The Newest Health Wonk Review—on Health Affairs

Chris Fleming hosts the latest edition of Health Wonk Review, a compendium of recent posts on health care blogs.

On Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda offers 5 predictions for health care in 2013.  He’s convinced that all but a handful of states will expand Medicaid. (“The pressure from hospitals and providers will be overwhelming.”) He also predicts that “The feds and CMS will get even more aggressive on Medicare and Medicaid fraud.”  (For what it’s worth, I think he’s right on both counts.)

                                       Food for Thought

Some posts are likely to stir controversy, either because they’re rebutting the conventional wisdom, or because they’re questioning some deeply held beliefs.  I think these posts are important because they define issues that we should all think about.

Over at Colorado Health Insurance Insider, Louise Norris examines the question of whether smokers should pay more for their health insurance.  Under the ACA, smokers can be charged up to 50 percent more than nonsmokers.  . . .

“Norris prefers the carrot over the stick,” Fleming observes, “endorsing the requirement that all plans cover tobacco cessation programs as part of the ACA’s preventive services mandate, although she cites evidence showing that implementation of this requirement has been inconsistent. “ (It’s worth noting that tobacco cessation programs work. “Sticks,” behavioral psychologists tell us, just aren’t nearly as effective.) 

The Hospitalist Leader’s  Brad  Flansbaum suggests that our emphasis on getting everyone vaccinated during a severe influenza (and claims about Tamiflu) may well amount to “oversell.”  Eye-opening.

 At the Innovative Health Media Blog  David Wilson writes: “The Medicare Annual Wellness Visit  (AWV) is the perfect vehicle to address the increasing need for early detection of cognitive impairment.  The AWV” gives physicians the opportunity “to provide such a screening and receive reimbursement for it .

“Once a patient shows the need for additional testing physicians can use self-administered computerized tests to perform the additional screening without referring the patients to another doctor or office,” he adds. “ This also creates additional reimbursement for physicians.” 

MM–I can’t help but ask: “Since we have no cure or effective treatments for Alzheimer’s (or most forms of senile dementia) do you really want to know that, in three or four years, you may  be diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer’s?”

Certainly, seniors who want this testing should have access to it. Perhaps, one day, accumulated data will help researchers understand the disease. But Medicare patients should know that they can say “No” There is no requirement that this be part of your Annual Wellness visit.

On the Health Business Blog, another David Wilson has published a post that is likely to be even more controversial. He argues that “The Nursing Shortage is a Myth.”

We have plenty of nurses,  Wilson suggests. In fact, in the future, he writes, “robots will be replacing nurses “just as robots have replaced “paralegals” and “actuaries.” (“Insurance companies used to hire tons of them, but their work can be done much more efficiently with computers.”)

Over at Wright on Health, Brad Wright takes a look at the recent Institute of Medicine report comparing health in the U.S. to health in other wealthy nations. He notes that data on preventable deaths among young people points to the importance of public health interventions, including reducing access to guns.

  Continue reading

4 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

The Post-Election Edition of Health Wonk Review

This most recent edition of HWR, a compendium of some of the best health care posts of the past two weeks, came out ten days ago. I apologize that I’ve been tardy in commenting— but, not to worry, it’s an “evergreen.” The problems Health-Wonkers raise haven’t been solved in the past week, and the issues discussed remain just as “hot”– as they were.

Managed Care Matters” Joe Paduda does an outstanding job of hosting the round-up in a post titled: “Elections Have Consequences.”

He begins with “Health Policy and MarketPlace Review’s”  Bob Laszewski, who  notes in the wake of the election, we can be certain of one thing: Obamacare will be implemented. To be sure, there will be lawsuits challenging reform legislation, but Laszewski says, “I wouldn’t waste a lot of time worrying about those. Anyone in the market will do better spending their time getting ready for all of the change coming.” He’s far more worried about whether the government will be able to set up the Exchanges in time to meet the deadline—and how legislators are going to solve the “fiscal cliff” problem.

