Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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.

At The Bottom Looking Up

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

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

Monday, November 5th, 2018

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.

This Can’t Go On Forever, Right?

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The ratio of wages to the cost of living is what the economist calls real wages; the desirability of having real wages as high as possible, consistent with high employment, is a social objective. Rises in real wages do for the most part come about in fact as a consequence of rises in productivity. In a modern economy, what has [sic] normally to be expected  is rising productivity. – J. R. Hicks: Unions, Management and the Public; New York, Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1960

What Hicks wrote 58 years ago had been true for more than 100 years. But 13 years later, in 1973, his economic model crashed. Productivity and real wage growth, which had been so tightly bound for so many years, parted company.

The consequences have been enormous. Hourly paid workers comprise about 60 percent of wage and salary workers. In Hicks’s day, nearly a third of all  workers were unionized. In 2017, however, the union membership rate had fallen to 10.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s only that high because of public sector participation. The union membership rate of public sector workers (34.4 percent) is more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent). Ponder that for just a moment. Only 6.5% of private sector workers are unionized today. This, despite union members having median weekly earnings about 25 percent higher than earnings for nonunion workers in comparable jobs ($1,041 versus $829).

This presents us with a befuddling paradox:

  1. Since 1973, the year when hourly wages and productivity waved goodbye to each other, real wages have been essentially flat, rising about 4% in the intervening 45 years;
  2. But in the same period, the CPI has risen 586%. That’s right. What you bought for $1.00 in 1973 will cost you $5.86 as of one month ago.
  3. Yet throughout this period, union participation and membership has declined by roughly 50%, despite union membership resulting in considerably higher wages for workers.

In Massachusetts, my home state, union membership was 12.4% in 2017, but 70% of that was in the public sector. At the recent Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s annual conference I asked Steve Tolman, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, why union membership hasn’t risen like a rocket to the moon given the persistent stagnant growth of real wages. He said he thought legislatures and employers had made it increasingly more difficult to win a union campaign. So, I then asked Keynote Speaker Erica Groshen, Ph.D., former Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, her opinion. She wasn’t sure if there was a link between lack of union membership and stagnant real wage growth and suggested more research should be done. And in yesterday’s New York Times Louis Uchitelle suggested that American manufacturers relentlessly moving manufacturing jobs offshore has led to a steady decline in union membership – you can’t be in a union if you don’t have a job. The title of Uchitelle’s piece was, “How Labor’s Decline Hurt American Manufacturing.” Could have just as easily been titled, “How American Manufacturing’s Decline Hurt Labor.”

Regardless, what we’re left with is this (as I’ve written before): The 60% of the American workforce that is paid hourly resembles a swimmer trying to catch up to a battleship; with every stroke he falls farther and farther behind.

One highly illustrative area where meager wage growth has impacted the American family can be found in the cost of health care.

In 1989, Herb Stein (father of Ben), former Chairman of President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors, coined Stein’s Law*, which says, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Do you think this can go on forever? What are the societal and political consequences if we see continued flat wage growth, the accelerating decline of private-sector unions, a rising CPI and an increasingly costly health care burden for families? Do you think today’s polarized American society is capable of addressing, let alone reversing, these decades old trends? What will it take for that to happen? I wish I knew.

But here is something I do know. If employers do not begin to do their best to address these issues – wage stagnation and ever rising health care costs that come with ever increasing deductibles – then unions and people like Steve Tolman, dormant for so long, will, and they’ll come with all guns blazing.

 

* Stein’s Law appeared on Page One of the June 1989 issue of the “AEI Economist” under the headline “Problems and Not-Problems of the American Economy.”

 

WCRI’s Annual Conference: The Curtain’s About To Rise

Monday, March 19th, 2018

This week will see most of the nation’s workers’ compensation cognescenti at the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s annual conference in beautiful downtown Brahmin Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God.

This is WCRI’s 34th annual conference, and it sports an agenda that should satisfy even the geekiest of data geeks.

To me, two things stand out. First, if you’re coming to my home town expecting not to hear much about drugs, I submit you’ve been living on another planet. Three of the eight total sessions address drugs: two on opioids, one on Medical Marijuana.

Dr. Terrence Welsh, Chief Medical Officer at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, will detail Ohio’s successful program aimed at reducing opioid dependence among injured workers.

