OP-ED

OP-ED

Pharma and Volume-to-Value: The Big Throwdown

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Joe FlowerThe collision between the “volume-to-value” movement and the pharmaceutical and biotech industries over the next few years will have a powerful impact on them and on the healthcare industry and on us as customers, patients, and payers. 

On the one hand, pharma is perhaps the part of the healthcare industry least exposed to direct price regulation under the Obama reforms. The actual costs of pharmaceuticals have been rising as a percentage of what people spend on healthcare, and are seen as the part they have the least influence on. At the same time, many new drugs for cancer and other life-threatening diseases have come with astonishingly high price tags, often not fully covered by insurance (due to the high deductibles and co-pays of the new plans), and with few ways for regulators or the market to push back on them. The public perceives these huge price tags as threatening people with a Hobson’s choice of bankruptcy or death. In the volatile political atmosphere of the 2016 elections, this leaves the pharmaceutical industry highly exposed to political attack and actual new price regulation.

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries also potentially offer some of the best answers to bringing the cost of healthcare down through the use of personalized medicines, smart medicines, new methods of administration such as implants, as well as the possibilities glimmering at us from recent research of real breakthroughs in such important chronic disease areas as Alzheimers, diabetes, addiction, behavioral medicine, and functional medicine. For the most part, though, these answers remain potential. We will not see them adding to the “value” side of the equation until they become fully integrated into a system that is at risk for the health of its customers and using every trick in the handbook to bring those costs in line.

ONC Report on Health Information Blocking: A Solid Double, But NOT a Home Run

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flying cadeuciiLast Friday ONC (the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT) released a long-awaited Report On Health Information Blocking. The ONC blog capsulizes the report:

Health information blocking occurs when persons or entities knowingly and unreasonably interfere with the exchange or use of electronic health information. Our report examines the known extent of information blocking, provides criteria for identifying and distinguishing it from other barriers to interoperability, and describes steps the federal government and the private sector can take to deter this conduct.

We were struck with two major reactions to the ONC Info Blocking Report:

  • It’s a solid double: it does a credible job of recognizing that the major problems of interoperability and blocking are not technical or due to a lack of standards, but rather due to business practices and business models. The report also proposes a baseline of potential solutions.
  • It’s not a home run: the report misses the opportunity to describe a comprehensive approach to combat information blocking.

The Facebook Model for Socialized Health Care

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Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 5.06.17 PMAs government involvement in U.S. health care deepens—through the Affordable Care Act, Meaningful Use, and the continued revisions and expansions of Medicaid and Medicare—the politically electric watchword is “socialism.”

Online, of course, social media is not a latent communist threat, but rather the most popular destination for internet users around the world.

People, whether out of fear for being left behind, or simply tickled by the ease with which they can publicize their lives, have been sharing every element of their public (and very often, their private) lives with ever-increasing zeal. Pictures, videos, by-the-minute commentary and updates, idle musings, blogs—the means by which people broadcast themselves are as numerous and diverse as sites on the web itself.

Even as the public decries government spying programs and panics at the news of the latest massive data-breach, the daily traffic to sites like Facebook and Twitter—especially through mobile devices—not only stays high, but continues to grow. These sites are designed around users volunteering personal information, from work and education information, to preferences in music, movies, politics, and even romantic partners.

So why not health data?

Socialized or Not, We Can Learn from the VA

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Art Kellerman RAND optimizedIn a post on the New York Times’ Economix blog not long ago, Princeton economics professor Uwe E. Reinhardt addresses the common characterization of the British health care system as “socialized medicine.” The label is most often used pejoratively in the United States to suggest that if anything resembling Great Britain’s National Health System (NHS) were adopted in the U.S., it would invariably deliver low-quality health care and produce poor health outcomes.

