HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Health Insurance Exchange Subsidies and Partisan Politics

With two federal courts of appeals coming to different conclusions on the most recent challenge to the Affordable Care Act, we should not be surprised that the judges have split along partisan lines.

By a 2-1 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that subsidies for the purchase of health care insurance are available only on state-run exchanges, while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held 3-0 that subsidies for the purchase of health care insurance are available on both state-run and federally-operated exchanges.

The two judges ruling against the Obama administration were appointed by Republican presidents while the four judges ruling in favor of the Obama administration were appointed by Democratic presidents.

Abbe Gluck and Tim Jost have explained why the subsidies should be available on federal exchanges; Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler take the opposite view.

July 22, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reading Hobby Lobby narrowly

I write this post with more than a little trepidation; I’m as unhappy as anyone about what the Court made of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week.  Nonetheless, given the current state of play, I’ve tried to see whether there are any ways to try to limit the damage. 

This Supreme Court term has featured a striking number of unanimous decisions.  What has drawn unanimity in these cases has been the narrow basis on which they were decided.  Commentators have praised Justice Roberts for his political skills in bringing the Court together—demonstrating that at least one branch of government remains functional and shoring up claims to judicial legitimacy.  Other observers note, however, that the unanimity is only skin deep—and point to the cases in which the Court divided 5-4 as symptomatic.  So suppose we perform a thought experiment on one of the most divisive decisions of this term, Hobby Lobby.  How could the decision have been narrowed?  How should it have been narrowed?  Such an examination is invited by Justice Alito’s statement that the Court’s holding is “very specific.”  It is also invited by Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, which opens with the assertion that the Court’s opinion “does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent.  Finally and disturbingly, it is also invited by the observation that the Court has quite quickly, in the case involving Wheaton College, opened wide one of the apparently narrow doors. 

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July 7, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Reform, Insurance, Obama Administration, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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, 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)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Solving Two Federal Problems at Once: Lets Mail Information to Those Losing Their Inadequate Health Insurance

The efforts by both Congress and the President  to ensure that people can keep individual health care policies which  do not meet the Obamacare minimum coverage standards are so misguided that if it weren't for the fact that vulnerable people are being caused needless suffering  it would be comical.

so far, there is no evidence that anyone is going to be worse off with the coverage now available to them on the exchange than they were with the policies being cancelled.   In fact,  information available to us  from sources like the Kaiser Family Foundation, Business Insider, and Families USA about the characteristics of the policies being cancelled is that whatever peace of mind they provided to those paying for them was illusory.

 The fact that this insurance did not meet Obamacare criteria means that it is highly likely that the coverage they had:

  •  Excluded the conditon for which they were most likely to need care
  • Had a far higher deductible than the policies now available on the exchange
  • And if it covered mental illness at all, did not do so at the same level as other covered illness.

Moreover,  these policies were subject to cancellation as soon as they were needed (for example after a diagnosis of cancer or after a debilitating accident).

Yet these facts are of no help to people without access to information about their alternatives.

Here's one thought--instead of requiring insurance companies to continue making these inadequate plans available, why couldn't they be required to send individualized information about alternatives on the exchange at the same time they send the cancellation letters?

The fact that they already have the relevant information about their policy owners means that those individuals don't need the web site to find out about their options.

In retrospect, depending on any web site to provide all the information to everyone who needed it was a bad idea from the beginning.   But letting people continue to pay good money for bad coverage is not the right solution.

Here's a win/win idea--why don't we activate an already existing but underused government resource to get individualized information out quickly to those who need it---the U.S. Postal System.

November 15, 2013 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Individual Mandate , Insurance, Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Difference Between a Law Professor and a Pundit

is that most of what I do is in the "no spin zone."  I may agree or not with a holding or a policy, but my job is to explain--not (in my view) editoralize.

 

Unless something is really wrong--and this headline is really wrong. Obama: ‘I’m Sorry’ About Americans Who Are Losing Current Health Plans

 

 Yes, I heard President Obama say he was "sorry" that people who "liked" their health insurance were losing it.  But there are no facts to support the implied conclusion that they were reasonable in their affection.

