Representatives from insurance companies, doctor groups, hospital organizations and the pharmaceutical industry had their moment in the presidential sun on May 11th promising to slow down how quickly medical care costs increase. Their promise: $2 trillion in savings over 10 years. That would not only make it more affordable to provide coverage for the uninsured, it would be a huge boost the economy and to the financial condition of state governments.
In a letter signed by, among others, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Service Employees International Union, which, as the Los Angeles Times described it “shepherded the agreement.” The unprecedented agreement among these health care stakeholders is meaningful for two reasons. First, these organizations were among the leading opponents of the Clinton Administration’s failed health care reform effort in the 1990s. Second, if it’s real, we’re talking about serious money.
And there’s the rub: is it real? President Obama is trying to find out. He’s instructed the organizations to come back to White House with specifics on how it will make this pledge real. As the Administration has demonstrated with the business plans demanded of the auto industry, the White House will hold these interest groups to a high standard. Which it should. The political stakes are high. If the cost cutting plans lack credibility President Obama will look, as the Associated Press noted, he “will be seen as naive for entertaining such promises.” By holding them to a high standard, however, President Obama also has the power to undercut the industries’ opposition to his health care reform plan. Accusing them of insincere promises and inadequate commitment to cost cutting would bolster those who seek a bigger role for government in any new health care system.
The stakeholders have an equally important political task. By coming forward with voluntary, credible proposals for cutting costs, they provide political cover for those opposing the expansion of the government’s involvement in the system. If their proposals pass muster they will have gone a long way toward morphing from being a target of reform to being a part of the solution. Their specifics for cutting costs will be part of the health care reform legislation Congress will produce this summer, which means they’ll have to live with them. But if that means the forthcoming legislation is a bit friendlier to their interests, that’s a reasonable price to pay.
Fortunately, the target, while a stretch, is eminently doable. Researchers at Dartmouth University have done several studies over the years that demonstrate that high costs for medical care do not correlate with better outcomes. As the Associated Press reports, they found that “as much as 30 cents of the U.S. health care dollar could be going for tests and procedures of little or no value to patients.”
One person who paid attention to this finding is Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. As I wrote in 2007, when he was Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Orszag was “pushing for more evidence based assessments of new technologies and the need to expand research on comparative effectiveness. They key, Mr. Orszag indicated, is to provide new incentives in the system aimed at changing provider and consumer behavior.” His goal: to eliminate the $600 billion in “wasteful or low-value services” currently in the system.
If health care reform is going to work, squeezing this $600 billion out of the system is crucial. The associations’ efforts are an important first step. According to the Associated Press article, the groups are focusing on different aspects of the problem. Insurers, for example, are looking at reducing administrative costs by, among other initiatives, establishing a common, shared on-line claim form doctors and patients could use. Doctors are looking at establishing guidelines for medical practice. Improving information on drug interactions and reducing hospital readmissions are also part of the mix.
Most experts agree that the savings are there to be found. Identifying the savings will require political will and a willingness to change “business as usual” in the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Whether they pass the test will be determined by President Obama. Having shared the stage with him to make the promise, the price of failure will be extremely high.