Business executive at party: “What do you and your friends do?”

Me: “We work at the medical school”

Business executive: “No, I know that. I mean what is it that you guys DO”

Me: “We all work in different areas. For example I train doctors in Family Medicine”

Business executive: “Well, tell me, why do we need Obamacare”

Me: Very long, detailed soliloquy about pre-existing conditions, the contributors to the cost of health care, etc, fueled by lots of wine and ending in the need for Medicare for All if we don’t let Obamacare do what it was designed to do.

Business executive: “So why does it need to be so complicated? Why can’t folks just pay for insurance?”

Me: Sigh. “Excuse me, I’m going inside for a bit. Can I bring you anything?”

It is difficult to discuss health system reform with people not closely engaged in care delivery. Most people have interfaced with the care delivery system and so believe they know how best to fix it. Most people consume under $300 worth of healthcare annually but don’t question the opportunity cost of having access (over $17,000 annually for a private insurance plan). Most people are thrilled when told of a negative test (“Congratulations, it’s not cancer”) but don’t question whether the test should have been done in the first place. Airplane crashes put the focus on the safety of the aviation industry because 300 people dying at a time is newsworthy. Losing 4000 people annually in Alabama to premature heart disease because of a poorly performing health system is a yawner.

In any given year, only 5% or fewer of the US population use the healthcare system for something serious like cancer Most folks who interface the care delivery system (make a doctors appointment) do so for a self-limited illness. They come in either because a) they want assurances they are not going to die and want to feel better or b) they need a note for work. From a survey done in 2014, when a person seeks care here is what they want:

  1. Be seen without an appointment within 30 minutes any time of the day or night for $0 to include labs and x-rays done on site.
  2. Have the same person see them every time and have them spend unlimited time explaining symptoms
  3. Have this magic 24/365 office close to home (next door is preferable).

Business executives, I suspect, pretty much get this type of care. Michael Jackson, for example, had his own cardiologist. Access costs money. In corporations the CEO tends to have the same insurance as the lowest wage earner. What happens when a large corporation pays for care that includes this type of access? The executive may not be worried by the high premium (average is over $12,000 annually for a family plan) and additional company cost ($5000). The low wage worker, on the other hand, might be willing to trade immediate access for better food or housing choices but isn’t often given the choice. Obamacare was designed, in part, to put the brakes on healthcare inflation.

In states where the Affordable Care Act has been fully implemented more employers are paying for health care and more people are covered by other types of coverage. As more people have ended up on public plans (Medicare and Medicaid) health care inflation has reduced. The number of bankruptcies due to medical conditions have fallen precipitously.

Despite all of the rhetoric, it appears that the system reforms put in place by the Obama administration are working. In an essay in Vox, Mae Rice points out that spending some money on a small luxury like Starbucks every day can lead to enhanced responsibility. We, as a society, have a responsibility to people like her. Not to ask her for her Starbucks money. Not to blame her for failing to save for a catastrophic illness that is unanticipatable. Not to ask her to be a prisoner at a minimum wage job so her CEO can get 24/7/365 access to any specialist she wants. We have a responsibility to provide access to quality healthcare at a reasonable cost. Although not perfect, Obamacare is moving us in that direction. As a society, this is a responsibility all of us, including business executives, should take very seriously.

 

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Me: Why is your blood sugar so high?

Patient: Couldn’t afford the insulin

Me: But you have insurance and it is on your insurances formulary. I thought you told me it cost you $30 a vial

Patient: Yeah, this time it costs me $150. And ya know, I gotta eat….

A couple of years ago I was fixated for a while on the cost of insulin. Mostly, I fixated on why it was so expensive. From 2012 to 2016 the price of insulin doubled and to have Type 1 Diabetes meant someone (the patient, the insurance company, the government) had to pay on average $18,500 a year. In other words, without insurance they have to budget to buy a new car every year, with no trade-in.

Having Type 1 Diabetes is basically like having a birth defect. The prospective patient is at risk to losing the ability to manufacture insulin from birth with exposure to a certain virus being the trigger for this to actually occur. The only treatment for folks who acquire Type 1 Diabetes is insulin replacement therapy. Without it, they die. Well, we are pretty sure they do. Since insulin was discovered in the 1920s it has been unethical to withhold insulin as a medical experiment from Type 1 diabetics. Prior to that, by literally starving the patient to death, you could buy them up to a year. Since the 1920s, we have had insulin. The discoverers sold the patent for a dollar a piece so that humanity could benefit.

