Archive for the ‘health care’ Category

It Really Is The Prices, Stupid!

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

Trying to understand American health care these days is a little like trying to do the breast stroke through molasses. A lot of effort for not much progress.

The scope of the issue is vast. In 2017, US health care spending grew 4.6%, exactly double the growth rate of inflation, to $3.5 trillion. In 2018, it grew another 4.4% to $3.65 trillion. That’s 18% of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To put this in perspective, consider this: $3.65 trillion is more than the entire GDP economies of Italy and Spain – combined! It is $1 trillion more than the entire GDP of France and  equals that of Germany’s $3.6 trillion GDP.

Each of the health care players say they want to do something about this, just as long as you don’t touch their particular slice of the pie. And, because the health care lobby dwarfs every other one, we’re reduced to nibbling around the edges.

In 2003, Uwe Reinhardt, Gerard Anderson, Peter Hussie and Varduhi Petrosyan published their seminal work, It’s The Prices Stupid: Why The United States Is So Different From Other CountriesThey examined health care data from 30 OECD countries for the year 2000. Here is the basic conclusion from their Abstract:

U.S. public spending as a percentage of GDP (5.8 percent) is virtually identical to public spending in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan (5.9 percent each) and not much smaller than in Canada (6.5 percent). The paper also compares pharmaceutical spending, health system capacity, and use of medical services. The data show that the United States spends more on health care than any other country. However, on most measures of health services use, the United States is below the OECD median. These facts suggest that the difference in spending is caused mostly by higher prices for health care goods and services (my emphasis) in the United States.

In 2017, Reinhardt died, after which his co-authors decided to re-examine their original conclusions and publish their findings as a tribute to him. Their new paper, It’s Still The Prices, Stupid, which they published in January, 2019, concluded that their original conclusions were “still valid.”

The conclusion that prices are the primary reason why the US spends more on health care than any other country remains valid, despite health policy reforms and health systems restructuring that have occurred in the US and other industrialized countries since the 2003 article’s publication. On key measures of health care resources per capita (hospital beds, physicians, and nurses), the US still provides significantly fewer resources compared to the OECD median country. Since the US is not consuming greater resources than other countries, the most logical factor is the higher prices paid in the US. Because the differential between what the public and private sectors pay for medical services has grown significantly in the past fifteen years, US policy makers should focus on prices in the private sector.

Another way to look at this is to compare the growth of health care utilization with the growth of prices. This produces some highly informative, surprising and, sometimes confounding, data. For example, from 2012 through 2016, US hospital in-patient prices rose 24.3%, yet in-patient utilization decreased 12.9%. I guess all that hospital consolidation has really lowered hospital prices, hasn’t it? During that period, and due primarily to the opioid epidemic, prescription drug utilization was the only medical service whose utilization rose, and it was up only 1.9%, despite the prices of prescription drugs rising 24.9%.

Question: Who has the most skin in this game?

Answer: Employers and the 156,199,800 people who work for them.

That answer is why I believe Warren Buffet, Jamie Diamond and Jeff Bezos, three major employers, have formed their joint health plan, Haven, and hired Atul Gawande to run it.  They have given Dr. Gawande time and a lot of money not just to slow the spending growth in their respective companies, but to reverse it. Buffet has spoken loudly about how health care costs place America at a competitive disadvantage. He has been vocal in his criticism of Republicans’ devotion to reducing corporate taxes, which, at 1.9% of GDP, are now the lowest among advanced nations and pale to near insignificance when compared to the health care costs borne by employers. He has said, “Medical costs are the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” Further, they are a major cause for little or no real wage growth.

