Joanne Laurier from the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) interviewed me recently about Poverty, Health Care Reform and the Dartmouth Atlas. Here’s what I had to say:
“There are basically two problems with the Dartmouth group’s approach. One is methodological and the other is ideological. Although they are quick to point out that they have published 100 papers, these are based on only a few methodologies—and each is flawed. I’ll get into what’s wrong with their methodology later.
But even if they were right, they’re burdened with another problem—ideology. It’s not unusual for policy research to be burdened in this way. In the case of Dartmouth, it’s to an extreme. And, worse, through Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, their ideology has become the cornerstone of health care reform.
It was John Wennberg and his associate, Elliott Fisher, who led Orszag and others to believe that studies of geographic variation prove that doctors and hospitals over-treat and over-charge, to no benefit. And it was they who proposed the 30 percent solution, claiming that the money needed for health care reform was easily available—no new taxes would be required (as President Obama had promised).
If only health care were “more efficient,” the nation could save 30 percent of health care expenditures, $700 billion annually. And to create that “efficiency,” all that was needed was to force all providers to function like the Mayo Clinic (which cares predominantly for white, middle-class patients) and to utilize more primary care physicians (which Mayo doesn’t).
That’s what I call the sin of commission—the tragedy of misleading the process of health care reform. There’s a second sin—the sin of omission, or obfuscation. It’s not simply that the Dartmouth work on geographic differences is methodologically wrong and its conclusions incorrect, nor simply that its policy implications misdirected health care reform. It’s that there is another explanation for the geographic differences, which has to do with differences in the distribution of poverty.
So all the while that they talked about saving money by reducing wasteful geographic variation (by providing less care where it’s actually needed), the fundamental needs of the poor and the large added costs of caring for them were ignored.
It’s actually worse. Poverty was denied, because it couldn’t be both ways. Either the Dartmouth group was right and the high costs in some areas were because of too many specialists and hospitals doing too many unneeded things, or this higher spending was due to the added costs of caring for the poor. The truth is that it is the latter.
Therefore, the only way to really save money is to make a long-term commitment to ameliorating the high health care costs that are a result of poverty and other social determinants of disease. Not that there aren’t inefficiencies. But physicians have been dealing with inefficiencies as long as I’ve been a doctor—which is 50 years—and certainly before that.
As medicine evolves, there are always more inefficiencies to deal with, but as fast as we deal with them, new ones emerge. So constant diligence is necessary. But is medicine more efficient than in 1960? You bet it is. And is poverty a bigger problem for health care spending now than it was then? You bet. We seem to know how to make things more efficient. But as a nation, we aren’t very good at reigning in poverty. It just grows.”
Read more on the WSWS Web page.