Elizabeth Warren’s Health Plan and the Limits of “Experts”

By one count, Sen. Elizabeth Warren used 9,275 words in her health care plan (that is, her original health care plan, not the one she released two weeks later, to overcome the political obstacles she created in the first version). Of that lengthy verbiage, one word stands out: “Expert” appears no fewer than 18 times in the document.

According to Warren, “the experts conclude” that her plan would cost $20.5 trillion over a decade; other “top experts…examine[d] options” to pay for that new federal spending. She cited experts in triplicate for emphasis, noting “the conclusions of expert after expert after expert” that a single-payer health care system can cover all Americans while lowering costs. Warren even pledged that “no for-profit insurance company should be able to stop anyone from seeing the expert…they need.”

Therein lies her biggest problem: In farming out every policy issue for “experts” to solve, Warren effectively insults the intelligence of American voters—telling them they’re not smart enough to solve their own problems, or even to understand the details of her proposed solutions.

‘Experts’ Couldn’t Even Build a Website

The Massachusetts senator’s reliance on experts jives with her campaign’s unofficial slogan. No matter the issue, Warren has a plan for that—blessed by the experts—to enact her agenda. But as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For reasons both practical and philosophical, Warren and her technocratic ilk might benefit from some humility as they seek to remake the health care system—and the nation.

Six years ago this fall, the failure of healthcare.gov provided a searing example of the limits of expertise. After years of planning and countless federal dollars, what Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called a “debacle” played out in slow-motion on national television. Half a century on from Halberstam’s best and brightest, Barack Obama had to concede that government was “generally not very efficient” at procurement and technology.

Another politician who invoked “experts” regarding health policy, Max Baucus, did so in August 2010. Then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus said he did not bother to read the Obamacare legislation he helped to draft because “It takes a real expert to know what the heck it is. We hire experts.”

Nearly four years later, one of those experts—Yvette Fontenot, who worked on Baucus’ staff during the Obamacare debate—admitted that when drafting the law’s employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.” Here again, remaking a health system approaching $4 trillion in size brings unintended consequences lurking at every corner.

Yet Warren and her “experts” see no such reason for caution. One of the authors of her health care paper, former Obama administration official Donald Berwick, once said, “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.” Implicit in his statement: Federal officials, sitting at desks in Washington, or at Medicare’s headquarters in Baltimore, can quantify and assess the “right” number of machines, facilities, and personnel in every community across the land.

Liberals Act Like Voters Are Stupid

A belief that administrators should, let alone can, effectively micromanage an entire health system requires no small amount of hubris. Indeed, Berwick said in a 2008 speech that “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”

In this vein, Berwick echoed his Obama administration colleague Peter Orszag, who in advocating for an unelected board to make recommendations reducing health spending—a change included in Obamacare, but repealed by Congress last yearargued that “we might be a healthier democracy if we were slightly less democratic.”

From the 2004 work “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” to the post-mortems after the last presidential election, liberals continue to question why some households vote against their supposed financial interests. The “expert” mentality—as Orszag wrote, “relying more on…depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions”—likely plays a role, as by its very nature and through its soft paternalism it disenfranchises Americans.

For instance, studies suggest most low-income individuals do not particularly value Medicaid coverage, yet neither Warren nor others on the left spend much time debating whether expanding health insurance represents the best way to help the poor. As Reagan would note, they’re from the government, and they’re here to help.

Warren thinks that to win the presidency, she must convince voters she has a plan for everything. In reality, her campaign’s hopes may rest instead on developing a plan to narrow the growing gap between the rulers—her beloved “experts”—and the ruled.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Did Obamacare Increase the National Death Rate?

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether a policy change included in Obamacare actually increased death levels nationwide.

Some may recall that two years ago, liberals engaged in no small amount of hyperbolic rhetoric insisting that repealing Obamacare would kill Americans. They viewed that fact as a virtual certainty, and spent more time arguing over precisely how many individuals would die under the law’s repeal.

About the Readmissions Program

The Obamacare change sparking the policy debate involves the law’s hospital readmissions program. Section 3025(a) of the law required the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. The program began in October 2012, and since October 2014 has reduced payments by 3 percent to hospitals with high readmission rates for three conditions: heart failure, heart attacks, and pneumonia.

The program intended to make hospitals more efficient, and encourage them to treat patients correctly the first time, rather than profiting on poor care by receiving additional payments for “repeat” visitors. However, several data points have called into question the effectiveness of the policy.

