Good morning. Thank you for conducting this session and for inviting me to speak. I am Dr. Chris Hughes, state director for Doctors for America, a nation-wide group of physicians advocating for high quality, affordable health care for all. I have been an intensive care physician for my entire career, now approaching 25 years, and within the past year I have also begun practicing hospice and palliative medicine. I am a former Trustee of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and Chair of the Patient Safety Committee. I have completed graduate studies in health policy at Thomas Jefferson University, and I am now teaching there, in the Graduate School of Population Health.
I tell you this to let you know that I can get down in the weeds with you about the nuts and bolts of implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and I know a fair amount about health care financing, access, cost shifting, and all the rest. But you have fine panelists assembled here today who have been doing this for you, and I know you all know your way around these topics as well. That’s why you’re here.
I am here as a physician and a representative of my profession. Every doctor you know, and every nurse and pharmacist and social worker and everyone in the front lines of health care, for that matter, can tell you stories of how our health care system has failed someone. Our system fails people regularly, and often spectacularly, and often cruelly, day in, day out.
I've had patients who work full time in jobs that fall far short of the American dream. They get by, but they can't afford health insurance.
I'll give you a few of my patients’ stories here, not just to point out the obvious- that we are mistreating our fellow human beings – but that we are misspending countless dollars on the wrong end of the system.
There's the cabbie who recognizes his diabetes and determines to work harder and longer so he can buy insurance before he is stricken with the label even worse than diabetes: preexisting condition! He doesn't make it and ends up in the ICU with diabetic ketoacidosis.
There's the construction worker who has a controllable seizure disorder that goes uncontrolled because he can’t afford to go to the doctor. He ends up in the ICU, on a ventilator – life support - multiple times.
There's the woman who stays home to care for her dying mother and loses her insurance along with her job. When her mother is gone and she finally gets to a doctor for herself, her own cancer is far advanced. She goes on hospice herself.
The laid-off engineer whose cough turns bloody for months and months before he “accesses” the health care system – through the Emergency room and my ICU with already far advanced cancer.
Shona’s attendant, of course. [Shona Eakin, Executive Director of Voices for Independence, in her earlier testimony.]
These are people who are doing the right thing – working, caring for family members – and still have to go begging for health care. How many hours does an American have to work to “deserve” health care? 40? 50? 60? We, as a society, are telling these people that their work, their lives, are not valuable enough to deserve access to health care until they meet some standard of employment in a job that has health insurance.
While doing some research on Medicare cost savings, I ran across a paper from US Sen. Tom Coburn with this quote: "Medicaid is a particular burden on states, consuming on average 22 percent of state budgets." I don’t quibble with the number, I quibble with the mindset that leads one to think that the suffering of millions is a non-factor in the decision making. And the fate of patients is not mentioned in his paper.
Not long ago, expanding access to health care was a nonpartisan goal. As recently as 2007, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republicans Jim DeMint and Trent Lott, ( let me repeat that, “Jim DeMint and Trent Lott” ) wrote a letter to then-President George W. Bush pointing out that our health care system was in urgent need of repair. "Further delay is unacceptable as costs continue to skyrocket, our population ages and chronic illness increases. In addition, our businesses are at a severe disadvantage when their competitors in the global market get health care for 'free.' "
Their No. 1 priority? It was to "Ensure that all Americans would have affordable, quality, private health coverage, while protecting current government programs. We believe the health care system cannot be fixed without providing solutions for everyone. Otherwise, the costs of those without insurance will continue to be shifted to those who do have coverage."
Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act will get us closer to this than at any time in our history.
You will hear some physicians speak out against all of this. But what you generally will not hear is their leadership and organizations speaking out against it, except perhaps in the deep south. There is a reason for this. As leaders of our profession, we have to come to terms with the idea that we are not just in it for ourselves. We are in it for our profession as well, and that means we have to put our patients’ interests above our own, and that means we have to do our best to ensure that everyone has access to high quality, affordable health care. Don’t just take my word for it. The American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation and other organizations put together a Charter on Medical Professionalism about ten years ago, specifically making this, fair distribution of health care resources, a part of our professional responsibility. If you go to their website, you will find that virtually every physician organization you can think of has endorsed it. That means the anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons as well as the pediatricians and the family practitioners.
