Vote Yes

BRIAN KLEPPER and DAVID C. KIBBE

One of us was at a local diner yesterday, when a good friend and health plan broker walked up to say hello. This guy delivers premium increases every day to employers, and understands how broken things are. “I hope Congress votes yes,” he said flatly. “We’ve got to finally move beyond the status quo and try to change the system.”

As conflicted as we are over it, we agree and we hope it passes. The die is now cast, so there is no point in continuing to urge a different approach. As terribly flawed as it is on cost controls, the bill represents two very important things that, in our opinion, the nation desperately needs.

First, it will significantly open access, bringing America much closer to universal coverage and making personal financial distress a much less likely outcome of sickness or injury. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out Wednesday, that alone will dramatically improve the health of the nation. Widespread uninsurance and under-insurance have been a national disgrace for decades. Passing this bill would be a commitment to move beyond that shame.

Second, we believe the President is attempting to deal with many difficult problems thoughtfully and in good faith within an extremely toxic political environment. We want to see him succeed, because we think that his approach is good for America.

The bill is not what we hoped for. We’re disappointed in the behaviors of both parties. But after a year of wrangling, it is what is possible now. There is no reason the bill’s inadequacies can’t be revisited.

We hope Congress votes Yes on this bill. Making care and coverage more accessible and more fair would be a momentous and long overdue achievement.

The Surprise

Brian Klepper

Check out this March 3rd article – see the image – from the recent HIMSS conference, in which Dave Garets, President and CEO of HIMSS Analytics, “gazes into the future and predicts major trends for the next 12 months.” HIMSS Analytics is the research and consulting arm of the health IT vendors’ association, and presumably on Health IT’s leading edge.

From the article:

“Q: What will constitute the surprise of 2010 – the one technology or policy or X-factor that no one saw coming.”

“A: Clinical groupware in the ambulatory market that may be the disruptive innovation of ambulatory EMRs.”

For the uninitiated, “Clinical Groupware” is a term that is rapidly gaining traction and that describes a new wave of inexpensive, ergonomic, useful Web-based care management tools. David Kibbe coined the phrase and articulated Clinical Groupware’s conceptual framework on this blog early last year – see here and then here. He noted that it:

“…captures the basic notion that the primary purpose for using these IT systems is to improve clinical care through communications and coordination involving a team of people, the patient included. And in a manner that fosters accountability in terms of quality and cost.”

Dr. Kibbe formulated his ideas, not in isolation, but in continual discussions with innovators developing great new care management tools – e.g., Docsite, Keas, Relay Health, VisionTree, Medicity/NOVO, Salesforce, Practice Fusion – that were realizations of the concept in one form or another. A group of these like-minded developers founded the Clinical Groupware Collaborative, led now by Steve Adams, the founder of RMD Networks. If you’re working in this or an aligned area, consider joining.

Which is all by way of saying that it is a stretch to say that “no one,” especially HIMSS, saw this coming. From the moment that HIMSS became aware of Clinical Groupware – it’s newfound religion on Web-based and modular approaches notwithstanding – influential members were concerned about the trend’s disruptiveness. After all, if you’re selling EHRs for $25,000 per physician and a new competitor comes along with complete systems or highly useful modular components for a fraction of that – or even free! – the pricing shift will wreak havoc on your revenue and market cap. It’s enough to give even the most enthusiastic free marketeer the willies.

That concern found expression through HIMSS influence over CCHIT‘s – the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology – certification process. CCHIT’s criteria were initially spun to favor HIMSS members’ products, mostly old-fashioned client-server tools that are complex and not interoperable, and to stifle support of newer, more streamlined solutions like Clinical Groupware. Remember that, early on, everyone thought CCHIT certification would be the criterion for receiving ARRA HITECH stimulus funding, so the criteria could be used to steer the money, conflicts of interest notwithstanding. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed on the HHS Policy Committee and that heist was averted, or at least it seems so at this point.

The good news is that Dave is right. Clinical Groupware is evolving rapidly and will seamlessly link tools, care teams and patients. It does look disruptive and undoubtedly is the future. If they’re watching, this should give serious pause to all those investors driving up Allscripts stock price.

