We are entering the season of presidential politics, of bunting and cries of "What about the children?" and star-spangled appeals to full-throated patriotism.
So here's mine: Do you count yourself a patriot? Do you care about the future of this country? (And while we are at it, the future of your hospital?) If so, bend your efforts to find ways to care for the least cared for, the most difficult, the chronically complex poor and uninsured.
"But we can't afford compassion!" Wrong, brothers and sisters; we cannot afford to do without compassion. "But why should we pay to take care of people who can't take care of themselves?" Because we are (you are) already paying for them — so let's find the way we can pay the least.
The problem of the overwhelming cost of the "frequent fliers," people with multiple poorly tracked chronic conditions, always has been that the cost was an SEP — "somebody else's problem." Now, increasingly, hospitals and health systems are finding that they are unable to avoid the crushing costs of pretending it's not their problem, are not being paid for readmissions, and are finding themselves in one way or another at risk for the health of whole populations. They're also facing more stringent IRS 990 demands that they demonstrate a clear, accountable public benefit.
At the same time, employers and payers are realizing that they end up paying the costs of the uninsured as well as those of the insured who are overusing the system because they are not being tracked. These costs become part of the costs of the system, and the costs are (and must be) shifted to those who do pay. There is no magic money well under the hospital.
Wait, Wait — Save the Country?
Follow the bouncing ball of the logic here: We must do something about deficit spending, right? Austerity budgeting shafts the economy (as has been demonstrated vividly in Europe), so bringing down the deficit needs to be done gradually. But it needs to be done. Over time, the deficit must be brought down into line with the growing economy. With me so far?
Analysis shows that by far the biggest chunk of the deficit is the continuing and projected rise in health care costs. The rise is from the direct costs to the federal budget of Medicare, military, veterans and federal employee health care spending as well as the rising tax costs of private employers' deductible health plans. Plus, the "health care tax" of putting 18 percent of everything toward medical cost puts a drag on the economy — and a dragging economy means lower tax revenues.
If we spent the same percentage of GDP on health care as Canada, the United Kingdom or Germany, we would have no deficit crisis. The deficit would disappear like frost on a sunlit morning. If we do not succeed in lowering health care costs significantly, no amount of cutting National Parks or NASA or education budgets will ever solve the deficit crisis, because those budgets are vastly smaller. It can't be done. So lowering health care costs is a do-or-die national priority. The health care crisis and the deficit crisis are the same thing.
What are those costs and how do we cut them? Seventy to 75 percent arise from chronic conditions. The majority of those arise from behavior, and almost all of them could be better managed to make cases cheaper by making patients healthier.
Who is spending the money, using the health care resources? This follows a Pareto distribution: 20 percent of the people spend 80 percent of the money; 5 percent of the people spend half the money; 1 percent of the people spend 20 percent of the money.
Who are the 1 percent? Some just got prostate cancer or got hit by a bus. This is their year to be expensive. But a substantial portion of that 1 percent and that 5 percent stay in the same category year after year. So a small percentage of the people use a large percentage of the health care resources by crossing your threshold, showing up in the emergency department and the hospital over and over with the results of their untreated, unmanaged, untracked chronic disease; addictions; and mental problems. And recent studies show that people who have health care coverage (and, therefore, a regular relationship with a primary care doctor and a health care system) cost the overall system half as much as people without coverage.
Bingo! There's the treasure, because experience shows that getting aggressive with untreated chronic disease can substantially lower costs. Trying to ignore them is costing us dearly. It's time to change course.
The Treasure Is There
When Rumi said, "Burn down this house! The treasure you seek is beneath the floor," he presumably was speaking of spiritual treasure. Yet, last year in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, some devotees sued the maharaja running a local temple, concerned that the temple's treasury was being mismanaged and possibly looted. The Supreme Court of India dictated that the subterranean vaults of the temple, sealed for 125 years, be opened and an accounting made. The official party found gold and jewels in one vault alone valued at an estimated $22 billion — and a second vault has yet to be opened.
Health care's treasure has been hidden not in some subterranean sealed vault but in plain sight: It is those thousands and millions of patients with poorly treated and untracked chronic disease that flood our EDs every day. We can mine those cases to reduce health care costs drastically, put our hospitals and health systems on a sound economic footing, make people healthier and, by the way, save the country.
How? Six ways.
