Topic: Health Care

Shrinking Medicare Expenditure

With public healthcare programs accounting for over a trillion dollars of federal spending, efforts to identify and remedy sources of waste are increasing. A new working paper finds: 

There is substantial waste in U.S. healthcare, but little consensus on how to identify or combat it. We identify one specific source of waste: long-term care hospitals (LTCHs). These post-acute care facilities began as a regulatory carve-out for a few dozen specialty hospitals, but have expanded into an industry with over 400 hospitals and $5.4 billion in annual Medicare spending in 2014. We use the entry of LTCHs into local hospital markets and an event study design to estimate LTCHs’ impact. We find that most LTCH patients would have counterfactually received care at Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNFs) – post-acute care facilities that provide medically similar care to LTCHs but are paid significantly less – and that substitution to LTCHs leaves patients unaffected or worse off on all measurable dimensions. Our results imply that Medicare could save about $4.6 billion per year – with no harm to patients – by not allowing for discharge to LTCHs.

The cost of healthcare in the United States remains a significant problem, but eliminating regulatory carve-outs such as LTCHs is one way to address this growing issue.

Research assistant Erin Partin contributed to this blog post.

 

More Futility in the War on Drugs

Despite $8.6 billion spent on the eradication of opium in Afghanistan over the past seventeen years, the US military has failed to stem the flow of Taliban revenue from  the illicit drug trade. Afghanistan produces the majority of the world’s opium, and recent U.S. military escalations have failed to alter the situation. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal:

“Nine months of targeted airstrikes on opium production sites across Afghanistan have failed to put a significant dent in the illegal drug trade that provides the Taliban with hundreds of millions of dollars, according to figures provided by the U.S. military.”

This foreign war on drugs has been no more successful than its domestic counterpart. If U.S. military might cannot suppress the underground market, local police forces have no hope.  Supply side repression does not seem to work, and its costs and unintended consequences are large.

 Research assistant Erin Partin contributed to this blog post.

Doctors as Data Entry Clerks for the Government Health Surveillance System

As a practicing physician I have long been frustrated with the Electronic Health Record (EHR) system the federal government required health care practitioners to adopt by 2014 or face economic sanctions. This manifestation of central planning compelled many doctors to scrap electronic record systems already in place because the planners determined they were not used “meaningfully.” They were forced to buy a government-approved electronic health system and conform their decision-making and practice techniques to algorithms the central planners deem “meaningful.”  Other professions and businesses make use of technology to enhance productivity and quality. This happens organically. Electronic programs are designed to fit around the unique needs and goals of the particular enterprise. But in this instance, it works the other way around: health care practitioners need to conform to the needs and goals of the EHR. This disrupts the thinking process, slows productivity, interrupts the patient-doctor relationship, and increases the risk of error. As Twila Brase, RN, PHN ably details in “Big Brother in the Exam Room,” things go downhill from there.

With painstaking, almost overwhelming detail that makes the reader feel the enormous complexity of the administrative state, Ms. Brase, who is president and co-founder of Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom (CCHF), traces the origins and motives that led to Congress passing the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009. The goal from the outset was for the health care regulatory bureaucracy to collect the private health data of the entire population and use it to create a one-size-fits-all standardization of the way medicine is practiced. This standardization is based upon population models, not individual patients. It uses the EHR design to nudge practitioners into surrendering their judgment to the algorithms and guidelines adopted by the regulators. Along the way, the meaningfully used EHR makes practitioners spend the bulk of their time entering data into forms and clicking boxes, providing the regulators with the data needed to generate further standardization.

Brase provides wide-ranging documentation of the way this “meaningful use” of the EHR has led to medical errors and the replication of false information in patients’ health records. She shows how the planners intend to morph the Electronic Health Record into a Comprehensive Health Record (CHR), through the continual addition of new data categories, delving into the details of lifestyle choices that may arguably relate indirectly to health: from sexual proclivities, to recreational behaviors, to gun ownership, to dietary choices. In effect, a meaningfully used Electronic Health Record is nothing more than a government health surveillance system.  As the old saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” If the third party—especially a third party with the monopoly police power of the state—is paying for health care it may demand adherence to lifestyle choices that keep costs down.

