Debating Medical Cost Controls in Massachusetts

The folks in Massachusetts are engaged in a lively debate over health care reform. Seems their widely touted reform plan, complete with Connector and individual mandate, is running into some unintended consequences. Among them, higher costs than anticipated and a lack of primary care physicians. The good news is the wide-ranging debate has moved beyond the politics and mechanics of the Massachusetts health plan to encompass controlling health care costs.

Consider the dialogue occurring on the Commonhealth blog (published by 90.9 WBUR, Boston’s NPR station), between Dr. David Himmelstein, Co-Founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, and Eric Shultz, President of Fallon Community Health Plan. Dr. Himmelstein kicked things off with a post claiming “With spiraling costs threatening to derail Massachusetts’ health reform, politicians and health policy wonks are rounding up the usual cost-control suspects. Unfortunately, the tired ideas they’re trotting out have virtually no chance of success.”

Dr. Himmelstein then runs through why computerization, prevention, disease management, and cost sharing won’t restrain medical costs. He believes the only way to reduce costs is to eliminate the “middle men” in the system — what you and I call the insurance industry — and to limit the profusion of expensive high technology facilities. Leaving aside a moment the public policy of a government-run system, Dr. Himmelstein fails to explain how eliminating insurance companies, insurance agents and purchasing pools curtails the rate of medical cost increase. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Eliminating private bureaucracies and delivery systems simply shifts is a one-shot savings, not a long term solution — and that doesn’t include the offset created by the need to create a government bureaucracy and delivery system in its place.

Dr. Himmelstein’s call for fewer CAT scanners and other technologies might be more substantive, although his approach to controlling them is chilling. “So long as we leave health planning to the market, the expensive medical arms race will continue.” The implication being that only the government can control costs. Dr. Himmelstein fails to provide any examples where that has worked. I wonder why?

In any event, Mr. Shultz responded in a post with a warning that “Discussions about who pays — whether it’s a single-payer or otherwise — are, fundamentally, discussions about cost-shifting. But cost-shifting does little to get at the relentless underlying drivers of health care costs. And what’s driving up health insurance costs are skyrocketing medical costs, which consume roughly 87 cents of every health insurance dollar.” While allowing that Dr. Himmelstein’s identifying the need for limits on expensive high tech facilities is “well taken,” Mr. Shultz rejects the single payer approach. Citing a Rand study, he notes that “only half of all health care dollars are spent on appropriate medical care.” 

This reality can only be addressed, according to Mr. Shultz, by first requiring that “all players within the health care system have quality and cost information, combined with innovative health insurance plans.” Mr. Shultz goes on to refute Dr. Himmelstein’s dismissal of disease management and smoking cessation programs as ineffective, instead calling for continued focus on prevention and disease management efforts “to ensure the most optimal results are achieved.”

There’s more to the Fallon post. The reality is that controlling medical care costs is a far from easy task. It requires saying “no” to patients demanding inappropriate or ineffective care, “no” to facilities and other providers seeking a market advantage by deploying the latest technologies, “no” to health plans who are less than clear on what’s covered — and what’s not — in their plan designs, and a whole lot more.

What’s significant is that the struggles facing Massachusetts’ health care reform plan is sparking a fulsome debate on what’s needed to restrain health care costs. That may be an unanticipated outcome of the reform effort, but it’s useful and welcome nonetheless.

Why Health Care Reform is So Complicated

As Senator Barack Obama puts it when talking about health care reform, “If it was easy, we’d have done it by now.” For proof of how complex things can be, take a look at Massachusetts. Insurance agent Bruce Benton passed along a New York Times article describing the challenges some patients in the state face in finding a family physician.

Massachusetts’ health care reform plan strives for universal coverage. Since being implemented last year, about 340,000 of the 600,000 uninsured in the state have gained coverage. The strain on the state’s budget was widely anticipated. Of the newly insured, 176,000 have government-subsidized coverage and another 55,000 have enrolled in Medicaid according to The Boston Globe. The strain on the state’s budget is serious. But again, these kind of cost problems were predictable and aren’t really surprising.

What was apparently overlooked was how the influx of newly insureds into the system is straining the pressure on family doctors and other primary care physicians. As a result there’s waiting lists for some non-emergency treatment that stretches for months in some communities. The Times article recounts one physician in Amherst that is now scheduling physicals for early May — of 2009.

The problem is a serious one. By coming into the system, through subsidized coverage or not, residents of Massachusetts anticipated having access to basic health care services. Yet there’s just not enough primary care physicians to go around.

The United States will need 40 percent more primary care doctors by 2020, according to the American College of Physicians, to accommodate the aging population. It’s hard to see where they’re going to come from. The reasons are many. As the Times story reports, factors include reimbursement rates by Medicaid, and the attraction of a specialist’s practice among them. What’s ironic is that Massachusetts ranks significantly above the average in the per capita number of all doctors and primary care physicians.

Which does one little good if you need a doctor and can’t get one to see you. And none of this means attempts to achieve universal coverage should stop. It just underscores how tough a challenge it will be to make any reform package work.

 

 

It’s About Controlling Health Care Costs: Learning from Massachusetts

Massachusetts’ health care reform experiment is nearly 18 months old now. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News reports some fear “the initiative may buckle under money pressures in coming years.”

The good news is that the program successfully enrolled 200,000 previously uninsured people, virtually all of them in free or heavily subsidized coverage. These tended to be the state’s neediest residents. Those who were ineligible for state help and were uninsured are not flocking into the system, at least not yet.

The problem, according to Alan Sager, a professor of health policy and management at Boston University, is that “We’re covering more people, but it’s not sustainable over the long haul. The law does nothing to control costs.” And there’s the rub.

California may or may not pass comprehensive health care reform soon. The people of California may or may not pass any of several health care reform initiatives which will come to a vote in 2008 to fund these health care reforms. The problem is, that while we call these efforts health care reform, they mostly focus on health insurance reforms. Yes, they include cost containment provisions such as moving to electronic health records, promoting healthier lifestyles and wellness programs, encouraging evidence-based medicine and the like. But the reality is that the population is getting older, new technologies cost more, and consumers expect more from their medical care. In short, the underlying cost of health care is going to continue to increase regardless of what insurance reforms are put in place.

Attacking insurance company practices is good politics — and changes in market behavior are needed. Achieving universal coverage would be a real benefit to millions of Californians. It’s a goal we should move toward as soon as we can devise a workable way to get there. Health insurance reforms are needed (although some of the approaches being advocated are very ill advised). We need to recognize, however, that this approach addresses only a part of the problem, and the easiest part at that. What is most necessary is also much tougher: bringing the rate of health care costs down to something resembling overall inflation. There’s no magic solution for this. It will require tough choices and brave leadership. But as we’re learning from Massachusetts, failure to confront this challenge will undermine whatever so-called health care reform package emerges.