A Prescription For the Health Care Crisis

With all the shouting going on about America’s health care crisis, many are probably finding it difficult to concentrate, much less understand the cause of the problems confronting us. I find myself dismayed at the tone of the discussion (though I understand it—people are scared) as well as bemused that anyone would presume themselves sufficiently … Continue reading “A Prescription For the Health Care Crisis”

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With all the shouting going on about America’s health care crisis, many are probably finding it difficult to concentrate, much less understand the cause of the problems confronting us. I find myself dismayed at the tone of the discussion (though I understand it—people are scared) as well as bemused that anyone would presume themselves sufficiently qualified to know how to best improve our health care system simply because they’ve encountered it, when people who’ve spent entire careers studying it (and I don’t mean politicians) aren’t sure what to do themselves.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that if he had an hour to save the world he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes solving it. Our health care system is far more complex than most who are offering solutions admit or recognize, and unless we focus most of our efforts on defining its problems and thoroughly understanding their causes, any changes we make are just likely to make them worse as they are better.

Though I’ve worked in the American health care system as a physician since 1992 and have seven year’s worth of experience as an administrative director of primary care, I don’t consider myself qualified to thoroughly evaluate the viability of most of the suggestions I’ve heard for improving our health care system. I do think, however, I can at least contribute to the discussion by describing some of its troubles, taking reasonable guesses at their causes, and outlining some general principles that should be applied in attempting to solve them.

THE PROBLEM OF COST

No one disputes that health care spending in the U.S. has been rising dramatically. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), health care spending is projected to reach $8,160 per person per year by the end of 2009 compared to the $356 per person per year it was in 1970. This increase occurred roughly 2.4% faster than the increase in GDP over the same period. Though GDP varies from year-to-year and is therefore an imperfect way to assess a rise in health care costs in comparison to other expenditures from one year to the next, we can still conclude from this data that over the last 40 years the percentage of our national income (personal, business, and governmental) we’ve spent on health care has been rising.

Despite what most assume, this may or may not be bad. It all depends on two things: the reasons why spending on health care has been increasing relative to our GDP and how much value we’ve been getting for each dollar we spend.

WHY HAS HEALTH CARE BECOME SO COSTLY?

This is a harder question to answer than many would believe. The rise in the cost of health care (on average 8.1% per year from 1970 to 2009, calculated from the data above) has exceeded the rise in inflation (4.4% on average over that same period), so we can’t attribute the increased cost to inflation alone. Health care expenditures are known to be closely associated with a country’s GDP (the wealthier the nation, the more it spends on health care), yet even in this the United States remains an outlier (figure 3).

Is it because of spending on health care for people over the age of 75 (five times what we spend on people between the ages of 25 and 34)? In a word, no. Studies show this demographic trend explains only a small percentage of health expenditure growth.

Is it because of monstrous profits the health insurance companies are raking in? Probably not. It’s admittedly difficult to know for certain as not all insurance companies are publicly traded and therefore have balance sheets available for public review. But Aetna, one of the largest publicly traded health insurance companies in North America, reported a 2009 second quarter profit of $346.7 million, which, if projected out, predicts a yearly profit of around $1.3 billion from the approximately 19 million people they insure. If we assume their profit margin is average for their industry (even if untrue, it’s unlikely to be orders of magnitude different from the average), the total profit for all private health insurance companies in America, which insured 202 million people (2nd bullet point) in 2007, would come to approximately $13 billion per year. Total health care expenditures in 2007 were $2.2 trillion (see Table 1, page 3), which yields a private health care industry profit approximately 0.6% of total health care costs (though this analysis mixes data from different years, it can perhaps be permitted as the numbers aren’t likely different by any order of magnitude).

Is it because of health care fraud? Estimates of losses due to fraud range as high as 10% of all health care expenditures, but it’s hard to find hard data to back this up. Though some percentage of fraud almost certainly goes undetected, perhaps the best way to estimate how much money is lost due to fraud is by looking at how much the government actually recovers. In 2006, this was $2.2 billion, only 0.1% of $2.1 trillion (see Table 1, page 3) in total health care expenditures for that year.

Is it due to pharmaceutical costs? In 2006, total expenditures on prescription drugs was approximately $216 billion (see Table 2, page 4). Though this amounted to 10% of the $2.1 trillion (see Table 1, page 3) in total health care expenditures for that year and must therefore be considered significant, it still remains only a small percentage of total health care costs.

Is it from administrative costs? In 1999, total administrative costs were estimated to be $294 billion, a full 25% of the $1.2 trillion (Table 1) in total health care expenditures that year. This was a significant percentage in 1999 and it’s hard to imagine it’s shrunk to any significant degree since then.

In the end, though, what probably has contributed the greatest amount to the increase in health care spending in the U.S. are two things:

1. Technological innovation.

2. Overutilization of health care resources by both patients and health care providers themselves.

Technological innovation. Data that proves increasing health care costs are due mostly to technological innovation is surprisingly difficult to obtain, but estimates of the contribution to the rise in health care costs due to technological innovation range anywhere from 40% to 65% (Table 2, page 8). Though we mostly only have empirical data for this, several examples illustrate the principle. Heart attacks used to be treated with aspirin and prayer. Now they’re treated with drugs to control shock, pulmonary edema, and arrhythmias as well as thrombolytic therapy, cardiac catheterization with angioplasty or stenting, and coronary artery bypass grafting. You don’t have to be an economist to figure out which scenario ends up being more expensive. We may learn to perform these same procedures more cheaply over time (the same way we’ve figured out how to make computers cheaper) but as the cost per procedure decreases, the total amount spent on each procedure goes up because the number of procedures performed goes up. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is 25% less than the price of an open cholecystectomy, but the rates of both have increased by 60%. As technological advances become more widely available they become more widely used, and one thing we’re great at doing in the United States is making technology available.

Overutilization of health care resources by both patients and health care providers themselves. We can easily define overutilization as the unnecessary consumption of health care resources. What’s not so easy is recognizing it. Every year from October through February the majority of patients who come into the Urgent Care Clinic at my hospital are, in my view, doing so unnecessarily. What are they coming in for? Colds. I can offer support, reassurance that nothing is seriously wrong, and advice about over-the-counter remedies—but none of these things will make them better faster (though I often am able to reduce their level of concern). Further, patients have a hard time believing the key to arriving at a correct diagnosis lies in history gathering and careful physical examination rather than technologically-based testing (not that the latter isn’t important—just less so than most patients believe). Just how much patient-driven overutilization costs the health care system is hard to pin down as we have mostly only anecdotal evidence as above.

Further, doctors often disagree among themselves about what constitutes unnecessary health care consumption. In his excellent article, “The Cost Conundrum,” Atul Gawande argues that regional variation in overutilization of health care resources by doctors best accounts for the regional variation in Medicare spending per person. He goes on to argue that if doctors could be motivated to rein in their overutilization in high-cost areas of the country, it would save Medicare enough money to keep it solvent for 50 years.

A reasonable approach. To get that to happen, however, we need to understand why doctors are overutilizing health care resources in the first place:

1. Judgment varies in cases where the medical literature is vague or unhelpful. When faced with diagnostic dilemmas or diseases for which standard treatments haven’t been established, a variation in practice invariably occurs. If a primary care doctor suspects her patient has an ulcer, does she treat herself empirically or refer to a gastroenterologist for an endoscopy? If certain “red flag” symptoms are present, most doctors would refer. If not, some would and some wouldn’t depending on their training and the intangible exercise of judgment.

