OP-ED

OP-ED

Healthcare Reform’s Missing Link — Nurse Practitioners

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Within the next two years, if federal healthcare reforms proceed as expected, roughly 30 million of the estimated 50 million uninsured people in the United States — 6.9 million in California — will be trying to find new healthcare providers.

It won’t be easy. Primary care providers are already in short supply, both in California and nationwide. That’s because doctors are increasingly leaving primary care for other types of practices, including higher paid specialties. As the demand increases, the squeeze on providers will worsen, leading to potentially lower standards of care in general and longer wait times for appointments for many of the rest of us.

Nurse practitioners can help fill this gap. We are registered nurses with graduate school education and training to provide a wide range of both preventive and acute healthcare services. We’re trained to provide complete physical exams, diagnose many problems, interpret lab results and X-rays, and prescribe and manage medications. In other words, we’re fully prepared to provide excellent primary care. Moreover, there are plenty of us waiting to do just that. The most recent federal government statistics show there were nearly 160,000 of us in 2008, an increase of 12% over 2004, and our numbers continue to rise.

Clinics like the one I direct in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — GLIDE Health Services — offer a hopeful glimpse into California’s healthcare future. We are a federally funded, affordable clinic, run almost entirely by nurse practitioners. At our clinic, we nurses and talented specialists provide high-quality, comprehensive primary care to more than 3,200 patients each year.

Despite the special hardships of our clientele, who daily cope with the negative effects on health caused by poverty, unemployment and substance abuse, our results routinely compare favorably with those of mainstream physicians. Our patients with diabetes, for example, report regularly for checkups, take their meds as directed and maintain relatively low average blood-sugar levels.

Analyzing A Crucial Battle In The Legal War Over Health Reform

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For a lawyer, the argument of Florida v. the Department of Health and Human Services before a three judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals on Wednesday, June 8, was a beauty to behold.  (For a non-lawyer it was probably tedious, repetitive, and much too long).  Three active and very well-prepared judges spent two and a half hours grilling three very talented lawyers about intricacies of health policy and constitutional law, rarely allowing the lawyers time to finish a thought before interrupting with yet another question.

This is arguably the most important of the many Affordable Care Act (ACA) challenges currently pending in the courts.  The plaintiffs include over half of the states, as well as the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and two individual plaintiffs.  It is one of only two cases in which a part of the ACA has been held unconstitutional (out of over thirty cases that have been filed), and it is the only case in which the lower court struck down the entire statute as unconstitutional. Thirty-six amicus briefs were submitted to the appellate court, including briefs filed by professional and provider organizations, members of Congress, states and state legislators (on both sides), Nobel Prize winning economists, law professors, disease and consumer organizations, and just about every conservative advocacy group in the country.

The attorneys. The importance of the case is underlined by the fact that the federal government was represented by Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, while the states were represented by Paul Clement, Solicitor General under the Bush administration, perhaps the first time two solicitor generals have squared off against each other in a court of appeals argument.  (The NFIB was represented by a third well-known lawyer, Michael Carvin).

The AAFP’s Bold New Valuation Initiative

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This morning, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the largest and “purest” of the major primary care societies – the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) are all heavily influenced by sub-specialists – announced that it has convened a national task force charged with identifying new, better approaches to value primary care services.

This initiative is nationally significant for several reasons. By definition, it challenges the methodology used for nearly two decades by the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (AMA RUC), which has drastically under-valued primary care services while over-valuing many specialty services. By taking on this effort, it not only announces that the fruits of the AMA RUC’s labors are unacceptable, but also points out that the methodology the RUC uses to value medical services – this is founded on the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) “input” taxonomy developed by William Hsaio’s team in the late 1980s – is incomplete and outdated. For example, the RUC’s methodology for calculating value doesn’t consider whether a service produced a worthwhile benefit to the patient or society, whether it was evidence-based or even necessary. More on this in a future article.

Next, the task force is not limited to AAFP members, but a wide range of professionals drawn from other primary care medical societies, business, the health plan sector, policy groups and subject matter experts. See the bios here. (I’ve been asked to participate, and will be honored to do so.) In other words, unlike the RUC, this group is more representative of the sectors whose interests it will focus on.

The Return of the Greater Common Good

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Congress is in recess, but you’d hardly know it. This has been the most do-nothing, gridlocked Congress in decades. But the recess at least offers a pause in the ongoing partisan fighting that’s sure to resume in a few weeks.

