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The November 6 Midterm Elections and Their Impact on Obamacare:Q&A

By ETIENNE DEFFARGES

1) What is the likelihood the ACA will be repealed?

This straightforward question has a very simple answer: It depends on the results of the upcoming November 6 U.S. congressional elections.

If the Republicans retain control of both the House and the Senate, the probability that the ACA will be repealed is very high: The Republicans would be emboldened by such a victory and would most probably attempt in 2019 to repeal the health care law—again. It is worth remembering that in July of last year, the repeal of the ACA (a version of which had passed the House in May) was defeated in the Senate by the narrowest of margins, because three Republican Senators, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and the late and much regretted John McCain, voted against the repeal. This is very unlikely to happen again, although one would also have to consider the margins by which the Republican would have gained control both Chambers after these November midterms. In July of 2017, the Republicans held a 52-48 advantage in the Senate. Given ever-increasing polarization, such a margin, plus Republican control of the House, would likely spell the end of the ACA in 2019.

If the Democrats gain control of either the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, then the ACA will remain the law of the land. The only issue in the horizon will be the lawsuit filed in February of this year by a coalition of 20 states, led by Texas and Wisconsin. This lawsuit claims that Obamacare is no longer constitutional after the Republicans eliminated in December of 2017 the tax penalty associated with the ACA’s individual mandate. The 20 Republican attorney generals argue that without the tax penalty, Congress has no constitutional authority to legislate the individual mandate. Even if this case reaches the Supreme Court, one has to remember that the Court affirmed twice the constitutionality of the ACA, in June of 2012 and then 2015, with Chief Justice John Roberts voting with the majority on both occasions.

2) What do recent congressional changes to the ACA mean for those who buy insurance on health care exchanges?

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Obesity Training and Reimbursement Should be a Higher Priority

By HANNAH MARTIN; JENNY BOGARD; WILLIAM DIETZ, MD; ANNE VALIK; NICHOLE JANNAH; CHRISTINE GALLAGHER; ANAND PAREKH, MD; DON BRADLEY MD

Hannah Martin

Jenny Bogard

Dr. William Dietz

Anne Valik

 

 

 

 

Nichole Jannah

Christine Gallager

Dr. Anand Parekh

Dr. Don Bradley

 

 

 

 

The United States has been facing a mounting obesity epidemic for over a generation, but our health care system has struggled to keep up. Given the complexity of obesity and the pace of curricular change, obesity education for our health-provider workforce is still lacking. There are wide disparities in quantity and quality among programs and disciplines. Similarly, public and private payers have taken vastly different approaches towards coverage for obesity treatment and prevention, which even leaves the most educated providers unsure of what services each patient can access. Because coverage decisions are based partly on what providers are prepared to provide and curricula are based partly on what services are typically covered, these problems reinforce one another. Despite these challenges, several important steps have been taken recently to tackle both sides of the problem. The steps include the development of new Provider Competencies for the Prevention and Management of Obesity and the launch of the My Healthy Weight pledge to standardize coverage for obesity counseling services.

Why We Must Act

In the US, more than one-third of the adult population and nearly one-fifth of the children have obesity. Adult obesity prevalence is projected to reach nearly 50 percent by 2030. Adult diabetes prevalence currently hovers around ten percent and is further projected to affect one-third of the adult population by 2050. Estimates for the total annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. range from $147 billion to $210 billion, with billions more lost in productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism. Obesity is also a national security issue. As of 2010, 27 percent of young adults were disqualified for military service due to obesity.

Improving Obesity Education for Health Care Providers

Despite these shocking rates of obesity, fewer than one in four physicians feel that they received adequate training in counseling patients on diet or physical activity. Obesity concepts are underrepresented on medical licensing examinations and substantial gaps in provider knowledge related to obesity care have been recently documented. This is not surprising considering that less than 30 percent of medical schools meet the minimum recommended number of nutrition-related content hours.

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Expensive Hospitals: The Enemy Within

By ANISH KOKA MD

Everyone agrees that health care is bankrupting the nation. The prevailing winds have carried the argument that a system that pays per unit of health care delivered and thus favors volume over value is responsible. The problem, you see, was the doctors. They were just incentivized to do too much. This incontrovertible fact was the basis for changes in the healthcare system that favored hospital employment and have made the salaried physician the new normal. Yet, health care costs remain ascendant.

Why?

It turns out overutilization in the US healthcare system isn’t what its cracked up to be.

utilizationFigure 1. Utilization rates in different health care systems

A recent analysis (Figure 1) by Papanicolas et al., in JAMA demonstrates that while the United States is no slouch with regards to volume of imaging and procedures in a variety of different categories, it does not explain a health care system twice as expensive as its nearest competitor. The problem turns out not to be volume, rather its the unit price of healthcare in the United States.

