Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Medicare for All, or "Eat well, take your medications, and good luck!"


I have often written about the need for a universal national health insurance plan in the US, even more frequently recently. This is in part because the rise in costs and cuts in health coverage for Americans, including especially those who are in states that did not expand Medicaid as part of the ACA, have continued to erode our health coverage and increase our cost. It is also in hope that the Democrats in Congress will not abandon a real “Medicare for All” program in favor of a non-solution such as “Medicare for More” or almost anything that maintains for-profit insurance companies.

A Nurse Practitioner friend writes:
Many patients I see are very complex and, I think, not NP (Nurse Practitioner) appropriate but no one else is there for them because they are uninsured. And they tell stories of meeting with cardiologists who talk about several interventions and then when the MD finds out no insurance just says to them, “Well, be sure to eat well and take your medications and good luck”. 
And every day I see the effects of having so many people without insurance. I see the ones who ended up in the ED because of preventable problems. Yesterday I saw a 33 year old mother of two who had hypothyroidism, no insurance, ended up with severe cardiomyopathy [heart muscle disease] and heart failure all for lack of thyroid medication due to lack of care due to lack of insurance -- and she works in an MD office doing billing to keep our health care system going for those with insurance!!!

This situation is neither rare nor new. It happens to that particular NP every day. NPs in many states work under “collaborative agreements” with sponsoring physicians, and in others have independent practice privileges. When the patients are too complex for them, “their” doctors may be unwilling to take them, if they are uninsured. In addition, in many cases, the NPs (or PAs) practice in remote sites – sometimes very remote. But, the reality is that even if the physician is willing to see them, even if the patient is seen initially by a physician and not an NP, ultimately there is a similar outcome for those people without insurance or with poor-quality insurance. This scenario happens all providers, physicians included, except those who refuse to care for poor, uninsured, and poorly insured people.

It is essential that everyone who cares for, or about, people realize this, including the politicians who make the decisions and the pundits who opine about such things. They may be well insured, and likely most of the people that they know personally are (although every day that number grows smaller and the financial and health exposure of those who thought they were well insured grows larger), but many, many people are not. Whatever sticker shock insured middle class people have when they get sick or need medication (see the graph on the cost of Humalog ®, the most common insulin for people who need that drug to stay alive, vs inflation), it is much worse every step you go down the ladder of income into poverty, down the levels from “good” to “fair” to “poor” to “no” insurance.

It is also critical to remember that any reform plan that does not cover 100% of everyone will leave people like the woman described above out, and the stories that physicians and other health providers have to tell about how their patients cannot get the care they need will keep coming. For a plan to not only be “good”, but to be affordable, every single person in the US needs to be IN. It is most affordable if it goes all the way, putting everyone in one plan (Improved and Expanded Medicare for All), because that would eliminate the massive profits of the insurance companies that have administrative overheads of over 30% (compared to Medicare’s 1-3%) and would tightly regulate the profits (and whatever your favorite expression is for money made over costs for “non-profits”) of providers. Other plans that are seen as compromises are, like so many “compromises”, lose-lose. By dealing in the insurance companies and their profits so they won’t oppose the change (as ACA did) we build in this cost to our system, siphoning off at least 1/3 of the dollars ostensibly spent on health care to overhead!

One of the most widely supported bad ideas is continuing Medicare Advantage, also known as Medicare Part C. Basically, the insurance company that sponsors such a plan takes the money you’d get for regular Medicare (Parts A and B) and you kick in an additional payment, and you are covered, as in an HMO, for a variety of other services that traditional Medicare does not. It sounds like a good deal, and it generally is for the recipient with all the plusses (extra services at usually lower cost) and minuses (limited choice of providers, limit to geographic coverage area) of an HMO. At first, it seems to be a win-win, for patients and the insurance companies represented by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). AHIP has garnered letters of support just recently from 302 House members and 66 Senators, of both parties. The problem is that the insurers get extra money that traditional Medicare doesn’t, costing the public a lot (and sometimes involving fraud). Continuing Medicare Advantage not only gives some people better coverage, and makes a single Medicare for All again financially challenged, it costs the government more and makes insurers richer.

