Do No Harm: A Doctor’s Case For Single Payer

In 2013, Drs. Ubel, Abernethy, and Zafar published “Full Disclosure — Out-of-Pocket Costs as Side Effects” in the New England Journal of Medicine. In this essay, the authors grapple with the ethical responsibilities of physicians when it comes to the enormous cost of modern medicine. If a surgery or a course of chemotherapy is likely to bankrupt a patient, what is our duty to warn them, to ensure that they have considered both benefits and harms? A larger question, however, was left unasked: “How do we as physicians ethically operate within a medical system that forces people on a regular basis to choose between health and financial stability”

To grasp the extent of the issue, consider that even after the passage and defense of the Affordable Care Act, 27 million American remain uninsured. An additional 41 million Americans are underinsured which is to say that their out-of-pocket expenses (such as deductibles and copays) are enough to cause financial duress, despite having health insurance. And as health insurance deductibles increases faster than wages, the proportion of Americans who are underinsured continues to grow.

The consequences of this are grave. Three out of ten American adults report forgoing needed medical care due to cost concerns. One in four were unable to pay for basic necessities like food, heat, or rent because of medical bills. One third spent down all of their savingsContinue reading “Do No Harm: A Doctor’s Case For Single Payer”

Innovations in Primary Care: Moving Beyond Fee-For-Service

The American medical system has long operated under a fee-for-service model in which only specific, narrowly-defined medical services qualify for reimbursement from insurance companies. This system is reasonably well-suited for procedure-oriented specialties in which services with clear indications, processes, and outcomes such as colonoscopy or knee replacement can be appropriately paid for.

In America’s fee-for-service system, reimbursement for primary care services is limited to short office visits and certain outpatient procedures (such as a joint injection). Many primary care doctors have felt that they could offer better care for their patients if the payment structure allowed for more flexibility in services offered, but opportunities to test this hypothesis have been limited.

Today, three groups in the Seattle area – Landmark, Concerto, and Iora – are independently demonstrating the value of flexibility in primary care to improve patient outcomes at overall lower cost. They’ve accomplished this by arranging for alternative payment models with local Medicare Advantage plans (private insurance plans who contract with Medicare to provide health insurance to seniors). Rather than operating under fee-for-service, these companies get a per-member, per-month payment. This payment structure provides a flexible budget with which they can offer services that don’t necessarily fit into the established fee-for-service structure.   Continue reading “Innovations in Primary Care: Moving Beyond Fee-For-Service”

Bringing Single Payer to Washington State

Yesterday I attended a meeting of Health Care for All Washington regarding single payer legislation in our state. The particular set of bills they are supporting are SB-5701 and HB-1026 which establish a trust fund (the Washington Health Security Trust or WHST) which would eventually act as a single payer for health care services in the state of Washington.

Specifically, this legislation creates the trust fund, establishes a board of trustees and guidance committees to run the Trust, and then lays out in very broad strokes what the Trust is meant to accomplish. As described in the legislation, the Trust is meant to pay for health care for Washington residents not otherwise covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or private insurance including dental and long term care (think nursing homes). Most likely the funds for the Trust would come from a combination of a payroll tax and a sliding-scale premium.   Continue reading “Bringing Single Payer to Washington State”

Innovations In Primary Care #1: Introduction

As part of my family medicine residency training, I’m taking a month-long elective called Innovations in Primary Care. This month is an opportunity for primary care doctors from family medicine and internal medicine residency programs in Seattle to explore some of the different primary care models being trialed in the Seattle area and to use those experiences to fuel discussion about how primary care (and really, all medical care) can be improved in the United States.

Today was our first meeting, during which we gathered to collectively write an H&P for our current medical system. For those reading this who are not in medicine, the History and Physical or H&P is a semi-standardized note-writing structure that doctors use to describe the subjective and objective information about a patient’s health, assess why  the patient is experiencing illness, and describe the next steps we need to take (diagnostic tests and/or treatments) going forward. It’s a structured way of thinking about a patient that helps us be rigorous and methodical.

It was a gratifying process because each of the doctors at the table shared a passion for making our health care system better, but brought a different set of experiences and priorities to the conversation.

