Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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The Democratic National Convention, 1980 and 2012: Turning Points in American History

I originally published this post on HealthInsurance.org (www.healthinsurance.org) Check there for other posts on the election–just click on “Blog” at the top of the page.

Ted Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic convention still echoes in my mind. It remains the finest, most inspiring political oration that I have ever heard. Kennedy was speaking from a position of defeat. He had just lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter.

And yet this was a full-hearted, rousing speech delivered by a man who realized that in the battle ahead, the issues at stake were far, far more important than his own loss. Intuitively, he knew that the country had reached a turning point. (You can listen to the speech at The  History Place.

At that moment, Conservatives were ready to launch a revolution, and they would succeed. In November, Ronald Reagan won the White House, and his administration would set the tone for much of the next 30 years. Tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, a campaign to privatize both Social Security and Medicare. Health care reform would be off the table for many years.

Kennedy saw the danger ahead and addressed it: “My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight, not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause. I’m asking you–to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.

“I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work.” Then, as now, unemployment was a pressing issue. In April of 1980, the unemployment rate jumped to 6.9%; in May it hit 7.5%.  “Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy,” Kennedy declared. “We will not compromise on the issue of jobs.”

Universal Coverage “The Passion of My Life”

Kennedy understood that “we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So,” he declared, “I will continue to stand for a national health insurance.”

“We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.”

Kennedy had witnessed what economic inequality can mean when a child is sick.  Many years later he recalled “One of the searing memories in my life was being in a children’s hospital in Boston, where my son had lost his leg to cancer. He was under a regime that was going to take three days of treatment, every three weeks, for two years …
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The Drug War versus Health Care

Yesterday President Bush gave a speech on the success of his drug policies in celebration of a new report showing that teen drug use has continued a decline that began in 1997. But it is not entirely clear that there is much cause for celebration: use of some of the most hardcore stuff—such as cocaine, crack, LSD, and heroin—has held steady over the past five years or so. True, recently the use of marijuana, amphetamines, and methamphetamines has dropped, but that’s hardly reason to declare victory in the war on drugs.

Like any good president, Bush wants to take credit for good news. But as the lack of progress in the battle against heroin and crack suggests, the U.S. is on the wrong track when it comes to drugs. Our institutional bias is still to see drug use and drug control as criminal justice issues when we should really be thinking about them as public health concerns.

Just take a look at history. According to a Health Affairs article from earlier this year, since 1987 public and private investment in substance abuse (SA) treatment has not kept pace with other health spending. From 1987 to 2003, the average annual total growth rate for SA treatment was 4.8 percent, while U.S. health care spending grew by 8.0 percent each year. Because of this mismatched growth rate, SA spending fell as a share of all health spending from 2.1 percent in 1986 to 1.3 percent in 2003.

Compare this drop in treatment spending to the increase in drug arrests: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1987 drug arrests were 7.4 percent of all arrests reported to the FBI; by 2005, drug arrests had risen to 13.1 percent of all arrests. Our spending on SA treatment and the volume of drug arrests are moving in opposite directions. And for all the political pageantry surrounding yesterday’s report, President Bush’s FY 2008 budget calls for cutting $158.7 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) budget and $278.9 million from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFS) program. 

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The FDA: What Happens When You Starve the Beast

In October, I talked to a source inside the FDA who suggested that the agency was having a hard time keeping up with work-flow.  I quoted him on this blog as explaining that since the FDA has committed to reviewing applications for approval of a new drug within 10 months, drug-makers have been submitting “shabbier” applications that contain less evidence about risks and benefits.

“For the drug-maker it’s a gamble. The company is betting that, because we want to make the 10-month deadline, we won’t send the application back,” said the source. And often, he acknowledged, the drug-maker is right. “If you find a problem or there is something missing and it doesn’t seem terribly material, there is a tendency to overlook it. Because if you don’t it will just delay the whole process.”

In the past, he added, a company submitting an application knew that if the application wasn’t up to snuff, the FDA would send it back. But those standards have fallen: “Now we send it back [only] if it’s really crappy.”

Yesterday the FDA Science Board dropped a bombshell in the form of a report which suggests that standards at the FDA haven’t just fallen—they’ve fallen off a cliff. The title of the report says it all: FDA: Science and Mission At Risk.
The problem, according to the report: a lack of funding. The Coalition for a Stronger FDA,  co-chaired by the last three secretaries of Health and Human Services (the department that oversees the FDA), says the FDA needs a 15 percent boost in funding per year for the next five years. 

