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Uncle Sam: Do Your Research First

Anyone working in healthcare has a moral responsibility to do the right thing, for the right reasons, and at a reasonable price; however, this is not happening.   Today’s healthcare system is too expensive and it is broken.  If it wasn’t broken, the current administration would not be focusing so much money and effort on fixing it.  Likewise, 42 million Americans would not be uninsured creating two different standards of care within our country.  Many decisions have already been made: providing government backed insurance coverage for the uninsured, encouraging the use of electronic health records systems (EHRs), and creating comparative effectiveness research boards (CERs). Much of what has been suggested sounds good but was passed by our legislature before seeking the input of those responsible for implementing these new policies and plans.  Fortunately, President Obama’s administration is seeking input now and it is the responsibility of anyone working within the healthcare system to speak up and be heard.

Many hard-to-answer questions should have been asked before solutions were posed.  Why is healthcare so expensive?  How can the intervention of government lead us to better and more affordable healthcare?  Although integrated EHR systems may prevent the duplication of tests and procedures, how can medical practitioners best use these systems to prevent mistakes?  How will future decisions be made – between doctor and patient, or will the new CER Boards grow to do more than merely advise?  How would the American people react to more controversial ideas, such as health care rationing to control exorbitant costs incurred at the end of life?

 In my last post, I closed with a promise to share some ideas regarding healthcare reform.  First, we should try to reach a consensus as to what is broken before implementing solutions. In Maggie Mahar’s book, Money-Driven Medicine (2006), her concluding chapter is titled, “Where We Are Now: Everybody Out of the Pool.” This title screams for change as she makes a convincing argument that all parties involved in healthcare need to rethink how we can work together to fix a broken healthcare system which seems focused, not on healthcare, but on money.   Today, Uncle Sam has jumped into the pool feet first, creating quite the splash, and he is spending large sums of money to lead healthcare reform without first reaching a consensus as to what is broken in this system.

 The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will direct $150 billion dollars to healthcare in new funds, with most of it being spent within two years.  Health information technology will receive $19.2 billion of these dollars, with the lion’s share ($17.2 billion) going towards incentives to physicians and hospitals to use EHR systems and other health information technologies.  According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the average physician will be eligible for financial incentives totaling between $40,000 and $65,000; this money will be paid out to physicians for using EHRs to submit reimbursement claims to Medicare and Medicaid, or for demonstrating an ability to ‘eprescribe’.  This money will help offset the cost of implementing a new EHR, which can cost between $20,000 and $50,000 per year per physician. However, after midnight, December 31, 2014, this “carrot” will turn into something akin to Cinderella’s pumpkin, becoming a “stick” that will financially penalize those physicians and hospitals not using EHRs in a “meaningful” way.

At our office, doctokr Family Medicine, we use an EHR, but consider it a tool, much like a stethoscope or thermometer, used to facilitate the doctor-patient relationship, not a tool to track our reimbursement activities. I would not argue against EHRs, but there is no evidence they will make healthcare more affordable and improve the quality of care delivered – unless you believe the $80 billion dollar a year savings “found” in the 2005 RAND study (paid for by companies including Hewlett-Packard and Xerox- incidentally, companies developing EHRs). I believe it will take far more than EHRs, financial incentives, and good data to fix our broken healthcare system.
Difficult decisions await those willing to ask the hard questions but don’t expect any easy answers to present themselves on the journey towards effective healthcare reform.  My partner and I believe we have found answers to some questions and are moving forward, in our own practice, now.  Asking why healthcare is so expensive and feeling frustrated with the high cost of medical software, we have written our own EHR, containing costs for our patients by keeping down our overhead expenses.  Our financial model is based on time spent with the patient, not codes and procedures, which helps us to avoid ‘gaming’ the system and wasting time. 

A familiar adage states that there are no problems, only solutions.  I suggest, though, that there can be no solutions without problems.  Find the right questions and opportunities abound.  Earlier in this post, I asked how government intervention can lead us to better and more affordable healthcare.  It can’t, at least not without the help and guidance of doctors, patients, industry, insurance companies, hospitals, and anyone who understands what is at stake with health care reform.  We all share in the responsibility to try.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD


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