A real Medicare for All – not a bunch of different plans, some of which cost more money and spend a lot of that on insurance company profit -- is not an unrealistic pipe dream. What is actually unrealistic is keeping the current system (or, better, non-system) we have, or some minor modification of it, and expecting that it will lead to better health for more people and lower cost. That won’t happen, and the idea meets Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. High costs – proportionately higher for low-income people – and poor health outcomes – also higher for low-income people – are baked into that system.

Or, we can not do a comprehensive include-everyone program. We can stay with what we have, or some “part way compromise”. Read the story above again. Memorize it. Because, if we don’t have a universal health plan like every other developed country, it will continue to repeat thousands and thousands of times a day, in every city, state, and rural area in the USA.

If not, be sure to eat well and take your medications and good luck!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Venezuela and Medicare for All: Don't forget who benefits!


The mainstream media is not an evil, liberal-to-radical behemoth by any means. It is, however, often a willing, and sometimes self-deluded, ally and shill for the interests of the well-to-do in society, as well as for many questionable government policies. The latter is particularly important in the drumbeat buildups to wars, and is recently apparent in the coverage of Venezuela in journals such as the NY Times. The US government is making the case not only that Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro is illegitimate because it has decided his election was “unfair” and “tainted”, as well as an evil and violent dictator, but that it will recognize unelected self-declared Juan Guaido as president. The Times has gone so far as to publish a self-congratulatory op-ed by Guaido, and it news coverage is typified by ‘Venezuelans Opposed to Maduro Pour Into Streets for Day of Protests’ and a Sunday Review piece by a Guaido supporter called ‘Venezuela’s Very Normal Revolution’.

I do not doubt that thousands marched against Maduro or that millions oppose him (or probably that millions support him). I certainly am not saying Maduro and his government is good, or that there is not justifiable opposition to his violent repression of opponents. I am not saying that revolutions are bad. I am saying that this one is funded and supported by the US government not because Maduro is bad -- the US has supported and continues to support dozens of brutal dictators around the world. It is because he is not our dictator, not one who supports US policy, and this is critical because Venezuela is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. As for the NY Times -- as with most leftist governments, the support for the one in Venezuela comes more from the poorest people, while those with access to the NY Times are among the most privileged.
And this is the connection to domestic health policy, and in particular coverage of the Democratic candidates for president’s positions on Medicare for All. The NY Times (and all mainstream media) is of course owned by the very wealthy, and as individuals they see the world as members of the class of which they are part. But, possibly more important, the editors and reporters are middle and often upper-middle class, and they see the world from this perspective, from that of their families, and friends, and neighbors who are – amazingly – also privileged! The people who have access to these editors and reporters are very skewed away from the most needy, or indeed most people (who are not the same as most people in an upper middle class suburb).
In specific, we get essentially uncritical coverage of the statements of billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz that “Medicare for All” is unaffordable, despite the clear fact that it is the current system that is unaffordable, and that a universal health system is going to cost less. One key part of this lower cost is the elimination of private health insurance companies’ profit, and their incentive to increase it by decreasing the availability of care. Yet the Times article covering Elizabeth Warren’s increasing iffiness on the issue contains phrases like ‘would people lose the choices offered by private insurance?’ That is, your ability to choose (maybe, depending upon what their employer offers) which overpriced-to-unaffordable policy, offered by which rapacious, obscenely-profit-making insurance company, to cover you so that, even after paying the premiums and co-pays and deductibles, you find out that, whoops, it doesn’t really cover what you thought it would or should, and you’re out of luck, and either have to pay out even more money you cannot afford or go without the health care you need. Wasn’t that what the insurance you bought supposed to get you?
Nope, not necessarily, and often not at all. The first goal of private insurance companies is to make a profit. That profit has to be maintained and expanded. The two major ways of doing so are 1) by raising the prices people (and their employers, if they are lucky enough to have employers who pay offer health insurance) pay, in premiums, deductibles, and co-pays, and 2) by denying coverage for care, or paying less for it, which often results in providers not, well, providing it to you. The insurers hire “pharmacy benefit managers” to get them the ‘best’ prices on drugs, often requiring your doctor to keep writing a different brand-name drug-of-the-month (again, see Danielle Ofri, “The Insulin Wars”), with the cost to you always going up.
What would Medicare for All offer? Or, more explicitly, Improved and Expanded Medicare for All, as in the House Bill that was H676 and will get a new number this year? First, everyone would be in the same program. No more shopping around for the least bad deal among the universe of bad insurance. Everyone would get the same benefits. The benefits would include all medically necessary health care: inpatient, outpatient, nursing home, home care, drugs, mental health, dental, eye care. Even hearing aids. Nothing excluded, except perhaps truly cosmetic surgery. Providers could not refuse to accept this insurance because they would have no business. Oh, maybe some doctors and hospitals could make a living caring for Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg and Saudi sheikhs who pay in cash, but there aren't very many of them, and so even the supplemental insurance we now buy would be unnecessary. There would be, you see, no deductibles or co-pays. Everything would be 100% covered. It sounds good. It would be good.
And it is not unaffordable. Currently, the government funds over half of health care (Medicare, Medicaid, government employees and retirees at all levels, military), and it is about 60% if you also count the revenue lost because employer contributions to health care premiums (unlike salary) are tax-deductible. The majority of the sickest and most needy (elderly, blind, and disabled) are already in Medicare. Most vulnerable children are in Medicaid or S-CHIP. To make up the additional cost, employers and individuals would continue to pay, but in taxes rather than premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, and for most (maybe not for Schultz and Bloomberg!) it would cost them a lot less. Most estimates of the excess costs in the US health care non-system are in the 30-35% range, for profits and administrative costs in the private sector (Medicare’s are in the 1-3% range). Administrative costs include insurance companies hiring armies of workers to deny claims, while providers have other armies to fight them, and demand more. This is money spent for no health benefit for the population, but it would be a mistake to minimize the extent to which those – insurers and providers and drug and device manufacturers – who are pocketing it would go to keep it coming.
Thus the role of the mainstream media, and the mainstream Democrats – to appeal to the needs (not desires, real needs!) of most of the people for health care and at the same time not threaten the wealthy and profitable sectors that can fund campaigns for or against them. Thus the concerns of “don’t people want to have their private insurance?” and even more ludicrous their choice of insurance company (“I’ve always been an Aetna man! So what if it costs a little more and I get just as little? I’m worth it!”). Thus the nonsensical pieces on how much a single payer Medicare for All program will cost, which ignore the cost of our current arrangement. And, somehow, manage to not address the fact that this current arrangement leaves concern for people’s health to last, and so doesn’t deliver it.
I understand that people are worried about change. But the cost, in dollars and health, of the current system has moved the majority of the population to want something different, something that meets their needs and costs less.  It is available, if we seek to do it, if we can resist the pressures from the industries and billionaires who profit from the current way of doing things.
When we read about the need to overthrow foreign dictators, or hang on to private insurance companies, we always must remember to ask: cui bono?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Hospitals post their charges: almost indecipherable, but important!


