NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 12, 2009

An ambitious effort to cut costs and keep aging, sick Medicare patients out of the hospital mostly didn't work, a government-contracted study found.  The disappointing results show how tough it is to manage older patients with chronic diseases, who often take multiple prescriptions, see many different doctors and sometimes get conflicting medical advice, say the researchers.

The study showed just how hard it is to change the habits of older patients and their sometimes inflexible doctors.  For example:

  • Most of the patients had serious, but common, age-related illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.
  • Programs were set up at 15 centers around the country.
  • Only two cut the number of times these patients were hospitalized, and those are still in operation.
  • None saved Medicare any money.

The authors called the results "underwhelming." An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, where the study appears Wednesday, used the term "sobering."

"The only way you can really do it is by changing patients' behavior and by changing physicians' behavior, and both things are really hard to do," said study author Randall Brown, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., in Princeton, N.J., which was hired to evaluate the programs.

Often, these patients need to stop smoking, or lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier foods -- a challenge even for generally healthy people. Those changes are especially tough for sick, older patients who often are set in their ways.

Source: Lindsey Tanner, "Sobering results for cost-cutting Medicare project," Associated Press, February 11, 2009.

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