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Does Life Expectancy Matter?

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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. 

Why Trump Won? A Brief Tutorial for Harvard Medical Students

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Mike Milligan, a Harvard medical student, recently wrote in THCB about the shock felt throughout his medical school upon the election of Donald Trump.  Seeking to understand how it may be that ‘equality, service and compassion’ were defeated, Mike settles on the narrative that appears to have taken hold of the elites on the left – Trump did not really win, Hilary lost.  While he does not say so in explicit terms, clearly we are to understand that the recent election was lost, and that in order to assure a better outcome the next election, physicians should urge their patients, and particularly their ‘poorer and less educated patients’ to register to vote.   Hopefully, these voters can then ensure that access to ‘affordable, high-quality medical care’ through constructs like Obamacare and MACRA are nevermore placed in jeopardy.

What complete hogwash.

Let me start with the factually incorrect parts.

Mike writes that ‘Mr. Trump received fewer votes in victory than the previous two republican nominees garnered in defeat.’  As of today Donald Trump has received 62.2 million votes out of a total of 126.6 million votes cast.  Mitt Romney received 60.9 million votes out of a total of 126.8 million votes, and John Mccain received 59.9 million votes out of a total of 129.4 million votes cast.  So despite the fact that his opponent raised and spent close to 1 billion dollars on ads promising the literal apocalypse if Trump was elected, no republican candidate in history garnered more popular votes than Donald Trump.  While it is true that nearly half of all Americans did not cast a ballot in this election, 3 million more votes were cast in 2016 than were cast in 2012.  The percentage of eligible voters casting their vote in 2012 was 55%.  The percentage of voters casting their vote in 2016?  Also 55%.  I realize the desire to deligitimize Trump by arguing this was a low turnout election that delivers no mandate is a very strong one among the millions on the losing side.  Unfortunately, wishes and reality sometimes find themselves in conflict.

And the Democrats Wonder Why They Lost the Election?

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Now I have insurance. But I can’t use it. What am I supposed to do? I know this one is long but it’s worth a read if you want to understand issues pertinent to the Affordable Care Act. My personal story illustrates many of the problems with the ACA.

I started taking notes on the Health and Human Services Secretary hearing, and I will share more as I scrutinize the hearing in more detail but let’s start with the breakdowns below and my experience with Obamacare.  Here goes:

These are the breakdowns of who gets what coverage in the United States:

Medicare 18% – 52m

Employer 61% – 178m

Medicaid 22% – 62m

Individual 6% – 18m (exchanges cover 4% of the 6%–these are the people who have been forced onto the Obamacare plans)

Note: this writer is in the BOTTOM of the barrel here (Individual). Most of the individuals in the “Individual” category are either the upper contingent of the working poor, those who work for small businesses like restaurants or family owned grocery stores and the like that don’t provide health insurance benefits (more and more common these days), and/or sole proprietors like myself. Many health care providers are self employed hence we have been forced into the Obamacare exchanges if we are not high earners. High earners won’t buy on the marketplace and will purchase individual plans outside of the marketplace.

Pig in a Poke Health Reform

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Uwe ReinhardtFrom a political perspective, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s trashing of ObamaCare (a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act or ACC) during CNN’s recent town hall meeting probably was quite effective. One would, of course, not expect a staunch political opponent of ObamaCare to render a “fair and balanced” picture of the program, to plagiarize a Fox News mantra. Not surprisingly, the Speaker dwelt solely on some serious shortcomings of ObamaCare that are by now well known among the cognoscenti.

The question now is precisely what would replace ObamaCare, as Republicans fall over one another in their haste to repeal it. Enumerating principles, as has been done in sundry tracts in recent years and is done once again in the House of Representatives’  “A Better Way”, is no longer enough. Yet even at this time of imminent repeal of ObamaCare, the crucial details of any replacement plan remain a mystery. Surely the time has come to let the cat out of the bag.

During the town hall meeting, for example, Speaker Ryan proposed the general outline of a system that would rely on high risk pools for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions, coupled with a market for individually purchased insurance policies whose modus operandi was largely unspecified. What would be the parameters of the high risk pools? Granted, it would have been difficult to be much more specific on this point than the Speaker was in a town hall meeting. But it would certainly have been helpful had there been a website to which he could have directed his audience for the specifics of a replacement plan built on a Republican consensus.  To my knowledge, there is no such website.

Risk pools have long been the workhorse of Republican rhetoric on health reform. One can think of such a pool as just another health insurance company selling insurance in the individual market for such policies to relatively sick applicants for insurance. To assess the merits of the coverage it sells, one surely would want to know: 

A Brief History of Price Controls by Annoyed Republican Administrations

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Although, unlike most other nations, the U.S. has only two parties worth the name, their professed doctrines compared with their actions strikes me as more confusing than the well-known Slutsky Decomposition which, as everyone knows, can be derived simply from a straightforward application of Kramer’s rule to a matrix of second partial derivatives of a multivariable demand function.

The leaders of the drug industry, for example, probably are now breaking out the champagne in the soothing belief that their aggressive pricing policies for even old drugs are safe for at least the next eight years from the allegedly fearsome, regulation-prone, price-controlling Democrats. My advice to them is: Cool it! Follow me through a brief history of Republican health policy, to learn what Republicans will do to the health-care sector when it ticks them off.

Republicans like to tar Democrats over allegedly socialist policy instruments such as price controls, global budgets and deficit-financed government spending. Democrats usually roll over to take that abuse, almost like hanging onto their posteriors signs that says “Kick me.”  I say “abuse,” because Republicans have never shied away from using the Democrats’ allegedly left-wing tactics when health care chews up their budgets or turns voters against them.

Mylan Fiasco May Be “The Shot Heard Round the World”

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The Mylan EpiPen debacle may have inadvertently weakened the grip Big Pharma on U.S. lawmakers.  Last week, a bill proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders was narrowly rejected by a vote of 52-46.  Unexpectedly, 12 Republicans and 1 Independent voted with Senator Sanders in favor of allowing pharmacists and distributors to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries (something typically favored by Democrats.)  The winds of change are starting to blow in the bipartisan direction when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry.    

U.S. Healthcare needs a revolution ; ‘the shot heard round the world’ often refers to the opening shots of the American Revolution in 1775.  The Big Pharma lobby is holding the American people hostage with their exorbitant ransom demands.  Last summer, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, led by CEO Heather Bresch, overplayed their hand.  Mylan came under fire for a 400% price increase in the EpiPen two-pack.  This device is considered life-saving for children and adults with anaphylactic reactions to various food, insect, or environmental insults.  Ms. Bresch insisted the significant price increase ($600-$700 for a medication which costs pennies) was justified due to the more ergonomic appearance of the delivery device and improved safety profile.  Her miscalculation seems to have indirectly incited the war on Big Pharma by angering the public, the media, and the government simultaneously. 

Price Transparency and All Its Very Large Warts

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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

Why Surgical Volumes Should Be Public

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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.

A Dishonest Conversation on Healthcare

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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.

Purging Healthcare of Unnatural Acts

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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.