Ironically, Reinhardt notes, the U.S. already has a close cousin to the NHS within our borders. It’s the national network of VA Hospitals, clinics and skilled nursing facilities operated by our Veterans Healthcare Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. By almost every measure, the VA is recognized as delivering consistently high-quality care to its patients.

Among the evidence Reinhardt cites is an “eye-opening” (his words) 2004 RAND study from in the Annals of Internal Medicine that examined the quality of VA care, comparing the medical records of VA patients with a national sample and evaluating how effectively health care is delivered to each group (see a summary of that study).

RAND’s study, led by Dr. Steven Asch, found that the VA system delivered higher-quality care than the national sample of private hospitals on all measures except acute care (on which the two samples performed comparably). In nearly every other respect, VA patients received consistently better care across the board, including screening, diagnosis, treatment, and access to follow-up.

Vermont Chooses Single-Payer: Who Else Has an Appetite for Experimentation?

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This past Monday, the Vermont Senate passed a Single-Payer bill. The House had already passed a similar bill and the governor is friendly to the legislation, so all that stands between Vermont and a single-payer law are a few formalities. At the moment, though, Vermont is alone in taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act to achieve universal coverage without private insurers. In fact, it isn’t clear that any other states are taking serious steps even toward a public option.

Massachusetts isn’t going there: it is doubling-down on its eponymous model that relies on private health plans, and seems hell bent on showing the nation that this model can work. The state just boasted that capitation rates will actually go down in 2012, allowing the program to grow enrollment without additional funding. It’s not difficult to imagine the feeling of responsibility weighing on administrators and Democratic officials there as they work to pull the levers of payment reform to reign in Partners HealthCare and other misbehavers.

The Law of Diminishing Returns of Ethicism

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Many allege that the FIRST trial, which randomized surgical residencies to strict versus flexible adherence to duty hour restrictions, was unethical because patients weren’t consented for the trial and, as this was an experiment, in the true sense of the word, consent was mandatory. The objection is best summarized by an epizeuxis in a Tweet from Alice Dreger, a writer, medical historian, and a courageous and tireless defender of intellectual freedom.

It’s important understanding what the FIRST (Flexibility In duty hour Requirements for Surgical Trainees) trial did and didn’t show. It showed neither that working 120 hours a week has better outcomes than working 80 hours a week, nor the opposite. Neither did the trial, despite being a non-inferiority trial, show that working 100 hours was as safe as working 60 hours a week. The trial showed that violating duty hour restrictions didn’t worsen outcomes. The trial was neither designed nor powered to specify the degree to which the violation of duty hours was safe. This key point can be missed. To be fair, neither the trialists, nor the editorials about the trial, claimed so.

What Zeke Missed on an Annual Physical

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flying cadeuciiIn January, Ezekiel Emanuel – one of the country’s foremost health experts – threw a presumptive grenade into the national discourse: the annual physical is worthless. As we watched the initial burst of reactionary fervor following hisNew York Times opinion piece, we weren’t quite sure what to think.

Then we realized why: in our training and burgeoning careers in primary care, neither of us has ever scheduled an “annual physical” for a patient. To us, the notion of such a visit – for scheduled, non-urgent care, and one not specifically for chronic disease management – is already dated. Given current trends in American health care delivery and professional training, we argue it is one that may well soon be obsolete.

But does that obsolescence change the value of that time – whether 15 minutes or 60 – with a patient, on a regular interval? Our perspective from medicine’s emerging front line offers a resounding no.

The most obvious argument for regular primary care visits is preventive care. Dr. Emanuel bases much of his argument on the validity (or lack thereof) of annual physicals. Drawing off that same evidence base, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force sets recommendations for evidence-based screening in various populations. Even the young and healthy benefit from cervical cancer screening, initiated at 21 years of age and continued every three years provided negative results until the age of 30 (when the recommendations change slightly). Patients with higher risk earn further screenings, based on whether they smoke, their weight, their age and their family history.

