Sunday, December 20, 2015

Integrated Health Systems and Cost: The Price is the thing!

When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was being developed, much emphasis was put on the effectiveness of integrated health systems as a way to save money but still deliver quality health care. Many studies from various research centers had looked at cost to Medicare and found that places – usually smaller cities – with large integrated health systems spent less on Medicare without noticeable decrements to quality. These systems can have a single provider of both inpatient and outpatient care (such as the Mayo Clinic) or close collaborations, including shared electronic medical records (as in Grand Junction, CO). The presumption of policy makers creating ACA was that Medicare spending, which is much easier to track, would reflect overall spending. However, a recent article from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Zack Cooper, Stuart Craig, Martin Gaynor and John Van Reenen, The Price Ain’t Right? Hospital Prices and Health Spending on the Privately Insured, demonstrates that this assumption was incorrect. Reviewing overall costs in the 306 Hospital Referral Regions (HRRs, developed by the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care) in the US, they discovered wide discordance between Medicare costs and overall healthcare costs. Indeed, many of the places that were highly-touted for lower-Medicare-costs-but-still-high-quality, notably Grand Junction, CO (which was, for example, cited as a success story by Atul Gawande in his June, 2009 New Yorker article “The Cost Conundrum”) have far higher than average costs overall. (Dr. Gawande has just had a new piece in the New Yorker discussing the implications of this new article.)

The New York Times coverage of this study, by Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-Katz, The Experts Were Wrong About the Best Places for Better and Cheaper Health Care (December 15, 2015), includes a terrific feature that allows interactive access to the data collected by Cooper and his colleagues. You can put in a town (really, HRR) and find out where it ranks in terms of both Medicare and private costs. Grand Junction, for example, while ranking 3rd lowest of the 306 HRRs for per-capita Medicare spending, was the 42nd most expensive for private insurance spending. Rochester, MN, home of the Mayo Clinic, is another city lauded for its low Medicare costs (14th lowest), but its private spending is 10th highest! McAllen, TX, cited by Gawande in 2009 for being #1 in Medicare spending (and now still #4) is only 140th in private insurance spending. Tucson, AZ, on the other hand, while only in the lower middle (82nd from the bottom) in Medicare spending, is 7th lowest for overall costs. The Kansas City region, where I live, was atypically near the middle for both, 142nd lowest for Medicare and 82nd  lowest for private costs. New York City is high in both, but it is 2nd for Medicare and 34th (quite a bit lower) for private insurance. The map in the article depicts HRRs as low, middle or high for both Medicare and private insurance.

So, what’s up? Were the experts trying to fool us? No, but the flaw  was the assumption that Medicare spending reflected overall spending. The data in this article demonstrates that it does not. It also reveals something about integrated health systems, especially those that dominate their smaller cities, given that some of the “top performers” for Medicare, like Grand Junction and Rochester, MN, were so high for private insurance. The integrated nature of these plans allows them to save money on patients by a variety of methods – they can be seen in ambulatory settings rather than in hospitals or ERs, and they share electronic medical record systems, and thus the information recorded therein, saving money by not having to repeat tests, x-rays, etc. This lower utilization is good for these health systems because Medicare is a relatively low payer, and because they can’t negotiate these rates – Medicare pays what it pays (it is a single-payer system, with minor regional variations). However, the same characteristic – being the dominant player in town – allows such integrated health systems to negotiate much higher rates with private insurers. Thus the mismatch; overall cost is a multiple of price for each service times the number of services delivered. These systems decrease the number of services for people insured by Medicare, for whom they cannot control the price (whether this does or does not decrease quality is a separate question) but they raise the price for services to people with private insurance. That places like Tucson and Kansas City have relatively lower prices for private insurance reflects the absence of a single large dominant system in those cities.

‘“Price has been ignored in public policy,” said Dr. Robert Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute, who was unconnected with the research’, in the Times article. Other health policy experts, such as Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt, have been warning about this for decades. In the effort to pass the ACA, and please both providers and insurers, this point was in fact ignored, and it is the source of most of the common legitimate criticism of the ACA – that in many places decent health insurance policies bought through the health exchanges are unaffordable. With higher prices in these regions, insurers pass on the cost to their customers.  This is illustrated in the NPR story “Obamacare Deadline Extended As Demand For Health Insurance Rises” on December 18, 2015, which documents both the success of ACA measured by the large increase in the number of people signing up for coverage and their frustration at the frequently-high cost of this coverage. Of course, this is completely unrelated to the criticisms leveled at ACA by the Republican candidates for President and their allies in Congress, whose “solution” – abolish ACA – is Marie Antoinette-like. While the French queen is reputed to have said, in response to being told that the peasants had no bread, “then let them eat cake!”, Republicans, hearing that many people cannot afford health insurance on the exchanges even with subsidies, or get Medicaid in states (that they control) which have not expanded it, respond “let them pay out of their own pocket!”

The issues and solutions are clearly laid out by the reliably insightful Dr. Don McCanne is his “Quote of the Day” on this topic. A solution cannot come from a jerry-rigged program that allows either insurers or health systems or both to maximize their profit. It needs to come from a system that starts with price controls, most effectively by a single-payer system such as Medicare. There are, as he notes, still risks – mainly that health systems may under-utilize services when they cannot make profit, leading to lower quality of care. But we can guard against this both on the regulatory end, by measuring quality outcomes and holding providers responsible, and through the market because the incentive to not provide services to Medicare patients because they can be more profitably provided to the privately -insured (the “opportunity cost”) goes away.

The infatuation of both policy makers and providers for integrated health systems is not entirely misplaced. The potential savings from shared data and not repeating tests, and more importantly for caring for people in the most clinically appropriate setting (inpatient, ER, outpatient surgery center, primary care, long-term care) is a real positive feature of these systems. But to the extent that these providers are allowed to use their market muscle to raise prices to insurers which are passed on to beneficiaries, it becomes a real negative.

The key feature of a good health system is that it is not focused on balancing the financial interests of big insurers and big providers, but that it puts the benefits to patients, to the people’s health, first.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Medical interventions we shouldn't be getting: issues of cost, health, and equity

Many of us are concerned about the cost of medical care, particularly in the US. We are also concerned about the care that we, ourselves or our families and friends receive. We want the diagnostic tests and treatments we get to be likely to benefit us and to not cause us harm. Or, if there is chance that we may be harmed, that the probability and degree of benefit exceeds the probability and degree of harm. Sometimes there can be a tension here: we want to spend less on health care globally (and certainly less on the portion that just goes into the pockets of big corporations, like pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturer, insurers and huge health provider networks), but don’t want to scrimp on things that may benefit us. Especially when we are well-insured and not paying for it directly out of our pocket.