2. Inexperience or poor judgment. More experienced physicians tend to rely on histories and physicals more than less experienced physicians and consequently order fewer and less expensive tests. Studies suggest primary care physicians spend less money on tests and procedures than their sub-specialty colleagues but obtain similar and sometimes even better outcomes.

3. Fear of being sued. This is especially common in Emergency Room settings, but extends to almost every area of medicine.

4. Patients tend to demand more testing rather than less. As noted above. And physicians often have difficulty refusing patient requests for many reasons (eg, wanting to please them, fear of missing a diagnosis and being sued, etc).

5. In many settings, overutilization makes doctors more money. There exists no reliable incentive for doctors to limit their spending unless their pay is capitated or they’re receiving a straight salary.

Gawande’s article implies there exists some level of utilization of health care resources that’s optimal: use too little and you get mistakes and missed diagnoses; use too much and excess money gets spent without improving outcomes, paradoxically sometimes resulting in outcomes that are actually worse (likely as a result of complications from all the extra testing and treatments).

How then can we get doctors to employ uniformly good judgment to order the right number of tests and treatments for each patient—the “sweet spot”—in order to yield the best outcomes with the lowest risk of complications? Not easily. There is, fortunately or unfortunately, an art to good health care resource utilization. Some doctors are more gifted at it than others. Some are more diligent about keeping current. Some care more about their patients. An explosion of studies of medical tests and treatments has occurred in the last several decades to help guide doctors in choosing the most effective, safest, and even cheapest ways to practice medicine, but the diffusion of this evidence-based medicine is a tricky business. Just because beta blockers, for example, have been shown to improve survival after heart attacks doesn’t mean every physician knows it or provides them. Data clearly show many don’t. How information spreads from the medical literature into medical practice is a subject worthy of an entire post unto itself. Getting it to happen uniformly has proven extremely difficult.

In summary, then, most of the increase in spending on health care seems to have come from technological innovation coupled with its overuse by doctors working in systems that motivate them to practice more medicine rather than better medicine, as well as patients who demand the former thinking it yields the latter.

But even if we could snap our fingers and magically eliminate all overutilization today, health care in the U.S. would still remain among the most expensive in the world, requiring us to ask next—

WHAT VALUE ARE WE GETTING FOR THE DOLLARS WE SPEND?

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled The Burden of Health Care Costs for Working Families—Implications for Reform, growth in health care spending “can be defined as affordable as long as the rising percentage of income devoted to health care does not reduce standards of living. When absolute increases in income cannot keep up with absolute increases in health care spending, health care growth can be paid for only by sacrificing consumption of goods and services not related to health care.” When would this ever be an acceptable state of affairs? Only when the incremental cost of health care buys equal or greater incremental value. If, for example, you were told that in the near future you’d be spending 60% of your income on health care but that as a result you’d enjoy, say, a 30% chance of living to the age of 250, perhaps you’d judge that 60% a small price to pay.

This, it seems to me, is what the debate on health care spending really needs to be about. Certainly we should work on ways to eliminate overutilization. But the real question isn’t what absolute amount of money is too much to spend on health care. The real question is what are we getting for the money we spend and is it worth what we have to give up?

People alarmed by the notion that as health care costs increase policymakers may decide to ration health care don’t realize that we’re already rationing at least some of it. It just doesn’t appear as if we are because we’re rationing it on a first-come-first-serve basis—leaving it at least partially up to chance rather than to policy, which we’re uncomfortable defining and enforcing. Thus we don’t realize the reason our 90 year-old father in Illinois can’t have the liver he needs is because a 14 year-old girl in Alaska got in line first (or maybe our father was in line first and gets it while the 14 year-old girl doesn’t). Given that most of us remain uncomfortable with the notion of rationing health care based on criteria like age or utility to society, as technological innovation continues to drive up health care spending, we very well may at some point have to make critical judgments about which medical innovations are worth our entire society sacrificing access to other goods and services (unless we’re so foolish as to repeat the critical mistake of believing we can keep borrowing money forever without ever having to pay it back).

So what value are we getting? It varies. The risk of dying from a heart attack has declined by 66% since 1950 as a result of technological innovation. Because cardiovascular disease ranks as the number one cause of death in the U.S. this would seem to rank high on the scale of value as it benefits a huge proportion of the population in an important way. As a result of advances in pharmacology, we can now treat depression, anxiety, and even psychosis far better than anyone could have imagined even as recently as the mid-1980’s (when Prozac was first released). Clearly, then, some increases in health care costs have yielded enormous value we wouldn’t want to give up.

But how do we decide whether we’re getting good value from new innovations? Scientific studies must prove the innovation (whether a new test or treatment) actually provides clinically significant benefit (Aricept is a good example of a drug that works but doesn’t provide great clinical benefit—demented patients score higher on tests of cognitive ability while on it but probably aren’t significantly more functional or significantly better able to remember their children compared to when they’re not). But comparative effectiveness studies are extremely costly, take a long time to complete, and can never be perfectly applied to every individual patient, all of which means some health care provider always has to apply good medical judgment to every patient problem.

Who’s best positioned to judge the value to society of the benefit of an innovation—that is, to decide if an innovation’s benefit justifies its cost? I would argue the group that ultimately pays for it: the American public. How the public’s views could be reconciled and then effectively communicated to policy makers efficiently enough to affect actual policy, however, lies far beyond the scope of this post (and perhaps anyone’s imagination).

THE PROBLEM OF ACCESS

A significant proportion of the population is uninsured or underinsured, limiting or eliminating their access to health care. As a result, this group finds the path of least (and cheapest) resistance—emergency rooms—which has significantly impaired the ability of our nation’s ER physicians to actually render timely emergency care. In addition, surveys suggest a looming primary care physician shortage relative to the demand for their services. In my view, this imbalance between supply and demand explains most of the poor customer service patients face in our system every day: long wait times for doctors’ appointments, long wait times in doctors’ offices once their appointment day arrives, then short times spent with doctors inside exam rooms, followed by difficulty reaching their doctors in between office visits, and finally delays in getting test results. This imbalance would likely only partially be alleviated by less health care overutilization by patients.

GUIDELINES FOR SOLUTIONS

As Freaknomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner state, “If morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.” Capitalism is based on the principle of enlightened self-interest, a system that creates incentives to yield behavior that benefits both suppliers and consumers and thus society as a whole. But when incentives get out of whack, people begin to behave in ways that continue to benefit them often at the expense of others or even at their own expense down the road. Whatever changes we make to our health care system (and there’s always more than one way to skin a cat), we must be sure to align incentives so that the behavior that results in each part of the system contributes to its sustainability rather than its ruin.

