Sunday, June 26, 2016

Private Profit and the Public's Health: Which is More Important?

Health care is pretty complicated, and insurance coverage is even harder to understand.This is the message that comes through clearly from the interviews being done by Dr. Paul Gordon and recorded on his blog, https://bikelisteningtour.wordpress.com. Dr. Gordon is taking a unique sabbatical, riding his bicycle across the country from Washington (DC) to Washington (state), interviewing regular people, mostly in caf├ęs and such, about their take on Obamacare. 

The economic status of these people varies from poor to pretty well-off (but none really wealthy), from well insured to uninsured. Their political perspectives range from “everyone should be covered” to “benefits just make people lazy”. Three recent quotes: ‘People use Medicaid as a crutch’, ‘You can’t penalize someone for not having health insurance when it’s so expensive and the economy is doing so poorly’, ‘Here’s my take on it – everyone should have insurance’. What they share with each other, and with most of us, is a general lack of understanding of how Obamacare works (or doesn’t) and why. The flaws in Obamacare are the result of the political tradeoffs that allowed insurance companies to continue to have control and make huge profits, but this is often not clear to most people.

Here is something that is easy to understand, however: when you call “911” as you have been trained to do in an emergency, and they don’t come. Or they don’t come for a long time. Or they come with inadequate supplies. Who do you get angry with when you, or your loved one, dies? The government? They are surely in part at fault, even though they probably contracted the service out, to save money, probably because voters want to pay less tax. But there is another reason, explained in an excellent special article in the New York Times, When you dial 911 and Wall St. answers” (June 26, 2016). The piece, by Danielle Ivory, Ben Protess, and Kitty Bennett, details how many city services, including ambulance services, are provided by companies that are owned by “private equity firms”. These are companies whose investment capital comes from wealthy individuals and particularly from pension funds, unlike banks whose money comes from depositors. They are even less regulated than banks, and thus more able to pursue their core mission, making profit:
Unlike other for-profit companies, which often have years of experience making a product or offering a service, private equity is primarily skilled in making money. And in many of these businesses, The Times found, private equity firms applied a sophisticated moneymaking playbook: a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation.

Whoa. This is starting to get complicated again. Banks vs. “private equity” vs. just plain old for-profit businesses? They are really just different forms of for-profit, and provide a stepwise progression, from public services operated by government for the benefit of the people, to private companies that are contracted by government to do a service but might care about doing it well, to having those companies owned by banks who really just want to make a profit, to having them owned by private equity companies who care about nothing but making a profit. The photo accompanying the Times article is of Lynn Tilton, owner of Patriarch Partners (an ironic name, given that she is a woman), which owned the emergency services company TransCare that served many East Coast communities. TransCare went bankrupt, leaving those communities without emergency medical services. Ms. Tilton’s picture is accompanied by the quote from her reality television stint “It’s only men I strip and flip.” As a poster child, she could become the Martin Shkreli of ripping off necessary public services the way he was of ripping off consumers of life-saving drugs.

The business of America,” Calvin Coolidge is often paraphrased as saying, “is business.” This perspective, that it is not about doing things that are best for the American people, is based in a belief that capitalism – “business” – will, through the magic of the market, eventually meet those needs. OK, maybe not those of people at the margins, people too poor to buy, so maybe we need a safety net. But most people. A similar statement appeared today in the print edition of the Kansas City Star from KC Mayor Sly James, discussing the controversy over replacing the terminals at Kansas City International Airport with one big, new terminal. Surveys consistently show that the large majority of Kansas Citians (84% in this article, “Regarding KCI’s future, city ponders a new flight path”) like the current arrangement, with short security lines and easy access in and out from one story terminals, but the airlines and big businesses do not. In the large-type quote accompanying his picture in the print edition (but, along with the photo, left out of the online edition), Mayor James said “The people of this city need to be convinced of what I believe is a basic reality, that this airport is about a lot more than ‘how fast can you get out of your car and get to your gate?’” Right. Business interests first. Take that, 84% of Kansas Citians!

Because they most obviously involve life and death, emergency medical services and firefighting (yes, firefighting too has been contracted out to companies owned by private equity firms!) get the greatest play in the Times article, but many other services (like water!) are in the same situation: controlled by companies whose goal is to make a profit rather than to provide effective service for people. This is what happens when municipalities are starved of funds because people vote to cut taxes.

Whether it is health insurance or emergency medical services or municipal water, the system becomes very complicated and hard to understand when it is trying to meet conflicting agendas. When the need for people to receive critical, health-producing service (fire and police protection, clean water, garbage collection, ambulances) is compromised by provisions built into contracts (or the law) for companies (insurance companies, banks, private equity firms) to make profit. I guess it is fine if these services can be effectively and reliably provided by for-profit companies, but when their pursuit of profit through “a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation” conflict with actually providing services, there is a big problem. In the case of emergency medical services, the problem was that “…many newly insured Americans turned out to be on Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Medicaid restricts some of the most aggressive billing tactics.”

A variety of other difficult to understand strategies are also employed at the macro level to place the interests of wealthy corporations above those of the people. These include the unlimited political contributions permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, incredible gerrymandering of congressional districts so that we have states where the majority of voters vote for Democrats but most districts are solidly Republican (see the New York Times Book Review Where votes go to die”, June 26, 2016), and the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that prevent national governments from regulating multi-national corporations.

We could solve this if there was a single, over-arching principle, always codified into law, that the interests of the people as a whole always trumps the profit potential of corporations. I vote for that.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Serving others or self-serving? All generations have both kinds of people

The current generation of young adults, commonly called “millennials”, is often criticized for being self-centered, “spoiled”, the product of “helicopter parents”, showing the signs of having grown up in a culture where “everyone was a winner”. On the other hand, studies also show them to be the most socially conscious, idealistic, and optimistic generation in a long time (despite the evidence that things are not going so well for them, and little reason to think they’ll improve soon). They, as a group, have become politically involved, shocking the established political order with their enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of an old Jewish socialist from New York City via Vermont, making Sen. Sanders a viable contender

This generation includes most medical students, as well as most residents, so I get to see them a lot. I can say that there are many in this group who are committed, hard-working, idealistic and self-sacrificing. And there are a lot who are not. In short, they are people. Yes, there are those who, for whatever reasons in their personality or upbringing, are “all about me”, argue their grades, have no time for giving to others, seem to have no sense of the collective good, and sometimes make me wonder why they want to be doctors. But you know what? We had those people back in my generation. I was in college in the 1960s, and not pre-med, and there were pre-meds around who had the reputation as narrow, grade-grubbing, and not socially involved. There were also pre-meds who were very involved in the major struggles of the day, anti-war, civil rights, racism. I was in a post-baccalaureate premedical program in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War, with its extension into Cambodia, was peaking. Many of my fellow students, going to night classes after working all day, could not be seen as privileged, but many, including veterans, were active in those movements. And many were not.

