J.D. Kleinke

Is this any way to build a railroad?

By now you’ve heard that the “Obamacare exchanges” did not launch on October 1 so much as stumble out into public view, barely able to crawl.

Three weeks later, the federal version — “healthcare.gov,” which is actually the same exchange re-deployed 36 times in 36 states — is still barely able to crawl. By contrast, most of the 15 exchanges operated by individual states and the District of Columbia are working more or less fine, for varying reasons we will explore in a moment.

Why the epic fail for healthcare.gov, estimated to have generated a health insurance enrollment rate of less than one-half of one percent among nearly 10 million visitors? Information technologists have identified lunk-headed flaws in its overall design, while pointing to the way the Federal government rolled it out, all at once, all across the nation — as if it were a campaign commercial and not one of the most complex undertakings in the history of e-commerce.

Which would be for good reason: the federal exchange is a campaign commercial, one the Administration had no choice but to broadcast after its opponents went to war on every front against implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The architects of the ACA expected that states would build their own exchanges. The federal exchange was supposed to be a failsafe — a fallback for a few straggler states unable to build their own in time for the October 1 launch. For the rest, healthcare.gov was supposed to do two things: point people to their state’s exchange; and handle the very complicated task of querying tax and other federal databases to verify people’s eligibility.

Instead, it found itself saddled with the entire e-commerce job for 36 refusenik states.

Continue reading “Healthcare.com Would Have Worked Better”

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WASHINGTON — Oral contraceptives may be small, but they are proving to be tough pills for a vast number of Americans to swallow.

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation reported that the contraception provisions of President Obama’s health reform law garnered 147,000 comments from the public — more than on any other regulatory ruling, on any subject, in the history of the nation. Really.

The unprecedented flood of comments came from a wide range of organizations and individuals who support or oppose mandated contraception coverage as part of Obamacare.

Supporters, in general, want to extend coverage for this cornerstone of women’s health; oral contraceptives are used not just for birth control, but also for the treatment of pelvic pain, irregular periods, fibroid tumors, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, severe acne, mood disorders, and excessive menstrual bleeding that could lead to anemia. Opponents, in general, want to block this extension based on religious, moral or personal objections to women using pooled insurance resources to pay for pills that enable sex-for-fun — and that can be used, as it happens, for early termination of an unwanted pregnancy.

Continue reading “Pandora’s Pillbox”

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WASHINGTON — While the news swells this week with sad and angry retrospectives on the war in Iraq, it is worth noting that the tremendous human costs of that war would have been much greater, were it not for breakthroughs in combat medicine deployed for the first time on a broad scale in Iraq.

4,486 American men and women were killed in the Iraq war. This represents approximately 14 percent of the 32,221 wounded in action — versus the 19 percent killed in Vietnam, or 27 percent killed in World War II. These statistics are cold comfort for those whose lives were derailed and families tormented in the process, and they are a clarion call to re-double all our efforts to help those who survived.

Continue reading “Combat Medicine’s ‘Golden Hour’”

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This is how sexy the chatter gets over cocktails at health policy wonk-ins in Washington. This is how sexy the chatter gets over cocktails at health policy wonk-ins in Washington.

“No pre-ex’s, community rating, guaranteed issue.”

“No, that’s Obamacare stuff,” I said to my colleague, as she read a summary of Congressman Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget plan released on Tuesday. “Everyone in Medicare already has those. You must have the wrong memo.”

She scrolled to the top of her iPhone and pointed at the screen. “Summary of the Ryan Budget Plan – Medicare.”

“Maybe just a gimme for popular support?” I speculated, knowing from headline coverage earlier in the day that the Ryan plan sought to repeal Obamacare, not strengthen its most popular consumer protections. “Guaranteed issue but no mandate — that would sure hang the insurers out to dry. But why would you put that in a budget?”

“Here’s why,” she read. “‘Seniors buy coverage through new Medicare Exchange.’”

“Oh.”

Consumers need protections only when they are turned into consumers. And that is what Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget seeks to do for — or do to, depending on your feelings about medical capitalism — future Medicare beneficiaries.

Continue reading “Ready For O’Ryancare?”

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“Your baby did not die for nothing,” Rebekah said, looking up at the monitor so Kim would not see her tears. “Your baby was a messenger to us.”

This is how a friend who specializes in high-risk obstetrics attempts to comfort a grieving patient when she delivers a stillborn baby, as portrayed in my novel Catching Babies.

This bedside homily is small succor in the face of unspeakable devastation. But the idea that one family’s heartbreak will contribute to medical research and in some remote but real way help spare families in the future is often the only comfort an OB/GYN or nurse-midwife has to offer.

Which is all the more reason to celebrate this week’s tremendous news about HIV: this time, the messenger baby lived.