The recent Trump administration order to have hospitals post their prices has been widely covered in the media, along with both headlines and articles that make it clear that these prices list are far from…clear! For example, Robert Pear’s article in the NY Times on January 13, 2019, titled “Hospitals Must Now Post Prices. But It May Take a Brain Surgeon to Decipher Them” , starts:
‘Vanderbilt University Medical Center, responding to a new Trump administration order to begin posting all hospital prices, listed a charge of $42,569 for a cardiology procedure described as “HC PTC CLOS PAT DUCT ART.”
Baptist Health in Miami helpfully told consumers that an “Embolza Protect 5.5” would cost them $9,818 while a “Visceral selective angio rad” runs a mere $5,538.’

The Arizona Star piece on Tucson hospitals had a more moderate title, “Hospitals post prices, but public can find it confusing”, but made the same points. As a physician (if not a brain surgeon!) I think I can figure out what most of these mean, but the point that they are making is that they are hard for almost everyone to understand. The reason, of course, is that they have simply posted online their “chargemasters”, the price list that they supply to insurers (including Medicare and Medicaid), which are based on the nationally used “procedure codes”; these are numbers which identify different treatments that are abbreviated as above. So, the charge at Baptist for a radiologist injecting dye into an artery supplying your intestines is only a little over $5,000, while Vanderbilt charges over $42,000 to do a surgical procedure to close a shunt artery in your heart that is vital to fetal circulation but normally closes spontaneously after birth. The question is, what does all this mean? And what are you and I supposed to do with this information?

