In my work on health system ethics I've often invoked the need for a "societal learning curve" with regard to the health system. The Obama health care house parties will provide HHS Secretary Tom Daschle with a huge opportunity to see where the U.S. public is coming from in its understanding of the health system.
Here are some excerpts from the account of the health care house party, followed by my comments in italics. The report suggests just how much teaching and leadership we need from Secretary Daschle and President Obama:
"When a dozen consumers gathered over the weekend to discuss health care at the behest of President-elect Barack Obama, they quickly agreed on one point: they despise health insurance companies.If Secretary Daschle uses the health care house parties as an opportunity to refine his agenda for leadership they will provide valuable insight. But if the house parties are used to define the content of proposals we'll just continue down the same path of inexorable cost increases we are on now. Our political leaders - always excepting former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber - haven't had the guts to help us face the need for limits and to begin to understand health care in a more nuanced way. It remains to be seen whether the new administration is up to the task.
They also agreed that health care was a right; that insurance should cover 'everything,' not just some services..."
I run the ethics program at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. It's a not for profit health insurance company that insures a million people. For the past four years it has been rated #1 in member satisfaction and quality of care by U.S. News and World Report and the National Committee for Quality Assurance. I respect and admire the organization.
That said, health insurance companies are in an unenviable and perhaps impossible position, poised between (a) employers and government agencies frantic to control what they pay for health insurance (b) providers who are largely not held accountable for costs, (c) insurees who want "everything" covered, in a context of (d) severely limited public and political understanding of how health care really works.
"Dr. Lawrence M. Nelson, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health who emphasized that he was speaking as a private citizen, said: 'The incentives in the current health insurance system are upside down. The less care you provide, the bigger your profits.'"
In the 1990s, public policy asked insurers to mediate the gap between what payers wanted to pay, providers wanted to provide and patients wanted to receive by determining which proposed interventions were "medically necessary." That role wouldn't be easy for anyone - even Mother Theresa or Dr. Schweitzer. Insurance companies, especially for profit companies, were ultimately pilloried for setting limits. They've backed off from taking that role. Costs, of course, are skyrocketing again.
But Dr. Nelson's comment suggests just how tough a teaching job Secretary Daschle will face. Less care is often (a) as good as more care or (b) better. That's a counterintuitive lesson for much of the public. Entities that profit from providing less care aren't able to teach it. The Secretary has to find ways to help us learn.
The Obama transition team did not ask people how a new health care system should be financed, but several people here said that individuals and businesses should have to pay a small health care tax — some preferred to call it a “contribution” — so that everyone could be covered.
Not asking how the health system should be financed strikes me as a major error. There is no way we will come to grips with health care costs until we set a true budget for the health system. The idea that "small contributions" might get us to where we need to go suggests how much we are still living in lala land with regard to health care finances.