Type 1 diabetes is a great disease (as diseases go) for a doctor to treat. The body has a deficiency. Replacement is relatively straightforward. If the patient is cooperative with regime (checks blood sugar regularly, administers insulin to keep sugar down) he or she can expect to live into their 8th decade. The dad of my best friend growing up was a Type 1 diabetic and he survived his into his 70s with diabetes only to die in Katrina. Though special diets may help and exercise may help, what is required is insulin. Without it, ingested sugars and fats convert to ketoacids instead of energy for the body and then death happens. Almost always when someone with Type 1 diabetes has ketoacids in their blood they are either insulin deficient (“well, doc, I meant to take my insulin this morning but…”) or have another illness that has increased their insulin requirements.

Which brings us to the cost of insulin. The prices, it seems, keep going up. For us non-diabetics it would be like charging us for air. Not only that, but charging us extra after exercise for the extra oxygen we extract. Why is it going up? To find out I spent a lot of time reading about our really crappy system of pharmacy distribution and payment systems. Remember the corner pharmacist? Now he is a pharmacy benefits manager. They control the prices the pharmacies have to pay for drug prior to distribution and control what the patient pays (the money they make off of this is called “the spread.” They make drug companies give rebates to get medications on the formulary that they rarely share with patients. They overcharge patients for medications and pocket the difference. They make pharmacists sign contracts that forbid them to tell the patient that the $40 lisinopril prescription is available for $4 at Walmart. They make consumers use coupons to artificially inflate the prices even more.

As much as I wanted to blame this new middleperson arrangement for the rising prices (and it can be blamed for the fluctuating prices), PBMs are not the cause. The insurers try to convince us that it isn’t them but a lack of personal responsibility. Drug companies try to say that cutting edge medicines are expensive and Americans deserve only the best.  Neither of these are true. As was reported in Vox:

Luo, the paper’s lead author, doesn’t find the “cost of innovation” argument very convincing. In his research, he’s come across many examples of the same insulin products that have been continuously available for years without improvements, and yet their price tags have gone up at a much higher rate than inflation.

“The list price of these products are already out of reach for most Americans living with diabetes — in some cases over $300 a vial,” he said. “It is also strange to see Humulin still priced at over $150 a vial considering this product was first sold in the US in 1982.”

In other words, drug companies are flat out raising prices. Why are they are doing it? Because they can. There are only 3 companies that make insulin, the products are not generic (small improvements patented every 10 years to keep a new patent), and oddly the prices are the same across all the companies.

So what can we do to stop it? As a physician, there are a couple of things I can do. There are “human” insulins that is relatively cheap (NPH and Regular, alone and in combination) that I can write for my Type 2 diabetic patients. In theory this would, over time, drive the price down if we all did it. I can (and do) only use formulary medications whenever possible, even though it means switching several times a year at times. As a patient, consider using cheaper “human” insulin if you have Type 2 diabetes. Talk to your doctor about making the switch. Join in the protests over the cost of insulin. Let policymakers know that access to life sustaining hormones should be a right. To paraphrase Martin Niemoller, first they come for your hormones….

Resident: The patient is a 45 year old black male…

Me (interrupting): I really don’t like identifying people by the color of their skin. What else do you know about him?

Resident: The patient is a 45 year old automobile mechanic who is here for a recheck of his diabetes…

Me (interrupting): Who lives where?

Resident: I don’t know, Mobile. Can I please just finish?

Me: Not until you tell me where he lives and why it’s important

Resident (whispering to another resident): is there another attending I can talk to?

Our current mayor, when he was elected, established an outcome for his “mayorship.” He stated, unequivocally, that he wanted Mobile Alabama to be the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020. Well, OK, in my objective writing classes we were taught to focus on SMART objectives. That is, they had to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time oriented. For example: We want to to be the most family friendly city based on the “family friendly poll” that is administered by the governor’s office twice a year and includes a scientific sample families in Mobile, Huntsville. Montgomery, and Birmingham. Yeah, forgot that step, I’m afraid.

What should it mean to be the most “family friendly” city in Alabama? Mobile is a geographically large city. Bordered by a river on one side, the city stretches 12 miles in one direction and almost 10 miles in another. Does “family friendly” mean parks? We got some, but not a lot. Does it mean churches? We got a lot of those. I bet it is neither one of those. I would bet, if you ask people, they want it to mean a good life for their children. I bet people would say “I want my kids to be happy, healthy, and successful.” How are we doing with that?