More proof for his point: According to the US Census Bureau, employer sponsored insurance plans (ESIs) cover 56% of the US population. In 2018, the year we hit $3.65 trillion, the average annual premium for a family in an ESI was $19,616, of which employees paid an average of 29%, or $5,688. Employees in family plans also had an average deductible of $2,788, plus co-pays. So, even without the co-pays, employees are paying more than $8,000 for an ESI family plan. In 2019, we will blow through $20,000 for the cost of an ESI family plan. This is patently unsustainable and leads to two inescapable conclusions: First, Washington has not fixed this, and, given past experience, it is doubtful it ever will, regardless of efforts by progressives. Second, employers are the only people with the leverage and urgent incentive to do anything constructive. They need to stop worrying about corporate taxes, get on the Buffet, Bezos and Diamond bus, and throw all the muscle they have at the American health care fiasco.

 

Rob Restuccia Passes The Torch

Monday, February 25th, 2019

Every once in a while in life, if you’re lucky, you’ll come to know and work with a person whose commitment to service, whose dedication to justice, whose devotion to helping the less fortunate among us live full and healthy lives is both humbling and inspirational. For me, such a person has been Rob Restuccia.

Rob is a founder of Health Care For All and Community Catalyst. Health Care For All was instrumental in making Massachusetts a first-in-the-nation model of near-universal health coverage in 2006, and Community Catalyst played a vital role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and its successful defense against repeal in 2017.

Since late-2003, Rob and I have served together on the Board of Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA), a Massachusetts HMO serving dual-eligible beneficiaries, meaning they qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid. They are the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor, and they represent about 5% of the nation’s population, but consume 35% to 40% of our health care costs. As a founding Board member, Rob has been a constant north star to staying true to our mission. He is one of the reasons CCA has been the highest rated plan of its kind in the nation for each of the last two years. But much more than that, Rob is one of the reasons tens of millions in this country now have health insurance and no longer have to face impending disaster because they cannot afford the health care they need.

Now, Rob is dying.  Five months ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a terrible disease. The cancer was too advanced for surgery. He tried chemotherapy, but that was unsuccessful. So, he has chosen to seek the highest quality of the life that remains, not the greatest quantity.

Today, the Boston Globe ran an op-ed by Rob. It is his farewell, his swan song, and it is beautiful. It is also a clarion call to continue the battle for universal health care, the kind every other developed nation on earth has, except America. It is a call that we treat health care as a basic, human right, not a privilege. If you do nothing else today, please read Rob’s articulate and rational argument for the cause to which he has devoted his life. In the article, he writes, “Though I will not live to see it, I am convinced the march toward universal, affordable, equitable, quality health care is unstoppable. The next generation of advocacy leaders will continue the work I leave unfinished.”

We will all be poorer with the passing of Rob Restuccia, whose entire, all too brief life has been dedicated to service to others. We can learn much from this brilliant and accomplished icon, both in the way he’s lived, and now in the way he’s dying.

The Wizard Behind The Curtain – Addendum To Drive Home The Point

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Among other things, yesterday’s post made a point about the way the PBM system (if you can call it that) makes it difficult for uninsured Type 1 diabetics to buy insulin, because of price. To beat that horse even deader, here is an excerpt from a Kaiser Health News article, in partnership with NPR, published yesterday entitled, Insulin At A Fraction Of US Cost:

Almost one year to the day after her daughter’s diagnosis, Lija Greenseid and her family were visiting Quebec City, Canada, in July 2014. Her daughter’s blood sugar started spiking and Greenseid feared her insulin might have gone bad, so she went to a pharmacy. With no prescription and fearing that her daughter’s life was on the line, Greenseid was prepared to pay a fortune.

Instead the box of insulin pens that normally costs $700 in the U.S. was only around $65 or so.

“At that point I started tearing up. I could not believe how inexpensive it was and how easy it was,” Greenseid said.

“I said to [the pharmacist], ‘Do you have any idea what it’s like to get insulin in the United States? It’s just so much more expensive.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Why would we want to make it difficult? You need insulin to live.’”

The more Greenseid traveled with her family, the more they realized how inexpensive insulin was everywhere except in the United States. In Nuremberg, Germany, she could get that $700 box of insulin pens for $73. The same box was $57 in Tel Aviv, Israel, $51 in Greece, $61 in Rome and $40 in Taiwan.

