Columns for The Lufkin News

What I Would Like to See in Healthcare Reform (Part 2)

Posted Mar 12, 2017 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Last month, I wrote about the bloated, incredibly inefficient federal bureaucracy that eats up hundreds of billions of dollars annually in administrative costs. I mentioned that Obamacare was not, in my opinion, true healthcare reform and did not address these inefficiencies; rather, it simply added people to the rolls of a broken system.

In this column, I am not intending to argue for or against Obamacare or whether we “repeal and replace” or go with “Obamacare Lite”, whatever that might be. I am simply pointing out areas where I see daily a burden for both patients and providers. My dream would be for simplification of much of the process of valuing, coding, and billing for healthcare services. Whether any of these thoughts are achievable or affordable, I don’t know.

Let’s start with that dreaded hospital bill. Medical billing is indecipherable. Even patients with advanced degrees can spend hours trying to interpret the bill they receive for a hospital stay. And that bill is obscenely higher than what either the hospital or the providers are going to get paid. What’s ironic is that bill often has no correlation with the actual cost of the care received or the value that the federal government (or the insurance company) places on that care. We must simplify how we charge for medical care and how hospitals and providers get paid. Unfortunately, the only patients who get stuck with the full, inflated bill are those without insurance – the ones who can least afford to pay it. That is unethical.

The overall cost of care (and your bill) is determined by coding every aspect of care, from the Kleenex and bedpan to the heart valve. For every cancer patient I treat, there are dozens of separate codes submitted for reimbursement covering all different aspects of planning, designing, QA’ing, and delivering treatment. I have no doubt that much of that could be combined into, say, a fixed reimbursement for treating prostate cancer. The problem is, when the government wants to bundle procedures together, they do it to cut overall reimbursement immensely. We still do the work; we deserve to get paid. Why can’t we work out a way to simplify, cut administrative costs, and make it a win-win both for the providers and the payors?

Along the same lines, consider a simple office visit to the doctor. The complexity required to determine whether I get paid a level 2 or level 3 office visit – which reimburse only $25 and $50 – is outrageous. These so-called Evaluation and Management (E&M) codes – and there are many of them – are based on four different possible levels of complexity of three aspects of the patient encounter: history, examination, and medical decision-making. Take history, for example. The proper level of complexity is determined by the presence or absence of documentation for four sub-elements: chief complaint, history of present illness, review of systems, and past, family, and/or social history. Do you see where I am going with this? Documentation of these encounters (consultations, follow up office visits) often takes longer than the encounter itself! And, any "error" in billing is considered fraud and abuse. It is common to hear patients complain that their doctor never looked at them, but was always looking at the computer screen. We need to simplify coding and put physicians back face-to-face with their patients.

Then there is the ever-increasing burden of deductibles and co-pays. We have such a mishmash of healthcare plans, each with their own deductibles and co-pays, that it is virtually impossible to keep it all straight. At the beginning of every year, doctors’ offices and hospitals cringe. Did a patient change insurance plans, or did their insurance lapse? What about the deductible for the new year? What about co-pays? More than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Deductibles for individuals enrolled in the lowest-priced Obamacare health plans will average more than $6,000 in 2017. Can the majority of Americans afford that? Certainly not! This is an unfair burden both on patients and on providers, who end up providing that care for free. Why? Most of it gets written off, but only after we spend a lot of personnel time and effort proving we try to bill for what we can’t collect in order to avoid the appearance of fraud and abuse. Those patients who are forced to pay may rack up credit card debt, get sent to a collection agency, and/or go bankrupt. Some go without the care they need rather than add to their debt. I truly believe co-pays and deductibles are a vestige of a bygone era. I would like to see the dollars saved by decreasing the administrative burden of healthcare go to actually paying hospitals and providers what they deserve and earn, and do away with co-pays and deductibles. There should be one price for a procedure or encounter, and that cost should be paid 100% by insurance.

What about insurance companies? In the best of circumstances, they pay fairly and quickly. But too often they can and do delay patient care and prevent patients from getting the care they need in a timely manner, if at all. They do this through a process called precertification or prior authorization (read: denial). And sometimes when they do give prior authorization, they still deny payment. This ought to be illegal. But it happens without recourse because the state insurance regulations are written in favor of the insurance companies. We need to loosen the precertification grip on the practice of medicine, and we need to be able to hold insurance companies accountable to their agreements. A preauthorization is a contract to pay.

The two hospitals in Lufkin (Woodland Heights Medical Center and CHI St. Luke’s Health Memorial) have spent tens of millions of dollars on electronic health records, not to mention what individual and group physician practices have spent, all mandated by the federal government. To what end? This was supposed to be about “quality”, but that emperor had no clothes. There is precious little improvement in communication between providers and hospitals than before electronic health records. The various doctor’s offices use a number of different vendors, and each hospital uses their own separate vendor. None of them share information with each other. I dream of a truly universal electronic health record language with seamless interconnectivity between offices and hospitals, but I sure don’t want to live through the incredible expense, time and effort it would take to get there. But I do dream.

Finally, let’s talk about rights. I have never felt that free or universal healthcare was a “right”. Hear me out. No one has a "right" to healthcare without some responsibility. That responsibility may be in purchasing insurance, but that is not the only way to contribute. The most glaring, but not the only, example is smoking. Half of long-term smokers will die of a smoking-related illness. If you smoke, the rest of us are burdened with some (or all) of your healthcare costs. On average, a pack of cigarettes in the US costs a smoker $5.51, while the combined medical costs and productivity losses attributable to each pack are approximately $18.05, according to researchers. This is where consumption taxes are attractive, but only if the tax truly goes to help offset the cost of healthcare. How we balance rights and responsibilities in healthcare is a good subject for a doctoral dissertation.

As well all hear about and read about proposed healthcare changes over the next year or two, look for what they are really trying to change, and ask yourself, are they really improving the system, or are they just trying to squeeze more people under a broken umbrella? Can they do both? Let’s hope they try.

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Meet Our Team

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Radiation Oncologist

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

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Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

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Aimee Salas, RT (T)

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

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Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Radiation Therapist

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

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Linda Miller, MS

Linda Miller, MS

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Evelyn Leach

Evelyn Leach

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