Coverage. Push to get everyone covered, one way or another, whether the Affordable Care Act survives or not, including even those whom the ACA does not cover, even the illegal immigrants, the homeless and crazy and addicted people wandering the streets. Why? Because they end up in your ED. You're the dumping ground for the problems society keeps trying to ignore. And this is not just about your getting compensated for your costs. To the extent possible, it should be about health coverage attached to the person. If they are covered, it is much easier to fashion preventive and outreach programs to keep them from your door.
This coverage has to be implemented at the state and local levels, both directly through public programs and through safety net supplemental insurance programs subscribed by the health plan industry. Get everyone covered and two things happen: The covered people cost the system less, and less of that cost is an unrecoverable cost to you.
This is a very difficult goal, because people do not understand that this is a way to spend less money, not more, and that covered people cost the system half as much; it is the rest of us who end up paying those costs. Health systems must campaign for such truly total coverage at every political level, for their own survival and for the good of the country.
Shift in risk. Work with payers, governments and employers to shift the risk from the standard model (fee-for-service, with all financial risk in the payer) to various models in which the provider takes on some risks (as with bundles, warranties, capitation, minicaps, alternative quality contracts and other models) and the patients take on some risk for making a good decision (going to a clinic or an urgent care provider instead of the ED with a minor matter). Pilots show that when poor people are given coverage in the form of a health savings account with deductibles, and when they understand how it works, they treat the money as their own, and conserve it, even when all of it is given to them as a subsidy. So a carefully titrated level of risk works across the spectrum of class.
Incentivized wellness. Work with employers, health plans and public agencies to get as many people as possible into incentivized wellness programs, which give people financial rewards (such as lower premiums) when they participate and meet simple goals. Correctly done, these programs reduce the actual costs for covering the whole population (including those who do not participate) by 10 percent or more.
Targeting. Find and go after that 5 percent, that 1 percent who are costing the most money. Some of the cost will be recoverable, some will not; but go after them anyway, because the costs spiral out of control once they cross your threshold.
Let me teach a technical economic term, in case you don't know it. The term is bupkis. It's from Yiddish and means "nothing, an inconsiderable sum." Or, as one health care chief financial officer put it to me, "lost in the noise." That's what it costs to reach out to someone with some smart prevention, or to treat them in a clinic, rather than treating them when they are hauled into the ED comatose with something that could have been prevented or caught in an earlier stage. That's the cost, relatively. Crumbs. Footnotes. Bupkis.
You can target patients in a number of ways: You can forward-base free or sliding-scale clinics in the parts of town from which you get the most costly cases. You can find ways to help the Federally Qualified Health Centers that already may exist in those parts of town. You can subsidize independent free clinics that already exist.
You can use "big data" from geographic information systems such as Stratasan GIS, Explorys Population Explorer, the Healthy Communities Institute and the free, open-source Community Commons to "hotspot" your community — or you can do a first pass on it just by talking to the cops and EMTs that come into your ED. You can establish a crack Camden-style team to go after the 0.1 percent toughest and most expensive individuals.
Some systems, like Spectrum in southwest Michigan, are setting up special clinics to go after and treat anyone who has shown up in their ED 10 times in one year.
Some doctors will complain that you are stealing their business. By definition, if these people are showing up in your ED with untreated chronic disease, either they are not those doctors' customers, or those docs are not doing their job. Steal away.
Many people, clinicians and citizens, will tell you that those folks are untreatable, because they are addicts, or you can't affect their behavior, and this and that. True of some, but it's a numbers game. When the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers began targeting the worst, most complex, most expensive cases, they were able to reduce hospitalization of those they took on by 56 percent. Any way you add it up, that's a huge saving.
Public health. You must seek partners in all of this. Payers and employers are the best possible partners, since they shoulder a lot of the cost burden with you. But federal, state and local public health officials are equally important. In my years of talking to health care executives, I continue to be astonished at how many of them do not even know the names of local public health officials, much less collaborate with them on a regular basis.
Healthy Communities. Finally, at the furthest remove from your ED threshold is the Healthy Communities movement. There are local groups in most places across the country, supporting programs dealing with everything from effluents to traffic to education to AIDS awareness. The return on investment is always large because the investment is so small compared with the ED visits, surgeries, premature births, and NICU and ICU use that they eventually prevent.
We will save much more money, shore up our finances and help solve the deficit problem when we stop waiting passively for people to cross our threshold and begin aggressively exporting health to those who need it the most.
Joe Flower is a health care futurist and CEO of The Change Project Inc., and its health care education arm, Imagine What If. He is also a regular contributor to H&HN Daily, a member of Speakers Express and author of Healthcare Beyond Reform: Doing It Right for Half the Cost (Productivity Press, 2012).