A New IOM Report Reveals Why Medicare Costs So Much (Hint–It’s Not Just the Prices)

George W.  Bush is 67. Chances are Medicare paid for the stent operation that I describe in the post above.  For years, medical researchers have been telling us that this procedure will provide no lasting benefit for a patient who fits Bush’s medical profile.   Nevertheless, in some hospitals, and in some parts of the country, stenting has become as commonplace as tonsillectomies were in the 1950s.

Location matters. Last month, a new report from the Institute of Medicine confirmed what Dartmouth’s researchers have been telling us for more than three decades: health care spending varies  across regions. More recently, as Dartmouth’s investigators have drilled down into othe data,, they have shown that even within a region, Medicare spends far more per beneficiary in some hospitals than in others.

In a recent Bloomberg column, former CBO director Peter Orszag notes that “Because this variation doesn’t appear to be reliably correlated with differences in quality, the value [that we are getting for our health care dollars] seems to be much higher in some settings than in others.” He asks the logical question: “What is causing this and what might we do about it?”

Some health care analysts claim that as a nation, we spend far more on health care than any other developed country because we over-pay for everything—from statins to surgery. (A landmark article that appeared in Health Affairs in 2003 put it this way “It’s the Prices Stupid!” )

Others put more emphasis on overtreatment. Up to one-third of Medicare dollars are squandered, physicians like Dartmouth’s  Dr.  Elliott Fisher, Boston surgeon Atul Gawade and former Medicare director Dr. Don Berwick argue.  As Fisher puts it, “hospital stays in the U.S. may not be as long as in some other countries, but more happens to you while you’re there.” (Note: the authors of “It’s the Price’s Stupid” also point out that care in the U.S. is “more intensive.”)

I agree that both theories are true: We have managed to devise a health care system where we both over-pay AND are over-treated. The  Institute of Medicine report that came out at the end of July supports this thesis.

              The Difference between Medicare and Commercial Insurers

The IOM report reveals that both Medicare and commercial insurers are spending about 40 percent more per patient in some areas and in some hospitals than in others. “This has persisted over decades;” Orszag observes.  “Regions that spent the most in 1992 tended to remain big spenders in 2010.”

But, he adds, “There is one important difference between Medicare and commercial insurance, the Institute found, and that is in the causes of spending variation. With commercial insurance, spending is higher in some areas because of markups — that is, the difference between the charge for a service and the cost of providing that service.

“Seventy percent of the variation in commercial spending was attributed to differences in markups, which in turn probably reflect local differences in market power among hospitals and other providers relative to insurance companies and beneficiaries.”

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Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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Breaking the Curve of Health Care Inflation

The evidence is building:  As we move toward making the Affordable Care Act a reality,  Medicare spending in slowing, and even in the private sector, for the first time in more than a decade, insurers are focusing on reining in health care costs .  

The passage of reform legislation two years ago prompted a change in how both health care providers and payers think about care.  The ACA told insurers that they would no longer be able to shun the sick by refusing to cover those suffering from pre-existing conditions. They also won’t be allowed to cap how much ithey will pay out to an desperately ill patient over the course of a year –or a lifetime.  Perhaps most importantly,  going forward, insurance companies selling policies to individuals and small companies will have to reimburse for all of the “essential benefits” outlined in the ACA–benefits  that are not now covered by most policies.  This means that, if they hope to stay in business, they will have to find a way to ”manage” the cost of care–but they won’t be able to do it by denying needed care.

As for providers, they, too, will be under pressure. A growing number will no longer be paid “fee for service” that rewards them for “volume”–i.e. “doing more.” Bonuses will depend on better outcomes, and keeping patients out of the hospital–which means doing a better job of managing chronic illnesses.  Meanwhile, Medicare will be shaving 1% a year from annual increases in payments to hospitals. If medical centers want to stay in the black, they, too, will have to provide greater “value” for health care dollars– better outcomes at a lower cost.

This summer the Supreme Court’s decision sealed the deal. The ACA is constitutional. Health care reform is here to stay.

(Granted, if Mitt Romney wins the White House in November, all bets are off. But the Five Thirty Eight f’orecast, which has an impressive track record, suggests that Obama has a 70 percent chance of winning.  That said, liberals  should not be smug. The economy remains the greatest threat to President Obama’s re-election.)