I was in medical school in the mid-1970s, and there were many who were all about themselves and their futures. And many whose futures turned out to be very distinguished and productive. There was also a lot of social involvement. Chicago had a number of medical schools, and students knew each other across schools, even sometimes roomed together. When a physician researcher at one school was discovered to be doing research that targeted poor black women, students there protested; when he planned to leave for a job at another school, students there made an issue of it. I was involved in some of these struggles, and some in medical school. When, at a forum of the whole school to discuss the impact of our 3-year curriculum, the Chairman of Surgery announced he thought our 3rd-year medical students were ill-prepared because he had heard some of them asking nurses for advice on skills such as starting an IV (“in my day, we would never have asked nurses for advice!”), I stood up and spoke on how we were glad to not be like that, that we wanted to be able to learn from anyone. Maybe not my smartest hour (the chair of another department tried to get my year-old grade in his clerkship changed), but I bring it up because there appeared to be generational differences then, as now. I am not an expert on generational trends (for this I recommend the outstanding book by Paul Taylor, “The Next America”[1]), but looking back I also remember senior faculty who were very supportive of progressive efforts; I think that then, as now, it is people who are different, not really generations.

Our current and recent medical students at KU created and continue to staff and work hard for the Jaydoc Student-run Free Clinic, which provides care for folks with little or no money or insurance in the evenings; succeeding classes, if not generations, have expanded the scope and impact of the clinic. Students frequently volunteer for, and self-fund, trips to provide care in poorer countries – and even sometimes in our own, for those left out of our non-system of health care. (These trips are generically called “mission trips” even when there is no explicit evangelical religious component; however, many are indeed organized by religious organizations, and personed by students, doctors and others motivated by their religious beliefs. I may not be a big fan of religious evangelism, but I am a big fan of people doing good work!) Many of our students are active in the community, in local as well as national programs. They regularly volunteer for the school-based health clinic at a local high school, named the Bulldoc for the school’s teams, the Bulldogs, by the high school’s students (post-milennials?). The clinic itself was created by a collaboration between the school, school district, community groups (particularly pastors), medical school faculty, and students – in particular one medical student, without whose efforts it would never have come to pass.

When I was young, and even in earlier generations, many students, like other people, worked for the interests of others as well as themselves. Many do so now. Others, it is sad (to me) to say, are indeed self-absorbed, and all about themselves. Like other people, like doctors – and nurses and accountants and steelworkers and retail clerks and unemployed people. We can only laud those whose work demonstrates the “better angels” of human nature, and hope that narrow, selfish behaviors will extinguish.

To those who are in medical school, I want to say “No, it is not about you. It is about the people for whom you will be caring. And let’s not forget what ‘caring’ means.” Sometimes I actually do. Maybe we should all say, or at least think, that more often.



[1] Taylor, P and the Pew Research Center, “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown”, 2014.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The US health and social service system is evil

I have often written about how our health system is “deeply flawed”, but I realize that there are many ways in which this is a grand understatement. I initially intended to call this piece “health insurance companies are evil”, but realized that this singled out but one player. I mean, insurance companies are at least as evil as other parts of the health and social services sector, but naming only one part both does a disservice to that part, which is acting rationally in relationship to the other aspects of the system, and tends to forgive the others.

The thing wrong with our health system is that it is a mess; there are dozens or hundreds of ways to have health insurance coverage, or not, and each costs a different amount and covers different conditions, for different percentages, with different amounts of coinsurance and co-payment and deductibles. A single-payer health system, where everyone is covered with the same benefits for the same care (all that is needed, none that is not) and payments tiered to income, is the only rational and effective way to make sure that we have the possibility of quality health care. There can be no quality without equity. While I will not spend more time here making this case, because I and others have previously done so extensively, I will refer to it.

What is evil is how the system affects our actual people. However, people are not really ever seriously considered in “health reform” (or social service “reform”). Yes, people’s suffering sometimes gets mentioned by political candidates, who note that some people are paying too much or are not getting care. Indeed, this has been a big theme of Republican candidates who are critical of Obamacare, but whose only plans are ones which will make it a lot worse for most people. Actually making the system work for people is never really on the table, because when the political negotiations begin, the big players (insurance companies, providers, drug companies, device manufacturers, etc.) enter the picture.

Let’s get right down to it: people in the US, even those who are citizens, just do not get the coverage and services to which they are fully entitled, not to mention the coverage and services that they actually need. You have to sign up for Medicare, pay for Part B (which is what covers everything except inpatient hospitalization, including doctors’ fees), choose and pay for a Part D plan. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford one, you have to look through a maze of possible Medicare supplement plans and hope you chose correctly, given the multiple variables of your health status, the benefits profile, where you live, your actuarial as well as self-perceived probability of getting ill, and what you can afford. Even Social Security, a benefit that you have paid into for your entire working life, requires you to sign up and show you are eligible. This is nonsense; there is no reason it should be this way. We start with a non-system that does not cover everyone, provides inadequate coverage for those who do have it, and makes it difficult to sign up, presenting numerous obstacles which allow people to fall through the cracks.

Actually, this is more than nonsense; to the extent that people pay the price of inability to navigate the system with their health, it is evil. It would work, and be much simpler, if everyone, when they retire, got Medicare. And if Medicare covered everything for everyone wherever they live. Why not just make sure everyone gets Social Security? Why make it the responsibility of the person to demonstrate that they not only are truly eligible but that they can get through a jungle of options, often confusingly computer based, when they are getting to the end of their careers? Of course, if we had a single payer system, everyone would be in and there would be no change when you retired or became 65; you’d already be in a system in which everything you need and nothing you don’t need is fully covered.

Actually, in a good system you’d be better than “fully covered”. You’d be covered appropriately; you would, whoever you are, get the care that you need, but you would not be eligible for coverage for things that you don’t. We would have a health system that provided necessary, appropriate, and proven diagnosis and treatment for people, rather than emphasizing the provision of services which were most profitable to the providers. Insurers would not do their best to risk-select, would not be able to charge more for some people than others (and they can under Obamacare; they have to cover you even with a pre-existing condition, but can charge more), and would not even have to be for-profit. I favor a single-payer health care system such as Canada’s, a (fully-funded) Medicare for all, as does Sen. Sanders. But there are other reasonable alternatives; Switzerland, for example, has, instead of a single payer, multiple insurance companies. But these companies have to cover everyone, provide the same benefits, charge the same price, and be non-profit.

Critics of Sen. Sanders often say that a Medicare-for-All system would bankrupt us. This is also nonsense.  It presumes the built-in profit for insurance companies. It presumes that we would continue to pay the most of the most complex and high-tech procedures, and let providers (via the complex system of the RUC --  Changes in the RUC: None…How come we let a bunch of self-interested doctors decide what they get paid?, July 21, 2013, which essentially sets the Medicare rates on which all other payments are based) set the rates for their own procedures. The evidence is in every other wealthy country, all of which spend much, much less on health care and have much, much better outcomes. They also provide much better social services, not only for the needy and the poor, but for everyone. Retirees get their pensions. And they keep their health care.

