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Category: Health Policy

What Scares Healthcare Like EVs Scare Detroit

By KMI BELLARD

I’m thinking about electric vehicles (EVs)…and healthcare.

Now, mind you, I don’t own an EV. I’m not seriously thinking about getting one (although if I’m still driving in the 2030’s I expect it will be in one). To be honest, I’m not really all that interested in EVs. But I am interested in disruption, so when Robinson Meyer warned in The New York Times “China’s Electric Vehicles Are Going to Hit Detroit Like a Wrecking Ball,” he had my attention. And when on the same day I also read that Apple was cancelling its decade-long effort to build an EV, I was definitely paying attention.

Remember when 3 years ago GM’s CEO Mary Barra announced GM was planning for an “all electric future” by 2035, completely phasing out internal combustion engines? Remember how excited we were when the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022 with lots of credits and incentives for EVs? EVs sure seemed like our future.

Well, as Sam Becker wrote for the BBC: “Depending on how you look at it, the state of the US EV market is flourishing – or it’s stuck in neutral.” Ford, for example, had a great February, with huge increases in its EV and hybrid sales, but 90% of its sales remain conventional vehicles. Worse, it recently had to stop shipments of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck due to quality concerns. Frankly, EV is a money pit for Ford, costing it $4.7b last year – over $64,000 for every EV it sells.

GM also loses money on every EV it makes, although it hopes to make modest profits on them by 2025.  Ms. Barra is still hoping GM will be all electric by 2035, but now hedges: “We will adjust based on where customer demand is. We will be led by the customer.”

In more bad news for EVs, Rivian has had more layoffs due to slow sales, and Fisker announced it is stopping work on EVs for now. Tesla, on the other hand, claims a 38% increase in deliveries for 2023, but more recently its stock has been hit by a decline in sales in China. It shouldn’t be surprising.

As Mr. Meyer points out:

The biggest threat to the Big Three comes from a new crop of Chinese automakers, especially BYD, which specialize in producing plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles. BYD’s growth is astounding: It sold three million electrified vehicles last year, more than any other company, and it now has enough production capacity in China to manufacture four million cars a year…A deluge of electric vehicles is coming.

He’s blunt about the threat BYD poses: “BYD’s cars deliver great value at prices that beat anything coming out of the West.”

The Biden Administration is not just sitting idly.

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Fee-For-Service: Predominant, Winning & Stupid

By MATTHEW HOLT

In recent days and weeks, there have been three stories that have really brought home to me the inanity of how we run our health care system. Spoiler alert, they have the commonality that they all are made problematic by payment per individual transaction—better known as fee-for-service.

First, several health insurers who sold their reputation to Wall Street as being wizards at understanding how doctors and patients behave had the curtain pulled back to reveal the man pulling the levers was missing a dashboard or dial or three. It happened to United, Humana and more, but I’ll focus on Agilon because of this lovely quote:

“During 2023, agilon health experienced an increase in medical expenses attributable to higher-than-expected specialist visits, Part B drugs, outpatient surgeries, and supplemental benefits, partially offset by lower hospital medical admissions. While a number of programs have been launched to improve visibility, balance risk-sharing and enhance predictability of results, management has assumed higher costs will continue into 2024,” the company said in a statement

Translation: we pay our providers after the fact on a per transaction basis and we have no real idea what the patients we cover are going to get. You may have thought that these sharp as tacks Medicare Advantage plans had pushed all the risk of increased utilization down to their provider groups, but as I’ve be saying for a long time, even the most advanced only have about 30% of their lives in capitation or full risk groups, and the rest of the time they are whistling it in. They don’t really know much about what is happening out in fee-for-service land. Yet it is what they have decided to deal with.

The second story is a particularly unpleasant tale of provider greed and bad behavior, which I was alerted to by the wonderful sleuthing of former New Jersey state assistant director of heath benefits Chris Deacon, who is one of the best follows there is on Linkedin.

The bad actor is quasi-state owned UCHealth, a big Colorado “non-profit” health system. They have managed to hide their 990s very well so it’s a little hard to decipher how much money they have or how many of their employees make millions a year, but it made an operating profit last year of $350m, it has $5 BILLION in its hedge fund, and its CEO (I think) made $8m. It hasn’t filed a 990 for years as far as I can tell. Which is probably illegal. The only one on Propublica is from a teeny subsidiary with $5m in revenue.

