Trending

Trending

A Dishonest Conversation on Healthcare

8

The conversation our country is having about healthcare right now is not honest. It’s not just the Republicans, the Democrats are just as dishonest, in a different way. Republicans talk about government death panels denying care. Democrats talk about insurance company death panels. Both positions are intellectually dishonest. Both Republicans and Democrats know that a part of insurance is drawing boundaries around the care that would be paid for by the group.  Any care outside that boundary doesn’t get paid for.  You can frame it any way you want, but this is a critical part of any insurance. 

Insurance, whether healthcare or auto, is a risk pool.  A group of people pay into the pool and hope they don’t have to use it – hope they don’t have a wreck on their car, don’t have to go into the hospital.  Those few that do have to use it consume most of the money in the pool – the risk pool spends tens of thousands on the people that have serious car accidents, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on someone that has cancer.  That means that everybody else in the pool helps pay for the costs of the unlucky few.  Healthy me pays for the costs of tripped and broke his leg Bob.

The worst part of the Affordable Care Act that nobody talks about is its removal of caps on annual and lifetime awards.  There is no limit to the risk that the risk pool assumes.  Before the ACA, an annual cap for an insurance plan might be $500,000, with a lifetime cap of $2 million to $5 million.  Now those caps are gone – there is no limit to the amount of money a risk pool has to pay to keep someone alive.

Price Transparency and All Its Very Large Warts

52

Transparency – including price, quality, and effectiveness of medical services is a vital component to lowering costs and improving outcomes.  However, it is imperative transparency go hand-in-hand with financial incentives for patients and consumers; otherwise the quest will be in vain.  The single best way of reducing costs while not worsening health outcomes is to redistribute resources from less cost-effective health services to more cost-effective ones.  Americans are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of making decisions based on cost but we must become fluent in the language of cost and more comfortable making decisions based on price information for healthcare expenditures to stabilize. 

Legislators in more than 30 states have proposed legislation to promote price transparency, with most efforts focused around publishing average or median prices for hospital services. Some states already have price transparency policies in place. California requires hospitals to give patients cost estimates for the 25 most common outpatient procedures. Texas requires providers to disclose price information to patients upon request. Ohio passed price transparency legislation last year; however a lawsuit filed by the Ohio Hospital Association has delayed implementation.  The cost of a knee replacement is $15,500 at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, whereas the national average is $49,500

Healthcare Economics: Why This Stuff Doesn’t Actually Work The Way You Think It Does

7

This is a letter I sent to Gary Cohn, appointed by President Trump to head the National Economic Council and, among other things, come up with a plan for reforming healthcare. Formerly president of Goldman Sachs, Cohn may be a wizard at finance, but healthcare economics are wildly different and famously opaque. So I thought I would help him out.]

Subject: A brief on healthcare economics. (8 minutes)

 o Why healthcare economics are different.

 o Why the ACA is failing.

 o What would work.

Who I am (credentials): Independent healthcare author and analyst since Jimmy Carter’s administration. Speaker, consultant across the industry at all levels, including insurers, hospitals, device manufacturers, employers, Veterans, pharma, World Health Organization, Department of Defense. Look me up: ImagineWhatIf.com. Books on Amazon.

Core problem:
 The core problem in healthcare reform is the actual cost of medical care.

o Healthcare in the U.S. by any measure costs about twice what it should.
o Medical prices are completely disconnected from the cost of production.
o Few medical providers even know the true cost of ownership of their products.
o By a number of analyses at least one third of that (well over $1 trillion this year) is waste, paying for things that we don’t need and that don’t help.
o Solving just the federal part of this would completely wipe out the deficit.

Trying to “take care of everybody” will always be impossible politically and economically as long as healthcare costs twice what it should and wastes trillions of dollars.

Solvable: This is a solvable problem. Change the relationship of the sector to its true customers by shifting the payment structure, prompting business model innovation. Stop paying for waste, and $1 trillion/year in unneeded overtreatment will disappear. Prices will drop to something like a true market price. This will not happen overnight, but it could happen over five years with vigorous implementation.

Why does it cost so much?

No price signals: The structure of the U.S. healthcare market since the early 1980s has made it opaque to price signals. Customers in healthcare ask a different question than customers in most markets. Whether hospitals (as customers of suppliers) or individuals needing an operation, healthcare customers mostly don’t ask, “Can we afford it?” Or even, “What’s the best value for the money?” They ask, “Is it covered? Can we get reimbursed for this?” And the reimbursement or coverage is set by complex non-market mechanisms that in most parts of the market are themselves opaque to the customer. So there is no real customer and no real price signal in most relationships throughout the market.