Because, in the end, many old-guard EHRs – the ones Clinical Groupware will replace – produce dreadful customer experiences like the one described recently by John Moore. His article described a market begging for innovation, where the old guard is locked into its past market domination and excessive pricing, and the users are increasingly frustrated.

Of course the irony here is that Clinical Groupware will most surprise and disrupt HIMSS’ member organizations, the core of Mr. Garet’s constituency, who thought the matter was settled a year ago.

Brian Klepper writes about health care market dynamics and innovation.

After the Failure of Reform

By BRIAN KLEPPER AND DAVID C. KIBBE

The stalemate in the bi-partisan health care summit was cast the moment it was announced. Republicans demanded that the reform process start anew, and Mr. Obama insisted on the Senate bill as the framework going forward. The President may now offer a more modest reform bill that can demonstrate some progress on the health care crisis, but that remains to be seen.

We hoped the White House would seize the opportunity presented by Massachusetts’ election of Scott Brown to begin again, huddling away from the lobbyists to develop a new set of provisions that would include reasonable Republican elements, like medical liability reform, as well as other meaningful cost reduction provisions excluded from the first round of bills: pricing/quality transparency, a move away from fee-for-service reimbursement, and the re-empowerment of primary care.

They took a different path. As Ezra Klein speculated in the Washington Post, Mr. Obama and his advisors may believe that, with the 2010 elections bearing down on Congress, there is too little time to begin again.

But this is a questionable political calculation. The reform process soured the American people and American business on the health care bills. A January 27 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health (NBGH) survey found that 71% of employers believe the bills “will increase the overall cost of health care services in the United States.” A February 11 Rasmussen survey found that61% of voters think the bills should have been scrapped and the process started over.

And no wonder. Over the past year, the legalized bribery that is special interest lobbying was fully on display, with members of both parties (but led by the Democrats) taking contributors’ money with a gusto unprecedented since the Republican feeding frenzy set off by Newt Gingrich’s K-Street Project. A new report from the Center for Public Integrity shows that “more than 1,750 companies and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists — eight for each member of Congress — to influence health reform bills in 2009.” Together, they spent $1.2 billion on health care, more than one-third of the $3.47 billion spent by special interests in 2009 to buy influence over policy.

And then there was the brazen political deal making. Mary Landrieu brought $300 million in federal aid home to Louisiana for voting with the Democratic Leadership, which the GOP promptly dubbed “the Louisiana Purchase.” Ben Nelson got the Feds to pay for most of Nebraska’s Medicaid expansion…in perpetuity. And, on the eve of the Massachusetts Senatorial election, the White House cut a deal that exempted unions from the tax on “Cadillac health plans” until 2018.

The resulting reform provisions – a cynical combination of expert advice, uncompromising ideology and donor quid pro quos – would have extended entitlements while rescuing the industry at the top of a financial bubble, exacerbating the cost growth problem during a recession by replacing dwindling private funding with public dollars. At the same time, the bills specifically avoided committing to approaches that could wring excessive cost from the system.

In truth, either passing or blocking such poor bills would have had little impact on the increasingly threatening crisis. Short of starting over, American health care will continue to face some very harsh realities. More individual and corporate purchasers, particularly small employers, will be priced out of coverage as health care costs explode. This erosion in mainstream coverage is translating to a reduction in total health plan premium – the engine of the health care economy – and to escalating uncompensated care cost loads throughout the system. A plummeting number of insured patients will find it harder and harder to pay for a rapidly growing number of uninsureds and under-insureds.

These are recipes for instability and disaster. And as health care – the nation’s largest economic sector, representing one dollar in six and one job in eleven – becomes increasingly unstable, so does the larger US economy.

Americans are increasingly aware that a government in which both parties are compromised by political ideologies and special interests will likely leave them to their own devices in dealing with health care. American business had, to a great extent, put health care benefits decisions on hold until reform was complete. Now it is resigned to continuing to cope with that burden, but with a renewed commitment to innovation. A February 22nd Towers Watson/NBGH survey found that “83% of companies have already revamped or expect to revamp their health care strategy within the next two years, up from 59% in 2009,” a clear sign that businesses now think they need to act on their own behalves. (Of course, most individual Americans don’t have that latitude.)