The system works in these other countries; that is, if your interest is in ensuring that everyone gets the health care they need, the pension benefits to which they are entitled. If your interest is in maximizing the income of (some) providers and the profit for insurance and drug companies, then they don’t work as well. So I guess our system is not necessarily evil, it depends upon your values.


But, then, I would argue that the values on which the system is de facto based, though, are evil ones.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Good Enough for Government Work: Quality, Cost, and Gaming the System

The entire text of the "Good Enough for Government Work: Quality, Cost, and Gaming the System", the 23rd Odegaard Lecture from the 27th Primary Health Care Acces Conference, is available now as a Google Doc at this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/17oc3H5qHxA8eoYEwiQ5s5hUulvzo1JaSWldsu41nSDU/edit

The link will continue to be available on the right side of this blog page.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Good enough for government work: Quality, Cost, and Gaming the System (Part 4 of 4)

This is the fourth and final part of the 23rd Charles Odegaard Lecture, "Good enough for government work:Quality, cost and gaming the system. I will put the entire talk up as an attachment soon.

Is this really true? Aren’t some of our costs “our fault”, or at least “their fault”, that is other people? What about those folks who are “gaming the system”, by holding out on buying insurance until they get sick? Aren’t they driving up costs? Insurers like Aetna and Anthem make the accusation that people are misusing Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) for this purpose. This is debunked by the evidence, cited by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, but even if they were, they’re poor people trying to get by! Wondering if they can put off buying health insurance so that they can pay the rent! Who is really in a position to develop and implement strategies to “game the system”? 


Unsurprisingly, as Hiltzik also reports, it is the insurance companies (as well as big health system providers) who are masters of these strategies. Besides, if we have concern about “buying to use” behavior, the best answer is to get rid of the jumble of insurance companies and enrollment periods and have one national health insurance plan that has, in the words of the recently deceased Quentin Young, “everybody in, nobody out”.
The most amazing thing about all of this, the way in which the system is gamed, is the way it transfers public money intended to provide healthcare for people into private pockets far in excess of the cost of providing that care. Himmelstein and Woolhandler provide us with data that shows that we already pay for a national health system, with over 50% of “health” costs being borne by government, far over 60% if we count the loss of revenue from employer contributions to insurance being tax deductible, but we still don’t come close to covering everyone, because our system is so inefficient, and so much boodle is being raked off.
Nowadays, when we hear the phrase “good enough for government work”, we tend to think of something that is poor quality, or only just meets the minimum standards set by government. The Urban Dictionary defines the phrase as “Probably not the best, but what the hell, at least we got the job done to minimally acceptable standards.” And, yet, when this phrase first came about it was a compliment; it meant that the government set minimum standards of quality that had to be met, and if you had someone (say a contractor) doing work that was “good enough for the government” it meant that it met those standards of quality, that they weren’t ripping you off by doing shoddy work. What we have now is our publicly-funded health system being cannibalized by profiteers, and enabled by a government that often seems to care more about cost than quality.

Charles Odegaard, the medieval historian and former University of Washington president after whom this lectureship is named was, and I quote from the Coastal Research website, “an impassioned proponent of the idea that every school within a university should be engaged in the advancement of society in the communities and regions that surrounded it. As a result of Dr Odegaard’s leadership, UW became a leader in the decentralization of medical education, including the unprecedented commitment to training physicians from and in the surrounding states of Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.” [1]

There are great positives to decentralization, whether for education of doctors or for administration of social programs. It can decrease the cost of large, unresponsive central bureaucracies, and put control in local areas that are more knowledgeable about and responsive to the needs of their populations. There are, also, risks. Sometimes control at the local level is more about maintaining the power of one sector of the community at the expense of others; one just has to look at localities and states in the South in the Civil Rights era defying integration (or, perhaps, many states and localities more recently). More to the point of this talk, there is the risk that smaller, more decentralized activities can be more easily underfunded. Think about the deinstitutionalization of people with severe and persistent mental illness toward the end of the 20th century. When I was in medical school, I was taught that 1 in 3 hospital beds was occupied by someone with schizophrenia. That is certainly not true today, because of deinstitutionalization. And so we do not have the horror of people with mental illness warehoused in enormous facilities, but we also do not have anywhere near the degree of community-based mental health services that would allow them to live successfully in the community. We have people with mental illness living on heating grates and under bridges and, according to a June 2015 article by Matt Ford in The Atlantic, our nation’s largest mental hospital is a jail (absolutely believable to anyone who has ever worked in one).[2]. It is only ok to decentralize when we can assure that necessary programs will be maintained and will be well funded. We have long since privatized the health care in most prisons, and there is a (to me) disturbing movement to privatizing prisons altogether. Cost, again, trumps quality. Especially, of course, if the prisoners are mostly “not us”. Seeing a trend?

So…is it possible to have quality and still reduce costs? Of course. Our system is not only financially inefficient, and the victim of massive skimming by the private companies, but it is one which is geared to care for individual patients rather than populations; where there is not rational allocation of resources to the areas where they will do the most good, but rather decisions made for each individual, often where the provider has a financial incentive to do more. Oregon’s CCOs, a kind of state-sponsored but decentralized (there are 15 in the state) ACO designed only for Medicaid patients, have provided some movement in this direction, but they are limited because they are, in fact, only for Medicaid patients. This permits skimming, as we see in recent data that shows that the places long touted for their efficiency and low cost for Medicare, like Grand Junction CO and Rochester MN, are among the most expensive for private insurance. The same characteristics, integrated health systems which control most of the care in a community, that allow them to be efficient with fixed Medicare funds, also allow them to raise the rates for private insurance. Gaming the system.

We could have a good health care system. It needs to be built upon quality, and quality has to be based on consensus, and has to apply to everyone, rich and poor, young or old. It cannot be segmented into different versions of quality for privately insured, Medicare, Medicaid, and uninsured people. The “how-to” is not hard; other countries have shown us how. The money is not hard, we are already spending excessive amounts. What we need is the will. 


Sunday, April 24, 2016

“Good enough for Government Work”: Quality, cost, and gaming the system, Part 3 (of 4 parts)

This is part three of the Charles Odegaard Lecture, delivered at the 27th National Conference on Primary Health Care Access, April 6, 2016




The VA is an example of how quality can be and is compromised when public sector funding is cut. In the area of public health, it can have an even greater impact, and no fewer apologists. When, under cost-cutting mandates from the state of Michigan the city of Flint changed its water supply from treated Lake Huron water to the industrially-polluted Flint River, the complaints of citizens were ignored. When concerned health care providers, like Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha (pictured), raised warnings about rising lead levels in the children of that city, she was attacked and vilified. But she was right and they were wrong, or, perhaps worse, lying. Poisoning our children to save money. If individual health care is jeopardized when those responsible are being rewarded for cost-cutting, we can do a truly impressive job of harm when we destroy the public health infrastructure. And let us not forget that a major reason this was able to happen was Racism; that they were not “our” children, at least not those of the state authorities.

