What should America’s health care vision be?

America has this paradox of excellent biomedical science, innovative drug manufacturers and entrepreneurial device developers along with outstanding providers but at the same time has a dysfunctional care delivery system. A new vision is needed.

Vision is a leadership concept that presents an idea, garners support and then develops the coalitions to bring it to fruition. America needs to envision what its care delivery system should be and then determine, as an aftermath, what the payment system should be to accomplish that vision of care delivery.  Form should follow function.

In researching  The Future of Health Care Delivery – Why It Must Change and How It Will Affect You, I had in depth interviews with over 150 leaders from across the country including hospital CEOs and COOs, practicing community and academic physicians in both primary care and specialty areas, pharmacists, nurses, insurance executives, health care consultants and many others. But I found what I think is a very good vision and resulting model right at home in Howard County, Maryland.

County Executive Ken Ulman and health officer Peter Beilenson, MD, MPH created “Healthy Howard” to assist those without insurance.  Their concept was to provide primary care access for all, an extensive network of specialists, community and tertiary care hospitals and a basic electronic medical record. Methods were built in to maintain costs as low as possible. But part of the basic premise was that with these “rights” for the patients came certain “responsibilities” – some limited payment participation and some requirements toward practicing healthy living as well as compliance with treatment recommendations. It structured a good balance between patient rights and responsibilities, between care delivery and a working payment system, between access and effective care.

Howard County, between Baltimore and Washington, is a fairly affluent county with excellent providers and a highly regarded community hospital. Despite affluence, there are uninsured individuals and families. Some could afford insurance but choose to spend their dollars elsewhere. Some are the young invincibles who don’t feel they need it. Others work in the service industry where their employer does not provide insurance and they cannot afford to carry the entire burden. And some are simply indigent.  The question was how to provide for this disparate group in an effective yet equitable manner that would render good quality care at a moderate cost.

Healthy Howard is a county-assisted, community based not for profit organization which collects a modest fee, on a sliding income scale, from its members. In return, each individual gets unlimited access to a primary care physician (PCP) all working out of a single office. The office employs a care coordinator who works with the PCPs to assist those patients who have complex chronic illnesses such as chronic lung disease, cancer, or diabetes with complications. There is also a pharmacy benefits manager located in the PCP offices to assist patients find drugs at the most reasonable price in the community. They work with the physicians to find generics, discuss other effective agents with the doctor or even contact the manufacturer if appropriate to get a reduced price for an indigent patient.

Of course some patients will need to see a specialist physician. Healthy Howard has developed an agreement with the county’s specialists to accept, gratis, these patients with the understanding that the program will allocate the patients across all the specialists in a given field (e.g., cardiology or orthopedics) so that no one physician has an excessive burden.  Howard County General Hospital, being part of a unique system in the state of Maryland, has always accepted indigent patients but under the agreement with Healthy Howard, the hospital forgoes any attempt to collect from these patients.  Further, since the hospital is part of the Johns Hopkins Health System, an agreement was reached with Hopkins to accept any patient that needs tertiary care at no charge.

These might be termed the “rights” of the patients. But there is also some participation required in order to be part of Healthy Howard; these are the corresponding “responsibilities. In addition to the modest sliding scale fee, each patient is assigned a health coach with whom he or she must meet on a regular basis. The coach works with the patient to develop a plan for healthy living. This might include attending a smoking cessation program, attending a gym for exercise or working on a diet plan. Together patient and coach develop a plan of action with benchmarks at various intervals. The patient meets with the coach periodically to compare actual results to the benchmarks.

The coach is there not just to measure results but to assist and to help break down barriers. Sometimes just some encouragement is all that is needed; sometimes referral to a specialist such as a nutritionist is helpful; and sometimes a more involved approach is required. As Mr Ulman described to me, imagine an overweight lady who wants to participate in a fitness program at the local health club – to which Healthy Howard has worked out a special free arrangement. But says she cannot attend because her daughter is a single working Mom and so she, the grandmother, must babysit the child. No problem, the coach finds a fitness center that also has a built in day care, breaking down the barrier that had to date prevented success.  The idea is that the plan will help overcome barriers yet still expect responsibility to meet objectives.

If successful, Healthy Howard, as its name implies, will mean healthier participants a few years down the road. The primary care physicians, with help from the coaches, will give attention to prevention thus lessening the burden of chronic illness in the future. And they will give careful care coordination for those with chronic illnesses now- thus lessening the current cost burden by reducing the need for specialist visits, excess tests and imaging and unnecessary drugs.

This is a vision of health care delivery that incorporates improved quality, reduced costs and excellent access at a modest fee in return for a commitment to living a reasonably healthy lifestyle. Rights and responsibilities working together. It is a   good vision to consider.

What should Americas health care vision be?Stephen C. Schimpff, MD is an internist, professor of medicine and public policy, former CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center and consults for the US Army, medical startups and Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of The Future of Medicine – Megatrends in Healthcare and The Future of Health Care Delivery, published by Potomac Books. 

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