One thing is clear. Without reform as it was constituted and the subsidies it promised, the industry faces an onslaught of actions from the marketplace that will focus on its excesses, drive down reimbursement, and hold it more accountable. A long list of innovations – re-empowered primary care; data collaboratives that identify and then create incentives for making the best choices; new technologies like minimally invasive surgeries, point-of-care testing, and clinical decision support tools; medical tourism; clinical groupware; check lists; Health 2.0 business-to-business ventures that streamline health care processes – are now proving they can improve the quality of care while reducing cost.

The result is inescapable. No system this far out of balance can remain unchanged indefinitely. So long as it was influencing the policy process, the health care industry would never course correct in ways that are in our national interest. But as the environment continues to intensify, the market will be driven to embrace and integrate these solutions. One way or another, the health industry is in for real change over the next few years.

Meanwhile, until America meaningfully addresses cost and access through policy, proper health care will continue to be out of reach to many and will threaten many more with personal financial ruin. It will continue to sap the nation’s economic strength, and compromise our efforts to lead and compete internationally.

Which is why the President should begin again, and make achieving serious health care policy reform a dedicated goal. In the process, he could challenge special interest influence over policy, and work to refocus the political process on the common interest. We believe the American people can see how the current paradigm is corroding our nation, and would rally behind this approach. More to the point, this was the premise of Mr. Obama’s election. The American mainstream is waiting for him to assert his leadership in this way.

Health care reform has stalled and possibly failed for the moment. But the stakes are so great for America that failure cannot be an option.

The Silver Lining

By BRIAN KLEPPER and DAVID C. KIBBE

Massachusett’s voters’ stunning rejection of Democrat Martha Coakley, in favor of a not-very-impressive Scott Brown, should be exactly the splash of cold water that the Democratic party – and Congress as a whole – needed. The defeat can be understood in two ways: one large and one fairly small.

First, the large one. This will probably send reform back to the drawing board. Health care is too much in crisis and too pressing to be pushed completely off the table until certain issues – including both access AND cost – are addressed.

Second, this election marks the loss of a single critical Senate seat, but it is also very loud warning shot. The mandate received at the end of 2008 was a resounding call to throw out the Republicans who for more than a decade had ridden roughshod over American values. Yesterday, the Democrats, in one of their most secure strongholds, received the same message. Whatever people in DC think, rank-and-file Americans – not those on the right or left, but the swing voters in the middle who actually determine election results – are very unhappy with the gaming that’s been vividly displayed over the last year under the guise of health care reform.

The distaste expressed yesterday probably has little to do with the specific provisions of the bills, except for the largest generalities: that they expand coverage while avoiding a commitment to changes that could significantly reduce cost. But along the way, voters have witnessed — with an immediacy and transparency that has only been available as a result of the Web — lawmaking in its worst tradition. There was the White House’s deal making with powerful corporate interests like the drug manufacturers even before the proceedings began. And the tremendous lobbying contributions by health care and non-health care special interests in exchange for access to the policy-shaping process. Or the outright bribery of specific Senators and Representatives in exchange for votes. Last week’s White House deal with the unions that exempted them from the tax on “Cadillac” health plans until 2018 must have seemed like a perfectly OK arrangement to the people in the center of all this activity, but to normal people who read the paper, it was emblematic of the current modus operandi: If you have power and support the party in power’s muddled agenda, you get a special deal.

The most tempting mistake now for the Democrats would be to dig in. President Obama’s most appealing characteristic — the one that got him elected — was his embrace, his embodiment even, of approaches that would revise the traditional kinds of politics we’ve seen for the last year throughout the health care reform process. Of late, the most telling complaint about this Presidency so far has been disappointment that, once in office, he seemed to cave in so easily.

