Thursday, October 17, 2013
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.
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, October 7, 2013
[Cross posted today at Constitution Daily:]
The Affordable Care Act expresses many goals, but its heart is the desire to create a health insurance home for all Americans. The American healthcare system historically exists at the pleasure of a number of stakeholders and is not a coherent whole. This lack of system is reflected in the consistent tensions that underlie American healthcare, most notably federal power versus state power; the collective versus the individual; and the individual versus the state. In creating near-universal health insurance, the ACA has resolved one of those tensions, individual versus the collective, in favor of the collective. To that end, the ACA eliminated many of the practices health insurers used to cherry pick policyholders, which excluded people who need medical care from their risk pools. In so doing, the ACA represented a federal choice to make all people insurable, whatever their wealth, age, medical history, sex, race, or other distinguishing factor.
Despite the redirection this leveling of the health insurance playing field represents, the ACA did not craft a coherent whole out of the American healthcare system. Instead, the ACA remodels the preexisting, unstable healthcare system. In building on the old foundation rather than starting anew, the law retained the historic role of the states in regulating medical matters. To that end, the ACA urged the states to implement two key aspects of its insurance modifications: Health Insurance Exchanges and the expansion of the Medicaid program. The federal government has the power under the Spending Clause to create a federally-run insurance mechanism, but it chose instead to employ cooperative federalism to keep states engaged in healthcare policymaking. The trouble is that some states have not been cooperating with these central legislative goals.
The Exchanges, or Marketplaces, are an instrument through which qualified private health insurance plans can be purchased by individuals or small businesses. The states were offered federal funding to create their own state-run Exchanges, which were operative as of October 1, 2013 (Tuesday last week). Many states created Exchanges, but many rejected them as an expression of their distaste for the ACA. Predictably, many of the states that have refused to create their own Exchanges were the same states that challenged the constitutionality of the ACA. While there is value in dissent, the states that refused to create Exchanges invited more federal power into the state, because rejecting the federal offer for funding to create a state-run Exchange did not halt Exchanges from coming into existence. Instead, the ACA tasked the federal government with operating Exchanges in states that did not create their own. While expressing a desire to protect their state sovereignty, these states have invited federal authority into their borders. Though the Exchanges at both the state and federal levels have experienced some technical glitches this week, it appears that many people are eager to purchase insurance through them and that they have been successful at doing so. The states that rejected Exchanges have not stopped implementation of the law, but their actions have other notable ramifications.
The Medicaid expansion was designed to catch childless adults under age 65 and below 133% of the federal poverty level in Medicaid’s safety net. As with other modifications to the Medicaid program over the years, the expansion added a new element to the Medicaid Act that states could reject, but they could lose all of their funding if they made that choice. The day the ACA was signed into law, states challenged the expansion of the Medicaid program as unconstitutionally coercive. They succeeded on this claim in NFIB v. Sebelius, and the Court rendered the expansion optional for states. Immediately pundits began to question whether the states would participate in the Medicaid expansion.
Though national media tallies make it appear that just over half of the states are participating in the Medicaid expansion, in reality the number is and will be much higher. In almost every state reported as “leaning toward not participating,” and in many states reported as “not participating,” some significant act has occurred to explore implementation of the Medicaid expansion. Some states have special commissions or task forces researching expansion; some state governors have indicated a desire to participate and have included the expansion in the budget; some legislatures have held debate or scheduled it for the next session; and so on. Though some states will not have their Medicaid expansions running by January 1, 2014, it seems very likely that most if not all states will participate in the expansion in the relatively near future.
In the meantime, state non-cooperation will have a direct effect on some of the nation’s poorest citizens. People from 100% to 400% of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive tax credits for purchasing insurance in the Exchanges. In states with no expansion, people above 100% of the federal poverty level who would have qualified for Medicaid will still be able to obtain insurance through federal subsidies in the Exchanges. But, people who are below 100% of the federal poverty level will be too poor for tax-credits and living in states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid programs, therefore they will not be able to enroll in Medicaid either. These very low income people will not be penalized for failing to carry health insurance, but they will not have health insurance either. These individuals will get caught in a health insurance black hole that exists in part because the Court allowed states to refuse Medicaid expansion and in part because of state resistance to partnering in the implementation of the ACA.
