There are many different stakeholders in fixing the runaway costs of the U.S. health care system, including patients, doctors, hospitals, and the federal government. Another interested party, heavily involved in recent debates over health care reform, is the health insurance industry. As the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rolls out in the coming years, insurance companies will need to adapt to many new rules and regulations on matters such as pre-existing conditions and insurance exchanges. But they also have their own ideas about how to reduce health care costs, focusing on two key components of PPACA: health disparities and quality improvement.
Aetna is the third largest insurance provider in the United States, providing medical insurance for more than 17 million people. The Aetna Foundation, their charity and grant-dispensing arm, is focused on promoting wellness, health, and access to high-quality health care. Addressing those goals will also make progress in reducing health disparities, said Anne Beal, president of the Aetna Foundation, in her presentation to the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. The strategy she outlined showed how parties who have sometimes been at odds in the health care reform debate can find common ground for the benefit of patients.
Beal, formerly a faculty researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and the co-author of a best-selling parenting book, made a case for health equity to the seminar series, which this year is themed “Health Disparities: Local, National, Global.” Beal presented now-familiar statistics about higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, and more in minority communities, but added a new voice to the mix – the words of Martin Luther King, spoken in Chicago in 1966: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
But aside from social justice, there’s also a bottom-line argument to be made for reducing health disparities, Beal said. If you think of disparities as a form of inefficiency in the health care system, billions of dollars could be saved by narrowing those gaps.
“When you talk about health disparities, it is an important opportunity for us to really try to bend the cost curve,” Beal said. “Giving people the right care at the right time and preventing disease is an amazing way for us to really rein back a lot of these health care costs.”
Ensuring that people receive appropriate care falls under the domain of quality improvement (QI), the idea that health outcomes can benefit from fewer mistakes and more efficient delivery of care. Beal admitted that quality improvement was just one of many possible causes of health disparities, but argued that QI was a way to improve care for all patients and reduce health disparities at the same time – a win-win situation, if done right. Simple interventions such as making sure patients receive the right hemodialysis dose or even basic vaccination programs can help overall population health while narrowing the gap between white populations and minorities.
“This is not to say we shouldn’t do special interventions and targeted population efforts and things like that, but we need to stick to the basics,” Beal said. “If you can’t look at a population of children and say that they’re 100 percent vaccinated against measles, then any other intervention you do is just trying to put a band-aid on a bad situation. I would argue that we really need to focus on high quality care as the first step for addressing population health in communities of color.”
But to prove that those interventions are working comes down to persistent data collection and analysis, stratified by race and ethnicity, Beal said. Aetna has collected data on more than a third of its enrollees to monitor fluctuations in measures of chronic conditions, such as glucose control for diabetes. Those datasets can then be used to make sure new interventions are producing expected benefits rather than unintended consequences – an economic, statistical approach that fits the actuarial sensibility of insurance companies.
“We have to get that granular, where we’re looking at our data and just constantly trying to improve our performance,” Beal said. “We don’t want to get minorities up to the same bad level of care that whites are getting, what we want to do is think about what is the standard of care that everyone should be getting regardless of their race and ethnicity.”
[Each academic year, the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics organizes a series of lunchtime seminars by physicians, biologists, economists, social scientists and other experts covering the biggest questions in health care and ethics. This year's theme is "Health Disparities: Local, National, Global," and the series was put together with the Urban Health Initiative, the Global Health Initiative, and Finding Answers. ScienceLife will carry regular coverage of this unique series, and video of the lectures will be posted when available.]