It also offers an opportunity to step back and ask ourselves what’s really at stake.

A society — any society —- is defined as a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions: public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefitted from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

“Privatize” means “Pay for it yourself.” The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than at any time in the past 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

In fact, much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.

Much of the rest of what’s considered “public” has become so shoddy that those who can afford to do so find private alternatives. As public schools deteriorate, the upper-middle class and wealthy send their kids to private ones. As public pools and playgrounds decay, the better-off buy memberships in private tennis and swimming clubs. As public hospitals decline, the well-off pay premium rates for private care.

A Parasite meets Wall Street

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Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 9.23.55 AMToxoplasma gondii is a parasite that causes opportunistic infection in helpless people. It may have met its match. The cost of treating Toxoplasmosis, a rare but extant infection, just shot up exponentially. Drug-resistant strain, you ask? Have physicians in Infectious Disease gone mercenary, you wonder? No. A change in ownership.

Daraprim (pyrimethamine) is a nifty drug which kills parasites. It’s been around for eons. I still recall its name from my medical school pharmacology exam. The price of Daraprim, whose production barely costs a dollar, may rise from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill, after the rights to distribute the drug were acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals.

Why? The answer is best told by Michael Shkreli, the CEO of Turing, and former hedge fund manager. The reason why Shkreli has acquired a generic drug lying in a forgotten backwater, and raised the price of a magnitude more suited to the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, is to make profits. Lots of profit. If this answer seems inane, ask yourself why a former hedge fund manager would be interested in a rare disease of devastating consequences. Penitence is the wrong answer.

Health Care Like It’s 1972?

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Growing older with health care and support needs is a “people” issue; not a partisan one.

As the entitlement debate rages on and the health care system evolves, the bottom line remains that there needs to be more affordable and accessible options for all people who need long-term care. This is the kind of care that we are all likely to need at some point in our lives as we age; it will range in scope from everyday assistance such as getting groceries, to more comprehensive help in the form of assisted living or nursing home care. Those few who are fortunate enough not to face these kinds of needs personally are likely to need to care for a loved one at some point in their lives, such as a parent, grandparent, or spouse. As a country, we seem blind to these realities, even as the short window that we have to make a meaningful difference for the emerging older population is closing rapidly.

The fact is that roughly 70 percent of Americans over the age of 65 will need some form of long-term care, on average for three years. Yet most people, when asked, think they will never need this kind of care.

To make matters even worse, many individuals mistakenly believe that Medicare will pay for long-term services and supports even (it does not). The result is a public that is woefully underprepared and ill-equipped to prepare for what are probably inevitable health needs.

This gap in knowledge and awareness has contributed to our current “non-system” of financing long-term care, in which people are left to fend for themselves to pay for services or spend down to near poverty levels to qualify for Medicaid; for only then is public help available. This is neither a sustainable nor a dignified policy. We need to develop a better model that will ensure that all Americans can age with dignity, choice, and independence. But what would that look like?

As a physician, I believe we have perfected the health care delivery model for 1972 that focuses on acute care, and is not necessarily designed to meet the needs of individuals living for an extended period of time with multiple chronic conditions. What we need today and into the future is an updated toolbox for financing long-term care that serves the needs of a 2013 population. In 1965, the average life expectancy was 69 years old. If an older person experienced a major health event—a heart attack or stroke, for example—they might have recovered, but they probably did not live much longer beyond that event. Today, with advances in medicine and technology and the increased number of intensive care units and critical care units, people are living longer than ever before, but with functional impairments and multiple chronic conditions. The delivery model we have today is not designed to meet these growing care needs, and the financial strains on individuals and families are significant.

Did the Election Save ObamaCare?

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The morning after Tuesday’s vote, there is one thing every commentator agreed on. The election of Barack Obama guaranteed that his signature piece of legislation — health reform — can now go forward. Republicans are powerless to stop it.

Yet there is something all these commentators are overlooking. There are six major flaws in ObamaCare. They are so serious that the Democrats are going to have to perform major surgery on the legislation in the next few years, even if all the Republicans do is stand by and twiddle their thumbs.

Here is a brief overview.