Elisabeth Rosenthal, the emergency room physician turned NY Times reporter turned editor of Kaiser Health News, is more optimistic in her Times Op-Ed on January 22, 2019, “Donald Trump did something right”. She acknowledges the opacity of the posted charges to most people, but says it is a great step forward, because they are accessible, at least to those who are academic experts, and can be compared, both one hospital to another (“Maybe, just maybe, a hospital will think twice before charging a $6,000 “operating room fee” for a routine colonoscopy if its competitor down the street is listing its price at $1,000”), and to alternative treatments (“With access to list prices on your phone, you could reject the $300 sling in the emergency room and instead order one for one-tenth of the price on Amazon.”) Obviously, these would not be easily available on your phone now, but her hope and expectation is that third parties will develop apps that will take this nearly impenetrable information and make it easily accessible to people, as apps such as GoodRx® have done for drug prices. She emphasizes the magnitude of this change, since before now these prices have been closely-guarded secrets.

Rosenthal makes a number of other important points that illustrate the fact that this system is not only opaque, but deeply morally corrupt. Hospitals are run as businesses, to make money, even when they are ostensibly “non-profit”. Their CEOs and other executives are mostly businessmen, CPAs and MBAs – even when they are physicians, which sometimes happens, they are usually also MBAs – and are hired for their ability to run a money-making operation that happens to sell health care. And sell it, to your insurance company, at what often seems like deeply discounted prices because they are based on absurdly inflated chargemasters. “You don’t really want to change your charges if you have a Saudi sheikh come in with a suitcase full of cash who’s going to pay full charges,” says one CEO. More important, it allows them to reach agreements with insurers to pay a lot less than the official “price”, which in turn allows those insurance companies to brag to you about how much money they saved you. Rosenthal notes this is farcical, raising prices to make you think that you got a discount (‘If a supposedly $1,000 TV is “on sale” for $80, it’s not really a discount. It’s an absurd list price’), and that it emulates practices in other arenas, such as airlines overestimating their flight times to make it seem like they have a better on-time percent.

At a higher level, Rosenthal points out what is wrong is that these inflated charges do make a difference. Your co-pays and deductibles, if you are insured, are based upon the amount that your insurer pays, so that if they have agreed to pay only 20% of the listed charge, $200 for the TV set instead of $1000, you still may pay more than if you bought it for $80 cash. And certainly more than if the insurer were paying 20% of the old list price, say $500. You pay. You always pay. (See, for example, how insulin manufacturers and insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers, each following their own profit incentives, have made insulin – a life saving treatment for millions of people with diabetes – often unaffordable: Danielle Ofri, “The Insulin Wars”.)

And, of course, there is the nasty little glitch that it is the most vulnerable and most needy, those who are uninsured as well as sick, and often poor, that get charged the full list price, the $1000 for the TV, or the ostensible “uninsured discount”:
When Wanda Wickizer had a brain hemorrhage in 2013, a Virginia hospital billed her $286,000 after a 20 percent “uninsured” discount on a hospital bill of $357,000 — the list price, according to chargemaster charges. Medicare would have paid less than $100,000 for her treatment.

Wait. Medicare? Medicare would have paid a quarter of their list price and a third of what this uninsured person got billed with the “discount”? Yes. And that is a place to start. Hospitals – or the third-party app developers that will let you see these prices on your phone – should be required to list the Medicare-approved payment right next to what they will charge you, or your insurer. That would measurably increase the “light of day”.

Of course, some doctors and hospitals do not want to accept Medicare for this reason – they can charge more money to insurance companies, who pass it on to you in premiums (in addition to your co-pays and deductibles) while claiming to be saving you money. There is a solution to this also, although Rosenthal does not mention it. It is to have everyone in the same insurance program, a single payer, an improved and expanded Medicare for All. This would set the rates and pay them, without co-pays or deductibles for necessary services. Everyone in the same plan would mean that the better educated, wealthier, and generally more empowered would ensure that it worked for them – and thus would work for everyone else, middle-class, poor, and even homeless.

Yes, hospitals and other service providers (physicians, nursing homes, etc.) and drug companies and insurance companies would make less profit. I’m sure that your heart goes out to them (maybe the next requirement could be the posting of the salaries of the C-suite executives at hospitals…). But, after all, what the health care system should be run for, and is run for in every other developed country, is the health of the people, not the profit of corporations.

