Tag Archives: Health Care Reform

Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates

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For those of you who did not watch the two nights Democratic debate, and those like me who did, one thing is clear. Medicare for All is very popular among the audiences who attended, judging by the applause garnered each time a candidate was asked about their plan for providing every American with health care.

On the first night, the moderator asked for a show of hands to the question as to who supported eliminating private insurance, only two candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands.

The rest of the candidates on the first night supported keeping private insurance or giving people the choice of a public option, and de Blasio and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke sparring over the issue.

This is how some of the candidates responded to the issue:

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” said Elizabeth Warren

Amy Klobuchar said she preferred a “public option”, “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke allowed that the goal should be “guaranteed, high-quality, universal health care as quickly and surely as possible.” “Our plan says that if you’re uninsured, we enroll you in Medicare,” and called his plan Medicare for America.

On the second night, the same question about abolishing private insurance was asked, and again, only two raised their hands, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who defended the ACA, said that Americans “need to have insurance that is covered, and that they can afford.”

Candidates Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet all gave their views on universal coverage, noting the importance of a transition period, and suggesting that a public option would allow people to buy into Medicare.

While the rest of the candidates from both evenings’ debates were divided against their fellow candidates who supported Medicare for All, those who spoke up for it, Sanders, Warren, Harris and de Blasio, won over the audience in the hall. What remains to be seen is how their ideas are received in the primaries beginning early next year.

According to Bloomberg, (the publication, not the former New York mayor), Medicare for All enjoys broad support: 56% of Americans said they supported such a plan in a January survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, when told Medicare for All would eliminate private health insurance, 37% said they favor it while 58% said they oppose the idea.

So, supporters of Medicare for All have their work cut out for them. They need to convince more Americans that sustaining the current system of private insurance, whether they get it from their employers, or they purchase it on their own, is a big part of the problem facing the US health care system.

Another point that is forgotten in the debate is the fact that what is being proposed is not a government takeover of health care, but rather a transition from a broken system to a government financed system of health care. Candidates who support this should explain the difference, and not be led into the trap set by debate moderators or interviews of calling Medicare for All, government-run health care.

It must be made clear that the providing of care will remain private, but that paying for it will not. Sanders’ stump speech line about going to any doctor sounds reminiscent of President Obama’s promise that you can keep your doctor under the ACA, but the reality was far from that.

But the takeaway from the debates indicates that the campaign will be a long and hard fought one, and that Democrats must be very clear what it is they actually want to do on health care, know how to pay for it, and sell it as the best solution to our dysfunctional health care system, or as author Marianne Williamson called it, a sickness system.

Because already, the Orangutan has pounced on one issue raised in the debate, the support by all candidates for providing medical care to undocumented immigrants. In today’s charged political climate where racism has raised its ugly head, and nationalism is on the march, such ideas can be disastrous, especially if rejected by swing voters and independents.

Time and the primaries will tell.

ACOs Do Not Improve Spending or Quality

Thank to Dr. McCanne, I am re-posting the following article from the Annals of Internal Medicine that was published Tuesday. I have written before about MSSPs, so I thought it would be a respite from talking about single payer.

Here is the article in its entirety:

Annals of Internal Medicine
June 18, 2019
Performance in the Medicare Shared Savings Program After Accounting for Nonrandom Exit: An Instrumental Variable Analysis
By Adam A. Markovitz, BS; John M. Hollingsworth, MD, MS; John Z. Ayanian, MD, MPP; Edward C. Norton, PhD; Phyllis L. Yan, MS; Andrew M. Ryan, PhD

Abstract

Background:
Accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) are associated with modest savings. However, prior research may overstate this effect if high-cost clinicians exit ACOs.

Objective:
To evaluate the effect of the MSSP on spending and quality while accounting for clinicians’ nonrandom exit.

