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Why Does The US Spend So Much On Healthcare?

Today the Commonwealth Fund came out with a chart that it says is a “grim reminder” of what happens when health care doesn’t get reformed.

If only we had listened to Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter.  We would have saved tens of trillions of dollars in health care spending.

Click to enlarge

Never mind that Nixon and Carter’s big cost savings were supposed to come from price controls.  Which, 4,000 years of history tell us, don’t work. It makes you wonder about that flat line in the alternate universe in which Nixon or Carter got their plans passed.  Beware of charts promising simple descriptions of health care problems.

Still, chart or no chart, it’s a very bad sign for a reform plan when its supporters try to drum up support by linking it to Nixon and Carter.

But the chart does beg another question:  why does the U.S. spend so much more?

There isn’t one answer, just like there’s no unitary health care “system” in the United States.  I’ve written a lot about before, so today I just want to focus on two points.

Other industrialized countries have restrictions on access to care that would be unacceptable to Americans.  We got a tiny taste of what this is like when that group came out earlier this year with a recommendation that women not get mammograms until they were 50.  There was an immediate uproar, and the group ended up re-writing its recommendations.  As an aside, it’s why some people think that a single-payer America would actually spend more on health care, since politicians would never vote for real restrictions on care.

To see what I mean, all you have to do is look at what is happening in state and local governments.  State and local government employees enjoy some of the most generous benefits packages in the country.  As the Boston Globe reported today:

A six-month review by the Globe found that municipal health plans, which cover employees, retirees, and elected officials, provide benefit levels largely unheard of in the private sector. Copays are much lower. Some communities do not force retirees onto Medicare at age 65. Many citizens on elected boards – some after serving as few as six years – receive coverage for life, too.

As medical costs across the board rose over the past decade, municipal health care expenses exploded, draining local budgets and forcing major cuts in services, higher property tax bills, and billions in new debt.

Some cities and towns around Boston are spending close to 20% of their budgets on health care costs.  Some towns spend more than $30,000 per year for family coverage – with almost 90% of that covered by the employer.  Large private employers pay about half that much on average for family coverage, and cover much less of the premium.  And it’s not just happening in Massachusetts.  Governments – for whatever reason – do not have in place the kinds of benefits offerings that have helped slow the growth in health care costs in the private sector.

So of course there should be some kind of reform in America.  But while politicians are arguing about a grab-bag of issues they aren’t grappling with the huge opportunities to improve health care costs right in their own backyards.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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