Saturday, November 28, 2020

No way to run a business: the US healthcare system is not about caring for you!

The most distinctive and defining characteristic of the US healthcare delivery system is how poorly it serves people, and the number of hoops, obstacles, and downright obfuscation people need to work their way through to get care. The most important problem is that we have worse health outcomes and more premature death than any other industrialized country, and the excessive cost of achieving those worse outcomes (the only place where we’re #1!). But the sheer difficulty, pain, and low yield of going through the information needed to make the wisest decisions (actually wise, we will see, is virtually impossible in our system) takes a – completely unnecessary – toll on all of us.

The reason for this situation, very simply, is that the healthcare system in the US is not structured to deliver maximum health benefit, but to deliver maximum profit to the major players – and that is very few of us. It is absolutely critical to remember this core fact, because every other characteristic of our healthcare system derives from it. Worried about surprise medical bills when some of the doctors at your in-plan hospital are out of plan? Worried about paying for the wonderful new medicines advertised on TV that promise you cure for thousands of dollars a month? Worried about whether you can afford the premiums for the plans your employer offers, especially if you need to cover your family? Or the premiums for the better ACA-plans? Whether you can bet on your current health status, if it is ok, continuing into the future? Whether you can survive until you are old enough to get Medicare? And then, when you are, whether Medicare will cover enough of your bills, or if you need – and can afford – a Medicare supplement plan? How about choosing a “Part D” drug plan? Why are the websites and information so opaque and difficult? Is there any plan that is truly of value? And even if “of value”, can YOU afford it?

These questions just touch the surface. Then, you actually need to access healthcare services. Then it gets worse. Primary care doctor? Can you get an appointment? Use urgent care? Is your problem on the list of things that they can competently manage? Emergency room? Wait until you are so sick they have to take care of you? And what about those drugs…?

The specific problems that this system creates for individual people are often overwhelming, and become the focus of people’s lives when they do have chronic diseases or ongoing health needs. Politicians and their policy advisors who keep talking about addressing them one at a time are at least intellectually corrupt (setting aside the question of whether they are also financially corrupt) in believing that a patchwork of – patches – can make people, at least temporarily, think that they are doing something to help while maintaining a predatory structure. Let’s just look at a few recent examples and stories.

The Upshot in the NY Times recently had a piece on how the pandemic has increased the use of telemedicine, and how this might lead to better access to emergency care, citing a very positive study done by the Veterans Administration. The study shows, among other things, that same-day access to primary care can obviate the need for emergency care. Beyond that, having a regular source of primary care, and being able to get in when you need to, decreases hospitalizations and mortality. Of course, it is important to remember that the VA is (like the military) a single-payer health system and works better than the rest of US health care within the constraints of continually decreasing funding, part of a general Congressional and executive effort starve it for funding, specifically to ensure it doesn’t work as well as it could. Those same legislators then blame the VA rather than themselves for veterans not getting the best possible care, a tried-and-true tactic for evil politicians. Except the VA, and military health care, do work better than the private sector. (For more on the VA, see the excellent article “Shaping the Future of Veterans’ Health Care” by McCauley and Ramos in the New England Journal of Medicine, Nov 5, 2020, which requires a subscription.) The comments by the brilliant and incisive Dr. Don McCanne, found at the above link to the Upshot article, clearly makes these important points. And why can’t you get same day visits, or even prompt visits, with your primary care provider? Remember the key factor in all US  healthcare; it is usually not that your doctor is unwilling; it is that they also work for a corporation whose policies are about maximizing income and profit, not about improving your health.

In a recent conversation with a friend – also a senior citizen knowledgeable about health care policy, who was long on a medical school faculty and now lives in a relatively rural area – we discussed the best choice for a Medicare Part D plan. I noted that in 2020 I had assumed that my insurer would, absent my making a change, continue me in the lowest-cost plan as it had the two years previously. It didn’t; it automatically bumped me up to the highest-cost plan. With no added benefit, because of Catch-22 – I could never make my deductible, and thus have the plan kick in, because all of my drugs were “tier 1” and didn’t count (the calculators offered are only of use if you use high-tier high-copay drugs like those advertised on  TV). This year I made sure to change back to the cheap one, so I can pay $17.50 instead of $55 a month for no benefit. My friend agreed and will choose the same plan. But did note that if a family doctor and a health economist had trouble figuring this out, it might be hard for a lot of people! It is this characteristic of our health insurance system that makes the claims of those who advocate for private health insurance because it gives you, the consumer, “choice” are completely bunk. Almost no one can read, digest, understand, and utilize the information that is (sometimes) provided, in all different places, to get to a decision on what will work best for them. And, for the few who can, it usually turns out not to be very good! Remember: this is not some quirk, it is how our healthcare, and health insurance, system are purposely set up: To be confusing, opaque, and beneficial only for the sellers, not the consumers.

My friend and I also talked about several interactions he recently had with the health system his primary care doctor is part of. One involved his receiving (as an ex-smoker) a scanning CT scan and suggesting that they obtain an older one, from the medical school where he used to work, to compare the new one to. “We don’t do that,” he was told by the person at the other end of the phone. Another was about finding out how he could get documentation to be in an early group to get COVID-19 vaccination when it becomes available, given that he is high-risk not only by age but by having chronic diseases. They don’t do that either. These are unacceptable answers, as he told the office of the vice president he complained to, and who agreed to make things happen. This is not a flaw in the system; it is how it is structured, for everyone. Most people, you see, will not complain, and thus will, well, get screwed. But it saves the company money. This is a core way health insurers function. The higher the bill from a doctor, the more routine it is to just deny it, making the doctors work to prove they should get paid. Clearly, this is a particular issue for surgeons, who usually have staff who routinely fight with the staff of the insurance companies to appeal these denials.