First, a recent article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that data proving the readmissions program’s effectiveness “appear to be illusory or overstated.” The study noted that, right before the readmissions program took effect, hospitals could increase the number of diagnoses in claims submitted to Medicare. After controlling for this difference, the Harvard researchers concluded that at least half of the “reduction” in readmissions came due to this change.

By contrast, a December study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even darker outcome. The JAMA study, which examined a total of 8.3 million hospitalizations both before and after the readmissions penalties took effect, found that the program “was significantly associated with an increase in 30-day postdischarge mortality after hospitalization for [heart failure] and pneumonia, but not for” heart attacks. This study suggests that, rather than incurring penalties for “excess” readmissions, hospitals instead chose to stop readmitting patients at all—and more patients died as a result.

Is This ‘Alarmist’ Rhetoric?

In a blog post analyzing the debate at the New England Journal of Medicine, former Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag pointed out the two studies arrive at conclusions that are likely mutually contradictory. After all, if the readmissions policy didn’t affect patient outcomes, as the Health Affairs analysis suggests, then it’s hard simultaneously to argue that it also increased patient mortality, as the JAMA paper concludes.

But Orszag also criticizes The New York Times for an “unduly alarmist” op-ed summarizing the JAMA researchers’ results. That article, titled “Did This Health Care Policy Do Harm?” included a subheading noting that “a well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

  • Washington Post: “Repealing the Affordable Care Act Will Kill More than 43,000 People Annually”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Repealing Obamacare Will Kill More than 43,000 People a Year”
  • Vox: “Repealing Obamacare Could Kill More People Each Year than Gun Homicides”

These headlines don’t even take into consideration the comments from people like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who said, “If you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.” Then there were the “analyses” by organizations like the Center for American Progress, helpfully parroted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that said “getting rid of Obamacare is a death sentence.”

Alongside this rhetoric, the supposedly “alarmist” Times article seems tame by comparison. It didn’t use the word “Obamacare” at all, and it couched its conclusions as part of a “complex” and ongoing “debate.” But of course, the contrast between the mild rhetoric regarding hospital readmissions and the sky-is-falling tone surrounding Obamacare repeal has absolutely nothing to do with liberal media bias or anything. Right?

Democrats, the Science Deniers

The Times article concludes by “highlight[ing] a bigger issue: Why are policies that profoundly influence patient care not rigorously studied before widespread rollout?” It’s a good question that Democrats have few answers for.

Liberals like to caricature conservatives as “science deniers,” uninformed troglodytes who can barely stand upright, let alone form coherent policies. But the recent studies regarding Obamacare’s hospital readmissions policy shows that the Obama administration officials who created these policies didn’t have any clue what they were doing—or certainly didn’t know enough to implement a nationwide plan that they knew would work.

Given this implementation failure, and the staggering level of willful ignorance by the technocrats who would micro-manage our health care system, why on earth should we give them even more power, whether through a single-payer system or something very close to it? The very question answers itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Just the Facts on Drug Negotiation

Congressional hearings often serve as elaborate theatrical productions. Members ask pre-written questions, receive formulaic answers, and in many cases use witnesses as props to engage in rhetorical grandstanding. The grandstanding element was on full display Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wanted to beat up on “evil” drug companies, and she wasn’t going to let facts get in her way.

McCaskill spent two minutes attacking pharmaceutical advertisements, including a reference to “the one for erectile dysfunction where they have them in two bathtubs,” before she tackled the issue of Medicare “negotiating” prices with drug companies. At this point she demonstrated ignorance on several issues.

Second, McCaskill failed to grasp that Medicare drug plans already negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and that the discounts they obtain have helped keep overall premiums for the prescription drug Part D plan low. It may sound radical to McCaskill, who has spent practically her entire adult life working in government, but the private sector can negotiate just like the government, and probably do so more effectively than a government entity.

Third, McCaskill refused to believe that getting the government involved in “negotiating” drug prices would not save money. When Azar explained that removing a provision prohibiting federal bureaucrats from “negotiating” prices wouldn’t save money, McCaskill called his explanation “just crazy” and “nuts.”

It isn’t nuts, it’s economics. Even though McCaskill tried to lecture Azar on economics and markets at the beginning of her questioning, her queries themselves showed very little understanding of either concept. In a negotiation, the ability to drive a hard bargain ultimately derives from the ability to seek out other options. If Medicare must cover all or most prescription drugs, such that it can’t walk away from the proverbial bargaining table, it will by definition be limited in its ability to put downward pressure on prices.

