At The Bottom Looking Up

November 13th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

What does a nation owe its citizens with respect to health care?

For nearly all members of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), the answer is guaranteed, high-quality, universal care at reasonable, affordable cost. For OECD founding member America, the answer seems to have become an opportunity to access care, which may or may not be of high-quality at indeterminate, wildly fluctuating and geographically varying cost.

It is indisputable that the US devotes more of its GDP to health care than other countries. How much more? For that answer we can turn to many sources, roughly all saying the same thing. The OECD produces annual date, as does the World Health Organization, among others. Another reliable and respected source is The Commonwealth Fund, which conducted a study of eleven high income OECD members including the US. The collection of health care cost data lags, so data from this study is mostly from 2014. Here is the cost picture:

As you can see, in 1980, US spending was not much different from the other ten OECD countries in the study. While high, it was at least in the same universe. But now, at 50% more than Switzerland, our closest competitor in the “how much can we spend” sweepstakes”, we might be forgiven for asking, “What in the name of Hippocrates happened?” As if this weren’t enough, the 2014 GDP percentage of spend, 16.6%, has now risen to nearly 18%, according to the CMS.

So, what do we get for all that money? We ought to have the highest life expectancy, the lowest infant mortality rate and the best health care outcomes in the entire OECD. But we don’t.

For many readers, it is probably galling to see both the UK and Australia at the top of the health care system performance measure and at the bottom of the spending measure. In the early 2000s, each of these countries poured a significant amount of money into improving its performance, and the results speak for themselves.

Consider all of this mere background to the purpose of this blog post.

Last week, we wrote about the terrible, 40-year stagnation of real wage growth in the US, pointing out that in that period real wages in 1982-1984 constant dollars have risen only 4.5%. But, as we have seen, health care spending did not follow that trajectory. This has resulted in tremendous hardship for families as they have tried to keep pace with rising health care costs. For, just as US health care spending has risen dramatically since 1980, so has what families have to pay for it.

To put this in perspective, consider this. Since 1999 the US CPI has risen 54%, but, as the chart above shows, the cost of an employer offered family plan has risen 338%. If a family’s health care plan’s cost growth had been inflation-based, the total cost to employer and employee would be $8,898 in 2018, not $19,616. In 2018, the average family in an employer-based plan pays 30% of the plan’s cost ($6,850), plus a $2,000 deductible, plus co-pays that average $20 whenever health care is accessed, plus varying levels of co-pays for drugs.

On top of all that is the enormous difficulty people have in trying to navigate the dizzying health care system (if you can call it that). American health care is a dense forest of bewildering complexity, a many-headed Hydra that would make Hesiod proud, a labyrinthine geography in which even Theseus with his ball of string would find himself lost.

With wages and health care costs growing ever farther apart, America has a crisis of epic proportion. Yet all we can seem to do is shout at each other about it. When do you think that will end? When will we begin to answer the question that this post began with: What does a nation owe its citizens with respect to health care? When will our nation’s leaders realize we can actually learn from countries like Australia, the UK, Switzerland and all the other high performing, low cost members of the OECD? Continuing on the present course is no longer a viable option.

 

Note: You may be questioning The Commonwealth Fund’s research. To put your mind at ease about that, here are the study sources:

Our data come from a variety of sources. One is comparative survey research. Since 1998, The Commonwealth Fund, in collaboration with international partners, has supported surveys of patients and primary care physicians in advanced countries, collecting information for a standardized set of metrics on health system performance. Other comparative data are drawn from the most recent reports of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

 

 

It Is Time

November 5th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

This is not a piece about insurance or health care. It won’t make the cut for Health Wonk Review and it will probably cost us readers (Well, 15 years has been a pretty good run). What this piece is is one that addresses the health of our nation.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a chart showing gains in productivity and hourly wages from Q3 2017 to Q3 2018. It looks remarkably similar to the chart BLS released at the end of Q2. Impressive Productivity and Output gains in both quarters. And, if you didn’t know better, you’d think Hourly Compensation is rising pretty well, too.

