Health Care Reform – Why Are People So Worked Up?

Why are Americans so worked up about health care reform? Statements such as “don’t touch my Medicare” or “everyone should have access to state of the art health care irrespective of cost” are in my opinion uninformed and visceral responses that indicate a poor understanding of our health care system’s history, its current and future resources and the funding challenges that America faces going forward. While we all wonder how the health care system has reached what some refer to as a crisis stage. Let’s try to take some of the emotion out of the debate by briefly examining how health care in this country emerged and how that has formed our thinking and culture about health care. With that as a foundation let’s look at the pros and cons of the Obama administration health care reform proposals and let’s look at the concepts put forth by the Republicans?

Access to state of the art health care services is something we can all agree would be a good thing for this country. Experiencing a serious illness is one of life’s major challenges and to face it without the means to pay for it is positively frightening. But as we shall see, once we know the facts, we will find that achieving this goal will not be easy without our individual contribution.

These are the themes I will touch on to try to make some sense out of what is happening to American health care and the steps we can personally take to make things better.

A recent history of American health care – what has driven the costs so high?
Key elements of the Obama health care plan
The Republican view of health care – free market competition
Universal access to state of the art health care – a worthy goal but not easy to achieve
what can we do?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. This is not intended to be an exhausted look into that history but it will give us an appreciation of how the health care system and our expectations for it developed. What drove costs higher and higher?

To begin, let’s turn to the American civil war. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause ghastly results. Not generally known is that most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace and this caused severe delays in treating the wounded. Secondly, many wounds were subjected to wound care, related surgeries and/or amputations of the affected limbs and this often resulted in the onset of massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers who although well-intentioned, their interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and increasingly attempt risky surgeries (now largely performed in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic review of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Here is a critical point we need to understand; “nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in such a scenario costs are curtailed. The simple fact is that there was little for doctors to offer and therefore virtually nothing to drive health care spending. A second factor holding down costs was that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket, meaning by way of an individuals personal resources. There was no such thing as health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by an employer. Except for the very destitute who were lucky to find their way into a charity hospital, health care costs were the responsibility of the individual.

Health Care Fraud – The Perfect Storm

Today, health care fraud is all over the news. There undoubtedly is fraud in health care. The same is true for every business or endeavor touched by human hands, e.g. banking, credit, insurance, politics, etc. There is no question that health care providers who abuse their position and our trust to steal are a problem. So are those from other professions who do the same.

Why does health care fraud appear to get the ‘lions-share’ of attention? Could it be that it is the perfect vehicle to drive agendas for divergent groups where taxpayers, health care consumers and health care providers are dupes in a health care fraud shell-game operated with ‘sleight-of-hand’ precision?

Take a closer look and one finds this is no game-of-chance. Taxpayers, consumers and providers always lose because the problem with health care fraud is not just the fraud, but it is that our government and insurers use the fraud problem to further agendas while at the same time fail to be accountable and take responsibility for a fraud problem they facilitate and allow to flourish.

1. Astronomical Cost Estimates

What better way to report on fraud then to tout fraud cost estimates, e.g.

– “Fraud perpetrated against both public and private health plans costs between $72 and $220 billion annually, increasing the cost of medical care and health insurance and undermining public trust in our health care system… It is no longer a secret that fraud represents one of the fastest growing and most costly forms of crime in America today… We pay these costs as taxpayers and through higher health insurance premiums… We must be proactive in combating health care fraud and abuse… We must also ensure that law enforcement has the tools that it needs to deter, detect, and punish health care fraud.” [Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), 10/28/09 press release]

– The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates that fraud in healthcare ranges from $60 billion to $600 billion per year – or anywhere between 3% and 10% of the $2 trillion health care budget. [Health Care Finance News reports, 10/2/09] The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

– The National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association (NHCAA) reports over $54 billion is stolen every year in scams designed to stick us and our insurance companies with fraudulent and illegal medical charges. [NHCAA, web-site] NHCAA was created and is funded by health insurance companies.

Unfortunately, the reliability of the purported estimates is dubious at best. Insurers, state and federal agencies, and others may gather fraud data related to their own missions, where the kind, quality and volume of data compiled varies widely. David Hyman, professor of Law, University of Maryland, tells us that the widely-disseminated estimates of the incidence of health care fraud and abuse (assumed to be 10% of total spending) lacks any empirical foundation at all, the little we do know about health care fraud and abuse is dwarfed by what we don’t know and what we know that is not so. [The Cato Journal, 3/22/02]

2. Health Care Standards

The laws & rules governing health care – vary from state to state and from payor to payor – are extensive and very confusing for providers and others to understand as they are written in legalese and not plain speak.

