Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt
In this edition’s tidbits, I have to return to the stunning impact of the Dobbs ruling. We know will happen because it is already happening in Texas where the 6 week law was already being enforced in contravention of Roe v Wade.
Don’t get me started on the absolute nonsense being talked–and passed into law –about ectopic pregnancies, of which there are over 130,000 each year in the US, being carried to term. How unlikely is it that an ectopic pregnancy makes it to term with no ill effects? Let me tell you a story. My dad was an OBGYN. He and his anesthetist saved the life of a woman and her baby who somehow had made it to term while being ectopic. During the surgery she needed 12 pints of blood (a normal woman has 7-8 pints in her body) and he considered it the greatest piece of surgery he did in his entire career. He thought that he and the patients were very lucky. So I demand that crazy legislation saying ectopic pregnancies have to be carried to term also mandates that my dad is around to do every single C-Section. Unlikely, as he’s dead, but no crazier than the legislation in Indiana.
Then there’s the impact on telehealth. Most abortions are done using drugs but more and more of the pandemic-era exemptions to prescribing drugs and seeing patients over telehealth across state lines are being withdrawn. Clearly the state-based licensing of doctors is itself ridiculous in an age of online commerce, but despite the DOJ statements the legality of prescribing abortifacients across state lines is very unclear and, as Deven McGraw explained in this harrowing piece on THCB Gang, HIPAA doesn’t protect patient privacy from local law enforcement. So what happens to someone in a state where abortion is banned if they have to go to hospital because of a complication from taking an abortifacient? Trump thinks they should go to jail.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been on a tear lately, and his central theme appears to be “revanchism.” Faced with declining demographics, he is retaliating against enemies and newcomers alike, aligning himself with slippery politicians and vigilantes. As they say in Texas, “He’s on a first-name basis with the bottom of the deck”, and the game he’s playing appears to be “South Africa – 1950.”
The formal establishment of apartheid in South Africa occurred in 1948, though racial injustice had been baked in centuries earlier. Violence and intimidation, embedded in legislation supported by a 15% white minority, led to the creation of the African National Congress (ANC) which launched what they called their “Defiance Campaign.” By 1962, their party had been outlawed, and their dynamic leader, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned.
And yet resistance continued to grow, inside and outside the country. Religious leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, took to the street, organizing huge, peaceful rallies. In 1976, images of Black children being attacked and killed in Soweto township during a protest spread like wildfire around the world. 176 died and thousands were injured. In response, the United Nations called on its member states to divest and impose economic sanctions. Only 2 leaders did not. (More on that in a moment.)
Minority rule, oppression, vigilantism, and disenfranchisement are eventually losing propositions as Greg Abbott is learning. A majority of 52% now say his state is moving in the wrong direction. The list of grievances is long and continues to grow. Catholic bishops decried his inhumane handling of immigrant families this year. Baptist minister Rev. Frederick Haynes III spotlighted the Republican legislature’s voter suppression law recently suggesting they were “dressing up Jim and Jane Crow in a tuxedo.” Only 39% approve of his handling of the pandemic, and many Texans find the renewed endorsement of “vigilante justice” for unfortunate women and girls seeking abortions to be a disturbing and dystopian new reality. By the way, 1 in 5 Texans lack health insurance, and Texas is one of twelve Republican-led states that continue to refuse federal offers to expand Medicaid coverage of their citizens.
Texas should call itself The Granny State. That’s because it’s a nanny state in which the public officials who run the place have the values of a tea-totaling, Bible-thumping biddy who knows how God wants everyone to live and can’t resist telling them. No buying liquor on Sundays when people are supposed to be at church. No gambling ever. No whacky-weed for medicinal uses or recreation, even in the privacy of one’s home. No gay marriage, preferably no gays, and no transgender folk deciding which restrooms to use. And, of course, no sex, sex education, birth control, or abortions. Women should have sex only in marriage and then only to reproduce, and those who get pregnant must carry their babies to term, regardless of the consequences for themselves or anyone else.
