Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Older adults cannot afford healthcare even if they are insured: Time for a new system!

Are health insurance companies the real enemy of Americans’ health? A strong argument can, and has been, made by myself and others that they are. More broadly, however, the enemy is all the companies that pursue making money as their primary goal, with providing healthcare a sideline (albeit a costly one). So many corporations are involved and responsible that it is hard to be sure that insurance companies are the main ones at fault. “Even” actual health care providers – mainly hospitals and “health systems” – try to squeeze out the poor and poorly insured and greatly prefer to deliver only the most high-profit-margin care. And, certainly, one cannot leave out the drug companies, making gigantic profits at the cost of our health (they remain #1 in profits, every year), or the less-well-known but also very dangerous “PBMs”, pharmacy benefit managers, who bundle our drug plans, and act as middlemen between the insurers and the drug companies and the providers. (You notice I didn’t say “consumer” or “patient”; they are no more than grist for the profit mill!)

But one can still make a strong case for insurance companies being at least a major cornerstone of the evil empire, sucking money out of government coffers, employer contributions, and, yes, your pockets, for the privilege of denying you care and padding their bottom lines. Long noted for their unwillingness to cover everyone, the insurance industry is moving the needle by providing poor coverage even to those it does insure. Two recent studies have looked at the financial burden on older adults provided by health care, one at those with private insurance and the other at those with Medicare.

The Commonwealth Fund looked at the coverage and costs for older-but-not-yet-Medicare adults 50-64 in ‘Can Older Adults with Employer Coverage Afford Their Health Care?’ by Lauren A. Hayes and Sara R. Collins (August 10, 2023). A majority of these folks have private insurance through their employers (55%) with higher income (>400% of the Federal Poverty Level, FPL) at 82% and low income (<200% FPL) at 22%. It wasn’t enough. More than half of low-income and more than 1/3 of middle income (200-400% FPL) people had difficulty paying their premiums and didn’t get adequate medical care because of the cost. Unsurprisingly, those worst affected were not only low-income but sick; the issue of paying for health care is greatest when one has health problems.

The Kaiser Family Foundation study, ‘Medicare Households Spend More on Health Care Than Other Households’, by Nancy Ochieng, Juliette Cubanski, & Anthony Damico (July 19, 2023) examined adults over 65, those on Medicare. They found – well, what the title says. Again, not surprising; older people are sicker, and sicker people use more healthcare (duh!) and it costs them more. While Medicare is a federal government program, there are still out-of-pocket costs associated with it. For hospital care (Medicare Part A, funded by your paycheck deduction), traditional Medicare (TM) pays only 80% of approved charges, which means sick Medicare recipients have to come up with the other 20% (which can be a huge amount of money) or have a Medicare-supplement policy to cover it, which of course costs additional premiums. Medicare recipients also have to pay a monthly fee for Medicare “Part B” (the “outpatient” portion) which usually is deducted from their Social Security payments. At least this is tiered, so higher income people pay more and lower income less (or sometimes nothing). Also they have to pay for a drug plan (Part D). 

About half of Medicare recipients are now in “Medicare Advantage” (MA) plans, which are essentially HMOs. I have written about them previously, but because they are not actually Medicare (although paid for with Medicare dollars) but private insurance, they have the ability to deny coverage altogether. They have good perks if you don’t need expensive care (often no co-pays, no 20% coinsurance, drug coverage so no need for a separate Part D plan, coverage for some things TM doesn’t cover like glasses and hearing aids) which make them attractive to healthier seniors. But while TM covers (if only at 80%) the things it says it covers, and doesn’t deny individuals, MA can and does. So while Medicare Advantage can be advantageous for some seniors, its greatest advantage is to the insurance companies.

Indeed, that some people are better off with one type of plan and others with a different one is both understandable and OK. But that the difference is whether you are sick or not is dangerous, since the non-sick can quickly become sick, especially if they are elderly. That we try to segment public opinion by pitting the sick against the not-yet-sick (“I’m doing ok, and can afford my premiums and healthcare, for now”) is what is truly sick, and intolerable. It is a marker of a reprehensibly designed system.

