With over a dozen conservative states leaning against expanding Medicaid to cover poor workers without health insurance, perhaps it is time to resuscitate an idea embraced by President Ronald Reagan. Let the federal government take over Medicaid lock, stock and barrel.
In 1982 the president who ushered in the modern conservative era offered to assume federal responsibility for the program that now consumes over 22 percent of state government budgets in exchange for states taking over welfare. His offer built on a series of recommendations going back to 1969 by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which called for a federal takeover of all public assistance programs.
President Obama’s health care reform law, if it survives the final hurdle of next November’s election, could give that idea new life. Under the Affordable Care Act, states are responsible for creating insurance exchanges where individuals and businesses can buy individual or group health plans.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is at it again. This time, the government-appointed panel is on fat patrol. Its review of the medical literature found that diet and exercise combined with group counseling beat popping a pill when it comes to controlling weight.
For those with short memories, USPSTF is the government panel that in the midst of the health care reform debate had the temerity to suggest the evidence was iffy on the wisdom of mammography for women under 50. Check with your doctor before deciding if an early start to routine breast cancer screening was right for you, they said.
Conservatives had a field day. “We don’t know how far government will go in this bureaucracy,” cried Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who a few months later launched her presidential campaign. “This is how rationing begins,” intoned Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
When it comes to obesity, though, a little food rationing is just what the doctor ordered, according to the latest from the USPSTF. How one rations matters, however.
“With drugs, when people stop, they gain the weight back,” said David Grossman, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute in Seattle and chairman of the 16-member panel that issued the updated guidelines on obesity prevention on Tuesday. “This is a lifestyle problem. If you don’t change your lifestyle, drugs are not likely to provide a long-term solution.”
Michelle Obama wasn’t taking the easy path when she chose the obesity epidemic and childhood obesity in particular as her main cause. Since the late 1970s, the number of people considered obese grew by half and now totals 32 percent of men and 36 percent of women. One in 20 Americans are now considered morbidly obese. By 2030, if nothing is done, those numbers are expected to grow to over 40 percent obese with over 10 percent morbidly so.
The Supreme Court’s imminent decision on the Affordable Care Act will trigger a political firestorm whether they accept the legislation in its entirety, throw out every page of the 906-page bill or do something in between, which is the most likely outcome.
If the high court follows the polls, it probably will rule the requirement that individuals purchase insurance – the mandate – is unconstitutional but leave the rest of “Obamacare” intact. A CBS/New York Times poll released earlier this month showed that 41 percent wanted the entire law overturned, 24 percent supported it fully and 27 percent supported it but wanted the mandate eliminated.
Pooling the latter two groups suggests there is majority support for the coverage expansion, insurance protections and delivery system reforms contained in the bill – as long as there is no mandate. It was only the Obama administration’s decision to include the requirement that individuals purchase health coverage – something done to win insurance industry backing for the law – that gave opponents the cudgel they needed to stoke widespread opposition to reform.
The insurance industry, recognizing many of the reforms are popular, is already preparing for a thumbs-down ruling on the mandate. Three major carriers, UnitedHealth, Aetna and Cigna, said last week they would continue to allow young adults to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, pay for 100 percent of preventive services and eliminate lifetime caps on coverage, reforms from the ACA that are already in place.
The numbers are stark. According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, for every man whose death from prostate cancer is prevented through PSA screening, 40 become impotent or suffer incontinence problems, two have heart attacks and one a blood clot. Then there’s the psychological harm of a “false positive” test result, which is 80 percent of all “positive” tests. They lead to unnecessary worry, follow-up biopsies, physical discomfort and even harm. Final grade: D.
Three men close to me have been diagnosed with prostate cancer late in life. Each was around 70. My dad, already in throes of advancing Alzheimer’s disease, did what the doctor ordered (actually, I suspect my mom told my dad to do what the doctor ordered). He had surgery. And for the last six years of his life, which until his final three months was at home, she cleaned up after him because of his incontinence. My neighbor made the same choice. He quietly admitted to me one day that he suffers from similar symptoms, but he is grateful because he believes his life was saved by the operation. And my friend Arnie? I’ve written about him in this space before. He was diagnosed at 70, and being a psychiatrist with a strong sense of his own sexual being, understood the potential tradeoffs. He decided to forgo treatment. He died a few years ago at 90. I never learned the cause.
So what does it mean that PSA testing gets a D rating?
It all began when Dr. Renee Hsia of the University of California at San Francisco received a simple request from a good friend who had checked into a local hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The fairly routine procedure took place 19,368 times during 2009 in California.
After he returned home, he received a bill from the hospital for $19,000, his co-payment for the parts of the $54,000 operation that his insurance company didn’t cover. “He wanted to know if this was the usual and customary charge for a one-day stay in the hospital,” she recalled.
And thus began her research into pricing variability in the state, which was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The prices ranged from $1,529 to $182,955 with the median hospital charge of $33,611, the study showed.
The prices not only varied between hospitals, they varied within hospitals. The largest spread occurred at one hospital, which Hsia wouldn’t reveal, where the cheapest appendectomy went for $7,504 while the most expensive charged was $171,696. There were numerous hospitals where the spread was $100,000 or more.
“They had the same diagnosis, but different things could have been done,” she said. For instance, one patient could have had multiple imaging tests and robotic laparoscopy, while the other received no imaging and a regular laparoscopy. There’s no evidence to suggest one set of alternatives had better outcomes than the other.
President Obama’s populist message on taxes was replicated on the health savings side of his deficit-reduction plan, which would cut spending on Medicare and Medicaid by $320 billion over the next decade and $1 trillion in the following decade.
