Saturday, December 3, 2016

Trump, Price, and Verma: Bad news for the health of Americans, including Trump voters

The election of Donald Trump as President continues to be extensively analyzed. It demonstrates major divisions among our populace. One of those that has been discussed a lot is that the “white working class” that voted for him by a 2:1 margin will suffer a lot from the policies likely to be implemented by his administration. Not more, and probably less, than minority people, but a lot.

Healthcare and health insurance is one of those areas, as discussed by me in several recent posts and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times, December 2, 2016, “Seduced and betrayed by Donald Trump”. He notes that anger about their health care coverage, and in particular the dramatic increases in premiums under the ACA exchanges, drove many people to choose Mr. Trump’s promise to replace it with “something terrific”. Of course, he never specified what that would be, for the same reason that the Republicans in Congress have never been specific, which is that any replacement plan that does not move “left” toward a more universal coverage plan such as the single-payer advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders (and me) will be much worse for most people, including most Trump voters, who will either lose or have to pay a lot more (if they can!) for their health insurance coverage. Repealing Obamacare means that many of the 13 million newly insured (a majority white, for the record) who received insurance under the exchange will not get rate cuts, but rather they will get no coverage. Certainly not those who need the insurance most, because they have pre-existing conditions that insurance companies were mandated by ACA to cover. As Krugman puts it, “we’re probably looking at more than five million Trump supporters, many of whom have chronic health problems and recently got health insurance for the first time, who just voted to make their lives nastier, more brutish, and shorter.” This is made clear in the Times article on December 3, 2016 “GOP plans immediate repeal of health law, then a delay” by Robert Pear, Jennifer Steinhauer and Thomas Kaplan. The reason is because the only plan they have will yank health insurance coverage for so many people, and despite their vociferous opposition and multiple votes to repeal ACA, they do not want to do that, at least right away.

The best evidence for their long term plan to, basically, remove health insurance coverage from many Americans including their base of support is the appointment of Rep. Tom Price (R, GA) as HHS Secretary. Mr. Price has been a leader of the Tea Party movement and a major Congressional figure calling for the repeal of Obamacare. His solution is not completely fleshed out, but does include eliminating guaranteed issue, community rating, and federal support for the exchanges. He is a fan of vouchers, an idea advocated for decades by conservative think tanks, and which, I guarantee (and this is far more of a certainty than Mr. Trump’s promises), can NEVER work, especially over the long term. Vouchers will never cover the cost of a decent insurance policy; people with health problems will naturally be the first to seek coverage, and faced by the adverse selection insurers will raise the premiums, co-pays, and deductibles for them. If there are problems with this under Obamacare, vouchers will make those look pale by comparison. And by getting out of the running-the-infrastructure business, the government will ensure that it never gets better.

Price, a wealthy orthopedist from suburban Atlanta, does not really care. He represents rich doctors who want to be able to charge whatever they want to be able to charge, and care only for the people who have insurance good enough to pay it. Sorry, Trump voters with not much money, chronic disease, and difficulty paying even ACA premiums, that isn’t you. And when you get to an age that you can get Medicare, finally having federally-supported coverage, Mr. Price has another answer for you – privatize Medicare! Make it subject to the same market forces that have made health care and health insurance so unaffordable and unavailable to younger folks affect the elderly too! The ACA has modified the egregiously negative impact of private sector health insurance for the under-65 group; the crumbum Price wants to both reverse that benefit and extend the damage to seniors too.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare law at the Truman Library in 1965, presenting Harry and Bess Truman with cards #1 and #2, he quoted the former President from nearly 20 years earlier: "Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. And the time has now arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and to help them get that protection." LBJ then added that “There are more than 18 million Americans [in 1965; way more now] over the age of 65. Most of them have low incomes. Most of them are threatened by illness and medical expenses that they cannot afford. And through this new law, Mr. President [referring to Mr. Truman], every citizen will be able, in his productive years when he is earning, to insure himself against the ravages of illness in his old age.”

This is what Tom Price and his colleagues want to reverse. The AMA, with its shameful history of actually having blocked Truman’s health plan, and unsuccessful opposition to Medicare, is endorsing him. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is endorsing him as well. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) more tepidly expresses optimism. Presumably these are political decisions, to maintain access. After all, in the ongoing battles between insurers and providers (patients are rarely a real player), at least he is a provider. But many others, including Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and Common Dreams, as well as the medical students of Future Docs, have appropriately condemned Price and these organizations endorsing him.

Mr. Price will be joined by Seema Verma, who will head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Verma helped Mike Pence design the Indiana version of Medicaid expansion. On the plus side, that state did expand Medicaid, helping people more than those states that did not. On the minus side, the requirement that everyone covered has to pay meant at least 1/3 of those who would have been eligible did not sign up. I guess she is the moderate!

Mr. Trump’s cabinet picks are, so far, a panoply of people who are either right-wing ideologues who wish to destroy everything that has been done to help the American people at least back to the Great Society and maybe to the New Deal, or are billionaires who speak for the corporate financial ruling class that he attacked so effectively during his campaign, or both. An example of the latter is anti-public education billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. Myron Ebell, a noted climate-change denier, will head EPA. Steven Mnuchin, a leading Goldman Sachs banker, will be Treasury Secretary. Senator Jeff Sessions (R, AL), denied a judgeship because of his racist beliefs and practices will be Attorney General. Trump's nominee for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, according to Money, alone has 10 times the net worth of the entire cabinet of President George W. Bush. Talk about foxes guarding the henhouse! Compared to these folks, naming El Chapo to head the DEA, as suggested in a New Yorker satire by Andy Borowitz, would be a moderate pick.

The future of not only public health, but also your individual private health, now and when you get to retirement age, is in great jeopardy. But, then, so is everything else that helps people. Not to mention the earth, since global warming is likely to accelerate during a Trump administration. There is an endless string of battles before us.

And we must join every one.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Trump Election, the ACA and health care in America: Not with a bang but a whimper

As you may have already heard, Donald J. Trump won the election and will be the next President. “The media”, from the mainstream to the left, have moved from excoriating him as a candidate with outrageous personal characteristics and terrifying policy proposals, to excoriating him as President-elect, with less emphasis on his personal characteristics and more on what future policy is likely to be. There is special and valid emphasis on the people who are his main advisors, right wing zealots like Steve Bannon, and the hawkish, sometimes completely out of touch with reality, group. 

