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Tag: The ACA

Repeal is Irresponsible

“The primary ethical issue of modern medicine and public health is the outcome gap,” write Paul Farmer and Nicole Gastineau Campos in an essay published in 2004. Entrenched in “growing social inequalities,” this gap is immediately evident to every physician: poverty is inversely proportional to health. “The growing gap,” they elaborate, “constitutes the chief human rights challenge of the 21st century.” The proliferation of people who never experience abuse of their civil rights, but lack access to medical care, has damaging societal implications: “what does it mean when an African-American neonate does not have ready access to a neonatal intensive care unit?” The answer is that “[w]henever more effective technologies are introduced there will be, in the absence of an equity plan, a growing outcome gap.”

Around the country, this gap is exploding. Surviving an illness may sometimes depend on the good will of kids. I kid you not. Carlos Olivas, Jr., a 12 year-old  boy, in view that Arizona’s cuts to Medicare meant certain death to a man who he had never met named Francisco Felix, decided to help, raising money in the street. Carlos’ empathy toward Mr Felix―at least in part―originates from the thought of finding his father (who has cirrhosis) in a similar situation.

A sense of responsibility toward others, as exhibited by this young man, is the foundation of all societies. Carlos is an exemplary citizen, proof that the Social Contract is an intuitive concept. His behavior is strictly rational: today, I’m strong and can help the weak; tomorrow, when I’m not as strong, someone will help me.

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Why Christians Should Support Health Care Rationing

It’s coming.  Health care reform, Round II.

Republicans pledged to do it as part of their manifesto during the midterm election campaigns.  And House Speaker John Boehner, less than a day after the elections, vowed that the GOP would “do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common sense reforms to bring down the cost of health care.”

But why was this such a high priority?  The lack of cost controls?  Unfunded state mandates?  Questions surrounding federal funding of abortions?  Well, yes, but the go-to critique of health care reform can be summed up in one word:

Rationing.

Recently, as part of a response to the FDA revoking its approval for a late-stage breast cancer drug, several key Republicans criticized this kind of rationing, but set their sights on a much bigger target:

“Unfortunately, this is only just the beginning,” they continued. “The new health reform law — the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — creates 159 new boards, commissions and agencies that will destroy the doctor-patient relationship and replace it with federal bureaucrats deciding who gets care and what treatments they can receive,” The Hill’s Jason Millman reported.

And the GOP will have backing in this effort from a pro-life Christian base crying out against ‘euthanasia’ and ‘death panels’ in the new health care law.

But this attitude refuses to admit two undeniable truths about human existence:

We have virtually unlimited health care needs. (All of us will die some day.)

We have limited health care resources. (There is a finite amount of ‘stuff’ out there.)

We will never not be rationing health care.  Any other conclusion misunderstands the human condition.

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Turning the Clock Back Isn’t Enough: The Nasty Surprise Awaiting the GOP on Health Care and the Deficit

The Republicans who will take control of the House this January have made it clear there are two things they hate: deficits and President Obama’s healthcare reform. They’ve promised to reduce the first and repeal (or at least hobble) the second. But if you’re worried about deficits, repealing the Obama plan won’t do any good unless you’ve got a better idea. In fact, the numbers say repealing it could make the government’s budget problems worse.

Despite the outrage over spending on the Wall Street bailout, the stimulus or the Iraq war, at least these costs are temporary.  But the combination of an aging population and health costs that keep rising faster than inflation means that spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are going up – – and they’ll keep going up for years on end. With an aging population, there will be more older people eligible for these programs. The health care they need will cost more on top of it.

When people argue about the costs of an aging America, they often lump Social Security and Medicare together like they were the identical twins of public policy.  If they are twins, they’re more like the 1980s movie Twins, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as the world’s most improbable pair of brothers. Maybe you remember the iconic movie poster. It shows the two dressed alike, but with an enormous Schwarzenegger looming over DeVito.  In the budget world, Medicare and Social Security are both problems, but Medicare is definitely played by Arnold. Here’s why.

Health care spending has been rising faster than the inflation rate for decades. In 2007, the Consumer Price Index went up 2.8 percent, and health spending went up 6 percent. In 1997 inflation went up 2.3 percent, and health spending went up 5.4 percent.  In 1990, when inflation was 5.4 percent, health spending climbed nearly 11 percent.

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Does Medicare Have it Right in 2011?

Starting in 2011 with the regulations required by the PPACA Medicare will mandate copay and deductible free preventative services for our older Americans.  This is great news for primary care physicians.  I’m a family physician, and have struggled for years with the fact that just about every private insurance plan covers an annual physical exam, but Medicare did not.  What this anti-intuitive dichotomy accomplished was bringing in my relatively healthy 30-something patients for a physical exam each year, while for my 70 year old for whom far more preventative services were recommended by the United States Preventative Services Task Force was not covered for a preventative exam ever.  Not annually, not every 3 years, just once at age 65 to last their lifetime.

