Saturday, July 30, 2011

How to improve health care for the poor

I really want to make sure that this post from Megan McArdle isn't overlooked in the discussion of the debt ceiling. There are not a lot of bloggers who have been in my situation in my 20's -- desperately poor and with a difficult medical condition (that was not my fault). But she has.

As a result, she has the correct instincts for services that would really assist the poor:

This is actually not inconsistent with other findings. For example, every time we get a health care expansion, people predict large falls in emergency room usage. Supposedly, we'll save huge sums by shifting people from expensive ER visits to cheap primary care sessions. Unfortunately, the savings have been elusive; in Massachusetts, the largest such experiment we have to date, ER visits actually rose.

Why? ER's are much more convenient. The working poor usually have much less flexibility in their schedules than the middle class. They work shifts, they may need a doctor's note to miss work, and if they don't work, they often don't get paid.

Note that this implies a totally different solution to the problem of "non-emergent ER visits": urgent care or "Minute Clinics" that work odd hours. Otherwise, you just cram even more people into the same ER space*. It is easy to come up with "Just So" stories in health care. The reforms always sound wonderful, and the benefits always unfold in a beautifully logical way. Unfortunately, people, and reality, are rarely as predictable as the models.

When you are short of money for food, leaving work to sit in an MDs office is a major sacrifice. If you are here in the Southeast and do not drive then the cost in time to make it via public transit can be huge. I have seen sick days used as a part of evaluations. I have worked in a small business where I was the only person in the store and leaving it would cause a crisis.

If you are dying of a myocardial infarct then leaving your job is clearly the right decision. But I would leg infections that started small . . . and sometimes did not progress. If I was able to get an antibiotics prescription then I'd avoid the ER.

I have tried going to "minute clinics" but they all refuse to treat because it was not on the symptom list. A last minute appointment at an MDs office was a huge issue.

I saw some good signs of improvement in Seattle where they put an urgent care clinic (open until something like 1 am) right next to the ER. I joined that HMO and it made a huge difference in my quality of life when a medical event happened.

These days I am a professor and these issues are lessened. But I think it is worth keeping in mind just how crucial these services can be for the poor, even if they are unpopular with people who work a 9 to 5 schedule.

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