Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Healthcare Without Politics: The Future is Now

Is it even possible anymore, healthcare without politics? 
I don't know, but I hope so. I'd hate to think the only place it could exist was Disney World. I hope we can reach the point midst all the  maneuvering and jockeying for power and influence where our concern for those who need healthcare exceeds its value as political capital. Sadly, we're not there yet.

Back in the day when, for the average person, Blue Cross/Blue Shield was pretty much the only health insurance game in town, coverage protected in case of catastrophe, i.e. hospitalization. I've described in other posts my own experience of kidney stones necessitating two major surgeries. My family paid out of pocket for outpatient doctor visits and prescriptions, grateful our Blue Cross policy meant the cost of my hospital stay wouldn't hit us with the force of a tsunami carrying the threat of bankruptcy in its wake.

At the time I was recovering from kidney stones and for a few years thereafter, doctors were reimbursed by insurance for services rendered. It was called a fee-for-service system. More services meant greater reimbursement. Eventually, managed care firms came into existence and in the effort to control the costs of operation, they established criteria that must be met, justifying tests and procedures, before  insurance claims would be paid and doctors reimbursed. Soon it became necessary for providers and/or policy holders to obtain authorizations for treatment before managed care considered itself obligated to pay. If you think about it from a business perspective, this makes sense. A company can only pay out so much before it is unable to pay at all.

The road to hell is lined with good intentions, as the saying goes, and while management of healthcare costs was doubtless a factor in the evolution of managed care, we have to remember, healthcare insurance is still a business and the first priority of any business is to make a profit. To accomplish this goal, a business has to increase revenues and/or reduce expenses. Determining which procedures or medications were clinically indicated, ostensibly based on empirical evidence, was one way of setting limits on expenses. Refusing to cover pre-existing conditions was another. Over time, decisions of medical necessity were taken over by managed care and stories of treatment denial, some of them truly horrible, started surfacing. You've heard them on the nightly news as have I.

Despite public outcry, doctors' frustration with a growing insurance beuracracy, and the efforts of congressional leaders like the late Senator Ted Kennedy, insurance reform lagged. Ours is a free-market economy, it was argued, competition lies at the heart of the American Way. Socialized medicine in Canada and Europe, opponents declared, provided poorer quality care and ours was the best in the world. The reality, however, failed to live up to the evidence even as the arguments proliferated.

Families on the verge of collapse because of alcoholism or drug abuse may resort to performing an intervention, confronting the substance abuser who is unwilling or unable to get treatment themselves. Not dissimilarly, someone had to intervene if healthcare insurance was going to obtain the "treatment" it had long needed. Relying on competition to even the field failed to yield more affordable coverage and the number of uninsured Americans continued to grow. Either free-market theory was wrong or the industry discovered how to prosper in spite of it. Although many believed there were good reasons for reforming the system, there was insufficient motivation for the system to reform itself.

Enter the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, the function of which is to enable one to obtain affordable healthcare insurance and provide protection against potential abuses by the insurance industry. Under its umbrella, patients can no longer be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions. The determination of medical necessity has been placed back into the hands of those who are committed to serve the needs of patients. Doctors now have the right to review private insurance company files that identified physicians with high utilization patient populations and directed new referrals to those whose patients were regarded as healthier and therefore cheaper to insure. 

It's not a perfect solution but imperfection doesn't automatically render it a bad one. If anything, we're discovering it's a work in progress and we'll need to adjust and adapt it as we go. I don't think it represents a step toward socialism anymore than the Selective Service represented a step toward a police state. Most of us are too smart to believe that line, even if politicians aren't smart enough to find a better one. 

The Affordable Care Act is an attempt to reform a system sorely in need of reform, not only for the sake of patients and policy holders, but for its own sake as well. As with any intervention, the insurance industry finds change painful and naturally responds with anger, disbelief, and a desire to bargain, hoping to retain something of the status quo. Over time, acceptance will ensue and the industry will find itself better off for the changes that have been made. In the meantime, we're past the point of no return; pretending the good old days were the best days is a fantasy and Fantasy Land is for cartoons. We live in Tomorrow Land and the future is now. 

(Creative Commons image of Walt Disney Politics by sbwoodside via Flickr)
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