A Doctor Confides, “My Primary Doc is a Nurse”

Last week I interviewed a doctor who told me that his primary care doc is a “physician assistant”  who has been trained to deliver primary care.   He said it casually, dropping the fact into a long conversation.

Dr. David Kauff is an internist at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative (GHC), an organization that has a fabulous reputation–both among patients and among physicians—for its primary care program.  One reason is that at Group Health, doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners work together in teams. “The success of our model is based on the fact that everyone in this together; we are corralled by a common purpose,” says Kauff, who also serves as GHC’s  Medical  Director for Practice and Leadership. 

I’ll be writing more about Group Health Cooperative in a few days.

 In this post, I would like to focus on the growing role of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) as clinicians.  NPs are registered nurses who have gone on to earn a master’s or a doctorate. Some specialize in areas such as anesthesiology, pediatrics (pediatric nurses) or Ob-Gyn (certified nurse-midwives). NP’s can run clinics; some run their own practices.     

By contrast, physician assistants (PAs) don’t usually work alone. While physicians may not be on-site, typically doctors oversee their work.  

PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services.  They take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X- rays, and make diagnoses. In many cases, they did not begin their careers as nurses. They may have been  paramedics, respiratory therapists, or emergency care technicians (EMTs) before becoming PAs.  

Currently, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, let nurse practitioners operate independently.  In 33 states regulations vary. As this map  reveals, in some places NPs are not allowed to prescribe medication. In others, they may have to consult with a physician when treating patients.

It’s worth noting that NPs enjoy greater freedom in the Northwest, the Upper Middle West, and Northern New England (areas that some healthcare reformers refer to as “Canada South” because these states are in the vanguard of reform) as well as in the Southwest, where many NP’s started working in group practices, and they went out and established their own clinics. Nationwide, about 6,000 nurses operate independent primary-care practices.                                               

                                              Why Physicians Object

Today, 14 states are debating whether NPs should be allowed to practice on their own.  Many emphasize the difference in education and years of training. Though in truth, the length of training is not so different. Becoming a primary care doctor requires four years of medical school plus three years of residency. A nurse practitioner  attends nursing school for four years, then spends two to three years in graduate school, depending on whether he or she is getting an M.A. or a Ph.D. (In 2015, all nurse practitioners will be required to earn a Ph.D.) 

Most NPs also have nursing experience. At the University of Michigan, for instance, the average candidate admitted to the NP program has 7 years of hands-on experience as a nurse.  But while the number of years spent training are not so different, as I explain below, traditionally ,the nature of that training has been very different.   

Doctors say that they are worried about patient safety. “I see it as physicians being true to their oath “  Dr. Adris Hoven, president-elect of the American Medical Association recently told Marketplace Health Care’s Dan Gorenstein.   Hoven insists that doctors are “not threatened” by NPs.  “At the end of the day what they want to do is deliver the best healthcare possible.”  

Dr. John Rowe, a professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia’s School of Public Health, doesn’t buy the argument.  As he points out, nurse practitioners are already working without primary care doctors: “The fact is this is going on in 16-17 states,” he told Gorenstein, “and there is no evidence that it’s not good for the patient.”  A recent Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation backs him up: “studies comparing the quality of care provided by physicians and nurse practitioners have found that clinical outcomes are similar.”

At the same time, Rowe understands why doctors are uncomfortable. “The physicians feel they have something special to offer,” he explains. “And being told there are individuals who are less well trained can do it as well as they could is a very difficult lesson for them.”                                    

When I last wrote about nurse practitioners, back in 2010, one physician/reader (“Sharon M.D.”) was exceptionally candid on this point:

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Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

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How to Rein in Medicare Spending Without Hurting Seniors

In his Inaugural speech, President Obama renewed his commitment to safety nets:  ”Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security–these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.

Yet last week, he signaled that he is “open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare.” Should seniors brace for bad news?

No. There are many ways to cut Medicare spending without drawing blood. It’s a matter of using a scalpel, not an axe, to trim the fat.

Not long ago, the Center for American Progress (CAP) unveiled a Senior Protection Plan that would do just that, revealing how we could reduce Medicare spending by $385 billion without harming beneficiaries.”

The administration pays attention to CAP. Recently Bloomberg News described CAP as “the intellectual wellspring for Democratic policy proposals, including many that are shaping the agenda of the Obama administration.” This suggests that the report’s proposals may offer a preview of “adjustments to Medicare spending” that the president would consider.

How would CAP save $358 billion without rationing benefits or shifting costs to middle-class seniors? The report focuses on squeezing waste out of the system. Waste doesn’t help beneficiaries.

During recent fiscal cliff negotiations, Democrats and Republicans agreed to adopt four of CAP’s proposals, and I suspect that, over time, we will see more of its recommendations become part of the reality of health care reform.

Recently, I interviewed CAP president NeeraTanden and Topher Spiro, CAP’s managing director for health policy. I was impressed by how their practical approach differs from conservative strategies for slicing “entitlements.”
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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.

