Confessions of a Health Care Rationer


 
Over at First Things, you will find an excellent article on the topic of rationing in health care, written by a clinical oncologist now working for the insurance industry in evaluating claims for medical necessity. Despite what would at first glance raise concerns about being an apologetic for the private insurance industry, this proves to be a well-balanced essay on the difficult choices in allocating scarce health care resources wisely. It is well worth your time to read in its entirety: Confessions of a Health Care Rationer

It’s a mistake to think of health care as a right. It is not a right; it is a good. Freedom of speech, by contrast, is a right, as is freedom of religious belief. They are privileges that inure to individuals as a consequence of the primordial right, free will. That is why we see them as inalienable. The exercise of these rights does not depend on any action of government, but rather on its inaction. Government may not legitimately interfere with their exercise, but nothing mandates that the government provide us with printing press or chapel.

All modern societies ration health care. A wise society considers the options and chooses a method of doing so which best conforms to its values and capabilities. Thus we come to the terrible question we would so very much like to avoid: How shall we ration health care? How shall we explicitly ration it? So noxious a question is this, so offensive in its tacit assumptions and implications, that most politicians and wishful thinkers will deny that we need to address it at all. They will argue that the fundamental problem is one of distribution, not one of unmeetable demand. They will argue, with more enthusiasm than evidence, that an emphasis on preventive care would substantially reduce aggregate demand. Some will say we must reduce the role of government; others will argue that we should augment it. If only we will adopt their plan—they’ll say—waste, fraud, and abuse will be abolished. There will be chicken—or at least chicken soup—in every pot, and a vaccine in every arm. People love honesty, but they hate the truth. To frankly acknowledge and address the ineluctable reality of healthcare rationing is not merely to touch the proverbial third rail of American politics; it is to lie across the tracks in front of the onrushing train.

Check it out.

Killing Mercy

The ethics of euthanasia, which as an issue generally stays just barely on our radar screens, given the host of contentious social issues taking up our political and cultural bandwidth, nevertheless may ultimately prove to be an enormous dilemma, with profound impact on both our lives as a society and as individuals. While the issue has only occasionally nosed into the political limelight–usually associated with some initiative regarding physician-assisted suicide–the underlying currents which keep this matter very much alive are powerful and unlikely to be resolved easily or painlessly.

There is broad appeal for the idea of euthanasia. It seems to fit perfectly into our Western democratic principles of the autonomy of the individual, rights and freedom, and the desire to control our own destinies. It seems as well an ideal solution to an out-of-control health care system, where technology and advances in life-sustaining capabilities seem to have taken on a life of their own, driving health care costs to extraordinary levels in the final years of our life, and seemingly removing much of the dignity we believe should be the inherent right of the dying. Patient’s families watch helplessly as their loved ones appear to be strung along in their dying days, tubes and wires exiting from every orifice, a relentless train of unknown physicians and ever-changing nurses breezing in and out of their rooms to tweak this medication or that machine. We all wish for something different for ourselves as well as our loved ones, but seem to be incapable of bringing that vision to fruition.

Euthanasia offers what appears to be an ideal solution to many of these difficulties. We love the idea that the individual may choose the time and place of their own demise; we see an easy and painless exit to prolonged suffering; we visualize a measure of mastery returning to a situation where are all seems out of control; we see a solution to pointless expenditures of vast sums of money on patients with little or no hope of recovery. It is for these reasons that initiatives to legalize this process are commonly called “death with dignity” or some similar euphemism reflecting these positive aspects–and when put forward, often find as a result a substantial degree of public approval.

This appeal grows ever stronger as our culture increasingly emphasizes personal autonomy and de-emphasizes social responsibility. We are, after all, the captains of our own ship, are we not? A culture which believes that individual behavior should be virtually without limit as long as “no one is harmed” can see little or no rational reason why such individual autonomy should not be extended to end-of-life decisions.