Here then is a summary of what I consider the best recommendations I’ve come across to address the problems I’ve outlined above:

1. Change the way insurance companies think about doing business. Insurance companies have the same goal as all other businesses: maximize profits. And if a health insurance company is publicly traded and in your 401k portfolio, you want them to maximize profits, too. Unfortunately, the best way for them to do this is to deny their services to the very customers who pay for them. It’s harder for them to spread risk (the function of any insurance company) relative to say, a car insurance company, because far more people make health insurance claims than car insurance claims. It would seem, therefore, from a consumer perspective, the private health insurance model is fundamentally flawed. We need to create a disincentive for health insurance companies to deny claims (or, conversely, an extra incentive for them to pay them). Allowing and encouraging aross-state insurance competition would at least partially engage free market forces to drive down insurance premiums as well as open up new markets to local insurance companies, benefiting both insurance consumers and providers. With their customers now armed with the all-important power to go elsewhere, health insurance companies might come to view the quality with which they actually provide service to their customers (ie, the paying out of claims) as a way to retain and grow their business. For this to work, monopolies or near-monopolies must be disbanded or at the very least discouraged. Even if it does work, however, government will probably still have to tighten regulation of the health insurance industry to ensure some of the heinous abuses that are going on now stop (for example, insurance companies shouldn’t be allowed to stratify consumers into sub-groups based on age and increase premiums based on an older group’s higher average risk of illness because healthy older consumers then end up being penalized for their age rather than their behaviors). Karl Denninger suggests some intriguing ideas in a post on his blog about requiring insurance companies to offer identical rates to businesses and individuals as well as creating a mandatory “open enrollment” period in which participants could only opt in or out of a plan on a yearly basis. This would prevent individuals from only buying insurance when they got sick, eliminating the adverse selection problem that’s driven insurance companies to deny payment for pre-existing conditions. I would add that, however reimbursement rates to health care providers are determined in the future (again, an entire post unto itself), all health insurance plans, whether private or public, must reimburse health care providers by an equal percentage to eliminate the existence of “good” and “bad” insurance that’s currently responsible for motivating hospitals and doctors to limit or even deny service to the poor and which may be responsible for the same thing occurring to the elderly in the future (Medicare reimburses only slightly better than Medicaid). Finally, regarding the idea of a “public option” insurance plan open to all, I worry that if it’s significantly cheaper than private options while providing near-equal benefits the entire country will rush to it en masse, driving private insurance companies out of business and forcing us all to subsidize one another’s health care with higher taxes and fewer choices; yet at the same time if the cost to the consumer of a “public option” remains comparable to private options, the very people it’s meant to help won’t be able to afford it.

2. Motivate the population to engage in healthier lifestyles that have been proven to prevent disease. Prevention of disease probably saves money, though some have argued that living longer increases the likelihood of developing diseases that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred, leading to the overall consumption of more health care dollars (though even if that’s true, those extra years of life would be judged by most valuable enough to justify the extra cost. After all, the whole purpose of health care is to improve the quality and quantity of life, not save society money. Let’s not put the cart before the horse). However, the idea of preventing a potentially bad outcome sometime in the future is only weakly motivating psychologically, explaining why so many people have so much trouble getting themselves to exercise, eat right, lose weight, stop smoking, etc. The idea of financially rewarding desirable behavior and/or financially punishing undesirable behavior is highly controversial. Though I worry this kind of strategy risks the enacting of policies that may impinge on basic freedoms if taken too far, I’m not against thinking creatively about how we could leverage stronger motivational forces to help people achieve health goals they themselves want to achieve. After all, most obese people want to lose weight. Most smokers want to quit. They might be more successful if they could find more powerful motivation.

3. Decrease overutilization of health care resources by doctors. I’m in agreement with Gawande that finding ways to get doctors to stop overutilizing health care resources is a worthy goal that will significantly rein in costs, that it will require a willingness to experiment, and that it will take time. Further, I agree that focusing only on who pays for our health care (whether the public or private sectors) will fail to address the issue adequately. But how exactly can we motivate doctors, whose pens are responsible for most of the money spent on health care in this country, to focus on what’s truly best for their patients? The idea that external bodies—whether insurance companies or government panels—could be used to set standards of care doctors must follow in order to control costs strikes me as ludicrous. Such bodies have neither the training nor overriding concern for patients’ welfare to be trusted to make those judgments. Why else do we have doctors if not to employ their expertise to apply nuanced approaches to complex situations? As long as they work in a system free of incentives that compete with their duty to their patients, they remain in the best position to make decisions about what tests and treatments are worth a given patient’s consideration, as long as they’re careful to avoid overconfident paternalism (refusing to obtain a head CT for a headache might be overconfidently paternalistic; refusing to offer chemotherapy for a cold isn’t). So perhaps we should eliminate any financial incentive doctors have to care about anything but their patients’ welfare, meaning doctors’ salaries should be disconnected from the number of surgeries they perform and the number of tests they order, and should instead be set by market forces. This model already exists in academic health care centers and hasn’t seemed to promote shoddy care when doctors feel they’re being paid fairly. Doctors need to earn a good living to compensate for the years of training and massive amounts of debt they amass, but no financial incentive for practicing more medicine should be allowed to attach itself to that good living.

4. Decrease overutilization of health care resources by patients. This, it seems to me, requires at least three interventions:

* Making available the right resources for the right problems (so that patients aren’t going to the ER for colds, for example, but rather to their primary care physicians). This would require hitting the “sweet spot” with respect to the number of primary care physicians, best at front-line gatekeeping, not of health care spending as in the old HMO model, but of triage and treatment. It would also require a recalculating of reimbursement levels for primary care services relative to specialty services to encourage more medical students to go into primary care (the reverse of the alarming trend we’ve been seeing for the last decade).

* A massive effort to increase the health literacy of the general public to improve its ability to triage its own complaints (so patients don’t actually go anywhere for colds or demand MRIs of their backs when their trusted physicians tells them it’s just a strain). This might be best accomplished through a series of educational programs (though given that no one in the private sector has an incentive to fund such programs, it might actually be one of the few things the government should—we’d just need to study and compare different educational programs and methods to see which, if any, reduce unnecessary patient utilization without worsening outcomes and result in more health care savings than they cost).

* Redesigning insurance plans to make patients in some way more financially liable for their health care choices. We can’t have people going bankrupt due to illness, nor do we want people to underutilize health care resources (avoiding the ER when they have chest pain, for example), but neither can we continue to support a system in which patients are actually motivated to overutilize resources, as the current “pre-pay for everything” model does.

CONCLUSION

Given the enormous complexity of the health care system, no single post could possibly address every problem that needs to be fixed. Significant issues not raised in this article include the challenges associated with rising drug costs, direct-to-consumer marketing of drugs, end-of-life care, sky-rocketing malpractice insurance costs, the lack of cost transparency that enables hospitals to paradoxically charge the uninsured more than the insured for the same care, extending health care insurance coverage to those who still don’t have it, improving administrative efficiency to reduce costs, the implementation of electronic medical records to reduce medical error, the financial burden of businesses being required to provide their employees with health insurance, and tort reform. All are profoundly interdependent, standing together like the proverbial house of cards. To attend to any one is to affect them all, which is why rushing through health care reform without careful contemplation risks unintended and potentially devastating consequences. Change does need to come, but if we don’t allow ourselves time to think through the problems clearly and cleverly and to implement solutions in a measured fashion, we risk bringing down that house of cards rather than cementing it.

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Health Care Reform – Why Are People So Worked Up?

Why are Americans so worked up about health care reform? Statements such as “don’t touch my Medicare” or “everyone should have access to state of the art health care irrespective of cost” are in my opinion uninformed and visceral responses that indicate a poor understanding of our health care system’s history, its current and future resources and the funding challenges that America faces going forward. While we all wonder how the health care system has reached what some refer to as a crisis stage. Let’s try to take some of the emotion out of the debate by briefly examining how health care in this country emerged and how that has formed our thinking and culture about health care. With that as a foundation let’s look at the pros and cons of the Obama administration health care reform proposals and let’s look at the concepts put forth by the Republicans?

