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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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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As the Republicans Take Tampa, Consider What a GOP Victory Would Mean for Women’s Health

For decades, Republicans have opposed abortion. This, we know, and so it comes as no surprise that Mitt Romney, the Party’s presidential candidate, has called “Roe vs. Wade“ one of the darkest moments in Supreme Court history.” 

But what some call the “war against women” is escalating.  This year, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment that would make abortion illegal.

In 1976, the GOP blueprint acknowledged that “the question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” and the Party called for “a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion,” which it called a “moral and personal issue.”  Just eight years ago, the preamble to the Republican platform declared: “we respect and accept that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing views.”  But today, there is no such language in a platform that calls for “a human life amendment to the Constitution,” and declares that “abortion is detrimental to women’s health and well-being.”

Meanwhile Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Ohio all have passed legislation outlawing abortion after 20 weeks, even though, as the Center for American Progress’  Emillie Openchowski points out “complications are sometimes discovered after this point in a pregnancy that could cause serious harm to the woman. In those states, a woman would be forced to continue the pregnancy, no matter the risk to her health.”  This is frightening.

While Republicans parade women across their Tampa stage– and avoid talking about what they have quietly embedded in the Party platform–it seems a good time to consider what a Republican victory would mean for women’s health.

Turning Back the Clock: Contraception 

Susan Faludi’s Pulitzer-prize winning 1991 book, Backlash, is subtitled: “The Undeclared War Against American Women.” Twenty-one years later, it seems the war is out in the open . As a recent New York Times editorial observes:  “Having won on abortion, social conservatives are turning to birth control.”

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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.)

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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/

 

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Taxes: Weight Watchers for the Health Care System

A few days ago San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed adding a surcharge on soft drinks with high-fructose corn syrup as part of a campaign to combat obesity.

Newsom’s “soda tax” is just the latest development in a series of metropolitan initiatives aimed at promoting healthier living. New York, which pioneered smoking and trans fat bans, has been the most gung-ho city and similar bans now have been passed, or are being considered, by cities across the nation—and the world

Efforts like the soda tax are often derided as unnecessary big government intrusions, especially for something like corn syrup (or trans fat) that doesn’t hurt bystanders the way second-hand smoke does. Those who eat or drink poorly only hurt themselves; and the right to self-destruct is a right the government should respect (or at least this is what some say).

But here’s the problem: the cumulative effect of saying that obesity isn’t my problem is to make it everyone’s problem. Newsom’s spokesman, Nathan Ballard told the New York Times that “there’s a well-established nexus between obesity, which is caused by high-fructose corn syrup, and the increased health care costs for the city.” According to a 2004 study in the Annual Review of Public Health, obesity is responsible for between 5 percent and 7 percent of total annual medical expenditures in the United States. Every year excess weight costs our health care system more than $90 billion. Even employers shoulder the burden of obesity: overweight workers require as much a $2,500 extra in health care costs, adding up to almost $300,000 in medical expenses for a 1,000 person firm.

The reason why obesity costs so much is obvious. Individuals who are carrying too much weight are at an increased risk of hypertension, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, respiratory problems, and cancer. And it’s only getting worse. A RAND study from earlier this year found that from 2000 to 2005 the obesity rate in the U.S. (, i.e. the number of people with a body mass index of 30 or above,) increased by 24 percent. Meanwhile the number of people with a BMI over 40 grew by 50 percent, and the number of people with a BMI over 50 grew 75 percent.

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Is State-Level Health Care Reform Doomed?

It’s a waste of breath to say that health reform is a big issue in the states. But is it also the case that health reform in the states is a waste of time?

With health reform experimentation popping up across the nation, conventional wisdom has become, as Massachusetts State Senator Richard T. Moore put it in a blog post for the Commonwealth Fund, that states are “critical laboratories for quality and innovation.”

Yet while Moore is right to say that “common elements of success will serve as a useful learning experience for other states and national leaders in considering more comprehensive health care reform,” there’s another side of the issue to consider: there may be some states that can’t sustain universal coverage without more comprehensive federal reform—no matter how insurance programs are designed. There’s also a danger that failure at the state level could be used to argue that comprehensive health reform is simply an impossible goal.

Among the biggest problems with universal coverage is cost: how can we afford to insure everybody? One answer is to require that everyone buy coverage.  By mandating insurance, a state can spread the cost across a larger pool of people that includes low-risk individuals who can help share the burden of insuring high-risk individuals.

Without a mandate, no one would buy insurance until they were sick or elderly; the pool would be made up of people who are expensive to insure, and soon coverage would become unaffordable. The only alternative would be to pass laws saying that if you don’t sign up before you become sick, insurers have the right to refuse to cover you –or to charge you five times what they would charge a healthy person. This is what happens in many states today, which is why one serious illness can send a family into bankruptcy. If we want to say that insurers can’t leave anyone out in the cold—even if they are very sick –then we also have to say that everyone must participate in the system.

