Sunday, August 30, 2015

On interdisciplinary patient care and the corporate takeover of health care

The following is a gues post by Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH

In July 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine, the school invited its alumni for a Saturday morning symposium on "Transformative Medical Education in Hawai`i."  The last panel of the morning, on the future of medical education in Hawaiʻi, featured the deans of medicine, nursing, social work, and the associate director of public health.

Dr. Peter Donnelly - Kanaka Maoli family physician, practicing on the Neighbor Islands, my mentor in Hawaiian Pidgin and how to be local (I fail abjectly on both counts) - asked what the panelists think of nurse practitioners telling him that they can do anything he can do, at less cost.  One panelist suggested, "If you can't beat them, join them," so you might as well go get your MBA.

The claim that a non-physician provider can do the work of a physician at less cost ignores (perhaps willingly) the distinction between earning less and costing less.  Certainly non-physician providers earn less than physicians.  Dr. Stephen Kemble - psychiatrist and a stalwart for single-payer, who had been decrying the business takeover of health care from the audience all morning - noted that with regards to the provision of mental health, the evidence shows that non-physician therapists can actually cost the mental health system more than psychiatrists.  (He was citing an unpublished study performed by a Hawaiʻi health insurance outfit.)

Of note, a study in the September 2015 issue of Medical Care found that diabetic patients cared for by nurse practitioners had comparable rates of  preventable admissions as primary care physiciansThe provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care. The medical profession as a whole must shoulder part of the blame for the present situation.  Specialty control over the reimbursement system results, naturally, in disproportionately higher reimbursement for procedures and disproportionately lower reimbursement for primary care. See Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care. [1] This ensures that most medical students will choose specialty training so that there are not enough primary care physicians to care for all of us.  To the extent that physicians obtain MBAs and figure out how to game the extant reimbursement system [e.g. hire an N.P. to consult on patients so the gastroenterologist can perform colonoscopies in the surgicenter (anus to anus time of under 10 minutes) all day] - the proceduralist specialties are complicit.  Indeed, there is no reason why the gastroenterologist should explain the risks, benefits, and the bowel prep for screening colonoscopies.

We family physicians learn during residency that the practice of primary care is, in many ways more complex than specialty practice. [2] A well-trained, experienced provider of any discipline can deal with many complex patient problems for which a less intensively-trained, less experienced provider may order unnecessary tests or referrals.  Thus, while a primary care physician may earn more than a non-physician provider, the cost to the health care system may be less.

In addition, the provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care.  These days, you can be largely assured that if you presents to the ED with a headache, you’re going to get a CT scan of your head.  If you present with abdominal pain, you’re going to get a CT of your abdomen.  Many patients with symptoms clearly suggested of reflux are kept in the hospital for observation to “rule out myocardial infarction.”  So, conversely, while a primary care physician may earn less than an emergency physician, the cost to the health care system may also be less.

While part of the problem may be that the nursing profession is eager to escape the yoke long placed upon it by the medical profession - perhaps the larger problem is what Dr. Kemble identified as the incursion of the business model into health care.

The business model is predicated on delivering a standardized product with quality controls on what can be measured at prices that the market will bear.  Thus at any fast food franchise, one can reasonably expect a hamburger without too much E. coli in it, at the price listed behind the counter.  The MBAs who run our health care systems have no concept of the importance of, for example, a longitudinal patient-doctor relationship to health outcomes.  If they can replace an experienced primary care physician with a lower-paid "provider," it's better for the bottom line. 

We in family medicine should not be picking a fight with the nursing profession.  (For the sake of patient outcomes, I am happy to help nurse practitioners improve their practice, and I am happy to learn from them what they do best.)  I think that the main problem is the marketplace model of health care.  Capitalism has always depended on maintaining a certain percentage of unemployment in order to keep workers a little afraid of losing their jobs and therefore toeing the line.  The corporate takeover of health care means pitting the lowest rung of the physician class, the primary care physicians, against a growing workforce of providers with different qualifications eager to take their jobs.  From where I stand, I think that all health workers need to unite against that.