The authors of the Commonwealth Fund report have a number of suggestions for addressing the problems that they identify, all of which are tweaks to our current system, and, in the unlikely event that they were implemented, would immediately be “gamed” by the power players – the insurance companies and the health systems – to ensure that there would still be lots of people left out, lots of people suffering. Their suggestions do not entail scrapping the entire for-profit insurance system that strangles the health of our people in favor of an adequately-funded single payer system, but rather the creation of new programs, and new rules to try to limit the damage caused to the health of older Americans by a system that simply should not exist

Seniors can be attracted to MA plans because of the costs TM doesn’t cover, especially the 20% of hospital bills. Those in MA plans, as well as those “younger” – still employed – older people in employer-based insurance plans can be financially screwed because those plans are operating with the goal of making money for the companies, not ensuring health care. The fact is that both problems could be addressed together – by getting rid of the profits and costs of insurance companies, enough money could be saved to cover 100% of all health care needs for Medicare recipients. One could say this is “ironic”, if it weren’t for the fact that irony implies lack of intentionality, and this criminally flawed and abusive system is clearly intentionally structured.

Dr. Don McCanne, who reported on this in his recent “Health Justice Monitor”, writes

Should that be the primary mission of our health care administrators? Of course not! Their primary mission should be to move health care to the people, the patients, all of the patients, and they need to use our health care dollars to do that. Our current system has demonstrated beyond any doubt whatsoever that private administrators have been and always will be on the wrong mission, and we need to replace them with public administrators who will always pursue a mission for the public good.”

Yes. Stop trying to make deals with the devil. Those companies, including insurance companies, taking money intended to provide healthcare as salaries and profit are evil, and it is hard to think of the legislators and executive-branch functionaries who facilitate and enable this as anything else.

Our government should use its (ie, our) money to fund our promises for healthcare to our seniors, not insurance companies who pay them back with graft.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

US Maternal Mortality Rate Exemplifies Moral Bankruptcy of Our Health System

My friend, Dr. Don Frey, recently published America’s DWP Crisis: Dying While Pregnant (DWP) on his blog, “A Family Doctor Looks at the World”. It leads with shocking and distressing statistics about the US maternal mortality rate, which has long been the highest in the “developed world” and has been steadily increasing. Citing a recent article in JAMA, Trends in State-Level Maternal Mortality by Racial and Ethnic Group in the United States (LG Fleszar, AG Bryant, CO Johnson, July 3, 2023), he  points out that in the 20 years from 1999 to 2019 US maternal mortality more than doubled (it actually went up 2.5 times):

In every corner of the country, for every ethnic group, outcomes worsened.  By 2019, deaths per 100,000 pregnancies (the benchmark measure) had increased from 12.7 to 32.2.  For Black and American Indian women, the picture was much worse.  Their mortality skyrocketed to 55.4 and 49.2, respectively.

And this doesn’t even include deaths from accidents and homicide – the latter being the #1 cause of death for pregnant women in the US!

Let’s stop and think about that. In the rest of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, = wealthy) countries maternal mortality is going down. For the most recent reported years, it ranges from about 1.6 to 8.8, with most below 5. When we were at 12.7 we were way out of the picture. Now we are at 32.2! And our rates for minority women are like poor countries! Even though the maternal mortality rate is high and rising for all races and ethnicities, it is made even higher by the ridiculously high rates for some populations. In what conceivable way could this be compatible with the US having “the best healthcare in the world”, or anything approaching it? Only if you accept the definition of “well, the best healthcare is available for some people, who can afford it, but not even for most Americans”.

Dr. Frey points to several reasons why our “DWP” (and our dying-while-recently-pregnant, ie, post-partum) rate is so high, and they are valid, and addressing them would certainly significantly lower it. The major one is what we often refer to as “the social determinants of health”. This is a fine term, except it has almost become routine to cite them while we, as a country, continue to do little or nothing to address them. People are much more likely to have poor health status if they are financially poor, poorly nourished, poorly housed, poorly educated and live with ongoing danger and the fear that comes from it. And when those bad things happen in childhood, their risk continues higher for the rest of their lives. We call this “ACEs”, Adverse Childhood Events, and the higher number and degree of ACEs, the worse the outcome for not only those children but for the adults that they will become. Thus a person who grew up poor is likely to have worse health status as an adult than a neighbor who did not grow up poor, even if they end up with similar incomes and lifestyles. In addition to the ACEs that have their origin in poverty, there are others, ranging from growing up in a family with adults who abuse alcohol and other drugs, to parents’ divorce, to death of a parent, to physical and sexual abuse, that can occur in any socioeconomic group.

