So begins the article ‘Trump Administration Invites Health Care Industry to Help Rewrite Ban on Kickbacks’ by Robert Pear in the NY Times, November 24, 2018. The next sentence provides the ostensible motivation for the rule change: ‘The goal is to open pathways for doctors and hospitals to work together to improve care and save money,’ but the sentence immediately after goes to the meat of the issue: ‘The challenge will be to accomplish that without also increasing the risk of fraud.’
The reason that there are anti-kickback laws in any industry is, of course, to prevent fraud. It is bad enough when we discover that a supposed impartial reviewer of a film or a book, or an item we may want to purchase like a car or a computer, is in fact being paid by one manufacturer to recommend their product. It is even worse if it turns out that the product that they are recommending is us, and that someone that we have trusted with our lives and our health, like a doctor, is being paid to send us to a particular lab or x-ray facility or hospital or specialist. Maybe the one we are being referred to is the best one, but it is hard to trust that if we discover that the doctor has a financial interest in that facility, or is receiving a kickback for those referrals. Most people are afraid of this and thus support anti-kickback laws; the exception is always those within the industry who stand to benefit. Surprise! And, it should be noted, it seems to be a core part of the business model of the Trump Organization.
But what about that middle sentence? The one that says that ‘the goal is to open pathways for doctors and hospitals to work together to improve care and save money’? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal? And both the American Medical Association (AMA) and American Hospital Association (AHA) are supporting the proposals. Am I saying that they are crooks or corrupt? Doesn’t it make sense that there can be not only savings but enhanced quality from the efficiencies that can come from such arrangements? How can we realize the efficiencies if doctors and hospitals are prevented from coordination of care?
The answer, as I see it, is “yes, but..”. There should not be unreasonable restrictions to care coordination, provided that they are upfront and obvious to the consumers (patients) such as in health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and the like which use limited panels of doctors, or public hospitals where care is often provided by employed physicians. The core issue, in health care, is to ensure that these arrangements are truly for the benefit of the health of patients, and not mainly to make more money for the providers. When your physician, Dr. Smith, refers you to a particular specialist (Dr. Jones) because they know them and think they are smart, competent and do good work even though another physician across town may have better results by some measures, it may be good or bad but it is honestly being done by Dr. Smith for your benefit. But if you discover that Dr. Jones is paying Dr. Smith for referrals, you might well be chary of the motivation.
There are several important things to remember in this discussion:
1. Not everyone is, or is likely to become, a crook. There are many, maybe most, individual health care providers (like doctors) who actually care more about people’s heath than profit. There are even some institutional health care providers, hospitals and health systems, that may.
2. There will always be people and institutions who “push the envelope”, and game the system. They will do everything that is legal, even if it violates the spirit and intent of the law, if it makes them more money. “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”.
3. The looser the rules, the more these people and institutions will game it. There is no reason to suspect that money-grubbing cheaters will be satisfied if given a little more. Think about those (maybe me and you) who routinely feel ok about driving 5-10 MPH above the speed limit on a highway. If the speed limit is 65, we may drive 70 or 75. But if it is 75, we drive 80 or more. Raising the limit on what constitutes corruption will not obviate it.
4. Carrots don’t work very well to change such behavior, although sticks might work a little better.
Don McCanne recently discussed a study from RAND called ‘Effects of Health Care Payment Models on Physician Practice in the United States’ which described the many different models being employed by various health systems and physician groups in the US, but alertly appened a reference to a NY Times article on October 27, 2018 by Alfie Kohn titled ‘Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets: Research on the efficacy of rewards tells us that we can’t bribe others into doing what we want’. It reviews the psychological science that there is a difference ‘between intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something for its own sake) and extrinsic motivation (for example, doing something in order to snag a goody). The first is the best predictor of high-quality achievement, and it can actually be undermined by the second. Moreover, when you promise people a reward, they often perform more poorly as a result.’ Indeed, Kohn shows that sticks are not that effective either at changing behavior; I advocate them to some degree because at least they can put the biggest violators in jail!
The Pear article on kickbacks, trying to describe what its supporters see as the good side of loosening restrictions on them, says: ‘‘Federal law generally prevents insurers and health care providers from offering free or discounted goods and services to Medicare and Medicaid patients if the gifts are likely to influence a patient’s choice of a particular provider. Hospital executives say the law creates potential problems when they want to offer social services, free meals, transportation vouchers or housing assistance to patients in the community. Likewise, drug companies say they want to provide financial assistance to Medicare patients who cannot afford their share of the bill for expensive medicines.’ First of all, this is not “likewise”; drug companies who want new customers (and fend off efforts to regulate prices) are different from a hospital or provider offering free or discounted services; extra benefits to attract patients (as opposed to, say, free lunches to attact doctors) are quite different, provided that these are really free, and the cost is not passed on to Medicare or Medicaid!
There is, in fact, a difference between ‘coordinated care’ and ‘graft’.
Pear also writes ‘‘The Justice Department in April accused Insys Therapeutics of paying kickbacks to induce doctors to prescribe its powerful opioid painkiller for their patients. The company said in August that it had reached an agreement in principle to settle the case by paying the government $150 million. The line between patient assistance and marketing tactics is sometimes vague.’
Vague? This is not vague at all. Creating efficiencies to improve care to patients, and reduce costs, especially to patients, is fine. Kickbacks and graft are not.