So what have they been doing? Some excellent reporting from John Ingold and Chris Vanderveen at the Colorado Sun revealed that UC has been getting collection agencies to sue patients who owe them trivial amounts of money, and hiding the fact that UC is the actor behind the suit. So they are transparent on how much very poor people allegedly owe them, and come after them very aggressively, but not too transparent on how their “charity care” works. The tales here are awful. Little old ladies being forced to sell their engagement rings, and uninsured immigrants being taken to the ER against their will and given a total runaround on costs until they end up in court. Plenty more stories like it in a Reddit group reacting to the article.

What’s the end story here? UC Health gets a measly $5m (or a share of it) a year from all these lawsuits which is less than the CEO makes (according to a Reddit group—with no 990 it’s a little hard to tell).

Yes, all these patients are being billed or misbilled for individual procedures and visits. It makes people terrified of going to the doctor or hospital, and no rational health services researcher thinks that charging people a fee to use health care encourages appropriate use of care. Last month Jeff Goldsmith had an excellent article on THCB explaining why not.

Of course it goes without saying that if these patients were covered by some kind of a capitation, subscription or annual payment none of this cruelty or waste motion would be happening.

The final example is still going on.

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Are AI Clinical Protocols A Dobb-ist Trojan Horse?

By MIKE MAGEE

For most loyalist Americans at the turn of the 19th century, Justice John Marshall Harlan’s decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). was a “slam dunk.” In it, he elected to force a reluctant Methodist minister in Massachusetts to undergo Smallpox vaccination during a regional epidemic or pay a fine.

Justice Harlan wrote at the time: “Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

What could possibly go wrong here? Of course, citizens had not fully considered the “unintended consequences,” let alone the presence of President Wilson and others focused on “strengthening the American stock.”

This involved a two-prong attack on “the enemy without” and “the enemy within.”

The The Immigration Act of 1924, signed by President Calvin Coolidge, was the culmination of an attack on “the enemy without.” Quotas for immigration were set according to the 1890 Census which had the effect of advantaging the selective influx of Anglo-Saxons over Eastern Europeans and Italians. Asians (except Japanese and Filipinos) were banned.

As for “the enemy within,” rooters for the cause of weeding out “undesirable human traits” from the American populace had the firm support of premier academics from almost every elite university across the nation. This came in the form of new departments focused on advancing the “Eugenics Movement,” an excessively discriminatory, quasi-academic approach based on the work of Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin.

Isolationists and Segregationists picked up the thread and ran with it focused on vulnerable members of the community labeled as paupers, mentally disabled, dwarfs, promiscuous or criminal.

In a strategy eerily reminiscent of that employed by Mississippi Pro-Life advocates in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2021, Dr. Albert Priddy, activist director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, teamed up with radical Virginia state senator Aubrey Strode to hand pick and literally make a “federal case” out of a young institutionalized teen resident named Carrie Buck.

Their goal was to force the nation’s highest courts to sanction state sponsored mandated sterilization.

In a strange twist of fate, the Dobbs name was central to this case as well.

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We Freeze People, Don’t We?

By KIM BELLARD

Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversial Alabama Supreme Court ruling about in-vitro fertilization (IVF), in which the court declared that frozen embryos were people. The court stated that it has long held that “unborn children are ‘children,’” with Chief Justice Tom Parker – more on him later – opining in a concurring opinion:

Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself. Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.

Seriously.

Many people have already weighed in on this decision and its implications, but I couldn’t resist taking some pleasure in seeing “pro-life” advocates tying themselves in knots trying to explain why, when they legislated that life begins at conception, they didn’t mean this kind of conception and that kind of life.

John Oliver was typically on point, noting that the Alabama ruling was “wrong for a whole bunch of reasons. Mainly, if you freeze an embryo it’s fine. If you freeze a person, you have some explaining to do.”

The case in question wasn’t specifically about IVF, nor did the ruling explicitly outlaw it. It was a case about a patient who removed stored embryos and accidentally dropped them, and the couples whose embryos were destroyed wanted to hold that patient liable under the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. The court said they could. Note, though, that neither the patient nor the clinic was being charged with murder or manslaughter…yet.