Fortunately, there are many times when these two different interests come together, when tests or treatments that are costly are also of no benefit to us, and may cause us harm. The problem is that sometimes our doctors recommend them to us anyway, or, frankly, we ask for them (because we’ve read about it on the Internet or seen an ad on TV or because a doctor recommended it for our Cousin Shirley who had the same thing, or at least something that sounded a little the same). How can we, as patients, know when our doctors are recommending a test or treatment that is not indicated for us, will not benefit us, may even cause us harm? How do we know when we are appropriately advocating for ourselves as opposed to asking for something inappropriate? It is not easy, but we can try.

One answer is NOT to reject all medical recommendations for diagnosis or treatment, to assume that something “natural” is always right. Medicine can do a lot; it can treat a lot of illnesses that can cause you to suffer or die prematurely. There are many tests that are proven useful or valuable for making diagnoses. Another is to not reject things simply because they cost money (difficult when you don’t have much and they cost a lot), but also not to ask to have them because you have money (or insurance). To a great extent it is asking your doctor questions, asking about the degree of benefit, hoping that they are up to date, trying to question what the likely benefit is from another test or treatment, especially if costly. It also, sadly, means understanding if the doctor themselves, or a company they work for, stands to make profit on the test or treatment, since this creates a conflict of interest (but certainly does not mean that it always or usually isn’t appropriate).

There is an entire medical literature on medical overuse, and your doctor should be familiar with it, or at least the most egregious overuses that are in her/his field. A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine , “Update on Medical Practices That Should Be Questioned in 2015”, by Morgan et al., reviews some of these.[1] The authors reviewed the literature on articles published in 2014, and came up with 104 that at least one of the 3 thought was very important, and 33 that all agreed were very important. The article reports on the “Top 10”, because this is a nice, round number and because it seems to be a manageable number of things for doctors to remember. Just these 10 represent a lot of excess tests and excess expense.

I will summarize some of these 10 (the ones I feel are most relevant; you can find them all in the article), both to remind doctors and other health care providers who might not have seen it, and because other readers may have had these tests recommended. Before doing so, it is important to review the difference between a screening test, done on the general population (or a subset of it) who don’t have any symptoms, and a diagnostic test, which may be the same test done on someone with symptoms related to what that test tests for. Frequently a test is useful for diagnosis for someone with symptoms but in someone without may not only be of little use, but find “false positives” that end up leading to more testing with more cost and greater risk.

  • There Is No Benefit to Screening for Asymptomatic Carotid StenosisNone, for screening. Ultrasound or other tests may be of value for people with TIAs or other symptoms.
  • Screening Pelvic Examinations Are Inaccurate in Asymptomatic Women and Are Associated With Harms That Exceed Clinical Benefits. Again, none, for screening. You can’t screen for ovarian cancer. I have been trying to convince my residents of this for years, despite their being often taught otherwise by OB-Gyns. This is the part where the provider puts his/her hands inside. It is NOT the same as a Pap smear, which is recommended for screening.
  • Head Computed Tomography Is Often Ordered but Is Rarely Helpful. Often finds clinically insignificant abnormalities. Also, often repeated with no added benefit. (“A retrospective cohort analysis reviewed 130 patients admitted for any cause at least 7 times during a 1-year period to a tertiary care center. Patients received a mean of almost 7 CT scans, including 3 head CT scans. More than one-third (36%) of head CT scans were ordered to evaluate for altered mental status. Only 4% (7/127) of head CTs had clinically significant findings that resulted in a change in management.”)
  • Thyroid Cancer Is Massively Overdiagnosed, Leading to Concrete Harms.  Study is from S. Korea, where they screen for it.
  • There Is No Benefit to Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) for Acute Low Back Pain. “The median times to recovery were 17 days in both of the paracetamol groups and 16 days in the placebo group.” This does not mean we should be using opioids, though. In fact, when we give opioids for good reasons, like postoperative pain…
  • Postoperative Opioid Use Continues Past the Postoperative Period.

Some overuse comes because practices once felt to be appropriate, but now shown not to be, are being taught to trainees, who either don’t know or are loathe to disagree with their instructors. Some comes, consciously or not, from the potential for providers to make money. Another recent JAMA Internal Medicine[2] study looked at family medicine and internal medicine residents who saw “secret shoppers”, standardized patients who were requesting inappropriate imaging. About 25% of the time the tests were ordered, which could be seen as either bad or good (75% of the time they weren’t). The study also showed no difference between those residents who got significant feedback and those who didn’t, and similar (and generally good) techniques of communicating to the patients why these were not indicated. An interesting wrinkle is that some of the tests chosen (MRI or CT for new-onset uncomplicated low back pain) were imaging studies not recommended by the American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Physicians (Internal Medicine) as part of the “Choosing Wisely” campaign, but are not recommended against by the  American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in their “Choosing Wisely recommendations. Of course, orthopedists stand to benefit from doing surgery on these patients. (By the way, among the recommendations of the AAFP is not doing screening pelvic examinations!)

What is the social justice issue here? After all, tests and treatments that are not indicated should not be done on anyone, regardless of financial or insurance status, racial or ethnic characteristics. Indeed, one could argue that those with more money or better insurance would be the most likely recipients of extra tests. But poorer, or less well-insured, people often don’t get the tests and treatments that they actually need (which has often been discussed in this blog; see for example Dead Man Walking: People still die from lack of health insurance, November 17, 2013), while tests and treatments are overused for others. This creates the (accurate) perception of a two-class health care system, and the (sometimes, perhaps, less accurate) perception that the disadvantaged are, in addition to not getting care they need, are not getting discretionary care that benefits the wealthy. Also, the more money spent globally on unnecessary medical care, the less available for necessary non-medical initiatives (housing, food, education) that would actually create better health.

A single payer system would not in itself achieve this goal, but it would create far more equity in the allocation of healthcare dollars, and at least eliminate the profit motive that might impact the recommendations of some providers and healthcare institutions.

[1] Morgan DJ, Dhruva SS, Wright SM, Korenstein D, Update on Medical Practices That Should Be Questioned in 2015, JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Dec 1;175(12):1960-4. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.5614.

[2] Fenton JJ, Kravitz RL, Jerant A, et al., Promoting Patient-Centered Counseling to Reduce Use of Low-Value Diagnostic Tests: A Randomized Clinical Trial, JAMA Intern Med. Published online December 07, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.6840

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Medicare Advantage plans, CMS, and providing high-quality care to -- and care for -- all people

Medicare Advantage plans, also known as Medicare HMOs, or officially as Medicare Part C, are an alternative to traditional Medicare. By enrolling in such a plan, at additional out-of-pocket cost, the Medicare recipient gets additional benefits that are characteristic of HMOs. This may include smaller (or no) copayments or deductibles, coverage for things not covered by traditional Medicare like dental care, eyeglasses, and hearing aids, and other “advantages”. There are disadvantages, also, of course, just as in other HMOs. Beyond cost, the main one is that there is a limited panel of providers – doctors and hospitals – that the person can use. This is particularly an issue for retired people who travel a lot, or may spend the winter in a warmer climate, since these HMOs’ panels are usually in a limited geographic area.