Design:
Similar to prior MSSP analyses, this study compared MSSP ACO participants versus control beneficiaries using adjusted longitudinal models that accounted for secular trends, market factors, and beneficiary characteristics. To further account for selection effects, the share of nearby clinicians in the MSSP was used as an instrumental variable. Hip fracture served as a falsification outcome. The authors also tested for compositional changes among MSSP participants.

Setting:
Fee-for-service Medicare, 2008 through 2014.

Patients:
A 20% sample (97 204 192 beneficiary-quarters).

Measurements:
Total spending, 4 quality indicators, and hospitalization for hip fracture.

Results:
In adjusted longitudinal models, the MSSP was associated with spending reductions (change, −$118 [95% CI, −$151 to −$85] per beneficiary-quarter) and improvements in all 4 quality indicators. In instrumental variable models, the MSSP was not associated with spending (change, $5 [CI, −$51 to $62] per beneficiary-quarter) or quality. In falsification tests, the MSSP was associated with hip fracture in the adjusted model (−0.24 hospitalizations for hip fracture [CI, −0.32 to −0.16 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters) but not in the instrumental variable model (0.05 hospitalizations [CI, −0.10 to 0.20 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters). Compositional changes were driven by high-cost clinicians exiting ACOs: High-cost clinicians (99th percentile) had a 30.4% chance of exiting the MSSP, compared with a 13.8% chance among median-cost clinicians (50th percentile).

Limitation:
The study used an observational design and administrative data.

Conclusion:
After adjustment for clinicians’ nonrandom exit, the MSSP was not associated with improvements in spending or quality. Selection effects — including exit of high-cost clinicians — may drive estimates of savings in the MSSP.

Primary Funding Source:
Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and National Institute on Aging.

In addition, here is an article from The Incidental Economist of June 17th on the same subject:

The Incidental Economist
June 17, 2019
Spending Reductions in the Medicare Shared Savings Program: Selection or Savings?
By J. Michael McWilliams, MD, PhD, Alan M. Zaslavsky, PhD, Bruce E. Landon, MD, MBA, and Michael E. Chernew, PhD.

Prior studies suggest that accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the MSSP have achieved modest, growing savings. In a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine, Markovitz et al. conclude that savings from the MSSP are illusory, an artifact of risk selection behaviors by ACOs such as “pruning” primary care physicians (PCPs) with high-cost patients. Their conclusions appear to contradict previous findings that characteristics of ACO patients changed minimally over time relative to local control groups.

Conclusion

Monitoring ACOs will be essential, particularly as incentives for selection are strengthened as regional spending rates become increasingly important in determining benchmarks. Although there has likely been some gaming, the evidence to date — including the study by Markovitz et al. — provides no clear evidence of a costly problem and suggests that ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings. Causal inference is hard but necessary to inform policy. When conclusions differ, opportunities arise to understand methodological differences and to clarify their implications for policy.

And finally, Don McCanne’s comment:

This important study in the highly reputable Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that accountable care organizations (ACOs) participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) did not show any improvement in spending or quality when adjustments were made for selection effects, especially the non-random exit of high-cost clinicians (“I’m worth the extra money, and if you’re gonna cut my fees, I’m outta here.”)

The conclusions were immediately challenged by others in the policy community who have previously published studies indicating that “ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings,” albeit admitting that “there has likely been some gaming.” And the savings were, indeed, very small. Others have suggested that the very small savings did not take into consideration the significant increase in provider administrative costs for technological equipment and personnel to run the ACOs, and certainly did not consider other unintended consequences such as the tragic increase in physician burnout.

Another problem with the infatuation for ACOs is that politicians and the policy community are insisting that we continue with this experiment in spite of the disappointing results to date. That simply postpones the adoption of truly effective policies, such as those in a single payer Medicare for All program, that would actually improve quality while greatly reducing administrative waste. The tragedy is that this also perpetuates uninsurance, underinsurance, and personal financial hardship from medical bills.

People are suffering and dying while the policy community continues to diddle with ACOs and other injudicious policy inventions. Enough! It’s long past time to reduce suffering and save lives! Single Payer Medicare for All!

