Healthcare reformers, like the wives of King Henry the 8th, have a thankless job. In a curious inversion of the Tudors, President Trump, who has promised to make healthcare great again, finds himself in the same predicament as the King’s sixth wife who knew what she had to do, just didn’t know how she could do it any differently. Dr. Mark V. Pauly (MVP), Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, believes President Trump’s options are neither exhaustive, nor exhausted.
SJ: I’m quoting from your book Healthcare Reform without side effects “with community rating…doors are open for political and special interests to lobby…Imagination will be stifled…political rent seeking will be rampant.” When I read this paragraph I checked the publication date of your book. It was not 2016. It was 2008 – before the passage of the ACA.
MVP: Unfortunately, the book wasn’t published soon enough before the ACA.
SJ: What, in a nutshell, is the problem with the ACA?
Community Rating – The Worst Possible Way To Do a Good Thing
By SAURABH JHA, MD
I have a grudging respect for health economists, “grudging” because, like many doctors, I want my pieties unchecked. Health economists check our pieties with quantitative truths. They describe the way the healthcare world is – a view from 29, 000 feet, pour cold water on the way we think the world should be, and guide, with abundant disclaimers, the way we can make things better. It’s unwise climbing Everest without a Sherpa, nor is it wise reforming healthcare without listening to health economists from across the political spectrum.
President Trump, along with the Republican House and Senate, will be dismantling the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a sense, President Trump is not just descending Everest, a treacherous feat in its own right, but scaling a peak arguably more dangerous than Everest. Despite their differences, Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump share one commonality – an implicit distrust of the health insurance industry.
How did the American health insurance industry become so vilified? This is, in part, because necessity is the father of all vilification. Insurers are a necessary evil in a country where there’s still deep mistrust of the government. Partly, this is because we transfer our angst about the uncertainty of our future, the dice which plays with our lives, to insurers who are in the business of rolling the dice. But mostly it’s because the misdeeds of the insurance market have been grossly exaggerated, and the benefits of the market have been attenuated by a few damning anecdotes. This is what Mark V. Pauly (MVP), Professor of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the most eminent health economists of his generation, believes.
In the world of fine wine, it is well known that some types of wine grapes grow only in very specific climates and ecologies. The concept borrowed from the French is “terroir” (ter-WAHR). Terroir explains why the finest champagne grapes grow only in a small district in northeastern France, characterized by rolling hills and a chalky limestone subsoil that provides a steady level of moisture and imparts a mineral note to the wine’s flavor.
Health policy advocates have sought for generations to propagate promising forms of health care organization across the country. Yet one finds repeatedly that some forms of organization that prosper in one part of the country fail to thrive in others. Is it possible that the concept of terroir also applies in health care?
The Case Of Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente’s health plans would be a great example. Kaiser has been a darling of health policy advocates such as Alain Enthoven, Paul Ellwood, and others because of its integrated structure, global risk, and salaried employment model of physician practice. Yet, despite repeated federal interventions, beginning with the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, Kaiser only recently exceeded 10 million in enrollment for the first time in its 71 year history. Moreover, 82 percent of that enrollment is in two states—Oregon and California—where Kaiser originated. The percentage of Kaiser’s enrollment that derives from its origin states is basically unchanged in a decade.
In my first comment in this series (an open letter to President Obama), I criticized Obama for stating in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the Affordable Care Act is deflationary. I promised him I would post more essays showing how badly he had been misled by three experts who influenced him: Elliott Fisher and his colleagues at the Dartmouth Institute, Atul Gawande, and Peter Orszag.
My second post presented evidence that the research by Fisher et al. on regional variation in Medicare spending has been enormously influential with US policymakers for the last three decades.
In this comment, I demonstrate the gross inaccuracy of the Dartmouth group’s research.
