Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Now a Mainstream Notion: "Profit-seeking Players in Finance and Health Care Have Captured Congress"

We have been writing - some might say wailing Cassandra-like - about health care dysfunction since I published about it in the European Journal of Internal Medicine in 2003.(1) However, while our dismal warnings were inspired by fears of  health care professionals who saw bad things happening in their local health care environments, the notion that things were really bad in health care really did not get a lot of traction. After all, we were in the second decade of a prolonged economic "great moderation," the good times were rolling, so who was really worried by a few whiners and complainers in health care?

However, after the fall of Lehman Brothers ushered in the global financial collapse, or great recession, this complacency was disturbed, and it began to appear that our problems in health care were not unique, but were linked to much bigger problems in the general political economy. However, the stock market rebounded, the bankers went back to making money, and economists declared the great recession over, reassuring those on the right, although the middle class continued to whine and complain about unemployment, stagnant wages, and mortgage foreclosures. Furthermore, a Democratic administration legislated both financial and health care reform, reassuring those on the left.

We on Health Care Renewal went on and on that things were not better, and health care reform no more than barely scratched the surface.

Now with stock markets falling around the world, it appears that the great recession/ global financial collapse may not really be over.  In this increasingly dismal era, the notion that health care dysfunction has not really improved, and may in fact be an important component of the larger political economic problems may be getting more mainstream.

To wit, last week, David Wessel wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Two big sectors of the U.S. economy have been on steroids: finance and health care. If anything is crowding out more productive activities, it's them, as ... [New York University economist Paul] Romer argued in a recent National Academy of Sciences lecture.

The bloated financial sector—all those brains lured by big bucks who might otherwise have been employed in science, software, engineering or other fields—has harmed the U.S. economy more than any of our post-World War II communist adversaries did.

The American health system costs more per person than any other, but isn't delivering the world's healthiest people. The U.S. isn't getting its money's worth from either sector.

Furthermore, his diagnosis of the problem sounds like something we might have written on Health Care Renewal, if we wrote as well as he does:
Profit-seeking players in finance and health care have captured Congress, resisted regulation that would curb their excesses and exploited antiquated rules and policy for private gain.

[Paul Romer said,] 'The legislative process may just be too vulnerable to manipulation by very well-financed entities with an enormous amount of wealth and income at stake,' he said. 'Congress is for sale at bargain-basement prices.'
My only quibble is that while those who have personally profited from health care and finance have exploited antiquated rules, they also cannily managed to dispose of many time-proven rules that stood in their way.

In any case, we have written repeatedly about the linkages between finance and health care,(2) and how the current corrupt culture of finance has affected health care; that true health care reform will be very difficult because it will be resisted by those who have been made wealthy by the current system;(3) that they were made wealthy by the increasing commercialization of health care accompanied by the abandonment of previous regulations and safeguards;(4) and about their use of regulatory capture and embedded networks of influence(5) to further their aims.

You heard it here first.

Wessel's solution is:
Congress should tie its own hands more often, retaining power to investigate and vote proposals up or down but avoiding the detailed crafting of legislative provisions that influence the flow of money.

In other words, he wants more bodies such as the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (to decide which military bases to close), the Independent Payment Advisory Board (to identify ways Medicare can save money) and, perhaps, the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (to find $1.5 trillion in deficit-reduction cuts).
Maybe that's an answer. But it's clear that future prosperity depends on the U.S.—its government, business, people and universities—coalescing behind a strategy for growth and creating incentives so talent and capital flow to promising sectors where the U.S. still has an edge in an increasingly competitive global economy.

My general suggestions maybe are complementary.

True health care reform would help physicians and other health care professionals uphold their traditional values, including, as the AMA once stated, "the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade." True health care reform would put health care "delivery" back in the hands of mission-focused, not-for-profit organizations, which put patients' health, safety and welfare first.

Health care organizations need leaders that uphold the core values of health care, and focus on and are accountable for the mission, not on secondary responsibilities that conflict with these values and their mission, and not on self-enrichment. Leaders ought to be rewarded reasonably, but not lavishly, for doing what ultimately improves patient care, or when applicable, good education and good research.

If we do not fix the severe problems affecting the leadership and governance of health care, and do not increase accountability, integrity and transparency of health care leadership and governance, we will be as much to blame as the leaders when the system collapses.


1. Poses RM. A cautionary tale: the dysfunction of American health care.  Eur J Int Med 2003; 14: 123-130.  Link here.

2.  Medical school leaders become stewards (as members of boards of directors) of for-profit health care corporations - An example is here, and a summary of how we discovered this phenomenon in 2006 is here. The conflict of interest is severe because directors of for-profit corporations are supposed to have unyielding loyalty to the interests of the corporation and its stockholders, although they are frequently accused of acting mainly as cronies of the top hired executives (see here and here).

Leaders of failed finance firms become stewards of academic medicine - We have found numerous examples, e.g., here, here, and here, of top executives and/or board members of the finance firms who helped bring on the global financial collapse also being trustees of medical schools, academic medical centers, or their parent universities. Such "stewards" may bring to the academic environment the "greed is good" culture now pervasive in finance.

3.  For example, see this post and its links
4. In the US, a Supreme Court decision was interpreted to mean that medical societies could no longer regulate the ethics of their members.  Until 1980, the US American Medical Association had  ruled that the practice of medicine should not be "commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."  After then, it ceased trying to maintain this prohibition.  The result was increasing, now rampant commercialization.  See posts here and here.   Furthermore, the notion that information asymmetry, uncertainty and ambiguity, and inability of patients to make coldly rational decisions about disease and its management made it impossible for health care to be an ideal free market, necessitating mechanisms to compensate for market failure became passe.  Such mechanisms were then abandoned, with disastrous results.  For further discussion, see this post
5.  For example, see this post


Steve Lucas said...

Well done.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

A perfect example of this is the sham and charade of HIT devices. Not only has Congress been bought, but the POTUS and HHS Secretary demand no FDA regulation of these dangerous devices.

Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz's web site reads like an infomercial for HIT. She sits on the Ways and Means Committee.

Alison Bass said...

I couldn't agree more. For-profit medicine has no place in health care. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Amen, but you are preaching to the choir. Did you see thw WSJ article entitled "Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge" -- same problem as what you describe.mycepa

Judy B said...

Unfortunately, no one is listening. How do we get those in power to actually pay attention to anything except their bloated paychecks?

Cetamua said...

Not only do they buy Congress, but they adopt the style of PR obfuscation so dear to venal politicians of all stripes.

Here's a remarkable example:

Meadowlands hospital CEO says state report on health violations is 'propaganda campaign' by activists

URL: http://www.nj.com/jjournal-news/index.ssf/2011/08/meadowlands_hospital_ceo_slams.html

You just cannot make that stuff up. In any decent society, this CEO would be laugh at, while the BoD, collectively holding their rib cages, would kick his keister out of the building ASAP.

Afraid said...

It is time to make this an election theme. Only election themes that generate promises get action.