay for care will not be easy, we believe that shifting away from fee-for-service to value-based payments could be a catalyst to a better, more affordable health care system in our country.
Three Benefits of Paying for Quality
There are numerous potential benefits to paying for quality rather than quantity, including the three we want to focus on today.
- We believe this payment shift has the potential to accelerate progress toward achieving the Triple Aim – defined as better individual care, better population care, and lower cost.
- We believe the payment shift by Medicare will accelerate the transition to value-based payments among commercial insurers – a major benefit to employers in terms of improved health for employees and greater affordability.
- We believe value-based payments have the potential to help slow – and possibly reverse – the epidemic of physician burnout in the United States, particularly among primary care doctors.Continue reading…
Since 2002, and possibly before, there have been moments of clarity and innovation in the health care sphere, from patient-centered to consumer-driven to value-based to outcomes design, from iPhone texts to wellness to electronic medical records to blue buttons and transparency. Yet the year 2015 will certainly be the standout year of transformation, most noted for the interstellar collision of all of these siloed ideas into the supernova Triple-A.
This is the year that the person reclaims his or her health.
The Triple A is not exactly the Triple AIM of Dr. Don Berwick (his is patient-centeredness, cost effectiveness and positive patient experience). Instead, this Triple A happens within and is directed by the person, whom we will identify as over age 18 and able to make decisions for him/her self.
The Triple A is marked by the following dimensions: Awareness, Activation and Accountability.
As the health insurance exchanges find their footing and potentially millions of Americans gain access to insurance, this may be a good time to step back and take a longer term view of the ACA. When you get down to it, expanding health insurance coverage was the easiest and least controversial part of health reform. There is no shortage of ways to expand health coverage and almost any credible health reform proposal would have done the job, provided enough money was thrown at the problem.
In designing the ACA, perhaps as a result of political pressure, President Obama opted for a combination of heavily subsidized individual insurance exchanges and generous expansions of Medicaid. Freed from political constraints, he might have instead pushed for the single payer system that many of his most ardent supporters desired. Republicans inclined to expand coverage (at least one of us is proof that unlike the unicorn these do exist) might have pushed for a pure voucher program that harnessed market forces.
All of these options would expand coverage to the degree that policymakers were willing to fund them. So while we congratulate the President for his political success (we doubt the other options could have made it through Congress), it is a simplistic mistake to evaluate the implementation of the ACA by counting the numbers of uninsured or waiting for the monthly updates on the enrollment figures from the exchanges website. Any regulator with a big enough purse can, in the fullness of time, expand access. Frankly, that’s the “easy” part of healthcare reform.
But what about the other elements of the so-called “triple aim” of health reform: cost and quality? You see, while we agree that liberal, moderate, and conservative health reforms can all improve coverage, they each will have very different effects on the other important outcomes. Consider for example the oft-discussed “Medicare for all”; i.e. a single payer system. This would increase access without the messiness of the exchanges. It would also allow the government to flex its monopsonistic muscles and quickly reduce costs – though likely at the expense of quality. In contrast, relying on markets may not reduce costs in the short run, and may not necessarily reward real quality (though it has a better short than single payer in this regard).
Evaluating health reform in the context of the “Triple Aim” is important, but even that approach is not nearly enough. There is a broad consensus among that technological change is the most important long run driver of cost and quality. It follows that the most important element of health reform is its impact on technological change.
To understand how technological change affects all of us, consider the profound impact of the top ten medical advances in the last ten years, as listed by CNN:
1. Sequencing the human genome
2. Stem cell research
3. HIV cocktails
4. Targeted cancer therapies.
5. Laparoscopic surgery
Since 1973, when Jack Wennberg published his first paper describing geographic variations in health care, researchers have argued about both the magnitude and the causes of variation. The argument gained greater policy relevance as U.S. health care spending reached 18 percent of GDP and as evidence mounted, largely from researchers at Dartmouth, that higher spending regions were failing to achieve better outcomes. The possibility of substantial savings not only helped to motivate reform but also raised the stakes in what had been largely an academic argument. Some began to raise questions about the Dartmouth research.
