Topic: Health Care

Methadone and Mixed Messages

As a physician licensed to prescribe narcotics, I am legally  permitted to prescribe the powerful opioid methadone (also known by the brand name Dolophine ) to my patients suffering from severe, intractable pain that hasn’t been adequately controlled by other, less powerful pain killers. Most patients I encounter who might fall into that category are likely to be terminal cancer patients. I’ve often wondered why I am approved to prescribe methadone to my patients as a treatment for pain, but I am not allowed to prescribe methadone to taper my patients off of a physical dependence they may have developed from long-term opioid use, so as to help them avoid the horrible acute withdrawal syndrome. I am also not permitted to prescribe methadone as a medication-assisted treatment for addiction. These last two uses of the drug require special licensing and permits and must comply with strict federal guidelines. 

The synthetic opioid methadone was invented in Germany in 1937. By the 1960s, methadone was found to be effective as medication-assisted treatment for heroin addiction, and by the 1970s methadone treatment centers were established throughout the US, providing specialized and highly structured care for patients suffering from Substance Abuse Disorder. The Narcotic Addict Treatment Act of 1974 codified the methadone clinic structure. Today, methadone clinics are strictly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration. These regulations establish guidelines for the establishment, structure, and operation of methadone clinics, in most cases requiring patients to obtain their methadone in person at one fixed site. After a period of time, some of these patients are allowed to take methadone home from the facility to self-administer while they remain closely monitored. This onerous regulatory system has led to an undersupply in methadone treatment facilities for patients in need. Furthermore, the need for patients to travel, often long distances, each day to the clinic to receive their daily dose has been an obstacle to their obtaining and complying with the treatment program.

Earlier this month addiction specialists from the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health argued in the New England Journal of Medicine that community physicians interested in the treatment of Substance Abuse Disorder should be allowed to prescribe methadone to their patients seeing them in their offices and clinics. Doctors have been allowed to prescribe the opioid buprenorphine for medication-assisted treatment of addiction for years, and in recent years nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants have been able to obtain waivers that allow them to engage in medication-assisted treatment as well.

The authors noted that methadone has been legally prescribed by primary care providers to treat opioid addiction in other countries for many years— in Canada since 1963, in the UK since 1968, and in Australia since 1970, for example. They state, 

Methadone prescribing in primary care is standard practice and not controversial in these places because it benefits the patient, the care team, and the community and is viewed as a way of expanding the delivery of an effective medication to an at-risk population.

Policymakers serious about addressing the ever-increasing overdose rate from (mostly) heroin and fentanyl afflicting our population should take a serious look at reforming the antiquated regulations that hamstring the use of methadone to treat addiction.

 

Stopping Risk-Adjustment Payments and Cutting Navigator Grants Make ObamaCare Harms More Transparent

The Trump administration has announced it is suspending so-called “risk adjustment” payments to insurers who participate in ObamaCare’s Exchanges, and cutting spending on so-called “navigators,” who help (few) people enroll in ObamaCare plans. 

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell and other ObamaCare supporters are calling these steps sabotage. In fact, what these steps will do is make the costs of ObamaCare’s supposedly popular preexisting-conditions provisions more transparent.

Risk-Adjustment (Bailout) Payments to Insurers

ObamaCare’s so-called “risk adjustment” program exists to funnel money to insurers who enroll lots of sick people who cost more in claims than they pay in premiums. Without it, insurers probably wouldn’t participate in ObamaCare. We may therefore confidently describe the risk-adjustment program as a bailout designed to rescue insurers from the costs of ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions. 

The risk-adjustment program does a better job of protecting insurance companies than sick patients. Those preexisting-conditions provisions literally punish insurers for offering coverage that the sick find attractive. They therefore create powerful financial incentives for insurers to make their offerings unattractive to the sick.

The risk-adjustment program is supposed to counteract those incentives. Anecdotal evidence and empirical research both show it’s not working. The risk-adjustment program is failing to counteract the perverse incentives that ObamaCare itself creates. ObamaCare coverage is therefore getting worse for many sick patients. Don’t worry, the insurance companies come out okay. Insurers can mitigate whatever losses the bailouts don’t cover with even more restrictive benefit designs to keep the sick away. Sick patients fare less well.

Reducing or eliminating spending on the risk-adjustment program would reveal more of the harms of the preexisting-conditions provisions. More of the cost would fall on insurers, who would respond by offering even more restrictive coverage, or exiting the market. More such transparency might finally push Congress to repeal those provisions and put health care for the sick on a more stable footing. 

