When my husband Sam and I were new parents, we visited our family in Maine to show off our beautiful six month old boy. The morning after our arrival, he became very sick (even struggled to breathe) and we were forced to take him to a local hospital. At that moment, we were living every parent’s worst nightmare and though we were covered by the health insurance that my employer offered, that was the last thing on our mind – we needed the best people at our side to care for our son.
But listening to the Presidential debate last night, when the topic turned to health care, all we heard about was health coverage. We didn’t hear about doctors and nurses, terrified parents, hospitals and nursing homes, or saving lives.
Both candidates seem to assume a good plan for health coverage equals a good plan for health care. But is that really the case? Governor Romney wants more competition in the health insurance market, across state lines, and more competition in Medicare, so seniors can choose among health plans. President Obama’s plan also pivots on reforming health insurance—indeed, when it was first signed into law, Obamacare was called “health insurance reform.” Obamacare fosters competition among health plans through statewide exchanges and new regulation of health plans, such as outlawing pre-existing condition exclusions and requiring coverage of adult children through age 26.
Yet the only thing that mattered when I walked through the doors of the ER was the quality of care my baby would get, not the plastic laminated card in my wallet when we registered. I chose a health plan among competing plans offered by my employer on the basis of premium cost, deductibles, copays, prescription coverage, the plan’s customer service—but all of that seemed very small when I faced an emergency.
Sam and I chose an emergency room based on word of mouth. What if we could have reviewed made the decision based on a reliable report on which hospital had the best track record for saving sick children or which one had the lowest infection rate? That information was not at our fingertips, but it should have been. Private employers hadn’t invented a Hospital Safety Score then. This really goes back to transparency. Obamacare includes some improvements in transparency and spurring competition among providers to get the best results for patients. But even now we don’t have the information we need as patients to drive a market for the best care at the best places.
My friend Dr. Marty Makary’s much-talked-about book, “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care,” reveals just how much information is hidden from patients before and after they decide where to seek care.
The consequences: U.S. health care costs are a ball and chain on our economy and our future, and the statistics on patient safety and quality are literally frightening. One in four Americans admitted to a hospital is harmed there. Tens of thousands will die from an unnecessary error or accident in a hospital.
We need to shift the debate on health care and an election season is a good time to do it. I want the candidates to debate about what my husband and I debated about as our son struggled to breathe: how can we find the best possible care? Americans deserve to get the information they need to make choices among hospitals and doctors and if they use that information wisely, they will drive real competition for the right things.
My baby was given good care that day and recovered quickly, thanks to excellent doctors and nurses and a terrific hospital. My son is now a teenager, very healthy, and taller than I am. I forget what insurance company covered him that day, but I’ll never forget the people who cared for him. That’s what matters in health care and that’s where the debate belongs.