The question remains:  will mandates work at the state level?

Consider Maine. In 2005, Maine launched the nation’s first experiment
in universal health coverage through the “Dirigo Health Act,” named
after Maine’s state motto, “Dirigo,” Latin for “I lead.” Dirigo is
entirely voluntary, and as a result only 18,800 people (most of which
already had private sector insurance) have signed up for DirigoChoice,
the main arm of the program devoted to small businesses and
individuals. Meanwhile, some 130,000 Maine residents remain uninsured.

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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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Health Beat Hosts Health Wonk Review

Today, Health Beat is hosting Health Wonk Review, a biweekly compendium of the best of the health policy blogs. More than two dozen health policy, infrastructure, insurance, technology, and managed care bloggers participate by contributing their best recent blog postings to a roving digest, with each issue hosted at a different participant’s blog.

Thanks to all of you for your submissions. I couldn’t do justice to all of them, but here’s a sampling of some of the best posts about health care on the blogosphere:

At Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review Robert Laszewski takes on Mitt Romney’s assertion that there are “pots of money” in the states –enough to allow states to follow Massachusetts’ initiative and fund health care reform without raising taxes. Laszewski demolishes the argument, pointing out that even Massachusetts doesn’t have enough money to follow Massachusetts’s initiative. That’s why the state has had to exempt some citizens from the mandate that everyone buy insurance.

On Health Access California, Anthony Wright offers the clearest explanation I’ve seen of Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan for reforming care in California, and its merits and limitations when compared to both HRC’s proposal and the Romney plan in Massachusetts.

On Physician Executive, Zagreus Ammon’s ambitious post “Defining Universal Health Care” begins by addressing the theory that each of us is responsible  for our own health—i.e. “that people do well because they make good choices and people do poorly because of poor choices.”

Here Ammon is responding to Peter Huber of Manhattan Institute fame and his editorial in IBD (Investors’ Business Daily) arguing that universal healthcare is an idle dream because eventually, the “pocket-book healthy” (read: wealthy) will get tired of paying for the “health-careless people” who don’t “live informed, disciplined lives”(read: less well-educated and poorer.) The righteous would rather see that money funneled into products that would provide them with “better hair, skin and sex,” Stern suggests.  For a more generous synopsis of Huber’s argument, see H.G. Stern’s rave review on Insureblog

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The Truth about the Politics of National Health Reform

For the past year, progressives have begun to talk about health care reform as if it is inevitable. Listen to the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, and it seems just a question of what form the health care revolution will take, how quickly it will happen, and how we’ll finance it. After all, the polls show that the majority of taxpayers, employers and even most doctors want to see a major change.  Moreover, health care research shows that if we cut the waste in our system, we could fund universal coverage. What, then, is stopping us?

As regular readers know, I recently attended a Massachusetts Medical Society Leadership Forum where what I heard about the Massachusetts plan made my heart sink. While everyone in Massachusetts wants health care reform, no one wants to pay for it. Those who are receiving state subsidies to buy insurance are enthusiastic. But uninsured citizens earning more than 300% of the poverty level are expected to purchase their own insurance. The state hoped that 228,000 of its uninsured citizens would sign up; as of last month, just 15,000 had enrolled. Many have decided that they would rather pay the penalty than buy health insurance.

At the forum, Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, talked about what Massachusetts’ experience might mean for the national health care debate: “Massachusetts is the canary in the coal mine,” Blendon, who is also a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, declared bluntly. “If it’s not breathing in 2009, people won’t go in that mine.”  If the Massachusetts plan unravels, he suggested, Washington’s politicians will say “If they can’t do it in a liberal state like Massachusetts, how can we do it here?” 

I’m not writing Massachusetts off. The state’s leaders are behind the plan and they may be able to persuade the Commonwealth’s citizens to come on board. But it won’t be easy. 

In the meantime, this week I decided to ask Blendon some follow-up questions: Just what would it take, politically, to achieve national health care reform sometime in the next two to four years?  How many seats would reformers have to capture in Congress?  Is this likely?   Some observers say that if a reform-minded president hopes to succeed, he or she will have to ram a plan through Congress sometime in 2009. But health care is complicated; wouldn’t it make more sense for a new administration to take its time and explain what it is doing to the public, while trying to create a sustainable, affordable, high quality health care system?

Finally, what are the biggest barriers to reform?  If major change proves impossible, what more modest back-up plans should a new president have in mind? What other health care legislation could he or she hope to pass?

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