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Category: Health Policy

The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 2)

By AL LEWIS

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.


Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:

  1. It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
  2. She has no interest in wellness anymore
  3. People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
  4. “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits”(um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)

Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 1)

By AL LEWIS

Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.

Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.

Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.

Since this 30% was basically a giveaway to corporations, the Obama Administration needed to justify it as a cost-savings measure. On the one hand, they had the Safeway experience “proving” that wellness could save money in practice. This alleged proof was met with open arms by both parties. Safeway’s CEO became a “rock star” on Capitol Hill.  (Of course, Safeway’s wellness program, like virtually every other great-sounding success in wellness, turned out to be a scam. In retrospect, just reading the Safeway CEO’s Wall Street Journal op-ed* announcing these results, it’s amazing how the mind-blowingly fallacious statistics didn’t get called out back then, by me or anyone else.)

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Economics Lessons from the Subcontinent: India’s Coronary Stent Policy

By ANISH KOKA MD

It is commonly believed that deliberate, careful price regulation by enlightened technocrats trumps the haphazard and chaotic regulation of prices imposed by the free market—especially when the market is subject to greed and corruption.

A most interesting case study challenging that belief comes courtesy of the largest Democracy in the world: India.

In 2017, an arm of the Indian Government, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) took action to control the price of coronary stents in India by capping their retail price.  The problem that stimulated this action was their exorbitant price that made them unaffordable to many Indians.

The retail prices of US made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 80,000 – 150,000 (~$1000 – ~$2000), while the price of Indian made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 45,000 – 90,000 (~$600 – ~$1200).  Considering that a good job for 90% of the Indian labor force pays about Rs 180,000 per year, these prices put most coronary stents out of the reach of a vast swath of the populace.

What regulators knew, however, was that the price point at which coronary stents were being imported into India was a fraction of the price being charged to Indians.  The up-charge had everything to do with what happened after the stent was brought onto Indian soil: The Indian subsidiary of the US stent manufacturer would sell its product to a domestic distributor that would then employ all means necessary to ensure their stent was chosen by cardiologists to be implanted.

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A Change in Tactics

By ROBERT PRETZLAFF MD, MBA

Those that advocate for change in healthcare most often make their case based on the unsustainable cost or poor quality care that is sadly the norm. A 2018 article in Bloomberg highlights this fact by reporting on global healthcare efficiency, a composite marker of cost and life expectancy. Not remarkably, the United States ranks 54th globally, down four spots from 2017 and sandwiched neatly between Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. Unarguably, the US is a leader in medical education, technology, and research. Sadly, our leadership in these areas only makes our failure to provide cost-effective, quality care that much more shameful. For the well-off, the prospect of excellent accessible care is bright, but, as the Bloomberg article points out, as a nation our rank is rank. Anecdotally, I can report that as a physician I am called upon with some regularity to intervene on the behalf of family and friends to get a timely appointment or explain a test or study that their doctor was too busy to explain, and so even for the relatively well-off, care can be difficult and deficient.

The cost of care frequently takes center stage in arguments advocating change. The recognition that health care costs are driving unsupportable deficits and limiting expenditures in other vital areas is very compelling. Therefore, lowering the cost of care would seem to be an area in which there would be swift consensus. However, solutions to rein in costs fail to address the essential truth that most of us define cost subjectively. Arguments about the cost of care divide rather than unify as the discussion becomes more about cost shifting than controlling overall cost. Further, dollars spent on healthcare are spent somewhere, and there are many who profit handsomely from the system as it is and work aggressively sowing division to maintain the status quo.

Poor quality and access are additional lines of argument employed to win support for change. These arguments fail due to a lack of a commonly accepted definitions of quality and access to care. Remedies addressing quality and access issues are frequently presented as population level solutions. Unfortunately, these proposals do not engage a populace that cares first and foremost about their access to their doctor. The forces opposed to change readily employ counterarguments to population-based solutions by applying often false, but effective, narratives that population-based solutions are an infringement on a person’s fundamental freedoms. In that counterargument is the key to improving healthcare.

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Are Bipartisan Agreements on Health Care Possible?

