OP-ED

OP-ED

The 401W: A Wellness Program Even Al Lewis Could Love

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I’ve been quite vocal about supporting only wellness done for employees and not to them…but what if there could be a “conventional” wellness program – even including screening, HRAs etc. – that both you and I could love?

People manage what’s measured and what’s paid for. If employers want people to stay healthy in the long run, why not measure and pay for health in the long run?

Why not give people the incentive to stay healthy during their working years, instead of giving them the incentive to pretend to participate in programs of no interest, just to make a few bucks? Or, worse, give employees the incentive to learn how to cheat on biometrics, and how to lie on health risk assessments. Attempts to create a culture of health often create a culture of resentment and deceit.

Short-term incentives haven’t changed weight, as noted behavioral economist Kevin Volpp has shown. Nor have they changed true health outcomes – it is easily provable that wellness has almost literally never avoided a single risk-sensitive medical event. So-called outcomes-based programs, ironically, are more about distorting short-term outcomes than achieving long-term outcomes. They have more in common with training circus animals to do tricks in exchange for treats than they do with helping employees improve long-term health.

Who’s to Blame For the Shortage of Doctors? Doctors and Politicians

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After missing an appointment with a physician recently, one of us was tongue-lashed by a medical assistant who explained that the practice has a months-long waiting list for new patients.  The dressing-down included a threat.  Another no-show and the miscreant would be discharged from the doctor’s practice and have all medications cut off.

Wondering if patients really wait months to see this doctor, the delinquent called back, pretended to be a new patient, and asked how quickly he could get in.  The first available appointment at the closest location was, in fact, 2 months out.  (The wait could have been cut in half by driving to an office that was farther away.)

Two months is a long time to wait to see a doctor.   If your auto mechanic or air conditioner repairman told you that it would take a week to fit you in, you’d find someone else to take care of the problem and you’d never go back to the person who told you to wait.  Given the transcendent importance of health, why do patients who need medical assistance routinely wait far longer?  And if patients with good insurance wait for two months, how long is the queue for those who rely on Medicaid or who have no insurance at all?

Evidence-Based Diagnosis and Faith-Based Solutions

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It’s official: the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has at long last decided that MACRA’s MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System) can’t work.
MedPAC reached this decision at its January 12 and March 2, 2017 meetings.

Its principle rationale was that measuring “merit” (quality and cost) at the individual physician level, which is what MIPS requires CMS to do, is not possible. As one MedPAC staff person put it at the January meeting, “A redesign of the MIPS program should build off a clear-eyed assessment of the limit of the national Medicare program’s ability to assess clinician performance” (pp. 235-236 of the transcript  of the morning session of the January 12, 2017 meeting).

“Value-Pricing” of Drugs and Pharmaceutical Innovation

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In a fascinating paper on drug pricing, Ana D. Vega and her five co-authors trace increases in the price of brand-name and generic drugs in the U.S. during the period 2012-15, using the national average drug acquisition costs (NADAC) data made public by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These acquisition costs are the prices that retail community pharmacies pay to acquire medicines, usually from a wholesaler.

The tables in the paper show that the top 50 increases in the price of generic drugs over the three-year period ranged from a “low” of 448% to a high of 18,808%. For branded drugs the increases over the period ranged from a “low” of 63% to a high of 391%.

The paper also presents data on the wholesale acquisition costs (WAC) differences between first-in-class drugs and subsequent me-too-drugs, the latter usually costing much more than the first-in-class drugs, although they typically involve only small molecular changes. Here the price differentials varied from a low of -2.3% (the sole case me-too-drug actually being cheaper than the first-in-class drug) to a high of 61,259%.

It is rare to find such transparency on drug prices in this country, presumably because the data are in possession of a public agency, the CMS. By contrast, the private sector usually confronts both patients and researchers with contemptuous opacity. The pharmaceutical benefit management industry (PBMs) is particularly opaque on drug pricing, and private insurers and employers have gone along with it.

Price increases of the sort reported by Vera et al. usually are defended on two distinct grounds.

The first is what has come to be called “value pricing’ the idea that the price of a drug should be pegged on the value that drug has to patients or to society at large, in their eyes. For life-saving drugs or pain-killing drugs, that value can be very high.
Another defense of the ever rising prices of drugs is that they are needed to provide the incentives for new drug development.

Value Pricing

In my presentations on drug pricing, I often use the following metaphor to convey the central point of this concept.
Picture, then, a man somewhere in the Sahara desert close to dying of thirst.

Along comes a camel caravan for tourists, loaded with bottles of water. Assume the chap on the first camel is a private equity manager who knows a thing or two about “value creation” through “value pricing.” Assume the lady on the camel behind the first is a corporate lawyer.

Jumping off the camel, the private-equity chap approaches the dying man and, water bottle in hand, queries the dying man thus:

“How much would you pay me for this fresh bottle of water?”

When the Patient is a Racist

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Something has changed.

In my first 16 years in practice, I received exactly one insensitive comment from a young child who had never seen an Asian in person. But in the last year, I have received a hateful, bigoted comment approximately every other month. (That includes the remarks by a person who tried to reassure me that the comments were not directed to me personally, but to the “other illegals.”)

My colleagues are experiencing an increase in bigoted comments too. A fellow physician, a southeast Asian man, says he has been called “Dr. Bin Laden” on several occasions recently.

Last September, one of my students was on the receiving end. A patient’s father requested another doctor when he saw the medical student assigned to his son’s case was black. My student and I went to see the patient’s family together. I acknowledged the father’s anxiety and reassured him that we could treat his son. I asked the surgeon-on-call to see the patient.

