Above the Fold

Technical Note: RSS Feed & thanks to other HC bloggers

With help from fellow Bloggers–and a slightly more aggressive effort at understanding Blogger’s not always crystal-clear help function– I think I have an RSS feed up and running here. There’s a little RSS icon in the right sidebar that links to it as well.  I’m not quite sure how it gets picked up by the RSS aggregators but hopefully someone will tell me what happens next!

The Bloggers who helped are  Steve Hoffman who runs Product Management for Medscape (now part of WebMD), Enoch Choi, a doc at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Graham Walker a very new medical student (3 Weeks into it!) at Stanford, who’s also been a policy wonk over at Physicians for a National Health Plan. All have interesting sites (linked to their names) so go check ’em out. Oh, and thanks guys!

Thanks also to Elke Cisco, who’s given me some template help after a cry for help I put out on craigslist and won’t let me pay her!  This being the Internet, 3 of these people live less than 30 miles from me, but of course we’ve never met!

Technical Note:RSS

I’ve been asked by a few readers to provide an RSS feed.  I’ve tried without success to do this using Blogger.  Can anyone who knows more about Blogger than me do me a favor and walk me through the steps? Please email me if you can help! Thanks.

Got the Blues? WellPoint keeps growing, so does Anthem

Yesterday the shareholders of the Wisconsin Blue Cross plan, Cobalt, OKed the WellPoint Merger originally announced back in June.  So Wellpoint keeps growing.  It now has Blue Cross of California, Missouri, Wisconsin and several other national products.  Anthem–originally Blue Cross of Indiana–now has Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, much of the North-east including New Hampshire, Maine & Connecticut, Virginia (Trigon) and Colorado (which includes Nevada).  Meanwhile Regence in the northwest now has Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and one of the Washington Blues.  (Washington state is the Bosnia of the Blues with lots of little plans). 

Many of the rest of the big Blues have gone or are going for-profit, leaving them more open to takeovers such as Trigon’s by Anthem. For instance, Empire Blue Cross (in New York City) is now owned by Wellchoice, which operates plans in neighboring states like New Jersey. The process of these for-profit conversions (Wellpoint) or demutualizations (Anthem, Trigon), have not been without their problems. Carefirst (the nearly former Blues of Maryland & Washington DC) has experienced massive problems since the failure of its attempt to go for-profit and sell out to Wellpoint. Surprise, surprise the problems were associated with a too low price offered to the State/Foundation and sky high incentive payments to the Carefirst board. However, several smaller plans like Premera in Washington state, are still going for-profit.

The acquisition strategies of Anthem and Wellpoint demonstrate that health insurance is a local product. Instead of growing organically or trying to bring in new products, they’ve mostly been buying lookalike organizations that have big market share. Big market share equates to more power in negotiations with providers, although that’s less effective than it was a few years back (see this post).

Certainly Wellpoint’s historical stock performance shows a fourfold increase in market cap over 10 years–so financially it’s been a success even though much of that is due to health insurers being at the top of the underwriting cycle and will get worse in the next few years. Plus there are several very rich Foundations (such as California Endowment) which are doing good works with the money they made from the non-profit conversions.

I know this will produce squeals from the traditionalists, but I’ve always felt that  the non-profit Blues plans act just like for-profit plans. In fact at one meeting presenting to a senior management team at a very big non-profit Blue, I went around the table asking for people’s issues and interests. The CEO replied "Money".  So as the Foundations are spending far more money on good works than are the non-profit Blues, I don’t see a real reason why these accidents of history shouldn’t just become like other insurance companies.   However, given the complications of transition and the bad name of for-profit in health care (Anyone for Tenet?), the few remaining non-profit big guys (BS of California, Highmark in Pennsylvania, Illinois & Texas, and the biggest of all BC of Michigan) are probably staying that way.

Health care IT spend up sharply

iHealthbeat (reg rqd) put me onto this Information week article which says that health care organizations report that their spending on IT has gone from 2.7% of revenues to 3.3% in the past year. That’s a pretty big jump of over 20%.  Several of the interviewees in the article say their spending has gone up by more than 30%.  This includes some huge IDNs like Caregroups in Boston, and Sutter in California.  Although they’re not quoted in the article, a similar huge effort is underway at Kaiser. For many years it’s been trotted out by consultants like me that healthcare only spends 1-2% of its revenues on IT whereas financial service companies spend 5-10%.  So the question becomes, is this jump just brought upon by fear of HIPAA or is there a real transformation going on?

Medicaid–a bleak picture gets bleaker

It’s remarkable how badly most health care observers understand Medicaid. But once you understand Medicaid, it’s less remarkable, because it’s so darned complicated! Many people think that Medicaid covers the poor and uninsured.  In fact it covers some sub-segments of the poor, but most of the working poor are not covered, and access to Medicaid has become more difficult for those who have been moved off the welfare rolls in the  late 1990s. Nonetheless, the Kaiser FF Commission on Medicaid & the Uninsured reported this week that costs have gone up but benefits have gone down, mostly because of the fall off in revenues at the state level.  And this will get worse — we’ve noticed that particularly out here in California where the recent budget deal included a further 5% cut in rates to Medi-Cal providers which has caused anguish on the political left.