Writing on “Health Affairs” Timothy Jost agrees that “there is a great deal of work needs to be done before reform becomes a reality.”  He focuses on the many rules that the administration will need to issue to provide guidance to the states, to employers and to insurers:  “The exchanges must begin open enrollment on October 1, 2013,” he observes. “By that date, the exchanges must have certified qualified health plans.  But before health plans can be certified, they must have their rates and forms approved by the states.  And before that can happen, insurers must determine what plans they will offer and what premiums they will charge.  Yet insurers cannot establish their plans and set their rates until they know a lot more than they do now about the rules they are going to have to play by.” In other words, the administration had better “roll up its sleeves and get to work.”

Meanwhile, President Obama still must contend with ornery governors, and rebellious states. “In an ominous sign,” Jost notes, “Missouri passed a ballot initiative prohibiting state officials from cooperating with the federal exchange in its state,  and authorizing private lawsuits against any official who cooperates.”   (Thanks, Missouri–just what we need, lawsuits against officials trying to do their jobs..)  “Whether this is constitutional remains to be seen,” says Jost, who is a constitutional expert.

Continue reading

POST A COMMENT

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.”
Continue reading

19 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

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 …
Continue reading

POST A COMMENT

Medicare, Medicaid, Global Warming and Gun Control– Can Liberals and Conservatives Find Middle Ground? Should They? Part 1

 In a nation divided, “compromise” has become an extraordinarily appealing idea. Weary of the acrimony and endless wrangling, more and more Americans are asking: Why can’t conservative and liberal politicians come together and forge bipartisan solutions to the problems this nation faces?

Keep in mind that it is not only our elected representatives who are having trouble finding common ground. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey of “American Values” reveals that as voters head to the polls this November, their basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the past 25 years. In particular, when it comes to the question of government regulation and involvement in our lives, the average Republican has gravitated to the right. In 1987, 62% of Republicans agreed that “the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Now just 40% support this proposition. Democrats haven’t changed their views on this issue: most continue to believe “there, but for fortune . . .”

In Congress, where polarization has led to paralysis, some argue that Republican leaders are responsible for creating gridlock by insisting on “party discipline.” But liberals in Washington also are accused of “dividing the nation.” Even President Obama, who set out to unite the country, has been described as “the most polarizing president ever.” During his third year in office, Gallup reports, “an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year”–though this may say more about the temper of the times than the man himself. Nevertheless, many commentators believe that progressives, like conservatives, need to cede ground. The debate has become too contentious, too “political,” they say. I disagree. There are times when we cannot “split the difference.” Too much is at stake. We must weigh what would be won against what would be lost.

But reporters who have been taught that they must be “fair” and “balanced” often write as if all points of view are equally true. After all, they don’t want to be accused of “bias.” Thus they fall into the trap of what veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse calls “he said, she said” journalism. To them, the “middle ground” seems a safe place– a fair place– to position a story.

This may help explain why so many bloggers and newspaper reporters are calling for “bi-partisan consensus” as they comment on some of the most important issues of the day.

Global Warming

Writing about global warming, Huffington Post senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. recently declared: “Compromise is the necessary first step to tackling the problem. What ordinary Americans really want is for honest brokers on all sides to detoxify and depoliticize the global warming conversation, and then get on with the business of addressing it. That business will necessarily recognize that we all bring different values and interests to the table; that we perceive risks and rewards, costs and benefits differently; and it will identify solutions through thoughtful discussion and that crazy thing called compromise.” [ my emphasis] (Hat tip to David Roberts (Twitter’s “Dr. Grist”) for calling my attention to this post.)

  Continue reading

8 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Self-fulfilling Media Narratives: How One Man Wound Up Deciding the Fate of Healthcare Reform

Personally, I am delighted that Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA)   But, I am troubled that the fate of U.S. healthcare turned on one man’s opinion. This is not how things are supposed to work in a democracy.

Healthcare represents 16% of our economy. It touches all of our lives. If we don’t like the laws our elected representatives pass, we can vote them out of office.  The Supreme Court, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry whether its decisions reflect the will of the people. The Justices are appointed for life.  This is why they are not charged with setting public policy.

