Category Archives: Health Care Costs

Tariffs Threaten U.S. Health Care

The petulant man-child occupying the White House is proposing to impose a 25 percent tariff on Chinese products and ingredients, according to a report in the New York Times on Friday.

Some of the products and ingredients are essential to health care in the U.S. such as pacemakers, artificial joints, defibrillators, dental fillings, birth-control pills and vaccines.

In addition, dozens of drugs and medical devices are also among products targeted for the tariff. Some of them are in short supply, and dangerously so. They are epinephrine, which treats allergic reactions, and others like insulin, whose price rising has led to public outrage.

This proposed tariff has unsettled the medical device and supply industries, since a growing number of products and their components are manufactured in China.

The manufacturing of medical equipment has shifted from throwaway surgical gloves to more complicated products like MRI scanners.

An International Trade Commission in January, the Times reported, said the fastest growth in China’s medical device industry has been in sales of orthopedic devices, plates, and screws, made mostly of titanium and used for surgery and sports medicine.

One analyst, the Times continued, estimated that 12 percent of medical devices imported to the US come from China, which amounts to $3 billion a year.

A report this week by RBC Capital Markets, the article mentioned, estimated that if the tariffs took effect, this could cost the medical device industry up to $1.5 billion each year. Some of these higher costs would result in higher prices for those devices, and would affect baby boomers, who are the biggest recipients of hip and knee replacements.

This no doubt would be a boon to the medical travel industry, from the US to countries not imposing tariffs on Chinese products, or not.

Greg Crist, spokesperson for AdvaMed, the device members trade group, said its members were “disappointed because this action threatens to affect the health and well-being of American patients and those around the world, the Times article added.

While it is unclear if the tariffs would be enacted, companies have until May to lobby the administration for changes. But the man-child ratcheted up the pressure by threatening to levy tariffs on an additional $100 billion in imports.

However, analysts said that it was unclear if the tariffs would have an effect on the drug industry, even though China is a leading exporter of raw pharmaceutical ingredients, according to the article.

“We don’t see much impact,” said Umer Raffat, a pharmaceutical industry analyst for Evercore ISI on Tuesday to investors.

This is so because many generic drugs that contain Chinese ingredients are manufactured in places like India and would not be subject to the tariffs.

Yet, one trade group has sounded the alarm, the article indicated. They said that the tariffs could exacerbate the issue of health care costs as the administration is pledging to lower drug prices.

Lastly, there are two drugs on the list of 1,300 Chines exports: epinephrine and lidocaine, which are in short supply in their injectable form.

“Things are so bad right now with the injectables, we don’t need anything else to pile on, to possibly make things worse,” said Erin R. Fox, a drug-shortage expert at the University of Utah.

She also said that the tariffs could exacerbate the shortfalls of generic injectable drugs, the decades-old products that are the mainstay of hospitals and have long been in short supply due to manufacturing problems and disruptions in supply.

For some widely used products, it is unclear, according to the article, how American consumers would be affected. Insulin is one example; however, all three companies that sell insulin in the US, Lilly, Sanofi, and Novo Nordisk said they did not import insulin from China.

Whatever happens with the tariffs, the effect they would have on health care here and around the world is uncertain. However, it would be prudent for those in the health care industry, the medical travel industry, and the workers’ comp industry to be aware and act accordingly to provide their patients with the drugs and devices they need.

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What’s Really Wrong With Health Care?

Book Review

Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health

by Howard Waitzkin and the Working Group on Health Beyond Capitalism

Monthly Review Press
e-book: $18.00
Paperback: $27.00
Hard cover: $45.00

Americans commemorated the assassination of Martin Luther King fifty years ago on Wednesday. Two years earlier, Dr. King, in March 1966, said the following during a press conference in Chicago at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR):

“…Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

The part of the quote up to the word ‘inhuman’ begins the Introduction of a new book I just began reading called, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health by Howard Waitzkin and the Working Group on Health Beyond Capitalism, published by Monthly Review Press, the publishing arm of the Monthly Review, an Independent Socialist magazine.

Those of you who know me, and those of you who have read many of my previous posts, know that my educational background is in the Social Sciences, as my B.A, is in Political Science and History, with Sociology and African-American Studies thrown in, along with some Humanities coursework. My M.A. is in History, with emphasis on American Social History, especially post-Civil War until the mid to late 20th century. In addition, I also have a Master’s degree in Health Administration (MHA).

But what you may not know is that my leanings have been to the far left, and I am still proudly and defiantly so, even if I have tempered my views with age and new insights. I think that is called wisdom.

So, as I set out to read this book, much of the material presented in it will not be new to me, but will be perhaps new to many of you, especially those of you who got their education in business schools, and were fed bourgeois nonsense about marketing, branding, and other capitalist terms that are more apropos for selling automobiles and appliances and such, but not for health care, as this book will prove.

