Above the Fold

INDUSTRY: Merger Mania Monday

This morning two big mergers in the health plan world.  The two biggest (ex-)Blues merge (Anthem and Wellpoint), and United buys MAMSI, the big commercial HMO on the mid-Atlantic states.  In the Blues case the market has marked down the acquirer and upped the stock of the target, suggesting that they are paying too much. United’s stock price is dipping too as MAMSI’s has gone up.

So why are they buying now?  Health Plans, as evidenced by results released today from Anthem, Wellpoint and Humana, are banking in the bucks.  We can expect profits in the insurance business to start to slowly fall from this high point of the underwriting cycle. One possible explanation for the timing of the merger is that Anthem and Wellpoint have been acquiring smaller Blues plans at a rapid clip, and of course have been bidding up their price. Now there is only one major buyer for smaller Blues, so you can expect this to be the last time that Anthem pays too much!

One last comment–there is now a national for-profit Blues organization with some 26 million members in one organization, roughly one third of all Blues members. As a national force the Blues have never really existed, but individual Blues have been very strong in individual states. As so many individual Blues will now be controlled from Indianapolis, we might expect some slow changes, but health care is still a local good.

TECHNOLOGY: Physicians like the Internet, eventually

In the old days (well, 1997), there were many reports about physicians annoyed with patients coming to their office with reams of paper printed out off the Internet and asking, for example, if rolling in moose dung reduced blood pressure, just like it said on the Acme Chinese Medicine web site. Although the physician disdain with their patients being "Internet positive" was always overstated, I’m a little surprised to read in Modern Physician that most physicians say Internet improves patient encounters.  The report, from advertising agency Accel Healthcare Communications, is available here and, besides the patient stuff, has lots of other insights into physician Internet use with CME, their participation in market research, and their relationship with pharma reps. Beware though that the sample size is a little small.

POLICY: User fees, employer-based insurance and why it won’t go away

Suddenly it feels very like 1991 again. Imagine that the 49ers and Joe Montana has suddenly become human and the newspapers are full of stories about how the high cost of health care is the cause of all the world’s troubles.  The NYT is back with an article asking Do Some Pay Too Little for Health Care?  So managed care has run its route, gotten clobbered by Lawrence Taylor with a vicious hit in the open field, and coughed up the ball just like Roger Craig in the 1991 NFC championship. The west coast offense led by Kaiser, Pacificare and the rest has run up against the Bucs and Redskins defensive combination of medical power and government intervention, and its tactics have broken down in dis-array.

OK, enough with the hackneyed football analogy.  We all now accept that "managed care", which never really made it out of California and was killed by a combination of Wall Street greed and popular discontent, is not the secret to cost control. The old chestnut that has returned, as this week’s flavor of the month, is the issue of what used to be called "first dollar coverage".  The argument is essentially that if you charge people to use the relatively cheap services provided by physicians, it’ll prevent them from using those services and save the system money.

I had a similar conversation with another blogger, Medpundit*, last week (and have liberally repeated myself here!). Medpundit’s solution (scroll down a ways), is to make people pay for preventative (and I assume routine) care, and carry catastrophic insurance. Although I have some sympathy with this approach in three-tier drug coverage, and in helping to avoid what economists call moral hazard (i.e. unnecessary use of services because they are free) Canadian economists Bob Evans and Morris Barer have proved to my satisfaction that point of service user fees only really discourage the very poor from seeking care, and are as such discriminatory. But the real point is that although the testing of the healthy that Medpundit sees too much of may be increasing costs, the real money is spent on the care of those who are very sick. The NY Times article and even the normally sage Uwe Rheinhardt, who’s quoted in the article, miss this.  But in health care 80% of the money is spent on 20% of the people.  Even if you got the other 80% to cut half their use of medical care by charging them for it, you’d only save 10% of the costs.  It’s in the 80% of the costs you need to look if you want to save money.