“We get so accustomed in the United States to thinking that health care has to be difficult and so expensive that people don’t even consider the fact that it could be so much easier and less expensive in other places,” Greenseid said. “In fact, that is the case in most countries.”

Take a moment out of your busy day and think about that. Please.

And answer this question: Do you  believe America’s 1.3 million Type 1 diabetics  who require insulin every day ─ just to stay alive ─ should be forced to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month for that medicine? Or are they not worthy enough to be treated like their fellow diabetics the world over?

The Wizard Behind The Curtain – Part 2

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Let me tell you a story.

The year is 2015, and a workers’ compensation consultant is sitting in a highly respected insurer’s plush conference room. The consultant is meeting with the insurer’s Senior Vice President of Claims to negotiate price for an innovative specialty medicine program. What kind of program? Doesn’t matter.

The consultant has come armed with pro formas showing all costs of the program. Down to the penny. The problem is the insurer and the program are miles apart on what the insurer will pay the program’s doctors for each patient encounter. The Senior Vice President says, “Look, this isn’t exactly in our fee schedule, but the closest we can come to what is in the fee schedule is to pay your folks $85 per visit.” Hearing this, the consultant once again begins to explain why the fee needs to be $150 per visit.

This goes on for another half hour. The Senior VP finally says, “Well, maybe we could go to $91 per visit, but it’s the best we can do. Take it or leave it.” The consultant offers $140, but won’t go lower, because to do so would torpedo the program, which has demonstrated far more success, accompanied by significant cost savings, than others of its kind.

And then, it happens. The Senior Vice President in that plush conference room of this highly respected insurer says, “Hang on a minute. I’ve got it. You’re a specialty program, so we have a little latitude there. Charge us $300. We’ll pay you $150, and save our insureds $150 in the process.”

And that was how it was done. And it’s perfectly legal.

I tell that story by way of analogy.

Now let’s dream a bit. Imagine for a moment you are a pharmaceutical company CEO. You produce drugs that help sick people be healthy. Trouble is, the great big US healthcare system in which you operate makes Rube Goldberg seem like Thomas Edison. And in the center of your part of it sit pharmacy benefit managers, PBMs.

As we saw in Part One, the PBM industry has evolved in a rather chaotic way since Pharmaceutical Card System, Inc., invented the plastic benefit card in 1968. Over the intervening years, pharmacies and PBMs have developed into sometimes incestuous relationships. Today, three PBMs, Express Scripts, CVS Caremark and Optum RX, control 78% of the market. They wield tremendous power in drug pricing in a system designed to be opaque.

Essentially, the PBM’s job is to negotiate with pharmacies and drug companies, like yours, on behalf of their insurer and health plan clients. They create formularies, negotiate prices down (you give them a big discount in return for your drug being listed in their formulary), return some of the savings, called rebates,  to the clients (nobody really knows how much), and keep some for themselves. Seems simple, right? Well, it’s not. It’s infinitely more complicated and complex. And because only a very few actually understand PBMs, they remind me of the shenanigans in The Wizard Of Oz. However, it is that way only because we have allowed it to happen over the last four decades.

But back to you, Here’s your issue as a drug company CEO: You know, regardless of what price you set for your super-duper drug, you’re going to have to give a lot of it back as a discount to the PBM so it can give rebates to its clients. What’s a busy CEO to do?

Well, one answer is to set the price, the list price, so high that you’ll be able to provide a generous discount and still make what your finance folks say you must have for a profit. Just like in my analogy from above.

In a weird sort of way, this works most of the time for patients, but only if they have health insurance. What happens if they don’t? This is where things get sticky. Uninsured people get stuck paying the full list price, the one you inflated in order to provide the discount that allows you to make a profit and PBMs to (kind of) save money for their customers. This has been especially difficult for some uninsured Type 1 diabetics, who, as we have written previously (here and here), have had great difficulty paying for the insulin they need to take every day ─  just to stay alive.

