Eventually, the share of the American economy absorbed by healthcare will stop rising. The question is when, and how much more collective damage will be inflicted in the process. As it turns out, there is a solution under our noses that is nearly ubiquitous in business, personal finance, and government programs worldwide. It can be used to bring manageable, relatively predictable transformation, rather than sudden wrenching change. It is a called a “budget.” It is well past time to embrace the discipline of budgets in healthcare financing.
The basic idea is clear: set a limit on how much money can be spent for healthcare. Almost every wealthy nation disciplines its spending with a budget for healthcare expenditures. The United States does not, still retaining for the most part an open-ended model in which rates for individual services are set, without overall limits on what is spent. The discipline brought by budgets allows other nations to spend roughly half what the United States does per person, despite the fact that life and health are valued in France, The United Kingdom, Israel, and Germany no less than in the United States.
Global healthcare budgets aren’t a policy of the left or the right. The use of budgets has become associated with the political right in America, despite the fact that nearly every socialized universal healthcare system in the world has one. The fact that this isn’t about left or right becomes clearer when considering that even in America both sides have advanced their own versions of capping healthcare expenditures by a budgeting mechanism.
There is an old Vulcan proverb saying that only Nixon could go to China. Only a man who used to work for Joseph McCarthy could set America on a path to better relations with a virulently Communist country. A few years after Nixon went to China, Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister who represented people believing that the state of Israel should start at the Nile and end at the Euphrates, gave Egypt back all the lands conquered in a recent war and made a lasting peace with Israel’s largest enemy. They said back then that only Begin could make peace with the Arabs.
Today, I want to submit to you that only Trump can make single-payer health care happen in this country. Only a billionaire, surrounded by a cabinet of billionaires, representing a party partial to billionaires, can make that hazardous 180 degrees political turn and better the lives of the American people, and perhaps the entire world as a result. Oh, I know it’s too soon to make this observation, but note that both Mr. Nixon and Mr. Begin were deeply resented (to put it mildly) in their times, by the same type of people who find Mr. Trump distasteful today. The liberal intelligentsia back then did not have the bona fides required to cross the political chasm between one nation and its ideological enemies, or as real as death immediate foes. The liberal intelligentsia today lost all credibility in this country when it comes to providing a universal solution to our health care woes.
Free health care (and free college) are not solutions. These are rabble rousing slogans to gin up the vote, slogans that end up in overflowing trashcans left in ballrooms littered with red white and blue balloons after everybody goes home to get some sleep before the next round of calls to solicit funds from wealthy donors for the next campaign. Providing proper medical care to the American people is a monumental enterprise that engages tens of millions of workers from all walks of life, every second of every day, in every square mile of habitable land, littered with the hopes and fears of hundreds of millions of invisible men, women and children who call this great country their home. This is not something that can be made free. Nothing is free in our times, not even sunshine and fresh air.
For American conservatives, Britain’s NHS is an antiquated Orwellian dystopia. For Brits, even those who don’t love the NHS, American conservatives are better suited to spaghetti westerns, such as Fistful of Dollars, than reality.
The twain is unlikely to meet after the recent press surrounding Charlie Gard the infant, now deceased, with a rare, fatal mitochondrial disorder in which mitochondrial DNA is depleted – mitochondrial depletion disorder (MDD). In this condition, the cells lose their power supply and tissues, notably in the brain, die progressively and rapidly.
The courts forbade Charlie’s parents from taking him for a last dash of hope to the United States. This confirmed for many conservatives the perils of a government-run healthcare system, where the state decides who lives and who dies through Death Panels.
Ted and Mike, whose healthcare reform might affect many curable little Charlies, were moved by the plight of an incurable Charlie. No European will understand the science behind their sentiment – if you care so much about a sick incurable baby, why don’t you care about sick, curable babies, they’d ask.
Brits will never get the importance conservatives place on individual choice, even if that choice is forlorn, and of the lure of medical heroism. Conservatives seldom acknowledge that modern medicine reaches its limitations too quickly for Death Panels to be effective. Charlie was given a grim prognosis by doctors at the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), arguably the finest hospital for sick children in the world.
