Reform under the Radar: What Medicare Needs to Do to Control Costs

Below, a very welcome contribution from Shannon Brownlee,  author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer (2007),  an outstanding report on why ‘more care’ often is not ‘better care’.   An award-winning journalist and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Brownlee has written extensively about health care for the many publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

As I’ve suggested in the past, Medicare reform could be a stepping stone to national health reform. Ideally, we would do both simultaneously. In this post, Brownlee puts her finger on what is wrong with the way Medicare has traditionally tried to cut costs.  In future HealthBeat posts, we’ll talk more about specific proposals for cutting Medicare waste.


While Barack, Hillary, and Paul Krugman slug it out over the individual mandate, it’s worth pausing for a second to wonder why nobody is saying much about controlling health care costs. Yes, covering everybody is the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do, but it isn’t the only thing to do. Theoretically, it shouldn’t even be the hardest thing to do, because at its core, covering everybody is mostly a matter of being willing to come up with the money.  In reality, of course, coming up with the money is a political nightmare.

Controlling costs, on the other hand, is a much deeper problem, but oddly enough it may be easier to achieve politically at the federal level than universal coverage. That’s because cost containment can begin with Medicare, which has been instituting cost control measures under the radar for years. Its efforts have resulted in a lot of bitching and moaning from the hospital industry and doctors, but not a lot of political fallout.

So why aren’t Medicare’s cost control measures working? Because CMS has focused most of its efforts to limit spending on controlling prices. This strategy arises out of the mistaken belief that if they could just rein in the price per unit of care, the price of each CT scan and each office visit, they could control spending overall. This would be a dandy strategy in any other industry, but in health care it hasn’t worked out. And it hasn’t worked out because in health care, the real driver of cost is volume. Costs go up when the amount of care doctors and hospitals deliver to each patient goes up. And because the amount of care delivered doesn’t have all that much to do with the amount of care that patients actually need, whenever Medicare slashes the price it will pay, hospitals and individual physicians can always find ways to deliver more stuff in order to maintain their revenue stream.   

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The Academic Buzz around Health Care

Being a young whippersnapper, it never occurred to me that health care policy was a relatively new field of study within our universities. But when Health Beat reader Bradley Flansbaum passed along the  Reuters story below to Maggie (original here)  and she passed it on to me, I gained a new perspective on the issue. It turns out that until very recently, health care used to just mean medicine. But today, thinking about health care demands thinking about  a lot of different things, like public policy, public administration, economics, politics, and even sociology.

This mixed bag is reflected in the diverse academic offerings at colleges and universities—as well as the swell of students interested in them. The Reuters story below suggests that there are three main motivations for the increased student interest: fascination, idealism, and profit. That sounds about right. You can either be genuinely interested in the complexities of health care or the politics surrounding it; want to fix the system for the greater good; or want to learn as much as you can about the system to better navigate it for GlaxoSmithKline.

There’s obviously a lot of good to be had from generations growing up understanding more about our insanely complex and counter-productive health care system. Teaching college students about the system now might instill a long-term openness to reform and improvement that wasn’t present in generations who never knew about health care until they got sick.

But I can’t help but wonder about the faddishness of it all. After all, health care isn’t the only broken system that could use some attention. Consider the criminal justice system. Back in the day, law and order meant being a lawyer or a cop. But today there are criminology and criminal justice programs around the world that focus on issues like incarceration, community policing, cost, risk management, and more. Yet the buzz surrounding these issues hasn’t been comparable to the much louder debate about health care—even though one out of 32 Americans is currently in the corrections system and a black male is more likely to have served time in jail than have a college degree. This too is a crisis.

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Update on Mandates

Today the Wall Street Journal has been running a poll asking readers how they feel about mandates requiring that everyone sign up for health insurance. Asking “What should the federal government do about the uninsured?” the Journal gives readers three options:

(1) Require everyone to have insurance coverage, but keep private insurance.

(2) Adopt a single-payer, government-funded system.

(3) The government shouldn’t require everyone to have health care.

Late this afternoon, 347 people had responded, with 40 percent favoring mandates, 31 percent picking single-payer, and 29 percent saying the government should keep its sticky mitts off our free-market health care system.

Okay, this a very small poll, and it’s not random. But that is precisely what I find interesting.

I was surprised that 40 percent of the Journal’s relatively affluent readers voted for mandates since some of them are healthy and wealthy enough that they could easily “self-insure” by saving enough money in a health savings account to cover all but catastrophic medical expenses and then buying a low-cost, high deductible policy. Premiums for high-deductible insurance are going to be significantly lower than the premiums for mandated policies designed to ensure that everyone has comprehensive coverage (i.e. benefits comparable to what Medicare offers, plus maternity and other coverage younger people need).