[1] Freeman J. Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care.

[2] Freeman J, Petterson S, Bazemore A. Accounting for Complexity: Aligning Current Payment Models with the Breadth of Care by Different Specialties. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Dec 1;90(11):790.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Corporate mergers, retail clinics, and monopoly capital

Two huge mergers have recently been announced in the health insurance sector. First, Aetna announced its intention to acquire Humana for $35 billion, creating a behemoth. Not to be outdone, Anthem (the enormous group of formerly non-profit Blue Cross/Blue Shields that have gone for-profit) announced it will buy Cigna for $47 billion. Consolidation in the industry is moving fast, and soon there will be oligopoly. Robert Reich, in his July 5, 2015 article The Choice Ahead: A Private Health-Insurance Monopoly or a Single Payer discusses these mergers, observing that

Executives say these combinations will make their companies more efficient, allowing them to gain economies of scale and squeeze waste out of the system. This is what big companies always say when they acquire rivals.

Yes, indeed. They always say it, and while sometimes they achieve efficiencies-- this usually involves firing people -- it almost never benefits the consumer; prices almost always go up. Remember airline mergers? Bought a ticket lately? Despite the rhetoric of capitalism about competition, virtually all companies would prefer to be monopolies, control the industry, and set prices, guaranteeing huge profit. If they cannot, the next best thing is oligopoly, control by a few companies, with collusion so that they all make huge profits. Competition is their bugbear. Yes, we have federal regulators, but the result of their regulation has been those airline mergers. And telecommunications mergers. And financial services mergers. And banks too big to fail. So don’t count on them.

Health insurance companies are not the only mega-corporations profiting from “health care” by siphoning off money that could actually be spent improving health, or at least providing medical care. Obviously, there are drug companies (as I recently discussed in Chemotherapy, Quality of Life, and Corporate Profit on July 26, 2015), but also big pharmacy chains (like CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens) as well as other retailers that usually have a pharmacy (like Walmart, Kroger and Target) that have now branched out into providing health care, through what are known as “retail clinics”.

In the New England Journal of Medicine on July 15, 2015, John Iglehart writes about “The expansion of retail clinics—corporate titans vs. organized medicine”.[1] Here the case against the corporations is less clear, or at least the case in favor of organized medicine is. Iglehart points out that the opposition from organizations like the AMA, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have focused on the lack of continuity of care and “disruption of the patient-physician” relationship. Recently, opposition has softened (I guess folks know when they’ve lost) except from the AAP. It seems to me that these clinics provide a menu of services that primarily is focused on acute care for relatively minor infections and injuries, immunizations, and monitoring of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, and are pretty popular with the people who use them. They are conveniently located (for the people who use them), generally have little or no wait, and are staffed by professionals (usually nurse practitioners) who know what they are doing.

The problems with such retail clinics fall into two broad categories. First, when people use them inappropriately, not for acute or minor conditions, but as their usual source of care. For healthy younger people, this may be all they need. For older folks and others with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, chronic lung disease, heart disease, etc., they are not sufficient. The danger is when people only seek care when they have symptoms, such as (particularly) pain, whether to such a retail clinic, traditional physician’s office, or emergency room, and ignore prevention and management of their chronic conditions. I do not fault the providers in these settings; there is evidence that they urge people with such needs to follow up with their primary provider. But, once the acute symptoms are gone, they may not. Some of this, sadly, may be financial.

The other problem is more interesting, and gets back to the financial issue. Providers and the organizations representing them (“organized medicine”) has real concerns because such retail clinics “cherry pick”, or skim the easy cases that pay for (or more than pay for) themselves, leaving physicians with the care of patients with diseases that take more time and are reimbursed less per hour (or minute) of work; this destroys the business model of primary care practice. As long as we depend upon a fee-for-service, reimbursed-for-care-provided, private medical model, this puts a real burden on physician practices which, while looking bigger than the small retail clinics, are usually tiny compared to the corporations that own those clinics.

