Listen. I know it’s August, and I know there’s always some controversy or other. But this health care fight is really important in almost the same way the Bush-Gore fight was important.
Powerful interests were determined to install Bush and so he was sold as a man with “a humble foreign policy” even though he was already planning to attack Iraq . . . and he was sold as a man “the vast majority” of whose huge tax cuts would go “to people at the bottom end of the economic ladder” even though by “bottom” he actually meant “top” . . . and common citizens rose up in Miami in spontaneous protest, intimidating public officials to “stop the vote count” even though they turned out to have been Republican staffers flown in on corporate jets.
And so on.
My point is, it’s happening again. Powerful interests are pulling out all the stops to mislead the public. We shouldn’t let it happen again.
Yesterday, I offered this – “If you ever really need your health insurance policy, you have less than even odds that the insurance company will actually pay for your health care.” – guessing that it was overstated but closer to the truth than the insurance companies would have us think.
Today, I offer this incendiary, heart-wrenching six-minute video, even though it’s not a dispassionate analysis.
And this important New Yorker article which is a dispassionate analysis.
The author, Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, goes to McAllen, Texas – which has the highest health care costs in the country but by no means the healthiest residents – and asks why.
The short form: because our system is screwed up in ways Obama is trying to fix. And because “entrepreneurial doctors” there, and in so much of the rest of the country, have the wrong incentives.
So much is at stake. If we could have better care at lower cost, it would go a long way toward getting the country back on a prosperous long-term track.
I think the situation is serious enough that we should each spend an hour a day learning, thinking, and advocating about it until we get health care reform. That’s an extraordinary burden – but not as onerous as, say, going off to war or suffering through a depression. We can do this.
Excerpts from The New Yorker:
. . . McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.
McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.
The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn. The financial burden has damaged the global competitiveness of American businesses and bankrupted millions of families, even those with insurance. It’s also devouring our government. “The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.”
The question we’re now frantically grappling with is how this came to be, and what can be done about it. McAllen, Texas, the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world, seemed a good place to look for some answers.
. . . [P]ublic-health statistics show that cardiovascular-disease rates in the county are actually lower than average, probably because its smoking rates are quite low. Rates of asthma, H.I.V., infant mortality, cancer, and injury are lower, too. El Paso County, eight hundred miles up the border, has essentially the same demographics. Both counties have a population of roughly seven hundred thousand, similar public-health statistics, and similar percentages of non-English speakers, illegal immigrants, and the unemployed. Yet in 2006 Medicare expenditures (our best approximation of over-all spending patterns) in El Paso were $7,504 per enrollee—half as much as in McAllen. An unhealthy population couldn’t possibly be the reason that McAllen’s health-care costs are so high. (Or the reason that America’s are. We may be more obese than any other industrialized nation, but we have among the lowest rates of smoking and alcoholism, and we are in the middle of the range for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.)
Was the explanation, then, that McAllen was providing unusually good health care? . . .
. . . Medicare ranks hospitals on twenty-five metrics of care. On all but two of these, McAllen’s five largest hospitals performed worse, on average, than El Paso’s. McAllen costs Medicare seven thousand dollars more per person each year than does the average city in America. But not, so far as one can tell, because it’s delivering better health care. . . .
. . . In 1992, in the McAllen market, the average cost per Medicare enrollee was $4,891, almost exactly the national average. But since then, year after year, McAllen’s health costs have grown faster than any other market in the country, ultimately soaring by more than ten thousand dollars per person.
“Maybe the service is better here,” the cardiologist suggested. People can be seen faster and get their tests more readily, he said.
Others were skeptical. “I don’t think that explains the costs he’s talking about,” the general surgeon said.
“It’s malpractice,” a family physician who had practiced here for thirty-three years said.
“McAllen is legal hell,” the cardiologist agreed. Doctors order unnecessary tests just to protect themselves, he said. Everyone thought the lawyers here were worse than elsewhere.
That explanation puzzled me. Several years ago, Texas passed a tough malpractice law that capped pain-and-suffering awards at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Didn’t lawsuits go down?
“Practically to zero,” the cardiologist admitted.
“Come on,” the general surgeon finally said. “We all know these arguments are bullshit. There is overutilization here, pure and simple.” Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services, and procedures.