All of this data collection and use is made possible by the Orwellian-named Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.  Most patients think of HIPAA as a guarantee that their health records will remain private and confidential. They think all those “HIPAA Privacy” forms they are signing at their doctor’s office is to insure confidentiality. But, as Brase points out very clearly, HIPAA gives numerous exemptions to confidentiality requirements for the purposes of collecting data and enforcing laws. As Brase puts it, 

 It contains the word privacy, leaving most to believe it is what it says, rather than reading it to see what it really is. A more honest title would be “Notice of Federally Authorized Disclosures for Which Patient Consent Is Not Required.”

Rauner Veto Preserves Consumer Protections in Short-Term Plans, Improves ObamaCare’s Risk Pools

Hours ago, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) vetoed legislation that would have subjected enrollees in short-term health insurance plans to higher deductibles, higher administrative costs, higher premiums, and lost coverage. The vetoed bill would have blocked the consumer protections made available in that market by a final rule issued earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and would have (further) jeopardized ObamaCare’s risk pools by forcing even more sick patients into those pools.

Short-term plans are exempt from federal health insurance regulations, and as a result offer broader access to providers at a cost that is often 70 percent less than ObamaCare plans.

Rather than allow open competition between those two ways of providing health-insurance protection, the Obama administration sabatoged short-term plans. It forced short-term plan deductibles to reset after three months, and forced consumers in those plans to reenroll every three months, changes that increased administrative costs in that market.

The Obama administration further subjected short-term plan enrollees to medical underwriting after they fell ill – which meant higher premiums and cancelled coverage for the sick. Prior to the Obama rule, a consumer who purchased a short-term plan in January and developed cancer in February would have coverage until the end of December, at which point she could enroll in an ObamaCare plan. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners complained that the Obama rule required that her coverage expire at the end of March – effectively cancelling her coverage and leaving her with no coverage for up to nine months. The Obama administration stripped consumer protections from this market by expanding medical underwriting after enrollees get sick – something Congress has consistently tried to reduce.

Earlier this month, HHS restored and expanded the consumer protections the Obama administration gutted. It allowed short-term plans to cover enrollees for up to 12 months, and allowed insurers to extend short-term plans for up to an additional 24 months, for a total of up to 36 months. These changes allow short-term plans to offer deductibles tallied on an annual basis, rather than deductibles that reset every three months. They spare enrollees and insurers the expense of re-enrolling every three months. Most important, they allow short-term plans to protect enrollees who get sick from medical underwriting at least until they again become eligible to enroll in an ObamaCare plan the following January.

Indeed, HHS clarified that because the agency has no authority to regulate standalone “renewal guarantees” that allow short-term plan enrollees who fall ill to continue paying healthy-person premiums, “it may be possible for a consumer to maintain coverage under short-term, limited-duration insurance policies for extended periods of time” by “stringing together coverage under separate policies offered by the same or different issuers, for total coverage periods that would exceed 36 months.” As HHS Secretary Alex Azar explains, this helps ObamaCare:

Our decision to allow renewability and separate premium protections could also allow consumers to hold on to their short-term coverage if they get sick, rather than going to the exchanges, which improves the exchange risk pools.

I made that very argument in my comments on the proposed rule.

Illinois law automatically adopts whatever rules and definitions the federal government creates for short-term plans. If Illinois legislators had just done nothing, millions of Illinois residents automatically would have had a health insurance option that is more affordable and provides better coverage than ObamaCare.

But this is Illinois.

