August 18, 2014

Modernizing Medicare

The Medicare Modernization Act of 2004 didn’t really modernize Medicare. It took the important step of creating coverage for prescription drugs, which are the backbone of medical treatment of older individuals. But apart from this one change, albeit a major one, Medicare was pretty much intact. The problem with the approach to healthcare enshrined in Medicare, a program that turns 40 this year, is that it assumed that most illness is acute illness that requires hospitalization. In fact, it including coverage for anything other than hospital care in Medicare was more or less an afterthought. But today, most illness is chronic illness and the sickest, costliest patients typically have multiple chronic conditions.

The good news, as summarized in a perspective in JAMA this week entitled “Optimizing health for persons with multiple chronic conditions,” is that Medicare has made a number of changes that move the program into the modern world. The article indicates that the government report, “Strategic Framework on Multiple Conditions,” released in 2010, articulated 4 goals: fostering health systems change, empowering individuals, equipping clinicians, and enhancing research. Funds from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act have gone a long way to supporting initiatives in each of these domains. For example, in the realm of health systems change, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is financing integrated models of primary care; to empower individuals, government funds have supported widespread participation in Stanford’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program; to help clinicians, many professional societies have issued guidelines that are modified for patients with multimorbidity; and to enhance research, the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) was created and is a primary source of research funding. But there’s a problem.

The problem is that the patients we really need to worry about—because they get poor quality care, they cost a great deal, and despite all the money we spend on their medical care, they don’t even get treatment that is consistent with their preferences—aren’t patients with 2 or more chronic diseases. As the authors of the JAMA article comment, we need to focus on patients who are at greatest risk of poor outcomes and high costs. The patients we need to pay most attention to are those who are old and frail. And while many people who are old and frail also have multiple chronic diseases, not all of them do; moreover, having multimorbidity is not sufficient to qualify as frail.

The trouble with frailty is that we don’t have a good way of measuring it. And the measures we do have, which include such things as how strong a person is or how quickly he can walk, aren’t anything that doctors routinely test for, let alone record in the medical record. Insisting that all doctors use electronic medical records won’t allow us to keep track of who’s frail if we don’t enter frailty (or the various measures that define it) into that record. There is now a way that primary care doctors can screen for frailty by asking patients 5 questions, and their answers, while subjective, seem to correlate quite well with more sophisticated tests for frailty. But right now, doctors don’t ask those questions (they include things such as “are you able to walk up a flight of stairs” and “are you exhausted all the time”). Unless we can determine who is frail, we are not going to be able to test the effectiveness of special programs intended to provide medical care for them.

I think a solution may be on the horizon—and it’s not shipping special calipers to measure grip strength to every primary care doctor in the country. The answer, I suspect, is to use a proxy measure for frailty. That surrogate measure is multimorbidity plus functional impairment. It turns out that the people who are hospitalized most often, who take the most medications, and who go to physicians most frequently are people who have at least two chronic diseases and who have trouble with one of their activities of daily living.  

We can refine this group even further by focusing on those who get help with a basic daily activity: 14% of the population or 42 million people have at least one chronic disease and a functional limitation, but only 14 million of them need assistance to get by, and of those, 8 million are 65 or older. And those who have 5 chronic diseases and get help (regardless of age) have average per capita health expenditures of $22,380 compared to $12,749 for those with 5 or more chronic diseases and functional limitation but no help and to $9,723 for those with 5 or more chronic conditions but no functional limitations. 

It’s time to track patients who are over 65 by the number of chronic conditions they have, whether they have functional limitations, and whether their functional limitations are sufficiently severe to require assistance. Only then will we able to determine if these measures define who is at highest risk for adverse reactions to hospitalization, for progressive disability, and for death, and who costs the health care system the most money. Only then will Medicare be able to pay for the right kind of care for all older people. Once we do that, we will have truly modernized Medicare.

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