In 2011, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (OBWC) found that more than 8,000 injured workers were opioid-dependent for taking the equivalent of at least 60 mg a day of morphine for 60 or more days. By the end of 2017, that number was reduced to 3,315, which meant 4,714 fewer injured workers were at risk for opioid addiction, overdose, and death than in 2011.

After years of thumb-twiddling, other states have made great strides in combating opioid dependence in workers’ compensation, California and Washington State to name just two. But because workers’ compensation is state-based, there’s no national workers’ compensation solution; every state is on its own. Most are actively engaged in building programs to reverse the deadly trend, but workers’ compensation is only the tiny caboose on the back end of the great big American health care train(wreck). Nationally, the health care industry doesn’t seem to be having as much success as workers’ compensation’s committed leaders.

Evidence: U.S. life expectancy at birth dropped in 2015 for the first time since 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. The years 2015 and 2016 saw the first consecutive two-year drop in life expectancy at birth since 1962/63 (generally attributed to an epidemic of flu).  The two-year drop in American’s life expectancy is primarily due to drug deaths. In 2015, the nation suffered 52,400 drug overdose deaths. That’s more people than were killed in car crashes in any year since 1973. In 2016, the total rose to 63,600, more than were killed during the entire Vietnam conflict, which lasted more than a decade. Drug deaths for 2017 appear to be even higher, although, because drug deaths take a long time to certify, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not be able to calculate final numbers for 2017 until December. No other country in the OECD has seen a drop in life expectancy in recent history.

Although it is obviously appropriate that medical issues make up the preponderance of this year’s WCRI sessions, the Keynote Address, to be given by Dr. Erica Groshen, former head of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is of great interest to me. In her presentation, “Future Labor Force Trends and the Impact of Technology,” Dr. Groshen will address and analyze current labor market trends and provide official statistics leading to her views on the future of work. Because I have written about America’s pathetic, more-than-four-decade lack of hourly wage growth, I’ll be keenly interested in her remarks. Here are some questions I’d like her to answer:

January, 2018, saw the first substantial monthly hourly wage growth (2.9% from a year earlier) since 1974. This was not repeated in February (0.1% gain in wages, offset by 0.2% growth in the Consumer Price Index)
  • Does Dr. Groshen see any correlation between stagnant hourly wage growth and workers’ compensation’s declining injury frequency and loss costs?
  • If this is a current unknown, should WCRI study it? If not WCRI, then who?
  • Between 1948 and 1973 there was a one to one correlation between productivity and wages. However, since 1973, productivity has risen nearly 75%; wages about 9%. How does Dr. Groshen see this playing out in the next decade?

Two final thoughts about the upcoming conference. I know time is limited, but I wish WCRI had allotted one session to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and their impact now and in the immediate future on workers and workers’ compensation. Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to gain significant momentum throughout industry.  The workers’ compensation industry is ever so slowly increasing the bandwidth of its AI capability, but it still seems to lag far behind other industries in embracing much that AI has to offer.

Speaking of AI, IBM Q, the creator of Watson, put a 5 cubit quantum computer prototype in the cloud in 2016 and two months ago unveiled a 20 cubit quantum computer available to its clients and a prototype 50 cubit quantum computer. Unlike  current computers, which perform operations sequentially, quantum computers perform many operations simultaneously. An operation which currently can take days, or even weeks, will be done on a quantum computer in minutes, or even seconds.

I would love to see the massive brain power at WCRI turn its attention to this fascinating area and its potential impact on the labor force and workers’ compensation.

See you in Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s The Zip Code, Stupid!

Monday, February 26th, 2018

“Sixty-percent of life expectancy, which has gone down two years in a row, is determined by where you live, 30% by your genetic code and 10% by the clinical care you get. Zip code matters more than genetic code.”

That was the sobering message delivered by AETNA CEO Mark Bertolini during an interview on CBS this morning. And he’s right. A May 2017 study from JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that 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. According to the study:

In this population-based analysis, inequalities in life expectancy among counties are large and growing, and much of the variation in life expectancy can be explained by differences in socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors, behavioral and metabolic risk factors, and health care factors.

On the whole, though, US life expectancy at birth increased by 5.3 years for both men and women — from 73.8 years to 79.1 years — between 1980 and 2014. But the county-by-county magnitude of the increase was determined by where one lives. That is, wealthy counties showed significantly greater increases in life expectancy than poor counties.

What is even more alarming is that some counties have experienced declines in life expectancy since 1980.

