There are 80,000 new cases of primary brain tumors diagnosed every year in the United States. About 26,000 of these cases are of the malignant variety – and John McCain unfortunately joined their ranks last week. In cancer, fate is defined by cell type, and the adage is of particular relevance here.
Cancer is akin to a mutiny arising within the body, formed of regular every day cells that have forgotten the purpose they were born with. In the case of brain tumors, the mutinous cell frequently happens to not be the brain cell, but rather the lowly astrocyte that normally forms a matrix of support for brain cells. Tumors made up of astrocytes are called astrocytomas. Classification schemes for brain tumors in the era of molecular subtypes has grown enormously complex, but a helpful framework is provided by the appearance of these tumors under a microscope. Grade 1 tumors are indolent, with little invasive capacity, while Grade 4 tumors are highly invasive, marked under the microscope as dense, sheets of cells that can even be seen to grow their own blood supply. Senator McCain has a grade 4 astrocytoma, otherwise known a a glioblastoma (GBM) – the worst kind. Social media from all sides of the political spectrum lit up with well wishes – with most casting the disease as something to be defeated.
Others within the medical community took a different take.
Mehreen is right. GBM is a deadly disease, the 5-year survival rate for patients with GBMs is <3%. The majority of GBM patients live less than a year. Yet, the medical community of neurosurgeons and oncologists that treat these tumors go to battle with these tumors. Why?
I asked a very busy neurosurgeon this same question. I asked him what he told patients. He told me that he never mentions the word cure. There is no cure. The goal is to manage the disease and buy more time.
Median survival for GBM is measured in weeks, not years. Do nothing, and expect 14 weeks; combining surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may give you 45 weeks.
What we describe is median survival, of course, and as Stephen J Gould eloquently put in his diatribe against statistics in cancer – the median is hardly the message. The oncologist you want is the one who doesn’t tell you about median survival when breaking the news to you of your cancer – she implicitly understands each GBM has a different path. Here are three such paths.
Senators Mike Lee and Jerry Moran said yesterday that they would not vote for the Better Care Reconciliation Act, effectively killing the legislation. As anybody who has been following this story would have predicted, President Trump reacted publicly on Twitter on Tuesday morning, vowing to let the ACA marketplace collapse and then rewrite the plan later.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell attempted a quick punt this morning, calling for an immediate Senate vote on the House bill, a trick card that if it worked, would give Republicans two years to work things out.
Unfortunately for McConnell, it probably won’t.
The White House sees the failure as saying more about the political establishment in Washington than itself, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Caught up in the drama of the Watergate-Russia emails-Trump family narrative, major media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times see a historic defeat rather than a temporary setback. That may or may not turn out to be true. Predictably, conservative commentators and the alt-right believe the defeat says more about the mainstream media and the Deep State than it does about the Trump Presidency. For their part, Democrats clearly think they have found their issue and can be expected to continue to exploit it using legislative Viet Cong tactics (attack on social media, melt into the jungle, lob snarky public Molotov cocktails) to punish Republicans and keep the story on the front page.
One thing is clear. Instead of repealing and replacing Obamacare, the GOP now has to rewrite and replace its own plan. Doing that would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but in the current climate in Washington it is difficult to see how it would be possible without a major shift in the political landscape.
All of this is bad news for hospitals and health plans and a frightening development for consumers, although not the really bad news some had feared. The President’s threat to let the insurance marketplace die and then “figure it out” sounds good as a rallying cry to the troops on social media, but is not the kind of thing that investors and CEOs like to hear. Realistically though, at this point everybody knew that the uncertainty would likely continue through the year (best case) or a year or longer (worst case) as the gridlock in Washington plays out. As depressing and frustrating as it is that the uncertainty will continue, by this point the industry is used to it. Insiders will continue to look for ways to minimize risk and for business opportunities to capitalize on the uncertainty.
