A survey of 200 physicians under the age of 35 showed that 56% reported unhappiness with the current state of medicine. That number didn’t seem surprising to me at first. I was not particularly “happy” at the time of reading this survey either.
I’ve aspired to become an
oncologist for as long as I can remember. In oncology, despite my inability to
cure, I can always try to heal. I form connections with patients and their
families as they embark on a journey that is quite often their last. I learn
from my patients as much as, and at times more than, they learn from me.
But all of this is overshadowed by
a sense of heaviness that I frequently encounter as I enter the clinic room. That
sense of heaviness hits when a patient tells me of the time when they were placed
on a “brief hold” for more than half an hour in order to reach someone to get a
prescription refilled or reschedule an appointment. Or when their insurance refused
to cover the drug that I had prescribed to them. It is when I hear that clinic
visits or treatments are not scheduled due to insurance authorization delays. Or
when I’m asked about the cost of drugs and end up having to explain how nobody
By the time I hear these stories,
the “allotted time” for the clinic visit is coming to an end. The emotional
burden and physical symptoms of my patient’s cancer diagnosis or chemotherapy
side effects often not adequately addressed.
A class action legal ruling this month, on a case originally filed in 2014, found that UnitedHealthCare’s (UHC) mental health subsidiary, United Behavioral Health (UBH), established internal policies that discriminated against patients with behavioral health or substance abuse conditions. While an appeal is expected, patients with legitimate claims were systematically denied coverage, and employer/union purchasers who had paid for coverage for their employees and their family members received diminished or no value for their investments.
Central to the plaintiff’s argument was the fact that UBH developed its own clinical guidelines and ignored generally accepted standards of care. In the 106 page ruling, Judge Joseph C. Spero of the US District Court in Northern California wrote, “In every version of the Guidelines in the class period, and at every level of care that is at issue in this case, there is an excessive emphasis on addressing acute symptoms and stabilizing crises while ignoring the effective treatment of members’ underlying conditions.” He concluded that the emphasis was “pervasive and result[ed] in a significantly narrower scope of coverage than is consistent with generally accepted standards of care.” Judge Spero found that UBH’s cost-cutting focus “tainted the process, causing UBH to make decisions about Guidelines based as much or more on its own bottom line as on the interests of the plan members, to whom it owes a fiduciary duty.”
In a statement to FierceHealthcare, UnitedHealth said it “looks forward to demonstrating in the next phase of this case how our members received appropriate care…We remain committed to providing our members with access to the right care for the treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders.”
It is important to be clear about what transpired here. Based on evidence, a subsidiary of UnitedHealthCare, America’s second-largest health care firm, has been found in a court of law to have intentionally denied the coverage of thousands of patients filing claims. The organization justified the restrictions in coverage using internal guidelines tilted to favor financial performance rather than accepted standards of care. In other words, UBH’s leaders (as well as those at UHC) knowingly defrauded their customers and devised a mechanism to rationalize their scheme. In his ruling, Judge Spero described testimony by UHC representatives as “evasive — and even deceptive.”
During the health care reform debate, we wrote that most people’s attitudes to it were “confused, conflicted, clueless and cranky.” A major reason was that the American health care “system” is fiendishly complicated and few people really understand it. As a result hardly anyone knows much about what is actually in the reform bill (but that does not prevent them from having strong opinions about it). Sadly, the reforms, whatever their merits, will make the system even more complicated, the administration more Byzantine and the regulatory burden more onerous.
The American healthcare system is already by far the most complex and bureaucratic in the world. We were once asked to spend ninety minutes explaining American health care to a group of foreign health care executives. Ninety minutes? We probably needed a few weeks. Most other countries have relatively simple systems, whether insurance coverage is provided by a government plan or by private insurance or some combination of these. But in the United States insurance coverage, for those who have it, may be provided by Medicare Parts A, B, C, and D, 50 different state Medicaid programs (or MediCal in California), Medicare Advantage, Medigap plans, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, the Women, Infants and Children Program, the Veterans Administration, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the military, the hundreds of thousands of employer-provided plans and their insurance companies, or by the individual insurance market. This insurance may be paid for by the federal or state governments, by employers, labor unions or individuals. Some employers’ plans cover retirees, others do not. The result is that the system is pluralistic, mysterious, capricious and impossible for most patients and providers to understand.
The administrative complexity is amplified by the multiplicity of insurance plans. About half of all Americans with private health insurance are covered by self-insured plans, each with its own plan design. Employers customize their plan documents, led by consultants who make a good living designing their plans and tailoring their contracts. As one prominent consultant told us recently, if all the self-insured plan documents were piled on a table they would not just exceed the 2,700 pages of Obamacare, they would probably reach the moon. For the rest of the commercially insured population, health plans may be traditional indemnity plans, Preferred Provider Organizations or Health Maintenance Organizations.
The coverage provided by different plans varies dramatically. They may or may not include large or small deductibles, co-pays or co-insurance. Beneficiaries may pay a large, small or no part of their health insurance premiums. Some plans cover dependent family members and children, others do not. The Medicare Part D pharmaceutical benefit plan involves a “doughnut hole,” which will disappear as health reforms are implemented. Surveys have found that few people fully understand their own insurance plans let alone the bigger picture. While health reform takes some steps toward standardization of insurance offerings and improving transparency, overall it is likely to increase complexity.Continue reading…
“England and America are two great nations separated by a common language.”
-attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw
In 1965 I spent the summer of my third year in medical school at the General Practice Teaching Unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland because I wanted to learn more about the National Health Service (NHS). My impression then was that both the U.K. and U.S. medical care systems were evolving toward the same end result from very different directions. (1) That viewpoint has been reaffirmed by recent events. Both countries have embarked this past year on significant health care reform. Both countries are seeking to reduce costs, improve quality, become more patient-centered, and invest in health information technology (HIT). In both countries the majority of patients are highly satisfied with the NHS or Medicare and are vigilant about not giving up any of its benefits.
Both health care reform acts are being criticized for being too timid, or too bold, or too incremental, or too radical. The U.K. plan is being attacked by some as a disastrous turn toward privatization while the U.S. plan is “another step toward socialism”, i.e. very little change in the tenor since 1965. Vocal U.K. critics on the left decry the proposed move away from regulation (NHS) toward competition and market-place economics while the vocal U.S. critics on the right warn against more regulation and movement away from reliance on competition and market-place forces.
Increased Primary Care Support
The basic foundation of the NHS has always been General Practice physicians (GPs) who have no hospital privileges and refer all patients needing hospitalization to full-time hospital specialists (Consultants). (2) In 1965, and in 1996, such a separation of outpatient and inpatient medical practice was threatening to community physicians in the U.S. (3) Today it is difficult to recruit primary care physicians (and some specialists) to a community unless the hospital has hospitalists to care for inpatients. The community-based internist in U.S. is now more like the GP in U.K. then ever before, and that is not a bad thing.