Category Archives: Medicare

Mid-Week Catch-Up

Borrowing a page from another blogger, here are some items that I have seen this week that I did not immediately post to the blog. The first three are courtesy of Medical Travel.com.

From AHA.org, comes an article about the Zika epidemic I wrote about a while ago. About 14% of babies age one or older who were born in U.S. territories to pregnant women infected with Zika virus since 2016 have at least one health problem possibly caused by exposure to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. About 6% had Zika-associated birth defects, 9% nervous system problems and 1% both.

From Health Affairs.org, comes a report about the fundamental flaw of health care and the recurring-payment-for-outcomes solution.

Bloomberg.org reported that US hospitals are shutting at a 30-a-year pace with no end in sight.

Lastly, Health Affairs blog posted an article about an issue I covered some years ago, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP).

Have a good rest of the week after remembering the fallen of 9/11. FYI, I was in Houston at the time, just having started a new job with Aon there, and heard about the first plane crashing into the north tower while driving to work and listening to the radio. As we were all new, and had little to do, I took a brief siesta and when I went into the hallway, was told to go upstairs to the break room. There was a TV on, and as I entered the room, the south tower went down. This NYC born kid was not sure what was going to happen next, surrounded as I was by all these Texans. I remembered the people and companies I knew there in both towers, especially my cousin who was there for the 1993 attack.

 

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Again, With the Models?

Today’s post from Don McCanne revives an old issue readers of this blog are familiar with — the introduction of new models or the revising of old models for value-based care such as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and the Medicare Shared Savings Program.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma attempts to defend these models and gives an overview of a new proposal called “Pathways to Success.” Don’t you just love these cute names they give to future failures? Instead of scraping them altogether and going to single payer, they keep re-inventing a broken wheel.

At any rate, I am posting Verma’s article from Health Affairs blog, along with Kip Sullivan’s response, and lastly, Don McCanne’s brief comments on both. Enjoy!