By KEN TERRY 

Republicans and Democrats are seen as poles apart on health policy, and the recent election campaign magnified those differences. But in one area—private-sector competition among healthcare providers—there seems to be a fair amount of overlap. This is evident from a close reading of recent remarks by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a 2017 paper from the Brookings Institution.

Azar spoke on December 3 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the conservative counterpart to the liberal-leaning Brookings think tank. Referring to a new Trump Administration report on how to reduce healthcare spending through “choice and competition,” Azar said that the government can’t just try to make insurance more affordable while neglecting the underlying costs of care. “Healthcare reform should rely, to the extent possible, on competition within the private sector,” he said.

This is pretty close to the view expressed in the Brookings paper, written by Martin Gaynor, Farzad Mostashari, and Paul B. Ginsburg. “Ensuring that markets function efficiently is central to an effective health system that provides high quality, accessible, and affordable care,” the authors stated. They then proposed a “competition policy” that would require a wide range of actions by the federal and state governments.

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How Can Patients on Medicaid Possibly Be Worse Off than Those Who Don’t Have Insurance?

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said Carl Sagan.

The claim that health insurance improves health outcomes is hardly ground breaking. Studying whether insurance affects health status is like wondering whether three meals a day lead to a higher muscle mass than total starvation.

Well that’s what I thought. Until I read the study on Oregon’s Medicaid program by Baicker and colleagues in the NEJM earlier this year and, more recently, Avik Roy’s short treatise “How Medicaid Fails the Poor”.

Baicker et al found that Medicaid enrollees fared no better in terms of health outcomes than those without insurance. That is, no insurance no difference.

The study is an exemplar of policy research laced with regression equations, control of known confounders and clear separation of variables. There is only so much rigor social science can achieve compared to the physical sciences. Yet this is about as good a study as is possible.

The one thing the study did not lack was sample size. It’s useful to bear in mind sample size. Large effects do not need a large sample size to show statistical significance. Conversely, if study with a large sample size does not show even a modest effect, it means that the effect probably does not exist.

There are several interpretations of the Medicaid study, interpretations inevitably shaped by one’s political inclination. The ever consistent Paul Krugman, consistent in his Samsonian defense of government programs against philistines and pagans, extolled critics of Medicaid as “nuts” and asked, presumably rhetorically, “Medicaid is cheaper than private insurance. So where is the downside?”

Unlike Krugman I am not a Nobel laureate and am about as likely to win a Nobel Prize as I am of playing the next James Bond, so it’s possible that I am missing something blatantly obvious.  Could the downside of a government program paying physicians, on average 52 cents, and as low as 29 cents, for every dollar paid by private insurance in a multiple payer system be access?

Indeed, it’s darn impossible for patients on Medicaid to see a new physician.  As Avik Roy explains “…massive fallacy at the heart of Medicaid….It’s the idea that health insurance equals healthcare”.

But wait. It gets better.

I am accustomed to US healthcare throwing more plot twisters than Hercule Poirot’s sleuth work. But one I least expected was that patients on Medicaid do worse than patients with no insurance (risk-adjusted, almost). I am not going to be that remorseless logician, which John Maynard Keynes warned us about, who starting with one mistake can end up in Bedlam, and argue that if you are for Medicaid that is morally equivalent to sanctioning mass murder. Rather, I ask how it is possible that possessing Medicaid makes you worse off than no insurance whatsoever.

To some extent this may artifactually appear so because poverty correlates with ill health, and studies that show Medicaid patients faring worse than uninsured, cannot totally control for social determinants of health.

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Return to McAllen: A Father-Son Interview

By now, Dr. Atul Gawande’s article on McAllen’s high cost of health care has been widely read.  The article spawned a number of responses and catalyzed a national discussion on cost controls and the business of medicine.  It even made it’s way into the President’s address to the AMA.

Almost overnight, McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley were thrust into the national health care spotlight – the once sleepy border town became, not a beacon on a hill, but a balefire in the valley, representing much of what is wrong with the current medical culture.

But, McAllen wasn’t always like something from an old Western, where doctors run wild and hospital CEO’s compete like town bosses.  I remember McAllen quite differently.  I remember it, because as it turns out, it was where I was born.Continue reading…

HEALTH PLANS/POLICY: Too much fawning over Len Schaeffer?