The reality, unfortunately, is that “no one is harmed” is a uniquely inadequate standard for human behavior, and our autonomy is far less than we would like to believe. It assumes that human behavior occurs in a vacuum. Thus we hear that sexual relations between consenting adults are entirely reasonable if “no one is harmed”–a standard commonly applied to relationships outside of marriage, for example, which often end up having a profound and destructive effect both on the spouse–and particularly on the children. “No one is harmed” serves as mere justification for autonomous behavior while denying or minimizing the inevitable adverse consequences of this behavior. When Joe has an affair with Susie at the office, and ends up in divorce court as a result, there can be little question that many are harmed: Joe’s children, not the least; his wife; perhaps the husband and children of the woman with whom he has had an affair. Yet in the heat of passion, “no one is harmed” is self-evident–believed even if false. And to mention these obvious ramifications of a supposedly “harmless” behavior is to be “judgmental” and therefore must be assiduously avoided.

But the consequences are real, and their ripple effect throughout society is profound: to cite one simple example, children from broken homes are far more prone to become involved in gangs or crime, to be abused sexually or physically; to initiate early sexual activity and become unwed mothers; to under-perform academically, and to have greater difficulty with relationships as teenagers and adults. These effects–particularly when magnified on a society-wide scale–have effects vastly broader than the personal lives of those who have made such autonomous choices.

Similarly, an argument is often used by libertarians (and others) for drug legalization using this same hold-harmless rationale. After all, who could argue with personal drug use in the privacy of your home, since “no one is harmed?” No one is harmed, of course–unless the residual, unrecognized effects of your drug use affects your reflexes while driving the next day, resulting in an accident; or impairs your judgment at work, costing your employer money or resulting in a workplace injury; or when, in the psychotic paranoia of PCP use, you decide your neighbor is trying to kill you, and beat him senseless with a baseball bat; or when the drug itself, in those so physiologically prone, leads to addictive behavior which proves destructive not merely to the individual, but to family, fellow workers, and society as a whole. Burning up every spare dollar of a family’s finances to support a drug habit, and stealing to support it–surely not an unusual scenario–can hardly be qualified as “no one is harmed.” To claim that there is no societal impact from such individual autonomous behavior is profoundly naive, and represents nothing more than wishful thinking.

But what about euthanasia? Surely it is reasonable to end the life of someone who is suffering unbearably, who is beyond the help of medical science, and who has no hope of survival, is it not? This, of course, is the scenario most commonly presented when legalization of euthanasia is promoted. It should be stated without equivocation that such cases do indeed exist, and represent perhaps the most difficult circumstances in which to argue against euthanasia. But it should also be said that such cases are becoming far less common as pain management techniques and physician training in terminal care improve: in my experience, and in the experience of many of my peers who care for the terminally ill, is a rare occurrence indeed that a patient cannot have even severe, intractable pain managed successfully.

But the core arguments used in support of euthanasia in such dire circumstances are easily extended to other terminal situations–or situations not so very terminal at all. Intractable terminal pain merges seamlessly into hopeless prognosis, regardless of time frame; then flows without interruption to chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis or severe disabilities. Once the principle of death as compassion becomes the guiding rule, the Grim Reaper will undergo metamorphosis into an angel of light, ready to serve one and all who suffer needlessly.

To mitigate the risk of this so-called “slippery slope,” it has been suggested that safeguards against such mission creep be crafted. Such measures may invoke mandatory second opinions, waiting periods, or committee review, prior to approval of an act of euthanasia. That such measures are ultimately doomed to fail is self-evident: in effect, they impose a roadblock between patient autonomy and relief of suffering and its amelioration through euthanasia–and thus run counter to the core principle sustaining it. It is not difficult to foresee that such roadblocks will quickly be made less “burdensome,” if not rendered utterly impotent, by relentless pressures to prevent patients from needlessly suffering, regardless of their underlying disease.