 So--are people "losing" health insurance they had because it provided so little coverage (so little value for money) that it was as good as being uninsured?  Yes.  But  are there any identifiable people who experienced an illness, were satisfied with the level of coverage they had from these policies?  Not that I've heard speak in any form that can be recorded for review.

 I'm from Connecticut and to say that people are losing coverage they "liked" is to suggest that those unlucky enough to pay a peddler for a piece of wood shaped like a nutmeg "liked" it well enough to continue putting sawdust in their eggnog for years to follow.  Sure, maybe they had thought they got a bargain and at the time could not have afforded a real nutmeg.  But there's a solid old time English word for what they experienced: they were swindled.  And would in no sense describe their feeling about the old block of wood as "liking."

What's missing here is any definition--let alone understanding--of what it means to "like" insurance coverage for which you are paying a monthly premium only to discover on needing it that it's not worth what you paid for it.    People who had this insurance  did so either because they were defrauded or because they had no other access to health insurance and were hoping for the best from it.

Here's my concern--I'm not qualified to assess the politics of this or even the longterm economics.  But I do know that many vulnerable people who either now have solid, excellent insurance through Medicare, the VA or their jobs believe that they could lose it because of Obamacare.  And that's simply not true.

 

All of us who are health law professors field questions from students,  friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances about Obamacare all the time--and my answer to almost everyone until very recently was, "I don't know--we'll have to see what happens when it actually takes effect." 

 But here is something I do know---the people who are "losing" healthcare are losing something that was never worth having--and which, by the way, they would surely have lost instantly the first time they made a claim.   Thus putting them in the same catagory of people from whom we have heard no complaints--those without access to health insurance because of pre-existing conditions or prohibitive premiums and now find it available and affordable.

 

Folks who are finding out that the coverage they had did not meet minimum standards and who now have the option of buying insurance that is worth what it costs may well not know the details yet--because they haven't been able to get on line to read about it.   And if they were lucky enough to never have had to use their policies, they may never have known how little they had.

But lets not forget that the system we had was responsible for 62% of personal bankruptcies due to medical bills.  And that includes a lot of people who had health insurance they "liked" but which proved inadequate when needed.

Not being a pundit--let alone an expert on presidential speech writing--I can't imagine how President Obama thought it was a good idea to make a promise that he had as much power to keep as that it wouldn't rain on anyone's Fourth of July Parade or that the entire United States would be covered by an even blanket of new snow on Christmas Eve. 

Most people with "good" insurance through work face changes in doctors, hospitals, and covered medications just about everytime their employer re-negotiates their contract.   It's a reality we all live with.  

But are people who had adequate and affordable insurance losing coverage?  To switch states for a moment,  we have to all be from Missouri.   Show us.

Until  we see what options are available to these folks who were paying monthly premiums to plans, now being cancelled, which would not be there when needed, lets stop scaring people by telling them that the adequate insurance they do have is going to be taken away.  And that they will become uninsured. 

Sure, the roll out is a disaster--and in retrospect predictable once it became apparent how many states were declining the opportunity to set up their own exchanges and shifting the burden onto the woefully unprepared department of Health and Human Services.

But lets not confuse the messenger with the message.  The actual insurance available is from private insurance companies--which for the first time must by law provide comprehensive health insurance for a fair price.  There's no reason to think it will be worse than the expensive and inadequate plans it replaces.  And certainly it will be far better than nothing.    And it seems like the people directly affected by these cancellations know that because with all the glitches and apologies, the majority of Americans  continue to support the increased access to affordable care insurance at the same rate they did when the bill was passed--three years ago!.

Getting back to being a professor, one of the biggest problems in explaining this topic is that it's a moving target and a substantial mistrust about sources of information.  Once again, I recommend the non-profit and non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation which continues to gather and explain facts.    If indeed the people "losing" their insurance do not soon have access to better coverage at an affordable price, then there is a serious problem far past computer glitches.  Lets wait and see.

November 8, 2013 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Insurance, Uninsured | 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)

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)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lessons About Medical Error Learned Watching I Love Lucy.

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. 

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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)