Medicare and Perverse Incentives

Medicare does little to reward service providers for quality improments, and in fact often punishes them. Friday’s New York Times provided a blistering indictment:

By better educating doctors about the most effective pneumonia treatments, Intermountain Health Care, a network of 21 hospitals in Utah and Idaho, says it saves at least 70 lives a year. By giving the right drugs at discharge time to more people with congestive heart failure, Intermountain saves another 300 lives annually and prevents almost 600 additional hospital stays.

But under Medicare, none of these good deeds go unpunished.

Intermountain says its initiatives have cost it millions of dollars in lost hospital admissions and lower Medicare reimbursements. In the mid-90’s, for example, it made an average profit of 9 percent treating pneumonia patients; now, delivering better care, it loses an average of several hundred dollars on each case.

“The health care system is perverse,” said a frustrated Dr. Brent C. James, who leads Intermountain’s efforts to improve quality. “The payments are perverse. It pays us to harm patients, and it punishes us when we don’t.”

Intermountain’s doctors and executives are in a swelling vanguard of critics who say that Medicare’s payment system is fundamentally flawed.

Medicare, the nation’s largest purchaser of health care, pays hospitals and doctors a fixed sum to treat a specific diagnosis or perform a given procedure, regardless of the quality of care they provide. Those who work to improve care are not paid extra, and poor care is frequently rewarded, because it creates the need for more procedures and services.

Does the Bush Medicare bill make any serious attempt to address problems like this? No. Paul Krugman, in his column, described the Medicare bill as “a huge subsidy for drug and insurance companies, coupled with a small benefit for retirees.” If we are to improve America’s health care system, no matter what your political stance, the first order of business is to get incentives working for us, not against us. That fight has yet to begin, nor does it currently have much of a constituency behind it in either political party.


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