As Robert Muller’s testimony before Congress made clear, we
owe President Trump a debt of gratitude on two counts. First, his unlawful and
predatory actions have clearly exposed the fault lines in our still young
Democracy. As the Founders well realized, the road would be rocky on our way to
“a more perfect union”, and checks and balances would, sooner or later, be
counter-checked and thrown out of balance.
On the second count, Trump has most effectively revealed
weaknesses that are neither structural nor easily repaired with the wave of the
wand. Those weaknesses are cultural and deeply embedded in a portion of our
citizenry. The weakness he has so easily exposed is within us. It is reflected
in our stubborn embrace of prejudice, our tolerance of family separations at
the border, our penchant for violence and romanticism of firearms, our
suspicion of “good government”, and –unlike any other developed nation – our
historic desire to withhold access to health services to our fellow Americans.
In the dust-up that followed the New York Times publication of Ross Douthat’s May 16, 2017 article, “The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump”, Dahlia Lithwick wrote in SLATE, “Donald Trump isn’t the disease that plagues modern America, he’s the symptom. Let’s stop calling it a disability and call it what it is: What we are now.”
Recently a long-time health advocate from California told me
she did not believe that the majority of doctors would support a universal
health care system in some form due to their conservative bend. I disagreed.
It is true that, to become a physician involves significant
investment of time and effort, and deferring a decade worth of earnings to
pursue a training program that, at times, resembles war-zone conditions can
create an ultra-focus on future earnings. But it is also true that these
individuals, increasingly salaried and employed within organizations struggling
to improve their collective performance, deliver (most of the time) three
critical virtues in our society.
The rather esoteric issue of a national patient identifier has come to light as a difference between two major heath care bills making their way through the House and the Senate.
The bills are linked to outrage over surprise medical bills but they have major implications over how the underlying health care costs will be controlled through competitive insurance and regulatory price-setting schemes. This Brookings comment to the Senate HELP Committee bill summarizes some of the issues.
Those in favor of a national patient identifier are mostly hospitals and data brokers, along with their suppliers. More support is discussed here. The opposition is mostly on the basis of privacyand libertarian perspective. A more general opposition discussion of the Senate bill is here.
Although obscure, national patient identifier standards can help clarify the role of government in the debate over how to reduce the unusual health care costs and disparities in the U.S. system. What follows is a brief analysis of the complexities of patient identifiers and their role relative to health records and health policy.
In the 2nd night of the Democratic Primary debate on June 27, 2019, Pete Buttigieg was asked whether he supported Medicare-For-All. He responded, “I support Medicare for all who want it.”
In doing so, he side-stepped the controversial debate over shifts of power from states to the federal government, and trusted that logic would eventually prevail over a collusive Medical-Industrial Complex with an iron lock grip on a system that deals everyone imaginable in on the sickness profitability curve – except the patient.
On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law “Medicare,” a national insurance plan for all Americans over 65. He did so in front of former President Truman, who 20 years earlier had proposed a national health plan for all Americans, and for his trouble was labeled by the AMA as the future father of “socialized medicine.”
For Truman, there was a double irony that day in 1965. First of all, the signing was occurring at around the same time as our neighbor to the north was signing their own national health plan, also called “Medicare”, but their’s covered all Canadian citizens, not just the elderly.
The second incongruity was that Truman was fully aware that in 1945, as he was being tarred and feathered as unpatriotic by taxpayers for having the gall to suggest that health care was a human right, those very same citizens were unknowingly funding the creation of national health plans as democracy stabilizers in our two primary vanquished enemies – Germany and Japan – as part of the US taxpayer funded Marshall Plan.
Leading lights of
the health insurance industry are crying that Medicare For All or any kind of
universal health reform would “crash the system” and “destroy
healthcare as we know it.”
They say that like
it’s a bad thing.
They say we should
trust them and their cost-cutting efforts to bring all Americans more
affordable health care.
We should not trust
them, because the system as it is currently structured economically is
incapable of reducing costs.
Why? Let’s do a
quick structural analysis. This is how health care actually works.
Health care, in the
neatly packaged phrase of Nick Soman, CEO of Decent.com, is a “system designed
to create reimbursable events.” For all that we talk of being
“patient-centered” and “accountable,” the fee-for-service, incident-oriented
system is simply not designed to march toward those lofty goals.
We begin by commending HHS, CMS, and ONC for skillfully addressing the pro-competitive and innovative essentials in crafting this Rule and the related materials. However, regulatory capture threatens to derail effective implementation of the rule unless HHS takes further action on the standards.
Regulatory capture in Wikipedia begins:
“Regulatory capture is a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. When regulatory capture occurs, the interests of firms, organizations, or political groups are prioritized over the interests of the public, leading to a net loss for society. Government agencies suffering regulatory capture are called “captured agencies.” (end of Wikipedia quotation.)
The extent to which HHS has allowed itself to be influenced by special interests is not the subject of this comment. This comment is just about how HHS and the Federal Health Architecture can act to more effectively implement the sense of Congress in the 21st Century Cures Act.
Today the notion that health is a preferred state of being, rather than a set of disconnected functions or services, is increasingly being embraced. A recent JAMA article promoted a health measurement system called the “flourishing index” focused on 6 key domains: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security.