Undoubtedly, many Republicans are now rejoicing over the Democrats’ loss and the possible defeat of any health care reform legislation. That’s unfortunate. The health care crisis is real and remains unaddressed. The pressures it creates, particularly for powerful interests like business, will force Congress to return to it and develop meaningful solutions. Hopefully (though probably unlikely), Congress and particularly the Democrats, will be chastened and wiser. There’s a big opportunity here to make lemonade.

There is a new, bipartisan movement in Congress, highlighted on NPR two weeks ago, that would revisit the rules around the relationships between special interests and lawmakers. This is an issue that trumps and is more important than all others, because if every policy is ultimately shaped by those with enough money to buy Congress’ favor, then our democracy will be unable to hold.

The silver lining in yesterday’s election was that it was a mild, if critical, reminder that, whatever DC thinks, America’s center is just as displeased with the current governance as it was with its predecessors. Faced with a much larger rejection in the 1994 elections, President Clinton went on TV, took full responsibility, and then spent his time rebuilding. The good news is that today is a new day, and that, if they’re interested in what’s good for America over the long term rather than simply themselves over the short term, Congress has the ability to start again in ways that could please the American people and actually work to our collective advantage.

American Health Care Reform: Observations from Health Care Analysts

Brian Klepper

Here we are, with the first edition of Health Wonk Review (HWR) in a new decade. It is a pregnant moment, as reconciliation begins between the House and Senate health care reform bills, when the best health wonks are weighing in on how we arrived here and what it will probably mean to have a few key successes and some very significant failures at a time when most everyone in the country who doesn’t have power yearns for real solutions. Joe Paduda summed it up very nicely on Managed Care Matters, “…after all this, we’re going to end up with a bill that won’t work – it will not appreciably reduce health care costs today, tomorrow, ever.” Alas, the result is much more a reflection of what America has become than what health care is about.

And so, I have exercised my editor’s prerogative, and veered away from HWR’s standard format to focus this edition on the best, recent health writing I’m aware of, rather than just summarize the writings of submitters. Please indulge me as I have passed over some strong pieces in favor of a smaller, more selective number of consistently very thoughtful, insightful and meaty writers.

I’m hoping this selection will satisfy readers interested in deeply provocative discussions of the most pressing issues at hand, particularly around reform. There’s a lot to chew on here, and I’d urge each of you to curl up on a cold afternoon and read through every one of these columns.

A Face Full of All That Other Mud

Let’s begin with J. D. Kleinke’s thoughtful meditation on yesterday’s Health Care Blog, Is It 2013 (or 2014) Yet?, on the horrific compromises made in the name, not of problem solving, but of ideology. Referring to the watered down Senate bill, he notes that it

“has been so stripped of government management options and control that it is best characterized as the exact opposite of a government takeover. Rather, the bill now on trajectory to become The Plan is – paradoxically – a privatization of the public health problem of the uninsured, a corporatization rather than nationalization of health care’s rotting safety net.”

 

And this: “…people…have been using the health care reform stage to act out their bigger grievances, philosophical angst, and political frustrations…Something as literally critical to all of our lives as our health care system – regardless of which way an eventual bill goes (including the remote but real possibility of it just going away) – deserves better than a face full of all that other mud.”

 

Reform Based On The Principles of Competition

On The Health Affairs Blog (12/22/09), Alain Enthoven rebuts Atul Gawande’s New Yorker articleth that compares the health care bills’ pilot programs to those of the Agricultural Extension service that “sparked the agricultural revolution that so benefited the US economy in the first half of the 20 century. “

Both Enthoven and Gawande are icons, and justifiably so for their insights into how health care does and should work. Gawande’s June, 2009 piece, The Cost Conundrum, on health care profiteering in McAllen, Tx, was a sensation in DC, and became required reading for White House staffers looking forward to reforms that could impact the kinds of circumstances Gawande recounted so eloquently.

But in this piece, many of us thought his thesis was a stretch, and Dr. Enthoven lays out the case. One of his conclusions: that we need a commitment to structural reforms, rather than just more experimentation.

“If America wants 1,000 pilot projects to blossom and grow into significant improvements in health care delivery, it must reform its system based on the principles of competition and wide, responsible, informed, individual consumer choice of health plans. Experience shows that people will join if they get to keep the savings.”

