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Bending the Cost Curve in Health Care the Right Way—Through Better, More Person-Centered Care

Adam Abernathy frowns as a nurse puts an IV in his arm as he waits to receive a donated kidney as part of a five-way organ transplant swap in New York (REUTERS/Keith Bedford).

The United States spends about 17 percent of GDP annually on health care, a figure that is projected to grow substantially in the years ahead, despite the recent slowdown in health care spending growth. Rising costs mean insurance coverage keeps getting more difficult to afford. Those rising costs, plus the aging demographics of the nation, account for most of the spending side of our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges at both the federal and state level. They mean higher expenditures on Medicare and Medicaid, and the tax subsidies for employer-provided coverage and the new subsidies for private insurance in the individual marketplaces. At the same time, biomedical innovation using genomics, systems biology, information technology, and innovative and convenient ways to deliver care holds the potential for much more effective, personalized care – if we can afford to develop and use it. That’s not the case so far: patients often do not get treatments we know to be effective, innovative treatments and ways of delivering care are hindered by payments that are tied more to the site of services and what we’ve paid for in the past than the value of these treatments for particular patients, and we often pay more for complications than for the coordination of care and person-focused support that could help health care providers and patients get much better results for the money they spend. Something has to change, not just to make sure that healthcare costs can be contained, but also to make sure that the quality of health care gets better by providing better support for what patients need.

Our new report, “Person-Centered Health Care Reform: A Framework for Improving Care and Slowing Health Care Cost Growth” is a system-wide framework to address our cost problems by improving care – by leveraging the large and growing opportunities for more person-focused care. We have developed a set of proposals for saving $1 trillion over 20 years and improving care at the same time. Written in collaboration with leading experts from across the academic and political spectrum, our report proposes a framework for how to improve health care financing and regulation so that we can achieve better, higher-value care for each person. The report describes a specific series of steps to improvement the way care is delivered in each part of our health care system, including Medicare and Medicaid, the employer and individual insurance markets, antitrust enforcement and other regulatory reforms.  Focusing on person-level quality of care as the fundamental strategy for addressing health care cost growth is in some ways new, but it builds on promising ideas and trends throughout our health care system. It is an idea whose time as come, and which we should start to adopt as our long-term approach to addressing the health care quality and cost problems now.

This report is the third in our “Bending the Curve” series. While building on the past reports, it also differs from our previous work in some very important ways. First, we have broadened our group of authors. Still with us is the core group of experts who participated in previous reports – people like Joe Antos from AEI, Mike Chernew and David Cutler from Harvard, Mark Pauly from University of Pennsylvania, Dana Goldman from USC, Steve Shortell from UC Berkeley, and others who have a tremendous amount of health policy expertise and experience. We’ve also benefitted from some new expert perspectives, including Kate Baicker from Harvard. And along with that expertise, our group now includes some other experts with extensive policy and political experience – including NGA director Dan Crippen, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former CEA chair and Columbia dean Glenn Hubbard, former Utah Governor and former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, former HHS Secretary and University of Miami President Donna Shalala, and former budget directors Peter Orszag and Alice Rivlin.  Together, this unique group sparked a new and welcome level of discussion about reform. In particular, as Mike Leavitt put it, if Republicans and Democrats were at the point where they had to reach an agreement on reforming care and addressing the challenge of rising costs, what would they agree on – and how could we make sure it would work?

As we worked to answer these very practical questions, we were forced to consider the full range of key technical and political issues involved in health reform. We reviewed the kinds of reforms that we have considered before to improve quality and lower costs, along with new evidence on how those reforms and others being implemented now are working (with different degrees of success) in the public and private sectors. We combined that with consideration of how best to move forward in a way that avoids the need for disruptive short-term payment cuts, provides the policy certainty needed to accelerate the trends toward the availability of much better, more personalized care, and addresses serious short-term weaknesses in in Medicare, including unstable physician payments and a lack of support for beneficiaries to save money when they get better care These considerations led to a plan that involves implementing reforms that are not disruptive in the short term while supporting better quality and coordination of care, leading to a large impact over time on supporting improvements in care that can sustain slower cost growth in the years ahead. Our conclusion is that enacting these health care reforms will not be easy, but we agree that this is the best path forward.

We do need to act now. If enacted, our framework is able to avoid the more aggressive steps that will almost certainly be needed in the years ahead to achieve more urgent reductions in federal spending, like cuts in payment rates as in sequestration, or restrictions in coverage for vulnerable populations and in access to new types of innovative care. And even more importantly, it will speed up the innovations in health care and biomedical technology that lead to better results and lower costs for patients. The bottom line is that the best way to control health care costs is to have health care policies now that do as much as possible to support better care for each patient.

We have a window of opportunity right now for implementing thoughtful health care financing and regulatory reforms that improve care today and promote much better, person-centered health care for the future. This is the best way for the country to achieve its overall deficit reduction targets. We should act now before the window closes, and we are left only with policy options that shift costs, reduce quality, and most importantly, diminish the ability of patients and health care providers to achieve better care and better health.

  • Mark McClellan, MD, PhD, is a senior fellow and director of the Health Care Innovation and Value Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Within Brookings, his work focuses on promoting quality and value in patient centered health care. A doctor and economist by training, he also has a highly distinguished record in public service and in academic research. Dr. McClellan is a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he developed and implemented major reforms in health policy. These include the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the FDA’s Critical Path Initiative, and public-private initiatives to develop better information on the quality and cost of care. Dr. McClellan chairs the FDA’s Reagan-Udall Foundation, is co-chair of the Quality Alliance Steering Committee, sits on the National Quality Forum’s Board of Directors, is a member of the Institute of Medicine, and is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He previously served as a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and senior director for health care policy at the White House, and was an associate professor of economics and medicine at Stanford University.

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