Nevertheless, 40 percent think it is fair to require that  everyone to pay into the pool while another 31 percent pick a single-payer system that would be funded by taxpayers.

Of course, 71 percent isn’t everyone. Consider the curmudgeon who sent in this comment: “Medical needs are endless…You are not your brother’s keeper no matter what the Bible or any other book written by superstitious savages says.”

That is why we need mandates. Trust me, this fellow is not going to sign up voluntarily.


Doctors Who Know Better—But Do the Wrong Thing

On Health Care Renewal , Dr. Roy Poses reports on a disturbing new study just published in The Annals of Internal Medicine contrasting physicians’ attitudes toward professional norms with their self reports of whether they acted in conformity with these norms.

Poses does an excellent job of summarizing, so I’m re-posting his piece in full below:

“In brief, the authors developed a survey which asked physicians whether they agreed with various professional norms organized according to the 2002 ABIM/ ACP/ ESIM Physician Charter. They also asked them about whether they acted in conformity with these principles in terms of their recent actions, or in responses to scenarios. Physicians surveyed were primary care practitioners (family medicine, general internal medicine, and pediatrics), cardiologists, anesthesiologists, and general surgeons. The overall response rate was 52%.

“In general, large majorities of physicians agreed with the ethical norms. How often they reported acting in agreement with these norms varied. In particular, nearly all physicians reported treating patients honestly (less than 1% reported telling a patient’s family member something untrue in the last 3 years, 3% reported withholding information from a patient or a family member.) However, although 96% agreed that "physicians should put the patient’s welfare above the physician’s financial interests," 24% would refer a patient to an imaging facility in which the physician was an investor, without revealing this conflict of interest.

“Some commentators suggested that external pressures may prevent
physicians living up to the standards they themselves have endorsed.
For example, physicians interviewed in a Washington Post article
suggested that the current emphasis on patient satisfaction may
conflict with the physician’s ethical obligation to avoid wasting
resources when a patient demands an unnecessary but not clearly harmful
test. The Congressional Quarterly reported
quoted the CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards saying that
physicians "were penned in by the American the health care system,
fighting giant bureaucracies while fearing legal action if they make a

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Health Care Spending: The Basics



As a nation, we are spending well over $2 trillion a year on health care. This includes: all of the money that you and I pay out-of pocket to cover co-pays, deductibles and drugs; the dollars that you and I (and our employers) fork over for private insurance; the money Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP lay out to reimburse doctors, hospitals and patients; the billions taxpayers chip in to fund veterans’ health programs, public hospitals, school programs, and health insurance for government employees as well as the money private charities contribute to health care.

What exactly are we paying for? How much of that money is used to pay the CEOs of drug companies salaries that read like telephone numbers? How much do hospitals eat up?  How much is spent on insurance company ads? How much is used to provide healthcare for the poor?

I’ve decided to do a series of posts spelling out exactly where the money goes. Today, I’m going to start with private insurance.

Many people believe that if we just eliminated the private insurance industry, healthcare would become much more affordable. There is a general sense that the “administrative costs” of private insurance are siphoning off a sizable share of our health care dollars.

There is some truth to that: because we  have  multiple insurers—not to mention so many solo practitioners, small hospitals, clinics, and individuals filing for reimbursement—the paperwork is enormous. If we had only one big insurance company that used just one set of forms we could simplify the paperwork greatly. People who want a “single payer” system, with the government paying all of the bills,  point out that the savings would be enormous.

And we could cut costs even more if, instead of having tens of thousands of health care providers filing for separate reimbursements, doctors, hospitals and clinics joined together into, say, eight our ten large organizations like Kaiser Permanente, each with its own back office.  The doctors would be on salary, so rather than filing for payment for each service they performed, they would receive a monthly check for taking care of their patients, just as they do at Kaiser Permanent or the Mayo Clinic (where doctors are on salary).

In other words, it is not only a fragmented multi-payer insurance industry that generates so much paperwork; on the other side of the transaction a fractured network of separate providers adds to a mind-boggling stack of paper. Unlike most other developed countries, we have turned healthcare into a  cottage industry. This gives us lots of choices: we can select from a Chinese menu of insurance plans and proviers. But it also means higher administrative costs. In this post I would like to focus first on just on how much our huge private insurance industry is costing us. (In a later post, we’ll look at the price we pay for a fee-for-service system of independent providers.)

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New CDC Report: The Nail in the Coffin for Health Care Myths

On Monday the CDC released a landmark, and in many ways devastating, report on health care in the U.S. The report contains a wealth of data that, while not surprising to some, should help silence the dwindling few who insist that America’s health care system is doing just fine. As a public service, I thought it’d be helpful to list some of the myths that the report demolishes (with some help from other sources as needed).