Meanwhile, as Harris reported last week, apparently to the surprise of the NY Times, employees want to keep their health benefits rather than take cash in exchange.  Just when I didn’t believe that I could say any more about the tax advantages for employees of getting their benefits in health insurance rather than in cash, and the disadvantages of buying insurance in the individual "market", the self same NY Times provides this horrendous story of the complete fraud going on in that individual "market".  As if it was needed this provides one more reason for employees to stay huddled in their protective groups. Hence, trying to make employees pay more out of pocket is the only real option for employers, even if it does little to change the overall dismal cost picture.

*Incidentally, this week Medpundit has turned her attention  to the problems of Medicare, and added some comments from a rather misguided reader slamming "Hillarycare", which–not that it ever existed– was NOT a central single payer model like Medicare.

POLICY: Not enough doctors?

I’ve been sitting on this story about the number of doctors in the future for a week or two but have finally got around to posting it as Jeanne Scott has written about it and I don’t want to be cast into irrelevance. So the background:

Remember how we were told that under managed care we had too many doctors, and always had too many specialists?  The Council on Graduate Medical Education (COGME) has now decided that was all wrong.  We are now going to have too few doctors by around 85,000 (about 10% of what we’ll then have) in the year 2020.  COGME has now recommended increasing the number of doctors trained each year by 3,000, and also relaxing the aim (that was never close to being achieved anyway) of a 50-50 balance between generalists and specialists.  Their logic is that we will end up with an older population (the peak will be in 2020) and that there won’t be enough doctors to go around. However, there are several reasons to view this very suspiciously.

The first is based on data that comes from an IFTF report that was done by a crack team (ok, me and Marina Pascali) in 1997. The number of doctors in training doubled in the 1970s and 1980s. For roughly the past 15 years and the next 15 years we will have a net addition of roughly 12,000 doctors each year to the labor force. (That’s 16,000 new residents, plus 4,000 immigrants minus 8,000 retirees). The supply of non-federal patient care physicians (that’s post residency docs actually practicing) has gone from 480,000 in 1990 to over 600,000 today and will be around 720,000 by 2020, when the actual number retiring begins to match the number coming out of training each year. In 1994 COGME estimated that the need in the year 2000 would for between 145 and 185 doctors per 100,000 people.  At that stage there were already 210 docs per 100,000, and even with population growth that number will climb to over 230 by 2020.  In other words the physician population will increase by more than 20% over the next two decades while the population will increase by less than 15%. So unless COGME has radically changed its methodology and has decided that we need far more doctors per head, the simple answer is that–unless we are radically undersupplied now–we don’t.

The second reason is that old stand-by, international comparisons. If you want to dive into this table from the OECD, you’ll notice that the US has 280 docs per 100,000 population. (These numbers are higher than the IFTF numbers because they include all MDs including those in residency, those working for the government, those retired and those no longer in practice but doing something else). Plenty of countries have more doctors per head than us, but plenty including the UK, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have fewer.  Greece has nearly double and Italy has even more! In other words, we’re nowhere near the bottom of the pack, and several of the countries way ahead of us are not those whose systems are held up as the paragons of medical excellence. We are, though, the country that spends the most per head on health care, and has the lowest proportion of government spending as a share of all spending, while we have close to the fewest number of inpatient beds. So you could argue that the cause of our expensive health system seems to be too much private spending and too many doctors.  Perhaps we should be building more hospitals rather then pumping out more docs?

Finally as Jeanne Scott notes in her newsletter (and if you haven’t signed up by now….), do we really need doctors for all this "needed" care?

    But is there really a looming shortage? There were 229 active physicians for every 100,000 U.S. civilians in 2001, according to the American Medical Association. That figure was up from 135 physicians for every 100,000 in 1975, a very significant increase.  And what are we getting for all of these doctors? Double-digit increases in health care costs and more and more uninsured.  It may be time to look and see if there is a causal link between the these phenomena.  It may be time for us to break the reliance on the highly educated "medical doctor" for most routine and preventive non-emergency care. We need to be looking at our physician extenders: nurse practitioners and physician assistants —  highly paid and very capable of handling a significant portion of America’s health care. But this will take, as the old saw goes, a "paradigm shift" in American thinking about health care — but given the rising costs, the aging population and the evident need — paradigm shifts may be called for.