Health Affairs Blog
August 9, 2018
Pathways To Success: A New Start For Medicare’s Accountable Care Organizations
By Seema Verma
For many years we have heard health care policymakers from both political parties opine about the need to move to a health care system that pays for the value of care delivered to patients, rather than the mere volume of services.
From the moment I became Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), I have been committed to using every tool at my disposal to move our health care system towards value-based care.
One set of value-based payment models that CMS has been closely reviewing are initiatives involving Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).
In this post I will unpack key features of Medicare’s ACO initiatives and provide an overview of CMS’s new proposal for the Medicare Shared Savings Program, called “Pathways to Success.”
Upside-Only Versus Two-Sided ACOs
The majority of Medicare’s ACOs – 460 of the 561 or 82% of Shared Savings Program ACOs in 2018 – are in the upside-only “Track 1” of the Shared Savings Program, meaning that they share in savings but do not share in losses.  Currently, ACOs are allowed to remain in the one-sided track for up to six years.
The results show that ACOs that take on greater levels of risk show better results for cost and quality over time. (See Kip’s comments.)
The current combination of six years of upside-only risk, which involves bonus payments if spending is low but no risk of losses if spending goes up, along with the provision of waivers may be encouraging consolidation.  Such consolidation reduces choices for patients without controlling costs.  This is unacceptable.
The proposed changes included in Pathways to Success would shorten the maximum amount of time permitted in upside-only risk to allow a maximum of two years, or one year for ACOs identified as having previously participated in the Shared Savings Program under upside-only risk.
Streamlining the program, extending the length of agreements, and accelerating the transition to two-sided risk would result in reduced administrative burden and greater savings for patients and taxpayers.
Looking Forward
ACOs can be an important component of the move to a value-based system, but after six years of experience, the program must evolve to deliver value.  The time has come to put real “accountability” in Accountable Care Organizations.
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The Health Care Blog
August 21, 2018
Seema Verma Hyperventilates About Tiny Differences Between ACOs Exposed to One-and Two-Sided Risk
By Kip Sullivan, JD
There is no meaningful difference between the performance of Medicare ACOs that accept only upside risk (the chance to make money) and ACOs that accept both up- and downside risk (the risk of losing money). But CMS’s administrator, Seema Verma, thinks otherwise. According to her, one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs while two-sided ACOs are saving “significant” amounts of money. She is so sure of this that she is altering the rules of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP). Currently only 18 percent of MSSP ACOs accept two-sided risk. That will change next year. According to a proposed rule CMS published on August 9, ACOs will have at most two years to participate in the MSSP exposed to upside risk only, and after that they must accept two-sided risk.
That same day, Verma published an essay on the Health Affairs blog in which she revealed, presumably unwittingly, how little evidence she has to support her decision. The data Verma published in that essay revealed that one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs by six-one-hundredths of a percent while two-sided ACOs are cutting Medicare’s costs by seven-tenths of a percent. Because these figures do not consider the expenses ACOs incur, and because the algorithms CMS uses to assign patients to ACOs and to calculate ACO expenditure targets and actual performance are so complex, this microscopic difference is meaningless.
As pathetic as these figures are, they fail to take into account ACO start-up and operating costs. CMS doesn’t know or care what those costs are. The only relevant information we have are some undocumented statements by the staff of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) to the effect that ACO overhead is about 2 percent of their benchmarks (their predicted spending). I suspect 2 percent is low, but let’s take it at face value and do the math. If, as Verna’s data indicates, two-sided ACOs save Medicare seven-tenths of a percent net (that is, considering both CMS’s shared-savings payments to some ACOs and penalties other ACOs that lose money pay to CMS), but these ACOs spend 2 percent doing whatever it is ACOs do, that means the average two-sided ACO is losing one percent.
The good news is that Verma may have hastened the demise of a program that isn’t working. Whether Congress ultimately pulls the plug on the ACO project will depend on whether ACO advocates will concede at some point that the ACO fad was based on faith, not evidence, and has failed to work. I predict they will refuse to admit failure and will instead peddle another equally ineffective solution, for example, overpaying ACOs (as the Medicare Advantage insurers and their predecessors have been for the last half-century). I base my prediction on the behavior of ACO advocates. The history of the ACO movement indicates ACO proponents don’t make decisions based on evidence.
Facing the Evidence
Evidence that the ACO project is failing is piling up. All three of CMS’s two-sided ACO programs – the PGP demo, the Pioneer demo, and the Next Generation program – saved only a few tenths of a percent, while CMS’s mostly two-sided program, the MSSP, raised costs by a smidgeon. All four programs have raised costs if we take into account the ACOs’ start-up and operating costs and CMS’s cost of administering these complex programs. Evidence indicting the other major “value-based payment” fads – medical homes, bundled payments, and pay-for-performance schemes – is also piling up. The simultaneous failure of all these fads to cut costs spells trouble ahead for the Affordable Care Act (because it relies on “value-based payment reforms” for cost containment), MACRA (because it also relies on “value-based payment” theology), and our entire health care system (because the big insurance companies and the major hospital-clinic chains are spending more money on “value-based payment” fads than those fads are saving, and because these 1,000-pound gorillas are using the establishment’s endorsement of ACOs, medical homes etc. as an excuse to become 2,000-pound gorillas).
The root cause of our nation’s chronic inability to adopt effective cost-containment policies is the chronic inability of the American health policy establishment to make decisions based on evidence, not groupthink. Seema Verma’s decision to bet the farm on two-sided-risk ACOs is the latest example of this problem.
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Comment by Don McCanne
We can thank Seema Verma for showing us that all of the talk about value-based payment – paying for value instead of volume through the establishment of accountable care organizations – was never really about value. Her insistence in shoving providers into downside risk reveals that it was always about reducing federal spending on Medicare. But that hasn’t changed her deceptive rhetoric about value and accountability.
Thank goodness we have astute analysts such as Kip Sullivan. The excerpts from his critique of Verma’s views as expressed in her Health Affairs Blog article should tempt you to read his entire critique at The Health Care Blog (link above).
The nonsense about ACOs has to go so we can get down to fixing the real problems with our health care financing system – the inequities, lack of universality, and lack of affordability for far too many individual patients. So let’s turn up the volume on a well designed, single payer, improved Medicare for all.