We need more emphasis on quality. Indeed, quality, not cost-cutting, needs to be our primary metric. Spending less should only be acceptable when quality is not negatively impacted. I realize that this is also subject to interpretation; “quality” has almost as many different interpretations as “waste”, and is frequently (if, hopefully, usually unconsciously) associated with “what benefits me”. I am talking about health care that is of benefit to most people, and is considered basic – keeping patients clean and out of their own filth, feeding them, treating the diseases that we know how to treat, doing surgery when it is of clear benefit, not having excessive waits for specialty care that compromise outcomes. And, most importantly, not providing financial incentives for limiting care. From a cost-cutting point of view, money is fungible, whether it comes from ‘cutting the fat’ or cutting needed care; but from a healthcare point of view, there is a big difference. (I refer to healthcare here as “caring for people’s health”, not the industry of the same name!)

This is the big issue, and it is amazing to me that it sometimes seems like such a mystery. If most of our incentives are to cut costs, to keep our jobs or to make bonuses or to keep our agency functioning, costs will be cut. Even when those cuts negatively affect quality, in real and dramatic ways. The argument for privatization goes something like “the private sector can do it better because, motivated by the opportunity to make profit, they will discover efficiencies that government employees do not, and run a ‘leaner ship’”. The problem is that, while there may be some examples of this happening, what usually happens is that costs are cut by cutting services, and making off with the profit, or bonus. The ship is made lean by cannibalizing its parts, and the only thing which is certain to be maintained in fine working order is the lifeboat in which the parties responsible hope to escape in while the rest sinks. This scenario is repeated over and over again, whether services are actually provided by private and for-profit organizations (think drug companies, insurance companies, nursing homes, and increasingly hospitals) or whether “private sector incentives” are built into publicly provided services, as in England at Mid-Staffordshire, or, increasingly, in the US in Medicare.

Profit may not be a great incentive to provide better health care, and is an uncertain to very poor guarantee of quality, but it is an excellent incentive to generating profit. Think of drug companies like Turing and its former CEO, Martin Shkreli, the poster child for unfettered greed, and his 5000% increase in the price of pyrimethamine, or of Valeant, the Canadian pharmaceutical company that recently doubled the price of secobarbital, an 80 year old barbiturate, in anticipation of California’s assisted suicide law. Think of the increase in price of colchicine, a drug that was used (in its plant form) to treat gout in ancient Egypt 3500 years ago, from 10 cents to $5 a pill when the FDA “encouraged” its manufacturer to conduct new studies and banned the generic (finally reversed last year, with generic colchicine again available.) Think of the insurance companies whose profit was baked into the ACA, making it costly and still not covering everyone. The ACP has recently called for government controls on drug pricing. The fact is that you can’t count on private for-profits to provide quality, unless you really trust Martin Shkreli.
Interestingly, in contrast to the Triple Aim advocates, critics of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal for National Health Insurance system, Medicare for All, assert his math must be wrong, that we couldn’t both save money and deliver quality health care to everyone. (The Chicago Tribune editorial endorsing no one in the Democratic primary says: “Sanders first amused Americans who know their fiscal math with proposals for free college tuition, expanded Social Security, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, "Medicare for all" .... The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculates that his economic plans would push the top federal tax rate to about 77 percent”).[1] (By the way, they really mean the top marginal federal tax rate, which was, for the record, 90% when I took civics in junior high.) I don’t know if they are disingenuous or purposely befogging the issue, since it is clear that every other developed country delivers care to all its people for, usually, 1/3-1/2 of what we spend per capita in the US, with much better outcomes by most or nearly all measures.
So why are cost estimates in the US so high, when other developed countries do it for so much less? A great deal of it is that profit is built into the system. When we read about the problems of our system, we hear from insurers, who think providers charge too much, and providers, who think insurers pays too little, and each with an army to try to get what it wants. It is not because we care too much about patients. In Canada, there is a single payer national health insurance program (called “Medicare”) where the government pays the bills for largely privately-delivered care. The fact that it is private delivered is part of why their costs have risen second only to ours, but there is some central control. In Switzerland, there are multiple payers, insurance companies that are, however, forced to charge the same amount and provide the same basket of services, and be non-profit. How do they compete then? Why, on service to their patients! What an incredible idea! If you call your company to complain and can’t get through, you switch to another! As long as our system is predicated on building in excessive profit for providers, insurers, and drug companies, it will be fantastically expensive, albeit a full-employment program for those people trained to try to get bills paid and, on the other side, to deny payment. And it will be about cutting costs, not improving quality.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“Good enough for Government Work”: Quality, cost, and gaming the system, Part 2 (of 4 parts)

This is part two of the Charles Odegaard Lecture, delivered at the 27th National Conference on Primary Health Care Access, April 6, 2016

We have all heard the business mantra “do more with less”, which, on the face of it, is either absurd or, perhaps, a very cynical indictment of how much is currently being “wasted”, waste being differently defined depending upon the point the user wishes to make. I, for example, would consider “waste” to be money designated as “health care dollars” going to excessive profits for private corporations rather than actually being spent delivering health care; others, perhaps in the insurance industry, might consider “waste” to be an excessive “medical loss ratio”, their quaint term for the money that they actually have to spend delivering health care and don’t get to pocket. Politicians, of course, are more malleable; “waste” is whatever is being spent on what they don’t like, provided of course, it doesn’t get them into trouble with their constituents (like the VA scandal), in which case switching definitions is always an option.

What might be waste in the provision of health care? One is providing, and charging for, services that are unnecessary or possibly even harmful. A current example is the performance of pelvic examinations (as distinct from collecting Pap smears) in asymptomatic women (without pain, discharge, or bleeding) just to see what we can find. The American College of Physicians (ACP), the internists’ group, recommends against them. ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommends doing them, or at least leaving it up to the physician. Guess which group stands to lose more financially? ACOG’s position includes the statement that “…the College continues to firmly believe in the clinical value of pelvic examinations, through which gynecologists can recognize issues such as incontinence and sexual dysfunction. While not evidence-based, the use of pelvic exams is supported by the clinical experiences of gynecologists treating their patients.”![1] Hm. Maybe the best way to discover issues like incontinence or sexual dysfunction is not to put one’s hands inside a woman, but, perhaps, to ask her!

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), of course, makes no recommendations on whether to do a particular exam or procedure, as its recommendations are for or against screening for particular diseases (with, in that context, exams or procedures discussed). It recommends against (“D” recommendation) screening for ovarian cancer, a major “benefit” cited by some ob-gyns, because it is inadequately sensitive and specific and doesn’t save lives. In a recent survey of ACOG members, the “potential benefits” of pelvic examination in asymptomatic women were cited, but not the costs – in dollars or to patients in terms of discomfort and morbidity. 

