Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Health Insurers Villains?

Since I direct the ethics program at a health insurer (Harvard Pilgrim Health Care - a regional non profit company serving 1.1 million members in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine), I've thought a lot about our national assault on insurers as "villains."

I've come to see the dissing of insurers as arising from five sources: (1) incidents of real "villainy"; (2) a critical view of the U.S. "system" of competing insurers; (3) lack of public acceptance of the need for stewardship; (4) societal PTSD from the managed care era; and, (5) politicians' need for a scapegoat.

  1. The biblical story about Lucifer indicates that even angels commit evil deeds. If angels can't avoid sin, it's not surprising that virtually every human enterprise includes "villainy." Large organizations, such as insurers, are especially vulnerable to flying at 30,000 feet and not seeing the impact of what they do on the individuals they deal with. And, having many employees increases the risk that an individual employee will be inept in ways that cause harm or deliberately roguish. This risk is just as true for churches, hospitals, schools and other organizations. There's no reason to think that health insurers are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. But because health care is a sacred calling, examples of bad behavior outrage us.

  2. A substantial number of Americans regard the current structure of the U.S. health "system" itself as unethical. I agree. For many, that view leads to blaming health insurers for the rules of the game they are playing in. It's as if a pacifist blamed football teams for tackling each other when their real critique is of the game itself. The system we're currently in requires insurers who want to remain solvent to screen people who enroll as individuals for preexisting conditions. If Mother Theresa were made CEO of an insurer in the U.S. she could not discontinue the practice. (Because the "system" requires practices of that kind she would turn down the job and stay in Calcutta!)

  3. I've written many times about our national failure to understand that containing health care costs is a ethical requirement, not a moral abomination. For the public, caring about patients ("fidelity") is "good," while managing costs ("stewardship") is "evil." We confuse the aphorism "life is priceless" with economic truth. Much political rhetoric asserts that what the physician prescribes is ipso facto "medically necessary" and therefore should not be questioned. Since provider behavior drives the cost of insurance this puts insurers an the unenviable position - the only positive role for them is to pay for what the physician or hospital recommends.

  4. In the 1980s/1990s U.S. social policy asked insurers to manage care. Except for organizations like Kaiser Permanente and Group Health Cooperative this split caring for patients ("fidelity") and responsibility for health care funds ("stewardship") into opposing camps. The public, and physicians in fee for service practice, believed that physicians cared about patients and were "good," while insurers cared about money and were "bad." This was especially true with for profit insurers, but all health insurers are still tarred by the managed care brush.

  5. Politics proceeds via sound bites designed to arouse emotion. Politicians need enemies. For the conservatives it's "socialized medicine" and "takeover by government." For the administration it's "greedy health insurance villains." These simplified, reflexive positions fire up the political base but create a major obstacle to thoughtful political discourse. We saw this process in clearest form in the mindless conservative rants about "death panels," but the global vilification of health insurers as "villains" is equally mindless.

Much of the journalism I've read in venues like the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post has been thoughtful and sophisticated. What's not yet clear is how much we - the public - have learned thus far from the health reform process. My pessimistic self says we're stuck in sound bite mud. But my optimistic self says we're inching forward in our understanding of the ethics of our health system.

The answer isn't yet in!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Insurers and Health Care Costs

In a recent interview, Senator Olympia Snowe commented - "We need a lever to force the [insurance] industry to drive down prices." This is a common view. Unfortunately, it's a view that contributes to public misunderstanding of the drivers of health care costs.

Single payer advocates point to insurance-driven administrative overhead - within insurance companies themselves and at provider sites to cope with the complexities of billing - as the source of runaway costs and the key potential source of savings. Single payer advocates anticipate savings from eliminating insurance companies. But these aren't the savings Senator Snowe is talking about. She, along with many other legislators, are counting on market mechanisms and competition between insurers to drive expenditures down more than on administrative savings.

Here's where the problem comes in. Insurers can only achieve non-administrative savings in two ways. Decrease the volume of services or decrease provider prices. But by putting insurers in the doghouse we've made it next to impossible for them to get a grip on either volume or prices.

We clinicians know that the U.S. buys much more medical care than than we need. As individual clinicians we may believe our own care patterns are fine, and the problem is with our colleagues. But I've never met a clinician who didn't see lots of opportunity to reduce the volume of interventions we provide, without any loss of health. But the time between any proposal to reduce the scope of what we offer and an eruption of death panel nonsense would be nanoseconds! And since insurers have been so vigorously portrayed as "villains," they can't expect much support if they try to reduce Dr. Kildare's charges.