However, look to the far right of both charts to see the change in Real Hourly Wages, which are wages after inflation is factored in. The Trump administration and most of the press have trumpeted (pun intended) the nominal wage increase of 2.8% for Nonfarm Business and 2.2% for Manufacturing in Q3, 3.2% and 2.5%, respectively, in Q2, without saying a thing about the negligible, and in some cases decreasing, Real Wages.

Real Wages for Nonfarm Business during this one-year period (Q3 to Q3) are up a measly 0.1%, after rising an anemic 0.5% in Q2; Manufacturing Real Wages in Q3 are actually down 0.4% after being down 0.2% in Q2. And this is not a new phenomenon. In the 40 years since 1979, Real Wages for hourly and non-supervisory workers have increased by a total of only 4.5%. During that same period, the CPI has risen 247.7%.

These are not “alternative facts.”

Since the day Donald Trump and his cronies got the keys to the kingdom, Real Wages per week have risen from $349 to $351 in constant 1982-1984 dollars. Two bucks! For the mathematically inclined among you, that’s an increase of 0.005%. During the same period, the Dow Jones average has grown 20.9%, and that counts the recent decline. I like the stock market as well as the next guy, but barely one-third of families in the bottom 50% of earners own stocks, according to the Federal Reserve. The fact is, lower-income Americans don’t have extra money to put into stocks, and a third of workers don’t have access to a 401(k) or another retirement plan, according to Pew.

The facts make clear that since Republicans took control of everything, the economic gains  have gone to the top earners. Folks in the middle and lower end have, to a large degree, been left by the wayside. Inequality reigns supreme. It is beyond baffling that these people who continue to get the smelly end of the stick resolutely remain, seemingly unperturbed, in the center of Mr. Trump’s base. Look at the enthused, smiling faces at his rallies. Sociologists have written about this, but I have yet to see anything that explains it fully.

Regardless, tomorrow is Election Day. Many of us have already voted. Many more will exercise the option tomorrow. Predictions call for a large turnout, large being defined, God help us, as perhaps a little more than half. I’m now in my eighth decade, and I cannot recall a more consequential election.

Many Americans (as well as some of my friends) are highly satisfied with the tax law changes, the rise in the stock market and the new makeup of the Supreme Court. In exchange for those they allow, without condemnation, the bullying behavior, the constant hyperbole, the ad hominem attacks and the non-stop lying.

It is time for the better angels of our nature to rise to the challenge. It is time to demand decency, and it is time to reject the abject vulgarity that oozes from the awesome edifice where John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln once lived and guided the nation. It is time to raise up America to its true potential. It is time for America to become once again the world’s beacon of hope. Maybe tomorrow America will say, “It is time.” To quote John Milton, “Hope springs eternal.”

Perhaps it is fitting to end this non-insurance piece with the words John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail at the end of his first day residing in the yet-to-be-completed new White House in 1800. Franklin Roosevelt had the words engraved onto the mantel of the White House State Dining Room in 1945. Adams wrote, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” I wonder if the current occupant has ever seen those words.

Nurses, Nursing Assistants And Back Injuries: ‘Twas Ever Thus

October 3rd, 2018 by Tom Lynch

“Occasionally the complaint is made that a nurse has injured her back … in moving a patient.”
Nursing: Its Principles And Practices; Robb, Isabel Adams, Mrs.; W.B.Saunders, Philadelphia, 1898.

Lynch Ryan’s very first client was a Massachusetts Community Hospital where the Experience Modification Factor was 2.77, primarily due to nursing and nursing assistant back injuries. The year was 1984, eighty-six years after Mrs. Robb’s observation, quoted above, and the Hospital had two problems: What to do about the employees who were suffering the back injuries and how to prevent them from happening in the future. Pulling a good-sized rabbit out of a small-sized hat, we were spectacularly successful at solving the first problem and pathetic failures when it came to the second. Oh, we knew what should be done. We had grand plans, but execution was beyond all our best efforts. And the problem continues to this day with no end in sight.

