Monday, August 27, 2007

Medicare beneficiaries lag in taking advantage of covered screenings and preventive care

From the Wall Street Journal (via AHLA's Health Law Daily [link should be good for about a week]):

CMS says Medicare is spending more on prevention efforts. The Wall Street Journal (8/26, McQueen) reported, "Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for older Americans, increasingly is paying for screening tests and immunizations that previously were not covered. But the vast majority of recipients are failing to take advantage, officials say." Less than 10 percent of Medicare recipients are "getting all the screenings and immunizations recommended by public health groups," according to the CMS. And, just over "a third of recipients didn't get a free flu shot in 2005, for example, even though elderly and immune-system-compromised patients are at high risk of death from the disease." In order to reverse this trend, "Medicare officials launched a bus tour of 48 states and more than 120 cities this summer, in conjunction with local officials, hospitals and elder-care groups. The tour is expected to wrap up this week." The Journal noted, "Until now, just five percent of Medicare spending has been for preventive services, officials say. But in recent years, as medical evidence has mounted about the cost-effectiveness of preventing diseases such as flu, diabetes and heart disease instead of treating them later, the U.S. has authorized more spending on screening tests and immunization."
This caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, it is scandalous that Medicare beneficiaries aren't getting the preventive services they need to fend off really serious and expensive health problems. Of course, the reason might be that the elderly haven't gotten the word about changes in Medicare coverage for such items. But it might also be because of other impediments such as limited transportation, the extra burden from multiplying trips to providers of different kinds to get the screenings done, etc. But at least CMS is focusing on the easiest-to-solve part of the problem by trying to do a better job of getting the word out.

Second is the statement that "medical evidence has mounted about the cost-effectiveness of preventing diseases such as flu, diabetes and heart disease instead of treating them later." This is certainly conventional wisdom, and this argument has an undeniable, intuitive appeal. But is it true?

There is evidence to support the proposition, at least within a limited time frame and for certain medical conditions and certainly for the individual who, as a result of the screening or the flu shot, didn't get sick. For example, as the New York Times reported [TimesSelect article: no link available] on January 11, 2006, in an article about diabetes prevention:

Insurers, for example, will often refuse to pay $150 for a diabetic to see a podiatrist, who can help prevent foot ailments associated with the disease. Nearly all of them, though, cover amputations, which typically cost more than $30,000.

Patients have trouble securing a reimbursement for a $75 visit to the nutritionist who counsels them on controlling their diabetes. Insurers do not balk, however, at paying $315 for a single session of dialysis, which treats one of the disease's serious complications.

But what if avoiding the life-threatening acute medical condition simply permitted a large percentage of patients to survive for a life-time of care for their chronic conditions. Isn't it at least possible that the cost savings would eventually be exceeded by the costs associated with a longer life-time of care? That seems to have been the thrust of a March 16, 1997, article in the Times [also TimesSelect (no link)]:

While studies have shown that preventive care is generally good for your health, they have also shown that it often does not save money.

The central problem is that the early detection of many diseases, like high cholesterol and H.I.V. infection, is often followed by a lifetime of costly treatments and drugs. Expensive hospitalizations may only be forestalled. So in many cases, total medical costs actually rise.

''An awful lot of preventive care has no payoff economically -- it actually costs money,'' said Uwe Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton University. ''If the [managed care] plans are doing it, they're doing it because they think it gives them a good image. A lot of this stuff is overhyped.''

That's the message, again, from the recent essay by David Leonhardt, "Free Lunch on Health? Think Again" (NY Times, Aug. 6, 2007; TimesSelect [no link]). Leonhardt notes that Rudy Giuliani and the three leading Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton, Edwards, Obama) are all promoting the idea that

[b]y practicing preventive medicine, doctors can keep many people from getting sick in the first place. Those who do end up with a chronic illness will be closely tracked so that fewer of them develop complications. These steps will result in less illness, which in turn will require less health care. With the savings, the country can then lower its medical bills or provide health insurance for the 40-odd million people who lack it -- or maybe even both.

As Hillary Clinton recently told The Atlantic, it's possible to ''save money
and improve quality and cover everybody.''

