Another Quality Initiative Ahead of Its Time, From California

When people go to get health care–or any other activity–we evaluate it for both cost and quality. But health care regulators have to recognize when the ingredients for quality assessment are missing. Otherwise, assessing quality becomes like the drunk who famously looked for his key under the lamplight instead of where the key actually lay. And sadly, as I read a March 4 draft of a California initiative to rate health care insurance, I find that once again the foundations for assessing quality are not in place, and we are chasing lamplights rather than the keys that will unlock better care.

The initiative I’ll discuss in this article comes out of Covered California, one of the Unites States’ 13 state-based marketplaces for health insurance mandated by the ACA. (All the other states use a federal marketplace or some hybrid solution.) As the country’s biggest state–and one known for progressive experiments–California is worth following to see how adept they are at promoting the universally acknowledged Triple Aim of health care.

An overview of health care quality

There’s no dearth of quality measurement efforts in health care–I gave a partial overview in another article. The Covered California draft cites many of these efforts and advises insurers to hook up with them.

Alas–there are problems with all the quality control efforts:

  • Problems with gathering accurate data (and as we’ll see in California’s case, problems with the overhead and bureaucracy created by this gathering)

  • Problems finding measures that reflect actual improvements in outcomes

  • Problems separating things doctors can control (such as follow-up phone calls) with things they can’t (lack of social supports or means of getting treatment)

  • Problems turning insights into programs that improve care.

But the biggest problem in health care quality, I believe, is the intractable variety of patients. How can you say that a particular patient with a particular combination of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes should improve by a certain amount over a certain period of time? How can you guess how many office visits it will take to achieve a change, how many pills, how many hospitalizations? How much should an insurer pay for this treatment?

The more sophisticated payers stratify patients, classifying them by the seriousness of their conditions. And of course, doctors have learned how to game that system. A cleverly designed study by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research has uncovered upcoding in the U.S.’s largest quality-based reimbursement program, Medicare Advantage. They demonstrate that doctors are gaming the system in two ways. First, as the use of Medicare Advantage goes up, so do the diagnosed risk levels of patients. Second, patients who transition from private insurance into Medicare Advantage show higher risk not seen in fee-for-service Medicare.

I don’t see any fixes in the Covered California draft to the problem of upcoding. Probably, like most government reimbursement programs, California will slap on some weighting factor that rewards hospitals with higher numbers of poor and underprivileged patients. But this is a crude measure and is often suspected of underestimating the extra costs these patients bring.

A look at the Covered California draft

Covered California certainly understands what the health care field needs, and one has to be impressed with the sheer reach and comprehensiveness of their quality plan. Among other things, they take on:

  • Patient involvement and access to records (how the providers hated that in the federal Meaningful Use requirements!)

  • Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities

  • Electronic record interoperability

  • Preventive health and wellness services

  • Mental and behavioral health

  • Pharmaceutical costs

  • Telemedicine

If there are any pet initiatives of healthcare reformers that didn’t make it into the Covered California plan, I certainly am having trouble finding them.

Being so extensive, the plan suffers from two more burdens. First, the reporting requirements are enormous–I would imagine that insurers and providers would balk simply at that. The requirements are burdensome partly because Covered California doesn’t seem to trust that the major thrust of health reform–paying for outcomes instead of for individual services–will provide an incentive for providers to do other good things. They haven’t forgotten value-based reimbursement (it’s in section 8.02, page 33), but they also insist on detailed reporting about patient engagement, identifying high-risk patients, and reducing overuse through choosing treatments wisely. All those things should happen on their own if insurers and clinicians adopt payments for outcomes.

Second, many of the mandates are vague. It’s not always clear what Covered California is looking for–let alone how the reporting requirements will contribute to positive change. For instance, how will insurers be evaluated in their use of behavioral health, and how will that use be mapped to meeting the goals of the Triple Aim?

Is rescue on the horizon?

According to a news report, the Covered California plan is “drawing heavy fire from medical providers and insurers.” I’m not surprised, given all the weaknesses I found, but I’m disappointed that their objections (as stated in the article) come from the worst possible motivation: they don’t like its call for transparent pricing. Hiding the padding of costs by major hospitals, the cozy payer/provider deals, and the widespread disparities unrelated to quality doesn’t put providers and insurers on the moral high ground.

To me, the true problem is that the health care field has not learned yet how to measure quality and cost effectiveness. There’s hope, though, with the Precision Medicine initiative that recently celebrated its first anniversary. Although analytical firms seem to be focusing on processing genomic information from patients–a high-tech and lucrative undertaking, but one that offers small gains–the real benefit would come if we “correlate activity, physiological measures and environmental exposures with health outcomes.” Those sources of patient variation account for most of the variability in care and in outcomes. Capture that, and quality will be measurable.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.