Access to state of the art health care services is something we can all agree would be a good thing for this country. Experiencing a serious illness is one of life’s major challenges and to face it without the means to pay for it is positively frightening. But as we shall see, once we know the facts, we will find that achieving this goal will not be easy without our individual contribution.

These are the themes I will touch on to try to make some sense out of what is happening to American health care and the steps we can personally take to make things better.

A recent history of American health care – what has driven the costs so high?
Key elements of the Obama health care plan
The Republican view of health care – free market competition
Universal access to state of the art health care – a worthy goal but not easy to achieve
what can we do?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. This is not intended to be an exhausted look into that history but it will give us an appreciation of how the health care system and our expectations for it developed. What drove costs higher and higher?

To begin, let’s turn to the American civil war. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause ghastly results. Not generally known is that most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace and this caused severe delays in treating the wounded. Secondly, many wounds were subjected to wound care, related surgeries and/or amputations of the affected limbs and this often resulted in the onset of massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers who although well-intentioned, their interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and increasingly attempt risky surgeries (now largely performed in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic review of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Here is a critical point we need to understand; “nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in such a scenario costs are curtailed. The simple fact is that there was little for doctors to offer and therefore virtually nothing to drive health care spending. A second factor holding down costs was that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket, meaning by way of an individuals personal resources. There was no such thing as health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by an employer. Except for the very destitute who were lucky to find their way into a charity hospital, health care costs were the responsibility of the individual.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs has been, and remains to this day, absolutely enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight a great pool of money became available to pay for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. More Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare and Medicaid (1965). In addition funding became available for expanded veterans health care benefits. Finding a cure for almost anything has consequently become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today.

I do not wish to convey that medical innovations are a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended, enhanced and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology in the form of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostic tools and surgical procedures. So the result is that there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). Add an insatiable and unrealistic public demand for access and treatment and we have the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs. And by and large the storm is only intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to the key questions that will lead us into a review and hopefully a better understanding of the health care reform proposals in the news today. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? When we add politics and an election year to the debate, information to help us answer these questions become critical. We need to spend some effort in understanding health care and sorting out how we think about it. Properly armed we can more intelligently determine whether certain health care proposals might solve or worsen some of these problems. What can be done about the challenges? How can we as individuals contribute to the solutions?

The Obama health care plan is complex for sure – I have never seen a health care plan that isn’t. But through a variety of programs his plan attempts to deal with a) increasing the number of American that are covered by adequate insurance (almost 50 million are not), and b) managing costs in such a manner that quality and our access to health care is not adversely affected. Republicans seek to achieve these same basic and broad goals, but their approach is proposed as being more market driven than government driven. Let’s look at what the Obama plan does to accomplish the two objectives above. Remember, by the way, that his plan was passed by congress, and begins to seriously kick-in starting in 2014. So this is the direction we are currently taking as we attempt to reform health care.

Through insurance exchanges and an expansion of Medicaid,the Obama plan dramatically expands the number of Americans that will be covered by health insurance.

To cover the cost of this expansion the plan requires everyone to have health insurance with a penalty to be paid if we don’t comply. It will purportedly send money to the states to cover those individuals added to state-based Medicaid programs.

To cover the added costs there were a number of new taxes introduced, one being a 2.5% tax on new medical technologies and another increases taxes on interest and dividend income for wealthier Americans.

The Obama plan also uses concepts such as evidence-based medicine, accountable care organizations, comparative effectiveness research and reduced reimbursement to health care providers (doctors and hospitals) to control costs.

The insurance mandate covered by points 1 and 2 above is a worthy goal and most industrialized countries outside of the U.S. provide “free” (paid for by rather high individual and corporate taxes) health care to most if not all of their citizens. It is important to note, however, that there are a number of restrictions for which many Americans would be culturally unprepared. Here is the primary controversial aspect of the Obama plan, the insurance mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear arguments as to the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate as a result of a petition by 26 states attorney’s general that congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution by passing this element of the plan. The problem is that if the Supreme Court should rule against the mandate, it is generally believed that the Obama plan as we know it is doomed. This is because its major goal of providing health insurance to all would be severely limited if not terminated altogether by such a decision.

As you would guess, the taxes covered by point 3 above are rather unpopular with those entities and individuals that have to pay them. Medical device companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors and insurance companies all had to “give up” something that would either create new revenue or would reduce costs within their spheres of control. As an example, Stryker Corporation, a large medical device company, recently announced at least a 1,000 employee reduction in part to cover these new fees. This is being experienced by other medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies as well. The reduction in good paying jobs in these sectors and in the hospital sector may rise as former cost structures will have to be dealt with in order to accommodate the reduced rate of reimbursement to hospitals. Over the next ten years some estimates put the cost reductions to hospitals and physicians at half a trillion dollars and this will flow directly to and affect the companies that supply hospitals and doctors with the latest medical technologies. None of this is to say that efficiencies will not be realized by these changes or that other jobs will in turn be created but this will represent painful change for a while. It helps us to understand that health care reform does have an effect both positive and negative.

Finally, the Obama plan seeks to change the way medical decisions are made. While clinical and basic research underpins almost everything done in medicine today, doctors are creatures of habit like the rest of us and their training and day-to-day experiences dictate to a great extent how they go about diagnosing and treating our conditions. Enter the concept of evidence-based medicine and comparative effectiveness research. Both of these seek to develop and utilize data bases from electronic health records and other sources to give better and more timely information and feedback to physicians as to the outcomes and costs of the treatments they are providing. There is great waste in health care today, estimated at perhaps a third of an over 2 trillion dollar health care spend annually. Imagine the savings that are possible from a reduction in unnecessary test and procedures that do not compare favorably with health care interventions that are better documented as effective. Now the Republicans and others don’t generally like these ideas as they tend to characterize them as “big government control” of your and my health care. But to be fair, regardless of their political persuasions, most people who understand health care at all, know that better data for the purposes described above will be crucial to getting health care efficiencies, patient safety and costs headed in the right direction.

A brief review of how Republicans and more conservative individuals think about health care reform. I believe they would agree that costs must come under control and that more, not fewer Americans should have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay. But the main difference is that these folks see market forces and competition as the way to creating the cost reductions and efficiencies we need. There are a number of ideas with regard to driving more competition among health insurance companies and health care providers (doctors and hospitals) so that the consumer would begin to drive cost down by the choices we make. This works in many sectors of our economy but this formula has shown that improvements are illusive when applied to health care. Primarily the problem is that health care choices are difficult even for those who understand it and are connected. The general population, however, is not so informed and besides we have all been brought up to “go to the doctor” when we feel it is necessary and we also have a cultural heritage that has engendered within most of us the feeling that health care is something that is just there and there really isn’t any reason not to access it for whatever the reason and worse we all feel that there is nothing we can do to affect its costs to insure its availability to those with serious problems.

