Celebrating one of the real feats of 2011...and what it means

It's hard to believe that we're at the end of the first month of the New Year! And it has been anything but dull. Just look at the world theatre or the controversies, twists, and turns of the 2012 presidential race in the U.S. Before we get too far into the year, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to reflect on one of the most significant developments of 2011... and perhaps even of the last several years.

In a political climate of flying rhetoric and accusations, it is noteworthy when calm and reason prevail. When self-interest is rampant, often cloaked in holier-than-thou proclamations, simplicity and compelling logic offer a welcome respite. When true collaboration appears to be in short supply, it is so refreshing when it emerges from the rubble. In case anyone hasn't figured out where this is going... let me be perfectly clear!

At the tail end of 2011 Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) came out with their bipartisan and cross-legislative proposal for the future of Medicare -- Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for all. It was a courageous act and a masterfully crafted document. Its Executive Summary is a mere three pages in length. The proposal is nine pages. The document is clear, to the point, compelling, logical and insightful. Oh, did I mention that it's readable, too? Or that it's devoid of jargon and policy-speak, accessible to 'every man' (or is it... 'every person'...) and challenges partisan attacks and assumptions. It is a sad commentary on the national debate surrounding the topic of healthcare (... no, a debate is far more reasoned, fact based and thoughtful on the issues)...that these positive characterizations are so special, in part, because what's represented by the document is so rare.

The basic outline of the Wyden-Ryan plan includes choice that begins ten years from now in 2022 (i.e. Medicare approved private plans and traditional Medicare); affordability through premium support, and a set of protections for vulnerable populations, ostensibly stronger protections against fraud and abuse, and most notably the opportunity to separate the purchase of healthcare insurance from employer sponsored programs. The latter component would apply to those employees who wish to do so in companies employing fewer than 100 workers.

At the heart of the recommendations is the recognition that Medicare has issues which must be confronted and resolved, and that any changes to the program must be patient-centered... not structured to meet the needs of bureaucrats... wherever they may reside. The language emphasizes market competition to improve quality of care as well as reduce cost and waste. Consistent with positions that I and others have taken over the last several years, the Wyden-Ryan approach relies on a market based set of solutions, competition that fosters innovation, and guarantees for those without the financial means to secure care and coverage on their own.

The proposal acknowledges serious flaws in the current system, including design issues inherent to Medicare Advantage which result in access and payment problems -- for both recipients and providers.

While the plan offers a broad brush outline of principles and a framework for a conversation, the devil is always in the detail. There are many points unspoken... like understanding and managing variation, employing predictive care paths, focus on outcomes and engaging greater transparency and accountability across the board... even among beneficiaries! We are all in this together; there really is no free-lunch. The Wyden-Ryan proposal represents a serious effort at presenting a framework for reasoned discourse to solve a very old problem. In that regard it is a welcome change we should embrace even as we challenge its assumptions and bring more insight to bear regarding how we will achieve better health outcomes at lower cost.

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