06/14/2005: Let's set the Wayback Machine to last March....
Paul Krugman addresses the health insurance crisis yesterday in his column: One Nation, Uninsured Prof. Krugman notes:
The great advantage of universal, government-provided health insurance is lower costs. Canada's government-run insurance system has much less bureaucracy and much lower administrative costs than our largely private system. Medicare has much lower administrative costs than private insurance. The reason is that single-payer systems don't devote large resources to screening out high-risk clients or charging them higher fees. The savings from a single-payer system would probably exceed $200 billion a year, far more than the cost of covering all of those now uninsured.Since the subject's out there, it's not a bad time do toot my own horn a bit and point out that I have a post on this very subject back in the archives: Such a wonderfully ironic twist.....
I don't care if you go read that one, but it does reference a piece by Phillip Longman in the Washington Monthly which addresses the superiority of "socialized" medicine, in the form of the Veteran's Administration health care system, over traditional private health insurance plans. Note that, in addition to the cost savings that Prof. Krugman notes, the VA Health System is abie to innovate, especially in the application of information technology and economies of scale to the practice of medicine in the institutional context. Why? Because the economic model for American medical practice simply doesn't promote quality in medical practice:
As Lawrence P. Casalino, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago, puts it, “The U.S. medical market as presently constituted simply does not provide a strong business case for quality.”Give Longman's article a close reading, and contemplate well the structural problems in U.S. health care. The VA's example demonstrates that they aren't insoluable. But to solve them, we have to be willing to give up our idolatry of that false god, The Free Market.
Casalino writes from his own experience as a solo practitioner, and on the basis of over 800 interviews he has since conducted with health-care leaders and corporate health care purchasers. While practicing medicine on his own in Half Moon Bay, Calif, Casalino had an idealistic commitment to following emerging best practices in medicine. That meant spending lots of time teaching patients about their diseases, arranging for careful monitoring and follow-up care, and trying to keep track of what prescriptions and procedures various specialists might be ordering.
Yet Casalino quickly found out that he couldn't sustain this commitment to quality, given the rules under which he was operating. Nobody paid him for the extra time he spent with his patients. He might have eased his burden by hiring a nurse to help with all the routine patient education and follow-up care that was keeping him at the office too late. Or he might have teamed up with other providers in the area to invest in computer technology that would allow them to offer the same coordinated care available in veterans hospitals and clinics today. Either step would have improved patient safety and added to the quality of care he was providing. But even had he managed to pull them off, he stood virtually no chance of seeing any financial return on his investment. As a private practice physician, he got paid for treating patients, not for keeping them well or helping them recover faster.
The same problem exists across all health-care markets, and its one main reason in explaining why the VHA has a quality performance record that exceeds that of private-sector providers. Suppose a private managed-care plan follows the VHA example and invests in a computer program to identify diabetics and keep track of whether they are getting appropriate follow-up care. The costs are all upfront, but the benefits may take 20 years to materialize. And by then, unlike in the VHA system, the patient will likely have moved on to some new health-care plan. As the chief financial officer of one health plan told Casalino: “Why should I spend our money to save money for our competitors?”
Or suppose an HMO decides to invest in improving the quality of its diabetic care anyway. Then not only will it risk seeing the return on that investment go to a competitor, but it will also face another danger as well. What happens if word gets out that this HMO is the best place to go if you have diabetes? Then more and more costly diabetic patients will enroll there, requiring more premium increases, while its competitors enjoy a comparatively large supply of low-cost, healthier patients. That's why, Casalino says, you never see a billboard with an HMO advertising how good it is at treating one disease or another. Instead, HMO advertisements generally show only healthy families.
In many realms of health care, no investment in quality goes unpunished.
Len on 06.14.05 @ 07:45 AM CST