Perhaps more importantly, the process of assessing and approving an act of euthanasia through second opinions or committee review is not some ethically neutral decision, such as vetting budget items or inventory purchases. Those who serve in such advisory or regulatory capacity must by necessity be open to–indeed supportive of–the idea of euthanasia, lest all reviewed cases be denied. As demand for euthanasia increases, such approvals will become rubber-stamped formalities, existing solely to provide defensive cover for unrestricted assisted termination.

But such arguments against euthanasia are in essence process-oriented, and miss the much larger picture of the effects of individual euthanasia on our collective attitudes about life and death, and our societal constitution. There can be little question that the practice of actively terminating ill or dying patients will have a profound effect on the physicians who engage in this practice. The first few patients euthanized may be done in a spirit of compassion and mercy–but repetition deadens the soul and habitualizes the process. This is routinely seen in many areas of health care training and practice: the first cut of a novice surgeon is frightening and intimidating; the thousandth incision occurs with nary a thought. One’s first autopsy is ghoulish; the hundredth merely objective fact-finding. Euthanasia, practiced regularly, becomes simply another tool: this can be readily seen in the statistics from the Netherlands, where even 15 years ago, a startling percentage of reported cases of euthanasia by physicians took place without explicit patient request — reflecting far more a utilitarian attitude toward euthanasia than some diabolical conspiracy to terminate the terminal. The detached clinicians, utterly desensitized to the act of taking a life, now utilize it as they would the initiation of parenteral nutrition or the decision to remove a diseased gallbladder.

Such false assumptions about the objective impartiality of the decision-making process leading to euthanasia can be seen as well when looking at the family dynamics of this process. We are presented with the picture of the sad but compassionate family, quietly and peacefully coming to the conclusion that Dad–with his full assent, of course–should mercifully have his suffering ended with a simple, painless injection. Lost in this idyllic fantasy is the reality of life in families. Anyone who has gone through the death of a parent and the settlement of an estate knows first-hand the fault lines such a life crisis can expose: old grievances brought back to life, old hot buttons pushed, greed and avarice bubbling to the surface like a toxic witch’s brew. Does brother John want Dad’s dignified death so he can cop the insurance cash for his gambling habit? Does sister Sue, who hates her father and hasn’t spoken to him in years, now suddenly want his prompt demise out of genuine concern for his comfort and dignity? Are the children–watching the estate get decimated by the costs of terminal care–really being objective about their desire for Mom’s peaceful assisted death? And does Mom, who knows she’s dying, feel pressured to ask for the needle so she won’t be a burden to her children? Bitter divisions will arise in families who favor euthanasia and those who oppose it–whether because of their relationship, good or bad, with the parent, or their moral and ethical convictions. To make euthanasia the solution to difficult problems of death and dying, as suggested by its proponents, will instead require the death of our spirits: a societal hardness of heart whose effects will reach far and wide throughout areas of life and culture far beyond the dying process. Mercy killing will kill our mercy; death with dignity so delivered will leave us not dignified but degraded.

The driving force behind legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is patient autonomy: the desire to maintain control over the dying process, by which, is it hoped, we will maintain our personal dignity. But the end result of legalized euthanasia will instead, in many cases, be loss of patient autonomy. When legalized, medical termination of life will by necessity be instituted with a host of safeguards to prevent its abuse. Such safeguards will include restricting the procedure to those in dire straights: intolerable suffering, a few months to live, and the like. Inherent in these safeguards are the seeds of the death of patient autonomy: such determinations must rely on medical judgments–and therefore will ultimately lie in the hands of physicians rather than patients. It will be physicians who will decide what is intractable pain; it is physicians who will judge how long you have to live; it is physicians who will have the last say on whether your life has hope or is no longer worth living. Such decisions may well be contested–but the legal system will defer to the judgment of the health care profession in these matters. Patient autonomy will quickly become physician autocracy. For those who request euthanasia, it will be easy; for those who do not wish it, but fit the criteria, it will also be far too easy.