Climate Change and the Migration of Infectious Disease

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Zika is all over the news. Zika is surely dangerous, but it has its limitations and is likely to be well contained. However, its greater significance extends beyond any current spread. Instead, it exemplifies the crucial emerging trend of a novel infectious agent that has swiftly become a global threat.

The common phrase, ‘this time is different’, is almost always wrong. Yet, our modern circumstances are distinctly unlike any previous era. Humans possess a unique ability for rapid travel and we choose to journey with our favorite pets and plants. This unprecedented degree of mobility extends across every planetary habitat. Further yet, it now occurs during a phase of a rapidly shifting climate. Certainly, species migration or global climate change are not new but it is only in this present moment that these factors can amplify through instantaneous global travel in a singular manner.

In fact, the results of this unusual conjunction are already apparent. For example, Zika’s advance across Europe and to the Americas has been extremely rapid. This is such an extraordinary event that at the beginning of this year, the World Health Organization declared Zika a global emergency in recognition of its rapid spread from continent to continent. Its rising incidence mirrors our prior concerns about the global scope of other recent epidemics such as Ebola or SARS.

Medicare, Medicaid Get Squeezed in Ryan Plan

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Everyone agrees that controlling health care costs is the key to bringing long-term federal budget deficits under control. Government spending on Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor has grown nearly twice as fast as the rest of the economy for decades and is by far the largest component of future projected deficits.

But government funded health care programs aren’t unique in that regard. Employer-based coverage for the working population, which is provided through private insurance companies, has grown just as fast. The problem in a nutshell is the cost of health care, not its funding source.

That’s why it’s important to consider how the two separate sides of our health care system – public plans and private plans – will interact should the Medicare privatization plan that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., touted on Fox News Sunday become law. The House Budget Committee chairman’s alternative budget would turn Medicare over to private insurers for anyone who retired after 2021. Future retirees would receive a capped payment to buy insurance (he called it “premium support,” not a voucher). Medicaid would be turned into a capped block grant – which translates as a fixed sum awarded to states.

Capping expenditures is central to cost-control in the Ryan plan, which is essentially the same plan that he co-authored with former Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin during the fiscal commission deliberations. The plan limits the annual growth in the amount earmarked for either premium support or block grants to one percentage point more than gross domestic product (call it GDP+1).

That’s about half of the actual health care cost outlays in most years. According to Congressional Budget Office projections released in January, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is expected to nearly double to $1.6 trillion by 2021, about a 7 percent annual increase. If the primary goal is holding down taxes and spending, capping that rise at GDP+1 provides the upside. With a wave of the legislative wand, government spending on health care for the old and poor would be reduced to more manageable proportions – between 3.5 and 4.5 percent a year depending on how fast the economy grows. Taxpayers could rejoice.

The War on Death

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Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.31.53 AMThomas Hobbes described life as pitifully “nasty, brutish, and short.” Thanks to the free market and the state, life is no longer a Hobbesian nightmare. But death has become nasty, brutish, and long.

Surgeon and writer, Atul Gawande, explores the medicalization of ageing and death in Being Mortal. Gawande points to a glaring deficiency in medical education. Taught to save lives and fight death, doctors don’t bow out gracefully and say enough is enough. We’re not taught about dying. We’re taught about not dying.

In our lexicon, life is a constant war against the Grim Reaper. We say inactivity kills; screening saves lives; an intervention reduces mortality by 5 %—an arithmetic impossibility as mortality for our species, barring select prophets, remains 100%. Words have precise meanings. Words also hide precise desires. It’s not that we can’t distinguish between a murderer and colorectal cancer; but by giving cancer moral agency—we wage war on cancer—we imply that death is an anomaly that must be fought.

And we fight. We fight death in the hospices. We fight death in the hospitals. In many parts of the world, more people die in hospitals than in their homes. Some die, attached to a noradrenaline infusion, in the CAT scan—the last pit stop of hope between the intensive care unit (ICU) and the morgue.