There are many  post-hoc analyses of why Clinton lost – I recommend Naomi Klein’s discussion of neoliberalism -- and what the most scary aspects of a Trump presidency are. Regarding the latter the always-terrific Noam Chomsky’s interview on Truthout, firmly identifies global warming and climate change as the greatest threat to the continuation of the world. He emphasizes this threat by noting that 40% of Americans are not concerned about the long-term impact of global warming because they believe that Christ will return and the rapture will occur in the next several decades.

There will, certainly be many other major threats, some of which, like nuclear war, could end the world. After the election, I was reminded that T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men, “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” and yet the bang is not out of the question. In less apocalyptic, but just as serious terms, many people in America, whole populations, have real reason to be fearful. Obviously Muslims and “illegal immigrants” have been the victims of the most direct attacks by the President-elect and his advisors, and have a great deal to fear, but the list goes on to include Latinos who are here legally, citizens, members of other groups based on race/ethnicity (African-Americans) or other characteristics (LGBT). It includes women who may seek not only abortions but effective and available contraceptive care – and their partners. It affects all of us who value justice, diversity, peace, civil rights and civil liberties, opportunity, and freedom. We may see some irony in the last two, as they were clarion calls by many Trump supporters, but it has always been clear that for much of this group “freedom” was the freedom to do what they want (carry guns, practice their religion, etc.) and not any concept that would apply to everyone (be safe, have reproductive rights, practice their religion). Opportunity was always about the opportunity of some people to get ahead and not lose ground.

Many Trump supporters, but of course not those who are or will be in leadership in his administration, will be among those who suffer, because income and wealth will be major drivers of suffering, as they always have been. This is not to minimize the impact of race; as Dr. Camara Jones analyzes in her discussions of the “social determinants of equity”, class may be the final mediator of social, and especially health, disadvantage, but it does not explain why there are so many Black and other minority people in the lower class. Yes, surveys have shown that the bulk of Trump voters were white people in the “middle class” ($50,000-$90,000) range, but there were also many lower income whites. Indeed, while conservative ideologues in the Republican party railed against the ACA because it actually provided benefits to people in a “socialist” way, most voters who were hostile to it were motivated by (in addition to racism; it was after all “Obamacare”, named for our African-American President) the fact that premiums were going up to unaffordable levels, and the coverage that they received, when they got sick, was inadequate.

Of course, to be concerned about your premiums and deductibles and co-pays going up under the health insurance exchanges, you have to be covered by them. And, if we didn’t have “Obamacare”, you wouldn’t be covered at all, especially if you have a “pre-existing condition” or have to be paying a lot more if you could. Trump recently seem to be recognizing this, noting that there are popular as well as unpopular aspects of the ACA, and that junking the whole thing, as Republicans have voted to do dozens of times, might be a bad move. The things people like about ACA are that they can get coverage, that they can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition, that there is “community rating” which means that they can’t be charged an especially high premium because they are sick, and that children can stay on their parents’ policies until 26. What they don’t like is high and increasing premiums, high deductibles, high co-pays, discovering the insurance that they could afford is lousy and doesn’t cover what they need and, in many cases, community rating, which means that if you are young and healthy you pay more.

Trump, in characteristic fashion, promises us we will only get rid of the bad parts, and keep the good parts, so the results will be terrific! Too bad President Obama didn’t think of that. Or me. Or that it isn’t possible within the constraints of the ACA. The ACA was designed to deal in insurance companies and their profits to a more-inclusive national health plan. This was the quid pro quo: we’ll do community rating and insure everyone regardless of pre-existing condition, you have to make everyone buy insurance (the “individual mandate”). But lots of healthy, and especially young, people are not buying insurance, gambling that they will stay healthy. If they get “caught” (and most don’t) the penalty is far less than the cost of the insurance. So they win. Until they lose. Of course, many who buy insurance get the lowest cost policy they can and then they really lose. And if they buy better coverage the insurance companies get mad. Much analysis of the history of ACA and its roots, as well as speculation about its future, is covered by Himmelstein and Woolhandler in this PNHP post.

And it doesn’t come at a good time. The Commonwealth Fund just released a report showing that Americans have more challenges in receiving needed health care than in 10 other rich countries. Well, it hasn’t been a good time for a while. This report just shows, basically, the same thing that Commonwealth and others have been reporting for years.

So what can we expect, as a nation, from a Trump administration? Well, there is odds-on betting that we will get a right-wing, anti-abortion, anti-reproductive rights Supreme Court. And, if not actually a wall, major deportations and harassment of immigrants. And real anti-Muslim activity. Hate crimes are already up, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, with really bad people feeling emboldened by the Trump rhetoric; we can only hope his Justice Department will prosecute these crimes at least as aggressively as they do immigrants. We will probably get more of the same in attacks by police on minorities, and especially on policies that enrich the richest and hurt the poor. We will get little or no action on climate change. And we will not get the jobs that have been lost back, whatever the President-elect promises.
 
Protests will continue, centered as they have been in the small islands of the nation that voted Democratic – and where most of the people in the US live. We need to be sure that the losses I describe above do not come easily, that we do not keep our heads down, that we make waves.

And, in healthcare, we probably will not get single payer, although this would solve the problem and allow Donald Trump to actual give us most of the good without most of the bad. If he would only.

The Trump Election, the ACA and health care in America: Not with a bang but a whimper

As you may have already heard, Donald J. Trump won the election and will be the next President. “The media”, from the mainstream to the left, have moved from excoriating him as a candidate with outrageous personal characteristics and terrifying policy proposals, to excoriating him as President-elect, with less emphasis on his personal characteristics and more on what future policy is likely to be. There is special and valid emphasis on the people who are his main advisors, right wing zealots like Steve Bannon, and the hawkish, sometimes completely out of touch with reality, group. 

There are many  post-hoc analyses of why Clinton lost – I recommend Naomi Klein’s discussion of neoliberalism -- and what the most scary aspects of a Trump presidency are. Regarding the latter the always-terrific Noam Chomsky’s interview on Truthout, firmly identifies global warming and climate change as the greatest threat to the continuation of the world. He emphasizes this threat by noting that 40% of Americans are not concerned about the long-term impact of global warming because they believe that Christ will return and the rapture will occur in the next several decades.

