Quality health care at lower cost? It could happen

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.

The next attacks on health-care reform : The New Yorker.

Health Bill Should not Pit Women against Seniors

The health care issue is, one would think, too important for partisan games pitting one group against another. Especially when huge portions of each group are one and the same. But as Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn report in today’s New York Times, that seems to be happening.

In a day of desultory debate on sweeping health care legislation, senators appealed to two potent political constituencies on Tuesday, with Democrats seeking additional medical benefits for women and Republicans vowing to preserve and protect Medicare for older Americans.

The Democrats’ first amendment, offered by Senator Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, would require insurers to cover more screenings and preventive care for women, with no co-payments.

‘Women often forgo those critical preventive screenings because they simply cannot afford it, or their insurance company won’t pay for it unless it is mandated by state law,’ Ms. Mikulski said.

I met with my oncologist two days ago and decided to have a mammogram. It’s been two years since the last one. She and I agree that, having had breast cancer in 2006 and breezed through a mastectomy, and being fit and healthy overall, my particular situation suggests the potential benefits — catch another cancer early, gain another good decade or so of life — outweigh the risks.  This is what the whole thing is about: every woman is different, every woman should be allowed to decide, with her doctor, on screening and preventive care. The Mikulski amendment will insure that can happen, whatever one’s age and circumstances.

The first Republican proposal, offered by Senator John McCain of Arizona, would strip the bill of more than $450 billion of proposed savings in Medicare. The savings would curb the growth of Medicare payments to hospitals, nursing homes, health maintenance organizations and other providers of care.

‘The cuts are not attainable,’ Mr. McCain said. ‘And if they were, it would mean a direct curtailment and reduction in the benefits we have promised to senior citizens.’

Senators said that debate on the bill, which embodies President Obama’s top domestic priority, would last for several weeks and perhaps continue into January. A vote on Ms. Mikulski’s amendment has not been scheduled but could come Wednesday.

The health care bill would require most Americans to carry insurance. It would subsidize coverage for people with moderate incomes, expand Medicaid and create a government insurance plan, which would compete with private insurers. The House passed a similar bill last month.

Ms. Mikulski’s proposal was prompted, in part, by the recent furor over new recommendations from a federal task force that breast cancer screenings begin later for many women.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, hailed Ms. Mikulski’s proposal, saying: ‘The decision whether or when to get a mammogram should be left up to the patient and the doctor. That decision should not be made by some bureaucrat, a member of Congress or someone they’ve never met.’

As health costs and insurance premiums rise, Mr. Reid said, ‘more women are skipping screenings for cervical and breast cancer, and doctor visits that can catch problems like postpartum depression and domestic violence.’

Votes on the Mikulski amendment will show whether Republicans “truly want to improve this bill or just want to play games, stall,” Mr. Reid said.

Ms. Mikulski said her proposal would ‘shrink or eliminate the high cost of co-payments and deductibles’ for women who receive screenings for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, criticized the proposal, saying it would ‘allow yet another government agency to interfere in the relationship between a woman and her doctor.’

No, Senator Hutchison, the government isn’t interfering in my relationship with my doctor, nor will it do so by insuring other women’s choices and coverage.

Republicans argued that the bill would be paid for on the backs of older Americans.

‘We are receiving incredible and overwhelming response from seniors all over America,’ Mr. McCain said. ‘They paid all their working lives into the Medicare trust fund, and now they’re in danger of having $483 billion cut out of it.’

Mr. McCain’s proposal would effectively cripple the bill, because Democrats are relying on savings in Medicare to help offset the cost of providing coverage to more than 30 million people who are now uninsured.

This senior would like to add a word to that “overwhelming response” Mr. McCain reports. I paid all my working life into Medicare (which, by the way, was not exactly a gift to America from the Republican party) and I want a decent health bill more than I want every penny of my Medicare coverage protected.

A lot of us have come to terms with the fact that the health bill we may get is a long way from the health bill we so fervently wanted. We are still hoping that something survives the attempts to sink it at any cost.

Senators Pitch to Women and Elderly on Health Bill – NYTimes.com.

