"What we do in improving quality can also help us address costs"?

That's what Neera Tanden, a member of Obama's transition team, had to say in this morning's conference call organized by Doctors for Obama, which had over a thousand people listening in.* I wish it were true. 

As I expected, the focus of the call was on outreach and recruitment. Tom Daschle (Obama's pick for HHS Secretary) spent some time talking about the transition team's Change.gov and the umpteen zillion comments that have been offered up there about needed healthcare reform, all of this by way of example of the transparency Obama emphasized during the campaign. "He wants the administration to change the way people interact with their government," said Daschle, "and this is especially true when it comes to healthcare." "We have to have better transparency," he said later - "we can't understand problems until we see them effectively."

The more interesting part of the call was policy, though Daschle averred that no decisions were being made yet: "That's not the role of the transition team, we're working to prepare the president-elect about healthcare options." 

To a question about prevention: "The new paradigm has to be a recognition that prevention has to be a central feature of a new healthcare delivery mechanism. ... But there are serious problems about whether we have the infrastructure to deal with the opportunities that an attention to health and wellness can bring. There need to be more roles for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. We need to make sure we incent people to become general practitioners and family physicians." 

Daschle also talked about improving healthcare delivery ("We have 21st-century operating rooms and 19th-century administrative rooms. The solution to that is electronic medical records and health IT") and quality ("we see an extraordinary lack of best practices and quality of care implemented in procedural ways across the country"). 

To his credit, he did not make the explicit claim (as has been done by others) that improving quality, emphasizing prevention, and implementing efficient delivery of care will reduce health care costs. (I think this claim is difficult to believe.) Nira Tannen made the claim, though: "Making sure our people are healthy will lower long-term costs for everyone and in the meantime ensure that everyone is covered."

To quote Bob Laszewski of the Health Care Policy and Marketplace Blog:
Define quality for me. Then show me a system in which there won't be as many winners as losers--how else do you save 30%? Then I will show you a real health care policy debate and we will see how much consensus we have.

Wellness? Wellness programs today look an awful lot like the voluntary education oriented wellness programs we were selling in 1988 and things are far worse. Prevention? Most of the commonsense steps in prevention were available to us years ago.

We have been avoiding the heavy lifting in health care reform for 16 years. For me, all of these new ideas aren't so much new ideas as one more "Ground Hog day" in the long-running health care debate.
I believe Laszewski over Tannen, though I wish I didn't. The stronger argument for universal care (and perhaps truer to the facts) is to say that covering everyone will cost more money, at the very least in the short term, but (a) it's the right thing to do, because healthcare has become as much a public as a private good; and (b) it's a stimulus to economic growth that people who understand the economy (not me!) say is necessary in times like these.

I should say I was encouraged by the speakers' attention to workforce issues. More primary care physicians, please. But we need more fundamental (re-)thinking about changing healthcare delivery.

*All quotes paraphrased.

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