This is relevant here because when costs, both potential for harm as well as dollars, are not considered, everything could be potentially of benefit. Another recent study showing mild benefit from the use of the diabetes drug pioglitazone to prevent strokes or TIAs in people who have previously had them shows some benefit, but at the cost of an increase in the number of fractures requiring surgery or hospitalization; the editorialist in Journal Watch General Medicine emphasizes the benefit rather than the risk of harm, but is a neurologist, not an orthopedist. Should we do an MRI on everyone every week, just to see what we can find? Certainly there could be some things found! What about CT scans for screening for lung cancer (USPSTF “B” rating)? The best study, from the US, shows absolute risk reduction for death in 6.5 years of 0.33%; some smaller recent studies from Italy and Denmark show no benefit for mortality, and even in the US the frequency being recommended is moving to less than annually.  Should we be on track to weekly MRIs?

So, I just wanted to be clear that it is not true that I am for anything that could improve quality whatever the cost. That is ridiculous. But there is a baseline of quality which not only can, but regularly is, compromised when there is a potential for financial benefit from doing so. 

More recently, and wildly popular in health care, is the Triple Aim. The idea is to improve quality, improve patient satisfaction, and cut costs, all at once. It is difficult to find anyone, regardless of political affiliation or medical specialty, politician, provider, or consumer advocate, who doesn’t think that this is a good idea. To some degree, even I think this is a good idea, but I also believe that, like a lot of good ideas, the devil is in the details, the proof is in the pudding, where the rubber meets the road, or whichever is your favorite saying. While I am certain that many well-meaning pundits and providers, such as the leaders of family medicine, the experts at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and others are serious about improving quality, the reality, as M. Gregg Bloche notes in his NEJM piece (see Part 1, ref #3), is that almost all of the rewards are for cost-cutting. Yes, ACA has given us some modest revenue enhancements for meeting quality goals, although in general they are either very broad or very precise, and in either case poor measures of actual quality, and thus of limited impact. But almost all of the rewards, on either side of the Atlantic, in the NHS, or the VA, or for the ACOs created by the ACA, are for reducing costs. And it is almost always in the public sector that the impact is the greatest.

For example, outside the VA, we have our RACs, the bounty hunters licensed by Medicare to come into hospitals to find “fraud and abuse”. This usually manifests as discovering that some Medicare patients have been “admitted” to the hospital, rather than placed on “observation” status, which costs Medicare less. We have been well-socialized by our institutions, prompted by Medicare, into ensuring that we have reason to believe a patient will be in for “two midnights” (a bizarre conception with regard to health, much easier to achieve when a patient is admitted at 11pm than at 1am!), but how many of us realize that it is our patients who pay, literally with dollars? The excess cost is because “observation” is officially outpatient and paid by Medicare Part B, which requires much higher co-pays than the Medicare Part A that covers admissions. I have to admit that it was only relatively recently, when I heard a cousin being admonished by a friend to “make sure that your mom is admitted, not put on observation, or she’ll go bankrupt”, that I realized this.

[part 3 next week: The VA, the private and public sector, and the profit motive]



[1] http://www.acog.org/About-ACOG/News-Room/Practice-Advisories/ACOG-Practice-Advisory-on-Annual-Pelvic-Examination-Recommendations

Friday, April 8, 2016

“Good enough for Government Work”: Quality, cost, and gaming the system, Part 1 (of 4 parts)

This is part one of the Charles Odegaard Lecture, delivered at the 27th National Conference on Primary Health Care Access, April 6, 2016

The dream of reason did not take power into account”.
--Paul Starr, "The Social Transformation of American Medicine", 1982

In 2008, the British Healthcare Commission began an investigation into conditions at Stafford Hospital, run by the Mid-Staffordshire Health Trust.[1] The investigation was prompted by patient complaints and a higher-than-expected death rate, and it and subsequent[2] investigations uncovered a pattern of both poor quality care and cover-ups by those running the hospital. It became a major national scandal. In 2014, whistleblowers began to reveal the extent of problems in the Phoenix Veterans Administration system, with long delays for appointments, inadequate care, and even excess deaths. The investigation revealed enormous cuts in services, as well as efforts to cover up the problems, similar to those in Stafford. Moreover, it turned out that the problem was far more extensive across the VA than just Phoenix.

These two events are discussed by M. Gregg Bloche in his NEJM Perspective “Scandal as a Sentinel Event — Recognizing Hidden Cost–Quality Trade-offs[3]. The details of the two scandals differ, as do the health systems of the two countries in which they occurred, but there are disturbing similarities.
“As with the VA scandal,” Bloche writes, talking about Staffordshire, “politicians blamed individual perpetrators and one another, and the prevailing narrative highlighted lapses of character and culture…In both cases, performance standards often proved incompatible with resource constraints….The fakery was discovered, and perpetrators were punished. But the truth that trade-offs between quality and cost were embedded in budget constraints remained submerged.”

So, while more rigorous standards were being set for performance, budgets were being cut. These cuts made it difficult or impossible to meet those standards, and administrators in both systems covered up the problems. They lied about their compliance with the standards -- and, not coincidentally, often got financial bonuses for doing so (or at least got to keep their jobs). In addition to the probably unnecessary deaths, outcomes were more generally poor care for all patients. In the British case, the excess deaths were pretty well documented, as were the stories of patients lying in urine and excrement, inadequate food, and unavailable nursing care. In the US, at the VA, proving excess deaths was more difficult, but excessively long waits, particularly for specialty services, may well have contributed to unnecessary or premature mortality, and falsifications by the administrators were very clear.

In both cases, heads rolled – local administrators, the head of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust, and in the US eventually the head of the VA.  The politicians, in the US Congress and the British Parliament, who had been responsible for the funding cuts in the first place, took no responsibility and indeed used these scandals to act in a self-righteous manner, denouncing “those responsible”, while being clear that this did not include themselves. Nowhere in the discourse in the media are the budget constraints and cutbacks acknowledged as a major cause of the problem.

And, yet, the politicians were surely responsible, because it was the budget cuts that they imposed, along with the potential they built in to these systems for financial gain on the part of those directly tasked with running the operations, that led to these problems, certainly along with the collusion of the people directly in charge. The process has had two steps  – first, we are going to cut your funding and you are going to have to figure out how to cut in a way that doesn’t, at least obviously and in a manner that reflects on us, cut services. Second, we are going to tie rewards – institutional and personal (direct financial bonuses, or at least keeping your jobs) – to the degree that you can cut costs. We are also going, to a greater or lesser degree, “privatize” operations on the assumption that this will, with the motivation of profit, increase the efficiency (and lower the cost). And if we cannot privatize them, we will use “motivators” characteristic of private enterprise – again see financial bonuses. And now a right-wing group of Koch-funded consultants and legislators is creating a proposal to essentially privatize the VHA, covered by Suzanne Gordon,
The proposal they have crafted is an exercise in incoherence, denial, and magical thinking. he group believes that private sector hospitals would be willing and able to recreate VHA Centers of Excellence and other programs like the San Francisco VAHCS’s Center of Excellence in Epilepsy or Primary Care Education or Palo Alto’s polytrauma, blind or spinal cord injury rehabilitation programs. It also believes the private sector could fulfill the VHA’s research and teaching missions. As one San Francisco VAHCS researcher told me, “Can you see my eyes rolling?” http://suzannecgordon.com/the-plot-thickens/

It is of more than passing interest that both of these events occurred in government agencies that were established to provide necessary care to people. In Britain, the National Health Service, established in 1948 to expand upon the National Health Insurance program that had existed since prior to WW I, is enormously popular because it provides care to everyone. Let’s think about this for a minute. 1948 was soon after the war. Britain, as most of Europe (but not the US) was in shambles, its population of young men decimated, its economy and industrial capacity largely destroyed, its streets covered with rubble from the Blitz (think the street scenes of East London in Call the Midwife from over a decade later), and the last thing that they had was “extra money”.
 
