Tag: socialized medicine

Socialized Medicine: From Anecdote to Data

Last night’s CNN duel between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on the future of Obamacare was pretty illuminating for a recent arrival to the United States, with Senator Sanders’ playbook all-too-familiar to those of us from the UK.

Sanders wants a single-payer socialized healthcare system in the United States, just as we have in Britain. Any objection to that is met with the claim that you are “leaving people to die.” The only alternatives on offer, you would think, are the U.S. system as it exists now, or the UK system. Sanders did not once acknowledge that the UK structure, which is free at the point of use, inevitably means rationed care, with a lack of pre-screening. He also failed to acknowledge that lower health spending levels (indeed, even public spending on health is lower in the UK than the United States now) are not the same as efficiency—which is about outputs per input.

In the face of anecdote after anecdote about those saved by Obamacare and the virtues of a government-run health system, Cruz countered with some anecdotes from the UK showing the consequences of rationed care: a Scottish hospital turning away pregnant women, a woman in Wales waiting eight hours on the floor for an ambulance to arrive after a fall, and a hospital in Essex canceling life-saving cancer treatment because there were no free beds in intensive care. He could also have talked about the Mid-Staffs scandal, or a recent documentary showing doctors deciding between saving a cancer patient or a pensioner bleeding to death.

Anecdotes are powerful in helping to persuade people, and there are good reasons to use them in debates. Yet they are always susceptible to the charge that all health systems have extreme failures. Perhaps more powerfully then, the inadequacies of the UK system show up systematically in the data about how well conditions are dealt with (data from my former colleague Kristian Niemietz’s reports here and here):

  • In the United States, the age-adjusted breast cancer 5-year survival rate is 88.9 percent, compared with just 81.1 percent in the UK
  • The United States leads the world on the equivalent stat for prostate cancer (97.2 per cent) vs. 83.2 percent in the UK
  • Lung cancer: 18.7 percent in the United States vs. 9.6 percent in the UK; bowel cancer: 64.2 percent vs. 56.1 percent
  • Just in case you think I am cherry picking: U.S. survival rates are also better for leukemia, ovarian cancer, stomach cancer, and liver cancer—all of those for which I can find comparisons
  • The age- and sex-standardized 30-day mortality rate for ischaemic stroke is just 3.6 per cent in the United States vs. 9.2 per cent in the UK; for haemorrhagic stroke, the figures are 22 percent vs. 26.5 percent

I could go on. All of which is to show that your probability of dying from a range of common conditions is much higher in the UK than here. Perhaps that’s why (with no hint of irony) The Guardian’s write-up of a Commonwealth Fund Report suggesting the UK’s health system was “the best in the world” said “the only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.”

Is the Faculty of Harvard University Irrational?

As an irony junkie, this New York Times article on the outrage among Harvard’s faculty that they should face greater cost-sharing in their health benefits – and the incredulity of Harvard’s health economists at their colleagues’ reactions – is one of the most wonderful things I have read in the course of my career. And it reminded me of another Ivy League health economist: Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt.

It has long been one of Reinhardt’s hobby horses that “the American public’s idea of ‘common sense’ in health care” is fundamentally irrational:

To be responsive, then, to the “simple common sense” of the American people, any proposed health reform must not reduce the revenue of hospitals, lest some neighborhood hospital may have to close; or of doctors, lest some doctors might refuse to see patients; or of the manufacturers of health products, lest they are unable to innovate; or of anyone on the supply side of the health sector, lest they go out of business and have to lay off employees.

At the same time, the “simple common sense” of the American people dictates that any health reform that fails to bend down the growth curve of future health spending — the current jargon for controlling health spending better — is unacceptable, too.

At the time Reinhardt penned this particular expression of his exasperation (July 2009), I noted that the irrationality he decries is a direct result of policies he and other left-leaning health reformers have enacted into law:

The [explanation] is actually pretty simple: government has given us a health sector where everyone is spending someone else’s money.  In such an economy, individuals can make irrational demands (cut spending — but don’t reduce my access to care!) because they don’t bear the cost of their irrationality.

Emphasis added. People who pay for their own consumption don’t have the luxury of being able to pretend that tradeoffs don’t exist. Walk into a BMW dealership and announce, “I want a 7-series at Hyundai prices!”, and the dealer will laugh at you. When Medicare enrollees do the same thing – Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare! – the people who run Medicare praise and court them.

The seeds of such irrationality can also be seen in the case of Harvard University or any other employer-sponsored health plan, where the federal government imposes stiff tax penalties on anyone who does not (1) surrender $5,000 or $11,000 of their income to their employer and (2) let their employer use that money to select their health plan. Since this goverment policy means that workers don’t control that portion of their compensation, and don’t perceive the direct and negative relationship that employer-provided health insurance has on their wages (partly because they can’t get that money back by declining health benefits), workers end up demanding mutually incompatible things: comprehensive health-insurance coverage that doesn’t cost them anything. If that seems irrational, it is because, as I put it in that 2009 blog post, “Socialized Medicine Socializes the Cost of Irrationality, Too.”

