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You Lose a Child, You Lose Your Job

By LEO LOPEZ III, MD

I’m a physician, born in McAllen, Texas. In June 2018, I returned home to demand that immigrant children who had been torn from their families as a result of the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy, be safely and immediately reunited. I demonstrated at a federal detention center in McAllen at the Free the Children Protest. I marched alongside other concerned citizens, and we confronted a bus carrying the children.

With my palms pressed against the bus, I demanded that the government free them. I could not have imagined that just a few months later, I’d demand that the government find them. 

Back then, the Office and Refugee and Resettlement had just certified that over 2,600 children had been separated from their families. 

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services recently released an updated account. They actually weren’t sure how many children were separated. Turns out they didn’t count them. According to the report, HHS doesn’t know exactly if, when, or how they’ll find the lost children.

I grew up right there, along the south-Texas border, and I know that cattle are better accounted for than these infants and children.

So whose fault is it? In my opinion, the blame falls on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, both of whom are ultimately responsible for executing the President’s policy agenda through their respective departments. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) systematically separated families. The Department of Health and Human Services failed to identify the children who were separated. 

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“Public Charge” is a Public Health Disaster in the Making

By PHUOC LE MD 

I was born in a rural village outside of Hue, Vietnam in 1976, a year after Saigon fell and the war ended. My family of four struggled to survive in the post-war shambles, and in 1981, my mother had no choice but to flee Vietnam by boat with my older sister and myself. Through the support of the refugee resettlement program, we began our lives in the United States in 1982, wearing all of our belongings on our backs and not knowing a word of English.

Though we struggled for years to make ends meet, we sustained ourselves through public benefit programs: food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, and cash aid. These programs were lifelines that enabled me to focus on my education, and they allowed me to be the physician and public health expert that I am today. Looking back, I firmly believe that the more we invest in the lives and livelihoods of immigrants, the more we invest in the United States, its ideals, and its future.

So, when I first learned of the current administration’s plan to make it harder for immigrants with lower socioeconomic statuses to gain permanent U.S. residence, the so-called changes to the “Public Charge” rule, I felt outraged and baffled by its short-sightedness.
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Failing Healthcare’s ‘Free Market’ Experiment in US: Single Payer to the Rescue?

By KHURRAM NASIR MD, MPH, MSc 

In the industrialized world and especially in United States, health care expenditures per capita has has significantly outgrown per capita income in the last few decades. The projected national expenditures growth at 6.2%/year from 2015 onwards with an estimated in 20% of entire national spending in 2022 on healthcare, has resulted in passionate deliberation on the enormous consequences in US political and policy circles. In US, the ongoing public healthcare reform discussions have gained traction especially with the recent efforts by the Senate to repeal national government intervention with Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In this never ending debate the role of government interventions has been vehemently opposed by conservative stakeholders who strongly favor the neoclassical economic tradition of allowing “invisible hands” of the free market without minimal (or any) government regulations to achieve the desired economic efficiency (Pareto optimality).

A central tenet of this argument is that perfect competition will weed out inefficiency by permitting only competent producers to survive in the market as well as benefit consumer to gain more “value for their money” through lower prices and wider choices.

Restrained by limited societal resources, in US to make our health market ‘efficient’ we need to aim for enhancing production of health services provision at optimal per unit cost that can match consumers maximum utility (satisfaction) given income/budget restraints.

Keeping asides the discussion on whether a competitive market solution for healthcare is even desirable as adversely impact the policy objective of ‘equity”, however from a pure ‘efficiency’ perspective it is worthwhile to focus on the core issue whether conditions in healthcare market align with the prototypical, traditional competitive model for efficient allocation of resources.

