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‘Healthy San Francisco’: A Different — Better? — Model For Health Reform

Let me tear off my provincial Massachusetts blinders for a moment to say: We’re far from the only national laboratory for health reform. And something deeply interesting is going on in that fair city on the left-coast Bay, San Francisco.

So interesting, in fact, that the program, “Healthy San Francisco,” is a finalist for a major award from Harvard Kennedy School, the Innovations in American Government Award given out by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. (Winner to be announced early next year.) The 16-minute presentation above to the award judges provides a succinct overview, but here’s my one-liner: Unlike Massachusetts, San Francisco didn’t try to get everybody insured; it just aims to provide health care to the uninsured people who need it — not just in emergencies, but long-term, primary and specialist care.

I spoke with Berkeley health economist Richard M. Scheffler, who evaluated “Healthy San Francisco” for the innovation awards, about how the program works, and it certainly has its limits — including the city limits: It doesn’t extend beyond them. But what struck me is that, beginning in 2007, the program aimed to address health care delivery issues that we in Massachusetts are only getting to in a sweeping way now, such as the question of whether everyone should have to have a primary-care “medical  home.”

It also struck me that, though employers and taxpayers foot the bill, Healthy San Francisco addresses the problem of the uninsured by focusing mainly on them, and arguably affects the broad population less than in our health-insurance-for-all state. Readers, what do you think? Would something like Healthy San Francisco work elsewhere, beyond the bounds of that famously liberal city? Would you want it to?

‘The mandate is on the employer, not the individual as it would be in Massachusetts.’

My chat with Richard Scheffler, lightly edited:

So what’s so cool about ‘Healthy San Francisco” that it merited being an award finalist? It strikes me as such a dramatically different model from Massachusetts, much more narrowly targeted…?

What’s cool about it is that, as you mention in your question, it’s a very different approach than Massachusetts — or even the Obama plan. The Massachusetts model is fundamentally based on trying to help people obtain health insurance. But it does nothing about the access problem: the plight of safety net hospitals, lack of primary care doctors, overuse of emergency rooms, uncoordinated care. So San Francisco, to compare it to an insurance approach, it’s what you’d call an ‘access approach,’ It’s actually to provide access to health care. Continue reading