Nearly 20% of US hospitals weak or at risk of closing, analysis finds | Healthcare Dive

Key risk factors including low capital expenditures, more capacity in a 10-mile radius and for-profit versus nonprofit status, the Morgan Stanley report said.

Source: Nearly 20% of US hospitals weak or at risk of closing, analysis finds | Healthcare Dive

Rural hospitals in dire need of regulatory relief | Healthcare Dive

“Reducing some of the costly regulatory challenges we face would help staunch the bloodletting,” said Leslie Marsh, CEO of Lexington Regional Health Center.

Source: Rural hospitals in dire need of regulatory relief | Healthcare Dive

Single Payer A Bargain

Another shout out to Don McCanne for the following.

On Friday, the Nation published an article by Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein, and Adam Gaffney.

You may recall these folks from my book review, “Health Care Under the Knife,” and it’s conclusion, “Some Final Thoughts on ‘Health Care Under the Knife.'”

Rather than regurgitate it for you, I am letting you read it in its entirety. But before I do, let me bring to your attention, an issue that is flying under the radar and has serious consequences for the country, our rights, and for the future of health care and other social programs.

Those lovable brothers from the Midwest, Charles and David Koch, are funding a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. One of the goals of ALEC is to call an Article V (of the Constitution, for those of you not familiar with the document) that allows for the creation of a convention in the event the government gets too much power.

I recommend you read up on it because it will radically alter our system of government for the benefit of the corporations and wealthy. Say goodbye to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and direct election of Senators, to name a few goals.

That brings me to a quote I must let you read from a man who has no clue what he is talking about, and is emblematic of the dysfunction of his party. That man is former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, himself a physician who said the following regarding a convention and why he and others feel it is necessary.

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.”

In case you missed that, let me repeat it:

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.” Violent, ain’t he?

Pray tell, what country in western Europe is Marxist? Last I heard, none. Folks, these guys not only want to take away health care, they are still fighting the Cold War and godless, Marxist Communism.  No, what they are really about is defending a system, both economic and health care-wise, that cannot be sustained.

Here is the article in full:

Last week, Charles Blahous at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University published a study suggesting that Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan would break the bank. But almost immediately, various observers—including Sanders himself—noted that according to Blahous’s own estimates, single payer would actually save Americans more than $2 trillion over a decade. Blahous doubled down on his argument in The Wall Street Journal, and on Tuesday, The Washington Post’s fact-checker accused Democrats of seizing “on one cherry-picked fact” in Blahous’s report to make it seem like a bargain.
The Post is wrong to call this a “cherry-picked fact”—it’s a central finding of the analysis—but it is probably right that single-payer supporters shouldn’t make too much of Blahous’s findings. After all, his analysis is riddled with errors that actually inflate the cost of single payer for taxpayers.
First, Blahous grossly underestimates the main source of savings from single payer: administrative efficiency. Health economist Austin Frakt aptly demonstrated the “bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States” in The New York Times last month, citing evidence that billing costs primary-care doctors $100,000 apiece and consumes 25 percent of emergency-room revenues; that billing and administration accounts for one-quarter of US hospital expenditures, twice the level in single-payer nations; and that nearly one-third of all US health spending is eaten up by bureaucracy.
Overall, as two of us documented recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a single-payer system could cut administration by $500 billion annually, and redirect that money to care. Blahous, in contrast, credits single payer with a measly fraction of that—or $70 billion—in administrative savings.
Our profit-driven multi-payer system is the source for this outlandish administrative sprawl. Doctors and hospitals have to negotiate contracts and fight over bills with hundreds of insurance plans with differing payment rates, rules, and requirements. Simplifying the payment system would free up far more money than Blahous estimates to expand and improve coverage.
Next, Blahous lowballs the potential for savings on prescription drugs. He assumes that a single-payer system couldn’t use its negotiating clout to push down drug prices, ignoring the fact that European nations and the US Veterans Affairs system achieve roughly 50 percent discounts relative to the US private sector. (Single payer’s only drug savings, he argues, will come from shifting 15 percent of brand-name prescriptions to generics.) Hence Blahous foresees only $61 billion in drug savings in 2022, even though tough price negotiations would likely achieve threefold higher savings.
Third, Blahous underestimates how much the government is already spending on health care. For instance, he omits the $724 billion that federal agencies are expected to pay for employees’ health benefits over the 10 years covered by his analysis, which would simply be redirected to Medicare for All. He also leaves out the massive savings to state and local governments, which would save nearly $3.6 trillion on employee benefits and another $5.3 trillion on Medicaid and other health programs. Hence, much of the “new money” needed to fund Sanders’s reform is already being collected as taxes.
Yes, there will need to be some new taxes—albeit much less than Blahous estimates. But those new taxes would just replace—not add to—current spending on premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Additionally, at least some of the new taxes would be virtually invisible. For instance, the $10 trillion that employers would otherwise pay for premiums could instead be collected as payroll taxes. Similarly, Medicare for All would relieve households of the $7.7 trillion they’d pay for premiums and $6.3 trillion in out-of-pocket costs under the current system.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here. But at the end of the day, even according to Blahous’s errant projections, Medicare for All would save the average American about $6,000 over a decade. Single payer, in other words, shifts how we pay for health care, but it doesn’t actually increase overall costs—even while providing first-dollar comprehensive coverage to everyone in the nation. The Post’s fact-checker is wrong: Single-payer supporters can and should trumpet this important fact.
Of course, the most important benefits of single payer are altogether invisible in economic analyses like the one performed by Blahous. No matter what injury or illness we faced, we would be forever freed from one great worry: the cost of our care. It’s hard to put a price tag on that kind of freedom. Yet, paradoxically, even the slanted analysis of a libertarian economist provides evidence that it would be fiscally responsible.

Healthcare Lobbying Group Double-Crossing Democratic Voters

For nearly a year now, I have been advocating single payer health care ever since I was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. BTW, I am doing fine, even if I have been rejected twice for access to transplant centers due to personal reasons I won’t go into here.

Today, I found an article on The Intercept.com that reported that several candidates for Congress and other offices in Hawaii and other states have secretly secured opposition to “Medicare for All” single payer healthcare, even though they have told their voters that they support it.

According to the article, the candidates in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, former state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, and Honolulu City Council Member Ernest Martin are taking heat from opponents for talking to an industry-friendly group, the Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC).

The Healthcare Leadership Council seeks to advance the goals of the largest players in the private health care industry. These candidates are talking to the HLC even as public opinion is moving towards positions opposed by giant health care companies.

Kaniela Ing, a state lawmaker running for the seat on a democratic socialist platform stated that, “Democrats running in a primary election will say they support ‘Medicare for All,” but what do they say to lobbyists behind the scenes?”

In fact, the article reports, one leading candidate has campaigned on a pledge to crack down on over-priced pharmaceuticals and promote single payer, but told the consultant sent from the HLC that he would maintain drug industry friendly pricing policies and views Medicare for All with skepticism.

HLC spends over $5 million a year on industry advocacy and brings together chief executives of major health corporations, and represents an array of health industries — from insurers, hospitals, drugmakers, medical device manufacturers, pharmacies, health product distributers, and information technology companies.

HLC’s outreach in Hawaii began in January. The group told candidates, in an email obtained by The Intercept, that it was in the process of forming a coalition to “jointly develop policies, plans, and programs to achieve their vision of a 21st century system that makes affordable, high-quality care accessible to all Americans.”

