Is the Mayo Clinic a Model Or a Mirage? Jury Is Still Out.

By Alec MacGillis and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 20, 2009

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- The Mayo Clinic looms out of the prairie here like the mecca it has become, a world-renowned medical complex that is often cited by President Obama as his model for national heath-care reform.

"Look at what the Mayo Clinic is able to do. It's got the best quality and the lowest cost of just about any system in the country," Obama said in Minneapolis this month. "So what we want to do is we want to help the whole country learn from what Mayo is doing. . . . That will save everybody money."

Few dispute the prowess of Mayo, which brings in $9 billion in revenue a year and hosts 250 surgeries a day. But a battle is underway among health-care experts and lawmakers over whether its success can be so easily replicated. Before embracing a fundamentally new approach to health care, dissenting experts and lawmakers say, Congress should scrutinize the assumption that a Mayo-type model is the answer.

They point out that Mayo's patients are wealthier, healthier and less racially diverse than those elsewhere in the country. It has few poor patients. It limits the number of procedures it performs per patient, but the rates it charges private insurers and self-paying patients is higher than average, allowing it to thrive despite the lower Medicare spending cited by its supporters.

Armed with their new stature, officials from Mayo and a handful of similar facilities have become determined lobbyists in their own right. They are pushing for an overhaul of Medicare that would reward cost-effective hospitals and doctors, while punishing others.

But if the Mayo model is, in fact, difficult for even the most dutiful hospitals elsewhere to mimic, such an overhaul could set up many providers nationwide for failure -- and a big loss of funds.

"It's not [Mayo's] model. It's their patients and money. If you have the money, you can attract good staff, good doctors, good nurses," said Richard A. Cooper, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "You are going to force hospitals to find ways to avoid taking care of poor people just because they are going to be penalized because poor people cost more."

Mayo and other oft-cited model facilities also are lobbying against one of Obama's favored provisions: a government-run insurance plan, or public option, which would work against these hospitals' financial position.

"What they want to do is leverage their high-quality delivery systems to keep as much of a private delivery system as possible," said Gerry Shea, the AFL-CIO's chief health-care negotiator.

Mayo and the other model centers -- which tend to be in the Upper Midwest, Mountain West and Pacific Northwest -- have gained their current stature because of Dartmouth University research showing that they spend less per Medicare patient than their counterparts elsewhere, including in Miami, Los Angeles, New York and much of Texas and the South. Many experts have seized on the data to conclude that the key to reining in health-care spending is to emulate Mayo -- a large group practice in which physicians are on salary and have less incentive to perform unnecessary procedures than physicians paid on a "fee for service" basis.

"These communities are able to control utilization [of health care] without harming patients," said Don Berwick, head of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Mayo officials say their model dates to the clinic's founding in the late 19th century by brothers Charles and William Mayo, still known around the campus simply as "Charlie and Will." As their clinic grew, it became known for its quality and the brothers' insistence that doctors work on salary.

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