In this book, there will be terms that many of you will either find annoying, depending on your own personal political leanings, or that you are unfamiliar with. Words such as alienation of labor, commodification, imperialism, neoliberalism, and proletarianization may make some of you see red. So be it. Change will not occur until many of you are shaken out of your lethargy and develop your class consciousness.

“Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.” Karl Marx

While the publisher of the book is an independent socialist foundation, it is no means a Marxist or Communist organization. And from my perusal of the names of the contributors to the chapters of the book, I have found that they are all health care professionals or academics, as well as activists.

Two of the contributors of one chapter, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, are familiar to many in the health care industry, as they have co-authored many peer reviewed articles in health care journals that I have cited in my previous blog posts.

Be warned. This book may piss you off. Too bad. The future of health care is at stake, as is the health of every man, woman, and child in the U.S. and around the world.

This will probably be true no matter what part of the health care industry you work in. Physicians, insurance company personnel, pharmaceutical company executives, Wall Street investors and money managers, service providers, vendors, consultants and many others will discover inconvenient truths about the businesses that provide their livelihood. As stakeholders in the status quo, you will be resistant to the prescriptions the writers offer for correcting the mistakes of the past, and the recommendations they suggest for the future of health care.

This book will not only be relevant to the health care industry, but also to the workers’ compensation and medical travel industries, as each is a subset of health care.

And if you do get upset or angry at me for what I have to say about health care, then you are part of the problem as to why health care in the U.S. is broken. Those of you around the world will also learn that your own countries are moving in a direction that sooner or later will result in your health care system mirroring our own, as the authors will point out.

This is a book that will shake you to your core. So, sit back, relax, and keep an open mind. It’s about to be blown.

The book is divided into five parts, with each part containing at most five chapters, as in Part Five, or two chapters, as in Part Two. Parts Three and Four, each contain four chapters. Part One deals with Social Class and Medical Work, and focuses on doctors as workers, the deprofessionalization and emerging social class position of health professionals, the degradation of medical labor and the meaning of quality in health care, and finally, the political economy of health reform.

Throughout the book, they ask questions relating to the topics covered in each chapter, and in Part One, the following questions are asked:

  • How have the social-class positions of health workers, both professional and non-professional, changed along with changes in the capitalist global economy?
  • How has the process of health work transformed as control over the means of production and conditions of the workplace has shifted from professionals to corporations?

These questions are relevant since medicine has become more corporatized, privatized, and financialized. The author of the second chapter, Matt Anderson, analyzes the “sorry state of U.S. primary care” and critically examines such recently misleading innovations such as the “patient-centered medical home”, “pay for performance”, the electronic medical record, quantified metrics to measure quality including patient satisfaction (“we strive for five”), and conflicts of interest as professional associations and medical schools receive increasing financial support from for-profit corporations.

Part One is concludes with Himmelstein and Woolhandler responding to a series of questions put to them by Howard Waitzkin about the changing nature of medical work and how that relates to the struggle for a non-capitalist model of a national health program. Himmelstein and Woolhandler comment on the commodification of health care, the transformation that has occurred during the current stage of capitalism, the changing class position of health professionals, and the impact of computerization and electronic medical records.

Part Two focuses on the medical-industrial complex in the age of financialization. Previous posts of mine this year and last, reference the medical-industrial complex, so my readers will be familiar with its usage here. In this section, the authors tackle the following questions:

  • What are the characteristics of the current “medical industrial complex,” and how have these changed under financialization and deepening monopolization?

Two corollary questions are raised as follows:

  • Are such traditional categories as the private insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry separable from the financial sector?
  • How do the current operations of those industries reflect increasing financialization and investment practices?

Once again, Matt Anderson authors the first chapter in Part Two, this time with Robb Burlage, a political economist and activist. Anderson and Burlage analyze the growing similarities and overlaps between the for-profit and so-called not-for-profit sectors in health care, considering especially the conversion of previously not-for-profit corporations such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield to for-profit.

The second chapter in Part Two is authored by Joel Lexchin, an emergency care physician and health policy researcher in Canada and analyzes monopoly capital and the pharmaceutical industry from an international perspective.

Part Three looks at the relationships between neoliberalism, health care and health. Before I go any further, let me provide the reader with a definition of neoliberalism in case the authors assume that those who read this book understand what it is.

According to Wikipedia, Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.

These neoliberal policies have been associated in the U.S. with the Republican Party and the Conservative movement since the election of Ronald Reagan. In the UK, the rise of Thatcherism ended the long dominance of the Labor Party’s left-wing until Tony Blair’s New Labor took over. Bill Clinton’s election in the U.S. in 1992, diminished some of these policies, and implemented others such as welfare reform, a goal Republicans had wanted to achieve for decades.

Returning to Part Three, the questions asked here are:

  • What is the impact of neoliberalism on health reforms, in the United States and in other countries?
  • What are the ideological assumptions of health reform proposals and how are they transmitted?
  • What are the effects of economic austerity policies on health reform and what are the eventual impacts on health outcomes?