Portraying "health reform" as "health insurance reform" may be effective politics, but we can't expect "villainous" insurers to deal effectively with our bloated care system. For the moment we've created a no-win situation with regard to cost containment. We reject reject the single payer alternative, vilify insurance companies, and then expect those "villainous" companies to carry out the delicate function of reforming the U.S. delivery system. Locking horns with providers and convincing the public that we currently purchase vast quantities of unnecessary, and often harmful, care, requires trust. And we've systematically portrayed insurers as untrustworthy.

I don't expect this impasse to be solved in the current legislative process. We've barely mentioned delivery system reform in a way the public understands. Policy wonks understand the importance of the Dartmouth Atlas and recognize that high quality systems like Geisinger, Kaiser Permanente, Mayo Clinic and Harvard Vanguard can provide better care at a lower cost. But the public doesn't get it yet, and won't until there has been a substantial educative process.

The real work of health reform will happen after whatever legislation emerges from the Congressional struggles we're still in the midst of.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is Ethics Relevant for Health Reform?

As I sat down to prepare a talk on health reform and ethics I'll be giving soon, a Tina Turner song started to play in my head - but with "ethics" substituted for "love":
"What's ethics got to do, got to do with it?
What's ethics but a second hand emotion?"
Given the mind-numbing daily stories about twists and turns in Washington and the daft Republican rhetoric about "socialized medicine" and "death panels," an observer might conclude - "health reform is only about politics and special interests - ethics is an irrelevant second hand emotion!"

I've had that thought myself. But I think it's wrong.

There's no doubt that partisan politics and special interests are leading players in the reform process. (As an example, see here 'for an audio of Senator Jim DeMint's excitement about "breaking" President Obama and creating his "Waterloo" by defeating health reform.) But in addition to the impact of PAC money bribes and armies of lobbyists, politicians and special interests try to get their way by playing on the public's strongly held but unexamined values. From the political perspective this is "stealth ethics." From the philosophical perspective we might call it "pseudo ethics."

President Obama reported receiving a letter saying (see here for a videoclip of the President telling the story):

"I don't want government-run health care. I don't want socialized medicine. And don't touch my Medicare."

This story got a big laugh from the President's AARP audience. But it makes a deeper point about ethics and health reform. Ethical reflection isn't just a matter of asserting values. It requires bringing our values to bear on the world of facts, and, reciprocally, modifying our values as the facts may require. The joke here is that the anti-government, libertarian letter writer made the facts fit the values. Since she (it was a woman) liked Medicare, Medicare couldn't possibly be a government program!

Muddled "pseudo ethics" are stirring the reform pot in several ways. Here are two examples:

  • Health insurers are "villains." There's lots to criticize in the conduct of insurance companies and in the way we've structured our health "system" around competing insurers. But even if Mother Theresa were in charge of U.S. health care we'd need an insurance function to oversee the way we spend our funds and to seek value for money. The global condemnation of insurers abets the public fantasy that if we get rid of the villains we'll be in a paradise that requires no difficult choices.

  • From a moral perspective the aphorism "life is priceless" conveys what Albert Schweizer called "reverence for life." But as a piece of economic guidance the aphorism is psychotic. It implies that any limit that threatens life is evil. In actuality we constantly make choices that involve weighing life against other values - how much to spend on auto safety, whether to put defibrillators on every street corner, or whether the convenience of texting while driving is worth the risk to mortality (ours and others) it poses. By not distinguishing between the metaphoric meaning of "priceless" as applied to whether life should be revered and the need to use funds wisely, we again invite the body politic to remain ignorant about our ethical obligation to set limits in health care.
So ethics does have something "to do with it" - it's not just "a second hand emotion." But what's required is not shouting about values - that's easy, and accomplishes nothing. What's really needed is the much more difficult task of shuttling between values and facts - looking at the facts in light of our values, modifying those values as needed, as when the anti-government libertarian contemplates the fact that Medicare is a 44 year old government program, and developing options that serve important values to the greatest extent possible.

If the democratic process works as the founding fathers hoped it would, this is what the legislative process should strive to do with the bills that have been developed in the House and the Senate.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Comparative Effectiveness Research is so Important

I'm on the road now, and yesterday gave the talk I wrote about (here) last week. (I'm not writing about the venue of the talk since it was an internal meeting, not a public session.)

I came away from the event convinced more than ever that a robust program of comparative effectiveness research (CER) is the crucial next baby step for improving the value of what we in the U.S. health "system" do in health care and making the topic of health care costs less toxic. Sadly, the challenge for us in the U.S. is to begin to deal with runaway costs in a serious fashion rather than waiting for the tooth fairy or the Wizard of Oz to make the problem go away. (See "Cost Control: How Incapacitated are We?" by Paul Menzel on the Hastings Center Health Care Cost Monitor for an analysis of the almost total collapse of meaningful cost containment in the health reform process.)