Myth: If people don’t have health insurance or get medical care, it’s because they don’t want it.

Reality: Actually, the big issue with access is cost. According to the CDC report, more than 40 million Americans—almost one in five Americans over the age of 18—have foregone one of the following in the past year because they couldn’t afford it: medical care, prescription medicines, mental health care, dental care, or eyeglasses.

It’s not that uninsured people don’t understand the value of coverage. Last year a study from the Urban Institute found that less than 3 percent of uninsured adults and children have never had insurance or report having no need for insurance. That same report also found that the high cost of coverage alone explained over 50 percent of those cases where people are uninsured 

And even when the uninsured cite job-related difficulties as the reason why they can’t access employer sponsored coverage, the problem isn’t just that they can’t get it through work—it’s also that they can’t afford individual policies. (Individual policies are much more expensive than group policies, and in many states private insurers can charge individuals astronomical premiums if individuals have any “pre-existing conditions.)  According to the Urban Institute, for 79 percent of adults and 74 percent of children who are uninsured because of job-related problems, the high cost of individual insurance is a major problem.

Myth: The American system relies mostly, if not exclusively, on private enterprise to support health care.

Reality: Yes and no. While the U.S. does have the biggest private sector share of health expenditures in the world, making up 55 percent of our funding, personal health care expenditures (i.e. spending on actual patient care) is mostly public. The CDC reports that in 2005 the federal government and state and local governments combined paid 45 percent of personal health care expenditures; private insurers only paid 36 percent, with 15 percent coming from out-of-pocket payments. So much for the libertarian utopia.

There’s also a bigger public sector coverage presence than many would like to admit. Though two-thirds of insurance policyholders have private coverage, a Census bureau report from earlier this year noted that more than one quarter of Americans (about 27 percent) are covered by government insurance. The American model is much more of a private-public mix than some pundits—and candidates—are willing to admit.

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The FDA: What Happens When You Starve the Beast

In October, I talked to a source inside the FDA who suggested that the agency was having a hard time keeping up with work-flow.  I quoted him on this blog as explaining that since the FDA has committed to reviewing applications for approval of a new drug within 10 months, drug-makers have been submitting “shabbier” applications that contain less evidence about risks and benefits.

“For the drug-maker it’s a gamble. The company is betting that, because we want to make the 10-month deadline, we won’t send the application back,” said the source. And often, he acknowledged, the drug-maker is right. “If you find a problem or there is something missing and it doesn’t seem terribly material, there is a tendency to overlook it. Because if you don’t it will just delay the whole process.”

In the past, he added, a company submitting an application knew that if the application wasn’t up to snuff, the FDA would send it back. But those standards have fallen: “Now we send it back [only] if it’s really crappy.”

Yesterday the FDA Science Board dropped a bombshell in the form of a report which suggests that standards at the FDA haven’t just fallen—they’ve fallen off a cliff. The title of the report says it all: FDA: Science and Mission At Risk.
The problem, according to the report: a lack of funding. The Coalition for a Stronger FDA,  co-chaired by the last three secretaries of Health and Human Services (the department that oversees the FDA), says the FDA needs a 15 percent boost in funding per year for the next five years. 

Here are just a few highlights from the report:

  • “The Information Technology situation is problematic at best—and at worst it is dangerous.”
  • “The FDA has substantial recruitment and retention issues”.
  • “Critical data…including valuable clinical trial data…are sequestered in piles and piles of paper documents in large warehouses."
  • “The FDA has an inadequate and ineffective program for scientist performance."
  • "The FDA has inadequate funding for professional development to ensure that staff maintain scientific competence."

William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who supports the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, told ABC News that the report stands out because of the "intensity of the feelings" expressed by the subcommittee.

"These people were horrified by what they found," he added.

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Healthcare IT Is Not a Done Deal—Even in Theory

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has started developing regional networks of electronic health information. Eventually, these networks will merge into a “network of networks,” thus working toward a nationwide, compatible system of electronic health records by 2014.

Unfortunately this “network of networks” approach of regional heath information organizations (RHIOs) has some serious faults. And the alternative system currently favored by many, health record data banks, still poses a lot of unanswered questions.

According to an October report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the major problem with RHIOs is coordination: “multiple, heterogeneous databases” require “the extensive use of middleware—that is, software used to interface between incompatible databases and data formats.” Otherwise it’s like trying to run Mac software on a PC. Other coordination challenges include accurate patient identification (is John Smith in the Bronx the same as John Q. Smith in Cleveland?) and ensuring comparable service quality—each network needs to be as fast and secure as its peers.