In February, a federal district court in New Mexico ordered the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to cease using its methodology for making risk-adjustment payments until the agency adequately explains that methodology. On July 7, the agency announced it will not make any risk-adjustment payments until the issue is resolved.

The insurers will eventually get their bailouts. But the delay will cost them money and add uncertainty to the process. Those effects in turn may lead insurers to take even greater steps to protect themselves from the costs of the preexisting-conditions provisions—thereby making those costs more transparent.

Cutting Navigator Spending

ObamaCare authorizes CMS to make grants to “navigators”—i.e., groups who are supposed to help people enroll in ObamaCare plans. They are a waste of taxpayer money, and likewise hide the costs of ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions.

According to CMS, navigators received $63 million for plan year 2017 and $36 million for plan year 2018. In both years, they signed up less than 1 percent of ObamaCare enrollees. “During grant year 2016-2017,” CMS reports, “seventeen of those Navigators enrolled fewer than 100 people at an average cost of $5,000 per enrollee.” That’s more than the cost of the health insurance, in many cases. The Wall Street Journal reports, “One grantee took in $200,000 to enroll a grand total of one person. The top 10 most expensive navigators collected $2.77 million to sign up 314 people.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal editorializes, accurately, “the navigator scheme is a make-work government jobs program rife with corruption and highly susceptible to scam artists. It’s a slush fund for progressive constituent groups.”

The navigator program also hides the cost of ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions. Since the sick will reliably enroll in ObamaCare even without navigators, those whom navigators end up enrolling are going to be disproportionately healthy. Thus navigators are also helping to hide the costs of those provisions by spreading the costs across more (healthy) people. Cutting spending on navigators will likewise reveal more of the costs of those provisions.

The Trump administration announced it is cutting spending on navigators to $10 million for plan year 2019. It should eliminate the program entirely. The less the federal government spends on navigators, the more transparent ObamaCare’s costs will be.

* * * 

When ObamaCare supporters complain about such steps, they are describing transparency as sabotage. Think about what that means.

Short-Term Plans Would Increase Coverage, Protect Conscience Rights & Improve ObamaCare Risk Pools

Any day now, the Trump administration will release a final rule allowing greater consumer protections in so-called “short-term, limited duration insurance,” a category of health insurance Congress exempts from federal health insurance regulations, including ObamaCare regulations. In comments I filed on the proposed version of the Trump administration’s rule and an accompanying Wall Street Journal oped, I explained some but not all of the benefits of allowing these consumer protections. What follows is updated and new information about the benefits of allowing those consumer protections.

Introduction

In 2016, the Obama administration arbitrarily prohibited certain consumer protections in short-term plans. First, it exposed sick consumers to underwriting and loss of coverage by shortening the maximum duration of short-term plans from 12 months to 3 months. Second, it prohibited “renewal guarantees” that would protect consumers who develop expensive illnesses from ever facing underwriting or losing their coverage.

Last year, President Trump urged the Department of Health and Human Services to allow short-term plans to last 12 months and to allow consumers to bridge together consecutive short-term plans with “renewal guarantees” that protect them from being re-underwritten after they get sick. With ObamaCare premiums soaring and the consulting firm Avalere warning of “substantial increases” in ObamaCare premiums for 2019, these consumer protections would mean “consumers could purchase health-insurance protection for 90% less than the cost of the average ObamaCare plan.“ Renewal guarantees would keep people with expensive conditions out of ObamaCare plans, thereby improving ObamaCare’s pools and reducing the cost of ObamaCare. Along the way, allowing these consumer protections would “increas[e] transparency in government and provid[e] voters and policymakers with better information about the cost of the ACA.”

FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s Sunday “Tweetorial” Is Both Encouraging and Frustrating

A fair reading of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s “Sunday Tweetorial” on the opioid overdose crisis leaves one simultaneously encouraged and frustrated. 

First the encouraging news. The Commissioner admits that the so-called epidemic of opioid overdoses has “evolved” from one “mostly involving [diverted] prescription drugs to one that’s increasingly fueled by illicit substances being purchased online or off the street.” Most encouraging was this passage:

Even as lawful prescribing of opioids is declining, we’re seeing large increases in deaths from accidental drug overdoses as people turn to dangerous street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Illegal online pharmacies, drug dealers and other bad actors are increasingly using the Internet to further their illicit distribution of opioids, where their risk of detection and the likelihood of repercussions are seen by criminals as significantly reduced.

