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The Future of Health Care

12/14/07 12:55PM By Bill Schubart
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Schubart shares his thoughts on the future of health care.

(SHUBART) Sometime in the next decade the US will follow the rest of the civilized world and have some form of national health care system. The lead-up, however, will be a heart-wrenching discussion that no politician seems yet to have the courage to initiate, rightly fearing that it will end his or her career.
We will have to list what a health care safety net includes and what it does not.  We will also have to come to grips with death, and acknowledge, as do other societies, that life ends quite naturally. We will have to refocus resources on palliative care and hospice rather than costly heroic measures.
All agree that the current system is unsustainable. At its heart is the issue of how we harmonize capitalism and its need to produce profits and a fundamental social mission like healthcare. Specifically, how does the "utilization review" insurance administrator possibly reconcile the dual mandates to meet profit targets and ensure the well-being of the patient?
We know from a recent McKinsey Study that nationally there is at least $98B in excess administrative costs on the insurer side alone, half of which is marketing and underwriting. This does not include other costs in the multi-payer system like denial management. The report finds another $66B paid in excess drug costs because of Congress' irrational decision not to allow government to negotiate competitive drug prices. These two items alone account for $164B in savings. The report projects the cost of insuring all Americans at half that - or $77B.

Vermont's own regulatory approach has fostered the development of a largely non-profit health care system, and all hospitals in the state are not for profit.  The wisdom of this approach is reflected today in the rising failure of many national urban health systems that permit the private sector to siphon off the most lucrative medical procedures, especially those with higher levels of reimbursement, such as hip and knee replacements. The surviving public hospitals absorb the enormous burden of emergency room visits by 45 million uninsured.  Non-profit hospitals have an "obligation to treat." For profit hospitals do not.
So what about Vermont?  We must look to our network of community hospitals and clinics and see them as an integrated health care network, not competitive entities. We must challenge them to integrate and deploy new services cost- effectively, sharing clinical specialties. Each will function as a primary, and in some cases secondary, community health center, serving surrounding communities. Tertiary and quaternary cases will move up to the academic medical centers, Fletcher Allen or Dartmouth Hitchcock, for more complex care.

Our fixes must be both strategic and incremental. Vermont cannot afford a mini-national health care system with our micro-economy and our 620,000 citizens. We can, however - and must - take immediate steps towards getting all Vermonters covered.  

Bill Schubart lives and writes about Vermont from his home in Hinesburg.
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