Henninger: ObamaCare's Lost Tribe: Doctors
The practice of medicine is the Obama health-care law's biggest loser.
By DANIEL HENNINGER
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Back at the at the dawn of ObamaCare in June 2009, speaking to the American Medical Association's annual meeting, President Obama said: "No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period."
But will your doctor be able to keep you? Or will your doctor even want to keep you, rather than quit medicine?
For the longest time now, since the day one of the Affordable Care Act, we have been having arguments over the mandate to purchase health-care insurance, requirements that insurance companies accept policyholders regardless of health, and price discrimination in insurance policies.
And of course this past week, the Supreme Courtor something resembling the Supreme Courtoutputted a decision on the tax status of the insurance-purchase mandate, the states' obligation to pay for Medicaid and as a bonus, the Commerce Clause.
Have you noticed what got lost in this historic rumble? Doctors. Remember them?
ObamaCare has been a war over the processing of insurance claims. It has been fought by institutional interests representing insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical firms. The doctor-patient relationship, or what used to be called "the practice of medicine," has sunk beneath these waves.
Barack Obama, a savvy pol, understood from the start that rationalizing payments claims through the maw of these private and public bureaucracies was not what the average person thinks of as "health care." To any normal person, health care means that when you or yours get really sick, the doctors and nurses who attend to you will push all else aside to give you medical help.
Thus, the constant Obama chorus that you can "keep your own doctor." No one knows better than Barack Obama that his law sends the nation's doctors on a voyage into an uncharted health-care world in which they are just along for the ride with their patients.
A Wall Street Journal story the day after the Supreme Court ruling examined in detail its impact across the "health sector." The words "doctor," "physician" and "nurse" appeared nowhere in this report. The piece, however, did cite the view of one CEO who runs a chain of hospitals, explaining how they'd deal with the law's expected $155 billion in compensation cuts. "We will make it up in volume," he said.
Volume? Would that be another word for human beings? It is now. At Obama Memorial, docs won't be treating patients. They'll be processing "volume." And then, with what time and energy remains in the day, they'll be inputting medical data to comply with the law's new Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), lodged in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
Here's the Centers' own description of what PQRS does: "The program provides an incentive payment to practices with eligible professionals (identified on claims by their individual National Provider Identifier [NPI] and Tax Identification Number [TIN]) who satisfactorily report data on quality measures for covered Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) services furnished to Medicare Part B Fee-for-Service (FFS)."
We're all pressed for thinking time these days, but the one group we should make sure has time to focus on what's in front of them is doctors treating patients. Instead, they'll also be doing mandated data dumps for far-off panels of experts.
Doubts, even among believers, have begun to emerge about what ObamaCare could do to the practice of medicine. A remarkable and important piece by Drs. Christine K. Cassel and Sachin H. Jain in the June 17 Journal of the American Medical Association directly asks: "Does Measurement Suppress Motivation?"
The question raised by the article is whether imposing pay-for-performance measurements on individual physicians does more harm than good: "[C]lose attention must be given to whether and how these initiatives motivate physicians and not turn physicians into pawns working only toward specific measurable outcomes, losing the complex problem-solving and diagnostic capabilities essential to their role in quality of patient care, and diminish their sense of professional responsibility by making it a market commodity."
This is an important piece, because Dr. Cassel is part of the intellectual foundation for the measured-directives movement. The saying that comes to mind reading these misgivings is that it's better late than never to notice that the core relationship between doctor and patient is being eroded. Except that in the wake of Chief Justice Roberts's upholding of the Affordable Care Act, it's too late and we're beyond never.
Mitt Romney needs a way to talk about health care in America. This isn't just a fight over insurance companies. It's about the people at the center of health caredoctors. The Affordable Care Act will damage that most crucial of all life relationships, that between an ill person and his physician. Barack Obama's assertion that we all can keep our doctors is false. You could line up practicing physicians from here to Boston to explain to Mr. Romney why that is so.
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