There will, certainly be many other major threats, some of which, like nuclear war, could end the world. After the election, I was reminded that T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men, “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” and yet the bang is not out of the question. In less apocalyptic, but just as serious terms, many people in America, whole populations, have real reason to be fearful. Obviously Muslims and “illegal immigrants” have been the victims of the most direct attacks by the President-elect and his advisors, and have a great deal to fear, but the list goes on to include Latinos who are here legally, citizens, members of other groups based on race/ethnicity (African-Americans) or other characteristics (LGBT). It includes women who may seek not only abortions but effective and available contraceptive care – and their partners. It affects all of us who value justice, diversity, peace, civil rights and civil liberties, opportunity, and freedom. We may see some irony in the last two, as they were clarion calls by many Trump supporters, but it has always been clear that for much of this group “freedom” was the freedom to do what they want (carry guns, practice their religion, etc.) and not any concept that would apply to everyone (be safe, have reproductive rights, practice their religion). Opportunity was always about the opportunity of some people to get ahead and not lose ground.

Many Trump supporters, but of course not those who are or will be in leadership in his administration, will be among those who suffer, because income and wealth will be major drivers of suffering, as they always have been. This is not to minimize the impact of race; as Dr. Camara Jones analyzes in her discussions of the “social determinants of equity”, class may be the final mediator of social, and especially health, disadvantage, but it does not explain why there are so many Black and other minority people in the lower class. Yes, surveys have shown that the bulk of Trump voters were white people in the “middle class” ($50,000-$90,000) range, but there were also many lower income whites. Indeed, while conservative ideologues in the Republican party railed against the ACA because it actually provided benefits to people in a “socialist” way, most voters who were hostile to it were motivated by (in addition to racism; it was after all “Obamacare”, named for our African-American President) the fact that premiums were going up to unaffordable levels, and the coverage that they received, when they got sick, was inadequate.

Of course, to be concerned about your premiums and deductibles and co-pays going up under the health insurance exchanges, you have to be covered by them. And, if we didn’t have “Obamacare”, you wouldn’t be covered at all, especially if you have a “pre-existing condition” or have to be paying a lot more if you could. Trump recently seem to be recognizing this, noting that there are popular as well as unpopular aspects of the ACA, and that junking the whole thing, as Republicans have voted to do dozens of times, might be a bad move. The things people like about ACA are that they can get coverage, that they can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition, that there is “community rating” which means that they can’t be charged an especially high premium because they are sick, and that children can stay on their parents’ policies until 26. What they don’t like is high and increasing premiums, high deductibles, high co-pays, discovering the insurance that they could afford is lousy and doesn’t cover what they need and, in many cases, community rating, which means that if you are young and healthy you pay more.

Trump, in characteristic fashion, promises us we will only get rid of the bad parts, and keep the good parts, so the results will be terrific! Too bad President Obama didn’t think of that. Or me. Or that it isn’t possible within the constraints of the ACA. The ACA was designed to deal in insurance companies and their profits to a more-inclusive national health plan. This was the quid pro quo: we’ll do community rating and insure everyone regardless of pre-existing condition, you have to make everyone buy insurance (the “individual mandate”). But lots of healthy, and especially young, people are not buying insurance, gambling that they will stay healthy. If they get “caught” (and most don’t) the penalty is far less than the cost of the insurance. So they win. Until they lose. Of course, many who buy insurance get the lowest cost policy they can and then they really lose. And if they buy better coverage the insurance companies get mad. Much analysis of the history of ACA and its roots, as well as speculation about its future, is covered by Himmelstein and Woolhandler in this PNHP post.
And it doesn’t come at a good time. The Commonwealth Fund just released a report showing that Americans have more challenges in receiving needed health care than in 10 other rich countries. Well, it hasn’t been a good time for a while. This report just shows, basically, the same thing that Commonwealth and others have been reporting for years.

So what can we expect, as a nation, from a Trump administration? Well, there is odds-on betting that we will get a right-wing, anti-abortion, anti-reproductive rights Supreme Court. And, if not actually a wall, major deportations and harassment of immigrants. And real anti-Muslim activity. Hate crimes are already up, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, with really bad people feeling emboldened by the Trump rhetoric; we can only hope his Justice Department will prosecute these crimes at least as aggressively as they do immigrants. We will probably get more of the same in attacks by police on minorities, and especially on policies that enrich the richest and hurt the poor. We will get little or no action on climate change. And we will not get the jobs that have been lost back, whatever the President-elect promises.
 

Protests will continue, centered as they have been in the small islands of the nation that voted Democratic – and where most of the people in the US live. We need to be sure that the losses I describe above do not come easily, that we do not keep our heads down, that we make waves.


And, in healthcare, we probably will not get single payer, although this would solve the problem and allow Donald Trump to actual give us most of the good without most of the bad. If he would only.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Insurance coverage and access to care in the US

In the New York Times’ “Upshot” of October 24, 2016, Dr. Aaron E. Carroll discusses “Why the U.S. Still Trails Many Wealthy Nations in Access to Care”. He notes the increase in insurance coverage of the American people since Obamacare, but also that insurance coverage is not the same as access to care. He cites the most recent Commonwealth Fund survey of international health systems to demonstrate that, compared to most of the other ten wealthy countries that were studied, Americans have greater difficulty getting an appointment and being seen. (Canada is worse than the US in many of these measures, but not all; see discussion below.) Indeed, he also notes that when the populations of these countries are divided up between above-average and below-average incomes, the folks with below-average income in most of these other countries have better access than the above-average in the US.

A major reason that Carroll cites for the poor access is the low percent of primary care physicians in the US, a fact supported by data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, the “rich countries” group). It is true. There are not enough primary care doctors -- family physicians and general internists and general pediatricians -- to meet the access needs of the people of this country. There are plenty of excellent specialists; in fact, in many major metropolitan areas there are too many of them, sometimes leading to too many interventions that both increase the cost to the system and the risk to patients. Traditional “supply and demand” economics would suggest that limits on demand would force a constraint on the number of specialists, but it hasn’t happened yet; none of them are starving. This is because, in medicine, supply often drives demand rather than vice versa. When are people finally getting enough procedures, and when does it cross into too many? People don’t understand medical care, what is “good” for them and what is “too much”, much less the cost-benefit ratio. Indeed, doctors usually do not. But they do know what they know how to do, and that it will make them money.