 But the National Health Service was established, not as largesse in a time of plenty, but as a way of meeting the needs of the British people. In the US, a different story unfolded; with its industrial capacity intact and the need to shift from war to consumer production, the demand for labor exceeded the number of workers. Prevented from increasing wages because of wage and price controls, large companies found offering health insurance (non-taxable) a significant inducement, and found common cause with labor unions who could then offer these benefits to their members; a win-win that led to the employer-based health system that has characterized the US since.

In Britain, the Mid-Staffordshire scandal broke under a Labor government, but the seeds were sown when the Conservatives were in control. Recognizing that the NHS was far too popular to be dismantled, the Tories, seeking to emulate the US, both cut funding and established “NHS Foundation Trusts”, like Mid-Staffordshire, which were in a sense semi-privatized and incented to save money by being offered an opportunity to keep some of the savings, which could be used both for reinvestment in the hospitals and health system and to bonus those in charge. In the US, our services to veterans have almost never (as documented by Bloche) kept up with our rhetoric about the heroism of the men and women who serve in our military, and the VA scandal was tightly linked to cuts in funding. Indeed, some of the “solutions” offered by the same Congressmen who were responsible for the cuts involved privatization; this is often proposed as a solution to not having enough money, and almost never works, at least if the goal is improving quality.
As Suzanne Gordon says in her piece on the growing efforts in Washington to privatize the VA:
‘In their document, the Strawmen [the group working on this] justify their position on total privatization by pointing to the fact that the VHA is having trouble hiring new recruits to fill many staff vacancies because of the “stigma” attached to working at the VHA.  They also argue that the current VHA workforce suffers from “poor morale” and a “culture of fear.” Of course, VHA management practices could be significantly improved.  But if there is now a “stigma” attached to working at the VHA, a “culture of fear” within it, or demoralization among its current employees, that is, in great part, due to the bashing conservatives have unleashed in the media and Congress.

But we’ll get back to that.

(to be continued)




[1] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110504135228/http://www.cqc.org.uk/_db/_documents/Investigation_into_Mid_Staffordshire_NHS_Foundation_Trust.pdf
[2] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150407084003/http://www.midstaffspublicinquiry.com/report
[3] N Engl J Med 374;11 nejm.org March 17, 2016, pp 1001-3

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Who is gaming the system? Surprise, it's the corporations!

I recently participated in a panel discussion following a presentation on the impact of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) by UC-Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong. Unsurprisingly, Dr. DeLong, who worked in the federal government as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy in the early years of the Clinton administration, during an earlier attempt to pass comprehensive health reform, took an economic point of view. He described the economic theories behind each of the approaches to health reform, how the ACA was put together, how it most resembled the “RomneyCare” model implemented in Massachusetts and endorsed by Hillary Clinton but abandoned by the Republicans; he also showed that the Obama administration miscalculated the near-unanimity of Republican opposition. He also looked at how the implementation of the ACA has been more successful than many feared (or hoped) and how the economic analysis behind it was distorted by the Supreme Court decision to allow states to not expand Medicaid, which has resulted in an enormous transfer of wealth from the “red” states that have not to the “blue” states that have done so. Apparently, the ideological commitment by many states (including my own, Kansas, and neighboring Missouri) to harm its people and give away money is puzzling from a purely economic, as well as a human, point of view.
One of the themes Dr. DeLong notes coming especially from “conservative” economists and Republican politicians (and we hear a lot) is the need for people to have “skin in the game”, by which they mean co-pays, deductibles, and other ways of people paying out of their pockets. As Dr. DeLong noted, the only large, well-designed, and meticulous study of the impact of such “skin in the game”, the 1983 RAND experiment (which I have previously discussed; see Insurance company profits up and patient care down, May 17, 2011*)  showed that even small out-of-pocket payments discourage people from seeking care for both minor and major conditions, ultimately cost much more to care for, and harm the health of those people. As noted by one of the audience, current requirements in many “high-deductible” plans for “skin in the game” cost-sharing are far greater than those studied by RAND (and can be 45% of a person’s income!) and are thus even more likely to have a major negative health impact.
Another common “game” meme, mentioned by one of the other panelists, is concern with people “gaming the system”. If this conjures up images of elegant gamblers in formal wear playing roulette with James Bond in a posh casino on the Riviera, that is the intent. Like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s “able-bodied adults who refuse to work”, it is meant to divide people by creating a “them” who are taking it easy while the hard-working “us” pay the price. Of course, this is nonsense; most of those individuals so “gaming the system” are merely trying their best not to break their budgets paying for health insurance until they get so sick that they need it. Yes, this is certainly contrary to the concept of insurance (everyone pays and only some people benefit, but you never know when it will be you), and is a big reason that most countries have gone to a “social insurance” system that just covers everyone.
In fact, despite all the fooforaw about it, there is no data suggesting that there is massive “gaming of the system” by regular people. Michael Hiltzik’s Los Angeles Times column of February 27, 2016 makes this clear, focusing on “Special Enrollment Periods” (SEPs), times when people can enroll in or change their insurance outside of the usual ACA annual period. Huge insurance companies like Aetna and Anthem have asserted, without much evidence, that people are using these SEPs (mostly designed to allow changes when you get married, divorced, have a baby, move to a different state where your current plan wouldn’t cover you) to “buy to use”, in Anthem’s words, meaning you wait until you’re sick to get insurance. Hiltzik presents data that shows this is not significantly the case, and that it is absurd; he writes “Aetna must think the entire country consists of people plotting how to get a quickie marriage or divorce or have a baby just in case they get sick. The vast majority of SEPs cover a relatively trivial number of cases, unless you think there are hordes of people applying to become members of a Native American tribe after they get sick.”
Of course, people do game the system. But the big gaming is by the insurance companies themselves and the providers of care. These corporations, big insurance companies, health systems, drug makers, who have the clout to “game the system” do so all the time as part of their core business models. It is convenient for them to divert our attention to regular people, middle-class people, and especially poor people, as the ones gaming the system. In fact these are of course the folks who suffer the most harm, whose health is most affected, whose access to care is most limited, and who are stuck with crummy health coverage because this is all they can afford.
The insurers work every legal angle (and perhaps some not-so-legal) to figure out how to mostly insure relatively healthy, low-cost people (after all, 5% of people account for 50% of health costs and 1% for 20%, see my Red, Blue, and Purple: The Math of Health Care Spending, October 20, 2009, and Kaiser Health News report 2013),  while the high-cost patients are covered by Someone Else. Providers, especially health systems and hospitals, figure out how they can “upcode” to get maximum reimbursement from insurers, attract people who have high-profit-margin conditions to themselves, and encourage high-cost, low-reimbursement poor and poorly-insured people to find their care from Someone Else. Insurers blame providers for charging too much, providers blame insurers for paying too little. One of the other panelists, a hospital executive, complained about how insurers seek transfer risk, which is part of the definition of insurance, to the providers. Neither is blameless, and the other big players, pharmaceutical companies (and device manufacturers) make out like bandits, with no major candidate having a real plan to address this according to a report by Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health, (cited here by Medpage Today). Of course, this equates all plans to “negotiate prices” and it is obvious that a single-payer health plan, such as that advocated by Bernie Sanders, will have a lot more negotiating clout than the multiple-insurer mess that other candidates support and exists today.
What did I say as a panelist? Basically, that the goal of the system should be to maintain and improve the health of people, and that the economic design of the system should be designed to achieve that goal, rather than having competing economic theory be the driver, and people the incidental victims. I said that spending money on providing health care to people was not a bad thing, but spending huge amounts on “health care” when more than half was going to profit was. I said that all this spending on medical care (and profit) limited what was left to be spent on creating the conditions that allowed people to benefit from medical care – like housing, food, education – the social determinants of health.
I think that this resonates with people, both at the event and in the world. Or maybe I’m one of those “hopeless idealists”. If the alternative is being cynically corrupt, I wouldn’t want to be anything else.