POLICY: A very tentative deal on drug benefits

Yesterday’s reports that a deal has been reached in the Medicare Drug negotiations do not necessarily mean that we’re actually going to get a finished bill.  There are only 2 Democrats on the negotiating team, and several Senators, led by the old liberal war-horse Ted Kennedy, have previously threatened a filibuster if either a) the bill imposes a means-test on recipients or b) Medicare is forced to compete directly for members with private plans. This philosophical opposition to  heading down what Kennedy and others believe is a slippery slope towards Medicare becoming a two-tiered welfare benefit rather than a global entitlement, dovetails nicely with the desire of Democrats to prevent Republicans from being able to campaign as the "party that brought you drug coverage" in 2004.

POLICY: Other shoe dropping on employer-based health insurance

Yikes–too much to report today! Two confirmations today about employer health insurance confirm much of what I’ve posted about before. First, the Commonwealth Fund reports that a growing share of uninsured workers are employed by large firms. More noticeably, low-income workers (those under 200% of poverty) at big companies are much, much more likely to be uninsured than higher income workers in big companies–46% of those in all. Yup, this means those folks who work at McDonalds, cleaning companies, supermarket chains, home health aides, etc, etc, and the people who are the targets of California SB2.

Meanwhile, Harris Interactive’s latest poll for the WSJ Online (not online yet but you can get on the email list here) confirms the deep emotional connection between employees and health benefits.  56% of employees say that they would rather have no pay increase but a maintenance of current health benefits as opposed to a decent pay increase but a significant reduction in their health benefits.

In other words not enough people are getting insurance at work, fewer are getting it each year (especially the working poor), but employees are loathe to lose that coverage.

POLICY: Medical privacy-what happens when private data leaves the country

And in news from San Francisco, UCSF the biggest teaching hospital in the Bay Area was threatened with release of some of its patients’ data on to the Internet.  The wrinkle is that the threat came from a transcriptionist who is a sub-contractor to a sub-contractor to a  sub-contractor to a sub-contractor…… and the individual lives in Pakistan. The transcriptionist in Pakistan had been stiffed on her bill by the subcontractor she was working for to the tune of $500.  That’s a huge sum–above the average annual income in Pakistan, so you can understand that the transcriptionist was pretty desperate, given that her employer had disappeared and that she had nowhere to turn other than UCSF (as she didn’t know who had hired the person she was working for). In the end no patient data was release, and the threat was rescinded apologetically.

How this works out under HIPAA’s privacy standards is anyone’s guest, but it could lead to a major revisiting of the whole concept of outsourcing transcription.

Update: There was a NPR talk-show on this in San Francisco yesterday, (audio available about halfway down this page).  The journalist who wrote the original story claimed that as many as 50% of all transcriptions are being typed up abroad.

TECHNOLOGY: CPR use– review of state of the nation report from CHCF

Continuing with its excellent work as a trailblazer in research into health care IT arena, the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) has put out an interesting summary report on the adoption of Computerized Patient Records (CPR) written by David Brailer and Emi Teresawa, both from health IT company Carescience. (Carescience is also the main vendor for the Santa Barbara County Care Data Exchange, funded by CHCF). The report is one of three the Foundation has put out to help push the use of the CPR.

They were reviewing other research in the field and their main conclusions are that:
— This is an extremely difficult subject to get your arms around
— The adoption line is beginning to point upwards

The piece is a good summary of several surveys trying to assess the adoption of the CPR. It’s a long piece and I haven’t digested it all, but way below I give you some of my main takeaways. Before that (and you non-wonks have permission to skip this bit but you should read it), let me explain why, as the authors correctly point out, this is such a difficult subject to assess.

1) Definition is a problem 1: The authors list some 15 terms for CPR-like things (EMR, EHR, CPOE, etc, etc, etc). We are now some 12 years on from the IOM’s original report on the subject and we can’t even figure out what to call the thing. Given none of the surveys have the chance to fully define in their questions what exactly a CPR is, it’s not surprising that the answers they are getting are different from each other.

