[Reblog] The high cost of free check-ups
Bill Branson (Photographer)
A predictable irony of the never-ending Affordable Care Act (ACA) debate is that the one provision that the Republicans should be attacking — free “checkups” for everyone — is one of the few provisions they aren’t attacking. Why should they attack them? Simple — checkups, on balance, are worthless. Why provide a 100 percent subsidy for a worthless good? Where is the GOP when you need it?
How worthless are checkups? Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel — one of the architects of the ACA and its “free” checkup centerpiece — recently recommended not getting them. As if “free” is not cheap enough, the ACA also pushes ubiquitous corporate wellness programs, which often pay employees to get checkups — or fine them if they don’t. This policy establishes a de facto negative price for millions of workers, making checkups the only worthless service on earth that one could get paid to utilize.
Those economics of a “negative price” trump Dr. Emanuel’s advice, and have made preventive care the fastest-growing component of employer health spending. Though hard statistics on checkups themselves are elusive, Dr. Emanuel estimates about 45-millon adult checkups are conducted each year, the equivalent of roughly 8 percent of America’s PCPs doing nothing but checkups, a curious use of their time when experts say the country could soon face a shortage of PCPs.
Shortage or not, subsidies and incentives might make economic sense if checkups improved health. However, when generally healthy adults go to the doctor for no reason, just the opposite is true: the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) supports Dr. Emanuel assertion that annual checkups for asymptomatic adults are at best worthless, saying that additional checkups are “not associated with lower rates of mortality” but “may be associated with more diagnoses and more drug treatment.”
The solution to this orgy of overscreening and overdoctoring is remarkably simple: remove the ACA provision that makes annual checkups automatically immune from deductibles and copays; if they are going to be free at all, it should only be every few years. The proposal could still allow employers to override this provision — and even to attach money (incentives and penalties) to checkups — if they are willing to summarize the above-cited clinical findings for their employees.
If the only way they can continue the subsidy is by summarizing the literature, corporate human resources departments would predictably and immediately curtail this expensive corporate medical campaign. That would free up PCP time to work with patients who actually need medical care, while reducing counterproductive and costly healthcare utilization by those who do not.
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