This language obscures their national campaign to monitor and blunt the energy behind progressive policy reform. In an email to The Intercept, Michael Freeman, executive vice president of HLC said that they survey “congressional candidates every election cycle regarding their views on a wide range of healthcare issues.”

Former state Sen. Kim’s dossier profile said she is very pro-market, opposes any attempt at single payer, does not support price controls on pharmaceuticals and agrees that Medicare and Medicaid need to be managed by the private market.

It would seem that besides the opposition from the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry, single payer, Medicare for All, is under assault below the radar of most voters, if not most Democratic voters during the primaries.

Despite alleged strong support for bills such as the one Bernie Sanders introduced, lobbyists for the medical-industrial complex are fighting hard to defeat health care reform for all Americans, and no matter what the public attitude is, they will prevent at all costs, the transition to single payer.

HLC also keeps tabs on candidates who could be a threat to their agenda, such as Ing, stating that she vocally supports a single payer, public health care system.

Lobbyists have told executives in the health care industry to be vigilant about the threat of single payer.

“It would be a mistake for us to overlook the growing number of lawmakers who are supportive of measures to expand significantly government’s role in healthcare,” according to a report HLC published at the end of last year. The report went on to say that while these ideas do not have the political support to pass at the moment, the “momentum on the Democratic side of the aisle is undeniable,” They have dispatched teams of lobbyists to keep tabs on rising candidates.

So, even if you vote for a Democrat in November, chances are, that they will double-cross you when it comes to supporting Medicare for All. Which is wrong-headed on their part, especially the hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

If more people are covered, and the government pays for their health care, hospitals will get more patients covered under the plan and thus more revenue, even if they charge lower prices than for private insurance, and drug companies will sell more drugs to these patients, even if the prices are brought under control.

What difference does it make if a patient gets their health are from a government plan like Medicare or Medicaid, as many already do, or if they get it through private insurance? The hospitals and drug companies still make money, just a smaller amount. The number of newly insured will offset any assumed loss of profit, thereby increasing profit, and just not from a select group of people who can afford health care on their own.

Advocates for single payer need to be vigilant also. Don’t buy a pig in a poke. Confront these and other candidates for office to see if they really believe in single payer, or are pigs with lipstick.

 

 

 

Health Care, Immigration, and the Supreme Court

This week America underwent a shock of such magnitude that many believe that this is the end of the experiment begun in 1776, and the United States lost its standing as the “Shining City on a Hill.”

We have witnessed the cruelty of the Trump regime towards innocent children snatched from the arms of their parents, simply because their parents want to escape the violence and oppression of the drug gangs rampant in their home countries.

These parents want not only to secure for their children a life free from being recruited into these gangs, they also want to provide their children with a better life.

And most of them did so according to US immigration law. They presented themselves at legitimate border crossings, and were summarily arrested, had their children separated from them, the children, some as young as a few months old, put in cages, or transferred across the country, and placed in facilities where no press or Congressional observers are allowed to see for themselves, except on special guided tours where they cannot speak to the children.
Recently, a judge in California ordered the regime to re-unite the children with their parents and effectively ended the zero-tolerance policy.

Tomorrow, at 11 am, I, and many others around the nation will take part in a march to protest this cruel and un-American action. The march I will be attending will be held in West Palm Beach and will cross the Intracoastal Waterway by way of a bridge connecting the mainland with Palm Beach island. The march will terminate at Mar-a-Lago, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune, and that is now owned by the Orangutan.

Why am I writing this, and what does it have to do with health care? And what does the Supreme Court have to do with these other issues?

That is what this post will attempt to address.

To begin with, the immigration issue will have a profound effect on the health care system, as the older Americans get, the more home health and nurses’ aides they are going to need.

Preventing these unfortunate men, women and children, fleeing violence and drug gangs, and civil war and corruption at home, will mean that in the future there will be fewer workers to take these and many other jobs in health care and other industries.