The JAMA study is another view from a different angle of inequality in America. According to Bertolini, CVS’s pending acquisition of AETNA, the third largest health insurer in the nation, will be a positive step in leveling the health care field when fully rolled out. He believes CVS’s 10,000 stores will evolve into much more than the Minute Clinics a lot of them are now. Time will tell, but CVS may be on to something here. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Ezekiel Emanuel pointed out that since 1981:

The population has increased by 40 percent, but hospitalizations have decreased by more than 10 percent. There is now a lower rate of hospitalizations than in 1946. As a result, the number of hospitals has declined to 5,534 this year from 6,933 in 1981.

People are apparently trying their mightiest to get health care anywhere except a hospital. According to Ezekiel, hospitals now seem less therapeutic; more life-threatening. Also, and this is where CVS is heading, complex care can now be provided somewhere else.

Another red flag from Mark Bertolini’s CBS interview was his reference to life expectancy dropping two years in a row. He’s right about that, too. In 2015 and 2016, life expectancy declined by a statistically significant 0.2 and 0.1 years, respectively.¹ Until now, life expectancy in America hadn’t declined since 1993.

All this is happening while our modern-day Tower of Babel – the US government – remains unwilling, unable, or both, to do anything constructive to improve the situation. Our more than 30-year health care train wreck needs serious attention, not partisan bloviation. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ” That is a situation up with which we must no longer put.”

The men and women of Humphries County deserve nothing less.

 

¹ 2015’s drop was originally put at 0.1 year by the CDC, but was revised to 0.2 years after Medicare data were re-evaluated.

Job Loss, Wage Stagnation, Low Productivity: We’re Great Again!

Monday, October 30th, 2017

A couple of years ago, as he finished his Gatling Gun presentation to conclude the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s annual conference in Boston, I asked the big-brained, really smart Bob Hartwig if he was alarmed at all that in the last 40 years inflation-adjusted hourly wages had risen only 4%. His answer: “Yes. Very.”

Since then, regardless of the playground-like antics in our nation’s capital, or maybe because of them, not much has changed. So, in this post I want to discuss some of the factors and trends that have contributed  to this economic wage crisis and suggest it played a powerful role in the rise of Donald Trump who, with rhetoric as sharp as the edge of an axe, seized on the frustration and outrage within the lower wage working classes whose nearly biblical devotion led to his election.

That it is a crisis has been borne out over time by a mountain of complex research that cannot be explained in a tweet. The latest brick in this ugly house was laid last week with the release of a study from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

In The Hamilton Project at Brookings report, Jay Shambaugh, Ryan Nunn, Patrick Liu and Greg Nantz offer Thirteen Facts About Wage Growth with solid research buttressing each fact. The point of the paper is to explain why wages for production and non-supervisory workers have been stagnant for so long.

In order to explain the why, they first had to prove the point. To do that they divided the period since 1981 into four business cycles: 1981-90, 1990-2001, 2001-07 and 2007-17. They found that in the first three of those business cycles nominal wage growth (wage growth without any adjustment for inflation) averaged just a bit above 3%. In the last cycle, which started at the beginning of the Great Recession, growth has been 2.34%.

However, when one considers real wage growth (growth adjusted for inflation) each business cycle saw wages increase significantly less than 1%. Despite this 36-year run of bottom-of-the-bird-cage wage growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Inflation Calculator, what you bought for $1.00 36 years ago in 1981, the first year of this study, cost you $2.84 in September of 2017. This puts American workers in the position of trying to outswim a Navy Destroyer. Every moment they fall farther and farther behind.

The authors point out that our long-term wage stagnation can be traced to many trends, including the decline in US workers’ share of income.

The portion of national income received by workers fell from 64.5 percent in 1974 Q3 to 56.8 percent in 2017 Q2. Over the past few years the U.S. labor share has ceased falling, but this might reflect the ongoing economic recovery rather than any change in the long-run downward trend.

A number of factors have played a role in the fall in Labor’s share of income, including, but not limited to:

  • The long-term and continuing offshoring of labor intensive production;
  • The decline in union membership;
  • The decline in the real minimum wage;
  • The growth of non-compete contracts for even low-skilled workers;
  • The growth in income inequality between the top and bottom earners;
  • The continuing increase in the “education wage premium.”

To elaborate on a few of these factors:

Union Membership:  In 1956 about 28 percent of all workers belonged to a union; in 2016 that number was a little more than 10 percent. In the private sector, union membership has dropped to 5%. Regardless of what you think of unions, the fall in union membership directly correlates to an increase in wage inequality.