But don’t take my word for it. As Azar pointed out to McCaskill, none other than Peter Orszag, who directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Obama — said as much in an April 2007 Congressional Budget Office letter:

By itself, giving the Secretary broad authority to negotiate drug prices would not provide the leverage necessary to generate lower prices than those obtained by PDPs and thus would have a negligible effect on Medicare drug spending. Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions. The authority to establish a formulary, set prices administratively, or take other regulatory actions against firms failing to offer price reductions could give the Secretary the ability to obtain significant discounts in negotiations with drug manufacturers.

Only the ability to limit access to drugs by setting a formulary or imposing  administrative prices, i.e. “negotiating” by dictating prices to drug companies, would have any meaningful impact on pricing levels. But this truth proved inconvenient to McCaskill, who admitted she “refuse[d] to acknowledge it.”

Instead, McCaskill continued haranguing him about the evils of drug companies. She pointed out that one congressman who helped negotiate the prescription drug benefit, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), “went to run PhRMA after he finished getting it through.”

Indeed he did. And as the head of PhRMA, he bragged about the “rock-solid deal” he cut with the Obama administration to help his industry. Big Pharma’s “deal” as part of Obamacare encouraged seniors to purchase costlier brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, which the CBO concluded would raise Part D premiums by nearly 10 percent. And who voted for that “rock-solid deal?” None other than Claire McCaskill.

As the old saying goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. But if you don’t, pound the table.

The facts indicate that McCaskill voted for a “rock-solid deal” with Big Pharma that raised premiums on millions of seniors, which actually makes her part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, that also makes her willingness to grandstand at Tuesday’s hearing, and her unwillingness to face facts she now finds politically inconvenient, less “crazy” than it first seemed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Jonathan Gruber, Transparency, and Obamacare’s IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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

Brookings v. Dartmouth on Health Costs

The Brookings Institution released a study last week that could turn the debate over health spending on its head. While many health analysts—including several key advisers to the administration during the debate over Obamacare—believe that variations in physician practice patterns could represent the key to unlocking a more efficient health system, the Brookings paper questions the degree to which such variations even exist.

At its core, the debate boils down to a difference in two econometric models, both of which attempt to explain geographic variations in spending— for instance, why Medicare spends so much more per patient in Miami than in Minneapolis. Researchers affiliated with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care previously found what they consider large, unexplained variations in health spending. Their research—which examines data from individual Medicare beneficiaries, controlled for health status—led them to conclude that differences in physician behavior may account for much of the unexplained spending variations.

The Brookings study, however, uses a different model, one that examines spending data from the state level, and controls those state data using average health attributes in that state, rather than using data from individual Medicare beneficiaries. This state-based model explains much more of the previously unexplained geographic variation in spending, arguing that states with similar demographics have similar spending levels. As a result, the Brookings paper concludes—contra­ Dartmouth—that “geographic variation in health spending does not provide a useful way to examine the inefficiencies of our health system.”

It’s unclear who has the more accurate model, and why. While Brookings’ state-level model incorporates data from both Medicare and non-Medicare beneficiaries, the Dartmouth research focuses just on Medicare patients—and may therefore be skewed by traits particular to the Medicare program, or Medicare beneficiaries, that do not apply to the population as a whole.

The debate over spending variations has profound policy implications. Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag, who has cited Dartmouth research in his writings, believes that variations in physician practice patterns—doctors performing too many tests, for instance—lie at the root of the unexplained variations in spending.  Mr. Orszag and others used this theory to inform many policy choices related to Obamacare, which included a variety of carrots and sticks that attempted to change physician behavior and reduce spending variations.

The Brookings study undermines the basis of the Dartmouth thesis, and one of the reasons why Obamacare’s adherents believe the law will ultimately reduce health costs. Despite its arcane details, the debate between Dartmouth and Brookings will have profound real-world consequences for our health system in the coming years.

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

Weekly Newsletter: February 23, 2009

Orszag, Liberal Groups Support Health Care Rationing

Today President Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House, followed later this week by a submission to Congress of his outline for the federal budget in Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond.  Press reports indicate that health issues will predominate both events, as entitlement spending in Medicare and Medicaid will serve as a focus of the fiscal summit, and health initiatives will be given a prominent place in the President’s budget proposals.

However, some Members may take a skeptical view of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and others that health care can be reformed—and the entitlement crisis resolved—primarily through government rationing of health care goods and services.  While head of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag prepared a report on comparative effectiveness research that advocated rationing’s beneficial effects—while alluding to its potential downsides for patients.  The December 2007 report asserted that such research “could …yield lower health care spending without having adverse effects on health.”  However, the report also admits that “patients who might benefit from more-expensive treatments might be made worse off” as a result of changes in reimbursement patterns.