In their infinite wisdom, Illinois legislators passed legislation that once again would have exposed short-term plan enrollees higher deductibles, higher administrative costs, higher premiums, and cancelled coverage. The bill would have:

  • Required that initial contract terms for short-term plans last no longer than six months. It further provided that such plans could be extended for no more than six additional months.
  • Mandated that consumers who wish to keep purchasing consecutive short-term plans go uninsured for 60 days. Some consumers would inevitably develop expensive conditions during that period, and therefore be left with no coverage until the next ObamaCare open enrollment period. 
  • Prohibited renewal guarantees. The legislation specifically cut off this option. As a result, it would have dumped every single short-term plan enrollee with an expensive illness into the Exchanges. Ironically, Illinois legislators who thought they were bolstering ObamaCare actually passed a bill that would have sabotaged it.

Thankfully, Gov. Rauner stopped this ignorant, ridiculous effort to deny consumer protections to short-term plan enrollees. All eyes now turn to California, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) must sign or veto legislation that would deny medical care to those who miss ObamaCare’s open enrollment period – by banning short-term plans altogether.

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The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

Late last week UPI news ran a report by E.J. Mundell with the headline, “Government efforts to curb opioid prescriptions might have backfired.” It cites two separate studies published online in JAMA Surgery on August 22 that examined two different restrictive opioid policies that fell victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The first study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, evaluated the impact of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2014 rescheduling of hydrocodone (Vicodin) from Schedule III to Schedule II. Prescriptions for Schedule III narcotics may be phoned or faxed in by providers, but Schedule II narcotics require the patient to see the prescriber in person in order to obtain a prescription. The DEA’s goal was to reduce the number of Vicodin pills, popular with non-medical users, available for diversion to the black market.

The study looked at 21,955 post-surgical patients across 75 hospitals in Michigan between 2012 and 2015 and found that the number of hydrocodone pills prescribed after the 2014 schedule change increased by an average of seven 5mg tablets. The total Oral Morphine Equivalent of prescribed hydrocodone did not change significantly after the DEA made hydrocodone Schedule II. However, the refill rate decreased after the change. The study’s abstract concluded, “Changing hydrocodone from schedule III to schedule II was associated with an increase in the amount of opioids filled in the initial prescription following surgery.”

As a practicing general surgeon, my initial reaction to this study was: “Tell me something I don’t know.” Prior to the 2014 schedule change, I would often start off prescribing a small amount of hydrocodone to some of my post-op patients (depending upon the procedure and the patient’s medical history) with the knowledge that I can phone in a refill for those patients who were still in need of it for their pain after the initial supply ran out. Once it was rescheduled, I changed my prescribing habits. Not wanting any of my patients to run out after hours, over a weekend, or on a holiday—when the office is closed and their only recourse would be to go to an emergency room or urgent care center to get a prescription refill—I increased the amount I prescribe (based on my best estimate of the maximum amount of days any individual patient might need hydrocodone) to reduce the chances of them needing a refill. This results in some patients having leftover Vicodin pills in their medicine cabinet. On the other hand, fewer of those patients need refills.

Not surprisingly, many of my clinical peers have done the same thing. It’s not a surprise because most physicians place the interests of their patients ahead of the interests of regulators and bureaucrats. So the adjustment made in postoperative hydrocodone prescribing was basically a “no brainer.” 

New FDA Initiative Implies CDC Opioid Guidelines Are Not Evidence-Based

On August 22, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a press release announcing the FDA plans to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to develop evidence-based guidelines for the appropriate prescribing of opioids for acute and post-surgical pain. The press release stated:

The primary scope of this work is to understand what evidence is needed to ensure that all current and future clinical practice guidelines for opioid analgesic prescribing are sufficient, and what research is needed to generate that evidence in a practical and feasible manner.

The FDA will ask NASEM to consult a “broad range of stakeholders” to contribute expert knowledge and opinions regarding existing guidelines and point out emerging evidence and public policy concerns related to the prescribing of opioids, utilizing the expertise within the various medical specialties. 