Amazing, huh? And it could be that way here!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Gangster capitalism and our health: In the US and in the World


There has been a lot written about capitalism. Karl Marx, for example, wrote a multi-volume study of it just about 150 years ago, and since then a lot of the writing has been about what he wrote, supportive and critical. There is no question that it has remained the dominant economic system in the world; it is the linchpin not only of Western “democracies” and totalitarian fascist states but also ostensibly Marxist governments like China. While capitalism has both its defenders and detractors, it is interesting to me that the defenders spend little time defending the amazingly deleterious effects that it has on the quality of life (and even existence of life!) of people, the environment, war, and (to the point of this blog) health.

The problem is that, in pursuit of profit, industries will do and have done almost anything, with no moral compass or conscience, and, worse, with no concern for future generations or the planet. Some of the most obvious and egregious examples in the US at this time include their (largely successful) lobbying of the current administration to roll back on rules to ensure clean air and water and the overall environment so that they (in this case, extraction industries like oil and mining) can further increase their unconscionable profits without worrying about the damage it does. So we have mining and extraction in and near our national parks (“near” is important; air and water do not respect boundaries!), scaling back of national monuments so extraction can take place, poisoning of the water through leaks in oil pipelines (such as Keystone), and poisoning of the air we breathe when fossil fuels are burned. Oh yeah, and the increase in global warming which has already permanently altered the climate and will eventually wipe out life on earth (starting with the lowest lying areas) if nuclear war doesn’t first.

Our health and safety is also constantly at risk from aggressive efforts by corporations to increase their profits. This can take the form of producing unsafe products either because it saves money (e.g., dangerous child toys) or costs a lot to not do (e.g., not having lead in our water or asbestos in talcum powder), or by making important and beneficial (and hopefully safe) medications unavailable to many people because of incredible price increases (for the tip of the iceberg, see “Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?, September 3, 2016). We of course know about the ongoing – and largely successful efforts – of the tobacco industry to increase their profits by promoting a product that kills 400,000 people a year in just the US (mainly from cancer and heart disease), including through promoting it to children (e.g., the cartoon character “Joe Camel” – see Fischer et al, “Brand Logo Recognition by Children Aged 3 to 6 Years: Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel”, JAMA 1991;266(22):3145-3148, December 11, 1991).

One of the most vicious and insidious efforts to compromise our health in the interest of profit has been carried on for more than a half-century by the sugar industry. For decades, under the table, sugar producers funded scientific research into the negative effects of a high-fat diet while ignoring the almost-certainly more detrimental effects of a high-carbohydrate, especially simple carbohydrate – sugar – based diet. Soda pop became the national beverage with incredible impact on the rate of obesity, in the US and internationally. A 12-oz can of Coca-Cola® has 140 calories, so what about that 40oz fountain drink at the convenience store? A 2-liter bottle has 812 calories. That’s a lot. So most health professionals, like doctors, tell people to not drink it, or not very much of it. This is, however, competing against the messaging of the industry, which pushes it a lot, and gets the cooperation of many nutritionists through the use of – wait for it – money! I have written about the corruption (or conflict of interest, to put it nicely) of health organizations like the American Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition (AADN) and the American Academy of Family Physicians being funded by Coca-Cola® and other sugar purveyors and having their ads on their websites (The AAFP, Coca-Cola, and Ethics: Serving the public interest?, August 20, 2010). The ads are no longer there, but you can read about the AADN at the fooducate blog, and if you search sugar on the current AADN website, you will find some pieces on limiting sugar, but as many on the potential risks of artificial sweeteners (which, whatever your beliefs,  the FDA rules as safe) and fats.

Of course, as with the case of tobacco, efforts to limit the sugar market in the US (such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to limit the size of sugary sodas in NYC), have led the industry to branch out and increase its efforts to profit in the rest of the world, particularly the developing world. While many countries can be targeted, the biggest markets, China, India, and Mexico, have received special attention. The NY Times has an important exposĂ©  on January 9, 2019, ‘Research details how junk food companies influence China’s nutrition policy”, citing work published in BMJ (“Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China”) and the Journal of Public Health Policy (Soda industry influence on obesity science and policy in China”) on the role of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI):
…a worldwide organization with a Washington headquarters, funded by many of the biggest names in snack foods, including NestlĂ©, McDonald’s, Pepsi Co. and Yum! Brands as well as Coca-Cola. It has 17 branches, most of them in emerging economies like Mexico, India, South Africa and Brazil, and promotes itself as a bridge between scientists, government officials and multinational food companies.
But in China ILSI is so well-placed that it runs its operations from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing. In fact, when asked to comment on the studies, the ministry emailed a statement not from a government official but from ILSI’s China director.