Many employers have had enough of this. According to the National Business Group on Health, 75% of surveyed employers believe the rebate system does not serve to lower prices for employees, and 91% believe an alternative, more simple approach is required. Then there is CMS’s Alex Azar, of Ely Lilly fame, who wants you to price your drugs like Europeans do, which is a water fall lower than prices in the US. And let us not forget the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who, as yet unable to fulfill a campaign promise about a wall, has an outside chance of fulfilling one about drug prices.

Neither the healthcare industry, nor the US Chamber of Commerce like any of this. I imagine it might also be a bit awkward for quite a few US legislators who have been significant beneficiaries of the healthcare industry’s largesse, largess of the campaign contribution variety.

Regardless, I’m an optimist, and I keep hoping that in some way the wizard behind the healthcare curtain will go ‘poof,’ and be gone. Silly me.

 

 

The Wizard Behind The Curtain – Part One

Friday, February 1st, 2019

Suddenly, everybody’s out to get Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs. CMS, state legislatures, state Medicaid officials, a boatload of experts and even Donald Trump, who appears to actually and sincerely believe PBMs have created a rigged system.

The issue, what you and I pay for medicine, is getting a lot of ink and airtime. As well it should. Drug prices in the US are nearly twice as high as other developed nations. How did it come to this, and are PBMs a big part of the problem or are they a modern Horatius at the Bridge holding back an invading army of even steeper costs?

The PBM industry was born in the late 1960s when Pharmaceutical Card System, Inc., (PCS) invented the plastic benefit card. By the mid-1970s, PCS was serving as a fiscal intermediary by adjudicating drug claims. In other words, it was a prescription Third Party Administrator (TPA). By working for insurers and health plans, PCS (later AdvancePCS) and others figured out that they could leverage the buying power of their clients to negotiate lower drug prices.  And until around 1992, that’s they did. During that approximately 20 year period, PBMs saved insurers, health plans and consumers money by driving physicians and patients to use lower cost generic drugs. This was a valuable service for all.

In 1992, however,  PBMs began to change their focus. As noted by the Wall Street Journal in August, 2002, from 1992 through 2002, PBMs had “quietly moved” into marketing expensive brand name drugs. Since then, two major problems have emerged.

First, there is an incestuous relationship between PBMs and pharmacy companies. This occurred over three periods.

From 1968 through 1994, pharmaceutical companies acquired PBMs. For example, in 1994 Eli Lilly bought PCS for $4 billion and SmithKline Beecham bought Diversified Pharmaceutical Services (from insurer UnitedHealth) for $2.3 billion. But the FTC saw anti trust implications these deals created and ordered the acquisitions to stop and the pharmaceutical firms to divest the PBMs.

So, Eli Lilly sold PCS Health Systems to Rite Aid for $1.5 billion,  SmithKline Beecham sold Diversified Pharmaceutical Services to Express Scripts for $700 million and Merck spun off Medco Health Solutions, the PBM for 68 million Americans at the time.

The third PBM evolutionary period, the one we’re now living in, has seen mergers between PBMs and PBMs with pharmacy chains. In 2000, Advance Paradigm bought PCS for $1 billion, and changed the name to AdvancePCS; in 2003 Caremark bought AdvancePCS for $5.6 billion; and in 2007, CVS bought Caremark for $26.5 billion. Similar long and winding roads have resulted in three PBMs, CVS Caremark, Express Scripts and OptumRX cornering 78% of the nation’s PBM business, serving 266 million Americans. Revenue for these three firms in 2017 was about $300 billion. And these costs are growing at an accelerated pace. According to the American Academy of Actuaries:

In some years, prescription drug spending growth has far exceeded the growth in other medical spending, while in others it has fallen below other medical spending growth. Over the next decade, however, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) projects that spending for retail prescription drugs will be the fastest growth health category and will consistently outpace that of other health spending.

Which brings us to the second big problem. The one everyone’s talking about.

More about that next week. After the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII!

Low Wage Workers Pay More For Health Care Than High Wage Workers

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Anyone who can rub two brain cells together knows America spends more, much more, on health care than any other developed nation, as this chart from the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development  (OECD) shows.