OK, this article was not intended to be an exhaustive study as I needed to keep it short in an attempt to hold my audience’s attention and to leave some room for discussing what we can do contribute mightily to solving some of the problems. First we must understand that the dollars available for health care are not limitless. Any changes that are put in place to provide better insurance coverage and access to care will cost more. And somehow we have to find the revenues to pay for these changes. At the same time we have to pay less for medical treatments and procedures and do something to restrict the availability of unproven or poorly documented treatments as we are the highest cost health care system in the world and don’t necessarily have the best results in terms of longevity or avoiding chronic diseases much earlier than necessary.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or we drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about managing these known to be destructive personal health habits. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

There are a huge number of free web sites available that can steer us to a more healthful life style. A soon as you can, “Google” “preventive health care strategies”, look up your local hospital’s web site and you will find more than enough help to get you started. Finally, there is a lot to think about here and I have tried to outline the challenges but also the very powerful effect we could have on preserving the best of America’s health care system now and into the future. I am anxious to hear from you and until then – take charge and increase your chances for good health while making sure that health care is there when we need it.

Hospital Leadership, Strategy, And Culture In The Age of Health Care Reform

With just eleven months to go before the Value-Based Purchasing component of the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to go into effect, it is an auspicious time to consider how health care providers, and hospitals specifically, plan to successfully navigate the adaptive change to come. The delivery of health care is unique, complex, and currently fragmented. Over the past thirty years, no other industry has experienced such a massive infusion of technological advances while at the same time functioning within a culture that has slowly and methodically evolved over the past century. The evolutionary pace of health care culture is about to be shocked into a mandated reality. One that will inevitably require health care leadership to adopt a new, innovative perspective into the delivery of their services in order to meet the emerging requirements.

First, a bit on the details of the coming changes. The concept of Value-Based Purchasing is that the buyers of health care services (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, and inevitably following the government’s lead, private insurers) hold the providers of health care services accountable for both cost and quality of care. While this may sound practical, pragmatic, and sensible, it effectively shifts the entire reimbursement landscape from diagnosis/procedure driven compensation to one that includes quality measures in five key areas of patient care. To support and drive this unprecedented change, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is also incentivizing the voluntary formation of Accountable Care Organizations to reward providers that, through coordination, collaboration, and communication, cost-effectively deliver optimum patient outcomes throughout the continuum of the health care delivery system.

The proposed reimbursement system would hold providers accountable for both cost and quality of care from three days prior to hospital admittance to ninety days post hospital discharge. To get an idea of the complexity of variables, in terms of patient handoffs to the next responsible party in the continuum of care, I process mapped a patient entering a hospital for a surgical procedure. It is not atypical for a patient to be tested, diagnosed, nursed, supported, and cared for by as many as thirty individual, functional units both within and outside of the hospital. Units that function and communicate both internally and externally with teams of professionals focused on optimizing care. With each handoff and with each individual in each team or unit, variables of care and communication are introduced to the system.

Historically, quality systems from other industries (i.e. Six Sigma, Total Quality Management) have focused on wringing out the potential for variability within their value creation process. The fewer variables that can affect consistency, the greater the quality of outcomes. While this approach has proven effective in manufacturing industries, health care presents a collection of challenges that go well beyond such controlled environments. Health care also introduces the single most unpredictable variable of them all; each individual patient.

Another critical factor that cannot be ignored is the highly charged emotional landscape in which health care is delivered. The implications of failure go well beyond missing a quarterly sales quota or a monthly shipping target, and clinicians carry this heavy, emotional burden of responsibility with them, day-in and day-out. Add to this the chronic nursing shortage (which has been exacerbated by layoffs during the recession), the anxiety that comes with the ambiguity of unprecedented change, the layering of one new technology over another (which creates more information and the need for more monitoring), and an industry culture that has deep roots in a bygone era and the challenge before us comes into greater focus.

Which brings us to the question; what approach should leadership adopt in order to successfully migrate the delivery system through the inflection point where quality of care and cost containment intersect? How will this collection of independent contractors and institutions coordinate care and meet the new quality metrics proposed by HHS? The fact of the matter is, health care is the most human of our national industries and reforming it to meet the shifting demographic needs and economic constraints of our society may prompt leadership to revisit how they choose to engage and integrate the human element within the system.

In contemplating this approach, a canvasing of the peer-reviewed research into both quality of care and cost containment issues points to a possible solution; the cultivation of emotional intelligence in health care workers. After reviewing more than three dozen published studies, all of which confirmed the positive impact cultivating emotional intelligence has in clinical settings, I believe contemplating this approach warrants further exploration.

Emotional intelligence is a skill as much as an attribute. It is comprised by a set of competencies in Self-Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management, all leading to Self Mastery. Fortunately, these are skills that can be developed and enhanced over the course of one’s lifetime.

Keeping the number of handoffs and individuals involved in delivering the continuum of care, let’s examine how emotional intelligence factors into the proposed quality measures the Department of Health and Human Services will be using come October, 2012:

1.) Patient/Caregiver Experience of Care – This factor really comes down to a patient’s perception of care. Perceptions of care are heavily shaded by emotions. Patients consistently rate less skilled surgeons that have a greater bedside manner as better than maestro surgeons that lack, or choose not to display, these softer skills. Additional research into why people sue over malpractice also indicates how perceptions of care are formed. People don’t sue over a medical mistake in and of itself. People sue because of how they felt they were treated after the error occurred. From the patient’s perspective (and often their family’s) there’s a difference between being cured and being healed. The difference often can be found in the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries.

This is a key driver in patient decision-making as well. Patients tend to choose a hospital based upon one or two criteria; the recommendation of their primary care physician (with whom they have an established relationship) and/or upon the recommendations from family members or friends that have experienced care in a particular hospital or an individual surgeon. A quick look into the field of Applied Behavioral Economics supports this finding. Economic decision making is 70% emotionally driven with the remaining 30% based in rational thought. In many instances, it would appear that a lot of hospital marketing initiatives don’t seem to reflect an understanding of this phenomena. Waiting room times in Emergency Rooms have little to do with why patients choose a hospital, yet we see billboards everywhere that have the actual E.R. wait times electronically flashing along the roadside.

A patient’s experience (and perception) of care can be highly impacted at the handoff points within the continuum of care. Any new model of care will require exceptional cross-organizational communications to emerge. This requires a high level of engagement and commitment to the new vision at every patient touch-point.

This metric also addresses the caregivers’ experience of care. This speaks largely to the experience of nurses that are delivering that care. The research related to the impact of cultivating emotional intelligence in nurses clearly demonstrates a reduction in stress, improved communication skills, improved leadership and retention, the ability to quickly connect and engage patients, as well as a reduction in nurse burnout (which leads to turnover and additional stress amongst the remaining staff).

2.) Care Co-ordination – Again, this will require optimal engagement and pro-active communication intra-organizationally and cross-organizationally. Each handoff introduces opportunities for variable care to emerge that must be seamlessly co-ordinated. Poor co-ordination also introduces the risk of eroding the quality of the patient’s experience.

3.) Patient Safety – Research shows that the cultivation of emotional intelligence competencies in nursing contributes to positive patient outcomes, lowers the risk of adverse events, lowers costs at discharge, and reduces medication errors, all while lowering nurse stress, burnout, and turnover. Each time a nurse resigns it adds to the nursing shortage on the floor, requires additional hours from other nurses, and costs the hospital approximately $64,000, on average, to backfill the open position. Improving how an institution cares for its nurses improves the level of patient care and safety as well. In many institutions, this will require a shift in leadership’s perspective in order to support a culture that embraces and values the critical role nurses play in maintaining patient safety.