Although the Alabama Attorney General has already indicated he won’t prosecute IVF patients or clinicians, the ruling has had a chilling effect on fertility clinics in the states, with The University of Alabama at Birmingham health system and others indicating they were putting a pause on IVF treatments.

Justice Parker has long been known as something of a theocrat; as The New York Times wrote:

Since he was first elected to the nine-member court in 2004, and in his legal career before it, he has shown no reticence about expressing how his Christian beliefs have profoundly shaped his understanding of the law and his approach to it as a lawyer and judge.

His concurring opinion claimed: the state constitution had adopted a “theologically-based view of the sanctity of life.” Alabama is not alone. Kelly Baden, the vice president for public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, told BBC: “We do see that many elected officials and judges alike are often coming at this debate from a highly religious lens.”

Speaker Johnson has said:

The separation of church and state is a misnomer. People misunderstand it. Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that Jefferson wrote. It’s not in the Constitution. And what he was explaining is they did not want the government to encroach upon the church — not that they didn’t want principles of faith to have influence on our public life. It’s exactly the opposite.

And here we are.

Many Republicans are backtracking on the ruling.

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Putting the ‘value’ in value-based payments

By JOSH SEIDMAN

Like Matthew Holt, I have also been ranting about the fact that “We’re spending way too much money on stuff that is the wrong thing.” As Matthew said, “it’s a rant, but a rant with a point!” And that’s a lot better than most rants these days. In addition to having a point, I’m also bringing a lot of data to my rant.

More specifically, we’ve known for a long time that clinical care only drives 20% (maybe less) of health outcomes, yet we continue to spend more and more on it.

We do that despite the well-documented fact that the U.S. performs worse than most OECD countries despite spending far more. I remember, in my first health care job in 1990, being blown away that the U.S. spent $719 billion on health care (or $1.395 trillion in 2022 dollars). Here we are, trillions of dollars later ($4.465 trillion) doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

After more than 30 years in health CARE, I decided that I really wanted to start doing something about HEALTH, which is why 3 years ago I joined Fountain House, the founder of the clubhouse movement, a psychosocial rehabilitation model for people with serious mental illness (SMI)—a model now replicated by 200 U.S. clubhouses and another 100+ in more than 30 countries around the world. It was actually people living with SMI that launched Fountain House in 1948, realizing long ago that addressing social drivers of health offered a new road to recovery and rehabilitation. Now 75 years later, we’re finally seeing some parts of the health care system come to terms with the necessity of addressing health-related social needs.

With decades of evidence behind us, Fountain House has spent the last year and a half building an economic model to understand clubhouses’ societal economic impact when one takes into account a wide range of costs—mental health, physical health, disability, criminal justice, and productivity or lost wages.

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So what can we do about health care costs?

By MATTHEW HOLT

Last week Jeff Goldsmith wrote a great article in part explaining why health care costs in the US went up so much between 1965 and 2010. He also pointed out that health care has been the same portion of GDP for more than a decade (although we haven’t had a major recession in that time other than the Covid 2020 blip when it went up to 19%). However, it’s worth remembering that we are spending 17.3% of GDP while the other main OECD countries are spending 11-12%. Now it’s true that the US has lots of social problems that show up in heath spending and also that those other countries probably spend more on social services, but it’s also clear that we don’t actually deliver a lot more in services. In fact probably the most famous health economics paper of the last 50 years was Anderson & Rienhardt’s “It’s the Prices, Stupid”, which shows we just pay more for the same things. Anyone who’s looked at the price of Ozempic in the US versus in Denmark knows that’s true.

But suspend disbelief and say we actually wanted to do something about health care costs, what would we do?

There are 4 ways to cut health care costs

  1. Cut prices
  2. Cut overall use of services
  3. Reduce only unnecessary services
  4. Replace higher priced services with lower priced ones

Number 3 or reducing only unnecessary services is the health policy wonks dream.

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Why Not, Indeed?

By KIM BELLARD

Recently in The Washington Post, author Daniel Pink initiated a series of columns he and WaPo are calling “Why Not?” He believes “American imagination needs an imagination shot.” As he describes the plan for the columns: “In each installment, I’ll offer a single idea — bold, surprising, maybe a bit jarring — for improving our country, our organizations or our lives.”