2) Inpatient versus outpatient: The study finds much higher rates of adoption of CPRs in the clinic setting versus the hospital. Anyone who’s been to see a doctor versus been in a hospital knows that this feels wrong. My suspicion is that any type of clinical computer use  is regarded as the same as a fully fledged CPR in the outpatient setting, but not so much in the inpatient setting. This may be because the inpatient setting doesn’t get much of the data transferred over from the outpatient, and so feels outside the flow of data between different settings that is supposed toe accompany the patient in a CPR. While the inpatient setting is where most of the current action in CPOE (Computerized Physician Order Entry) is happening, clinicians in hospitals think that CPOE is just a component of a CPR not the whole thing.

3) Many surveys are methodologically useless : The methodology behind various surveys is never discussed when the results are released.  But of the many surveys they report I have been a participant in two. One is the annual survey conducted at HIMSS.  Anyone at the conference including the thousands of vendors and consultants (and me) who outnumber the hospital IT folks about 2 to 1 can take this survey, even though it’s aimed at the hospital IT community.  Consequently many of the people taking it at best don’t know the situation of the intended survey audience and at worst are trying to actively influence the outcome. The Harris surveys discussed are based on ones designed by a methodological and subject genius back in 1999–OK, OK it was me, but the methodology and the content were very carefully reviewed by survey specialists at Harris, and the content was reviewed by an expert advisory board. The people surveyed were genuine doctors who had been pre-proved as such by the AMA.  So part of the problem with looking at all surveys is that the results of some are not as valuable as others.

4) Definitions are a problem 2: Even if you know what you are doing methodologically, what you are  counting especially in the outpatient environment is a problem. In my initial Harris survey I did not directly ask if physicians were using an CPR but asked how they were performing a whole lot of tasks such as taking notes, prescribing drugs, etc, etc, that could have been done in several ways including using a computer, PDA, digital dictation, pen & paper, etc, etc.  However, after I left the way the question was changed in recent Harris surveys, and it now asked if the doctor used an EMR. I suspect the reason for that was a) it didn’t provide a one number indicator and b) there’s only so much room on a survey, and it’s expensive to survey doctors and you have other things that you want to ask.  So the trade-off of not knowing exactly what an EMR means to the doctors is worth it because of the other information you get.

The results

Well done you’ve got here! The authors estimate that 20% to 25% of doctors are using a CPR, while something between 3% and 21% are of hospitals are using CPOE (no good numbers for CPR). More controversially, they estimate that CPR adoption will increase rapidly in the outpatient setting to between 50%-60% in the next couple of years. This growth is by no means impossible.  That number is where the UK already is and well below most of Scandinavia, New Zealand and other countries such as Belgium. So what are the barriers?

A) The CPR costs too much. That can mean up to $29,000 to install and $12,000 a year to maintain.  And there is no real obvious funding stream.  That was not the case in those other countries where the government has funded the initiatives.

B) Standards: Despite HIPAA, HL7 et al, several standards are not being adopted that could help easy interoperability (i.e. the easy transfer of data between facilities). So even if many hospitals adopt the elements of the CPR, we are not likely to get the full transfer of data that the CPR is supposed to provide.

POLICY: Medpundit’s concerns–too much coverage

Medpundit has responded to my queries about her stance on MSAs, coverage and all that. Go read her piece here, then come back. Medpundit’s very concerned that many of the patients she’s seeing are coming in for expensive diagnostic tests that are supposed to prevent illness way down the road and often end up on very expensive drugs. And as Medpundit also points out, there is no cost-benefit rationale to many of these tests and immunizations.  These are all covered by insurance under managed care’s "preventative" ethos, yet in the end these people will get sick and need costly care for something else anyway.  New treatments do tend to keep people alive longer, but they are still going to die eventually and cost more money down the line. This is indeed the conundrum, as represented by the rather amusing "debate" a few years back started when Philip Morris "demonstrated" that smoking saved the Czech Republic money as it killed off people who would otherwise be collecting pensions and using health care benefits.