(Yes, I’m angry, but even more I’m terribly anguished over the health care injustices that we continue to tolerate through our collective inaction.)

See, we can’t get away from Medicare for All after all.

 

From Monopolies to Monopsony

Axios yesterday reported that the US health care system is made up of mostly monopolies, and that the industry is dominated by a small number of companies, according to an article by Sam Baker. And this, critics say, drives up prices for everyone.

The following chart highlights the combined market share of the two largest companies in the selected health care sectors.

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Data: Open Markets Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Because the US spends more than any other industrialized nation for health care, because our prices are higher, the monopolies that support those high prices could undermine both the liberal and conservative dreams of a more efficient system, according to Baker.

Here is the big picture, according to Baker:

  • Hospital systems continue to merge with each other and gobble up doctors’ practices, which lets them charge more for the care they provide.
  • Insurers and pharmacy benefit managers are also merging, and are now on track to bring in more revenue than the tech industry;s biggest powerhouses.

The trend towards concentration, Baker wrote, extends throughout the system, even into sectors that most patients never directly interact with, according to the data from the Open Markets Institute and shared with Axios first.

Returning to the chart above, let’s look at the suppliers for hospitals:

  • One company controls 64% of the market for syringes. Just 3 companies control the market for IV solution, and two companies make 47% of the hospital beds.
  • The biggest sector is syringes, with $3.8 billion in annual revenue. In a system that is already not very competitive, OMI found, each step without competition feeds into the next one.

Open Markets policy director, Phil Longman stated that, “America’s health care crisis is brought to you by monopoly.”

A particular example, and one that I am familiar with, is Dialysis:

  • Dialysis clinics bring in about $25 billion per year in revenue, and two companies, Fresenius (my clinic) and DaVita — control 92% of the market.
  • Fresenius is the leader, with almost 50% market share.
  • The manufacture of dialysis supplies is also concentrated around two companies, one of which is Fresenius, as my delivery truck and boxes and other materials can attest to. In this, they control 33% of that market.

What then does this monopolization mean for both sides of the health care debate?

This level of concentration can pose a problem for both liberals and conservatives, argues Longman.

  • Conservatives, for example, wanted to shift dialysis away from VA facilities and let veterans use private care instead.
  • Especially in sparsely populated areas, there’s an argument that such an arrangement would be more efficient, Longman said — but without actual competition in the private market, the VA just ends up paying more.
  • But by the same token, large hospital systems dominate some regions entirely. They’re not only the only source of care for miles, but also the largest employer and thus an important political constituency.
  • And that could make it hard for Democrats to follow through on big payment cuts in an expanded public program or “Medicare for All.”
  • “What are the chances the taxpayers get a good price if we don’t fix the monopoly problem?

Here’s a thought. Let there be more competition, but let the financing and paying be done by one entity — the government. In other words, let the providing of care be carried out by many companies, hospitals, etc., but make the financing of health care and the payments for it the responsibility of the government through an improved Medicare for All.

Medicare already pays out to the existing hospitals and providers, irregardless if they are concentrated, and has for some time, so expanding Medicare to all should be the same.

Yet, until the monopoly problem is solved, nothing will change.

The Free Market Utopian Fantasy

Whenever the subject of what to do about the cost of health care arises on the social media site, LinkedIn, invariably there is someone who attempts to deflect the discussion away from the logical solution of Medicare for All/Single Payer, to what I am calling the Free Market Utopian Fantasy.

Those of you who read my post, “Health Care Is Not a Market”, will understand that when it comes to health care, the rules of the market do not apply. That is why I have called the attitude and comments made by these individuals, the Free Market Utopian Fantasy. Because the free market in health care is a fantasy. It is usually the expression of economic libertarianism coming from the right-wing propaganda machine.

Simply put, the Free Market Utopian Fantasy states that if we only had a truly free market health care system, costs would regulate themselves through competition, as in other areas of the free market.