The hitch, according to Leonhardt, is that

[n]o one really knows whether preventive medicine will save money in the long run, let alone free up the billions of dollars a year needed to help pay for universal health insurance. In fact, studies have shown that preventive care -- be it cancer screening, smoking cessation or plain old checkups -- usually ends up costing money. It makes people healthier, but it's not free.

''It's a nice thing to think, and it seems like it should be true, but I don't know of any evidence that preventive care actually saves money,'' said Jonathan Gruber, an M.I.T. economist who helped design the universal-coverage plan in Massachusetts.

This is a tough idea to swallow because better health really does seem as if it should lead to lower medical bills. Indeed, if it were somehow possible to wave a wand and turn people into thin nonsmokers who remembered to take their statins, this country's health care expenses would fall.

But any effort to promote health has its own costs. Doctors and nurses need to spend time with patients to persuade them to change their behavior. (Ever tried to get someone to stop smoking or drinking?) For a new program to work, it has to reach people who are not being helped by whatever exists now -- and who thus will be among the most difficult and expensive patients to treat. The program would also have to treat a whole lot of people who never would have gotten sick.

Jay Bhattacharya, a doctor and economist at Stanford's School of Medicine, estimates that to prevent one new case of diabetes, an antiobesity program must treat five people -- ''not cheaply,'' he says. Along the same lines, Mr. Gruber found that when retirees in California began visiting their doctor less often and filling fewer prescriptions, overall medical spending fell. People did get sick more often, but treating their illnesses was still less costly than widespread basic care -- in the form of doctors visits and drugs. Louise Russell, an economist at Rutgers, points out that programs that focus on at-risk patients cost the least, but even they are rarely free.

As Dr. Mark R. Chassin, a former New York state health commissioner, says, preventive care ''reduces costs, yes, for the individual who didn't get sick.''

"But that savings is overwhelmed by the cost of continuously treating everybody else.''

The actual savings are also not as large as might at first seem. Even if you don't develop diabetes, your lifetime medical costs won't drop to zero. You might live longer and better and yet still ultimately run up almost as big a lifetime medical bill, because you'll eventually have other problems. That would be an undeniably better outcome, but it wouldn't produce a financial windfall for society.

Certainly, there are examples of preventive care that can save money. As Mrs. Clinton has noted, Safeway and a handful of other companies have held down health costs by emphasizing prevention. (This, of course, is only over the short term.) Perhaps the best examples fall under the category of what Dr. Brent C. James calls 'do it right the first time.''

Dr. James is an executive at Intermountain Healthcare, a network of hospitals in Utah and Idaho that has saved money in recent years by reducing hospital infections and drug errors. Intermountain hospitals have also largely stopped inducing child labor for the sake of doctors' or parents' convenience. The hospital induces birth only for medical reasons -- and the number of babies that spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit has fallen.

It's this last example that holds the real key to cutting medical costs. I realize many
people will react to the notion that preventive care usually costs money by saying, ''So what? We should do it anyway.'' And we should.

But by describing it as an easy win-win solution, the presidential candidates are gliding over an important part of the issue. Preventive care saves real money only when it replaces existing care that is expensive and doesn't do much, if any, good. There are plenty of examples of such care -- from induced labor to many lumbar surgeries and cardiac stent procedures.

The problem is that the people getting this care typically don't consider it wasteful. We all like to believe that other people are the ones getting the unnecessary care. We, on the other hand, are probably not getting enough treatment.

Persuading people otherwise -- persuading them that basic care is sometimes cheaper and better -- will be difficult. Sometimes insurance plans will simply have to say no to questionable care, over the opposition of doctors' groups with a financial interest in the status quo. But it's the only way to ''save money and improve quality and cover everybody,'' as Mrs. Clinton says.

This is one of the best articles I've seen in the popular press that explores some of the variables in the "pay for increased coverage by increasing cost-effective primary and preventive care" argument. The problem is -- should we be surprised? -- much subtler and more difficult than our political candidates are making it sound.

posted by tommayo, 11:45 AM

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