In the last 15 years Medicaid has been responsible for taking on many millions of poorer Americans who would otherwise have had no coverage.  So without Medicaid expansion in the 1990s uninsurance rates would be much higher today, mostly because of the fall-off in employer-provided insurance (see this post).  This expansion of the Medicaid rolls was mostly among the AFDC population (poor moms with kids) in the early 1990s and mostly children only in the late 1990s, as part of the SCHIP expansion of health insurance for kids.  It’s hard to work out how many people are on Medicaid because the numbers go up and down all the time, and there is double counting with Medicare.  When I was researching this in the late 1990s, my estimate was that roughly 10% of the population (28-30 million people) were using Medicaid as their primary insurer. (the disabled and elderly tend to end up in the Medicare numbers). That number held steady until the year 2000, but now some 35 million adults and kids are in Medicaid.  Most of this growth has come from the kids insurance programs created by SCHIP, but the number of adults in the program has also been growing at 10% annually.  These are adults who have been crammed back down into welfare-type poverty levels in the current recession, even though they may not be on welfare itself.

Medicaid also covers many of the disabled and seniors in nursing homes who have "spent down"–i.e. have no money left. Medicaid also pays into Medicare to cover part B premiums and drugs for a group called the "dual-eligibles".  In fact the fate of the dual-eligibles is one of the many wrinkles that’s holding up the Medicare bill in Congress now. There are about 4 million elderly and 7 million disabled getting benefits from Medicaid, although most of these are also in Medicare.

The final wrinkle in Medicaid is the disproportionate share (DSH–pronounced "DiSH") payments that go to hospitals with a high proportion of uncompensated care and/or Medicaid patients.  These are usually big inner city teaching hospitals or county hospitals, and this is one of a number of subsidies they get–direct support from Medicare for training residents is another. DSH is evidence of the political clout of these big facilities, and of the fact that it’s hard for Medicaid recipients and the uninsured to get care at other facilities.

The costs of the program, while rising for all, are mostly spent on the elderly ($61 bn) and the disabled ($84 bn). The kids are a bargain at $36bn and the adults are only $25 billion.  DHS payments were about $15 billion in 2002 . Altogether, this leaves a Medicaid program which in 2002 spent over $200 billion for the first time.  (Medicare is $254 bn).

Reforming Medicaid is a nightmare and always has been. No-one understands it, the states use it as a way to extract money from the Feds, and the covered population is transient, hard to manage, doesn’t vote and so has little political clout. For national scale providers and pharma companies there are 50 different programs to deal with.  Under any rational system the care for the elderly and disabled would be split off, and the moms and kids would be added to some kind of universal insurance scheme.  Well that’s not going to happen any time soon. With the Medicare bill stuck in Congress, no comprehensive Medicaid reform will happen this side of 2005. So expect more pain in the provider world and much more experimentation in the purchasing world, including expanding the power of the state to extract discounts like MaineRX, as the states try to get a handle on spending.

Cronkite sued: A view into the underbelly of drug marketing

The headline says Drug ads row snares Cronkite.  Walter Cronkite remains the most trusted source of news among senior Americans.  According to his version of events, he thought that he had signed a contract to make educational programs about new treatments, and later found out via the New York Times that the company he’d signed up for made promotional infomercials,  sponsored by drug companies. So Cronkite is being sued by the marketing company for pulling out.

However, this isn’t the first controversy about what’s educational promotion and what’s hucksterism.  Several articles like this one and this one examine celebrities not revealing that they are being paid to promote drugs in medical segments on shows like The Early Show, 48 Hours and CNN. Some networks actually produced a code of practice about this last year.

Of course there are similar controversies about the way that pharmaceutical companies promote to physicians. A Harris poll earlier this year showed that this isn’t  a big concern for too many patients yet, although 55% believe that drug company marketing to doctors is either "a little" or "much" "too aggressive." What is clear is that the very sophisticated and not always transparent ways that pharma companies use to market their product will be used as a weapon to bash them when they oppose re-importation, collective buying by state programs, or even (take a deep breath here, pharma folks) price controls.

Employer-based health insurance is dissolving quite fast

A newer study based on Bureau of Labor Statistics finds an acceleration in a trend that’s been going on for a long time.  Fewer employees are getting health insurance from their employer. The Boston Globe reports that:

The study found 45 percent of US employees have health insurance at work, down from 63 percent in 1993……Walter Marshall, a bureau economist in the Boston office, called the drop in nationwide coverage "dramatic." But he warned the data may overstate the trend, in part because of coverage shifts within two-income families. Well there are many families in which everyone gets covered via the one family member with health insurance at work, but frequently that means paying a big share towards that coverage.  This goes along with the trend from defined benefit to defined contribution . As we used to say at Harris, "get less, pay more." One other thing we used to notice at Harris–dissatisfaction with health plans and services was highly correlated with out-of-pocket costs.

