Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) has been knocked for its alleged unintended consequences. The bill’s attracted speculation that workers will lose their health plans, college grads will stop looking for jobs, and even that fewer people will get married.
Those are just the effects related to insurance regulations. Less attention has been given to how hospitals and health systems might change after ObamaCare.
The most common theory is that reform causes consolidation. But what if the effect on hospitals is even more radical? What if the legislation changes the largely nonprofit nature of the industry?
Right now approximately 60% of the 6,000 or so hospitals in the U.S. are nonprofit, while 25% are government-owned. The rest–fewer than 1,000–are for-profit. There’s a reason the pie cuts this way.
Religious groups, especially Catholic orders, opened many of these facilities as charitable institutions. (Ever driven by a hospital with Mercy in its name?)
Then during the post-war infrastructure boom the federal government offered subsidies to cities that wanted hospitals. Getting the money required nonprofit tax status and a promise to provide “community benefit.”
Governor Patrick signed a new healthcare law today aimed at cost containment, and the rhetoric soared assuring all that Massachusetts has “cracked the code on healthcare costs.” Unfortunately, with no debate on the underlying bill in the House of Representatives and only little debate in the State Senate, the 349-page statute, which was released just 14 hours before the legislative final vote, is little understood and brimming with unintended consequences.
Real cost-containment is only possible when we encourage patients to reward low-cost, high-quality providers with their business. We’ve said it over and over again throughout this process.
Instead, the law being signed today re-imagines and repackages so many failed top-down approaches from the past. The acronyms may have changed, but this bill looks a lot like past approaches that trusted government, not patients, to drive big, systematic changes in how we purchase healthcare. For some reason our state policymakers expect completely different results this time around.
Rather than provide financial incentives for individual patients to take charge of their own medical care, this legislation rearranges the system based on accountable care organizations (ACOs) and governmentally-imposed changes in payment methods. Real-life evidence that these approaches contain costs is mixed at best; as a result, the law misses the mark by a long shot and will not lead to long-term, sustainable containment of health care costs.
When the Supreme Court ruled that President Obama’s sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system was constitutional, about the only thing critics and supporters could agree on was the historic importance of the legislation itself. But if history is any guide, there will be one other inescapable truth: The Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2010 will generate the same unintended consequences that have shaped, distorted, and even perverted so many other important pieces of legislation in our nation’s history.
Whether tackling social security, veterans’ benefits, civil rights or immigration reform, Congress has demonstrated over the past 75 years that when it addresses significant social issues with complicated legislation, the results will, more often than not, vary dramatically from what was originally intended. In some instances, as in the case of the GI Bill, the impact was broader than the original drafters could have dared to hope. More commonly, as in the case of social security or immigration reform, a small detail has ended up undermining the loftiest goals of the original bill.
A general rule of thumb for determining how likely a bill is to veer off course is to ask how ambitious the legislation is: the more far-reaching, the more likely it is to produce unanticipated consequences. As we saw with health care reform, big, complicated laws are often the product of partisan brokering and compromise that makes their “intent” ambiguous and open to interpretation. That gives enormous power to the government bureaucrats charged with enforcing the law, and to the courts that are inevitably called upon to settle the conflicts. The gap that opens between the bill’s lofty goals and its often haphazard implementation is the breeding ground for unforeseen results.