No one is arguing that Len Schaeffer isn’t a very bright guy, nor that he hasn’t done very well in America’s health care system. He’s also done very well out of America’s health care system. So when McKinsey publishes a fawning interview with the man who saved Blue Cross of California, and turned it into one of the most profitable for-profit health insurance companies, and then merged it with the other for-profit Blues, it’s perhaps appropriate to ask a few more questions.

Full disclosure here; in the distant past I’ve worked for several companies that are now part of the Anthem/Wellpoint collosus; and I currently do work for the California Health Care Foundation, which wouldn’t exist were it not for the fact that, when Wellpoint converted to for-profit status, it (and the California Endowment) were endowed with a huge chunk of stock. So you can take my comments in what ever light you like. In addition I’ve only done limited research here and a couple of things are retelling of tales I’ve heard, so if anyone knows more gossip, please email me.

Schaeffer is coming towards the end of his business career, but he started young and fast. He was head of HCFA (the artist now known as CMS) at age 33 in the Carter Administration. Now I call Mark McClellan the boy wonder, but he was 41 when he got the job! After leaving HCFA (before it got really exciting in the early years of the Reagan administration when DRGs were introduced, but being the first to introduce a type of DRG for kidney dialysis), and going via Group Health for a couple of years, he ended up at Blue Cross of California. He got there in the middle of an incredible screw-up.

Blue Cross had set up an HMO to compete with Kaiser called HealthNet. Incredibly enough somehow or other Blue Cross didn’t manage to enforce their formal corporate control over its board members on the board of HealthNet. So the board of HealthNet looked around the room one day, noticed that they might do alright if they were running a for-profit company, and declared independence. More on that story in this court documents. And apparently despite several years in court there was nothing Blue Cross could do. Retroactively Healthnet had to agree to endow a foundation with the state (the California Wellness Foundation) but the amount put into that foundation was a tiny, tiny proportion of HealthNet’s market value.

Schaeffer turned up to steady the ship at Blue Cross in the wake of the Healthnet screwup. In part he did this by turning Blue Cross from a warm and fuzzy non-profit into a pretty avaricious underwriter and a health plan that played very hardball with its providers (and members). More on that in the first section of this document, but it’s a reminder of a tack taken years later by Jack Rowe at Aetna.

But he clearly learned something from the experience.  The first thing he did was to set up a for-profit subsidiary called Wellpoint which started buying health plans and offering services (primarily outside California). Then he tried to put all of Blue Cross’ assets into Wellpoint. It looked like he’d away with this for a while, but then started  negotiations to take the whole thing for-profit. Apparently when the state first asked him the amount with which he would fund the foundation, his first offer was “nothing”.  This eventually got anted-up to $100m. Eventually the state (pressured by consumers’ groups) pointed out that it had quite a bit of control over the Blue Cross plans, and in the end the two Foundations were set up with lots of money and the majority of the stock, which gets spent doing good works in California (and funding some great research!) — not that everyone’s happy with it!

However, what amuses and dismays me is that Schaeffer is lauded for a couple of things, specifically the creation of new insurance plans and the shift to consumer care, and a commitment to IT. I really don’t understand what is so amazing about the new consumer plans, other than the Tonik brand has a lame web sites which look exactly like what a 50 year old thinks a 23yr old thinks is cool.  THCB readers already know that, while selling high deductible plans to youngsters may help a 23 yr old who needs catastrophic insurance, you’re not going to fix the problem of uninsurance by replacing it with under-insurance. But underwritten properly, these plans are very profitable for Wellpoint. And Wellpoint is damn good at underwriting.

So much so that you’d be surprised at what Schaeffer says is the main problem with American health care. Practice variation and lack of information:

The level of variation in our health care system is unbelievable. You could be hospitalized for nine days in New York and for three days in California with the same diagnosis—and those differences would have no impact on outcomes. There is no other industry in the world that uses so many different approaches to the same thing and in which these differences don’t relate to better results

So can’t health plans fix that? Apparently not:

As a health insurer, if you start by telling doctors, "We know what’s best; we’ll pay you for it," you violate the fundamental principle that doctors want to exercise their own discretion. That’s what killed HMOs—telling the doctors what to do. Doctors don’t like to follow cookbooks, but, clearly, evidence-based medicine would work better for patients.

