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Matthew’s health care tidbits: How do you tell the price of a drug?

Each time I send out the THCB Reader, our newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB (Sign up here!) I include a brief tidbits section. Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

As the average THCB reader is probably all too well aware I live in Marin County, California and therefore my kids are on amphetamine-based medication for ADHD. This is annoying as all get out because, as a controlled substance, this medication needs to be re-prescribed every month (no automatic refills allowed). In addition no 90 day supplies are allowed, and the kids must have checkups with their prescribing physician every 3 months (which are not cheap).

It’s not just prescribing which is complicated. Supply is an issue too and frequently pharmacies run out. This is furtherly frustrating because if one pharmacy is out it can’t move the Rx to another, even in the same chain like Walgreens or CVS. The new pharmacy requires a whole new prescription. I discovered last year that Alto Pharmacy, a VC backed home delivery pharmacy, will deliver controlled medications. This has saved me 12-24 visits to CVS in the past year.

But with a new year there are new problems. The “allowed” price, i.e. the price my insurer Blue Cross of Massachusetts had agreed with Alto Pharmacy (and other pharmacies) for the specific generic for one of my kids somehow went from $29 a month to $107. That’s the amount I actually pay until we hit our $4,500 family deductible. Incidentally because it’s a medication we still pay $10 a month after we hit the deductible.

Alto kept telling me that the cash price was around $50. But of course if we pay the lower cash price (either there or elsewhere using GoodRx) that doesn’t count against the deductible. So if we hit the deductible we are out the $50 (which works out to roughly $1200 per year for 2 kids). I kept asking Alto what had changed that made the cost go up? They kept not telling me an answer, other than it cost $107. I asked the good people at Health Tech Nerds slack group if they could guess what was going on. Their consensus was that the formulary tier had been changed. “But it’s a generic”, (I foolishly thought).

Finally I called the pharmacy number on BCBS Massachusetts website, and ended up talking to someone at CVS Caremark– their PBM. In the course of the 30 minute call they ran a dummy claim with several other pharmacies. All came back at the $107 number. They then looked up the formulary to see if it had changed. Meanwhile I looked at the formulary on the BCBS Mass website while this was going on. The medication was still tier 1. So why has the cost to me and perhaps to the Blues plan gone up from $29 a month to $107? (Yes that’s more than a factor of 3!)

While she was talking to me the Caremark rep was also able to Slack with several other colleagues–relatively advanced for an old world PBM I thought. Eventually the answer came back. The med was indeed tier one. But until we spent our deductible the med was tier 2. In other words if we were paying for the drug the price is $107. As soon as BCBS Massachusetts starts paying for it the price goes back to $29 (of which they only pay $19) as we have a $10 copay.

Why this has happened is beyond me? Is Caremark or BCBS Massachusetts suggesting another cheaper drug? I haven’t heard from them. Are they trying to discourage patients from getting to their deductibles? My cynical conclusion is that Caremark is trying to increase the revenue for CVS– its corporate pharmacy–which that accounts for 1/3 of all outpatient Rx.

Otherwise this pricing strategy makes no sense to me. Of course this is just another example of a completely opaque process. And that appears typical for American health care.

The “Antebellum Paradox”: What is it and why it matters.

BY MIKE MAGEE

I recently made the case that “Health is foundational to a functioning democracy. But health must be shared and be broadly accessible to be an effective enabler of good government.” I also suggested that the pursuit of good health is implied and imbedded in the aspirational and idealistic wording of our U.S. Constitution, and that the active pursuit of health as a nation is essential if we wish to rise to Hamilton’s challenge in Federalist #1 and prove that we are “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” So why are native white males lagging behind in health?

Our progress as a nation toward health was severely hampered from the start. The reality of self-government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” applied only to 6% of inhabitants, all white male land owners at the time. Health was never voiced as a priority, though modern day critics insist it is clearly implied in the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what was that promise worth in the late 18th century, in a nation that allowed slavery, disenfranchised women, and slaughtered and dislocated its indigenous brothers and sisters?

