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Denver Forum Deals Straight Talk on Fixing Nation's Health Care Problems

September 02, 2008
Denver forum deals straight talk on fixing nation’s health care problems August 04, 2008 By Lucy Ament Health reform advocates came together last week at an AHA cosponsored forum in Denver to encourage health care, business, payer and community development organizations to unite behind reform principles for policymakers to implement at the national, state and local levels. “If we magically had an insurance card that took care of America’s 47 million uninsured, that would still not solve the problem,” said panelist Kevin Lofton, president and CEO of Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) and the immediate past chairman of the AHA. “We can take care of children when they come to our hospitals, but if they go home and they live in an apartment that has no heat in the winter, then it’s a vicious cycle.” To improve health care in America, Lofton said the nation must “tackle all the components” of Health for Life: Better Health. Better Health Care, a reform framework developed by the AHA in conjunction with community and faith-based leaders, elected officials, local, state and federal policymakers, consumer and health advocacy groups, educators, the business community and others. The pillars of Health for Life are a focus on wellness; the most efficient, affordable care; the highest quality care; the best information; and health coverage for all, paid for by all. The Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce cosponsored the Denver event. CHA President and CEO Steven Summer said the discussion “surfaced all of the challenges faced by Colorado and the nation.” Last week’s Health for Life community forum was the second in a series that the AHA is hosting through the summer and fall. About 200 people filled a community center on the University of Denver’s campus to hear and participate in the discussion on health reform. Audience members engaged the panelists on such topics as the role insurance companies play in reform, the drawbacks of a single-payer system, “futile” or low-return spending and the need to improve community health. The discussion also returned frequently to the theme of shared responsibility for achieving comprehensive reforms, and the need to refrain from vilifying any actor on the health care stage. On the theme of shared responsibility, audience member Mike Huotari, executive director of Colorado Association of Health Plans, said private payers want to be part of the solution. “There are no white hats or blacks hats in this ‘non-system,’” he told the panel. “We all have gray hats. I think we all have a shared responsibility for where we are and to address the problems and the issues.” CHI’s Lofton led panelists in reaffirming private payers’ role in the process. “We need to include every sector, because if we’re going to do this, we can’t do it piecemeal,” he said. “Collectively we need to sit down with all the parties and come up with our approach.” That view was shared by other panelists, including Maureen Tarrant, CEO of Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, CO; Jay Want, M.D., CEO of Physician Health Partners; and Bill Lindsay, president of Lockton Companies’ Denver Benefit Group. “To simply put the entire problem at the foot of the insurance industry is inappropriate,” said Lindsay, who serves on the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s board. “With all its faults and all it benefits, our system is uniquely American.” Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien spoke of the “need to make sure wellness and prevention are woven into the very fabric of the decisions we make on reform,” while Sky Ridge CEO Tarrant stressed the importance of addressing health care’s inefficient spending and misaligned incentives. She called America’s health care system “a fragmented set of rules largely driven by how we get paid ... where we get money from rich procedures to pay for all the things that are so important that don’t get covered.” For example, she said Sky Ridge performs more spine surgeries than any other hospital in Colorado, procedures that she said contribute substantially to the newborn, mental health and substance abuse care it might not otherwise be able to provide. “Redirecting and creating a system of what gets paid for based on our values is critical,” Tarrant said. One of these values is a medical home for all Americans, she added, noting that routine and timely care is not just more cost-efficient but also more effective. CHI’s Lofton agreed that payment should follow wellness, not illness. “At the end of the day you are going to help people by keeping them healthy,” he said. “We have to look at how those that provide services are paid. There’s no other business sector in the U.S. where you can go and receive services and then maybe decide that you want to pay for it. We have to move from an illness-care system to a wellness system. And the only way we can do that and keep our doors open is to be paid for keeping people healthy.” Rounding out the Denver panel were Molly Markert, director of community outreach for Exempla Healthcare, and Jan Kief, M.D., an internist and Speaker of the Colorado Medical Society’s House of Delegates. Kief, who was forced to leave her practice after contracting a debilitating neurological disease, said she understands the plight of uninsured Americans who fear bankruptcy from unanticipated medical bills. “The biggest challenges I see are financing the needed system reforms and educating the public – who are patients and voters – to get beyond the have-and have-nots of our financial paradox and adopt a sense of community and responsibility,” said Kief, returning to one of the forum’s major themes. “This is our challenge, but this can be our legacy.” The next AHA-sponsored community forum on Health for Life is Aug. 27 in Harrisburg, PA, in partnership with the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. Lucy Ament is a freelance writer based in Detroit. This article 1st appeared in the August 4, 2008 issue of AHA News