When we studied the problem of back injury prevention in the nursing industry back in 1984, these are the things that got in the way of a successful result then and where they stand today:

  • The vast preponderance of  back injuries happened while nurses and nursing assistants were trying to lift or move patients. That is still the primary problem;
  • In nearly all back injury cases, patient lifting or moving was being performed manually. It still is;
  • Although mechanical lifts were available for purchase, they were expensive and took time to set up and use, time that was often in short supply. Today, a Hoyer Manual Hydraulic Lift costs anywhere from $900 to $1,400; slings are about $370. Hospitals should have a couple units per floor. Employees need to be trained in how to use the equipment. A few hospitals, very few, have specially designated and trained teams. Although not a really big ticket item, the costs do add up, and the administrative logistics can be daunting;
  • There was no limit on how much a nurse or assistant would be required to lift, and more and more obese patients were turning up in the hospital. That issue is much worse now;
  • Many nurses and nursing assistants were themselves overweight or obese and, consequently, even more unable to lift overweight or obese patients. Today, in addition to the weight issue, which still remains (a 2012 University of Maryland study found 55% of nurses to be obese), the average age of nurses is higher than it was in the 1980s, and, because of budget constraints, there are fewer of them per patient.

While back injuries are the greatest source of loss with respect to nurses, the situation is even more problematic for nursing assistants, as this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows.

As you can see, nursing assistants suffer more back injuries than any other occupation. And as America continues to age – baby boomers turn 65 at the rate of one every nine seconds – the problem is only going to get worse.

This horrendoma that nobody seems to want to address is so severe that injuries in the health care sector dwarf any other industry, as another BLS chart shows for 2016, the most recent year for which there is data.

As we careen, helter skelter, down the Make America Great Again pothole-pockmarked highway, you’d think some genius would finally figure out how to fix the problem Mrs. Robb identified back in 1898. Then again, maybe not.

The waning days of summer Health Wonk Review

August 23rd, 2018 by Julie Ferguson

 

Through vacations, heat waves, and days on the beach, our health policy wonks are still on the job. As we eke out the remaining days of summer and slouch toward the interim election, they continue their relentless focus on opining about the issues of the day. Check our August edition entries.

  • First up, Joe Paduda unpacks the generic term to uncover the varied approaches to universal coverage currently operating at far lower cost and far better outcomes than our “multi-payer” “system” in his post What exactly is single payer at Managed Care Matters.
  • Louise Norris tells us that the Trump administration has finalized rules that will make it easier for many Americans to buy short-term health insurance plans that may be less expensive – but aren’t as comprehensive as ACA-compliant plans. She explains the rules and how they’ll affect consumers in her post at healthInsurance.org Blog: ‘So long’ to limits on short-term plans.
  • At InsureBlog, Patrick Paule puts paid to the notion that Medicare4All is any great deal or panacea. he makes his case in his post On BernieCare.
  • What’s worse than needing help with gait, mobility and balance? Being told you need a walker. No wonder, when the typical walker basically screams “frail elderly,” and is difficult to use as well. At Health Business Blog, David Williams talks with neurologist Patricia Kavanagh about how she teamed up with a design and production team to a modern device that is more functional and stylish in an effort to get her patients with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders to use a walker.
  • Vincent Grippi pf the CareCentrix’s Homefront Blog submits this month’s episode of #CareTalk, in which David Williams (Health Business Group) and John Driscoll (CareCentrix) discuss Trump’s fight with Pfizer over drug pricing, and more.

 

Next issue: September 20 – Andrew Sprung – xpostfactoid

 

Summertime reading: Fresh Health Wonk Review & news on our radar

July 12th, 2018 by Julie Ferguson

Catch up with he latest news and thinking on health care policy issues – Peggy Salvatore has a fresh Health Wonk Review July 2018: Summer’s Coming Around Again edition posted at Health System Ed blog. Topics range from opioids and Purdue Pharma to high deductible plans and the cost of end-of-life care – grab a coffee and check it out!