According to reports, an infant was born in Mississippi with the virus that causes AIDS, given aggressive doses of the anti-viral medications known to contain — not cure — the disease, and is now disease-free at two-and-half years old. It is the second known “cure” of an HIV-positive patient, and there are no words to describe how exhilarating it feels to read or type those words for anyone who came of age during, or lost friends to, the ugly and terrifying scourge of AIDS.

So take a moment to savor it. A baby with HIV has been cured. No viral load. Disease-free. Yes!

Continue reading “HIV Messenger Baby”

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“Make it work.”

This advice on health reform to Democrats earlier this month illustrates that President Clinton knows what the opponents of Obamacare also know: success is the best political revenge.

As the health reform law moves off the drawing board into the real world, its opponents are doing their best to make it not work — by shifting their energies from fulminations about the boogeymen they imagine in the law to hampering, complicating or outright obstructing its implementation.

For openers, half the states have announced they will probably not expand their Medicaid programs under the law — though there have been defectors, most notably Florida. This will leave a large segment of the uninsured priced out of even the subsidized insurance markets created under Obamacare, while adding enormous complexity and uncertainty for small businesses and multi-state employers who want to comply with the law and cover their lower-income workers.

The same states, more or less, are also refusing to establish health insurance exchanges — online marketplaces where small businesses and individuals can purchase private health insurance — the fulcrum of the law’s provision for those not covered by Medicaid. As of last Friday’s deadline, 24 states and the District of Columbia were going ahead with exchanges and 26 were not.

Continue reading “Praying For Obamacare to Fail”

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How’s this for a bitter pill?

For Republicans looking for cures for Medicare spending growth, one of the best places to look is one of their least favorites: in the legislative pharmacopeia that is Obamacare.

There are many things opponents of President Obama’s health reform law detest, and topping the list is the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB.

Before we get to the reasons why, it is good to remember that, as sketched into the law, the singular goal of the IPAB is — guess what? — to control Medicare spending growth.

Nothing actually happens under the provision unless (i.e., until) the $525 billion per year program exceeds growth targets, and the earliest any IPAB-directed actions could take effect is 2015. But if everything really is on the table as both sides work to avoid the next in a series of fiscal embarrassments, why not a major dose of economic medicine — properly defined and administered — that is already written into law and embraced by the president?

The biggest obstacle for Republicans is political or, more precisely, optical. Although IPAB’s stated goal is to contain Medicare spending growth, the provision is the embodiment of everything Republicans do not like, not just about Obamacare, but about “Big Government” generally. IPAB is a Board! — sufficient criticism for many — of 15 “bureaucrats” who will operate beyond the reach of Congress or the public. They will make arbitrary decisions about what Medicare will or will not pay for. They will use payment to come between you and your doctor. They will take away your health care!

Maybe so. The IPAB as drafted today is a black box, not a blueprint, a plan to make plans to save money, later. And for critics, black boxes are whatever they want them to be: death panels in drag, roulette wheels for rationing care, medical-industrial phantasmagoria straight out of Kafka and Huxley. Even among health industry supporters of Obamacare — patient advocacy groups, insurers, the major provider and drug lobbies — the IPAB is worrisome because it is all cost-containment mission and few particulars. If done right, it could save not only billions of dollars but thousands of lives from needless and dangerous medical interventions; if done wrong, it could mean arbitrary intrusions into medical care and a death knell for whole spheres of medical innovation.

The need for clarity today about how the IPAB will work years from now is one more reason the White House and Congress can and should mobilize — in the service of deficit reduction — the biggest potential mechanism for Medicare cost containment already written into law. Federal budget negotiators need the vehicle; those rushing to implement Obamacare need to flesh out how the IPAB will work; and those investing — or afraid to invest — in medical innovations need to know what impact IPAB will have on the future of Medicare.

Continue reading “The IPAB Bomb”

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If the devil is in the details, we got the motherlode this past week as to how the most incendiary part of President Obama’s health reform will actually work when it launches next January.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued lengthy rules on the controversial individual mandate requiring uninsured Americans to purchase a health plan. The IRS followed with nearly as lengthy a set of rules specifying who is eligible for subsidies for those purchases and who pays penalties when they refuse. In what critics will consider an Orwellian flourish, both federal agencies refer to these penalties as “shared responsibility payments” — even though the Supreme Court, in its upholding of the mandate, plainly referred to them as what they are: a tax.

The two sets of rulings represent a sort of good cop, bad cop routine from the Obama administration. The bulk of the HHS rules defines individual outs for the mandate, identifying 11 different types of uninsured Americans who will be exempt from the de facto tax, ranging from sudden financial impairment to genuine religious objection to medical care. The IRS rules are all bright hard lines about who has to pay, when, and how.

