Progress On Lung Cancer Drives Historic Drop In U.S. Cancer Death Rate, Obamacare and More Numbers

First some good news, which in today’s boiling kettle we all need. Cancer death rates in the United States took their sharpest drop on record between 2016 and 2017, according to an analysis by the American Cancer Society.

Richard Harris reported that the cancer death rates in the U.S. have been falling gradually for about three decades, typically about 1.5% a year. But during the latest study period, the cancer mortality rate dropped 2.2%, “the biggest single-year drop ever,” says Rebecca Siegel, scientific director for surveillance research at the cancer society.

“It seems to be driven by accelerating declines in lung cancer mortality,” Siegel says. That’s “very encouraging, because lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., causing more deaths than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.”

“This is unambiguously good news,” says Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, senior investigator with the Center for Surgery and Public Health, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He was not involved in the analysis.

What’s behind the decline? In part, smoking rates have fallen steadily, which means the biggest risk factor for lung cancer has fallen appreciably. New cancer treatments are also playing a role, Siegel says.

Advanced lung cancer, however, remains deadly. People diagnosed with lung cancer that has spread elsewhere in the body have only a 5% chance of surviving for five years. And many smokers and former smokers are not following the advice to get screened with a low-dose CT scan to catch cancer early.

In fact, a recent study found that only 4.4% of people eligible for this screening test (which under the Affordable Care Act is available at no cost) actually got screened in 2015. Nearly twice as many people instead got a test that has been found to be unsuited as a screen for lung cancer: a chest X-ray.

And others who didn’t fit the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations took the CT screening test anyway. “The number of adults inappropriately screened for lung cancer greatly exceeds the number screened according to the USPSTF recommendations,” the study notes.

Screening for cancer has played a controversial role in cancer trends. Mammography and the PSA blood test for prostate cancer do identify some cancers early, when treatment is usually more effective. But the tests also identify many growths that would never turn deadly — a phenomenon called “overdiagnosis.”

A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October delves into that issue to help distinguish between cancer trends that are true improvements and trends simply due to changes in screening practices.

That issue plays out in the latest statistics. The reported number of prostate cancers surged in the 1980s as doctors started detecting it with the PSA test. That led to treating many prostate cancers that would never have turned deadly. Even so, the test caught a lot of cancers, and the death rate from prostate cancer fell at about 4% per year.

No longer. “The rapid declines in death rates over the past couple of decades actually halted,” Siegel says.

Siegel says that’s partly because reduced PSA screening, while preventing many unnecessary treatments, is also finding fewer treatable cancers. “I think there is a big need for a better test,” she says.

That plateau doesn’t surprise Welch, at Brigham and Women’s, who agrees that it might be time to reevaluate screening for prostate cancer. “I think we’ve gotten about the decline we’re going to get from screening and treatment,” he says. Some types of prostate cancer are more treatable than others and with recent improvements, he says, “we’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit.”

Improvements in cancer treatment are apparent when it comes to melanoma, a skin cancer that’s far less common than prostate or lung cancer. The new statistics show that melanoma death rates have been dropping by 7% per year. The report attributes this largely to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors and other new drugs. Some 92% of people diagnosed with this cancer are still alive five years later (compared with 19% of those diagnosed with lung cancer).

While the report measures trends in cancer rates (which are measured as deaths per 100,000 people), that’s not the same as tracking the actual number of cancer cases and deaths. Cancer is mostly a disease of older people, and the U.S. population is aging rapidly. So, while rates are declining, the absolute number of cancer deaths is not.

“We have more than 600,000 deaths from cancer in this country every year, and that number continues to grow,” Siegel says.

And with treatments getting progressively more expensive, that’s a challenge not just for individuals but for the entire health care system.

A detailed analysis of the statistics is being published Wednesday in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Study Finds Talcum Powder Not Likely A Risk For Ovarian

And some more god news Patti Neighmond noted that in recent years, women have taken talcum powder manufacturers to court over concerns that the use of the product in the genital area could cause ovarian cancer. Now, a new study finds no meaningful association between using talc-based or other powders and ovarian cancer.

Researchers from NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute conducted the largest study to date of genital powder use and ovarian cancer. The study, published Tuesday in JAMA, used data from 252,745 women who answered questions about whether they used powder on their genitals. This was a pooled analysis of four large studies gathering data about the frequency and length of time women used the powder.