Medpundit’s solution is to make people pay for preventative (and I assume routine) care, and carry catastrophic insurance. Although I have some sympathy with this approach in avoiding what economists call moral hazard (i.e. unnecessary use of services because they are free) Canadian economists Bob Evans and Morris Barer have proved to my satisfaction that point of service user fees only really discourage the very poor from seeking care, and are as such discriminatory. But the real point is that although the testing of the healthy that Medpundit sees too much of may be increasing costs, the real money is spent on the care of those who are very sick. So if everyone bought a "catastrophic" only insurance policy, eventually the cost of those policies would increase to more or less the cost of a regular policy–because, whether it’s done via insurance or taxation, the 80 % of people who are healthy need to pay for the care of the 20% who are sick. Controlling the cost of care of the sick means doing what most Americans view as something very unpalatable–limiting care.  I personally believe that limiting excessive care of those who are going to die soon anyway is totally humane.  However any doctor who remembers the horrendous state persecution of Dr. Robert Weitzel in Utah is going to be highly suspicious of taking such an approach. Of course we are getting nowhere near having the kind of debate about this "rationing" that we need to have. So the status quo of more and more services being available to patients at greater and greater cost to all us will remain.

Finally Medpundit sums up both of our feelings about getting away from employment-based insurance coverage:

    Unfortunately, it’s also a politically unpalatable one. No one wants to give up something they’re already getting for free. (Or think they’re getting for free).

PHARMA: Does Lipitor cause memory loss?

While I was (very worthily) working out at the gym last night I noticed that November’s Smart Money had an article on Lipitor. Given that Lipitor is the single biggest product in health care, currently at $8 billion in revenue, it caught my eye. So I stuck in the reading tray on the elyptical trainer and read away as I elypted. The article (not available on-line) basically said that in a number of cases Lipitor has caused extreme muscle pain and (more devastatingly) alzheimers’ type memory loss in several patients. The article suggested that high doses (above 20mg of Lipitor) actually have the equivalent of 40mg of Zocor, one of its major rivals, yet Zocor can also be obtained in much lower doses (5mg and 10mg) which have virtually the same effect in lowering cholesterol.  Why doesn’t Pfiizer make Lipitor in lower doses?  Bob Erlich, now an industry consultant  running DTCPerspectives Magazine but the guy responsible for Lipitor’s launch at Parke-Davis is quoted as saying essentially (I’m paraphrasing here) that one dose made it easier for the physicians to prescribe as they didn’t have to bother matching patient and dosage.

The article goes on to suggest that independent (i.e. non-pharma funded researchers) have established the high dose to muscle pain link and that the memory loss issue is well known. Behind this is a strong hint that Pfizer is too big to fight either in the dissemination of the message to doctors, or in the law courts–apparently no lawyer will sue until the FDA has withdrawn the drug from the market.  Pfizer for its part acknowledges that the muscle pain is a recognized side effect, but claims that the memory loss–which the article focuses on as it’s pretty devastating–has nothing to do with Lipitor. However, everyone remembers that another statin Baycol was on the market until it was found that in a few cases it caused severe liver damage and was recalled.

It doesn’t take long googling to find several dissatisfied Lipitor users with intense muscle pain and others with transient or long-term memory loss. Unfortunately the Smart Money article doesn’t give any denominators, so there’s no real evidence other than these anecdotal stories about whether significant numbers of people have had these reactions to Lipitor.  So despite the heart-rending stories, you can’t draw any conclusions. Also don’t forget that in the grander scheme of things (if you believe the conventional wisdom that lower cholesterol reduces heart disease), Lipitor is saving thousands of lives for each one it hurts–if it does hurt. This argument is played out in this article on (long registration process required.)

From a business perspective what’s important here is the perception of risk.  If statins work for millions and millions of people but a few people allegedly suffer from its side-effects, that’s really the same story that existed for Baycol.  The FDA has been criticized for allowing too many drugs on the market that have to be withdrawn.  Almost always the reason for the withdrawal is a nasty side-effect (e.g. death!) for a very small minority of patients. For Pfizer and its $8 billion drug, there is a very low but existing risk that this could be the end result for Lipitor. Pfizer’s stock has been off slightly in recent months on fears that some patent lawsuits might hurt Lipitor and Zoloft.  Of course that’s nothing to what would happen if Lipitor had to be withdrawn, so watch this wildcard.