A few other recent news items on our radar:

NCCI has issued a new a new Insights report on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Workers Compensation. Several states are currently exploring the issue of PTSD injury compensation – it comes up frequently for police, firefighters and other first responders.
Speaking of trauma, if PTSD is on your radar, the New York Times reviews various books on how people recover from trauma, including one by Elizabeth Smart. See Adversity Needn’t Thwart or Define You. Here’s How to Cope.

Work comp drug costs have dropped by over a billion dollars over the last eight years, largely driven by sharply lower opioid utilization. Learn more about this in the 15th annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp via Joe Paduda, CompPharma.

A new Lockton study says that nearly 70% of denied workers’ comp claims are converted and those claims can cost up to 50% more.

Top causes of high-dollar workers’ comp claims. Safety National recently completed a review of its largest workers’ comp claims and uncovered certain trends employers should be aware of.

WCRI Study Compares Hospital Outpatient Payments Across 35 States

Florida’ Supreme Court in Workers’ Compensation – David Langham

12 fast-rising technologies to get ready for

Trump’s trade war has started. Who’s been helped and who’s been hurt?

The U.S. labor shortage is reaching a critical point

Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Battle For Workplace Safety: Short Stuff – Jordan Barab

Cyber-Risk Costs Resist Overall Trend – Businesses’ total cost of risk declined in 2017, but cyber insurance rose 33%.

Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population

Who Will Be Sued When A Robot Causes Harm?

Bezos, Buffett, Dimon Name Dr. Atul Gawande CEO of New Healthcare Company

One Man and a Hand Truck

Fentanyls and the Safety of First Responders: Science and Recommendations

Quo Vadis, Kentucky?

July 10th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

June 29, 2018. Thirteen days ago. I’m sitting in the Grand Ballroom of the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, soaking in the presentations at the Annual Conference and CEO Summit of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP). ACAP has grown to be quite the force for Medicare Advantage and Medicaid health plans around the country. So, the conference is an important event for Medicare and Medicaid professionals.

I’m looking forward to the 3:30 p.m. session, Plans Involvement in the New World of Work Requirements, because Mark Carter and Carl Felix, CEO and COO, respectively, of Kentucky’s Passport Health Plan, are going to describe their efforts to implement the Bluegrass State’s Medicaid work requirements.

In early January, 2018, Kentucky became the first state to win CMS approval to institute work requirements for its Medicaid beneficiaries. As I sit in the Hilton’s ballroom, its new  Medicaid work requirement program, Kentucky HEALTH, is slated to go live in two days (state government is only outdone by the US Army in its genius-like ability to create acronyms; this one stands for Helping to Engage and Achieve Long Term Health; catchy, eh?). There’s a pesky lawsuit lurking in the wings aimed at getting the Court to declare the program unconstitutional, but on June 29 Kentucky bureaucrats are ready to drop the hammer.

So, I am really interested in learning about the looming work requirement program, because three other states have won approval and are putting their programs together, and more are waiting in the wings.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, Mark and Carl (remember them?) have to cancel, because in the mad dash to the finish line for Kentucky HEALTH’s launch, they actually can’t leave the office. But, not to worry. Kentucky HEALTH’s Chief Marketing Officer is here to fill us in.

As she takes us through Kentucky HEALTH’s creation, I have to say that I, and the three or four hundred other people in the room are absolutely astonished at the time, money, manpower and all-around effort involved in giving birth to this behemoth. In terms of planning and implementation preparation, Kentucky HEALTH may perhaps only be exceeded by Operation Overlord (look it up). Some highlights:

  • For the first time EVER, Kentucky’s Medicaid beneficiaries will have to pay premiums. The premiums aren’t a lot (to you and me), ranging from $1 to $15 per month. Pregnant women and children are exempt.
  • Individuals with income above the poverty level ($12,060) who do not pay their premiums in 60 days will be kicked out of coverage for six months. Enrollees can return to the program earlier if they pay two months of missed premiums and make one new premium payment. They also must complete a financial or health literacy course.
  • Individuals must either work, volunteer, be enrolled in schooling or do some kind of “qualified community engagement” for at least 80 hours per month.
  • Beneficiaries must report their work activity each month; failure to do so will cause Medicaid disenrollment for six months.
  • Healthcare providers will have to certify to the Commonwealth the health status of those individuals they deem physically unable to work.

