The District government should study whether price controls should be imposed on hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities, according to a report released yesterday by a health planning panel.
The panel, composed of 23 health professionals and executives of city agencies, was created earlier this year by David E. Rivers, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, to improve the diverse health planning system in the city.
The concept of price controls was one of 35 recommendations in the report. The panel also urged Rivers to set up a unit to collect data on the city's health care problems, boost the status of health planning in his agency, collect more price information for consumers and appoint a patient advocate to help D.C. citizens obtain high-quality health care.
"We'll be looking at the report carefully," said Rivers.
The panel criticized the lack of uniform data on health care problems in the city. Despite the many sources of health data in the metropolitan Washington area, information used by the city is often "incomplete, not comparable and or inaccurate," the panel found. The report urged Rivers to set up an office to collect reliable figures on which health problems are most pressing in the city.
Recent federal efforts to reduce funds for health planning should not be duplicated in the city, the panel said. Congress has cut funds for nationwide health planning in recent years. As a result, the number of health planning agencies has declined from 205 in the mid-1970s to 140 today.
Carlessia Hussein, director of the city's health planning agency, said it is unclear what federal support will be available when the current budget expires in September.
Rivers appointed the panel in part to deal with criticisms by local hospitals that the city's process for approving new equipment purchases and changing the number of beds was too time-consuming and restrictive. Similar pressure in other states has resulted in six states scrapping what was once a universal system of approving equipment purchases and the like.
But the panel did not recommend an end to the city's "certificate of need," or approval process. Instead, it suggested the dollar limits that trigger the approval process -- $400,000 for major medical equipment and $250,000 for other health services -- be raised to cover inflation.
The report asks that the approval process be speeded up for requests such as replacing current equipment or adding items not directly related to patient care, such as computers, telephone systems or parking garages.
In an attempt to end significant confusion over the city's health budget, often caused by interest groups making special financial appeals to the mayor, the panel urged that the official State Health Plan be followed to make sure health spending is logical and reaches those most in need.
The State Health Plan is a document issued every five years, and updated annually, that is intended as a blueprint for city health spending.
The report also urged the city's health planning office to focus on health problems in the city's correctional facilities and homeless shelters and prepare guidelines for approving or denying expensive medical equipment purchases that include ways for poor patients to have access to their life-saving technology.