Helping Mom die

Flight #12 had not even left the gate in San Francisco yesterday before the conversation was underway. The man in seat #16F was talking to his new friend in #16E about his trip: another of many undertaken by himself and his siblings to their mother’s home in the long process of packing up, sorting through, tossing out, agonizing over. The scene is a familiar one to millions of Americans: aging, often isolated mom; far-flung, often cash-strapped, over-stressed children; a bewildering assortment of issues to be dealt with, ranging from health to housing to family dynamics.

I, of course, am the mom. Well, not #16F’s mom, and currently in good health and of relatively sane mind. But 76, with children across the continent and a dizzying amount of Stuff to be dealt with if my husband should have the crass inconsideration to die first and leave me to deal with it. (Actually, he’s been very good about making arrangements for disposition of his Stuff, but still, there are those piles and boxes and shelves of miscellany and cupboards of chipped dishes. And closets full of clothes from the 1950s and still perfectly wearable… but I digress.)

My sisters and I were fortunate that our dad looked after our mom as she slowly died, swearing they had a fine conversation the night before although dementia had long stolen her ability to converse; my father created his own realities. Twenty years later, the town of Ashland, VA, with the assistance of Randolph-Macon College, looked after our dad, because indeed it takes a village. But fewer and fewer of us have the traditional village, and more and more of us have the complications: dementia, physical issues, personal problems, too little financial and emotional resources, too much Stuff.

There is help. There are community centers and assisted living arrangements, there is the new Villages concept (more about that one in the next week or so) and an array of other anti-isolationist possibilities; there are nonprofits of every sort, from the Family Caregiver Alliance to multiple physical/emotional-needs groups to my alltime favorite, in name at least, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. God willing, we may even get health care, but thanks to those earlier, similar battles we at least now have Medicare and Medicaid.

But too many of us still put it all off, and it falls to the children. We cling to the past in the form of too many boxes of old photos and letters and opera programs; we drive too long and invite fender-benders or worse; we think that old chair is worth too much for a garage sale; we forget to take the pills.

The issue, of course, is not about dying; it’s about living. Living as well as possible for as long as possible, as closely as possible to what we would choose for ourselves. But here’s what happens eventually: mom dies. It’s tough, but it’s probably okay.

I gave my card with the True/Slant website on it to the nice people in #16E and #16F; maybe they’ll check in. When I get back home, though, I think I’ll clean out some files.

An Immigrant, Undocumented, Uninsured

I have a friend I’ll call Maria. She lives in San Francisco, but her story is very probably the same as any number of Marias in Atlanta, New York, Chicago and elsewhere. You may not know her, but I’ll bet your paths have crossed.

Maria came here from Mexico 22 years ago. She has never applied for citizenship, largely because for the first few years she was in the country her English skills were so limited it would not have been remotely possible. Recently she has been afraid to try. Maria has a 20-year-old undocumented daughter, an extraordinarily smart illegal immigrant/recent college graduate niece and a large, extended family of mostly undocumented immigrant adults and American citizen children. The niece, tired of living in a very rough part of town, went online a few years ago and found them some minimally affordable rental housing toward the ocean. They have a strong sense of belonging.

Maria and the other women clean houses for a living; the men work for landscaping companies. They drive cars without licenses because they can’t get licenses. But they are little threat due to the fact that one minor brush with the law and (Maria’s daughter explained to me in some detail) you’re out $1,000 including towing charges and fines.

Maria’s family does not do in-home care; however, there is another large, mostly undocumented community of Pacific Islanders who are highly recommended and routinely called upon when seniors (and others) here require but cannot afford extended nursing care. Not nurses by a long shot, they are nevertheless highly skilled.

Whenever Maria or other members of these communities need medical care they go to the county hospital. If the need is sudden or extreme, they go to the emergency room. Either way, they pay small amounts and they get excellent care. I’m grateful for that. They are all truly good people, honest, hard-working and contributing members of the larger community. They don’t pay income taxes (and have no Social Security accruing) but they buy local, pay their rents on time and add to the economy.

I do not support illegal immigration and am SURELY not advocating health insurance coverage for the undocumented, the very mention of which is enough to sink any reform in a New York minute. But it is a subject of contention constantly just below the national surface — or sometimes above the surface, as with the ill-mannered Joe Wilson.  As reported last week in the San Francisco Chronicle (and widely elsewhere), the current policy is clear:

Under long-standing federal policy, people who are in the United States illegally don’t qualify for federal health programs, and the current proposals for reform in Congress hold to that. With the exception of limited emergency Medicaid primarily for pregnant women and children, and some hospital funding, federal dollars do not pay for the care of people who are in the country illegally.

