Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Medicare Killed the Family Doctor -

Richard Hannon: How Medicare Killed the Family Doctor -

Remember Marcus Welby, M.D.? He defined the family doctor on TV in the 1970s, exemplifying the four Cs: caring, competent, confidant and counselor. In the mid-'60s, I remember my father-in-law, a real-life Dr. Welby, telling me the exciting news that the federal government was going to start paying him to see seniors—patients who before he had seen for the proverbial chicken (or nothing at all). That fabulous deal was Medicare.

Medicare introduced a whole new dynamic in the delivery of health care. Gone were the days when physicians were paid based on the value of their services. With payment coming directly from Medicare and the federal government, patients who used to pay the bill themselves no longer cared about the cost of services.

Eventually, that disconnect (and subsequent program expansions) resulted in significant strain on the federal budget. In 1966, the House Ways and Means Committee estimated that by 1990 the Medicare budget would quadruple to $12 billion from $3 billion. In fact, by 1990 it was $107 billion.

To fix the cost problem, Medicare in 1992 began using the "resource based relative value system" (RBRVS), a way of evaluating doctors based on factors such as education, effort and specialized training. But the system didn't consider factors such as outcomes, quality of service, severity or demand.

Today most insurance companies use the Medicare RBRVS because it is perceived as objective. As a result of RBRVS, specialists—especially those who perform a lot of procedures—do extremely well. Primary-care doctors do not.

The primary-care doctor has become a piece-rate worker focused on the volume of patients seen every day. As Medicare and insurers focused on trimming the costs of the most common procedures, the income and job satisfaction of primary-care doctors eroded. So these doctors left, sold or changed their practices.

So who really killed primary care? The idea that a centrally planned system with the right formulas and lots of data could replace the art of practicing medicine; that the human dynamics of market demand and the patient-physician relationship could be ignored. Politicians and mathematicians in ivory towers have placed primary care last in line for respect, resources and prestige—and we all paid an enormous price.

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