Trending

Trending

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 The individual and employer mandates, with associated penalties, can also be repealed.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.

Not Normal Chaos

7

The short version of Vox’s Sarah Skiff on “Why Republican disarray on health care doesn’t doom repeal efforts” would read something like: “It always looks this way in the throes of preparing major legislation. Remember how wild and confusing it was when the Democrats were trying to put together healthcare reform in 2009? Joe Lieberman was insisting on a public option, ‘pro-life’ Democrats were insisting that anti-abortion language be written in? Just because it’s chaotic doesn’t mean it won’t get anywhere.”

She’s right, of course — and she’s wrong in a significant way: In 2009 Congress was debating different policy approaches and the tradeoffs involved. There was never a question whether what they were attempting was possible, just whether it was possible to find a political compromise that could garner enough votes to pass. This meant that it was reasonably predictable that they would come up with something they could call “healthcare reform.” 

Congressional Republicans are up a different creek right now: What they are attempting is mathematically impossible. The things they and President Trump have promised do not add up. Literally. Their problem is arithmetic. Getting more people covered, with better coverage, with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs — all that will cost more money, lots of it. Getting rid of the tax penalties for not having insurance (the “individual mandate” that is the most-hated part of Obamacare) and the taxes built into Obamacare on wealthy people and on segments of the healthcare industry — all these will cost the government revenue, the very revenue it would need to pay for the better coverage of more people. All this while they aim to cut taxes and lower the deficit. And of course they have on every Holy Book within reach that they will repeal Obamacare, so they can’t just leave it in place. This means it is highly unpredictable what they will come up with, or that they will come up with anything at all.

Does Life Expectancy Matter?

88

U.S. life expectancy declined in 2015 for the first time in more than two decades, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study released last week. The decline of 0.1 percent was ever so slight ― life expectancy at birth was 78.8 years in 2015, compared with 78.9 years in 2014.  However, this reversal of a long-time upward trend makes these results significant.

While many researchers are scratching their dumbfounded heads in utter astonishment, I hypothesize the decline in life expectancy is partly due to the decrease in the primary care physician supply.  Studies have shown the ratio of primary care physicians per 10,000 people inversely correlates with overall mortality rate.  It is a well-known and reproducible statistical relationship that holds true throughout the world.  In the U.S., increasing by one primary care physician per 10,000 population, decreases mortality by 5.3%, ultimately avoiding 127,617 deaths per year.

Headlines last week highlighted how much these unexpected results left the researchers baffled.   Jiaquan Xu, a lead author of the study told The Washington Post, “This is unusual, and we don’t know what happened…so many leading causes of death increased.”   Age-adjusted death rates went up by 1.2 percent, from 724.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 to 733.1 in 2015.  Death rates increased for eight of the ten leading causes of death, including heart disease, chronic respiratory illness, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, renal disease and suicide.  Differences in mortality were most prevalent in poorer communities, where smoking, obesity, unhealthy diets, and lack of exercise are ubiquitous. 

National Coordinator 6.0: A Blueprint For Success

48

Now that it’s public, I’ll offer my thoughts on the next steps for Don and ONC.  Don Rucker is a good pick for the nation, and will be a great National Coordinator.  I’ve gone on record as saying that some others are not qualified, and as many of you know – I don’t mince words.  Don is smart, focused, thoughtful, intentional, and will make good decisions for ONC and HHS.  I have known Don for 20 years.  He’s got a long track record of integrity, he’s a nice person, he deeply understands the challenges, limitations, and opportunities of Health IT.  I have no doubt that he’ll do a good job.  He’s got a lot on his plate.

Where should he focus?

  1. Stay the course with health IT certification.  I disagree with the growing meme that ONC has broadened its certification scope too far.  Certification has one purpose:  to provide consumers with a way to be confident that the product they are purchasing will do what the seller says it does.  Some people seem to have forgotten (or don’t know) that some of the companies that sell health IT solutions have claimed that the products do things they do not do.  There needs to be a process by which these claims are tested, verified and, yes, certified.  If this program is scaled back, health IT systems will be less safe, less interoperable, less usable, and less reliable.  #KeepCertification. 