Another medical area in which there is a clearer case of fear of competition disguising itself as virtue is in the shrill hostility of US-based medical schools, represented by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to off-shore (mainly Caribbean-based) medical schools, as described by Robert Goldberg in Discrimination against foreign medical schools is bad for your health in the online publication “The Hill”. The argument against such schools from the AAMC is in part that the students are “lower quality”, the ones rejected by US medical schools. The flaw here is that there are many highly-qualified students who do not get into US medical schools, demonstrated by the recent dramatic expansion of the number of US schools and the class size of existing schools. Are there Caribbean schools of poor quality? Yes. Is the academic preparation of students in Caribbean schools, on average, lower than those in US schools? Probably. Is this a reason to try to put them out of business, by both bad-mouthing and trying to limit the access that their students have to educational loans? I don’t think so.

Our US medical schools get talented students, and then put them through a process that ends up producing doctors underrepresented in the primary care specialties and overrepresented in urban – and especially suburban – areas. As I have often pointed out, we produce the wrong mix of doctors who practice in the wrong mix of places. If (and it is, of course, an if) graduates of off-shore medical schools are likely to fill the medical needs not being met by graduates of US medical schools, then the title of Goldberg’s piece is correct. The same might be said for retail clinics, if indeed they were mostly present in underserved communities, but, based on the business models of their owners, they are generally not.

So, then, we see a spectrum of corporate involvement in health care ranging from the off-shore, for-profit medical school, to the acute care clinics run by large retailers, to the consolidation into oligopoly of health insurance companies, to the large pharmaceutical manufacturers. We also see a response of tepid regulation of the latter two, and protectionism by organized medicine and organized medical schools to the first two. None of these are good for our health. What would be good for our health would be the rational use of health care dollars to provide health care, for everyone, of the right kind in the right setting.

Reich ends his article with
If we continue in the direction we’re headed we’ll soon have a health insurance system dominated by two or three mammoth for-profit corporations capable of squeezing employees and consumers for all they’re worth – and handing over the profits to their shareholders and executives. The alternative is a government-run single payer system – such as is in place in almost every other advanced economy – dedicated to lower premiums and better care.
Which do you prefer?

I feel like raising my hand and waving it in the air saying “I know, I know!”

[1] Iglehart JK, The expansion of retail clinics—corporate titans vs. organized medicine, NEJM 15 Jul 2015;373(4):301-303

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Medicare and Medicaid at 50: Time to include “US” all

On Thursday, July 30, Medicare and Medicaid turned 50 years old. The anniversary was marked by an event held at the Truman Library in Independence, MO, which I attended. Why there? In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed those bills (officially Titles XVIII and XIX of the Social Security Act) there, in the presence of former President Truman and his wife Bess, who received cards #1 and #2. The location was chosen for its symbolism even in 1965, because Truman had fought for a national health insurance system and lost. Nearly 20 years later, Johnson honored his legacy by signing these two major bills (also opposed by the AMA) in his library. Both presidents thought that this was a down-payment on the national health insurance system that was sure to come soon. But it took another 45 years to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and we still don’t have universal health insurance, and ACA and even Medicare are under constant attack. At least now it is not the AMA that is the active opposition.

This event was not the first held at the Truman Library to remember that day. Seven years ago, a group of single-payer activists organized a 43rd anniversary celebration there, both to commemorate the signing and to call for a universal health insurance system. That event was less “official” but more passionate, with talks by both local KC Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Rep. Conyers’ first year in Congress was 1965, the year Medicare and Medicaid passed, and all those years later he was still vital and still in Congress and was the sponsor of HR 676, the national single payer bill. This year’s event had more of the feel of an administration press conference with several federal and Missouri bureaucrats speaking. Some of talks, including those by Truman’s grandson Clifton Truman Daniel and former Missouri state rep and insurance commissioner Scott Lakin, were good, but only one had any real passion. That was given by Bridget McCandless, MD, the CEO of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City (HCFGKC), which sponsored the event.

