“Medicaid members are best served when they have ready access to providers, insurers are eager to resolve their health care needs, and policymakers exercise strong oversight to ensure members’ health…
Georgians for a Healthy Future’s Executive Director Cindy Zeldin sat down with A Spirit of Charity author Mike King to discuss his new book on the role of public hospitals in America. Below is a Q&A that delves into some of the book’s major themes. On July 19th, Georgians for a Healthy Future will hold a book event in Atlanta with Mike King, providing a unique opportunity for the advocacy community to discuss the history and role of public hospitals in America and the direction of health policy in Georgia with the author.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I have been writing and editing stories about medicine and natural medicine like thai kratom powder and health care policy for about 30 years where they use different kind of medicines, you could for example this reach out to one!. When the newspaper business collapsed and I chose to leave it in 2009, I thought I’d just retire and take it easy. But when the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 I realized I had the time, without daily deadline pressures, to tell a story about the most important effort at reform over the last 50 years and how it might play out right here in Atlanta and at Grady in particular,.
How do public hospitals serve as a window into America’s health system?
As the book hopefully makes clear, the people who show up in the emergency rooms and clinics of America’s public hospitals are the result of all gaping holes, political compromises and unintended consequences of decades of attempts to reform our health care system. Even in our noblest of efforts, we always seem to leave whole segments of our society behind. Donald Trump, in a candid moment earlier in the campaign when the media pushed him for more details about what his alternative to Obamacare would look like, frustratingly blurted, “Look, we won’t let people die in the streets, OK?” In some ways that’s been our baseline as a health care system from the start, which is why public hospitals were created. We don’t let our citizens die in the streets. They get sick in the street but, if they are lucky, we get them to a public hospital that hopefully will rescue them from dying before they return to the streets. That’s a harsh assessment, I know, and we do much better than that in many places thanks to the commitment of engaged local and state leaders, but there are too many places where the local public hospital seems expected to shoulder this burden on its own.
Four of the five hospitals profiled in your book are located in the South, and the role of Southern politicians in crafting U.S. health policy is explored throughout the book. Why a focus on the South?
Because the South is where the most problems are. Texas, Florida and Georgia lead the nation in the dubious distinction of having the most uninsured residents among all 50 states – mostly because all three have refused to expand Medicaid the way the ACA called for. Louisiana is high on the list too, but the new governor there is moving to try to expand Medicaid. Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Jackson Memorial in Miami, the University Medical Center in New Orleans (the replacement hospital for Charity) and, of course, Grady, all have to contend with a huge percentage of patients who are poor and uninsured and could be, should be, covered by Medicaid. That’s why I chose them.
Some public hospitals like Grady were established during segregation. The 1946 Hill-Burton Act, which catalyzed hospital construction, contained a provision permitting segregation in hospitals receiving federal funds. How does this legacy of segregation impact public hospitals today?
Hill-Burton was the first time federal law actually codified a separate-but-equal funding mechanism and it was inserted into the law specifically to get members of Congress from the South to go along. Rural hospitals around the South and more than a few in the suburbs were built in the 1950s and 60s with Hill-Burton money. Grady was rebuilt as a segregated hospital in 1958. After the enactment the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Medicare in 1965 that changed. Segregated hospitals – public and private – stood to lose too much money that they would be getting for the care of previously uninsured elderly patients if they stayed segregated. But there is still a legacy to overcome. There’s a reason elderly Atlantans still refer to Grady as the Gradies, going back not that long ago to when there was a Black Grady and a White Grady, with black nurses taking care of black patients and white nurses taking care of white patients. It still complicates the public discussion about how best to finance and administer this particular public hospital. I suspect that goes on in a lot of communities around the South that share a similar legacy.
You write that public hospitals serve as a “pressure release valve” for our nation’s health system. What do you mean by this?
We often refer to these places as safety net hospitals. But I contend they are more than that. The existence of a single hospital in a community that is chartered or required to take in all patients regardless of ability to pay fundamentally alters the medical marketplace in that community. It allows those hospitals that compete with it to measure their anticipated level of charity care against their expected revenue from insured patients and come up with a formula that helps them stay healthy and able to grow. It is not that most of these competing hospitals don’t provide a responsible level of charity care. Most of them do. But it is always at a level they can afford to provide. Public hospitals operate on a totally different business model. They have to take all comers and the only way they can stay open is to get some level of funding from state and local taxes to offset their losses. Here’s another way of looking at it: If Grady had gone belly up in 2007 and 2008, all the uninsured and indigent patients it served would have swamped the emergency rooms of Piedmont, the Atlanta Medical Center, Northside, St. Joseph’s, Emory and DeKalb Medical as well as other hospitals, jeopardizing their ability to provide the level of services their business model calls for. The safety valve would have blown.
Information about Medicaid, the health care program intended to help finance care for low-income Americans, is interwoven throughout your book. How are the histories and fates of Medicaid and public hospitals intertwined?