Older “closed panel” HMOs usually had only doctors and other providers employed by the HMO itself. There are fewer of these than there once were; some of them, like Kaiser, are well-known. Other HMOs are “open panel”, where any doctor can be “approved” to be part of their provider group, but many doctors may choose not to be for reasons such as lower reimbursement or onerous regulation. Thus, it is at least theoretically possible that a Medicare Advantage enrollee could receive lower quality care from the doctors and hospitals that were part of the HMO’s network than from another doctor or hospital that might not be, but would be available to traditional Medicare patients. In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans are open to “dual-eligibles”, people with both Medicare and Medicaid, with Medicaid paying the additional premium. That such programs might provide worse care than others isnot an unreasonable concern based upon other services targeted Medicaid patients (e.g., nursing homes) and other programs targeted specifically to low income people.

Thus, Medicare has developed a rating system for Medicare Advantage plans, which assigns from 1 to 5 stars based, presumably, on carefully considered and assessed quality measures. If you want a good plan, it would behoove you to choose one with a “5 star” rating. Provided, of course, one is available in your area, and provided you can afford the out-of-pocket costs, or, if you have Medicaid, it is one that Medicaid will pay for. Unsurprisingly, many plans that have enrolled Medicaid or other lower-income patients have had lower ratings, based on the outcomes of those patients. The plans argue that this is because these low-income patients are higher-risk, have more co-existing medical, mental health, and social conditions outside of the plan’s control. Others, including the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which administers Medicare, have argued that considering these characteristics might “give a pass” to plans that provide lower-quality care to poor people. A similar rating system exists for hospitals, and similar arguments have been made. As I discussed in a blog from November 10, 2013, “Does quality of care vary by insurance status? Even Medicare? Is that OK?”, there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides.

Now, however, according to a report in “Modern Healthcare” on October 21, 2015, CMS interim administrator Andy Slavitt and his deputy administrator who runs the Center for Medicare, Sean Cavanaugh, are considering adjusting its quality ratings for Medicare Advantage plans based upon the pre-existing risk of the patients enrolled. This is important to the plans, since Medicare can drop them if they have several years of lower-than-3-star ratings. And they don’t want to be dropped, because these plans are moneymakers, in no small part because CMS treats them, financially, better than traditional Medicare plans (a result of purposeful federal policy to try experiments to “privatize” Medicare). While new criteria have not been officially announced, and would not take effect until 2017, “The comments from Slavitt and Cavanaugh were somewhat surprising because the CMS has previously downplayed the effects of socio-economic status on the ratings. The agency described the effect as ‘small in most cases and not consistently negative’ in a summary of findings from an analysis the CMS commissioned by the RAND Corp.”

It is not only surprising, but when one considers why the (possible) change of heart is happening, it is difficult to not consider the financial and political clout of the insurance industry that sponsors these programs, and the political support that such “private” Medicare-replacement programs have.  It is worth noting that CMS has not indicated that it will consider revising the ratings for hospitals, despite the fact that hospitals that care a higher proportion of poor and socially disadvantaged people face the same issues. The financial penalty for hospitals is very direct, as Medicare is not paying for readmissions which occur within 30 days. If this seems, on its face, reasonable, consider that sometimes even when the care provided in the hospital is of high quality, people go back to their homes (or long-term care facilities) where it may not be. This is sometimes a result of lack of money, lack of social support, and other stressors, but the result is that they are more likely to be readmitted. Again, CMS has argued that it would not want to encourage hospitals providing lower-quality care for poor people (which certainly would be a bad thing). But if CMS penalizes hospitals for readmissions that are outside their control, it simply encourages hospitals to not care for low-income people, or, if they are sole providers in their community, possibly even close their doors, and that would be a very bad thing. Studies that have been done indeed show that readmissions are higher when hospitals care for lower income and Medicaid patients, and that this is not the result of poorer quality care provided when those people are inpatients. (See “Aiming for Fewer Hospital U-turns: The Medicare Hospital Readmission Reduction Program” from the Kaiser Family Foundation and “Socioeconomic status and readmissions: evidence from an urban teaching hospital” in Health Affairs.)

It is important for CMS to ensure that the care provided to all Medicare recipients (indeed all people) by a hospital is not discriminatory or inequitable and that all patients have access to the care they need at the highest possible quality level. But unadjusted readmission rates are a very crude measure of quality, and it is unreasonable for CMS to expect that hospitals will be able to compensate for the impacts of poverty and lack of access to preventive care and early diagnosis and treatment. It is not unreasonable, however, for us, the American people, to expect that our government develop and help pay for programs that ensure that people’s basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, warmth and other social determinants of health, as well as post-hospital care (access to primary care, home health, and high-quality long-term care).

A single-payer health system is insufficient to address all of these needs. But it is a good start for some of them.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?

 A widely covered and important health research study was recently published by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”. The main message is contained in the title – mortality rates for white middle-aged Americans are going up – but there are three other important findings that emphasize its significance.

The first is that mortality rates are going down for every other age and ethnic group, as well as for whites of the same age in other developed countries (see graphic). This means something special is happening to this population group in the US. The second is that this increasing mortality rate is not evenly distributed across class, but is concentrated in the lower-income, high-school-educated or less, group of people. This begins to suggest what is special about this group: that they are being hit hard by societal changes that particularly affect them. The third is that the mortality rates for African-Americans, while decreasing, still significantly exceed those of this group of midlife whites. All of these bear further examination.

That these death rates are rising was apparently surprising to the study’s authors, according to the New York Times article “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds” by Gina Kolata on November 2, 2015, which begins with the sentence “Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans.” It surprises not only Case and Deaton, but also numerous commentators quoted in the article and in subsequent coverage. An example cited by Kolata is Dr. Samuel Preston, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, whose comment was “Wow.”  I guess this is an appropriate comment about an increase in mortality rates of 134 more deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014, which Dr. Deaton says is only matched by HIV/AIDS in current time.

