ACA may have saved up to 87,000 lives (and I'm not even talking about through Medicaid expansion)

Right on top of yesterday's study by the American Cancer Society linking the Affordable Care Act to a substantial improvement in early detection of cervical cancer, the Huffington Post's Jonathan Cohn reports that the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality has released a different study claiming that 87,000 lives have been saved since 2010 from a reduction in medical errors, and guess what's getting the credit?

Hospitals have cut down on deadly medical errors, saving around 87,000 lives since 2010, according to a new government report.

Pinning down the precise reasons for this change is difficult, to say nothing of predicting whether the decline will continue. Improvement has slowed in just the last year, the report suggests. But many analysts think government initiatives within the Affordable Care Act have played a significant role in the progress so far.

In short, Obamacare may literally be saving lives.

The new report comes from Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and is something like an in-house think tank dedicated to making medical care safer and more effective. Since 2010, the agency has been tracking the incidence of common and frequently fatal medical errors, which include everything from a nurse accidentally giving a patient the wrong medication to a doctor inserting an intravenous line in a way that leads to a blood-borne infection.

As noted in my title, this report is not referring to the estimated 5,000 unnecessary deaths per year which Medicaid expansion itself may be preventing (or the 10,000 which it could be preventing if the remaining states finally got on board). This is a more specific figure with a much narrower range of cause & effect.

In many ways, this article (along with the cervical cancer one) belong in the same rant as the one I wrote a few days ago about Colorado's Single Payer ballot initiative. The "ColoradoCare" plan, if it proves successful, only exists because the road for it was not only paved by the ACA, but roughly 1/3 of it will be funded by the ACA as well. Again, the Affordable Care Act has a lot of parts, and while some of them are overly complex, unwieldy or simply aren't working as expected, many others are achieving quiet success out of the spotlight. In short, the ACA is much more than simply the exchange websites and Medicaid expansion.

A major goal of the Affordable Care Act was to reduce and eventually eliminate these incentives for poor quality care, while rewarding the hospitals that getter better results. Today, for example, Medicare pays less to institutions with high rates of hospital-acquired infection, injury and readmission -- in other words, large numbers of patients returning to the hospital for treatment shortly after discharge. That's because of a series of penalties the health care law created in 2010, which started affecting hospital revenue three years later. And under an initiative called Partnership for Patients, the federal government provides extra funding to hospitals that agree to monitor patient safety and implement schemes for improving quality.

...But after the agency published last year’s results, showing the steep decline in errors, a wide array of experts said the law's new incentives were influencing hospital behavior -- and that, as a result, patients were getting better care. Lucian Leape, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and a pioneer in the patient safety movement, told Politifact, "I think these data reliable, and the ACA (Affordable Care Act) deserves credit."