Wednesday, February 20, 2008

News flash: Higher Quality Care May Actually Cost More Money

There was a Dutch study published last week showing that providing better quality care, in this case to smokers and obese patients, raises the cost of health care because it prolongs the lives of patients (here's the Boston Globe article and here's the actual study). Prolonging lives means they need care for longer periods of time and they die of diseases that are more expensive to treat -- unlike lung cancer, for example, for which there is no treatment, which makes it a relatively cost-effective way to die; better still, using this calculus, would be getting hit by a Mack truck. But I digress....

Anyway, the study has been actively blogged on the WSJ health blog already, but one angle I haven't seen discussed is the impact of this on health insurance dynamics. A not uncommon refrain among commercial health insurers is that their investments in quality improvement are reaped mostly by Medicare, because the benefits of healthier enrollees don't really pay off until those enrollees are older and mostly off commercial insurance. The Dutch study suggests that for certain conditions the opposite is true -- higher quality care may increase costs to Medicare (and Social Security) by increasing the fraction of people who live to draw on Medicare (and Social Security) benefits.

States like Pennsylvania and Vermont have adopted the chronic care model as state policy, not only to promote better quality lives for their citizens, but also on the assumption that there are cost savings down the road. The National Quality Measures Clearinghouse has literally thousands of quality measures, and the drumbeat of quality improvement is beating louder and louder every day. Yet, the Dutch study and work by the Partnership for Prevention suggest that the economics for universally applied quality improvement just aren't there.

A real moral dilemma for our society could come with the realization that the Dutch findings may be more generally true -- it may actually cost more to get higher quality care. David Cutler has argued that we should spend more on health care because the marginal returns are so high, and measured in lives saved and pain avoided, that is certainly true. But we live in a reimbursement system where costs are vigorously monetized but benefits aren't, and literally no one has an incentive to put in more money for anything. Funding longer lives and less pain for all will be much easier said than done.

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