In those earliest years of the birth of this nation, in the first half of the 19th century, what was the state of health for enfranchised native born white citizens of this nation? Most may presume (as I did) that the general health and standard of living over the next two hundred years, as reflected in lifespan, was a straight (if gradual) upward slope. But what I learned from a bit of digging is that uncovering the facts on mortality, fertility, migration, and population growth during those early years of our nation is a complex venture at best.

Our federal government did conduct a census every ten years, but one hundred years passed before we reliably collected vital statistics including comprehensive birth and death registration. Beginning in 1850, age, sex, race, marital status, occupation and cause of death were supposed to be collected. But an audit in those years disclosed that mortality (for example) was 40% underreported.

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Return to McAllen: A Father-Son Interview

By IAN ROBERTSON KIBBE

You are going to hear a little more about McAllen, TX on THCB Shortly. And before we dive into what’s happened there lately, I thought those of you who weren’t here back in the day might want to read an article on THCB from July 2009. Where then THCB editor Ian Kibbe interviewed his dad David Kibbe about what he was doing as a primary care doc in McAllen–Matthew Holt

By now, Dr. Atul Gawande’s article on McAllen’s high cost of health care has been widely read.  The article spawned a number of responses and catalyzed a national discussion on cost controls and the business of medicine.  It even made it’s way into the President’s address to the AMA.

Almost overnight, McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley were thrust into the national health care spotlight – the once sleepy border town became, not a beacon on a hill, but a balefire in the valley, representing much of what is wrong with the current medical culture.

But, McAllen wasn’t always like something from an old Western, where doctors run wild and hospital CEO’s compete like town bosses.  I remember McAllen quite differently.  I remember it, because as it turns out, it was where I was born.

It’s also where my father, Dr. David Kibbe, practiced medicine from 1980 to 1990. In order to find out how McAllen earned the dubious reputation it now has, I sat down with my Dad, and asked him what he remembers about that little border town on the Rio Grande.

Ian Kibbe: So Dad, what was your first reaction to reading Atul Gawande’s article?

David Kibbe: Well, Ian, it was sort of “oh-my-gosh, he nailed it.”   And, of course, a flood of memories, good and bad, came back to me about our time there.  My medical career began there, you and your sisters were born there, small town 4th of July parades, etc.  But I left after great disappointment and frustration.

IK: What were you doing in McAllen practicing medicine anyway?

DK: The National Health Service Corps sent me there to work in a clinic for migrant farm workers.  The NHSC had provided me three years of medical school scholarship, and so I owed three years of service in an under-doctored area of the country.  I speak Spanish, and so working as a family doctor in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which is the home of many of the country’s Hispanic migrant farm workers, was a good fit.  Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located, was the poorest county in the country, and there was a real physician shortage there in 1980.

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Cardiology update: Should mRNA vaccine myocarditis be a contraindication to future COVID-19 vaccinations ?

BY ANISH KOKA

Myopericarditis is a now a well reported complication associated with Sars-Cov-2 (COVID-19) vaccinations. This has been particularly common with the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines (BNT162b2 and mrna-1273), with a particular predilection for young males.

Current guidance by the Australian government “technical advisory groups” as well as the Australian Cardiology Society suggest patients who have experienced myocarditis after an mRNA vaccine may consider a non-mRNA vaccine once “symptom free for at least 6 weeks”.

A just published report of 2 cases from Australia that document myopericarditis after use of the non-mRNA Novavax vaccine in patients that had recovered from mRNA vaccine myocarditis suggests this is a very bad idea.

The case reports

Case 1 involves a 26 year old man who developed pericarditis after the Pfizer vaccine. Pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac the heart lives in, developed about 7 days after the Pfizer vaccine. The diagnosis was made based on classic findings of inflammation on an electrocardiogram associated with acute chest pain. The symptoms lasted 3 months, and a total of 6 months after the first episode of pericarditis, he received a booster vaccination with the Novovax (NVX-CoV2373) vaccine. 2-3 days after this he developed the same sharp chest pain and shortness of breath with elevated inflammatory markers (CRP) as well as typical findings of pericarditis seen on ECG. To add insult to injury, he contracted COVID 2 months after the second episode of pericarditis, but had no recurrence of the symptoms of pericarditis.