The bulk of the savings would come from companies that provide goods and services to the programs. Payments to drug companies would be slashed by $135 billion by offering seniors in Medicare the same discounts currently mandated for poor people in Medicaid. An additional $42 billion in program savings would be achieved by reducing payments to nursing homes and home health care agencies.
And those are just the major hits taken by health-care providers in the plan, which is already drawing fierce opposition from lobbyists for industries that get whacked. Rural hospitals, big city teaching hospitals, biotechnology firms, and durable equipment manufacturers also would be in for payment cuts under the Obama blueprint.
Major trade associations representing provider groups immediately blasted the proposal, playing the same jobs card the president is using. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association “opposes implementing Medicaid’s failed price controls in Medicare Part D,” the group said in a prepared statement. “Such policies would fundamentally alter the competitive nature of the program, undermine its success, and potentially cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs.”
One wonders what the Obama administration has to do to get a little credit. I’m sitting on vacation, looking at the ocean most of the day, and spending about a half hour on line at night erasing unread emails, killing out unread RSS feeds, and checking up on my declining retirement prospects. Amid the clutter, a series of press releases from the Inspector General of the Health and Human Services Department caught my eye. Here are the headlines, with links (I’d link to the press coverage, but near as I can tell, there was none):
That was Tuesday. On Monday, the HHS sleuths put out this press release:
FORMER CHAIR OF TEMPLE’S OPHTHALMOLOGY DEPARTMENT CONVICTED OF HEALTH CARE FRAUD
PHILADELPHIA – A federal jury today convicted Dr. Joseph J. Kubacki, 62, of Destin, Florida, of 150 counts of health care fraud, wire fraud, and making false statements in health care matters, announced United States Attorney Zane David Memeger. Kubacki was the Chairperson of the Ophthalmology Department of the Temple University School of Medicine and also served as the Assistant Dean for Medical Affairs when, between 2002 and 2007, he caused thousands of false claims to be submitted to health care benefit programs with false charges totaling more than $4.5 million for services rendered to patients whom Kubacki did not personally see or evaluate. A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
In a rare bit of good news for the Obama administration and budget policymakers, health care costs increased last year at their slowest pace since the advent of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid 1960s.
The new analysis, released on July 25 by officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that administers the two programs, showed health care spending grew last year at a “historic” low 3.9 percent rate, which is slightly below 2009’s record-setting low of 4.0 percent. Health care spending as a share of the economy remained stuck at 17.6 percent, a welcome change from most years when it increases its share of total economic activity.
At a time when the White House and congressional leaders are worried about rampant long term growth of the government’s major health care insurance programs for seniors and the poor, the new data will allow government actuaries to project growth in Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade will be less than previously feared. This could potentially ease the task of the Obama administration and congressional leaders somewhat when they finally negotiate an agreement for slowing the growth of entitlement programs to help reduce the deficit.
Moreover, CMS actuaries are now saying the cost of insuring 30 million previously uninsured Americans under the president’s signature health care reform bill will add only a sliver to overall spending, and that increase is about half the projected growth rate of a year ago.Continue reading…
The Food and Drug Administration’s Prescription Drug User Fee Act is up for reauthorization next year, and so is the consumer and drug industry face-off over the contentious issue of comparative effectiveness research (CER). Consumers, patients and some physicians are demanding that CER be required of all new drugs coming to market when there are already FDA-approved therapies for the same condition. They say it will give payers and patients immediate feedback on the relative worth of the latest drugs, which are always more pricey than what preceded them, especially if the older drugs are coming off patent.
Industry opposes including CER arms in final efficacy trials. The companies claim it will place additional costs on the already expensive new drug development process; provide inadequate information for actually divining the relative worth of two competing therapies; and dissuade companies from investing in follow-on drug research, which can turn up drugs that are significantly better than older drugs.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Scott Gottlieb, who served in the FDA during the Bush administration, this week offered a lengthy brief in support of the industry position. Unfortunately, he sets up a straw man in order to knock down what could be a very effective tool for lowering the cost of medicine. It behooves industry leaders to ignore his advice, and to ignore the bleating of their marketing departments’ incessant demand for follow-on drugs.
The health care cost debate takes place on two stages using two languages, one scientific, the other economic. The net result is a failure to communicate.
The scientific texts emanated over the weekend from the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago. Ongoing clinical trials showed that science has come up with new drugs that can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and prolong life for people with skin cancer. The former is an estrogen inhibitor that would have to be taken by tens of millions of older women to have a major impact on reducing the rate of breast cancer. The latter would only be given to a subset of the 68,000 new cases of melanoma each year, and would extend life from a few months to a few years for some of the 7,700 who die from the disease each year. Again, most of those people are older, although there are a number of younger people, especially young women, who disproportionately get advanced skin cancer.
For both groups, the cost to the health care system when these drugs are approved, as they inevitably will be, will be calculated in the billions. Medicare will pick up the lion’s share of the tab, since most of the patients in both groups will be over 65.
Now let’s step around the corner to stage two, where the debate in this morning’s papers (if you read the Washington Post and New York Times every day, as I do) is over Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Paul Samuelson, the top economics columnist in the Post, essentially endorses the plan saying “under Ryan’s plan, incentive would shift. Medicare would no longer be an open ATM; the vouchers would limit total spending.” What he doesn’t say is that it would only limit total spending by government. It would require seniors to pick up a growing share of the bill, and limit their own purchasing of health care, either by purchasing plans that didn’t cover expensive end-of-life care, or simply denying themselves routine treatments to avoid co-pays and deductibles.Continue reading…