Sunday, July 27, 2014

ACA: Where are we? And where should we go?

I am finished writing the book, as yet untitled, that I have been working on during my sabbatical, which accounts for the sparse number of blog posts. This is not to say that the book is anywhere near ready to be published; I am sure it will need more revisions.
However, it does mean that I am likely to be posting to the blog more frequently, as I find things that inspire me to write.
Thanks for your patience!

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been law since 2010, and was supposed to have been fully implemented this year in 2014, although as is clear many of its provisions have not yet been. The most important has been the failure of about half our states to implement the expansion of Medicaid, which was the mechanism through which the law intended to cover all those poor (incomes under 133% of the federal poverty level) who are currently ineligible for Medicaid (most of those now receiving it are poor children and their mothers, although the majority of dollars are spent on nursing home care). This is legal as a result of the Supreme Court decision that was important because it made the rest of the law legal; this is, I think, of faint solace to those poor people who live in my state of Kansas and the others who have failed to expand Medicaid despite the fact that the federal government would have paid 100% of the cost for 4 years, then 90%.

The newest court actions that affect ACA are two Court of Appeals decisions which say, basically, opposite things about the subsidies that support the premiums of people making above 133% of poverty but less than allows them to pay the full amount.[1] One court decided that people living in states that ran their own exchanges were eligible for the subsidies, but that those who were in federally-administered exchanges were not. The other appeals court decided that both were. Of course, those states that have federally-administered exchanges are those with governors and legislatures who oppose ACA completely; they include all those who did not expand Medicaid plus many more (about 36 altogether). This suggests some political agenda; the interpretation of Congressional intent rather than parsing the words, has historically been the basis for such court decisions. It also will mean that the cases will go to the Supreme Court, sometimes known as SCOTUS, but now appropriately called COCUHL (Court of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby), where it will be amazing if a conscious, careful, legal approach supersedes politics. The decision to basically gut the Hobby Lobby decisions one remaining protection only a day after it was announced bodes ill. The Republicans in Congress have decided to sue President Obama for not implementing portions of the ACA, which, as Timothy Egan of the NY Times points out, “…they have tried to repeal more than 50 times.”[2]

What has the Republicans so flustered that they have taken to self-contradictory actions is, in fact, the success of the ACA at achieving many of its goals. These are summarized in another NY Times op-ed, by Paul Krugman, titled “Obamacare fails to fail”.[3] There has been a huge surge in enrollment, and while indeed some people are paying more (largely healthy young people who are low risk for high-cost illness, thus previously had lower premiums), most people (including 74% of Republicans) are happy with their current premiums. In addition to the early wins (preventing insurance companies from not covering those with pre-existing conditions, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26), we now add over 6 million people who are newly covered, and can access health care. Despite decisions such as Hobby Lobby, most women will now get contraceptive coverage without a copayment. It is a good thing. This is why opponents (mainly ideological) are trying any trick that they can to limit its effectiveness, including the two biggest addressed above—not expanding Medicare and trying to block subsidies for those on the federal exchanges. That is to say, trying to limit health insurance coverage to our less-affluent citizens.

But ACA, even if it came through all the court decisions unscathed, is not a solution. It doesn’t cover those who are not citizens, even though they live here. It is a gift to insurance companies, who still get to charge high rates and make enormous profits, but now have the federal government paying the premiums. Therefore, it will not really save cost. Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that we provide less of the health care people need to save money (although I do advocating not providing “health care” that will not help or even harm people just because someone can make money on it). I am saying that the huge profits guaranteed for insurers, and other components of our system who make profit, make it excessively costly. It costs us way more per capita, for poorer health outcomes, than do the healthcare systems of other developed countries. The latest edition of “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall”, published in 2014 by the Commonwealth Fund demonstrates this clearly; in comparing 11 wealthy countries the US ranks #11 overall, and #11 in 3 of the 5 areas examined (Efficiency, Equity), and Healthy Lives), #5 in Quality, and #9 in Access. It achieves this less-than-mediocre performance by spending (2011) $8508 per capita, while the other 10 countries spent from $3182 (New Zealand) to $5669 (Norway).[4]

The problem is not that our system is not working, but that it is. Paul Batalden is famous for saying “every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets”, and ours is. The results that we get are relatively poor health outcomes on a population basis, large numbers of people excluded from health care coverage (even after ACA), many people getting unnecessary care because someone can make a profit on it, and the bizarre concept that there are not only people who are preferable to provide care for (because of their wealth or insurance status) but even diseases that it is preferable to provide care for (because the profit margin is better). Our system is not designed for people’s health; it is designed so that some (providers, insurers, drug companies, etc.) can make profit. It gets the results it is designed to get.

But that is unacceptable. We need a health system designed to maximize the health of our people. All our people. And we need it yesterday.