This is a major area that having sufficient primary care physicians would help. If everyone has a family doctor that they can trust, whose income is not tied to procedures or referrals, they can help you to understand these complex issues. But there are far from enough; less than 30% of doctors in the US are in primary care, compared to 50%+ in other wealthy countries, and that is dropping as fewer students choose primary care careers. Many reasons for this are cited by studies (the culture of academic medical centers, status, work-life balance, etc.) but the real bottom-line reason is the bottom line: primary care physicians earn way less than most other specialists. Not just a little, but often half or a third as much as the highest paid specialists. Pay for primary care is going up with demand, but 10-15% increases will not change specialty choice; between income increases for primary care and decreases for specialties (heaven forfend!) the ratio needs to be at least 70%. Specialists know this; they want primary care doctors to do all the things that they themselves are not able or don’t want to do for their patients and are not opposed to primary care salaries going up -- although of course they themselves don’t want to see their own incomes go down.

Getting the care you need is a combination of having enough providers for you to be able to find and get in to see, and adequate coverage. Insurance, as we have long seen even before Obamacare, is not all the same; there is good insurance (although hardly, any longer, great insurance) and lousy insurance, and there is no insurance that is both cheap and of high quality (although, again, there are plenty of plans that are costly and of poor quality). Premiums are the tip of the iceberg; deductibles (how much you have to pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in), co-pays (how much you have to pay each time you access care), co-insurance (what percent of “covered” care you have to pay) also impact on out of pocket costs. As, of course, does the overall cost of care (by providers) and drugs (by drug companies), and what services are not covered by your insurance.

As an example, if you are over 65, try figuring out what plan to buy for your Medicare Drug Coverage (“Part D”). There are the monthly premiums. And the deductibles. And the co-pays. And those vary by type of drug (generic vs. brand-name, preferred vs. non-preferred), and sometimes they are by a fixed $-per-prescription amount and sometimes by a percent. And if you order by mail it is different. On the bright side, most vendors offer you a calculator into which you can put the drugs you take, and it puts it all together and tells you which is cheapest for you. Until, of course, the drugs you take change.

This is insane, of course, but only if you happen to care about what works best for actual people, and not what makes the most money for private for-profit companies like insurers. Drew Shenaman, cartoonist for the Newark Star-Ledger, in the accompanying editorial cartoon, makes it very clear what the real reason is that insurers are pulling out of Obamacare. Their interests are not our interests. Surprise!
 
So we have excellent quality medical care available in the US, if you are geographically and financially able to access it, except sometimes it is not needed and done anyway. We have too many doctors in some specialties and far too few primary care doctors, and even they are not distributed well across the US. We have insurance companies that are focused on making profits, rather than on providing access, and sell complex, difficult-to-understand products that often have a “gotcha” at the point when we are most vulnerable. While access to appointments may be a little better in the US than in Canada (but not other countries), cost to the individual is way higher in this country than in Canada; access to care has both financial and non-financial components.

Not everything can be reduced to dollars, but a lot can. The money spent on health care in this country should be spent on providing health care, not on profit for insurance companies, providers, drug companies, and the like. If private insurance is to be part of the system, it needs to be non-profit and highly regulated. There need to be more primary care doctors, and the way to make this happen is for them to get paid much closer to the same amount of money for the work that they do as other specialists. Medicare can and should lead the way on this. Physician distribution should be fixed by augmenting the incomes of doctors in rural areas, not punishing them. None of this guarantees quality care, but without it quality is a pipe dream.

Obamacare was good insofar as it went. It didn’t go far enough, and now we need to fix it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

What is right about the ACA, and how to address what is not

There has been much criticism of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) both from the Right, which is apparently horrified that public funds are actually being used to help needy people rather than bail out banks, and from the Left, which thinks it hasn’t gone far enough to help meet people’s healthcare needs. Count me in the latter camp, for reasons I will address soon.

However, first to address the criticisms from the Right.  On the whole they are wrong (no pun intended). The fact is that the ACA has done good. About 10,000,000 people who were previously uninsured have now gained health insurance coverage, both from the health insurance exchanges (that include subsidies for the low income) and through expansion of Medicaid, in those states that have opted to do so. This is a GOOD THING. One of the major reasons that the ACA has not done more good is a result of the specific actions that the Right has taken. The most obvious is the failure to expand Medicaid in states that they control, a fiscally unwise decision that is based entirely on a combination of ideology (Malthus as seen through the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand) that is about helping the wealthiest become even wealthier, and the politics of meanness (we will get votes by appealing to folks who don’t want to help them, usually code for racial and ethnic minorities). It is fiscally unwise because, in contrast to traditional Medicaid in which the federal government pays 60-80% of the cost (based upon the income levels of the state), under expansion it pays 100% of the cost for 4 years and then 90%. Medicaid expansion covers everyone under 137% of the poverty line. In contrast, in Kansas, for example, it only covers people who are BOTH very poor (under 30% of poverty) AND have another “qualifying” condition – most commonly mothers of young children and those children, and the disabled. Obviously, this excludes many people in Kansas, and millions across all of the states that have not expanded Medicaid.

There have been many other efforts to limit people benefiting from ACA. Many states (like Kansas) refused to open state-sponsored exchanges, and have tried to obstruct the federal exchanges, even trying to intimidate those working to sign people up. It tried to block passage of the ACA in Congress, and when it gained majorities has blocked every effort to expand funding, and blocked the creation of a “public option” to compete with private insurance companies. The entire series of efforts on the Right to block, limit, and try to kill ACA make its criticisms reminiscent of the person who killed his parents and asks for mercy from the court on the grounds that he is an orphan!

And yet, although it is largely their fault, some of the criticisms of ACA are spot on. Premiums have continued to go up in many places, making the policies available on the exchanges unaffordable to many. Combined with the fact that, despite the “individual mandate”, the penalties for not participating are far less than the cost of insurance, people are not buying it. Or they are buying terrible policies, also permitted by the ACA, that turn out to be worth very little when their purchasers actually get sick. In some places, major insurance companies (like Aetna and Humana) are pulling out of the exchange marketplaces altogether because, even with such high premiums, they are losing money.