The Nearly Trillion-Dollar Lake Mead of Money

In There Be Dragons, The Fiscal Risk of Premium Subsidies in Health Reform (12/14/09), Jeff Goldsmith, with unfailing attention to detail, takes us through a variety of health care principles to explain why 1) the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) attempts to model the impacts of subsidies on the private health coverage market are, at best, shots in the dark, and 2) its probably not wise to bet on our political system’s ability to say “no.”

He concludes, “All in all, the fiscal risks from an open-ended new entitlement to premium subsidies are likely to be significantly larger than CBO estimates. Instead of neat economic models with ten variables, we need something closer to chaos theory to explain how the nearly trillion-dollar Lake Mead of money will behave when we completely re-engineer its flow pattern…Behavioral economists would add that anxious health insurance and provider executives would behave differently, perhaps, than entirely rational actors, and act aggressively to preserve their franchises and operating margins. I wouldn’t bet the farm on moderation of present cost and rate trends. All the big risks are on the upside.”

 

The Medical Cost Tidal Wave

In a simple but straightforward column (12/22/09) on the health plan’s blog, Bruce Bullen, the Interim CEO at Harvard Pilgrim, explains how the structural provisions of the Senate’s final health reform bill will worsen current health care cost trends, which have been more than 4 times general inflation over the last decade.

“… expansion of eligibility and other reforms are largely delayed to 2014, but changes having the effect of increasing health insurance premiums will take effect prior to 2014. Before seeing any material benefits of reform, some will see their Medicare payroll tax rate increase, many fully insured subscribers will, beginning in 2011, see the effects of the health insurance premium tax, and everyone in the commercial market will see the cost-shifting effects of Medicare payment reductions and the tax on drug and medical device manufacturers. Medicare Advantage plan enrollees will also see sharp increases in premiums. Since there is no significant cost containment in the bill, these increases will occur on top of normal medical trend. And because the universal requirement to purchase coverage is weak, adverse selection will further increase costs starting in 2014.”

He concludes, “We can focus on insurance reform all we want, but the medical cost tidal wave continues.”

The Unintended Consequences of Hopelessly Complex and Poorly Thought-Out Laws and Regulations

At the Disease Management Care Blog (12/27/09), Jaan Siderov explicates the seemingly straightforward provision of the Senate bill that would require commercial insurers to “rebate” any excess profitability, if they have a medical loss ratio lower than 80%-85%. The rub lies in the definitions of medical costs and administrative costs, and what is contained in each. Under the Senate’s Management Amendment, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) would be charged with defining each term. But so far,

“the NAIC has not done well [clarifying] if the costs of wellness, prevention, care management, or patient-centered medical home support programs are costs that are assigned to the medical costs that make up the medical loss ratio or if they are administrative costs.”

 

It remains to be seen whether a compromise plan will correct this kind of confusion.

The Evidence In a typically pithy and to-the-point read (12/31/09), Roy Poses crystallizes what many of us have thought about the national squashing of the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines for breast cancer screening. Here’s a quote:

“…after 30 years and 8 trials, we still have no convincing evidence that mammographic screening for 40-49 year old women saves lives (which is different from reducing deaths due to breast cancer), or reduces morbidity, improves function, or improves quality of life in the screened population. In the absence of such evidence, how can anyone fault the USPSTF for recommending (not that women not be screened), but that decisions to screen individual people should be based on considered discussion between them and their physicians?”

Dr. Poses calls for better clinical and comparative effectiveness research, another area given short shrift in the current reform proposals.

Who’s Kidding Who

In a policy environment in which half-truths and whoppers are the coin of the realm, nobody pours on the cold water of reality better than Bob Laszewski at Health Policy and Marketplace Review A former Liberty Mutual health insurance executive, Bob’s deep health finance experience has been refined by his long standing in the DC community as a health policy advisor. Throughout the reform process, Bob has written often, and his insights are always to the point. Take, for example, this simple observation from a 12/19/09 post, Coal in Your Christmas Stocking?

