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Tag: Merrill Goozner

The Role of Conflicted Science in the Cell Phone-Cancer Link

Dr. Len over at the American Cancer Society is raising legitimate questions about the early release of findings by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that cell phone use may increase the risk of brain cancer (hat tip to Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview).  The actual study — drawn from an analysis of “hundreds of scientific articles ” — won’t be published in Lancet Oncology “for a few days,” according to IARC. Says Dr. Len:

Unfortunately, drawing broad and sweeping conclusions based on a press release and a news conference leaves many of us wondering just what the evidence shows that led to the conclusion announced today that “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields” may be possibly cause cancer in people.

The evidence, when it appears, will be murky. A few years ago, I spent several months reviewing some of the evidence in this troubling field, largely from a conflict-of-interest perspective. The global telecommunications industry funds much of the science. Even when government agencies fund research, the results are difficult to interpret. The studies invariably involve looking for a very small number of negative health outcomes (brain cancers) in very large populations. Two researchers, looking at the very same set of epidemiological facts, will often come to different conclusions. And, as often as not, those conclusions correlate with whether the the researchers are independent or whether they are on industry’s payroll.Continue reading…

How to Lower Cancer Care’s Costs

A year-and-a-half ago, Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston wrote an opinion article in the New England Journal of Medicine calling on every medical specialty to develop ways of cutting the cost of care. Citing financial sacrifices that had been made by insurers, hospitals, drug and device companies in the then pending health care reform bill, Brody said physicians could do their part “if they were willing to practice more in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and to study more seriously the data on regional practice variations.”

Toward that end, he called on each specialty to come up with a list that “would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered.”

In the NEJM last week, two oncology specialists — Thomas Smith and Bruce Hilner of Virginia Commonwealth University — took up the challenge. They created a “top five” list of common oncology practices, which, if limited to situations where they were truly clinically useful, would sharply lower the cost of cancer care. Their lead paragraph noted the need for taking these steps:

Annual direct costs for cancer care are projected to rise — from $104 billion in 2006 to over $173 billion in 2020 and beyond. This increase has been driven by a dramatic rise in both the cost of therapy and the extent of care. In the United States, the sales of anticancer drugs are now second only to those of drugs for heart disease, and 70% of these sales come from products introduced in the past 10 years. Most new molecules are priced at $5,000 per month or more, and in many cases the cost-effectiveness ratios far exceed commonly accepted thresholds. This trend is not sustainable.Continue reading…

CABG in Decline

The number of Americans with serious heart disease in need of hospital treatment is on the decline. A new study in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association shows the overall rate of coronary revascularizations — ranging from the coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgeries to in-and-out catheter-based procedures like angioplasties and stent insertions — fell from just under 1,500 per million adults a quarter in 2001 to less than 1,250 per million adults a quarter in 2008, a 15 percent decline.

The most intriguing finding in the data was that virtually all of the decline was in the most serious cases — those requiring CABG, which fell by about a third. The rate of percutaneous coronary interventions (where they snake a catheter through the thigh into the blood vessels feeding the heart, propping them open with either drug-eluting or bare metal stents) remained virtually unchanged.

The study authors, who hailed from the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, suspect the decline in CABG was driven by “a sizable shift in cardiovascular clinical practice patterns away from surgical treatment toward percutaneous coronary interventions” using catheters (so-called PCI). In other words, in recent years people with serious heart disease are more likely to be treated with the less invasive procedure.Continue reading…

GOP Bill Promotes Greater Federal Control of Exchanges

The latest Republican effort to undermine health care reform hits the House floor this week with the law of unintended consequences clearly in play. If the bill actually became law – an unlikely event since the Democrats still control the Senate and the White House – it would promote the federal takeover of health care, something Republicans have consistently opposed on the campaign trail.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, withdraws federal financial support for state-based insurance exchanges. The exchanges, which will provide a clearing house for health insurance policies sold to individuals and small groups, are supposed to be up and running by January 2014.

The original Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act created an open-ended federal grant program to help states defray the costs of setting up the exchanges. Eliminating that support would save the federal government about $1.9 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which released a cost estimate for H.R. 1213 late Thursday.Continue reading…

Comparing Hospitals on Safety, Quality and Cost

The Sunlight Foundation today gave us a fascinating first peak at the hospital safety data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was finally convinced to release the information after years of stonewalling by the American Hospital Association. For the first time, the public can compare less-than-stellar performance at competing local hospitals on key indicators like catheter or urinary tract infections or bed sores.

As their story points out, the data only cover about 60 percent of hospitals since many states, like Maryland, failed to cooperate with the voluntary CMS program. They also caution that any comparison of the raw numbers must take into account the numerous confounding variables that can make one hospital look more slipshod in its practices than another. Some hospitals take in many more older and poorer patients, who are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions that make them prone to complications during their hospital stays.

Yet as Arthur Levin of the Center for Medical Consumers, a New York-based advocacy group, pointed out, “”I think it’s fair (to release the data) as long as everybody agrees on what the limitations are, and what the caveats are. There are those who say this data isn’t ready for prime time and public review. If we waited for perfection, we wouldn’t have anything out there.”Continue reading…

IPAB — The New Punching Bag

Remember death panels? Politicians have found a new way to use health care reform as a punching bag.

The Independent Payments Advisory Board (IPAB) will be a 15-member expert panel appointed by the president and approved by the Senate that is charged with coming up with ways of cutting Medicare spending when payments grow significantly faster than the rest of the economy.

Last week, President Obama, in his speech outlining his long-term plan for cutting the deficit, upped the ante for IPAB by ratcheting up the level of cuts the board could impose if the senior citizen health care program grew too fast. Congress, under the law, would have to substitute comparable cuts of its own, or the IPAB’s plan would go into effect.

