Medicaid, Medicare and Frivolous Lawsuits make the Best Health Care System in the World more Expensive

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 23rd, 2013

Week in Review

The American left loves Canada.  In particular their single-payer health care system.  This is what they wanted in the US.  Not Obamacare.  But they settled for Obamacare.  Until they get what Canada has one day.  Because it’s better.  At least, according to a chart.  That shows how wonderful Canadian health care is and how horrible American health care is (see The U.S. Health Care System Is Terrible, In 1 Enraging Chart by Mark Gongloff posted 11/22/2013 on the Huffington Post).

Yes, among this group of big countries, the U.S. spends far and away more on health care than any other. And yet it has among the lowest life expectancies of any developed country. People live longer in pretty much every country in Europe, including Greece, where the economy has been wracked by austerity for years…

Why is our system so terrible? Largely because it is built for profit. Unlike many other countries, the government has no role in either providing care or setting prices, and so prices skyrocket. It’s also too complex, which is one reason the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature reform law, has gotten off to such a bad start.

The health care law is supposed to help with the cost problem somewhat. But it is built on the existing privatized system, which means it will probably not make a significant difference. A public option, also known as a “single payer” plan, would help. But that still seems like a pipe dream — although maybe Obamacare’s clumsy rollout will bring it closer to reality.

First of all it should be noted that Canada has one of the finest private health care networks in the world.  Outside of their single-payer system.  Which is something they share with all nations that have some form of national health care.  A private health care network for those who want and can pay for it.  And why is Canada’s private health care network the best in the world?  Perhaps you can guess why when you hear the name of it.  The Untied States health care system.  Just south of the border.

That’s right, for those with the means don’t wait in line for less than the best of health care.  They spend their own money to go to the front of the line to get the best health care available.  In the United States.  Often administered by Canadians.  Because the US pays the best doctors and nurses more than they can get in Canada.  So Canadian doctors and nurses, too, travel south across the border.

The US is one of the only countries where their poor suffer from obesity.  Because of generous food assistance programs.  Also, because we are a for-profit nation our food industry has figured out to give us more food for less.  Our beverage sizes have gotten so big giving us so much value for the money that Mayor Bloomberg tried to limit the size of beverages in New York.  And all American restaurants give us free refills.  Because they can.  While some European countries will charge extra for a package of ketchup.  All of this more food for less has led to our obesity problem.  Giving Americans heart disease and diabetes.  Shortening life expectancies.

US doctors are dropping out of Medicaid.  And Medicare.  More so now that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is rolling out.  Why?  Because the government pays for these nonprofit programs.  And they are constantly trying to reduce their reimbursements.  Because the aging population is straining the Medicaid and Medicare programs.  And the government has addressed this problem by ‘discounting’ Medicaid and Medicare billings.  For years doctors and hospitals have tried to recover these shortfalls by charging more.  Especially insurance companies.  Greatly increasing the cost of health care and health insurance.  But the discounting grew so great that many health care providers just dropped these programs.  Because they couldn’t pay their people, their lab costs, their overhead, etc.  Especially since Obamacare has taken money from Medicare.  And ‘forced’ states to expand their Medicaid rolls.  But these discounted reimbursements aren’t the only thing raising health care costs.

While most of Europe has loser-pay laws to curtail frivolous lawsuits the United States doesn’t.  Because of the trial lawyers.  Who get quite wealthy suing doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals.  Exploding the cost of malpractice and liability insurance.  Which increase the cost of doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals.  Forcing them to raise their prices to recover these costs.  Making American health care more costly.

These are the reasons why the US spends more per capita on health care than all other nations.  Because they have the best health care system in the world.  And the best costs more.  While the government forcing health care providers to work below costs (Medicare and Medicaid) and the cost of frivolous lawsuits raise these costs even more.

The American health-care system is not terrible.  Single-payer systems are.  Because they all have a private health care network.  Which they wouldn’t have if single-payer systems were the best systems.  Just ask the Canadians who use their private network.  The US health care system.  Who will probably be the second greatest losers under the Affordable Care Act.  After the Americans.

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LESSONS LEARNED #22: “The only problem with health care these days is that it’s approached from a cost basis more than a medical basis.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 15th, 2010

ONCE UPON A TIME, in a distant land, there once lived a merry people.  And life was good.  They lived together in sweet harmony.  They worked long and hard to sustain their happy life.   And when people fell ill, they went to the doctor.  And after treatment, THEY PAID THEIR OWN DAMN BILL!