As I have written here and here, the overdose crisis has always been primarily caused by non-medical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition. As government interventions have made it more expensive and difficult to obtain diverted prescription opioids for non-medical use, the black market responds efficiently by filling the void with heroin, illicit fentanyl (there is a difference) and fentanyl analogs. So policies aimed at curtailing doctors’ prescriptions of opioids to patients only serve to drive up deaths from these more dangerous substitutes, while causing patients to suffer needlessly, sometimes desperately, in pain. Gottlieb validates my argument in his “tweetorial,” providing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Now for the frustrating news. Gottlieb next reminds us, “No controlled substances, including opioids, can be lawfully sold or offered to be sold online. There is no gray area here.” He provides evidence of rampant illegal internet marketing of prescription opioids, with 95 percent of internet pharmacy websites selling opioids without a prescription, often conducting transactions with cryptocurrencies, and shipping these orders “virtually anywhere in the US.” This is also the way illicit fentanyl is flooding the market.

No, Babies Are NOT Born Addicted to Opioids

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” is a phrase coined by Stanford economist Paul Romer. Politicians are always in search of new crises to address—new fires to put out—with rapid and decisive action. In their passion to appear heroic to their constituents they often act in haste, not taking the time to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the issue at hand, insensitive to the notion that their actions might actually exacerbate the crisis.

An example of that lack of understanding was made apparent in a press release by the office of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) on June 22 supporting legislation that packages together over 70 bills (H.R.6) aimed at addressing the opioid (now mostly heroin and fentanyl) overdose crisis. The bills mostly double down on the same feckless—often deleterious—policies that government is already using to address the crisis. The release stated, “Whip Scalise highlighted a Slidell, Louisiana family whose son was born addicted to opioids, a syndrome called NAS, as a result of his mother’s battle with addiction.” 

The press release quoted Representative Scalise:

I highlight Kemper, a young boy from my district in Slidell, Louisiana. He was born addicted to opioids because his mother, while she was pregnant, was addicted to opioids herself…this example highlights something the Centers for Disease Control has noted. That is once every 25 minutes in America a baby is born addicted to opioids. Once every 25 minutes. That’s how widespread it is, just for babies that are born.

Before crowing that the “House Takes Action to Combat the Opioid Crisis,” as the press release was titled, Representative Scalise should get his science right. No baby is ever born addicted to opioids. As medical science has known for years, there is a difference between addiction and physical dependence—on a molecular level. Drs. Nora Volkow and Thomas McLellan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed out in a 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that addiction is a disease, and “genetic vulnerability accounts for at least 35 to 40% of the risk associated with addiction.” Addiction features compulsive drug use in spite of harmful, self-destructive consequences.

Physical dependence, on the other hand, is very different. As with many other classes of drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac or Lexapro, long-term use of opioids is associated with the development of a physical dependence on the drug. Abruptly stopping the drug can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. A physically dependent patient needs the drug in order to function while avoiding withdrawal. Dependence is addressed by gradually reducing the dosage of the drug over a safe time frame. Once the dependence is overcome, such a patient will not have a compulsion to resume the drug.

Trump’s AHPs Rule: a Generally Lousy Idea that Would Reduce Premiums for Some and Make ObamaCare’s Costs More Transparent

The Trump administration has released its final rule expanding so-called association health plans. The rule would allow many consumers to avoid some of ObamaCare’s unwanted regulatory costs. But the rule also highlights both the destructive power of ObamaCare and Republicans’ utter lack of imagination when it comes to health care.

As originally proposed, the idea behind association health plans was to allow small businesses that purchased health insurance through a member-organization (i.e., an association) to enjoy the same federal exemption from insurance regulation that large businesses have traditionally (if unwisely) enjoyed. Small businesses have long wanted that exemption so they could escape oppressive state regulation. Now, small businesses are clamoring for association health plans because they want to escape oppressive federal regulation.

ObamaCare exempts large-employer health plans from many of the regulations it imposes on small-employer plans. The new rule treats association health plans like large-employer plans for purposes of ObamaCare, which allows small employers who purchase health insurance through a member organization to avoid those costly regulations. The consulting firm Avalere estimates the ability to avoid some of ObamaCare’s unwanted regulatory costs would induce 3.2 million people to enroll in association health plans and reduce their premiums:

Premiums in the new AHPs are projected to be approximately $2,900 a year lower compared to the small group market and $9,700 a year less compared to the individual market.

By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings!

Traditionally, association health plans have always been a terrible idea that violates Republicans’ federalist principles, because they would move health-insurance regulation from the state level to the federal level. But since ObamaCare went ahead and federalized regulation of small-business health plans, and the association-health-plans rule merely allows small businesses to opt for lighter versus heavier federal regulation, association health plans no longer violate federalism. Credit ObamaCare with making a bad idea good.