I love it. I’m all in. I’m a “why not?” guy from way back, particularly when it comes to health care.

Mr. Pink describes three core values (in the interest of space, I’m excerpting his descriptions):

  • Curiosity over certainty. The world is uncertain. Curiosity and intellectual humility are the most effective solvents for unsticking society’s gears.
  • Openness over cynicism: Cynicism is easy but hollow; openness is difficult but rich.
  • Conversation over conversion: The ultimate dream? That you’ll read what I’ve written and say, “Wait, I’ve got an even better idea,” and then share it.

Again, kudos. One might even say “move fast and break things,” but the bloom has come off that particular rose, so one might just say “take chances” or “think different.” Maybe even “dream big.”


Around the same time I saw Mr. Pink’s column I happened to be reading Adam Nagourney’s The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism. In the early 1990’s The Times (and the rest of the world) was struggling to figure out if and how the Internet was going to change things. Mr., Nagourney reports how publisher Arthur Sulzberger (Jr) realized the impact would be profound:

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that ink on wood delivered by trucks is a time consuming and expensive process.

I.e., contrary to what many people at The Times, and many of its readers, thought at the time, the newspaper wasn’t the physical object they were used to; it was the information it delivers. That may seem obvious now but was not at all then.  

Which brings me to health care. Contrary to what many people working in healthcare, and many people getting care from it, might think, healthcare is not doctors, hospitals, prescriptions, and insurance companies. Those are simply the ink on wood delivered by trucks that we’re used to, to use the metaphor.

And it doesn’t take a rocket science to recognize that what we call health care today is a time consuming and expensive process – not to mention often frustrating and ineffective.

Why not do better?

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Supporting innovations in cancer treatment and prevention for our nation’s most vulnerable

By KAT MCDAVITT and LESLIE KIRK

Innsena has made a $100,000 contribution to CancerX, making Innsena the public-private partnership’s first Impact Supporter.

Why? There are few conditions in which the disparity in innovations benefiting underserved communities is more apparent than in the treatment and prevention of cancer.

Patients without insurance are more likely to present with more advanced cancers, and the cancer death rate for people of color is significantly higher than for white patients. More people die from cancer in rural communities than in urban settings. 

In CancerX, we found a community of partners taking on hard problems to equitably deploy innovative solutions that can reduce the risk of, and cure cancer for all patients. Even—and especially—when financial incentives do not otherwise exist for the private sector to solve those problems.  

Innsena is committed to improving equitable access, treatment and outcomes for the most vulnerable among us. We focus on supporting improved outcomes for Medicaid members and underserved communities. The disparity caused by the absence of incentives and funding for innovators to enter the Medicaid market can’t be overstated. 

But innovators, and the investors who fund these pioneers, are exactly what our industry needs to change health outcomes in underserved communities. 

We decided that, if the incentives to innovate in cancer care for vulnerable populations don’t exist, then we would create them. Our financial commitment to CancerX is a step forward that we hope will start a broader movement. 

Our team’s $100,000 contribution will help the team at CancerX to accelerate programs underway—including its effort to improve equity and reduce financial toxicity in cancer care and research—and to more rapidly launch new initiatives. 

We’re particularly proud to support the public-private partnership’s efforts to improve equity and reduce financial toxicity. Cancer deaths are inequitably distributed across the United States—and those patients who do survive are 2.5 times more likely to declare bankruptcy than those without disease. 

Likewise, a key component of CancerX is a start-up accelerator for companies bringing more digital solutions for the treatment and prevention of cancer, with special attention given to organizations that focus on disadvantaged populations. We’re honored to support the start-ups selected for the first CancerX accelerator cohort with both mentorship and financial support. 

And to that end, as individuals, we’ve gone one step further to support start-ups focused on preventing and curing cancer for vulnerable patients. We’ve also partnered with Ben Freeberg and his team at Oncology Ventures to ensure that digital health start-ups innovating for all patients in the oncology space have funding available to advance their causes. 

