May 23, 2018
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Health costs must come down, former Obama health official tells Mainers

J. David Ake | AP
J. David Ake | AP
In this April 12, 2011 file photo, Medicare Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick answers questions during an interview at the Associated Press in Washington.
By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The crisis of rising health care costs in America leaves the country with two choices: Sacrifice patient care or fight a monumental battle to improve it in ways that ultimately will save money, according to a nationally recognized health expert who visited Maine on Wednesday.

Dr. Donald Berwick, a pediatrician and former head of Medicare and Medicaid under the Obama administration, addressed a crowd of more than 750 health care providers, employers and consumers at the Augusta Civic Center. Berwick served as the keynote speaker at the annual conference of Maine Quality Counts, an organization working to improve health care in Maine.

“We have to get the costs under control, that’s going to have to happen,” Berwick said. “Corporations won’t stand for it, governments can’t stand for it. It’s wrong.”

Health care spending in the U.S. is approaching $3 trillion annually. At least a third of that total, or $1 out of every $3 spent, is estimated to be wasted on avoidable injuries, unnecessary procedures, fraud and abuse.

All those wasted dollars could be spent on schools, museums, roads and other areas that benefit the public, Berwick said.

To stop the bleeding, the country must not only cut health care costs, it also must focus on better public health while improving patients’ interactions with medical providers, he said. Much of that burden will fall on local communities, he said.

“What I see in this room is all the hope I need,” he said.

Maine has been a leader in setting goals to improve health care quality and rallying medical providers to track their success, Berwick said. But resistance to change remains, even as better health care models have emerged, he said.

Berwick highlighted a health care delivery system developed by the native people of Alaska that’s devoted to overall wellness and forming strong relationships among providers and patients. The “Nuka System of Care” — named after an Alaska Native word for strong, giant structures and living things — has halved urgent and emergency care visits and hospital admissions while also lowering costs and greatly boosting patient and staff satisfaction, he said.

Berwick, founding CEO of the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement and a longtime Harvard faculty member, is mulling a bid for Massachusetts governor in 2014. He resigned as Obama’s chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in late 2011 after criticism from Republicans who pledged to block his confirmation during the height of the debate over Obama’s health reform law.

Other speakers at Wednesday’s conference included Rosemary Gibson, author of “The Treatment Trap,” a book about overuse of unnecessary medical treatment, and Christine Cassel, president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine and ABIM Foundation.

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