In the past few weeks, no fewer than three highly respected groups have proposed major health care reforms. They all promise greater use of patient-centered integrated care, but none include supports and services for frail elders or younger people with disabilities.
It took four decades to incorporate a drug benefit into Medicare. Now we seem to be in the same place with supports and services for people with chronic disease. If you were building a health system from scratch, you’d never leave out the non-medical assistance people need to help manage chronic illness—say, help with personal hygiene.
It makes no sense to include physical therapy as part of a plan of care if a patient has no way to get to the therapist. The greatest electronic medical record in the world can’t help someone who is malnourished because she can no longer shop or cook for herself.
Yet, none of these ambitious plans, which otherwise have a lot to offer, integrates such care into a new health system.
Maybe the authors are too focused on traditional medical treatment. Maybe they worry about what they fear will be the added cost—though done right, integrating health and personal care could save money. Maybe they don’t want to open the political can of worms that is long-term care.
But the health challenge for most seniors is chronic disease, and the aim of good care ought to be preventing chronic, manageable conditions from spiraling into acute episodes that result in costly and debilitating hospitalizations. And a good way to do that may be to provide a modest suite of personal services and supports to these patients.
But none of these plans includes such a design.
All aim to improve care and save money. All are built on better coordinating care. And all would reward both providers and patients for participating in health plans that provide high-quality care at low cost.
The first proposal comes from Cathy Schoen and Stuart Guterman of the Commonwealth Fund and Karen Davis, the long-time head of Commonwealth who is now at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They propose a program called Medicare Essential which would combine the program’s hospital, physician, and drug coverage (Parts A, B, and D) into a single integrated benefit.
The second plan was designed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think-tank, and is aimed at cost containment and quality improvement. It proposes broad system reforms, including a new Medicare design it calls as Medicare Networks. It too focuses largely on medical care. There is a role for nursing facilities and home health agencies, but only as post-acute care providers. These networks would provide some care coordination for those with chronic disease, but not delivery of long-term supports and services.
The third plan was sponsored by the Brookings Institution but designed by a group of health experts from across the policy spectrum including former Medicare and Medicaid administrators Mark McClellan and Mike Leavitt, former OMB directors Peter Orszag and Alice Rivlin and health policy analysts such as Katherine Baicker, Michael Chernew, and David Cutler of Harvard, and Mark Pauly of the Wharton School. Two members, Rivlin and former Senator Tom Daschle, also served on the BPC panel.
This model, like the BPC plan, would make major changes in both Medicare and Medicaid (as well as in the broader health delivery system). It contemplates some limited models of care integration for those who are dually eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid (something many states are already doing). However, its proposal to move Medicare to what it calls Medicare Comprehensive Care is a different story.
It too recognizes the needs of elders with multiple chronic disease, but seems to include only care coordination services, not the added personal care itself within its integrated care model.
Don’t get me wrong. All of these plans are ambitious and all seem to anticipate the political system’s drive towards better integrated care. But they ignore a critical piece of the puzzle for 12 million people now receiving long-term supports and services, a number than will double by 2030. Medical care alone, no matter how good it is, will not improve the quality of life for these people and their caregivers.
The smart people who designed these new reforms need to think a bit more creatively for that to happen.