Recognizing the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for having “taken an initial step in developing federal guidelines,” Commissioner Gottlieb diplomatically stated the FDA initiative intends to “build on that work by generating evidence-based guidelines where needed” that would differ from the CDC’s endeavor because it would be “indication-specific” and based on “prospectively gathered evidence drawn from evaluations of clinical practice and the treatment of pain.”

The CDC guidelines for prescribing opioids, released in early 2016 and updated in 2017, have been criticized by addiction and pain medicine specialists for not being evidence-based. Unfortunately, these guidelines have been used as the basis for many new prescribing regulations instituted at the state-level and proposed on the federal level. The American Medical Association and other medical specialty organizations have spoken out against proposed federal prescription limits that are based upon an inaccurate interpretation of the flawed CDC guidelines. 

In May, Commissioner Gottlieb, in a blog post, mentioned he was aware of criticisms as well as complaints by patient and patient-advocacy groups and was interested in developing more “evidence-based information” on the matter of opioids and pain management. 

Now it appears he is taking the next step. While the press release language was diplomatic and avoided any notion of disrespect for the CDC’s efforts, it is difficult not to infer that the Commissioner agrees with many who have been criticizing the CDC guidelines over the past couple of years.

 

Prohibition Is the Obvious Cause of Opioid Crisis as CDC Releases Preliminary Casualty Numbers for 2017

Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary estimates of the opioid overdose rate for 2017. The total overdose rate rose to approximately 72,000, up from a total overdose rate of 63,600 in 2016, an increase of roughly 10 percent. The total overdose rate includes deaths from numerous drugs in addition to opioids, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. The opioid-related overdose rate increased as well, from a little over 42,000 in 2016 to over 49,000 in 2017. This increase occurred despite a 4 percent drop in heroin overdoses and a 2 percent drop in overdoses due to prescription opioids. A 37 percent increase in illicit fentanyl-related overdoses explains the jump in the death rate.

All of this is happening while the prescribing of high-dose opioids continues to decrease dramatically—over 41 percent between 2010 and 2015, with a recent report showing a further decrease of 16 percent during the year 2017.

This is more evidence, if any more was needed, that the opioid overdose problem is the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the black market that results from drug prohibition. Whether these users’ drug of choice is OxyContin or heroin, the majority have obtained their drugs through the black market, not from a doctor. A 2007 study by Carise, et al in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at over 27,000 OxyContin addicts entering rehab between the years 2001 and 2004 and found that 78 percent never obtained a prescription from a doctor but got the drugs through a friend, family member, or a dealer. 86 percent said they took the drug to “get high” or get a “buzz.” 78 percent also had a prior history of treatment for substance abuse disorder. And the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has repeatedly found roughly three-quarters of non-medical users get their drugs from dealers, family, or friends as opposed to a doctor.

Media and policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of the false narrative that the opioid problem is the product of doctors hooking their patients on opioids when they treat their pain, despite the large number of studies showing–and the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating—that opioids used in the medical setting have a very low addiction rate. Therefore, most opioid policy has focused on decreasing the number of pills prescribed. Reducing the number of pills also aims at making less available for “diversion” into the black market. This is making many patients suffer from undertreatment of their pain and causes some, in desperation, to turn to the black market or to suicide.

Since 2010, opioid policy has also promoted the development of abuse-deterrent formulations of opioids—opioids that cannot be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected. As a just-released Cato Research Brief as well as my Policy Analysis from earlier this year have shown, rendering prescription opioids unsuitable for abuse has only served to make non-medical users migrate over to more dangerous heroin, which is increasingly laced with illicit fentanyl. 

This is how things always work with prohibition. Fighting a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac-a-mole.” The war is never-ending and the deaths keep mounting.

The so-called “opioid crisis” has morphed into a “fentanyl and heroin crisis.” But it has been an unintended consequence of prohibition from the get go.