But the findings are not too surprising to me. After all, Deaton and Case are economists, not physicians or health researchers, and they came upon this data almost serendipitously while studying other issues (such as whether areas where people are happy have lower suicide rates). But others, those who are physicians and health researchers, should know better. Maybe the doctors expressing surprise are those who don’t take care of lower-income people. And the health researchers are those who have not been reading. In a blog piece  from January 14, 2014 (“More guns and less education is a prescription for poor health”) I cite  Education: It Matters More to Health than Ever Before, published on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website by researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Society and Health, which notes that “since the 1990s, life expectancy has fallen for people without a high school education, a decrease that is especially pronounced among White women.” This was reported over a year and a half ago, and discusses a trend in place for two decades!

Or maybe I am not surprised because I am a doctor, and see these patients both in the clinic and in the hospital. We do take care of lots of lower income people – those not in the 1%, or the 20% or even the top 50%. Yes, the bottom half of the population by income do exist, and many of them are white, and they are not doing well. The study by Case and Deaton indicates that the causes of death that are increasing the mortality rates in this group of people are not increases in the “traditional” chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but are rather due to substance abuse (illegal drugs, prescription narcotics, and alcohol) and suicide. This is not to say that we don’t see much illness and many deaths from those other chronic diseases in this population; we do, and they account for the high baseline mortality among this group, but these other causes are the reasons for the rising mortality rate.

We have seen the explosion of prescription opiate use in people who (like Dr. Case, as it happens) have chronic musculoskeletal pain (despite increasing evidence that opiates are not very effective for such pain). This often results from their work as manual laborers, either from a specific accident or from the toll wreaked by chronic lifting, bending, twisting, and straining. We also see increased use of alcohol, that traditional intoxicant. While sometimes it seems that we hear more about studies touting the benefits of a couple of glasses of wine a day, the reality is that millions of lives are destroyed directly and indirectly by alcohol use: those of the drinkers, those of their families, those of the people they hit when driving drunk. And in both urban and rural areas (people in rural areas were particularly affected by the mortality increase in Case and Deaton’s study) the use of methamphetamine. And as the drop in standard of living for people who used to make their living with their bodies doing jobs that have disappeared or they can no longer physically do becomes clearly irreversible and leads to serious depression, often compounded by chronic pain and substance use, increasing rates of suicide.

What is only alluded to in some of the coverage of this study is the most important point: this is about our society failing its people. It is about the “social determinants of health” writ large. Yes, the direct causes of the increased death rate in this population are alcohol and drug use and depression leading to suicide, and we do need better treatment for these conditions. But to leave it there would be like looking at deaths from lung cancer and chronic lung disease and concluding only that we need better drugs to treat these conditions without considering tobacco. Our society has, for at least four decades, been somewhere between uncaring and hostile to a huge proportion of its people. Where once we were a land of rising expectations, where people who worked hard could expect to have a reasonably good life, this changed beginning in the 1970s. Jobs for those with high school educations started to become rarer, and in the Reagan 1980s, “Great Society” programs that supported the most needy were decimated. (For the record, the “War on Poverty” actually worked; poverty rates went down!)

In the 1990s, economic growth hid the concomitant growth in income disparities. With the crashes of the tech and housing bubbles leading to severe recession in the mid-2000s, the impact of these disparities became apparent. While there were protests in response (e.g., the “Occupy” movement), the banks were bailed out, the wealthy continued to grow wealthier, and working people have seen their jobs, incomes, standards of living, health, and ultimately lives disappear. Only the blind or willfully ignorant could have not seen this coming.

To a large extent, then, this is an issue of class, however much “important people” decry the use of that word. It is also an issue of race, since, as noted, mortality rates for African-Americans (although not for Latino/Hispanics) continue to exceed those of whites; even as they begin to converge, there is still great disparity. Camara Jones, MD, the new president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) uses the term “social determinants of equity” to describe why African-Americans are so over-represented in the lower class.  The current data showing that lower-income whites are moving toward the long-term disadvantaged should not obscure this fact, but rather remind us that white people have had a privilege that is now, for the lowest income, being eroded.

The irony is that many of the people in the groups reported on, and their friends and relatives and neighbors, voted for those in Congress and their states who pursue policies that make their situations worse. That the 1%, or 0.1%, or 0.001% (after all, 153 families have contributed 50% of all campaign donations this year!) like these policies is understandable provided that they are not only rich but selfish, but they alone don’t have many votes. That their money controls votes, both by buying advertising and directly buying politicians, is undeniable. Maybe poor people cannot contribute as much as rich people, but they can vote (most of the time) and there are so many more of them. If we must reject “trickle down”, we must also reject appeals for votes that are implicitly or explicitly racist; lower income white people are not benefiting by voting for the racists.  The lives and health of Americans will be improved by improving the conditions in which they live, by an economy whose growth is marked by more well-paying jobs, not money socked away by the wealthiest corporations and individuals. People, of all races and ethnicities and genders and geographical regions need dignity and opportunity and hope that is based in reality, not false promises.

We need to treat the diseases that affect people and cause rising mortality, but we need to treat the conditions that lead to them even more urgently.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Who is left out of ACA, and how does this affect Health for All?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) has been very successful, despite the pronouncements of doomsayers (mostly Republicans). More than 10 million people who were previously uninsured have received coverage, and this has dramatically increased their access to health care. However, many people remain without health insurance, and many more are barely able to afford their premiums or can afford only the most basic plans. These people fall largely into three groups: those who the law was never planned to make eligible (mainly those people who are living in this country without documents), those people who make less than 133% of the poverty level but were not previously eligible for Medicaid and live in states that have not opted for Medicaid expansion, and lower-income people above 133% of poverty who have either not bought insurance on the exchanges or bought it and have since dropped it.

The first group, those without papers, comprise over 11 million real human beings in this country, people who work and go to school and get sick and visit our emergency rooms. That they are not even considered in ACA or any other proposal considered politically viable is a head-in-the-sand approach that ignores both human suffering and the cost of providing care to them. This cost is often shifted to hospitals, doctors, and volunteer organizations, such as the student-run Jaydoc Free Clinic in Kansas City, KS. The work that volunteers do is admirable, like that of the people celebrated by the first President Bush as “1000 points of light”, but it is not the way a wealthy country should have to provide care to people.

The second group is composed of those that the ACA intended to be covered by Medicaid expansion, but who live in states that have opted not to expand Medicaid. Given that the federal government would have picked up 100% of the bill for the first 4 years and then 90% thereafter, it is financially a good deal for the states. The reason that states like Kansas have not done so is entirely political; these are all states with Republican governors and/or Republican-controlled legislatures (although it does not include all of those!) whose core political position is opposition to anything coming from President Obama. Their proposed health plan is -- well, nothing, but they are against Obamacare, and against expanding Medicaid, and if this seems not only mean but economically stupid, so be it. People who in other states can access care when they need it are going without care or showing up in extremis in ERs. Hospitals end up footing the costs for people who could have been insured..