The surgeon came to McAllen in the mid-nineties, and since then, he said, “the way to practice medicine has changed completely. Before, it was about how to do a good job. Now it is about ‘How much will you benefit?’ ”
Everyone agreed that something fundamental had changed since the days when health-care costs in McAllen were the same as those in El Paso and elsewhere. . . .
. . . The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.
☞ It turns out, more care does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Picking up from Dr. Gwande’s narrative:
. . . In a 2003 study, another Dartmouth team, led by the internist Elliott Fisher, examined the treatment received by a million elderly Americans diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer, a hip fracture, or a heart attack. They found that patients in higher-spending regions received sixty per cent more care than elsewhere. They got more frequent tests and procedures, more visits with specialists, and more frequent admission to hospitals. Yet they did no better than other patients, whether this was measured in terms of survival, their ability to function, or satisfaction with the care they received. If anything, they seemed to do worse.
That’s because nothing in medicine is without risks. Complications can arise from hospital stays, medications, procedures, and tests, and when these things are of marginal value the harm can be greater than the benefits. . . .
To make matters worse, Fisher found that patients in high-cost areas were actually less likely to receive low-cost preventive services, such as flu and pneumonia vaccines, faced longer waits at doctor and emergency-room visits, and were less likely to have a primary-care physician. They got more of the stuff that cost more, but not more of what they needed.
In an odd way, this news is reassuring. Universal coverage won’t be feasible unless we can control costs. Policymakers have worried that doing so would require rationing, which the public would never go along with. So the idea that there’s plenty of fat in the system is proving deeply attractive. “Nearly thirty per cent of Medicare’s costs could be saved without negatively affecting health outcomes if spending in high- and medium-cost areas could be reduced to the level in low-cost areas,” Peter Orszag, the President’s budget director, has stated.
Most Americans would be delighted to have the quality of care found in places like Rochester, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington, or Durham, North Carolina—all of which have world-class hospitals and costs that fall below the national average. If we brought the cost curve in the expensive places down to their level, Medicare’s problems (indeed, almost all the federal government’s budget problems for the next fifty years) would be solved. The difficulty is how to go about it. Physicians in places like McAllen behave differently from others. The $2.4-trillion question is why. Unless we figure it out, health reform will fail.
I had what I considered to be a reasonable plan for finding out what was going on in McAllen. I would call on the heads of its hospitals, in their swanky, decorator-designed, churrigueresco offices, and I’d ask them.
. . . [W]hy do hospitals in McAllen order so much more surgery and scans and tests than hospitals in El Paso and elsewhere?
. . . Health-care costs ultimately arise from the accumulation of individual decisions doctors make about which services and treatments to write an order for. The most expensive piece of medical equipment, as the saying goes, is a doctor’s pen. And, as a rule, hospital executives don’t own the pen caps. Doctors do.
. . . There was no sign . . . McAllen’s doctors as a group were trained any differently from El Paso’s. One morning, I met with a hospital administrator who had extensive experience managing for-profit hospitals along the border. He offered a different possible explanation: the culture of money.
“In El Paso, if you took a random doctor and looked at his tax returns eighty-five per cent of his income would come from the usual practice of medicine,” he said. But in McAllen, the administrator thought, that percentage would be a lot less.
He knew of doctors who owned strip malls, orange groves, apartment complexes—or imaging centers, surgery centers, or another part of the hospital they directed patients to. They had “entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. . . .
. . . Then there are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream. They instruct their secretary to have patients who call with follow-up questions schedule an appointment, because insurers don’t pay for phone calls, only office visits. They consider providing Botox injections for cash. They take a Doppler ultrasound course, buy a machine, and start doing their patients’ scans themselves, so that the insurance payments go to them rather than to the hospital. They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.
In every community, you’ll find a mixture of these views among physicians, but one or another tends to predominate. McAllen seems simply to be the community at one extreme.
. . . About fifteen years ago, it seems, something began to change in McAllen. A few leaders of local institutions took profit growth to be a legitimate ethic in the practice of medicine. Not all the doctors accepted this. But they failed to discourage those who did. So here, along the banks of the Rio Grande, in the Square Dance Capital of the World, a medical community came to treat patients the way subprime-mortgage lenders treated home buyers: as profit centers. . . .
☞ Believe it or not, I have abridged what you’ve read above – and the article goes on extensively from here.
My argument is that, for the love of your country, your family’s health, and the future course of your 401(k), you should read the whole thing. And then join the President in pushing for reform.
Quote of the Day
I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.~Isaac Newton
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