The reason for this phenomenon is well-described in Health Care Law’s Beneficiaries Reflect Its Strengths, and Its Faults by Abby Goodnough and Reed Abelson in the New York Times of October 14, 2016. People with chronic diseases, many of whom had been previously uninsurable because of these pre-existing conditions, have flocked to buy insurance on the exchanges. They now have coverage, and are using it; they are among the 5% of people who cost 50% of health dollars (described by me in Red, Blue, and Purple: The Math of Health Care Spending, October 20, 2009), or 75% under the exchanges (per an official of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee cited in the article). The difference is because the first estimate is based on all people in the country, and the BC/BS experience in Tennessee and elsewhere is based upon people who have actually signed up for coverage in the exchanges. In a vicious circle, low-income but (currently) healthy people, especially the young, have chosen to not sign up; this leaves the pool of those covered disproportionately ill and thus costly. Without premiums coming in from the people who would cost little or nothing, insurance companies’ outlay for care (the “medical loss ratio”) is too high for them to make a profit (or, at least, as much profit as they want to), and so premiums continue to rise, driving more people (and insurers) out of the marketplace. In addition, the competing demands of survival among low-income people are tremendous, as documented in the October 31, 2016 issue of The Nation, by Monica Potts in “The American social safety net does not exist”. (H/t Bob Bowman, on the Medicine and Social Justice Facebook page.)

This is the basis of the criticism from the Left – that the private insurance-based model of the ACA was designed to benefit the insurance companies (which is now sometimes failing). This was the purpose of the individual mandate, to get everyone, healthy or not, to buy in. But the solution is not to raise the penalty for not signing up, which is obviously counterproductive, but to automatically put everyone in the same pool, regardless of income, pre-existing conditions, age, or the state that they live in. This is what would happen in a national health insurance program, as advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders. Conceptually, it can be seen as putting everyone in the federally-run Medicare program (which already has, by virtue of insuring the old and disabled, the highest risk people). All of us are in, whether we need medical care or not. It is “insurance” only in the broadest sense, because everyone is in the pool, and the public sector – all of us, from our taxes and income-based premiums, pays for it.

Some people know that they are sick. They have one, or often more, chronic diseases. They may have cancer. They may have had trauma requiring multiple surgeries. These are the people who cost the most today. But all of us are at risk for joining that group, when we find out tomorrow that we have cancer, or are in an accident, or have a premature baby, or just gradually gather more chronic conditions as we age. These are those of us who find ourselves without coverage because, when we were healthy, it was too expensive. But it doesn’t have to be that way; a single-payer national health program covers all of us all the time.

The core concept of most insurance is that you only “win” by losing; you collect when your house burns down, or you are in a car accident, or you die. Health care should not be that way. We all should get preventive care, acute care, and care for our chronic conditions, physical and mental.


We can do this. We should. Now is the time. Now is way past time.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Beyond Flexner 2016: Medical schools still need to up their social mission

The “Beyond Flexner 2016” Conference was held in Miami September 19-21, 2016. It was the third in this series of conferences, originally stimulated by the 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine article “The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”[1]. The first conference, held in Tulsa in 2012, featured the authors of the article and leaders from many “community-based” medical schools founded in 2 rounds of medical school expansion, the 1970s and the 2000s, discussing their real or proposed innovations (Beyond Flexner: Taking the Social Mission of Medical Schools to the next level, June 1, 2012). The second, held in Albuquerque in 2015, had major growth in attendance, and a group of national speakers who powerfully addressed the failures of both medical schools and our medical system to address the health needs of the American people, especially through (lack of) diversity in our health care workforce, equity (especially racial) in the care provided, and the inadequate numbers of primary care doctors being produced (Beyond Flexner: It is time to stop shoring up the bridge and figure out how to cross the river!, April 7, 2015). The metaphor for that blog’s title came from a talk by Don Berwick, in which he compared the US health system to the sturdily-built Choluteca Bridge in Honduras that withstood Hurricane Mitch only to be useless because the hurricane moved the river. (Such a great picture I’m posting it again here!)

The Miami conference, again sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation along with Florida International University, was very good, although it had some disappointing aspects, notably the attendance, about 350, which was a little less than that in Albuquerque. The speakers were again excellent, with several standouts:  Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who exposed the Flint lead poisoning crisis, gave a powerful talk in which she observed that despite being in Michigan, the “mitten state” surrounded by the largest collection of fresh water in the world, Flint’s water even today is still not safe. Robert H. Brook, of the RAND Corporation and UCLA gave a talk where he challenged the “rights” of medical schools, suggesting that hospitals (especially academic medical centers, AHCs) that do not care for their fair share of Medicaid and uninsured patients should not be allowed to have residency training programs, and that, more than allowing community service to count toward promotion and tenure, we should not allow anyone to be promoted without community service. Julio Frenk, the President of the University of Miami, a public health physician who served as Secretary of Health in Mexico, spoke about the need for building social capital that did not just “bond” communities but created “bridges” between them. He also noted that education had to move from the “informative” (providing the knowledge to become a professional) to the “formative” (creating the character and roles that define a professional) to the “transformative”, where professionals could truly create change both in their professions and in society.

One of the new events was the presentation of the First Annual Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation Awards for Social Mission in Medical Education. The Institutional Award went to Morehouse School of Medicine, the Individual Award to Thomas Curtin, MD of Massachusetts and a leader in establishing Teaching Health Centers, and the program award to the University of Florida for its “Putting Families First” interprofessional education program. The highlight was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to H. Jack Geiger, whose achievements, from establishing the first Community Health Centers in the US, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Human Rights, to serving as Dean of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Sciences at CCNY, are enough for several such lifetime awards. Dr. Geiger, who spoke eloquently at the 2015 conference, again addressed the group. He is nearly blind but as powerful and articulate a speaker as ever; he noted that "I have lost most of my eyesight, but it turns out you don't need good eyesight to hang on to a vision!"

In my 2012 blog on the Tulsa Conference, I noted 4 areas I felt were important for focus, and reiterated them writing about the 2015 Albuquerque Conference. They were:
·         Diversity: How does the school produce a health workforce that looks more like American by enrolling, and supporting, a group of students that is truly diverse in ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic origin?
·         Social Determinants of Health: How does the school teach about and train students in, and carry out programs aimed at addressing, the social determinants of health? How does its curriculum and work invert that of the traditional medical school, which focused most on tertiary hospital-care, and emphasize instead ambulatory  primary care, community based interventions, and interventions on the most important health determinants including housing, safety, education, food, and warmth?
·         Disparities: How does the school, through its programs of education and community intervention, and its research agenda and practices, work to reduce disparities in health care and health among populations?
·         Community Engagement: How does the school identify the community(ies) it serves and how does it involve them in determining the location of training, kinds of programs it carries out, and in identifying the questions that need to be answered by research?

