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Do we really need more policy research before implementing health justice for all?

September 10, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Austin Frakt
The New York Times, September 9, 2019

Rigorous evaluations of health policy are exceedingly rare. The United States spends a tremendous amount on health care, but very little of it learning which health policies work and which don’t.

Evaluations of health policy have rarely been as rigorous as clinical trials. A small minority of policy evaluations have had randomized designs, which are widely regarded as the gold standard of evidence and commonplace in clinical science.

Because randomized health policy studies are so rare, those that do occur are influential. The RAND health insurance experiment is the classic example. This 1970s experiment randomly assigned families to different levels of health care cost sharing. It found that those responsible for more of the cost of care use far less of it — and with no short-term adverse health outcomes (except for the poorest families with relatively sicker members).

The results have influenced health care insurance design for decades. In large part, you can thank (or curse) this randomized study and its interpretation for your health care deductible and co-payments.

Problems can also plague rollouts that are voluntary and not randomized. Programs showing promise suffer from diminishing participation as health care organizations drop out. The innovation center’s pioneer accountable care organization program offered health care organizations the opportunity to earn bonuses in exchange for accepting some financial risk, provided they meet a set of quality targets. It started with 32 participants in 2012. Although studies showed it reduced spending and at least maintained, if not improved, quality, only nine remained by 2016 when the program ended.

Beginning in April 2016, Medicare randomly assigned 75 markets to be subject to bundled payments for knee and hip replacements, and 121 markets to business as usual. But the innovation center didn’t maintain the design, announcing in November 2017 that hospitals could leave it. This will greatly limit what can be learned from the program.

Just as in clinical care, there are examples of incorrect thinking based on low-rigor studies that more rigorous ones later overturn. For example, many low-quality studies suggest that wellness programs reduce employers’ health care costs as they improve health outcomes. But when the programs have been subject to randomized controlled trials, none of these findings hold up.

Hospital cost shifting — the idea that shortfalls from Medicare or Medicaid cause hospitals to charge higher prices to private insurers — can also seem commonplace from studies without rigorous designs. But when subject to more careful evaluation, the phenomenon is almost never observed.

It’s hard to rid ourselves of ideas that are little more than wishful thinking or to end policies that don’t work.

NYT Reader Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

Health policy research is potentially beneficial, but it should not distract us from adopting policies that do not require research to know whether or not they work.

Currently much research is directed to studying value over volume, yet the preliminary results have been disappointing, and the response has been to call for more such studies. This is actually harmful when it deters us from adopting policy changes that would be inherently effective. Current research on alternative payment models is largely wasting resources, partly through an increase in useless administrative complexity.

On the other hand, we can enact and implement policies that would automatically include everyone, sharply reduce the profound administrative waste of private insurers and the burden they place on the system, make health care affordable for everyone by financing the system with equitable progressive taxes, and improve access by removing financial barriers to care. You do not need a complex policy study to see whether or not those goals would be realized. They are inherent in a well designed, single payer model of an improved Medicare that covered everyone.

Policy research is fine, but let’s not walk away from common-sense solutions just because the policy community hasn’t done the research yet, when no such research is required.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

The granddaddy of health policy research is the RAND health insurance experiment (RAND HIE) which supposedly showed that cost sharing decreased the use of health care without increasing adverse health outcomes (though that’s not quite true, at least for patients with hypertension). Yet commonly ignored is the fact that this study was confined to healthy workers and their young healthy families. That, in effect, excluded most of the 20 percent of individuals who use 80 percent of our health care. Thus the study has intrinsic validity for healthy individuals, but it does not have extrinsic validity for individuals receiving most of the health care in the United States.

Though this study showed that young, healthy people remained healthy (no surprise there), it was nevertheless used to advance the principles of consumer-driven health care – requiring high deductibles to keep people away from health care that they may not need. So today we have high deductibles that keep sick people away from the health care that they should have simply because the policy community ignored the fact that the RAND HIE does not have extrinsic validity. So this greatest health policy experiment of all time has had a detrimental impact on health care in America – the opposite of what policy science should be bringing us.

So what studies do we need to establish health care justice for all?

If we want everyone included, what study would show us how we can do that? Well, you don’t need a study. Simply include everyone.

If we want to reduce the high costs of the profound administrative waste of the private insurers and the burden they place on the health care professionals and institutions, what study would you need to figure out how to do that? How would a study help when what we need to do is simply eliminate the private insurers, substituting a universal, publicly financed and publicly administered program?

What study would you need to make sure that each person can afford his or her share of our national health expenditures? Again, you do not need a study. Simply fund the universal risk pool based on ability to pay by implementing equitable, progressive tax policies.

What study would you need to update the RAND HIE that would remove financial barriers to essential health care services? Again, it doesn’t take a study to conclude that you simply remove the barriers such as high deductibles.

What study would you need to return to the patient choices in health care professionals and institutions beyond the restrictive networks established by the private insurers? By now you’ve gotten the message. Simply eliminate the networks along with the private insurers that established them.

It’s time to reconnoiter and regroup. Let’s chase to the sidelines those in the policy community who just don’t get it and let them watch us fix our system. We don’t need more endless policy studies to figure out how to do that.

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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