The Real Minimum Wage:  The Project Hamilton Report demonstrates how insidiously the federal minimum wage has limited wage growth among low wage earners. Since 1968 the real minimum wage (minimum wage adjusted for inflation) has fallen more than 20%.

Right now state minimum wages range from a low in Georgia of $5.50 to a high in the District of Columbia of $12.50. A number of states have passed legislation to gradually increase their minimum wage  over the next few years. Others have indexed theirs to the CPI. Regardless of what the states do, their minimum wage cannot be lower than the the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for any worker covered by the National Fair Labor Standards Act. If a worker in Georgia isn’t covered by the Act, however, $5.50 reigns.

The Education Premium:  The wage benefit of a college degree increased dramatically during the last two decades of the 20th century, leveling off around 2000 at an historically high level.

Bachelor’s degree holders ages 25 to 54 in 1979 could expect to earn 134 percent of the wages received by those with only a high school education, and advanced degree holders could expect to earn 154 percent. By 2016 the wage premiums for a bachelor’s degree and an advanced degree had risen to 168 and 213 percent, respectively.

Another way to look at the wage value of higher education is this: Although only 40% of the nation’s workers hold four-year college degrees (23% in 1979), in the top two earnings quintiles college graduates make up a clear majority, 78% in the top quintile. Only 15% of the bottom quintile are college graduates.

One last point about the Education Premium: In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2016–2017 academic year averaged $24,610 (tuition, board and fees). It’s true that financial aid is available to most students. However, with the income of today’s low-wage earners falling farther and farther behind workers sitting serenely much higher on the economic pyramid, how do you think they’re going to manage to send their children off on a quest for a four year college degree, even at an in-state public college? This is a self-perpetuating educational death spiral.

Maybe you’re asking what this has to do with workers’ compensation?

Well, if US workers on the bottom half of the income scale have seen their wages lag behind the CPI for four decades, they are right now hard pressed to contribute to the country’s economic growth and viability. Moreover, when one of them suffers a lost-time injury at work, that worker will suddenly see his or her take home pay reduced because of state workers’ compensation laws, which will make it even harder to support a family. Research shows this, among other things, contributes to underreporting of workplace injuries.

For more information on this issue, see Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a recent New York Times economic report by Ben Casselman.

I have a hard time believing decades-long negligible wage growth, especially for those on the lower end of the income scale, can be anything but harmful for America, its economy and the quality of life of its workers. I suggest this is a significant cause of the frustration and outrage that led to the rise of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus. Donald Trump saw this frustration, this outrage, as a mammoth opportunity and continues to feed it like red meat to a hungry lion. That type of divisive behavior can be nothing but destructive. But until our elected officials grow enough spine to do something meaningfully constructive and productive about it, I fear this situation will continue to divide and erode us as a nation.

That is terribly sad to contemplate.

 

 

 

Workers’ Comp as Percentage of Payroll: NASI Report

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) recently issued its 20th annual report on Workers’ Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs. The study provides estimates of workers’ compensation payments—cash and medical—for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and federal programs providing workers’ compensation.

The study showed that

  • Benefits per $100 of payroll fell from $0.92 in 2014 to $0.86 in 2015, the lowest level since 1980.
  • Workers’ compensation employer costs per $100 of payroll dropped to 1.32 in 2015, reversing consistent growth that began after the recession.
  • In 2015, workers’ compensation coverage extended to an estimated 86.3 percent of all jobs in the employed workforce, comprising more than 135 million workers.

Study authors say the drop partly reflects improved workplace safety. Also noteworthy:

“Both the incidence and severity of work-related injuries have declined steadily since 1990. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, the proportion of workers who experienced injuries that resulted in days away from work reached a 25-year low in 2015.”

The study encompasses state-by-state changes in coverage, benefits, and employer costs over the last five years. The state-level results show that between 2011 and 2015:

  • The number of covered workers increased in every state except West Virginia, with 11 states experiencing double-digit growth in covered employment;
  • The amount of covered wages increased in every state, and by more than 20 percent in 16 states;
  • Benefits per $100 of payroll decreased in all but three states, with the biggest declines in Illinois (-$0.33), Oklahoma (-$0.41), and West Virginia (-$0.52)—three states that implemented significant changes in their workers’ compensation systems during this period;
  • Employer costs per $100 of covered payroll increased in 24 states and decreased in 27 states. West Virginia, Montana, and Oklahoma experienced the largest reductions, with costs dropping more than $0.30 per $100 of covered payroll. Employer costs increased by more than $0.20 in Wyoming, Delaware, and California.