So because health plans failed at getting doctors to practice better medicine, instead they’re going to give them the information systems that show the doctors all about this variation, and it’ll magically self-correct. Except there’s the odd problem there too, including more cluelessness by health plans.

The Quarterly: WellPoint invested $40 million to encourage its in-network physicians to start using IT and to begin "e-prescribing." What results have you seen?

Leonard Schaeffer: If you believe in an IT-enabled, evidence-based health care system—which I do—you’ve got to get IT into doctors’ offices. So we offered our in-network doctors, for free, either a desktop or a state-of-the-art "e-prescribing" unit for connecting to the Internet. Our theory was that if we could get a certain number of docs online, we could revisit them later and get rid of paper, which would benefit the physicians and us. That was the theory. But to get doctors to trust us, we had to say "no strings attached." We had to contact 26,000 doctors to get 19,500 to accept the free gift. Of these 19,500 doctors, 2,700 accepted the e-prescribing package. Unfortunately, only about 150 physicians are using this technology consistently. I was very disappointed that we only moved the needle that much.

Harvey Fineberg, the president of the Institute of Medicine, explained why the doctors were so recalcitrant: "When you’re in private practice, ‘free’ is not cheap enough." In other words, the doctor thinks,"You’re giving me what looks like a free gift, but you’re really requiring a change in how I work, which costs more and gives me little benefit. So I’m not changing my work process."

It was a real lesson in life. We were trying to change fundamental behavior, and the doctors don’t want to change unless they see a significant benefit for their patients or themselves.

While Schaeffer is dismayed that the $40m giveaway intended to promote ePrescribing was such a failure, you’d think that the program could have had a little but of brains put behind it first. Basically docs were given the choice of a) either take this subsidized ePrescribing system that we’re going to drop on your practice with little support, or b) have this free Dell computer which you can use to trade stocks and surf porn at home, and later sell on Craigslist. Doctors, not being dumb, took the choice with some value.  This was for Wellpoint the equivalent of throwing mud at a wall to see if it sticks, except the technique used involved blasting the wall with a water cannon at the same time. The dummy was whomever at Wellpoint gave the docs the choice. And these are the geniuses who failed at HMO network medical management, as earlier noted

So why were the dummies in charge of this one?  Well because the smart guys are stuck over in a different part of the company.

But today the most important thing for us is our actuarial data, which helps us price our premiums. As you might guess, pricing is critical. Our analysis showed that the so-called cycle in health insurance—three good years, three bad years—is simply a function of pricing discipline and pricing mistakes. There isn’t any doubt that the companies with the best pricing are less cyclical. In our case, we have no cycles at all.

We found that the most critical information for good pricing wasn’t how many contracts we had but how many people we had—who they were, their age, their gender, and where they lived. Together with regional and local differences in illness types and doctors’ behavior, these characteristics determined what the costs would be. So we gathered more information than anybody else about those things, and this was a huge competitive advantage. Now almost everybody does things that way.

We also make a point of processing claims quickly because we found that faster processing gives you a better idea of your costs and early knowledge about how trends are changing. By monitoring the landscape, we were able to raise or lower our prices before anyone else, which is really important in this business. You never want to sell an underpriced policy.

So there you have it. Being really smart about pricing and risk is how you run a successful insurance company. If you look at Wellpoint’s stock in the last 4 years, it’s evident that in the mission critical part of their business, they’re very very good about this. Stock is up four-fold and profits nearly double in the last 3 years.

Wlp

Of course that’s not the only thing that’s gone up in the last five years. So have premiums and health care costs. And the two things may per chance be related!

Gabel_1

But this just goes to show that what Schaeffer is good at — running a lean mean ultra-competitive pricing business — has little if anything to do with solving the wider problems of the health care system that he’s so eloquent about. He of course is walking off from the whole deal with some $300m smackers under his belt. All in stock from “converted” non-profit companies, and all such high stock because Wellpoint has (like the rest of the business) been able to stick price increases to its clients, year after year after year.

So why is McKinsey, which is after all supposed to be in the business of helping the Fortune 500 reduce their overall costs, so fawning to Schaeffer? Perhaps it’s just a mutual recognition that when it comes to corporate America, perhaps you can fool all the people all the time — so long as they hang out in the executive suite.

