“Preventive Care Saves Money? Sorry, It’s Too Good to Be True” tells you everything you need to know in the headline, though you should of course read the article. The point is important because a lot of Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) is premised on the idea that more primary preventive care will save money and slow the seemingly inexorable rise in healthcare costs. There’s an intuitive, seductive logic to the argument: it seems like it should be true that prevention is superior to treatment.
But we, collectively, don’t actually know if most healthcare is good for most people most of the time. The Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler book The Elephant in the Brain has a chapter on medicine that demonstrates most medical care is actually wasted and unnecessary. We still pursue costly, low-importance care for status reasons that are too long to describe in this post, but interested readers are directed to the book. The idea that preventive care doesn’t reduce costs and may do little to improve health is congruent with the Hanson-Simler idea that most healthcare is not actually about health.
In other healthcare news, at least one expert wonders: “Are Hospitals Becoming Obsolete?” One hopes so: many are dysfunctional and won’t reveal prices to patients, leading to wild cost inflation and the “mystery bill” phenomenon many of us, myself included, have been subjected to. In healthcare, it seems that the prices are the problem, and most healthcare players are working to maintain price opacity. At the same time, there’s very little political or media noise about this issue.
Americans read and hear a lot about insurance issues and almost none about prices and transparency. Mandating price transparency would be a huge win for patients and, maybe, for cost. Yet politicians of all stripes show little interest in this obvious (and very cheap) policy choice. I don’t know why. I have only a very small platform, but I’m going to use it to propose price transparency. Small-scale studies like “Research finds nearly 8-fold price differences at Minnesota hospitals” show that the price of healthcare varies enormously. But it’s hard if not impossible for patients to gather information about pricing (as I discovered recently).
When you get a shockingly high mystery bill, just try getting an explanation about why the price is the price. I have. Good luck. Hospital bureaucracies are enough to make one wonder if single payer really is next: the healthcare experience for many Americans is already so close to the DMV, why not just go all the way?
I’m not advocating for single payer as a political position: this is a non-political space devoted to analyzing grant writing, grant source research, and grant makers. But it is worth analyzing how the world works, how that relates to larger political questions, and what those larger questions mean for practitioners on the ground.
In the first section of this essay I wrote about primary preventive healthcare access doesn’t appear to lower costs. That’s a common idea that doesn’t appear to be true; there are other things we think we know that just aren’t true. During the ACA debate, for example, many claimed the medical bills bankrupted vast numbers of people. Turns out it just ain’t so:
The fraction of bankruptcies caused by medical events is just 4 percent. And even among those bankruptcies, it seems that medical bills may be less of a problem than the other things associated with an illness, such as lost labor income. […]
That jibes with what’s evident in the bankruptcy data since Obamacare passed. If medical bills really were driving so many people into bankruptcy, then we would have expected filings to plummet after 2013, when millions of people gained health insurance coverage. Instead we see a smooth decline from the recession-era peak.
So if we’re worried about poverty, as many of us in the nonprofit world are, health insurance access may not be the most important way to tackle that issue. The data on bankruptcy filings from 2013 to the present are particularly compelling. It may be that lost income is the bigger issue for people who get sick. Or some other factor may be at work. It’s hard to know.
Perhaps the best way to save money and improve health as an individual is to quit eating sugar and get sufficient exercise. Those things would also be good for the larger society, but “we” (the mandarin know-it-alls like myself and those who dictate healthcare policy) have no way to make that happen. Despite decades of effort—much of it misguided, granted—we have no way of improving people’s habits on the macro level. It turns out that “American Adults Just Keep Getting Fatter:” “New data shows that nearly 40 percent of them were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier, federal health officials reported Friday.” Obesity is not a perfect proxy for health, but it’s a useful starting point.
Much of this essay won’t make it into the proposals we write for FQHCs and other primary care providers. Proposals are about mythology, not actuality, unless the funder specifically demands reality (most don’t). But it’s good for applicants to keep the grant world and proposal worlds straight. Reading widely and deeply is still one of the open secrets of good grant writers—and good writers of all kinds. The information is out there. Whether you choose to access it is up to you.