Thursday, September 19, 2013

Health Secretary Should Do Much More

In fairness Health (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has done more than most of her predecessors going back to the Nixon Presidency.  The top spot should go to Donna Shalala who at the end of her tenure in the Clinton presidency was described by the Washington Post as "one of the most successful government managers of modern times."  Sebelius comes second but that's a low bar to cross. 

Why? Because Republican administrations tend to favor providers and industry players over consumers, and Republican appointees account for ten out of the last 14 health secretaries.  That leaves just two other Democratic appointees, Joseph Califano and Patricia Harris.  They each lasted two years under President Carter - too short a time to make a big impact in a presidency facing many challenges and distractions.

Sebelius on the other hand is enjoying a long tenure at an extraordinary time when the crushing US health care burden and its affordability are prime public issues.  2009 and 2010 were ideal years for an optimal overhaul because of the focus on health care reforms and Democratic control over both houses of Congress plus the White House.  Sebelius could have helped achieve this through insightful ideas, sound advice to the President, and publicizing compelling data to pressure lawmakers beholden to industry interests.  She didn't do this and compounded President Obama's failure to achieve a better outcome.

While Obamacare is better than nothing it falls far short of "Medicare for All" that would have simply extended a popular and streamlined program while dramatically cutting costs.  Lowering the age of Medicare and paying for it by raising taxes needed only a House majority (which Democrats had till 2010) and 50 Senate votes and hence could not be filibustered.  This approach could at least have been used as a credible threat or bargaining chip to overcome Republicans opposition to a so-called strong public option.  That meant a Medicare style choice for Americans under 65 competing with private plans that again would have lowered costs and forced efficiencies.  Ezra Klein floated a version of this idea in the Post back on Jan. 20, '10 and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) another on Feb. 25, '10.  Neither happened and the watered down Obamacare that emerged is in essence a national version of Romneycare.

Apart from being unwieldy and complex Obamacare fails to substantially address the root cause of high US costs, which are exorbitant prices for health services and products.  These in turn are due to lack of market competition and cleverly engineered scarcities of providers, particularly doctors. Sebelius and HHS have done pitifully little to lower prices, but there's time even now for them to lay the foundation for dramatic improvements down the line.  HHS can say they're too embroiled and overwhelmed presently with getting all those health exchanges under Obamacare up and running, but this excuse for inaction shouldn't last beyond Feb. 2014.

I had outlined the path for systemic health care reforms in my March 28, 2011 post.  Sebelius can help move many of these along.  The actions she should take can be divided into three categories:

a) Revelations that enhance general awareness and other indirect actions to influence or pressure Congress into passing remedial laws that restore efficiency and market competition.

b) If Congress at (a) still doesn't act, working with other agencies including the states to achieve much of the same reforms.

c) Take corrective administrative actions where no changes in laws are necessary.  This should be the easiest being totally within her control, if the Obama administration is on board with it.

There are some key steps in each type. 


Sebelius should use her vast data, research and legal resources to compare the US system with those of other leading economies, proposing specific  legislation that corrects anomalies.  She should have respected experts without industry loyalties (they are a miniscule percentage of the total but enough can be found) to estimate resultant cost savings.  There's no reason why US health prices shouldn't drop down to approach those in "inefficient" Europe that otherwise has a higher cost of living. Her actions should include:
  • Highlighting the impact of doctor shortages and the trend of doctor practices merging or being bought over by hospitals.  This increases provider market power enabling them to defend or worsen pricing abuses and resist cost-containment reforms, like replacing fee for service with "outcomes-based payment".  Such revelations will push lawmakers towards allowing increases in doctor supply internally and from abroad as described in my Sep. 11, 2010 post. As part of this Congress should promptly undo their awful 1997 provision freezing medical residencies. Doctor lobbies snuck it into the Balanced Budget Act, neatly shifting the job of choking doctor supply from their own private bodies on to the government.  Just raising the cap on residencies isn't enough - the whole provision and the concept of the cap needs to go.
  • Estimating and then publicizing the savings attainable if Medicare is allowed to directly negotiate drug and medical device prices with manufacturers.  This is the way public health agencies abroad do it, paying under half the price charged in the US.  Congressional Republicans have opposed this ostensibly to avoid Big Government but the savings can appeal well to their own Tea Party faction that pushes for lower spending.  The timing may be opportune since Tea Partiers are getting used to finding common cause with liberals in another area - opposition to military intervention in Syria.  Ideally, the whole wasteful G.W. Bush era Medicare Part D (drug plan for seniors) should also be overhauled so it is directly administered by Medicare.  Seniors can then get their drugs more easily and completely free, at lower cost to taxpayers than the present system needlessly involving and favoring private insurers as middlemen.
  • Reviving the case for a strong public option while quantifying the savings from increased buying leverage and cutting out private insurer overheads and profits.  Republican aversion to a bigger government role can be balanced out by their desire to cut spending as well as taxes.  Savings that reduce Obamacare subsidies and health costs can facilitate these objectives, and be well timed as a way out of the looming clash on budgets and raising of the debt ceiling.

