Monday, February 16, 2009

Major Reform Steps or Media Hype?

BusinessWeek in its Feb. 23 issue is carrying this big article titled "CVS's Bold Bet on Health-Care Reform." Tom Ryan, CEO of CVS, has built the drug store chain into a "national health-care colossus" with $76 billion in annual sales.

Ryan's goal is reported to be "to help transform America's expensive and often ineffective health-care system. Seeking to take advantage of President Barack Obama's commitment to health-care reform, Ryan wants to use CVS's vast prescription database and burgeoning network of in-store clinics to treat patients with chronic diseases and help keep them out of the hospital, where most medical costs are incurred. "I don't think our health-care system is broken," Ryan says. "We are just spending too much, and it's unproductive." " And so the article goes.

I am a little bothered whenever someone in the industry says that they don't think the healthcare system is broken. That seems to indicate that they want to tweak the existing system rather than go for an overhaul. Though CVS is reportedly setting out to "transform" healthcare it doesn't seem as if the two steps outlined will drastically lower costs or improve coverage.

These two steps in essence are a) to build their electronic health records (EHR) system so that patients are helped in continuing to take their prescribed medications thereby keeping in better health and averting some costly hospital visits, and b) to set up in-store clinics that are mainly run by nurse-practitioners so as to handle routine and minor health complaints without needing to go to a doctor or hospital.

Everyone is in agreement that EHRs should be promoted and CVS efforts tie in well with this objective (even if the jury is still out on whether CVS with its dedicated PBM Caremark helps consumers.) Then there are some questions about the viability and growth potential of in-store walk-in clinics, especially in view of the hostility of the AMA towards them. But we can hope that they flourish and expand so as to take some pressure off the demand for doctors' services that are in short supply.

These efforts are fine and laudable. All I'm saying is that news coverage and hype about them shouldn't obviate from the larger issues of universal coverage, malpractice (tort) reform, doctor shortages, reduction of administrative waste, and drug policy rationalization.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Acting Now On Health Reforms

The state of the US economy and the Congress' struggle to pass a fiscal stimulus package seems to have crowded out the Obama Administration's mind share on other vital initiatives.

So I was glad to see Paul Krugman drawing attention to this issue in his Jan 29 Times OpEd "Health Care Now." Krugman argues that (a) The economic crisis and resultant swelling of the ranks of the unemployed uninsured adds to the urgency of reforming the health care safety net; (b) The cost of healthcare reforms are far less than the fiscal stimulus package, and hence not "too expensive"; (c) many of the health and health reform expenditures will of themselves stimulate the economy and should be part of the stimulus package; and (d) the time to act and seize the moment is short and we shouldn't let the momentum built from the current "serious crisis go to waste."

I agree with Krugman on all these points. If anything I'd like Krugman (and the Obama administration) to expand advocacy of health care reforms from universal coverage, single payer system and drug purchase coverage to also include other important measures. These are, addressing the doctor shortage and ensuring increase in long and short term supply of health care workers; malpractice and tort reforms that will immensely ease overall health costs; and allowing more international trade in health care services (importing doctors and exporting patients) that improves services and lowers costs. All these measures carry huge benefits, but are opposed by some influential lobbies.

Still, the main point of Krugman's article shouldn't be lost sight of. Congress has struck its compromise on a $789B package. Sadly, some needed health expenditures have been cut out, but a separate health care focused bill can address this. Obama's administration should keep sweeping health care reforms on the front burner and act before the window of opportunity narrows.