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A Bizarre Claim of Right to Try

By ARTHUR CAPLAN, KELLY MCBRIDE FOLKERS, and ANDREW MCFADYEN DONALD TRUMP, RIGHT TO TRY

A patient with glioblastoma recently received an experimental cancer vaccine at the University of California, Irvine. Notably, this is being hailed as the first case of someone utilizing the Right to Try Act of 2017. ERC-USA, a U.S. subsidiary of the Brussels-based pharmaceutical company Epitopoietic Research Corporation, says it provided its product, Gliovac, to the patient at no cost. The vaccine is currently undergoing Phase II clinical trials. A handful of people in Europe have received access to it through “compassionate use.” This patient did not qualify for ongoing clinical trials in the U.S. The patient, who remains anonymous, is the first known individual to receive an experimental medicine that has not been approved by the FDA, as permitted under the federal right to try law.

Glioblastoma is a nasty cancer – John McCain and Ted Kennedy passed away after battling the disease for just over a year. We believe that patients with terminal illnesses, like those with glioblastoma, should have every reasonable tool at their disposal to treat their disease.

That being said, we’ve argued before that right to try laws are not the best way to help desperate patients. They still aren’t. The number of cases claimed to date is exactly one. And, further examination of what we know about this case does not make a strong argument for the widespread usage of the right to try pathway.

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New Study: Medicare’s Readmission Penalties May Be Killing Patients

By KIP SULLIVAN JD Kip Sullivan

On the morning of December 21, I opened my copy of the New York Times to find an op-ed that said almost exactly what I had said in a two-part article The Health Care Blog posted two weeks earlier. The op-ed criticized the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of dozens of “value-based payment” programs imposed on the Medicare fee-for-service program by the Affordable Care Act. The HRRP punishes hospitals if their rate of readmissions within 30 days following discharge exceeds the national average. The subtitle of the op-ed was, “A well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

The first half of the op-ed made three points: (1) The HRRP appears to have reduced readmissions by raising the rate of observation stays and visits to emergency rooms;  (2) the penalties imposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for “excessive readmissions” have fallen disproportionately on “safety net hospitals with limited resources”; and (3) “there is growing evidence that … death rates may be rising.”

That’s exactly what I said in articles published here on December 6 and December 7. In Part I, I described the cavalier manner in which the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) endorsed the HRRP in its June 2007 report to Congress. In Part II, I criticized the methodology MedPAC used to defend the HRRP in its June 2018 report to Congress, and I compared that report to an excellent study of the HRRP published in JAMA Cardiology by Ankur Gupta et al. which suggested the HRRP is raising mortality rates. In its June 2018 report, MedPAC had claimed the HRRP has reduced the rate at which patients targeted by the HRRP were readmitted within 30 days after discharge without increasing mortality. Gupta et al., on the other hand, found that for one group of targeted patients – those with congestive heart failure (CHF) – mortality went up as 30-day readmissions went down.

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What Does Congressional Gridlock Mean for the Rest of the Country?

By AMY LONG and JOE MOLLOY Joe Molloy, health policy, Congressional gridlock

Often, a Congressional gridlock is essentially good. This is because the executive arm of government is forced to consider a bipartisan approach to issues if it’s to secure the approval of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The outcome of the midterm elections indicates that the Republicans have managed to retain their control of the Senate, while Democrats have secured control of the House of Representatives.

Health a Central Issue During the Midterms

According to a survey by Health Research Incorporated, the three top issues of concern during the midterm elections were health, followed by Social Security and Medicare, with 59% of the respondents irrespective of age, race or geography citing health as the most significant.

Among Trump’s electoral promises was a complete repeal and replacement of Obamacare under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a policy that was apparently less expensive and more effective. On his first day of office, Trump signed an executive order instructing federal agencies “to take all reasonable measures that minimize the economic burden of the law, including actions to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the Act.”

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Win, Lose, or Draw: Not all ACA Enrollees Gain from Increased Competition

By KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD PhD 

The 2019 ACA plan year is notable for the increase in insurer participation in the marketplace. Expansion and entry have been substantial, and the percent of counties with one insurer has declined from more than 50 percent to approximately 35 percent. While urban areas in rural states have received much of the new participation, entire rural states have gained, along with more metropolitan urban areas.

