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Category: OP-ED

Would Repealing the ACA Violate International Law?

Barely one month after a stinging and stunning legislative defeat, President Donald Trump has committed to revising the AHCA and potentially resubmitting it for Congressional approval.

In addition to Democrats and widespread popular opinion against ACA repeal, the AHCA may face another obstacle – international law.

This week the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported that the United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights forwarded a four-page letter to the Acting Secretary of State, Thomas A. Shannon, to express the Commission’s “serious concern” that the US was in danger of violating its obligations under international law if the U.S. ratified legislation repealing the ACA.

The letter authored by Dainius Puras, a Lithuanian with the somewhat remarkable title of UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, argues that repealing core elements of the ACA would negatively impact almost 30 million Americans’ right to the “highest attainable standards of physical and mental health”, particularly those in moderate and low income brackets and those suffering from poverty or social exclusion.

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The Return of the Angry Granny State

Texas should call itself The Granny State. That’s because it’s a nanny state in which the public officials who run the place have the values of a tea-totaling, Bible-thumping biddy who knows how God wants everyone to live and can’t resist telling them. No buying liquor on Sundays when people are supposed to be at church. No gambling ever. No whacky-weed for medicinal uses or recreation, even in the privacy of one’s home. No gay marriage, preferably no gays, and no transgender folk deciding which restrooms to use. And, of course, no sex, sex education, birth control, or abortions. Women should have sex only in marriage and then only to reproduce, and those who get pregnant must carry their babies to term, regardless of the consequences for themselves or anyone else.

These religion-inspired policies have served Texans poorly. The state’s maternal mortality rate nearly doubled in just two years after Texas cut its budget for family planning by two-thirds and eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s now the worst in the developed world, not just in the US. Texas ranks 8th from the bottom in the frequency of STDs and has the 5th highest teen pregnancy rate too. Its 35 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 are nearly double the national average. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have achieved miraculous reductions in teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates by providing young women with long-acting contraceptives, like implants and IUDs. If Texas is following God’s plan, then God’s plan is a bust.

Now Granny is once again sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Currently before the Texas legislature is Senate Bill 25, which would eliminate the wrongful birth cause of action that the Texas Supreme Court recognized four decades ago in Jacobs v. Theimer. The facts were as follows. While traveling, Dortha Jacobs became ill. Upon returning home, she consulted a physician, Dr. Louis Theimer, who discovered that she was newly pregnant. Fearing that the illness was rubella—also known as the German measles—Jacobs asked Dr. Theimer if there was reason for concern. Rubella can injure a gestating fetus severely. Dr. Theimer told her not to worry, but he did so without performing an available diagnostic test. In fact, the disease was rubella and the child “was born with defects of brain, speech, sight, hearing, kidneys, and urinary tract,” among others. The medical expenses were extraordinary.

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The Fairy Tale of a Non-Profit Hospital

Nonprofit hospitals have higher profit margins than most for-profit hospitals after accounting for their tax obligations.  3900 (62%) of U.S. Hospitals are non-profit and therefore tax-exempt: they pay no property tax, no federal or state income tax, and no sales tax.  An article published in Health Affairs found seven of the nation’s 10 most profitable hospitals were of the non-profit variety, each earning more than $163 million from patient care services. Revoking their property tax-exempt status for not functioning as a charitable entity could return billions in healthcare dollars to local government, communities, and citizens, struggling to afford quality health care.

The idea of exempting nonprofits from paying taxes in the first place is based on the belief these entities provide charity for the underserved and underinsured who would otherwise require the government to lend a helping hand.  As the percentage of uninsured declines as a result of the ACA, the justification for tax exempt status is being called into question.

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Why Science is Mistrusted

Recently, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, in their press release, reported about the effect of surgical checklists in South Carolina. The release was titled, “South Carolina hospitals see major drop in post-surgical deaths with nation’s first proven statewide Surgical Safety Checklist Program.”

The Health News Review, for which I review, grades coverage of research in the media. Based on their objective criteria, the Harvard press release would not score highly.

The title exudes certainty – “nation’s first proven.” The study, not being a randomized controlled trial (RCT), though suggests that checklists are effective, far from proves it. At least one study failed to show that surgical checklists improve outcomes.

The press release’s opening line is “South Carolina saw a 22 percent reduction in deaths.” It reports relative risk reduction (RRR). Reporting RRR is now considered a cardinal sin in healthcare journalism, because RRR inflates therapeutic optimism by making the intervention sound more efficacious than it is.

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A Modest Health Care Economics Experiment to Fight Rising Costs

Healthcare providers, medical institutions, local pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies generally set the price of their products/services well above the payment they expect to receive from all insurers. These healthcare vendors set their fee schedule at 150%, 200% or 1,000% of the maximum payment they expect to receive from their most generous payor.

Here in Massachusetts, when a healthcare product or service is consumed and the patient has health insurance, the vendor submits a bill to the insurance company who specifies the “allowed fee,” which is considerably less than the “billed fee,” and the vendor “writes off” the balance of the  “billed fee” from their books.