Let me state at the outset: Even if every paper Fisher et al. wrote about regional variation in Medicare spending were true, none of them constituted evidence for the “accountable care organization.” In other words, even if we accept the Dartmouth group’s claim that regional and hospital variation is due primarily to overuse, we would still have no reason to accept the group’s claim that ACOs are the solution to all that overuse.Continue reading…
A new report by economist Jon Gabel and his colleagues at NORC, a research center affiliated with the University of Chicago, looked at the use of transparency tools in an employer health plan. The analysis found the use of price transparency tools to be spotty. For instance, 75 percent of households either did not log into the transparency tool or did so only one time in the 18-month period of study. Fifteen percent did so twice; but only 1 percent logged in 6 times or more. The authors concluded:
It could very well be that we are asking too much of a single tool, no matter how well-designed. Consumer information for other goods and services on price and quality are seldom dependent upon information gained mainly, if not solely, through a digital tool. Rather, information on relative value is spread far and wide through advertising and other kinds of promotion using conventional, digital, and social media communication channels.
An earlier Harvard study on transparency tools, published in JAMA, found patients do not tend to use the tools to comparison shop for lower prices (in fact, spending rose slightly). An NBER study concluded that when transparency tools do lower spending, it is because consumers used to tools to identify prices and use the information to decide whether they can afford the service and skip it if they cannot.
The transparency tool in the current study also emailed “Ways to Save” suggestions on how consumers could reduce medical spending. The authors made an important observation:
It is also possible that the message on the “Ways to Save” e-mail turned off many households. While the emails did highlight opportunities to save a specific amount of money, a vast majority of the savings were for the employer and a much smaller amount of savings applied to the employee. It is possible that many employees viewed the transparency initiative as simply a means for the employer to save money.
Legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey ended his daily report with a final story introduced by the tease “Now for the rest of the story.”
Last Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that median household income increased 5.2% in 2015 to $56,516—the first increase in inflation adjusted income since the start of the downturn in 2007.
The Bureau also noted that the U.S. poverty rate decreased to 13.5% in 2015, down from 14.8% in 2014 and those lacking health insurance coverage shrank to 9.1% from a high of almost 16% in 2007. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, that’s the first time all three have improved in 20 years which it attributes to a lower unemployment rate (5.3% vs. 6.2% in 2014) representing an increase of 3.3 million in the workforce. That’s the story, but here’s the rest of the story.
A new report out from the American Health Policy Institute and Leavitt Partners further quantifies what we already know: a handful of employees are responsible for the bulk of employers’ health care spending. The new report documented that among 26 large employers, 1.2 percent of employees are high cost claimants who comprise 31 percent of total health care spending. Interestingly enough, the report was released on the heels of news yet again that high deductible health plans continue to be more popular than ever as a strategy for employers to control costs, with employee cost sharing expected to rise yet again this year.
And yet high deductible health plans may do more to bend the cost trend for healthy employees by reducing spending on items like pharmaceuticals and lab testing but not on inpatient care.
The least heathy employees quickly blow through their deductible, and their health issues are so acute and their bills so large, they don’t shop around for care. So what is a large employer or any purchaser concerned about these high cost claimants to do?
Citing a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, an article in FirecePharma entitled “Some generic drug prices soar despite heavy competition” rises questions on the ability of market forces to reign in drug prices – for example, on the idea that the price of Mylan NV’s EpiPen would not have risen to $614 per 2-pack from about $100 per 2-pack or less in 2007 if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not prevented Sanofi’s and a new product by Teva to come on market, leaving Mylan NV in full monopolistic control, of this blockbuster market.
According to data assembled by the Los Angeles Times, prices of generic drugs can rise sharply even if multiple manufacturers compete for market share. As an illustration, the article cites the generic drug ursodiol for gall stones, produced by no less than 8 manufacturers. “Several years ago, the wholesale price ran as low as 45 cents a capsule. In May 2014, Lannett Co. ($LCI) bumped its price for ursodiol to $5.10 a capsule, a price hike of more than 1,000%. Rather than keeping their own generic versions of ursodiol low to steal market share, each competitor followed Lannett’s lead and priced their versions the same or close.”