Regarding that last bullet – Kentucky HEALTH created a seven page form providers must complete. Knowing how busy healthcare providers are, I ask, “What’s been the feedback from your providers about this seven page form, and, by the way, are you paying them to do it?” Answer: “We haven’t communicated with the providers about this. We consider it all part of an office visit.”

For a moment, put aside why Kentucky is going to all this trouble. The bottom line question is: What does it get for going to all this trouble? In its need to get freeloaders off Medicaid rolls, just how many people would Kentucky’s work requirements actually put to work?

The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation provides some answers. Let’s check the numbers. Nationally:

  • About 10% of Medicaid recipients are elderly, age 65 and older, and many of them are in nursing homes.
  • About 48% are children, age 18 and younger.
  • That leaves about 42% who are of working age and potentially subject to the requirements.
  • Of that 42% who could be subject to the rules, 42% of them are already working full-time, and 18% are working part-time.
  • Another 14% are not working due to illness or disability.
  • Six percent are in school.
  • Twelve percent are caregivers for family members.
  • All of the above would be exempt from Kentucky’s rules.

That leaves about 1% of all Medicaid beneficiaries who would qualify for a work requirement program like Kentucky’s. That’s about 740,000 people nationally and around 12,000 in Kentucky (Since 2014, when Kentucky accepted Medicaid expansion, its Medicaid population has about doubled, rising from around 650,000 to 1.2 million) .

Kentucky HEALTH’s CMO wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say how much the state has spent on putting the program together or how many people have been devoted to it. But its best case scenario is that out of 1.2 million current beneficiaries about 95,000 may be off the rolls in five years, because either they no longer qualify for Medicaid because they either make too much money due to full-time work or they fail to comply with work requirements.

The day after the Kentucky HEALTH presentation at the ACAP conference District court Judge James Boasberg ruled Kentucky’s plan unlawful, because the federal government is obligated under federal law to consider whether a Medicaid proposal advances the program’s objectives, the judge wrote, and the Trump administration failed to meet that standard before approving Kentucky’s plan.

One final thought. When he announced the Trump administration’s approval of Kentucky’s work requirement plan, Governor Matt Bevin said, “I was raised by a father who said, ‘Don’t take something that is not earned.’” So, here’s the question: Unlike the entirety of the rest of the developed world, in America is basic health care something that has to be “earned?”

 

 

Your monthly dose of health wonkery

June 14th, 2018 by Julie Ferguson

Despite vacations, graduations, weddings and all the usual seasonal distractions, the Health Wonks are on the job. The June compendium of health policy news is freshly posted by long-time wonk Hank Stern at InsureBlog — and speaking of weddings, he’s posted A Midsummer Night’s Health Wonk Review. There are many great entries from the usual suspects so grab a coffee and check it out.

Bulletin: Dog Catches Bus! Now What?

June 12th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

We’re goin’ right straight back to 2010
To start the health care war all over again!

It took time, but the GOP has finally learned a thing or two about fighting the Affordable Care Act, or, as they insist on calling it: Obamacare. You will recall that in 2017, after achieving control of all three branches of government, the party of Abraham Lincoln launched, in another Ground Hog Day moment, its biggest ever attack on the ACA, only to see its troops repulsed and annihilated once again by the turned down thumb of a war hero.

And then, after so many defeats there was a “light dawning over Marblehead” moment that would have made Prince Talleyrand proud.  In what the army calls a “triple flank,” republicans:

  1. In their humongously big 2017 tax cut law, zeroed out the penalty for not having health insurance;
  2. In February, 2018, got 20 states to sue the federal government contending that repeal of the penalty obviates the individual mandate making the entirety of the ACA unconstitutional.
  3. In May, 2018, somehow convinced the Justice Department not to defend the government in the suit.

Wow! A trifecta!