This has been the legal and practical evolution of euthanasia in the Netherlands. The legal progression from patient autonomy with safeguards to virtual absence of restrictions on euthanasia is detailed in a superb paper from Brooklyn Law School’s Journal of International Law (available here as a PDF), in which this evolution is detailed:

Soon after the Alkmaar case was decided, the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) published a set of due care guidelines that purported to define the circumstances in which Dutch physicians could ethically perform euthanasia.

The KNMG guidelines stated that, in order for a physician to respond to a euthanasia request with due care,

  • The euthanasia request must be voluntary, persistent, and well-considered.
  • The patient must suffer from intolerable and incurable pain and a discernible, terminal illness.

Thereafter, Dutch courts adopted the KNMG guidelines as the legal prerequisites of due care in a series of cases between 1985 and 2001. Despite the integration of the KNMG’s due care provisions, courts remained confused regarding what clinical circumstances satisfied the requirements of due care. In 1985, a court acquitted an anesthesiologist who provided euthanasia to a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. The court thereby eliminated the due care requirement that a patient must suffer from a terminal illness. By 1986, courts decided that a patient need not suffer from physical pain; mental anguish would also satisfy the intolerable pain due care requirement.

Similarly, all reported prosecutions of euthanasia prior to 1993 involved patients who suffered from either physical or mental pain. Then, in the 1993 Assen case, a district court acquitted a physician who had performed active voluntary euthanasia on an otherwise healthy, forty-three year old woman. The patient did not suffer from any diagnosable physical or mental condition, but had recently lost both of her sons and had divorced her husband. With the Assen case, Dutch courts seemed to abandon the requirement that a patient suffer from intolerable pain or, for that matter, from any discernible medical condition as a pre-condition for the noodtoestand [necessity] defense.

The requisite ambiguity of all such safeguards will invariably result in their legal dilution to the point of meaninglessness–a process which increasingly facilitates the expansion not only of voluntary, but also involuntary euthanasia. This is inevitable when one transitions from a fixed, inviolable principle (it is always wrong for a physician to kill a patient) to a relative standard (you may end their lives under certain circumstances). The “certain circumstances” are negotiable, and once established, will evolve, slowly but inexorably, toward little or no standards at all. When the goalposts are movable, we should not be surprised when they actually get moved.

Another effect rarely considered by those favoring euthanasia is its effect on the relationship between patients and their physicians. The physician-patient relationship at its core depends upon trust: the confidence which a patient has that their physician always has their best interests at heart. This is a critical component of the medical covenant–which may involve inflicting pain and hardship (such as surgery, chemotherapy, or other painful or risky treatments) on the patient for their ultimate benefit. Underlying this trust is the patient’s confidence that the physician will never deliberately do them harm.

Once physicians are empowered to terminate life, this trust will invariably erode. This erosion will occur, even were involuntary euthanasia never to occur–a highly unlikely scenario, given the Dutch experience. It will erode because the patient will now understand that the physician has been given the power to cause them great harm, to kill them–with the full legal and ethical sanction of the law. And the knowledge of this will engender fear: fear that the physician may abuse this power; fear that he or she may misinterpret your end-of-life wishes; fear that he may end your life for improper motives, yet justify it later as a legal and ethical act. The inevitable occurrence of involuntary euthanasia–which in an environment of legalized voluntary euthanasia will rarely if ever be prosecuted–will only augment this fear, especially among the elderly and the disabled. In the Netherlands, many seniors carry cards specifying that they do not wish to have their lives terminated–a reflection of a widespread concern that such an occurrence is not uncommon, and is feared.

Montana judge: man has right to assisted suicide

Effects on physicians:

Helen

Effects on Physicians

PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE IN OREGON:
A MEDICAL PERSPECTIVE

Texas Tort Reform

Over at the Belmont Club, Richard Ramirez has a post citing a proposal by a physician for reform of the health care system. The proposal is thoughtful, with some excellent suggestions (which will never get implemented in today’s environment, sadly).