    2.Keep the Enhanced Oversight Rule in place.  My former colleagues (and Don’s former colleagues) in the vendor community will disagree, as do some of the house Republicans.  As Don will learn first hand in his initial few weeks as NC, some of the companies that have been selling certified health IT products have been misbehaving.  In some cases, products have been de-certified.  In other cases, there have been investigations and resolution of problems without de-certification.  ONC is protecting the public by doing what Congress asked it to do initially.  The certification program is more than testing of products in a petri dish, it’s about what happens with the products in the real world.  Surveillance is therefore a necessary part of making sure that the products do what they were certified to do.  #KeepOversight.

Is Trumpcare Dead?
Was It Ever Really Alive?

31

Senators Mike Lee and Jerry Moran said yesterday that they would not vote for the Better Care Reconciliation Act, effectively killing the legislation.  As anybody who has been following this story would have predicted, President Trump reacted publicly on Twitter on Tuesday morning, vowing to let the ACA marketplace collapse and then rewrite the plan later.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell attempted a quick punt this morning, calling for an immediate Senate vote on the House bill, a trick card that if it worked, would give Republicans two years to work things out.

Unfortunately for McConnell, it probably won’t.

The White House sees the failure as saying more about the political establishment in Washington than itself, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Caught up in the drama of the Watergate-Russia emails-Trump family narrative, major media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times see a historic defeat rather than a temporary setback. That may or may not turn out to be true. Predictably, conservative commentators and the alt-right believe the defeat says more about the mainstream media and the Deep State than it does about the Trump Presidency. For their part, Democrats clearly think they have found their issue and can be expected to continue to exploit it using legislative Viet Cong tactics (attack on social media, melt into the jungle, lob snarky public Molotov cocktails) to punish Republicans and keep the story on the front page.

One thing is clear. Instead of repealing and replacing Obamacare, the GOP now has to rewrite and replace its own plan. Doing that would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but in the current climate in Washington it is difficult to see how it would be possible without a major shift in the political landscape.

All of this is bad news for hospitals and health plans and a frightening development for consumers, although not the really bad news some had feared. The President’s threat to let the insurance marketplace die and then “figure it out” sounds good as a rallying cry to the troops on social media, but is not the kind of thing that investors and CEOs like to hear.  Realistically though, at this point everybody knew that the uncertainty would likely continue through the year (best case) or a year or longer (worst case) as the gridlock in Washington plays out. As depressing and frustrating as it is that the uncertainty will continue, by this point the industry is used to it. Insiders will continue to look for ways to minimize risk and for business opportunities to capitalize on the uncertainty.

Trump’s plan to allow the insurance exchanges to collapse is the kind of confrontational talk Trump and his advisors relish. In theory, the idea could work. There are in fact signs that it already is, as major insurers leave the marketplace and consumers hesitate before committing to expensive insurance policies.  In reality, however, the collapsing exchanges will create a political crisis that is even worse than the current one for the administration, with news cycle after news cycle dominated by stories of terminally ill cancer patients and parents with children with horrible diseases and no insurance coverage. At this point, it will be difficult for the party doing the collapsing to point at the other side and say “It was them. They did it!”

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.

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.   

When the Patient is a Racist

10

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.

Could Price Be Right?

10

If confirmed as Secretary of HHS, Tom Price will oversee a $1 trillion budget – roughly one-third of all health expenditures.  His proposed legislation “Empowering Patients First” seeks to control costs by giving patients more choices and providing the information required to make them. He calls for publicly available standardized information on the price and quality of physicians, hospitals and other health care institutions.

It sounds like Dr. Price is prescribing a single data system. 

Medicare has had a single data system on the over-65 population for decades.  Since 2005, these data have informed Hospital Compare, a consumer oriented website comparing the quality of over 4000 hospitals.  And while prices in Medicare are relatively fixed, these same data have shown substantial variation in costs because the quantity of service – the number of hospital admissions, procedures and physician visits – varies substantially from place to place.

But Medicare is only one piece of the data puzzle.  A National Bureau of Economic Research report[nber.org] added another piece last year with data from large insurance companies like Aetna and United.  For the under-65 commercially insured population, it’s not just the quantity of services that are all over the map – it’s also the prices. 

Hobson’s Wrong Answer

15

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.