August 7, 2020
In the late 1940s, the United Kingdom was busily reassembling country and what remained of the empire in the aftermath of World War II. Among many revelations, the war had convinced Britain’s leaders of the need to provide healthcare for all in the event of calamity upending the basic functions of a civilized society. With that, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) was born.
In 2020, all perspectives about quality and the time it takes to see a provider aside, the NHS remains quite popular among UK citizens and is an enduring source of national pride.
With the United States in the midst of its own upheaval, it’s time for a related question: Might the current COVID-19 situation give rise to significant changes to the American healthcare system?
Virtually no one thinks the correct answer is ‘No.’ Things will change. The question is how and to what extent. The healthcare system in place in the United States now is dramatically more complex than that in use by Britons after WW II. There are so many moving parts, so many things that can break.
So, in which aspects of the current American healthcare system are we likely to see changes after COVID-19 is dealt with?
Telehealth: Someone always benefits in a catastrophe. In this case, that someone may be Zoom shareholders.
From 10 million daily users in December, Zoom rocketed to 200 million in March and nearly 300 million a month later. Much of that was healthcare related.
Of course, Zoom is not the only direct beneficiary of coronavirus as venerable meeting platforms like WebEx and Skype, among others, have also experienced dramatic growth.
Hospitals and health systems were incrementally implementing telehealth services prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but there was no sense of urgency that accompanies a rapidly spreading virus. Since then, the federal government, states and insurance companies have allocated funds and rewritten regulation to expand the use of telehealth.
But there are more telehealth related-issues to address, some of which have thorns. Service and payment parity across insurance companies is an issue. If telehealth is going to be a regular component of healthcare, technology gaps will have to be addressed, especially in rural areas.
This is something the federal government recognizes. The White House recently drafted an executive order oriented around improving rural health by expanding technology access, developing new payment models and reducing regulatory burdens. The EO tasks the secretaries of health and human services and agriculture to work with the Federal Communications Commission to “develop and implement a strategy to improve rural health by improving the physical and communications healthcare infrastructure available to rural Americans.” But until Congress gets involved and provides funding for something like this, it will probably never get out of the proposal phase.
In fact, there are enough concerns—parity, technology gaps, added costs—associated with telehealth to wonder if it will endure after coronavirus is in the rear view. Enough about telehealth benefits both providers and patients for it to stick and proliferate, but that could also be said about any number of healthcare initiatives that seem to languish for lack of coordination and political will.
Health Insurance: This is where the NHS analogy is the most relevant. Many millions of workers are furloughed or simply laid off with the impact of COVID-19 on frontline jobs like restaurant worker, massage therapist and barista. Those who had insurance through work may not have it anymore, leaving them doubly vulnerable—no coverage, no income—to illness or accident.
Mass unemployment episodes reveal, each time, the weakness in the patchwork employment-based healthcare insurance system we’ve sort of made peace with for decades. Sure, Medicaid exists to fill the gaps, but it may make sense to render Medicaid unnecessary, especially since its value is questionable in particular states.
“You notice the number of band-aids that Congress is having to apply to help people who have lost their jobs,” said former CMS Administrator Don Berwick, MD. “What we have now is a whole series of band-aids and special measures. What if instead, we just had universal health insurance?”
What if, indeed. Will COVID-19 be the straw that burns the bridge of employer-based health insurance, to mangle a metaphor? That may depend on how long the pandemic lasts, who is president sometime after November 3 and how much damage is done to the national fabric before economy and society start a process of repair.
Payment Models: For years now, hospitals have been in the middle of slow shift from fee-for-service care to value-based care and alternative payment models. That transition didn’t happen quickly enough to prevent most hospitals from falling into a financial chasm. If elective procedures are a big part of revenue, it follows that revenue will fall if those procedures disappear.
To be fair, the hit to hospital finances has been catastrophic enough—more than $200 billion in losses over four months, according to the American Hospital Association—that federal government support would have been necessary even if a full pay-for-quality model had been in place.
But the pandemic spotlights the downside of treating essential services like healthcare as though they are mere services one selects or rejects. And it exposes the folly of not making sure everyone has insurance coverage (a payer) when the individual costs for COVID-19-related hospital admission can range from $20,000 to $88,000.
End-of-Life Care: According to one analysis, 42 percent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. The families of those unfortunate souls who’ve died while in a facility have generally endured the agony of saying goodbye outside a window or over a video link. It’s hard to believe, after COVID-19, that the assisted living industry will continue as before.
“The crisis surely will lead nursing home administrators to reconsider the way patients are cared for,” says Modern Healthcare. “Among the ideas Harvard’s [Professor David] Grabowski believes will get a longer look in the wake of the pandemic are using telemedicine services, creating specialized Medicare Advantage plans for the homes and pursuing smaller settings.”
Perhaps. And perhaps a son or daughter that remembers coronavirus will simply choose not to risk everything by putting their parent in a home. Could enough of them make such a decision that the industry contracts? Is forced to take quality care more seriously? Attracts more serious federal regulation?
As the deaths mount, it’s hard not to give every option serious consideration.
Supply Chain: These days we’re bickering in public and on social media (looking at you, maskless Karen throwing food in Trader Joes) about whether or not masks should be mandated. Look back with me to February, however, and you’ll fondly recall concerns about there being enough masks at all.
Back then we learned that the United States had exactly one mask manufacturer, and that all other masks are sourced from overseas. That it takes longer to get stuff from China than from Amarillo creates obvious potential problems when a crisis hits, but it also pits hospitals and government entities against one another and guarantees that the winner will pay more for supplies than they would in less-critical times.
It also creates weird, unnecessary scenarios that could be avoided using coordination and leadership. The governor of Maryland, for example, used his wife’s connections to South Korea (her country of birth) to secure 500,000 coronavirus tests, which he then put in an undisclosed location and protected using national guard troops.
What’s the remedy?
Modern Healthcare has called for a national supply chain czar, which in other times may have just been the head of FEMA. The suggestion, however, highlights the need for a coordinated central clearing house where supplies can be ordered, managed and dispersed based on need.
Individual hospitals, clinics and health systems can also help themselves by using a robust supply chain software system that keeps track in real time of available supplies, covers all ordering systems and methodologies, and reacts swiftly to certain thresholds.
The uniquely unfortunate aspect of the American political system among western democracies is that, for the most part, it responds to the demands of special interests. Think about your local representative. Chances are good the shouts of specific business interests are ringing in his or her hears so loudly that little else is audible.
As such, there is a significant danger that the American healthcare system will return, post-COVID-19, to the same dynamic it had when the virus arrived, which will be unfortunate. What we need post-pandemic is not necessarily specific changes to hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, etc., though they could be part of an overall solution. What will be necessary is an examination of where every aspect of the healthcare system overall, inasmuch as there is one, didn’t do its job.
Disasters are social sodium pentothal that, while active, force groups of people to take an honest look at their failures. Once the disaster is passed, however, there is a danger that Upton Sinclair’s maxim—“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”—will rule the day.
No one hopes for more dramatic damage to the American economy and social fabric, but the irony is that necessary change sometimes only comes when reality is undeniable, as in a shellshocked Britain instituting the NHS. If COVID-19 doesn’t shock us sufficiently into making substantial changes to the healthcare system, it’s a pretty safe bet the same disaster will occur again.