But those days are gone.  We don’t pay our own doctor bills anymore.  Health care is no longer between a doctor and a patient.  There’s somebody else involved now.  Someone who says what a patient can or cannot have.  Someone that tells doctors what they can or cannot do.  And our doctors have a bull’s-eye on their backs.

Medical care has taken a back seat to medical costs.  It’s not about what’s best for the patient.  It’s about what costs the least.  Think of a graph.  Increasing along the bottom are medical services rendered.  Increasing up the y-axis are costs.  On this graph picture two curves.  One that plots costs of medical malpractice lawsuits (very high when the doctor provides no medical services and decrease as the amount of medical services increase).  The other that plots costs of doctor reimbursements for services rendered (very low when the doctor provides no medical services and increases as the amount of medical services increase).

This is what a doctor considers when seeing a patient.  They don’t want to.  But the system forces them to.  Because of the conversion of health insurance (to protect your personal financial wealth) into a benefit/entitlement (to get free stuff with other people’s money).  And the rise of that other benefit/entitlement, the malpractice lawsuit as a vehicle to early retirement.

What better way to illustrate how cost takes center stage in our health care today but by some personal anecdotes?  So here is a smattering of our collective pasts.

I WAS IN some junior officer training program.  It was the last full day.  The last training we did was a run on the obstacle course.  It was hot.  Humid.  I kept pushing myself.  Now, I’ve suffered dehydration and heat exhaustion before, but whatever hit me wasn’t that.  I looked okay.  I had one of those ‘spike driven through your skull behind the eye’ migraines.  Nausea.  Some other discomforts.  All we had left was retreat.  Where we formed, though, we faced into the setting sun.  I asked my CO if he would excuse me from retreat.  I just wanted to hit my bunk.  To die.  Or sleep it off.  Whatever it was.  Training was over.  After retreat, they were going to open the pool for us. 

Well, he denied my request.  And made me feel like a little girl for even asking.  (I regret that moment of weakness to this day).  After I was dismissed, he called me back and said, “And if you do vomit in rank, vomit with bearing.”  “Yes, sir,” I replied and saluted.  Made it through without vomiting.  Crawled into my bunk.  When my CO saw that I was not partaking in the ‘mandatory’ fun he came to see me.  Was about to send my ass to the infirmary.  But whatever I had passed.  I felt fine.  The following day it was as if nothing had happened.

When you got through something like that, you’d be surprised how it impacts you.  You ignore things.  And live with things. 

I HAD A WART once under my thumbnail.  I made an appointment with my doctor to have it removed.  The day before my appointment, though, was a very busy day at work.  Didn’t sleep well the night before, either.  So I was tired.  And drinking coffee.  Apparently, I was the only one.  In the afternoon, half a pot was still remaining.  From the morning.  Nice and black.  Thick, too.  Like tar.  Strong.  I finished that pot.  Later that night, I had heart palpitations.  I rationalized it was from drinking too much coffee.

While getting that wart removed, I mentioned in passing the heart palpitations from the night before.  Laughing about it.  Last time I drink a pot of coffee, I said.  The doctor looked up from the wart and said, “Heart palpitations?  That’s serious.  This,” he pointed to the wart, “is piddling.  Heart palpitations?  That’s serious.”  The next thing I knew was getting an EKG and sent home with a heart monitor strapped to my chest.

I now thought about those things I was ignoring and living with.  Perhaps I was being irresponsible.  I mean, I was feeling things in my chest.  When I went in to get the results of all those tests, I told him about those things I’ve been ignoring and living with.  My test results were fine.  I asked him about those other things.  He asked, “How old are you?  You’re fine. You just have some anxiety.  Here’s some Xanax.”

When I mentioned heart palpitations, he couldn’t laugh it off with me.  For one, he was a doctor.  It’s what doctors do.  Save lives.  But he also buys malpractice insurance.  He was leaving himself open to a lawsuit if he didn’t do everything expected when a patient says he has had heart palpitations.  Once those tests came back confirming it was most probably the excess amount of coffee I drank that day that gave me the palpitations, I was just a young, healthy man.  Who did not justify any further testing.  At least, my insurance company wasn’t going to reimburse any further testing.

My test results looked good.  Feeling things in the chest, though, could mean something.  A stress test might be prudent.  But unless something turned up in that test, the insurance company wouldn’t reimburse that cost.  Which meant I would ultimately end up paying for it.  And stress tests are expensive.  Of course, if I paid cash outside the bureaucracy of the health insurance maze, it could be less.  So I said let’s do the stress test.  I’m buying.  I took the test.  Did okay.  Didn’t die.  Nothing strange happened.  The cost?  About half of what they would have charged had it gone through the myriad levels of overhead that process an insurance claim (at the health insurance company, at the hospital where the test was done and at my doctor’s office).