Medicare Spending

The Obama administration should be broadcasting the news: Medicare spending is no longer growing at an unsustainable rate. Wednesday, Bloomberg columnist Peter Orszag commented on the “sharp deceleration” in Medicare’s outlays. A common way to evaluate the growth in spending for Medicare is to compare the increase per beneficiary to income per capita,” the former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wrote.  “Over the past 30 years, this excess cost growth for Medicare has averaged about 2 percent a year. The goal of many policy proposals, including provisions in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is to reduce the future excess cost growth to about 1 percent annually.”

What is astonishing is that Medicare is now exceeding that goal. Over the past year, “excess cost growth has been much less than the target of 1 percent,” Orszag reports. “According to the most recent figures from the Congressional Budget Office, total Medicare spending this year through June rose 4 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of Medicare beneficiaries rose by almost 4 percent, too, and income per capita rose by about 3 percent. So excess cost growth has been significantly below zero let alone below the target of 1 percent a year.” 

This suggests that the nation’s Medicare bill does not have to pose a threat to the economy, even as the  number of Americans on Medicare’s rolls grows. Widely accepted reserach reveals that at least one-third of Medicare dollars are wasted on over-priced products and unnecessary reatments. Cut that fat, and we can accommodate an aging population.

Sweden faced the problem of a greying population years ago, and has managed to avoid what many who would like to slash “entitlement programs”  insist is an “inevitable” explosion in medical spending as a nation grows older. Healh care spending in Sweden has remained remarkably stable since the 1980s, costing roughly 9% of GDP, and when it comes to quality of care–and patient satisfaction– Sweden’s health care system is rated as one of the best in the developed world. Continue reading

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Urologists Threaten the Autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Over at HealthNewsReview.org  Gary Schwitzer has published a disturbing piece that looks at American Urological Association support for a bll that would make “significant changes to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.”

The guest post is written by Dr.Richard Hoffman, who is both one of HealthNewsReivew’s reviewers, and an editor at the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation a group that promotes “shared decision making.”   The Foundation, which was co-founded by Dr.Jack Wennber, the father of the Dartmouth Reserach,uses medical evidence to produce outstanding videos, pamphlets and web-based programs that help patients understand the potential risks and benefits of  elective surgeries and tests..  (I have written about “shared decision making” in past posts ). 

Below, an excerpt from Hoffman’s piece:

“Last week, the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, legislation (H.R. 5998) was introduced that threatens the autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“The legislation proposes to mandate a more transparent process for guideline development, a greater role for specialists and advocacy groups, and eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit The legislation, which comes on the heels of the Task Force’s controversial D rating against prostate cancer screening, is strongly supported by several prominent urological associations. 

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How the Media Covers Health Care

Sometimes health care reporters remind me of the financial journalists who helped hype the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. I began my career as a journalist at Money magazine, and I remember sitting in an editorial meeting where we talked about an upcoming cover story: “The Ten Best Mutual Funds NOW.”  One intrepid reporter asked: “What if there aren’t ten great mutual funds that you really should invest in right now?”

“Let the fact-checker worry about that,” someone else quipped, referring to the person who would be double-checking the details of the story just before it went to press. Almost everyone sitting around the table laughed.

And Money was generally a pretty responsible magazine that tried to warn investors against the risks of the market. Still, “good news” cover stories sold magazines—just as “breakthrough” medical stories on the local evening news keep viewers from changing the channel.

Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, recently published a provocative piece about how the media covers health care in the American Editor. Schwitzer begins his piece by asking his reader to “Imagine a reporter filing a story from the Detroit Auto Show. She writes about one car maker’s hot new model as if it is the best thing since the ’57 Corvette. But in the excitement over the chrome and style, she doesn’t mention the cost of the new model, doesn’t compare it with other manufacturers’ offerings in the same class, and doesn’t mention anything about performance (fuel efficiency, handling, braking, safety issues, etc.)

“An editor would certainly raise questions about this kind of puffery.

“But over on the health care beat,” Schwitzer observes, “the majority of stories on new products, procedures, treatments and tests are published without including comparable information. Claims that would never be accepted unchallenged from a politician are accepted unquestioningly from physicians and researchers and company spokespersons.”

Schwitzer, who publishes HealthNewsReview.org, a website that grades health care news stories for accuracy, balance, and completeness, has evidence to back up his claim.  Below I’ve re-posted some of his data on some 400 stories from almost 60 major news organizations (available at his website) to demonstrate how many health care stories “provide a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of the health care system that leaves readers with the impression that most products or procedures in health care are amazing, harmless and without a price tag”:

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The New York Times “Gets Cracking” on Rising Health Care Costs

On Sunday the New York Times published an editorial that set out to analyze “The High Cost of Health Care.” The result might best be described as “muddled.”