In the next chapter, Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, a leading health policy researcher and activist, trace the history of the Affordable Care Act initially developed by economists in the military during the Vietnam War. International financial institutions, the authors say, especially the World Bank, promoted a boilerplate for neoliberal health care reforms, which focused mainly on privatization of services previously based in the public sector and on shifting trust funds to private for-profit insurance companies.

Colombia’s health reform of 1994, Hillary Clinton’s in that year as well, Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts in 2006, which led to the ACA, are examples cited by the authors. The chapter also clarifies the ideological underpinnings of the neoliberal model and shows that the model has failed to improve access and control costs, according to the authors.

Economic austerity is closely linked to neoliberalism and have led to drastic cutbacks in health services and public health infrastructure in many countries. As I have recently written in my post, Three Strategies for Improving Social Determinants of Health, economic austerity policies have also affected health outcomes through increased unemployment, food insecurity, unreliable water supplies (Flint, MI), and reduced educational opportunities. Recent teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and other states are examples of this.

In the second chapter in Part Three, Adam Gaffney and Carles Muntaner, focus on social epidemiology, especially the impacts of economic policies on health and mental health outcomes. They also document the devastating effects of austerity in Europe, focusing on Greece, Spain and England. The authors analyze four dimensions of austerity:

1) constriction of the public-sector health system, 2) retreat from universalism, 3) increased cost sharing, and 4) health system privatization.

This trend would seem to have a negative effect on medical travel from Europe and to Europe, as Europe’s health care systems, long touted as a less expensive alternative to medical care in the U.S., begins to suffer.

Part Four examines the connections between health and imperialism historically and as part of the current crises. The question in this part is:

  • What are the connections among health care, public health, and imperialism, and how have these connections changed as resistance to imperialism has grow in the Global South?

The authors are referring to those countries in the Southern hemisphere from Africa, Asia, and Latin America as the Global South. The Global North refers to Europe and North America, and some other industrialized and advanced countries in the Northern hemisphere.

The authors in Part Four focus on the forces and institutions that have imposed a top-down reform of health care in the Global South. Such organizations as the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Gates foundations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, trade agreements such as NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP, TiSA, and health organizations as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) are all termed “philanthrocapitalism” by the authors, and have implemented policies that have weakened public health standards and favored private corporations.

The final part, Part Five focuses on the road ahead, i.e., the contours of change the authors foresee and the concrete actions that can contribute to a progressive transformation of capitalist health care and society.

The authors address these questions:

  • What examples provide inspiration about resistance to neoliberalism and construction of positive alternative models in the Global South?
  • Because improvements in health do not necessarily follow from improvements in health care, how do we achieve change in the social and environmental determinants of health?
  • How does progressive health and mental health reform address the ambiguous role of the state?
  • What is to be done as Obamacare and its successor or lack of successor under Trump fail in the United States?

Howard Waitzkin and Rebeca Jasso-Aguilar analyze a series of popular struggles that focused on the privatization of health services in El Salvador, water in Bolivia, as well as the ongoing struggle to expand public health services in Mexico. These struggles are activities David and Rebeca participated in during the past decade.

These scenarios demonstrate an image of diminishing tolerance among the world’s people for the imperial public health policies of the Global North and a demand for public health systems grounded in solidarity rather than profit.

In the U.S., the road ahead will involve intensified organizing to achieve the single-payer model of a national health program, one that will provide universal access and control costs by eliminating or reducing administrative waste, profiteering, and corporate control.

Gaffney, Himmelstein, and Woolhandler present the most recent revision of the single-payer proposal developed by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). They analyze the three main ways that the interests of capital have encroached on U.S. health care since the original proposal:

1) the rise of for-profit managed care organizations (MCOs); 2) the emergence of high-deductible (“consumer-directed”) health insurance, and 3) the entrenchment of corporate ownership.

The authors offer a critique of Obamacare, explain and demystify innovations as Accountable Care Organizations, the consolidation and integration of health systems, something yours truly has discussed in earlier posts as they relate to workers’ comp, and the increasing share of costs for patients.

The next two chapters concern overcoming pathological normalcy and confronting the social and environmental determinants of health, respectively. Carl Ratner argues, that mental health under capitalism entails “pathological normalcy.” Day-to-day economic insecurities, violence, and lack of social solidarity generates a kind of false consciousness in which disoriented mental processes become a necessary facet of survival, and emotional health becomes a deviant and marginalized condition.

Such conditions of life as a polluted natural environment, a corrupt political system, an unequal hierarchy of social stratification, an unjust criminal justice system, violent living conditions due to access of guns, dangerous working conditions, and so forth, Ratner dissects as the well-known crises of our age in terms of the pathologies that have become seen as normal conditions of life.

Next, Muntaner and evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace show how social and environmental conditions have become more important determinants of health than access to care. They emphasize struggles that confront social determinants through changes in broad societal polices, analyze some key environmental determinants of health including unsafe water (Flint again), capitalist agribusiness practices, and deforestation in addition to climate change. And they refer to the impact these have on emergent and re-emergent infectious diseases such as Ebola, Zika and yellow fever.