For Medicaid expansion specifically, we should note here that the major national physician organizations, including the AMA, and the organizations representing internists, family practice, pediatricians, psychiatry and more, all endorse Medicaid expansion. On the state level, all of these organizations state chapters endorse it as well, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which I am chagrined to say, has endorsed general terms of expansion only.
But this concept is really not controversial among physicians and health care providers. We see everything from the catastrophes to the small indignities. They are tragic, unnecessary, and we are on the road to ending them.
Some in the provider community have expressed concerns about Medicaid in particular as the way we are providing access, so I would like to take a moment to address the concerns we hear most often.
First, that Medicaid is “bad” insurance. What is bad about Medicaid is largely fixed in the ACA. Namely, it is very poorly reimbursed for providers. You’ve already heard from others why hospitals want it, why advocates want it, but for providers in primary care, the frontlines of health care, they get a major boost in reimbursement under the new law. Pennsylvania has historically had awful reimbursement in the Medicaid program, among the worst in the nation. Now, reimbursement will go to par with Medicare reimbursement, a huge incentive for providers to take on Medicaid patients whom they may have been reluctant to see previously. There are other new innovations such as Patient Centered Medical Homes, the new Medicaid Health Homes (which, by the way, we have also not begun implementing in PA – maybe another panel?), and other innovations, coming down the pike, that should really give people who previously had no chance at excellent care, a chance to avoid complications, avoid the ER and avoid the hospital. To live in good health.
I’ve also heard the strange claim that having Medicaid is worse than having no insurance. I suppose that in a vacuum where there is no good data, and where one sees, like I do, patients with no insurance or Medicaid, who don’t know how or aren’t able to access a doctor, you could look at patients who get very sick and mistake that association and attribute that to Medicaid, but we do have data now. In Oregon, due to a fairly bizarre set of circumstances a few years ago, Medicaid eligibility was determined by lottery, creating a natural experiment of haves and have-nots. In the first year, those who were enrolled were 70 percent more likely to have a usual source of care, were 55 percent more likely to see the same doctor over time, received 30 percent more hospital care and received 35 percent more outpatient care, and much more. Incidentally, I heard a cable talking head complain about the Oregon data because it didn’t examine outcomes, such as deaths and such. A fair point if we had more than a year’s worth of data! I, and most other health professionals, would argue that the results they have seen already are impressive and worthwhile in and of themselves.
People often ask me why I am so passionate about this, and I always tell them, “I blame the nuns.” Growing up Catholic, there was nothing so drilled into me as Matthew 25. We used to sing a hymn based on it, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers,” on a regular basis at Mass. And we went to Mass before school every day!
It turns out this is a pretty universal sentiment. I checked. Go to the websites of every mainstream religious denomination – Anglican, Methodist, Mormon, you name it - and it will be in there somewhere: The Social Gospel and Social Justice. Dignity of the individual. Our duties to the less fortunate. It is part of our national Judeo-Christian heritage, and a component of every major religion and philosophy in the world, with one notable exception – Ayn Rand’s. And I mention Ayn Rand and her most famous book, Atlas Shrugged, because it is perennially listed as the second most influential book in America, after the Bible. A damning fact for us.
In spite of that, I am glad that social justice and a commitment to the fair distribution of our health care resources is integral to the sense of duty of my profession, the nursing profession and all health professions.
I often say that I encourage debate about how we get to universal health care, but I refuse to accept that America, alone among all modern nations, and Pennsylvania in particular, will reject the idea that we need to get there.
A final thought from health care economist Uwe Reinhardt, regarding all of the reasons given about why we cannot achieve universal health care; he says, “Go tell God why you cannot do this. He will laugh at you,”
Right now, Medicaid expansion, the Health Insurance Exchanges and many other components of the Affordable Care Act are our best hope. Let’s not squander it.
Thank You.Sphere: Related Content