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Bringing Down the Costs of Medical Care

Posted Mar 26 2011 12:00am
It is currently popular for government officials to single out the insurance companies for the rising cost of healthcare. Not that the insurers are without fault but the real reasons for cost increases are rarely addressed and therefore not appreciated. We are a country with an aging population (“old parts wear out”) and of many adverse behaviors (e.g., overweight, sedentary lifestyle, stress and 20% still smoke.) Combined, these are driving a rapid increase in chronic diseases such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease including heart attacks, heart failure and strokes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

These are illnesses that, once developed, are usually with the individual for life, have a major impact on quality of life and are inherently expensive to treat. The Milken Institute did a comprehensive study of chronic diseases. Among their findings: 109 million Americans have a chronic illness now [that’s about one third of us!] and many have more than one for a total of 162 million. The costs of care today are about $275 million and the total economic costs are well over a trillion dollars per year in lost productivity, etc. They estimate that we are on a track for a 42% increase in these chronic diseases by 2023 (as a result of aging and behaviors,) not that long from now. And if we do nothing to change the way we care for these patients, the costs of medical care will be $790 billion and the total economic costs will be over 4 trillion dollars.

There are two things to do to reverse this trend. These are illnesses that by and large are caused by our behaviors or are the result of aging. We can’t stop aging. So, the first step is to have an active program in behavior modification. Easier said than done, of course but here are some principles. We need to individually accept responsibility for our own health. But we need to understand what we are doing and how it impacts us over the long term. Government can help here with educational programs, rules about school lunches, requiring restaurants to post calorie and fat contents, labeling food packages with a more realistic total calorie assumption (today packages imply that the average person needs a 2000 calorie diet) and other steps. Incentives, primarily monetary ones, can have a big impact. Incentives need to be large enough to be useful yet focused enough to drive toward the desired end. Our employer can help with wellness programs to assist us to stop smoking, loose weight, improve our nutrition or deal with stress more effectively. The incentive here can be asking the employee who is successful to pay a lower portion of their health insurance premium. Insurers can create incentives directly for following a healthier lifestyle by lowering premiums for those who don’t smoke or are at a reasonable weight.

The second major step is to ensure that those who do have a chronic illness get very good care coordination. Unfortunately, this is just not the case for most patients today. They end up with multiple doctors, each doing their own thing, excess specialist consultations, too many medications, unnecessary tests and procedures and sometimes even unneeded hospitalizations. This drives up the cost of care dramatically. When one has a primary care physician that takes the time to fully coordinate all the elements of care, the use of specialists declines as do tests, procedures and hospitalizations and drug therapy is well managed.

Unfortunately, most primary care physicians have too many patients under their care to allow adequate time for prevention sessions or the time needed for care coordination. They need to care for fewer patients meaning they will need to receive a higher fee for each visit and this must include a reasonable payment for preventive activities and coordination efforts. Added to this they need to be paid to take the time to respond to emails and to use other technologies that can keep the patient out of the office unless really necessary. Some docs are doing just this by limiting their practice to about 500 patients (rather than the usual 1200-1400) and charging a flat fee for all care for a year. Others are refusing to accept insurance, both commercial and Medicare, and instead are billing the patient just as a lawyer or accountant or other professional would. The billing includes time spend in prevention and coordination. These may well be the future of primary care reimbursement and a means to assist the patient to first prevent chronic illnesses from occurring and second to assist in good coordination of the care when one does develop.

But all of this raises critical questions. What should and what will government do to help us modify our behaviors? Will insurers be allowed and will they accept the responsibility of a two tiered premium pricing system? Will employers accept the added chore of developing wellness programs? Will physicians, even if they are offered adequate payments, actually spend the time needed for good prevention and good care coordination? And, most importantly, will we as citizens accept our responsibility to lead a reasonably healthy lifestyle?
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