Sunday, October 30, 2016

Insurance coverage and access to care in the US

In the New York Times’ “Upshot” of October 24, 2016, Dr. Aaron E. Carroll discusses “Why the U.S. Still Trails Many Wealthy Nations in Access to Care”. He notes the increase in insurance coverage of the American people since Obamacare, but also that insurance coverage is not the same as access to care. He cites the most recent Commonwealth Fund survey of international health systems to demonstrate that, compared to most of the other ten wealthy countries that were studied, Americans have greater difficulty getting an appointment and being seen. (Canada is worse than the US in many of these measures, but not all; see discussion below.) Indeed, he also notes that when the populations of these countries are divided up between above-average and below-average incomes, the folks with below-average income in most of these other countries have better access than the above-average in the US.

A major reason that Carroll cites for the poor access is the low percent of primary care physicians in the US, a fact supported by data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, the “rich countries” group). It is true. There are not enough primary care doctors -- family physicians and general internists and general pediatricians -- to meet the access needs of the people of this country. There are plenty of excellent specialists; in fact, in many major metropolitan areas there are too many of them, sometimes leading to too many interventions that both increase the cost to the system and the risk to patients. Traditional “supply and demand” economics would suggest that limits on demand would force a constraint on the number of specialists, but it hasn’t happened yet; none of them are starving. This is because, in medicine, supply often drives demand rather than vice versa. When are people finally getting enough procedures, and when does it cross into too many? People don’t understand medical care, what is “good” for them and what is “too much”, much less the cost-benefit ratio. Indeed, doctors usually do not. But they do know what they know how to do, and that it will make them money.

This is a major area that having sufficient primary care physicians would help. If everyone has a family doctor that they can trust, whose income is not tied to procedures or referrals, they can help you to understand these complex issues. But there are far from enough; less than 30% of doctors in the US are in primary care, compared to 50%+ in other wealthy countries, and that is dropping as fewer students choose primary care careers. Many reasons for this are cited by studies (the culture of academic medical centers, status, work-life balance, etc.) but the real bottom-line reason is the bottom line: primary care physicians earn way less than most other specialists. Not just a little, but often half or a third as much as the highest paid specialists. Pay for primary care is going up with demand, but 10-15% increases will not change specialty choice; between income increases for primary care and decreases for specialties (heaven forfend!) the ratio needs to be at least 70%. Specialists know this; they want primary care doctors to do all the things that they themselves are not able or don’t want to do for their patients and are not opposed to primary care salaries going up -- although of course they themselves don’t want to see their own incomes go down.

Getting the care you need is a combination of having enough providers for you to be able to find and get in to see, and adequate coverage. Insurance, as we have long seen even before Obamacare, is not all the same; there is good insurance (although hardly, any longer, great insurance) and lousy insurance, and there is no insurance that is both cheap and of high quality (although, again, there are plenty of plans that are costly and of poor quality). Premiums are the tip of the iceberg; deductibles (how much you have to pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in), co-pays (how much you have to pay each time you access care), co-insurance (what percent of “covered” care you have to pay) also impact on out of pocket costs. As, of course, does the overall cost of care (by providers) and drugs (by drug companies), and what services are not covered by your insurance.

As an example, if you are over 65, try figuring out what plan to buy for your Medicare Drug Coverage (“Part D”). There are the monthly premiums. And the deductibles. And the co-pays. And those vary by type of drug (generic vs. brand-name, preferred vs. non-preferred), and sometimes they are by a fixed $-per-prescription amount and sometimes by a percent. And if you order by mail it is different. On the bright side, most vendors offer you a calculator into which you can put the drugs you take, and it puts it all together and tells you which is cheapest for you. Until, of course, the drugs you take change.

This is insane, of course, but only if you happen to care about what works best for actual people, and not what makes the most money for private for-profit companies like insurers. Drew Shenaman, cartoonist for the Newark Star-Ledger, in the accompanying editorial cartoon, makes it very clear what the real reason is that insurers are pulling out of Obamacare. Their interests are not our interests. Surprise!
So we have excellent quality medical care available in the US, if you are geographically and financially able to access it, except sometimes it is not needed and done anyway. We have too many doctors in some specialties and far too few primary care doctors, and even they are not distributed well across the US. We have insurance companies that are focused on making profits, rather than on providing access, and sell complex, difficult-to-understand products that often have a “gotcha” at the point when we are most vulnerable. While access to appointments may be a little better in the US than in Canada (but not other countries), cost to the individual is way higher in this country than in Canada; access to care has both financial and non-financial components.