Now that the Smartest People In The Universe – the faculty at Harvard University, naturally – are displaying the same behavior as the supposedly irrational American public, would Reinhardt still describe that behavior as irrational? Or is it Reinhardt and like-minded health economists who are irrational for expecting the lab mice to behave some other way? 

How to Tell If the Government Has Taken over Health Care

From the Washington Post:

Hedge fund executives and other investors are increasingly interested in the timing and nature of health-policy decisions in Washington because they directly affect the profits and stock prices of pharmaceutical, insurance, hospital and managed-care companies…

[Former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] director Thomas Scully, who served during the Bush administration…said he thought that it was useful for CMS officials to have more communication with Wall Street investors as a way for regulators to learn and “explain what an $800-billion-a-year agency” does with its money.

So long as someone is still making a buck, it’s not socialized medicine…right?

There Is No Objective Definition of ‘Medical Necessity’

California regulators are coming down on Kaiser Permanente. According to HealthLeaders Media, the regulators reviewed a batch of coverage denials and “found that in excess of 75% of the cases the services indeed were medically necessary, and 10% were not.” Indeed?

Now seems like a good time to post what University of Tennessee law professor Haavi Morreim wrote about “The Futility of Medical Necessity“ in Regulation:

Clinical artificiality The ill fit between “necessity” and ordinary medical care is immediately obvious in the question facetiously bandied about when health plans first considered what to do about a recently approved drug for male impotence: How often per month (per week? per day?) is drug-assisted sexual intercourse “medically necessary”?

As typified by that case, most medical decisions do not post clear choices of life versus death, nor juxtapose complete cures against pure quackery. Rather, the daily stuff of medicine is a continuum requiring a constant weighing of uncertainties and values. One antibiotic regimen may be medically comparable to and much less expensive than another, but with slightly higher risk of damage to hearing or to organs like kidneys or liver. For a patient needing hip replacement, one prosthetic joint may be longer-lasting but far costlier than an alternative. Of two equally effective drugs for hypertension, the costlier one may be more palatable because it has fewer side effects and a convenient once-a-day dosage.

Across such choices, it is artificially precise to say that one option is “necessary” — with the usual connotation of “essential” or “indispensable” – while the other is “unnecessary” — with the usual connotation of “superfluous” or “pointless.” Various options have merits, and often no single approach is the clear, “correct” choice. A given option might be better described as “a good idea in this case,” “reasonable, given the cost of the alternative,” “probably better than the alternative, given a specific goal,” “about as good as anything else,” or “not quite ideal, but still acceptable.”

In many cases, the real question is whether a particular medical risk or monetary cost is worth incurring in order to achieve a desired level of symptomatic relief or functional improvement, or to reduce the risk of an adverse outcome or a missed diagnosis. A huge array of treatments fits that description: more or less worthwhile, but the patient will not die without it and other alternatives (that might have some drawbacks) exist. [Emphasis mine.]

More broadly, concepts like necessity, appropriateness, and effectiveness can only be defined relative to a goal. For example, antibiotics are not clinically effective for all illnesses; they are effective against bacteria but, barring placebo effect, they are ineffective against viruses. Hence, it makes no sense for a physician to prescribe antibiotics to eradicate a viral infection. However, if the goal is to placate a relentlessly demanding patient who insists on antibiotics for his viral infection, the prescription may indeed serve that latter aim – which is probably why so many physicians write so many antibiotic prescriptions for viral illnesses.

Choices in this realm require a level of clinical complexity that is not reflected in simplistic notions like necessity, and that should not be hidden under blanket categories connoting a façade of precision. It would be far better to acknowledge that, across a broad spectrum of such choices and trade-offs, it is legitimate for people to come to different conclusions about what sort of price is worth paying, medically and financially, to achieve specific goals. To presume that a medical intervention is objectively either necessary or unnecessary belies the legitimacy of such variation in human goals and values.

So the question becomes: who will do a better job of deciding whether and when hip replacements or antibiotics or Viagra are “medically necessary?” Regulators? Or patients choosing health plans (in part) based on how those plans define medical necessity?

RTD: ‘Insurance Exchange: Just Say No’

Regarding legislation to create an ObamaCare “Exchange” in Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch explains:

Republicans at the General Assembly are falling prey to the fallacy of the false alternative…

[H]ere are the real options facing Virginia: (a) federal bureaucrats determine the form of our exchange, or (b) federal bureaucrats determine the form of our exchange. There is no (c)…

Running a health-insurance exchange would cost a lot of money — money Virginia does not have. Since Washington will dictate how it will be run, Washington should pick up the tab.

Finally, Some Scrutiny of Romney’s Culpability for ObamaCare

Just days after the other Republican presidential candidates finally started holding Mitt Romney’s feet to the fire for the ObamaCare 1.0 health care law he signed while governor of Massachusetts, the Wall Street Journal slams his health care record in not one but two opinion pieces.

See also this pertinent Cato video:

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