4.) Preventive Health – Elevating Self-Awareness and Social Awareness in clinicians helps them quickly connect and effectively communicate with patients. Subtle, non-verbal cues become more readily apparent, helping clinicians understand the fears and emotions of their patients. Self Management and Relationship Management helps clinicians communicate appropriately and supports the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries. All of these factors come into play when speaking with patients about lifestyle choices, course of treatment, and preventive health care.

From our own personal lives we’ve all learned we cannot “fix” other peoples’ behaviors. We can, however, be in relationship and help support healthy changes they’re ready to embrace. Pro-actively moving to improve preventive health will require deeper, more authentic relationships to emerge between front-line health care providers and patients.

5.) At-Risk Population/Frail Elderly Health – Like preventive health, being measured on the care of the community’s at-risk population and elderly will require an innovative approach to community outreach and pro-active communication. These are not populations that can be easily reached via Facebook or Twitter. Building effective relationships with these demographics will require trustful, human contact and deep engagement with each population, both of which are supported through the development of a mindful approach (i.e. emotionally intelligent) to the challenges at hand.

It will be interesting to see how reform unfolds and how leadership within the health care delivery system chooses to respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Systems and hospitals that choose to take an honest, evidence-based look at how they choose to lead, how they create and execute strategy, and the organizational culture they’re cultivating will be well served in preparing to successfully navigate this unprecedented change.

© 2011, Terry Murray.

Terry Murray is a professional coach and business executive with twenty-five years of progressive experience in strategic development, executive leadership, and the deployment of highly profitable business teams. His executive leadership with Fortune 1000 and start-up companies has directly contributed more than $1 billion in market capitalization growth throughout his career.

Terry is the founder and president of Performance Transformation, LLC a Professional Coaching and Strategic Development firm focused on igniting breakthrough performance through the authentic engagement and development of human talent. The company’s evidence-based programs and philosophical approach employs their proprietary Adaptive Coaching Process. The organization’s engagements align the clients’ human capital with their strategic imperatives driving tangible results, delivering a sustainable competitive advantage and an exceptional Return on Investment.

How Did Health Care Costs Get So High?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. To do that, let’s turn to the American civil war era. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause terrible results. Most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace in most instances causing severe delays in treatment of the wounded. Secondly, most wounds were subjected to wound related surgeries and amputations and this often resulted in massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers whose good intentioned interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and perform risky surgeries and the like (now increasingly practiced in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic understanding of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in that scenario costs were obviously minuscule. A second factor that has become a key driver of today’s health care costs is that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket. There was no health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by someone else like an employer. Costs were the responsibility of the individual and perhaps a few charities that among other things supported charity hospitals for the poor and destitute.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs is enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight there was a great pool of money available for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. As more and more Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare, Medicaid and expanded veteran health care benefits, finding a cure for almost anything has become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today. I do not wish to convey that this is a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology, pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. So there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). This is the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs and by and large, the storm is intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to a key question. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? Add politics and an election year and the whole issue gets badly muddled and misrepresented.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about it. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

Why the Current American Health Care System Does Not Work and Why It Should Be Changed

The preference for minimal government oversight and ideas of individualism are responsible for the way American health care system is structured. However, access to health insurance and health care has been a pressing issue in this nation for a long time; rated by the WHO as one of the worst among industrialized countries, the United States’ health care system is too costly and fails to cover everybody. Despite president Obama’s attempt to bring about change, many continue to question the effectiveness of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the concerning both costs and overall coverage. The issues regarding health care reform directly affect the feasibility of the American Dream because adequate health care and insurance are necessary to full citizen participation and it is the government’s responsibility to provide access. I believe that given this nation’s strong anti-statist values it will be difficult to implement a federal health care policy; therefore it is more feasible for states to create health reforms like the one in Massachusetts and ensure universal health care.

In 2007, the US health system presented many problems concerning the amount of people who were both uninsured and underinsured and the fast rise of insurance premiums causing many Americans to report debts and problems due to medical bills (Commonwealth Fund Commission, 232). The cost of American health care is inarguably one of the major setbacks of the system; it is the highest amongst those of other industrialized nations but not necessarily more effective. For instance, a case study in the town of McAllen, Texas, shows how the overuse of medicine and the “fee for service” incentives available to doctors can really drive up the cost of medicine. McAllen is one of the most expensive health care markets in the country where most doctors focus less on preventive care and more on running extra tests, services and procedures out of fear of malpractice, influenced by differences in training, or simply to make a few extra dollars. (Gawande, 340-342). Although the situation in McAllen might be an extreme example, it does not fail to explain how the “culture of money” partly affects the cost of health care system. Unlike systems such as Canada and Japan, the American government plays a minimal role in bargaining down prices or setting price standards, this lack of control allows doctors and medical institutions to often purchase the latest technology, but not the most efficient (Klein, 256). Nevertheless, doctors are not to be labeled as the villains because private insurance companies add to the problem by expending a quarter and a third of their revenues on administrative costs (Weissert and Weissert, 350).

The high number of uninsured Americans (45 million in 2007), is another disconcerting fact regarding the downfalls of the American health care system; it is unfortunate that in an industrialized nation, once considered the most powerful in the world, people are often forced to put their career dreams on hold in order to gain access to employer based insurance. This has a negative impact on the nation’s economic and political development because people who could create the latest technological innovations are “locked” at Wal-marts and the likes. Low income uninsured families like Greg and Loretta, who struggle to keep their children healthy, lose all faith in the American dream and essentially become a burden for the rest of society. Some argue that good health is a personal responsibility, and yes eating a burger everyday will obviously have negative impacts on a person’s health and they should be held accountable for those poor choices. Consequently, some would blame Greg and Loretta for their unfortunate condition, but the question is; how can their children be expected to become productive citizens if they lack basic health care? The American Dream encourages individualism, but individuals cannot perform to the best of their abilities if they lack the necessary tools to do so.

In 2006, the state of Massachusetts passed an “ambitious” health care reform that improved access to care and lowered the rate of uninsured working age adults; in spite of its high costs, this plan exemplifies how reforms at the state level can perhaps be easier to implement and regulate, consequently having successful results. The plan is essentially composed of three parts: expansion of the state’s Medicaid progress (establishing income-related subsidies), creating new private insurance plan open to individuals, and lastly it requires that both individuals and employers participate in the health insurance system or pay a fine. Furthermore, it provides individuals with the alternative to buy from private insurers if they do not have access through an employer (Long, 321). Mixing public and private markets achieves near-universal and gives citizens options.

Two of the most important elements of this reform are the certainty of having access to coverage in the case of unexpected unemployment and not having to worry about rejection due to pre-existing conditions (Kaiser Family Foundation, 325). The economic downturn has and continues to hurt many families, many jobs are uncertain and health insurance is no longer secure, therefore by making sure citizens continue to have access to health coverage, the state of Massachusetts is essentially contributing to the overall development of the nation’s economy. When people are not worried about paying astronomical medical bills, they have more time and money to spend on purchasing houses, cars, etc which ultimately results in consumerism and more profits. Lastly, the Massachusetts provides citizens with high quality care that allows them to make regular doctor visits and access specialists, tests and medications as needed (Kaiser Family Foundation, 328). This approach is similar to the preventive care practiced in countries like Great Britain; essentially it is more beneficial for both the doctor and the patient to treat any conditions before they get out of hand.