There was more emphasis on interprofessional diversity at this conference, with panels including two national nursing leaders (Divina Grossman and Randy Rausch), and a panel including a community (and FQHC) based Dental School Dean (Jack Dillenberg). There was great ethnic and racial diversity in the speakers and moderators, but somewhat less emphasis on diversity in the content of the talks than in 2015. Primary care was still emphasized, but I remain concerned that the conference still features relatively small programs in medical or health professions schools aimed at increasing diversity, primary care, and community engagement. This is, of course, because most such programs are small within their AHCs, and nowhere near as important as the provision of tertiary and quaternary medical care and obtaining NIH research grants. Until these can be scaled up, until producing a majority of graduates entering primary care, enrolling and graduate underrepresented minority and low-income students at least in proportion to their percentages in the population, and working in the community becomes the highest priority of an AHC, the movement is stalled.

It is sometimes tempting to think that AHCs are incorrigible, that they are set in their ways – and in the way that they are financed – and that achieving the goals I have outlined above, or even more modest improvements in social mission – are not going to happen, at least any time soon. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) supports in word – and to a limited extent in deed – the goals of diversity and community engagement, but not enough to change the core focus of their members. Indeed, tellingly, they continue to call for increasing the number of residency positions, but not on targeting them to primary care, as does the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The largest specialty in medicine, Internal Medicine, opposes AAFP’s proposal to fund only “first certification” residency positions, as this would not fund their subspecialty fellowships.[2] Thus, they put self-interest (having funded fellows in their subspecialties) ahead of the need for America to have more primary care doctors.

Yes, it can get frustrating to work with medical schools and their entrenched anti-social values. But this is where the medical students are, where they are trained, and where they get their ideas of what might be the most appropriate specialties to enter and what th

e professional role of a physician is – e.g., working in the community or not. They need both individual and institutional role models.

So the need to work for a social mission for medical – and health professions – education is still an important goal.



[1] Mullan F, Chen C, Petterson S, Kolsky G, Spagnola M,“The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”, Ann Int Med 15 June 2010, Vol 152, No. 12,
[2] Butkus R, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2016;doi:10.7326/M15-2917.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

“It’s always worse than you think … even if what you were thinking is pretty bad”

On the heels of the Epi-Pen® scandal (well, at least I think it is scandalous, Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?, September 3, 2016) in which Mylan Pharmaceuticals and its CEO Heather Bresch raised the price of this life-saving medication 500% (and her salary by about the same degree), that itself followed last year’s Daraprim® scandal where Turing Pharmaceuticals and its CEO Martin Shkreli raised the price of this anti-parasitic drug over 5000% (Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility, September 27, 2015), we have some good news. Sort of. Brent Saunders, CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, also identified last year for hefty price increases in two life-saving heart drugs,has now announced it will keep its price increases under 10%. Of course, it will raise the price 9.9%, which is certainly less than 10%, and even less than 9.99%, which they could have done and still been below 10%. There is speculation that this may have been in response to proposed federal legislation that would have increased the scrutiny on drug price increases of 10% or more, but of course we cannot know for sure.

The predatory greed of drug companies is becoming legendary, threatening to eclipse that of insurance companies as the leading bad guys in keeping Americans from being able to afford the medical care that they need. After all, insurance companies have increased every form of payment (premiums, co-insurance, co-payments and deductibles) that people, the insured, need to pay out of their own pockets in an effort to decrease the probability that they will be bankrupted when they need medical care. This is sometimes justified by the risks that they take; particularly by the “adverse selection” that occurs because it is the sick, rather than healthy, people who were most likely to sign up for insurance under the ACA’s insurance exchanges. The “individual mandate” of ACA was supposed to prevent this, but the penalties people have to pay are far less than the cost of buying insurance for many (if they are unsubsidized), and maybe they won’t even be caught. Or get sick.

Of course, the degree to which insurance companies are actually losing money rather than simply making less profit than they would like is uncertain, but it is clear that, at least in some markets, it is close. The transfer of many patient-borne costs from premiums to co-insurance, co-payments, and deductibles is designed to keep premiums from going even higher, but of course impacts the sick more. In (at least slight) contrast, the price increases of pharmaceuticals can only be justified by an ethos of “charge what the market will bear”, and make as much as possible before regulators come down on them. In a really ‘cool’ effort reported by the New York Times on September 16, 2016, Mylan is trying to get the federal government to add Epi-Pen to its list of life-saving preventive medications. This would mean direct users would not have to pay so much, but Mylan would continue receive its outrageous price – supported by all of us, as federal taxpayers. Now, there’s a really terrible solution! (Good solution: lower the price. A lot.)

And they have been doing it for a long time. Pharmaceutical companies bought dinners, bought presents, and bought trips for doctors who prescribed their drugs. There has been some clamping down on the most egregious excesses in recent years, but they have not been eliminated. Especially concerning are the revelations (no news to physicians) of the aggressive promotion of opiod pain relievers to doctors, and their contribution to the incredible epidemic of prescription opioid addiction in the US today (48,000 women died of prescription drug overdose between 1999 and 2010, a period during which prescription drug addiction increased over 400% among women and 237% among men, according to the American Society for Addiction Medicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported:
We now know that overdoses from prescription opioid pain relievers are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report. Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have also quadrupled since 1999.

The entire campaign to “eliminate pain” was largely supported by opioid manufacturers, such as Purdue and Abbott through their creative marketing to physicians. The most “funny”, reported by STAT, was the use by a drug rep of creatively-arranged donuts to catch the attention of an orthopedist who would not otherwise meet with him, by appealing to his sweet tooth. It is not, of course, really funny, and it is almost worse that physicians could (and maybe still can) be bought not by trips to the Bahamas but by a box of donuts!

Speaking of donuts, we have the even more incredible exposé in the Times that for decades, beginning in the 1950s, the sugar industry worked assiduously to fund and support researchers whose work blamed dietary fat, rather than refined carbohydrates (sugar) for the prevalence of heart disease, (“How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat”, September 12, 2016). This was not a one or two time payoff to a couple of researchers, but a continued campaign over more than a generation to have the scientific community, and thus the rest of us, minimize the impact of sugar on heart disease. This work forestalled the more recent campaigns to limit sugar-containing foods, especially soft drinks, and was a major contributor to an epidemic even greater than opioid addiction, obesity and its related health effects. Sugar is not a prescription drug, but it probably has had more negative health consequences than all prescription drugs together.