State cooperation in the Medicaid expansion is even more important than state participation in the Exchanges, because many thousands of people may not get the access to health insurance that is the promise of the ACA. The debate over the meaning of federalism that swirls around political and academic circles will have a direct and important effect on the people who can least afford it. The good news for them is that Medicaid’s history indicates that all states eventually participate in the program and its amendments, but this week’s implementation of the Exchanges keeps access to medical care through health insurance tantalizingly out of reach.
October 7, 2013 in Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, Health Care, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, Medicaid, Obama Administration, PPACA, Private Insurance, Spending, State Initiatives | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Despite best efforts to prevent the exchanges, or marketplaces, from going on line, today the exchanges have begun to do the work of facilitating a health insurance home for people in the United States. If you live in a state that has declined to create its own exchange, then you should visit https://www.healthcare.gov/, the federal website for the federal health insurance marketplace. Though there were reports of the site crashing, as of 3:00 this afternoon it seems to be working. And, the site will guide you to your state's marketplace site, as necessary. No need to rush though, as open enrollment lasts through March of 2014.
Many probably saw Governor Beshear's op-ed in the New York Times last week regarding the reasons that Kentucky has created its own state-based exchange (and will accept federal funding for the Medicaid expansion), here. The commentary seems even more relevant in the wake of the House Republicans shutting down the federal government over health insurance.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
The Journal of Legal Medicine invites submissions of articles addressing issues at the nexus of law and medicine. The Journal also welcomes substantive reviews of new books that intersect legal and medical topics.
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Monday, July 8, 2013
In yesterday's New York Times, Ross Douthat joined the chorus that criticizes employer-sponsored health care insurance. According to Douthat, this "unsustainable relic" is a "burden on businesses, a source of perverse incentives for the health care market and an obstacle to more efficient, affordable and universal coverage."
In fact, the United States is not unusual in the extent to which it relies on companies to fund health care coverage. Indeed, employers in France, Germany and Japan shoulder a higher percentage of their countries' national health spending than do U.S. employers. Government-run systems must find sources of funding for their programs, and employers are an obvious place to look.
To be sure, there are problems with employer-sponsored coverage, but the Affordable Care Act (ACA) takes care of a very important one. Employer-sponsored coverage has promoted "job lock" in the United States. Many would-be entrepreneurs have been reluctant to start their own companies because they would lose their employer-sponsored coverage and have to pay for insurance out of their own pocket. For people with pre-existing medical conditions, insurance might not be available. Under ACA, the new entrepreneur will be able to find an affordable health care plan on an insurance exchange.
The abandonment of employer-sponsored coverage would reduce the burden on businesses only if health care costs overall were lower under the replacement system. Many health care policy experts observe that costs are lower in government-run systems overseas because the governments can exercise greater negotiating leverage with doctors and hospitals than can insurance companies in the United States. In short, the high cost of U.S. health care and its burden on business seems to be not so much a problem of relying on employers rather than individuals to purchase coverage but a problem of relying on private insurers rather than government to operate the system.
Friday, June 21, 2013
The Supreme Court decided Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International yesterday, a lower-profile case about unconstitutional conditions placed on federal funding. My initial reaction is that the opinion can be read in at least two ways. On the surface, this decision reads like the long line of First Amendment unconstitutional conditions cases such as Rust v. Sullivan and Legal Services Corp. v. Velazquez. Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion held that the "Leadership Act" could offer federal funding to eradicate HIV/AIDS throughout the world, and that funding can express discouragement of prostitution by refusing to allow the funds to be used for the promotion of prostitution, but the Court held that the conditions on the funds cannot go so far as to require the organizations using the federal funds to explicitly oppose prostitution. (Fund recipients had expressed the fear that taking an overt stance against prostitution would harm their public health efforts by scaring those in the sex trade away from their doors.) The majority's opinion is a non-controversial read of that line of cases and even attempts to make sense of the somewhat inconsistent application of the doctrine by describing the difference between "conditions that define the limits of the government spending program" and "conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside of the contours of the program itself." I don't necessarily buy this distinction. After all, conditions by necessity define the contours of a program - unless they are nongermane, which seems to underly the Chief Justice's leveraging concept but was never explicitly stated. But, it is one way to describe the differing outcomes in this line of cases that is worth considering.