There is an old saying that “this is no way to run a business” But, for most companies involved in health care – insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, long-term care companies, hospital systems, and increasingly large physician groups owned by corporations, it is the way they run their business. And it is a very profitable way to do it.

It is just no way to provide healthcare.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Biden: Not Medicare for All, but leadership on COVID

The defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election was a wonderful thing, despite the less-good news: that the “blue wave” did not appear, that the Senate (barring two unlikely upsets in Georgia) will continue to be controlled by Mitch McConnell, that the GOP gained seats in the House, and especially that 70 million Americans voted to re-elect the worst president in American history, thus supporting racist, misogynist, anti-environment, anti-union, pro-corporate and pro-billionaire policies, and bellicose macho authoritarian bluster. The election of a Black (and Asian) woman as Vice-President is historic and great. While it is possible that Biden’s uninspiring “centrist” (read “center-right”) positions gained him votes, the division in America has never been more dramatic. Cities like, most highly featured in the days following the election, Philadelphia and Atlanta (as well as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.) went 70-80%+ for Biden, while rural counties went for Trump by the same margins.

My purpose here is not to be a political commentator, but to discuss what this might mean for health care under a Biden administration. Certainly not a supporter of any kind of single payer universal health insurance, including Medicare for All, Biden further has to contend with a (probably) Republican Senate and a newly strengthened rightist Supreme Court that even as this is being written is hearing another challenge to the ACA, President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, and the scaffold on which Biden hoped to build his own health care plan by adding a “public option”.

Assuming that, despite Senate and possible SCOTUS opposition, the ACA survives and even that the “public option” becomes law, it would be a great advance in the number of Americans who had access to decent health insurance (which, in itself, may doom its chances in those two “august” bodies!) Indeed, the arguments that many, including myself, have made for the savings that could be achieved by government single-payer program (extension of an improved Medicare to everyone) would likely be somewhat achieved by a well-designed public option, since better coverage would cost less money than it does under the private, for-profit, insurance sector. Not nearly as much as would be achieved by single-payer, but enough to have a good chance of eroding the base of those who hang on to excessively costly, poor-quality private insurance.

And yet, ”Medicare for All” continues to enjoy wide public support, certainly in those “blue” cities and counties, but also within the US as a whole, including some of the “reddest” areas. People know that their health insurance is costly and that the coverage is inadequate, and that not only their lives and health are at great risk, but so (to the extent that they have any) is their “treasure”. Democrats who supported M4A were all re-elected, while many opponents were defeated. Indeed, this illustrates the difference between those in power, members of the Senate and the House (and SCOTUS) who serve the wealthy and are mostly wealthy themselves, for whom tax cuts for their patrons and corporations (under the umbrella of the scandalous SCOTUS decision in Citizens United that declared money to be speech and corporations to be people!) are the main agenda, and their constituents. The latter have poor and costly health insurance, benefit little if at all from tax cuts, and are losing their jobs right and left as US companies push more and more money to the top. For the former, Medicare for All is a bugbear; for the latter it may be a lifeline.

The most important healthcare issue in which the election of Joe Biden is likely to make a big difference, however, is the most important healthcare issue currently facing America, and the world – the COVID-19 pandemic. This second (or maybe third) wave is breaking all kinds of records for new cases, new hospitalizations, and new deaths. In my state, Arizona, we have the highest rates since July. The nation has had well over 100,000 new cases a day recently, in some of the “reddest’ counties, with rates over 200/100,000 residents in some. The reason is that the virus does not care about what you want, and apparently what we have wanted is greater opening, an end to social isolation and not going out to restaurants and bars, not having parties and funerals and visits with our relatives. We want businesses to open, we want our jobs back, we want our personal economy (not just the stock market) to improve. We bristle at the “discomfort” of masks (like the “discomfort” of seatbelts). We want to rush, en masse, onto the football field to celebrate a huge victory for Notre Dame over Clemson (oh, wait, we did that!)

The problem, of course, is that each of those things spreads the virus, and the spread of the virus means more people will die. I have often said REOPENING=DEATH and it remains true, however much we want it not to be; there is nearly a linear relationship between the degree of reopening in any city or state and the increase in the rate of cases of “the rona”. Now, as we look toward all those college students, including those from Notre Dame, returning home for the holidays, we hold our breaths as we worry about how many of their parents and grandparents will become infected and die, putting a damper on the celebrations.

Masks and reasonable social distancing will not prevent this entirely, but will help a lot; masks really decrease transmission. Having a President who wears a mask, who encourages safer behaviors, who does not encourage total irresponsibility as has the current incumbent, is likely to make a big difference. Something has to, and certainly it needs to happen soon. Most encouraging, Biden is not only willing to, but enthusiastic about accepting science as the guiding principle of the response to the epidemic. He has already named members to his COVID “panel”. It could use some more epidemiologists, some nurses, but the intent and direction are good. The increase possibility of a vaccine, especially the recent news from Pfizer, is very encouraging. With a new administration committed to making a difference by using strategies that might actually make a difference, the trajectory of the virus might be turned around.

There are, and will continue to be, great obstacles. The most vulnerable populations will continue to be the most vulnerable – including people in prison, and those immigrants in federal detention, whose rates of infection are staggering. The Pfizer vaccine requires shipping and storing at temperatures of -80 degrees, which is very difficult in many places, particularly in less developed countries where the pandemic is raging.

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But leadership from the US President can go a long way. Whatever else we might wish from him that we are unlikely to get, we can hope that Biden will provide this.

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