Three years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted a far-reaching health reform law that politicians and the media hailed as a model for other states and the federal government. That law has become the blueprint for health system change on a national scale, and its advocates have aggressively marketed some variation of the Massachusetts plan as the reform of choice. Until recently, there has been remarkably little analysis of how the law has worked. This is the eighth in an occasional series of posts that will explore the Massachusetts law with an eye toward helping the press and the public understand the flashpoints as legislation based on the Bay State’s experiment winds its way through Congress. The entire series is archived here.
Earlier this year, Atul Gawande, The New Yorker’s star medial journalist and endocrine cancer surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, wrote an investigative piece in which he discussed how other Western countries’ health care systems came to be. He talked of the Medicare prescription drug program in the U.S.—a privatized approach—and how it got off to a rocky start. Gawande used that as a parable to debunk what he called “the lure of the ideal,” a siren song sung by single-payer advocates and free-market enthusiasts.
Toward the end of the piece, Gawande delivered his punch line: “We can build a new system on the old one.” The new system, Gawande suggested, could be patterned on reform in Massachusetts, which didn’t “organize a government takeover of the state’s hospitals or insurance companies, or force people into a new system of state-run clinics. It built on what existed.”
Gawande reported that the “results have been remarkable” and recited the oft-quoted statistic about some 97 percent of the state’s residents having insurance coverage. (It’s less now.) He noted that surveys have found at least two-thirds of the state’s residents support reform, but didn’t mention that among those who had to buy insurance as a result of the law, support for reform was considerably less.
Gawande implied that reform had been good for medical specialists like himself and for his hospital, a member of the vast Partners HealthCare System, which wields tons of power in the state. Gawande said he no longer had patients who delayed surgery or asked about the costs of necessary tests. But he didn’t mention a significant problem for thousands of residents who now have insurance—the lack of primary care doctors to treat everyday illness and prevent more serious disease. When nearly 500,000 residents suddenly got the ticket to buy care, the state found that there weren’t enough sellers.
Massachusetts has more doctors per capita than any other state, but garden variety primary care docs are in short supply, as they are in other parts of the country. In the U.S., only about one-third of all physicians are primary care docs; about half the physician force in other developed countries consists of primary care docs. The shortage of primary care doctors means that it’s hard to get in the door when you’re sick, which means that waiting lists and long lines develop—rationing care, so to speak. That’s what’s happening in the Bay State, a point the media should remember next time they’re tempted to report that long lines exist only in countries with national health insurance.
Very few news outlets have taken a critical look at the waits developing as a result of bringing newly insured people into a system that didn’t have enough doctors to begin with. In the last few weeks, The New York Times and Kaiser News Service explored the Massachusetts doctor mess. The Times reported that the Massachusetts Medical Society released its 2008 doctor survey, which showed that about one-quarter of all the state’s residents—up from 16 percent in 2007—had trouble getting the care they needed.