Thursday, June 3, 2010

qotd: The Dartmouth Atlas and ACOs

The New York Times
June 2, 2010
Critics Question Study Cited in Health Debate
By Reed Abelson and Gardiner Harris

In selling the health care overhaul to Congress, the Obama administration cited a once obscure research group at Dartmouth College to claim that it could not only cut billions in wasteful health care spending but make people healthier by doing so.

But while the research compiled in the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care has been widely interpreted as showing the country's best and worst care, the Dartmouth researchers themselves acknowledged in interviews that in fact it mainly shows the varying costs of care in the government's Medicare program. Measures of the quality of care are not part of the formula.

The mistaken belief that the Dartmouth research proves that cheaper care is better care is widespread — and has been fed in part by Dartmouth researchers themselves.

The debate about the Dartmouth work is important because a growing number of health policy researchers are finding that overhauling the nation's health care system will be far harder and more painful than the Dartmouth work has long suggested. Cuts, if not made carefully, could cost lives.

A graphic comparing "The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care" with Medicare's "Hospital Compare":


May 25, 2010
Monarch HealthCare, HealthCare Partners, and Anthem Blue Cross Chosen for Innovative National Healthcare Program

Two of Southern California's leading physician-governed medical groups, along with Anthem Blue Cross, have been selected for participation in a new and innovative, nationally-recognized healthcare model that rewards providers for improving patient outcomes, while slowing cost growth.
Monarch HealthCare, an Irvine, California-based Medical Group and Independent Physician Association (IPA), and HealthCare Partners, a Torrance, California-based Medical Group and IPA, will collaborate with Anthem Blue Cross in an Accountable Care Organization (ACO) pilot project led by the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at Brookings and The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. The selection of the two California organizations furthers the nationwide demonstration project already underway in three other communities. The demonstration project expects to produce a successful model that will be replicable throughout the country. 

Jay Cohen, M.D., president and chairman of the board at Monarch, believes "this is a very exciting development for anyone who supports innovative ideas designed to improve healthcare delivery in the communities we serve. Monarch has always been a leader in this regard and is delighted to have been selected as a pilot site for this project."

Comment:  The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care has been an important contribution to the health policy literature because it demonstrates that regional variations in health care spending are very real. The reasons for these differences are complex and certainly not fully understood at this time.

In spite of the lack of adequate comprehension of the multiple factors involved, the Dartmouth researchers and the Washington politicians are pushing us into accountable care organizations (ACOs) that would arbitrarily reduce spending in high cost areas even though that spending might be medically appropriate and such reductions could impair health care outcomes.

Examples of other important factors that should be considered include the rates of poverty in the region, the population health status in the region, adequacy of health insurance and other financing programs, prices being charged for health care services, excess or deficient capacities in health care facilities especially for high-tech services, and whether or not the variations in frequency and intensity of services are medically appropriate. All potential factors should be well defined through further study, and then policy decisions should be made on the facts.

Unfortunately, moving forward with ACOs is not based on solid policy science. The prototype already initiated by the Dartmouth Institute and others, as mentioned in the Marketwire article above, is really not much different from the HMO concept.

Each year Jay Cohen, MD, MBA, the president and chairman of Monarch HealthCare, and I coach competing debate teams at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine. The debate is on single payer versus managed care. I can assure you that the ACO under Monarch HealthCare will be structured based on markets and money, with "accountable" prioritized over "care." Who in their right mind would ever believe that a new label for an old entity will somehow magically reduce our health care spending?

We do need to proceed with studies that could lead to promising efficiencies, but we should not allow the dubious ACO experiment to divert us from introducing proven efficiencies now. The most obvious would be to introduce a single payer national health program. That would provide us with much greater value in our health care purchasing while slowing the rate of cost growth throughout the future. And, oh yes, it would ensure that all of us would receive the care that we need - a mission not on the agendas of ACOs.

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