According to epidemiologist Katie O’Brien who headed the study, women report applying the powder either directly on their genital area or on sanitary napkins, tampons, underwear or diaphragms. O’Brien doesn’t know exactly which type of powder women used. It could have been talcum powder alone, cornstarch alone or a combination of both.

The research finds that women who had ever used powder had an 8% increased risk of ovarian cancer compared to those who never used it. “That is not a statistically significant increase” says O’Brien. And she adds that this increase needs to be understood in context. Ovarian cancer is very rare and the lifetime risk of getting it is 1.3% so an increase of 8% to that is “small.” O’Brien says it represents an estimated 0.09% increase in risk by age 70.

But among the subset of women who had their uterus and fallopian tubes intact, their increased risk of ovarian cancer from using powder in their genital area was 13% — which is an estimated 0.15% increase in risk by age 70 and is still considered a very small increase.

Unlike most other studies of talc and ovarian cancer, which focused on women already diagnosed with cancer, this study was prospective, and asked about powder use before study subjects had developed ovarian cancer. This means the study is free from recall bias, says O’Brien. It removes the likelihood that study subjects “search for reasons why they have ovarian cancer, and may over-report certain things they have heard may be associated with it.”

Rates of powder use have declined over the last 50 years, yet it remains a routine practice for some women, says Dr. Dana Gossett, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco. She wrote an editorial accompanying the study but was not involved in the study itself.

“Women have used powders for genital hygiene for decades to absorb odor and moisture,” she says.

Earlier investigations of an association between the use of talc-containing powders for genital hygiene and epithelial ovarian cancer risks have provided inconsistent results, says Gossett and have resulted in an “ongoing controversy.” Concerns have been raised about possible contamination of mineral talc with asbestos, a known cancer risk. Most powder products include some mineral talc.

Researchers say it’s been hypothesized that the powder could induce an inflammatory response by irritating epithelial ovarian tissue or fallopian tubes directly which, in turn, could set off a cascade of increased oxidative stress levels, DNA damage and cell division, all of which could contribute to carcinogenesis.

Gossett says the new study finding “doesn’t really support any association [of powder use with ovarian cancer].”

“No study can ever say definitively what the cause of cancer is, but this study at least shows there’s not a substantial increase in ovarian cancer risk,” she says.

The study has several limitations. Researchers were not able to document how frequently or how long women used powder nor were they able to identify exactly what ingredients were in the powder. It also included mostly white women. Anecdotally, black women are more likely to use baby powder.

Obstetrician Gossett says the study findings should be “reassuring to women that if they are choosing to use powders on their genitals that they’re not doing something horrendous.”

Gossett also notes that due to the very small number of cancer cases in the data, the study was “underpowered.” She suggests that future analyses would be strengthened by focusing on women with intact reproductive tracts, with particular attention to timing and duration of exposure to powder in the genital area.

In the meantime, since there’s no medical reason to use talcum powder, researcher O’Brien suggests women weigh perceived benefit with possible risk. Study participants will continue to be followed to track ovarian cancer development in the future, she says.

The Staggering Cost of US Health Care Bureaucracy

Yuval Posenberg, reporter for the Fiscal Times, wrote that seemingly everyone has a horror story to tell about dealing with the bureaucracy of the U.S. health care system, from mundane matters like medical records to financial fights over surprise medical bills or insurance claims.

Those individual experiences come at a high collective cost, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine: U.S. health insurers and providers spent $812 billion on administration in 2017, representing more than a third of national health expenditures, or double the 17% percent that Canada spends under its single-payer system. The U.S. administrative costs translate to nearly $2,500 per person — or almost five times as high as in Canada.

“The gap in health administrative spending between the United States and Canada is large and widening, and it apparently reflects the inefficiencies of the U.S. private insurance–based, multipayer system,” the study’s authors conclude. “The prices that U.S. medical providers charge incorporate a hidden surcharge to cover their costly administrative burden.”

The study finds that U.S. could have saved more than $600 billion in 2017 if it were able to cut its administrative costs to match Canada’s. “The difference between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study, told Time. “And frankly to have money left over.”