In fact, one observer recently said the following in a thread on LI: “This would not be the case IF there were created and implemented an ORDERLY market for health care services based upon free market enterprise principles whereby ALL costs are transparent to ALL parties.”

An orderly market? Are you serious? More of the same BS from the Free Market Utopians.

Then there is the idea that consumers, read that as patients, must educate themselves as to the best choice. Choice? When you are dying of a heart attack? Choice, when you only have a short time to live due to a serious illness like Cancer or Diabetes?

Folks, we are not talking about choosing between buying steak or chicken. This is not choosing to go to Italy next summer or to the Caribbean. We are talking about life and death. And the only choice is to do what will save your life, not choose between colors on a swatch.

This Free Market Utopian Fantasy has infected so many people in the health care industry, and they are trying to prevent the American people from receiving the same quality of care at lower cost than all the other Western and other nations already do for their people.

They claim that we can’t afford to do it. I ask, can we afford not to?

They cite statistics about Medicare like some cite similar statistics about Social Security, but they are wrong then, and they are wrong about Medicare for All, because it will be expanded to cover everyone and everything, not requiring separate insurance for things like vision and dental care, mental health, and long-term care.

Here is what one person said in the same thread cited above:

“We can barely afford Medicare for the 60 million current Medicare recipients. Adding another 270 million recipients would bankrupt the nation in short order. Latest data (2017) on Medicare shows an annual cost of $700 billion, and projections show the Medicare Trust Fund will be insolvent in 2026 – and by the way, Medicare actually only covers about half of the real cost because the rest is covered by supplementary insurances that have to be bought by the patient. If you assume that Medicare expansion was at the same cost rate as current Medicare, Medicare for all would cost at least $3.15 trillion in 2017 dollars. Total 2019 federal government revenue is estimated at $6.5 trillion, and estimated Medicare for all costs for 2019 would be $3.5 trillion. It is simply not feasible.”

Boy, they really know how to BS their way to keeping us the only Western nation that does not have universal health care. What they don’t realize is, there won’t be any private insurance, because it is private insurance that drives up the cost of health care with administrative costs and waste,

Well, it is high time we call BS on all of them, and their Free Market Utopian Fantasy. Until we stop listening to these folks who are protecting their careers and profits, no American will never have to worry if they or a loved one gets sick and cannot afford the needed medical care without going bankrupt or dying without ever receiving the care they so desperately need. I said as much in my other post, “By What Right”, where I took these folks to task for preventing the enactment of MFA/Single Payer.

These Free Market Utopians are not doing anyone any favors. They are only hurting millions of Americans, born or not-yet-born who will someday need a truly comprehensive, universal health care system, and it won’t be there thanks to them and their associates.

Opinion | Universal Health Care Might Cost You Less Than You Think – The New York Times

Today’s New York Times Opinion piece on universal health care is a timely one, given the attempts by the medical-industrial complex and their allies to derail any move towards health care for all. It is even more important now that the 2020 Democratic primary campaign is gaining momentum.

Whistleblower Reveals Effort of Employer to Crush Medicare for All

An employee at the insurance giant UnitedHealthcare leaked a video of his boss bragging about the company’s campaign to preserve America’s for-profit healthcare system.

“I felt Americans needed to know exactly who it is that’s fighting against the idea that healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” the anonymous whistleblower told the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein.

UnitedHealthcare CEO Steve Nelson boasted at an employee town hall about how much his company is doing to undermine Medicare for All, which is rapidly gaining support in Congress.

So begins an article from Common Dreams.org by staff writer Jake Johnson.

Naturally, UnitedHealthCare is not the only insurance company that is actively seeking to thwart the move towards Medicare for All, but this is the first time that an insider actually provided the media with proof that their leaders are engaged in such activities.

As I wrote in my post, By What Right?, these individuals believe they can supersede the right of all Americans to have decent, affordable health care that does not force them into bankruptcy, or to go without because they cannot afford treatment for serious illnesses or diseases, or expensive medications.

