State health care agency gets support for it to continue

By RICH PIETRAS
http://www.phillyburbs.com

Sometimes even experts in health care need a little help getting better.

That was the theme behind the rescue effort at the Montgomery Township municipal building as a state House Insurance Committee heard testimony on the status of the Health Care Cost Containment Council.

The council was scheduled to shut down on June 30 after the law authorizing its operation expired. However, it is continuing to operate until November, thanks to an executive order by Gov. Ed Rendell.

The testimony given Tuesday would be used by legislators in their efforts to get the council reauthorized when the state Legislature reconvenes next month.

The independent agency, founded in 1986, monitors the cost and quality of the state’s health care system and prepares public reports on everything from hospital finances and practices to length of hospital stays as well as statistics on mortality rates, infections, complications and readmission rates.

According to David Winderman, the council’s executive director, it provided 570,000 reports in 2007. It also received over 5 million hits on its Web site last year, which prompted one newspaper to call it “the best value in state government.â€?

And Tuesday, some diverse supporters of the number-crunching council were heard.

Thomas Lamb, administrator for Law Enforcement Health Benefits for Philadelphia police officers and executive director for the Delaware Valley Health Care Coalition, said the council has been invaluable in helping not only cut health care costs, but also providing “transparent� health care data.

“When we go to a police officer or their families, we ask them: “Do you want to be the third person a surgeon has done a procedure on, or the 333rd?’ â€? Lamb said. “You really see the light bulbs go off when you present the data the council provides.â€?

Lamb added that information provided by the council has helped him start wellness programs that have, in return, helped prescription numbers fall three straight years among members of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Matthew Kearney and Steve Thomas, also members of the Delaware Valley Health Care Coalition who work with area labor unions, pointed out the unique power the agency has in uniting both the labor and business fronts to the common goal of better health care. Kearney credited the council with improving the quality of health care delivery through its Hospital Performance Reports, first started by the agency in 1989, and Hospital-Acquired Infections Reports.

Hosted by state Rep. Rick Taylor, a Montgomery County Democrat, and chaired by state Rep. Tony DeLuca, a Democrat from Allegheny County, the commission’s aim was to collect testimony to bring back to Harrisburg for review. The hearing was the second of the week held in Montgomery Township. Monday’s hearings addressed how to help people gain health insurance under Pennsylvania’s Access to Basic Care proposal.

Taylor said while he expected to see it get reauthorized, the agency, which he called an “irreplaceable gold standard,� was the unfortunate victim of bad timing in which the Senate tied its reauthorization to an extension of a malpractice insurance subsidy for doctors during budget negotiations.

Continuing the council’s work isn’t the committee’s only goal.

“We not only want to extend the PCH4’s existence, but we want to see it get better,â€? DeLuca said. “With all the new technologies out there, just getting the council reauthorized isn’t enough; it has to return stronger and better equipped.â€?

Rich Pietras can be reached at 215-345-3119 and rpietras@phillyburbs.com.

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