With all of these inefficiencies, the ITIF study notes that RHIOs don’t make a very compelling business case to the health care providers who are expected to implement and operate the networks. Most of the system’s savings go to patients (because they can expect better care) and insurers (because mistakes can be avoided) rather than hospitals and doctors, who incur all the costs of transitioning to a new IT platform—a fact of which they’re well aware. A 2006 JAMA study showed that health care providers are worried about IT transitions primarily because of start-up costs (installation, consultation, training, etc), ongoing costs (such as compliance with privacy laws—no small matter, given the ambiguity of HIPPA) and the potential loss of productivity as employees learn the new system.

In lieu of RHIOs, ITIF recommends health record data banks (HRDBs), a model that has gotten a lot of buzz over recent months—including its own bill in Congress last year.

The simplest way to explain HRDBs is via analogy: think of how you engage with a commercial bank account, and you’re on the right track. Just as you choose a bank from a competitive marketplace of financial institutions, so would you pick an HRDB provider from many vying for your business; just as you open a bank account, so would you start a medical record account; and just as you log in to access financial information, make transactions, and monitor your activity with a bank, so would the HRDB service let you sign in online to access to your medical history, test results, and so on.

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Obama Says No One Should Be Forced to Sign up For Insurance; Edwards Says If You Don’t, He’ll Garnish Your Wages—Who is Right?

John Edwards’ declaration that under his health reform proposal anyone who refuses to sign up for health insurance will be subject to having their wages garnished has led to a blogstorm of often confusing debates.  Under national health reform, should everyone be required to enroll? The Edwards and Clinton plans have mandates insisting that all Americans purchase insurance; the Obama plan has a mandate for children, but not for adults

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman stirred controversy Friday by defending Edwards, and criticizing Barack Obama: “Under Obama’s health care plan, healthy people could choose not to buy insurance—then sign up for it if they developed health problems later,” Krugman observed. “As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care.”

On Sunday former FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt called Krugman out on TPM Cafe in a post headlined “Ease up, Dr. Krugman.” According to Hundt: “The very idea of government mandates directed to individuals evokes a command-and-control model that disturbs citizens who want to enjoy certain freedoms in choosing health care.” As of yesterday, Hundt’s post had drawn some 60 comments—some on point, others muddying the waters.

Meanwhile, at TNR Jonathan Cohn weighs in with a long discussion of just how many people Obama’s plan might leave uncovered—and suggests that one of Obama’s advisers has information showing that under Edwards’ plan, even more Americans would be left “going naked.”

Because the conversation in the blogosphere has become such a mix of good information, misinformation and false assumptions, I’ve decided to try to spell out, as clearly as possible, why we need a mandate. Very simply, it addresses a serious defect in our health care system:  under existing rules, you don’t have to buy insurance, but you can be priced out of the insurance system if you are sick.

After examining that problem–and looking at how requiring insurance solves it– I’d like to answer a sensible question that observers like the Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum have raised: Why force people to buy insurance? Why not just tax everyone, put the money in a pool similar to the Medicare Trust Fund, and use it to buy universal insurance?

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How the Media Covers Health Care

Sometimes health care reporters remind me of the financial journalists who helped hype the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. I began my career as a journalist at Money magazine, and I remember sitting in an editorial meeting where we talked about an upcoming cover story: “The Ten Best Mutual Funds NOW.”  One intrepid reporter asked: “What if there aren’t ten great mutual funds that you really should invest in right now?”

“Let the fact-checker worry about that,” someone else quipped, referring to the person who would be double-checking the details of the story just before it went to press. Almost everyone sitting around the table laughed.

And Money was generally a pretty responsible magazine that tried to warn investors against the risks of the market. Still, “good news” cover stories sold magazines—just as “breakthrough” medical stories on the local evening news keep viewers from changing the channel.

Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, recently published a provocative piece about how the media covers health care in the American Editor. Schwitzer begins his piece by asking his reader to “Imagine a reporter filing a story from the Detroit Auto Show. She writes about one car maker’s hot new model as if it is the best thing since the ’57 Corvette. But in the excitement over the chrome and style, she doesn’t mention the cost of the new model, doesn’t compare it with other manufacturers’ offerings in the same class, and doesn’t mention anything about performance (fuel efficiency, handling, braking, safety issues, etc.)

“An editor would certainly raise questions about this kind of puffery.

“But over on the health care beat,” Schwitzer observes, “the majority of stories on new products, procedures, treatments and tests are published without including comparable information. Claims that would never be accepted unchallenged from a politician are accepted unquestioningly from physicians and researchers and company spokespersons.”

Schwitzer, who publishes, a website that grades health care news stories for accuracy, balance, and completeness, has evidence to back up his claim.  Below I’ve re-posted some of his data on some 400 stories from almost 60 major news organizations (available at his website) to demonstrate how many health care stories “provide a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of the health care system that leaves readers with the impression that most products or procedures in health care are amazing, harmless and without a price tag”:

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