Some of the take-aways I had from this conversation are as follows (in no particular order):

  1. The insurance framework for paying for health care, while originally conceived to improve access to surgical services which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to most people, was quickly recognized by doctors as a way to extract larger fees for patient care. After all, when a third party (the insurance company) pays the bills, people tolerate much higher fees even if the end result is steady rise in out-of-pocket costs for everyone. Doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies have abused this system so greedily under the previous usual-and-customary payment system that increasingly rigid cost-containment measures have had to be implemented to control costs. We now live in a society where the average doctor makes $294,000 per year–more than 98.9% of Americans–while medical bills bankrupt patients and health insurance cost suppresses wage growth. Recognizing and holding ourselves accountable to how capitalism in medicine has brought out the worst in us is necessary before we can even begin to conceptualize a new system.
  2. The costs of most important and effective interventions to improve health, including primary care, are recurring and predictable costs that are best paid for through public health funding, NOT through health insurance. Access to clean water, nutritious food, safe housing, and preventive medical care is necessary for All People at All Times.
  3. America fails to invest in public welfare programs because of racism. The idea of the racialized-and-thus-undeserving Other benefiting from public welfare programs (e.g. the racist specter of the Welfare Queen that Reagan so infamously promoted) is fundamentally intolerable to White America. We are comfortable with 1 in 7 people in the United States facing food insecurity if it means we can prevent one person from buying steak with food stamps. There is no justice without racial justice.
  4. Many participants are needed to transform our medical care system into a true health care system. While there are only physicians in this particular group, the real work requires public health professionals, community health workers, housing experts, policy wonks, political activists, artists, chefs, personal trainers, behavioralists, and many others to both design an implement a better system.

I’m looking forward to the experiences and conversations this month will bring, and I hope to walk away with greater insight into how I can be a better advocate for effective and equitable health care in this country.

Why do we pay more to treat illness than prevent it?

(The following has been cross-posted to the Leonard Davis Institute’s Health PolicySense blog)

David Asch, Mark Pauly, and Ralph Muller have a great piece in this month’s New England Journal of Medicine on how we as a society think about preventive versus cancer care. They observe that whenever preventive care strategies are studied, there is an obsessive concern with the return on investment of these strategies and that this same scrutiny is not applied to cancer care.

The entire article is well worth reading, but in summary their argument is that this difference occurs because:

  1. Cancer care is more profitable for healthcare providers than preventive care.
  2. There are more well-defined and evidence-based strategies for cancer treatment than for preventive care.
  3. Seeking reward for treating illness is a much stronger motivator than avoiding penalty for failing to prevent illness.

Continue reading “Why do we pay more to treat illness than prevent it?”

Rationing through self-triage, my patient perspective

As I fell off the curb, my first thought was about my deductible.

Earlier in the year, I had tried to save a little money and chose a high deductible plan. This meant that I would have to pay the full cost of any doctor visit (including my primary care provider) until I had spent down my $6500 deductible. With an emergency department visit costing hundreds of dollars, I worried that my clumsiness had effectively wiped out whatever premium savings I had achieved with this choice.

In choosing a high-deductible plan, I had gambled that I could get through a year without illness and in the process fallen victim to my own optimism bias. As my ankle rolled inward and I heard an extremely unsetting *snap*, I felt very stupid about it.

Continue reading “Rationing through self-triage, my patient perspective”

Subsidizing U.S. healthcare

In this month’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Drs. Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein of Harvard Medical School describe the extent to which our healthcare costs are already largely subsidized by the government.

In fact, between the tax subsidies for employer-sponsored insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance for public employees, the government already pays for 65% of all U.S. health expenditures, amounting to $6,560 per person in 2015. For less than this countries like Canada are able to offer universal coverage without the extremely expensive premiums and deductibles we are saddled with in the United States.

Woolhandler and Himmelstein argue that the excess we pay is essentially a handout to healthcare industries. When so many Americans are struggling with stagnant wages, is it wise for us to be doling out cash to these companies?

Read their op-ed here: “Single-payer health plan wouldn’t cost U.S. more”