Is Healthcare a Right? A Privilege? Something Entirely Different?

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Election Day 2016 should have been Christmas morning for Republicans. Long awaited control of the White House and both houses of Congress. A chance to deliver on an every two-year election cycle promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. In 2010 Republicans needed the House. They got it. In 2014, it was the Senate. Delivered. But we still need the White House they said. Asked and answered with President Donald Trump.

So, what happened a few weeks ago when the House bill fizzled like a North Korean missile launch? Disparate factions within the House couldn’t unify behind Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan, despite pressure from the White House. For some it wasn’t a repeal, only a rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking Obamacare ship. Others in the GOP were happy with the status quo, preferring to rail against Obamacare in campaign speeches rather delivering on empty campaign promises. Still others, #NeverTrumpers, knowing that President Trump was behind the House bill, preferred to see the bill, and Trump, fail.

Kudos to the Democrats. When they ran the show in 2008, they herded their cats and passed Obamacare. No Statist Caucus on one side or a Tuesday (or Thursday or Friday) group on the other side, each wanting their own version of healthcare reform.

Hobson’s Wrong Answer

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Thomas Hobson was his name, a licensed carrier of passengers, letters, and parcels between Cambridge and London in the years surrounding 1600. He kept horses for such purpose, and rented them when he wasn’t using them. Naturally, the students all wanted the best horses, and as a result, Mr. Hobson’s better mounts became badly overworked. To remedy this situation, he began a strict rotation system, giving each customer the choice of taking the horse nearest the stable door or none at all. This rule became known as Hobson’s Choice, and soon people were using that term to mean “no choice at all” in all kinds of situations.

Not to be confused with Sophie’s Choice, the title of a 1979 novel by William Styron, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who was forced to decide which of her two children would live and which would die. That phrase has become shorthand for a terrible choice between two difficult options.

Both Choices come to mind when reading this week’s Boston Globe article titled Hope for Devastating Child Disease Comes at a Cost: $750,000 a Year. The headline, as is too often the case, is inaccurate. It’s $750,000 for the first year, and $375,000 annually after that. But let us not quibble. That equals a lot of resource.

Do Asians Have Harder Heads? On Sports Concussions and the Need For a Fairer, Medical Research Funding Policy

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At a January event on “The Future of Baseball” organized by the Sports and Society Program at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, Yankees executive Jean Afterman spoke to the superiority of baseball over football by noting that “at least our athletes don’t have to worry about their heads after they’re done.”  It was an innocuous statement but one that points to a growing assumption that sports concussion is both (a) prevalent and (b) a debilitating disease to be feared.

But is it true that sports concussions are the public health scourge of our time?  Media coverage would make it seem so, with countless stories dedicated to professional athletes suffering through pain and dementia, youthful athletes retiring for fear of brain injury, and billion dollar lawsuits against the NFL.

Key Mechanisms That Define Health City Cayman Islands’ Value Innovation

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Health City Cayman Islands (HCCI), less than three years old and located in the Caribbean just an hour’s flight south from Miami, is a 104-bed hospital outpost of Bangalore, India-headquartered Narayana Health (NH). HCCI has caught the attention of US health care professionals not just as a nearshore health care destination, but for having extremely high quality despite pricing that is a fraction of that in the US, as well as careful attention to the patient’s experience. HCCI is not only a competitor to traditional US health systems, it is potentially a radical disruptor. It’s model is so different that it could significantly change the standards by which health systems are judged.

HCCI’s performance is the culmination of a deep commitment to access, efficiency and excellence. NH’s Founder, Dr. Devi Shetty, began with a mission-driven awareness that health care is an essential need and must be affordable to be accessible. He then spearheaded an enterprise-wide focus on process optimization to deliver the best care possible at the lowest possible price. The results have been remarkable. Fifteen years ago, NH’s bundled costs for open heart surgery in India averaged about $2,000. Now they are about $1,400, or about 1% of average US cost. Interestingly, Dr. Shetty believes that better results are within reach and has set a five year target of $800 for those services.

Who Won When the AHCA Failed?

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You may have heard that repealing and replacing Obamacare recently failed.  The analysis of what went wrong comes from many corners.  Andy Slavitt, former insurance executive and most recent director of CMS, writes that the ‘failure of Trumpcare can be seen as a rejection of policies that Americans judged would move the country backward.’  Apparently, the theory goes, moderate republicans, especially in states that expanded heavily and rely on Obamacare Medicaid expansion, were skittish of a repeal and replace plan that endangered the healthcare of millions of constituents.  The conservative David Frum writes in the Atlantic that most Democrats and Republicans have accepted the concept of universal health care coverage – and that the idea of a repeal of the right to healthcare is sheer anathema.  And if the Republicans were wavering, town halls filled with angry constituents were sure to provide an extra dollop of pressure.

The effort to get the messaging right is clearly important to many, but I find most of it functions as a smoke screen seeking to obscure the real battles being fought over your healthcare.

It is certainly true that Obamacare insures millions of Americans.  But it is also true that having health insurance and having health care are two very different things.  To be clear, the folks attempting to preserve the status quo want to preserve the ability to force all Americans to buy health insurance that costs hundreds of dollars per month.  Put another way, the folks attempting to preserve the status quo want to force Americans to give a monthly fee to health insurance companies.  Remember, these plans have deductibles so high that most of the cost of care delivered during the year in the form of labs, copays, and imaging studies falls on the hapless patient.  The insurer, for the average healthy person, doesn’t pay a dime.