Lastly, Waitzkin and Gaffney try to tackle the question of “what is to be done.” They outline four main priorities for action in the U.S. and other countries affected by the neoliberal, corporatized, and commodified model of health care during the age of Trump:

  • a sustained, broad-based movement for a single-payer national health program that assures universal access to care and drastically reduces the role of corporations and private profit, 2) an activated labor movement that this time includes a well-organized sub-movement of health professionals such as physicians, whose deteriorated social-class position and proletarianized conditions of medical practice have made them ripe for activism and change, 3) more emphasis on local and regional organizing at the level of communal organizations…and attempted in multiple countries as a central component in the revolutionary process of moving “beyond capital”, and 4) carefully confronting the role of political parties while recognizing the importance of labor or otherwise leftist parties in every country that has constructed a national health program, and understanding that the importance of party building goes far beyond electoral campaigns to more fundamental social transformation.

In their book, the authors try to answer key and previously unresolved questions and to offer some guidance on strategy and political action in the years ahead. They aim to inform future struggles for the transformation of capitalist societies, as well as the progressive reconstruction of health services and public health systems in the post-capitalist world.

Throughout this review, I have attempted to highlight the strengths of the book by touching upon some of the key points in each chapter.

If there is a weakness to the book, it is that despite the impressive credentials of the authors, they like many other authors of left-of-center books, cling to an economic determinism as part of their analysis, which is based on theories that are more than one hundred years old.

As I stated in the beginning of this review, my views have been tempered by examining and incorporating other theories into my consciousness. One theory that is missing here is Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics is a bio-psycho-social model of human and social development. It was developed by bringing together the field of developmental psychology with evolutionary psychology and combines them with biology and sociology.

In Spiral Dynamics, biology is concerned with the development of the pathways of the brain as the adult human moves from lower order thinking to higher order thinking. The social aspect is concerned with the organizational structure formed at each stage along the spiral. For example, when an individual or a society is at the Beige vMeme, or Archaic level, their organization structure is survival bands, as seen in the figure below.

At the Purple vMeme, or Mythic level, the organizational structure is tribal, and so on. There is, among the authors of the book, an evolutionary biologist, but it is not clear if he is familiar with this theory and what it can bring into the discussion at hand.

It would not only benefit the authors, but also the readers to acquaint themselves of this valuable theory which would present an even more cogent argument for better health care. As the book concludes with a look at the future of health care after capitalism, knowing the vMemes or levels beyond current levels will enhance the struggle.

As I continue reading the book, I hope to gain greater insight into the problems with privatized, corporatized, free-market capitalist health care. My writings to date in my blog has given me some understanding of the issues, but I hope that the authors will further my understanding.

I believe that anyone who truly wants to see the U.S. follow other Western nations who have created a national health program, whether they are politicians like Bernie Sanders, his supporters, progressives, liberals, and yes, even some conservatives who in light of the numerous attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, have recognized that the only option left is single-payer. Even some business leaders have come out and said so.

I recommend this book to all health care professionals, business persons, labor leaders, politicians, and voters interested in moving beyond capital and realizing truly universal health care and lower costs.

 

Federal Spending Increased Due to Medicare ACO’s

Once again, a topic previously discussed here has raised its head.

This time, it is the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

Readers of this blog will recall previous posts about this topic. The first, from September 2015, Shared Savings ACO Program Reaps the Most for Primary-care Physicians reported that primary-care physicians were benefiting the most from the shared savings.

The next post, Challenges Remain in Physician Payment Reform, which followed on the heels of the first, discussed the challenges that remained in reforming physician payment, after then President Barack Obama (the good ole’ days) signed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) back in April.

MACRA repealed the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism of updating fees to the Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), and had been blamed for causing instability and uncertainty among physicians for over a decade, and that led to 17 overrides of scheduled fee cuts, at a cost of over $ 150 billion.

In Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I suggested, rather strongly that all these models were not living up to their promise and was only creating more complexity, confusion, and dysfunction in an already dysfunctional health care system.

A post from January 2017, Illogical!, reported on yet another asinine model introduction by CMS at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit by Adminstrator Seema Verna.

So when I received an email today from Dr. Don McCanne, former president of the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP) that mentioned a press release from Avalere Health indicating that Medicare ACO’s have increased federal spending despite projections that said they would produce net savings.

According to the press release, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) has performed considerably below the financial estimates from the CBO that was made in 2010 when the MSSP was enacted as part of the ACA.

Avalere’s press release said that this has raised questions about the long-term success of Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

The MSSP has grown from 27 ACO’s in 2012 to 561 in 2016, and most of them continue to select the upside-only Track 1, the release continued, which does not require participants to repay CMS for spending above their target.

As seen in the figure below, Avalere’s research found that the actual ACO net savings have fallen short of initial CBO projectios by more than $2 billion.

