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Should the US privatize the Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics? Let’s put the assumptions in the question on the table:
- Bureaucracy is bad
- US health care is good
- The US is in continuous war
- Treating the wounded is too expensive
This blog is about healthcare, not geopolitics, yet the temptation to see war as a disease is difficult ignore. Let’s not go there. Instead, compare the VA system with the proposed replacement.
|VA Healthcare||Private US Healthcare|
Would a veteran actually want private healthcare? Perhaps veterans living a long distance from a VA facility would choose private care. But, if VA facilities are close who would want to enter a private system that is hugely expensive, not focused on war injuries, poorly managed, and has low quality ratings?
The real answer to the initial question is that private US healthcare needs to improve tremendously. If and when that happens then the need for the VA would naturally disappear. And, by the way, less war would help.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is not usually associated with healthcare. However, his famous quote about consistency may apply. The US healthcare system seems to be quite consistent, in a bad way.
The Perspective section of the September 7, 2017 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine featured an opinion article by Eric Schneider and David Squires. The essence of the article is to point out the US healthcare system has a lot of potential, receives lots of money, discovers great treatments and has some institutions that really deliver good care. The authors suggest with a change in focus US healthcare could be number one in the world. Yet, it is not. And, it maintains a poor rating CONSISTENTLY.
The authors state key strategies for improving healthcare:
- Timely access to care (preventive, acute and chronic)
- Delivery of evidence-based and appropriate care services.
They note several things that stand in the way of delivering care of any type:
- Cost of care (US is number one)
- Administrative burden (US is number one)
- Disparities in the delivery of care (US rates very high)
In any large US city the profusion of stand-alone emergency rooms is testament to the failed notion of high-cost rescue treatment rather than low-cost prevention or ongoing monitoring and early intervention. The US tends to invest in high-cost drugs, treatments and surgeries and under-invests in primary care and social services. The failure to adjust the focus of healthcare efforts has become a financial train wreck.
The authors of the above article present four prescriptions for US healthcare:
- Improve access to care
- Increase investment in primary care
- Reduce the administrative burden
- Make healthcare more equitable, so all people can receive good healthcare
However, those lofty goals require something else. The US must stop the foolish consistency of accepting poor health care, of paying too much for healthcare and believing great inventions automatically lead to great healthcare.
Perhaps the Emerson quote is too painful. An Albert Einstein quote may be better:
“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
The above chart is from data just released from the National Resident Matching Program. This is about doctors who completed medical school and now according to their preferences are matched with training programs in various specialties. This is for the first year of residency, but it should be noted physicians may branch out to other specialties later in training. Internal medicine is a good example since those physicians branch out to later be general internists, hospitalists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, gastroenterologists, diabetologists, and nephrologists among others.
The point of this chart is to show how the shortfall in US physicians is being filled by foreign physicians. The foreign physicians are good doctors, in fact, some of the best in the countries they come from.
The obvious question is WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE US PHYSICIAN TRAINING PROGRAM? It obviously is not keeping up with demand. Thousands of US students desperately want to go to medical school, but there is no place for them. Certainly, cost is a definite issue — many who would like to go to medical school just can’t secure the funding or don’t want to go into debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, the inadequacy of US medical training is resolved from afar.
Other countries, like the UK, solve this problem by offering aspiring doctors the funds to go to medical school in exchange for becoming a specified type of doctor and practicing (for a number of years) in a specified location. It seems to work.
Attracting good doctors from other parts of the world sounds attractive but it’s not so nice for those other countries losing the doctors. The US has a significant physician shortage which is getting worse. Since the US does not have a healthcare system it is not possible to respond to the shortage. The free market system fills the lucrative specialties in the nice locations leaving the non-urban communities to go without or hopefully attract a foreign medical doctor. In many rural communities there are no US trained physicians.
US healthcare quality is at the bottom of industrialized countries. Access to healthcare declines in large part due to a shortage of providers. Since there is no organized healthcare system no resolution is in sight. It’s staggering to realize even Cuba has more doctors per capita than the US. The discussion and legislation so hotly debated currently seems oblivious to the shortage of physicians for which insurance is no solution.
Start over. Begin again. Throw out the mess.
Usually, complicated problems are solved incrementally by finding each small problem and fixing each one until the huge problem is resolved. This approach has failed healthcare in the United States. The evidence is overwhelming.
- rising cost
- declining health
- inability to train enough workers
- high infant mortality
- inability to control drug costs
- focus on cost instead of health
- fragmented improvement efforts
THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM IS THE US DOES NOT HAVE A HEALTHCARE SYSTEM: NO SYSTEM TO CORRECT, NO SYSTEM TO MEASURE, NO GOALS TO MEET, NOBODY WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE.
The measure of a healthcare system is an average. It’s not whether one guy is cured from leukemia but whether the average baby survives, the average citizen can get a doctor appointment, can purchase medications, and can have surgery if needed.
Sadly, if you are a legislator every problem looks like a financial problem — you can pay more or pay less. You tried the first option so now you want to try the second option.
Supply and demand economics does work But, it just has to be applied the correct way. If the salary paid to a lawmaker is dependent on improving health in the country then the economic theory would work fine. It does not work fine when complicated treatments are marketed to a population with low health literacy (and that includes the President and Congress past and present).