Providers use specific codes to report conditions treated (ICD-9) and services rendered (CPT-4 and HCPCS). These codes are used when seeking compensation from payors for services rendered to patients. Although created to universally apply to facilitate accurate reporting to reflect providers’ services, many insurers instruct providers to report codes based on what the insurer’s computer editing programs recognize – not on what the provider rendered. Further, practice building consultants instruct providers on what codes to report to get paid – in some cases codes that do not accurately reflect the provider’s service.

Consumers know what services they receive from their doctor or other provider but may not have a clue as to what those billing codes or service descriptors mean on explanation of benefits received from insurers. This lack of understanding may result in consumers moving on without gaining clarification of what the codes mean, or may result in some believing they were improperly billed. The multitude of insurance plans available today, with varying levels of coverage, ad a wild card to the equation when services are denied for non-coverage – especially if it is Medicare that denotes non-covered services as not medically necessary.

3. Proactively addressing the health care fraud problem

The government and insurers do very little to proactively address the problem with tangible activities that will result in detecting inappropriate claims before they are paid. Indeed, payors of health care claims proclaim to operate a payment system based on trust that providers bill accurately for services rendered, as they can not review every claim before payment is made because the reimbursement system would shut down.

They claim to use sophisticated computer programs to look for errors and patterns in claims, have increased pre- and post-payment audits of selected providers to detect fraud, and have created consortiums and task forces consisting of law enforcers and insurance investigators to study the problem and share fraud information. However, this activity, for the most part, is dealing with activity after the claim is paid and has little bearing on the proactive detection of fraud.

4. Exorcise health care fraud with the creation of new laws

The government’s reports on the fraud problem are published in earnest in conjunction with efforts to reform our health care system, and our experience shows us that it ultimately results in the government introducing and enacting new laws – presuming new laws will result in more fraud detected, investigated and prosecuted – without establishing how new laws will accomplish this more effectively than existing laws that were not used to their full potential.

With such efforts in 1996, we got the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It was enacted by Congress to address insurance portability and accountability for patient privacy and health care fraud and abuse. HIPAA purportedly was to equip federal law enforcers and prosecutors with the tools to attack fraud, and resulted in the creation of a number of new health care fraud statutes, including: Health Care Fraud, Theft or Embezzlement in Health Care, Obstructing Criminal Investigation of Health Care, and False Statements Relating to Health Care Fraud Matters.

In 2009, the Health Care Fraud Enforcement Act appeared on the scene. This act has recently been introduced by Congress with promises that it will build on fraud prevention efforts and strengthen the governments’ capacity to investigate and prosecute waste, fraud and abuse in both government and private health insurance by sentencing increases; redefining health care fraud offense; improving whistleblower claims; creating common-sense mental state requirement for health care fraud offenses; and increasing funding in federal antifraud spending.

Undoubtedly, law enforcers and prosecutors MUST have the tools to effectively do their jobs. However, these actions alone, without inclusion of some tangible and significant before-the-claim-is-paid actions, will have little impact on reducing the occurrence of the problem.

What’s one person’s fraud (insurer alleging medically unnecessary services) is another person’s savior (provider administering tests to defend against potential lawsuits from legal sharks). Is tort reform a possibility from those pushing for health care reform? Unfortunately, it is not! Support for legislation placing new and onerous requirements on providers in the name of fighting fraud, however, does not appear to be a problem.

If Congress really wants to use its legislative powers to make a difference on the fraud problem they must think outside-the-box of what has already been done in some form or fashion. Focus on some front-end activity that deals with addressing the fraud before it happens. The following are illustrative of steps that could be taken in an effort to stem-the-tide on fraud and abuse:

– DEMAND all payors and providers, suppliers and others only use approved coding systems, where the codes are clearly defined for ALL to know and understand what the specific code means. Prohibit anyone from deviating from the defined meaning when reporting services rendered (providers, suppliers) and adjudicating claims for payment (payors and others). Make violations a strict liability issue.

– REQUIRE that all submitted claims to public and private insurers be signed or annotated in some fashion by the patient (or appropriate representative) affirming they received the reported and billed services. If such affirmation is not present claim isn’t paid. If the claim is later determined to be problematic investigators have the ability to talk with both the provider and the patient…

– REQUIRE that all claims-handlers (especially if they have authority to pay claims), consultants retained by insurers to assist on adjudicating claims, and fraud investigators be certified by a national accrediting company under the purview of the government to exhibit that they have the requisite understanding for recognizing health care fraud, and the knowledge to detect and investigate the fraud in health care claims. If such accreditation is not obtained, then neither the employee nor the consultant would be permitted to touch a health care claim or investigate suspected health care fraud.