CER studies compare alternative approaches to treating the same condition. It's most straightforward when the comparison is between drug A and drug B, but in principle we can compare a drug to, say, meditation or exercise, as well. The legislation that is moving through Congress is careful to insist that CER cannot be used to manage care or drive insurance coverage. Drug companies are terrified at the prospect that CER will deflate their claims about "me too" drugs. Medical specialists fear that a sham treatment may equal or outperfom their favorite procedures, as has happened in prior research on surgery. It's a fairly safe prediction that the first thing that will happen from CER is....very little.

CER dramatizes the fact that much of what we do in health care is based on faith, not evidence. It treats our beliefs as hypotheses which may be correct but could be off the mark. For healing to occur we must have faith in our doctors. The more evidence our doctors have about what works best the more that faith is warranted and will be rewarded.

Because it's so obvious that when two approaches are equivalent there has to be a VERY good reason for not choosing the less costly alternative, CER will gradually shake us out of the reflexive U.S. attitude that costs should not be considered in delivering care. It's best to see the health reform process as a first step, not a "solution." If Congress can fashion a bill that the President can sign we'll have demonstrated that our fractious and wildly irrational political process can engage with health care. It seems certain that whatever emerges will be profoundly imperfect. But if the body politic and the legislature comes away from the reform process with more confidence about tackling health care, we'll be in a better position to learn from the flaws in what emerges and to take some wiser next steps.

That's where CER comes in. It enacts a scientific approach to a realm that is increasingly dominated by advertising and economic interests. The first useful impact will be when insured folks say "let's bring premiums down by doing what works best at the lowest cost" and taxpayers say "let's put some teeth into Medicare by using the results of CER." Vested interests have blocked these steps in the legislative process so far. But if the public, and our political leaders, see more facts emerging from CER, it will be harder for PAC contributions and advertising flim flam to drive health care.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Can we Discuss "How Much is Life Worth" without going ballistic?

I've been invited to speak next week at a conference based on the article by Tito Fojo and Christine Grady ("How Much is Life Worth: Cetuximab, Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, and the $440 Billion Question") that I wrote a post about three weeks ago. The opportunity has led me to a clearer perspective on the currently undiscussable topic of health care rationing.

Fojo and Grady's central argument - that we in the U.S. should rein in our expenditures on interventions that produce small benefits at enormous cost is so obviously correct that the question to ask is not "are they right?" but rather "what's preventing us from doing what we so obviously need to do?"

I've thought about that question in light of the decision process that NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) uses for the guidance it provides to the National Health Service. NICE has created an elegant approach to setting limits. The logic of NICE's process is simple. (1) The National Health Service has a budget. (2) Every expenditure has an an opportunity cost and should be compared to alternative uses of the funds. (3) For selected new interventions, NICE reviews the evidence about its clinical effectiveness. (4) If the intervention offers clinical benefit NICE asks how much those benefits cost, defined as cost/QALY (Quality Adjusted Life Year). (5) NICE applies a template of social value judgments to the facts that emerge from its analysis. (6) The template includes a threshold range (20-30 thousand pounds/QALY) to guide decisions and a framework for deciding when and how to make exceptions to the threshold. (7) The entire process is conducted in a public manner, with opportunities to see the reasoning behind the conclusions and to raise challenges.

NICE fine tunes its approach over time, but its fundamental logic is sound. The impediment to us in the U.S. doing what Fojo and Grady urge us to do is not the absence of a method for deciding about the worth of marginal benefit. Any country ready to tackle rationing could take NICE's procedures off the shelf, study them, and adapt the process to its own culture and institutions.

The key word here is "ready." And, as Hamlet told us, "readiness is all!"

Experienced psychotherapists teach that the hardest job in treatment is dealing with the resistances to change. Once these impediments have been worked with well enough change almost takes care of itself. That model applies at the level of social process as well.

In my talk I'll take Fojo and Grady's argument as the starting point. They're obviously right. The folks at the conference are predisposed to agree - that's why they invited me. I'm going to suggest that making decisions about marginal benefit is, at heart, not all that difficult. NICE shows us how to do it. The task for all those who agree with Fojo and Grady is not to persuade others to see the same truth, but to chip away at the impediments to seeing the obvious. I'll write more about chipping away impediments in future postings.

(See here for NICE's Social Values Judgments report and here for reports from the Citizens Council.)