In the Health Reform Recipe, the Missing Ingredient Is the Consumer

So this week’s question from the Washington Post RX Blog was:

What's Your Take On Obama's Speech? What did you think of President Barack Obama's Sept. 9 speech to a joint session of Congress? Was it effective? Did it "move the needle?"

My response is below.


I applaud the administration for shining a bright light on health reform. The government -- as buyer, regulator and leader -- must be a part of any solution. The political calculus has created a real sense of urgency to do something about this complex system which touches everyone and accounts for one sixth of our economy. The consequence however, through a lack of transparency and understanding, has reduced the public dialogue to be between "public insurance options" vs. "death panels." Framing the debate this way and consuming available public attention on "wedge" issues won't lead to a sustainable future system.

My attendance at an Institute of Medicineworkshop this week in the midst of the buzz about the speech served as a stark reminder about the depth and breadth of the hard problems:

• Access (too many uninsured)
• Costs (growing faster than inflation)
• Demographics (aging populations driving up systemic costs)
• Quality (not enough -- as measured by comparative outcomes, disparity in care geographically)
• Worsening health (people dying because of a lack of focus on improving the care delivery process).

I was struck by the number of smart, passionate people representing the major stakeholders working together to drive change. Veterans of the process recognize that change is imperative but hard -- because the details matter. We are in this predicament because incentives, tax policies, government reimbursement schemes and increasing specialization and capability of medicine have led us here.

The president delivered an inspirational speech, laying out basic principles: everyone should have access, nobody with insurance will have to change it and cost growth must be slowed. Voters know there is no free lunch, and health is no different.

We can't achieve reform without educating the public. A sustainable system is not as simple as providing more access. Consumersare ultimately responsible for their health and their daily choices cost the system. We need to help them engage in their health differently, be wiser purchasers, and understand trade-offs. As long as they believe the price of care is their co-pay and continue to engage as they have, there won't be sustainable reform.

There are best practices at organizations like Geisingerthat have re-invented care delivery and consumer engagement models. These leaders will tell you that success is about aligning incentives, understanding the details and making trade-offs.

The difficult work of figuring out the details and making hard choices is still ahead.