These religion-inspired policies have served Texans poorly. The state’s maternal mortality rate nearly doubled in just two years after Texas cut its budget for family planning by two-thirds and eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s now the worst in the developed world, not just in the US. Texas ranks 8th from the bottom in the frequency of STDs and has the 5th highest teen pregnancy rate too. Its 35 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 are nearly double the national average. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have achieved miraculous reductions in teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates by providing young women with long-acting contraceptives, like implants and IUDs. If Texas is following God’s plan, then God’s plan is a bust.
Now Granny is once again sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Currently before the Texas legislature is Senate Bill 25, which would eliminate the wrongful birth cause of action that the Texas Supreme Court recognized four decades ago in Jacobs v. Theimer. The facts were as follows. While traveling, Dortha Jacobs became ill. Upon returning home, she consulted a physician, Dr. Louis Theimer, who discovered that she was newly pregnant. Fearing that the illness was rubella—also known as the German measles—Jacobs asked Dr. Theimer if there was reason for concern. Rubella can injure a gestating fetus severely. Dr. Theimer told her not to worry, but he did so without performing an available diagnostic test. In fact, the disease was rubella and the child “was born with defects of brain, speech, sight, hearing, kidneys, and urinary tract,” among others. The medical expenses were extraordinary.
Over the past two years, policy makers across the nation have been actively adopting policies in support of the rapid adoption of telehealth. From states affirming that health insurance plans should appropriately cover care provided through innovative technologies, to Congress contemplating multiple proposals for telehealth expansion within Medicare – telehealth is fast becoming a permanent part of our healthcare ecosystem.
This movement has been most clearly demonstrated by state medical boards. It has been their job to answer the questions: can physicians use technology to extend the reach of their care? Can telehealth be used to create a treatment relationship, and if so, are their limitations to this relationship?
Overwhelmingly, the resounding answer to these questions has been a consistent one – yes, you can use robust telehealth technologies to provide care and the main limitation is simple – uphold the same standard of care. The Federation of State Medical Boards has upheld this concept.
But if you’ve been following this movement, you know there’s a rather large blip on the national map: Texasa state with more than 27 million residents and a clear need for increased access to care – was recently ranked “worst in telehealth” by the National Center for Policy Analysis. The good news: despite restrictive rules and a lawsuit that’s hindering progress, telehealth is working in Texas and changes, they are a coming.
Healthcare.gov appears to be working much better, at least in enabling individuals to select plans. And some of the state exchange web sites appear to be improving their functionality too. Some have heralded these advances as providing hope that the Exchanges will be able to meet the enrollment projections on which the economics of insurance without medical underwriting in part depend. But do these claims stand up to the cold light of mathematics? Not very well.
Here’s the headline:
A close look at the numbers shows that the pace of enrollments from here to the close of open enrollment needed to meet projections is high in every state, even those touted as successful, and almost impossibly high in many. Given the incredibly slow start in most jurisdictions, it will not just take a little pickup over the next few months to achieve the projected and needed number of persons in the Exchanges. It will take a miraculous last minute stampede. Since miracles seldom occur, the result may be two different stories of the Affordable Care Act: a few states in which the Exchanges proved from the start to be a somewhat stable mechanism for providing health insurance without medical underwriting but a significant number of other states in which the results for at least the first year represent a large failure.
News appears to be breaking out that the federal exchanges enrolled about 100,000 in November. This is being heralded as somewhat of a success compared to the 26,000 who enrolled in October. And, of course, enrollment figures from healthcare.gov are difficult to assess due to the actual and feared dysfunctionality of the web site. But one way to look at this is to consider what has to happen between December 1, 2013, and March 23, 2014, the close of open enrollment to make projections. The states that are dependent on healthcare.gov need about 4.84 million enrollees by the end of that period if the nation is to meet the goal of having 7 million enrolled in the Exchanges by the close of open enrollment. If, right now, there are about 126,000 enrollees in those states, we are just 2.5% of the way there.