So who can we trust? I have often argued for the scientific community, but such reports of corruption of scientific research are sobering; at least, we can say that today there are increased safeguards in place. Clearly we cannot trust politicians; while they will respond to the crises in the news (like drug price increases and such) they are dependent on contributions from large corporations, and those large corporations are pursuing their financial interests. Whether directly involved in our medical care, like insurance companies and drug companies and hospital chains, or dramatically affecting our health like the high-calories food industry (including sugar), or polluting and destroying our environment like many energy companies, our interests (at least as far as our health is concerned) are not their interests, and there is often (or usually) little overlap between the two. As a physician colleague put it, “It’s always worse than you think … even if what you were thinking is pretty bad.”

Pursuit of financial gain by such companies is not in the interest of our public, or private individual, health. The most vulnerable of us – the poorest, sickest, youngest and oldest and least empowered – suffer first and most, but all of us suffer. Drug prices should be regulated tightly, and competition (including pricing as in other countries or import of drugs) should be encouraged; insurance should be single-payer, and the impact on the public’s health the main criterion in deciding on environmental pollution.

Profit should have no place in determining our health or health care.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?

Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of the drug company Turing, achieved his 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) last year through predatory pricing, raising the price of pyrimethamine, an old drug used to treat a parasitic infection in the brains of immune-compromised (usually HIV-infected) people from $13.50 to $750 a pill (Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility, September 27, 2015). Shkreli manage to further alienate people by his testimony before Congress, widely described using adjectives such as “smug” and “condescending”.  The most recent Pharma CEO to hit the news for price gouging, Heather Bresch of Mylan, seems to be trying to avoid Shkreli’s “doubling down” by making an apology, of sorts.

Bresch’s company, unquestionably with her active involvement, raised the price of Epi-Pen®, a self-injectable form of epinephrine that is sold to prevent people from dying from severe allergic (anaphylactic) reactions to a variety of substance, from peanuts to bee stings, from about $100 to $600 for a 2-pack. Two things: first, such pens are lifesavers. As a physician, when I tried to figure out what I needed to pack in an emergency first-aid kit for camping, it was #1. It was the only thing I could think of that actually could keep someone from dying in the woods. Second, epinephrine is an old, cheap drug. As ABC news reported, a doctor in Canada showed how a physician can prescribe a whole vial, plus small syringe and needle, for under $10, and a person can easily inject themselves, just under the skin. The “value” of the Epi-Pen is that it is self-injecting, but hard to even justify the $100. Or the somewhat higher cost of a generic (Mylan, indeed is a generic company.) Bresch, the daughter of a US Senator, was awarded an MBA by West Virginia University despite not finishing the coursework (which led to the resignation of the president). She protested that she wasn’t being predatory like Shkreli, and offered to sell the drug at a 50% discount, only $300! That is still a lot. I have a friend whose daughter is allergic to peanuts; both her day care centers require her to have a 2-pack of Epi-Pen®, with prescription (thus can’t do the epinephrine bottle) – this could cut her outlay from $1200 to $600. Of course, she will spend it to potentially save her daughter’s life, the key point that Mylan and Ms. Bresch understood when they raised the price. At more or less the same time, Ms. Bresch raised her own salary from a paltry less-than-$2 million a year to $18 million. I guess the rise in the price of Epi-Pen® funded that. MAD Magazine® used to do satire but its recent coverage of Epi-Pen® is almost investigative reporting (see picture).

Could it get worse? Sure, why not? Bresch’s father, Senator (and former Governor) Joe Manchin of West Virginia may or may not have been helpful to Mylan (it is, after all, a West Virginia company), but many politicians have been tied to helping drug companies make lots of money. Bill Moyers covers the role of Billy Tauzin, a former Congressman from Louisiana who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Congress passed the Medicare drug plan (Medicare Part D) under President G. W. Bush. That legislation prohibited Medicare from using its clout to negotiate lower drug prices. Tauzin left Congress in 2005 and became chief lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), converting his well-paid (by campaign donations) service while in Congress to a MUCH better-paid job lobbying his former colleagues. He is credited with having a major impact on the ACA, passed in 2010, ensuring its Pharma-friendly characteristics. And, to be sure, Tauzin, who left PhRMA after 5 years, was scarcely alone in pushing pharmaceutical industry interests in Congress, or in receiving big donations, as the Moyers piece documents. Congress appears to buy the idea that Pharma needs high prices for doing research and development (despite the fact that they spend many times their R&D budgets on marketing, and much of the basic research is done with government funding at universities) and that other countries’ restrictions on the prices of their drugs require them to charge Americans more. Of course, the real reason that pharmaceutical companies charge so much in the US is that they can get it. Whose interests is Congress working in when it does this? Not the American peoples’…


I recently discussed the fact that some large insurers (Aetna, United, Humana)  are leaving the health insurance exchange marketplace in some parts of the country because they are losing money (or, perhaps, just not making enough) because too many sick people and not enough healthy people are signing up, turning the insurance model on its head.  Although the ACA contains an individual mandate, lots of people with less money and/or fewer health needs are not signing up and paying the penalties, which are much less costly (if they are even “caught”). Of course, the ACA did not include a “public option”, which would have been much less costly, specifically to offer these insurers a competition-free field. This is discussed in detail by Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt in a JAMA Forum on August 25, 2016 “Why Are Private Health Insurers Losing Money on Obamacare?”. The reason comes down to the same one that has always been true, and that I discussed a number of years ago (October 20, 2009, Red, Blue, and Purple: The Math of Health Care Spending) – a small minority of people account for most health care costs. I have attached a graph from Reinhardt’s piece that makes the same point. And, although he explains the reason insurers lose money, Reinhardt does not excuse it. "If health care costs in the United States were lower, most people would probably agree that ill, low-income citizens should receive the needed health care that is available to better-off individuals. The problem is that our health system is in danger of pricing kindness out of our souls."

So we have both the greed of pharmaceutical companies and the greed of insurers. As discussed in many recent articles in the popular press, the bottom line is that the health benefit to Americans is at best a side effect of complex plans engineered to make profit. This perverted approach, almost unique to the US, has marginalized, bankrupted, and caused illness and death in many. This system doesn’t work for people. A fairly well-off couple caught in the bind of insurance costs is profiled by AP in its “The Big Story: “Without a subsidy, couple faces higher insurance premiums”. The husband notes the failure of our system to ensure that people’s health is a greater priority than corporate profit:  "Ultimately, it's clear that health care is not something that can be efficiently provided by the private sector. The rest of the Western world has figured out that health care is a right and is intrinsically a government, public-sector activity.”

