How Obama Can Fix Health Care

How Obama Can Fix Health Care

HEALTH care drained the federal budget of more than $1 trillion this year. That includes direct health care programs like Medicare, plus insurance for federal employees and the cost of excluding employer health-care contributions from workers’ taxable incomes. If present trends continue, in 10 years the number will almost double.

President-elect Barack Obama has proposed some good ideas for cutting health care costs, but his proposals will not create the savings we need.

He has suggested, for example, that electronic medical records could save Americans nearly $80 billion per year. But information technology cannot bring meaningful savings if it is used in a health care system that regularly rewards waste and punishes efficiency, as ours does.

Similarly, Mr. Obama proposes to save more than $80 billion per year by better management of chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and asthma, and by preventing more diseases in the first place. It is true that most American doctors are weak on prevention and chronic disease management. But they will not improve until they are given economic incentives to buy the equipment and hire the personnel they need to actually deliver these services.

The only truly promising way to save money is to change the way health care is organized and delivered. In the United States, 85 percent of doctors work in small, fee-for-service practices. Many of these doctors are very good and hard-working. But they are autonomous, not members of teams. They do not systematically share information with one another. They are unable and unwilling to be held accountable for the quality and cost of the care they deliver.

The employment-based health insurance system has created this situation by not encouraging people to consider the value for their money when they choose doctors.

Some American medical practices do emphasize economy. They are very large, multispecialty group practices in which doctors work together to improve quality and keep costs low. Their doctors share values and cultures of teamwork. They keep comprehensive electronic medical records, they share information, and they emphasize disease prevention and chronic disease management as a matter of course.

These doctors are usually paid salaries, not fees for services. Research and experience suggests that these practices — which exist in all regions of the country, including both rural and urban communities — can reduce costs by 30 percent.

And a few employers — some universities and companies, the federal government, the state governments in Wisconsin and California — allow their workers to choose such practices, and then keep the money saved by that choice. At least 70 percent of employees offered this option choose it, even when it involves restrictions on doctor selection.

Unless all Americans are given this choice — along with the right to keep the savings — we will not be able to get health care costs under control. But making this change won’t be easy. Employers and insurance companies are likely to resist it. Doctors and consumers will have to change. It will take time.

Right now, most employers offer workers no choice of insurance companies. They say it would be too expensive to administer more than one. And insurance companies offer employers better deals when they can be the sole supplier.

Even at companies where employees have choices, many employers pay 80 percent to 100 percent of the premiums of an employee’s chosen plan, so there is little opportunity for the employee to realize savings. This market does not reward cost-conscious behavior. The tax code makes this problem worse by exempting employer contributions to health insurance from taxes, no matter how large they are.

Efficient, organized medical systems need to be able to compete with — and ultimately replace — the fee-for-service model. Working with Congress, the next president should establish a national health-insurance exchange, through which people can choose among several competing health plans, including those affiliated with organized systems of care. Individuals could then select which plan they judge best to meet their needs, and save money by choosing less expensive options. The insurers in the exchange would agree to accept all who want to enroll, and to charge their same price to all individuals, no matter the state of their health.

Then, to ensure that enough people participate in the health-insurance exchange, Mr. Obama and Congress should phase in a requirement that the tax-free status of employer contributions to health care be dependent on employers buying health care for their workers through the exchange — and making fixed-dollar contributions, so workers can reap the savings when they choose less expensive plans. All employees would have a wide range of choices, with an incentive to be cost-conscious. (Eventually, the government should help everyone buy insurance through the exchange, regardless of employment.)

Right now, Mr. Obama’s plan is to create an exchange through which people who have difficulty buying affordable health insurance could buy coverage. Unfortunately, participation in exchanges cannot be voluntary. Voluntary exchanges have been tried and failed. The first people to join are the sickest, which drives up the premiums.

To make exchanges work, a broad sample of people, healthy and sick, must be included so that health risks can be spread widely. Large exchanges would also lower the administrative costs for insurers.

By combining organized systems of medical care with the competition created by a health insurance exchange, Mr. Obama could achieve large savings. In 10 years, costs could be reduced by 30 percent, saving more than $700 billion a year — all driven by incentives and voluntary actions.

Published: December 27, 2008