In our last three posts, we examined how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) stacks up against the goals of reform for cost containment, affordability and access to care. Here we consider what its likely impact will be on the quality of care, the fourth major goal of the reform effort.

For starters, quality of care in the U.S. is highly variable, and is unsatisfactory for many millions of Americans, as these cross-national comparisons against other nations with one or another form of universal access clearly show:

• The U.S. ranks last among 19 industrialized countries in “amenable mortality rates,” deaths that could have been prevented by timely and effective health care; that translates to about 101,000 excessive deaths per year in this country. (Nolte, E, McKee, CM. U.S. has most preventable deaths among 19 nations. Health Affairs 27 (1):58-71, 2008)

• The U.S. ranks last among 23 industrialized nations on infant mortality, with rates double those of Iceland, Japan and France. (Schoen, C, Davis, K, How, SKH, Schoenbaum SC. U.S. health system performance: A national scorecard. Health Affairs Web Exclusive, W457-475, 2006)–Health-System-Performance–A-National-Scorecard.aspx

• Lower-income people in this country receive worse care than their higher- income counterparts on 21 of 30 primary care quality measures, four to five times higher rates of disparity compared to Australia and Canada. (Huynh, P, et al. The U.S. health care divide. Commonwealth Fund, April 2006)

On the plus side, the PPACA does make some attempts to improve the quality of care through such provisions as these: expanded access to care; elimination of cost-sharing for preventive services; establishing a comparative effectiveness research initiative; expansion of health information technology (HIT); and modification of payment mechanisms (e.g. accountable care organizations, or ACOs, and “value modifiers” for physician reimbursement).

But these are important ways that will largely cancel out the impact of these efforts to improve the quality of care:

• We can expect an increase in cost-sharing (with reduced affordability) as employers downgrade the actuarial value of their coverage and as insurers market their underinsurance products in the individual market and through exchanges. A recent study of Medicare Advantage plans found that increased co-payments resulted in fewer outpatient visits, more hospital admissions and longer hospital stays for patients with hypertension, diabetes and a history of acute myocardial infarction. (Trivedi, AN, Moloo, H, Mor, V. Increased ambulatory care copayments and hospitalizations among the elderly. N Engl J Med 363 (4):320-8, 2010)

• The critical shortage of primary care physicians and an underfunded primary care infrastructure persist as our specialist-dominated workforce continues to provide more care than is appropriate or necessary, with less coordination and worse outcomes. For optimal quality of care, patients need both primary care and appropriate specialist care. (Parchman, M, Culter, S. Primary care physicians and avoidable hospitalization. J Fam Pract 39: 123-6, 1994) (Beal, AC, Doty, MM, Hernandez, SE, Shea, KK, Davis, K. Closing the divide: How medical homes promote equality in health care: results from the Commonwealth Fund 2006 Health Care Quality Survey)

• The new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute lacks the authority to mandate or even endorse coverage and reimbursement rules for any particular test or treatment. (Kaiser Health News staff. True or false: Seven concerns about the new health care law. March 31, 2010)

• Perverse incentives will still permeate the system because of largely unchanged reimbursement policies (mostly fee-for-service) and coverage decisions influenced more by politics and lobbying by industry than hard scientific evidence of efficacy and cost-effectiveness. Procedures will continue to be over-reimbursed, primary and cognitive care services will remain under-reimbursed, and there will be little restraint over excess volume of services in most practice settings. These are examples of how big this problem is:

• One-third of U.S. births today are by Caesarian section (compared to a national average of just 5 percent in the 1960s). (Neergaard, L. Overtreated: More medical care isn’t always better. Associated Press, June 7, 2010)

• About one-third of tests and treatments are inappropriate or unnecessary and often harmful. (Wennberg, JB, Fisher, ES, Skinner, JS. Geography and the debate over Medicare reform. Health Affairs Web Exclusive W-103, February 13, 2001)

• Investor-owned hospitals, HMOs, nursing homes and mental health centers provide more expensive care of lower quality than not-for-profit facilities. (Geyman, JP. The Corrosion of Medicine: Can the Profession Reclaim its Moral Legacy? Monroe, ME. Common Courage Press, 2008, p 37)

• Well-reimbursed imaging procedures are greatly overused, thereby increasing risk of cancer; as an example, a recent report found that Illinois hospitals are using twice as many double CT scans (one with dye, the other without) than the national average, believed by many experts to be unwarranted. (Graham, J. New government report raised questions about CT scans at Illinois hospitals. Chicago Tribune, July 12, 2010)

• Wider adoption of health information technology has not been demonstrated to improve outcomes of care in most non-integrated parts of our health care “system”; most of the increase in medical computing has been driven by financial and billing reasons, not quality of care. And most quality improvement efforts have been based on process measures, such as use of beta blockers after a heart attack or use of hemoglobin A1C in diabetes, without good correlation with actual outcomes. (Chaudhry, B, Wang, J, Wu, S, Maglione, M, Mojica, W, et al. Systematic review: Impact of health information technology on quality, efficiency and costs of medical care. Ann Int Med 144 (10):742-52, 2006) (Himmelstein, DU, Wright, A, Woolhandler, S. Hospital computing and the costs and quality of care: A national study. Amer J Med 123 (1):40-6, 2010)

• The long-delayed experiments with accountable care organizations and bundled payments are likely to be ineffective in improving quality of care in non-integrated practice settings which involve non-salaried physicians. So despite what we are being asked to believe by supporters of PPACA, we cannot really expect much, if any, improvement in the quality of care for the U.S. population as a result of this legislation.

Adapted from Hijacked: The Road to Single Payer in the Aftermath of Stolen Health Care Reform, 2010, with permission of the publisher Common Courage Press.