 

 

 

 

POLICY: Oh Canada

This article is about Canada’s health system and its relationship to the US health policy debate.  It is not meant to be an endorsement of Canada’s system, or an endorsement of single payer for the US. From my personal point of view, while I think serious health care reform is unlikely in the next few years in the US, some foreign models of health insurance are very useful for the US debate. But the combined local/employer insurance systems seen in Japan, Germany and Holland provide a more likely and familiar model for the US, than the Canadian or UK single-payer systems. However, this article isn’t about what might happen here or which system is better. This article is about the distortions that are frequently heard in the US, and in Canada for that matter, about the Canadian system. It’s also a lot longer than the average post, such as my recent post on Canada, Steffi and Ken, and you can download it as a separate document here if you want to print it out and savor/criticize it over a cup of coffee.

This article is dedicated to the amazing Medpundit. Despite the fact that I disagree with a huge percentage of what she says, Sydney Smith manages to cover virtually all of health care and medicine in her excellent blog, while writing book reviews, keeping up a full time solo family practice, and claiming that she’s not posting as much as she used to.  Her article on Canadian physician emigration and the vigorous support she got from her commenters finally got me to get off the dime and put in my several cents worth.

Before I jump into this it’s worth noting that some of the differences between these health care systems are cultural. There have been several interesting descriptions of the international variations in medical practices. In one great book written in the 1980s, The Painful Prescription,  Aaron and Schwartz describe rationing of hospital care in Europe and the UK compared to the US. For instance they pointed out that  in the UK kidney dialysis was not used at nearly the levels among the elderly as it was in the US (or in fact in Europe).  So they concluded that care was rationed and as a direct consequence people died. (If you have ESRD and don’t get treatment eventually your kidneys shut down and you die). However, many other commentators, including Lynn Payer in her book Medicine and Culture which is very well described by Humphrey Taylor from Harris, have shown fairly conclusively that many cultures just regard "care" in a different way. In that sense the dialysis-use figures could be seen as the aggrandizement of hundreds of decisions not to over-tax elderly patients with a long and difficult treatment that wouldn’t help their quality of life, even as it extended it slightly. Indeed, it’s equally cultural relative to accuse Americans of "over-care" by doing CABGs on 95 year olds who are soon going to die anyway. So while you’re reading the rest of this article you need to bear in mind that some of the differences that are ascribed to policy are due to culture. Having said that; many are not. 

Before we start, recall that Canada has a single payer in each province that provides uniform health insurance to all its citizens. To provide that care it contracts directly and exclusively with physicians and hospitals, who remain largely autonomous but have no other customers. The US in contrast has a mixed-private-public system for which the government provides about half the money. Insurance is only universal for those over 65, and roughly 14% of the population has no insurance coverage, with very varying levels of coverage for the rest–mostly coming through employers. The latest comparable numbers have the US spending roughly 14% of GDP on health care while that number is around 11% in Canada. So at a macro level, the Canadians pay less as a share of their income to cover more of their people. (In fact as its GDP per capita is lower than America’s Canada spends considerably less per citizen). While single-payer advocates tout those numbers, many critics claim that Canada rations care, and that both patients and physicians are leaving Canada to give and receive care that’s not available at home.

Given that, it’s worth looking at two main aspects of the Canadian system that frequently come up for criticism. How are patients doing? What’s going on with physicians? And are they really all leaving the Great White North to escape its health care system?

The Patient Experience

It’s simplistic and true to say that Canadians have free access to basic health care. Americans have varied access based mostly on insurance. And it’s accepted that, as a corollary, all Canadians have less access to high-technology health care than do most Americans, However, googling around the web you’ll find indications that 18% of Canadians cannot get access to first contact care, (although only 10% have had trouble getting routine day time care). Still even 10% lacking access to care isn’t nothing, especially in a universal insurance system.  Luckily the Commonwealth Fund has over the years funded my old colleagues at Harris and Harvard, led by Bob Blendon, to do several studies over the years about these issues.  They asked consumers’ views in several countries, but we’ll concentrate on Canada and the US. (Note: When you open a link that is a powerpoint slide, hit the page down button as there might be 2 or 3 slides in that one link)

System satisfaction: Canadians were very happy with their system in the  late 1980s but were much less happy by 1998 and also in 2001, after a period of funding reduction.  But they are still happier than Americans, or at least only 18% want to completely rebuild the system, as opposed to over 28% of Americans. (The 2003 American number is over 30%–I don’t have the latest Canadian numbers, but they have been spending increasingly more and their incoming PM has promised to maintain that level. So as satisfaction went down due to less money you can expect that level to increase when there’s more. It’s also worth noting that the Canadians saved the rest of their economy some money, while during the large boom in the US in the 1990s, the health care sector stayed steady as a share of GDP.