                        The Media Shapes Our Expectations 

As I suggested when oral arguments began back in March,  a “media narrative” drove the case to the Court– a fiction that caught on, in the press, on television, and in the blogosphere, where it began to take on a reality of its own. A handful of “state attorneys general and governors” saw “a political opportunity” and floated the idea that the law might be unconstitutional.  The media picked up the story, repeated the heated rhetoric, and “fanned the flames … Before long, what constitutional experts thought was a non-story became a Supreme Court case.”

These media narratives are based on what “that those in power and in the media have concluded is likely to happen,” says Lyle Denniston, known by some as the “Dean” of Supreme Court reporters.  Writing on “Scotusblog.com,” he observes: “One ‘narrative’ about the health care law began building up in Washington, and perhaps beyond, right after the Supreme Court held its hearings in late March.  The mandate, it was said, was going to be struck down, the government’s lawyer had blown it, and the President was going to be deeply wounded politically over the loss of his treasured domestic initiative.”  Some media outlets were so persuaded by their own myth-making that initially, they reported that the Court had ruled against reform!

Denniston explains that once the story goes viral, the conventional wisdom is then repeated, over and over, until “often, it seems, such ‘narratives’ become self-fulfilling.”

He then points to a “currently prevailing ‘narrative’ that most of the country is stubbornly committed to the Tea Party’s wish to limit the power of the federal government.”   The facts contradict the  fiction: Tea Party Candidates have been “losing  steam” in recent elections   In April, a WashingtonPost/ABC poll revealed that support for the Tea Party among young adults had plunged to 31%– down from 52% in the fall 2011. Half of those polled said that the more they heard about the Tea Party, the less they liked it.

I wrote this post for healthinsurance.org, where it appeared earliler today, To Read the Rest of the Post, go to http://www.healthinsurance.org/blog/2012/07/12/self-fulfilling-media-narratives/

 

2 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Highlights from the Reconciliation Bill, and Maggie’s Comments on the Changes

Overall, the changes in the reconciliation bill will make the Senate
bill more progressive—and fairer.

My prediction: the bill will
pass
. Those who oppose universal coverage are becoming
angrier, louder, more abusive, and more frantic. This is because they realize
that they are losing
, and now they are just flailing about.

This
evening (Thursday) I heard Bart Stupak acknowledge, on “Hardball
with Chris Matthews”, that while the Democrats may not have the
votes today, by Sunday, they could well have them.
On this, I agree
with Stupak.

Below, the details of the new bill, and my comments
in red.

Under the new reconciliation bill:

  • Low-income and middle-income families will have an easier time
    affording premiums.
    The tax credits for health insurance premiums
    are more generous for individuals and families with incomes between 250%
    and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL)—i.e.  individuals earning
    less than $41,500,  or a family of three earning less than $70,400. When
    compared to the Senate bill, the legislation also cuts cost-sharing for
    individuals and families with incomes between 100% and 250% FPL.

Comment:  Research shows  that when a low-income
family of four (for instance a family earning less than $22,000) is
required to share in health care costs, too often they delay needed
care.  For these families, even a $15 co-pay can be a barrier. Fifteen
dollars will buy groceries for two dinners for a family of four (e.g.
spaghetti with tomato sauce and bread).  Middle-income families who
don’t have help from an employer also need the higher subsidies that the
new bill provides.

  • Six months after the bill is enacted, all existing health
    insurance plans are prohibited from imposing life-time limits on payouts
    or refusing to cover children suffering from pre-existing conditions.
      
    Excessive waiting periods before insurance kicks in also will be
    banned, and insurers will be required to provide coverage for
    non-dependent children up to age 26 on their parent’s polices.  (Parents
    will pay extra for the coverage, but adult children will get better
    deals than many would on their own.) Beginning in 2014, group health
    plans will no longer be able to exclude adults based on pre-existing
    conditions. Annual limits on how much an insurer will pay out will be
    restricted beginning six months after enactment, and prohibited starting
    in 2014.

Comment: Limits on how much insurers will pay out
annually or over a lifetime can condemn individuals to death. If you
have the bad luck to be diagnosed with a very expensive disease that
might require years of pricey treatments (MS for example, or childhood
cancers) your insurance can easily “max out”—even though treatment that
might cure you (in the case of some childhood cancers where we have been
making great progress)– or at least give you many additional years of
life.

