Category Archives: Single Payer

GSK is paying docs again — and patients are the worse off

A shout out to Maria Todd for bringing this to my attention.

This would not be happening if we did what every other Western nation does, and give our citizens universal health care that does not line the pockets of multinational corporations, drug companies, medical device manufacturers, and Wall Street investors.

Health care should not be subject to the pursuit of profit.

One of the world’s largest drug makers, GSK promised it would no longer pay doctors to promote its medicines. Now it says doing so put it at a disadvantage.

Source: GSK is paying docs again — and patients are the worse off

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Health Care Costs Rising for Workers

Axios is reporting that health care costs for workers is rising while overall costs of employer-based health benefits is growing modestly from year to year.

This is slowly eating up all of the average workers wage increases, and then some, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s  2018 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

The survey covers the last ten years, from 2008 to 2018. Most of where the employees are paying for health care comes from deductibles, which has seen a +212% increase over that period, and is out of pocket. These costs, the survey said, is rising faster than inflation and wages.

Premiums for families have risen over this period +55%, while workers’ earnings have risen +26%, and inflation has risen +17%.

According to Kaiser, employees are paying an average of about $1,200 per year in premiums. That’s 65% more than what they paid in 2008, for single coverage plans that cover only the worker, no family members.

Besides the increase in deductibles, the number of employees who have a deductible has gone up, and the number of employees with above-average deductibles is up as well.

Three takeaways:

  • More patients are more attuned to the high costs of care.
  • The underlying cost of health care services is growing relatively slowly right now, compared to historical trends.
  • But there’s a sense, at least among some liberal-leaning health care experts, that employers have just about maxed out their ability to shift more costs onto employees — meaning that once price increases start to pick up steam again, businesses and workers will both feel the pain quickly.

What does this mean?

As workers’ wages are stagnant, and health care costs are rising, shifting the cost of health care onto the backs of workers is not only counterproductive to lowering the cost of health care, it puts an undue burden on those who can least afford to shell out more of their hard earned income on health care, especially when they have a serious medical issue to deal with.

Single payer will relieve the worker from having to pay out of pocket when wages are stagnant, and when wages rise again. This will enable them to have more money to spend on things that otherwise would have been prohibitive before.

To do no less is to saddle the working class with perpetual debt and decreased economic power. Not a good way to run an economy.

Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

A press release from Dr. Carol Paris of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) reported the following article from yesterday’s Health Affairs journal.

Two of the authors of the study, Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein are regular contributors to many articles appearing in Health Affairs, and you may remember them from my review of the book they published along with Howard Waitzkin and others, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health.

Here is the press release in full:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Despite recent claims that immigrants are a drain on the American economy and health system, a study published yesterday in Health Affairs shows that immigrants make a net contribution to private health insurance plans. The research team, which included several PNHP members, found that as a group, immigrants paid $88.7 billion in private insurance premiums but used only $64.0 billion in insurer-paid health care, generating a surplus of $24.7 billion in 2014.

In “Immigrants Pay More in Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive in Benefits,” researchers Leah Zallman, M.D., M.P.H., Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H., Sharon Touw, M.P.H., David Himmelstein, M.D., and Karen Finnegan, Ph.D. found that between 2008 and 2014, immigrants generated a cumulative surplus of $174.4 billion for private insurers, heavily subsidizing the the benefits of U.S.-born enrollees and boosting the profits of insurance companies. On a per-enrollee basis, immigrants provided an average premium-over-payout surplus of $1,123 each, while U.S.-born Americans incurred an average deficit of $163 each. Undocumented immigrants, who generally use little medical care, generated the largest surplus at $1,445 per enrollee.

While recent studies have examined the financial impact of immigrants on public health programs like Medicare, this project was the first to look specifically at immigrants’ role in financing private health insurance. Since undocumented immigrants or those residing legally in the U.S. for fewer than five years are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, private insurance is often immigrants’ only coverage option. Even so, many immigrants are afraid to use the coverage that they earn and pay for.

“Almost every day I see immigrant patients who avoid seeking the care they need to stay healthy,” said lead author Dr. Leah Zallman, who is director of research at the Institute for Community Health, physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Political leaders have created a climate of fear by blaming immigrants for driving up health care costs. However, this study and our prior research shows that by paying more into the system than they receive, immigrants actually subsidize both private insurance and Medicare for U.S.-born citizens.”

Don McCanne added the following on his post this afternoon about immigrants and private health insurance premiums.