Turns out, the federal government keeps statistics on the “healthy” part at the neighborhood level. You can use a tool (such as this) to find out if you live in a healthy neighborhood or an unhealthy one. If you live in an unhealthy one not only are you doomed to a likely premature death but so are your children, In Alabama the healthiest neighborhood provided it’s denizens with a life expectancy of 88 years (an affluent suburb of Birmingham) to 63 years (an area of Montgomery that Martin Luther King marched through 50 years ago). Mobile’s neighborhoods range from a high of 81 to a low of 63.

The neighborhood with the lowest life expectancy in Mobile is not that far from my house. I treat several patients who live there. What sets the neighborhood apart? The people are poor. They work, just not at affluent jobs. One in four are uninsured. One in five report poor mental health and/or poor physical health. A baby born in this neighborhood can only expect to live to 65. A baby born in the mayor’s neighborhood? 82.

How can the mayor improve the health of this neighborhood? There are some simple fixes that could happen tomorrow. An effective bus route through the neighborhood, for example. A find a way to subsidize a source of fresh vegetables and fruits that is less than two miles away. Offer community support services at the neighborhood elementary school.

I believe that family friendly means that our children, who have not yet made any choices, have an equal chance at success. By that metric we have a ways to go by 2020/

 

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I have resisted from writing posts on this blog because it seemed that I was always saying the same thing. To people who wanted to stay away from my services I would offer:

  • Be born to healthy, wealthy parents
  • Live around healthy, wealthy neighbors
  • Pick the least processed food option to eat
  • Stay physically active
  • Stay in school until you get an advanced degree
  • Get and keep a job in air conditioning
  • Don’t take up cigarettes, drink alcohol only in moderation, avoid illicit drugs
  • Avoid narcotics for pain unless for surgical pain and then only for 3 days.

The other thing that people on some level realize is that that even if they do this things they will end up needing access to the healthcare system eventually. If you know anyone with cancer, who has been in a car accident, or any octogenarian you know this to be true.  Once you realize that, despite your best efforts, disease occurs randomly then health insurance becomes a necessity.

With the passage of Obamacare, I no longer needed to explain to people that not all health insurance was created equal. Obamacare required coverage for preexisting conditions, improved healthcare quality, and dictated what must be included in health insurance policies. In other words, people who buy Obamacare policies now know what they are getting.

Except that Obamacare is dead. The Trump administration just approved short term, limited duration health benefits.  Trumpcare is the new thing.

The new Trumpcare plans will be cheap for people who are healthy enough to qualify. But they don’t cover much. If you find you’re having a baby, or need a weekend stay at a hospital, or even something as exotic as prescription drugs, you’re out of luck. The Journal editorial page insists this will all be fine, because “not everyone needs all benefits,” and also, “[t]he HHS rule also stipulates that issuers must prominently display a notice that the coverage isn’t compliant with the Affordable Care Act. Everyone will know what they’re buying.”

If you buy a Trumpcare policy here is exactly what you will be buying:

You may not be able to get one. Companies selling Trumpcare policies can elect to limit their policies to people in good health. They can do this by discriminating based on health status, gender, age, and any other factors that predicts that you might actually USE the policy. The discrimination can be outright denial, very high premiums, or excluding coverage for pre-existing conditions. You might get insurance but not for your heart condition after you went to the doctor for palpitations, for example.

So you get a policy, now what? Hope you read the fine print. Obamacare has 10 elements that must be provided for it to be called health insurance. Trumpcare policies, on the other hand, typical do not cover maternity care, prescription drugs, mental health care, preventive care, or other essential benefits. Don’t like the $5,000 Obamacare Silver plan out of pocket limit? Trumpcare has limits as high as $20,000. This means that of the 5,000 adults cared for in our hospital this past year, Trumpcare would be of little or no help to over half of them.

That’s OK. People need to live healthier. You intend to only use it if you get, say, bad cancer or a in a terrible car wreck. Funny story, that. Policy caps are as low as $250,000. Which means that another 70 people would pay their $20,000 and then have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket because they were TOO sick.

Buying a Trumpcare policy, then, might be cheaper and might even make you feel better. At least until you get sick.

 

 

 

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A United Nations official arrives in Alabama this week to investigate poverty, inequality and “barriers to political participation” in the state
Alston will spend Thursday in Lowndes County, where he will be looking at issues like health care, access to clean and safe drinking water, and sanitation.
The Guardian reported in September on a study exposing the fact that a small number of people have tested positive for hookworm – a parasitic disease found in impoverished areas around the world – in Lowndes County.
 
