Another Cluster-You-Know-What from the World of Government-Run Healthcare

Posted: Feb 18, 2015 12:01 AM

In the grand scheme of things, the most important development in health policy is the pending Supreme Court case revolving around whether subsidies can be provided to people obtaining health insurance from the federal exchange, even though the law explicitly says handouts are only available to people getting policies via state exchanges.

If the Court rules correctly (unlike, ahem, the last time the Justices dealt with Obamacare), it will then be very important that congressional reformers use the resulting mess to unwind as much of the law as possible.

That will be a challenge because statists already are arguing that the “only” solution is to re-write the law so that subsidies are also available via the federal government. For what it’s worth, my colleague Michael Cannon outlines the right strategy in Cato’s newly released Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress.

But let’s set aside that issue because we have a great opportunity to review another example of how government-run healthcare is a miserable failure.

Our topic for today is government-dictated electronic health records (EHRs). Dr. Jeffrey Singer is on the front lines of this issue. As a physician in Arizona, he deals with the real-world impact of this particular mandate.

And he’s so unhappy that he wrote a column on the topic for the Wall Street Journal.

Starting this year, physicians like myself who treat Medicare patients must adopt electronic health records, known as EHRs, which are digital versions of a patient’s paper charts. …I am an unwilling participant in this program. In my experience, EHRs harm patients more than they help.

By way of background, he explains that EHRs were part of Obama’s failed “stimulus” legislation and they were imposed on the theory that supposed experts could then use the resulting data to make the system more efficient and effective.

The federal government mandated in the 2009 stimulus bill that all medical providers that accept Medicare adopt the records by 2015. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that EHRs would facilitate “evidence-based medicine,” thereby improving the quality of care for patients.

But Dr. Singer says the real-world impact is to make medical care less effective and more expensive.

Electronic health records are contributing to two major problems: lower quality of care and higher costs. The former is evident in the attention-dividing nature of electronic health records. They force me to physically turn my attention away from patients and toward a computer screen—a shift from individual care to IT compliance.…The problem is so widespread that the American Medical Association—a prominent supporter of the electronic-health-record program—felt compelled to defend EHRs in a 2013 report, implying that any negative experiences were the fault of bedside manner rather than the program. Apparently our poor bedside manner is a national crisis, judging by how my fellow physicians feel about the EHR program. A 2014 survey by the industry group Medical Economics discovered that 67% of doctors are “dissatisfied with [EHR] functionality.” Three of four physicians said electronic health records “do not save them time,” according to Deloitte. Doctors reported spending—or more accurately, wasting—an average of 48 minutes each day dealing with this system.

Here’s what he wrote about costs.

The Deloitte survey also found that three of four physicians think electronic health records “increase costs.” There are three reasons. First, physicians can no longer see as many patients as they once did. Doctors must then charge higher prices for the fewer patients they see. This is also true for EHRs’ high implementation costs—the second culprit. A November report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the average five-physician primary-care practice would spend $162,000 to implement the system, followed by $85,000 in first-year maintenance costs. Like any business, physicians pass these costs along to their customers—patients. Then there’s the third cause: Small private practices often find it difficult to pay such sums, so they increasingly turn to hospitals for relief. In recent years, hospitals have purchased swaths of independent and physician-owned practices, which accounted for two-thirds of medical practices a decade ago but only half today. Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one in Health Affairs published in 2014 found that, in the words of the latter, this “vertical integration” leads to “higher hospital prices and spending.”

Last but not least, Dr. Singer explains that electronic health records don’t reduce errors or increase efficiency, notwithstanding the claims of advocates.

The EHR system assumes that the patient in front of me is the “average patient.” When I’m in the treatment room, I must fill out a template to demonstrate to the federal government that I made “meaningful use” of the system. This rigidity inhibits my ability to tailor my questions and treatment to my patient’s actual medical needs. It promotes tunnel vision in which physicians become so focused on complying with the EHR work sheet that they surrender a degree of critical thinking and medical investigation. Not surprisingly, a recent study in Perspectives in Health Information Management found that electronic health records encourage errors that can “endanger patient safety or decrease the quality of care.” America saw a real-life example during the recent Ebola crisis, when “patient zero” in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, received a delayed diagnosis due in part to problems with EHRs.

Wow, not exactly an uplifting read.

Indeed, Dr. Singer’s perspective is so depressing that I hope he’s at least partially wrong. Maybe after a couple of years, and with a bit of luck, doctors will adapt and we’ll get some benefits in exchange for the $20 billion-plus of taxpayer money that has been plowed into this project (not to mention all the time and expense imposed on the medical profession).

But the big-picture lesson to be learned is that planners, politicians, and bureaucrats in Washington should not be in charge of the healthcare system.

Which brings us to the real challenge of how to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Government intervention is so pervasive in the healthcare sector that – with a few rare exceptions – normal market forces have been crippled.

As such, we have a system that produces higher and higher costsaccompanied by ever-rising levels of inefficiency.

Amazingly, the statists then argue that more government is the only solution to this government-caused mess. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

But that path leads to single-payer healthcare, and the horror stories from the U.K.should be enough to show any sensible person that’s a bad outcome.

The only real solution is to restore a free market. That means not only repealing Obamacare, but also addressing all the other programs and policies which have caused the third-party payer crisis.

P.S. Just like yesterday, I want to finish a grim column with something uplifting.

Here’s a sign that will irk statists driving through one part of Pennsylvania.

Now take the IQ test for criminals and liberals and decide whether this means more crime or less crime.

If you’re having trouble with the answer, here’s a hint from Chuck Asay.