Dialysis program: Experiment in socialized medicine comes with high costs, risks

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

ProPublica’s Robin Fields has put together an artful examination of the nation’s Medicare-funded dialysis system. Part history and part investigation, it explains how this massive anomaly of government-run medicine came to be, and how it demonstrates the promise and peril of so-called socialized medicine.

The reporting has had an immediate impact, both upon the dialysis industry (read leaked plans for their response here) and upon the federal government. For health journalists, the federal response is particularly interesting, as it involves the disclosure of previously hidden data, and a classic government excuse.

ProPublica first asked CMS for the clinic-specific outcome data it collects — at taxpayer expense — two years ago under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency declined to say whether it would release the material until last week, as this story neared publication. It subsequently has provided reports for all clinics for 2002 to 2010. ProPublica is reviewing the data and plans to make it available for patients, researchers and the general public.

The reasons CMS has given for withholding the information until now is that some measures are disputed or lack refinement. Regulators and providers can put the data in perspective, officials had said, but patients might misinterpret the information or see it as more than they really want to know.

As befits something destined for publication in The Atlantic, Field’s piece might take more than one sitting to fully digest. And, if you haven’t yet had that second sitting, you’ll have missed some particularly nifty bits of comparative journalism, particularly where Fields compares the U.S. system to that in Italy, where the costs are significantly less and patients “got half the average dose of Epogen given to U.S. patients, perhaps because there’s no profit incentive to give them more.”

In Italy, about one in nine dialysis patients die each year. In the United States, that number is one in five. In dialysis treatment, there’s a trade-off between speed, cost and outcomes. And even high-rated Italy has had to make a few sacrifices, as evidence by comments from an Italian doctor:

“The decision to make dialysis faster wasn’t a scientific decision, it was a managerial decision,” he says. “It’s to allow you to do four shifts a day and make money.” He schedules just two shifts a day to accommodate longer treatment times.

Fields ends the piece on a high note. There’s hope for future efficiency in the dialysis system, thanks to a new program of bundled payments that will supplant the current system in which clinics see the actual dialysis as a “loss leader” and profit instead from heavy use of well-reimbursed drugs.

ProPublica promises more stories about this throughout the week, so be sure to check back its site for developments. Fields discussed dialysis on NPR today, as did Dr. Barry Straube, the chief medical officer at CMS.

1 thought on “Dialysis program: Experiment in socialized medicine comes with high costs, risks

  1. Pingback: ProPublica releases ratings of 5,000 dialysis providers : Covering Health

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