Health reform is stalled. Here’s how to do it right.

I told you so.  I also told the POTUS in my open letter, but he did not read it.

Who could honestly believe the nation would support dumping coverage for 22 million people?  As David Leonhard wrote recently op-ed in the New York Times: “They [Republicans and President Trump] had only one big weakness, in fact: They weren’t dealing in reality.”  When faced with reality, it is interesting what a few good Senators with a conscience will refuse to do.

Success is never attained by taking shortcuts.  We do not need reform of health care; we need to reboot the entire system.  Special interests do not belong in the picture.  They are incompatible with developing innovative solutions that place profits on the back burner.   Congress is making this too difficult.  They need to roll up their sleeves, go back to the drawing board, and start again.

My suggestions:

Step 1:  Every member of Congress should participate in a mock hospital admission as a patient, starting with presentation to the ER, being poked and prodded, having surgery if necessary, and staying overnight to recuperate.  After your experience, you should be provided a “bill” on your way out the door and pay the balance by cash or check.

Step 2:  Go see your own primary care physician for two reasons.  The first is to have an annual exam and to connect with your constituents in the waiting room, solicit their comments, thoughts, or suggestions, and converse with office staff to understand their perspective.  The second reason is to elicit feedback directly from your primary care physician.  Listen for groundbreaking solutions to the perplexing boondoggle of caring for greater numbers at a lower cost.

Extra credit:  Follow a primary care physician in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) for three days.  Listen, engage, clarify, empathize, and most importantly absorb how monumental this undertaking of reforming health care will be.

Step 3: Return to Washington D.C. inspired and reboot, resolving to do it right this time.

The nation has been having entirely the wrong conversation; that dialogue must change.  The biggest obstacle faced by lawmakers is maintaining access while reducing cost.  Providing coverage without coupling it to budgetary constraints is sheer lunacy.  However, reducing government involvement in coverage without ensuring the needy can afford health care will never garner widespread support.  Affordability has become an impossible dream and is currently our largest stumbling block.

The U.S. spent $10,345 per person annually in 2016.  The average OECD country spends $3,997 per person annually in comparison.  During the 1980s Spain created a network of community health clinics within a 15-minute radius of every citizen, a system which was funded by the taxpayers.  In 1975, the average life expectancy from birth was equivalent in both nations, at 69 years of age.  Today, life expectancy in Spain is 83 years compared to 78.8 in the United States.  We are spending twice as much as Spain, and our life expectancy is significantly lower.

An appropriate policy goal would be to focus on developing a sustainable solution, implemented only after great deliberation.  Scaffolding already exists, in community clinics and Public Health departments; these facilities are cost-effective, yet grossly underfunded, underutilized, and unappreciated.  Every single man, woman, and child needs primary care services, a fact which in incompatible to the insurance model.  We must sever the connection between insurance and primary care.  Providing basic care universally is something we must accept as reality. As I have written before, investing in primary care as a solution is a no-brainer; increasing by one PCP/10,000 persons decreases mortality by 5.3 percent.

Basic care will bring us all out from the shadows and into the light.  Provide immunizations, screenings, and annual exams to everyone in this country.  Those working in the community clinics will be employed by the government and salaried.  These clinics could have evening or weekend walk-in hours and handle urgent matters.  The electronic medical records system should be universal and patient-centric.  People will no longer live in fear of our government eliminating access for chronic conditions or emergencies.  Struggling families will not be one catastrophic illness away from losing their hopes and dreams.

As we continue filling in the grid, specialty care should be added at the public health facilities or community clinics.  A specialist would cover a greater number of patients when overseeing or consulting on difficult cases with the primary care physicians.  These specialists would be employed by the government and salaried as well.  If an individual becomes severely ill or injured and requires very specialized treatment, hospitalization, or surgical management, either they have Medicaid, Medicare, or their catastrophic insurance plan kicks in to cover these needs.

No discussion would be complete without including third party payers, who distance patients and physicians from being cognizant of cost.  For what we do in our offices, services could be far cheaper.  For example, a self-employed, middle-aged patient with a $25,000 deductible sustained a 4cm laceration to the head and went to buy glue to repair it himself.  On this particular holiday weekend, the stores were already closed.  He inquired as to the cash price for repair after texting a picture.

I had no answer, but primary care physicians love repairing lacerations, and I am no exception to the rule.  He came to my office; I cleaned the wound and sutured it.  He handed me his credit card, similar to the cashier at a grocery or hardware store.  Supplies cost roughly $50; the laceration repair took 15 minutes.  I figured $150 seemed reasonable.  He paid $200 and was thrilled.

While the lack of transparency hindered my research, I compared the cost to repair a 4 cm laceration in the emergency room.  The estimated charges were:  $1,000 emergency room facility charge, physician cost $500, and the procedure bill was $200.  My hard working patient would have coughed up $1,700 at a minimum (some estimate as high as $1,000 per stitch) and waited well over 15 minutes for the privilege.

Allow the free market forces to remain a part of the infrastructure.  A great deal of the population fears a universal basic system because they are afraid of losing choice.  Direct primary care practices would flourish in a system with a basic care safety net for those in need.  Those who can afford choice would have options to patronize the private market, which absolutely should not be eliminated.

Reviewing the events this week reminds me Rome was not built in a day. Repairing the tangled web of health care will take unconventional thinking and the tincture of time. Costs have spiraled out of control past the point of affordability.  The nation will only support reform once Congress overhauls our broken system prior to embarking on repealing anything.  Finally, everyone is profiting except the two most critical components: the physicians and their patients.  Repair, reboot, and rebuild from the ground up and when you do, start by putting patients ahead of profits.

Niran S. Al-Agba is a pediatrician who blogs at MommyDoc. This article originally appeared in the Health Care Blog.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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