Most conservative critics of the Massachusetts health reform have focused on any piece of bad news about the program they can find. After all, if this is the model for the federal legislation everyone calls “ObamaCare” it’s got to have a lot of defects. Right?
Not so fast. The real story coming out of Massachusetts is that the whole thing is a yawner. Health reform in the Bay State has been mainly about money: who writes the checks and who cashes them. That shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s usually what health reform is about. But what about the effect on patients? As it turns out, there has been very little change at all.
Does that mean that health reform at the federal level might also be benign? I wish. Unfortunately, ObamaCare introduces new and dangerous distortions that you don’t find in Massachusetts — partly because states don’t have the same powers as the federal government. More about that below.
On paper, it looks as though the state has made major progress in insuring the uninsured. From 6.4% of the population in 2006, the uninsured hover around 2% today. However, one study found that nearly all of the newly insured are either on Medicaid, in a state-subsidized plan or in an employer subsidized plan. Only 7% of the newly insured, or about 30,000 people, are directly paying their own way. It’s relatively easy to get people to sign up for insurance when coverage is free or almost free. And it’s not very expensive if you pay for the subsidies using money you would have spent anyway on free care for those who can’t pay their medical bills.
But aside from moving money from one bucket to another, have any real problems been solved? The evidence isn’t positive.
There are three major problems in health care all over the world: cost, quality and access. Since nothing in the Massachusetts reform addressed the problems of rising costs and less than adequate quality, those problems have remained more or less unchanged. What about access to care? Surely, newly insured people have more options in the medical marketplace.
The trouble is that almost all of the newly insured are in health plans that pay doctors and hospitals a lot less than what private insurance pays. Like other places around the country, Massachusetts Medicaid (called MassHealth) pays providers so little that patients often turn to hospital emergency rooms and community health centers for their care when they can’t find doctors who will see them. People in the newly subsidized private insurance plans aren’t faring much better because these plans pay only slightly more than what Medicaid pays.
The only solid analysis of what has actually happened to patients at this point is a study by Sharon Long and Paul Masi published in the journal Health Affairs. According to the study:
• There has been no significant change in the number of Massachusetts patients seeking care in hospital emergency rooms since the reform was implemented, and there has actually been an increase in emergency room use by people with incomes below 300% of the poverty level.
• There has been an increase in doctor visits but no change in visits to specialists and an actual decrease in “medical tests, treatment and follow up care,” which I assume is care for the chronically ill.
• There has been no change in the percent of the population reporting a failure to “get needed care for any reason within the past 12 months” and remarkably that includes one-third of those with incomes below 300% of the poverty level.
The problem with counting up doctor visits is that a visit is not always a visit. Nationally, in the state children’s health insurance program (CHIP) doctors have responded to an increase in the demand for their services by scheduling more appointments, but spending less time with patients. Also, you would think that the Massachusetts reform would shift health care resources from the general population to those with less income. But there is no evidence that has happened. On measures of access, the gap between the poor plus the near poor and everyone else appears not to have changed at all!
Ask yourself why you care whether other people have health insurance? The most likely reason is that you want people to have access to health care. But lack of access to care is a huge problem in Massachusetts right now. As I previously reported more than half of all family doctors and more than half of all internists are not accepting new patients. The wait is more than a month before a new patient is able to see a family doctor, and the wait to see an internist averages 48 days. The average wait in Boston to see a family doctor is more than two months.
What I am now reporting will be different than what you may have read in the newspapers or at other health blogs. MIT Professor Jon Gruber calls Massachusetts an unqualified success, citing some of the very same studies I am citing. But since Gruber was one of the architects of the Massachusetts health reform, this is like a student grading his own exam.
What about elevating the Massachusetts reforms to the national level in the form of ObamaCare? As I have previously reported, ObamaCare is likely to result in less access to care for our most vulnerable populations: the disabled and the elderly on Medicare, the poor on Medicaid and the near poor in newly subsidized private insurance. But that is only the beginning.
ObamaCare threatens a federal takeover of the practice of medicine. It threatens to cost millions of people their jobs. It threatens to cause a wasteful restructuring of American industry in a way that will make us less efficient and less competitive in the international marketplace. It will cause millions to lose their employer sponsored insurance. And it threatens to create health plans with perverse incentives to underprovide care to the patients most in need of the miracles of modern medical science.
ObamaCare will be anything but benign.