Here are just a few highlights from the report:

  • “The Information Technology situation is problematic at best—and at worst it is dangerous.”
  • “The FDA has substantial recruitment and retention issues”.
  • “Critical data…including valuable clinical trial data…are sequestered in piles and piles of paper documents in large warehouses."
  • “The FDA has an inadequate and ineffective program for scientist performance."
  • "The FDA has inadequate funding for professional development to ensure that staff maintain scientific competence."

William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who supports the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, told ABC News that the report stands out because of the "intensity of the feelings" expressed by the subcommittee.

"These people were horrified by what they found," he added.

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How the Media Covers Health Care

Sometimes health care reporters remind me of the financial journalists who helped hype the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. I began my career as a journalist at Money magazine, and I remember sitting in an editorial meeting where we talked about an upcoming cover story: “The Ten Best Mutual Funds NOW.”  One intrepid reporter asked: “What if there aren’t ten great mutual funds that you really should invest in right now?”

“Let the fact-checker worry about that,” someone else quipped, referring to the person who would be double-checking the details of the story just before it went to press. Almost everyone sitting around the table laughed.

And Money was generally a pretty responsible magazine that tried to warn investors against the risks of the market. Still, “good news” cover stories sold magazines—just as “breakthrough” medical stories on the local evening news keep viewers from changing the channel.

Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, recently published a provocative piece about how the media covers health care in the American Editor. Schwitzer begins his piece by asking his reader to “Imagine a reporter filing a story from the Detroit Auto Show. She writes about one car maker’s hot new model as if it is the best thing since the ’57 Corvette. But in the excitement over the chrome and style, she doesn’t mention the cost of the new model, doesn’t compare it with other manufacturers’ offerings in the same class, and doesn’t mention anything about performance (fuel efficiency, handling, braking, safety issues, etc.)

“An editor would certainly raise questions about this kind of puffery.

“But over on the health care beat,” Schwitzer observes, “the majority of stories on new products, procedures, treatments and tests are published without including comparable information. Claims that would never be accepted unchallenged from a politician are accepted unquestioningly from physicians and researchers and company spokespersons.”

Schwitzer, who publishes HealthNewsReview.org, a website that grades health care news stories for accuracy, balance, and completeness, has evidence to back up his claim.  Below I’ve re-posted some of his data on some 400 stories from almost 60 major news organizations (available at his website) to demonstrate how many health care stories “provide a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of the health care system that leaves readers with the impression that most products or procedures in health care are amazing, harmless and without a price tag”:

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The Unhappy Legacy of Medicaid

In September, the non-profit organization Public Citizen (PC) issued a report comparing Medicaid and Medicare payments to doctors in 10 states and Washington D.C. The results underline the fact that Medicaid has been designed, from day one, to give states an easy  cop-out when it comes to health care for the poor.

The study highlights cases where the disparities between what different states pay a doctor to care for a Medicaid patient are greatest: “In New York, doctors are paid $20 for an hour-long consultation with a Medicaid patient, while in higher-paying states, doctors receive an average of $157.92 for the same service – a difference of greater than sevenfold. The difference within a state between what Medicaid pays [a physician to treat a patient who is poor enough to qualify for Medicaid] and what Medicare [pays a doctor to care for an elderly patient] is just as dramatic. For this hour-long consultation, a physician in New York could earn $196.47 from Medicare, almost 10 times more than from Medicaid.”

Last month the AMA posted a chart of these and other disparities on its medical news website, and seen side-by-side, the comparisons are startling: a physician in New Jersey or Pennsylvania gets, on average, about one quarter as much for seeing a Medicaid patient as a Medicare patient; in New York and Rhode Island, less than a third; and in the nation’s capital less than half as much. Other states lie at the other end of the spectrum. Alaska, Wyoming, Delaware, and North Carolina all pay more for Medicaid than Medicare.

Is there any rhyme or reason to how states reimburse Medicaid care? Looking at Alaska (which pays more for Medicaid, relative to Medicare, than any other state) and New Jersey (which pays the least) it initially seems that poverty rates may factor into disparities. Alaska’s poverty rate is the 7th highest in the nation, so it would make sense that it would want to encourage health care for the poor. New Jersey, on the other hand, is almost last in the nation when it comes to poverty rates (no. 47 on the list) so the state may not feel as strongly about the need to ensure care for the poor.