Economic theory and common sense lead most to believe that increased competition is unquestionably good for consumers. Yet in the paradoxical world of the subsidized ACA marketplace, things are not so simple. In some markets, increased competition may result in a reduction in the purchasing power of subsidized consumers by narrowing the gap between the benchmark premium and plans that are cheaper than the benchmark. Even though the overall level of premiums may decline, potential losses to subsidized consumers in some markets will outweigh gains to the unsubsidized, suggesting that at the county level, the losers stand to lose more than the winners will win.

One way to illustrate this is to hypothetically subject 2018 marketplace enrollees to 2019 premiums in counties where new carriers have entered the market. Assuming that enrollees stay in the same metal plan in both 2018 and 2019, and that they continue to buy the cheapest plan in their metal, we can calculate how much their spending would change by income group.

Under these assumptions, in about one quarter of the counties with federally facilitated marketplaces (FFM) that received a new carrier in 2019, both subsidized and unsubsidized enrollees would be better off in 2019, meaning that they could spend less money and stay in the same metal level. In about thirty percent of these counties, all enrollees are worse off. In almost all of the rest, about forty percent, there are winners and losers, but in the aggregate, the subsidized lose more than the unsubsidized win. Overall, in about 70 percent of FFM counties with a new carrier, subsidized enrollees will lose purchasing power, while in about 66 percent of these counties, unsubsidized customers will see premium reductions. In population terms, about two-thirds of subsidized enrollees in counties with a new carrier will find plans to be less affordable, while a little more than half of unsubsidized enrollees will see lower premiums.

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Medicaid Expansion is Evidence the Health Policy Debate Defies Political Divides

By AMY LONG and JOE MOLLOY Joe Molloy talking about health policy debate

Among all the talk of waves and tides of the close midterm races around the country, there were tremendous results on election day for Medicaid expansion. Three states – Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah – passed ballot initiatives approving the policy.

On top of that, in Kansas and Maine, governors who had vetoed the policy in the past were replaced with candidates promising to enact it.

This was obviously great news for supporters of Medicaid expansion with the total number of expansion states firmly at 36.

What were the issues?

In Idaho, the Expansion ballot initiative was designed to provide insurance covers for individuals under the age of sixty-five and whose income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and who are not eligible for any other state insurance cover.

Among the proponents of Medicaid in Idaho was State representative Christy Perry a Republican and staunch Trump supporter. She had over the years attempted to push for the expansion through the state legislature but faced resistance from statehouse leaders.

The scenario in Idaho applies to Utah and Nebraska, with the ballot initiative being necessitated by the strong opposition from the majority of Republicans and statehouse leaders. In Utah, opponents of the Expansion argued that the initiative would bankrupt the state treasury. In Nebraska caution was given against reliance on federal government financing for state programs noting that often the national government scale back or neglect supporting state programs without proper transitional mechanisms.

However, it was difficult to debate against the fact that Medicaid would free up resources invested by the state governments in local insurance programs and that the federal government is legally obliged to pay 90% of the cost of the policy.

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Part II | MedPAC’s Proposed “Reforms” Should Be Tested Before They’re Implemented: CMS’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program Is Exhibit A

By KIP SULLIVAN JD Kip Sullivan, MedPAC, HRRP, hospital readmissions

The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of numerous pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes authorized by the Affordable Care Act, was sprung on the Medicare fee-for-service population on October 1, 2012 without being pre-tested and with no other evidence indicating what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions. Research on the impact of the HRRP conducted since 2012 is limited even at this late date [1], but the research suggests the HRRP has harmed patients, especially those with congestive heart failure (CHF) (CHF, heart attack, and pneumonia were the first three conditions covered by the HRRP). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) disagrees. MedPAC would have us believe the HRRP has done what MedPAC hoped it would do when they recommended it in their June 2007 report to Congress (see discussion of that report in Part I of this two-part series). In Chapter 1 of their June 2018 report to Congress, MedPAC claimed the HRRP has reduced 30-day readmissions of targeted patients without raising the mortality rate.