And I continued to ignore and live with those things I was feeling in my chest.  Even stopped taking the Xanax.  If I was feeling any anxiety, it was from my little episode in the health care machinery.

BUT THINGS SEEMED to only get worse after a year or so.  I started wondering that maybe I was only making things worse by ignoring them.  So I went to the doctor.  I explained what I was feeling.  He did the perfunctory tests that shrunk the lawsuit window.  Again, things looked good.  “How old are you?” he asked.  “You’re fine.  Look, we can keep doing tests but it’s going to get expensive.  Your insurance isn’t going to pay for them if nothing turns up.  And, I gotta tell you, I don’t think anything’s going to turn up.”

Again, he was looking at the cost-service tradeoff.  He felt he had minimized his costs.  He did enough testing to protect himself from a frivolous lawsuit.  And he didn’t do more testing than the insurance companies would reimburse.  Further testing would be on my dime.  Not that I didn’t think my life was worth the investment, but more tests would mean more missed work.  And with me feeling he wasn’t going to do anything but throw darts in the dark, I didn’t pursue additional testing.  It didn’t appear that anything big was wrong so I continued to live with those feelings.

THIRD TIME’S A charm.  After another year or so, I went to another doctor.  Again, I thought I might be doing more harm by ignoring these things.  Being further away from my original heart tests, I didn’t really discuss them this time.  Which was good.  It was a red herring.  You start talking ‘heart’, you look at all things ‘heart’.  High risk.  High costs.  But if you don’t start from ‘heart’, you can explore things that are lower risk and lower costs.  I had some serious acid reflux.  Acid regurgitating up your esophagus can mimic heart attack symptoms.  Who’d a thunk it?

HAVING AN INTERMITTENT problem is hard to diagnose.  All but impossible if you’re young.  I was a young college student.  With intermittent stomach pain.  I went to a doctor.  He felt me up to see if it was appendicitis.  I didn’t feel anything when he pressed over my appendix.  So he ruled that out.  “How old are you?” he asked.  “You’re fine.  You just need to get drunk and get laid.” 

A couple of years later, I was still feeling that intermittent stomach pain.  So I went to another doctor.  (It was a clinic.  The doctor I saw last since retired.)  He felt me up.  Ruled out appendicitis.  Sent me for an upper GI (where you drink a cup of barium and they x-ray your esophagus and stomach).  Test came back.  Everything looked fine.  “How old are you?” he asked.  “You’re fine.  Just drink some Maalox.”

So I drank some Maalox for awhile.  Didn’t seem to help.  Another year and another trip to the doctor.  And another upper GI.  The instructions this time called for a wait time before one last x-ray.  This x-ray showed an ulcer.  Just past the stomach at the beginning of the small intestine.

MY MOTHERINLAW WENT into the hospital with chest pains.  She was in her mid-sixties.  She spent the night in the ICU.  The next morning they transferred her to the cardiac care wing.  They did just about every test they could.  She was elderly.  Elderly people have health problems.  So doctors do ALL the tests to slam shut the lawsuit window knowing that the health insurance company or Medicare will reimburse for most of those tests.  They found nothing.  She went home.  Without them doing anything or being able to explain what had happened.  They had practiced due diligence to protect themselves legally.  And the health insurance company would rule that any further testing would be frivolous and unnecessary, only to produce additional revenues for the hospital and doctors. 

This repeated a few times until they found pancreatitis and stones in her bile duct. 

IT’S NOT THE doctors.  It’s not the hospitals.  Or the insurance companies.  It’s the system.  When other people pay your way there has to be rules.  For a free ride is not free.  We just make other people pay.  The problem with all things free?  We over consume.

How many plates of food do you eat in a restaurant when you pay per plate?  One?  How many plates of food do you eat when you eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet?  The answer?  More.  It’s happening in health care.  Those with insurance don’t care a whit about cost.  Don’t give me generics, I have insurance.

But someone is paying all those bills.  And they see this over-consumption.  They raise their premiums to cover it.  But when they do, they find some people stop buying their health insurance.  Which means they have to raise their premiums again.  More people stop buying.  So they need to raise their premiums again.  But they can’t keep doing this.  So they have to put in some kind of spending rules.  Say what they will reimburse and what they will not.  And they force the poor doctor to police this mess who is trying to help you get well at the same time.  All the while trying to keep the lawyers off his back.