Health Care Costs and Glass Houses

There are many stones cast by all the various players in healthcare when it comes to cost, and of course, everyone bears some degree of responsibility, but it’s also clear that some folks live in larger glass houses than others. The most beautiful of all the glass houses are those built by hospitals. From 1996 to 2013, it was not population growth, health status, doctors visits, or prescription drugs that drove spending increases. Sixty-three percent of the increase in cost over an almost 20-year time span can be attributed to hospital stays and testing during doctor visits. Consider that the average hospital stay in the US costs $18,142, and lasts 4.9 days compared to other industrialized countries where average hospital stays last 7.7 days, and cost $6,222. But despite these exorbitant prices hospital systems in the United States complain they barely stay afloat.

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Will Apple Track Your Mind, Not Just Your Heart?

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

If your heart throbs with desire for the new Apple Watch, the Series 4 itself can track that pitter-pat through its much-publicized ability to provide continuous heart rate readings.

On the other hand, if you’re depressed that you didn’t buy Apple stock years ago, your iPhone’s Face ID might be able to discover your dismay and connect you to a therapist.

In its recent rollout of the Apple Watch, company chief operating officer Jeff Williams enthused that the device could become “an intelligent guardian for your health.” Apple watching over your health, however, might involve much more than a watch.

The iPhone models introduced at the same time as the Series 4 all deploy facial analysis software. The feature works in part by projecting a grid of more than 30,000 infrared dots on the user’s face in order to create a three-dimensional map for user recognition. Continue reading…

“Healthcare” vs. “Health Care”: The Definitive Word(s)

A recent contributor to this blog wondered about the correctness of “health care” versus “healthcare.” I’d like to answer that question by channeling my inner William Safire (the late, great New York Times language maven). If you’ll stick with me, I’ll also disclose why the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is not abbreviated as CMMS and reveal something you may not have known about God – linguistically, if not theologically.

The two-word rule for “health care” is followed by major news organizations (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) and medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine). Their decision seems consistent with the way most references to the word “care” are handled.

Even the editorial writers of Modern Healthcare magazine do not inveigh against errors in medical care driving up costs in acutecare hospitals and nursinghomes. They write about “medical care,” “acute care” and “nursing homes,” separating the adjectives from the nouns they modify. Some in the general media go even farther, applying the traditional rule of hyphenating adjectival phrases; hence, “health-care reform,” just as you’d write “general-interest magazine” or “old-fashioned editor.”

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Healthcare as a Complex Adaptive System

You want healthcare reform. I want healthcare reform. Grandma Jenkins wants healthcare reform.

What is “healthcare reform?” What kind of animal are we talking about? How would we recognize it if it came up and bit us? What are its markings, its behavior, its habits?

From observing the systems of other countries, from the results of local experiments and variations in the U.S. system, and from serious research over decades into outcomes and comparative effectiveness, we can actually outline what the marks of a better healthcare system would be.

But healthcare in the United States is a complex adaptive system. If we want to deeply and fully, we have to take one step back and revisit what we know about the nature of complex adaptive system, and how that knowledge might apply to reform of this system.

Healthcare is complex: It has many inputs and outputs, which operated independently upon one another in multiple overlapping feedback loops. Device manufacturers, for instance, adjust their costs and prices to reimbursement levels, and reimbursement levels are set to prevailing price structures. Preventive diabetes services, such as relatively inexpensive nutrition education, are under-compensated, and so are scarce; this leads to a need for more expensive services, such as emergency treatment of diabetic shock, and amputations.

All dynamic systems adapt continually. The various players (pharmaceutical companies, providers, health plans, consumers, employers, regulators, politicians) optimize their positions as much as they can with the resources they have access to (mostly money, but also other proxies for money, power, and positional security, such as votes, public sentiment, access to media, and systemic inertia). This is normal. This is how systems work.

This is also why our healthcare system, in almost universal judgment, is so dysfunctional.  It has become optimized to the convenience and profit of the players with the greatest resources. All systems are in some sense self-righting: If the pikes eat up all the trout, then the pikes die off; without many pikes around, the trout proliferate until the pikes make a comeback, gorging on the trout. But in this case the healthcare system is dragging down the economy with its expense, and causing enormous personal economic misfortune, bankruptcy, misery, and death in the population. Waiting for it to right itself (or expecting that it will do so before causing ever-widening suffering and destruction) is a mug’s game.

The healthcare industry in the United States is, in game theory terms:

  • Both competitive and cooperative
  • Multi-player
  • Non-zero-sum – you don’t have to make others lose in order to “win”
  • Infinite – with no end point, it is more like the stock market than football or chess

This “infinite game” has been a reasonably stable system, with each player performing their expected part (though often grumbling that they are not well served) because it has been, in game-theory terms, a near-perfect “Nash equilibrium,” a kind of strategic gridlock in which no player could benefit from any unilateral change in strategy, and in fact would usually be punished for it. A doctor who decided unilaterally to spend more time with each patient, a pharmaceutical company which unilaterally lowered its prices, even a hospital which managed to reduce its re-admit rate, or a hospital CEO who decided to forego a shiny new edifice and instead focus on re-engineering processes – all would be punished economically and professionally for doing what we, their ultimate customers, would like them to do.