In Kansas, the first hospital closure that might have been forestalled with Medicaid expansion has occurred. Closing of Kansas hospital adds to Medicaid expansion debate (Kansas City Star, October 18, 2015) describes the closure of Mercy Hospital in Independence, KS. Doctors from relatively nearby towns that still have a hospital report increases in ER visits from people from Independence.There are many reasons that contributed to this closing, including the fact that residents of rural areas such as Independence are older and sicker than the national or state average, but a large proportion of them would have been eligible for expanded Medicaid had the state implemented it. The article makes clear that “While Medicaid expansion may not have saved Mercy Hospital, there are some in Montgomery County who say it could save many individuals.”

The Kansas Hospital Association (KHA) has been lobbying hard for Medicaid expansion because their members are losing money caring for uninsured people who are covered in the states that have expanded Medicaid. These hospitals are absorbing the impact of cuts to MediCARE which were supposed to be offset by the decrease in the uninsured resulting from the expansion of MediCAID, which is of course not happening in states such as Kansas, and it sees Mercy as the first domino to fall. KHA has a lot of influence in the state capital, Topeka, and rarely loses battles that it engages as strongly as it has this one, but so far there has been no movement from the Governor or legislature. While some legislators are beginning to rethink the issue: “ ‘My sense is a lot of legislators are saying we need to have that discussion (about Medicaid expansion). We need to take a hard look at that issue,’ said Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican. ‘I do support that myself’”, others are adamantly opposed: “’I know that’s on the table. I don’t think any decision has been made on that,’ said Rep. Tony Barton, a Leavenworth Republican. ‘I think it would be moving in the wrong direction. I’ll leave it at that.’” And well he might leave it at that, as there is really nothing he can say that makes economic or social sense. It is a quintessential statement of opposition, being against something because, well, he is against it.

The Star article makes clear that Independence, KS has had, like many small towns, difficulty in recruiting and retaining physicians, but even those towns with doctors have hospitals with major financial challenges that could be helped by Medicaid expansion. Dr. Doug Gruenbacher, board chair of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians (KAFP), an organization representing the family doctors who are the mainstay of rural health care, practices in Quinter, KS. While Quinter has fewer than 1000 residents (compared to Independence’s 9300), its group of family doctors cares for people from perhaps a dozen surrounding counties. Dr. Gruenbacher wrote a letter to the Salina Journal (October 10, 2015) calling for Medicaid expansion. He says “I know that my hospital [Gove County Medical Center] and more importantly, my patients, would benefit from the expansion.”

This leaves the third group of people who have had little or no benefit from the ACA: those who have  either not been able to afford to purchase insurance on exchanges, despite subsidies, or have dropped it as a result of rate increases by insurance companies. In “Insurance Dropouts Present a Challenge for Health Law” (NY Times, October 11, 2015), Abby Goodnough focuses on people in Mississippi, another states that has not expanded Medicaid. She observes that many of those who are working and making more than 133% of poverty are eligible for subsidies on the exchanges – indeed, 95% of Mississippians receiving coverage this way have subsidies, the highest percentage in the nation – but increasingly are finding the premiums more than they can afford on their tight budgets. Sometimes people were dropped from their insurance companies simply because they did not provide some information that the law requires to prevent undocumented people from signing up. Sometimes they just couldn’t afford it.

The ACA prohibits insurers from denying coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, but does not prohibit them from charging more for that coverage. And they do. “Walter Whitlow, 56, a remodeling contractor in Volente, Tex., said he had never seen the emails the federal marketplace sent him asking for additional proof of income after he signed up for a Humana plan in January. Doctors diagnosed throat cancer in February, and in June he learned from his oncologist’s office that his monthly premium had gone to $439 from $103 and his deductible to $4,600 from $900.” Whoops. Glitch.

Or not. The ACA was an attempt to accommodate many political interests, and thus is a conglomeration of different programs. Its commitment to insurance companies, whose support seemed to be necessary to pass the bill, was to have the “individual mandate”, so that the insurers, now required to cover everyone, would have everyone, not just the sickest, in their risk pool. However, beyond this, the ability of insurers to increase premiums for the sick was projected to be a problem, but the advantages of passing the program outweighed it. ACA is not intended to ensure health for all, but coverage for most (except those noted above). In the aggregate, it has been of great benefit. But for individuals, like Mr. Whitlow, the impact has been disastrous.

It is important to remember that this impact is not because we passed a bill that tried to cover as many people as possible, as opponents of ACA maintain without any data. It is because that bill did not go far enough, did not cover everyone, did not provide sufficient protection for people from the predatory practices of insurance companies. These are not the reasons that most ACA opponents want to fix, although they should be fixed. Dismantling ACA will not help the people who are described above, suffering despite this program; it would only vastly increase their number.

But change is necessary. We do, in fact, need a comprehensive national health program that simply, like those of most countries, covers everyone. Like Medicare for all. This will not solve all problems. It will not necessarily bring doctors to rural Kansas. It will not insure quality. It will not, in itself, completely control costs. But it is a necessary, if not sufficient, step.

Our mission as family physicians is to provide care to all Kansans, not just the insured,” Dr. Gruenbacher writes. The next step is to make sure that there are no Kansans, or Americans, left out. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

More wealth, more health: what can we do to mitigate disparities?

The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” reviewed a report by economists discussing “The stunning — and expanding — gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor” (Max Ehrenfreund, Sept 18, 2015). One focus of the article, which is based on a report from the National Academy of Sciences, is that (in the words of the alternative title of the Wonkblog piece that displays in the URL), “the government is spending more to help rich seniors than poor ones”. A big reason for this is that the greater life expectancy of the more well-to-do means that they collect benefits from Social Security and Medicare for longer. But, of course, the real issue is that there is such a difference in the life expectancy of rich and poor. Ehrenfreund illustrates this with two dramatic graphs:

This is a pretty significant difference. What are the reasons for it? The report (and the article based on it) indicate that while differences in “lifestyle” (smoking and obesity, mainly) account for some of the difference, it is less than 1/3. The study also alludes to the impact of “stress”. This may seem vague, non-specific, or ubiquitous: aren’t we all stressed? Don’t rich people have a lot of stress because wealth is often accompanied by great responsibility? Such interpretations sometimes leads "stress" as a factor in longevity to be discounted by many commentators. But the impact of stress on health is a real thing, and it is well documented. Many people are familiar with the old terms “Type A” and “Type B” personalities, and how being Type A (more stressed) can lead to a greater risk of disease, particularly heart attack. But the real concern is a kind of stress that is more common in poorer people. This is the continuous stress, from worrying about whether you and your family will have enough food to eat and a place to live, whether you will have a job, whether it is safe to walk down the street, whether (especially if you are a young Black man) the police are going to stop you at any moment, that has major negative health effects. The mechanisms through which this occurs are incompletely elucidated, but certainly involve the neuroendocrine system, the release of hormones that prepare the body for “fight or flight” by refocusing blood flow to muscles, increasing heart rate, etc. Such a response is very useful in an emergency, but when it is happening most or all of the time, and the body does not have the time and rest to fully recuperate, it results in real health damage. This hormonal response allows a person to run fast, from an attacker or for sport, for a short time, but if the challenge never stops, the body eventually wears out