The trend to lower health insurance rates used to be concentrated among the lower paid.  Back in 2001 the Commonwealth Fund reported that 45% of those without health insurance from their employers earned less than $10 an hour. But the emergence of health care as a political issue in 1991 came as regular middle-class Americans found that they were getting access to care that looked more like care for poorer people (i.e. less and more expensive access). Well watch this space.  Most people are paying more for less insurance and those losing coverage are being forced into the individual "market"–which often means no coverage.  At the same time the Commonwealth Fund also reports that drug coverage for new retirees fell in 1995-2000 from 45% to less than 40% (down from 49% to 40% for male retirees.)

Health care hasn’t raised its head as a national political issue yet aside from the Medicare drug coverage debate/bills.  But if the drug coverage issue gets connected with the overall mess of the insurance market, it could be a sleeper issue.

Drug Distributors: Bergen hits a snag?

The stock prices of the big three drug distributors, Bergen Brunswick, McKesson and Cardinal Health have taken different courses over the last 5 years.   Mckesson’s ill-fated purchase of HBO & Company put the company into a funk from which it has taken years to get out. Cardinal steered away from those problems by building a very diverse set of businesses, including specialty pharmacy services and niche information technology services. It has been a consistent profit generator and has generally had the stock result to match, although it had a big setback in late July when it announced that future growth would be 15% rather than 20%. 

Bergen which merged with Amerisource to match the scale of the big two in 2001 saw seen its stock rise dramatically faster than Cardinal’s for the next year (2001-2) and also since May 2003 .  Bergen’s revenue (of the two merged companies combined) at the time of the merger was around $35bn, and that’s shot up to $45 billion with profit growth to match. However, over the last year both stock prices have been mostly in negative territory and Bergen’s summer rally (up 40% between May and July) is well and truly over.

Friday’s news of an investigation into Bergen’s alleged double billing of rebates from pharma manufacturers may be old news (according to the company’s rebuttal).  However, the stock fell about another 5% on Friday and Bergen now has a significantly lower PE ratio than its competitors (15 vs 18 for Cardinal and 17.5 for McKesson).

Don’t forget that drug distribution is a complex, very low margin business.  Cardinal’s long term success in has been both due to its operational success and its push into several niche businesses in health information and specialty pharma services.  It hasn’t made the big misstep that McKesson made with the HBO& Company deal. McKesson, meanwhile, has also been regrouping and making pushes into related markets, such as pharma market research. It’s worth watching to see if Bergen has hit a real snag or if it’s just a hurricane in a tea cup, which gives what the traders call "a good buying opportunity". It’s also worth seeing what these three sizable companies do regarding the on-or-off Medicare reform package, and whether any of them decide to get closer with the PBMs or the mail-order business.

The NHS: IT in a mess?

Ok, that’s a cheap shot title which I only used because "En Aithch Ess" rhymes with Mess.  The UK’s NHS is trying to pull off what we in American healthcare can only dream about —  a full computerization of the system with electronic medical records for everyone. When I looked into computerization of medical records in the UK about 6 years ago, they were already well ahead of the US, with some 50% of GPs (who account for 80% of all UK doctors) using computers in the exam room, and 25% using only computers and no paper charts. (Anecdotal evidence from New Zealand and the Netherlands suggests that those countries are even further ahead).  The reason for this leap forward in the UK was direct government funding for technology under John Major’s government in the mid-1990s.  Lack of funding is one of the main reasons for the slow rate of physician computerization in the US.

So before long before it started getting in trouble about what it knew when about Iraq, the Blair government made some very, very ambitious plans for the entire automation of the health care system in the UK. Jane Sarasohn Kahn, who is the mainstay of iHealthbeat’s opinion columns (and a wonderful person to boot) used to live in the UK and has written about the enormity of the scope of the plan.  The plan, by the way, included increasing spending on IT for the NHS from around $1.5 billion to $3.7 billion (2.3Bn GBP).

However, it appears that some of the contracting has been a little tricky, particularly the demand by the NHS that vendors take liability for data input mistakes made by system users.  Last week Lockheed, that well known health care IT firm (!), pulled out of bidding for the project.  The NHS’ attempt to go fast and do something very bold is in stark contrast to most other IT implementations in health care, which tend to take an inclusive softly-softly approach.  Perhaps the only comparable one in the US is Kaiser Permanente’s attempt to move to electronic medical records.  That has been characterized by infighting between the regions, continual vendor churn and much wasted effort and money. But Kaiser is well ahead of other American provider systems in what it’s trying to do–getting to the Holy Grail of electronic patient records. It’s not unreasonable to expect the same in the UK, although the potential for a disaster, like IRS’ long  computer modernization train wreck, does exist.

For much more on the NHS project as a whole see here.

Technical snafu corrected

I had problems with the archiving function of blogs for early September, but as part of my continual self-education about software coding, they are all corrected now.  To see the archives, click here.


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