Yesterday's unveiling of the revised Senate bill on health reform ordinarily would have constituted a good day for health reform, moving the ball yet another few yards closer to the goalposts. The Washington Post reports that Senate Democrats were "jubilant" that the CBO estimates that the new bill will reduce the deficit by $130 billion over the next decade while providing coverage to 94% of uninsured legal residents. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor on Saturday for a procedural vote, requiring 60 votes, to halt a GOP filibuster and to allow debate on the bill itself. A final vote, which would require getting 60 votes to overcome more procedural hurdles, likely will not take place until December. ACP is in the process of analyzing the bill compared to policy, so I will have more to say about it in a future blog post, and we also will post updated information on www.acponline.org/advocacy.
At the same time as Democrats were celebrating the release of the Senate bill, the flap over the new mammography guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), published in ACP's own Annals of Internal Medicine threatened to undermine public support for health reform. Now, I am a health policy wonk, not a clinician, and have absolutely no opinion on the guidelines themselves, but I can comment on the political fallout from the guidelines.
In one sense, the mammography guidelines have absolutely nothing to do with health reform. They were in the works long before the current administration took office, they would have come out even if health reform was not on the national agenda, and the guidelines themselves are purely advisory.
But in another sense, they have everything to do with health reform. The House and Senate health reform bills would require that health insurers provide coverage for preventive services recommended by the USPSTF - although insurers would be allowed to offer additional benefits. The Chicago Tribune notes that research on comparative effectiveness is a "central idea in the push to improve American medical care and control its cost: experts studying the effectiveness of treatments and procedures to determine which work best."
KevinMD opines that health reformers should be very worried about what the backlash to the guidelines means for the future of comparative effectiveness research: "If recommendations from an entity like the USPSTF - as non-partisan and robust as it gets - gets so much resistance from doctors, patients, and even the government itself, findings from a comparative effectiveness body stand absolutely no chance of changing medical practice."
NPR reports that Republican opponents of the Democratic bills have used the controversy over the guidelines to argue that it will lead to rationing and "the insidious encroachment of government between the patient and their doctor" according to Rep. David Camp (R-MI). (Notwithstanding the fact that under the bills, the USPSTF's recommendations would still be advisory, or that the independent scientists on the USPSTF are hardly government bureaucrats.) Seeing the threat being created by the backlash, and fearing that the GOP criticisms will resonate with votes, the Obama administration distanced itself from the USPSTF guidelines in a statement attributed to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
All of this goes to show why reforming the health care system is so difficult. Scientists would like to believe that we people can rationally make health care decisions based purely on science and evidence. But health care is very personal and emotional, and even the best science will be rejected if people sense that it will take decision-making away from them or limit their choices. And if taxpayers are going to subsidize coverage, decisions will have to be made on what services will be covered, and as this incident shows, such decisions will not come without generating intense debate and opposition.
Today's question: What do you think the flap over the mammography guidelines means for health reform?