Access to care: In terms of actually getting care and accessing doctors, both Americans and Canadians felt access was about the same. But in terms of access to care, by 2001 26% of Canadians thought it was getting worse, and only 6% getting better. 20% of Americans thought their access was getting worse too, but 17% thought it was getting better.

But then we get to some of the key issues. In Canada for elective surgery you have to wait; two thirds of Americans can get it within a month. Most Canadians have to wait more than a month and more than 25% have waited more than 4 months. No one waits that long in the US (presumably so long as they can qualify for coverage).

Costs matter: But in the US costs really matter. Over a quarter of Americans had out-of-pocket costs of over $1,000, compared to less than 5% of Canadians. Americans were two to five times more likely than Canadians to have an access problem due to cost, such as not getting a needed drug or not seeing a doctor. And when you look at those with below average incomes, in Canada only 9% failed to get recommended follow up care due to cost. In the US, over one third did not. More than a quarter of Americans (26%)–including 39% of those with below average incomes–didn’t fill a prescription because of costs, more than twice the number than in Canada. 21% of Americans have problems paying medical bills compared to only 5% in Canada, and that goes for 35% of Americans with below average incomes. So on a macro level it’s true that nationally Canadians sacrifice getting access to expensive resources (such as MRIs and surgeons). But in turn they don’t have to put up with the individual cost issues that are a problem for many Americans, especially the poorer ones.

If you look at the same type of indicators amongst those who are sick in similar study (also from Blendon’s group)  they are virtually all the same, with problems of access to specialty care and hospitals in Canada matched by access problems due to cost being 2-3 times worse for the sick in the US. Here are the sources for the full charts for the "healthys" and the "sick".

The impatient inpatient: This is where the arguments get anecdotal, and little ridiculous. I never understand, for instance, why American small business owners who have to buy insurance in the world’s most dysfunctional market complain so much about the prospect of Canadian-style health care. In 1993 I talked to a Rotary Club where, before I even got my international comparisons slide out, the small business owners in the room came after me with the classic anti-Canadian argument that goes something like "When he needed care the Prime Minister of Alberta/Nova Scotia/Yukon Territory/Canada came down to the US". There has always been an extremely limited number of Canadians getting new high-tech care in the US that isn’t available in Canada, almost always paid for by their province.  However this has been transposed into the argument that thousands of Canadians are flooding across the border to get care that is unavailable at home.  There is even the very occasional and underfilled patient bus trip coming down to get prescriptions and treatments unavailable in Canada, of course massively outnumbered by the buses taking Americans to buy cheaper drugs up north.

While the argument about Canadians flooding south to get medical care withheld from them up north is widely heard, it’s bullshit. Yup, lots of Canadians get care in the US, but that’s because, due to the better weather, the higher incomes, going to college or that NAFTA thing, they eitherlive here, or are on vacation in Florida to escape that terrible winter. Work done by a team led by Steve Katz at University of Michigan with  the Evans/Barer/Cardiff team at UBC which looked into this in obsessive detail found essentially no evidence of Canadians crossing the border to get care. (Incidentally plenty of Americans are still going up there for non-covered surgery like laser corrective eye surgery, which is cheaper and just as good up north). In fact according to Canadian insurers there appears to be no interest amongst Canadian consumers in commercial insurance products to cover care abroad, other than standard holiday cover. Note that this is not the case in the UK, where private insurance allows about 10% of Brits to jump the queue to get surgery in a private hospital. So it looks like the Canadians accept the fact that they have to wait for surgery, and not surprisingly don’t want to come down here to pay for it out of pocket.

