Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Healthcare Wisdom from 'Dancing with the Stars'

Well, something’s gonna happen.

On April 9, 2009, President Obama made it official: there is a new White House Office of Health Reform. Through an executive order President Obama assigned the task of pressing his goal of expanding and improving health coverage in America.

Then, just yesterday, Dora Hughes, HHS’ counselor for public health and science, said during the 6th Annual World Health Care Congress in Washington, that the administration remains optimistic that Congress will able to produce a bipartisan healthcare reform bill by the end of August.

The hope is that Congress will make a good-faith effort to reflect the President’s eight principles for reform: protect families’ financial health; make healthcare coverage affordable; cover all Americans; provide portability of coverage; guarantee choice; invest in prevention and wellness; improve patient safety and quality care; and maintain long-term fiscal sustainability.

Monday night on 'Dancing with the Stars,' Judge Len Goodman remarked, "just because you're moving doesn't mean you'rE dancing." There might be a parallel. Just because you're fiddling with health, it doesn't mean you're fixing anything.

Sunday’s New York Times reported former Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt is suggesting the administration and Congress “Think Smaller. Seek Less. Don’t Fail.” According to the Times, “now Mr. Gephardt says universal or near-universal coverage cannot pass this year — and he is urging the White House to defer that goal until it enacts cost-saving reforms in health care delivery.”

And I have to believe Mr. Gephardt is imagining real savings beyond the phantoms of “efficiencies” to be derived from expanded health IT.

Further on in the NYT article, “Representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, insists that Congress must address cost and coverage “on parallel tracks.” Indeed, Mr. Kind sees savings from “system delivery reform,” like improved approaches to preventive care and treatment of chronic diseases, as the way to pay for expanded coverage.”

Therein lies the rub of healthcare (and not health system reform): the divergent but intertwined challenges of cost and coverage.

Re-reading the President’s eight principles, the focus is populist, clearly aimed at coverage over cost. The insiders would direct us to “invest in prevention and wellness; improve patient safety and quality of care; and maintain long-term fiscal sustainability” as proof of commitment to the “cost” side of the ledger. Sounds like shadow boxing to me.

Months ago I agreed with Jeff Goldsmith who urged, essentially, raging incrementalism. Go slow. Try things. Fix things. Go for the prize (i.e., universal coverage) with success under your belt. It would seem to me the smart pathway to reform would be strategic demonstrations, testing different health system reforms to see which work best. Transferring knowledge and best practices is working in medicine, why abandon it in system reform with an all-or-nothing bet?

The dumb guy question I often ask (and receive blank stares in response) is, “how will universal coverage reduce the burden of the Medicare program on the Federal budget?” Not to be redundant, but it is the “$34 trillion problem.” Sometime soon (e.g., in the President’s first term), Fortune Magazine reports, “Medicare Part A will go cash-flow-negative.” What it will take to stabilize Payer #1 could completely swamp the best intentions of universal coverage advocates.

Monday’s conversation of ACO’s is an interesting first step. Some contend that, beyond Geisinger, Mayo and Kaiser system reforms imagined by The Commonwealth Fund are not doable? Why? Presumably, because their integrated structure is unique and not replicable. Un-integrated entities are not organized or capable of actually profiting on lower reimbursements driven by improved efficiency and outcomes.

Again, I say bully to that. Why can’t the system be reformed before the financing system is thrown into a blender (OK, or at least at a similarly measured, insulated pace)?

Now, the Times article suggests the motivation is *gasp* political. System reforms will be glacial, certainly longer than election cycles can tolerate. Can a candidate run on the success of demonstration projects and incremental learning? No. Universal coverage can happen by matter of fiat, the single stroke of a pen. Then you can stump on accomplishing the long dreamed of ideal of many great Americans. Otherwise, will voters might just wonder, “what exactly did you do?”

How about, “we simply saved the American economy for generations to come”?

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