The health care reform bill in the House explicitly bars “undocumented aliens” from receiving federally subsidized health benefits. A Senate version doesn’t address the issue, suggesting that current policy would remain unchanged. A second Senate bill has yet to be released.

Some would have us go farther, requiring a system verifying immigrant status to be incorporated in the final health bill.

“If you don’t have a provision that clearly requires applicants’ immigration status to be verified, just to state that illegals won’t be covered is misleading,” said Yeh Ling-Ling, executive director of the Alliance for a Sustainable USA in Oakland.

Opponents argue that such verification systems would add a layer of bureaucracy and cost, and unintentionally screen out U.S. citizens who lack proper documentation. They also contend that denying a segment of people access to health care, even if they are illegal residents, could increase costs for emergency care as well as the risk for contagious disease in the general population.

However angry those are who are raising their voices about “illegal aliens,” that last sentence is worth consideration. If you cannot bring yourself to care much about the health of uninvited fellow residents of our corner of the planet, you may still want to look at this reality: treating colds in emergency rooms is an expensive folly; colds left untreated for want of an option breed more colds.

A lot of the anger is easy to understand. The economy has tanked, times are tough, you gotta blame somebody. But until all we documented citizens are ready to quit eating strawberries and drinking wine, and to forgo such niceties as in-home care and mopped kitchens, we would probably do well to care about the lives of our undocumented neighbors.

Via: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/11/MN4A19GI9I.DTL#ixzz0R040rESh

Obama plays the Medicare card

President Obama, with Vice President Biden and Speaker Pelosi behind him, delivers a joint address to Congress on September 9 (Alex Wong/Getty)
President Obama, with Vice President Biden and Speaker Pelosi behind him, delivers a joint address to Congress on September 9 (Alex Wong/Getty)

For almost anyone over 50, the central issue of health care boils quickly down to Medicare. Will I keep it? Will it be there when I need it? Will it change?

In his address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, President Obama looked straight at the camera while saying he wanted “to speak directly to seniors: Medicare has been here for four decades, and is a sacred trust that must be passed down” to future generations. Then he pointed out to those seniors that the legislators opposing his reform plan are the same “folks who voted against Medicare in the beginning” and this year voted for a budget that would privatize it. He said also that much of the plan will be paid for by reducing waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid. Anybody who’s had (and thank you, I have) Medicare coverage for more than 15 minutes knows about waste and inefficiency. So cut those, and leave the system, and we should all be happy.

We should all be happy, that is, if such care extends to everyone. And if Mr. Obama’s references to the U.S. being the only developed country that lets its citizens suffer daily for want of adequate health care didn’t communicate the moral wrong that reform will attempt to right, you weren’t listening. What we heard was outline, and the president’s throw-away line about a few details yet to be worked out got an expected congregational chuckle. Some of us are more optimistic than others about whether any substantive change for the common good will remain by the time the final bill is drawn.

The details are ahead for the devil to be in, and he/she is surely ready. Whether public support will be forthcoming seems likely to boil down to a whom-to-believe game. Obama repeatedly stressed that “nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.” But in delivering the Republican response immediately after the speech, Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana promised listeners that they would be in for “replacing your family’s current plan with government-sponsored healthcare.” Boustany also tossed in references to “rationing care” and to general “fear and anxiety,” giving a distinct impression that battle lines are still drawn.

About those battle lines: Republicans sat on their hands as Obama once again proclaimed the rumors about bureaucrats who would kill off senior citizens — he skipped dignifying Sarah Palin by using the death-panel words — to be “lies, plain and simple.” And although he got the other side of the aisle to stand when he insisted there must be reform of medical malpractice laws, there were no smiles when he pointed out that the cost of health reform will be less than the tax breaks for wealthiest Americans passed during the previous administration.

Somehow, what truths and certainties do exist must be kept alive in the fray: Medicare is not going away. End-of-life conversations won’t kill off grandma. (Sadly, this provision may be already dead anyway.) The plan’s not going to cover illegal immigrants or pay for abortions. Medical malpractice laws must be reformed. Nothing will adequately replace the public option. A health care plan that offers access to all, imperfect or not, is only common decency.

This senior’s trust is still in Barack Obama.