Like the individuals I cited in that post, Mr. Nelson and his colleagues at other insurance companies are defending a turf that is indefensible. Their only motive is greed and profit at the expense of those who suffer from disease or life-threatening illnesses.

They are protecting their companies bottom-lines and their investors’ money, and don’t care about the people who need medicines and treatments that can extend their lives or save their lives.

How much longer will we let the Steven Nelson’s dictate to the American people what form our health care takes, and who gets to decide who gets covered and who doesn’t. He shouldn’t, and neither should anyone else in the medical-industrial complex.

Medicare for All Act of 2019

Yesterday, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Medicare for All Act for 2019, along with 19 co-sponsors in the Senate.

This bill mostly follows the previous bill he introduced in 2017, yet it has one notable addition. The new bill is summarized as follows:

*  Eligibility: Covers everyone residing in the U.S.
*  Benefits: Covers medically-necessary services including primary and preventive care, mental health care, reproductive care (bans the Hyde Amendment), vision and dental care, and prescription drugs. This bill also provides home- and community-based long-term services and supports, which were not covered in the 2017 Medicare for All Act.
*  Patient Choice: Provides full choice of any participating doctor or hospital. Providers may not dual-practice within and outside the Medicare system.
*  Patient Costs: Provides first-dollar coverage without premiums, deductibles or co-pays for medical services, and prohibits balance billing. Co-pays for some brand-name prescription drugs.
*  Cost Controls: Prohibits duplicate coverage. Drug prices negotiated with manufacturers.
*  Timeline: Provides for a four-year transition. In year one, improves Medicare by adding dental, vision and hearing benefits and lowering out-of-pocket costs for Parts A & B; also lowers eligibility age to 55 and allows anyone to buy into the Medicare program. In year two, lowers eligibility to 45, and to 35 in year three.
According to the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), this bill can be improved by:
* Funding hospitals through global budgets, with separate funding for capital projects: A “global budget” is a lump sum paid to hospitals and similar institutions to cover operating expenses, eliminating wasteful per-patient billing. Global budgets could not be used for capital projects like expansion or modernization (which would be funded separately), advertising, profit, or bonuses. Global budgeting minimizes hospitals’ incentives to avoid (or seek out) particular patients or services, inflate volumes, or up-code. Funding capital projects separately, in turn, allows us to ensure that new hospitals and facilities are built where they are needed, not simply where profits are highest. They also allow us to control long term cost growth.
* Ending “value-based” payment systems and other pay-for-performance schemes: This bill continues current flawed Medicare payment methods, including alternative payment models (including Accountable Care Organizations) established under the ACA, and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA). Studies show these payment programs fail to improve quality or reduce costs, while penalizing hospitals and doctors that care for the poorest and sickest patients.
* Establishing a national long-term care program: This bill includes home- and community-based long-term services and supports, a laudable improvement from the 2017 bill. However, institutional long-term care coverage for seniors and people with disabilities will continue to be covered under state-based Medicaid plans, complete with a maintenance of effort provision. PNHP recommends that Sen. Sanders include institutional long-term care in the national Medicare program, as it is in Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s single-payer bill, H.R. 1384.
* Banning investor-owned health facilities: For-profit health care facilities and agencies provide lower-quality care at higher costs than nonprofits, resulting in worse outcomes and higher costs compared to not-for-profit providers. Medicare for All should provide a path for the orderly conversion of investor-owned, for-profit health-care providers to not-for-profit status.
* Fully covering all medications, without co-payment: Sen. Sanders’ bill excludes cost-sharing for health care services. However, it does require small patient co-pays (up to $200 annually) on certain non-preventive prescription drugs. Research shows that co-pays of any kind discourage patients from seeking needed medical care, increasing sickness and long-term costs. Experience in other nations prove that they are not needed for cost control.
Any other legislation such as strengthening the ACA, or half-measures for Medicare such as
buy-ins or public options, or leaving private, employer-based insurance alone, will not solve the
problems we are having, which stem from the financing of health care, and not the providing of
health care.