The Grumpy Doctors

As mentioned earlier, I started working on this article partly because Sydney Smith over at Medpundit wrote a piece saying essentially that Canadian doctors felt that their system sucked, they all wanted to move to the US and that many of them already had–leading to a doctor shortage in Canada. She concluded:

    And why are Canadian physicians leaving their patients in the lurch? Not for the money. They leave for better research opportunities, for greater professional and clinical autonomy, better job choices, and better medical facilities. They leave, in other words, for all the advantages conferred by a free-market healthcare system–the same advantages that we American physicians take for granted when we yearn for a Canadian-style system. We should look to Canada, all right, but not as a role model. We should look to them instead as a warning. There but for the grace of God–and a strong independent streak–go we.

Before we look more at the emigration factor, again it’s worth looking at a relatively recent study by the Harvard team. In 2000 they asked a set of questions to doctors in the same five (English-speaking nations) nations where they surveyed patients in 1998 and 2001. It was indeed true that doctors in Canada were pretty miserable, and you certainly can trawl the Internet and easily find grumpy Canadian doctors, and many anecdotal stories of them leaving for the good life in the US. In the Harvard study, Canadian doctors did believe that their ability to provide quality care had got worse in the last five years, but only slightly more Canadian doctors believed this (59% v 56% for generalists and 67% v 60% for specialists) than did Americans. And Canadians were only slightly more pessimistic that the quality of care would decline (61% v 54%) in the future. But when asked about major problems in their practice, compared to Americans they were one-third less likely to regard external review of clinical decisions to control costs as a problem (13% v 36%), and less than one-half as likely to see limitations on drugs they could prescribe (18% v 43%), or to be concerned that their patients couldn’t afford necessary prescription drugs (17% v 48%). These of course are the typical hassles that make up the drudgery of a physician’s daily practice. The real concerns of Canadian physicians compared to Americans were, of course, limitations on specialist referrals (66% v 29%) and access to hospital care (64% v 8%) for their patients.

Then things get really interesting.  When asked, more directly if their actual patients often lacked access to newest drugs or medical technology only 26% of Canadian doctors said so–roughly the same as the 27% of Americans. And when asked if their patients get sicker because they are not able to get the health care they need, instead of the high numbers you might expect, only 12% of Canadian doctors said so, as opposed to 18% of Americans. So it appears that Canadian physicians think that by and large that Canadian patients do actually get the care they need, or if they don’t, it seems not to impact their health.

Then when asked about their satisfaction with their own practice 72% were very or somewhat satisfied compared to 68% of Americans.  And when you ask the classic three Harris questions about satisfaction with the system and the need for reform, Canadian docs are much less likely to want "complete rebuilding" (4% vs 12%), and similarly much more likely (25% vs 16%) to think that their system "works well." Here is the full physician chart set.

There’s no question that Canadian doctors are less happy than they were, but that’s more to do with the funding (and pay) cuts they saw over the previous decade (which were a symptom of the Canadian government getting its health care spending under control) than anything fundamentally wrong with the system.

The dissatisfied disappearing physician. But what about all those Canadian doctors fleeing the country? Well let’s first look at why they are fleeing. There are several Canadian researchers or specialists in the US taking advantage of bigger budgets for their research, or training in something Canada leaves to its bigger, richer neighbor. A 1994 survey of Canadian physicians living in the United States found that postgraduate training in the United States was associated with subsequent emigration–in other words they went there, they liked it and stayed or went back later. Other reasons for staying in the US included professional/clinical autonomy, availability of medical facilities and jobs, and remuneration, although this last factor was curiously considered equally important by Canada-based docs as a reason for staying behind. (They clearly hadn’t asked their émigré colleagues what they were making!)

Now we’re starting to get somewhere. Just as Canada takes advantage of America’s over abundance of facilities to buy high-tech services for its patients on the margin (usually before it later adopts them in its own facilities) it also does the same for doctors who want to work in highly-specialized cutting edge technology areas. As in many other industries, the opportunities to do the coolest stuff tend to be here in the States. For an example, look to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek debate between Robert Califf, a Duke cardiologist and a Canadian colleague David Naylor which asked if American cardiac care is better than Canadian care?

By now you know the answer. If as a patient or a cardiologist you make it to Duke (or another high-end American institution), you find quicker access to more expensive technologies.