Why it matters: This isn’t the first study to show that the U.S. system has higher administrative costs than other countries, but it is the first major study calculating those system-wide costs in almost two decades. The spending disparity detailed in the study “could challenge some assumptions about the relative efficiency of public and private healthcare programs,” writes Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times. “It could also become a hot political talking point on the American campaign trail as presidential candidates debate the pros and cons of government-funded universal health insurance.”

A steep rise in U.S. costs: Administrative costs have grown in both the U.S. and Canada over the last 20 years, but the increase in the United States has been much higher, mostly as the result of insurance overhead. “The study showed that private insurers contributed to most of the increase in administrative costs between 1999 and 2017,” Modern Healthcare’s Rachel Cohrs reports. “Of the 3.2 percentage point increase in administrative costs as a share of overall health spending, 2.4 percentage points were due to the expanding role that private insurers have assumed in Medicare and Medicaid.”

The insurance industry response: America’s Health Insurance Plans, a group representing private health insurance companies, told the Los Angeles Times that government-run systems aren’t as efficient as private ones, citing a recent report by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent body that advises Congress, that found that private Medicare Advantage plans deliver benefits at 88% of the cost of traditional Medicare. “Study after study continues to demonstrate the value of innovative solutions brought by the free market,” AHIP said in its statement. “In head-to-head comparisons, the free market continues to be more efficient than government-run systems.”

The researchers are single-payer advocates: Himmelstein and one of his co-authors, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, also of the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, have long advocated for a single-payer health-care system in the United States. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program and have been unpaid policy advisors to Sen. Bernie Sanders and have coauthored research manuscripts with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Both senators are calling for a transition to a single-payer Medicare-for-All system. But the researchers say that their conclusions in the new study are based on the data — and that their estimates of U.S. administrative costs are likely conservative.

“It’s actually the data that guided us to the solution, the solution didn’t give rise to the data,” Himmelstein said, according to Modern Healthcare.

Himmelstein also says that, while it may be possible to reduce administrative costs without switching to a single-payer system, the benefits would be much smaller. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” he told Time.

‘Obamacare’ mandate: hot for lawyers, ho-hum to consumers

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press reported that the repeal of an unpopular fine for people without health insurance has had little impact on “Obamacare” sign-ups or premiums, a gap between the real world and legal arguments from conservatives again challenging the Affordable Care Act.

The 10-year-old law has proved more resilient than its creators or detractors imagined, even as the Supreme Court considers whether to take up the latest effort to roll it back.

Opponents argue that the constitutionality of the entire 900-page law hinges on the now-toothless penalty for not having health insurance. Collected as a tax by the IRS, the penalty was intended to enforce the law’s “individual mandate” that Americans be insured. A previous Republican-led Congress set the fines to $0, effective last year.

“We’ve gotten a lot of evidence by now about what the market looks like without a mandate penalty, and on the whole it looks pretty stable, which is surprising because that’s not what most people would have expected when the ACA was being written,” said Cynthia Cox, who directs research on the health law for the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

A Kaiser study released this week found that removal of the penalty pushed premiums up about 5% going into 2019, but the bottom line was a wash because of other factors. Insurers appeared to be making healthy profits.

The penalty was thought to be critical when the law was being written in 2009-2010. The idea was to nudge healthy people to sign up, helping keep premiums in check. But Cox said there’s no indication that healthy people have dropped out in droves. In one telling statistic, the Kaiser study found that average hospital days per 1,000 people enrolled dipped slightly in 2019, even after the penalty was eliminated.

Partial sign-up numbers for 2020 released Wednesday by the government point to stability. Nearly 8.3 million people enrolled in the 38 states served by the federal HealthCare.gov website. That’s down only about 2% from last year, when one additional state was using HealthCare.gov. A final count including that state — Nevada — and others that run their own sign-up efforts is expected by the spring.

The insurance mandate was the central issue when the Supreme Court first upheld the health care law in 2012, over a year before HealthCare.gov opened for business.

Chief Justice John Roberts cast the key vote in that 5-4 decision. He found that Congress lacked constitutional authority to require that Americans have health insurance. But because Congress has broad powers to levy taxes, Roberts ruled that a tax on people who did not purchase coverage offered them was constitutional. That allowed the law to survive what’s still seen as its most serious legal challenge.

Kathleen Sebelius, health secretary for President Barack Obama, said in 2012 that it was generally accepted that the insurance mandate was part of a three-legged stool key to stable markets. The other two legs were taxpayer-provided subsidies for premiums and a guarantee that patients with preexisting medical conditions could no longer be turned down or charged more.