What caught my eye in the comments was a summary of the changes which tort reform has brought about in Texas by a commenter, Leo Linbeck:

I’m pretty familiar with tort reform in Texas, as my dad was the founding Chairman of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. TLR started in the mid-1990s after forty years of steadily increasing tilting of the civil justice playing field in favor of plaintiffs. There were two major inflection points in this fight:

The 1995 session (with George W. Bush was Governor)

Limited punitive damages
Reformed joint and several liability
Restricted venue shopping
Restored the Deceptive Trade Practices Act to its original purpose of protecting consumers in ordinary consumer transactions
Enacted a half dozen other reforms to curtail specific lawsuit abuses

The 2003 session (with George W. Bush was Governor)

Enacted comprehensive reforms governing medical liability litigation, including a $750,000 limit on non-economic damages
Initiated product liability reforms
Made the burden of proving punitive damages similar to criminal law, requiring a unanimous jury verdict
Comprehensively reformed the statutes governing joint and several liability and class action lawsuits
Imposed limits on appeal bonds, enabling defendants to appeal their lawsuits and not be forced into settlements (this is what pushed Texaco into bankruptcy in its famous lawsuit against Pennzoil)
Further limited the filing of lawsuits that should have been brought in other states or countries

The changes to medical liability in 2003 were extraordinary, and had a very substantial impact, including:

1. In August 2004, the Texas Hospital Association reported a 70% reduction in the number of lawsuits filed against the state’s hospitals.
2. Medical liability insurance rates declined. Many doctors saw average rate reductions of over 21%, with some doctors seeing almost 50% decreases. (Recent information provided to The Perryman Group during the course of this study suggests that premiums are declining even further in 2008.)
3. Beginning in 2003, physicians started returning to Texas. The Texas Medical Board reports licensing 10,878 new physicians since 2003, up from 8,391 in the prior four years. Perryman has determined that at least 1,887 of those physicians are specifically the result of lawsuit reform.
4. In May 2006, the American Medical Association removed Texas from its list of states experiencing a liability crisis, marking the first time it has removed any state from the list. A recent survey by the Texas Medical Association also found a dramatic increase in physicians’ willingness to resume certain procedures they had stopped performing, including obstetrics, neurosurgical, radiation and oncological procedures.

Last year, TLR commissioned a study by The Perryman Group to figure out the impact of these reforms (the above are excerpted from that report). Here are the economic impact findings of that study:

$112.5 billion increase in annual spending
$51.2 billion increase in annual output – goods and services produced in Texas
$2.6 billion increase in annual state tax revenue
$468.9 million in annual benefits from safer products
$15.2 billion in annual net benefits of enhanced innovation
499,000 permanent jobs
430,000 additional Texans have health insurance today as a result of the medical liability reforms

The complete Perryman Group report is here.

As these numbers show, tort reform can have a substantial impact on economic growth and wealth creation, and a huge impact on the healthcare system in particular. Any serious national healthcare reform must include comprehensive tort reform to reduce the practice of defensive medicine and other perverse incentives.

Which is why I do not consider the current proposals from the Obama Administration to be serious (other than being seriously flawed).

Our current re-invention of the health care system, for all its complexity, completely ignores the problem of runaway malpractice lawyers and the costs of defensive medicine. While not surprising, given the huge contributions to the Dems from attorneys, this deficit alone virtually guarantees a disastrous outcome should it be implemented.

Assisted Suicide: Coming to a State Near You

I hope to have more to say on the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend this article by Herbert Hendin, M.D. Dr. Hendin’s book, Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and Assisted Suicide, is an excellent resource on the topic, the result of extensive research and multiple interviews taken while studying euthanasia practices in the Netherlands. This article provides a nice summary of his research and experience, which builds a solid case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Washington has recently become the second state to pass an assisted suicide initiative, and, legislating from the bench, a Montana judge has ruled that man has right to assisted suicide.