The Rust Belt Is Burning: Republicans Lay Waste to their Base on Health Reform

45

William Tecumseh Sherman, who laid waste to the South at the end of the Civil War, famously said, “War is Hell”.  So, too, is health reform.  And like Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea, where he burned town after Confederate town, the Republican War on Obamacare entered its attrition phase with the introduction on Monday in the House legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare.  Except that Ryan is marching in the wrong direction; his troops are marching “north” and burning towns behind their own lines.

Ryan’s bill released Monday was greeted with a chorus of derision from the newly empowered Republican base; some conservative wags dubbed the bill “RINOCare”. Thoughtful conservative analysts savaged it.  Michael Cannon, the hard core libertarian Cato Institute health analyst, called it “a trainwreck waiting to happen” and suggested  that “ it will create the potential for the sort of wave election Democrats experienced in 2008”    In Reason.com, Peter Sunderman wrote,  “it’s not clear what problems this particular bill would actually solve.”

Ryan’s draft neither repeals nor replaces ObamaCare.  

In (Gasp) Defense of the Coronary Stent

25

A kerfuffle ensued recently when an oncologist and expert on evidence based medicine took the field of cardiology to task over the evidence for placement of the ubiquitous coronary stent.  What started with a lengthy article in Propublica that included coronary stenting for stable coronary disease as a prime example of a procedure done without evidence to back it up turned into this fiery twitter exchange between Drs. Kirtane (cardiology) and Prasad (oncology).

The crux of the debate revolves around placement of coronary stents in patients with stable coronary artery disease.  Stable coronary artery disease refers to narrowing of the arteries by a build of plaque that has occurred slowly over time.  Unstable coronary artery disease refers to eruptions that occur within the coronary vessel when a plaque ruptures, quickly leading a patent vessel to become completely occluded or nearly occluded.  Unstable coronary artery disease, otherwise referred to as an acute coronary syndrome is regarded as an emergency that requires urgent intervention by skilled operators (interventional cardiologists) who must race against time to abort a process that if left unchecked may lead to death or severe damage of the heart muscle.

Figure 1. Stable angina/Acute Coronary syndromes

Stable coronary artery disease on the other hand is not considered an emergency, but can result in patients being symptomatic because of diminished blood flow through the culprit artery. Angina pectoris is the descriptor one uses to describe chest pain that relates to a mismatch between the blood flow the heart muscle needs and what it receives. It is almost always the case that angina in stable coronary disease is triggered by activities such as physical or emotional stress that require more blood flow than the narrowed artery can supply.

Paying Doctors For Outcomes Makes Sense in Theory. So Why Doesn’t it Work in the Real World?

18

For decades, the costs of health care in America have escalated without comparable improvements in quality. This is the central paradox of the American system, in which costs outstrip those everywhere else in the developed world, even though health outcomes are rarely better, and often worse.

In an effort to introduce more powerful incentives for improving care, recent federal and private policies have turned to a “pay-for-performance” model: Physicians get bonuses for meeting certain “quality of care standards.” These can range from demonstrating that they have done procedures that ought to be part of a thorough physical (taking blood pressure) to producing a positive health outcome (a performance target like lower cholesterol, for instance).

Economists argue that such financial incentives motivate physicians to improve their performance and increase their incomes. In theory, that should improve patient outcomes. But in practice, pay-for-performance simply doesn’t work. Even worse, the best evidence reveals that giving doctors extra cash to do what they are trained to do can backfire in ways that harm patients’ health.

Non-Alternative Facts About the Healthcare System

60

The economic fundamentals of healthcare in the United States are unique, amazingly complex, multi-layered and opaque. It takes a lot of work and time to understand them, work and time that few of the experts opining about healthcare on television have done. Once you do understand them, it takes serious independence, a big ornery streak, and maybe a bit of a career death wish to speak publicly about how the industry that pays your speaking and consulting fees should, can, and must strive to make half as much money. Well, I turn 67 this year and I’m cranky as hell, so let’s go.

The Wrong Question

We are back again in the cage fight over healthcare in Congress. But in all these fights we are only arguing over one question: Who pays? The government, your employer, you? A different answer to that question will distribute the pain differently, but it won’t cut the pain in half.