Trump’s plan to allow the insurance exchanges to collapse is the kind of confrontational talk Trump and his advisors relish. In theory, the idea could work. There are in fact signs that it already is, as major insurers leave the marketplace and consumers hesitate before committing to expensive insurance policies. In reality, however, the collapsing exchanges will create a political crisis that is even worse than the current one for the administration, with news cycle after news cycle dominated by stories of terminally ill cancer patients and parents with children with horrible diseases and no insurance coverage. At this point, it will be difficult for the party doing the collapsing to point at the other side and say “It was them. They did it!”
Dr. Jha writes on these pages in typically stirring fashion about his views on the recent health care kerfuffle and rightly so fingers what the real focus of our efforts should be: Cost. He ends by slaying both sides because of their refusal to confront the hospital chargemonster – the fee schedule hospitals make that remarkably only really applies to the uninsured.
Unfortunately, the solution proposed ensures hospital fee schedules for the uninsured are no greater than Medicare reimbursements, which is far from perfect. Consider that the Medicare reimbursement for a stent placed to an ischemic limb is in the range of $15,000. While this makes for a less daunting bill for the uninsured, in reality for the vast majority of folks that are uninsured $15,000 is about as far away as $150,000.
But my major disagreement with the good Dr. Jha relates not to his attempt to slay the chargemaster, but his underappreciation for the attempts made in the GOP bill to control health care spending. A conservative mantra about the why of health care costs focuses on the existence of deep pocketed third party payers that make costs opaque to patients. Attempting to have patients understand what they’re being charged has been conservative dogma, and there are a number of studies that suggest patients with health saving accounts are more cost conscious when they interact with the health care system. Dr. Jha glosses over this important point – This is the Republican attempt to bend the cost curve! And at least to this physician who’s lived through the last eight years, a plan that has a considerably greater chance of success than any number of failed acronyms designed so far by enlightened theorists from the Acela corridor.
The policy experts are hard to convince about HSAs, and point to the above chart as evidence of the uselessness of HSAs.
Repeal and replace. Simple enough on the campaign trail. We heard this promise in 2010, when voters gave the House to Republicans. We heard it again in 2012, when voters gave them the Senate. Despite controlling Congress, Obamacare remained the law of the land. Candidate Donald Trump, along with most Republican members of Congress, promised repeal and replace last year.
Republicans now have their largest electoral majority in nearly a century, and repeal and replace is spinning its wheels, like an old Pontiac stuck in the snow.
Some think a grand bill is still possible, particularly Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Others are skeptical. Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee favor a two-pronged approach: repeal first then repeal later. Herein lies the problem. Republicans can’t agree on anything.
Democrats had no such problem in 2010 when they passed Obamacare. The Bernie coalition didn’t get a single-payer plan as they wanted. Some wanted higher Medicaid reimbursement for their states, as in the “Cornhusker Kickback.” But they came together and passed Obamacare, each Democrat getting most but not all of what he wanted.
The toxic polarization of Washington politics might lead even the most stubborn optimist to abandon any hope for bipartisanship on healthcare. Despite endemic pessimism, the flagging efforts to forge a Republican consensus on “repeal and replace” might set the stage for overdue efforts at compromise. Congress will be tempted to move on to more promising areas such as tax reform and infrastructure funding. That temptation should be resisted. The threat to the nation posed by the current state of American healthcare calls for Congress to resurrect the long lost spirit of bold bipartisanship.
Before considering opportunities for compromise, the obstacles confronting the GOP reform efforts are worth considering. Republicans face the same stubborn reality that confronted the framers of the Affordable Care Act (ACA): Expensive services cannot be covered by cheap insurance. The cost of U.S. healthcare has simply priced low income and even middle income individuals out of health insurance. Without subsides, they get left behind. The Congressional Budget Office’s estimated that the Ryan plan would result in 24 million losing coverage underscored the political divide: Confronted with unmanageable healthcare costs, most Republicans would opt to reduce public expense whereas Democrats plus a handful of Republican moderates prefer more extensive coverage. The effort of the GOP leadership to split the difference by preserving some residual subsidies and the structures supporting them—“Obamacare light”—remains unacceptable to many on the right. No clear middle ground has yet emerged.
