What the VA Scandal and Medicare Cost Issues Have in Common

The federal government adjusts its payment policies, the health-care system tailors its practices to meet those new policies, and a variety of unexpected—and perverse—consequences result.

This isn’t just one aspect of the VA scandal. It also describes the effects of physician payment policies in Medicare.

In the case of the Department of Veterans Affairs, decisions to tie performance bonuses to patient waiting times apparently resulted in attempts to manipulate the appointment system. Incidents reported in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New Mexico illustrate how compensation and bonuses drove decisions about patient care. The New York Times reported that one Albuquerque whistleblower alleged:

Clinic staff were instructed to enter false information into veterans’ charts because it would improve the data about clinic availability. . . . The reason anyone would care to do this is that clinic availability is a performance measure, and there are incentives for management to meet performance measures.

In Medicare, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 placed an overall cap on physician spending, with an eye toward cutting payments in future years if Medicare spending exceeded the defined thresholds. But this measure, ostensibly to cut costs, only pushed the problem elsewhere. Doctors have responded to the prospect of cuts in reimbursement rates by increasing the volume of services provided. Physician spending per beneficiary increased more than 70 percent from 2000 to 2011, while reimbursement rates grew only 11 percent in the same period. Congress routinely acts to undo the projected reimbursement cuts, and the SGR has not appreciably reduced Medicare’s overall costs.

So how do these stories tie together? Clearly, health-care systems respond to incentives set by the federal government. But Washington has not proved nimble enough to avert the unintended consequences of those responses. While Gen. Eric Shinseki’s resignation as secretary of veterans affairs may stanch the political bleeding for the Obama administration, the underlying problems go far beyond one man—and even the VA. Both issues will take big-picture thinking, and actions, to repair.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.