by BRIAN KLEPPER and DAVID C. KIBBE
Note: We were asked by Northeast Florida's regional newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, to write a piece for lay audiences distilling our thoughts on what's behind the reform curtain. This piece published this week and, while we doubt much of it will be news to this blog’s readers, we wanted to offer it up as a summary statement.
Congress' health care reform debate has highlighted how American governance is broken and the difficulty of addressing our national problems.
Take, for example, whether health care is in crisis at all. Conservative commentators argue that America's health system is fine, that our excellent care simply costs more than other countries' poorer quality, and that most uninsureds can afford coverage. They ask why we should revamp a great system for the two or three percent of Americans who get less.
This misrepresents reality, though. Care and outcomes are often superior in other developed nations. In America, the ranks of the uninsured and under-insured have skyrocketed, from insurance costs that have grown four times general inflation for a decade. Health coverage is employers' most unpredictable major cost, a threat to their businesses' competitiveness, and they have increasingly offloaded costs onto employees. So while the marginalized uninsured are an important problem, declining coverage for the mainstream is the greater worry. Most know that, even with insurance, any major health problem can spell financial ruin.
As businesses and individuals have been priced out of health coverage over the last four years, commercial health plan enrollment has plummeted by as much as 20 percent, or about 36 million people. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 40 percent who lose group health coverage probably become uninsured.
Fewer people buying coverage means less money to pay for health care products and services, so the industry is experiencing an unprecedented financial decline. With reforms looming, it has fiercely advocated for universal coverage, which would provide stable funding for a larger patient population. Meanwhile, the industry has opposed changing business mechanisms that encourage waste, even though experts agree that one-third or more of all health care cost is unnecessary or inappropriate. But this raises an important question. Why not spend less by recovering wasted dollars, and then improve access?
The industry has pressed its goals through lobbying, which lets special interests exchange campaign contributions for policy influence. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that, between January and June, the industry gave Congress more than $260 million. One lobbyist commented, "A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity."
The funds have gone mostly to Democrats, the party in power now, and are producing their contributors' desired results. The current proposals expand coverage, but do little to reduce cost, failing to heed any of health care's management lessons from the last 25 years. For example, they won't re-empower primary care, which other nations have found will maintain a healthy populace for half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to make care quality and cost transparent, which would let health care finally work as a market, and help identify the best health care vendors. They continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards delivering more products and services rather than rewarding results. And they all but ignore our capricious medical malpractice system, which most doctors say encourages defensive practice.
These problems and their solutions are structural, and are well understood within the industry. If reform does not pursue these structural approaches, health care will continue to drag down the larger economy. Our current problems will remain and intensify, at enormous cost.
Out of this experience, the American people should become aware of a couple of harsh truths.
First, so long as Congress willingly exchanges money for influence, American policy will favor special interests rather than the public interest. We'll be unable to meaningfully address our national problems: energy, the environment, education, and so on.
Second, so long as partisans distort the truth to discredit their opponents, rather than focusing on our very real problems, America's future will continue to be compromised.
Which is to say that we have deeper problems than an inability to fix health care.
Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst based in Atlantic Beach. David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a physician and Senior Consultant to the American Academy of Family Physicians
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