There is a reason for that. Before taking the reins of HCF, a “conversion” foundation established with the money that came from the sale of a group of not-for-profit hospitals to for-profit HCA, Dr. McCandless, a self-described “Independence girl”, was the medical director of the Jackson County Free Health Clinic in Independence, caring for the many people in that area who could not otherwise access excellent health service. She cared for people who had little, whose lives, in Dr. Camara Jones’ metaphor (most recently discussed in Racism and the Social Determinants of Equity: Camara Jones at Beyond Flexner 2015, April 19, 2015), were lived on the edge of the cliff before they even got sick. Dr. McCandless’ clinic provided a safety net that prevented many people from falling to the ground below. The “lucky” ones were those who were old enough (or disabled enough) to qualify for Medicare, and poor-plus-something enough to qualify for Medicaid. For those people, these federal programs, which now cover about 30% of Americans were indeed life savers.

Dr. McCandless, whose foundation is committed to funding programs that help the underserved and uninsured (the exceptional founding CEO, Steve Roling, was in the audience), talked, as did other speakers, about the difference that Medicare had made in the lives of seniors; before it they (and their families) lived their retirement years in financial fear of sickness. But her passion really showed when talking about Medicaid, originally seen as a means of providing access to health care for the poor. You certainly have to be poor to receive Medicaid, very poor in many states including Missouri, but that is not sufficient. She told us that you have to be “poor and”. Poor and pregnant, poor and the mother of small children, poor and disabled, poor and in a nursing home, poor and – and the tears rolled down her cheeks – a child. ACA was intended to expand this federal-state collaboration to encompass all the “just” poor (with the exception of those who are undocumented), but Missouri, and Kansas, the other state in the Kansas City metropolitan area, are among the states that have not done so.  Dr. McCandless eloquently expressed her hope that our states would rise to the need, that our legislators and leaders would rise to the decency, to remove the “and” by expanding Medicaid.

While it is possible that Missouri, and Kansas, and the other states that have taken advantage of the 2012 Supreme Court decision (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), that otherwise upheld the ACA, to not expand Medicaid will still do so, it is unconscionable that they have not yet, that they have left so many people who could now be accessing health care uncovered. It is a land-office business for the safety net clinics in the area, like Dr. McCandless’ former practice, but it is a volume that they can barely care for. When people get very sick, and show up in the Emergency Department and get admitted to the hospital, those hospitals bear the brunt of care without payment, but even their usually powerful lobbies have so far not been successful.

The opposition to this expansion, the opposition to ACA, and even threats to Medicare are often said to be politically driven, but they are ideologically driven. They are driven by the agendas of billionaire elitists, most of whom have never known any hardship. They have been able to further expand their already-considerable influence as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and blithely fund the election of their minions to state houses and legislatures.  The New York Times on Aug 2, 2015 documents that fewer than 400 families have contributed the almost half the money in this election cycleFormer Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer once said that many of the privileged were “born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple” (although most of these billionaires were actually born within arm’s length of home plate!). Indeed, they have no empathy; they are selfish and mean. Their minions, who enjoy the power their sponsors’ money provides for them, must be (if they are not truly stupid) also mean, but actually are not fiscally prudent; not funding health care for our people costs us a lot. Medicare already covers our most costly ill (they are old; this is why raising the age for Medicare eligibility to 67 or 68 will save little money). It is way past time for it to cover the rest of us.

Rep Jim McDermott of Washington, a physician and long-time single-payer advocate, has introduced the American Health Security Act of 2015, which will authorize and provide federal funds to support single-payer programs developed by states. It should be passed, but it probably won’t be while we have a Congress bought and paid for by the rich mean selfish people. We have had single-payer bills in Congress before, Rep. Conyers’ and before that Rep. Ron Dellums’. It is time to pass them. We need to go beyond the ACA, we need to make sure states expand Medicaid and take the “and” out of the “poor and” for eligibility. But we need to go farther.

For 50 years Medicare has been literally a life-saver for our seniors. Now we need to expand it to include everyone. Everybody in, nobody out!

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