Thursday, April 3, 2014
Obesity and Taxes
Cigarette taxes have proved to be an effective strategy to reduce smoking, so one might think (as many experts do) that soda taxes would be an effective strategy to reduce obesity. Consumption of soft drinks seems to be an important risk factor for obesity, and people are sensitive to the price of their colas.
Moreover, soda taxes reflect the lessons of behavioral economics. People often over-indulge in activities that provide short-term gratification but impose significant harm in the long-term. Imposing a tax on unhealthy drinks supplies an immediate disincentive to the consumption of those drinks and can overcome the difficulty people have in postponing gratification.
However, two new articles in Health Economics question the effectiveness of soda taxes. One study based on UK data, the other on US data, come to the same conclusion--we should not expect much of an impact from taxes on sugary soft drinks. It seems that raising taxes on some beverages simply results in consumers switching to other beverages and replacing the forgone calories with other calories. And to make things worse, beverage taxes often are regressive.
The news is disappointing and adds to a growing list of disappointing policies for weight loss. Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, restaurants must disclose calorie information to customers. With better information, diners would know which salads really are healthy and which others are not. But researchers have not found mandates for calorie disclosure by restaurants (as in New York and Seattle) to be effective.
Legislative fixes for obesity are tempting and probably necessary. But lawmakers need to take better account of medical understanding before they act.
[cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg and orentlicher.tumblr.com]
April 3, 2014 in Health Care Costs, Obesity, 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, 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.
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)