Although the Massachusetts health care reform has proved to make significant improvements, like any other reform it has its downsides which may lead people to focus on the inequities and overlook the success. For instance many Massachusetts residents believe that more education about key aspects of the health reform would help better understand how the programs work. Residents are specifically interested in income limits to qualify and how to apply for coverage (Kaiser Family Foundation, 331). It is expected that citizens have questions about newly implemented programs and that they may not understand specific medical, political or economic jargon, but this is not a major concern because education can be easily provided. On the other hand, some would argue that the high cost of this plan is indeed a significant problem which must be addressed; nevertheless Massachusetts legislators are aware of the cost and are working to stabilize the finances. Firstly, they want a new payment of method that rewards prevention and effective control of chronic disease instead of paying according to the quantity of care provided. Secondly, the commission is looking to reimburse physicians for episodes of care rather than individual visits. Health experts agree that if Massachusetts is able to implement this changes, it will be as “audacious an achievement as universal healthcare” (Sack, 334-336).

Today, the future of president Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is somewhat uncertain. Republicans want to repeal it and skeptics argue that it is not going to solve the existing problems. Although this reform promises desirable aspects like overall coverage and cost reductions, the results are solely based on projection, making it difficult to guarantee that it is going to be successful. The Massachusetts health care plan has already been implemented and proved to create significant improvement. Essentially this model presents an effective alternative for health care reform and it celebrates the values of anti-statism by allowing states to make their own decisions.

Who’s Paying For Health Care?

America spent 17.3% of its gross domestic product on health care in 2009 (1). If you break that down on an individual level, we spend $7,129 per person each year on health care…more than any other country in the world (2). With 17 cents of every dollar Americans spent keeping our country healthy, it’s no wonder the government is determined to reform the system. Despite the overwhelming attention health care is getting in the media, we know very little about where that money comes from or how it makes its way into the system (and rightfully so…the way we pay for health care is insanely complex, to say the least). This convoluted system is the unfortunate result of a series of programs that attempt to control spending layered on top of one another. What follows is a systematic attempt to peel away those layers, helping you become an informed health care consumer and an incontrovertible debater when discussing “Health Care Reform.”

Who’s paying the bill?

The “bill payers” fall into three distinct buckets: individuals paying out-of-pocket, private insurance companies, and the government. We can look at these payors in two different ways: 1) How much do they pay and 2) How many people do they pay for?

The majority of individuals in America are insured by private insurance companies via their employers, followed second by the government. These two sources of payment combined account for close to 80% of the funding for health care. The “Out-of-Pocket” payers fall into the uninsured as they have chosen to carry the risk of medical expense independently. When we look at the amount of money each of these groups spends on health care annually, the pie shifts dramatically.

The government currently pays for 46% of national health care expenditures. How is that possible? This will make much more sense when we examine each of the payors individually.

Understanding the Payors

Out-of-Pocket

A select portion of the population chooses to carry the risk of medical expenses themselves rather than buying into an insurance plan. This group tends to be younger and healthier than insured patients and, as such, accesses medical care much less frequently. Because this group has to pay for all incurred costs, they also tend to be much more discriminating in how they access the system. The result is that patients (now more appropriately termed “consumers”) comparison shop for tests and elective procedures and wait longer before seeking medical attention. The payment method for this group is simple: the doctors and hospitals charge set fees for their services and the patient pays that amount directly to the doctor/hospital.

Private Insurance

This is where the whole system gets a lot more complicated. Private insurance is purchased either individually or is provided by employers (most people get it through their employer as we mentioned). When it comes to private insurance, there are two main types: Fee-for-Service insurers and Managed Care insurers. These two groups approach paying for care very differently.

Fee-for-Service:

This group makes it relatively simple (believe it or not). The employer or individual buys a health plan from a private insurance company with a defined set of benefits. This benefit package will also have what is called a deductible (an amount the patient/individual must pay for their health care services before their insurance pays anything). Once the deductible amount is met, the health plan pays the fees for services provided throughout the health care system. Often, they will pay a maximum fee for a service (say $100 for an x-ray). The plan will require the individual to pay a copayment (a sharing of the cost between the health plan and the individual). A typical industry standard is an 80/20 split of the payment, so in the case of the $100 x-ray, the health plan would pay $80 and the patient would pay $20…remember those annoying medical bills stating your insurance did not cover all the charges? This is where they come from. Another downside of this model is that health care providers are both financially incentivized and legally bound to perform more tests and procedures as they are paid additional fees for each of these or are held legally accountable for not ordering the tests when things go wrong (called “CYA or “Cover You’re A**” medicine). If ordering more tests provided you with more legal protection and more compensation, wouldn’t you order anything justifiable? Can we say misalignment of incentives?

Managed Care:

Now it gets crazy. Managed care insurers pay for care while also “managing” the care they pay for (very clever name, right). Managed care is defined as “a set of techniques used by or on behalf of purchasers of health care benefits to manage health care costs by influencing patient care decision making through case-by-case assessments of the appropriateness of care prior to its provision” (2). Yep, insurers make medical decisions on your behalf (sound as scary to you as it does to us?). The original idea was driven by a desire by employers, insurance companies, and the public to control soaring health care costs. Doesn’t seem to be working quite yet. Managed care groups either provide medical care directly or contract with a select group of health care providers. These insurers are further subdivided based on their own personal management styles. You may be familiar with many of these sub-types as you’ve had to choose between then when selecting your insurance.

Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) / Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO):This is the closet managed care gets to the Fee-for-Service model with many of the same characteristics as a Fee-for-Service plan like deductibles and copayments. PPO’s & EPO’s contract with a set list of providers (we’re all familiar with these lists) with whom they have negotiated set (read discounted) fees for care. Yes, individual doctors have to charge less for their services if they want to see patients with these insurance plans. An EPO has a smaller and more strictly regulated list of physicians than a PPO but are otherwise the same. PPO’s control costs by requiring preauthorization for many services and second opinions for major procedures. All of this aside, many consumers feel that they have the greatest amount of autonomy and flexibility with PPO’s.
Health Management Organization (HMO): HMO’s combine insurance with health care delivery. This model will not have deductibles but will have copayments. In an HMO, the organization hires doctors to provide care and either builds its own hospital or contracts for the services of a hospital within the community. In this model the doctor works for the insurance provider directly (aka a Staff Model HMO). Kaiser Permanente is an example of a very large HMO that we’ve heard mentioned frequently during the recent debates. Since the company paying the bill is also providing the care, HMO’s heavily emphasize preventive medicine and primary care (enter the Kaiser “Thrive” campaign). The healthier you are, the more money the HMO saves. The HMO’s emphasis on keeping patients healthy is commendable as this is the only model to do so, however, with complex, lifelong, or advanced diseases, they are incentivized to provide the minimum amount of care necessary to reduce costs. It is with these conditions that we hear the horror stories of insufficient care. This being said, physicians in HMO settings continue to practice medicine as they feel is needed to best care for their patients despite the incentives to reduce costs inherent in the system (recall that physicians are often salaried in HMO’s and have no incentive to order more or less tests).