There are 80,000 new cases of primary brain tumors diagnosed every year in the United States. About 26,000 of these cases are of the malignant variety – and John McCain unfortunately joined their ranks last week. In cancer, fate is defined by cell type, and the adage is of particular relevance here.
Cancer is akin to a mutiny arising within the body, formed of regular every day cells that have forgotten the purpose they were born with. In the case of brain tumors, the mutinous cell frequently happens to not be the brain cell, but rather the lowly astrocyte that normally forms a matrix of support for brain cells. Tumors made up of astrocytes are called astrocytomas. Classification schemes for brain tumors in the era of molecular subtypes has grown enormously complex, but a helpful framework is provided by the appearance of these tumors under a microscope. Grade 1 tumors are indolent, with little invasive capacity, while Grade 4 tumors are highly invasive, marked under the microscope as dense, sheets of cells that can even be seen to grow their own blood supply. Senator McCain has a grade 4 astrocytoma, otherwise known a a glioblastoma (GBM) – the worst kind. Social media from all sides of the political spectrum lit up with well wishes – with most casting the disease as something to be defeated.
Others within the medical community took a different take.
Mehreen is right. GBM is a deadly disease, the 5-year survival rate for patients with GBMs is <3%. The majority of GBM patients live less than a year. Yet, the medical community of neurosurgeons and oncologists that treat these tumors go to battle with these tumors. Why?
I asked a very busy neurosurgeon this same question. I asked him what he told patients. He told me that he never mentions the word cure. There is no cure. The goal is to manage the disease and buy more time.
Median survival for GBM is measured in weeks, not years. Do nothing, and expect 14 weeks; combining surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may give you 45 weeks.
What we describe is median survival, of course, and as Stephen J Gould eloquently put in his diatribe against statistics in cancer – the median is hardly the message. The oncologist you want is the one who doesn’t tell you about median survival when breaking the news to you of your cancer – she implicitly understands each GBM has a different path. Here are three such paths.
By SAURABH JHA, MD
An old disagreement between Uwe Reinhardt and Sally Pipes in Forbes is a teachable moment. There’s a dearth of confrontational debates in health policy and education is worse off for it.
Crux of the issue is the more efficient system: employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) or Medicaid. Sally Pipes, president of the market-leaning Pacific Research Institute, believes it is ESI. Employers spend 60% less than the government, per person: $3,430 versus $9,130, per person (according to the American Health Policy Institute). Seems like a no brainer.
Pipes credits “consumerist and market-friendly approaches to health insurance” for the efficiencies. She blames “fraud,” “improper payment,” and “waste” for problems in government-run components of health care.
But Uwe Reinhardt, economist at Princeton, counters that Medicaid appears inefficient because of the risk composition of its enrollees. Put simply, Medicaid recipients are sicker. Sicker patients use more health care resources. Econ 101.
The points of tension in their disagreement are instructive.
U.S. health care policies should be based on solid evidence, especially those policies with life-and-death consequences. All too often, though, they are not. Consider the recommendation by congressional advisors that the government should favor basic ambulances with only minimal equipment and less trained staff over advanced ambulances with more life-saving equipment and better trained staff. A poorly controlled study, however, claimed that patients were more likely to die during or after riding in the advanced ambulances than in the basic (but cheaper) ambulances.
Why would “basic” ambulances (with less life-saving equipment and with lesser trained staff) be better than the more advanced ambulances? They probably were not, and we’ll show how the data supporting the benefits of “basic” ambulances are unreliable, and often confuse cause and effect. Worse perhaps, the study offers yet another example of economic research devoid of context generating dubious national policy.
Researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School used insurance data to examine how well a large sample of Medicare beneficiaries fared after ambulance transport for out-of-hospital emergencies. They compared those sent in basic life support ambulances vs. people transported in advanced life support ambulances.
The results, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, are of course counterintuitive: patients transported to the hospital in Advanced Life Support ambulances were more likely to die than those riding in the simpler, basic ambulances.