The major media, echoing criticism by Obamacare’s agitators from the Left, seized on the stinginess of the IRS rules regarding subsidies and penalties for family members of people covered by their employers, or what they call the “family glitch.” The glitch is technically real, but statistically remote, and will affect almost no one in the real world, but it does make for good inflammatory headlines.

Continue reading “Life Support and Taxes”

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If the Administration wants to make good on President Obama’s election night promise to work across the aisle to solve the nation’s problems, a good place to start would be how it implements a key provision of Obamacare – namely, the Republican idea buried in Section 1334.

The Affordable Care Act is a bulging sketchbook of ideas – some old, some new, some borrowed, some not-so-blue – for improving Americans’ access to health insurance. Obamacare’s cheerleaders and naysayers alike will probably be shocked to learn that one of those ideas, both old and borrowed, was formulated more than a dozen years ago by advocates of market-based health reform. Once the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s and presidential candidate John McCain’s health policy platforms, the “Association Health Plan” – or AHP – lives on today in Obamacare.

This time around, AHPs are called “Multi-State Plans.” As before, they seek to let consumers, the self-employed, and small businesses from across the country band together into groups to buy a health plan from insurers competing across the country. These old-new plans were and are a powerful idea that could shake up local insurance markets, catalyze competition, and significantly reduce costs – if implemented by the Obama Administration as designed by their Republican architects. The original AHPs – also known for a time as “health marts” – were to be vehicles for giving individuals and the smallest groups access to a full range of insurance options, with the same purchasing freedom and bargaining power of large groups and self-insured employers. They also represent the most feasible way to consummate a perennially popular bipartisan idea for health insurance market reform: model private purchasing by consumers and small groups after the highly successful federal employees health benefits program.

With critical mass, these old-new plans would consolidate the large, chaotic mess at the long end of the insurance market – the tens of millions of individuals, self-employed folks, family businesses, and small groups suffering from the highest costs, lowest medical coverage ratios, and least affordable premiums. Why? Because this end of the market isn’t much of market at all, but hundreds of local markets with limited choices and 50 different sets of rules and regulatory processes.

Continue reading “Deja Association: The Republican Health Reform Idea Hiding in Obamacare”

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The most remarkable thing about Health 2.0 this time around, at least for me? The growing number, and percentage, of attendees old enough to get a reference like “Hey, Known Spender.”

If that wordplay evokes the trumpet blare of the brass band that accompanied one of the more pernicious and offensive TV ad campaigns of the 1970s (derived from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity), then you would have had more company than usual at last week’s 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

For all you Gen X’ers, Y’ers, and Millennials pitching your ever more nifty wares this time around: those horrific ads featured a slinky woman – made-over from the ‘60s musical’s stripper chorus to a ‘70s “empowered” glamour-gal – crawling all over some dude in a tux and singing “Hey, Big Spender, spend a little time with me.” The ads were unambiguous proof that American culture’s direct equation of cash and sex pre-dated the 1980s.

The “Known Spenders” who spent a little time at Health 2.0 this year were, for the most part, old enough to remember that ad. And they are actually make a living today working in corporate health care jobs. They’re the people they call “The Suits” in Hollywood, and they can actually get your products out of beta and into the real world. The slow steady creep of relevance not just of Health 2.0 as a marker of the market, but of the entire dream of consumer health IT, can be measured by the slow steady influx of the salt-and-pepper folks my own age who work for health insurance companies, employer groups, hospital systems, and drug companies. Six years ago, at the inaugural 2.0, The Suits were nowhere in sight. This year, they were everywhere you looked, kicking tires and taking business cards. Skepticism was abundant among those I talked with, as it should be with industry lifers who have endured two full cycles of health IT hype. (Healtheon and Revolution Health were the market toppers of valuation, grandiosity, and absurdity; if the current boom goes bust, we lifers know exactly who it will be.)

Among the two dozen or so people I’ve known over the years and who have yet to be paroled from health care, the consensus at 2.0 was “these are mostly good products, not companies, there is too much overlap, they have too narrow a scope of functionality, and many need to be rolled up. But a few actually have replacement revenue potential.”

As for the first part of that consensus, nothing new here. Nor anything new about the classic chicken-and-revenue problem that has hampered Health 2.0 start-ups from the start. I’m hardly the first, and surely won’t be the last, to point out the obvious: health care is not lacking for great consumer information products, services, systems, or apps; those products etc. are lacking users, adoption, exposure, traffic, critical mass, revenue. By “revenue” I mean “cash,” from paying customers, not promises, sales pipelines, booked revenue, or even signed contracts with guarantees. And I certainly don’t mean investors’ cash. I’m talking about revenue from consumers, patients, providers, or any of the myriad third parties who are spending money today – just not happily.

Continue reading “Hey, Known Spender!”

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