Gro Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote
in the World Health Report 2000 that
“The objective of good health is twofold – goodness and fairness;
goodness being the best attainable average level; and fairness, the smallest
feasible differences among individuals and groups.”
the age of Trump, with forced separation of immigrant mothers and children,
criminalization of abortion, and purposeful obstruction of enhanced access to
health care for vulnerable populations, it becomes impossible to ignore a
significant modern-day truism. Health is profoundly political.
Health is a collection of resources unequally distributed in society. Health’s “social determinants” such as housing, income, and employment, are critical to the accomplishment of individual, family, and community well being and are themselves politically determined.
Introduction Every day and in every corner of the country, innovative health care leaders are conceiving of strategies and programs to manage their patients’ health, as an alternative to treating their sickness (see Figure 1).
The value-based contracts that have proliferated in this
country over the past decade and which now account for about half of the money
spent on healthcare allow these wellness investments to make good financial
sense in addition to benefiting patient health.
However, a phenomenon in health coverage in the US is
increasing costs, destabilizing care continuity and holding back the potential
of value-based care. It prevents us from making the long-term investments we
Churn refers to gaining, losing, or moving between sources of coverage. Every year, approximately a quarter of the US population switches out of their health plan. Reasons can be voluntary or involuntary from the perspective of the beneficiary (see Table 1) and vary from changes in job status, eligibility, insurance offerings, and preference, to non-payment of premiums, to unawareness of pending coverage termination.
A friend of mine told me the other day, “We’ve seen our insured patient population go from 15% to 70% in the few years since Obamacare.” As a primary care physician in the Midwest, he’s worked for years in an inner-city clinic that serves a poor community, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the clinic constantly struggled to stay afloat financially. Too often patients would be sent to an emergency room because the clinic couldn’t afford to provide some of the simplest medical tests, like an x-ray. Now, with most of his patients insured through the Medicaid expansion program, the clinic has beefed up its staffing and ancillary services, allowing them to provide better preventive care, and in turn, reduce costly ER visits.
From the time Medicaid was established in 1965 as the country’s first federally-funded health insurance plan for low-income individuals, state governments have only been required to cover the poorest of their citizens. Before the ACA, some 47 million Americans were uninsured because their incomes exceeded state-determined benchmarks for Medicaid eligibility and they earned far too little to buy insurance through the private marketplace.
The ACA reduced the number of uninsured Americans by mandating that states increase their income requirement for Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty line (about $1,330 per month for a single individual), and promising that the federal government would cover the cost to do so. However, in a 2012 decision, the Supreme Court left it to the states to decide if they wanted to increase their Medicaid eligibility. If they agreed to adopt Medicaid expansion, the federal government offered to cover 100% of the increased cost in 2014 and 90% by 2021.
It is commonly believed that deliberate, careful price regulation by enlightened technocrats trumps the haphazard and chaotic regulation of prices imposed by the free market—especially when the market is subject to greed and corruption.
A most interesting case study challenging that belief comes courtesy of the largest Democracy in the world: India.
In 2017, an arm of the Indian Government, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) took action to control the price of coronary stents in India by capping their retail price. The problem that stimulated this action was their exorbitant price that made them unaffordable to many Indians.
The retail prices of US made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 80,000 – 150,000 (~$1000 – ~$2000), while the price of Indian made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 45,000 – 90,000 (~$600 – ~$1200). Considering that a good job for 90% of the Indian labor force pays about Rs 180,000 per year, these prices put most coronary stents out of the reach of a vast swath of the populace.
What regulators knew, however, was that the price point at which coronary stents were being imported into India was a fraction of the price being charged to Indians. The up-charge had everything to do with what happened after the stent was brought onto Indian soil: The Indian subsidiary of the US stent manufacturer would sell its product to a domestic distributor that would then employ all means necessary to ensure their stent was chosen by cardiologists to be implanted.
Within the ever-widening array of Democratic contenders for the Presidency, the “Medicare-for-all” debate continues to simmer. It was only six weeks ago that Kamala Harris’s vocal support drew fire from not one, but two billionaire political rivals. Michael Bloomberg, looking for support in New Hampshire declared, “I think we could never afford that. We are talking about trillions of dollars… [that] would bankrupt us for a long time.” Fellow billionaire candidate Howard Schultz added, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.”
Remarkably, neither man made the connection between large-scale health reform’s potential savings (pegged to save 15% of our $4 trillion annual spend according to health economists) and the thoughtful application of these newly captured resources to all U.S. citizens without discrimination. Bloomberg’s own 2017 Health System Efficiency Ratings listed the U.S. 50th out of 55, trailed only by Jordan, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia. Yet he seemed unable to connect addressing waste with future affordability.
Schultz was similarly short sighted. While acknowledging that the
manmade opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and income inequality are
“systemic problems” and at levels “the likes of which we have not had in a long
time”, he failed to connect the cause (a remarkable dysfunctional and
inequitable health care system) with these effects.
As I outline in “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/ June 4, 2019), today’s greatest risk to continued progress and movement toward universal coverage and rational health planning is sloppy nomenclature. To avoid talking past each other, we need to define the terms of this debate while agreeing on common end points.