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Category: Health Policy

Health Care, Meet Gall’s Law

By KIM BELLARD

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without knowing about Gall’s Law (thanks to @niquola for tweeting it!).  For those of you similarly unaware, John Gall was a pediatrician who, seemingly in his spare time, wrote Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail in 1975.  His “law,” contained therein, is:

Have you ever heard of anything that applied so perfectly to our healthcare system? 

As anyone who has been reading my prior articles may know, I’m a big believer in simple.  I’ve advocated that healthcare’s billing and paperwork should be much simpler, that “less is more” when it comes to design,  that healthcare should first do simple better but, above all,  that healthcare should stop doing stupid things.  I’ve equated the ever-increasing intricacies of our healthcare system to the epicycles that kept getting added to the Ptolemaic theory in a desperate attempt to justify it. 

Few would disagree that the U.S. healthcare system is complex.  Healthcare systems in general have evolved towards more complex, but the U.S. system takes complexity to extremes, with its thousands of payors, its powerful pharma/medical device industry, and its highly concentrated hospital markets (including ownership of physician practices), among other things. 

Simple isn’t always better, of course.  Life is complicated and so is our health, but, come on: how many people can explain why PBMs exist, what their heath insurance plan actually covers, how their health care bill was arrived at, or why we spend so much time in the healthcare system just waiting?  Literally no one understands our healthcare system.

It shouldn’t be that way.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  But it is.

Some pundits argue we don’t even have “a system” but, rather, thousand or even millions of smaller health-related markets that co-exist but don’t really work together.  For anyone who doubts that, try to explain the presence of workers compensation healthcare or why dental is at best a separate form of coverage (last I looked, the mouth was part of the body).  Try to explain why child care is most definitely not part of healthcare but home care is – depending, of course, on whether it is “custodial” or not.   Silos abound.

It could be argued that healthcare started with a simple system that “worked.”  Some are nostalgic for the days when people saw their family doctor, paid their doctor, and that was it.  It doesn’t get much simpler than that.  Of course, those doctors couldn’t really do all that much for their patients and didn’t really get paid all that much, so to say that it “worked” for either party is debatable. 

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Sleepless Nights For Evolutionary Biologists: A Greek Tragedy in The Making

By MIKE MAGEE

In my Jesuit high school, we were offered only one science course – chemistry. I took it in my Senior year and did pretty well. In contrast, I took four years of Latin, and three years of Greek, as part of the school’s Greek Honors tract.

Little did I know that Covid would create a pathologic convergence of sorts six decades later. Let’s review the Covid mutants:

Alpha – A variant first detected in Kent, UK with 50% more transmissibility than the original and has spread widely.

Beta – Originating in South Africa and the first to show a mutation that partially provided evasion of the human immune system, but may have also made it less infectious.

Gamma – First detected in Brazil with rapid spread throughout South America.

Delta – First seen in India with 50% more transmissibility than the Alpha variant, and now the dominant variant in America and around the world.

Our ability to track and identify mutating viruses in real time is now extraordinary. Over 2 million Covid genomes have been cataloged and published. But describing the “anatomy” of the virus is miles away from understanding the functional significance of their codes, or the various biochemical instructions they may instruct.

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Matthew’s health care tidbits

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For my health care tidbits this week, I am getting very close to home. I live in Marin County, California which is an incredibly wealthy, well-educated, liberal place. My little town voted 90% for Biden and, as you’d expect, county-wide 87% of those eligible (over 12) are fully immunized with most of the rest on the way. But Marin also has a small hard core of anti-vaxxers, and by that I mean those who reject childhood vaccinations. At one Waldorf school nearby only 22% of kids are vaccinated (MMR et al).This week the CDC released a study about how this past May an unvaccinated elementary school teacher who was sneezing but didn’t wear a mask infected 55% of their class.

I know that public schools in Marin have insisted on their teachers and students wearing masks and have highly, highly encouraged vaccinations among teachers and staff. Furthermore that school had only 205 pupils which is well below the average for elementary schools (at least in my school district). So I am prepared to bet that the maskless teacher was at a charter school or other private school. (Post newsletter update: I found out that it was a parochial school in Navato)

Clearly we need vaccines for kids ASAP. But I also am starting to wonder that, as COVID-19 becomes endemic and probably never goes away and as studies like this show how rapidly it spreads, will the majority who believe in masking, vaccines et al start to impose more medical and social mandates and bans on those who do not?

The FDA’s Culture: Should Safety Dominate All Practices?

By STEVEN ZECOLA

An organization’s culture is an internal set of shared values, attitudes and practices. The cohesiveness of the organizational culture will affect whether the entity will meet its vision, purpose, and goals.

One type of organizational culture is hierarchical in nature.   Unlike a risk-taking culture, this structure features policy, process and precision. It is best suited for mature and stable organizations.

The disadvantage of a hierarchal culture is that its stability and control can turn into rigidity. In many cases, the organization develops a negative attitude towards ideas supplied by third parties. It paints itself as having the perfect answer for every issue, no matter how large or small.