Dr. Frey also cites the number of states that have passed – and implemented – “anti-woman” laws, usually under the guise of being “anti-abortion”. While the legislators who propose and vote for them, and the state governments implementing them, would deny that they are anti-woman, the facts speak otherwise. A good example that Dr. Frey discusses, is

Last year in Missouri, for example, the legislature debated whether to outlaw surgery for ectopic pregnancies (an embryo that implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), even though such pregnancies are 100% non-viable.  Apparently, the near-certainty of a mother’s tubal rupture, internal bleeding, sepsis, and death, wasn’t particularly important.

That law has not passed (so far) but many others have so limited access to abortion that women have to travel very far, have waiting periods, get illegal abortions, and otherwise risk their lives. Despite the ostensible justification for anti-abortion laws is to protect the “unborn”, the result is to increase the risk to fetuses, newborns, and their mothers. Dramatically.

There are also medical and healthcare factors that contribute to the maternal mortality rate in this country. As much as the social determinants of health, and anti-abortion anti-woman laws, contribute to the problem, medical care can make a difference. But too many women are not able to access good medical care for their pregnancies and births, in the prenatal and especially in the post-partum period. Among the important factors are the number and type of providers, geographic distribution of those providers, preference of providers for the kind of care that they want to do (or not do), and the ownership of practices and hospital by corporations that are interested mainly in money-making.

Let’s look at providers. Usually we think of obstetricians (OB-GYNs) as the people who deliver babies. And they do. Or at least many of them do. Actually, a minority, decreasing in % as they age. Doing gynecologic surgery is much more lucrative, and doesn’t require getting up at all hours to do deliveries. Plus, like most specialists, they are concentrated in urban (but not poor or inner-city) and suburban areas. So access to them is limited, especially geographically and financially. Certified Nurse-Midwives (CNMs) and family physicians also deliver babies, but often have the same “lifestyle” disincentives. Nurse-midwives are by definition about delivering (or “catching”) babies but usually are subservient to the dictates of the OB-GYN community. OBs probably do not mind if CNMs -- or family physicians -- deliver babies where the OBs do not want to be (rural and inner-city areas) but training programs may not have enough deliveries to allow them to learn. While nurse-midwives are a separate profession, their training may not strongly encourage them to assert themselves in practice.

And there is huge gap is in post-partum care. It is not uncommon for OBs (and, perhaps, others) to believe their job is done when the baby emerges, or at least when the woman is discharged. But as Dr. Frey’s piece points out, a very large number of maternal deaths take place in the post-partum period, up to 6 weeks after delivery, from bleeding, infection, and other causes that could be identified with the kind of close follow-up that too frequently does not occur. Not to mention identifying the risks for homicide (and suicide) in the situation in which the women lives.

Finally, but far from least important, is the structure of the medical care system. I have written extensively in previous blog posts about how hospitals and medical practices are run as businesses, to make money, rather than as facilities dedicated to improving the health of communities and the people in them. Birth, and the accompanying circumstances including maternal mortality, make a particular case. The businesses, as well as the physicians who work for them, are interested mainly in providing care when and where it is relatively easy and most profitable. This is understandable, but it is unacceptable. It is, at bottom, the cause of all the other problems. Receiving care for childbirth –including the prenatal and postpartum periods, as with all necessary medical services, should not be treated as luxury goods.

It may be OK that some people have a Lexus or Tesla, others a Toyota or Chevy, and still others an old clunker, while many have to walk or ride the bus. But it is not ok for healthcare, and specifically not childbirth. Women need to have access to excellent care no matter how much money they have or where they live.

That they do not is yet another indictment of a system built on profit rather than health.

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