HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Memoir is of Special Interest to Health Profs

I'm a guest over at prawfsblog this month--come visit-and my posting today was about why law professors should be interested in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's new memoir.  You can read the whole pitch below--it includes that it's a funny, warm, well-written and interesting account of a remarkably successful career.  I also noted how important her efforts at fixing student loan debt are as a platform on which to build needed change in higher education.  Finally, she has very interesting things to say about balancing work and family as well as going beyond the classroom to help the individuals affected by the law she studied.   At a recent executive board meeting of the AALS Section on Law, Medicine and Health Care, current chair Dr. Ani Satz noted that there are not many mechanisms for recognizing that kind of service.  (side note--consider yourself warmly invited to the terrific panels our chair elect, Dr. Thad Pope, has organized for us to present and co-sponsor, more information to come).

But for a health prof audience, I'd also point out that she discusses her empirical work (with a team of top social scientists--she didn't do the math herself) that finally demonstrated the major flaw in our employer based health insurance system.  Medical bills turned out to be the leading cause of bankruptcy--and very often among families already insured.  Either their insurance was inadequate (maybe we should get these folks together with the people who are upset they can't keep their "old" plans) or, worse, their illness meant they could no longer work.  Whether the debt came directly from medical bills or from using credit cards and home equity loans to pay the bills--the results were equally catastrophic.

That this actually happens--that medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy--is as far as I know not currently disputed.  But I'd be remiss in this context not to point out that as part of the opposition research arising from her running to Senate-the Breitbart blog has made available a series of angry accusations from the 1990's of misconduct about that study.

 It will be a while before we see if the Affordble Care Act is going to do much to fix this problem--and predictions are mixed.  See this as opposed to this.   There's a federal study finding bankruptcies down in Massachusetts following Romneycare.   Common sense suggests that changes like no exclusions for pre-existing conditions and the lift of lifetime caps will make things better (for people with plans bound by those provisions).

But although certainly not usually described as such, Sen. Warren is, if not a Health Law Prof, certainly one whose work is very important to us. 

 

May 3, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Blog, Consumers, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Reform, Insurance, PPACA, Proposed Legislation, Reform, Research, Research Ethics, State Initiatives, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 14, 2014

At the Intersection of Health Law and Civil Rights

 

Health Law Prof Extraordinaire  Nina Kohn of Syracuse University, now visiting at Maine, shared this link with me http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2014/03/11/why-are-family-members-being-banned-from-visiting-their-relatives-in-nursing-homes/ because of an experience I had involving the ICU staff when my mother was hospitalized last year and I expressed concern about emerging pressure sores from compression socks that were not being monitored.  I don't think this problem is unique to Canada.

I received wonderful help and advice from two very different groups--the National Center for Medicare Advocacy-a terrific resource for navigating a complex and often not very patient centered health care system--and Texas Right to Life which is promoting the Will to Live document as a counter to the assumption that the possession of an "advance directive" is the equivalent of a decision to forgo care in order to hasten death.

 

March 14, 2014 in Aging, CMS, Consumers, End-of-Life Care, Health Care, Long-Term Care, Medicare, Patient Safety, Policy, Public Health | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Continued Skepticism re "Wellness Programs"

A big part of the job of being a Health Law Prof is to help students understand the intersection of the many legal specialties that comprise the big tent of "Health Law."  Wellness Programs are a good way of doing that because one of the key features of the Affordable Care Act is the flexibility it provides employers to link the cost their employees pay for health insurance with the individual employee's participation in a company sponsored "welleness program."  Here's an article I wrote explaining how PPACA went about doing that.  Here's a link to the Department of Labor's summary of the current rules and a good overview by the law firm Nixon-Peabody.  This report from Rand is an overview of what these programs are and how companies have increasingly fallen in love with them.   At this point just about every insurance company is offering to create one--here's some information from Aetna.  

The problem is, there's very little evidence that these programs do anything to demonstrably improve health (whatever that may mean).  And quite a bit that they may promote many different kinds of social injustice.

 This article in the Harvard Business Review does a great job describing the kinds of programs that are now descending on employees and how they are creating disatsifaction without any scientifically supportable improvement in "health."

There is also a growing literature suggesting that these programs may disproportionately discourage workers who employers aren't that unhappy to see go--but might not legally be able to actually fire.  Here is some very interesting testimony by Jennifer Mathis Director of Programs, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
On Behalf of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities.