Thus China’s health policy, which almost entirely focuses on exercise like “Happy 10 minutes” (good for you!) and ignores the dangers of high-calorie sugar-laden foods for obesity (and there is excellent evidence that diet is probably about 80% of the issue, with exercise critical for the other 20%).

There are those who will argue that it is not capitalism itself, but “unfettered capitalism” that is the problem. There is a lot of truth to that. The blind pursuit of maximal profit with no attention at all to the negative impacts on the world around them is not a necessary part of any profit making endeavor. Indeed, the “Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith cautions strongly against this sort of excess, and “the only responsibility of business is to make profit for its stockholders” guru Milton Friedman sort of assumed that they wouldn’t do it.

But they do, and “unfettered” – or corporate gangster capitalism – is what is running the world. And it is not good for our health.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Health Insurance on Demand: radical idea or just another scam?

 “It’s a radical idea.”

I like that. Oooh, what? Radical ideas are often good, even necessary. What is this one?

“On-demand insurance that lets customers buy some of their coverage only if and when they need it, similar to how TV viewers might rent a new release from Amazon instead of paying every month for a pricey cable package they rarely use.”

Huh? Could this be real? If it is such a good idea, why did no one think of this before? Maybe it could be the solution to the problem of the “individual mandate” that has folks so worked up. The argument for that mandate to buy health insurance, a key part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare), was that, to work, insurance requires a lot of people who are healthy have to pay in (via premiums) in order for those who have need to have their bills paid when they need it. This is the central principle of insurance underwriting. If not enough people who do not need to use the insurance buy coverage (in the case of health insurance, are healthy, at least that year), or if too many sick people buy it, rates have to be a lot higher. This is true for all types of insurance to work – car (most people have to not have accidents), homeowners (most people have to not have fires), life (most people have to not die in any given year). The practice of assessing risk, called underwriting, is very mathematically complex and there is an entire profession of actuaries who figure it down to the finest detail, but the general concept is simple: there needs to be enough money collected to pay the claims and pay the overhead costs of the insurance company – and, of course, in a for-profit system like the one we have -- make a healthy profit.

Health insurance on demand, buying insurance only once you get sick, is the subject of an Associated Press article that appeared in the NY Times on December 17, 2018. It sounds really exciting: ‘"It's the sort of thing we need entrepreneurs to be doing," said Robert Laszewski, a health care consultant and former insurance executive. "We haven't had a new idea in managed care in I don't know how long.”’ Yes! Finally a new idea! Based on the idea of picking the shows you want instead of subscribing to cable TV! Sort of the same thing. Except, really, not having TV doesn’t kill you.

Or maybe it’s not so new. After all, we have had something like this forever. It’s called “not buying insurance”. Then, when you get sick, you get billed for the whole thing. Of course, this is more than almost everyone but the richest people can afford, thus the key reason for health insurance. Back in the old days – before WW II – health insurance, or really illness insurance – was much less common. It was more like accident, or fire, or life insurance where you paid premiums in case something you really didn’t want to happen actually did happen. On the model of all insurance, you only “won” if you “lost” – if something bad happened to you. This “sickness insurance” came to be known as “major medical”; people paid for their doctor visits in cash (or chickens, or apple pies, or doing chores), but when they got really sick and needed surgery, needed to be hospitalized, then insurance kicked in.

Then, over the next couple of decades, several things happened that together made health insurance, not just “major medical”, a virtual necessity for everyone. More treatments became available for diseases that used to be untreatable; often these were very costly to treat, and required hospitalization and expensive drugs, imaging, and surgery. The causes of many diseases began to be elucidated; perhaps the most significant was the impact of smoking. The first paper identifying smoking as a cause of lung cancer appeared in 1950; in 1964 the Surgeon General’s report made this connection, and warning labels began appearing on cigarette packages in 1965, becoming Surgeon General’s warnings in 1970. High blood pressure (hypertension) only became identified as a disease, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, in the late 1950s and 1960s. Remember that President Franklin Roosevelt died as a result of a stroke caused, we now understand, by his extremely high blood pressure – but in those days even the President didn’t get treated for hypertension, because it wasn’t recognized as a disease (and there weren’t any drugs for it).