This movement is on a roll, and you will want to be informed about why this is such a ghastly public policy trend.

A few highlights from the article:

Concern over charges of abuse led the Dutch government to undertake studies of the practice in 1990, 1995 and in 2001 in which physicians’ anonymity was protected and they were given immunity for anything they revealed. Violations of the guidelines then became evident. Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they “terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request” from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.

An illustration of a case presented to me as requiring euthanasia without consent involved a Dutch nun who was dying painfully of cancer. Her physician felt her religion prevented her from agreeing to euthanasia so he felt both justified and compassionate in ending her life without telling her he was doing so. Practicing assisted suicide and euthanasia appears to encourage physicians to think they know best who should live and who should die, an attitude that leads them to make such decisions without consulting patients–a practice that has no legal sanction in the Netherlands or anywhere else.

Assisted-suicide laws are always framed as being “compassionate” — appealing to the universal fear of dying a prolonged and painful death. Yet the unintended consequences of giving physicians the unrestricted power of life and death are often anything but:

Compassion is not always involved. In one documented case, a patient with disseminated breast cancer who had rejected the possibility of euthanasia had her life ended because, in the physician’s words: “It could have taken another week before she died. I just needed this bed.”

He also extensively studied Oregon’s experience with assisted suicide — the legislation which served as the model for Washington’s law — and found plenty of problems here as well:

Oregon physicians have been given authority without being in a position to exercise it responsibly. They are expected to inform patients that alternatives are possible without being required to be knowledgeable enough to present those alternatives in a meaningful way, or to consult with someone who is. They are expected to evaluate patient decision-making capacity and judgment without a requirement for psychiatric expertise or consultation. They are expected to make decisions about voluntariness without having to see those close to the patient who may be exerting a variety of pressures, from subtle to coercive. They are expected to do all of this without necessarily knowing the patient for longer than 15 days. Since physicians cannot be held responsible for wrongful deaths if they have acted in good faith, substandard medical practice is encouraged, physicians are protected from the con-sequences, and patients are left unprotected while believing they have acquired a new right.

The idea of assisted suicide has enormous allure in a culture of self-gratification and increasingly-shallow moral and ethical principles. Don’t be surprised when it comes your way — be prepared.

The Bounty Hunter


I’ve been feeling a bit remiss (but only a bit) about my light posting of late — but hey, it’s summertime, and if Vanderleun can take a vacation, well, why not me?

But of course there’s always something which comes up, which demands some comment — such as this little blurb in the Wall Street Journal today:

Medicare Auditors Recover $700 Million in Overpayments

 
Auditors have recovered nearly $700 million in Medicare overpayments to hospitals and other medical providers in a half-dozen states under a controversial program that pays the auditing firms a portion of amounts they identify.

The program has drawn fire from health-care providers, and hospitals in particular, who call it overly aggressive and too confrontational. But the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has supported the move and is in the process of expanding it nationally.

In all, the agency’s recovery audit contractor program caught $1.03 billion of improper payments over about three years, primarily in New York, California and Florida, about $992.7 million of which was overpayments by Medicare. The audits also identified about $38 million that providers should have received but didn’t. (Three states were added toward the end of the trial program, but accounted for only a small part of the recoveries, Medicare officials said.)

The program’s expenses amounted to about 20 cents on the dollar, including $187.2 million paid to the audit firms, and medical providers successfully challenged about $60 million of overpayments identified by the auditors. In the end, about $694 million has been returned to the Medicare trust funds, the Medicare agency said. The auditors reviewed a total of $317 billion in claims.

“All in all, we’re very happy with the results,” said Tim Hill, the agency’s chief financial officer and director of its office of financial management. “It returned a lot of money to the trust fund, particularly when you think that we’re talking about three states.”

