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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.

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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.

I had to quit my job because of the stress I had to endure was putting me at high risk for a stroke or heart attack and I couldn’t physically keep up anymore
I’m 56 years of age
My job was 32 hours a week
But because of Obama care my insurance was costing me $600 dollars a month for just major medical!
No dental no eye care no life insurance
So by the time I paid my rent, electric, water, sewer, garbage, car insurance, house insurance etc, I had enough money to put gas in the car to get to work and buy ramen noodles and some cheap hot dogs for food!
Over 60% of my net pay went to insurance that covered nothing!
Now I am unemployed with ZERO insurance
Its pretty damn sad when all the damn medicaide and dissabilty cheats are eating steak with perfect teeth and new glasses and are in perfect health while I have to bust my damn ass just to eat ramen noodles wityh bad teeth , basbasd eyes, and life threatening health problems!!

So here I am, no job, no insurance, no hope

Patient’s story as posted on Obamacare stories

The average household income in the United States is $51,000. From that you pay for our food, shelter, children’s education, and movie tickets. Oh, yeah, and $5000 for a health insurance policy. One of the things that Obamacare did was begin to put a cost on our insatiable healthcare consumption. Turns out, that cost is VERY high.

If you are an average American, boy are you ticked off. Half of all Americans spend under $400 a year on healthcare. Pretty much a round of antibiotics for a sinus infection and, for women, a year’s worth of contraception. Not only that but because of high deductibles (to keep the cost down by discouraging consumption) you are paying $5,000 to the insurance company AND paying cash for your sinus infection visit and medicine. Then there are the drug companies and insurance companies that are colluding to raise the prices of formerly cheap antibiotics to get even more of your household income.

About 1% of the people in this country account for about a quarter (27%) of the health care spending. In 2014, this  was about $100,000 per sick person. Those in the top 5% of sick people were responsible for  almost $50,000 in health care costs. These numbers are unchanged since Obama was elected. So what has changed? Before, the costs of these people were hidden. They would get the care for “free” at a safety net hospital who would get money in other ways to pay for it. Or a sick person would use an insurance card then the payment would be denied as a pre-existing condition and the hospital would eat the cost. More likely, the sick person would get on disability, suffer for 2 years, and become Medicare eligible so we the taxpayer would pay. The care still cost money but was hidden in taxes. Insurance companies kept costs low, in other words, by shifting them to the federal government. Now folks under 65 who are sick can pick up an Obamacare policy and get exceptional care. Also on Obamacare stories are ones like this:

Thank you President Obama thanks to your healthcare plan I was able to continue to see specialists, this resulted in a diagnosis of a rare intestinal infection and even more concerning, two stage three colon cancer tumors, one on each side on each side of the colon. This required almost total colon removal from a top notch physician that was able to do my surgery without having to have a bag.

Only problem is, this type of care costs A LOT more than $5,000. .

So, if you bought an Obamacare policy and feel ripped off, let me tell you what your $5000 paid for. It wasn’t eye glasses and dental work for poor people that jacked up your bill. You spent your $5000 on people under 65 with heart disease and lung disease. You purchased them a lot of expensive tests, some time in the hospital, and some expensive drugs. You paid for the person with breast cancer’s $300,000 tab whose $5000 premiums were paid by the cancer treatment facility.  You paid for the person helicoptered in after rolling their car on Interstate 65 while trying to avoid a deer.  You paid for some very expensive medication for people with mental illness to keep them out of a mental hospital.

Did you pay too much? Yes. Other countries can do the same thing better for half as much or less. Perhaps the new adminstration will look at this as an opportunity to further retool our expensive, not very effective care delivery system and reign in some of the profiteering. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blame the poor…

 

'I would've retired years ago but I forgot where I work.'

My mother: Oh, there are some people in this place you wouldn’t believe. They don’t even know where they are

Me: Well, in Alabama, they could’t be there at all. If your memory slips too bad, you are considered too sick for assisted living and have to be moved out.

My mother: Well that makes sense.

Me: No, back to independent living. It is illegal to provide assisted living those with memory problems in Alabama

My mom and dad moved from Louisiana to Marietta Georgia after The Storm (on the Gulf Coast we now date everything by August 29, 2005. That’s the day Katrina made landfall in Louisiana). They were in Baton Rouge and were in their late 70s when the storm hit. They had their own home and could drive without too much effort to get necessary items and run routine errands. They had lived in their house for 53 years and were comfortable.

Post Katrina, their lives changed substantially. Baton Rouge almost doubled in size from the influx of New Orleans refugees. What was a simple chore (driving to the store) became a nightmare of left turns into rapidly moving oncoming traffic unimpeded by traffic lights. They were older people living in a first ring suburb in the sunbelt south. If you were older with failing reflexes you had to make the best of it. Without a car there was no food, no doctor, no post office.

They moved into an independent living community for older individuals in Marietta (by my sister). It is like what my kids used to call a college “wonder dorm,” only for older folk. Separate apartments, common areas for dining and socializing. Difference is that in college the turnover is dictated by the ebb and flow of college life. At the facility my folks are in, folks tend to stay. They stay, that is, until they lose their independence or they pass away. On my weekly phone calls I hear tales of which person is losing touch with reality. “Mr Soandso is grabbing everyone.” I’ll hear one week then two weeks later “Remember Mr Soandso, well they had to take him away.” Ambulances are a regular occurrence with the inevitable return of the resident just a little less functional than before he or she left. If only a little confused when they leave, they are a lot confused when they return. Soon, they are removed to another facility. My folks can’t help but wonder when the inevitable will catch up with them as well as they notice their memory slipping with age.

Why have we not come up with a better way? As I told my parents, in Alabama it is even worse because, with any type of dementia, regular assisted living is out. Alabamians have to move into a “specialty care assisted living.” There are only about 300 of those in the state with a total of 3000 beds. To quote a recent article:

The quality of care can vary significantly from one facility to another. The best assisted living facilities provide comfortable and healthy homes for patients in early and moderate stages of physical and mental decline. But inspection reports reveal that many fail to adequately staff facilities and train workers caring for patients – leading to falls, errors, abuse and even death.

In Alabama, we have 89,000 people living with dementia. With only 3000 beds, what happens to the rest of these folks? Some are admitted to the nursing home, losing their independence prematurely. In fact, the Alabama Medicaid crisis is precipitated in part by the $808 million spent annually on dementia care (about 20% of the budget). Most are cared for at home by a “volunteer” caregiver. In Alabama it is projected that 302,000 caregivers provide care for these folks. This is $4 billion of unpaid care with a huge toll on the caregiver’s health.

The baby boomers changed our society. We embraced the car. We became much more mobile. Little remained untouched. Boomers are now hitting their seventies. Inevitably they will lose their independence. Inevitably, many will lose their cognitive functions. Will they (and their caregiver children) demand better care for those who are aging out? For my sake I hope so.

Healthcare is almost 20% of our economy. A future President Clinton or a future President Trump will, through executive action, have a lot to say about how that money is spent. Commonwealth fund (found here) has an exceptional comparison of the two candidates’ proposals and how they would effect the budget. If you care about fiscal responsibility, for the record, the balance sheet is found below:

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-3-28-22-pm

So, the Trump plan is not, despite what he claimed in the debate, the way to fiscal solvency.

Kaiser Family Foundation has put together a specific list of issues (found here) that folks appear interested in and has evaluated each camp’s claims.  The Cliff’s notes version is as follows:

Health insurance coverage and cost – Issues include overarching reform of health system remains unpopular in a partisan manner. Affordability hampered by a glitch where family coverage became more expensive, “cost sharing” was not controlled by the law, enrollment was not implemented well, and transparency provisions not implemented. Market place competition is limited, especially in rural areas.

  • Clinton
    • supports policies to maintain and build upon the ACA.
    • increase premium subsidies in the marketplace so no participant is required to pay more than 8.5% of income for coverage.
    • fix the “family glitch” and allow people to buy coverage through the marketplace regardless of their immigration status.
    • make a public plan option available in every state and give people the option of buying into Medicare starting at age 55.
    • invest $500 million annually in outreach and in-person assistance to enroll more uninsured in coverage, and she would enforce ACA transparency provisions.
    • authorize the federal government to review and disapprove unreasonable health insurance premium increases in states that do not have such authority, repeal the Cadillac tax.
    • proposed new private plan standards to waive the annual deductible for at least three sick visits per year, limit monthly cost sharing for prescription drugs to $250, and protect against surprise medical bills when patients inadvertently receive care out of network.
    • proposed a new refundable tax credit of up to $5,000 to subsidize out-of-pocket health expenses (including premiums in marketplace plans) for all Americans with private insurance.
  • Trump
    • complete repeal of the ACA, including the individual mandate to have coverage.
    • create high risk pools for individuals who have not maintained continuous coverage.
    • provide a tax deduction for the purchase of individual health insurance.
    • promote competition between health plans by allowing insurers to sell plans across state lines; an insurer licensed under the rules of one state would be allowed to sell coverage in other states without regard to different state laws that might apply.
    • promote the use of Health Savings Accounts (HSA), and specifically would allow tax-free transfer of HSAs to all heirs.
    • would also require price transparency from all hospitals, doctors, clinics and other providers so that consumers can see and shop for the best prices for health care procedures and other services.

Medicaid – Issues include states’ concerns regarding financing and unwillingness to expand to those too poor to qualify for a tax rebate required coverage

  • Clinton
    • encourage and incentivize states to expand Medicaid by providing states with three years of full federal funding for newly eligible adults, whenever they choose to expand.
    • would also continue to make enrollment easier and launch a campaign to enroll people who are eligible but not enrolled in coverage.
  • Trump
    • supports a Medicaid block-grant and a repeal of the ACA (including the Medicaid expansion).
    • would cover the low-income uninsured through Medicaid after repealing the ACA.
      • The House Republican Plan, which is part of a larger package designed to replace the ACA and reduce federal spending for health care, would offer states a choice between a Medicaid per capita allotment or a block grant.

Medicare – Issues include prescription drug costs, fate of provisions in ACA, public option for those 55-64

  • Clinton
    • supports maintaining the current structure of the Medicare program and opposes policies to transform Medicare into a system of premium supports. On the issue of prescription drug costs
    • supports allowing safe re-importation of drugs from other countries, allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices in Medicare, especially for high-priced drugs with limited competition, and requiring drug manufacturers to provide rebates in the Medicare Part D low-income subsidy program equivalent to the rebates provided under Medicaid.
    • does not support repealing the ACA or any of the Medicare provisions included in the law; rather, she supports expanding the law’s value-based delivery system reforms.
    • proposed to allow people ages 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.
  • Trump
    • No position on the issue of Medicare program restructuring or whether to allow older adults ages 55 to 64 to buy in to Medicare.
    • supports repealing the ACA, which would presumably mean repealing the law’s Medicare provisions.
    • supports allowing safe re-importation of prescription drugs from other countries.

Prescription drugs – Issues are pricing (generally more expensive in US than in other countries despite being manufactured in the same facility) and out-of-pocket costs (many plans have gone to a cost sharing rather than a deductible strategy

  • Clinton
    • proposes prohibiting “pay-for-delay” deals whereby companies make payments to competitors for agreeing to delay market entry
    • increasing funding for the FDA Office of Generic Drugs to reduce their approval backlog
    • reducing the market exclusivity period for biologics
    • and directing the FDA to prioritize biosimilar drugs with few competitors. To address price increases for generic drugs
    • proposes to establish consumer oversight in federal agencies
    • penalize drug companies for unjustified price increases
    • allow importation of lower-cost drugs from countries with similar safety standards.
    • She also supports eliminating tax deductions for direct-to-consumer advertising
    • requiring FDA approval of advertisements
    • tying federal support for drug companies to their investment in R&D
    • increasing transparency of the additional value new drugs have over existing treatments
    • allowing Medicare to negotiate drug and biologic prices. To address OOP spending on prescriptions,
    • proposes a $250 per month cap on cost sharing for covered drugs; and a rebate program for low-income Medicare beneficiaries that mirrors those in Medicaid.
  • Trump
    • supports allowing importation of drugs from overseas that are safe and reliable but priced lower than in the U.S.
    • supports greater price transparency from all health providers, especially for medical exams and procedures performed at doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals, but does not specify whether this policy would also apply to retail prescription drugs, which typically are not considered services or procedures.

Opioid epidemic – Issues include increased use (1 in 20 nonelderly adults used opioids for nonmusical purposes), increased addiction ( 2 million non elderly adults with of the level of opioid use increases to the level of opioid use disorder, often referred to as abuse, dependence, or addiction), increases in overdose deaths (those involving opioids have quadrupled since 1999).

  • Clinton
    • released a $10 billion (over ten years) plan to fight drug addiction.
      • includes a federal-state partnership to support education and mentoring programs
      • development of treatment facilities and programs
      • efforts to change prescribing practices, and criminal justice reform.
      • direct federal action to increase funding for treatment programs
      • change federal rules regarding prescribing practices
      • enforce federal parity standards
      • promote best practices for insurance coverage of substance use disorder services
      • issue guidance on treatment and incarceration for nonviolent and low-level federal drug offenders.
  • Trump
    • Will build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border
      • will help stop the flow of drugs and thus address the opioid epidemic.

Reproductive health – Issues include access to preventive services, publicly funded family planning, and abortion services

  • Clinton
    • supports policies that protect and expand women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including affordable contraception and abortion.
    • defends the ACA’s policies, including no-cost preventive care and contraceptive coverage. promised to protect Planned Parenthood from attempts to defund it and would work to increase federal funds to the organization. called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment which she believes limits low-income women’s access to abortion care.
    • would appoint judges to the Supreme Court who support Roe v. Wade, ensuring a women’s right to choose an abortion.
  • Trump
    • called for defunding Planned Parenthood if they continue to provide abortion
    • He states he is pro-life but with exceptions when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, and life endangerment.
      • has promised to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court that seek to overturn Roe v. Wade
    • would also work to make the Hyde Amendment permanent law
    • would sign the Pain-Capable Child Protection Act, legislation that would sharply limit access to later term abortions.
    • would also repeal the ACA, which would eliminate minimum scope of benefits standards such as maternity care in individual plans and coverage of no-cost preventive services such as contraceptives in private plans.

 

 

Nurse: Dr Perkins, Mr Smith called. He said he called his insurance company and they told him that if YOU will fill out the form saying he REALLY needs the Lantus insulin, they will pay for it.

Me: I have filled out that form. That insulin is Tier 2 on his insurance. It isn’t that they won’t pay, it’s that he has to pay 50% of the cost until he reaches his maximum which is $7,000 in a year.

Nurse: He won’t like that.

Me: (exasperated) Have him call President Obama. Or, if he’d prefer, give him George W Bush’s number.

Prior to 2006, people on Medicare did not have prescription cover. Folks on Medicare would be discharged from the hospital after their congestive heart failure was made better through diuresis only to go home to a Lasix free household and re-accumulate fluid. Predictably, within the next several weeks the patient would be back again, drowning in their own fluids. We would try to cobble together enough samples and inexpensive generics to keep these folks out of the hospital. Another strategy was to talk them out of eating so they could afford the “good” medications.

In 2003, as part of the Medicare Modernization Act, Medicare Part D was created. The law, rather than directing Medicare to negotiate with the drug companies directly, created opportunities for private companies to “compete” for patients and to negotiate with drug companies. While not ideal, for the first 10 years it worked pretty well. My patients were able to get necessary drugs (with an emphasis on generics) for relatively reasonable prices.  Part D Providers were required to have drugs in each of the therapeutic classes making care relatively straightforward. Patients with congestive heart failure could be on the medicines necessary to avoid readmissions. Pharmacies were reimbursed for their services and pharmacists were elevated to part of the care team.

The design of the benefit was a little different from that of traditional medical pharmacy benefits. Instead of non-specific co-pays, the design included “tiering” (having a group of drugs that has low out-of-pocket costs and another group that is typically equivalent and name brand but less cheap) and included the concept of co-insurance (instead of paying a flat $25 co-pay, one might pay 25%-50% of the costs) for the so-called specialty drugs. At relatively high level, the out-of-pocket costs were capped which protected the patient to an extent but only after about $7,000 had been paid. The law dictates that only the Part D Providers may negotiate and that the federal government is directly prohibited from doing so. The patient, as is alway the case, doesn’t get to negotiate with anyone.

After 10 years of flat growth, the costs of drug benefits are rapidly escalating. This is being passed on to the consumers. The reasons are several fold. First, number of specialty (Tier 4) drugs have increased from 20 to 200. These drugs typically require coinsurance and thus result in  a lot of the out-of-pocket increase. One pill of a new cancer drug might cost $1000 and might cost the patient $500 until his or her deductible is reached, typically at about $5,000. Second, a number of plans have moved drugs formerly covered under a co-pay into a tier requiring coinsurance.  Approximately 60% of Medicare beneficiaries are in plans that have had common drugs such as Crestor and long-acting insulin moved into a tier where coinsurance used instead of a co-pay. The law does not set limits on coinsurance and some of the rates are as high as 50%.  Lastly generic drugs, which used to require the lowest co-pay, are being priced much higher and are being placed in co-insurance tiers by insurance companies.

This increase in prescription costs is not limited to Medicare beneficiaries. Many people with high deductible “bronze” plans purchased (family deductible about $12,000) on the exchanges are noticing the same thing. The EpiPen controversy, in part, is a consequence of people moving to these higher deductible plans without looking into exactly how the savings in premium might translate into increased out-of-pocket costs. In fairness to patients, having spent some time trying to figure out what the out-of-pocket cost might be for an EpiPen under a given insurance, I do not blame them for being confused.

What should our response be? Over 70% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats feel that the government should be directly involved in price negotiations, at least for Medicare. If not directly, similar rebates to those given to Medicaid would potentially lower costs for all consumers.  Lastly, patients can ask for substitute medications rather than use those that require significant out-of-pocket outlay. For the EpiPen, where the manufacturer has been “ruthless in fending off competition and in getting support for its predatory pricing practices, including within the US and the EU” it may not be possible but for others it never hurts to ask.

Over half of all Americans pay under $400 annually for out-of-pocket medical costs of all types and many pay nothing. As health economist Uwe Rheinhart pointed out last week, we need to get everyone engaged in the health system  to create the political will to fix it.  We can accomplish this by strengthening the penalties for non-participation so that  everyone will be affected. Or we need to get over this notion that everyone deserves access to healthcare and only the rich should be protected at all times from anaphylaxis. After all, J. Wellington Wimpy didn’t get a hamburger every time he asked.

 

 

“Trade, we are going to fix it; health care, we are going to fix it; women’s health issues, we are going to fix it,” Trump said.

Mobile, Alabama August 21, 2015

I was in of of the 30,000 (well, more like 15,000) people in stands at Ladd-Peebles stadium when Donald Trump announced his health care position. My late wife Danielle Juzan live-tweeted the rally as well.Whatever was wrong, he said, he would fix it.

My friend Josh Freeman just posted a blog where he cites the JAMA article written by President Obama to detail the successes and failures of the Affordable Care Act (now in year 6 of being enacted and year 4 of implementation). Bottom line, in those states that have expanded Medicaid, poor much better off. In all states, health insurance for those working still too expensive. In all states, quality of care is beginning to improve. It is widely assumed that a Clinton/Kaine administration will work to strengthen the gains made through Obamacare.

Trump declined to explain how he would lower insurance costs (other than saying “more competition”), but he did specify how he would deal with those who lack insurance. He said that the government would negotiate with hospitals to cover the uninsured.

60 minutes, September 27, 2015

In the evolution of Donald Trump’s health care policy, he has transitioned from universal coverage. As a business man with interests in many countries, he has seen the impact of more healthcare delivery in countries such as Scotland and has admired the ease and efficiency of care. In one of the debates, in fact, he expressed his admiration for other country’s care delivery.  “As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland.”

“We will repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare,” Trump said. “You will be able to choose your own doctor again.”

Donald J Trump’s acceptance speech, Republican National Convention

Upon wrapping up the nomination, the Trump campaign fleshed out his healthcare position (found here). Aside from “repeal and replace with something terrific” the plan is a little light on specifics. However, as this is a presidential candidate and we have to assume he has a shot at being elected, I feel compelled to analyze his stated position on how almost 20% of the GDP will be managed and 25% of our tax dollars will be spent. The key points are as follows:

  • Want universal coverage? The Trump position is to eliminate the mandate BUT keep the pre-existing condition coverage. Policy analysts are a little confused about how this would impact the care delivery system.
  • Like a bare bones policy? Trump proposes eliminated limits on intrastate policy sales. So your company might buy your insurance but there may be no local care delivery options, so you might have to drive to Delaware for care.Now THAT would be bare bones.
  • Allow deductions of premiums from income taxes and use of a healthcare savings account. A nice position to take if you want the vote of young, healthy people. As most chronically ill people make very little money and spend a lot on healthcare, this does not benefit those who are sick.
  • Require price transparency. Now this one, I can get behind. Check out health care blue book, kinda coming anyway.
  • Block grant Medicaid. Theory is “States know how to use the money best.” Bill Clinton did this with “welfare” (actually cash payments known as TANF) in the 1990s. The outcome? Total money available was reduced and less money was spent on child care (increasing the penalty to working parents who needed assistance). In fact, half of the money the federal government sent for TANF-like programs went for things like middle class tuition reimbursement.
  • Allow people to negotiate with foreign drug companies. This started out as “Medicare ought to negotiate for lower drug prices” but has ended up “feel free to mail order drugs from Canada.” Kinda odd how our negotiator-in-chief let that happen.

Should make for an interesting debate.

 

 

I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My parents moved there in 1959 so my father could go to graduate school at LSU. After a couple of non-academic jobs my father took a job at LSU in academia and we moved to an area near campus. So near, in fact, that on Saturday night I could see the glow from the lights at Tiger Stadium. The Baton Rouge I knew was mostly college professors and their kids and mostly “white” although my neighborhood had it’s share of brown and black college professors kids. The schools I attended were good schools. The Baton Rouge I knew was a good place to grow up.

I looked at Google Maps to try to get my bearings and determine if I knew the area where Alton Sterling was shot. I realized that though I didn’t know the area, I KNEW the area. Some auto repair stores, several convenience food stores, a dialysis center, and a couple of cell phone shops. The area is over 80% minority and has lost 10% of its population in the past 10 years. The median household income is less than 50% that of the Louisiana average and Louisiana is a poor state. I suspect you have driven through this area as well. Often by accident. Checking the door locks to make sure the doors are secured.

Race is a funny thing. The construct of race dates from the 1700s and, though there is some controversy, seems to be more tied to a desire to boost folks of certain color or ethnic make-up than to be a clarifying concept with any basis in science. Though life expectancy clearly does track with self identified race, many “whites” have African ancestors and many “african-americans” have more native American than African ancestry. Some point to sickle cell disease as evidence of a racial component of disease but the disorder clearly  tracks with factors other than black skin color.

A better construct is this study,  reported by Vox last year. Instead of being a dichotomous variable (black-white) or even a categorical variable (race is now often sorted into as many as eight categories, including “two or more”) the investigators suggested that how you self-identify your  “race” is actually a compilation of attributes that include skin color and genetics but also include such attributes as religion, social-status, power relationships, and dialect. Instead of being assigned at conception, race becomes a more dynamic construct. Other research identifies the act of ANTICIPATING being a victim of racism is clearly harmful to the health of the victim, regardless of any objective, “scientific” status of the victims “race.”

None of this brings back Alton Sterling. If, however, we could stop seeing things in the South as “black-white” maybe we could make some progress. Once we do that, here are some other things to work on:

  • Improve public transportation
  • Acknowledge that access to healthcare is a right
  • Hire public servants who are of the community and train them appropriately.
  • Demilitarize the police force.
  • Disarm the citizenry.
  • Stop being scared of “the other” because they live in poverty
  • Most importantly, stop making the poor and disenfranchised the victims of our fear.

 

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