The Government

The U.S. Government pays for health care in a variety of ways depending on whom they are paying for. The government, through a number of different programs, provides insurance to individuals over 65 years of age, people of any age with permanent kidney failure, certain disabled people under 65, the military, military veterans, federal employees, children of low-income families, and, most interestingly, prisoners. It also has the same characteristics as a Fee-for-Service plan, with deductibles and copayments. As you would imagine, the majority of these populations are very expensive to cover medically. While the government only insures 28% of the American population, they are paying for 46% of all care provided. The populations covered by the government are amongst the sickest and most medically needy in America resulting in this discrepancy between number of individuals insured and cost of care.

The largest and most well-known government programs are Medicare and Medicaid. Let’s take a look at these individually:

Medicare:

The Medicare program currently covers 42.5 million Americans. To qualify for Medicare you must meet one of the following criteria:

Over 65 years of age
Permanent kidney failure
Meet certain disability requirements

So you meet the criteria…what do you get? Medicare comes in 4 parts (Part A-D), some of which are free and some of which you have to pay for. You’ve probably heard of the various parts over the years thanks to CNN (remember the commotion about the Part D drug benefits during the Bush administration?) but we’ll give you a quick refresher just in case.

Part A (Hospital Insurance): This part of Medicare is free and covers any inpatient and outpatient hospital care the patient may need (only for a set number of days, however, with the added bonus of copayments and deductibles…apparently there really is no such thing as a free lunch).
Part B (Medical Insurance): This part, which you must purchase, covers physicians’ services, and selected other health care services and supplies that are not covered by Part A. What does it cost? The Part B premium for 2009 ranged from $96.40 to $308.30 per month depending on your household income.
Part C (Managed Care): This part, called Medicare Advantage, is a private insurance plan that provides all of the coverage provided in Parts A and B and must cover medically necessary services. Part C replaces Parts A & B. All private insurers that want to provide Part C coverage must meet certain criteria set forth by the government. Your care will also be managed much like the HMO plans previously discussed.
Part D (Prescription Drug Plans): Part D covers prescription drugs and costs $20 to $40 per month for those who chose to enroll.

Ok, now how does Medicare pay for everything? Hospitals are paid predetermined amounts of money per admission or per outpatient procedure for services provided to Medicare patients. These predetermined amounts are based upon over 470 diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) or Ambulatory Payment Classifications (APC’s) rather than the actual cost of the care rendered (interesting way to peg hospital reimbursement…especially when the Harvard economist who developed the DRG system openly disagrees with its use for this purpose). The cherry on top of the irrational reimbursement system is that the amount of money assigned to each DRG is not the same for each hospital. Totally logical (can you sense our sarcasm?). The figure is based on a formula that takes into account the type of service, the type of hospital, and the location of the hospital. This may sound logical but often times this system fails.

Medicaid:

Medicaid is a jointly funded (funded by both federal and state governments) health insurance program for low-income families. Eligibility rules vary from state to state and factors in age, pregnancy, disability, income and resources. Poverty alone does not qualify an individual for Medicaid (there is currently no government-provided insurance for the American poor…despite the fact that almost all first world countries have such a system…enter the current health care debate) but is a significant factor in Medicaid eligibility. Each state operates its own Medicaid program but must adhere to certain federal guidelines to receive matching federal funds (you may be familiar with California’s MediCal, Massachusetts’ MassHealth and Oregon’s Oregon Health Plan due to their recent media coverage). Medicaid payments currently assist nearly 60 percent of all nursing home residents and about 37 percent of all childbirths in the United States.

How are the bills paid?

We now understand who is paying the bill but we have yet to cover how those bills are paid. There are two broad divisions of arrangements for paying for and delivering health care: fee-for-service care and prepaid care.

Fee-for-Service

As we mentioned briefly while discussing PPO’s, in a fee-for-service structure, consumers select a provider, receive care (a.k.a. “service”) from the provider, and incur expenses (a.k.a. “a fee”) for the care. Deductibles and copayments are also required as previously discussed. Pretty simple. The physician is then reimbursed for their services in part by the insurer (i.e. a private insurance company or the government) and in part by the patient, who is responsible for the balance unpaid by the insurer (the return of the unanticipated medical bill despite your overpriced insurance). Again, the major downfall of the fee-for-service approach is that medical professionals are incentivized to provide services (and by this we mean any and all services they can legally request or must request to be protected legally), some of which may be nonessential, to increase their revenue and/or “C.Y.A.” (revenue that has steadily decreased as insurance companies continue to lower the amount they pay medical professionals for their services).

Fee Schedule

A fee schedule operates in the same way that Fee-for-Service does with one exception: instead of using the “usual, customary, and reasonable” amount to reimburse medical professionals, states set fees to be paid for specific procedures and services. The reimbursement is very low ($.10-.15 on the dollar) and barely covers the actual direct cost of providing the care. Physicians may chose to opt into the plan or not (starting to see why a doctor might not be so excited about this plan?). Would you sign up to be paid 10 cents for every dollar you charged for your work? Try the insurance reimbursement approach next time you go out to eat. We’ll come bail you out of the Big House if things go awry. What happens when the insurance system does this? You get the Wal-Mart approach to medicine (high volume, low quality). Not the kind of heath care we recommend.

Pre-Paid

Pre-paid health care? Like a phone card? Not exactly–but close. The pre-paid system evolved out of the insurance company’s desire to share its risk ( a.k.a “pooled risk”) with health care providers. Essentially, they wanted the doctors to have some skin in the game. In the pre-paid system, insurers make arrangements with health care providers to provide agreed-upon covered health care services to a given population of consumers for a (usually discounted) set price-the per-person premium fee-over a particular time period. What does that mean? It means that Dr. Bob gets paid, say, $30 per month to take care of Joe the Plumber including his blood work and x-rays. If Dr. Bob spends less than that caring for Joe, he makes money. If Joe is sick every month and needs lots of tests and follow-up visits, Dr. Bob could lose money caring for Joe. The set monthly fee paid to the doctor for taking care of a patient is set up on a per-member, per-month (PMPM) rate called a “capitated fee.” The provider receives the capitated fee per enrollee regardless of whether the enrollee uses health care services and regardless of the quality of services provided (not a good thing in our book). Theoretically, providers should become more prudent and subsequently provide services in a more cost effective manner because they are bearing some of the risk. Often times, however, less care is provided than is needed in hopes of saving money and increasing profits. In addition, physicians are incentivized to cherry pick the youngest and healthiest patients because these patients typically require less care (i.e. they are cheaper to keep healthy). We like that doctors are encouraged to keep patients healthy but we have to worry about the ways in which they are being encouraged to reduce costs (as little care as possible?). Again, the incentive system falls short and encourages providers to act unethically.

The Take Home Message:

Health Care in the United States today is complex and messy at best. The layers on top of layers of failed attempts to correct the system continue to encourage the wrong behavior in both patients (out of fear of medical bills) and providers (out of fear of bankruptcy). We have yet to provide every American citizen with medical care (something that goes without saying in most 1st World countries…even Cuba has it!). We spend more money on caring for our citizens than any country in the world yet we continue to lag behind in terms of national health outcomes. We think it’s safe to say that we’re not getting the best bang for our buck. The ultimate solution? We wish we knew. Only time will tell where the system goes from here. Our goal: to help you better understand the system as it stands today in hopes of developing a more effective, efficient, and comprehensive system for the future.