“…the Democrats [will] face four health insurance renewal cycles and two elections between 2010 and 2014 when the benefits of the health care bill would finally become effective. That’s four years of new taxes and continuing big health insurance rate increases before voters see any big benefits from what looks like will be a very unpopular bill.”

As I understand it, Bob’s blog is the most widely-read source for DC health wonk types. There’s a good reason for that.

Later

In Health Reform – When Will The Next Shoe Drop (12/22/09) at Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda lays out an enticing scenario for straightforward, important changes that can’t happen when 60 votes are required, but are eminently doable if the goal is 51. He writes:

“I’d look for a requirement that the Feds negotiate drug prices for Medicare and lower payments for Medicare Advantage plans to start…And it won’t stop there. There is a large and growing concern about the cost of entitlement programs and Part D is particularly problematic. By attacking drug costs and thereby reducing Medicare’s future liability, liberal Democrats will make it very tough for their opponents to use the ‘big spender’ attack angle in November.”

Two On What To Expect

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, one of our most gifted, industrious and grounded health care prognosticators, has a broad-reaching summary of the certain trends – employee cost-sharing, employer ‘nudging’ of employees toward wellness, health information technology becoming more mainstream among physicians, participatory medicine/online health tools – that will remain in play in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Health Reform on Health Populi. She says,

“With the US still in recession, the issue of managing costs will be Job #1 in health care for institutional and business stakeholders, from health plans and employers to pharma and medical device companies.”

Matthew Holt, a Founder of Health Wonk Review as well as The Health Care Blog, and one of the most incisive, if irreverent, health care commentators writing today, suggests five major trends. He wonders how the changes brought about in policy will take shape in the market, and how changes in the political winds will affect the ability to continue reforms. He thinks that HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s transformation initiatives will have a profound impact on everyone in health care – “’It’s clear that we are not going to simply see mass adoption of the mainstream EMR vendors’ products.” – and that patients are beginning to expect more access to information, especially their own. And that quality of care, especially at the end of life, is finally becoming a concrete, mainstream issue.

The Verdict

Each of these voices describes different facets of a complex process. These are some of the most experienced and prominent health care authorities working today, and they don’t hesitate to conceal their disappointment at what is passing for reform.

It is not enough to dismiss this Congressional health care reform process as just another example of sausage-making. As David Kibbe, Alain Enthoven, Bob Laszewski and I discussed here, America’s health care industry has placed the national economic security in deep peril. An important goal, a commitment to structural changes that can significantly reduce the one-third or more of health care cost that is waste, now appears to have been squandered by a system that welcomes influence over policy in exchange for special interest financial contributions.

It is unlikely that meaningful health care change will be forthcoming after this process. The forces of special interest influences are vigilant.

Nor will the problems that were on the table now disappear just because they’ve been ignored. They’ll fester and worsen until business rises up in revolt to force the issue, or necessity overwhelms the capacity of lobbying to drive public policy. Unfortunately, the process of getting to that inevitable terrible moment won’t be pretty or pleasant.

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst and commentator based in Atlantic Beach, FL.

Will Business Force Reform Back to the Drawing Board

BRIAN KLEPPER and DAVID C. KIBBE

Until now, non-health care business has been noticeably absent from the health care reform proceedings , and quiet about the bills’ impacts on their management of employee benefits, on cost, and on the larger issues of global competitiveness. Where have the voices been of the powerful business leaders who will pick up much of the tab?

They’ve finally surfaced, and now we’ll see whether they have the will to bring reform back on track. They certainly have the strength. The question is whether this salvo by the business mainstream could force Democrats to reconsider and revise the content and structure of their proposals.

On October 29th, a powerful collaborative of major employer organizations sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner asserting that the House legislation “falls short of the bipartisan goal of controlling costs and jeopardizes employer-sponsored coverage which now serves more than 160 million Americans.” The same group sent a similar letter to Senate President Reid earlier that week.