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Ultrasound is Ultra-Cool

BY KIM BELLARD

AI continues to amaze – ChatGPT is now passing Wharton Business School exams, Microsoft and Google are doubling down in their AI efforts – and I’m as big a fan as anyone, but I want to talk about a technology that has been more under the radar, so to speak: ultrasound.  

Yes, ultrasound.  Most of us have probably had an ultrasound at some point (especially if you’ve been pregnant) and Dr. Eric Topol continues his years-long quest to replace the ancient stethoscope technology with ultrasound, but if you think ultrasound is just another nifty tool in the imaging toolbox, you’ve missed a lot. 

Let’s start with the coolest use I’ve seen: ultrasound can be used for 3D printing.  Inside the body.  

This news on this dates back to last April, when researchers from Concordia University published their findings in Nature (I found out about it last week).  Instead of the more common “Additive Manufacturing” (AM) approach to 3D printing, these researchers use Direct Sound Printing (DSP).  

The paper summarizes their results: “To show unique future potentials of DSP, applications such as RDP [Remote Distance Printing] for inside body bioprinting and direct nanoparticle synthesizing and pattering by DSP for integrating localized surface plasmon resonance with microfluidics chip are experimentally demonstrated.”

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Matthew’s health care tidbits: My retina & what it tells us about primary care

Each time I send out the THCB Reader, our newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB (Sign up here!) I include a brief tidbits section. Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

I had a little scare the other night. I was driving home from a weekend in the mountains and I asked my wife if she saw that flashing light. No it wasn’t the cops, and no she hadn’t seen it. Turns out that I had a bright flash if I moved my eye a certain way. Oh, well I assumed I was tired and a good night’s sleep would fix it.

Next morning the flash was still there when I looked quickly to the left and a few weird floaters had appeared. I headed to the Mayo Clinic website and it looked to me like I had a detaching retina. I got on the urgent visit video with One Medical. The NP who answered said it sounded like I might have retina problems and I should get it checked by my ophthalmologist. But my eyesight has always been great (other than me needing reading glasses in my old age) and I haven’t got one. So who, I asked, do you recommend?

Here we fall into the crux of the problem. One Medical is an excellent primary care service. So good that Amazon bought it for $3bn. But it’s not a multi-specialty group nor is it a system like Kaiser. The answer was, “we don’t really recommend anyone–that’s not how it works.” The NP ended up looking up ophthalmologists near me & sent me a name as a referral in their app. But that’s not a link to anything and it wasn’t one chosen through some analytical process of seeking quality excellence.

I looked up MarinHealth (my local hospital)’s website and searched ophthalmology. That referred name was on it. I called. The doctor was out this week. They gave me another name. That doctor’s office gave me another name and that third office could see me that same day. I felt some pressure to see them right away as in the case of a detached retina Mayo says “ Contacting an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) right away can help save your vision”. The good news is having spent a couple of hours at the ophthalmologist’s my retina needs watchful waiting not surgery.

But the bad news is that for me, like 90% of Americans, there’s no easy way to get referred into a trustworthy system for specialty care. This can be even worse. My friend Sarah McDonald explains in her book The Cancer Channel how, after being diagnosed with a rare incurable cancer by a head & neck surgeon, the all encompassing support she received was to be given the number of a specialist at UCSF who couldn’t even talk to her for 3 weeks.

Mike Magee talks about the role of the health care system being to reduce patients’ “fear and worry”. Our lack of a specialty care referral system, especially when potentially serious and urgent care is on the line, is a big reason why there is so much fear and worry. I wish I had a concierge advocacy system like Included Health or Transcarent which could get me to the right place and work with me through the experience. But like most Americans at the time I need reassurance the most I’m calling a list of phone numbers hoping someone can see me.

We have primary care, we have specialty care. But we don’t have a system that cares.

Can Missouri Pass The Muster

BY MIKE MAGEE

A case has been made that a logical approach to reforming America’s violent and racist leanings would be to adopt the values and practices of Health Care for All. These include a commitment to compassion, understanding, and partnership; extending the linkages between individual, family, community and society; addressing fear and worry for individuals and populations; and promoting an optimistic and equitable future for all Americans. 

Nurses and doctors and pharmacists and other health professionals pledge oaths and spend years training to exhibit and practice these values in the course of providing preventive and interventional care to select Americans. Imagine the effect of delivering these many benefits in an equitable way, in all communities, with the intent of making not only Americans, but also the American culture healthy.