This sort of stress on the body may be the “final common pathway” through which many of the negative life situations that poorer people are more likely to find themselves in exact their toll, but there are also other factors. People’s health, and thus their life expectancy, is to a large extent determined by their early childhood experience. The relative income of their families of origin that affects their childhood nutrition and education, their warmth in the winter, and the amount of transmitted stress that their parents felt, is also a big determinant. While this disparity at the start of life is something that can be mitigated, by some, through future success, it can never be completely erased. That is, while rich people from poor backgrounds may have better health later in life than those who stay poorer, they have on average worse health than those who started out wealthy and stayed that way. “Choose your parents wisely,” I tell my medical students, “if they are both long-lived and rich, it bodes well for your future health.” Luckily for them, the majority of medical students come from at least upper-middle-income families.

Another big determinant is education, and many studies show the correlation of higher levels of education with longer life and better health. Of course, education is highly correlated with income, both on the front end (children from higher-income families are more likely to achieve higher educational levels) and on the back end (those children from families of lower socioeconomic status who are successful have usually become so through education). In the US, income is related to education in part because our schools are largely funded by local tax bases, so that wealthier people live in better funded, and educationally better, school districts. People from other countries often have difficulty understanding that we have “good” and “bad” school districts; as one friend said “where I come from all schools are the same! No one would choose where to live based on the quality of the schools!” This concept is so alien to me that I had difficulty understanding them!

In addition, education does not take place only in school. Children from upper-income families are more likely to have educated parents, who not only encourage them to pursue educational success, but read to them and talk to them from the very beginning of their lives. These are also families in which survival needs do not displace the priority of children getting an education. In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published his hierarchy of needs; survival must come before self-actualization. This was originally conceived of for the individual, but is also true of families and communities. A similar pyramid has been developed to describe the impact of Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). ACEs are a ways of thinking about the combination of negative impacts including hunger, homelessness, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neighborhood dangerousness, etc., that have been shown to have a lifelong negative impact. In addition to being associated with higher future rates of drug abuse and mental illness, they are associated with higher rates of just about everything bad. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by Kaiser Permanente beginning in 1995-97 is the most significant study on this topic. It is ongoing and being replicated in many other countries.
Of course, lower income people are exposed to other risks beyond these. People living in “worse” neighborhoods have a greater likelihood of being homicide victims. Those neighborhoods are much more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants in the air and water and even from the earth (such as toxic waste dumps). Many lower-income people work in more dangerous jobs, especially true in rural areas (farming, ranching, logging, highway construction, etc.) Indeed, the potential for “confounding” results from such exposures was the reason that Michael Marmot and his colleagues did their classic series of studies showing the direct correlation of higher socioeconomic status (class) and better health by examining people who worked for the government in the same offices in London (thus the name “the Whitehall studies”).

Wealthy people have a longer life expectancy than poor people, and wealthy countries have longer life expectancies than poorer countries, and those with wider gaps between the rich and poor have wider gaps in life expectancy; in this regard the US is at greater risk than wealthy nations with smaller gaps. The neat interactive website from Gapminder allows you to track wealth with life expectancy over time since 1800. The GINI index measures the income disparities within countries, and its use allows correlating income inequality with life expectancy; like several other health measures (e.g., infant mortality) life expectancy goes down with increasing inequality even when a country (such as the US) is rich overall.

So yes, our Social Security and Medicare systems mean that those who live longer will have more financial benefit, and that they are more likely to be more well-to-do than those who die younger. In addition, those who are poorer are more likely to live longer with disability. But the real news is that poverty and social deprivation work in many synergistic ways to decrease the health of the poor. This is what we need a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to address.

And the first step is recognizing and acknowledging it.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Conservative, Liberal, or Relevant Blood Pressure? We need studies that are really relevant...

The following is a guest post from Robert Bowman, MD

One set of guidelines says to loosen up blood pressure control to prevent consequences such as falls. Almost in reaction there appears a new study that indicates a need to, perhaps, tighten up control to reduce the potential for stroke or heart disease. When British GPs were paid more to address BP there did not seem to be gains, other than better pay for participating GPs. Time after time we seem to have cutting edge studies that are pro-intervention. They remain until longer and bigger studies come out years later indicating problems or limitations involving the once “cutting edge” pro-intervention studies.

The lives of millions of people can be impacted by hypertension guidelines. How can we best deal with blood pressure issues?

The answer is not likely to be found in guidelines, quality measures, reports, or the latest studies.

The answer is more about process and less about print.

The problem with guidelines that are too liberal or too conservative is the same – they are too distant from the real world. The real problem remains the failure to include many of those most important to the process.

The real world in health care is what is happening at home. What is the real world for elderly patients? What happens when you get up at night to go to the bathroom? Do you get up at night more because of your medications or because of how you take them? Do your physicians coordinate the addition and subtraction of medications – including drugs that impact blood pressure or fluid volumes? With more and more medications there are more potential interactions. What happens when you get up from a chair or sofa? When you lose 10 or 15 pounds, do your medications drop your blood pressure to dangerous levels? Do you even have contact with a health care professional to help look out for the problem of weight loss and medications that are suddenly too effective?

We know about the benefits of blood pressure control, but do we know about the consequences of too much control?

Sadly we know less about the risk of blood pressure that is kept too low, the risk that a fall that may belife or lifestyle ending will occur.For example, should our blood pressure goals be more aggressive in men or in those with proven bone stability while being less aggressive with those likely to suffer greater consequences becaue they have osteopenia, osteoporosis, or other conditions? We often assume linear increase in risk, but this may not be the case.

What Is Missing from “Guidelines?”

With control of BP or coagulation or other treatments that defeat how the body adjusts to change, the patient and family must have the best understanding regarding what the drugs do and how the drugs impact their particular body and situations.

Large scale studies can be helpful, but the studies need to be relevant. Studies should reflect the real world. After three hundred recent home visits, observations indicated a few with perhaps lax control that may, just may have problems in 1, 5, or 10 years. There are also a different few of the 300 who are having falls or symptoms that suggest the potential for falls - with the potential of immediate consequences. Many large studies examine only the outcome of interest to the researchers – such as the rate of strokes in people with uncontrolled blood pressure – rather than the overall rate of harm or death to the people involved. In addition, many studies exclude from participation people who have the risk factors most likely to cause them harm. Studies that do examine all outcomes (“all-cause morbidity and mortality”) are of more value, and we need to be sure that the people we are treating in the “real world” are similar to those studied.