MedPAC is almost certainly wrong about that. What is indisputable is that MedPAC’s defense of the HRRP in that report was inexcusably sloppy and, therefore, not credible. To illustrate what is wrong with the MedPAC study, I will compare it with an excellent study published by Ankur Gupta et al. in JAMA Cardiology in November 2017. Like MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported that 30-day CHF readmission rates dropped after the HRRP went into effect. Unlike MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported an increase in mortality rates among CHF patients. [2]

We will see that the study by Gupta et al. is more credible than MedPAC’s for several reasons, the most important of which are: (1) Gupta et al. separated in-patient from post-discharge mortality, while MedPAC collapsed those two measures into one, thus disguising any increase in mortality during the 30 days after discharge; (2) Gupta et al.’s method of controlling for differences in patient health was superior to MedPAC’s because they used medical records data plus claims data, while MedPAC used only claims data.

I will discuss as well research demonstrating that readmission rates have not fallen when the increase in observation stays and readmissions following observations stays are taken into account, and that some hospitals are more willing to substitute observation stays for admissions than others and thereby escape the HRRP penalties.

All this research taken together indicates the HRRP has given CHF patients the worst of all worlds: No reduction in readmissions but an increase in mortality, and possibly higher out-of-pocket costs for those who should have been admitted but were assigned to observation status instead.

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MedPAC’s Proposed “Reforms” Should Be Tested Before They’re Implemented: CMS’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program Is Exhibit A

By KIP SULLIVAN JD Kip Sullivan about MedPAC’s Proposed Reforms

Egged on by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Congress has imposed multiple pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes on the fee-for-service Medicare program. MedPAC recommended most of these schemes between 2003 and 2008, and Congress subsequently imposed them on Medicare, primarily via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015.

MedPAC’s five-year P4P binge began with the endorsement of the general concept of P4P at all levels – hospital, clinic, and individual physician – in a series of reports to Congress in 2003, 2004, and 2005. This was followed by endorsements of vaguely described iterations of P4P, notably the “accountable care organization” in 2006 [1], punishment of hospitals for “excess” readmissions in 2007 [2], the “medical home” in 2008 and the “bundled payment” in 2008. None of these proposals were backed up by anything resembling evidence.

Congress endorsed all these schemes without asking for evidence or further details. Congress dealt with the vagueness of, and lack of evidence supporting, MedPAC’s proposals simply by ordering CMS to figure out how to make them work. CMS staff added a few more details to these proposals in the regulations they drafted, but the details were petty and arbitrarily adopted (how many primary doctors had to be in an ACO, how many patients had to sit on the advisory committee of a “patient-centered medical home,” how many days had to expire between a discharge and an admission to constitute a “readmission,” etc.).

New rule, new culture

This process – invention of nebulous P4P schemes by MedPAC, unquestioning endorsement by Congress, and clumsy implementation by CMS – is not working. Every one of the proposals listed above has failed to cut costs (with the possible exception of bundled payments for hip and knee replacements) and may be doing more harm than good to patients. These proposals are failing for an obvious reason – MedPAC and Congress subscribe to the belief that health policies do not need to be tested for effectiveness and safety before they are implemented. In their view, mere opinion suffices.

This has to stop. In this two-part essay I argue for a new rule:  MedPAC shall not propose, and Congress shall not authorize, any program that has not been shown by rigorously conducted experiments to be effective at lowering cost without harming patients, improving quality, or both. This will require a culture change at MedPAC. Since its formation in 1997, MedPAC has taken the attitude that it does not have to provide any evidence for its proposals, and it does not have think through its proposals in enough detail to be tested. Over the last two decades MedPAC has demonstrated repeatedly that it believes merely opining about a poorly described solution is sufficient to discharge its obligation to Congress, taxpayers, and Medicare enrollees.
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