Len Nichols, director of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics of the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University, has been selected by the federal government to participate in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Advisors Program.

“The Innovation Advisors Program is part of a larger effort by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to basically engender change in the health care delivery system,” said Nichols, who was selected alongside 72 other applicants from around the nation.

There is widespread recognition that America has to spend less on health care, or at least slow the rate of growth costs, Nichols said.

Nichols, who is an economist, says that the best way to reduce health care spending is not price or benefit cuts, but rather through incentive realignment. Essentially, there has to be a link connecting the self-interest of clinicians and people who run hospitals to the social interest of reducing cost and improving patient care, Nichols said.

The program essentially infuses the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with outside ideas, and the overall goal is to make the health care system sustainable and affordable.

However Nichols is unique when compared to the other applicants. Of the 73 people taking part in the Advisors program, Nichols is the only economist.

“Most people are either physicians or nurses or people who work in hospitals,” Nichols said. “I’m one of the few who come at it from a cost-first perspective, but all of us are focused on a three-part aim: achieving better health, better patient care and lower costs simultaneously.”

The way the Advisors Program works is that the 73 participants are broken down into groups.

Each member of the group works on his own individual projects or plans to improve the health care system, but also keeps in touch with his group members and lets them know his progress or any difficulties, Nichols said.

Nichols’ personal project entails finding a way for physicians to get paid which also allows them to thrive in a world where people spend less on health care, while improving patient care at the same time.

“Right now nobody’s shown them the map [in terms of health care reform] and they haven’t seen it, and they don’t believe it,” Nichols said. “I’m here to show them the map.”

Nichols believes that innovations need to be tailored to fit local conditions. “America is large and diverse,” Nichols said. “The concept of one-size-fits-all is never going to work here.”