However, in 2010, the CBO projected that the MSSP would produce $1.7 billion in net savings from 2013 to 2016. Yet, it actually increased federal spending by $384 million over that same period, a difference of more than $2 billion.

Josh Seidman, senior vice president at Avalere said, “The Medicare ACO program has not achieved the savings that CBO predicted because most ACO’s have chosen the bonus-only model.”

Avalere also found that while the MSSP was overall a net cost to VMS in 2016, there is evidence that individual ACO performance improves as they gain years of experience. Avalere found that MSSP ACO’s in their fourth year produce net savings to the federal budget totaling $152 million, as shown in the next figure.

Avalere’s analysis also showed that the downside-risk models in the MSSP experienced more positive financial results overall. This indicates that there is potential for greater savings over time to CMS as the number of downside-risk ACO’s increase.

The upside-only model increased federal spending by $444 million compared to the downside-risk ACO’s $60 million over 5 years.

“While data do suggest that more experienced ACO’s and those accepting two-sided risk may help the program to turn the corner in the future, the long-term sustainability of savings in the MSSP is unclear. ACO’s continue to be measured against their past performance, which makes it harder for successful ACO’s to continue to achieve savings over time,” said Avalere’s director, John Feore.

The weird part is that despite the MSSP increasing federal spending, ACO’s are still reducing spending compared to projected benchmarks.

If you are increasing spending, then how can you at the same time be reducing spending? Isn’t this a health care oxymoron?

Which brings me back to my previous posts. CMS is a clusterfudge of programs, models, rules, regulations, and schemes that have done nothing to improve the health care system in the US. In point of fact, it has only added to the confusion, complexity, dysfunction, and wastefulness of a system no other nation has.

When are we going to wake up from this nightmare and deep six the market-driven disaster that is the American health care system? There are saner alternatives, but we are so mentally ill and obsessed with profiting from people’s illnesses that nothing changes.

Einstein was right. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are crazy to continue with this mess.

Americans Are Skipping Health Insurance

Bloomberg on Monday published an article by John Tozzi that reported that some Americans are taking a risk and skipping health insurance because of the cost.

In the article, “Why Some Americans Are Risking It and Skipping Health Insurance”, Bloomberg interviews three families; the Buchanans of Marion, North Carolina, the Owenses of Harahan, Louisiana, and the Bobbies in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.

The Buchanans decided that paying $1,800 a month was too much for health insurance and decided to go without it for the first time in their lives.

Doubling insurance premiums convinced the Owenses to do so as well, and Mimi Owens said that, “We’re not poor people but we can’t afford health insurance.”

Saving money to pay for their nine-year-old daughter Sophia, who was born with five heart defects, forced the Bobbies to go uninsured for themselves and their son Joey.

These three families are but a small part of the dozen other families Bloomberg is following to understand the trade-offs when a dollar spent on health insurance cannot be spent on something else. Some are comfortable financially, others are just scrapping by.

According to Tozzi, the share of Americans without insurance is near historic lows, the current administration is rolling back parts of the ACA. At the same time, Tozzi reports, the cost for many people to buy a plan is higher than ever.

In the case of the Buchanans, wife Dianna, 51, survived a bout with cancer 15 years ago, her husband, Keith has high blood pressure and takes testosterone. Both make more than $127,000 a year from an IT business and her job as a physical therapy assistant. They have additional income from properties they own.

However, their premium last year was $1,691, triple their mortgage payment, and was going up to $1,813 this year. A deductible of $5,000 per-person meant that having and using coverage would cost more than $30,000.

What made the Buchanans take this step was when Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the major hospital system in Asheville, could not reach an agreement, putting the hospital out of network. Keith Buchanan said, “It was just two greed monsters fighting over money.” He also said, “They’re both doing well, and the patients are the ones that come up short.”

The Buchanans are now members of a local doctors’ practice, for which they pay $198 a month. They also signed up for a Christian group that pools members’ money to help pay for medical costs. For this membership, it costs the Buchanans $450 a month, and includes a $150 surcharge based on their blood pressure and weight.

After dropping their coverage with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Keith injured his knee, went to an urgent care center and was charged $511 for the visit and an X-ray. “If we can control our health-care costs for a couple of years, the difference that makes on our household income is phenomenal,” Keith said.

There is evidence, Tozzi writes, that having insurance is a good thing. People with insurance spend less out of pocket, are less likely to go bankrupt, see the doctor more often, get more preventive care, are less depressed and have told researchers they feel healthier.

Yet, some 27.5 million Americans under age 65 were uninsured in 2016 (myself included), about 10 percent of the population, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The most common reason cited by KFF was that the cost was too high. A Gallup poll suggested that despite declining for years, the percentage of adults without coverage has increased slightly since the end of 2016.

However, other data, Tozzi writes, showed no significant change.

The following chart outlines the household income and health insurance status of people under 65 who qualify for government help with having insurance.