There are other questions to ask whose answers could get us there, such as:

  • Who do we pay?
  • How do we pay them?
  • For what, exactly, are we paying?

Because the way we are paying now ineluctably drives us toward paying too much, for not enough, and for things we don’t even need.

A few facts, the old-fashioned non-alternative kind:

  • Cost: Healthcare in the U.S., the whole system, costs us something like $3.4 trillion per year. Yes, that’s “trillion” with a “T”. If U.S. healthcare were a country on its own it would be the fifth largest economy in the world.
  • Waste: About a third of that is wasted on tests and procedures and devices that we really don’t need, that don’t help, that even hurt us. That’s the conservative estimate in a number of expert analyses, and based on the opinions of doctors about their own specialties. Some analyses say more: Some say half. Even that conservative estimate (one third) is a big wow: over $1.2 trillion per year, something like twice the entire U.S. military budget, thrown away on waste.
  • Prices: The prices are nuts. It’s not just pharmaceuticals. Across the board, from devices to procedures, hospital room charges to implants to diagnostic tests, the prices actually paid in the U.S. are three, five, 10 times what they are in other medically advanced countries like France, Germany, and the U.K.

Why Surgical Volumes Should Be Public

15

Her voice cracked with strain. I could imagine the woman at the other end of the line shaking, overcome with remorse about the hospital where her husband had had esophageal surgery. Might he still be alive, she asked me, if they had chosen a different hospital?

The couple had initially planned to have the procedure done at a well-known medical center, but when she went online to do her homework, she discovered that the hospital’s patient safety scores were poor. Another hospital in her community had stronger patient safety ratings, so they decided to have the procedure there.

It made sense. Why wouldn’t they go to a safer hospital?

What she didn’t know was that multiple studies over several decades have shown outcomes are better when procedures are handled by surgeons and hospitals with higher volumes, and while the well-known hospital had performed the procedure her husband needed many times during the previous year, the hospital they chose had done one.

Repealing the Right to Redistribute ‘Other Peoples’ Money’

17

Republicans are having a hard time agreeing on how and when to repeal Obamacare. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is difficult to unravel because it was designed to alleviate a problem too costly for the government alone to fix. The health care law was passed to make medical care more accessible for low-income Americans and those with pre-existing conditions. This was to be done largely by socializing the costs and spreading the burden among a much broader segment of the healthy population. This is not unlike a pyramid scheme, where a broad base of people at the bottom get ripped so a few at the top can benefit.

Republicans have it within their power to use a process known as budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare provisions that involve the budget, with a simple majority vote. For example, Republicans can repeal the taxes, fees and appropriations that fund the ACA. The individual and employer mandates, with associated penalties, can also be repealed. What Republicans cannot do is repeal the costly insurance regulations that drive up premiums for most people. That would require the help of perhaps a dozen skeptical Democrats.

Purging Healthcare of Unnatural Acts

31

Everyone knows (or should know) that forcing a commercial health insurer to write for an individual a health insurance policy at a premium that falls short of the insurer’s best ex ante estimate of the cost of health care that individual will require is to force that insurer into what economists might call an unnatural act.

Remarkably, countries that rely on competing private health insurers to operate their universal, national health insurance systems all do just that. They allow each insurer to set the premium for a government-mandated , comprehensive benefit package, but require that each insurer “community-rate” that premium by charging the company’s individual customers that same premium, regardless of their health status and even age (with the exception of children).

American economists wonder why these countries do that, given that in the economist’s eyes community-rated health insurance premiums are “inefficient,” as economists define that term in their intra-professional dictionary. 

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA, otherwise known as “ObamaCare”) also mandates private insurers to quote community-rated premiums on the electronic market places created by the ACA, allowing adjustments only for age and whether or not an applicant smokes. But within age bands and smoker-status, insurers must charge the same premium to individual applicants regardless of their health status.

As fellow economist Mark V. Pauly points out in an illuminating two-part interview with Saurabh Jha, M.D., published earlier on this blog, aside from the “inefficiency” of that policy, it has some untoward but eminently predictable consequences. It happens when healthier people disobey the mandate to purchase insurance, leaving the risk pools of those insured in the ACA market places with sicker and sicker individuals, thus driving up the community-rated premiums. As Pauly points out at length, a weakly enforced mandate on individuals to be insured can become the Achilles heel of community rating.