Michelle Mello at Harvard has coined the term "life-style discrimination" to describe the ways Wellness Programs may target individuals employers may perceive as undesirable because they are obese, smoke or have other non-job related characteristics.

Studying Wellness Programs--and the issues they raise--can be an accessible entry point for students who can easily be intimated by the regulatory complexity of health law and can also be a bridge to understanding how fundamentally the Affordable Care Act has affected the way health care will be paid for and delivered as our students begin their careers in advising those struggling to implement these new regulations.

 

 

 

 

February 28, 2014 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Coverage, Disabilities, Effectiveness, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Genetics, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Insurance, Mental Health, Obesity, Policy, Politics, PPACA, Prevention, Public Health, Quality, Reform, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dartmouth Institute Publishes Atlas of Medicare Part D Areal Variations

The Dartmouth Institute has just published its Atlas of areal differences in utilization of prescription drugs by Medicare Part D recipients.  The Atlas--unsurprisingly but disturbingly--details significant differences.  Pharmaceutical interventions are classified as effective, discretionary (where there is diagnostic or therapeutic uncertainty), and likely to be harmful in the patient population at issue.  A caveat, however, is that the report measured prescriptions filled and thus may underestimate actual provider behavior.

An initial variation involved sheer numbers of prescriptions, with a high average of 63 per year in Miami and a low average of 39 per year in Colorado (overall, the average was 49 standardized 30 day prescriptions filled per year per Part D beneficiary).  In general, the Mountain West had the lowest prescription average and the Rust Belt and Appalachian states the highest.  These differences could not be explained primarily by overall burden of disease but instead appear to reflect variations in provider prescribing practices.  For example, the American Heart Association recommends use of beta blockers in heart attack patients for three years post-attack.  However, rates of prescriptions for these drugs in the first six months ranged from highs of 94% to lows of under 68%, and persistence in the next six months was only slightly lower, ranging from highs of 92% to lows of under 68%.  Variations in statin use were even greater, ranging from just over 91% in Ogden, Utah, to below 45% in Abilene, Texas.  Interestingly, there was little correlation between effective use of beta blockers and effective use of statins.

The other two therapies analyzed in the Atlas were treatment of diabetes and treatment of patients with fragility fractures.  Diabetic patients fared somewhat better than heart attack patients, albeit still with significant variations.  Osteoporotic patients, however, fared dismally, receiving a high of 28% and a low of 7% with filled prescriptions for drug to combat osteoporosis after fragility fractures in sites other than the hip (such treatment is recommended to decrease the risk of future hip fractures).

Most interesting of all, there was no correlation between drug expenditures and measures of effective care.  In other words, patients in some regions may be spending a great deal on their drugs (paid for under Part D), but receiving far less benefit that patients in other regions who spend a great deal less.

[LPF]

 

October 17, 2013 in Access, Chronic Care, CMS, Consumers, Cost, Drug and Device, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Medicare, Prescription Drugs, Quality, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Chilling Thoughts from Chilmark about Data Analytics and Patients

Chilmark Research produces evidence-based reports of health IT and market trends in the health IT industry.

A recently issued Chilmark report, 2013 Clinical Analytics for Population Health Market Trends Report, which I have not read because it costs $4500, details the conflicting interests of clinicians and payers with respect to insights gleaned from data analytics.  The hope of EHRs in combination with data analytics is better patient health, for example through alerts about needed preventive measures or care management strategies.  But different payment may reimburse categories of care differently--so a diabetic covered by one type of payment structure might get reminders when her counterpart with different coverage might not.  Even worse, patients whose prognosis is seen as "hopeless" through the predictive lens of analytics might get very different treatment recommendations under cost-conscious reimbursement structures.

Cora Sharma's post on the Chilmark blog details these likely conflicts with chilling precision.

[LPF]

September 23, 2013 in Access, Accountable Care Organizations, Chronic Care, Consumers, Cost, Coverage, Disparities, Electronic Medical Records, Health Care Costs, Insurance, Prevention, Private Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Poverty and Cognitive Function

Don't miss a fascinating article in the August 30th issue of Science, "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function."  The article contends that there is a causal explanation for the correlation between poverty and disfunctional behavior, such as the failure to keep medical appointments or to employ healthy behaviors. Put crudely, the connection is that people in poverty have to think about so much just to keep going that they don't have the cognitive bandwidth to make carefully reasoned decisions.

