Healthcare reform can start now with no high price tag

Obama and Congress are taking the entirely wrong approach to healthcare reform. We can be doing so much right now to improve healthcare without suspicious price tags. There is nothing wrong with carrying out reform in two phases: the immediate and low price-tag phase, and the longer-term, let's-find-the-money-first phase.

What can be done now, with little public opposition:

One group plan

Everyone would have access to insurance if all insurance companies were required to offer a plan to individuals as though they were all in one large company group plan, with the same rate and no exclusions. There is no cost to taxpayers; premiums are paid by the insured.

Guaranteed coverage and insurance market reforms

Few would argue with such provisions. The health insurance industry has been such a Wild West that companies could promise anything and provide nothing. They suffered no bad consequences when they blatantly breached contracts with subscribers. Other than enforcement, there would be no cost to taxpayers.

Essential benefits

An independent committee would define an "essential benefit package" as a minimum quality standard. It would include preventive services with no co-pays or deductibles, mental health services, and oral health and vision for children. It would cap the amount that consumers have to spend per year, and cost taxpayers nothing. Insurance companies could add features to this basic package. Now they can get away with not paying for basic services because most people do not have a choice of plans, and insurance plans are far too complicated to easily compare.

Individual responsibility

It is time for the government to be honest about the lifestyle factors that cause many of our healthcare problems. According to an article at preventdisease.com that is based on research reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, "preventable illness makes up approximately 80% of the burden of illness and 90% of all healthcare costs," and "preventable illnesses account for eight of the nine leading categories of death." This is the single most important factor in lowering healthcare costs and making people healthier. But in most ways it is not a role for government. It is up to individuals to change their habits. However, the federal government certainly shouldn't be making the situation worse. That means telling the truth about the fast food and prepared food industries. And it means requiring that government agencies and contractors use part-time and telecommuting work arrangements so people have time to exercise and prepare food at home. A national campaign aimed at employers, encouraging them to use flexible schedules for workers, such as part-time and telecommuting, could do a lot of good, with the government itself taking the lead. Cost to taxpayers: nothing. In fact, there are potentially huge savings in lowered healthcare costs.

Pushing for results

It is time for ratings. Netflix movies are rated. EBay sellers are rated. This is established technology. It is time for a central web site that shows us ratings for healthcare providers. Some sites do this now, but there are too many with too few ratings and it is chaotic. An insurance company doing ratings of its providers is not an unbiased source. How good is that doctor / hospital / radiology lab anyhow? How effective? How organized? How long a wait? How polite? How accurate a bill? This costs little and offers so much in savings and making healthcare very effective quickly. No more money is wasted on ineffective providers. People get well much sooner. Providers change their methods to get better ratings. Cost to taxpayers: very little. Such a site would also reveal the really bad eggs . . . moving on to . . .

Making sure healthcare providers really do their job

States are supposed to enforce this now, but often don't. According to a press release from Public Citizen's Sidney Wolfe, MD, "Most state medical boards are doing a dangerously lax job in enforcing their state medical practice acts and adequately disciplining physicians." In another article, Dr. Wolfe said that from 1990 to 2002, just five percent of U.S. physicians caused 54 percent of the nation's malpractice lawsuit payments, basing his numbers on information from the National Practitioner Data Bank. A constant stream of reports show that hospitals are covering up mistakes. If states were doing their job, there would be little or no malpractice lawsuits. This is far more important than tort reform. With ratings, state regulators, properly funded and monitored, could spot and check on providers who are doing a poor job before they do something really really wrong. Such a practice would eliminate payments to incompetent providers and lower malpractice cost. Cost to taxpayers: very little.

Emphasizing primary care

Healthcare reform needs to enhance the partnership between patient and primary care doctor. The primary care doctor is the one who needs to be on top of what is happening with a patient, with whatever record-keeping system works best for him or her (usually a hybrid of paper and database. All-electronic record-keeping is not reliable yet). Primary care doctors need to be paid as much or more than specialists and be paid for phone call and record-keeping time instead of just doctor visit time. Many doctors are forced to use a more expensive visit when a phone call will do because they don't get paid for phone time. Cost to taxpayers: nothing

Looking close at hospitals

Hospitals need to be very closely audited. Not only are there often bogus charges on bills, but the charges are far far beyond costs. No one really checks this, so they keep doing it. Employees wander around hospitals that don't seem to be doing anything. Hospitals charge for unnecessary tests, with no one making sure that tests are based on research. Anyone who complains is ignored. Medical institutions are roach motels for our hard-earned dollars. Dollars check in but they don't check out. Cost to taxpayers: very little.

A simple little thing

Refrigerator magnets can save millions. Yes, you read that right. A magnet can list the phone numbers, hours, and locations of urgent care centers that can be used during weekends and evenings instead of much more expensive emergency rooms. We now waste millions on non-emergency problems being treated in emergency rooms simply because people don't know where else to go. Cost to taxpayers: very little.

Another simple little thing

Money is wasted on mailed Explanation of Benefits forms from insurance companies when this information could be provided for free via a secured web site. Cost to taxpayers: nothing.

These no- or low-cost changes would greatly improve care and save millions. They are the first step. There is no reason to delay them in order to get a "comprehensive" healthcare reform. No reform can possibly work without them in place first.

Patty Zevallos
web architect and content producer
www.pbzproductions.com