In addition, the so-called “travel ban”, is really a cynical attempt to impose a Muslim ban without calling it one. The Supreme Court weighed in on this move this week, ignoring the racist comments made by the Orangutan, and gave him wide latitude to ban anyone he does not like.

This will have the chilling effect of preventing both medical students and physicians from coming to the US, not only from the countries on the list, but all other Muslim nations. The medical travel industry, also may feel some effect, as providers and facilitators from Gulf states, and other nations in the region, may be prevented from attending conferences and speaking engagements, and Americans who go to the UAE may be given greater scrutiny upon return to the US.

As a grandson of immigrants, this un-constitutional, un-American, and inhumane action by this regime is very disturbing and sickened me when I heard the cries of those children. But, according to recent polling on the issue, 58% of Republicans approved of the separation of children from their parents, while 92% of Democrats disapproved. The CNN poll results are here:

On top of the immigration debacle, and the “travel ban”, there was a third and more devastating blow to American democracy and to the Republic this week. The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote on many issues brought before the Court, portends that the Court will be radically altered once a replacement is chosen and confirmed by the Senate.

But unlike the Merritt Garland nomination, Mitch McConnell is vowing to confirm whatever nominee the Orangutan appoints, and the regime promises to appoint a strict Conservative justice. Several commentators have indicated that abortion, LGBTQ rights, and maybe even health care, could be overturned if one more current justice, most probably Ruth Bader Ginsberg, retires or like Scalia, dies in the next two years. She is 85.

Overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal once again, will force women to seek back alley abortions, and will severely impact their health and lives. Also, it is possible that birth control and access to it, may be denied to women, and that will have serious impacts on health care in the future. Some believe that Roe is settled law, but don’t count on them being right. The Religious Right is waiting for the day that women are forced to carry to term pregnancies they don’t want, and then have any neo-natal or post-natal care taken away, so that they and their babies suffer needlessly.

A strict Conservative on the bench also threatens gay marriage and LGBTQ rights, as it was Justice Kennedy who broke with the Conservatives and said that gay people had a constitutional right to marry. It may mean that more cases like the recent Colorado case may be decided in the plaintiff’s favor, albeit without the bias the state Commission showed to religion.

Lastly, health care could face enormous challenges ahead if the makeup of the Court swings radically to the right. The current Court ruled that the ACA was Constitutional, but since the coup of 2016, the GOP has steadily destroyed the law and a radical Supreme Court just might put the last nail in the coffin and deny millions of Americans health care. There is also a health care bill in Congress that will remove many diseases and pre-existing conditions from coverage.

This is especially disturbing to yours truly, as I have one of those pre-existing conditions: ESRD. Right now, I have Medicare only, but who knows what a radical Court may do to that and the other health care programs such as Medicaid, CHIP, etc.

In college, I was taught that the Court generally swings from liberal to conservative, but in my lifetime, it has gone from liberal to conservative, to radically conservative, so that now we may be headed for a judicial, corporate dictatorship where the people have little or no rights, and Corporate and religious interests have all the rights.

The following quote sums up our predicament:

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Sinclair Lewis

So, what do we do?

Well, the march tomorrow morning is a start. I have been critical of those groups opposed to this regime sitting on their kiesters and doing nothing except marching once a year in January for two straight years in the Women’s Marches. This crisis is bigger than just one demographic group. This fight is for the soul of the nation and for the Republic as a democratic republic. A journalist heard this morning on MSNBC said she went to Minnesota recently when the Orangutan was there, and she said that the cab driver told her that he is a Republican, is against the Orangutan, and cannot speak to friends about him because they believe him 100% and think he is a god.

Great! Now we have a Caucasian version of Kim Jong Un.

We have to work together, because in the words of Pastor Niemoeller:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Founding Fathers knew something like this would happen, but never thought that the Electoral College, created to prevent this, would actually make it a reality. We are living in scary times.

Have a good weekend everyone, and if I don’t write before Wednesday, have a safe and happy Fourth…it may be our last.