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Conditional Cash Transfers: An Interim Model for Health Care Reform?

This past September, New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg welcomed 5,000 families into the pilot program of Opportunity NYC– the nation’s first conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. Based on a Mexican program called Oportunidades, CCT programs like Opportunity NYC (ONYC) provide financial incentives for poor households to “meet specific targets” in three areas: education, employment/training, and health.

I recently spoke with Héctor Salazar-Salame, Advisor to the Center for Economic Opportunity, which operates ONYC, about the health components of the program. I wanted to get an idea of the aims and strategy behind ONYC—and also to learn more about CCT as a potential model for thinking strategically about health care reform. 

According to the city’s press release, ONYC’s health incentives will be offered “to maintain adequate health coverage for all children and adults in participant households as well as age-appropriate medical and dental visits for each family member.” In terms of coverage, families can earn “$20 or $50 per adult per month for maintaining health insurance and $20 or $50 for maintaining health insurance for all the children in the family.”

The point is to encourage low-income families to enroll in health insurance plans. “Many families work for employers that offer insurance,” Salazar-Salame explains, but “many times the necessary employee contribution is quite high for low-income families. We’re providing an incentive for families to opt into their work-based, private health plan—and hoping that the incentives will help them offset the cost of the employee contribution.”

If parents are unemployed—or work for employers that don’t offer coverage—the family can still be eligible for health incentive rewards that keep them enrolled in Medicaid. “We know that to recertify for Medicaid can be a challenging yearly process that takes a lot of time,” says Salazar-Salame. (It’s worth keeping in mind that roughly 30 percent of parents who don’t manage to enroll or re-enroll their children in Medicaid have less than a high school education).  “We’re hoping the incentive will help them maintain the insurance that they’re eligible for,” Salazar-Salame explains.

Maintaining insurance is harder than it sounds. In October, Maggie wrote about  just how difficult it can be to stay enrolled in Medicaid and SCHIP, pointing to a Health Affairs article titled "Why Millions of Children Eligible for Medicaid and S-Chip Are Uninsured."

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How Wall Street Reacts to Fraud in Our Health Care Industry

This appeared on Bloomberg News today:

“WellCare Shares Jump After Analyst Calls Fraud Probe `Limited’

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) – WellCare Health Plans Inc., the U.S. health insurer under investigation for possible government overpayments, rose the most in two weeks in New York trading after an analyst upgraded the company.

“The analyst, Carl McDonald of CIBC World Markets in New York, called the probe ‘limited’ and raised his rating of WellCare to ‘sector outperform-speculative’ from ‘sector perform.’ WellCare rose $2.38, or 6.8 percent, to $37.39 at 9:40 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading after touching $38.14.

“A U.S. government raid of WellCare’s Tampa, Florida, headquarters on Oct. 24 yielded thousands of records, including papers pulled from a shredder bin and files on offshore bank accounts, according to court filings. McDonald said the filings suggest the probe is focused on Florida’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“’It’s possible that the Florida Medicaid investigation spreads into other areas, but the document seems to rule out widespread, systemic fraud,’ the analyst said in a note to clients today.”

Bloomberg also reveals that: “The agents seized records from the desks of Chief Executive Officer Todd Farha and Chief Financial Officer Paul Behrens, according to the court records. From Behrens’ desk, agents grabbed a document called the ‘Stairway to Heaven Plan,’ according to the inventory.

“Also taken were wire transfers, tax returns, bank accounts in the Grand Cayman Islands, a calendar of political visitors and contributions, and phone lists. One seized document was labeled ‘Re: Possible Kickback,’ according to the court records”.

Yet none of this seems to bother the analyst who upgraded the stock or the many investors who followed his upgrade–pushing the share price up 6.8 percent this morning.  The analyst predicts that “that WellCare [will] settle, pay a fine, but remain in all its businesses, rather than being put out of business.”

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Herzlinger’s Meme on Switzerland and Consumer Driven Medicine

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business School professor Regina Herzlinger offers an upside-down account of what’s right and what’s wrong with Switzerland’s health care system.  A leading advocate of “consumer driven” health care, Herzlinger assumes that because the Swiss pay for so much of their care out of their own pockets, consumer choice drives their system. 