It’s worse on the Medicare side.  For private health insurance has some young, healthy people paying for insurance who aren’t consuming medical care.  Everyone in Medicare is sick and/or old.  Big consumers of medical care.  The trend has been to micromanage the rules more as the consumption of medical care has outpaced the taxes collected to pay for that care.  And with an aging population, those costs are running well ahead of tax receipts.  It’s not a question of if the program will go bankrupt.  But when.  And a national health care system will only be worse.  The added costs will require massive taxation and cost management worse than any hated HMO.

AND LOST IN the shuffle is the patient.  Who, once upon a time, went to his doctor.  And the doctor did what was best for the patient.  And the patient paid the doctor for his services.  And everyone lived happily ever after.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #22: “The only problem with health care these days is that it’s approached from a cost basis more than a medical basis.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 13th, 2010

THE PROBLEM WITH cost cutters is their vision.  They see costs.  Not the big picture.  Rockefeller was a notorious cost cutter.  Even determined he could save money by using a few less welds on his oil barrels.  But he saw the big picture, too.  He grew sales.  Something that cost cutters have trouble doing.  He didn’t.  In fact, he was so good that it took the government to stop his sales growth.

Roger Smith was a numbers man.  He managed costs.  Starting in the accounting department of GM, he reorganized GM to make better sense.  On paper.  To make nice, neat, bookkeeping-like ordered sense.  Things tend to work better on paper, though, than in reality.  Suffice it to say that few laud Smith as the greatest CEO of GM.

Robert McNamara was also a numbers man.  And he ran the Vietnam War by the numbers.  He carefully determined what U.S. forces could NOT attack.  (Any place outside South Vietnam was basically a sanctuary for the enemy.)  And he introduced the body count.  There was no strategy to win.  Just a policy to verify you were killing more of theirs than they were killing of yours.  Wars of attrition, though, take years.  And lives.  On both sides.  Americans don’t like sitting back and waiting for enough of their sons to die to declare victory.  McNamara failed to see the big picture.  Strategy.  He just tried to make the combat efficient.  Which did little to inhibit the enemy from making war. 

Managing costs is important.  It can improve profits.  But it can’t grow sales.  And if you can grow sales, you’ll be able to pay your costs.  Even if they are high and inefficient.  Few companies fail because they have a cost problem.  They file because they have a revenue problem.  They lack sales.  Cost cutting cannot fix this problem.  It can temporarily help reduce operating losses.  But if you don’t increase sales, you’ll probably fail in the long run.

There are detail people.  And people with vision.  Rarely are people both.  Rockefeller was.  Smith and McNamara were detail men.  They could not see the forest for the trees.  And this is the problem in health care.  We’re not looking at the big picture of medical care.  We’re looking at the details of cost. 

YOU WOULD THINK that doctors would oppose the government taking over health care.  Because when governments do, they tend to put salary caps on doctors.  Kinda diminishes the return on all that costly medical training.  I talked to two recently who favor a national solution.  Why?  Because of costs.  They like Medicare.  Because it’s simple.  Most of their patients are seniors.  So the bulk of their billings are uniform.  Medicare reimbursements.  They like anything that simplifies their overhead costs.  Private insurance companies don’t do this.  They’re not all the same.  Different people to call.  Different procedures.  Different approved tests.  Different paperwork.  And more of it.  And a bigger staff to handle it.

Doctors hate paperwork.  No doctor ever went through medical school because they wanted to shuffle paper.  Or because they wanted to fend off malpractice lawsuits.  Doctors are under a bureaucratic assault.  They spend more time with paperwork than with patients.  And paperwork does have a cost.  As do frivolous lawsuits.  A government takeover would standardize the one.  And, hopefully, eliminate the other.

I understand these doctors’ concern.  But they can’t see the forest for the trees.  Government is not going to approach health care from a medical basis.  They’ll approach it from a cost basis.  They’ll use statistical analysis.  They will manage care to maximize cost efficiency.  They will approach health care like Smith did in GM and McNamara did in Vietnam.  They’ll crunch the numbers.  Then determine what health care is cost effective.

THEY PROBABLY NEED no introduction.  Most people are family with the British comedy troupe called Monty Python.  Funny, a bit naughty and rather bookish, they’ve appealed to the masses across generations.  They spent a lot of time researching before making some of their movies.  Reading books.  The realism it adds made some of the funniest scenes.  A Roman centurion gives a Jewish terrorist a Latin lesson at the point of a sword (Life of Brian).  Dennis the constitutional peasant arguing with King Arthur (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).  And this scene from The Meaning of Life during a live birth lampooning the British National Health Service:

Nurse:  The administrator’s here, doctor.