Don McCanne, in his Quote of the Day,  provided that link on August 22. And then, on August 23, a profound and direct commentary from the editors of the Des Moines Register, “Editorial: Government should not rely on private insurers”:
“Americans’ access to health insurance should not depend on the profit margins, business dealings, or mergers of for-profit companies. Not in Medicare. Not in Medicaid. And not in exchanges created by health reform law. Instead of funneling tax dollars to private companies, government is better equipped to administer insurance. It is not beholden to stockholders. It does not seek to turn a profit. And it will not abandon the responsibility of providing health coverage to Americans.”

Professor Reinhardt and those editors are right. Our souls are certainly in jeopardy. And so are our pocketbooks. And so is our health.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The cost of health care: insurance companies, high-profit and low value care

We know that health care in the US is incredibly expensive. Those who read about health policy from a variety of sources (perhaps including this blog) know this in terms of data – our per capita cost is 50% more than the second highest-cost nation (Norway), twice what most comparable (rich) countries spend, and almost 3 times that of the United Kingdom. But you don’t have to be a policy wonk to know that health care is expensive; you just have to be a consumer who is trying to buy health insurance and is seeing their premiums go up – and their out-of-pocket costs (deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance) go up as well. All those other countries cover everyone, equitably, despite spending so much less money (and those that spend more, like Norway, have especially good coverage). Not so here.

“My premiums are more than $600 a month, which is more than our mortgage payment,” a cancer survivor quoted by the New York Times in its August 14, 2016 article by Robert Pear “Health insurers use process intended to curb rate increases to justify them”, said. “I am grateful that the Affordable Care Act is here for my family, but I am disappointed by its limitations. All I want is a plan that makes our health care affordable, but it doesn’t exist.” She is likely to be disappointed, because this was not how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was set up, and unless control of Congress changes dramatically, we probably will not see a fix. ACA passed because it guaranteed continued profit for insurance companies, and this has led to both the rate increases and out-of-pocket cost increases we have seen. Insurance companies can do this because the law allows them to ask for premium hikes when they are not making “enough” money. Essentially, ACA requires the American people (subsidized by the federal government if they are poor) to ensure private insurance companies are profitable. Because they believe that they have not been permitted to jack up rates “enough”, some companies (Humana, United, Ætna) are leaving the exchanges in many places.

While other counties make sure everyone is covered by some national health insurance (a national health service in the UK, a single-payer national health insurance system in Canada, and highly-regulated multi-payer systems in many other European countries such as France, Germany, and Switzerland), we have tried a patchwork that leaves many people out (e.g., the undocumented, poor people in the 19 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid), and encourages others to buy policies on the health insurance exchanges based solely on their cost. This is examined in a story by Reed Abelson in the Times from August 12, 2016, “Cost, not choice, is top concern of health insurance customers”. It notes that people who are healthy and young but don’t have employer-based health insurance are either buying the cheapest policies available on the exchanges or “particularly those not eligible for generous subsidies, are shunning plans altogether, finding all of the prices too high.” When they don't buy insurance, it messes with the insurance company model of offsetting costs for sick people with the premiums paid by healthy people, the reason for increasing premiums. And many other people, neither young nor healthy, are also buying the cheapest policy they can find because they can’t afford the cost (and maybe can’t understand the details); for these folks, it is not the insurance companies that pay the financial price, but themselves, when they get hospitalized or otherwise need costly care and discover that their “insurance” is inadequate (the technical term here is “crap”).

And this is just the health insurance contribution to high health care cost. Also very important is the cost of the care itself, particularly high-tech, high-cost care, provided to many Americans (at least those with good insurance coverage). This is driven, at least currently, by the fact that in most places, where insurance companies pay providers by piecework (“fee-for-service”), high-cost is also high-profit for providers, both individual physicians and the large institutional providers (hospitals and health systems) that often employ them. This blog, and a variety of exposés in many news articles including in the Times (particularly the work of Elisabeth Rosenthal) have given example after example of such incentives driving both the kind of care delivered and the cost of that care. In the worst instances, this is the result of rapacious greed that provides unnecessary care at very high cost. In many other settings, the opportunity for profit subtly (I hope) tips the scales toward providing high-cost, high-profit services rather than just as good, or almost as good, alternatives. But there are even more insidious drivers of cost; these are in the “everyday tests”, such as those done for screening, that in themselves, one by one, don’t seem to be excessive but multiplied by the number of people receiving them cost a lot (and make a lot of money for providers). The practice of ordering such tests is often driven by advocacy groups, providers in certain specialties and relatively small numbers of people with a specific condition who think everyone needs to be tested for it.

A good example is screening for lipid disorders (basically, high cholesterol) in children. Yes, some children have a genetic disorder which means that they should be tested and treated, but the vast majority do not and screening them (barring a history of familial hyperlipidemia or very early heart attacks) should not be done. It is not recommended by either the US Preventive Services Task Force or the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), nor by the UK National Screening Committee. This example is discussed in an outstanding editorial in JAMA Internal Medicine by Thomas B. Newman, Alan R. Schroeder, and Mark J. Pletcher published on August 9, 2016, titled “Lipid screening in children: Low-value care”, preceded by the tagline “Less is more.” The authors contrast the USPSTF and AAFP recommendations to those of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends it. The authors of the editorial demonstrate the amazing lack of cost-effectiveness for this screening test, and note that is only because USPSTF does not consider cost-effectiveness that it gave the test an “I” (insufficient evidence to recommend for or against”) and not a “D” (recommend against testing).

But the most important point made in the editorial is that our recommendations for testing – and how to spend our healthcare dollars – are individually focused, and virtually ignore (and thus dramatically underfund) those interventions in public health and the social determinants of health that would truly make a major difference in the health of millions of Americans. The authors say it extremely well:

Tackling major public health concerns such as climate change, poverty, obesity, and gun violence is likely to yield high-value solutions, and many advocate policy and community-level interventions that might achieve such solutions. Meanwhile, other segments of our health care establishment continue to try to solve health problems by doubling down on individual-level health care solutions that tend to be low in value...The need for clinicians and leaders to focus on sustainability and health care value has never been greater, and it is likely that policy and community-based interventions will get us there much more quickly than adding more clinic-based interventions that have low value and are wasteful of resources and clinicians’ time.


We need to take this advice to heart. It goes way beyond lipid screening in children. It means supporting interventions that actually  improve the health of the public on a large scale. And, as always, “support” is spelled M-O-N-E-Y.

Total Pageviews