Or we could simply continue to accept the values exhibited by the Missouri State Legislature, where misogyny and brass knuckles have risen to the top of their legislative calendar.

In June, 2021, a Missouri News-Press editorial commented that “one vote last week might strike some as a sign that Missouri’s lawmakers could use some help with time management and prioritization.” The Republican led body had soundly passed HB 1462 which included Section 571.020 and 571.107 which read “This act repeals prohibitions on the possession and selling of brass knuckles, firearm silencers, and switchblade knives.” The same act addressed the taxpayer burden for possession of their weaponry by providing “that all sales of firearms and ammunition made in this state shall be exempt from state and local sales taxes.”

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Medicare Advantage UpCoding Has Been Eliminated by CMS Effective 2022

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Medicare Advantage now enrolls almost exactly half the people enrolled in Medicare — and has both significant fans and hardline opponents in the health care policy circles who disagree about its performance.

The biggest attack point that comes from the critics deals with the issues of coding accuracy by the plans. The payment model for the program is capitation — and that capitation is based on the average cost of fee-for-service Medicare in every county. The people who designed the model believed that the country should use the average cost of fee-for-service Medicare in every county as the baseline number and should have the plans paid less than that average Medicare cost going forward every year in their capitation cash flow.

Medicare fee-for-service has a strict and consistent payment level based on a list of approved Medicare services — and they add up the cost of those services in every county and let the plans bid a lower number than that fee for service Medicare cost, if the plans believe they can offer all of the basic benefits and possibly add more benefits and additional services for that amount.

The fee-for-service Medicare cash flow and costs in each county tend to be very stable over time, with a continuous and steady increase in the actual functional cost for taking care of those fee-for-service patients for each year that they receive care. That total cost of fee-for-service Medicare care is a visible and clear baseline number that we can use each year with confidence and knowledge that it is what we are spending now on those Medicare members in the counties.

The direct capitation amount that is then paid to each of the plans is based on the age, gender, health status, and diagnosis profile of the Medicare Advantage members who enroll in the plans. The plans have been reporting those patient profile numbers to the government through the Risk Adjustment Processing System (RAPS) over a couple of decades to set up their payment levels and to create the monthly cash flow for each plan.

That’s where the upcoding accusations relative to the plans arise.

The plans get paid more if the patients have more expensive diagnoses — so the plans have had a strong and direct incentive to make sure that every diabetic enrollee is recorded and reported as being diabetic for their RAPS filings.

They also have a strong incentive to be sure that every congestive heart failure patient has their diagnosis recorded in their RAPS report.

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Fighting the Wrong (Culture) War

By KIM BELLARD

News flash from the culture wars: they’re coming to take our gas stoves!

Well, actually, “they” are not, but the kind of people who got alarmed about it are a threat to our health, and to theirs.

The gas stove furor started with a Bloomberg News interview that Richard Trumka, Jr, a Consumer Product Safety Commission commissioner. “This is a hidden hazard,” he said. “Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”

He was referring to the well known but little acknowledged fact that gas stoves emit various pollutants, especially nitrogen dioxide. Last year the AMA adopted resolutions about the risks of gas stoves, and urged migration efforts to electric stoves. Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado, Boulder, environmental engineer has said:

Cooking is the No. 1 way you’re polluting your home. It is causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems; it can exacerbate flu and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in children…you’re basically living in this toxic soup.

So one can see why the CPSC might be concerned. But the outcry about Mr. Trumka’s comments were immediate and vociferous. “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove. If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!” Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) tweeted. The Atlantic further reported:

Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted a cartoon of two autographed—yes autographed—gas stoves. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio declared simply, “God. Guns. Gas stoves.” Naturally, Tucker Carlson got involved. “I would counsel mass disobedience in the face of tyranny in this case,” he told a guest on his Fox News show.

Almost as immediately, Mr. Trumka clarified: “To be clear, CPSC isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves. Regulations apply to new products.” CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric issued a statement making it clear that, while “emissions from gas stoves can be hazardous…I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so.” The White House issued its own denial. Case closed, right?

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