ObamaCare is not paid for. At least it’s not paid for in any politically realistic way. As is by now well known, the legislation will lower Medicare spending over the next 10 years by $716 billion in order to fund health insurance for young people. This reduction will primarily consist of lower payments to physicians, hospitals and other providers — reductions that are so severe that they will seriously impair access to care for senior citizens.

Keep Calm and Interoperate On

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Digital DoctorFollowing the recession, the Obama administration sought shovel-ready projects.

One unlikely shovel wielding aggregate demand was health information technology. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act passed in 2009 directed 5 % of the stimulus towards digitizing medical records.

Computerization of medical records doesn’t induce the images of public works as building freeways during the Great Depression does, but the freeway is a metaphor for exchange of information between electronic health records with the implication that such an exchange is a public good and so government intervention is justified.

Robert Wachter, voted the most influential physician by Modern Healthcare, sums the optimism and frustration with the electronic health record (EHR) in Digital Doctor – which stands to be a classic.

It was Bush Jr., not Obama, who started the digitization. Seeking bipartisanship after the war in Iraq, Bush was inspired by his closest ally, Tony Blair, who was wiring the National Health Service (NHS) – a $16 billion initiative which has since failed, spectacularly.

Bush founded the Office of National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONC) and appointed David Brailer – a physician, quant and entrepreneur – as head. Brailer wanted interoperability so that hospitals shared information. It is because of interoperability that we can use our debit cards in New York and Singapore. The market must agree on a common language, such as the TCP/ IP for the internet, to achieve interoperability.

Patients suffer when systems can’t talk. Were patients, not a third party, bearing the full costs of care – a free market – they might have forced hospital information systems to talk. Rightly or not, healthcare is not a free market and hospitals have little motivation in making cross-talking simpler.

Contraception Conundrum

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What makes the contraception coverage debate currently raging in Washington unusually problematic is that both sides are exactly right. Female employees who receive part of their cash compensation in the form of health benefits have the right to benefits that include FDA-approved birth control methods. Employers defined by their religious values—not just churches, synagogues, and mosques, but also thousands of hospitals, universities, and charities—should not have to compromise those values with their own money, and the government has no right to trample the First Amendment by compelling them to do so. The Obama administration’s “accommodation” —shifting the new federal requirement to the insurers who administer those organizations’ health plans—is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.

As the problem is no more complicated than two sets of equally valid rights in direct opposition, neither is the solution all that complicated, at least in principle: employment and health insurance should have nothing to do with each other.

Unfortunately, this arrangement—a relic of the World War II civilian wage freeze and enshrined in the tax code as soon as workers got a taste of this new-fangled “fringe benefit” of employment—is now an enduring part of the U.S. healthcare system. The entanglement of our health insurance with our employment goes a long way toward explaining not just today’s conundrum over the birth control coverage mandate, but myriad other economic distortions, market dysfunctions, and cultural conflicts that define much of what is wrong with the U.S. healthcare system.

The Obama administration’s ‘accommodation’ last week is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.

Mau-Mauing the Medical Loss Ratio

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Senator Max Baucus recently admitted that he never read the new health care law. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to re-write it after the fact, in a way that would drive more health plans from the market and give consumers less choice.

The new law reduces choice of health plans by giving government the power to control the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) — the amount of dollars an insurer spends on medical care divided by the total premiums. Policies that cover large businesses will have to achieve an MLR of 85 percent, while those for small businesses and individuals will have to achieve an MLR of 80 percent. This sounds simple but leaves many issues unresolved.

Calculating he MLR can be quite complicated — especially when the government gets involved. Suppose, for example, an insurer invests in information technology that it gives to patients or providers in its network in order to improve co-ordination of care. Is that a medical cost?

Furthermore, the MLR regulation is deadly for increasingly popular consumer-directed plans. Suppose a traditional policy costs $4,000 and spends $3,400 on patient care, for an MLR of 85.00. With the consumer-directed policy, the patient controls $800 more of the medical spending than with the traditional policy, through a higher deductible, and his premium goes down by $800. In this case the MLR goes down to 81.25 ($2,600/$3,200). There is no real difference, but the new regulation could require insurers to rebate $120 — the amount by which the ratio falls short of the required MLR. (In real life, the consumer-directed plan would have lower total costs than in this simple arithmetical example, because cutting out the middleman and giving more health dollars to patients to control themselves motivates them to get better value for money.)