For the Bobbie family, the current administration’s proposal to make it easier for Americans to buy cheaper health plans could open options for the rest of the Bobbie family, but with over $1 million in medical costs for Sophia, these less-expensive choices would lack some of the protection created by the ACA that allowed her to get coverage.

The tax scam that became law in December will lift the ACA’s requirement that every American have coverage or pay a fine.

Some states are trying out the new rules, offering plans that don’t adhere to ACA requirements. This is the case in Idaho where the state’s Blue Cross insurer attempted to offer a so-called “Freedom Plan” that had annual limits on care and questionnaires that would allow them to charge higher premiums to sick people or those likely to become sick.

The current administration judged reluctantly that this plan violated ACA rules.

The Owenses decided to do something like what the Buchanans did. They tried a Christian health-sharing ministry for a few months, but joined a direct-primary care group, which Mimi Owens called, “the best care we’ve ever had.”

The three American families are by no means not alone in having to decide whether to have insurance or to take the risk and forgo paying huge premiums to save money or to use it for another family member with more pressing medical issues.

Two of these families are not low-income, as they both earn over $100,000 a year and could afford to buy health coverage if it was affordable. But the reality is that premiums have risen and will continue to rise and will price them out of the market.

Except for the Bobbies, no one in the other two families have serious medical issues that are exceedingly expensive, and they have found lower cost alternatives, but for many other families in the U.S., that may not be an option.

The only real solution is universal health care. Then the Buchanans, Owenses, and Bobbies of America will not have to worry about how they are going to pay for medical bills if some serious medical condition arises. We can and should be better than this.

Tax Benefits of Medical Travel

An online newspaper, Medical Tourism Daily posted an article today from The CPA Journal examining the tax benefits medical travelers could receive if they sought medical care outside of the US.

This article is a further elaboration of an earlier article written by an ERISA lawyer and that I wrote about four years ago, Beware the IRS: What to Know Before Using Medical Tourism for Group Health Plans.

Today’s article was authored by three CPA’s and PhD’s from the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville.

The authors discussed the additional savings for taxpayers who seek medical care abroad, above the savings from the medical care itself.

The main takeaways from the article are as follows:

  1. Deductibility of Medical Expenses – generally, the deductibility of medical expenses is determined without regard to where the expenses are incurred. Taxpayers seeking medical care abroad are subject to the same rules and regulations as those who seek medical treatment in the US. There may be some differences in the types of expenses incurred. Example: medical travelers generally incur travel and lodging expenses not associated with domestic medical care. The type and quality of medical care vary from country to country; some treatments, therapies, or drugs administered in other countries may be seen as experimental in the US. Medical facilities may also be different, with services performed on both an in and outpatient basis. Lastly, some overseas providers may require a significant, upfront, lump-sum payment, which would make determining deductibility of expenses.
  2. Allowable Medical Expenses – in order to deduct the cost of medical travel, the expenses incurred must qualify as medical expenses rather than as personal or vacation expenses. To qualify as a medical expense, costs must be incurred for the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of a mental or physical illness or injury. The cost of equipment, supplies, medicines, and materials needed for the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, or cure of illnesses and abnormal conditions may include, but are not limited to some of the traditional medical expenses. Medical insurance premiums are also allowed to be deducted, as well as long-term care services and transportation costs related to treatment are also deductible. For medical travelers, transportation expenses and meals and lodging expenses are also deductible, under certain conditions (meals and lodging only).
  3. Potential Tax Benefit – in order for a medical traveler to derive any benefit from medical expenses, the taxpayer must have allowable medical expenses that exceed 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) and must itemize. Choosing to itemize actual expenses implies that the taxpayer has expenses that exceed the standard deduction. They cannot deduct both the standard deduction and itemized expenses in the same tax year.
  4. Paying for Medical Care Abroad – paying for medical expenses while living or traveling abroad is different from paying for medical expenses domestically. Many providers out of the US do not bill insurance companies directly. US citizens living and working abroad may want to fund medical care through high-deductible medical plans in conjunction with health savings accounts (HSA’s). US citizens are taxed on all income worldwide; therefore establishing an HSA can provide significant tax benefits in addition to effectively fund out-o-pocket costs. They can also be used by US citizens traveling abroad for the sole purpose of medical care, as long as the services qualify for the treatment of medical expenses in the US.

The authors conclude their article by advising medical travelers planning to travel for the purpose of medical treatment to carefully consider all factors involved with the tax treatment of their expenses. Lastly, they should keep detailed records and documentation.

It is incumbent on the patient, and not the facilitator to thoroughly educate themselves about the benefits and liabilities they may face if they fail to properly account for all of there medical travel expenses. It would be a wise and customer-focused facilitator, well-versed in tax issues to advise all medical travelers so that they can realize even greater savings from the medical care they receive.

An Old Story Resurfaces

My loyal readers may recall that in two separate occasions, I discussed a company in North Carolina called HSM that chose to send its employees to India and Costa Rica for medical care under their self-insured health care plan.