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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How Much Will We Save If We Raise the Age When Seniors Can Apply for Medicare to 67? Less than Zero

The budget deadlock continues.

President Obama is clear: if we want to strengthen the economy, we can no longer afford President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. At the same time,  he is equally firm that he will continue tax relief for the other 98%.

House Speaker John Boehner has responded by characterizing Obama’s proposal as coming from “La-la land.”  Once again, Boehner has insisted that his party will not agree to let marginal tax rates for Americans earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples ) rise back to where they were in the 1990s.

Instead, Boehner proposes slicing social safety net programs. As part of the package, he continues to insist that we raise the age when Americans can apply for Medicare from 65 to 67. If we did this, the Congressional Budget  Office says, Medicare spending would decline by about 5 percent. 

                                     “We Are Not Living Longer”

On the face of it, lifting the eligibility age for Medicare might sound like a reasonable idea. After all, longevity has increased. Can’t we wait a couple of years before we ask the government to cover our health benefits?

First, “We” are not living longer. “Some of us” are living longer. But low-income and median-income Americans (who most need these benefits) die sooner than the  politicians who propose that we raise the age requirement for Medicare.

Research from the Social Security administration shows that increases in life expectancy have not been shared.  In 1977, life expectancy at age 65 for a man who was in the bottom half of earners during his peak earning years was 79.8 years; a 65 year-old male who was in the top half of earners at the same point in his career, could assume that he would live roughly 10 years longer,  to 80.5

Over the past 30 years, the gap has widened, During those three decades life expectancy  grew dramatically for the top half of earners, while remaining nearly flat for the bottom half

Education serves as another marker for life expectancy: According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) between 1996-2006, the difference in life expectancy at age 25 between those with less than a high school education and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 1.9 years for men and 2.8 years for women.  On average in 2006, 25-year-old men without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 9.3 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Women without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 8.6 years less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Race also plays a role. For example, a white male born in 2009 can expect to live to be 76.3 while an African-American male born that year is likely to  die shortly after he turns 70.  Lift the age when he becomes eligible for Medicare to 67, and he may be  be suffering though the final stage of a chronic disease before he qualifies. Yet, he, like every other working American, will have contributed to Medicare for decades.

Finally, occupation helps determine how long you live. Low-income workers are more likely to be engaged in work that is physically grueling. By age 65, the body is wearing out. At that point, a person needs Medicare.

As David A. Smith, Director, Public Policy Department, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) testified at a 1998 hearing on the Future of Social Security before the House Ways and Means Sub Committee on Social Security:  “It is clear that people who spend their work lives scrubbing floors in a nursing home, moving 5 liter engine blocks around a factory floor, pouring steel into a Bessemer mill, or hauling bricks around a construction site can count on a shorter life span and a shorter work life. They are more likely to experience work place injuries and to lack the continued physical endurance necessary to perform their jobs very far into their 60’s.”

As a simple matter of fairness, asking those who have worked harder to wait another  two years before receiving Medicare seems cruel.

                                       The Bogus Financial Argument 

Admittedly Republicans might not acknowledge the “fairness” argument. If you believe that a person’s health is a matter of “personal responsibility,” you might say that if the poor are aging faster than the rest of us, it is because they smoke, eat too many carbs, and generally “don’t take care of themselves.”                                           

But, fairness aside, when you look at the numbers, it turns out that the claim that we can save billions by requiring that everyone wait until 67 before applying for Medicare is bogus.
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As We Approach the Fiscal Cliff: What is the GOP’s Primary Goal?

In theory, the GOP’s main concern is the deficit. We must reduce it they say—and we must do it now–or face a financial Armageddon. But somehow or other, “cutting the deficit” always turns out to mean “reducing entitlement programs.”

Let me suggest that cutting those entitlements programs is the GOP’s primary goal.

Why would I say this?

Earlier this week , wh en Republican House speaker John Boehner presented his party’s counter-proposal for solving the budget deadlock, he once again put lifting the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 near the top of his list. Yet, it you take a hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this proposal would not save money–or strengthen the economy. Moreover, entitlement programs did not create the current deficit.

Begin with forcing seniors to wait until they are 67 before they can apply for Medicare. As I explain in the post above, this proposal simply shifts costs to employers, the states, everyone buying insurance in the Exchanges, other Medicare beneficiaries, and 65 and 66-year-olds themselves. It does not lower the nation’s total healthcare bill. Indeed, the GOP’s remedy would wind up costing us twice as much as we now spend providing Medicare benefits for people who are 65 and 66. (See graph in the post above).

I am not  the first person to make this argument. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities  offer  eye-opening numbers that prove the point.  One would think that, if the GOP’s main goal were to save the economy, Republicans would be interested in these numbers.

One would be wrong.  They ignore them (and seem to have persuaded the mainstream media to follow suit.) Why would conservatives close their eyes to the financial facts? The GOP has an agenda, and it’s not about the deficit. The party’s main fear is “creeping socialism.”

Conservatives use the deficit as an excuse for slicing benefits that they acknowledge will inflict pain on the people who most depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—the elderly and the poor.

 

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Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

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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.

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