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* Citations from that blog post: “RAND Health Insurance Experiment (as cited in Freedom abroad, health at home: experiments in preventive health care, February 13, 2011; the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1983[1]; and it is summarized in an article by Joseph P. Newhouse, "Free for all?:  lessons from the RAND Health Insurance Experiment", RAND 1993.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Life expectancy, socialism, and the determinants of health

Socialism,” writes Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker on February 9, “has always appealed to the young, the cure for which isn’t age but responsibility. This usually comes in the form of taxes and children, both of which involve working and sacrificing for the benefit of others, the extent of which forms the axis upon which all politics turns.” Parker is discussing the brouhaha around comments about the need for women to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, particularly those by Gloria Steinem that young women are supporting Bernie Sanders because, essentially, that’s where the boys are. Her logic seems a little contradictory to me, because socialism is all about being part of a society that we are all in together, where we work and sometimes sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Parker really means that we become more selfish, that the “others” narrows from our whole society to that small group, presumably our nuclear family, for whom we work and sacrifice. Of course, she is only talking about some people. Some people never have children. Others of us realize that there are benefits that we all want as a society – transportation and police and schools and even a social safety net – that makes us more than willing to pay our taxes. And a few people, very wealthy, accumulate much more money than they or their children could ever use and pay very little in taxes. They, to be sure, are big fans of the popular narrative endorsed by Parker: that the rest of us need to buckle down and take care of our kids and not make a fuss and be socialist and threaten their gravy train. And for sure keep paying taxes, so that when they need to be bailed out the government has the funds.

It is a deeply flawed narrative, but it holds a lot of sway, and is used to justify policies that have facilitated the greatest transfer of wealth, from most of us to a few of them, in a century. More and more Americans are on a treadmill, working harder and harder to discharge their responsibilities to their families and pay their taxes, because their real wages are stagnant or decreasing. Our economy increasingly is one where little is manufactured but we all tithe to the kitty (or is it a lion?) of the financial services sector; its “players” compete for that money taken from the rest of us (anyone seen “The Big Short”?) and it bothers them not one bit. That it bothers a lot of young people enough to support Senator Sanders (who Parker says “never outgrew his own socialist-rebellious tendencies”) should make all of us happy and optimistic, since what is happening now is not good for most individuals, their families, America, or the world.

It’s also not good for a lot of people’s health. The New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise reports on February 12, 2016 that the “Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing”. “Experts have long known that rich people generally live longer than poor people,” she begins, but how much longer is increasing. This was most recently demonstrated by a study conducted for the Brookings Institute by Barry Bosworth, Gary Burtless, and Kan Zhang (“What growing life expectancy gaps mean for the promise of Social Security”). Men in the bottom 10% of income born in 1920 lived 6 years less than those in the top 10%; for those born in 1950 it will be 14 years. For women the increase is as great, from 4.7 to 13 years, and for women in the bottom 30%, life expectancy has actually decreased. This is not a good trend, and it is not limited to the outliers in the top and bottom deciles. As illustrated by the accompanying graph, the more you make the longer you can expect to live. Tavernise makes clear that this is despite the advances that have occurred in medicine and technology; indeed those have relatively little impact upon longevity or health, despite the amount that we as a society spend upon them; most estimates of the contribution of all medical care to health status are in the 10-15% range. This is, nonetheless, where most of our health expenditures (now over 17% of GDP) are, and of course to the extent that they are of benefit to individuals they are far more available to those who have more money. Per Tavernise: “The Social Security Administration found, for example, that life expectancy for the wealthiest American men at age 60 was just below the rates in Iceland and Japan, two countries where people live the longest. Americans in the bottom quarter of the wage scale, however, ranked much further down — one notch above Poland and the Czech Republic.”

The Times article quotes the usual sources to tell us that lower income people are likely to have more negative health behaviors, like smoking and prescription opioid use (but, somewhat surprisingly, not that much more obesity – 37% in the lowest and 31% in the highest income group). Health behaviors are important; they may be as significant as medical care in determining our health. So is biology, our individual genetics. But even smoking only accounted for a fifth to a third of the difference.

The real causes of the difference in life expectancy are the “social determinants of health” (SDH). These include having a place to live, having enough to eat, having warmth in the winter, living in a neighborhood with lower rates of both interpersonal (muggings, homicide) and institutional (environmental pollution, lack of access to basic resources like stores, transportation, sidewalks) violence. They also include the occupational risks accompanying many lower-income jobs that involve physical labor and the toll it takes on the body (and increase the probability of living with chronic pain and using opioids). The SDH are tied to other risk behaviors, such as smoking. And, since socioeconomic status is highly correlated with that of one’s family of origin, people with higher incomes were likely to be born and raised in families with higher incomes, which confers a lifelong health benefit. Of course, this negative impact of SDH would be expected to be greatest in the lowest socioeconomic groups, which it is, but above them surely people have those basic needs met? Why are they living less long than the really rich?

A big part of the reason is misperception by the well-off, which includes most policymakers, politicians, pundits, and even journalists of how much money people make, and thus how many people are well-off. The median household income in 2014 (US Census Bureau report) was about $53,000. Half the households made less, and half more. The bottom 80% of income earners account for about 50% of all income, with the top 20% having the other 50% and the top 5% over 20%.  An individual with an income of $100,000 is in the top decile on that table, and so it is less surprising that folks making less have some deficit in their health and life expectancy.