People began to want not only the treatment for diseases that were formerly untreatable but also for early diagnosis of, and treatment of, conditions (like hypertension) that might be asymptomatic but might put them at risk for “the big one”. New diseases, and treatments for them, began to be discovered; indeed, a cynic (me) might say that yesterday’s ‘crock’ (medical slang for a person with imagined symptoms) became today’s sick person once their symptoms were associated with a disease – usually because someone found a diagnostic test for it or drug to treat it, and now could make money selling it.

On July 30, 1965, President Johnson signed the Medicare Act, providing health insurance to those over 65 and the blind and disabled; Medicaid, providing (limited) insurance to a (limited number of) poor people soon followed. Despite vigorous opposition to Medicare by the AMA before it was passed, doctors quickly warmed to this program, since a large portion of the sickest (because of being oldest) population now had health insurance, and they (and their hospitals) could get paid for providing care. Costs skyrocketed. In 1972, Congress declared end-stage renal (kidney) disease to be a Medicare-qualifying condition. Renal dialysis went from being an uncommon intervention (which required consensus of nephrologists, psychologists, ethicists, etc., to determine that an individual’s future prospects made them deserving of it) to available – and paid for – for everyone with kidney failure. It turned dialysis centers into money machines, and nephrologists (who ran and owned many of them) from esoteric specialists to among the highest-earning physicians. It now costs Medicare over $30 billion a year, and some are questioning its ubiquity.

Let me be clear: Access to medical care, particularly prevention, early diagnosis and treatment, as well as kidney dialysis, is a good thing. People should have it. This includes the people who resist the most valuable of medical interventions such as not smoking and getting vaccines. The problem with medical care is the incredible cost, because no one who is making money on it is cutting prices, and the cost of insurance to employers and individuals (including premiums, copays, deductibles) is out of the reach of many. So now we have suggestions like “insurance on demand”, kind of a retro-solution. If it is a solution.

So how does Bind Benefits, the company featured in the article, do it? I don’t know – maybe they can do enough volume of business that they can negotiate lower rates with health care providers, thus meaning the customer pays less. But, then, this is how the insurance market already works – insurance companies work out deals with providers to pay less than the ostensible price. Only the poorest, without insurance, actually get billed the full retail price. And then, unsurprisingly, they can’t pay it, even with repayment plans. Many of their bills get sent to collection agencies that pay cents on the dollar to the original creditor for the opportunity to ceaselessly harass those with the greatest need.

Maybe it is a gimmick to attract the relatively healthy younger crowd. But it will still leave out the most vulnerable, the sickest, oldest and poorest, and the people who need it the most. This has always been the American way, sadly.

Here’s an idea: How about we put EVERYONE in the US on Medicare, and then fund it adequately? It costs more (but not as much more as you might think since the oldest and sickest are already in it), but we STOP paying insurance premiums, copays, deductibles. We limit the profit for the biggest parasites – drug companies, insurance companies (which might administer aspects of Medicare as they do now), health systems, some physicians? We stop pretending health care is like a fire in your house, something you want to be protected against but hope doesn’t happen, and recognize that it is something everyone needs. Not partial measures, like lowering the age for Medicare to 55, or asking people to buy in, or such. Just everyone in the same system, funded by our tax dollars (and a lot less of them than we are spending now). THAT would be an idea.

Everybody in, nobody out!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A "little information" can be dangerous to your health


“A little information can be a dangerous thing.”

I don’t know who first said that; no one seems to. But it is used all the time, and as a physician I both see the impact of that little knowledge on people’s health and the difficulty of striking a balance between providing meaningful information in a form that people can use and oversimplifying to the point of danger. I have worked very hard on honing this skill, and think I do it reasonably well, but I am absolutely certain that I have failed abysmally time and time again. Hopefully, it has not hurt too many people, but who knows?

I have written before that one of my roles, as a friend and family member, is to try to interpret for them what their doctor meant by what s/he told them. Or, more correctly, what my friends and family members think s/he told them. Indeed, a key part of this is trying to figure out what the doctor (presuming they are reasonably competent) might have said that led my friend/relative to think that what they are telling me is what s/he said.

