Healthy Utah Profile: Michael O. Leavitt
When US Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt recommended the book The Great Influenza, about the deadly pandemic that struck America in 1918, to then President George W. Bush, the Commander-in-Chief read it.
Soon after, with pushes from Secretary Leavitt, both Congress and the President discovered that America was unprepared for what was bound to strike sooner or later: a globe-swaying pandemic.
The government took action. By the time Secretary Leavitt left office, pre-pandemic vaccines were stockpiled for tens of millions of citizens, along with anti-viral drugs. Under Leavitt’s supervision, states and communities developed their own action plans, domestic vaccine production capacity increased dramatically and researchers trying to advance this field of medicine were given billions of dollars in funding.
“Preparation today is better than it was before,” says Leavitt, who was born in Cedar City, Utah, and served at Governor of Utah for ten years, “but it is still lacking.”
America has seen three pandemics in the last 50 years, though none have been as bad as the influenza pandemic that swept the country in 1918, killing more than 500,000 people. We will no doubt see another plague in the future, says Leavitt. Five people recently died in Saudi Arabia from a new virus similar to SARS. New strains of viral disease consistently pop up around the globe.
Preparation was and is difficult, he says, because of the task’s enormous scope and because of prevailing complacence towards pandemics, making what he was able to accomplish in office even more remarkable.
“Pandemics happen infrequently enough that in between people get complacent,” he says. “Anything you do to prepare in advance seems alarmist, and anything done after the fact seems insufficient.”
Some people also carry the misperception, Leavitt explains, that if something of this nature does happen, the federal government will be able to come in and solve everything. The truth is that the national government can’t properly deal with a flood of illnesses. States and communities themselves must know how to take action, and these plans are now in place, thanks to Leavitt’s perseverance.
Leavitt’s endeavors are impressive. As if leading a state for a decade wasn’t enough, Leavitt went on to create a system that could literally save the entire nation, and now he is unraveling the tangles of our healthcare system.
Leavitt continues to be a guardian of America’s health through Leavitt Partners, which provides collaborative, high-value healthcare intelligence to clients so they can understand how to transition into modern delivery of medical treatment. During his time as Governor of Utah and as the Secretary of HHS, Leavitt became intimately aware of the problems with today’s healthcare, and his work today revolves around overcoming them on a national scale. There are three basic issues, he says:
Incentives are poorly aligned. Everyone is incentivized to ask for more care.
Care isn’t coordinated. Doctors often don’t know what other doctors are doing with the same patient.
There is not a sufficient, uniform set of quality metrics.
But change is on the horizon, Leavitt says, and is already being implemented in some parts of the country.
“In the future,” Leavitt predicts, “Americans will choose a healthcare system,” rather than receive treatment from fractionalized providers with different billing plans, as it is now for most Americans, who get care on a fee-for-service basis.
In an ideal healthcare system, Leavitt believes, the patient pays a monthly fee, and receives all variety of healthcare, from family doctors, urologists, gynecologists, therapists and more. Under this system, doctors are incentivized to keep patients healthy, because by doing so they save time and resources while receiving the same compensation. This pushes doctors towards high-quality care, rather than towards simply trying to get more patients, which is what the medical system currently incentivizes.
For patients, Leavitt says, this means they wouldn’t have to deal with a pile of confusing medical bills. The improved efficiency would hopefully lower costs. Leavitt says he expects a transition to this system within 3 to 9 years. No doubt he will be there when it happens.
“I’m just trying to use my experience to help improve the system and health for Americans,” he says.
Michael Leavitt: At a Glance
20th Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2005-09, under George W. Bush.
10th Administrator of the EPA, 2003-05.
Led US delegations to 50 countries. Received the China Public Health Award.
14th Governor of Utah, 1993-2003.
Organized the Western Governors University.
He and his wife Jackie have five children and eleven grandchildren.
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