It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. The New York Times reported this morning that politicians from both sides of the aisle are lining up not only to deep-six the president’s latest IPAB proposal, but to get rid of it entirely. Republicans like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin cried rationing. Democrats like Pete Stark of California said such decisions are better left in the hands of Congress.Continue reading…

The 100% Estate Tax

There is a dangerous but beguiling econometric logic behind the idea that turning Medicare over to the insurance industry will lower health care costs. It’s an idea that could catch on if the general public became convinced that there is nothing we can do acting together as a society to lower the cost of care. Only the market can do it, the Republicans claim. Force seniors (or the poor or anyone, for that matter) to have more skin in the game, and they’ll use their clout as consumers to separate the wheat from chaff in modern medicine. Expensive, wasteful tests, procedures, and drugs will wither for lack of customers.

Democrats, in attacking the Republican plan that passed the House yesterday, relentlessly hammered away at the cost to future seniors of having “more skin in the game.” Two-thirds of the cost of care within a decade of Medicare privatization in 2023 will fall on them. But the 2030s must seem very far away to people in their 40s and 50s. Isn’t it likely that they won’t think about that far-off time, but instead grab on to the promise of future lower costs, which, let’s be frank, the Affordable Care Act (health care reform) may not be able to achieve.

So here’s the real argument young and middle-aged people need to hear, and the real reason why the “more skin in the game” argument can never work for seniors or other vulnerable populations, including them when they reach that age. Seniors and the poor account for over half of health care spending. Within those groups, 5 percent of the population accounts for 50 percent of health care costs; and 20 percent of the population accounts for about 80 percent. These costs come for the most part at times when economic incentives have no influence at all on medical decision-making: in medical crises; in treating chronic conditions; and, for most Medicare patients, in the last six months of life.

That’s why a voucher program for Medicare, which will shift an increasing share of those inevitable costs onto the elderly themselves, can fairly be categorized as a 100 percent estate tax or death tax. People under 55 need to know that if the plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan were passed, most of them will never have a cent to leave to their children. It will all go to the health care industry to support the American way of dying.

Merrill Goozner has been writing about economics and health care for many years. The former chief economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Merrill has written for a long list of publications including the New York Times, Financial Times, The American Prospect and The Washington Post. You can read more pieces by Merrill at  GoozNews, where this post first appeared.

Three Formulas

During the last election campaign, Tea Party-backed Republicans across the country rode to power on a tidal wave of advertising attacking health care reform as a cut in Medicare.  It is. If efficiency programs like the accountable care organizations being formed across the country don’t hold down spending by about $500 billion over the next decade, an Independent Payments Advisory Board would make recommendations for holding growth in Medicare spending to the growth in the domestic economy (GDP) plus one percentage point.

In most years when the economy is humming along, that would be about 4 percent. Over the past decade, health care spending for seniors grew at about 6 to 7 percent — the same as health care spending for the rest of the population. So if the Medicare delivery system reforms don’t work, Congress will either have to adopt the IPAB’s recommendations or institute cuts of its own to ratchet down spending.

This week, President Obama upped the ante to meet his budget deficit reduction targets over the next decade. Medicare spending would be held to GDP plus 0.5 percent, another approximately $300 billion in cuts. About $50 billion would come from eliminating unnecessary errors and hospital re-admissions. The rest was unexplained.Continue reading…

Time to End The Health Care Tax Exclusion?

President Obama on Wednesday will unveil his counter offer for bringing the nation’s budget deficit under control. Last week, the Republican plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Budget Committee, focused public attention on cutting health care subsidies for seniors and low-income people.

Will the president go after the bloated health care sector, too?

Here’s one way he could raise a half trillion dollars in the next four years from health without touching seniors or the poor. The plan would win plaudits from tax purists and deficit hawks. And it would make a major contribution to holding down the growth in health care costs, while testing Ryan’s claim to back putting tax expenditures on the table.

The president should propose eliminating the income tax exclusion for health care benefits.Continue reading…

Medicare, Medicaid Get Squeezed in Ryan Plan

Everyone agrees that controlling health care costs is the key to bringing long-term federal budget deficits under control. Government spending on Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor has grown nearly twice as fast as the rest of the economy for decades and is by far the largest component of future projected deficits.

But government funded health care programs aren’t unique in that regard. Employer-based coverage for the working population, which is provided through private insurance companies, has grown just as fast. The problem in a nutshell is the cost of health care, not its funding source.

That’s why it’s important to consider how the two separate sides of our health care system – public plans and private plans – will interact should the Medicare privatization plan that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., touted on Fox News Sunday become law. The House Budget Committee chairman’s alternative budget would turn Medicare over to private insurers for anyone who retired after 2021. Future retirees would receive a capped payment to buy insurance (he called it “premium support,” not a voucher). Medicaid would be turned into a capped block grant – which translates as a fixed sum awarded to states.

Capping expenditures is central to cost-control in the Ryan plan, which is essentially the same plan that he co-authored with former Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin during the fiscal commission deliberations. The plan limits the annual growth in the amount earmarked for either premium support or block grants to one percentage point more than gross domestic product (call it GDP+1).

That’s about half of the actual health care cost outlays in most years. According to Congressional Budget Office projections released in January, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is expected to nearly double to $1.6 trillion by 2021, about a 7 percent annual increase. If the primary goal is holding down taxes and spending, capping that rise at GDP+1 provides the upside. With a wave of the legislative wand, government spending on health care for the old and poor would be reduced to more manageable proportions – between 3.5 and 4.5 percent a year depending on how fast the economy grows. Taxpayers could rejoice.Continue reading…

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