If all you did was listen to the politicians and commentators, you’d think America’s health care system was on the verge of collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are problems, but most of them have been caused by the self-same reformers who’ve been trying for more than two decades to “fix” it.
Much progress has been made since the New York Times and presidential candidate Bill Clinton declared a crisis existed and proposed solving it by increasing the role played by the government in managing the delivery of services and prices. Once the voters learned the potential adverse impacts on the quality of care they received, the debate changed.
Through it all, America has continued providing the best care anywhere. The spirit of invention and innovation that is the hallmark of our civilization exists robustly in the health care sector and, because it does, people are living longer, generally healthier lives. Yet, instead of encouraging that, scholars and policymakers continue to focus on flattening the cost curve through fiat. Price controls and rationing may reduce the perceived costs of medical care but won’t solve the problem.
The real solutions will come from innovations in care. That means continuing the development of radical new treatments that were unthinkable a generation ago and, in a few cases, going back to what was working before the government messed things up.
One place where looking back is already helping us move forward is kidney dialysis. In 1972, thinking they were helping, Congress passed legislation creating a Medicare program to pay for dialysis treatment and patients with end-stage renal disease gravitated to more expensive, center-based care using machines built for use in centers that are large, hard-to-use, and too expensive for home use.
In 1973, 40 percent of dialysis patients received treatment at home. Today, 90 percent receive treatment at dialysis centers and hospitals — at much greater cost and at greater risk to their health because the entire time they are there, checking in, checking out, waiting for and receiving treatment, they’re in the company of others who might be sick with something like COVID-19 that science tells us preys on those whose immune systems are compromised.
We spend more than $110 billion on kidney disease, the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. More than 37 million Americans have some form of this disease and the money paying for their dialysis comes from Uncle Sam through Medicare. That’s not sustainable.
The alternative to spending more is to spend smarter. The Trump Administration, which earlier this year announced a plan to “shake up” the kidney care medical complex is pushing for a return to home-based hemodialysis as a cost-saving measure and one more in line with patient concerns. His executive order on the issue included a direction to the Department of Health and Human Services to develop policies to reduce the number of Americans getting dialysis treatment at dialysis centers.
That’s the right move. The in-home care alternative will have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. The current care cycle, where treatment begins when it’s too late to stop disease progression. Must be broken. Instead of throwing more money at dialysis clinics, the priority is being repurposed in the right place, on early diagnosis, better patient education, and comprehensive and holistic care services.
Home-based options for hemodialysis, where blood is pumped out of the body under supervision into a machine that acts as a kidney and filters the blood before returning it to the body, and peritoneal dialysis, where blood vessels in the lining of the belly filter the blood with the help of a cleansing fluid, exist and should be utilized to the fullest extent possible.
Starting in 2021, ESRD patients will also be able to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans – great for the ESRD patients, but it could increase premiums for all seniors if we don’t help these plans negotiate for fair rates and prevent costs from rising. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should remove any roadblocks that exist to making this option viable.
With COVID-19 is changing how people go about their lives, the incentive to adapt and innovate in the health care sector is there. Telehealth, which was generally frowned upon before the current crisis, has taken off like a moonshot. Changing the kidney dialysis model to one where the care is mostly provided at home could liberate those receiving treatment now held prisoner by their illness and could lead the transformation of American medicine. Anyway, it’s worth a try.