Federal Reserve president Ben Bernanke stood in front of the Senate Finance Committee a month ago and delivered some bad news: the cost of health care is spiraling out of control. And costs will continue to “rise relentlessly,” he said, unless Congress substantially overhauls the health care system (Robert Pear, “Fed Chief Addresses Health Care and Its Cost,” New York Times, June 17, 2008), which it has shown no inclination to do.
At the same time, Bernanke pointed to two other problems with U.S. health care: access and quality. It is these two areas that get most of the attention from lawmakers. Just how poorly the U.S. is doing in these two domains was emphasized yet again in a report released last week by the Commonwealth Fund. The results of the “National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2008” are shockingly poor. Lumping all 37 indicators of quality devised by the Fund into one measure, the U.S. scored a 65 out of 100 (down from 67 in 2006). (“Why Not the Best? Results from the National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2008,” available at www.commonwealthfund.org.) I'd call that a failing grade.
In terms of access, the average score was 58, with 75 million working age adults—42% of the population—either uninsured or underinsured, up from 61 million (35%) in 2003. The direct consequence of lack of coverage is that the U.S. is now in last place among 19 industrialized nations in terms of deaths that could have been prevented with timely and effective care. In terms of quality, only 41% of adults with hypertension were adequately treated—and only 21% of those with hypertension who had no health insurance.
What continues to get relatively little attention is Bernanke’s first point, the high cost of health care. The Commonwealth report notes that the U.S. spends twice as much per capita as other major industrialized countries on health care, though it fares worse on virtually all outcome measures. Even within the U.S., higher levels of spending often translate paradoxically into lower quality care: among Medicare patients treated for heart attacks, hip fractures, or colorectal cancer, the regions of the country with the lowest mortality rates also had lower total costs.
The presidential candidates say laughably little about health care costs. A side-by-side comparison of their statements on health care reveals only a few points about cost. The democratic and republican proposals are limited, unimaginative—and remarkably similar (see the analysis by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “2008 Presidential Candidate Health Care Proposals: Side-by-Side Summary,” at www.health08.org.)
Both Obama and McCain advocate malpractice reform and greater competition among insurance plans. Both candidates allude to the high cost of prescription drugs and favor encouraging the use of generics, and both talk in general terms about the need for increased attention to preventive care and the treatment of chronic conditions. These are all important issues but they will not solve the problem of the high cost of care. Obama specifically advocates investing in electronic medical records and health information technology (to improve efficiency) and McCain wants to give consumers more information about treatment options (in the naïve hope that they will choose less expensive care). But neither talks about the real culprit—the excessive use of high cost technology, even when it is of little or no benefit (see for example Kenneth Thorpe et al, “Which Medical Conditions Account for the Rise in Health Care Spending? Health Affairs, August 25, 2004).
The New York Times, by contrast, is finally beginning to understand the role of technology in driving up the cost of medical care. Over the last month, the Times has featured an article about the use of Avastin (Bevacizumab), a form of chemotherapy costing as much as $100,000/patient/year (Gina Kolata and Andrew Pollack, “Costly Cancer Drug Offers Hope, But Also a Dilemma,” New York Times, July 6, 2008) and another article about the use of an implantable defibrillator in a 99 year old woman (Anemona Hartcollis, “Rise Seen in Medical Effort to Treat the Very Old,” New York Times, July 18, 2008). But both articles wistfully conclude that we are facing a heart-rending dilemma, what the journalists view as an insoluble conflict between the legitimate wish of sick patients to get better and the societal need to constrain costs.
In fact, there is a perfectly reasonable solution: physicians should be restricted in their use of expensive technology to situations in which it has been demonstrated to be beneficial; and Medicare should set reimbursement for high tech interventions at a level reflecting their cost-effectiveness. In the case of Avastin, for example, it may be rational to prescribe the drug for those forms of cancer for which it has been shown to be beneficial, even when the benefit is the prolongation of life by only several months, but not for other forms of cancer for which efficacy is entirely speculative. Moreover, Medicare should set reimbursement at a rate commensurate with benefit, as is done in Australia. When this has been done in the U.S., as when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid set the reimbursement rate for the left ventricular assist device (an invasive, expensive, but occasionally modestly effective means of treating advanced heart failure) well below the manufacturer’s charges, the rate of use stayed very low. In the case of the defibrillator/pacemaker, which in the Times example was inserted to prevent symptoms of dizziness and weakness, it would have sufficed to implant a pacemaker (cost $11,712 in FY 2005). There is no need to deprive a patient of an effective treatment that will ameliorate symptoms simply to control costs. The problem is that the patient was given a combination defibrillator/pacemaker, a sophisticated device intended to prevent sudden death as well as to counteract a low heart rate—more than doubling the cost ($28,442 in FY 2005) without conferring any advantage in terms of quality of life. The total annual spending on implantable defibrillators in the U.S. is over $1 billion/year, some of which is clearly beneficial, but some of which is not.
Improving access and quality, while tremendously important, will just exacerbate the cost issue if we tackle them without simultaneously addressing cost. It is time for Congress, the Administration, the presidential candidates, and the American people to stop burying their heads in the sand. U.S. health care just got a failing grade: if you sent your child to an expensive private school and he came home with F’s and D’s on his report card, would you blithely and unquestioningly continue to fork out exorbitant tuition payments because the headmaster assured you the school was the best in the world?