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Expansion of Medicaid – What REALLY Matters?

Quality care diceA new randomized and controlled clinical trial provides fascinating information for Iowa (and other states) to review while policymakers consider whether or not to expand Medicaid. I highly encourage you to read this study, as it helps frame the real issues we must focus on as a state and country.

Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, ‘The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,’ study reviews the potential effects of expanding Medicaid to impact healthy outcomes when health coverage becomes available to low-income adults. As you have correctly guessed, the petri dish for this experiment was the state of Oregon.

When expanding Medicaid for the poor, the primary benefits can be lower depression rates, greater health-care utilization and the elimination of catastrophic medical expenses for those who acquire the insurance. According to the study’s primary author, Katherine Baicker, a Harvard health economics professor, “The purpose of insurance is not to just get you access to healthcare, it’s to protect you from financial ruin if you have an expensive condition.” Dr. Baicker was one of many speakers at Harvard’s “Forces of Change” series on healthcare that I attended in Boston a few years back…she is a wickedly smart and a concise researcher.

In Iowa, a great debate has erupted (mostly along partisan lines) about whether to expand Medicaid or pursue a new but untested plan offered by Governor Branstad. Both approaches have supporters and critics for a number of reasons – arguments founded on facts, emotion and, you guessed it, politics.

So what is the truth?

I don’t pretend to have the answer. However, the Oregon Experiment does give additional insight on the implications for any legislative activity enacted in this state. It is common knowledge that having insurance coverage allows us to seek medical care that will make us healthier and more productive…and we won’t go bankrupt. We also know that having insurance provides each of us a peace of mind, it certainly does for me. Finally, having insurance improves access to healthcare providers and services. Enough said, right?

Not so fast – after learning of this new study, we may need to reassess this logic and maybe qualify it a bit more. The study findings consistently support the importance of delivering QUALITY health care to our population. To borrow a quote from Dr. Ashish Jha, another wickedly smart physician and researcher at Harvard, “The explanation is simple. It’s not about access to healthcare; it’s about access to high quality healthcare.” Baicker’s recent study certainly supports Dr. Jha’s conclusions.

We cannot expect to have a healthier population by merely providing insurance to gain access to necessary care. In fact, there is evidence that shows doctors who spend a great deal of their time serving Medicaid recipients deliver lower-quality care. Insurance will unlock the door to gaining access to care, but having this access does not ensure we receive quality care that will improve our health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) attempts to improve access to care for those least fortunate in our society – and most everyone agrees that this is important. However, the ACA does little to control spiraling costs and improve the quality of care being delivered. By adding more insureds into an already dysfunctional, high-cost ‘system,’ will only make our health costs considerably greater and even more uncontrollable over time.

It’s like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Improving the health of our population means that we must pursue logical steps to ensure that high-quality care is being delivered at a reasonable cost. Gaining access to care is not enough…we must commit to having high-quality care accompany this access. Dr. Jha articulated this point very well: “Quality is the link between healthcare services and better health outcomes.”

It is time to make sure this healthcare ship is traveling in the right direction. It’s what we all should demand…it’s what we all deserve!

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