Not everything can be reduced to dollars, but a lot can. The money spent on health care in this country should be spent on providing health care, not on profit for insurance companies, providers, drug companies, and the like. If private insurance is to be part of the system, it needs to be non-profit and highly regulated. There need to be more primary care doctors, and the way to make this happen is for them to get paid much closer to the same amount of money for the work that they do as other specialists. Medicare can and should lead the way on this. Physician distribution should be fixed by augmenting the incomes of doctors in rural areas, not punishing them. None of this guarantees quality care, but without it quality is a pipe dream.

Obamacare was good insofar as it went. It didn’t go far enough, and now we need to fix it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

What is right about the ACA, and how to address what is not

There has been much criticism of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) both from the Right, which is apparently horrified that public funds are actually being used to help needy people rather than bail out banks, and from the Left, which thinks it hasn’t gone far enough to help meet people’s healthcare needs. Count me in the latter camp, for reasons I will address soon.

However, first to address the criticisms from the Right.  On the whole they are wrong (no pun intended). The fact is that the ACA has done good. About 10,000,000 people who were previously uninsured have now gained health insurance coverage, both from the health insurance exchanges (that include subsidies for the low income) and through expansion of Medicaid, in those states that have opted to do so. This is a GOOD THING. One of the major reasons that the ACA has not done more good is a result of the specific actions that the Right has taken. The most obvious is the failure to expand Medicaid in states that they control, a fiscally unwise decision that is based entirely on a combination of ideology (Malthus as seen through the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand) that is about helping the wealthiest become even wealthier, and the politics of meanness (we will get votes by appealing to folks who don’t want to help them, usually code for racial and ethnic minorities). It is fiscally unwise because, in contrast to traditional Medicaid in which the federal government pays 60-80% of the cost (based upon the income levels of the state), under expansion it pays 100% of the cost for 4 years and then 90%. Medicaid expansion covers everyone under 137% of the poverty line. In contrast, in Kansas, for example, it only covers people who are BOTH very poor (under 30% of poverty) AND have another “qualifying” condition – most commonly mothers of young children and those children, and the disabled. Obviously, this excludes many people in Kansas, and millions across all of the states that have not expanded Medicaid.

There have been many other efforts to limit people benefiting from ACA. Many states (like Kansas) refused to open state-sponsored exchanges, and have tried to obstruct the federal exchanges, even trying to intimidate those working to sign people up. It tried to block passage of the ACA in Congress, and when it gained majorities has blocked every effort to expand funding, and blocked the creation of a “public option” to compete with private insurance companies. The entire series of efforts on the Right to block, limit, and try to kill ACA make its criticisms reminiscent of the person who killed his parents and asks for mercy from the court on the grounds that he is an orphan!

And yet, although it is largely their fault, some of the criticisms of ACA are spot on. Premiums have continued to go up in many places, making the policies available on the exchanges unaffordable to many. Combined with the fact that, despite the “individual mandate”, the penalties for not participating are far less than the cost of insurance, people are not buying it. Or they are buying terrible policies, also permitted by the ACA, that turn out to be worth very little when their purchasers actually get sick. In some places, major insurance companies (like Aetna and Humana) are pulling out of the exchange marketplaces altogether because, even with such high premiums, they are losing money.