They are the key to understanding each other because Medicaid patients make up a large portion of the patients who go to these hospitals. When Medicaid was enacted in 1965 the theory was that with a health insurance program now in place for the poor and with Medicare available to the elderly, our nation’s public hospitals would finally start getting paid for many of the services they had been providing on a charity basis. But unlike Medicare, Medicaid was hampered – I would argue fundamentally flawed – by a series of compromises to get it through Congress. States were given a much bigger role in determining how poor you had to be to qualify for Medicaid, how much they wanted to pay doctors and hospitals to provide services for Medicaid patients and indeed whether they wanted to participate in the program at all. (Arizona didn’t join Medicaid until the 1980s.) The result was a checkerboard of health care programs for the poor around the country, based largely on what the states decide. And in the South, Medicaid has been chronically underfunded at the state level and treated more like a welfare program. This is how Southern politicians get away with calling it a failure. They starve it for funds, make it difficult for low-income people to get covered by it, grossly underpay doctors and hospitals that take patients covered by it and then decry the program for not working and being inefficient.
America’s health system is characterized by fragmentation. Why do you think this is and what is the role of public hospitals in a fragmented system?
We’ve all heard it before. America has a sick care system, not a health care system. And that system is based on who pays for sick care, not necessarily how we can more effectively pay for care to help keep people healthy. The good news is that the ACA is moving in the direction of breaking down some of the silos that have developed over the decades in how we deliver and pay for health care, with an emphasis on moving away from paying a fee for specific services and toward paying for overall wellness. That’s good. But it will take years to see results. Public hospitals will need to move in this direction as well – and some of them are. Cook County’s Medicaid Program (County Care) is coordinating care with its community hospital and clinic network and the federally funded community health centers in Chicago. The initial results look encouraging. If it works it will not only save lives but help control the rise in costs. But public hospitals must adapt to these new models and remain, in most large cities, the sole providers of costly essential services like trauma, HIV/AIDS and behavioral health for those who are still uninsured.
You write that, if public hospitals didn’t exist, “We would have to invent them.” What would an America without public hospitals look like?
It would be fascinating to see, wouldn’t it? Public hospitals were created one hundred to one hundred and fifty years ago when it became obvious that the charitable institutions in large American cities could not meet the demand for care caused by yellow fever, cholera, pestilence and other public health threats, not to mention the population growth in cities after the Civil War. The almshouses and infirmaries, often staffed by religious women and funded by churches and community groups, just could not keep up. I suspect the same would happen today if we came to rely exclusively on the nonprofit sector to take over the responsibility for caring for the poor and uninsured. Even if we became enlightened and created a system of true universal insurance for all Americans, there would still be a need for expensive specialty areas. Trauma care, infectious disease programs, severe, chronic mental health services – these essential services now almost exclusively provided by public hospitals – I would suspect they would require some level of local and state financing at a public facility that would go beyond what they can expect in the way of revenue from a public insurance plan.
Grady is featured prominently throughout the book. What did you learn about Grady by writing this book that you didn’t know before?
That it is even bigger and more complicated and harder to manage than I ever dreamed. I think the current administration there is doing a really good job at getting the hospital positioned to be everything it can be. The quality of the specialty services there – trauma, neuroscience, neonatology, burn care, sickle cell, infectious disease – has probably never been better, and they get well informed visiting Litchfield Neurofeedback to learn about the benefits of Neurofeedback Therapy. The cancer program there, in addition to being first rate at the acute care level, is making great strides in the community in the much-needed area of early detection and treatment. That will go a long way toward reducing the disparities that exist in morbidity and mortality between white and black, affluent and poor residents of our community. But the hospital is still heavily reliant on the business and philanthropic community to grow, especially when it comes to capital improvements and equipment. That’s all been private money since the comeback started. State and county officials have yet to step up to the plate to help. If they are willing to help the Braves and the Falcons build new venues, they must be willing to step up to help Georgia’s most important hospital build and grow and provide essential services.
What role does Grady serve in health care policy in the state of Georgia?
The state needs to recognize Grady is a statewide institution, if for no other reason than it is the training ground for about one in every four doctors practicing in Georgia. I’ve often wondered whether the state’s relationship with Grady would be different if it had been affiliated with a state medical school instead of Emory and Morehouse – two private medical schools. Perhaps then it would have paid more attention to it. Even though Grady gets patients from almost every one of Georgia 159 counties, it isn’t realistic to think the state must subsidize indigent patient care there, but it could do much better and providing funding for the specialty services that Grady provides to all Georgians – trauma care, burn care, infectious diseases, etc. And, of course, it should expand Medicaid coverage so that Grady and all other hospitals in the state that have a heavy load of uninsured patients will at least have an opportunity to recoup some of their costs.
Where do you think Georgia is headed on health care policy?
I think we’ll expand Medicaid. Eventually. After President Obama is in the rear view mirror. We’ll call it something else so it doesn’t sound like it is part of Obamacare. But we will have squandered $3 to 5 billion and 100 percent federal funding to make this impetuous political statement, and no telling how many Georgians – one study puts it at 1,200 lives a year – who died because they lived in a state where they should have, but were kept from, enrolling in Medicaid. With a little political vision – and the help of advocates and experts – my hope is that we could create a Medicaid program that isn’t so fragmented; that fully integrates primary care and acute, hospital care; that reorganizes local hospitals and health departments into a true public health system that helps people stay healthy and when they get sick have no barriers to the care that they need. That shouldn’t be a pipe dream in a country as wealthy and smart as ours. That should be a working reality. On the other hand, try to visit what is a medium.