What he’ll find if he looks-only 30% of the citizens of the county have functional septic tanks, 1 in 3 live in poverty and 1 on 5 will have no health insurance. That’s OK because he’ll find only 2 doctors, no dentists, no psychiatrists, He’ll find that 1 out of every 100 babies die before they reach a year old (worse than most developING countries) and one in two expectant mothers have little if any prenatal care.
 
Coincidentally, he’ll find that Lowndes County has one of the lowest median property tax rates in the country, Lowndes County is ranked 2682nd of the 3143 counties for property taxes as a percentage of median income..
 
He’ll find a county where slaves outnumbered their masters by 2 to one in 1860 and the population was 26000. He’ll find a county where blacks outnumber whites now by 3 to one but the population is now only 11,000. He’ll find a county where 1 in 5 are living off social security and one in 10 have no car. 
In other words, he’ll find the Alabama people think of when you say the word Alabama.

Today, Mobile has set its sights beyond historic racial inequality, social inequity, and environmental disasters. Residents, local government, and community-based organizations are forging a consensus on what Mobile’s future should look like, from building an economically strong downtown to providing more easily accessible options for physical activity. Increasingly, community engagement and cross-sectoral partnerships are having a visible impact.

RWJF Culture of Health Sentinel Community Snapshot Mobile Al November 2016

I have to admit when I saw this I was a little taken aback. Tied up with the implementation of a new Electronic Health Record and planning a move to a new space, I figured I must have missed an e-mail or something. Mobile was one of 30 cities chosen by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation from around the country. They were going to watch us as we developed “a culture of health.” I thought to myself “this is great” and “wow, what a big job.” I only hope that someone has been put in charge that is up to the task.

Because, as it turns out, a “culture of health” doesn’t just mean that we have good doctors and hospitals:

Think of social determinants as the root-causes of health and disease.

Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring.

And per the report we have a ways to go:

  • The median household income in Mobile is $38,644 per year, compared with $43,511 for Alabama and $53,482 for the United States (Figure 1).3 Inequality between the city’s black and white residents is striking, with black residents earning about half the median income of white ones. If you are poor you cannot afford good food, educational activities, or safe housing. These all are associated with poor health outcomes.
  • While more likely to have some college education or an associate’s degree in 2014 than they were in 2010 (Figure 2), the percentage of black residents who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 declined from 2010, despite increases in higher education among white residents. Educational attainment is always associated with better health outcomes. 
  • Teen pregnancy rates in Mobile County are 57 per 1,000 for women aged 13 to 19, compared with 47 per 1,000 in Alabama and 20 per 1,000 in the United States. Teen pregnancy is associated with a lack of knowledge regarding contraception and a lack of access to effective long acting contraceptive methods.
  • The county’s mortality outcomes are higher than the national average for preventable noncommunicable diseases, such as heart diseases, cancer, and diabetes. This reflects limited physical activity, limited opportunities for physical activity, and a very high level of obesity.
  • The city has an uninsured rate of 17%, which is more than 2% higher than the national average.

The report is very complementary of the Mayor’s “One Mobile” initiative and the Three Mile Creek park development.

Unfortunately, the community piece that was cited as most important in transforming our community was “Live Better Mobile.” From the press conference in 2012:

A “Live Better Mobile” program was unveiled today during a news conference. It’s aimed at creating public awareness focusing on three efforts – achieve healthy weights, prevent teen pregnancy, and quit tobacco.

The focus for the 37 community partners participating in the program is on prevention, nutrition and exercise.

“If we’re going to have a significant impact on health and well-being of our citizens, it’s going to take a community effort,” Dr. Bert Eichold of the Mobile County Health Department, said.

The group’s website is now dead. Their FaceBook page hasn’t been updated in a year.

So, Mobile, RWJF and the country are watching us. For the next five years they will be following the health of Mobilians. Are we up to the scrutiny? From the comments:

Talk from the fat cats is cheap. Want to encourage people in Mobile to Exercise? Give them a place to get out and exercise. Spend $70,000 on a weekly Ciclovia event. Pave that Rails-2-Trails from Prichard to Citronelle. Spend a money to construct Exercise Trails instead of spending money constructing Airbus Roads which don’t even have bicycle lanes.

