by Jaan Sidorov

First posted on Disease Management Care Blog 3/10/2014

Dr. Jaan Sidorov, host of Disease Management Care Blog

Dr. Jaan Sidorov, host of Disease Management Care Blog

The Population Health Blog’s car garage is not the size of a football field.

So, when the PHB spouse parks our car inside, she tends to err on the side of safety.  She pulls far forward so that the rear bumper doesn’t get “dinged” by automatic closure of the garage door.  That obliges the Population Health Blog to inconveniently squeeze past and climb over the front bumper when it wants to use the PHBmobile.

The win-win fix to our travails arrived last Christmas when the perspicacious PHB gave the spouse a positionally adjustable ceiling-mounted laser. It blinks a ruby red light through the windshield onto the dashboard when the car is in optimum position.  Pull too far forward, and the beam will be directed on the floor or a front seat.

Since it’s been installed, the PHB spouse has ignored it.  The laser beam is effectively pointing at the back seat.

The good news is that the PHB’s naiveté was limited to parking habits, one house’s garage and a spend of $19.

Not so for Ezekiel Emanuel’s work in health reform in the White House and a spend of far more money.

According to this article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the well-meaning Dr. Emmanuel couldn’t change the habits of Medicare’s vast bureaucracy or of Mr. Obama’s formidable political advisors.  As a result, bundled payments remained the stuff of demonstration projects, while the closure of tax exclusions for employer sponsored health insurance was limited to “Cadillac” plans.

What’s more, professional liability reform died in the crib thanks to the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s unwillingness to stir the political pot:

He immediately cut me off: “Shut the f— up! We are not doing malpractice. Period. Every time the AMA comes in here, they don’t talk about malpractice.” Their first, second and third priority, he said, was the formula used by Medicare to determine doctors’ pay. “We don’t need to do malpractice for the doctors, and I am not alienating the president’s base for nothing,” he barked. “Stop it.”

Rahm’s reaction told me everything that I needed to know about the politics of the issue. Democrats would accept malpractice reform under two circumstances: if they needed it to keep the AMA’s support for the bill, or if they needed it to attract Republican support. Neither was true. In backroom negotiations, the AMA was solely focused on securing higher physician payments—not on malpractice. And not a single Republican in Congress would even negotiate. 

The president had already aggravated liberals by forgoing a “public option.” He’d offended unions by limiting the tax exclusion. He wasn’t going to antagonize trial lawyers, another core Democratic constituency, for no gain.(from the WSJ, March 7 “Inside the Making of Obamacare.”)

In its own small way, the PHB called attention to the AMA’s narrow-minded focus on the SGR five years ago.  But the AMA’s blunder and PHB’s prescience are not the point.  Or, rather, points:

1. The health reform that eventually passed was a curious mix of White House naiveté and Washington inside-the-beltway politics. The result was the Affordable Care Act which continues to spawn quick-fix delays and throw sand in the gears of government.  We deserved better.

2. By concentrating risky decision making in Washington DC, the upside gains in big government may be undercut by the downside of unintended consequences and half-baked decision-making in all 50 states.  It’s scary to think that the likes of Dr. Emanuel had such power.

Lessons learned.