The reason for this phenomenon is well-described in Health Care Law’s Beneficiaries Reflect Its Strengths, and Its Faults by Abby Goodnough and Reed Abelson in the New York Times of October 14, 2016. People with chronic diseases, many of whom had been previously uninsurable because of these pre-existing conditions, have flocked to buy insurance on the exchanges. They now have coverage, and are using it; they are among the 5% of people who cost 50% of health dollars (described by me in Red, Blue, and Purple: The Math of Health Care Spending, October 20, 2009), or 75% under the exchanges (per an official of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee cited in the article). The difference is because the first estimate is based on all people in the country, and the BC/BS experience in Tennessee and elsewhere is based upon people who have actually signed up for coverage in the exchanges. In a vicious circle, low-income but (currently) healthy people, especially the young, have chosen to not sign up; this leaves the pool of those covered disproportionately ill and thus costly. Without premiums coming in from the people who would cost little or nothing, insurance companies’ outlay for care (the “medical loss ratio”) is too high for them to make a profit (or, at least, as much profit as they want to), and so premiums continue to rise, driving more people (and insurers) out of the marketplace. In addition, the competing demands of survival among low-income people are tremendous, as documented in the October 31, 2016 issue of The Nation, by Monica Potts in “The American social safety net does not exist”. (H/t Bob Bowman, on the Medicine and Social Justice Facebook page.)

This is the basis of the criticism from the Left – that the private insurance-based model of the ACA was designed to benefit the insurance companies (which is now sometimes failing). This was the purpose of the individual mandate, to get everyone, healthy or not, to buy in. But the solution is not to raise the penalty for not signing up, which is obviously counterproductive, but to automatically put everyone in the same pool, regardless of income, pre-existing conditions, age, or the state that they live in. This is what would happen in a national health insurance program, as advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders. Conceptually, it can be seen as putting everyone in the federally-run Medicare program (which already has, by virtue of insuring the old and disabled, the highest risk people). All of us are in, whether we need medical care or not. It is “insurance” only in the broadest sense, because everyone is in the pool, and the public sector – all of us, from our taxes and income-based premiums, pays for it.

Some people know that they are sick. They have one, or often more, chronic diseases. They may have cancer. They may have had trauma requiring multiple surgeries. These are the people who cost the most today. But all of us are at risk for joining that group, when we find out tomorrow that we have cancer, or are in an accident, or have a premature baby, or just gradually gather more chronic conditions as we age. These are those of us who find ourselves without coverage because, when we were healthy, it was too expensive. But it doesn’t have to be that way; a single-payer national health program covers all of us all the time.

The core concept of most insurance is that you only “win” by losing; you collect when your house burns down, or you are in a car accident, or you die. Health care should not be that way. We all should get preventive care, acute care, and care for our chronic conditions, physical and mental.

We can do this. We should. Now is the time. Now is way past time.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Beyond Flexner 2016: Medical schools still need to up their social mission

The “Beyond Flexner 2016” Conference was held in Miami September 19-21, 2016. It was the third in this series of conferences, originally stimulated by the 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine article “The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”[1]. The first conference, held in Tulsa in 2012, featured the authors of the article and leaders from many “community-based” medical schools founded in 2 rounds of medical school expansion, the 1970s and the 2000s, discussing their real or proposed innovations (Beyond Flexner: Taking the Social Mission of Medical Schools to the next level, June 1, 2012). The second, held in Albuquerque in 2015, had major growth in attendance, and a group of national speakers who powerfully addressed the failures of both medical schools and our medical system to address the health needs of the American people, especially through (lack of) diversity in our health care workforce, equity (especially racial) in the care provided, and the inadequate numbers of primary care doctors being produced (Beyond Flexner: It is time to stop shoring up the bridge and figure out how to cross the river!, April 7, 2015). The metaphor for that blog’s title came from a talk by Don Berwick, in which he compared the US health system to the sturdily-built Choluteca Bridge in Honduras that withstood Hurricane Mitch only to be useless because the hurricane moved the river. (Such a great picture I’m posting it again here!)

The Miami conference, again sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation along with Florida International University, was very good, although it had some disappointing aspects, notably the attendance, about 350, which was a little less than that in Albuquerque. The speakers were again excellent, with several standouts:  Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who exposed the Flint lead poisoning crisis, gave a powerful talk in which she observed that despite being in Michigan, the “mitten state” surrounded by the largest collection of fresh water in the world, Flint’s water even today is still not safe. Robert H. Brook, of the RAND Corporation and UCLA gave a talk where he challenged the “rights” of medical schools, suggesting that hospitals (especially academic medical centers, AHCs) that do not care for their fair share of Medicaid and uninsured patients should not be allowed to have residency training programs, and that, more than allowing community service to count toward promotion and tenure, we should not allow anyone to be promoted without community service. Julio Frenk, the President of the University of Miami, a public health physician who served as Secretary of Health in Mexico, spoke about the need for building social capital that did not just “bond” communities but created “bridges” between them. He also noted that education had to move from the “informative” (providing the knowledge to become a professional) to the “formative” (creating the character and roles that define a professional) to the “transformative”, where professionals could truly create change both in their professions and in society.