If the 20 states prevail, collateral damage abounds. First and foremost, the ACA’s provision that insurers not discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. There are about 133 million Americans, under the age of 65, who fall into that health care Punji Pit. Prior to the ACA these family members, friends or neighbors of ours could be either denied coverage relating to their conditions, or charged exorbitant premiums. Beginning in 2014, the ACA forbade that. If the states win their suit, that meaty provision of the law, which a Kaiser tracking poll shows 70% of the population supports, gets torn up into little pieces and fed to the crows.

You might ask, “What do insurance companies think about all this?” Well, they do not like it one bit. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade association for health insurance companies, supports the pre-existing condition protections under the ACA. “Removing those provisions will result in renewed uncertainty in the individual market, create a patchwork of requirements in the states, cause rates to go even higher for older Americans and sicker patients, and make it challenging to introduce products and rates for 2019,” AHIP said in a statement.

So, here’s the question: If the 20 states actually win their suit, what happens then? Among many groups, the 1.25 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes who need to inject costly insulin every day to stay alive are waiting for an answer.

Health Wonk Review – Instagram Style

May 17th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

A picture’s worth a thousand words, and today Jason Shafrin proves it at Healthcare Economist. Jason has a photo, a chart, a graph and even a cartoon (for you Sponge Bob lovers) to illustrate what Health Wonk Review authors are posting.

We’re heading toward summer, although you’d never know it from the weather we’ve been gifted here in Massachusetts. Regardless, grab a mug of whatever you like, sit back, put your feet up and take a stroll through a Wonk garden filled with some excellent health care policy thinking.

It’s The Zip Code, Stupid! Update

May 10th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

At the end of February 2018, we wrote about a May 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine that concluded that where one lives is a bigger factor in health care outcomes than actual health care. This from our February post:

Geography is the biggest X-Factor in today’s American Hellzapoppin version of health care. The study analyzed every US county using data from deidentified death records from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and population counts from the US Census Bureau, NCHS, and the Human Mortality Databas and found striking differences in life expectancy. The gap between counties from lowest to highest life expectancy at birth was 20.1 years.

And, surpirse, surprise, it turns out if you live in a wealthy county with excellent access to high level health care, like Summit County, Colorado (life expectancy: 86.83), you’re likely to live about 15 years longer than if you live, say, in Humphries County, Mississippi, where life expectancy at birth is 71.9 years.  So, yes, Zip Code matters.

The concept of  zip code influence seems to be gaining traction. Today, from AIS Health Daily, we learn  a number of Blues Plans are planning on targeting the “where you live” problem with innovative strategies. Here is the AIS Daily release:

Blues Plans Work to Combat “ZIP Code Effect”
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) recently launched the Blue Cross Blue Shield Institute, a subsidiary of BCBSA created to address social and environmental issues, as evidence mounts that health outcomes may be affected as much or more by social determinants of health as they are by actual medical care.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Institute says it will address what it calls the “ZIP code effect,” which encompasses transportation, pharmacy, nutrition and fitness deserts in specific neighborhoods. It is partnering with Lyft, Inc., CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance to address transportation and pharmacy deserts. The institute says it plans to deal with fitness and nutrition deserts in 2019.
Meanwhile, Highmark Inc. will launch a transportation initiative this summer to provide rides for members with chronic health conditions who live in a transportation desert. The service will begin in Pittsburgh as a pilot.
On April 17, Highmark’s Allegheny Health Network opened its Health Food Center, which acts as a “food pharmacy” where patients who lack access to food can receive nutritious food items, education on disease-specific diets and additional services for other social challenges they may face.
Other Blues plans also are addressing social determinants of health. For instance, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina intends to invest part of its savings from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 into community health programs.
At Independence Blue Cross, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation’s Blue Safety Net Program offers “mobilized services” to medically underserved communities. The IBC Foundation sponsors the Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership’s Eagles Eye Mobile to conduct free vision screenings and eye exams and provide prescription glasses to under-insured and uninsured children.
We salute the Blues for recognizing the problem and trying to do something productive about it.
Final thought: If you do not subscribe to AIS Health Daily, you should.