Things to Like About the Senate Health Reform Bill (2): Pilot Programs

Earlier this year guest blogger Michael Abramowicz proposed “testing the public option” in the health reform legislation. Although that proposal did not make it into the final legislation, several other experimental efforts did. Atul Gawande has pointed to a hodgepodge of pilot programs in the Senate bill as one of the best reasons to support reform efforts. Like many physicians, Gawande is attracted to the organic development of “best practices” in cost control and quality improvement, instead of top-down imposition of a general theory:

Where we crave sweeping transformation . . . all the current bill offers is those pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. . . . The bill tests, for instance, a number of ways that federal insurers could pay for care. Medicare and Medicaid currently pay clinicians the same amount regardless of results. But there is a pilot program to increase payments for doctors who deliver high-quality care at lower cost, while reducing payments for those who deliver low-quality care at higher cost. There’s a program that would pay bonuses to hospitals that improve patient results after heart failure, pneumonia, and surgery. There’s a program that would impose financial penalties on institutions with high rates of infections transmitted by health-care workers. Still another would test a system of penalties and rewards scaled to the quality of home health and rehabilitation care.

Other experiments try moving medicine away from fee-for-service payment altogether. A bundled-payment provision would pay medical teams just one thirty-day fee for all the outpatient and inpatient services related to, say, an operation. This would give clinicians an incentive to work together to smooth care and reduce complications. One pilot would go even further, encouraging clinicians to band together into “Accountable Care Organizations” that take responsibility for all their patients’ needs, including prevention—so that fewer patients need operations in the first place. These groups would be permitted to keep part of the savings they generate, as long as they meet quality and service thresholds.

The bill has ideas for changes in other parts of the system, too. Some provisions attempt to improve efficiency through administrative reforms, by, for example, requiring insurance companies to create a single standardized form for insurance reimbursement, to alleviate the clerical burden on clinicians. There are tests of various kinds of community wellness programs. The legislation also continues a stimulus-package program that funds comparative-effectiveness research—testing existing treatments for a condition against one another—because fewer treatment failures should mean lower costs.

There are hundreds of pages of these programs, almost all of which appear in the House bill as well. But the Senate reform package goes a few . . . steps further. It creates a center to generate innovations in paying for and organizing care. It creates an independent Medicare advisory commission, which would sort through all the pilot results and make recommendations that would automatically take effect unless Congress blocks them.

None of this is as satisfying as a master plan. But there can’t be a master plan. That’s a crucial lesson of our agricultural experience. And there’s another: with problems that don’t have technical solutions, the struggle never ends.

I agree with all of this, but I want to add one more dimension to the “neverending struggle”–the very interest groups that are supposed to be reined in by pilot programs are likely to do their best to alter, influence, or limit those programs over the coming years. One need only look at the sad and convoluted history of gainsharing pilot programs (merely adumbrated here) in order to get a sense of how, as the “rubber hits the road,” various lobbies will be storming veto points in order to undermine experimentalists’ efforts. This is not to say that pilot programs are always vulnerable—I am about to publish a book chapter subtitled “A Plea for Pilot Programs as Information-Forcing Regulatory Design.” I just want to temper the technocratic optimism at the heart of Gawande’s worldview with a touch of the skepticism driving progressives who wanted to see a much more dirigiste approach to reform. As Marshall McLuhan said, “ignorance of how to use new ideas stockpiles exponentially.”

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