One of the new events was the presentation of the First Annual Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation Awards for Social Mission in Medical Education. The Institutional Award went to Morehouse School of Medicine, the Individual Award to Thomas Curtin, MD of Massachusetts and a leader in establishing Teaching Health Centers, and the program award to the University of Florida for its “Putting Families First” interprofessional education program. The highlight was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to H. Jack Geiger, whose achievements, from establishing the first Community Health Centers in the US, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Human Rights, to serving as Dean of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Sciences at CCNY, are enough for several such lifetime awards. Dr. Geiger, who spoke eloquently at the 2015 conference, again addressed the group. He is nearly blind but as powerful and articulate a speaker as ever; he noted that "I have lost most of my eyesight, but it turns out you don't need good eyesight to hang on to a vision!"

In my 2012 blog on the Tulsa Conference, I noted 4 areas I felt were important for focus, and reiterated them writing about the 2015 Albuquerque Conference. They were:
·         Diversity: How does the school produce a health workforce that looks more like American by enrolling, and supporting, a group of students that is truly diverse in ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic origin?
·         Social Determinants of Health: How does the school teach about and train students in, and carry out programs aimed at addressing, the social determinants of health? How does its curriculum and work invert that of the traditional medical school, which focused most on tertiary hospital-care, and emphasize instead ambulatory  primary care, community based interventions, and interventions on the most important health determinants including housing, safety, education, food, and warmth?
·         Disparities: How does the school, through its programs of education and community intervention, and its research agenda and practices, work to reduce disparities in health care and health among populations?
·         Community Engagement: How does the school identify the community(ies) it serves and how does it involve them in determining the location of training, kinds of programs it carries out, and in identifying the questions that need to be answered by research?

There was more emphasis on interprofessional diversity at this conference, with panels including two national nursing leaders (Divina Grossman and Randy Rausch), and a panel including a community (and FQHC) based Dental School Dean (Jack Dillenberg). There was great ethnic and racial diversity in the speakers and moderators, but somewhat less emphasis on diversity in the content of the talks than in 2015. Primary care was still emphasized, but I remain concerned that the conference still features relatively small programs in medical or health professions schools aimed at increasing diversity, primary care, and community engagement. This is, of course, because most such programs are small within their AHCs, and nowhere near as important as the provision of tertiary and quaternary medical care and obtaining NIH research grants. Until these can be scaled up, until producing a majority of graduates entering primary care, enrolling and graduate underrepresented minority and low-income students at least in proportion to their percentages in the population, and working in the community becomes the highest priority of an AHC, the movement is stalled.

It is sometimes tempting to think that AHCs are incorrigible, that they are set in their ways – and in the way that they are financed – and that achieving the goals I have outlined above, or even more modest improvements in social mission – are not going to happen, at least any time soon. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) supports in word – and to a limited extent in deed – the goals of diversity and community engagement, but not enough to change the core focus of their members. Indeed, tellingly, they continue to call for increasing the number of residency positions, but not on targeting them to primary care, as does the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The largest specialty in medicine, Internal Medicine, opposes AAFP’s proposal to fund only “first certification” residency positions, as this would not fund their subspecialty fellowships.[2] Thus, they put self-interest (having funded fellows in their subspecialties) ahead of the need for America to have more primary care doctors.

Yes, it can get frustrating to work with medical schools and their entrenched anti-social values. But this is where the medical students are, where they are trained, and where they get their ideas of what might be the most appropriate specialties to enter and what th

e professional role of a physician is – e.g., working in the community or not. They need both individual and institutional role models.

So the need to work for a social mission for medical – and health professions – education is still an important goal.

[1] Mullan F, Chen C, Petterson S, Kolsky G, Spagnola M,“The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”, Ann Int Med 15 June 2010, Vol 152, No. 12,
[2] Butkus R, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2016;doi:10.7326/M15-2917.

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