Also well established is the sad fact that in terms of health care outcomes our brethren in the OECD – Canada, England, Germany and France, for example – fare better than we.

Now, recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show lower wage workers pay more for health insurance than higher wage workers in employer provided plans.

What this means is: The employee portion of the monthly premium for family coverage paid by the lowest 10% of earners is $612, while the monthly premium for the highest 10% is $488. The lowest 10% of earners pay 25% more than the highest 10%. Similar results for single coverage.  Look at the light blue and light green bars in each of the strata in the chart. The more you make, the less you pay.

This is wacky. And terribly unfair. But wait, there’s more.

For every year in the 21st century, this has been getting worse.

From 2000 through 2018, health insurance costs for a single person in an employer-provided health plan rose 179%; family coverage rose 204%. During this same period, the Consumer Price Index was up 49%, while earnings for hourly employees grew by 48%. So, essentially, workers’ pay matched inflation, meaning real wages, wages adjusted for inflation, did not move as health care costs continued their rocket ride to the moon.

I keep thinking this cannot continue. I keep thinking Herb Stein was right: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. And I keep being proven wrong. The fact is, up until the mid-1980s, our health care system was like a typical family home with its two bedrooms, a bath and a half and a nice little two-car garage. Today, it seems like the 1,000-room, maze-like Windsor castle where you need a map and a guide to find your way around. Vested interests litter the landscape, and any change gores somebody’s ox.

How can we possibly stop this runaway train? Many placed hope in the Affordable Care Act, but look what’s happened to that. The new generation of Democrats yearns for “Medicare For All,” but has yet to figure out how to pay for it. Others suggest “Medicaid For All,” but Medicaid is a state-based system, and every state has its own version. I’d love to see a single payer system, but, looking at the lunacy behind our current government shutdown, can you envision that cresting over the horizon, given all the work and bi-partisanship it would take? When I look at the health care horizon, I see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming over the rise.

Certainly, there are pockets of innovation and excellence around the nation, but we have no national, systemic approach to fix to the problem of extraordinary high costs, and it’s hard to imagine this congress, or any congress, doing anything about that. At more than $8 billion dollars, the health care industry spends more on lobbying than any other industry, and that’s not about to change, once again proving Mark Twain right: We have the best government money can buy.

I believe the work done in those “pockets of excellence” will gradually lead to improved health for Americans who can afford to pay for it. It’s the “can afford to pay for it” part that sickens me.

Bulletin: Dog Catches Bus. Appears Confused.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

 

After Sen. John McCain’s dramatic “no” vote in July 2017 that kept the ACA alive, Newsweek found at least 70 Republican-led attempts to repeal, modify or otherwise curb the Affordable Care Act since its inception as law on March 23, 2010. All of those attempts failed. But what the Republican-controlled congress couldn’t do in 70 attempts over eight years, a single federal judge from Texas my have done with the stroke of his pen.

In February, a Texas-led coalition of 20 states sued the federal government to end the health care law in its entirety, arguing that after Congress in December 2017 gutted one of its major provisions, a financial penalty for not having health insurance known as the “individual mandate,” the rest of the law was unconstitutional. Last Friday, Fort Worth-based U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor sided with Texas, ruling that without the individual mandate the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

In a not unprecedented, but certainly rare, move earlier in the year the justice Department had announced it would not defend the suit, prompting a counter-coalition of states, led by California, to step in to argue the case.

There will be appeals – first to the full District Court and, if that fails, to the Supreme Court. Until those appeals are exhausted, the law will remain in place. Judge O’Connor’s ruling stands a pretty good chance of being overturned by the higher courts. According to the Texas Tribune, Timothy Jost, an emeritus professor at Washington and Lee University who has studied Obamacare and its legal battles extensively, called Friday’s ruling “an ideological opinion” that is “unmoored in law.” Regardless, democrats, who retook the House last month by making the threat that republicans were set to throw the ACA’s pre-existing condition protections, as well as a number of other Obamacare provisions voters love, on the dust heap of history, are now even more ammo’d-up for 2020.