The two previous articles, US Companies Look to ‘Medical Tourism’ To Cut Costs and Self-Insured Employers and Medical Travel: One Company’s Experience came out of an interview in Business Insurance.com that was conducted by the author and the Director of Benefits for HSM, Tim Isenhower.

This morning, my good friend Laura Carabello of US Domestic Medical Travel.com published another interview with Tim, adding two more locations to their medical travel portfolio, Cancun and the Cayman Islands.

The interview is reproduced verbatim below, and pay attention to one point Tim makes about his company’s workers’ comp costs, a point I mentioned previously and cite as a basis for considering implementing medical travel into workers’ comp.

Here is the interview:

SPOTLIGHT: Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits, HSM
Spotlight U.S. Domestic by Editor – March 20, 2018

About Tim Isenhower

Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits – has worked with HSM and their self-insured health insurance for the past 25 years. Managing a self-insured health plan through the 90’s to today has provided him the opportunity to think out of the box for reduced healthcare cost programs including direct contracting, on site clinics, chronic disease management, and medical tourism. With IndUShealth, Tim and HSM were pioneers in self-insured companies offering medical tourism, as was presented on ABC News and Nightline.

About HSM

HSM is a privately-owned holding company based in Hickory, North Carolina, that specializes through its subsidiaries, in the manufacture of components for the furniture, bedding, transportation, packaging and healthcare industries, and the design and construction of automated production machinery for the bedding, apparel, aerospace and other industries.

Medical Travel Today (MTT): As a pioneer in the medical travel phenomenon, your story and your company’s role is so intriguing.

Tim Isenhower (TI): We are a manufacturing company and have had facilities coast to coast, as well as technologies in small towns and big cities. We were negotiating discount rates with hospitals across the country, where prices varied based on location.

I went to a human resource seminar in Raleigh in 2007 and Rajesh Rao’s company, Indus Health, was presenting medical travel to India as an option for employers. I went to India with Raj and his team, and got a physical exam which took less than six hours. In the U.S., this type of physical would have taken a month, from schedule to results.

So, we began offering medical travel to India for our employees during our annual enrollment process. We told them that if they chose to have a medical procedure done in India we would pay 100 percent, including travel with a companion.

We got no takers in the beginning. But at one of our final meetings, a fork lift driver from one our plants volunteered to have a knee replacement done in India – he simply couldn’t afford to have it done in the U.S.

He had never even been inside an airport, so I went with him and his travel companion. I was a little nervous because he had no experience traveling. But we got to India, and he actually did very well. He was impressed by the level of treatment he received.

When he returned home, he wrote a testimonial for our company newsletter. After that, more of our employees started traveling to India.

Soon word-of-mouth inspired more of them to get their surgeries in India because they saw what a positive experience it was.

MTT: So why did you shift your destination away from India?

TI: The cultural differences and distance resulted in many of our employees becoming homesick.

So, we started looking closer to home for medical care options. We have a large Hispanic population and Costa Rica had a history of high quality healthcare. We chose that area as the new medical travel destination.

Mostly, we send people for gastric procedures, joint replacements, back surgeries, hernia surgeries – a wide gamut of procedures.

Positive word-of-mouth has kept up the level of interest, and we also visit every location each year to promote the medical travel offering so more employees can understand its benefits.

MTT: And now you have expanded to Cancun. Do you find that there are other opportunities?

TI: We have. We had a patient go to Cancun just a couple of months ago. She did very well and that was a little different concept because it was an American doctor who flew down to Cancun to do her hip replacement. She was very happy with the services, pricing and results. We also send people to the Cayman Islands for various surgeries.

MTT: What has this experience meant to you, as an employer, beyond the cost savings?

TI: It’s really benefitted employee morale, to have a chance to travel to a place like Costa Rica, Cancun or the Cayman Islands. They come back and tell everyone about what a positive experience it was.

We’ve also been able to use our medical travel option as a recruitment tool.

What’s more, we saw our worker’s comp costs decline. [Emphasis mine]

I get thank-you notes from our medical travelers all the time, and we publicize these positive experiences within the company.

There’s no charge to the employee, and we give them a bonus when they return of 20 percent of what they saved the company.

MTT: Wow! That’s very generous.

TI: Up to $10,000. We are just trying to be a good employer, and this is just one way of doing that.

MTT: Do you know how many of your employees travel for surgery every year?

TI: I have lost count. We have roughly 2,500 employees now, and we’ve probably sent about 500 of them during the period of time that we have been doing this.

MTT: Did you ever have any unexpected outcomes?

TI: We’ve had people who had issues with back surgery, and they weren’t allowed to come home until the issue was resolved. But it was resolved.

They got better, came home and are doing very well.

That doesn’t always happen in a U.S. hospital. Here if a patient has issues down the road, they are on their own.

MTT: No legal issues?

TI: Fortunately, no. And the program is growing.

We’ve had everybody from executives to line workers utilize the program. Not everyone qualifies. A few have been eliminated because they have comorbidities that makes traveling for surgery unsafe, so these few were turned away.

