I originally published this article in August 2012 but updated because Congress is trying again to repeal & replace Obamacare. I think they need to step back from partisanship, look at the big picture, consider all stakeholders, look for inspiration from other advanced nations with better healthcare systems, and combine the best properties of each into a public-private hybrid healthcare model.
Occupy Healthcare is a movement to influence and impact the future of healthcare, as well as an online community to discuss healthcare reform issues. They invited me to submit my perspectives, and below is what I sent.
Occupy Health Care – a proposal from Wayne Caswell, Modern Health Talk
Historically, the biggest impact in health outcomes has come from public health initiatives such as clean water, sewage systems, immunization programs, and smoking cessation. But that success is minimized by a “sick care” system that is profoundly broken. Perverse incentives cause practitioners to view patients as paying customers, diagnosing and treating their symptoms to keep them coming back and paying for each test, drug, treatment or procedure.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) was meant to fix that. It emphasized positive outcomes, wellness, and prevention, both to minimize the need for medical care in the first place, and to maintain a healthy and productive workforce. The ACA was a good start, but there’s still more work to be done, and it won’t come from private industry or the insurance model, because natural incentives prevent that, or work to sabotage progress.
I often say the key to health reform is getting the incentives right, and to me that means getting private insurance companies out of BASIC health care entirely. Their profit motive gives them an incentive to increase costs, knowing that higher costs = more customers paying higher premiums. What I proposed instead is a public-private hybrid model that would capitalize on contrasting incentives, eliminates the need for health insurance, and would save over $1 trillion per year.
In a free-market society, private companies are most efficient when there’s vibrant competition on a level playing field. That competition causes them to improve service & product quality while driving down prices. These private companies, answering to shareholders and driven by profit motives, measure success in business terms such as Revenue, ROI, Payback Period, Stock Price, and Quarterly Stock Price.
Public entities, on the other hand, measure success differently, and they can make longer-term investments that are more strategic in nature and fund them with bonds and tax revenues. Rather than profit, their objectives can focus on lowering healthcare costs and improving average longevity and lifestyle. Some people see public services as having large and inefficient bureaucracies, but their large economies of scale and lack of profit motive can actually make them more efficient.
The Public-Private Hybrid Healthcare System
Under some public healthcare systems, doctors and nurses work as government employees. Basic services are provided at cost to all, including the poor, foreign visitors, and illegal aliens, partially to prevent the outbreak of disease. The U.S. can greatly improve care quality and lower costs without going quite that far. We could simply provide government health insurance, or even a public insurance option, and still keep capitalism among care providers.
The excessive costs of today’s “sick care” system should disappear under such a system, or at least be diminished greatly. With proper regulatory oversight to establish and monitor care costs, quality, and complaints, there should be no need to practice defensive medicine. And, with a single-payer system, there would be no need for Medicare or Medicaid or private insurance programs.
As with Medicare today, anything beyond basic coverage could be addressed by private options that extend care. Examples might include retail clinics, dial-a-doc services, concierge services, functional medicine practices, and elective procedures. These private options, which could also include medical tourism, would need less regulatory oversight.
The public portion of this proposed hybrid model would focus on health & wellness and include education on smoking cessation, nutrition, exercise and sleep. Addressing the smoking habit is important because it adds 20% to annual medical costs, and evidence shows the smoking cessation programs have generally worked. Even though some people still smoke, it’s far fewer than in the 1960’s.
The public portion would also address the health effects of poverty & obesity. Obesity adds at least 50% to medical costs, but they aren’t evenly distributed across social classes. According to HBO’s documentary “The Weight of the Nation,” public health officials can reliably predict a community’s body mass index by zip code and have noticed lifespan differences of more than 20 years between poor neighborhoods on one side of town and affluent ones on the other side just 8 miles away. A single-payer hybrid model would encourage policymakers to introduce public policies that improve overall health, thus saving even more money.