 I just hope someone is in charge…

 

JW is a 33 year old black female with sickle cell anemia (SS) who presents with an acute pain crisis. This is her third admission in the last 6 months and she is a “bounce-back” having just been discharged 7 days ago. Her past medical history is pertinent for multiple admission included 2 ICU admissions for acute chest in the past couple of years. She is here today for pain control and is on Dilaudid 1 mg every 2 hours

Intern presentation at morning report

 

Sickle cell “disease” is an example of a chronic illness. It is actually a family of genetic disorders with the most well known being sickle cell anemia.  People who have the disease inherit a substitution on chromosome 11 from both parents. Folks who are unfortunate enough to inherit this disorder are destined to suffer:

The lack of tissue oxygen can cause attacks of sudden, severe pain, called pain crises. These pain attacks can occur without warning, and a person often needs to go to the hospital for effective treatment.

The red cell sickling and poor oxygen delivery can also cause organ damage. Over a lifetime, SCD can harm a person’s spleen, brain, eyes, lungs, liver, heart, kidneys, penis, joints, bones, or skin.

 

This is the medical condition. As a doctor, we give pain medicine to make the pain go away, we give antibiotics to treat the infection, we treat the low blood count with transfusions…in other words, we do what we can. What we can, for some patients, isn’t enough. This is one example of a chronic illnesses that is not curable but instead is characterized by folks getting better and getting worse. What we in medicine call “exacerbations and remission.” There are many other such illnesses.

Sickle cell disease is also characterized by what we call “variable penetrance.” Although the science of sickle cell is easy (Sickle hemoglobin differs from normal hemoglobin by a single amino acid: valine replaces glutamate at position 6 on the surface of the beta chain. This creates a new hydrophobic spot. In a sickled red blood cell, valine 6 (beta chain) binds to a different hydrophobic patch) the body’s response to these sickled cells is dependent on a lot of other things. Some people with this will have a problem with pain only once a year. Others (about 20%) will struggle on a daily basis with pain, fatigue, and the consequences of damage to other organs as a consequence of the randomness of genetic inheritance. This is also true for a number of chronic illnesses. Some folks, for example, have diabetes for years and have no problems. Other folks develop kidney and heart disease almost immediately. How someone reacts to their disease is also, in a major way, genetically determined.

The real consequences of chronic illnesses, for those who are affected the most, are an inability to work and dependence on a healthcare system. Inability to work because, well, people who are tired, in pain, or short of breath all the time make terrible employees. Dependence on the healthcare system because without a job many have no food and can’t pay rent. If there is no food at home or even no home to go to, people with a poorly controlled chronic illness can almost always get admitted to the hospital. Poorly controlled chronic illnesses are the reason 1% of Americans account for 20% of healthcare costs and 5% account for 50% of all costs. Much of that cost is generated by recurrent, preventable hospital admissions that are as much a consequence of an untenable living situation as they are to medical conditions. A sickle cell patient without money for pain medication, for example, will use the emergency room and likely get admitted. The same for a diabetic without money for insulin.

The Affordable Care Act, as written, forced all of us to care about people with chronic illness. Insurance companies would have to give them insurance. Not-sick people would  have to pay for the care provided to those with chronic illnesses though their insurance premiums. Our society would start to feel pressure to move some of the money we spend on healthcare (expensive doctors, expensive drugs, too many needless procedures) into value for patients with uncontrollable chronic illness (food security, supportive housing, transportation assistance, self management support, legal assistance). The challenge in designing the ACA was in figuring out how to cut costs, wisely and fairly, for the disastrously ill and preventing diseases before they become chronic.

We as a practice elected about a two years  ago to work to provide value-based care to our patients with chronic, expensive illnesses. We wanted to reduce avoidable hospitalizations. Mostly because it was the right thing to do but we were encouraged to do so by our healthcare enterprise. They want us to figure out how to make money from “not hospitalizing” a patient.

We changed the way we practice. We employ a care manager to help our patients obtain needed transportation and housing when they are unable to afford such. We employ behavioral health specialists to help patients to learn self-management techniques which will reduce their dependance on the health care system. We use pharmacist to make sure medications are appropriately managed. Physician work on facilitating good care and making sure therapeutic goals are met. It is entirely possible that the patient who suffers from this severe form of sickle cell anemia would be presented to me in this manner:

JW is a 33 year old unemployed woman with hemoglobin SS who suffers from chronic pain and is unable to work full time. She is unable to afford a car and has to rely on public transportation. She lives in supportive housing. Her pain is a 4/10 with her chronic pain medication today. The behavioral health specialists are in the room now, working with her on non-pharmacologic adjuncts to pain. The Care Coordinator is working to get her transportation to her specialty appointments as well as make sure she qualifies for food assistance. She believes that with an increase in her oral pain meds she can overcome this so I will give her a small increase to last for the next several weeks. My nurse will give her a call in 3 days to see how she is feeling.