It is important to note that the collaborative – the group includes the American Benefits Council, the Corporate Health Care Coalition, the ERISA Industry Committee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the National Coalition on Benefits, the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the Business Roundtable and the National Business Group on Health – represents the mainstream of American business. In general, these associations’ member firms have sponsored employee health coverage for decades, and understand the linkages between health, productivity, cost and competitiveness. Their very real stake in the outcome, their long term sponsorship and their sheer collective clout enable them to enter and change the terms of the discussion.

Then, Tuesday, Employee Benefit News published a list of 10 specific items prepared by National Business Group on Health President Helen Darling, a longstanding progressive voice in health benefits, that “should concern plan sponsors that provide health care benefits to their workers.” The bill, she said:

  1. Lacks meaningful ways to control health care costs;
  2. Takes us down the road to even worse deficits and crushing national debt by not getting more savings from the health system and making the coverage more affordable;
  3. Does not support strong evidence-based medicine or a way to make certain that we don’t pay for treatments that are not effective;
  4. Does not establish a strong independent Commission that could help Congress make the politically hard, but obvious, good decisions to eliminate wasteful and harmful treatments and spending;
  5. Does nothing to correct medical liability problems and related costly defensive medical practices;
  6. Doesn’t expand employers’ ability to help employees to actively engage in wellness activities or achieve health goals;
  7. Undermines ERISA and opens ERISA plans to unacceptable burdens;
  8. Raises serious questions about the public plan and how it would operate;
  9. Could require an employer who provides comprehensive benefits to still be subject to an 8% payroll tax if employees decline employer coverage because it costs more 12% of the employee’s income; and
  10. Contains an outrageous requirement that would require employers still offering retiree medical coverage to continue it indefinitely, thereby hurting employers who have maintained retiree benefits in good faith.

Non-health care businesses comprise about six-sevenths of the economy – meaning they have six times the heft and influence of the health care industry – and financially sponsor coverage for more than half of Americans. Year after year, employers have borne the lion’s share of onerous health care cost increases, 4 times general inflation over the last decade. Endless reports have described how health care, business’ largest and most unpredictable benefit cost, has sapped America’s global competitiveness and placed its employers at a severe disadvantage. An equal torrent of words has been spent on health care’s excessive waste, at least 30% of our $2.6 trillion expenditure, or north of $800 billion annually. Even so, most business leaders are loathe to simply give up the health system they currently sponsor, its flaws notwithstanding, unless they can be confident the alternative can result in lower cost, improved quality, and an equally or more productive workforce.

Keep in mind that, at this point, health care reform has been a series of power plays between Congress and the health care industry (meaning the professionals, firms and associations representing health care’s four major sectors: the supply chain, HIT, care delivery and insurance/finance).

Until now, the health care industry – those who seek dollars – has dominated, lobbying Congress and contributing enormous sums to election campaign coffers to make sure that the legislation doesn’t impede health care profiteering and sends new funds their way. Meanwhile it has held its breath, apparently hoping that other interests with clout won’t notice. As the bills come down to the wire, the air waves have NOT burned with cautionary and righteously indignant health care industry messages opposing them. That’s because organizations in the health industry are reasonably certain they’ve won. They have been sitting tight until the deals are done.

And with good reason. As they stand now, the reform bills are very generous to the health care industry, facilitating, through mandate and/or subsidy, millions of new customers but, as we’ve recently pointed out, doing pathetically little to rectify the health care crisis’ structural drivers. For example, the health plan sector can raise rates without restraint, and a significant chunk of Medicare dollars will be transferred to private sector control. The biotech industry gets a 12 year moratorium on generic competition. With only token progress away from fee-for-service reimbursement and toward primary care re-empowerment, the system will continue to make specialist excesses lucrative. The American Medical Association (AMA) and Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) couldn’t be more enthusiastic, though both are now campaigning for H.R. 3961, which would eliminate the 21.2% drop in Medicare physician reimbursements scheduled to go into effect January 1, 2010. There are many more examples.

Commercial purchasers have waited to see how all this would play out. But now they’re stirring, and not a moment too soon. Non-health care business leaders finally appear to be mobilizing against the weak cost control provisions of the current proposals.

