Most of us seem to enjoy complaining about our so-called health care so-called system, but not a lot of clear paths for improvement have been put forth. I have come to think that above all, we have a failure of imagination. We cannot envision another way of doing things, or at least a way out of the present situation, and so we continue to put up with a reality that is increasingly insupportable. We tinker around the edges, but nothing more. As Dr. Dean Ornish put it, “We spend so much time in medicine mopping up the floor around the sink that’s overflowing without ever turning off the faucet.”
Much of what I’m writing today will focus on a small aspect of the system, copays, and will not offer grand visions for the future, but I would like to drop this idea into your head so you can let it grow in the background: We created the present situation. We can create something else. What we have now is not ordained by God or nature. It hasn’t even existed for a very long time, only a few decades.
After you’ve read this post, please look up the 2012 film Escape Fire, which outlines just how completely screwed we are and what we can do about it. You can find it here: http://www.escapefiremovie.com/ It’s also available through Netflix.
Escape Fire is based on a book by Donald Berwick, MD, the former head of Medicare and Medicaid. He wrote it early in the 2000s, and you’d think that a decade later we would have figured a few of these matters out, but as far as I know we haven’t made a single one of the changes he recommended. The idea of an “escape fire” is that if one is about to be overtaken by a forest fire, one can burn an area on purpose to provide a path to escape. The film recounts the story of a group of firefighters who were in this type of situation. Their leader dropped a match on the ground and burned a circle around their position, using up the fuels that would have fed the fire. He told the others to stay in the circle with him, but they took off, insisting that they could get out safely. Guess who survived. Dr. Berwick’s point is that we have obvious paths to escape right in front of us, but we refuse to take them, or even to see them.
Dr. Berwick pointed out that people within the health care industry do exactly what makes sense to them where they find themselves. It’s just that the system contains such incredibly perverse incentives that they often do things that have ill effects for the country as a whole.
Recently one of my elderly patients canceled her appointment for the next day. The reason was that she had to see her eye doctor, and the copay for that is $45, meaning that she wouldn’t have the money to pay even the extremely reduced price I would have charged her as a low-income senior who doesn’t have insurance that covers my services. This lady lives in a subsidized retirement apartment complex. Some of the people who live there have income of less than $1000 per month, and few have much more than that. A copay of $45 is huge for them, possibly even requiring saving up over a couple of months. These folks have Medicare and often other coverage, but strangely, it’s still quite possible to face daunting copay amounts.
A few weeks ago, an insurance company representative told me that high copays do not prevent access to care. Clearly, they do. Copays and deductibles* are both going through the roof. I wrote to her company, one of the major insurers in our area, one which pays only 2/3 of usual and customary fees for acupuncture, as follows:
“Copays keep increasing in general. I understand that at least in part this is caused by attempts to limit increases in premiums. What is troubling is that in many cases copays are equal to or greater than the amount insurers actually reimburse for a given service. As copays continue to go up, this situation is likely to keep getting worse.
“Within the ____ system, the most extreme case I’ve seen involves City of Albuquerque employees. They have a $55 copay for acupuncture, but ___ only pays $43.73 for acupuncture. [Your representative] said that she thought in this case the member would only be expected to pay the $43.73, but that is not how it works. EOBs show clearly that the full $55 copay is expected. And providers are not allowed to discount copays and can get into trouble for doing so.
“It is more typical these days to see a $40 copay for ____ members, and has been for a couple of years now. That means that much of the time ____ is paying a princely $3.73 for acupuncture, and the patient is paying nearly the entire charge. When you include the fact that ____ limits members to 20 treatments per year, the total paid for the year can be as little as $74.60, less than the price of a single appointment for most medical services.
“In both of these types of cases, the member and the employer (often through the taxes we all pay) are paying for coverage for acupuncture, but they don’t get anything that can really be called coverage, and in the case of the highest copays, they have a kind of negative coverage. It’s an advantage to me as a provider to have the patient pay a larger copay, but it’s still painful to see them treated so unfairly.
“I imagine that when the HR department or whoever set up these copays were in discussions about how their plans would work, the amounts sounded quite reasonable to them. Perhaps someone said, ‘I don’t know, what does acupuncture usually cost?’ and someone replied, ‘Well, my acupuncturist charges $70.’ It might not have occurred to them that $55 would be higher than the reimbursement amount.
“(After all, usual and customary insurance payments for acupuncture alone are in the range of $62-65, not counting any amounts for E & M codes or other services. ____ is unusual in paying only about 2/3 of that— an amount that has not changed for a number of years even as patients pay more and more. This exacerbates the issues with copays.)
“I don’t know about how other types of providers are affected. I do know that chiropractors have some similar issues.
“Copays are charged for us DOMs at the ‘specialist’ rate, but since we are not reimbursed at anything like the amounts cardiologists, etc. get, the copays are a much larger percentage of the price. I understand that PCP visit copays are kept lower because insurers want members to see their PCPs to try to catch problems early, but often the PCP can’t do anything and simply makes a referral anyway, meaning that the PCP visit is a waste. Visits to DOMs, DCs and PTs are relatively discouraged by the higher copays, even though we are saving insurers money by helping patients avoid more expensive interventions such as surgeries— not to mention helping the patients relieve their suffering and improve their overall health, which ultimately reduces costs as well as being worth doing in itself.
“[Your representative] said that members have far wider benefits than just acupuncture, which obviously is true, and a member who has a major health problem may end up with much more value paid in benefits than they pay in premiums in a given year. However, this does not change the fact that members with high copays for acupuncture are being sold a benefit that they don’t truly receive. It’s rather like going into a store to buy a shirt, and being told that although the shirt normally costs $45 and most people pay that or less, you have to pay $55 for it.”
So costs to consumers and the country at large keep going up and up and up. In what aspects of the system are those costs increasing so persistently? Let me tell you, payments to doctors are not the problem. We’ve been seeing flat or even decreasing rates of reimbursement. Medicare and Medicaid in particular squeeze providers, and as shown in a heartrending segment of Escape Fire, often the only way a clinic can stay in business is to pack in more and more patients. Again, providers are doing what appears to make sense from their perspective in their corner of the system. But not only is this compression of appointments terrible for patients, especially those with more complex needs, it can actually raise costs. Primary care doctors who don’t have enough time to figure out what’s going on with a patient are likely to refer that patient to a specialist, costing dramatically more, whereas with more time to think, the PCP might well have solved the problem and come up with a treatment plan without making a referral.* So reducing payments for primary care to absurdly low levels is classically penny-wise and pound-foolish. “There is no more wasteful entity in medicine than a rushed doctor.”
I would like to propose a simple rule that copays may not be more than 50% of the amount reimbursed for a given service. Period. I truly believe that there is more than enough wasted money, far more than enough, to make this happen. I would also like to propose that resources be redirected into primary care and especially accessible clinics for the most vulnerable portions of the population, like the ones being seen by the frustrated PCP in Escape Fire. Continuing to cut already-thin payments to practices like that makes no sense.
These of course would only be stopgap measures. Next time, I’ll take up some thoughts about self-care and our responsibilities toward our own health. Meanwhile, I offer you one more pithy post to chew on: http://rolwingjames.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-intervention-fallacy-part-i-how-it-starts/