However, the system is now showing symptoms of increasing instability, as various players perceive that they are doing so poorly at the game that a change in strategy might, in fact, benefit them. This includes doctors who opt out of the insurance payment system, or set up “concierge” practices, or open urgent-care centers; patients who go to foreign countries for care, buy pharmaceuticals over the Internet, or opt out of the medical system entirely because they can’t afford it; and hospitals like Geisinger who set up their own insurance system, hire doctors, bundle products, and give warranties.  Players that show no little interest in major new strategies, such as pharmaceutical companies, health plans, and device manufacturers, are signaling that they feel that they are “winning” at the game as currently played – or at least that they feel that they are doing better than they would under any other strategy that they can see. Players attempting to quit the game or change the rules are signs that the game is breaking down.

The local optimization of players in a Nash equilibrium does not mean that the current strategic gridlock is actually the best for all concerned. There might well be some different configuration in which all parties are better off. But they can’t get there from here, without some interruption of the system from outside, some influx of new energy (like, for instance, new funding), some new players (like, say, a government-sponsored “safety net” insurance program), some shift in the resources of the existing players (like consumers or employers being given greater information and power to choose).

In practical, everyday terms, this point of view – seeing the healthcare as a complex adaptive system capable of analysis in terms of game theory – renders some useful observations and rules of thumb for evaluating any possible healthcare reform. They include:

  1. You get what you pay for (and the inverse, if you don’t pay for it, you don’t get it). Stick a scoop into the healthcare soup, and you’ll find dozens of examples, but here’s one: Give “pay for performance” bonuses for specific measures (number of diabetes patients getting eye exams, for instance) and that measure will improve. Other measures will not, and may in fact decline as resources are shifted to improving the specified measures. The assumption that PFP bonuses will cause a general increase in quality has proven generally unfounded.
  2. The Law of Unintended Consequences reigns supreme: To the closest approximation, all the most important consequences of any given scheme will be the unintended ones. Example: Charging customers co-pays. Intended consequence: Cut casual “over-utilization,” recreational surgeries, whine-on-demand hypochondriacal office visits. Actual consequence: Cut all minor utilization, including preventive checkups, pap smears, mammograms and so forth, thereby actually increasing major utilizations for the big things that the checkups didn’t catch; also cause some people to forego truly necessary treatment (chemotherapy, cardiac catheterization) and simply die rather than impoverish their families.
  3. Controlling specific costs and utilizations becomes a game of Whack-A-Mole. Example: Control length of stay and other in-patient cost structures, and suddenly you get lots of drive-through surgeries (“You want fries with that hip?”), until those come under control as well. Try to control pharmaceutical costs by refusing to reimburse for over-the-counter drugs, and suddenly there is a prescription version of ibuprofen, same stuff, just twice as strong, so that it can be reimbursed. This is the “adaptive” part of a “complex adaptive system.” The system perceives proscriptive regulation as damage and routes around it.
  4. Systemic decisions reflect the needs and desires of the individual decision-makers, not the system as a whole, or even the sectors within the system. If you want to understand hospitals’ strategic plans, for instance, you have to ask yourself how hospital CEOs make a living, what enhances their career prospects and what gives them more prestige and job security. The same is true of pharmaceutical company executives, doctors, health plan executives, consumers, legislators – anyone making a decision. Those needs and desires may line up with the needs of their sector, or with the needs of their customers or payers or constituents, or they may not. If they don’t, the needs of their sector or their community or their customers or constituents become just about perfectly irrelevant.
  5. Don’t expect anyone to “do the right thing.” They just won’t. It is close enough to the real case to say that they can’t, if they are punished for doing so. So don’t design any part of the system on the assumption that the various actors will “do the right thing.” Sure, in every profession there are people who swim upstream of the flood of incentives and do what is right by the people they ultimately serve, even to their own detriment. These people are heroes of healthcare. But heroes are rare, and their appearance is unpredictable. Any part of a system designed for heroes to step forward and sacrifice themselves will fail. In aggregate, expect the decision-makers in any sector to act in their own personal best interest.

This lesson has stood out vividly in the current financial crisis: Deregulators felt that bankers and other financiers would regulate their own behavior and do what would be prudent for their institution, their sector, and their customers. Instead, they fairly uniformly did what brought them the biggest salaries, stock options, and bonuses.

However obvious it is to an outsider what “the right thing” should be in another person’s situation, it is not at all obvious to that person. The surgeons doing the thousands of unhelpful spinal fusion surgeries, the doctors ordering the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary images, the health plans cutting off chemotherapy to people whom they have managed to re-define as “ineligible” – we can come up with lots of psychological and sociological characterizations of their motives. But the simplest explanatory principal is Upton Sinclair’s dictum: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

There are probably many other rules of thumb that we could list here, but we could start with these. With a systems point of view in mind, we can turn to possible healthcare reforms and ask: What would be the markers of a healthcare system that would truly work?

By the same author: Fear and Loathing over the Stimulus Bill

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