What is exasperating is that about 85 percent of the facts in the editorial are true. But a good 15 percent are simply wrong.  And the Times’ editors managed to weave truth and error together in such a way that it would take a knitting needle to separate the two. As Matthew Holt put it on The Health Care Blog: “the piece looks entirely as though it was written by a committee that couldn’t agree with itself.”

As you read the editorial, you can almost see the editors sitting around a table, negotiating. “Okay,  we’ll let that sentence about the value we’re getting for our dollars stand—as long as well keep this sentence about  ‘skin in the game.’”  The result, a mix of propaganda and analysis, is far more dangerous than outright lies because the many true facts make the whole thing sound credible.   

Because I hate to see our paper of record disseminate disinformation, I am going to try to separate the wheat from the chaff. Begin with the truth: Near the top of the story, under a sub-head that reads “Varied and Deep-Rooted,”  the Times provides a nice summary of the main reasons why we lay out roughly twice as much as the average developed nation, without getting care that is twice as good:

“we pay hospitals and doctors more than most other countries do. We rely more on costly specialists, who overuse advanced technologies, like CT scans and M.R.I. machines, and who resort to costly surgical or medical procedures a lot more than doctors in other countries do. Perverse insurance incentives entice doctors and patients to use expensive medical services more than is warranted. And our fragmented array of insurers and providers eats up a lot of money in administrative costs, marketing expenses and profits that do not afflict government-run systems abroad.”

Spot on. If only this section of the editorial had not begun with a casual half-truth: “Contrary to popular beliefs, this is not a problem driven mainly by the aging of the baby boom generation, or the high cost of prescription drugs, or medical malpractice litigation that spawns defensive medicine.”

They first part of the sentence is correct: the aging of the boomers is not a major cause of health care inflation.  The last clause of the sentence is debatable, though probably true.
What’s troubling is the middle clause:  Why does the Times feel obliged to declare that the “high cost of prescription drugs” is not an important factor behind soaring medical bills?

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Herzlinger’s Meme on Switzerland and Consumer Driven Medicine

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business School professor Regina Herzlinger offers an upside-down account of what’s right and what’s wrong with Switzerland’s health care system.  A leading advocate of “consumer driven” health care, Herzlinger assumes that because the Swiss pay for so much of their care out of their own pockets, consumer choice drives their system. 

But the truth is that Swiss patients have relatively little say over either the cost or the quality of the care they receive. Prices are regulated by the government, which also tries to make sure that consumers are getting value for their health care dollars by selecting which drugs, devices and tests insurance will cover. In fact, it is the very visible hand of a smart, largely efficient government that accounts for Switzerland’s relative success.

Before explaining how Herzlinger gets so much so wrong, let’s look at what she gets right. “The Swiss have achieved universal coverage,” Herzlinger points out “at a far lower cost than the U.S.”  In 2003 Switzerland spent 12 percent of GDP on health care while we laid out “a staggering 15 percent of GDP” while leaving roughly 14 percent of our population uncovered. Switzerland also has “far better health outcomes than the U.S., even when Switzerland is compared to socio-demographically similar U.S. states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Herzlinger acknowledges. Moreover, while U.S. insurers in most states can shun sick customers, either by refusing to cover them—or by charging them astronomical premiums—in Switzerland you are not penalized for having cancer. The sick “can afford health insurance and pay the same price” as everyone else.

Finally, while the cost of care continues to snowball in both countries, the Swiss seem to have a better handle on health care inflation. From 1996 to 2003 health care spending in Switzerland rose by an average of 2.8 percent a year, Herzlinger says, versus 4.1 percent in the U.S.  Meanwhile “Switzerland boasts substantially more in the way of health-care resources and . . . tops the world in most measures of user satisfaction.”

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Does the U.S. Have Too Many Doctors?

On the Buckeye Surgeon blog, a general surgeon from Cleveland, Ohio, questions what he calls “the almost dogmatic assumption that the United States is facing a physician shortage is the coming years…We’re always reading that we need to train more doctors, that with the aging population there won’t be enough physicians to satisfy demand. But then I was waiting for the elevator the other day, reading the names of all the doctors on the peg board who practice at one of my hospitals. The board is 4×4 feet and just crammed with names, names, names. It’s unbelievable how many doctors there are.”