Congratulations! You have listened to the AMA and practicing physicians and made it a little easier to comply (at first) with the Medicare Quality Payment Program, part of the massive MACRA “pay for value” law.
But CMS’ announcements in The Federal Register and “fact sheet” are incomprehensible gobbledygook that will be understood by neither doctors, patients, nor the rest of society. The language personifies the complexity, unwieldiness and confused thinking in this huge national policy.
MACRA is a $15 billion boondoggle that the best research shows will neither improve quality nor control costs. Paying doctors for quality (e.g., doing a blood pressure exam) or efficiency may make sense theoretically, but it doesn’t work. Rather than making a dent in the continuing upward spiral of healthcare costs in America, it can even result in some doctors avoiding sicker patients because it affects their quality scores and income.
Early, poorly designed research suggested that paying for health or cost savings was effective, but these research designs did not account for already occurring improvements in medical practice that the policymakers took credit for. Decades of stronger, well-controlled research debunked these early findings and conclusively showed no effects of these economic policies.
So why does the Congress and administration continue to press ahead with this same tired and impotent policy?
… There is a far more fundamental issue affecting the overall success of our healthcare system. Doctors and patients need more transparency when it comes to health care costs.
Healthcare is becoming more expensive by the year. In 1960, healthcare costs accounted for 5% of the gross domestic product. In 2015, they made up 17.8 percent. Although the rates of spending growth actually decreased since 2010 when the Affordable Care Act was enacted, a recent study demonstrated that for employees under 65 with employer sponsored health insurance, the proportion of income consumed by health insurance premiums has increased from 6.5% in 2006 to 10.1% in 2015.
Why does this matter? Health care costs, often from an unexpected medical emergency are the #1 cause of personal bankruptcy in the US. There are 1.7 million Americans live in households that declared bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills. Also, while more subtle, the rising incremental costs of routine medical care are wearing on the financial stability of many families leaving less funds for essentials such as housing and food, let alone other needs and hobbies.
THCB readers are well aware this coming week Senate Republicans plan to begin debate on passing their amended version of the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA), titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act. As of today, June 23rd, immediate reactions by Republican senators to the June 22nd released discussion draft have been limited largely because members immediately left town after the draft’s release. The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) score, that will again be influential, is expected this Monday or Tuesday. Senate debate on the legislation will likely begin next Wednesday with a vote expected late Friday or early Saturday morning, or just prior to their week-long July 4th recess. Here is an assessment of the legislation’s prospects:
You can find the full text of the Senate Bill here.
Following is the Senate Republicans summary of their Obamacare replacement bill, with comments by NYU’s Jason Chung.
Seven years ago, Democrats imposed a risky health care experiment on Americans that led to skyrocketing costs and collapsing insurance markets. Senate Republicans are working to fix the mess Democrats made by acting to rescue the millions trapped by Obamacare.
Jason Chung: While Obamacare has been largely successful in its aims to get millions of uninsured Americans medical coverage, including low-income and those with pre-existing conditions, it has also thus far failed to rein in premiums. Some of that can be attributed to Obamacare failing to institute a public option, which would charge premium lower by 7% to 8% according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This is a nuanced position. One can support former President Obama for extending coverage for up to 17.7 million more people and criticize him for failing to account for or communicate the possibility of rising premiums in an unchecked for-profit health insurance model.
Did you realize that the American Health Care Act (AHCA) recently passed by the Congressional Republican majority will allow insurers to deny coverage for mental illness? Did you realize that the AHCA permits insurers to charge women more than men because they get pregnant? That the AHCA will allow insurers to terminate a family’s coverage if they incur claims that exceed their annual premium for three straight years? That at the urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a group of Republican lawmakers in the Senate has proposed language that would make medical marijuana a pre-existing condition? And that the same group of lawmakers is mulling a requirement that would grant immigration officials sweeping new powers to review records of patients suspected of committing crimes or posing as a loosely-defined “threat to community health.”