Today, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a committee report, led by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Newhouse and Provost Alan Garber, that weighs in on these issues.
The report, called for by the Affordable Care Act and entitled “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography,” deserves a careful read. The committee of 19 distinguished academics and policy experts spent several years documenting the causes and consequences of regional variations and developing solid policy recommendations on what to do about them. (Disclosure: We helped write a background study for the committee).
But for those trying to make health care better and more affordable, whether in Washington or in communities around the country, there are a few areas where the headlines are likely to gloss over important details in the report.
And we believe that the Committee risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater by appearing, through its choice of title, to turn its back on regional initiatives to improve both health and health care.
What the committee found
The report confirmed three core findings of Dartmouth’s research.
First, geographic variations in spending are substantial, pervasive and persistent over time — the variations are not just random noise. Second, adjusting for individuals’ age, sex, income, race, and health status attenuates these variations, but there’s still plenty that remain. Third, there is little or no correlation between spending and health care quality. The report also effectively identifies the puzzling empirical patterns that don’t fit conveniently into the Dartmouth framework, such as a lack of association between spending in commercial insurance and Medicare populations.
NEHI recently convened a meeting on health care innovation policy at which the Harvard economist David Cutler noted that debate over innovation has shifted greatly in the last decade. Not that long-running debates about the FDA, regulatory approvals, and drug and medical device development have gone away: far from it.
But these concerns are now matched or overshadowed by demands for proven value, proven outcomes and, increasingly, the Triple Aim, health care’s analog to the “faster, better, cheaper” goal associated with Moore’s Law.
To paraphrase Cutler, the market is demanding that cost come out of the system, that patient outcomes be held harmless if not improved, and it is demanding innovation that will do all this at once. Innovation in U.S. health care is no longer just about meeting unmet medical need. It is about improving productivity and efficiency as well.
In this new environment it‘s the science-driven innovators (the pharma, biotech, and medtech people) who seem like the old school players, despite their immersion in truly revolutionary fields such as genomic medicine. It’s the tech-driven innovators (the healthcare IT, predictive analytics, process redesign, practice transformation and mobile health people) who are the cool kids grabbing the attention and a good deal of the new money.
To make matters worse for pharma, biotech and medtech, long-held assumptions about our national commitment to science-driven innovation seem to be dissolving. There’s little hope for reversing significant cuts to the National Institutes of Health. User fee revenues painstakingly negotiated with the FDA just last year have only barely escaped sequestration this year. Bold initiatives like the Human Genome Project seem a distant memory; indeed, President Obama’s recently announced brain mapping project seems to barely register with the public and Congress.
While the nation has been focused on the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, innovations in hospitals and physician practices far from Capitol Hill have been triggering an historic transformation of our health care system. Propelled by a mix of urgency and vision, innovators at hospitals, physician groups and companies are remaking American health care by demonstrating that more effective and affordable care is achievable quite apart from statutory changes in Washington.
These organizations are working to achieve the Triple Aim: improve the health of the population; enhance the patient experience of care (including quality, access, and reliability); and reduce, or at least control, the per capita cost of care. This approach, developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, is a sharp break with the traditional focus on single encounters with patients within the strict walls of health care delivery, typically addressing only the most immediate problems.
In the battle over health care that lies ahead, how strongly will the public rally around the need for innovation in confronting health care costs? Does the public view innovation as relevant to the challenge in the first place?
These aren’t idle questions. The news that growth in overall national health care spending has been moderating has raised speculation that innovations in payment and health care delivery are already paying off, notwithstanding the unquestioned impact of the Great Recession.
Looking ahead, uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the likelihood of federal budget cuts yet to come has many fearing that innovations will be vulnerable. And it is not just federal spending that will be at risk. Hospitals and health plans will all be watching their margins carefully to assess how far and how fast they can keep making investments that support innovation (such as investments in healthcare IT, analytics and care coordination) but that may take months or years to generate a return.
All of which places the role of innovation in controlling costs center stage. After all, this is what undergirds the Triple Aim that so many health care leaders have embraced as the only realistic alternative to arbitrary cutbacks in health care services and spending. Health care leaders can defend innovation if they have public support. But do they?