But the truth is that Swiss patients have relatively little say over either the cost or the quality of the care they receive. Prices are regulated by the government, which also tries to make sure that consumers are getting value for their health care dollars by selecting which drugs, devices and tests insurance will cover. In fact, it is the very visible hand of a smart, largely efficient government that accounts for Switzerland’s relative success.

Before explaining how Herzlinger gets so much so wrong, let’s look at what she gets right. “The Swiss have achieved universal coverage,” Herzlinger points out “at a far lower cost than the U.S.”  In 2003 Switzerland spent 12 percent of GDP on health care while we laid out “a staggering 15 percent of GDP” while leaving roughly 14 percent of our population uncovered. Switzerland also has “far better health outcomes than the U.S., even when Switzerland is compared to socio-demographically similar U.S. states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Herzlinger acknowledges. Moreover, while U.S. insurers in most states can shun sick customers, either by refusing to cover them—or by charging them astronomical premiums—in Switzerland you are not penalized for having cancer. The sick “can afford health insurance and pay the same price” as everyone else.

Finally, while the cost of care continues to snowball in both countries, the Swiss seem to have a better handle on health care inflation. From 1996 to 2003 health care spending in Switzerland rose by an average of 2.8 percent a year, Herzlinger says, versus 4.1 percent in the U.S.  Meanwhile “Switzerland boasts substantially more in the way of health-care resources and . . . tops the world in most measures of user satisfaction.”

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ADHD and the Medication Feeding Frenzy in America

CORRECTION: In the post below, I make mention that there has been no U.S. media coverage on the MTA report. But after some further digging, I found coverage from Investor’s Business Daily, along with popular sources the New York Post, and Fox News and technical/niche publications like Planet Chiropractic. So there is some American coverage.

But if you click around you can see that the American stories are much more brief than their international counterparts. Each of the stories in the mainstream outlets is more of a newswire dispatch than an actual article, where as the international stories are comprehensive. And while pretty much all of the news sources of record in the U.K. covered the story, the major U.S. outlets–like the WSJ, NYT, Time, Newsweek, etc–seem to have had nothing.

Given that the U.S. is 90 percent of the ADHD drug market, you’d think that MTA’s findings would make nation-wide headlines. But instead coverage is scattered and superficial. Stories are relegated to quasi-interest group literature (investors who may lose money on the drugs, chiropractors who have a professional interest in questioning medication), or to the News Corporation (which owns both the Post and Fox news)–a multinational company with a strong Australian and British component. There’s still no convincing evidence that the American media is, on the whole, ready to meaningfully cover MTA’s findings.

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Earlier this week the British press broke some startling news: the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD (MTA), has issued a report that claims there are no long-term benefits of ADHD medication for hyperactive children. Report co-author Professor William Pelham of the University of Buffalo, is quoted in the British press as concluding that ADHD medication is, in the long-term, all risk and no reward.

“The children [on ADHD medication] had a substantial decrease in their rate of growth so they weren’t growing as much as other kids both in terms of their height and in terms of their weight,” he says. “And…there were no beneficial effects – none.”

This is an about face from MTA’s benchmark report in 1999 that asserted with certainty that ADHD drugs were the best way to address ADHD in children. The 1999 study claimed that “combination treatments” (i.e. drugs and behavioral training) along with “medication-management alone” (i.e. drugs) are “both significantly superior” to other ADHD treatments that don’t include medication.

But, according to Pelham, “we exaggerated the beneficial impact of medication in the first study. We had thought that children medicated longer would have better outcomes. That didn’t happen to be the case.” So, according to Pelham, here’s the bottom line: “in the short run [medication] will help the child behave better, in the long run it won’t.”

To some, Pelham’s report might be unwelcome news. Thanks in part to the medical credibility that MTA and other studies have conferred on ADHD medications, global sales of ADHD drugs are predicted to be $4.3 billion by 2012. This ADHD boom is a recent phenomenon, largely a product of the 1990s. According to the US National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, the number of children who received a diagnosis of ADHD increased 250 percent from 1990 to 1998. A study from 1996 showed that from 1990-1995 child use of ADHD medication increased by a factor of 2.5 and drug production increased six-fold. The production of Ritalin (the most common ADHD medication) increased by 700 percent from 1990-1999.

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