As primary care physicians we tried to our best to squeeze preventative care into visits primarily for other complaints.  At a visit of my diabetes patients every 3 months I’d try to focus on the diabetes and save enough time to review immunization status, assure breast and colon cancer screening was up to date, help med decide if they wanted prostate cancer screening, ….   I’m looking forward to being able to ask my seniors to schedule a preventative care visit annually now and being able to focus on these issues without having to eke out time in a problem oriented visit.

Still I have to say if the goal is to provide incentive to older Americans to go to their physicians for services that will really make a difference in the health of the Medicare population problems I think congress has it wrong.  If we want to prevent unnecessary hospitalizations and expensive complications from neglected medical problems, and have the biggest impact to reduce the burden of expensive medical complications and I believe the most efficacious preventative services we can offer in health care are secondary prevention and disease management.  I’d love to think that by primary prevention, education, and physical exams I can help patients improve their health and subsequently reduce costs and get better outcomes.  The problem is that there is little evidence that this is the case. This new regulation, offering a free once annual preventative care visit may find some early cancers, improve immunization rates and make us feel like we are being proactive.

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Managed Care 2.0

“The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.” — Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, Freakonomics

When The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPAC) and its companion legislation was ratified by Congress and signed by the President into law, there was a great expectation for sweeping change. Yet, change is a scary proposition for 180M Americans who believe the devil they know (employer based private coverage) is preferred to a government run system.

Seniors are suddenly doing the math and wondering if their beloved Medicare will default on their watch. More than 50% of these same seniors, when polled, shared they do not want a government run healthcare system ——even though Medicare is a government run system.  People are confused, angry and wary. Yet PPAC is now law and despite its obvious flaws and potential for unintended consequences, it is unlikely to be repealed or deconstructed.  For better or worse, it is the foundation for Managed Care 2.0.

Managed Care 2.0 – Reform is setting the stage for a new era of American healthcare – Managed Care 2.0.  In launching this new period anchored by expanded access and insurance market reforms, we are expecting to say farewell to the three decade era of Managed Care 1.0 – a barren stretch of fiscal and social desert marked by spiraling costs, misaligned financial incentives, massive underfunding of Medicare and Medicaid obligations, fraud, over-treatment, public to private cost shifting, historic rates of chronic illness and the slow erosion of employer sponsored healthcare leading to an astounding 40M Americans without insurance.

Where Managed Care 1.0 was a time characterized by consolidation of stakeholders, cost shifting, risk shifting and scorched earth, Darwinian battles on the supply and delivery side, Managed Care 2.0 will begin, as one pundit called it, “ the battle for the soul of medicine”.Continue reading…

The Libertarian Mind

“It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.” –Simone Weil

Libertarianism is much in the news these days, as the political divide in the U.S. seems to widen almost before our eyes. Before providing a rough, notional definition of “libertarianism”, I should offer readers some caveats. First, I am not a political scientist, professional philosopher, or economist, though scholars in these fields have offered many pointed critiques of what is loosely called libertarianism (see references). Furthermore, as a psychiatrist, I am trained to diagnose individuals whom I have professionally examined. I am not in the habit of “diagnosing” movements, ideologies, or political groups; indeed, the idea of doing so is clearly outside the purview of medical or psychiatric practice.

Nonetheless, as a lecturer on bioethics and humanities, it is impossible for me to read the platform and proclamations of the Libertarian Party without drawing some tentative conclusions as regards the nature of this movement; its psychological underpinnings; and its ethical implications for the poorest and sickest among us—those sometimes referred to as “the destitute sick.”

I do not propose to “psychoanalyze” particular individuals, or to speculate on the motives of political figures who figure prominently in American politics. And, because the term “libertarian” has such a wide range of meanings, I will focus my attention on the official platform of the Libertarian party, which is very lucidly spelled out in a publicly-available venue (http://www.lp.org/platform). For the most part, I will deal with the Libertarian party’s position on health care and social support systems, while offering some tentative impressions on the “psychology” of libertarian theory.Continue reading…

The Ryan/Rivlin Plan

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), have proposed an entitlement spending reform plan that is striking both for its boldness and its left-right-coming-together origins. There are a number of interesting parts, but I want to focus on the three most important:

  • Medicare would, for the first time, be transformed into rational insurance. Beginning in 2013, all enrollees would be protected by a $6,000 cap on out-of-pocket expenses; in return they would pay for more small expenses on their own.
  • After a decade, people newly eligible for Medicare would receive a voucher to purchase private insurance instead. The value of the voucher would grow at the rate of growth of GDP plus 1% (note: for the past four decades, health care spending per capita nationwide has been growing at about GDP growth plus 2%).
  • Medicaid would be turned into annual block grants to the states. The value of the block grants would also grow at GDP growth plus 1%.

