Monday, July 26, 2004

Health care reform redux.

Tonight's Democratic National Convention kick-off will be punctuated by a lot of applause lines.  One of the biggest will be for health care reform.  The Clintons proved in 1993 just how volatile this issue can be, but the National Coalition on Health Care -- which claims to represent nearly 100 of the nation's largest businesses, unions, provider groups, insurers, pension funds, and other groups -- may have demonstrated last week that the country is at last ready to focus on access to care, as well as cost and quality.  From The Commonwealth Fund's "HealthBeat" for July 26:

A broad coalition of insurers, consumers, providers, labor unions, and other groups warned today that absent a dramatic overhaul of the health system in the near future, premiums will soar and the number of uninsured will rise sharply. Soaring health costs are reducing economic growth and new jobs, corporate profits, the competitiveness of corporations, and the viability of pensions, said the National Coalition on Health Care. . . .

The coalition said that if policymakers fail to act, premiums for family coverage will top $14,500 in 2006, and the number of uninsured will reach 51 million that year. In addition, the deficit will rise by trillions of dollars in coming decades, it added. The coalition calls for legislation covering all Americans within two or three years of enactment. Health cost increases should be brought in line with cost increases in other parts of the economy within five years. "Today's report is politically significant because it shows that there is broad support across most sectors of the economy and society, and across party lines for tough, system-wide reform," said coalition co-chair Paul Rogers, former Democratic House member from Florida. The coalition's honorary co-chairs are former Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Carter.

The NCHC's report, "Building A Better Health System," is worth a read.  As the Executive Summary makes clear, the Coalition has done a good job of identifying the most glaring needs of the health care system.  What remains to be seen is whether they -- or anyone else -- have a plan to implement the group's five specifications:

1. Health Care Coverage for All
• to be achieved within two to three years after the passage of legislation
• defined core benefit package
• employers and individuals able to purchase supplemental coverage beyond core package
• options for insuring all Americans include
     - employer mandates (supplemented with individual mandates as necessary)
     - expansion of existing public programs that cover subsets of the uninsured
     - creation of new programs targeted at subsets of the uninsured
     - establishment of a universal publicly financed program
• mandatory participation
• subsidies for less affluent

2. Cost Management
• within five years, bring increases in the costs and premiums associated with the core benefit package into alignment with increases in per capita gross domestic product
• increase the value for patients that is generated by any given level of health care spending
• measures include:
     - providing more and better information for patients, providers, and purchasers
     - improving quality and outcomes of care and reducing amount of unnecessary and injurious care
     - building national information technology infrastructure for health care
     - modernizing and simplifying administration
• urgent need for cost relief requires short-term constraints:
     - rates for reimbursing providers for care encompassed by core benefit package and
     - only after those rates take effect, limits on increases in insurance premiums for coverage defined by that package
• to facilitate comparisons, insurers required to set premiums separately for core benefit package and supplemental coverage

3. Improvement of Health Care Quality and Safety
• accelerated development of an integrated national information technology infrastructure for health care, including:
     - protocols for electronic patient records, prescription ordering, and billing
     - standards to protect privacy
     - mechanisms to incentivize and provide capital for the upfront investments necessary to build the infrastructure
• measures of process and outcomes quality to improve accountability and help payers and patients make better choices
• independent national board, with members drawn equally from public and private sectors, to coordinate public and private efforts to improve quality of care
• board also responsible for coordinating development of national practice guidelines
     - guidelines to be based on reviews, by panels of leading health care professionals, of research on impacts of technologies and procedures
- guidelines could be cited in malpractice cases as evidence of best medical practice
• board to update core benefit package to reflect changes in practice guidelines

4. Equitable Financing
• measures to reduce or eliminate cost-shifting across categories of insurance programs and payers
• mechanisms or sources that could be used, individually or in combination, to fund program costs include:
     - general revenues
     - earmarked taxes and/or fees
     - contributions required from employers
     - contributions required from individuals and families
• financial obligations to be adjusted, or subsidies provided, based on relative ability to pay for less affluent individuals, families, and employers

5. Simplified Administration
• assurance of coverage for all Americans and establishment of core benefit package to create consistent set of ground rules and reduce variations that now draw time and resources away from protection and advancement of health
• creation of an integrated national information technology infrastructure – including electronic patient records, prescription ordering, and billing – to reduce administrative complexity, costs, and medical errors
• national practice guidelines to reduce variability of care and billing and improve quality of care

The Coalition can't be faulted for failing to think big.  Specifically, its report sets out three premises that underlay their detailed specifications:

Health care reform must be a national priority.
Comprehensive health care reform is long overdue. Every year that reform is delayed, tens of millions of Americans live in peril, without health insurance; millions are harmed, and hundreds of thousands die needlessly, because of sub-standard care; and health care costs continue to spiral ever upwards.

The Coalition’s specifications are meant not just to encourage and help to frame a national debate about health care reform, but to create momentum for the passage of legislation. These specifications are an expression of operational intent: Our member organizations are determined to work with other organizations and with policymakers in both parties to secure the reforms described here.  Yes, we need a vigorous debate about health care policy — but what we really need is action, and soon.

Health care reform must be systemic.
The Coalition’s specifications were developed not as a shopping list of potential stand-alone initiatives, but as a linked series of targets, criteria, and options — meant to be adopted concurrently and to work together.  The vast American health care sector is exquisitely and elaborately interconnected. Partial or piecemeal reforms, even those conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, can produce unanticipated adverse consequences far from the focus or locus of those targeted reforms.

For example, a dramatic expansion of access, implemented without accompanying measures to improve quality and manage costs, could produce an overloaded health care system that delivers worse care (albeit to more people) at higher costs.  Similarly, constraints on costs (and reimbursements for care), pursued in isolation,
could compromise both access and quality.

A system is a set of institutions and processes that function together to achieve defined objectives. The Coalition’s specifications were designed to serve multiple goals simultaneously. We began our development of recommendations by agreeing on five core principles for reform (which appear below as section headings for our specifications).  Then, as our deliberations proceeded, we continuously revisited and recalibrated our recommendations to make sure that the individual components fused together into a sensible systemic strategy.

We believe that a systemic approach can increase not only the substantive
coherence of reform, but also its political feasibility. Thus, if constraints on health care cost increases were proposed in isolation, providers might understandably anticipate that their revenues going forward would be diminished. By contrast, if those same constraints were conjoined in a systemic strategy with an assurance of
coverage for all Americans and financing for their care, providers would receive payment for care that they now provide, with little or no compensation, to uninsured patients.

Health care reform must be system-wide.
The Coalition is calling for system-wide reforms, not for changes that would apply to only some payers, patients, or providers.  Unless reform is system-wide, gains in some sectors or for some groups are likely to be offset by losses elsewhere.  There is, in addition to this practical consideration, another compelling argument for making certain that reform is system-wide.  America is already a nation of health care haves and have-nots.  Reform should aim to assure that all Americans receive excellent
health care and are able to enjoy the quality of life and peace of mind for which such care is essential. Piecemeal reform that helps some categories of people to the detriment of others would not take us closer to an optimal health care system and could actually make it harder to attain.

posted by tommayo, 12:57 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter