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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.

'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.

 

 

Are you going to provide free clinics for sick underprivileged children? Will you do in Alabama what you do on mission trips to other states and countries?

Senator Jim McClendon, explaining why he is sponsoring not one but TWO lottery bills

The legislature in Alabama is meeting in special session starting today to see if they can find more money for the General Fund budget. The budget passed in the regular session was about $100 million short for what was needed to maintain the Medicaid program at its current bare bones level. Medicaid and corrections are the major programs funded by this complicated and convoluted budget process and, as you can imagine, the constituency tends to be silent. The legislature comes back into special session today to determine whether Alabama will become the first state to reduce Medicaid funding below the threshold required for the match.The funding possibilities are as follows:

  1. Governor Bentley’s proposal- a $225 million lottery, with proceeds going to the General Fund. Would require constitutional amendment. Money not available for about a year.
  2. Jim McClendon’s bill, which would include electronic lottery machines in four counties – Greene, Jefferson, Macon and Mobile – with a bond issue to pay for Medicaid in the coming year. Would require constitutional amendment.
  3. House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said he’ll bring a lottery-only bill that would set aside lottery proceeds for education. Another Ford bill would include casino gambling as well.  Would require constitutional amendment. Money not available for about a year.
  4. The legislature may create a compact with the Poarch Creeks, allowing them to offer more types of gambling in exchange for an annual fee or a cut of the proceeds. Critics worry that under federal gaming regulations, a lottery could open the door to Creek expansion without a compact. Unclear how this would work. Likely would draw a lot of attention form the feds.
  5. They may opt to use the BP money to fill the gap this year, leaving the hard work for next year.
  6. They may, and possibly will, do nothing and allow Medicaid to become a non-compliant program

If they fail to act. the feds will do one of two things. Because the program’s recipients are disproportionately poor and of color, the feds may sue under the Fourteenth Amendment and require us to find $100 million to maintain a $6 billion program, maintain access to healthcare for ALL Alabamians, and not force the layoffs of tens of thousands of individuals who work in healthcare. Conversely, the Supreme Court has ruled that Medicaid is an optional program. The feds may just allow us to opt out and allow our natural experiment to continue. Let’s see how many folks will come to Alabama instead of Ecuador for mission work.

 

I will be appearing at a press conference on Friday, August 5th as a representative of the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians. Beside me will be representatives from the Alabama Academy of Pediatrics, the Alabama Hospital Association, and the community. We will share the following message. This message is being shared in across the state in a series of press conferences beginning Monday:

On August 1st (tomorrow), Alabama begins applying cuts to the state’s Medicaid system that will impact the quality of care all Alabamians receive. In Alabama, Medicaid:

  • Provides health coverage for eligible children, pregnant women, and severely disabled and impoverished adults
    • About 1 million Alabamians
    • More than half the births in Alabama
    • About 47 percent of Alabama’s children
    • About 60 percent of Alabama’s nursing home residents

These cuts are devastating and dangerous. Because Alabama already operates a bare bones program, the following will occur:

  • Reduction of payments per visit to primary care physicians by 50% beginning tomorrow
  • Reduction of reimbursement rates for ambulatory surgical centers, all other specialty physicians, dentists, optometry, hearing and other programs
  • Elimination of the prescription drug coverage for adults for the first time
  • Elimination of adult eyeglasses
  • Elimination of outpatient dialysis
  • Elimination of prosthetics and orthotics
  • Elimination of Health Home and Physician case management fees
  • Consideration of a pharmacy preferred provider program

As a result of the Medicaid cuts put in place August 1, my colleagues in primary care are being put between a rock and hard place. Medicaid rates will not cover the cost of keeping the practice open. My primary care colleagues will either accept fewer Medicaid patients, limit the number of office locations, lay off staff – including nurses and other clinical staff. In some cases they will make the very tough decision of closing their practice and moving to a state that has a more hospitable practice environment.

So what? Turns out primary care doctors are the economic engines of small communities and provide economic vitality to all communities.  Combined, we support 83,095 jobs and generating $11.2 billion in economic activity, according to a report by the Medical Association and the American Medical Association. Specifically:

  • Jobs: Each physician supported an average of 9.5 jobs, including his/her own, and contributed to a total of 83,095 jobs statewide.
  • Output: Each physician supported an average of $1.3 million in economic output and contributed to a total of $11.2 billion in economic output statewide.
  • Wages and Benefits: Each physician supported an average of $758,744 in total wages and benefits and contributed to a total of $6.7 billion in wages and benefits statewide.
  • Tax Revenues: Each physician supported $46,148 in local and state tax revenues and contributed to a total of $404.9 million in local and state tax revenues statewide.

When these cuts take effect, doctors will leave. Consequently it much more difficult for any patient in the state – including those on private insurance like Blue Cross/Blue Shield – to make an appointment with a doctor of their choice at a time convenient for their schedule. Jobs will leave these towns, towns will die.

Isn’t Medicaid full of fraud? Turns out, not. In fact state lawmakers recently conducted an extensive review of Medicaid’s funding and operations. Our program is one of the most frugal health plans available.

What needs to happen? In order to protect the state’s fragile healthcare system from collapse and ensure that all Alabamians have access to the doctor of their choice, legislators must find a long-term, sustainable solution to fund Medicaid, and shore up funding for the coming year.

How can you help?  Visit IamMedicaid.com  for more information and go HERE to contact state leaders to let them know how you feel.  Encourage them to protect Alabama’s healthcare system by fully funding Alabama Medicaid. Let them know that you are concerned and you vote!

Q: How many magicians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Depends on what you want to change it into.

Turns out, weekends are especially hard. On weekdays, I would get up, do chores (mostly dog and chicken related), go to work, then come home. Either Danielle would have supper ready or, increasingly, we would go out because it was too much hassle cooking for two. Then I would settle down to do a little work and Danielle would do her thing until it was time for bed. Our days would overlap mostly at supper. The weekends, though, would be when we did OUR thing.

Danielle: Remember, tonight is Art Walk Friday

Me: Ok, but I’ll be about 6 because I have patients

Danielle: Well don’t be late because we’re meeting folks at the Bike Shop for dinner at 7:30 and I have to see the show at the Skinny Gallery. And then tomorrow we have to go to the symphony, and then…

Even on days like this when I was on call, we would carefully plan our trips and errands around my rounding schedule.

Now I have had to change my weekend routine.  Change, as they say, is inevitable.

Q: How many Marxists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.

Ranking things seems to be the new “news.” Almost everyone has put together a list of best and worst based on some criteria or another. My kids tell me these are called listicles. having the list without information in the title, so I understand, encourages folks to “click” ensuring more ad revenue. USA Today’s offering today was “The least healthy cities in America.” As everyone in America clicked to find out how their city fared, we in Mobile were (dis)honored to be #4:

4. Mobile, Ala.
>Premature death rate:
 490.3 per 100,000
> Adult obesity rate: 36.1%
> Pct. adults without health insurance: 12.9%
> Poverty rate: 19.9%

The average Mobile adult feels in poor mental shape for five days a month on average, far longer than the 3.5 days the average American feels in such a state. Poor mental health outcomes in Mobile may be tied to multiple unhealthy behavioral and socioeconomic factors in the area.

Mobile’s 36.1% obesity rate and 29.6% inactivity rate are both far higher than the corresponding national figures. Additionally, nearly one-fifth of area residents live in poverty, and 7.0% of the workforce is unemployed, each some of the highest such figures in the country.

Wow. For those with a memory for these things, in 2013 Business Insider tagged us the 3rd most miserable city in 2013. At the time I pointed out

The results of that survey, Perkins said, made it clear that Mobilians suffer from poor mental and physical health in large part because the city’s built environment is not conducive to being active. Access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods is also poor, he said.

If Mobile wants to work its way off these lists, it’ll take change (see figure). We’ll need to invest in infrastructure  such as parks and bike lanes so people make healthier choices. Increase the minimum wage so folks have time to use these amenities to get and stay healthy. Expand Medicaid so folks are not one illness away from bankruptcy. Focus our care delivery system on health instead of on making money off of illness. In other words, while change may not be inevitable for Mobilians, it is the only way to get off of these lists.

Or, we could just double down on our football success:

HOW MANY SEC STUDENTS DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIGHT BULB?

At ALABAMA: It takes five, one to change it, three to reminisce about how The Bear would have done it, and one to throw the old bulb at an NCAA investigator.

8802-figure-1

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system, that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

The state of Alabama continues to deny its citizens access to expanded Medicaid. One of the arguments made by Alabama state Senator Tripp Pittman, a harsh critic of government in general and Medicaid in particular, is that the states are not given enough flexibility. He blamed the poor for the “excessive” cost of care, in fact, and suggested that if more control were given to the state the undeserving could be weeded out. Then, as one does with weeds, left in a pile on the side of the road to wilt I suppose.

An inside look of how the state of Alabama would REALLY handle this serious responsibility can be seen in the trial of our Speaker of the House, going on now. For those who don’t watch Rachel Maddow or read the New York Times, the state has its Governor under grand jury investigation and its Supreme Court Chief Justice under judicial review. These, however, are not the worst. Mike Hubbard, the Speaker, has been under indictment for 23 felony counts involving violations of the ethics laws he authored. It has taken two years for this to come to trial. In the interim he has been reelected to his seat and reelected as Speaker by his “peers.” Several of his peers have already pled guilty and are scheduled to testify. Others will likely plead the fifth.

It is an interesting set of charges. He is charged with taking money as a lobbyist (unregistered) from a gas company and then  passing laws to push business in their direction. He is also charged with using his position as head of the Republican party to push business towards his formerly failing company. These are all your typical corrupt politician charges and his defense is one of confusion about the illegality of the actions (“I don’t know what he was talking about,” says defense attorney Baxley, it’s all “mumbo jumbo and gobbledygook.”) combined with the good-old-boy defense (“What he didn’t show was the parts of the ethics law that offers exceptions for friendships in business dealings,” Baxley said). Makes for fun theater.

The most serious charges and the ones that likely have gotten the feds interested are the ones regarding Medicaid. As a program that costs the state under a billion dollars and brings six billion dollars into the state, a bunch of money is available for folks to use for “bidness.” Speaker Hubbard, as documented in the New Republic, saw a huge opportunity. As the revenue stream for the general fund (which funds Medicaid) is diminishing and folks like Senator Pittman have no compunction to raise taxes, controlling medication costs seemed to be the natural course of action. Speaker Hubbard called a meeting and:

So three legislators, two lobbyists, and a handful of staff privately decided, after the briefest of deliberations, to enact a policy that would give a $20 million monopoly over the state’s Medicaid drug business to a corporation that had no experience running such a program, a move that would impact the lives of the 600,000 poorest and least powerful people in Alabama—children, senior citizens, people with disabilities.

Afterwards the group discovered to their surprise that one of the Speaker’s clients was involved in this Medicaid medication management scheme and would have benefited significantly.

The former chief of staff also urged Hubbard not to vote on the budget bill because it “looked bad,” but Hubbard said it would send up “too many red flags.” The language was later stripped in committee.

His current defense? “No harm, no foul” and/or “we stuck it to them city slickers.”

So in this one laboratory of democracy, even with significant federal oversight, Medicaid money seeps out around the edges to enrich a small number of folks. Imagine what’ll happen when the oversight is less. My prediction: It’ll be HUGE for some people, very few of those being the poor and the sick.

 

“Last year (2015), the Science and Security Board moved the Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, noting: ‘The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.’ That probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately.”

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2016 Doomsday Clock update

Here in Alabama, it is one minute to healthcare catastrophe. The legislature passed, the governor vetoed and got caught in a sex scandal, the legislature overrode and made law a bill which reduces Medicaid to a level not seen in any of the other 49 states. The program exists as a federal-state partnership and Alabama’s partner has every right to back out if we don’t hold up our end of the bargain.

So what, you say, I have Blue Cross.

As fellow Alabama physician Pippa Abston documents, everything is connected. Our doomsday clock has been inching closer and closer to midnight ver since 2003 when Governor Riley failed to pass a funding package to deal with the problem. In the interim we have cut mental health services to the bone, have reduced services that maintain the elderly in their home, have reduced payments such that eight rural hospitals have closed and another 2 dozen are on the critical list. The next tick of the clock spells disaster. Woman’s and Children’s Hospital in Mobile, 71% Medicaid. Children’s of Birmingham, 57%. Midnight is only a minute away.

In the cold war era we actually planned to survive the nuclear holocaust. Fallout shelters stocked with food, instructions on how to “duck and cover” and other propaganda gave us a sense of bravado in the face of certain annihilation. We were fortunate that the balloon never went up because our survival was never guaranteed.  In fact, policy makers were well aware of the futility of their efforts.

Today and tomorrow are the day when we decide whether to let clock click to zero for health care in Alabama. Don’t believe in the false security of private insurance. Our system is built on Medicaid. Call your state senator and tell him or her you support using BP money for Alabama Medicaid.

Alabama is still poised to unleash the Death Angel. The night after we wrote that post I suffered a tragic loss. Danielle Juzan, my wife and silent collaborator of 33 years was stricken and died of a heart attack at the age of 55. As you can see from the attached article, she was a wonderful, passionate woman who pushed me to stand up and do the right thing regardless of the personal or professional consequences. She was also a marvelous writer and those who have read this blog over the years will never know how much she added to these posts.

She was a fixture in the local community and fought hard for improvements to Mobile, Alabama. Her attachment to our community was what made this work so important. Over the years I have looked at several jobs in places that are better positioned to provide healthcare for all citizens. Each time  Danielle would give me the reasons not to leave our house (we just got the garden where it needed to be, we are getting a dog park, etc) and ask me if we couldn’t stay in Mobile a while longer. I would agree that we had a nice life despite the seeming callousness of the public officials and we would go back to tilting at the windmill that is improving the care of the underserved in Alabama.

As I grieve, I continue to check my e-mail and am thankful for the hundreds of expressions of sympathy that I have received. For those of you who read this, thank you so much. While nothing will make it better, it is comforting to know that Danielle has touched so many.

Immediately after her death we were challenged in a message as to accuracy of the position that Medicaid (not the expansion, access to Medicaid at all) saves lives. The commenter suggested that the evidence for improved health was wanting. He pointed out that before the passage of the ACA, Oregon randomly gave several thousand people who were uninsured Medicaid coverage and followed them and several thousand uninsured for a couple of years to see what would happen. The results were as follows:

Medicaid coverage resulted in significantly more outpatient visits, hospitalizations, prescription medications, and emergency department visits. Coverage significantly lowered medical debt, and virtually eliminated the likelihood of having a catastrophic medical expenditure. Medicaid substantially reduced the prevalence of depression, but had no statistically significant effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, or cardiovascular risk. Medicaid coverage also had no statistically significant effect on employment status or earnings.

The science is pretty clear, access to health insurance over a two year period for relatively healthy people improved some aspects of their lives but is no panacea. How these findings are interpreted depends on if you live in a red state or a blue state:

Their conclusion is as follows:

In its totality, the research on Medicaid shows that the Medicaid program, while not perfect, is highly effective. A large body of studies over several decades provides consistent, strong evidence that Medicaid coverage lowers financial barriers to access for low-income uninsured people and increases their likelihood of having a usual source of care, translating into increased use of preventive, primary, and other care, and improvement in some measures of health. Furthermore, despite the poorer health and the socioeconomic disadvantages of the low-income population it serves, Medicaid has been shown to meet demanding benchmarks on important measures of access, utilization, and quality of care.

For you, Danielle. Continue to help me keep fighting the good fight.

When asked about folks possibly dying from lack of access if we fail to maintain a Medicaid system that meets federal requirements:

“We all die sometime,” Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) said.  “We’re all mortal. We all have a finite period of time on earth. I think sometimes we confuse saving lives with extending lives.”

Wow! The state of Alabama has passed and overridden the Governor’s veto of a budget that, per the Medicaid commissioner, does not allow us to meet the federal requirements to stay in the “voluntary” program. There was a hearing on the impact of the budget on Thursday. In the lead-up to the hearings (found here) Senator Pittman was quoted as saying that the reason was that “I think there are legislators who need to more fully understand the workings of Medicaid.” A fair statement; as I have as I previously explained (here) the funding of Medicaid in Alabama is incredibly complicated. The hearing included a very informative presentation by the Medicaid Commissioner that can be found here.

Highlights of the Commissioner’s presentation are:

  • Counties with the highest unemployment have the highest Medicaid enrollment
  • Administrative costs are only 4%
  • Cost per enrollee have remained the same but the number of enrollees has increased by 30% since 2008 because of Alabama’s sluggish economy

And, the part that got Senator Pittman’s attention:

  • 1% of enrollees account for 30% of costs with 35 tragic cases accounting for almost $40,000,000 in cost to the agency

Senator Pittman’s response (heard here starting at 4:39 and accompanying article by Glynn Wilson here) would have made international news had this been one of Obama’s surrogates. Many of the federal requirements he  finds onerous provide healthcare to the “undeserving.” For example, the Feds require Medicaid to cover those who are receiving Social Security disability checks:

“[The eligibility rules]may be too liberal,” Trippman said, and “not discerning enough on whether somebody is really eligible.”

Giving to deserving people, it seems is OK. It’s  just that those who could get out and work, in the Senator’s estimation, need to get off their disabled rear ends and find jobs that provide health insurance.

He was then asked to reflect on the 35 most expensive cases:

“We’re spending more than 40 percent of the money on children in their first year of life,” Pittman, said, and added: “We’re spending a lot of money on the elderly, at the end of life. I think as a society we need to debate and look at all of these things. If not, you’re going to get into rationing.”

He then proceeds to outline possible solutions, beginning by referencing Bernie Sanders (8:30 on the video):

“[Bernie Sanders] said 80% of the costs are for elderly and for people in this state in the last few months of their lives and for people with chronic illnesses and the elderly. The reality is that we have to have some discussions about quality of life, about the expenditure of money, and about the cost. You know in this country the transfer of wealth from working to non-working, for every dollar you transfer from working to non-working you are transferring $7 from young people to old people. That’s a moral debate and that’s something people need to start talking about.”

He goes on to say that the cuts will be made, the impacts will be felt, and people will react to what ultimately happens.

There you have it. Willing to turn away $5,000,000,000 and dismantle a state’s care delivery system , so we can find out in our own little laboratory of democracy just how people will react. Again, wow!

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