Combining the Best Properties from the Best Healthcare Systems
I think most Americans would be satisfied with President Trump’s repeal & replace promise if it actually:
- Provided [Better] Health Care For All
- At Lower Cost
- Without Harming Medicaid
Unfortunately, our Republican Congress hasn’t offered anything close to that, and that causes me to question their motives. Not only have they not come up with anything better, but each attempt at repeal would just make things worse — much worse. Their proposals would knock tens of millions of people off of health insurance altogether, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Millions would likely die early without the healthcare they need, based on mortality studies at Harvard University. And without the preventative measures that are included in Obamacare, each of the Republican plans would increase overall costs pretty dramatically. So much for fiscal responsibility and compassionate conservatism.
What troubles me is that biopic partisanship is keeping Republicans from seeking to learn about what other advanced nations have done. There’s a lot to learn, for example, from Japan, which has the cheapest healthcare in the world even with the oldest population. They also have the best longevity, infant mortality rate, and are tops in almost every other health measure. Their public-private hybrid system obviously serves them well, but other advanced nations are doing well too, and the U.S. is ranked 37th among them.
Several years ago, T.R. Reid hosted a PBS Frontline episode where he traveled to the United Kingdom, Japan, German, Thailand, and Switzerland to study their healthcare systems and find out what people there thought. He learned that most people were very happy with the care they got and that no one there gets in financial trouble or files for bankruptcy because of unexpected health problems. That would be scandalous.
Reid also looked for examples of nations that had successful healthcare reforms. Thailand was one of them, first studying many other systems and then designing a hybrid model of its own that combined the best properties from the others, and avoided known problems. Why haven’t we been able to do the same? I think that’s because the Medical Cartel is working to keep costs high.
Billing at Cost
Before 1973 it was illegal in the U.S. to profit off of health care, but that changed with former President Richard Nixon’s passage of the Health Maintenance Organization Act. It was done as a favor for his campaign financier, Edgar Kaiser, then chairman of Kaiser-Permanente.
The new HMO model kept preventive care free but introduced profit into everything else and encouraged patient abuse of the system. With insurance, patients didn’t know about or have to worry about the cost of each test or procedure — at least not until they later got dozens of surprising bills.
In a single-payer hybrid model, such abuse could be discouraged with services provided at a standard negotiated cost, with total costs known up front, and with no need for private health insurance. That’s how healthcare works in most other nations, so why not here?
America already has two main public health-insurance programs: Medicare for the old and Medicaid for the poor. Senator Bernie Sanders’s new “Medicare for All” bill would eventually eliminate private health insurance and have the government pay for 100% of all health services. Private competition among hospitals, drug companies, testing companies, and equipment providers would be encouraged but with the government negotiating prices, as is done in other countries.
Bernie’s bill will unlikely pass any time soon in our divided Congress, but it at least points the way toward a Japan-like public-private hybrid. The bill could satisfy all of Trump’s repeal & replace promises and even those made by Republicans in 2016 elections, so passing it could let them declare a victory. But they’d have to quit calling it socialized medicine, and I’m not sure they’ll do that for many reasons.
Republicans are unlikely to embrace a single-payer hybrid, like Medicare-for-All, and here’s why. Besides my concerns cited in Politics: Modern Killing Fields is intense political pressure from a Medical Cartel that is working to keep costs high. You see, $3.5 trillion/year is now going into the cartel’s pockets, and if a disruptive new healthcare model were to cut that in half, they’d scream about losing over $1.5 trillion in revenue. That’s where the opposition will come from – the incumbent insurers, hospitals, drug companies, testing companies, and medical equipment providers – and it won’t matter if that money could better help the economy elsewhere. The cartel will and fiercely defend its current revenue positions and oppose any public-private hybrid initiatives, and Republicans will defend those positions and argue that corporate profits will trickle down to consumers somehow. That’s a shallow argument, however, and I think it’s just one of the Republican motives to Repeal Obamacare.