The pace of enrollment on healthcare.gov will need to increase by a factor of about 20 in order to meet goal. In absolute terms, healthcare.gov needs to be enrolling about 42,000 people per day. And while perhaps not every single one of those people need to enroll for the system to succeed, the 7 million enrollment goal isn’t just a mere wish. There are, as I and many others have noted potentially serious consequences to the stability of insurance markets if the figures fall well short, even in several states.
If it is done right, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) may well promise uninsured Americans a lot more than cheap, reliable medical care. It can also open the door to the democratic empowerment of millions of poor people, who are often alienated from much of the nation’s civic life, by strengthening the organizations that give them a voice.
This year more than 30 million uninsured Americans are to begin signing up for Obamacare, but the vast majority of those eligible for either the expanded Medicaid program, or for subsidized private health insurance through state health exchanges, have no idea how to enroll. Surveys and focus groups have found that up to three-quarters of Americans who might directly benefit from the program are skeptical that the law can provide high-quality insurance coverage at a price they can afford.
In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney signed Chapter 58 of the Acts of 2006 entitled “An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care.” It has been described by many names, including Massachusetts Healthcare Reform (MHR), Romneycare, or simply, as the template for the Affordable Care Act. The goal of the act was straightforward: to ensure near-universal access to health insurance for citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The bill quickly led to insurance expansion: by 2010, 94.2% of adults under 65 had health insurance, an 8 percent increase over the 86.6% in 2006. By all accounts, the goals of insurance expansion were met.
But the bill has not been without controversy. There have been two main concerns: first, that the bill did too little to control rising healthcare costs. The cost crisis led to the 2012 bill that many refer to as “Mass Health Reform 2.0” – formally called Chapter 224 of the Acts of 2012. Its focus is to curtail healthcare spending, and while reasonable people have reasons for skepticism about the likelihood of success, that’s a topic for another day.
Medical malpractice in America remains a thorny and contentious issue, made no less so by its virtual exclusion from the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) governing healthcare reform in America.
Which is why I was glad to see the former head of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, now with the liberal Center for American Progress, cite it as his second top priority for gaining control of our out-sized medical spending – an implicit criticism of its omission from Obamacare.
Although speaking in the context of criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to offer vouchers so Medicare enrollees could purchase private health insurance, his comments about the need to address malpractice reform are a departure from the liberal talking points on Obamacare. Here’s what he had to say…
“Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposals to control health care spending by slashing the federal government’s contribution to Medicare and Medicaid and shifting that spending on to future retirees or the states, has dominated Washington’s conversation about entitlement reform. But…a group of health care economists and former Obama administration officials laid out an alternative approach that could achieve health savings by encouraging providers to deliver care more efficiently…
“‘Mr. Ryan has had too much running room to go out with proposals that neither will reduce overall health care costs nor will help individual beneficiaries simply because there has not been enough of an alternative put forward by those who believe that we really need to focus on the incentives and information for providers…If I had to pick out two or three things to do immediately, I would pick the accelerated (trend) towards bundled payments and non fee-for-service payment…
By expanding Medicaid, the state-federal partnership that offers health insurance to low-income Americans, the Affordable Care Act set out to cover some 17 million uninsured – or roughly half of the 34 million who are expected to gain coverage under reform. But when the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act in June, it struck down a key provision which threatened that if a state refused to co-operate in extending Medicaid to more of its citizens, it could lose the federal funding it now receives for its current Medicaid enrollees.
In a 7-to-2 decision, the justices ruled that this punishment was too coercive: “withholding of ‘existing Medicaid funds’ is ‘a gun to the head’” – that would force states to acquiesce.
As a result, states can, if they choose, opt out of the Medicaid expansion, and some governors are threatening to do just that – even though the federal government has committed to pay 100 percent of the cost from 2014 to 2017. After that, the federal share would gradually decline to 90 percent in 2020, and remain there. This is a generous offer; today the federal government now picks up just 57 percent of the Medicaid tab.
Nevertheless, some states claim that the 10 percent that they would have to ante up after 2020 is more than they can afford. A few go further and admit that this isn’t just about money: by rejecting the federal funds, they are voicing their objection to “Obamacare.”