For example, I recently had some blood tests done at Quest Diagnostics. Quest Diagnostics sent a bill to my insurance company for $660. The “allowed payment” was $110, so Quest wrote-off $550 and the “allowed payment” of $110 was divided between me and my insurance company.

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The 401W: A Wellness Program Even Al Lewis Could Love

I’ve been quite vocal about supporting only wellness done for employees and not to them…but what if there could be a “conventional” wellness program – even including screening, HRAs etc. – that both you and I could love?

People manage what’s measured and what’s paid for. If employers want people to stay healthy in the long run, why not measure and pay for health in the long run?

Why not give people the incentive to stay healthy during their working years, instead of giving them the incentive to pretend to participate in programs of no interest, just to make a few bucks? Or, worse, give employees the incentive to learn how to cheat on biometrics, and how to lie on health risk assessments. Attempts to create a culture of health often create a culture of resentment and deceit.

Short-term incentives haven’t changed weight, as noted behavioral economist Kevin Volpp has shown. Nor have they changed true health outcomes – it is easily provable that wellness has almost literally never avoided a single risk-sensitive medical event. So-called outcomes-based programs, ironically, are more about distorting short-term outcomes than achieving long-term outcomes. They have more in common with training circus animals to do tricks in exchange for treats than they do with helping employees improve long-term health.

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Who’s to Blame For the Shortage of Doctors? Doctors and Politicians

After missing an appointment with a physician recently, one of us was tongue-lashed by a medical assistant who explained that the practice has a months-long waiting list for new patients.  The dressing-down included a threat.  Another no-show and the miscreant would be discharged from the doctor’s practice and have all medications cut off.

Wondering if patients really wait months to see this doctor, the delinquent called back, pretended to be a new patient, and asked how quickly he could get in.  The first available appointment at the closest location was, in fact, 2 months out.  (The wait could have been cut in half by driving to an office that was farther away.)

Two months is a long time to wait to see a doctor.   If your auto mechanic or air conditioner repairman told you that it would take a week to fit you in, you’d find someone else to take care of the problem and you’d never go back to the person who told you to wait.  Given the transcendent importance of health, why do patients who need medical assistance routinely wait far longer?  And if patients with good insurance wait for two months, how long is the queue for those who rely on Medicaid or who have no insurance at all?Continue reading…

Evidence-Based Diagnosis and Faith-Based Solutions

It’s official: the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has at long last decided that MACRA’s MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System) can’t work.
MedPAC reached this decision at its January 12 and March 2, 2017 meetings.

Its principle rationale was that measuring “merit” (quality and cost) at the individual physician level, which is what MIPS requires CMS to do, is not possible. As one MedPAC staff person put it at the January meeting, “A redesign of the MIPS program should build off a clear-eyed assessment of the limit of the national Medicare program’s ability to assess clinician performance” (pp. 235-236 of the transcript  of the morning session of the January 12, 2017 meeting).

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“Value-Pricing” of Drugs and Pharmaceutical Innovation

In a fascinating paper on drug pricing, Ana D. Vega and her five co-authors trace increases in the price of brand-name and generic drugs in the U.S. during the period 2012-15, using the national average drug acquisition costs (NADAC) data made public by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These acquisition costs are the prices that retail community pharmacies pay to acquire medicines, usually from a wholesaler.

The tables in the paper show that the top 50 increases in the price of generic drugs over the three-year period ranged from a “low” of 448% to a high of 18,808%. For branded drugs the increases over the period ranged from a “low” of 63% to a high of 391%.

The paper also presents data on the wholesale acquisition costs (WAC) differences between first-in-class drugs and subsequent me-too-drugs, the latter usually costing much more than the first-in-class drugs, although they typically involve only small molecular changes. Here the price differentials varied from a low of -2.3% (the sole case me-too-drug actually being cheaper than the first-in-class drug) to a high of 61,259%.

It is rare to find such transparency on drug prices in this country, presumably because the data are in possession of a public agency, the CMS. By contrast, the private sector usually confronts both patients and researchers with contemptuous opacity. The pharmaceutical benefit management industry (PBMs) is particularly opaque on drug pricing, and private insurers and employers have gone along with it.

Price increases of the sort reported by Vera et al. usually are defended on two distinct grounds.

The first is what has come to be called “value pricing’ the idea that the price of a drug should be pegged on the value that drug has to patients or to society at large, in their eyes. For life-saving drugs or pain-killing drugs, that value can be very high.
Another defense of the ever rising prices of drugs is that they are needed to provide the incentives for new drug development.

Value Pricing

In my presentations on drug pricing, I often use the following metaphor to convey the central point of this concept.
Picture, then, a man somewhere in the Sahara desert close to dying of thirst.

Along comes a camel caravan for tourists, loaded with bottles of water. Assume the chap on the first camel is a private equity manager who knows a thing or two about “value creation” through “value pricing.” Assume the lady on the camel behind the first is a corporate lawyer.

Jumping off the camel, the private-equity chap approaches the dying man and, water bottle in hand, queries the dying man thus:

“How much would you pay me for this fresh bottle of water?”

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When the Patient is a Racist

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.

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