Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cash Before Chemo

The Wall Street Journal ran a chilling Page One story yesterday: Cash Before Chemo: Hospitals Get Tough (link may require paid subscription). Here's a little video teaser:

Once again, it's all too easy in the U.S. system to find yourself underinsured for a serious illness, and when you're underinsured, you might as well be uninsured.
posted by Tom Mayo, 2:51 PM | link

Sunday, April 13, 2008

PBS Frontline: "Sick Around the World"

This Tuesday, "Frontline" takes a look at the U.S. health care system by comparing what we have against other countries who manage to provide better access and produce better outcomes at a lower cost. Here are three preview clips:

Here's the press release on the program:

FRONTLINE presents
Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS


FRONTLINE teams up with T.R. Reid, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, to find out how five other capitalist democracies--United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and Switzerland--deliver health care and what the United States might learn from their successes and their failures. In Sick Around the World, airing Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings), Reid turns up remarkable differences in how these countries handle health care--from Japan,
where a night in a hospital can cost as little as $10, to Switzerland, where the president of the country tells Reid it would be a "huge scandal" if someone were to go bankrupt from medical bills.

Reid's first stop is the U.K.--a system very different from ours, where the government-run National Health Service is funded through taxes. According to Whittington Hospital CEO David Sloman, "Every single person who's born in the U.K. will use the NHS ... and none of them will be presented a bill at any point during that time." Reid is surprised to find the system often dismissed as "socialized medicine." The U.K. is now trying free-market tactics like "pay-for-performance," where some doctors are paid more if they get good results controlling chronic diseases like diabetes, and patient choice, in which hospitals compete head to head. While such initiatives have helped reduce waiting times for elective surgeries, the London Times' medical correspondent Nigel Hawkes tells Reid the NHS hasn't made enough progress. "We're now in a world in which people are much more demanding, and I think that the NHS is not very effective at delivering in that modern, market-orientated world."

Reid reports next from Japan, the world's second largest economy and the country boasting the best health statistics. The Japanese go to the doctor three times as often as Americans, have more than twice as many MRIs, use more drugs, and spend more days in the hospital, yet Japan spends about half as much per capita as the United States. Reid finds out the secrets of the nation's success: By law, everyone must buy health insurance--either through an employer or a community plan--and unlike in the U.S., insurers cannot turn down a patient for a pre-existing illness, nor are they allowed to make a profit.

Reid's journey then takes him to Germany, the country that invented the concept of a national health care system. For it's 80 million people, Germany offers universal health care, including medical, dental, mental health, homeopathy and spa treatment. Professor Karl Lauterbach, M.D., a member of the German parliament, describes it as "a system where the rich pay for the poor and where the ill are covered by the healthy. It is ... highly accepted by the population." As they do in Japan, medical providers must charge standard prices which are negotiated with the government every year. As a consequence, physicians in Germany earn between half and two-thirds as much as their U.S. counterparts.

Taiwan researched many health care systems before settling on one where the government runs the financing, but Reid finds the delivery of health care is left to the market. Taiwanese health care offers medical, dental, mental and Chinese medicine, with no waiting time and for less that half of what we pay in the United States. Every person in Taiwan has a "smart card" containing all of his or her relevant health information, and bills are paid automatically. But what Reid finds is that the Taiwanese spend too little to sustain their health care system. According to Princeton's Tsung-Mei Cheng, who advised the Taiwanese government, "As we speak, the government is borrowing from banks to pay what there isn't enough to pay the providers."

Reid's final destination is Switzerland, a country whose health care system suffered from some America's problems until, in 1994, the country attempted a major reform. Despite a huge private insurance business, a law called LAMal was passed, which set up a universal health care system that, among other things, restricted insurance companies from making a profit on basic medical care. Today, Swiss politicians from the political right and left enthusiastically support universal health care. Pascal Couchepin, the president of the Swiss Federation, argues: "Everybody has a right to health care. ... It is a profound need for people to be sure that if they are struck by destiny ... they can have a good health system."

posted by Tom Mayo, 12:36 PM | link

Friday, April 11, 2008

Some basic health-reform lessons

Paul Krugman's excellent op-ed yesterday -- Health Care Horror Stories - New York Times -- ought to be required reading across the country. There is plenty to debate about how to fix our health care system, and he's made it clear in past columns that he favors Hillary's universal-coverage-now over Obama's phased-in plan. And there is still debate (here and here) about whether the opening story in the column was accurately described out on the hustings by Hillary (and by Krugman, who repeats a version of it in his op-ed). But isn't it time for an end to the debate over whether our system is broke? Here are a few take-aways from his 700-word column:

1. Just because you have health insurance today don't assume that means you will have it tomorrow. Employers drop employee health plans when they become too expensive. Bankrupt employers aren't obligated to continue health insurance for retirees, regardless of previous bargained-for promises. Annual and life-time caps on benefits can wipe out future benefits. And plan coverage can be manipulated so that your particular needs are no longer covered.

2. The uninsured are charged more for their health care than the insured. The resulting bad credit and outstanding balances may limit future access to health care.

3. The emergency-room option that is virtually guaranteed by EMTALA and was touted by President Bush as a health-care safety net is no substitute for insurance coverage and access to primary and preventive care. Lots of people delay care until they have a "true emergency" -- they will still be billed for the care they receive, regardless of ability to pay. (In fact, even insured patients have good reason to postpone ER visits, unless they live in a state that requires managed care plans to pay for the ER services, even if there was no true emergency, as long as a reasonable layperson would have thought they had a medical emergency.

4. The lack of universal coverage that every other developed country seems to be able to afford isn't simply an "access" problem. People get sicker, stay sicker longer, and die as a result of care that is postponed or not sought when it could still be useful.
posted by Tom Mayo, 3:59 PM | link

Monday, April 07, 2008

More medical records abuses

It seems that UCLA Medical Center had a serial HIPAA violator on its payroll (until he or she was fired last year for checking out Britney Spears' medical record). See: More UCLA records abuses - Los Angeles Times. We knew this was wrong even before HIPAA, didn't we?
posted by Tom Mayo, 4:01 PM | link

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