Despite the current administrations decision not to enforce the health care law (explained here) our intent is to continue to practice medicine and teach others to practice medicine in this manner until we are directed to stop. It is our belief that keeping people out of the hospital is better, always. I hope America feels the same.

The website 538.com has posted an essay (found here) about the great state of Alabama. Unlike most click bait-y articles that Alabamians seem to be attracted to on Al.com (i.e. What are the 11 greatest barbecue places within 30 miles of Bryant-Denny stadium?) but instead an in-depth look at healthcare in Greene County, Alabama. Greene county is currently the least populated Alabama county (9,045 people, 81.5% black or African American). In 1860, the county had about 30,000 people. Well, kinda depends on your definition. 23,598 of those “people” were actually enslaved human beings. Although the math works out to approximately 4 enslaved humans for every 1 “person,” in fact it was almost 7000 enslaved humans were owned by about 50 folks. As described in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, this was not a bad thing

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Eutaw experienced a golden era as the mercantile and legal center of the Black Belt. The first courthouse, built in 1838, burned in 1868. The current courthouse was built in 1993.

The county is in a region of the state known as the “black belt”, named not for the color of the population but for the color of the soil. The slow slide to economic despair over the last 150 years has taken a toll on the region. Immediately after the civil war, the region was home to 40% of the “citizens” of Alabama. The systematic oppression of former slaves and the descendants of former slaves has lead to the growth and development of many civil rights leaders, blues musicians, and story tellers. It has also lead to a bunch of people moving away. The region, once the economic engine for the region, is now home to 12% of Alabama’s population. In the words of one Percy County resident

“The only reason people come to town now is for funerals, and they leave as soon as they’re over ’cause there’s nothing to do and nowhere to stay,” said Walker, 64, the son of sharecroppers

For those who have stayed, economic prosperity has been an uneven proposition. The racial makeup of the Black Belt region was 52.2% African American, 45.8% White, 0.2% Native American.

The poverty rate among [Wilcox] county’s white population is just 8.8 percent, which is lower than all but five counties. The poverty rate among the county’s much larger black population is 50.2 percent. The 41.4 percentage point gap is the largest in the state.

Other Black Belt counties have a similar dynamic. Lowndes County has a 4.1 percent white poverty rate – the lowest in the state – but a 34.5 percent black poverty rate. In Perry County, the white poverty rate is 8.1 percent, while the black poverty rate is 32.7 percent. In Marengo County, it is 5.6 percent and 40.8 percent respectively.

So why worry about these folks? Can’t they continue to vote with their feet?

“The Black Belt is a road map,” said Patrick Sullivan, a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University who previously worked on HIV surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s what’s so tragic and so compelling. It’s an endgame depiction of what happens when you have social and structural inequalities. It’s the vestiges of slavery and inequality, and in the long run those things do play out as health inequalities.” Sullivan and colleagues have studied why HIV rates are so much higher among African-Americans and Latinos than other racial groups3 and found that health insurance is the most important mediating factor. People in both racial/ethnic groups are more likely to be poor and have less education, which are related barriers, but insurance coverage is where the local and federal government could improve access to treatment, Sullivan said.

Alabama is not a Medicaid expansion state. Our Doctor-Felon-Former-Governor decided it was a political chance he did not want to take, even after his re-election into a term limited position. Remember, adults who are employed but make less that 138% of poverty uninsured are not eligible for Obamacare. In counties like Greene, where 40% of the population is below the poverty level, that is a lot of folks, almost all of them black. When the median household income is $20,000, people are going to choose food when having to decide regarding food vs insurance, every time. So what is the right thing to do? In the words of my friend and colleague John Waits, quoted in the article:

“Nothing happens without Medicaid,” Waits said. “It is the No. 1, the No. 2, it is the top 10 solutions.”

I’m beginning to think this is about something other than partisan politics.

Frandal Wright, who went 27 years without health insurance before getting HIP 2.0 coverage last year, makes his $1 monthly payment at the Wal-Mart in Anderson.

