Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dr. Don Berwick "answers questions" from senators

Due to Obama's interim appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick to lead CMS, before last week he did not have to appear before a Senate committee.Now he has. I had planned to pontificate about the encounter which seemed typically void of content but Dr. Doug Peredina at the Road to Hellth Blog has already offered an excellent commentary.See here. If you need a sleep aid and have no Ambien on hand you might go here and read and see the video of the prepared comments of the two lead Senators and Dr. Berwick.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What are the plans of Don Berwick's "leaders with plans"?

Dr. Don Berwick,head of the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS),has made clear his views on how medical decisions should be made and on what kind of health care system the United states should have.This quote from a book he co-authored with Dr. Troyen Brennan,entitled New Rules leaves little room for ambiguity:

"Today, this isolated relationship[ he is speaking of the physician patient relationship] is no longer tenable or possible… Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care...Regulation must evolve. Regulating for improved medical care involves designing appropriate rules with authority...Health care is being rationalized through critical pathways and guidelines. The
primary function of regulation in health care, especially as it affects the quality of medical care, is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.

Berwick in a laudatory address to the British NHS said that we need "leaders with plans" to design and reform the U.S. health care system. He said that"excellent health care is by definition redistribution". See here for a portion of speech praising the British NHS for in which the "redistribution " quote appears.

A likely candidate for such a leader with plans is Dr. Robert A .Berenson.

I first became aware of Berenson's ideas in an important and to my mind- startling at the time- commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine published in 1998. ( M Hall,and R. Berenson, Ethical Practice in Managed Care.A dose of Realism. Annals Internal Medicine 1998, 395-402.) Here is a quote from that article:

We propose that devotion to the best interests of each individual be replaced with an ethic of devotion to the best interests of the group for which the physician is personally responsible.

Berenson and his law professor co-author were proposing a complete revision of the medical ethics that existed from hundreds of years.This fiduciary duty to the individual patient should be replaced by a nebulous co- duty to the collective to which the individual patient belonged. As outrageous as that appeared to someone trained in the traditional medical ethics, an obligation to serve the greater needs of society and to balance that against the individual patient's welfare has appeared to be widely accepted by various medical organizations. See here the New Professionalism as promulgated by the American College of Physicians.

Dr. Berenson's resume includes considerable work in the area of public policy regarding health care and he has served on a number of policy committees for the American College of Physicians. He served in one capacity or another in the Carter and Clinton administrations and was a member of the transition team for President Obama. He held a position with HCFA (April 1998 to October 2000) and according to his resume posted on the website for the ECRI Institute, see here , he was a vice president at the Lewin Group from 1997 -1998 before joining HCFA.

The Lewin group is part of Ingenix which is a subsidiary of United Health Group.That seems to place him at the Lewin Group in the general time frame of the Annals article publication referenced above. It is of interest that the authors' affiliations listed on the article included only a position at Wake Forest Medical School for both Hall and Berenson. ( I could not determine the exact timing of the article as relates to his time with Lewin so at the time of the publication he may well have not been affiliated with Lewin.)He was appointed as a commissioner for MedPac in July 2009 and in July 2010 became a vice-chairman of that organization. The role of MedPac after the-likely-to- be -very- powerful Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), created by PPACA , becomes operational is unclear.

He is clearly a leader and certainly one with ideas and plans. A recent commentary published in the NEJM gives insight to some of his current ideas. In the Perspective section of the July 8,2010 issue of NEJM he submitted a piece entitled "Implementing Health Care Reform-Why Medicare Matters." ( NEJM,vol 363,no.2,p101-103).

While discussing the issue of medical costs and cost controls he talks about the "growing power of [medical service ] providers" (ask most physicians how much market power they have) and since Medicare price controls, already in place now for almost 20 years, won't control total medicare expenditures " we ought to consider setting all payer-rates for providers." He continues "but the country's antigovernment mood renders such a discussion unlikely,at least for now".

The operative words there are "at least for now".

More on that appears in the next commentary in the same issue. ( "The Independent Payment Advisory Board : by Timothy S. Jost, J.D.) He says in part that as long as the gap in reimbursements between private insurers and CMS continues to grow physicians will increasing abandon Medicare. He closes with this:

"In the long run, Congress may not be able to cap Medicare expenditures without addressing private expenditures as well. If the IPAB opens the door to rate setting for all payers,it may well be the most revolutionary innovation of the ACA".

Price controls for private medical care would do what economics 101 says price controls do generally. There will be shortages, decreased quality and black markets and other methods to evade the restraints. We have seen the first two in the price controls for Medicare/Medicaid.

I wonder which is worse- a medical leader recommending price controls out of ignorance of basic economics or being aware of the likely outcomes and make that recommendation anyway?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Could there really be a down side to the availability of inexpensive generic medications?

A recent commentary in the NEJM talks about unintended consequences of the 4 dollar generics that are becoming increasingly available. Go here for a news report about the concerns expressed by two researchers from Harvard and an audio interview with one of the authors.

Their concern is that with low cost medications often paid for in cash that the data bases used for various purposes will be even less reliable that they are currently . These data bases are used for such things as pay-for-performance and various programs which purport to be quality improvement efforts .Apparently with these cheap prescriptions many pharmacies do not file claims with the pharmacy management companies and insurance companies.

This might translate into less control by the pharmacy management companies and could possibly diminish the value of the services they sell to large insurance companies and the companies that self insure.

I find myself with little sympathy for what they claim is a dark lining in an otherwise silver cloud of cheaper medications and will have even less for the "solutions" that may fix the "problem". It seems to be a problem for the pharmacy management companies and not so much for the patients who spend less on their prescription medications.