And, just as I make the assumption that these doctors are reasonably competent, I make the assumption that those friends and relatives are reasonably intelligent, or at least not particularly less so than the bulk of the population (side note: I honestly think that, on average they are far more intelligent). This is borne out by the fact that it is not just friends and relatives. From time to time, I overhear conversations between other people about their health. One of the most common places is the locker room at the gym; this is because I am there dressing for long enough to be able to overhear a conversation, and also because, as a retired person, I go in the middle of the day when all the other retired – and, therefore, older, and more likely to have health problems – people are there. Usually the conversation is bi-directional but almost always one of the people is acting as a health consultant to the other, advising based on their personal experience of having had, or having a friend or relative who had, the same thing. Or, and here is where a lot of the danger comes from, something that seems very similar.

[This is the time to review, either via YouTube or its transcription on one of my old blogs, "Eggs Benedict" and "Choosing Wisely": often the best thing to do is nothing, the Woody Allen bit “Eggs Benedict”.]

Things that seem similar may not be the same – or even similar. To a health professional, there is a huge difference between an orthopedist (a bone surgeon) and an orthodontist (a dental specialist who straightens crooked teeth), but to a regular person they sound a lot alike. And it is not only confusion of words; lots of conditions that are very different sound very similar (you know, a lot of diseases end in “-itis”, which just means “inflammation of”). And even conditions that are very similar – or even the same – manifest differently in different people depending upon a lot of personal characteristics (just to name a few: age, sex, weight, co-existing conditions [another term that doctors use all the time that people may not understand], and duration and exact character of symptoms and findings). Lots of stuff is treated differently in its early stages than in its later stages, and often many different treatments are available. Maybe the one the doctor chose for you isn’t the best, and maybe the one you see advertised on TV or the home remedy advised by your aunt will work better. Or maybe not. Maybe, even, there was some scientific rationale behind that choice of treatment.

Which, of course, leads inevitably to a short discussion of direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs, particularly on television. I see these a lot more than I used to, not because I sit around in retirement watching daytime TV but because of the same gym; while I’m on the elliptical I am often unable to choose shows (ones with plots) because someone else has already chosen the program on the group TV, and there are a lot of ads. Many of them for treatments for pretty uncommon diseases. Which is, by the way, a guarantee that they cost a fortune. After all, why advertise on TV, a very expensive proposition, unless you stand to make a lot of money either because a lot of people have the problem your drug treats (e.g., arthritis) or the drug you are selling (clue: anything whose generic name ends in “-ib”, made from recombinant DNA) is so expensive that even a small market will make you a fortune? There is absolutely nothing at all good (and I’ll say that again!) about direct to consumer advertising of drugs on TV (“ask your doctor about whether [incredibly expensive] ‘Blorkamib’ is right for you!”). Except, of course, for the drug company that makes it and advertises it. These ads create unrealistic hope and expectation, create doubt as to whether your doctor is up-to-date on the latest treatments (you know, s/he is busy seeing patients all day so may not see the ads on daytime TV!), and sets you up to expect miracles. (By the way, there are very few of these.) If you must watch such commericials, I suggest you only focus on the fine print possible – often common and very bad – side effects in the small print at the end.

The late, great Hawai’ian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole makes a valiant effort on the last cut of his album “IZ” to explain the cause and treatment of the congestive heart failure (along with, and in part caused by, his tremendous obesity) that eventually killed him at the age of 38. It’s a pretty good discussion of the role of oxygen, although it doesn’t quite get it right, but it may have helped some of those who heard it. He had great influence; his recording of “Somewhere over the rainbow” mixes up the lyrics from different verses, but I suspect that for many people, hIZ lyrics are now the ones they know (so if they seem disconnected to you, don’t blame original lyricist Yip Harburg!).

But it is not just singers who have trouble with it; being educated and smart doesn’t make one medically knowledgeable. I know this from treating lawyers, accountants, engineers, English professors, and even medical school faculty in the basic sciences (although the physiologists, unsurprisingly, understand heart failure better than IZ…). It makes it hard to try to convey accurate information, as completely as possible, without losing people’s ability to grok it and without using metaphors that, while intended to help, may unintentionally send folks off to the wrong conclusions. It is important to try, though, and to ask not if people understand (usually they’ll say yes) but what they understood, so you can correct any misinterpretations.

People will probably do what their mother tells them to anyway.

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