If Congress remains intransigent or gridlocked, I spelled out on Aug. 25, '12 how HHS can achieve a lot of reforms simply by working with the states and other federal agencies.  That's because a lot of barriers to health  market competition and efficiency are a result of state laws that can be remedied and updated by them without need for federal action.  These include licensing and US residency constraints that keep out well qualified foreign doctors, hurdles in establishing new hospitals, and burdensome regulations and malpractice laws. Some actions by Sebelius should be:
  •  Advising states on ways to ease provider shortages and lowering prices.  To achieve this HHS should ideally consult with states and come up with model state legislation that willing states can adopt to replace their existing laws. Such state laws can include allowing foreign doctors to practice without US residency requirements, telemedicine, ease in setting up new hospitals, tort reforms and malpractice caps. 
  • Working with other federal agencies like the USCIS to allow in more foreign doctors on professional visas.  Also with the anti-trust authorities to block mergers of hospitals and physician practices that are likely to increase their pricing power.  When such mergers are cleared on claims of increased efficiency and economies of scale there should be an automatic policy to get an equal number of new hospitals and doctors in the area.  This way the provider marketplace will remain competitive and negotiating leverage of public and private payers will not decline.
  • Encouraging and enlisting the support of powerful yet presently comatose non-governmental bodies for health reforms.  Topping my list of such bodies is the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) as I wrote in March.  These large employers can collectively counter-lobby and neutralize the influence and the financial contributions of our powerful health groups to political leaders.  If their backing of reforms causes health prices to drop dramatically, the large employers will derive almost unimaginable savings and return on investment on their reform drive. They and their employees incur about 10% of national health care expenses.  And thanks to them the other 90% of savings will lift the government budgets and all other payers.
Actions that HHS should take on its own - but hasn't so far - will hugely help patients and payers.  Some big ones are:
  • Eliminate the about 80% higher payments for doctors employed by hospitals which are billed as "outpatient services", as compared to identical services by doctors in private practice. This has enabled hospitals and doctors to game the system and is behind the rapid trend of hospitals employing doctors.  Medicare and other payers consequently pay much more for the same services, often delivered at the same location.  Why didn't HHS spot and stop this anomaly beforehand and is still taking so long to fix it? The extra amount paid is a "facility fee" to ostensibly cover hospital overheads.  This is unjustified considering that their centralized system for handling billing, appointments, etc., and their economies of scale should lower, not raise costs. 
  • Simplify and make transparent the very complex system of payment rates to hospitals and providers.  Flat, national base rates for procedures and treatments should be modified by only a couple of parameters, like cost of living index and malpractice insurance rates. In doctor payment rates there are well publicized problems of their imbalances between primary care doctors and specialists, and across specialties.  Fixes include changing the assignment of relative value units (RVUs) across specialties, and HHS can and should expedite this process.
  • HHS should use its enormous resources of data and researchers to compile accurate statistics on revenues and salaries of providers, payment rates, and how they compare with other countries.   My Mar. 1, '10 post describes how our privately compiled data heavily understates incomes of doctors.  Health experts and academics are silent on where all the excess money paid for overpriced treatment goes, especially with hospitals showing so little profit or net cash flow. HHS should get all the facts out, enabling better policy and decision making. 

HHS has recently released useful information that can help consumers at the expense of the industry.  But even this has been done belatedly and incompletely, seemingly under pressure from above, or to comply with obligations under Obamacare.  For instance Sebelius made public charges and Medicare payments data for the top 100 procedures and for 3,000 hospitals. This was readily compile-able all along and I wish she'd done this in 5 months instead of taking 5 years.  Worse, it understates total payments by only revealing the hospitals' take.  It excludes major items like surgeon and anesthesiologist fees without explicitly clarifying this fact.  This makes apple to apple international comparisons difficult since foreign hospitals typically quote package prices that include everything. 

In sum, Sebelius and HHS can easily rev up efforts as described above if they're motivated by public spirit or pressed by the Obama administration to do so.  That can dramatically change the trajectory of health prices and expenditures, while maintaining or improving quality.  The WSJ on Sep. 18 reported on the expected slowdown in health expenses to an "only" 6.1% increase next year and a slower move up as percent of GDP going out.  But with the right steps I'd expect far better results, with expenses static or actually declining as percent of GDP from the current 18% over the next couple of decades.


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