The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care

Atul Gawande. The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care. The New Yorker, 1 June 2009. “[H]ealth care [in the US] is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control.” This article compares the health care systems of El Paso and McAllen, Texas and explores the problem of revenue-driven medicine.

Excerpts from story:

[McAllen, Texas] is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns….

El Paso County, eight hundred miles up the border, has essentially the same demographics. Both counties have a population of roughly seven hundred thousand, similar public-health statistics, and similar percentages of non-English speakers, illegal immigrants, and the unemployed. Yet in 2006 Medicare expenditures (our best approximation of over-all spending patterns) in El Paso were $7,504 per enrollee—half as much as in McAllen. An unhealthy population couldn’t possibly be the reason that McAllen’s health-care costs are so high…. [And] there’s no evidence that the treatments and technologies available at McAllen are better than those found elsewhere in the country…. Nor does the care given in McAllen stand out for its quality….

To determine whether overuse of medical care was really the problem in McAllen, I turned to Jonathan Skinner, an economist at Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, which has three decades of expertise in examining regional patterns in Medicare payment data. I also turned to two private firms—D2Hawkeye, an independent company, and Ingenix, UnitedHealthcare’s data-analysis company—to analyze commercial insurance data for McAllen. The answer was yes. Compared with patients in El Paso and nationwide, patients in McAllen got more of pretty much everything—more diagnostic testing, more hospital treatment, more surgery, more home care…. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine….

[Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburgh, Texas] is the newest hospital in the [McAllen, Texas] area. It is physician-owned. And it has a reputation (which it disclaims) for aggressively recruiting high-volume physicians to become investors and send patients there. Physicians who do so receive not only their fee for whatever service they provide but also a percentage of the hospital’s profits from the tests, surgery, or other care patients are given. (In 2007, its profits totalled thirty-four million dollars.) Romero and others argued that this gives physicians an unholy temptation to overorder….

About fifteen years ago [1994], it seems, something began to change in McAllen. A few leaders of local institutions took profit growth to be a legitimate ethic in the practice of medicine. Not all the doctors accepted this. But they failed to discourage those who did. So here, along the banks of the Rio Grande, in the Square Dance Capital of the World, a medical community came to treat patients the way subprime-mortgage lenders treated home buyers: as profit centers….

The real puzzle of American health care, I realized on the airplane home, is not why McAllen is different from El Paso. It’s why El Paso isn’t like McAllen. Every incentive in the system is an invitation to go the way McAllen has gone. Yet, across the country, large numbers of communities have managed to control their health costs rather than ratchet them up.I talked to Denis Cortese, the C.E.O. of the Mayo Clinic, which is among the highest-quality, lowest-cost health-care systems in the country…. The core tenet of the Mayo Clinic is “The needs of the patient come first”—not the convenience of the doctors, not their revenues. The doctors and nurses, and even the janitors, sat in meetings almost weekly, working on ideas to make the service and the care better, not to get more money out of patients….

The Mayo Clinic is not an aberration. One of the lowest-cost markets in the country is Grand Junction, Colorado, a community of a hundred and twenty thousand that nonetheless has achieved some of Medicare’s highest quality-of-care scores…. Grand Junction’s medical community was not following anyone else’s recipe. But, like Mayo, it created what Elliott Fisher, of Dartmouth, calls an accountable-care organization. The leading doctors and the hospital system adopted measures to blunt harmful financial incentives, and they took collective responsibility for improving the sum total of patient care….