And what about those bus-catching republicans, who have, at least for the moment, been given the thing they’ve wanted most for the last eight years? Well, to put it as kindly as these circumstances allow, they appear to be clueless. Republican leaders, although having the last eight years to come up with one, have yet to advance even the tiniest plan for what to do if the ruling is upheld. About the most we can say for them is this:

They’re women and men,
who want to go back to 2010
and start the health care war all over again.

President Trump called it “a great ruling” and tweeted “Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done!” Right.

As of this writing, however, Trump’s troops do not appear eager to follow their Commander in Chief as he, unarmed, storms the health care barricades. Meanwhile, all the ACA-haters seem to be able to do is gloat. This whole thing is getting better than kicking back on a Saturday afternoon with a bag of popcorn watching the adventures of the Keystone Cops.

Let us pray sanity prevails.

 

What Price Life? Part Two

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

Part Two

“Insulin is my gift to mankind” – Frederick Banting

In Part One, we noted the critical need for daily insulin injections to keep Type 1 Diabetics (T1Ds) alive. We described how Frederick Banting’s team of himself, Charles Best and James Collip recovered and purified insulin from the fetal pancreases of cows and pigs in 1922, how they successfully tested it on humans, how Banting won the Nobel Prize the following year for his discovery, how the team sold the patent for the discovery to the University of Toronto for $3.00 and how they and the University agreed to license the manufacturing rights to pharmaceutical companies royalty-free, because, in Banting’s words, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” The team and the university wanted to incentivise drug companies to improve on the Banting team’s discovery, so the University and Banting agreed to allow the companies to improve Banting’s formulation if they could and patent any new discoveries that arose. Their hope was that drug companies would share their vision of making it possible for T1Ds to live high-quality lives and to keep insulin prices low to help them do it.

Immediately after the sale of the patent to the University of Toronto, the University licensed the manufacturing rights for insulin to Eli Lilly and Company, located in Indianapolis, Indianna, and Nordisk Insulin laboratorium in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, a few kilometers away in Copenhagen, Novo Terapeutisk Laboratorium succeeded in producing a stable liquid insulin product which it called Insulin Novo. Decades later, in 1989, these two companies would merge to become Novo Nordisk.

In the beginning, the pharmaceutical companies had the best of intentions. After all, they were manufacturing and marketing the world’s first “life-saving” drug.

Over time, the “best intentions” became the quarterly bottom line and shareholder value. The emphasis was now on next generation patents, which would stifle competition and prevent the emergence of insulin generic drugs. To this day, there isn’t one.

It is not an exaggeration to say insulin made Eli Lilly and Company and Novo Nordisk two of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world. It also hasn’t hurt the bottom line of Sanofi, the company that rounds out the insulin producing triumvirate and is the world’s fifth largest pharma by sales.

In the last 20 years, these insulin producing companies have become swept up in the craziness of U.S. health care, where prices are on a rocket ride to the moon. During that time, the list price of insulin has increased more than 700%. Of course, T1Ds who have employer sponsored health insurance don’t pay list price. The price they pay, which is much lower, is  negotiated by their insurance company or Pharmacy Benefit Manager. This also applies to T1Ds who have secured insurance either through the expansion of the Affordable Care Act or some other means. They find their insulin relatively affordable, unless they have a prescription deductible which forces them to pay the full amount for insulin until they reach the deductible total. Finally, diabetics on Part D must pay 45% of list price when they fall into the infamous “donut hole.”

But children without insurance are in a very bad place, and there are a lot of them – 3.9 million in 2017 under the age of 19 (300 thousand more than 2016).

This situation is worse, twice as worse, in states that have not expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

Kids with Type 1 Diabetes make up about .05%, of the uninsured group. That’s 195,000 children. And then there are the young, T1D adults who can no longer be on their parents insurance plan, because they are over the age of 26. Recently, we have learned of  T1Ds who have been forced to ration their insulin. This has resulted in tragic deaths. Parents and guardians have begun to protest at pharmaceutical company gates, some carrying the ashes of their dead children. Think about that.

