Health care policy mavens are finally recognizing that we need to do a better job taking care of the sickest and costliest patients in American society. These are people on whom we spend a large percentage of our health care dollars without much to show for it, either in terms of standard health care outcomes or quality of life. Many of them have advanced illness. Many have multiple chronic diseases plus functional impairment plus extensive social needs. They’ve gotten the attention of people like David Blumenthal, who published an article called “Caring for High-Need, High-Cost Patients—An Urgent Priority” in the New England Journal in September and another article in JAMA sounding a similar call to action a few weeks later. They are the focus of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Illness, which produced a white paper mapping out a strategy for care and which just held a National Summit on Advanced Illness Care. Everyone defines the relevant population slightly differently and everyone makes somewhat different proposals for moving forward. One of the most creative is an idea that has been tried in England with good results.
This model gives high need patients a personal health care budget. The budget is determined by negotiation between the patient and the health care team. It “relies on a goal-setting and care-planning process in which patients and health care teams consider medical and social needs.” The budget allows payment for home supports and for technology that facilitates their remaining at home. It includes coverage for unusual and somewhat controversial non-medical needs such as a garden shed for someone with dementia so he could stay home because he had something to keep him occupied—the alternative was for him to become agitated and restless and quite likely require sedation and/or institutionalization. Interestingly, the budgets exclude access to primary care and hospital care, which are uncapped. Studies to date have found the system cost effective and associated with enhanced quality of life for the participants.
The result is not entirely surprising in light of the pioneering work done by Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor, popularized in a NY Times article in 2011 (and recently the subject of a book, The American Health Care Paradox.) What these researchers found was that though the US spends as much as 50% more than other developed countries on acute hospital care, imaging studies, lab tests, and other standard medical care, it spends much less than most other OECD countries on social services including old age pensions, disability, family support, and housing. If you combine the expenditures on both health and social services to give the true per capita spending in each country (with the amounts adjusted for GDP), it becomes clear why American health outcomes are so often inferior to those achieved in other countries: our total per capita spending is actually less than that of similar countries. The US over-invests in medical care and under-invests in social services.
A personal health budget that allows individuals to buy social services and other not strictly medical items that have the potential to enhance the coordination of care—a smart phone or a laptop, for example—is a way to compensate for America’s weakness. It fits into the prevailing ethos of individual control and of having “skin in the game.”
If dressed up in sufficiently capitalistic sounding language, the proposal might even pass muster in a Republican-controlled federal government. It could finally transform care for the sickest, most vulnerable patients in the US health care system--and save money, too.