Orszag’s view of health reform is shared by the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund, which last week released its own report outlining ways to generate savings within the health sector.  The largest chunk of proposed savings—$634 billion over ten years—would come from comparative effectiveness research and subsequent rationing of care.  The report asserts that “merely making information available” about the relative merits of treatments “is unlikely to produce” outcomes yielding sufficient savings—and therefore recommends that the new comparative effectiveness center help “to create financial incentives for patients and physicians to avoid high-cost treatments.”  The Fund proposes that the comparative effectiveness center—similar to the Council established in economic “stimulus” legislation signed into law last week—“make benefit and pricing recommendations to public insurance plans, including Medicare.”

While supporting the need to slow the growth of health spending, and entitlement spending in particular, some Members may be concerned by the implications of these recommendations, which would place government bureaucrats between doctors and patients, leading to denials of critical care.  Some Members may instead support alternatives that would slow the growth of health care costs through additional competition (both inside and outside Medicare), while preserving and enhancing a culture where patients and doctors—not insurance companies or government bureaucrats—determine the appropriate course of medical care.  Some Members may also support means testing for the Medicare Part D benefit—requiring Warren Buffett and George Soros to pay more for their prescription drugs—as an additional way to bring our entitlement obligations in line with projected future revenues.

The Outlook Ahead

The President’s address to Congress Tuesday night, coupled with his submission of a budget outline on Thursday, will commence a six-week period leading up to Congress’ Easter recess where health issues will remain prominent.  As indicated above, the budget may include additional provisions regarding comparative effectiveness research and rationing of health care, as well as proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that have proved popular with seniors—particularly those with low incomes—in recent years.  At this time it remains unclear whether the President will use the budget submission to fulfill his statutory obligation to present Congress with Medicare funding reform legislation, as required by the “trigger” provisions inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of House Republicans.

Hearings and other legislative activity are also likely to continue regarding comprehensive health reform; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his comprehensive bill on February 5, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus—who pledged to introduce legislation early in the 111th Congress—may follow suit in short order.  The House may also consider legislation related to food and drug safety, as well as a bill (H.R. 1108 in the 110th Congress) giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products, funded by “user fees” on tobacco companies.  Particularly as many Democrats have harshly criticized the FDA for lax enforcement related to food safety matters, some Members may believe now is precisely the wrong time to distract the FDA from its current mission in order to have the agency regulate the tobacco industry—and the wrong time to burden working families with the second tobacco tax increase this year, on the heels of the 62 cent tax increase used to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion.

Comparative Effectiveness Research

Background:  The debate about the growth of health care costs has in recent years begun to focus on disparities in health spending and treatment.  A recent Congressional Budget Office study demonstrated that regional spending on health care varies widely, yet improved care cannot be assumed by higher levels of expenditures.

Amidst rapidly growing health spending and inconsistent levels of care, policy-makers have begun to discuss the development of a research institute to study the comparative effectiveness of medical treatment programs, either by synthesizing and analyzing existing medical data or by conducting firsthand clinical trials to gauge treatments’ efficacy.  Advocates believe that such a center, by generating comprehensive data about the clinical and cost-effectiveness of courses of action for various diseases, could reduce health care cost growth by targeting patients with the most effective treatments and discouraging the use of costly but unproven medical techniques and methods.  While many stakeholders agree that such research should be undertaken, there is less agreement on the composition and funding of the entity that would be empowered to research clinical effectiveness options.

Legislative History:  Last July, the House passed—but the Senate has not considered—health legislation that included the creation of a comparative effectiveness institute.  Section 904 of the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act (H.R. 3162) would create a “Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research” within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).  The center would be tasked with researching “outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of health care services and procedures in order to identify the manner in which diseases, disorders, and other health conditions can most effectively and appropriately be prevented, diagnosed, treated, and managed clinically.”

The Center would be financed through the establishment of a Health Care Comparative Effectiveness Research Trust Fund within the U.S. Treasury.  The Fund would receive transfers from the Medicare Trust Funds to finance the research program for fiscal years 2008-2010.  Beginning in fiscal year 2011, funding would continue to flow from the Medicare Trust Funds, but it would be supplemented by a new tax on healthcare insurance policies.  The tax would be imposed on most health insurance policies (except for workers’ compensation, tort liabilities, property, credit insurance, or Medicare supplemental coverage) at a per capita amount needed to generate $375 million annually, in conjunction with resources from the Medicare Trust Funds.  The Secretary of the HHS would determine the “fair share” per capita amount, but the bill’s provisions are expected to generate at least $2 billion over ten years.  While H.R. 3162 states that insurance carriers (or the sponsors of self-insured policies) will pay this new tax, it does not (and cannot) account for the fact that this tax will likely be passed along to consumers, raising premium costs and potentially increasing the number of Americans who cannot afford private health insurance.