[1] Goodnough A, Ruling on Health Care Subsidies Puts Coverage at Risk, NY Times 7/23/14,
[2] Egan, T, “Ambulance Chaser in the House”, NY Times, 7/26/14,
[3][3] Krugman P, “Obamacare fails to fail”, NY Times, 7/13/14.
[4] Karen Davis, Kristof Stremikis, David Squires, and Cathy Schoen, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How the Performance of the U.S. Health Care System Compares Internationally, 2014 Update, The Commonwealth Fund, June 2014.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The screening pelvic examination: not annual, not ever

The Dispute Over Annual Pelvic Exams, an editorial in the New York Times July 3, 2014, highlights an issue about which I have written before, including Primary Care Contributes More than Money...., June 2, 2013 and President Bush's stent: inappropriate screening and care for the rich, nothing for the poor, September 7, 2013. The Times has also had articles on the same subject, notably Questioning the pelvic exam, by Jane BrodyApril 29, 2013. The impetus was a recent guideline recommendation from the American College of Physicians (ACP), the specialty society for internal medicine physicians, that recommended against doing this test on an annual basis.[1]

This examination is not to be confused  with the Pap smear screening test for cervical cancer (although it regularly is). The Pap smear involves obtaining cells for cytological examination from the cervix by means of a spatula and/or small brush. The Pap smear is not perfect, but it is probably the best of the cancer screening tests available to us; the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends them in women 21-65 years of age every 3 years. The pelvic exam, the part where the doctor puts her/his hands inside a woman and feels around, is often done in conjunction with the collection of the Pap, thus the basis for the confusion among many women. It is not recommended by USPSTF at all, at any frequency[2], but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends it on an annual basis.

I have long been a teacher of family medicine, and for many years have told my students and residents that there was no indication for this examination, at any frequency, for screening. I do this despite the fact that I know they are taught to do so on their OB-Gyn clerkships and rotations, and not because I believe I am more experienced in providing women’s reproductive health care than are the OB-Gyns. I can, however, read the evidence. By definition screening occurs in asymptomatic people; should a woman present with symptoms referable to the pelvic region (for example, pain, bleeding or discharge) the examination may be indicated. However, in the absence of symptoms it is a screening test, and should not be done because there is nothing that it can screen for. Years ago, an argument for doing it was screening for ovarian cancer, but many studies have demonstrated that it is not effective for this purpose, because by the time an ovarian cancer can be felt by the examiner, it is very far gone. These are essentially the same reasons that USPSTF and ACP recommend against it.

And, yet, ACOG, as noted, continues to recommend it (”Annual pelvic examination of patients 21 years of age or older is recommended by the College.”). The Times editorial notes that
…the gynecologists group argues that the “clinical experiences” of gynecologists, while not “evidence-based,” demonstrate that annual pelvic exams are useful in detecting problems like incontinence and sexual dysfunction and in establishing a dialogue with patients about a wide range of health issues.

This defense ranges from the indefensible (that it is not evidence based) to the absurd (that it is the way to find problems like incontinence and sexual dysfunction). If a woman has incontinence or sexual dysfunction, she knows it and the way to discover it is not by a pelvic exam, but by asking her. Clearly, the same is true of “establishing a dialogue with patients about a wide range of health issues.” I strongly doubt that most women would feel that having the doctor put his/her hands inside her vagina is the best way to open such a dialogue!

Why, then, would ACOG continue to recommend it? Long ago, when I was in medical school and residency, almost all OB-Gyns were men, and lack of empathy could be a possibility, but this is far from the case now or in recent decades. There is also the fact that such an examination, as a procedure, is reimbursed at a much higher rate than simply talking to a patient. This is true also for family physicians and other primary care providers (such as general internists, which explains the ACP’s interest in the issue), but for OB-Gyns it is a much greater percentage of their practice and thus their income. It is hard to break with tradition, to change the way that you have always been taught, and it is probably harder when there is a concrete disincentive (loss of income) for changing.

But women, and all people, need to be able to trust that their doctors are recommending and doing procedures, particularly invasive and uncomfortable procedures like the pelvic examination, only when they are indicated by the evidence. They need to have confidence that those physicians are not motivated, consciously or not, by a conflict of interest (e.g., financial gain). One step is for physicians to honestly look at the evidence, and avoid prioritizing their anecdotal experience over that evidence.

More profoundly, however, our society, our health care system, needs to eliminate perverse incentives for doing “more” even when it is not indicated, still less when it is also unpleasant for the patient (like a pelvic exam), and least of all when it is also dangerous (as other procedures are). Physicians should be paid for maintaining and increasing the health of their patients, not for “doing things”. If talking to the patient about “a wide range of health issues”, including but not limited to incontinence and sexual dysfunction, is the right way to find out about these problems, and if it takes a long time, then this is what needs to be reimbursed, not a procedure.

We are currently a long way from this sort of reimbursement, for spending the time needed to provide the best health care for a person. It is good that ACP has added its voice to recommending against screening pelvic examinations, but it is unsurprising that doctors do what they are paid to do. We need system change.

[1] Qaseem A, et al, “Screening Pelvic Examination in Adult Women: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians”, Annals of Internal Medicine 2014;161(1):67-72. doi:10.7326/M14-0701.

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