And then there is the problem of getting reliable BP measurements at the office or at home. How many people do we overtreat based on office-only measurements when lower home BP measurements are more relevant? How do we best use ambulatory measurements? Are these accessed and priced in ways that can make a difference?

A final reflection may be more relevant. In the 5 or 6 minutes of face-to-face time that is often all that exists, given current payment design, how do we get to know our patients well enough in our office environment to optimize BP control while minimizing the consequences to them as they live in their world? How do we teach them enough to loosen up medication when necessary to help prevent falls?

Addressing Problems and Solutions

One thing is certain. As long as research is distant and irrelevant, guidelines will contribute to too much negative consequence and not enough gain.

Practice-based research could contribute. But the real potential involves home-based research. The irrelevance of the academic setting and even the office was suggested by the founders of family medicine. What matters most is far away from university hospitals and NIH researchers. Lest we forget, the home – and the community -- is where it all happens.

Follow up to come:
Why the Home is the Best Unit of Analysis for Research

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility

“A Huge Overnight Increase in a Drug’s Price Raises Protests”, by Andrew Pollack in the New York Times September 20, 2015, features the story of Daraprim, the brand name for pyrimethamine, a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis. “Toxo”, often associated with cat feces, is a protozoan and was an fairly rare infection prior to the HIV epidemic, when it became a significant cause of brain infections in those with very low CD4 counts. Luckily, pyrimethamine, a drug available for over 60 years, had reasonably good success. Now, rights to the drug have been acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals and its price has been raised from $13.50 to $750 a pill. Turing’s founder and CEO, Martin Shkreli, is a former hedge fund manager who seems to know an opportunity to make a killing when he sees one. A few days later, the Times ran an AP story on a interview Shrkeli gave ABC news which reported that Turing would reduce the price, albeit to one that was unspecified. “’We've agreed to lower the price of Daraprim to a point that is more affordable and is able to allow the company to make a profit, but a very small profit,’ Shkreli told ABC.”

But this is, as the Pollack article points out, not the first or only time this has occurred. In the last few years new drugs, mainly those made in labs from recombinant DNA rather than from plant sources, for hepatitis C, high cholesterol, and various cancers have been criticized for their astronomical prices, but we are talking about old drugs here. One example is cycloserine, used to treat multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB, the price of which has been raised from the previously expensive $500 for a month’s supply to $10,800. (Please note that I am being careful with my decimal points; this is, indeed, over a 2000% increase.) The general manager of the manufacturer, Rodelis, “…said the company needed to invest to make sure the supply of the drug remained reliable.” And thus, of course, required the 2000% increase. Right.

And many more common, prosaic drugs have had the same increases. One I have previously written about several times is colchicine, an ancient treatment for gout derived from the autumn crocus (and I mean “ancient”, not like “20th century”; there are records of its use in Egyptian papyruses from 1500BC!). Dr. Stephen Griffith’s guest post "VISA and colchicine: maybe the banks and Pharma really ARE in it for the money!” said ”the FDA has encouraged pharmaceutical companies to study some of the older drugs for true effectiveness, and the company can then apply for a three year patent on the medication. URL Pharma, Inc. did the clinical trials on less than 1,000 patients, and proved that a drug everyone already knew worked, worked. Amazing! They received a three year patent, and now a pill that was $4 per month long before the $4 per month plans existed, is $5 per pill! Since it is usually given twice a day, the drug will now cost patients $10 per day when it formerly cost about a quarter.” What? The FDA is encouraging this?

The Times articles cites increases in other common drugs; two heart drugs, Nitropress and Isuprel, were acquired by Marathon Pharmaceuticals in 2013 and had their prices quintupled. Then this year, they were acquired by Valeant Pharmaceuticals which “…promptly raised their prices by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively.” The most depressing one for me is doxycycline, a form of the antibiotic tetracycline, which is broad-spectrum, effective, and, until recently, cheap. It is frequently used for pneumonia acquired in the community, as it is effective against both common bacterial and “atypical” causes of pneumonia, and generally effective against the very dangerous “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus”, or MRSA. It is used as a first or second-line drug for several sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), including syphilis, and is even effective for prevention and treatment of malaria. An altogether good drug. When I was a medical student, it had recently been introduced (under the brand name Vibramycin) and it was considered expensive compared to other tetracyclines, even if often more effective. So we were all very happy when it became generic and cheap. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for doxycycline saysDoxycycline is available as a generic medicine and is not very expensive.[1][5] The wholesale cost is between 0.01 and 0.04 USD per pill.[6] In the United States 10 days of treatment is about 14 USD”.  Um,  that seems to be dated. The Times article tells us that “Doxycycline, an antibiotic, went from $20 a bottle in October 2013 to $1,849 by April 2014.” Oh. A 9200% increase. Kind of high for treating your bronchitis, or even your outpatient (or inpatient) pneumonia, or for your Lyme disease, or Chlamyida vaginitis, or for taking malaria prophylaxis.  Maybe you wouldn’t be very happy to have to pay that when you pick up your prescription, if you don’t have prescription drug coverage. And if you do, I’m sure that your insurer is not. The issue of how this price increase was allowed to happen is described as “murky” by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times. [Note: it seems that some of the generic forms of doxycycline have come back down, per a search on the valuable-for-health-care-providers-or-anyone-taking-prescriptions app, Goodrx.]

These price increases for long-standing generic drugs are outrageous, even more than the predatory prices of the new recombinant DNA drugs. It is blatant opportunism on the part of the drug manufacturers certainly, who could be considered to be cold-blooded profiteers on human misery (which of course they are, not to say evil, immoral, unconscionable and inhuman). But, hey, they are in business and are taking an opportunity to make more money, as does every cold-blood, profiteering business, in what is apparently a legal way. This, of course, raises the question of “how come it is legal? What the heck happened?”  Where is the FDA? Where is the Department of Health and Human Services? Where is the Executive Branch? Where is the Congress? Remember, we’re not talking small price increases. We’re not talking fair pricing. We’re talking thousands of percent increases in common drugs that people need, drugs that I, and other doctors, prescribe a lot.