Because the store is on the other side of Anderson from where he lives, Wright tries to pay as much as he can at each visit to minimize the number of times he has to make the trip. Right now, he says, he’s trying to find someone to give him a ride to make his payment and determine if he has enough money to make a lump sum payment.

“I’m a little behind now because I almost forget about it,” said Wright, 46. “I want to pay for the whole year. I’m trying to do that this time. I’ll probably give them $20 if the Lord blesses me.”

Do Indiana’s poor Medicaid recipients really have skin in the game?

As I viewed my electricity bill today I was told by Alabama Power “You pay on average $5 a day for your electricity.” This means I have “skin in the game.” I have the power to determine if I pay nothing per day or $20 per day. Well, only a little as it turns out.  It seems that Alabama Power won’t let me come off the grid easily, so I will end up paying something no matter what. Also, my major non-air conditioner power usage corresponds to my use of the clothes dryer. I can minimize the use of the dryer by hanging a clothesline, I suppose, but elect not to.  What I have decided is that I cannot do  without electricity. So, although I have skin in the game, I can’t say “no, thank you, I’m using a cheap alternative to electricity so go away Alabama Power.” I rely on the Public Service Commission to negotiate fair rates and rely on the government to force my appliances to become energy efficient. Oddly, as appliances become more energy efficient, rates per kilowatt hour tend to go up. I now have less skin in the game (using efficient appliances less frequently still costs the same because I pay more per kilowatt hour) but still reflexively try to use less electricity. Modern life is confusing at times.

Many folks have asked me what I think is going to happen with health care. Conventional wisdom is that the people appointed dictate policy. Seema Verma, who helped design the Medicaid expansion in Indiana, is the new director of CMS (the agency responsible for Medicaid and Medicare). The buzzwords for poor people and perhaps all sick people will likely be “personal responsibility.”

Ms Varma has written on the philosophy she has used to design the system in Indiana (article found here). It seems that this is not just about making sure poor, sick folks have needed care but importantly involves  bootstrap repair as well:

[M]any of Medicaid’s enrollment and eligibility policies, which might make perfect sense for certain vulnerable populations, are not always appropriate for able-bodied adults possessing different capabilities and earning potential. Able-bodied adults need coverage, but not the same set of policy protections.

One of the precepts of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, from which Medicaid arose, is that government assistance should exist to provide a temporary pathway for people to lift themselves out of poverty toward a state of self-sufficiency.

The recipients are given a Health Savings Account and are required to make their personal contribution to teach them responsibility (as was the client in the anecdote above). Finding frequent rides to the insurance payment window and personally making a payment which provides continued access to lifesaving insulin and health failure medications, apparently, is freeing:

HIP respects the dignity of each member by setting a fair expectation of personal investment and engagement in his or her own well-being. Contributions are a way for members to demonstrate personal responsibility, but they also encourage members to stay engaged with their health plan, providers, and overall personal health. Because HIP Plus members’ own dollars are at stake, they have “skin in the game” and therefore an incentive to make cost-conscious health care decisions.

Well, maybe not…Turns out that for “frequent flyers” hospitals are seeing to it that the $1 premium is being paid. Because, if you miss a payment, you are kicked out. So it does seem that someone has skin in the game, just maybe not the patient.

As a pragmatist, I believe that the motive is unimportant if the desired result is achieved. Results to date are mixed. Ms Varma points out that those who have paid their premium continuously (folks with “skin in the game”) are more likely to have a primary care doctor, less likely to go to the ED, and more satisfied with their care. Critics point out that enrollment is not by any means what it should be as many folks can’t get a monthly ride to pay their dollar. Also, less that half of folks who were enrolled knew that they even HAD a health savings account much less how to use it. As they say, further study is needed.

In my professional experience, people believe they are healthy until they are sick. A monthly trip to Walmart to pay a dollar is likely not to change that. I hope that we choose to look at real measures of health and not try to do social engineering with our healthcare dollars.

Uwe Rheinhart, a noted health economist, was asked to predict what would become of healthcare under Trump leadership. He said “My hunch is that the “replace” in what is coming will reflect that conservative vision. It is bound to spell more hardship for the poor, the old, and the sick.” I am afraid that that is what “skin in the game” means.