What is needed now is an orchestrated, mobilized, highly visible campaign effort that features the faces and voices of well-known American CEOs, and that leverages the full force of business’ leadership across industries, not just for their own interests, but for those of all Americans. The places to start are in the structural areas we and others have recently discussed: primary care, fee-for-service reimbursement and cost/quality performance transparency. Properly implemented, reforms in these approaches throughout health care could have profoundly positive impacts on both cost and quality, empowering the market to make health care far more affordable for businesses and working families.

It is possible that the entire health care reform process just changed tone and direction. If it did not, then we’re no worse off than before. But if it did, then the ramifications for how American policy works – not just for health care but for all our issues – could have just entered a new and profoundly important paradigm.

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe write together on health care market dynamics, health IT, innovation and policy.

Saving Health Care, Saving America

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So far, Congress’ response to the health care crisis has been alarmingly disappointing in three ways. First, by willingly accepting enormous sums from health care special interests, our representatives have obligated themselves to their benefactors’ interests rather than to those of the American people. More than 3,330 health care lobbyists – six for every member of Congress – contributed more than one-quarter of a billion dollars in the first and second quarters of 2009. A nearly equal amount has been contributed on this issue from non-health care organizations. This exchange of money prompted a Public Citizen lobbyist to comment, “A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity.”

Second, by carefully avoiding reforms of the practices that drive health care’s enormous cost growth, Congress pretends to make meaningful change where little is contemplated. For example, current proposals would not rebuild our failing primary care capabilities, which other developed nations depend upon to maintain healthy people at half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to advance the easy availability and understandability of information about care quality and costs, so purchasers still cannot identify which professionals and organizations are high or low performers, essential to allowing health care to finally work as a market. They do little to simplify the onerous burden associated with the administration of billing and collections. The proposals continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards the delivery of more products and services, independent of their appropriateness, rather than rewarding results. Policy makers overlook the importance of bipartisan proposals like the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act that uses the tax system to incentivize consumers to make wiser insurance purchases. And they all but ignore our unpredictable medical malpractice system, which nearly all doctors and hospital executives tell us unjustly encourages them to practice defensively.

Most distressing, the processes affecting health care reflect all policy-making. By allowing special interests to shape critically important policies, Congress no longer is able to address any of our most important national problems in the common interest – e.g., energy, the environment, education, poverty, productivity.

Over the last four years, a growing percentage of individual and corporate purchasers has become unable to afford coverage, and enrollment in commercial health plans has eroded substantially. Fewer enrollees mean fewer premium dollars available to buy health care products and services.

With diminished revenues, the industry is unilaterally advocating for universal coverage. This would provide robust new revenues. But they are opposing changes to the medical profiteering practices that result in excessive costs, and which often are the foundation of their current business models. And these two elements form the troublesome core of the current proposals.

Each proposal so far contemplates additional cost. But we shouldn’t have to spend more to fix health care. Within the industry’s professional community, most experts agree that as much as one-third of all health care spending is wasted, meaning that a portion of at least $800 billion a year could be recovered. There is no mystery about where the most blatant waste is throughout the system, or how to restructure health care business practices to significantly reduce that waste.

Make no mistake. A failure to immediately address the deep drivers of the crisis will force the nation to pay a high price and then revisit the same issues in the near future. It is critical to restructure health care now, without delay, but in ways that serve the interests of the nation, not a particular industry.

Congress ultimately must be accountable to the American people. The American people must prevail on Congress to revise the current proposals, build on the lessons gleaned throughout the industry over the last 25 years, and directly address the structural flaws in our current system. True, most health industry groups will resist these efforts over the short term, but the result would be a more stable and sustainable health system, health care economy and national economy, outcomes that would benefit America’s people, its businesses and even its health care sector.

Finally, the American people should demand that Congress revisit and revise the conflicted lobbying practices that have so corroded policymaking on virtually every important issue. Doing so would revitalize the American people’s confidence in Congress, and would re-empower it to create thoughtful, innovative solutions to our national problems.

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst and industry advisor. David C. Kibbe is a family physician and a technology consultant to the industry. Robert Laszewski is a former senior health insurance executive and a health policy analyst. Alain Enthoven is Professor of Management (Emeritus) at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.