People care a lot about the price of prescription drugs, and the amount that their co-pay is, because this affects them directly, in their pocketbook, regardless of what party they vote for. Margot Sanger-Katz of the Times, in Prescription Drug Costs Are Rising as a Campaign Issue”, reports on a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that Americans identify costs for drugs for specific diseases and prescription drug costs overall as their #1 and #2 health concerns. “Americans have long paid the highest prices for drugs. Because the United States gives drug makers long periods of patent exclusivity and lets a multitude of insurers each negotiate with drugmakers on price, drug spending here is, on a per capita average, roughly double the amount spent in many developed countries.” (see figure)

I started out saying that these companies were making a killing, but the problem is that the ones being killed are the rest of us. Sounds like something Jim Hightower would say, and he’d be right. The real issue is why do we keep electing people who put our interests, our health, behind the rapacious profits of corporations. It is only because of the enormous coverage Turing’s increase in the price of Daraprim engendered, and the calls for investigations in Congress, that Shrkeli is planning to lower the price. It has nothing to do with his, or any other corporate leaders’, concern for the public (see, for example: Volkswagen diesels, poisoned peanuts).

By the way, you might want to write down the names of the two Congresspeople the Times article notes have called for an investigation of this: Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Yes, that Bernard Sanders; the one running for President. Hmm.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Battling for Biomedical Supremacy? How about improving the people's health?

In an editorial on August 30, 2015, the New York Times discusses the “Battle for Biomedical Supremacy”, looking at the practice of what they call “poaching” of biomedical researchers by one state or university from another. Their main focus on the receiving end is Texas, because it has the highest profile of spending really big money to recruit researchers from universities in other states, and its main concern is (unsurprisingly) New York, which has more medical schools than any other state, and especially private medical schools with big endowments and big research programs to be “poached”. They raise the issue, but I am not (after reading it a few times) quite sure what their position is and I am afraid that they may not be either, since usually the position of the Times editorialist is clear. It seems to be saying “Well, New York needs to join this, but not spend too much public money on it.” But the editorial certainly does not condemn the practice.

I am not sure that I am wholly against it, either. Biomedical research is important. Researchers who can get better jobs (higher paying, more money to support their work) should not generally be criticized for accepting them. People have that right. On the other hand, from the point of view of the institutions that are being poached from, there can be not only feelings of sadness, betrayal, and anger, but in many cases financial losses that result from money they spent to recruit these “top researchers”, and now is down the drain, or so it seems. Sometimes these researchers are signed to contracts, just as physicians who bring in lots of money for a hospital are. These contracts for physicians may contain “non-compete” agreements, which (try to) restrict the area in which a physician leaving their employment can practice. They are more enforceable when they are more local, preventing them from going over to direct competitors, but not when someone is moving from NY to Texas. And the competition in biomedical research is much more national than the competition for direct medical care. On the other hand, if you hire mercenaries, you run the risk that someone will offer them more.

So it can increase the income and resources for the individual investigator (and his/her “team”) and can increase the status of the successful university, and might (in some cases) impact directly or indirectly on the economies of the local area, and thus state. Whether it is “worth it” from a direct financial return-on-investment (ROI) point of view probably depends upon the individual situation. It is almost never financially “worth it” directly; universities (medical especially) almost always lose money on their research endeavors even when you don’t factor in multi-million dollar recruitment packages; most “wet-lab” (biomedical) research (as opposed to say, community based or epidemiologic research) costs a lot more than even the sum of the “direct” dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the indirect dollars (often 50% or more of the “direct”) that is supposed to help support the infrastructure. Add in another $5, $10, $20, $40 million more and you have a really hard time coming out anywhere close to break even.

But so what? The money for biomedical research has to come from somewhere; the usual source is NIH, but if states want to sweeten that, why not? After all, there are privately funded research institutes (the Stowers Institute in Kansas City is a local example); why not state, as well as federal. There are some concerns in that the federal (NIH) funds are the result of a competitive peer-review process, while these state funds are often just awarded to researchers based upon cachet. Still, if the state believes it has a chance for direct or indirect economic benefit, maybe it should “go for it”.

The bigger issue is not whether biomedical research should occur or who should support it, but why there should be competition for which university or state gets the big researchers. Does this facilitate biomedical researchers finding out more about how to treat or cure disease? I guess if more money is available, more progress could be made. But the bidding wars between universities and states seem to me to be more about local glory and (if lucky) economic development than real advances in biomedical research. It is similar to states and localities trying to lure employers by tax breaks, which may sometimes cost more than the economic benefit. Or, in the case of the Kansas City metropolitan area which straddles two states, luring companies back and forth across the state line (so that employees don’t even have to move) in what seems not-even-break-even mode (considering the cost of tax breaks). There may sometimes be benefit to science or the public good from relocating researchers and their laboratories but certainly not at the level and frequency it is occurring, and not enough to justify the huge expenditures. Often there is little or no new value being generated, but rather a shifting of resources from one place to another, maybe with a little loss in the process. However, this is how much of our economy works; the stock market and most of the financial industry – moving money around, skimming off profit (HUGE profit – the profiteers here are most of the richest of the billionaires) without creating any real value for the society.

Even more important is the implication that this is benefiting people’s health. If we wanted, as a society, to actually benefit people’s health, there are a lot more direct, effective, cost-effective and rational ways to do so. This, of course, could partly be providing financial access to health care for everyone regardless of their socioeconomic or other status, including those who have been left out of the ACA expansion because they life in states that have not expanded Medicaid, because they are undocumented, or because the level of health insurance that they can afford on the exchanges doesn’t meet all their health needs. A single-payer health system, Medicare for all. It also could mean enhancing geographic access, for those who are in rural areas or underserved urban areas, by using whatever is necessary (like financial incentives) to get doctors and hospitals to service these communities. It could also mean increasing the number and percentages of health care providers entering our most needed specialties, such as primary care, either by direct subsidy or by stopping the skewed and counterproductive reimbursement of subspecialists at much higher levels. (In Denmark, I discovered, general practitioners usually earn more than subspecialists! It is all about policy, not about the market.)

But, even more narrowly, talking about research, there is the question of getting out the therapies that research has already shown work, and are effective, and often cost-effective, to the people who need them. Continuing to do more research and find out more things is great, but actually having a national (or even state) system to ensure that the important discoveries are disseminated and implemented, is a greater priority. There are many common conditions, such as diabetes, for which we have treatments that are simply not available to many people, for many of the reasons above. Some of the unavailability of effective treatments are cost (the rapacious prices and profits charged by drug companies), but there are also treatments that are unavailable because – well, we don’t know why. While we continue to do more research on discovery, we need to do even more on efficacy, and fidelity, and finding out how to get our people to actually have improved health. Competition for researchers without increasing value is as wrong as it is in any arena.

The most effective treatments need to be available to all, the ineffective to none. We don’t need biomedical supremacy of Texas over New York, or California universities over those in Massachusetts, or even in the US over the rest of the world. We don’t need one university to “win” over another. We need better health for all our people.

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