Jean, an Arizona teacher whose employer provided group health benefits but did not contribute to the cost for family members, gave birth to her daughter, Alex, in 2004 and soon after applied for an individual policy to cover the baby.  Due to time involved in the medical underwriting process, the baby was uninsured for about 2 weeks. A few months later, Jean noticed swelling around the baby’s face and eyes.  A specialist diagnosed Alex with a rare congenital disorder that prematurely fused the bones of her skull.  Surgery was needed immediately to avoid permanent brain damage.   When Jean sought prior-authorization for the $90,000 procedure, the insurer said it would not be covered.  Under Arizona law, any condition, including congenital conditions, that existed prior to the coverage effective date, could be considered a pre-existing condition under individual market policies.  Alex’s policy excluded coverage for pre-existing conditions for one year.  Jean appealed to the state insurance regulator who upheld the insurer’s exclusion as consistent with state law.

From a 2005 Wall Street Journal article

People hate Obamacare. People in “real” America really hate Obamacare. Kaiser Family Foundation convened a series of focus groups in counties that voted for Trump to find out what EXACTLY Trump voters hated about Obamacare (article found here).  They hated that those that were really poor and on Medicaid didn’t have the same barriers to care (high co-pays and deductibles) as did those who were working hard. This was even when the groups included voters on Medicaid. They hated how expensive their premiums were, how high their co-pays were, and how much was not covered. They hated how complex the system is and how when you think you have it figured out someone throws another thing at you. They hated the mandate to purchase insurance.

There is currently a bill  being formulated to “repeal” significant parts of the ACA and replace it either with a “To Be Named Later” or with a mismash of proposals which would be labeled “replacement.” How pre-existing conditions fit into this bill remains unclear but is worth understanding (Kaiser article here). Prior to the passage of the ACA, insurance companies were state regulated, and in all states were able to do medical underwriting, This meant that they could effectively eliminate people with preexisting conditions. Although it would be possible to repeal the ACA and keep in the current underwriting rules, it is not likely this will happen. In the case of our pre-Obamacare insurance at our work, the “lookback” was “270 days, known or unknown, manifest or unmanifest.” This meant that, the human gestation being 270 days from conception, if you had your first day of work and went home and celebrated with your significant other (and one thing lead to another) you had best hope the baby was a week late. If not, you were paying cash. Much worse was the patient we had whose cancer was manifest 4 months after his employment commenced and we got to tell him that he had to pay $100,000 up front or die of his cancer. Kaiser estimates that 52 million people will be denied coverage if the old rules are put back into place. Perhaps not denied outright but effectively denied by bringing back these old favorites:

  • Rate-up – The applicant might be offered a policy with a surcharged premium (e.g. 150 percent of the standard rate premium that would be offered to someone in perfect health)
  • Exclusion rider – Coverage for treatment of the specified condition might be excluded under the policy; alternatively, the body part or system affected by the specified condition could be excluded under the policy. Exclusion riders might be temporary (for a period of years) or permanent
  • Increased deductible – The applicant might be offered a policy with a higher deductible than the one originally sought; the higher deductible might apply to all covered benefits or a condition-specific deductible might be applied
  • Modified benefits – The applicant might be offered a policy with certain benefits limited or excluded, for example, a policy that does not include prescription drug coverage.

Some have suggested that a “high risk pool” would allow these folks to obtain coverage and keep the cost down for the 50% of the population who have no need to access the healthcare system in a given year. We actually tried that before, turns out. As the Kaiser article points out, these didn’t work for a number of reasons. First is the nature of health care expenses. Some folks have a lot of expense in a single year (car crash) and the next year are perfectly fine. Others have a lot of expense in an ongoing fashion for a very long time (think Magic Johnson and HIV).

Planning for these disparate situations was tough and no one got it right. The reasons for failure included:

  • Premiums above standard non-group market rates – All cost a lot, the states with the most success provided a substantial subsidy.
  • Pre-existing condition exclusions – Once again, how do you deal with folks who wait until they get sick to pick up a policy
  • Lifetime and annual limits – Most ranged from $1 million to $2 million and others imposed annual dollar limits on specific benefits such as prescription drugs, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation.
  • High deductibles – The plan options with the highest enrollment had deductibles of $1,000 or higher.

The conclusion was that they could work but it’ll cost a lot to get it right.

Back to the focus groups. What Trump voters said they wanted was low premiums and little out-of-pocket expense for drugs, visits, and procedures. They wanted no mandate and no increase in taxes but felt that not covering pre-existing conditions was “un-American.”

They expressed confidence that as a businessman President-elect Trump could pull this off. Hope they are correct.

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