H.R. 3162 would also draw down substantial funds from the Medicare Trust Funds over time, $300 million over the first three fiscal years and up to $90 million each fiscal year thereafter.  Medicare Part A (hospital services) is financed by payroll taxes, and according to the nonpartisan Medicare Trustees, it is scheduled for bankruptcy in 2019—thus committing its resources for additional research will further expedite its bankruptcy.  In addition, Medicare Part B (supplementary services) is financed in part from beneficiary premiums that rise as the cost of the program rises—thus tapping these funds for research amounts to a tax on every senior enrolled in Medicare Part B.

Future Outlook:  Because provisions unrelated to comparative effectiveness make action on the CHAMP Act unlikely in the Senate, lawmakers and various stakeholder groups continue to engage in discussions about the way to create a research institute.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) have discussed introducing stand-alone legislation on this topic; news reports indicate that their bill would fund a comparative effectiveness research institute solely from federal coffers, while House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) believes that a premium tax should help to fund the institute, so that private insurance carriers would have a financial stake in its work product.

With the current Medicare physician payment “fix” scheduled to expire June 30, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promising legislative action to address physician reimbursements, it is entirely possible that some form of comparative effectiveness center could be established as part of such legislation.

Implications of Comparative Effectiveness:  Apart from the concerns some conservatives may have regarding any new federal taxes to finance a comparative effectiveness institute, the research undertaken by such a center could well have significant repercussions for the role of the federal government in health care.  Any research undertaken would likely have an impact on the number and types of services covered by Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the treatment options and techniques utilized by physicians desiring reimbursement.  Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag recently admitted that “the big kick” in savings associated with comparative effectiveness research would stem from insurers—and likely the federal government—implementing “changes in financial incentives tied to the research.”[1]  Although the CHAMP Act did not include provisions altering reimbursement levels to reflect comparative effectiveness research, or empowering the ostensibly non-partisan institute to do the same, such legislative measures would be a likely outcome from creation of an effectiveness center.

In addition, examples of comparative effectiveness institutes established overseas have raised concerns about whether such an approach would lead to delays in obtaining care and/or rationing of services.  In the United Kingdom, Sarah Anderson, an ophthalmologist working in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), recently published an article criticizing the NHS for inhibiting access to care for her critically ill father.  Her father’s kidney tumor could be treated by a new drug—but while the pharmaceutical has been approved for use in Europe for two years, Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) will not complete its assessment of the drug’s usefulness until January.  Until then, local NHS branches can refuse to provide the drug, leaving Anderson’s family to pay for their father’s treatment on their own, or face the inevitable consequences that will follow if he cannot obtain it.  Anderson’s ultimate verdict on her family’s dilemma is a sobering one: “If Dad should lose his life to cancer, it would be devastating—but to lose his life to bureaucracy would be far, far worse.”

Some conservatives may find these overseas examples of the delays resulting from a publicly-run comparative effectiveness institute a cautionary tale for those who would establish a similar institute under the aegis of the federal government.  Conservatives may not only believe that such an approach would put bureaucrats, and not doctors and patients, at the center of medical policy, but would also result in the types of costly delays and care rationing that put lives at stake.

Conclusion:  While the goals of a comparative effectiveness institute are certainly commendable in an era of rapidly rising health spending, some conservatives may be concerned at both the means of financing an institute and its impact on the federal role in health care.  Although an institute voluntarily created and funded by private insurance or other groups could be useful, a public-private entity financed by premium taxes may only encourage lawmakers to enact additional legislative measures designed to micro-manage the doctor-patient relationship and expand an already considerable bureaucracy within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  In short, some conservatives may be concerned that comparative effectiveness research done by the public sector could become a euphemism for government-rationed health care.

If the federal government wishes to slow the growth of Medicare spending, some conservatives might find a better solution in comprehensive Medicare reform that transforms the current program into a system similar to that under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), whereby beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a health plan of their own choosing.  These health plans could employ the results of comparative effectiveness research in their reimbursement policies, and consumers could use those criteria—as well as any “Consumer Reports”-type publications released by private entities—in evaluating both a health plan to purchase and treatment options for a particular medical condition.

 

[1] Quoted in Fawn Johnson, “Bills Pushed to Gauge Effectiveness of Medical Treatments,” CongressDaily 17 March 2008, available online at http://nationaljournal.com/pubs/congressdaily/dj080317.htm#5 (accessed March 18, 2008).