It seems a no-brainer: reward the doctors and hospitals that give the best care, latch on to programs and ideas that offer quality over quantity. But innovation in health care, even when it proves out, has always taken a very long time to work into the system.
In a ‘Talk of the Town’ piece appearing in the latest New Yorker magazine, writer Atul Gawande offers a thoughtful look at some of the hurdles ahead for the newly-passed health bill. They are primarily political: conservatives — even if they’re talking less and less about repeal — will run on pieces they plan to strip out, states will fight the insurance exchanges (such as those that make health coverage near universal in Senator Scott Brown‘s Massachusetts.) And other battle lines will be drawn.
But one primary problem with the dysfunction we are hoping to fix, Gawande points out, is that the current system “pays for quantity of care rather than the value of it.” He illustrates this with a case that makes you cheer, and then feel a little hopeless:
Recently, clinicians at Children’s Hospital Boston adopted a more systematic approach for managing inner-city children who suffer severe asthma attacks, by introducing a bundle of preventive measures. Insurance would cover just one: prescribing an inhaler. The hospital agreed to pay for the rest, which included nurses who would visit parents after discharge and make sure that they had their child’s medicine, knew how to administer it, and had a follow-up appointment with a pediatrician; home inspections for mold and pests; and vacuum cleaners for families without one (which is cheaper than medication). After a year, the hospital readmission rate for these patients dropped by more than eighty per cent, and costs plunged. But an empty hospital bed is a revenue loss, and asthma is Children’s Hospital’s leading source of admissions. Under the current system, this sensible program could threaten to bankrupt it. So far, neither the government nor the insurance companies have figured out a solution.
There is in the new bill, though, a ray of hope:
The most interesting, under-discussed, and potentially revolutionary aspect of the law is that it doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Instead, through a new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, it offers to free communities and local health systems from existing payment rules, and let them experiment with ways to deliver better care at lower costs. In large part, it entrusts the task of devising cost-saving health-care innovation to communities like Boise and Boston and Buffalo, rather than to the drug and device companies and the public and private insurers that have failed to do so. This is the way costs will come down—or not.
Imagine innovation being rewarded, communities being encouraged to find ways to improve quality of care at lower cost. That’s real reform, and it could just happen.