The Berwick Confirmation and Irrationality

July 4, 2010

The confirmation process for Don Berwick as President Obama’s nominee to be director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services within the Department of Health and Human Services should be a most distressing sight to anyone who has spent their careers in health policy – or who even has a passing interest in the policies and politics of health care. And, if Dr. Berwick’s critics prevail, all citizens should be concerned about the message that would send about health care in this country.

It was bad enough last summer when provisions in the health reform bill that would have supported patients, families and clinicians with help they desperately need at the end of life got characterized as “death panels.” Those debates raised unnecessary fears and ended up diluting the end of life provisions in the final law such that families are getting less help than they might have. But, those debates did not go to the underlying and sweeping issues in health care. The current critiques of Dr. Berwick do. The Congressional critics of Berwick attack fundamental issues with a particular focus on how we use resources in this country. The outcome of this debate will have an impact on all citizens that will go far beyond health care.

Dr. Berwick has been “accused” of embracing the British system of health care. Heaven forbid that he should have good things to say about a system that has better health outcomes than ours on a population basis and at significantly lower cost (see the latest Commonwealth Fund report for its seven country comparison). The critics have said that Dr. Berwick’s embrace of the British system means that he is a big fan of another dreaded concept, “rationing.”

Dr. Berwick and most health policy analysts actually don’t disagree with that point, but note that rationing goes on every day in the current health care system in America – we just don’t make it very explicit – and that in the end, some form of rationing is necessary because we have limited resources and they must be used wisely so that multiple public needs can be served.

Many analysts have pointed out that the American health care system today rations care based on ability to pay. I actually think a more comparable situation to the British approach can be found within the health plans of those who are already insured. That is, I don’t know any health plan that pays for every procedure that has ever been invented. Rather, all health plans make choices about what to cover and what not to cover. Some couch those choices in a phrase in employee plan information called “medically necessary”, i.e. plans say they will only pay for what is medically necessary leaving the details of that definition up to the health plan itself. Some give a specific list of procedures that are excluded. But, none pay for everything.

This is rationing by any definition being used in Congress today: it’s just a less transparent, private sector approach to rationing in contrast to the British system that actually has a public entity that makes explicit decisions along these lines and that allows public debate of the pros and cons of these decisions.

Taking the arguments of the opponents of Dr. Berwick to their logical extension, they are either saying we should simply pay for as much health care as anyone, anywhere in the country wants (hmm, wasn’t there an argument that the Affordable Care Act didn’t have enough cost control in it?) or that it’s better to make these kinds of decisions through the inconsistent, somewhat ad hoc process that we have in place today. It is hard to draw any other conclusions from their arguments.

Over the year, Dr. Berwick has said things such as that in America we have a “dangerous, toxic and expensive assumption that more is better.” And, he has made clear his (and most other health care analysts’) belief that we can cut health care spending without harming patients because there is so much misspending in the current system. As a result, he has urged practitioners do things such as “reduce the use of unwanted and ineffective medical procedures at the end of life.” So, if this is the kind of “rationing” the critics disagree with, well, to do anything else would be plain…irrational.