The authors of the article, Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainanthan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao, present two studies in support of their claim.  The first study involved four experiments in which shoppers at a New Jersey mall were paid participants.  The income level of the shoppers varied, from the bottom quartile of US income to over $70,000.  In the first experiment, participants were asked to think about a decision about how to pay for car repairs, and were randomized to inexpensive ($150) or expensive ($1500) costs of the repair.  They were then asked to perform simple cognitive tests on a computer.  Among those asked to think about the inexpensive repair, there were no significant differences by income level in performance of the cognitive task.  By contrast, there were significant differences in performance by income among those confronted with the more expensive repair.  Variations on this experiment involved problems where sums of money were not involved (to control for math anxiety), incentives in the form of getting paid for getting the right answers on the cognitive tests, and situations in which participants came to a decision about the financial problem, engaged in intervening activities, and then were asked to perform the cognitive tests.  Each of these variations produced results similar to the initial experiment:  the performance of people in poverty on the cognitive tests was significantly associated with the expensive repair, but the performance of those in higher income groups was not.

In the authors' second study, participants were a random sample of sugar cane farmers in Tamil Nadu in southern India.  They were interviewed before and after the cane harvest.  Pre-harvest the farmers faced more significant financial pressures (as measured by criteria such as numbers of pawned items, numbers of loans, and the like) than post-harvest.  Performance on cognitive function tests was significantly higher post-harvest than pre-harvest.  Because the cane harvest extends over a considerable time period, the authors were able to control for calendar effects; the difference was similar early or later in the 5 month period of the harvest.  The authors conclude that poverty has about the same cognitive consequences as the loss of a night's sleep.

To be sure, other variables might explain the authors' findings.  They are careful to discuss many of these such as physical exertion, stress, nutrition, or training effects.  If the authors are right, however, their findings have some impressive implications for health policy.  One, which they note, is that it may just be more difficult for people who are poor to perform complex tasks needed to apply for eligibility for programs such as Medicaid (why are we surprised that so many who are eligible don't sign up?).  Another is that programs designed to incentivize healthy behaviors may just not work very well if they ignore cognitive loads.

[LPF]

    September 5, 2013 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Reform, Medicaid, Obesity, Prevention, Public Health, Uninsured | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

    Saturday, August 17, 2013

    Another ACA Delay--and a Proposed Solution

    This past week, the New York Times published a story about yet another delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Earlier this summer, NPR also reported the delay, which concerns total limits on out of pocket costs that consumers can be required to pay.  Under ACA, beginning in 2014 consumers were supposed to have to meet only one out of pocket limit--$6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family--including all deductibles and co-payments.  But the Times story reports that insurers have been granted a year's grace in implementing this requirement and quotes an administration official as attributing this decision to the inability of insurance plans to communicate with each other in determining out of pocket costs. 

    Both stories emphasize the plight of patients who are covered under separate medical and pharmacy benefit plans.  Pharmacy plans in particular may have very high copayments, without annual limits.  Patients with expensive drug needs for diseases such as multiple sclerosis are especially hard hit by these benefit structures.

    As I ruminated on this delay, it occurred to me that the problem of the plans' inability to communicate with one another is the plan's problem, not the patient's.  To say the least, it does seem rather unfair to have patients bear all of the costs of the delay. 

    Moreover, there is a model that could have been used to implement the single limit:  submission of claims for out-of-network care.  Patients do this all the time and receive reimbursement to the extent covered by their plans.  The payer has a record of the claim and can credit it against the patient's deductible.  Why couldn't this model have been applied to the problem of multiple plans for patients?  It would be simple.  These are primarily patients with employer-provided plans.  All that would be needed would be to stipulate which plan is primary for the purpose of maintaining the single out of pocket total.  Medical plans are used to maintaining such totals. If the medical plan were stipulated to be the primary plan, all the patient would need to do would be to submit records of out of pocket payments under their pharmacy plans.  When patients meet the out of pocket total for the year, they would no longer be responsible for copays or deductibles from the primary plan.  How would other plans know about this?  Patients will receive records from their primary plans that they have met their deductible for the year.  They would then be responsible for submitting these records to their other plans--after which the other plans would no longer be able to charge copays or deductibles.

    This approach, to be sure, puts the burden on patients to solve the communication problem.  But I'm surprised notbody seems to have entertained this suggestion, in a health care climate that heralds patient responsibility.  Perhaps the difficulty instead is that the multiple-plan structure emerged as a way to limit health care costs for payers by shifting costs to consumers.

    [LPF]

    August 17, 2013 in Accountable Care Organizations, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Cost, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Costs, Insurance, Payment, Reform, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)