  • The “Cadillac Tax” on expensive health insurance plans has been
    pushed back five years and won’t go into effect until 2018.
    The
    thresholds also have been raised: the tax will apply only to individual
    plans that cost $10,200 or more (up from $8,500) or family plans that
    fetch $25,500 (up from $23,000). Dental and vision plans would not be
    included.  Under the new bill, there is no special deal for unions.

Comment:  In my view, this is a positive change.
As I have argued in the past, the Cadillac tax could hit middle-income
families.

  • While the Cadillac tax is rolled back, the Medicare tax for
    wealthy individuals earning over $200,000 and married couples who earn
    over $250,000 rises.
      Today, they pay a 1.45% payroll tax on wages.
    The Senate bill would raise that tax to 2.35%. The reconciliation bill
    expands the tax to include investment income (dividends, capital gains,
    etc.) as well as earned income. It still applies only to individuals who
    show income over $200,000 and couples who report income over $250,000.

Comment:  This tax makes up for the cut-back and
push-back on the Cadillac tax. In contrast to the Cadillac tax , this
tax is limited to those at the very top of the income ladder. Unlike the
middle-class, those earning over $200,000  have  enjoyed significant
tax breaks and income hikes in recent years. They are in a much better
position to afford the increase. It’s worth noting that other countries
tax investment income to help fund healthcare.

Continue reading

14 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Donating an Organ: Should It Be A Gift?

A story in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine raised some very thorny questions about organ transplants. I spent the afternoon reading more about transplants; by evening I had stumbled onto what seems to me at least a partial solution.

The NYT piece tells the story of Sally Satel, a 49-year-old psychiatrist in need of a kidney transplant. In 2004, her kidneys suddenly, quite inexplicably, began to fail. (The cause may have been a medication she had taken in her twenties.)  She had no living relatives except a couple of cousins whom she rarely saw. A close friend came forward, was tested, found that her blood was a match, volunteered to donate a kidney–and then reneged. (It turns out that when she went to chorus practice one evening, “a fellow alto” talked her out of it. The fellow-alto was, of all things, an organ transplant specialist. Satel was enraged: “a transplant surgeon should know how hard it is to get a donor.”)

A second friend volunteered, and again proved a match. But then she, too, got cold feet– though she didn’t tell Satel right away.

Finally, a 62-year-old stranger in Canada saw Satel’s message on an organ match website, called and offered to help her.  He was the right blood type, he seemed “steady” and “honest,” and after a few weeks of phone calls and e-mails, they set a date to do the operations in early January. Then, just before Thanksgiving, he went dark. “Everything turned to radio silence as my e-mail and phone messages went unanswered,” Satel recalls. When her transplant coordinator contacted him, he waffled. He wasn’t sure he would be able to make it in January; he was too heavily involved in a political campaign…

“I was astonished at the Canadian’s . . . what? Negligence, cowardice, rudeness?” Satel writes. “It was a sickening roller-coaster ride: hope yielding to helpless frustration, gratitude giving way to fury. How dare he reduce me to groveling and dependence? Yet I assume he intended no such thing. I think the Canadian was actually quite devoted to the idea of giving a kidney — just not necessarily now or to me.”

By now Satel is desperate. She realizes that her only alternative is dialysis “three days a week, for four debilitating hours at a time, I would be tethered to a blood-cleansing machine… I had an especially morbid dread of dialysis,” Satel admits.  She was haunted by what she had read about “the playwright Neil Simon [who] received a kidney from his longtime publicist in 2004 . . .but before that he endured 18 wretched months on dialysis, suffering cramps and vomiting spells that kept him largely confined to his house. His memory deteriorated, and he hated the time away from his writing. Shortly before his donor came forward (unsolicited, it should be noted), Simon’s doctors said he might have to start spending more time on dialysis. If that were necessary, he said, he had decided, ‘I didn’t want to live my life anymore.’ Neither, I thought, would I.”

Continue reading

22 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

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. 

Continue reading

18 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

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.

Continue reading

17 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE