The first hospital, the first medical school, the first medical society, and abundant Civil War casualties, all combined to establish the most important medical center in the country. It's still the second largest industry in the city.
Philadelphia dominated the medical profession so long that it's hard to distinguish between local traditions and national ones. The distinctive feature is that in Philadelphia you must be a real doctor before you become a mere specialist.
Some Philadelphia physicians are contributors to current national debates on the financing of medical care.
Insurance in Philadelphia
Early Philadelphia took a lead in insurance innovation. Some ideas, like life insurance, flourished. Others have faded.
Academia in the Philadelphia Region
Higher education is a source of pride, progress, and aggravation.
With a long history of welcoming and assisting the poor, Philadelphia has always risked swamping the lifeboat by attracting more of them than it can handle.
The federal government directly controls about half of health care spending and makes rules affecting most of the rest.
Every group or business which receives some of this money is alert not to lose it. Many other groups are alert for openings to get more of it. All employ sentries in Washington. False alarms are frequent, stealth attacks are a constant threat, constituents paying the bills demand immediate reassurances. Members of Congress seldom initiate a disturbance unless someone from inside an industry brings it to them. Consequently, when proposals do surface and seem to be serious, the question to be immediately answered is -- who's behind this? If you know who starts something, you can readily imagine the motive, assess the political strength, decide how to respond. With what little was generally known about the Clinton Health Care Plan of 1993, it was easy to imagine a host of people with some motive, but very hard to say who was actually pushing one. Must be a Democrat, obviously, but not immediately obvious which of several possibilities was the real agitator.
Health insurance companies would always seem likely to have proposals about national health insurance. Blue Cross dominates the market in large geographical markets, mainly East Coast, and would seem fearful to lose that dominance in a major upheaval. But other market areas of the country are dominated by commercial insurance companies who might seek to upend the Blue Cross monopoly, but whose form of business would be even more seriously threatened by health insurance innovations. Most commercial health insurance was written by large life insurance companies who regard health insurance as a small sideline for the convenience of their industrial customers. Blue Cross was somewhat more comfortable with government work, particularly since the 1965 Medicare and Medicaid programs were patterned after them. However, Blue Cross was non-profit, thus lacking in incentives, and historically controlled by health care providers. That is, Blue Cross was formed by and dominated by the hospital associations, and Blue Shield was formed by and dominated by medical societies. Since doctors and hospitals were very prompt in announcing their deep concerns and uncertainties about the Clinton Plan, Blue Organizations seemed unlikely to make daring proposals so likely to provoke trouble at home.
Not that some doctors and some hospitals didn't try to see what might be made of this opportunity. At the American Medical Association, certain leaders known to have Blue Shield involvement offered conciliatory remarks about waiting for further details before taking a stance but were abruptly halted by a general opinion that things had apparently already gone too far for substantive negotiation. Much the same thing occurred at the Hospital Association; the winners had too much to lose, the losers had too little influence to matter, and nobody stepped up to claim an inside track. Hospital trustees didn't know what was going on, strongly suspected something was going on and didn't like either situation. If the doctors got mad enough at a hospital, they could ruin it, and if hospitals got mad enough at Blue Cross, it too was ruined. The main strength behind the Blue Cross monopoly position was the secret discount provided to them by hospitals, which was refused to competitor insurance companies but could easily be extended in the interest of fairness. If need be. The commercial competitors wanted that discount much more than they wanted new insurance models.
