Tit for Tat battles in healthcare are nothing new. Last week, they were on full display.
- Health insurers and drug manufacturers squared off in national ad campaigns accusing the other of complicity in keeping drug costs high.
- The House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees held hearings challenging non-profit hospital tax exemptions as momentum builds for a new site neutral payment policy opposed by the American Hospital Association. In tandem, Indiana Republican Rep. Victoria Spartz reintroduced “Combatting Hospital Monopolies Act,”– a bill April 20 that would allow the FTC to enforce antitrust rules among the nation’s more than 2,900 nonprofit hospitals.
The intensity of these battles is likely to increase because healthcare affordability is a kitchen-table issue and the public’s paying attention.
Executive compensation in hospitals, drug companies and health insurers is a flashpoint: the disparity between pay packages for healthcare CEOs and their rank-and-file employees is widening. Books and documentaries about healthcare rogue operators like Theranos and Purdue draw wide audiences. And announcements like the Kaiser Permanente-Geisinger deal last week lend to the industry’s growing kinship with BIG BUSINESS.
The corporatization of U.S. healthcare has endangered its future. The time has come to revisit its purpose, refresh its structure and re-organize its finances.
- Revisit it’s purpose:
- The modern health system has evolved through economic cycles, population growth, scientific explosion and shifting demand. Regulations, roles and money has followed. The integration of artificial intelligence is the next threshold in its evolution unlocking efficiencies heretofore unimagined and capabilities that enable self-care and customization. Might the system’s purpose shift from producing products and services for patients to enabling individuals to care for themselves and others more effectively? Might price and cost transparency in each sector be without pre-condition and barriers? And might the system’s true north be health and wellbeing rather than utilization and revenue growth?
- Refresh its structure:
- The system’s fundamental flaw is structural: the U.S. operates a health system of caregivers and facilities that serve its majority and a separate system of 3000 public health programs that serve the rest. Though long acknowledged, social determinants of health play second fiddle to specialized services to populations that are insured. The destination for the system must be health + social services, not health or human services, and the fiduciary role of its prominent non-profit institutions to steward the transition. In tandem, the system’s financing (through insurance) and delivery (through services and facilities) must necessarily be integrated so investments in prevention, population health management and care coordination are optimized.
- Re-organize its finances:
- The health system’s primary financing is derived primarily from direct government appropriations (vis a vis tax collections from individuals and employers) and profits earned by its operators and suppliers. Its capital investing is increasingly dependent on private equity that seeks profits in 5-6 years for its limited partner investors. In systems of the world with better outcomes and lower costs, government financing plays a bigger role balancing prevention and social services with the needs of the sick. The U.S. financing system rewards taking care of health problems after they’re manifest in hospitalization or medication management and insignificant investment elsewhere. Capitalizing innovation across the system is an imperative: otherwise, risk-taking by private investors in the system will default to short-term returns. And the public’s long-term wellbeing is compromised.
Most of the food fights in healthcare like last week’s revolve around each sector’s unique response to the three challenges above. That’s why they exist: to protect the interests of their members and advocate on their behalf. All believe their mission and vision is essential to the greater good and the moral high ground theirs. Some are imperiled more than others: not for profit, rural and safety net hospitals, long-term care operators, direct caregivers and public health programs at the top of this list.
Educating lawmakers is necessary but what’s needed is serious, objective forward-looking definition of the U.S. health system’s future. The tit for tat game will not solve anything. That’s where we are.
PS: Bipartisanship in Congress is rare.
Hospitals, particularly non-profit hospitals, may be the exception. Bipartisan headwinds are swelling and adversaries organizing. Members of Congress appear keen to assert more influence in how hospitals operate.
Price transparency, cost controls, site-neutral payments, charity care, pay equity and funding for non-patient care activity are on their radar. Hospitals, especially large not-for-profit multi-hospital systems, have joined drug manufacturers and pharmacy benefits managers as targets for reformers seeking lower cost and greater accountability.
As the debt ceiling is debated and FY24 federal budget is crafted, softening support for healthcare will take its toll across the industry and create unintended negative consequences for all.