While the Affordable Care Act will not lead to health insurance coverage for everyone in the US (notably poor people in the states that do not expand Medicaid, as well as those who are undocumented), it will significantly improve the situation for many of those who are uninsured (see What can we really expect from ObamaCare? A lot, actually, September 29, 2013). The hope, of course, is that health insurance will lead to increased access to medical care and that this access will improve people’s health, both through prevention and early detection of disease, and through increased access to treatment when it is needed, including treatment that requires hospitalization. Implicit in this expectation is the assumption that the quality of care received by people will be adequate, and that the source of their insurance will not affect that care.
This may not be true. I spent a large portion of my career working in public hospitals. I absolutely do not think that the care provided by physicians and other staff in those hospitals was different for people with different types of insurance coverage (many or most patients were uninsured), and indeed for many conditions the care was better. But the facilities were often substandard since they depended upon the vagaries of public funding rather than the profit generated from caring for insured patients. The physical plants were older and not as well maintained, staffing levels were lower, and availability of high-tech procedures often less. There are changes; the Cook County Hospital I worked in through the late 1990s, with antiquated facilities including open wards and no air-conditioning, has been replaced by the very nice (if overcrowded) John P. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County. University Hospital in San Antonio, where I worked in the late 1990s, may have been seen by the more well-to-do as a poor people’s hospital, but in many areas, including nurse turnover and state of the art imaging facilities, it outdid other hospitals in town. Still, the existence of public hospitals suggests two classes of care, and as we know separate is usually unequal.
But what about the quality of care given to people with different insurance status in the same hospital? Surely, we would expect there not to be differences; differences based on age, yes; on illness, yes; on patient preference, yes. But who their insurer is? Sadly, Spencer and colleagues, in the October issue of Health Affairs, call this assumption into question. In “The quality of care delivered to patients within the same hospital varies by insurance type”, they demonstrate that the quality of care measures for a variety of medical and surgical conditions are lower for patients covered by Medicare than for those with private insurance. Because Medicare patients are obviously older, and thus probably at higher risk, the authors controlled for a variety of factors including disease severity. The most blatant finding was that “risk adjusted” mortality rate was significantly higher in Medicare than in privately insured patients.
This is Medicare. Not Medicaid, the insurance for poor people, famous for low reimbursement rates. It is Medicare, the insurance for older people, for our parents, for us as we age. For everyone. Medicare, the single-payer system that works so well at covering everyone (at least those over 65). (One of the reasons the authors did this study was the existing perception — and some evidence — that Medicaid and uninsured patients, as a whole, received lower quality care, but that was related to their care often being delivered at different hospitals.) The increase in mortality rates for Medicare patients compared to others with the same diagnosis was often substantial. But why?
Our hospital clearly has demonstrated that, essentially, Medicare is its poorest payer, and that, on the whole, it loses money on Medicare patient. This may well be true at other hospitals, but in itself should not account for lower quality of care, just lower profit. I would strongly doubt that either our hospital or the physicians caring for them believe that they deliver lower quality care to Medicare patients or that they are more reluctant to do expensive tests or provide expensive treatments when they are indicated. And yet, at the group of hospitals studied (if not mine, perhaps), it is true. The authors speculate as to what reasons might be. One thought is that Medicare (and other less-well-insured patients) might have worse physicians (“slower, less competent surgeons”); in some teaching hospitals, perhaps they are more likely to be cared for by residents than attending physicians. However, I do not believe, and have not seen good evidence, that this is the case. Another possibility is that newer, more expensive, technologies are provided for those with better insurance. Not good evidence for this, either, nor for another theory, that more diagnoses (“co-morbidities”) are listed on patient bills to justify higher reimbursements. I think that there is an increasing trend to do this (not necessarily inappropriately), and that, as the authors indicate, the trend is greater among for-profit than teaching hospitals, but in itself this does not suggest a significant difference for privately insured patients compared to those covered by Medicare.
What, then, is the reason? Frankly, I don’t know. It could be simply a coding issue; that is, in order to get greater reimbursement, hospitals list more intercurrent (co-morbid) conditions for private patients in hopes of greater reimbursement, which makes them appear sicker compared to Medicare patients when the latter are actuallysicker. Or it may be that less experienced physicians and surgeons care for them. Or it may be that, despite the willingness of physicians, hospitals are less likely to provide expensive care for patients who, like those covered by Medicare, are reimbursed by diagnosis, not by the cost of treatment. Indeed, there may be other patient characteristics that lead to inequities in care that confound this study, but the idea that it may be because they are insured by Medicare is pretty disturbing.
Actually, in any case it is disturbing. It is already disturbing enough that a large portion of the US population is uninsured or underinsured, and that even with full implementation of the ACA there will still be many, if fewer, of us in that boat. It is disturbing to think that those who are poor and uninsured or poorly insured receive lower quality of care, possibly from less-skilled or less-experienced physicians, than those with private insurance. It is understandable (if not acceptable) that hospitals, physicians, and rehabilitation facilities might prefer to care for relatively young, straightforward patients with a single diagnosis, low likelihood of complications, and clean reimbursement. But if people are receiving poorer-quality care because they are our seniors, that is neither understandable nor acceptable.
It is another strong argument for everyone being covered by the same insurance, by a single-payer plan. Then, whatever differences in quality might be discovered, it would not be by insurance status.
Spencer CS, Gaskin DJ, Roberts ET, “The quality of care delivered to patients within the same hospital varies by insurance type”, Health Affairs Oct2013;32(10):1731-39.