There is one subset of doctors and hospitals that might be suspected of generating a sweeping revision of the medical system -- academia. Medical schools think of themselves as the appropriate source of vision about the profession they are training, and they run large prestigious hospitals. Their heavy dependence on government research grants, teaching subsidies, and tuition support programs puts them in constant contact with Washington bureaucracy and politics; propinquity is a great match-maker. Their style of salaried faculty creates estrangement from making a living by being paid fees for specified services, and they are reasonably comfortable with the flaws and techniques of professional promotion within a large organization. So, a slogan which has been attributed to Wilbur Cohen himself does not greatly jar on their ears. The author of the Medicare Act is said to have announced that the entire medical system of America could be accommodated by thirty or forty Mayo Clinics. Twist that just a little, and you are imagining he said forty or fifty medical school teaching hospitals. The briefest contemplation and rebuttal will knock down that proposal, such as pointing out that we have several times that many teaching hospitals at present without achieving anything like the nation-wide coverage envisioned. After absorbing the administrative chaos of readjusting to that model, you would confront the old repeated history of grossly overestimating, and then grossly underestimating, the future manpower needs of a medical system in the process of constant scientific turmoil. Suppose you built the fifty Mayo Clinics and found you needed two hundred? Suppose you built two hundred and found you needed seventy? And then, finally, remember that each big city could expect to contain one of these organizations, but the fewer of them there are, the longer the distance everyone else would have to travel to get to them. No one has even ventured to speculate how you could go about doing such a thing, let alone doing it three or four times to get it right. But, but. The infeasibility of academia at the center of medical care delivery does not eliminate the possibility that the idea underlying the Clinton Health Plan may have originated in academia, or that academia might support some similar proposal with something else at its center.
Since it was soon clear that the traditional "players" in the health policy arena were unlikely to be sponsoring some self-serving policy that might masquerade as the Clinton Health Plan, the search went on. There were a number of professional groups within the medical community who had traditionally chafed at the domination of the hierarchy by physician leadership. Nurses, hospital administrators, pharmaceutical companies, druggists, corporate human resources officers, public health officials, social workers, biology teachers all represented groups who derived status with the public by displaying inside knowledge of medicine. But all of them fell silent when a physician entered the room, and tended to shift their emphasis to faults of the "system" or the "industry". Their Washington representatives placed their emphasis on changes in the existing system which might elevate the prestige and income of the members and were particularly vigilant for system modifications intended for other purposes which might nevertheless create advantageous loopholes for the members. All of this is normal striving in the good ole' American way, a polite variant of the mixture of bellicosity and restraint usually seen in the Union movement. These people wanted to improve their income and working conditions but were ultimately quite hesitant about radical proposals that might sink the ship. A quick survey showed they were not supporting any particular reform project, even though they could be counted on to support any reform project. Furthermore, they consistently injured their political strength by extending beyond economic goals to issues like radical feminism in the case of nurses, or direct advertising to the public as in the case of the drug companies, or practicing medicine without a license in the case of limited-license practitioners. These people had votes, influence, and lobbyists, but they did not have a national project for health care reform of their own devising, and they surely were not the people behind the Clinton Plan.
During the six months before The Plan was presented to Congress and the Public, a White House task force said to consist of five hundred secret members was meeting under the direction of President Clinton's wife Hillary. No doubt part of their purpose was to give Hillary a public platform on which to show her stuff, with the idea of someday succeeding her husband as President sort of in the back of her mind. But most of it was also quite practical; somebody had to figure out what this proposal was going to be, and newly elected Bill had to spend most of his time learning how to run the rest of the country. Buried in here was an efficiency principle too; the staff members of every important congressman and senator were involved in the process, making the deals and surfacing the political angles before things had to come down to votes and filibusters. Meanwhile, the rest of the country had to wait outside closed doors, fed by rumors and spin.
How well I remember one public seminar on the subject during this period of suspense. The audience was filled with people thought to be influential with the public, the usual suspects in that sense, too. Representatives of various interest groups were seated up front at a table, and for some reason, I had been picked to represent doctors. Next to me was a druggist who had made a billion dollars starting an HMO; it was intriguing to watch how many well-dressed women with no interest in health care paraded up to the table to show their stuff to the billionaire, while we waited for the meeting to begin. All of the usual suspects of Philadelphia medical care were at the table, each of us wondering what the other was going to say. When some last Very Important Person had wandered in and taken a seat, it was time to begin. The moderator told a funny story or two, and then asked each one of us what we thought of the Clinton Health Plan. One by one, to the utter amazement of us all, we each explained how we were opposed to it.
So obviously this proposal was not coming from the usual agitators. But, remember, somebody was surely behind it. Before we take a stab at that mystery, let's humanize the usual suspects by describing a few of them.
Originally published: Monday, July 09, 2007; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019