MTT: And if you had to improve the program in any way, what would you suggest?

TI: I don’t know how I’d improve it.

Everybody that comes back is ecstatic about the program. The folks at Indus Health make it work. I know other administrators who couldn’t make it work. But Indus Health’s nurse case managers and screening process make it a no-brainer.

Rajesh Rao: We work very hard to make sure our patients are happy with our services. We don’t promise what we can’t deliver.

We work hard with our destinations to make sure we can provide assistance and high quality outcomes because that is what sells the program.

Jim Polsfut: I would like to add that it is a pleasure to work with Indus Health for all the reasons that Tim mentions. Their expertise and thoroughness have worked out very well with us.
We focus on three main objectives.

First, the quality outcomes.

Second, the satisfaction that we get from helping patients save money. In the U.S., it is so expensive to receive medical care even when you have a health plan. In that regard, the patient benefits in a significant way.

Finally, the cost benefit to the employer. For self-insured employers, this is important because of the hyperinflation of medical costs in the U.S. It’s difficult for employers to avoid the impact of healthcare expenses.

All of these factors motivate us, and give us a lot of satisfaction to provide a quality medical travel option.

Here is the link to the original: http://medicaltraveltoday.com/spotlight-tim-isenhower-director-of-benefits-hsm/

Medical Travel for Americans is Alive and Well

Many of you have probably thought that going abroad for medical care after passage of ACA was a thing of the past, or that the idea that workers injured on the job would go abroad was a “stupid, ridiculous idea and a non-starter”, have forgotten that medical care in the US is the most expensive in the world.

But the simple, undeniable fact is that we spend too much on medical care and get very poor results and outcomes, while other countries spend far less and get better outcomes.

Why are we so stubborn? And why hasn’t the workers’ comp world realized that they are fighting an uphill battle to lower costs every time they come out with some new strategy or cost containment measure that never lives up to its promise industry-wide?

Sure, there are individual cases where these companies save money for a particular client, but overall, the cost of medical care for workers’ comp still rises, even if that rise is slow at times, or appears to have shrunk, only to rise once again the next year, as seen in the NCCI State of the Line reports.

An article yesterday in Salon.com said that traveling abroad for medical care simply makes more sense — even regular teeth cleaning is four times more expensive in the US than it is in Mexico.

One of the first procedures mentioned in the article involves a Minnesota couple who went out of the country for an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure. On her fourth trip to the Czech Republic, it finally worked, and she got pregnant. The procedure in the US would have cost them between $12,000 and $15,000.

While IVF is not something that workers’ comp would cover, the fact remains that procedures cost far too much in the US, and in the case of IVF, only have a 29% success rate, according to a CNBC report cited in the article.

An estimated 1.7 million Americans traveled abroad for care in 2017, according the Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, and author of the same titled book. In my seven years of studying medical travel, Josef Woodman’s name has figured prominently in many articles and forums of discussion on the subject.

The article goes on to say that that is 10 times more than the 2008 estimate from Time magazine.

Some of the top destinations for medical care are: India, Israel (always go to a Jewish doctor first), Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea (unless that little twerp up north gets an itchy trigger finger), and Turkey.

However, there are other, more accessible destinations closer to home like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.

Typical operations are orthopedic or spine surgery (are you listening work comp world?), reproductive operations, cardiovascular and eye surgery.

For example, a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) in the US costs an estimated $92,000 (you could buy a couple of nice cars for that amount), whereas in India, the same operation would cost $9,800.

A total knee replacement (are you still listening ,workers’ compsters?) cost around $31,000 in the good ole US of A, but in Thailand, costs around $13,000. Tell me how you can save that much on a knee replacement using any of your so-called cost saving schemes?

These same operations in Costa Rica would cost 45 to 65% less than in the US, and would not require such long flights from most parts of the US. What are you waiting for? Save some money, I guarantee your insureds will love you for it.

Malaysia would be 60 to 80% less, but why go there when you can go to Costa Rica?

According to Woodman, medical tourism (travel) is a Band-Aid for the country’s dysfunctional health care system.

Woodman told Salon, “I don’t think you can penetrate this with philanthropy. It’s gonna be baby steps all the way. But in the meantime, medical tourism is a really important option.”

Woodman also said he did not like the term “medical tourism” because it is not a vacation. You may have noticed that I use the term “medical travel” instead. It is travel for medical purposes, and if there is tourism component to it, it is incidental to the reason for going in the first place.

Patients who cannot afford dental work, IVF or orthopedic surgery in the US, Woodman said, should consider travelling abroad. If their operation or treatment is expected to cost them $6,000 out of pocket, they will save money — even with the plane ticket.

Oh, by the way, that Minnesota couple spent, get this, only $235 for the IVF, not including flights. With such reasonable cost savings, it would be a no-brainer for workers’ comp to do the same.

But some people are stupid, ridiculous, and non-starters in my book.