My interactions with the FDA suggest that its cultural practices are focused on safety, seemingly to the exclusion of all other issues.  This practice may be appropriate in the regulation of food, but not for drug research where flexibility and creativity are required to cure complex diseases.

Over the past decade, I have witnessed an excessive adherence to its existing practices in the context of BRCA1-related breast cancer, metastatic cancer, precision medicines, “Big Data” and Parkinson’s disease. While the rulings were directed at me, the FDA’s position on these issues has impacted millions of people for the worse.

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Delta Double-Down: A Universal Health Plan Is Long Overdue.

By MIKE MAGEE

On March 25, 1966, during the Poor People’s March that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

This week, my niece in Orlando, Florida, sent her 8-year old son, masked, back to public school. He has a history of severe allergies, including several anaphylactic episodes requiring emergency respiratory intervention. His class included a voluntary mix of masked and unmasked children. He now has a 105 degree fever and has tested positive for the Delta variant of Covid.

His crisis, and those of countless other children in Republican led states now lies clearly on their governor’s shoulders. It also suggests, as with voting rights, that we can no longer allow health planning and delivery to be captured entities of the states rights crowd. Dying children are just not acceptable in a civilized society.

The impassioned and illogical pleas of leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are literally as old as this nation. As with many controversies in human endeavor, the easiest way to decipher history and meaning is often “to follow the money.” Such was the case in the battle between state and federal rights. This battle engaged early and often, with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Soon after the 1788 ratification of the U. S. Constitution, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton, suggested a federal bank to manage debt and currency. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, opposed it for fear of a federal power grab. Regardless, in 1791, Congress created the First Bank of the United States with a 20 year charter.

When the charter ran out in 1811, it wasn’t renewed. But then the War of 1812 intervened, and in 1816 the Second Bank of the United States was created with the Federal government holding 20% of the equity. The divide led to the creation of two political parties – the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party whose members were committed to undermining the bank.

The battle came to a head when, in 1818, the Maryland’s state legislature levied a $15,000 annual tax on all non-state banks. There was only one – the Second Bank of the United States, which refused to pay. The suit rose to the Supreme Court with Maryland claiming the right to tax based on their reading of the 10th Amendment claiming state protection against extension of non-enumerated rights to the Federal government.

The landmark 1819 case – McCulloch v. Maryland, defined the scope of the U.S. Congress’s legislative power and how it relates to the powers of American state legislatures. In ruling against Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall argued that:

“Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”

It was the people who ratified the Constitution and thus the people, not the states, who are sovereign.

One hundred and thirty years later, on December 10, 1948, the newly formed United Nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That day, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke for America, stating: “Where after all do human rights begin? In small places close to home…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

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Matthew’s health care tidbits

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For my health care tidbits this week, I am featuring the the Urban Institute report on the uninsured that’s released today. “Between March 2019 and April 2021 the percentage of U.S. adults reporting they had employer-sponsored coverage declined from 65% to 62.3%, a decrease of approximately 5.5 million adults. The share of adults reporting public coverage increased from 13.6% to 17.5% percent, an increase of approximately 7.9 million adults”. So like it or not we are slowly becoming a public health plan nation–of course the public health plan picking up the slack is Medicaid. And that in practice means we are 2 nations. “In April 2021, the uninsurance rate in non-expansion states was more than double that of expansion states (18.2% versus 7.7%)”.

Which means that Texas & Florida (the two big non-expansion states) really don’t care about their people’s health. And taking a look at their governors’ current attitudes towards COVID, you would not be surprised.

It takes a pandemic: Mental Health parity may finally have its day!

By EMILY EVANS

Emily Evans is the health policy guru at equity research company HedgeEye. She sends out these reports in emails to her clients regularly but (since I asked nicely) she allowed me to publish this one from late last week on THCB. You can catch Emily in person on the “How Much Are These Companies Really Worth? The IPO & SPAC Panel” at Policies|Techies|VCs–What’s Next for Health Care, the conference Jess Damassa & I are chairing on September 7-8-9-10 — Matthew Holt

Politics. President Biden is going to have more important things to do this week than worry about the mask/vaccine wars. At some point though, probably soon, Biden will need a scapegoat at the CDC. Several reversals on guidance around masks for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated have left local governments confused and people, most notably, parents of school age children, angry. The spread of the Delta variant isn’t helping matters.

While there may be political motivations for some of CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s guidance. A better approach, this last week anyway, would be never assign to cunning that which can be explained by incompetence.

Bringing a large, sprawling bureaucracy into line after a decade or more of being considered irrelevant is not a simple matter. It is made particularly difficult by the agency’s remote location in Atlanta to which Dr. Walensky commutes. 

For the time being eclipsed by a messy exit in Afghanistan, the CDC’s failures are still being noted by longstanding supporters of the agency like former Food and Drug Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb. As the Delta variant follows the same summer path as Alpha from south to north and break-through infections become identified as more common than previously thought (though mild for the vaccinated), the pressure to get the CDC reorganized will grow.

