Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

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Medicare and the President’s Deficit Reduction Plan: Shifting Costs to Seniors

How Cost-Sharing Leads to More Cost-Sharing: A Slippery Slope

President Obama’s newest proposal for reducing the federal deficit would slice Medicare reimbursements to drug-makers, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, home health services and teaching hospitals. As I explained in Part 1 of this post, using figures from the non-partisan and highly respected Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), these are groups that Medicare often overpays.  Some skilled nursing facilities turn an 18 percent profit on Medicare patients while reimbursements to home health agencies have consistently and substantially exceeded costs.

By and large, these recommendations make sense, and could help throw a spotlight on excesses in Medicare spending. But I very much doubt that either Congress or the Super Committee charged with addressing the deficit will embrace the President’s proposals in these areas. The lobbies that represent drug-makers, our most prestigious academic medical centers and three health care industries that have been taken over by for-profit companies (skilled nursing facilities, rehab centers and home health service agencies) can write the checks that help swing elections.

Proposals That Are Far More Likely to Find Support in Washington

President Obama’s plan also targets future retirees, asking them to shoulder a larger share of Medicare’s costs. Specifically, starting in 2017:

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Obama’s Plan and Medicaid: Promising Structural Changes But Worries About Cost-Shifting to States

In President Obama’s new deficit reduction plan, he makes the following promise:

“Most importantly, we can make modest adjustments to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid in a way that does not undermine the fundamental compact they represent to our Nation’s seniors, children, people with disabilities, and low-income families. The Administration’s proposals will save approximately $320 billion over the next decade. As these reforms save money, they also will strengthen these vital programs so that they are robust and healthy to serve Americans for years to come.”

Saving money through modest adjustments while strengthening vital programs—sounds like a perfect vision for the future of government health care. But will this actually be the case for the beleaguered, but extremely necessary, Medicaid program?

Obama proposes to save $66 billion from Medicaid by taking the following actions: “limit State financing practices that increase Federal spending, replace complicated matching formulas with a single matching rate specific to each State, and strengthen Medicaid program integrity.”

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