Saturday, November 24, 2012

Health reform, ACA, and Primary Care: Is there still a conundrum?

Now that the election is over and the fact of the Affordable Care Act seems assured by the victory of the President and the increase in the Democratic majority in the Senate along with the Supreme Court’s upholding of most of the ACA’s provisions, the characteristics of change in the health care system (or, as I have often noted, non-system) can begin to be outlined. In my last post (November 17, 2012), I took note of the fact that even if the ACA is fully implemented there will be 30 million uninsured. If the states (mostly controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, including my own, Kansas) that have threatened to not participate in Medicaid expansion actually do not (and they can refuse; this is the part of ACA that the Supreme Court decision overturned), that number will be higher. But, clearly, there will be a large increase in the number of Americans with insurance coverage.

The big “systems” question is “How should health care delivery systems in the US re-engineer to deliver more efficient, more cost-effective care to more people for less money?” The key answer here is “more primary care”. Systems built around primary care have higher quality and lower cost than those which are built around specialty and sub-specialty practice. This has been recognized by the large health systems that do exist in the US (prototypically, Kaiser, but also others such as Geisinger in Pennsylvania, Cleveland Clinic, Inter-Mountain Health, and the model used in Grand Junction, CO) which are built around a large primary care base. They also have expanded services to support the practitioners (family physicians, most commonly, but also general internists, general pediatricians, and primary care nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants), which include many duties that do not have to be done by the physician (or NP or PA) being discharge by nurses, pharmacists, social workers and even community health workers.

Such organizations can do this because their systems are large enough, and because its expenditures in one area (say, higher salaries for primary care, or employing community health workers or more nurses, or more pharmacists) realize greater savings in other parts of its balance sheet. It works particularly well for Kaiser, because they are also the insurance company. This is what can happen with central planning and resource allocation, and provides some of the economic justification for a single-payer health system. In the current setup, especially in parts of the country less penetrated by large health systems, it can remain “everyone for themselves”. If the same organization does not control the primary care, specialty care, and hospital care, investments in one area will not necessarily result in savings in another.

The hope of ACA is that it will encourage even the most recalcitrant, specialist-dominated, fee-for-service communities to form such integrated models, called “Accountable Care Organizations”, or ACOs.    If these are to work, it will have to mean more primary care and fewer expensive (and profitable to the providers) procedures. The “primary care conundrum” is really two: there are not enough primary care providers (physicians, NPs, PAs) to meet the current demand, not to mention that which will arise in part from expansion of coverage but even more from expansion and aging of the population (see Petterson et al. “Projecting US Primary Care Physician Workforce Need [1]), and in most parts of the country the financial incentives are not in favor of students entering primary care, so this imbalance will increase.

Some communities, and even some academic health centers, are actively and aggressively moving toward the creation of ACOs; an excellent recent article in Health Affairs by Al Tallia and Jenna Howard [2] describes both the progress and the challenges of one AHC’s efforts to do so. The complexities and competing interests that exist in a situation such as that in New Jersey are a far cry from the integrated Kaiser model, but the obstacles appear as if they can be overcome, especially when, as under many of the provisions of ACA (most particularly not reimbursing hospitals for readmissions), the financial incentives are aligned.

The creation of additional primary care providers is going to be a longer haul. Payments for primary care are rising significantly in the same parts of the country where integrated health systems are dominant, as illustrated by quotes from a couple of family medicine chairs:
<           “…family physician salaries are going up quickly in Northeast Ohio. At Cleveland Clinic we have raised salaries of all family physicians by an average of 24% in the past 4 years.” (John Hickner)

\    •       n my neck of the woods (CA), there is huge unmet demand specifically for family physicians and enlightened organizations like Kaiser are paying handsome salaries (stunningly so) for FP grads fresh out of residency, and also offering loan repayment.”

But this is certainly not uniform across the country, and even in these areas, despite such big increases, the earnings of a family doctor are much smaller than those of many other specialists. (Hey, a 24% increase is good, but when previously your income was 1/3 of some subspecialists, it still leaves a large gap.) Research by the Robert Graham Center [3] suggests that income no longer plays a role in specialty choice when the lower-paid specialty earns 70% or more of the higher paid. More significantly, even if there is great movement into primary care, it will take decades to begin to approach the 50% ratio in the overall workforce.

So, we are left with good news and bad news. The good news is that more people will be covered; the bad news is that there will still be many left out. The good news is that in some parts of the country integrated health systems are demonstrating cost-effective ways of delivering health care and rewarding the primary care workforce; the bad news is that it is not by any means consistently happening across the country. The good news is that this seems to work best not only when every patient involved is insured, but when the expenditures and savings are realized by the same organization; the bad news is that there are lots of people outside of such a system and lots of places where medical practice is still “everyone for himself”. The good news is that there is increasing recognition of the importance of primary care practice; the bad news is primary care incomes still lag seriously behind that of many other specialists while medical school debt is rising. The good news is that team-based care is the most effective model; the bad news is that there is still inter-professional and inter-disciplinary competition rather than collaboration.

We can work to turn the bad news into good. But we must keep our eyes on all the problems, not just a few. The cost-effective, high-quality health systems that are developed will not be truly good news until everyone benefits from them.


[1] Petterson S, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs: 2010-2025”,Ann Fam Med 2012;10:503-509. doi:10.1370/afm.1431
[2] Tallia A, Howard J, “An Accountable Care Organization An Academic Health Center Sees Both Challenges And Enabling Forces As It Creates An Accountable Care Organization”, Health Affairs, 31, no.11 (2012):2388-2394
[3] Check out this very cool “Primary Care Mapper” from the Graham Center.

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