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Editorial

High-tech healthcare reform

The new healthcare law provides incentives to use new medical devices. We should try to build on that spirit, not repeal the reform law.

January 17, 2011

Healthsense, a technology company based just outside Minneapolis, uses wireless sensors to provide an early warning system for health problems among the elderly or frail. The sensors send out an alert when they detect trouble — a fall, for example, or a significant change in sleep patterns. Demand for this kind of innovation is soaring, and companies are responding with a host of new products that can make care less costly and more effective. It's a trend that's been gaining momentum for several years, but it's been helped along by the healthcare law enacted last year.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is best known for its mandate to buy coverage and its costly insurance subsidies. These elements have been the focus of the GOP's efforts to repeal the law or, failing that, to defund it.

Less heralded but no less important are provisions that would change the incentives that encourage inefficiency and excessive demand for treatment. Among other things, the law tries to move Medicare — and through its example, private insurers — toward reimbursement systems that incentivize healthcare providers to keep patients healthy rather than paying them for each procedure performed. For example, doctors and hospitals are encouraged to form "accountable care organizations" that can keep part of the money saved when they deliver high-quality care at below-average costs.

That sort of arrangement dovetails with the development of technologies designed to promote wellness, detect problems early and enable aging people to function independently. A plethora of healthcare gadgets was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, including personal stethoscopes that send their readings to doctors over the Internet, smartphone apps that remind people to take their medicine and pills that transmit data from inside the patient's body.

Such products started hitting the market long before the healthcare law was enacted, but the measure gives insurers and healthcare providers important new incentives to use them. That may be the most important change set in motion by the new law. With medical costs growing unsustainably, the country has to develop a more efficient healthcare system that brings the financial interests of doctors and hospitals into alignment with those of patients. The healthcare law tries to do that, and that's something we should be trying to build on, not repeal.

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