I’ll bet you’re very happy, Mr. Hill.

Now, at first glance, this would appear to one of Medicare’s already notorious fraud and abuse investigations, carried out by OIG, but no — there’s no accusation of fraud involved here, although the government is more than happy to let this implication stand.

What this involves is demanding refunds based on different interpretations of Medicare’s mind-boggling regulations. So you provide a health care service, and bill Medicare based on your best understanding of its Byzantine regulations, and get paid. Then, at some future date, a third-party auditor, hired by the Feds, reviews the claim and decides — with no input from clinicians or other health care experts — that you were paid in error. Out goes the notice, pay up or else. Of course, this is always a highly objective, impartial review — the fact that the auditor gets a hefty cut of the refund has absolutely no influence on their judgment, none whatsoever.

Of course, you have a right to appeal — on your own dime and time, hiring your lawyers and taking time off from your practice to prove to the bounty hunter that your interpretation of the regulations is the correct one, and his is wrong. If you win, you get to keep the cash you already earned — minus a small stipend for lost time and lawyers fees. So, on that disputed $35 you got for an office call, you might come out, oh, $20,000 short, give or take a few thousand. But hey: You won!! Ain’t it grand?

Of course the low rate of appeals, entirely predictable based on the above freakonomics, is seen as proof that the audits are finding real problems:

Mr. Hill pointed to the low appeal rate — about 14% of overcharges were appealed, and 4.6% of the total were overturned — as evidence that the audits succeeded. “We know that we got the right answer,” he said.

If an 800-pound gorilla wants to make love to you, it’s always best to fake an orgasm. And the luvin’ ain’t over ’till the gorilla says it’s over…

Of course, these auditors also expend large amounts of time and energy looking for cases where you were underpaid:

RACs [Recovery Audit Contracts] are authorized to review payments for the previous 4 years. The software they use is more capable of picking up overpayments than it is underpayments. This discrepancy is borne out by a CMS report showing that 97% of improper payments in fiscal year 2006 were overpayments, and only 3% were underpayments. No money has been reported as having been returned to physicians because of underpayment.

At this point, the program has been primarily focused on hospitals in a few states, but is being rolled out nationwide, and will quickly be auditing physicians and other health care providers.

I have spoken a considerable length about the maze which is our current reimbursement system. It makes perfect sense, in a way, for the Feds to do exactly this: use bounty hunters to exploit the system’s complexity and inscrutability. They will no doubt recover a bundle of money, keeping the band playing on the Titanic for a few more years.

But sooner or later there’ll be a price to be paid — and that price is access. Repeated pay cuts such as the currently stalled 10.4% Medicare fee reduction being bantered around Congress, combined with heavy-handed recovery audits such as these, will drive physicians to the exits in droves. It is already nearly impossible in our area to find a primary care physician who accepts Medicare patients; a few more years of this B.S. and you’ll likely get a pretty clean sweep: best of luck finding anyone who will see you if you have Medicare or any other Federal health insurance.

Happy hunting on your audits, Mr. Hill.

Crossing That Dark River

Often in the sturm und drang of a world gone mad, there comes, through the chaos and insanity, some brief moment of clarity. Such times pass by quickly, and are quickly forgotten — as this brief instance might have been, courtesy of my neighboring bell weather state of Oregon: (HT: Hot Air)

Last month her lung cancer, in remission for about two years, was back. After her oncologist prescribed a cancer drug that could slow the cancer growth and extend her life, [Barbara] Wagner was notified that the Oregon Health Plan wouldn’t cover it.

It would cover comfort and care, including, if she chose, doctor-assisted suicide.

… Treatment of advanced cancer meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not covered by the Oregon Health Plan, said the unsigned letter Wagner received from LIPA, the Eugene company that administers the plan in Lane County.