First Doctor:  Switch everything on!

[They scramble to do so.  Machines turn on with flashes and sounds.  The administrator enters.]

Administrator:  Morning, gentlemen.

First and Second Doctors:  Morning Mr. Pycroft.

Administrator:  Very impressive. Very impressive.  And what are you doing this morning?

First Doctor:  It’s a birth.

Administrator:  Ah, what sort of thing is that?

Second Doctor:  Well, that’s when we take a new baby out of a lady’s tummy.

Administrator:  Wonderful what we can do nowadays.  [A machine makes a ‘ping’ sound.]  Ah!  I see you have the machine that goes ‘ping’.  This is my favorite.  You see we leased this back from the company we sold it to.  That way it comes under the monthly current budget and not the capital account.  [They all applaud.]  Thank you, thank you.  We try to do our best.  Well, do carry on.

This is funny.  Because it’s true.  When we approach health care on a cost basis.  You must show you need and use every piece of expensive equipment you have so it stays in the budget.  And the administrators administrating health care don’t understand health care.  They understand and make their decisions based on numbers in columns.  And speaking of numbers in columns.

 ONE THING STANDS out more than everything else when looking at numbers in columns.  In one cost column in particular.  Of all the costs in columns, one dwarfs all others.  The costs in treating very sick and very old people.  You can cut and trim the budget everywhere else but you won’t make a dent in overall costs.  Unless you cut and trim this one column.  Manage these costs.  Do some statistical analysis on these costs.  For if you cut THESE costs, it will make a difference.  It could even stave off bankruptcy without having to further raise taxes.  Yes, we can make the system more financially sound if we just stop treating so many sick and old people.

But it’s a body count mentality.  You have to willingly accept a defined number of additional deaths.  The Soviets were willing to trade 10 lives for one against the Nazis.   A steep price to pay.  But it did wear the Nazis down and lead to victory.  There was a similar ratio in Vietnam with America on the better side of that ratio.  But it was still too high a price for Americans.  It goes against our nature to think in terms of ‘acceptable’ losses.

But there will have to be a line that health care will approach but does not cross.  Where there are ‘acceptable’ losses.  Statistical analysis will take into account probable remaining years of life in a potential patient.  If few, the system will assign an appropriate value of care to match the health care expenditure with the expected return on the medical treatment.  People with more probable years of life left will receive more health care treatment.  People with fewer years left will receive less.  We’ll help manage their pain until they no longer feel that pain.  For it would be inefficient to spend a lot of money on someone who is going to die ‘soon’.

Perhaps I can best summarize this in song.

When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(you know you did, you know you did you know you did)
But in this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die

(Live and Let Die, Paul McCarthy)

And that’s what bureaucrats will use all that statistical analysis for.  To determine who to let die.  You can sugarcoat it anyway you’d like, but it comes down to this.  A bureaucrat, not a doctor, will have the power of life and death as they decide what health care is appropriate and prudent.  As it must be under a system where bureaucrats distribute limited resources on a cost basis.  They will have no choice but to deny care that is not in the budget.

ONE PUZZLING THING about health care is that it is perfectly acceptable to approach it from a cost basis but not on a revenue basis.  For it is immoral to profit on health care.  Pity, because introducing market forces is one sure way to bring down costs.  People are willing to pay for medical services.  They pay for abortions.  And abortion clinics are readily available.  The free market laws of supply and demand work for abortions.  And so they would for other outpatient medical services. 

Instead of running a battery of tests because an insurance company requires this incremental approach of the cheap stuff first, you could go to an MRI (or some other expensive procedure) clinic and pay out of pocket.  Because they do nothing but MRIs, they achieve economies of scale.  The clinic makes money by offering low cost, high quality MRI scans that result in a high sales volume.  You benefit because you miss less work.  The doctor benefits because he gets your MRI scan results without additional paperwork to process.  I’m sure a market is there just waiting for an entrepreneur to come along.  I mean, if you can make money by performing abortions, you should be able to make money with some non-invasive, high-tech machines.

HEALTH CARE SERVICES will not become more affordable and more readily available by cutting costs.  If the bean counters try, they’ll damage the quality of health care.  Because the bean counters rarely look at the big picture.  You need someone with vision.  Because no cost cutter ever saved a business.  Or made the world better.

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