In the first article in this three-part series I reviewed the findings in CMS’s latest report on one of its “medical home” experiments – the second-year evaluation of the Multi-Payer Advanced Primary Care (MAPCP) Demonstration.We saw that the “patient-centered medical homes” (PCMHs) in that demo have failed to cut costs or improve quality during the first two years of the demo. We also saw that the sloppy definition of “medical home” put the author of the report, RTI International, in a bind: They did not identify a single feature of PCMHs to treat as an independent variable, and were forced to offer an impressionistic, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand account of what the PCMHs are doing.
In the second article of this series I examined the report’s explanation for why the PCMHs have so far been unable to outperform non-PCMHs despite receiving substantial subsidies from CMS and other sources that non-PCMHs don’t get. The report seems to say that insufficient subsidies explains the PCMHs’ failure. I noted, however, that the report contains no evidence indicating how much more money PCMHs might need.
At the end of my second article I characterized the problem presented by the report as a conundrum. On the one hand, PCMH staff and many other observers feel PCMHs are severely underfunded, but on the other hand no one can say by how much or which PCMH services need more money.
So what do we do? Do we just pick a number out of thin air and say that’s how much more money PCMHs need, and pour that money down the PCMH black hole along with the other subsidies PCMHs receive now? That appears to be CMS’s position judging from its endorsement of yet another “medical home” program (CPC+ as an “alternative payment model” in its proposed MACRA rule despite the fact that all three of CMS’s “home” demos are failing.
Salvaging what we can
Throwing more money down the PCMH black hole is not a good idea. I recommend that CMS allow PCMHs to focus, and that CMS do so by radically sharpening and cutting down the definition of “PCMH” so that the concept refers to a uniform set of medical and social services provided to a subset of the chronically ill. 
Once CMS has clearly defined what services it wants “homes” to provide, it can then determine what the extra services cost and make adequate payment for them. It would help if, in addition to paying adequately for the extra services, CMS would let doctors and patients decide when the extra services should be provided rather than stick its nose into the doctor-patient relationship with pay-for-box-clicking schemes. Paying adequately for additional services and eliminating pay-for-clicks schemes would increase the physician “flexibility” that CMS claims it seeks to promote with PCMHs. Eliminating pay-for-clicks schemes would also lower physician overhead and reduce physician burn-out.
With healthcare mergers now announced seemingly every week, I’ve been giving some thought to scale: How big can/ should health systems be?
Anecdotally, I’m struck that the most impressive healthcare companies in America are super- regional players: Geissinger, Cleveland Clinic, UPMC, etc. They seem to get a lot more attention than the national players with hundreds of facilities.
Leaving aside questions like strategy (e.g. is integration of payers/doctors/hospitals the key to these successes), I’ve wondered whether regional systems are simply the right size to thrive. My suspicion is that even clever organizational structure (a topic which I wrote about last year) can’t overcome barriers that prevent large healthcare companies from innovating and thriving, particularly as companies move to risk and the business of healthcare becomes more complex. Like cellular organisms, large companies can outgrow their life support. (Interestingly, it’s actually the ratio of body volume to surface area [gas exchange, digestion, etc] that served as a constraint to organism size…)
I recently ran across a superb paper- a doctoral thesis written by Staffan Canback. Canback (who now leads the Economist Intelligence/ Canback predictive analytics consulting firm in Boston) wrote his thesis, called Limits of Firm Size: An Inquiry into Diseconomies of Scale in 2000, while a student in London. Canback argues, convincingly, that companies do become more efficient with scale, but reach a point where “diseconomies” begin to mitigate performance. This may seem intuitive: (as Canback notes, if efficiency only improved with scale then we would buy everything from one company that produces everything with great levels of efficiency). We don’t.