“It was thought that the trade-off for changing the rules on preexisting conditions would have to be … some penalty incentive so you would get healthy people in the pool, along with not-healthy people,” Sebelius said. “What became clear when the law went into effect (in 2014) is that the subsidies in many ways provided a greater incentive for people get health insurance.”

Those subsides are designed so that low- and moderate-income households only spend a fixed percentage of their incomes on premiums, shielding consumers from high sticker prices.

Cox agreed that the law’s “carrots” seem to have made more of a difference than its “stick.”

Fast-forward to 2018 and a coalition of conservative states led by Texas won a lower court decision that the insurance mandate was still critical, in a legal and constitutional sense.

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas ruled that by zeroing out the tax penalty, Congress rendered the insurance mandate unconstitutional, and without it the entire health law must fall. President Donald Trump agreed.

Recently, a federal appeals court in New Orleans agreed with O’Connor that an unenforceable insurance mandate is unconstitutional. But the appeals court sent the case back to him to see whether other parts of the law can stand.

Defending the law, a coalition of Democratic-led states, along with the U.S. House, appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking a fast-track decision amid this year’s presidential election. The court has asked lawyers for the conservative states to respond by Friday on the timing question.

University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley said the stability of the health insurance markets exposes “the artificiality” of the conservatives’ argument.

“It really goes to show how ridiculous it is to claim that Congress understood the mandate to be so essential that if it were to be red-lined out, the rest of the law would have to fall,” said Bagley.

Not so fast, said Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer representing groups siding with Texas and the other GOP-led states opposing the law.

“The question is not whether in reality (the ACA) can work without the mandate,” said Schlafly. “The test is whether it was intended to work without the mandate.

“Theory does matter to these Supreme Court justices,” he added, “and they do take theory seriously.”

ObamaCare still working despite individual mandate’s repeal

Megan Henney noted that one year after Republicans repealed the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, President Barack Obama’s signature health care law remains surprisingly stable and profitable for insurers.

When Republicans gutted the ACA in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, eliminating the provision that required Americans to either buy health insurance or pay a fine, critics warned that decision would cause younger and healthier people to flee from the marketplace, leaving sicker, more expensive patients, remaining and causing the market to enter a “death spiral.”

But a report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Monday found that despite the removal of the mandate, those fears are largely unfounded.

Individual enrollment fell by 5 percent between the first quarter of 2018 and 2019, but the relatively modest growth in claims costs at the beginning of 2019 indicates that enrollment declines and policy changes did not cause healthy individuals to flee the market. In fact, the average number of days enrollees spent in a hospital in the first nine months of 2019 was slightly lower than inpatient days in the previous four years.

“Results from the first nine months of 2019 suggest that the individual market remains profitable and stable despite the effective repeal of the individual mandate,” the analysis said.

A key measure of insurers’ financial strength, margins — the average amount by which premium income exceeds claims costs per each enrollee in a given month — are the healthiest they’ve been in nearly eight years. (Insurer financial performance dipped slightly at the end of 2019, but the margins remained higher than all other previous years through 2017).

“These data suggest that insurers in this market remain on average financially healthy,” the report said.

The report comes amid attacks by Republicans and President Trump on arguably the biggest legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration.

Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in the case of Texas v. Azar, struck down the individual mandate as unconstitutional, though it did not invalidate the rest of the law, leaving its fate, once again, in limbo. The ruling was issued almost exactly one year after Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, struck down the entire law.

A coalition of Democratic states, led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, has made it clear that it intends to challenge the appeals court decision by petitioning the Supreme Court to take the case.

The ultimate outcome of the lawsuit will affect millions of Americans, and the repeal of the 9-year-old law could leave up to 32 million people without health insurance by 2026, according to a Congressional Budget Office report from 2017 about the effects of repealing the ACA.

I’m still confused as to why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are pushing Medicare for All and not fixing the ACA/Obamacare. Let’s see with tomorrow’s debate whether we get and more suggestions. Moreover, why hasn’t the Republicans when they had the majority on the House and the Democrats now that they have control in the House, why no one party has tried hard to fix the healthcare problem. Politics and more political “strategies” continue to get in the way of the real solution.

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