But then I come to a second possible take: this case reiterates the Roberts Court's willingness to rein in congressional exercises of the spending power. On the heels of NFIB v. Sebelius, the spending aspect of this case is notable, given that this is the second case in two years to express disapproval of conditions on federal spending. Unlike NFIB, which created a novel coercion doctrine without contours, this decision tread familiar ground in its conclusion that conditions on spending cannot violate First Amendment rights. However, even during oral arguments, there were shadows of the ACA controversy from last term. And, although NFIB was not cited in the opinion, both the majority and the dissent (authored by Justice Scalia) contained familiar language about leveraging, coercion, and offers that can't be refused. It is unclear why Justices Scalia and Thomas would uphold this condition on federal funding when they so readily and forcefully rejected the Medicaid expansion last year. The simplest answer is probably that these justices have long rejected the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. (Another possibility is that the dissenting justices agree with the policy of rejecting prostitution (see Justice Scalia's bizarre "free love" comparison) but disagreed with the policy of universal health coverage.)
While the spending power is still robust, I am not sanguine about the conversation the Court is trying to have with Congress about the Spending Clause. It will be interesting to see how the Court furthers this project in the same-sex marriage cases that are sure to be handed down next week. If the cases turn on the doctrine of federalism, then read in combination, the Roberts Court may be continuing its adventures in the Federalism Revolution, once thought done and gone, and now revived through the spending power.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
It's no secret that the night staff of a hospital are both over-worked and over-tired. Nor is it any secret that many medical errors occur at night. But until we look at the totality of the human factors making up medical error, we are unlikely to make significant headway in addressing it. A review of the literature suggests that the reason isn't a lack of understanding about the factors which cause human errors, it's concern about the cost of addressing them.
The authors of a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled, Relationship Between Occurrence of Surgical Complications and Hospital Finances conclude that not only aren’t hospitals doing all they can to reduce medical errors, they actually have no financial incentives to do so.
I'd suggest that financial incentives are behind ineffective efforts to address the issues of staff over-work and the inherent dangers of intermittent shift work.
It's no surprise that another widely reported recent study has found that reductions in the hours medical residents work has not resulted in increased patient safety. The study authors conclude that this is because although residents worked less hours, they did not have a reduced work load. So, like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, the trying to cram more work in the same amount of time increased resident error.
The findings of that study need to be seen in combination with the vast amount of scientific research on the increase in errors caused during night shifts. A recent study of nurses working night shifts showed that “on average, the error rate increase 6% after the second night shift in a row, 17% after the third successive night shift and an astounding 35% higher on the fourth night shift.” See also this and this article by the Joint Commission. Although no one disputes the reality that human beings perform best in the day time, every hospital must be fully staffed 24 hours a day. The information is both anecdotal and research based. But no one seems to be listening.
An article in Nursing World does an excellent job of using available research to describe the scope of the problem, but implies that it can be effectively addressed by nurses proactively paying more attention to their sleep patterns. It advises nurses working the night shift to “take control of sleep.” In fact the NSF “recommends that nurses wear wrap around sunglasses when driving home so the body is less aware that it is daylight.” This advice ignores the scientific reality that humans are not as effective or alert at night as they are in the day time. Nor does it consider the human reality that medical shift workers do not have the luxury of using their days to sleep. Like everyone else living in a diurnal world, they must cope with the tasks of family and daily living.
Techniques like wearing dark glasses may work in making a shift to a new rhythm--like travelling to another time zone. But given the unlikeliness of medical staff to convert to a permanent change in their circadian rhthyms, as if they were working in a submarine (and that doesn’t work very well either) the answer is to address the reality that humans are less effective at recognizing problems and completing complex tasks at night. But that’s not where the problem solving is going.
May 25, 2013 in Cost, Effectiveness, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Law, Hospital Finances, Hospitals, Insurance, Medical Malpractice, Nurses, Patient Safety, Payment, Physicians, Policy, Public Health, Quality, Quality Improvement, Reform, Research, Science and Health, Substance Abuse | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)