Even in this iteration, however, association health plans still aren’t much of a good an idea. Trump’s association health plans rule builds on the broken model of employer-sponsored health insurance. Employer-sponsored coverage is lousy coverage. It deprives workers of control of their health-insurance dollars and decisions. It sticks millions of workers with health plans they would never choose themselves. It leaves millions of workers with uninsurable preexisting conditions, because it disappears for no good reason after workers get sick. It increases prices for health care and health insurance. The failures of our government-created system of employer-sponsored coverage are what created the demand for ObamaCare in the first place. Rather than offer an agenda to make health care better, more affordable, and more secure, Trump’s association health plans rule works entirely within that framework. It does nothing to move Americans toward a better system of providing health insurance.

Still, it would allow some workers to avoid some unwanted regulatory costs. So there’s that.

And that part gives rise to the only other good part of this rule, which is also the part that ObamaCare supporters hate the most: the rule will make ObamaCare’s costs more transparent. ObamaCare imposes its highest hidden taxes, in the form of higher premiums, on the healthy. The association-health-plans rule will free an estimated 1 million disproportionately healthy people to escape those unwanted regulatory costs. When those folks drop out of the Exchanges, the average risk in ObamaCare’s risk pools will rise. Correspondingly, ObamaCare premiums will rise, perhaps even faster than they have to date

ObamaCare supporters decry this as “sabotage,” but that is a subterfuge. When ObamaCare premiums rise to reflect the cost of ObamaCare’s regulations, it is what the world calls transparency. ObamaCare supporters fear such transparency because, as ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber admitted, the public would have rejected the law (and still might!) if they could actually see what it does. “[If] you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money,” Gruber admitted, “it would not have passed.”

And if you reach a point where you decry transparency as sabotage, it may be time to reevaluate your life. 

I Will Bet Drew Altman $100 that ObamaCare’s Preexisting Conditions Are Unpopular

The Trump administration announced it will argue in federal court that ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions are unconstitutional. Supporters of the law, including many reporters, are beside themselves with glee. Republican fools! Everyone knows ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions are the most popular part of the law! (Democrats, crush them!!)

ObamaCare’s supporters have this one exactly backward. The law’s preexisting-conditions provisions are not popular. They are wildly unpopular. Supporters of the law believe they are popular – and have fooled even Republicans into believing the same – because they have been drinking a strong brew of economic ignorance, shoddy polling, and bad journalism.

In response to the Trump administration’s announcement, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman wrote:

Protections for people with pre-existing conditions are hugely popular, and the administration may have handed Democrats their strongest health care weapon yet — because now they can make the case that the administration has gone to court to take away protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

The case is also likely to drag on, so it could be the political gift that keeps on giving through 2020, even if it is eventually thrown out.

The Washington Post’s Paige Winfield Cunningham wrote:

The Trump administration has given Democrats a generous political gift
Preexisting conditions health coverage is very popular.

President Trump has given Democrats the political gift that Capitol Hill Republicans were too smart to grant them last year. And Republicans know all too well it could be disastrous…

Dismayed, top Republicans have been moving quickly to put space between themselves and the administration on the matter, anxious to distance themselves from such popular consumer protections…

Politicians and policymakers are well aware that preexisting protections [sic] poll extremely well with Americans. Seventy percent of respondents to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year — including 59 percent of Republicans — said the federal government should continue prohibiting insurers from charging these folks more for coverage.

Less smart than Capitol Hill Republicans? Them’s fightin’ words.

The reason Altman, Cunningham, and almost everyone else in Washington believe ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions are popular is because they conduct (in the case of Altman) and rely on (in the case of Cunningham) poll questions that ask only about the presumed benefits of those provisions–as if those provisions have only benefits, and no costs. Here is the Kaiser Family Foundation poll question both of them cite.

Bad Polling

The question basically asks whether respondents want the federal government to guarantee that sick people will pay no more for health insurance than healthy people pay. It asks only about the intended benefits of ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions: lower premiums for the sick.

Kaiser Family Foundation scholars from Altman all the way down to the lowliest research assistant, as well as seasoned health-policy journalists like Cunningham, know full well that requiring insurers to charge healthy and sick enrollees the same entails significant costs as well as benefits. And they know what those costs are. But while I have seen Kaiser Family Foundation polls ask respondents to offer opinions informed by both the benefits and the costs of a certain policy, I have never seen them do so with regard to ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions.

Fortunately, we at the Cato Institute have done so. The results may shock you! 

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