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Where Docs Agree on Health Care Reform

Asking a bunch of doctors and nurses what they want out of health care reform is like asking a group of teens what toppings they want on a pizza: You’re going to get a lot of different answers, with the loudest proclamations reserved for what they don’t want.

Such a group came together July 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. at an event called Putting Patients First, hosted by Better Health. The unanimous conclusion: Get government out of the health care delivery continuum.

Val Jones, M.D., CEO of Better Health, said, “I don’t think people outside the doctor-patient relationship should be making life and death decisions” on behalf of the patient or doctor. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the event’s keynote speaker, said government has an obligation to establish conditions for free markets to thrive. Ryan blamed insurance companies for the problems with health care today – essentiually stating that insurers dictate the care that providers can deliver – and he called for a solution that does not involve heavier government.

“Government bureaucracy is not the answer to insurance bureaucracy,” Ryan said. The government’s failure to control costs in Medicare and Medicaid “shows us we should get government out of the way and put more faith in the market. Providers should compete against each other for our business.”

Ryan claims that the so-called ‘public option’ in President Obama’s proposed health care reform initiative would allow the government to be “referee and player in the same game,” and that companies hoping to compete for consumer health care dollars would be at an unfair disadvantage. Obama’s plan would result in “cookie-cutter standards” for determining individual patient care, set unfairly low reimbursement rates and create an economic barrier to young talent hoping to enter the medical profession.

Ryan added that Obama’s plan offers no incentives for people to get and stay healthy, which would lower health care costs. But offering reduced insurance rates to a consumer who, say, quit smoking or lost excess weight “would be illegal” under Obama’s plan, Ryan noted. “So there’s no incentive” for people to take better care of themselves. Ryan has a plan that he says would include a “carrot and stick” provision to reward people for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Between two expert panels, Robert Goldberg, Ph.D., co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, showed a video, complete with scary background music, of  patients in Canada and the U.K. complaining about abhorrent wait times to see doctors and government-mandated denial of life-saving treatments. Goldberg concluded that government-run health care in the U.S. would yield a similar system, with patients wasting away in the long shadows of a bureaucratic monster while doctors and nurses stood by, helplessly bound by the new rules. (One panelist later noted that polls show 70 percent to 80 percent approval among Canadians for that country’s health care system.)

The event did yield some progressive ideas for improving the U.S. system.

Alan Dappen, M.D., associate clinical professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Department of Family Practice, and founder of DocTalker, a practice in Fairfax, Va., has moved a huge chunk of his patient consultation onto the phone. Patients still pay for his time – just as they would for  an office visit – but the system is much more efficient than having every patient come in for every ailment. “If you have a tick bite or an ear infection I don’t necessarily have to see you,” he says. Further, he says, the documentation for treating such minor ailments “should not go through 30 people” at an insurance company to ensure the doctor is paid or the patient is reimbursed. “That’s just ridiculous.”

Dappen has been practicing this way for eight years and says it takes on average 10 minutes to solve a patient’s issue over the phone. “Most of our patients are helped to satisfaction,” he said. And as a result of the time saved on patient visits, he added, he has time to do house calls – and is the only doctor in Fairfax County who does so.

Rich Fogoros, M.D., a former professor of cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology and longtime practitioner and researcher who is now a consultant and writer, suggested that primary care physicians go “off the grid” – i.e. refuse to participate in any insurance plan. That, Fogoros said, will force regulators and insurers to acknowledge that current practices by insurance companies have destroyed the doctor-patient relationship.

Kevin Pho, M.D., an internal medicine physician in Nashua, N.H., and author of the blog Kevin, M.D., said the most common complaint he hears from his patients is how little time they get to spend with him during a typical visit. “We are incentivized to see as many people as possible,” Pho said, not to provide the best care possible for each patient. One solution: hourly pay for doctors, siilar to the ‘billable hours’ system used by lawyers.

James Herndon, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon and chairman emeritus of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Partners health care (an integrated health system founded by Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston, Mass., voiced concern about doctors in hospitals who won’t take care of the uninsured and underinsured. The doctors “keep pointing them elsewhere until they end up in the trauma unit, which is the last resort,” he said. “I would mandate that [all doctors on staff] see their share” of those patients.” Herndon added that he favors “public support,” such as some form of a tax, to ensure doctors are compensated for providing that care. He also conceded that the health care industry has become too profit focused. “The CEO of United Health made $1.2 billion” in one recent year. “We need to get rid of excess profit in insurance.”

Kim McAllister, R.N., the author of Emergiblog, said that, no matter which plan emerges from the ongoing debate in Washington, “People will circumvent it by showing up in the emergency room.” She recounted a story of a patient in California who went to the emergency room for a headache – twice – because he couldn’t get a timely appointment with his physician. She favors a health care savings account model under which each consumer could then “decide what provider they see and when they see that person.” McAllister suggested allowing the money to roll over from year to year – another nod to rewarding healthy lifestyles – although she strongly implied that allotments would be scaled based on a person’s income.

And this hit a point on which most of the participants seemed to agree: For consumers who really cannot afford health care in a free-market system, the government should have funds available to help them pay.

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