From the Discussion

Immigrants contributed far more in premiums for private coverage in 2014 than their insurers paid out for their care, with undocumented immigrants generating the largest per enrollee surplus. This net surplus offset a deficit incurred by US natives and exceeded total insurance industry profits by about $10 billion that year. Our 2014 findings were not anomalous: Immigrants made large net contributions in every year in the period 2008–14, with little change over time.

While immigrants’ premiums were similar to those for US natives, immigrants incurred much lower expenditures—a disparity that was present in analyses limited to working-age adults. Among immigrants, expenditures increased with duration of time in the US, a phenomenon documented previously. This may reflect worsening health habits related to acculturation, increased care-seeking behaviors, and increased educational standing with time in the US. However, because premium contributions also increased with time in the US, immigrants made a net contribution to private health insurance regardless of their length of residence in the US.

Our findings contradict assertions that people born in the US are systematically subsidizing the medical care of immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. On the contrary, immigrants subsidize US natives in the private health insurance market, just as they are propping up the Medicare Trust Funds.

Immigrants’ subsidies to private insurance and Medicare likely reflect their relative youth and good health, as well as the reluctance of many to seek care. Policies that curtail the flow of immigration to the US are likely to result in a declining number of such “actuarially desirable” persons, which could worsen the private insurance risk pool.

Source: Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

Ex-UN chief Ban Ki-moon says US healthcare system is ‘morally wrong’ | US news | The Guardian

Here is an article from The Guardian newspaper that spells out what is wrong with the American health care system.

We should pay attention to what Secretary General Ban said.

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Exclusive: Former UN secretary general accuses ‘powerful’ health interests in the US of blocking universal healthcare

Source: Ex-UN chief Ban Ki-moon says US healthcare system is ‘morally wrong’ | US news | The Guardian

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.

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.

Medicaid Work Requirements Worsen Health

Back in May, I posted a link to a Health Affairs blog article, Social Determinants Of Health: A Public Health Concept In Conflict in which it was reported that the current regime was seeking to impose work requirements for people on Medicaid.

As reported then, and on Monday in a follow-up article, CMS approved the first waiver to implement a work requirement for Medicaid beneficiaries in Kentucky on January 12th.

The article stated that a couple of weeks ago, a district court found the approval of these work requirements to be “arbitrary and capricious”, and in direct violation of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1996.

According to the article, CMS failed to consider whether the waiver’s estimated removal of 95,000 Kentuckians was in line with the program’s goals of furnishing medical assistance, and the judge ordered the waiver to be returned to CMS.

It was the government’s argument, the article states, that new research into the social determinants of health demonstrate that income and employment are associated with improved health, and so a work requirement thereby fits within the goals of the program.

The case in Kentucky hinged on the fact that work requirements worsened financial assistance, which the judge pointed out is a main tenet of the program.

The author then writes that if CMS wants to use research within the social determinants of health, then he will analyze Medicaid work requirements through this lens. A recent post in Health Affairs focused on the perversion of social determinants of health as a concept, and the current post builds off that one, to demonstrate that this regime’s justification for Medicaid work requirements is misguided at best.

To illustrate this, he follows a theoretical low-income worker, a 50-year-old from Louisville, who could no longer work in his job as a longshoreman due to cardiovascular disease and suffered chest pain whenever he exerted himself. He is uninsured, has a wife and three adult children. And is also trying to find a job.

The author continues by examining the following issues: Unemployment and Health, Medicaid Improves Health, Medicaid Work Requirements Harm Those With Jobs, and concludes by stating that Medicaid Work Requirements Worsen Health.

The theoretical case of the 50-year-old longshoreman is not so theoretical, as each of the 16 Kentucky plaintiffs in the case demonstrated. One is a graduating student with endometriosis, another is a mother of four with congenital hip dysplasia, and another is a partly blind mortician (no jokes, please) with chronic lung disease. All would have risked losing their coverage as a result of work requirements.

And to make the case more clearly, your humble blogger, while not currently on Medicaid, but eventually will be, has end-stage renal disease, and does peritoneal dialysis every night at home, and goes to the clinic twice a month for blood work and to see the nephrologist. In addition, every two weeks on a Monday, as will happen this coming Monday, I have to be home to receive my supplies, and this Friday must call in another order. Working a full-time job, if one were available that matched my experience, would prevent me from doing so.

This is another reason why our health care system is broken and needs to be replaced by a single payer system that does not separate out older beneficiaries, as Medicare does, poorer ones as Medicaid does, and children and military personnel, as the other programs do.

One system for all Americans.