Bottom line verdict: This is a good proposal that deserves serious attention. To guarantee its success, however, more needs to be done to (1) allow the private sector to control costs through economic incentives, competition and entrepreneurship and (2) allow young people to save for the growing share of expenses they will be expected to bear.

How Does This Plan Compare with the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? Given that Ryan has been previously attacked by Paul Krugman and others on the left because of his ideas about voucherizing Medicare, a natural question arises. How does the Ryan/Rivlin slowdown in Medicare spending compare to the health reform bill Congress passed last spring a bill supported by some of the very people attacking Ryan?

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“Don’t Litigate, Innovate.”

What if a Republican governor and a Republican legislature had the ability to implement their version of health insurance reform and the federal government would have to pay for it? It’s a great idea. And I’m thrilled to say that a bi-partisan bill has already been introduced in the Senate by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., that would help facilitate exactly this end.

First, let’s review section 1332 of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to realize how states are already — at least eventually — given the ability to innovate in this manner. Here is a simplified summary:

  • A state may apply to the Health and Human Services secretary for a waiver of all or any requirements with respect to the insurance exchanges, mandates, and subsidies with respect to health insurance coverage within that state for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2017.
  • The secretary has to provide for an alternative means by which the aggregate amount of the tax credits and subsidies, which would have been paid on behalf of participants in the exchanges, would instead be paid to the state for purposes of implementing their own version of the law.
  • The secretary may grant a request for a waiver only if the secretary determines that the state plan will provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage defined under the new law and offered through similar exchanges established by the states.

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Hospital Discharge Without a Net

By the time I reached the sixth day of my hospitalization for stomach cancer surgery, I was antsy to go home and I quizzed each nurse and physician who came into my room about what must happen for me to be liberated the following day. Their responses were consistent: my surgeon would visit in the morning and write orders for my release.  Then I would have a comprehensive discussion with my nurse about my discharge plan, after which I could leave.

I was pretty curious about getting that discharge plan.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act raised the stakes for hospitals to reduce high readmission rates and new data on those rates are available.  The rates and approaches to reduce them through improved discharge planning are the subject of news reports, journal articles and conferences. And I, a patient in a modern, quality-conscious hospital, was going to experience this process myself!

Here’s a rough transcript of my discharge discussion:

Nurse: Good news!  The orders came through!  You can go home.

Me: (in the corner untangling wires from my cell phone and iPod chargers) Wonderful.  What do I need to know?

Nurse: Here are a couple prescriptions for pain medication.  Don’t drive if you take it.  Call your surgeon if you have a temperature or are worried about anything.  Go see your doctor in two weeks.  Do you want a flu shot? I can give you one before you leave.  If you need a wheel chair to take you to the door, I’ll call for one.  If not, you can go home.  Take care of yourself.  You are going to do great!

That was it: 8:45 a.m. and I could leave.

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The Road to Wellville: Pilots and Demos?

As might be expected of reform legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act places a lot of emphasis on innovation. Reasonably enough, most of the potential changes—at least in Medicare—are to be preceded by pilot or demonstration projects designed to test their feasibility. In fact, according to one health care blogger with time on his hands, PPACA includes no less than 312 mentions of demonstrations and 80 mentions of pilots.

Just how important are all these pilots and demos? Harvard’s David Cutler, who served as a key advisor to the Obama administration in developing the reform strategy, clearly believes they are vital. Writing in the June Health Affairs, he stresses the need for rapid implementation of the pilots and demonstrations in order to help achieve eventual savings of “enormous amounts of money while simultaneously improving the quality of care.”

How realistic are Professor Cutler’s expectations?

CMS’ Medicare chronic care demonstrations provide some clues. With data showing that the costliest 25 percent of beneficiaries account for 85 percent of total Medicare spending and that 75 percent of the high-cost beneficiaries have one or more major chronic conditions, the demonstrations were expected to show big benefits from care coordination—the major theme of PPACA’s proposed demos.

The outcomes were decidedly discouraging, as noted by MedPac’s 2009 report to Congress:

“Results suggest that some of these programs may have modest effects on the quality of care and mixed impacts on Medicare costs, with most programs costing Medicare more than would have been spent had they not been implemented….In almost all cases, the cost to Medicare of the intervention exceeded the savings generated by reduced use of inpatient hospitalizations and other medical services.”

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