So, here’s a question: Should anyone in the United States who requires a daily drug just to stay alive be forced to come up with the money to pay for it? Or, should that be a government-sponsored, health care right, as in the Declaration Of Independence’s “self-evident…unalienable right…to life.”

While you ponder that, I’ll leave you with this. Banting, Best and Collip would be tremendously gratified that their “gift to mankind” has enabled millions upon millions of Type 1 diabetics to lead productive, fulfilling lives. But they would be horrified that the drug’s price is now exacting a human price of obscene proportions.

 

 

What Price Life?

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Part One

“Insulin is my gift to mankind” – Frederick Banting

A Quick Quiz

Question 1: Name a chronic disease requiring medication, which, if not taken every day, guarantees death within two weeks.
Answer: Type 1 Diabetes.

Question 2: Name the medication.
Answer: Insulin.

Question 3: What is the monthly cost of insulin for a Type 1 diabetic?
Answer: As we shall see, that depends.

Question 4: If Type 1 diabetics cannot afford the cost of insulin, without which they will surely die, what should they do?
Answer: This is happening at this moment, and people are dying.  In these two blog posts we’ll examine why and what can be done about it. But we need to first posit some truths about diabetes, and then describe how, in 1922, Canadian doctor Frederick Banting made the ground-breaking discovery that allowed Type 1 diabetics, for the first time in history, to live.

Ten Fast Facts

  1. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that allows the body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food we eat for energy or to store glucose for future use. Insulin helps keeps blood sugar levels from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). Type 1 diabetics, T1Ds, can no longer produce insulin. They have none of it. Although older adults can also contract Type 1 diabetes, it usually strikes children and young adults. Without insulin, whether old or young, they die.
  2. There are about 1.3 million T1Ds in the U.S. They comprise one half of one percent of the population. Currently, there is no cure for any of them. Without insulin, they will die.
  3. There are about 29 million Type 2 diabetics. T2Ds still make some insulin. In most, lifestyle changes will improve their health, sometimes to the point where they will no longer require insulin or any other medical prescriptions. Some will become insulin-dependent, and without it, they face life-changing complications.
  4. Diabetic Retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness.
  5. Diabetes is the leading cause of non-traumatic amputation.
  6. Diabetes is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke.
  7. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure.
  8. Complications from diabetes sometimes cause workplace injuries and often exacerbate the severity and length of recovery.
  9. In 2017, the nation’s total direct medical costs due to diabetes were $237 billion. Average medical expenses for diabetics were 2.3 times higher than for non-diabetics. The extent to which diabetes added to workers’ compensation medical costs is unknown.
  10. Based on information found on death certificates, diabetes was the 7th leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, with 79,535 death certificates listing it as the underlying cause of death, and 252,806 listing diabetes as an underlying or contributing cause of death. However, diabetes is underreported as a cause of death; studies have found that only about 35% to 40% of people with diabetes who died had diabetes listed anywhere on the death certificate and only 10% to 15% had it listed as the underlying cause of death. An example of best practice would be, “Death caused by infection contracted from hemodialysis due to kidney failure, a complication of the patient’s diabetes.”

Banting and Insulin

Image result for photo of frederick banting

Frederick Banting is perhaps Canada’s greatest hero. Born in 1891, he graduated medical school with a surgical degree in 1915 and found himself in a French trench by the end of 1917. In December of that year, he was wounded during the Battle of Cambrai, the first great tank battle in history. He remained on the battlefield for 16 hours tending to other wounded soldiers until he had to be ordered to the rear to have his own wounds treated. For this action he won the British Military Cross, akin to America’s Silver Star. After returning to Canada, he continued his studies and, in 1920, secured a part time teaching post at Western Ontario University. While there, he began studying insulin Why? Serendipity. Someone had asked him to give a talk on the workings of the pancreas.