    Califf noted  that Americans experienced "differences in mortality over time largely because of the difference in the rate of revascularization between the countries"  Conversely, "simply stated, for people with heart disease, the US offers greater access, better technology, and greater creativity in solving clinical problems," Califf said. "There’s no question when you look at the systems, the US has better access to cardiologists, better access to technology-not because as cardiologists you’re not smart enough to use it, you’re just not allowed to use it when you want to-and very rapid access to new technologies."

But then he admitted some more interesting nuggets

    "Yes, we cost more to the patient, and we have problems with prescription drugs, but in the category of respect for cardiovascular practitioners, there’s no question who gets more respect, and if you want to make more money, just move south"

His debating partner, Dr David Naylor responded that:

    Revascularization may provide a mortality advantage. From a broader population perspective, though, these differences are unlikely to change the fact that in overall survival after the age of 65, Canadians come out ahead of the US. "The US does of course come out ahead in what is spent," he added, roughly double that spent in Canada on care of the elderly.

In the last part of what was a pretty funny debate for a bunch of dry heart docs, Califf got rather serious and actually came over as a fan of the Canadian system but felt that it just needed more money:

    "I would submit that the US is going to have to become more like Canada in terms of its healthcare system, because there’s no other solution in sight, but I would also submit that if you don’t ratchet up your expenditures on healthcare with the demographic that you and we share, you’re going to be facing an even more explosive situation than you currently have."

However part of what he said in jest is true. It is logical for Canadian doctors who need no additional qualifications to work in the US to go south for another reason.  It pays better; much better!  Canadian physician incomes averaged about C$135,000, and even surgical specialists get only about C$180,000. In the US specialists in groups averaged somewhere between $150,000 and $350,000, primary care around $150,000–and don’t forget that Canadian dollars are worth 1/3 less than their American namesakes! In fact this chart of international physician incomes shows that virtually any doctor would be better off moving to the US. (Actually FYI Japanese doctors make more than Americans).  So when Medpundit says that Canadian doctors are coming here in droves, you can’t exactly blame them.  Only one little thing is a bit strange; they are not!

The brave folks from UBC led again by my old colleagues Morris Barer and Bob Evans, as reported in this issue brief called The myth of Canadian physician emigration, show that although roughly 500 doctors a year are leaving to the US, somewhere between 250 and 300 were coming back the other way, and that the deficit was more than made up of other doctors immigrating to Canada–mostly Brits who thought that Canadian pay scales were pretty good compared to what they got at home! Even at its greatest extent Canada was losing 1.4% gross of its physicians and more than making it up through returning Canadians and importing foreigners.  And even though Canada has fewer docs per head than the US (2.1 per 1,000 v 2.6) it has more than the UK or Japan (1.7 & 1.6) so these numbers are not significant either as a share of all doctors or proportionally to the population. It is worth pointing out that the other 99% of Canadian doctors didn’t believe that doubling their salary was enough to compensate for the associated unpleasantness of having to move to the US!

Conclusion: There are No Easy Answers

My primary objective in writing this piece is not to deride the good work done by those on all sides of this issue.  Instead it’s to show that while looking at international comparisons is valuable, it’s not OK to look on the surface and ignore the many complexities underneath that surface. Worse it’s totally dishonest to take "facts" out of context or tell blatant lies–but there’s no tax on lying.

Health systems everywhere are under financial strain–always have been and always will be. Canada certainly limits access to high technology and specialists by limiting investment in them upstream. The US does not, but citizens living in Canada are very unlikely to run into severe financial trouble because of their health–not so here.  Meanwhile, poorer Canadians have a roughly comparable experience with their medical system as do other Canadians.  Poor Americans certainly do not enjoy the benefits of their system as much as their richer compatriots. You might also have a sneaking suspicion that as their health system is more popular with Canadians than with their doctors (while the opposite is true in the US) perhaps the Canadian system is actually run in favor of the consumers rather than the producers of health care!

There are certainly cultural differences between Americans and Canadians, as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling For Columbine. But there are also structural ones that are creations of policy. We are heading into a period of policy discussion again, and inevitably the Canadian system will come up in the conversation. It would be nice if that conversation was based somewhat in reality.