Officials of LIPA and the state policy-making Health Services Commission say they’ve not changed how they cover treatment of recurrent cancer.

But local oncologists say they’ve seen a change and that their Oregon Health Plan patients with advanced cancer no longer get coverage for chemotherapy if it is considered comfort care.

It doesn’t adhere to the standards of care set out in the oncology community, said Dr. John Caton, an oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Center.

Studies have found that chemotherapy can decrease pain and time spent in the hospital and increases quality of life, Caton said.

The Oregon Health Plan started out rationing health care in 1994.

We have, at last, arrived. The destination was never much in doubt — once the threshold of medical manslaughter had been breached, wrapped as always in comforting words of compassion and dignity, it was only a matter of time before our pragmatism trumped our principles. Once the absolute that physicians should be healers not hangmen was heaved overboard, it was inevitable that the relentless march of relativism would reach its logical port of call.

Death, after all, is expensive — the most expensive thing in life. It was not always so. In remote pasts, it was the very currency of life, short and brutal, with man’s primitive intellect sufficient solely to deal out death, not to defer it. There followed upon this time some glimmer of light and hope, wherein death’s timetable remained unfettered, but its stranglehold and certainty were tempered by a new hope and vision of humanity. We became in that time something more than mortal creatures, something extraordinary, an unspeakable treasure entombed within a fragile and decomposing frame. We became, something more than our mortal bodies; we became, something greater than our pain; we became, something whose beauty shown through even the ghastly horrors of the hour of our demise. Our prophets — then heeded — triumphantly thrust their swords through the dark heart of death: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” We became, in that moment, something more than the physical, something greater than our short and brutish mortality. We became, indeed, truly human, for the very first time.

That humanity transcended and transformed all that we were and were to become, making us unique among creation not only in the foreknowledge of our death, but our transcendence of death itself. Life had meaning beyond the grave — and therefore had far more weight at the threshold of the tomb. Suffering became more than mere fate, but rather sacrifice and purification, preparation and salvation. The wholeness of the soul trumped the health of the body; death was transformed from hopeless certainty to triumphant transition.

But we knew better. We pursued the good, only to destroy the best. We set our minds to conquer death, to destroy disease, to end all pain, to become pure and perfect and permanent. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The diseases which slaughtered us were themselves slayed; the illnesses which tortured and tormented us fell before us. Our lives grew long, and healthier, more comfortable, and more productive. Our newfound longevity and greater health gave rise to ever more miracles, allowing us to pour out our intemperate and precipitous riches with drunken abandon upon dreams of death defeated.

Yet on the flanks of our salient there lay waiting the forces which would strangle and surround our triumphant advance. Our supply lines grew thin; the very lifeblood of our armies of science and medicine, that which made our soldiers not machines but men, grew emaciated and hoary, flaccid and frail. We neglected the soul which sustained our science; the spirit which brought healing to medicine grew cachectic and cold.

So here we stand. We have squandered great wealth to defeat death — only to find ourselves impoverished, and turning to death itself for our answers. The succubus we sought to defeat now dominates us, for she is a lusty and insatiable whore. We have sacrificed our humanity, our compassion, our empathy, our humility in the face of a force far greater than ourselves, while forgetting the power and grace and the vision which first led us and empowered us on this grand crusade. Our weapons are now turned upon us; let the slaughter begin.

We will, no doubt, congratulate ourselves on the wealth we save. We will no doubt develop ever more ingenious and efficient means to facilitate our self-immolation while comforting ourselves with our vast knowledge and perceived compassion. Those who treasure life at its end, who find in and through its suffering and debilitation the joy of relationships, and meaning, and mercy, and grace, will become our enemies, for they will siphon off mammon much needed to mitigate the consequences of our madness.

It has been said, once, that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. We have poured our treasure in untold measure into conquering death — finding succor in our victories, while forgetting how to die. The boatman now awaits us to carry us across that dark river — and we have insufficient moral currency to ignore his call.