A short letter to a medical journal nearly 40 years ago may have been the nudge that set the opioid crisis in motion. A letter to the New England Journal of Medicine asserted addiction to prescription opioids was rare, claiming only four addictions were documented out of thousands patients who were prescribed powerful opioid pain pills in a hospital setting. The article has been cited hundreds of times in the years since. Doctors and drug makers may have relied on the letter as evidence that it was safe to prescribed opioids to more patients with chronic pain in settings far removed from carefully supervised hospitals.
Nearly 40 years later it has become clear that opioids can be dangerous in the wrong hands. There is also significant risk of diversion to the illicit market. After states began closing down so-called “pill mills,” prescription opioids became less available. To fill the void, heroin and fentanyl began flooding the U.S. to take the place of the once plentiful prescription opioids. Whole regions of the country have been hard hit by prescription drug abuse. Worse yet: other diseases tend to accompany IV drug abuse, including hepatitis C and HIV.Continue reading…
CMS has now conducted three demonstrations of the “accountable care organization,” and all of them have failed. The Physician Group Practice (PGP) Demonstration, which ran from 2005 to 2010, raised Medicare costs by 1.2 percent.  The Pioneer ACO program, which ran from 2012 through 2016, cut Medicare spending by three- or four-tenths of a percent on average over its first four years. And the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), which began in 2012 and may lumber on indefinitely, has raised Medicare costs by two-tenths of a percent on average over its first four years.
It is way past time for CMS and health policy researchers to determine why all three ACO demos failed. In the first two installments in this three-part series I laid out one of the reasons: CMS’s method of assigning patients to ACOs guarantees ACOs must apply their magic to a rapidly changing pool of patients and doctors. In the first essay , I demonstrated that this method, which assigns patients first to doctors based on where they get the plurality of their primary care visits and then to ACOs if their doctors are in ACOs, guarantees high churn rates among doctors and patients, shunts sicker patients away from the ACOs, and assigns few ACO patients to each ACO doctor. In the second essay I reviewed the series of evidence-free decisions that led to CMS’s plurality-of-visits method. I noted that the first of these decisions was one Congress made: They instructed CMS to figure out how to assign patients to ACOs without making patients enroll in ACOs.
As southern states entertain legislation granting nurse practitioners independent practice rights, there are some finer details which deserve careful deliberation. While nurse practitioners are intelligent, capable, and contribute much to our healthcare system, they are not physicians and lack the same training and knowledge base. They should not identify themselves as “doctors” despite having a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. It is misleading to patients, as most do not realize the difference in education necessary for an MD or DO compared to a DNP. Furthermore, until they are required to pass the same rigorous board certification exams as physicians, they should refrain from asserting they are “doctors” in a society which equates that title with being a physician.
After residency, a physician has accrued a minimum of 20,000 or more hours of clinical experience, while a DNP only needs 1,000 patient contact hours to graduate. As healthcare reform focuses on cost containment, the notion of independent nurse practitioners resulting in lower healthcare spending overall should be revisited. While mid-level providers cost less on the front end; the care they deliver may ultimately cost more when all is said and done.
In my first post in this three-part series, I documented three problems with Pioneer ACOs: High churn rates among patients and doctors; assignment to ACOs of healthy patients; and assignment of so few ACO patients to each ACO doctor that ACO “attributees” constitute just 5 percent of each doctor’s panel. I noted that these problems could explain why Medicare ACOs have been so ineffective.
These problems are the direct result of CMS’s strange method of assigning patients to ACOs. Patients do not decide to enroll in ACOs. CMS assigns patients to ACOs based on a two-step process: (1) CMS first determines whether a doctor has a contract with an ACO; (2) CMS then determines which patients “belong” to that doctor, and assigns all patients “belonging” to that doctor to that doctor’s ACO. This method is invisible to patients; they don’t know they have been assigned to an ACO unless an ACO doctor tells them, which happens rarely, and when it does patients have no idea what the doctor is talking about. 
This raises an obvious question: If CMS’s method of assigning patients to ACOs is a significant reason why ACOs are not succeeding, why do it? There is no easy way to explain CMS’s answer to this question because it isn’t rational. The best way to explain why CMS adopted the two-step attribution method is to explain the method’s history.Continue reading…