From the Times article: “At the heart of the disparity, said Elizabeth H. Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale, are economic and social inequities, ‘and those are things that high-tech medicine cannot fix.’”. I have cited Bradley before (To improve health the US must spend more on social services, December 18, 2011), and her point, that in the US we spend far more on medical care than other social services, is still right on. We spend huge amounts on high-tech and variably effective care that benefits a relatively small number of people (and, disproportionately, those with higher income) and much less than other OECD nations on other social services that actually improve health and life expectancy. Oh, but those countries spending that money are those “social democracies” that Bernie Sanders goes on about. You know, socialist. The ones where people are healthier and live longer.

Now, why would we expect, or want, our young people to “grow out” of the idea that this is a good thing?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Flint, lead, medical heroes, O-rings and guns

In January, 1986, 73 seconds after lift-off, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all 7 astronauts on board, including one of the first civilians to go up, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. It was a disaster; indeed the words are now paired so that we always say “Challenger disaster”. The cause was a flaw in the design of the solid rocket boosters (“SRB”s) and in the now famous “O-rings”, flexible rubber seals, like max versions of the ones we see on a lot of home tools. It was perhaps the worst domestic disaster of its time, nine years before the 1995 domestic-terrorist white-power bombing in Oklahoma City, almost 16 years before the attack on 9/11. It was a disaster in two ways; the obvious one, the explosion, and in that it could have been prevented; NASA and the company that produced the SRBs, Morton Thiokol, knew about the problem.

Morton Thiokol engineers, and particularly one named Roger Boisjoly, had been worried about the problem for years; Boisjoly had expressed his particular concerns in 1985. Morton Thiokol managers considered telling NASA to scrap the launch, and then decided not to. After the disaster, Boisjoly testified before a commission about the problem, and about the warnings that he had sent to his bosses. In 1988 he was awarded the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was shunned and at Morton Thiokol, and resigned. He was right; Morton Thiokol and NASA were wrong, and it led to a disaster. And he was out of a job.

In 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager named Darnell Earley, for the bankrupt city of Flint. One of his cost-cutting measures was to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the Detroit system and instead supply water from the Flint River. The river was full of corrosives, from decades of industrial discharge, and one effect was to degrade the old lead pipes in many Flint homes, dramatically increasing the lead levels in the water. And in the bodies of Flint’s children. The politics of the decision are continuing to play out, with calls for Snyder’s resignation, and it would have been corrupt and evil even if the problem had been identified and remedied earlier. It wasn’t, and thus became a disaster. Good piece on it in Rolling Stone.

Again, we have a hero, a Flint pediatrician named Mona Hanna-Attisha. Dr. Hanna-Attisha had heard that a team from Virginia Tech had found high lead levels in Flint’s water, and noted that she was seeing a rise in the number of children with high lead levels. She led a team doing “the easiest research project I have ever done”; because Medicaid requires children to be tested for lead at 1 and 2 years of age, she was able to compare the prevalence of high levels from 2013 to 2015.  The percentage of children with elevated lead levels “doubled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods, it tripled. And it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest” she noted in an interview on “Democracy Now”. She announced it at a press conference, and was immediately attacked by the powers-that-be (I call them the “PTB”); in this case both the political leaders of the state and the state health department.

Well, that evening, we were attacked. So I was called an "unfortunate researcher," that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie. And we knew that. But when the state, with a team of like 50 epidemiologists, tells you you’re wrong, you second-guess yourself. But that lasted just a short period, and we regrouped and told them why, "No, you were wrong." And after about a week and a half or two weeks, after some good conversations, they relooked at their numbers and finally said that the state’s findings were consistent with my findings.

There is a long and distinguished tradition of doctors making breakthrough discoveries that helped cure or prevent disease in thousands or millions of people. Some of the most storied are Edward Jenner, the 18th century physician who invented the vaccine to prevent smallpox, 19th century physicians John Snow, who discovered that the contaminated water from a particular pump in London was the cause of a cholera outbreak, Ignaz Semmelweis, who showed that doctors washing their hands could prevent deaths in post-partum women, Rudolf Virchow, the “father of social medicine”, who showed an outbreak of typhus among miners was the result of the social conditions they lived in, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister who proved that germs caused those diseases, and 20th century doctor Jonas Salk, who found the vaccine against polio. Does Mona Hanna-Attisha’s work rise to this standard?

Well, it may not in terms of the total lives saved, although it is worth noting that, like the work noted above, it is about public health, about populations, not individual interventions, and thus has a great impact on so many (despite the fact that in the US at least 95% of all “health spending” is on individual medical care, not public health). But she is heroic in that she stood for the truth and for the health of the children in defiance of the powerful who were trying to minimize or cover up the problem, and who tried for a while the “best defense is a good offense” strategy of attacking her, shamefully. Indeed, this is what it takes to be a hero, to not only do something important that has an impact on many, but even more to do it when you have to stand against the establishment, the PTB, the powers-that-be. This takes a great deal of courage, as well as commitment.

In Kansas, the legislature legalized concealed-carry of guns a couple of years ago, but exempted schools and hospitals until July 2017. As that date approaches in 18 months, there is little indication that the exemption will be extended, and there is great concern. A recent survey found that 70% of faculty and staff at the 6 state Regents universities oppose the law. Faculty are worried about telling students that they are failing them while they sit in their offices armed; doctors worry that if a crazy person pulls a gun in clinic, several others will draw down and make it more dangerous, police worry that they won’t even know who created the original threat. The data shows that there is a real risk of more homicide with more access and carriage of guns; “natural studies” of homicides showed a marked increase after Missouri eliminated its permit laws in 2007 and decrease after Connecticut tightened its laws after Sandy Hook.[1] [2] Moreover, 60% of gun deaths are suicides, and these are also dramatically decreased by making guns less easily accessible.[3]  Doctors and researchers need to speak out about the public health implications of easier access to guns. Luckily, many are; others are worried that perhaps the notoriously-vindictive Kansas legislature may respond by cutting funding for the university. These people will not become heroes, but they may keep their jobs and their funding.

Being a whistleblower is not easy. It is not a way to have a calm, peaceful life. Some folks have made a lot of money and retired far from those they blew the whistle on, but many more I know of are, like Roger Boisjoly, are shunned, forced out of their jobs, threatened, and may even suffer PTSD. It is not easy to take on the PTB. Better to work in their interests; for his great work as emergency manager in Flint, Darrell Earley has just been named emergency head of the Detroit Public Schools!

The full impact of the Flint lead-poisoning disaster is not yet known, because the full impact of these elevated lead levels on the brains and bones of Flint’s largely poor and African-American children will take years to take their toll. Even then, and even if, because they are treated the damage is limited, we will never know what kid who grew up seemingly ok and normal might otherwise have been brilliant.

She might have become a doctor, maybe even a heroic one like Dr. Hanna-Attisha.





[1] Rudolph, KE et al., Association Between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides Am J Public Health. 2015;105:e49–e54. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302703
[2] Webster D, et al., Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides, Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 91, No. 2, doi:10.1007/s11524-014-9865-8
[3]  Crifasi CK et al., Effects of changes in permit-to-purchase handgun laws in Connecticut
and Missouri on suicide rates, Preventive Medicine 79 (2015) 43–49

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