Innsena is joining more than 150 organizations already working together to make a difference for all patients in the prevention and treatment of cancer. CancerX is co-hosted by the Moffitt Cancer Center and Digital Medicine Society, alongside the US Department of Health and Human Services Office for the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health

We need more innovators working to improve care for the underserved. Join us in supporting CancerX. As a community we’ll make a difference. 

Kat McDavitt is President and founding partner of Innsena. Leslie Kirk is CEO and managing partner of Innsena.

Who to Blame for Health Costs: The Poisoned Chalice of “Moral Hazard”

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

How the Search for Perfect Markets has Damaged Health Policy

Sometimes ideas in healthcare are so powerful that they haunt us for generations even though their link to the real world we all live in is tenuous. The idea of “moral hazard” is one of these ideas. In 1963, future Nobel Laureate economist Kenneth Arrow wrote an influential essay about the applicability of market principles to medicine entitled “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care”.    

One problem Arrow mentioned in this essay was “moral hazard”- the enhancement of demand for something people use to buy for themselves that is financed through third party insurance. Arrow described two varieties of moral hazard: the patient version, where insurance lowers the final cost and inhibitions, raising the demand for a product, and the physician version–what happens when insurance pays for something the physician controls by virtue of a steep asymmetry of knowledge between them and the patient and more care is provided than actually needed. The physician-patient relationship is “ground zero” in the health system.

Moral hazard was only one of several factors Arrow felt would made it difficult to apply rational economic principles to medicine. The highly variable and uniquely threatening character of illness was a more important factor, as was the limited scope of market forces, because government provision of care for large numbers of poor folk was required.  

One key to the durability of Arrow’s thesis was timing: it was published just two years before the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, which dramatically expanded the government’s role in financing healthcare for the elderly and the categorically needy. In 1960, US health spending was just 5% of GDP, and a remarkable 48% of health spending was out of pocket by individual patients. 

After 1966, when the laws were enacted, health spending took off like the proverbial scalded dog. For the next seven years, Medicare spending rose nearly 29% per year and explosive growth in health spending rose to the top of the federal policy stack. By 2003, health spending had reached 15% of GDP! Arrow’s  moral hazard thesis quickly morphed into a “blame the patient” narrative that became a central tenet of an emerging field of health economics, as well as in the conservative critique of the US health cost problem.  

Fuel was added to the fire by Joseph Newhouse’s RAND Health Insurance Experiment in the 1980s,  which found that patients that bore a significant portion of the cost of care used less care and were apparently no sicker at the end of the eight-year study period. An important and widely ignored coda to the RAND study was that patients with higher cost shares were incapable of distinguishing between useful and useless medical care, and thus stinted on life-saving medications that diminished their longer term health prospects. A substantial body of consumer research has since demonstrated that patients are in fact terrible at making “rational” economic choices regarding their health benefits. 

The RAND study provided justification for ending so-called first dollar health  coverage and, later, high-deductible health plans. Today more than half of all Americans have high deductible health coverage. Not surprisingly, half of all Americans also report foregoing care because they do not have the money to pay their share of the cost!   

However, a different moral hazard narrative took hold in liberal/progressive circles, which blamed the physician, rather than the patient, for the health cost crisis.  

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Medicare Is Now Profitable as a Total Program Because of Medicare Advantage

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Medicare made $83.4 billion very real dollars in 2022. The 17% discounts below the average cost of fee-for-service Medicare, that happen in every county for Medicare Advantage, have been very real and extremely successful in paying for Medicare coverage — in a way that now makes the program a profit center for the US Government.

You can see the actual financial report page from the 2023 Medicare trustee report below. It shows that the Medicare trust fund grew in 2022 for the first time in decades. More than half of the Medicare members are now enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. Those members cost significantly less than their equivalent fee-for-service Medicare patients.

These are the actual numbers from the trustee report.

The Medicare trustee report says that the total Medicare program grows per member by 6.7% every year. They project in that report that they expect that rate of increase to be consistent over the next decade. The enrollees in the Medicare Part A and Part B programs have expenses that increase slightly above that number every year. That’s been true for a couple of decades.

Medicare loses money on every Part A and Part B member when expenses for those programs are higher than the 6.7% average.

Medicare Advantage costs for Medicare Part C are increasing at a lower rate than that number. That means that Medicare makes money and creates a surplus with the Medicare Advantage patients.

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