NASI workers comp infographic

This Cat Is Dead. Let It Stay That Way.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

“Seriously. This is BANANAS” – Senator Chris Murphy, (D-CT), on Graham-Cassidy.

When I was in college I was part of a pretty successful folk group. We played all over, cut a few LPs. It was a great time. On college campuses we would sing a simple, little, nearly childish song that somehow actually became a bit of a hit. It was called The Cat Came Back.

Oh, the cat came back.
She didn’t want to stay.
She was sittin’ on the back porch
The very next day.

Well, there’s a new cat sittin’ on the porch, and it’s called Graham-Cassidy.

Every time we stick a fork in it and call it dead, a new zombie repeal and replace Obamacare horrendoma springs to life.

The selling point of this one, at least according to Senators Graham and Cassidy (and Vice President Pence yesterday morning on CBS), seems to be centered on the idea that passage of this bill will finally allow the states to plot their own health care futures.

That was also the position argued yesterday in a New York Times Op-Ed by Philip Klein, the Managing Editor of the Washington Examiner (Is this a coordinated effort?). In Graham Cassidy has One Great Idea Klein claims the different states have different healthcare needs and, consequently, should be able to address those needs through their own creativity rather than arbitrary requirements of  Washington.

A more flexible system would give states latitude to pursue healthcare programs that are a better fit for their populations’ ideological sensibilities. And there are practical reasons to think of healthcare as a state-based issue: Every one has its own demographics, health challenges and other unique characteristics.

“Ideological sensibilities?” Excuse me? Oh, well.

One thing that strikes me square in the jaw about the states rights argument is this: For the last 26 years, states have been able, with federal waiver approval, to craft their own Medicaid programs as long as the results are revenue neutral and comply with minimum requirements.

By way of explanation, Medicaid has been with us since 30 July 1965 when President Johnson signed it and Medicare into law. Medicaid has been a lifeline for the poor who, prior to the Affordable Care Act, were mostly uninsured for health care. The ER was their primary care physician. The Act had a number of goals, one of which was to lower the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans. Since these people were nearly all of the lower income variety, the Act provided federal funding for states to expand Medicaid. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia did that. And the numbers of uninsured dropped significantly in those states.

In 1991, the Social Security Act was amended to create federal waiver programs. States were given the authority, through what are known as Section 1115 waivers, to tailor their own Medicaid programs to their own population needs. As of September 2017, there are 33 states with 41 approved waivers and 18 states with 21 pending waivers. A subset of state waivers are aimed at healthcare delivery system reforms. They are known by the catchy title Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment waiversDSRIP waivers allow states to create innovative programs that reform how care is delivered and paid for. These are demonstration projects and come with federal funding. Lots of it. For example, one of Texas’s two DSRIP waivers, just concluded, provided $11.5 billion over five years. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has applied for an extension and in May, 2017, submitted to the CMS its positive evaluation of the program’s results (Despite this deep drink at the federal trough, you might remember Texas’s very public, Alamo-like  rejection of federal money to expand Medicaid).

Personally, I think there are many reasons to bury the Graham-Cassidy cat so deep it never sees the sun again. Others have written and catalogued them (see America’s newest health care expert Jimmy Kimmel). But not much has been said to refute this ridiculous let-the-states-have-a-chance claim. The states already have, and have had for 26 years, autonomy to innovate and create programs, with the help of federal funding, that zero in on the needs of their particular populations within sensible federal limits. Graham-Cassidy would do away with those limits, significantly lower funding, force millions of our fellow citizens to become uninsured (again), drop the states down a deep well of chaos and put us all back in the wild west of health care.

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Medicaid Directors (NAMD) issued a statement highly critical of Graham-Cassidy, saying it would place a massive burden on the states.

“Taken together, the per-capita caps and the envisioned block grants would constitute the largest intergovernmental transfer of financial risk from the federal government to the states in our country’s history.”

And last night, after learning of NAMD’s statement, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted, “You can’t get ALL 50 state Medicaid Directors to agree on anything else in health care. Seriously. This is BANANAS.”

America’s health care system is complicated (“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated!”) and full of inside baseball stuff. But it does allow states to chart their own destinies. So, here’s a question for Lindsay, Bill and Mike: What’s the real reason you’re trying so hard to resurrect this dead cat?