“There’s two large GI groups,” Buckeye Surgeon continues. “There’s three general surgery groups. There’s three separate pulmonary groups. The ID group has 7 doctors. (Don’t get me started on ID again). And on and on. What we have isn’t a physician shortage, but rather a physician overabundance. And I don’t think it’s too different at most suburban hospitals across the country. The scenario isn’t one of overworked doctors struggling to keep up with the demands of patients waiting in line for care. Rather, it’s a hyper-competitive world of doctors in the same specialty fighting over a limited supply of patients.”  (Thanks to Kevin, M.D. for calling my attention to Buck Eye’s post.)

Buck Eye Surgeon is offering an anecdotal view of physician supply, but rational research backs up his claim. When the Council on Graduate Medical Education (COGME) warns that we need to train more physicians to meet the demands of aging baby boomers, the Council assumes that the current national physician-to-population ratio is optimal.  Those who call for more physicians “never examine the relationship between physician supply and the health of patients and population” notes Dartmouth’s Dr. David Goodman in a 2005 Health Affairs article, “The Physician Workforce Crisis: Where Is the Evidence?” (For more about Dr. Goodman, his background and his evidence, see "David
Goodman, M.D.: Counting All Doctors" in Dartmouth Medicine )

Take a look at the evidence, and it’s clear that the conventional
wisdom is wrong. As I’ve discussed in the past, in areas of the country
that boast more specialists, patient outcomes are worse—even after
adjusting for differences in age, race and the overall health of the
population. (I have written about this for both Health Beat and Dartmouth)
A greater supply of primary care physicians, on the other hand, leads
to better outcomes. So, Goodman quite sensibly concludes: “If improving
the health and well-being of the population remains our goal we need
more generalists and fewer specialists, today and in the future.”

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Autism—Another Epidemic?

Does your 6-month old make eye contact?  Does your 8-month old follow your gaze? Does he mimic your facial expression if you show fear, anger or pleasure?

If you answered “no” to these questions, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) wants you to know that your child might be suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Just two weeks ago the Academy sounded the alarm in a report calling for screening of children under two, listing signs of autism which pediatricians and parents should watch for. The report appeared in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics and on the group’s website.

At one time, autism was considered a rare disease. When I hear the word, I think of Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant performance in “Rain Man,” where he acts the part of an obsessive-compulsive idiot savant, imprisoned in his own tiny world of repetitive behavior. Rain Man is almost incapable of social interaction; it seems clear that he is afflicted with an uncommon disorder. But the Academy’s report begins by warning that, today, autism is not rare. One out of 150 children suffers from ASD, we are told. That’s why it is important to begin screening for the disease at an early age.

According to the AAP, doctors and parents should keep an eye on even the youngest children. For example, the report explains that “turning consistently to respond to one’s own name is an early skill that parents should expect to see in an 8 to 10-month old.”  The absence of this skill is said to be an autism warning sign. Other signs of trouble include “lack of warm, joyful expressions” when the parent points to an object and the baby gazes at it.  And by 9 months, says the report, the baby should be babbling—otherwise parents should be worried.

The AAP offers a brochure, entitled “Is Your One-Year-Old Communicating
with You?”, developed to help raise parent and physician awareness and
to promote recognition of ASD symptoms before 18 months of age. (The
AAP advises that pediatricians give the brochure all parents at the
child’s 9 or 12-month visit.) Different children “present” differently,
the report observes, but some particularly vigilant parents may still
be able to “perceive that their child is ‘different’ during the first
few months of life.”

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Why Aren’t More Students Applying To Medical School?

Did you know that there are only two applicants for every place in U.S. medical schools?

In Canada, surprisingly, close to four students apply for each opening. The training in the two countries is very similar; indeed, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) accredits medical schools in both countries.  And, in the U.S., at the high-end, physicians  can hope to earn far more than Canadian doctors.

Why then do so few Americans apply to medical school?

The answer is that we have priced a medical education well beyond the reach of most middle-class students.  In 2004, tuition and fees at a public medical school averaged $16,153. Students who attended a private school paid $32,588 according to a 2005 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. 

The author, Dr. Gail Morrison, Vice Dean for Education at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tacks on $20,000 to $25,000 a year for living expenses, books and equipment to calculate that the total cost of four years of medical education comes to a heady $140,000 for public schools and $225,000 for private schools.  I’d add that, in many American cities, students would be hard-pressed to cover rent, food, clothing, utilities and transportation for $20,000 a year—let alone books and equipment.

This helps explain why 60 percent of all medical students come from the wealthiest one-fifth of all U.S. families. Another 20 percent come from families lucky enough to be on the fourth step of a five step ladder.

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