The good news, notwithstanding the vitriol over mask wearing and vaccine mandates, is the assumption underlying the CDC’s guidance on masks/vaccines is that children will be going to school and college students to class. It is, we can all hope, the first step in recognizing that there is no Zero-COVID; no magic bullet; just adaptation and adjustment, something at which humans excel.

Policy. Last week, the Department of Labor simultaneously filed and settled a lawsuit against UNH for violations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The dollar value of the settlement was immaterial but United HealthGroup (UNH) agreed to take corrective action which will be substantive.

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Health Care Needs A Hero

By MIKE MAGEE

Health care needs its heroes.

I came to that conclusion this week through a roundabout route.

First I read Maureen Dowd’s interview entitled “Dara Khosrowshahi, Dad of Silicon Valley”, in which she, with some affection, gives the reader a look behind the scenes at the personal life of the current Uber CEO. At one point, Dowd shares her conversation with Dara’s 20-year-old daughter, Chloe, a Brown student, who wants us to know her father was a seriously good dad. In support of this belief, she reports that “When she was little, her father – a fan of Joseph Campbell…would concoct children’s stories set in faraway kingdoms…”

This, of course, forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t know who Joseph Campbell was. Bill Moyers came to the rescue. His June 21, 1988 interview titled “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Hero’s Adventure’”, begins with a clip from Star Wars where Darth Vader says to Luke, “Join me, and I will complete your training.” And Luke replies, “I’ll never join you!” Darth Vader then laments, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” Moyers asked Campbell to comment.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: He (Darth Vader) isn’t thinking, or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes.

BILL MOYERS: So perhaps the hero lurks in each one of us, when we don’t know it.

By then, I was aware that Joseph Campbell, who died in 1987 at the age 83, was a professor of literature and comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. His famous 1949 book,  “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” made the case that, despite varying cultures and religions, the hero’s story of departure, initiation, and return, is remarkably consistent and defines “the hero’s quest.” His knowledge of this quest gained him a large following that included George Lucas who was a close friend and has said that Star Wars was largely influenced by Campbell’s scholarship.

Whether health care or technology, unfettered capitalism is more than adept at breeding predatory systems that beg for redemption.  Author Emily Chang spoke to this predilection in her 2018 book, “Brotopia”, describing Silicon Valley types as “secretive, orgiastic, and dark.” Dara Kharowshaki’s  CEO predecessor at Uber, Travis Kalanick, was labeled one of the worst. When Dara took over, New York Times technology expert, Mike Issac asked in 2019, “Can this rational, charming chief without the edge, ego, or cult following of wacky founders succeed in today’s insane economy?”

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Matthew’s health care tidbits

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

In this week’s health care tidbits, we are talking about medical debt. Oh, not all medical debt. No, not that debt being garnished from the wages of health care workers by their own employers. Today we are just discussing the debt that has already gone to collections. Yes, the debt sold off by doctors and hospitals for pennies on the dollars so that debt collectors can hound people until they pay or despair.

This week a Harvard/Stanford team reported that the total in collections is $140 Billion! Way more than anyone thought, Nearly ONE in SIX Americans currently has a medical bill in collections. No prizes for guessing that those most likely to be being pursued are living in the poorest zip codes in the country and even more likely to be in a southern state that never expanded Medicaid.

Glad we are all proud to be American.

Biden Should Extend a “Public Option” as a Message to “Health Care Royalists”

By MIKE MAGEE

In this world of political theatrics, with Democratic legislators from Texas forced into exodus to preserve voters’ rights, and Tucker Carlson rantings about Rep. Eric Swalwell riding shirtless on a camel in Qatar streaming relentlessly, Americans can be excused if they missed a substantive and historic news event last week.

On Friday, July 9th, President Biden signed a far-reaching executive order intended to fuel social and economic reform, and in the process created a potential super-highway sized corridor for programs like universal healthcare. In the President’s view, the enemy of the common man in pursuit of a “fair deal” is not lack of competition but “favoritism.”

To understand the far-reaching implications of this subtle shift in emphasis, let’s review a bit of history. It is easy to forget that this nation was the byproduct of British induced tyranny and economic favoritism. In 1773, citizens of Boston decided they had had enough, and dumped a shipment of tea, owned by the British East India Company, into the Boston Harbor. This action was more an act of practical necessity than politics. The company was simply one of many “favorites” (organizations and individuals) that “got along by going along” with their British controllers.  In lacking a free hand to compete in a free market, the horizons for our budding patriots and their families were indefinitely curtailed.

Large power differentials not only threatened them as individuals but also the proper functioning of the new representative government that would emerge after the American Revolution. Let’s recall that only white male property owners over 21(excluding Catholics and Jews) had the right to vote at our nation’s inception.

Over the following two centuries, power imbalances have taken on a number of forms. For example, during the industrial revolution, corporate mega-powers earned the designation “trusts”, and the enmity of legislators like Senator John Sherman of Ohio, who as Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, led the enactment of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

He defined a “trust” as a group of businesses that collude or merge to form a monopoly. To Sen. Sherman, J.D. Rockefeller, the head of Standard Oil, was no better than a monarch. “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life”, he said.   The law itself stated “[e]very contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.”

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