Banting became interested – and then obsessed – with trying to come up with a way to get insulin to people who couldn’t make any of their own. In November 1921, he hit on the idea of extracting insulin from fetal pancreases of cows and pigs. He discussed the approach with J. R. R. MacLeod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto. MacLeod thought Banting’s idea was doomed to failure, but he allowed him to use his lab facilities while he was on a golfing holiday in Scotland. He also loaned him two assistants, Dr. Charles Best and biochemist James Collip. Collip devised a method to purify the insulin Banting and Best obtained from the fetal pancreases.

To MacLeod’s surprise, Banting’s procedure worked, and in 1922 Banting and Best successfully treated the daughter of US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.

In 1923, one year later, Banting, at the age of 32, won the Nobel Prize, which, to his disgust, he had to share with MacLeod. To this day, Frederick Banting is the youngest person ever to win the Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

His discovery could have made Banting mind-numbingly rich, but he would have none of that. Along with Best and Collip, Banting patented his method and then the three of them sold the patent to the University of Toronto for the princely sum of $3.00. When asked why he didn’t cash in on his discovery, Banting said, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” With Banting’s blessing, the University licensed insulin’s manufacturing to drug companies, royalty free. If drug companies didn’t have to pay royalties, Banting thought they would keep the price of insulin low.

And they did. For decades.

But patents expire, and capitalism being what it is, people get greedy, and greed is why we have no generic, low-cost insulin today and why, over the past 20 years, insulin prices have risen anywhere from 800% to 1,157%, depending on the variety and brand. It’s why, lacking health insurance, some Type 1 diabetics have recently been driven to ration their precious insulin. Some of them have died.

More about all that in Part Two.

 

 

 

Violence In The ER: A Big Problem Getting Worse

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Men and women who yearn to follow in the footsteps of Hippocrates, Galen and Banting are taught many things in Med School, but there is no course called Violence In The ER, And What To Do When It Happens To You. 

Until recent times that hasn’t been much of an issue for the doctors and nurses who take care of us when we need critical care in a hurry. But in the 21st century, violence in the ER has become less the exception and more the rule.

In a 2018 American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) survey of 3,539 ER doctors, 47% reported being assaulted at work, 60% of those within the last year.

Why is this happening? According to ACEP, there are at least three problems with no easy solutions causing the sharp uptick in ER violence.

First, America has a tremendous shortage of psychiatric beds for people in profound mental stress. That means people in serious need of behavioral and mental health care can languish on a gurney in the ER for days, even weeks until a bed becomes available somewhere. Second, patients who’ve become addicted to opioids often show up in the ER demanding medication, and when they don’t get it things can get dicey in a hurry. Third, hospitals haven’t done enough to protect physicians and nurses from attacks by highly-stressed knife and (sometimes) gun wielding patients. Some hospitals have installed metal detectors at entrances, but the detectors and the labor required to screen incoming people can be pretty expensive, especially to a cash-strapped community hospital. Even with the metal detectors, many doctors in the ACEP study reported being kicked, punched, bitten and spit upon by deranged patients. This is a difficult issue for hospital risk managers to confront successfully.

We’ve known for many years that nurses and nursing aides are much more likely than other professionals to be victims of violence in the workplace. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “intentional injury’’ by another person rose nearly 50%, from 6.4 per 10,000 hospital workers in 2011 to 9.0 per 10,000 hospital workers in 2016, the most recent year of data. The rate across private industry is 1.7. OSHA has analyzed this and published Guidelines for dealing with it. But the ACEP survey is one of the first to shine a light on the stark potential for violent harm confronting Emergency Physicians.

One wonders if the threat of violence in the ER will dissuade med school graduates from specializing in Emergency Medicine. This would certainly be unfortunate, because a shortage already exists for rural ER physicians as documented in a June 2018 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. At the time of the study, more than 27 percent of US rural  counties did not have emergency medicine clinicians and 41.4 percent of counties did not have any emergency physicians reimbursed by Medicare fee-for-service Part B, according to the study.

We’ll continue to follow this phenomenon and occasionally report on progress or lack of it in protecting these highly trained and dedicated life savers. For, now, consider this graphic from the aforementioned ACEP study.