Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Fee For Service
Not too many years ago, as the many-layered onion that is physiciandom brought tears more and more constantly to my eyes, I said, "What the hell, I give up. If this is all just a way to break us down and put us on salary, bring it on. Just tell me how much I'll get, and I'll decide if I want to keep doing it."
Paperwork propagating like potatoes; rules compounding themselves like viruses; payments receding like ice-caps. There's no doubt it affected my enjoyment of my work, steadily plunging the pleasure, the honor, the gift, and the psychic rewards of being a surgeon deeper into the bulb of the allium, harder to find without crying. And yet such thoughts find little if any resonance with the public. Fee for service, it's said, is the root of the economic evils of our health care system. I don't entirely disagree: what we have now is the worst of all possibilities.
There are many ways in which health care doesn't follow other capitalistic models. Attempts at controlling costs have included, for instance, both restricting and increasing the number of doctors produced in medical schools. Neither worked. To date, disguised and dressed in many pretty outfits, the main tool for cutting costs has been reducing payments to physicians and to hospitals. At best, results are mixed: forced to work harder and harder to maintain income, many doctors (speaking) have burned out and quit in their prime. Turned into bean-counters, those that stay have adopted methods that frustrate patients: cramming more visits into an hour, charging for phone calls, etc... Ancillary charges are outrageous: a friend recently wrote me about a $3,500 CAT scan, a charge of $850 for a simple automated blood test. (Not that anyone but the uninsured actually pays them: in some sort of dance macabre, insurers reimburse ten or twenty percent of those fees and the rest is smoke.)
(In a related note, I read that President Obama's doctor isn't happy with Obama's health reform proposals. In the article the good doctor says neurosurgeons get $20,000 for "cutting into the neck" of his patients. Now, I have no idea what goes on in Chicago, but I'd propose that, if twenty grand is an actual fee, like the $3,500 CAT scan, the reimbursement is a small fraction. In this post I don't want to get, yet again, into the frictions between surgeons and real doctors; but such a claim suggests a certain amount of hyperbole in the discussion. On the other hand, he implies he's for a single-payer plan; on that, we agree!)
Pay for doing stuff is the wrong incentive, so we are told. It leads to over-ordering of tests, over-doing of procedures. Can't entirely disagree. Read Atul Gawande in The New Yorker, or Buckeye Surgeon in Buckeye Surgeon. But if it's a problem, what is the solution? Salaries, says Atul. Better docs, says Buck. And me. With the right incentives.
I've said before -- to hoots and snark -- that I don't think many physicians are in it primarily for the money. But I do believe that, as in most other professional pursuits, people willing to work hard and who produce superior results have an expectation of some sort of recognition. Which includes income. And that's precisely why I said above that what we have now is the worst of all possibilities; fee for service with no incentives for quality, no differentiation among bad, mediocre, and excellent providers. For doing a colon resection in half the operative time (saving thousands in OR costs), sending a happy patient home two or three days (or more) sooner than average (saving thousands in hospital costs), with a lower rate of complications, I got exactly the same reimbursement -- from Medicare, from any insurance company -- as the surgeon who did none of those things. If, to a payor, a colon resection is a widget, the only criterion for payment for which is agreement to accept the latest slice in compensation, why bother to do those things? (Getting patients home quickly requires, among other things, making rounds two or three times a day, which most docs no longer do -- but which I always did. Faster operative times result from many things, among which are attention to detail, making sure in advance that what you need is in the room, keeping the team informed of what's coming next. Even helping move the patient and clean the room. Not seen frequently. Since I retired.)
A high percentage of doctors are human beings. That means they often respond like other people. Incentives and disincentives have an effect on behavior. Which is among the reasons "effectiveness research," or whatever the proper name for the effort (the blocking of which is desired by several legislators on the rive droit) to identify best treatments, makes nothing but sense.
I suppose it gets tiresome to read such treati. The bottom line is I think a system works best when there are incentives -- positive and negative -- to do the right thing. Some will, no matter what. (Of those, some have hung it up...) Salaries (at least those with no opportunity for adjustment based on performance) encourage laziness; capitation encourages the withholding of care. Fee for service which makes no allowance for differences in quality encourages abuse. And burnout.
Based on the snippets coming from the halls of Congress, I'm pretty well convinced that whatever so-called reform we get will fail substantively to address the real problems in our system: insurers, excessive or inappropriate "care," reasonable reimbursement across all fields of medicine, costs. And, for the life of me, I can't understand why.
Well, of course, I can.