The reason Medicare-for-all seems so appealing is because it is a system. Perhaps it’s not as good as the systems in other countries, but it’s the system we know. It’s time to stop complaining about cost and complexity. DO SOMETHING and KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Many patients take too many medications which leads to unnecessary side effects, drug interactions and high cost. Yet physicians sometimes fight just to get patients to take necessary medications. Two examples:
- Provider: How many medications are you taking?
Patient: Including vitamins I think fifteen.
Provider: What? I only have two medications on my list.
Patient: I restarted all the medications I was taking before you hospitalized me plus all the new prescriptions from when I left the hospital and I added some vitamins.
- Patient: I stopped that medication because I thought it was causing my hair to fall out.
Provider: Your heart medication does not cause hair to fall out. And, even if it did you could die without it.
The medications you take should be reviewed at each visit so you and the provider consider which are truly needed and why. The provider who gives the patient a prescription is responsible to make sure there is no interaction or duplication with ongoing treatment. Yes, that means cardiologists and dentists also. A proactive patient should simply ask, “Is that new medication compatible with all of my existing medications and does it replace one of the existing medications?”
The highest risk situation for evaluation of medications happens when alternate providers become involved. Like a hospital doctor, an ER doctor or a specialist. They tend to add medications without fully considering the existing medications, often thinking the primary provider will resolve any drug issues — too bad when a fill-in primary provider steps into the mix.
An article in the Washington Post January 28, 2017 by Dr. Ranit Mishori advises the following questions for providers and patients to consider together about medications:
● What is this medication, and why am I taking it?
● Are there non-pharmacologic options to treat this condition?
● How long do I need to be on it?
● What are the benefits of continuing to take it?
● What are the possible harms of using that medication?
● Do any of my medications interact with any another?
● Can I lower the doses of any of these medications?
● Which of my medications are more likely to be nonbeneficial considering my age, my other medical conditions and my life expectancy?
● Are there any medications I can get off completely?
What an opportunity! A design for American Health Care that is badly needed, a blank slate, an open door, a blank check. So what blogger could resist the obvious invitation. First is the logo — I hope you like it. No more Medicare, Medicaid, Indian Health Service, Veterans Administration, Blue Cross or United Health.
Who gets AHC? Well, every US citizen.
How much does it cost? The annual out of pocket cost is limited to just $1000.
Is there any paper work? NO. No paperwork, no bills, no EOB, and no insurance claims.
What do you need for healthcare? Just your AHC card.
What is the price list?
- Office visits: $25
- ER visits $50
- Thirty day prescription $10
- Surgery $100
- Hospitalization $200
- Medical equipment $75
- Medical devices $75
- Ambulance $100
What is the national healthcare budget? It’s set by congress. Initially budget neutral at three trillion dollars (or whatever budget neutral at this time).
Where does the money come from? Taxes. Instead of insurance premiums it’s included in your taxes.
Do insurance companies go out of business? No. They process claims from healthcare providers, pharmacies, hospitals etc. The person getting healthcare does not need to be involved with all the paperwork.
What government agency runs the program? Medicare, under the AHC name. Providers bill the claims processor and AHC pays the processor.
Is great American health research affected? No. This is a health care system. Research is not health care and is outside the system.
Can people obtain health services, like for cosmetic surgery? Sure. Any services you want to purchase yourself outside AHC is fine. But, you still pay the same taxes. AHC does not pay for private care.
Are the States excluded? No. The States are responsible for managing AHC in their States. The Federal Government sets the standards for the country. The States make it happen.
Why would national costs be lower? Because America as a country negotiates prices and because cost would be capped by the congressional budget for care. The cost would be the same the first year. Waste is a major problem — with better management of a system waste can be addressed. Since about one half of US healthcare cost is consumed by waste there is lots of room for improvement.
What about poor people? The deductible would be lower than $1000 — but because the deductible is low to begin with not many would need this help.
Now would be a good time for the applause. Your humble blogger thanks you.
New drugs need to be compared to something. And, at a very minimum that something is the placebo, a sugar pill. When you see an advertisement claiming some product is 80% better, a reasonable person would ask, “better than what?”
A comparison group is hugely important in all of science. One of the biggest flaws in all research is not picking an appropriate control or comparison which makes the research worthless.
Erik Vance of the Washington Post reported on 12/2/16: “People susceptible to the placebo effect may be keeping us from getting new drugs.” The idea is many drugs can’t be proven to be better than a placebo. The FDA prevents those poor drug companies from marketing those drugs and making tons of money.
So here is the anti-scientific conclusion Mr. Vance reported: only use people that are unaffected by placebos in the control group. Sadly, that would exclude most conscious human beings. The control group would be strange people that could feel the tiny effects of the drug and ignore any psychological impact of taking a pill. And, voilà drug approved. A drug that most people would find no better than eating a sugar cube could be marketed at $800 per pill. And, advertisements could fool most practicing physicians into prescribing it.
This idea is totally nuts. The FDA would be within its authority to only allow the drug to be prescribed to that small group of strange people, not the whole world. Assuming the FDA was reasonably competent the idea and the huge profits should go down the drain.
Do you want to take a medicine that fails to work as well as a sugar pill? Probably not. Expect good science. Demand honest comparison with placebos.