Category Archives: Alex Azar

My Millennial Doctor Peers Think They're Walking Into a Crisis Regarding Health Care, Doctors Need to Understand Health Care and Buttagieg’s Health Care Plan, Corona Virus and Kobe.

Dr. Daniel E. Choi announced that ”Hey man, just wanted you to be one of the first to know that I put in my 90-day resignation notice at the hospital. Planning to pursue exec MBA…”

I did a double take at this shocking text from an orthopedic surgery colleague who was also a close friend. What? He was quitting?

We had just slaved through 5 years of orthopedic surgery residency, 1 year of fellowship, and just passed our oral boards. We were now supposed to be living the dream. All of that delayed gratification: throwing away our 20s holed up in the library, taking call endlessly on weekends and holidays. We did it for the ultimate privilege of being attending surgeons for our patients one day.

I called him right away and he confirmed my suspicions about why he quit. As an employed physician in a hospital system, he felt that he was sadly just becoming a cog in the machine, a “provider” generating relative value units. Administrators who had never done a day of residency or even stepped foot in his clinic wanted to provide “guidance” on how he should practice medicine. Overall, he felt that medicine was a sinking ship on which doctors were losing autonomy quickly and that this was a path leading straight to burnout.

I felt I had to let the Twitterverse know.

This tweet went viral and it was clear that I was on to something. I had struck a nerve with many of my physician colleagues. Surprisingly, many physicians empathized with my friend and didn’t blame him for looking elsewhere in finding a fulfilling career. Some physicians even thought he was doing the right thing.

I was getting really curious. I followed up with a Twitter poll: “Physicians, are you actively making plans for early retirement or considering how to possibly exit medicine in the near future?” Sixty-five percent of physicians who replied were considering an early exit from medicine.

This poll result was consistent with my own observation that early retirement online physician groups are burgeoning. Physician Side Gigs on Facebook, which seeks to help “physicians interested in pursuing opportunities outside of traditional clinical medicine…as a way to supplement or even replace their clinical income,” has over 50,000 members. Another Facebook group, Physicians on FIRE, aims to help physicians reach “Financial Independence. Retire Early” and has over 4000 members.

It is difficult to determine whether these physicians seeking early retirement are just wishfully complaining or actually planning an exit strategy. Many physicians answering the Twitter poll clarified that they loved treating and helping their patients but that the system had just become too difficult to deal with. Did this many physicians really want to leave the practice of medicine? What does that mean for our impending physician shortage? Why do so many of us feel the urge to get out?

Many discussions with disenchanted physicians ensued after that poll. In these discussions, I have found several common reasons that have pushed my colleagues to leave medicine.

Devaluation of Physicians on All Fronts

Devaluation appears to be happening on many fronts, according to my discussions with doctors online. There is the use of the term “provider” to replace “physician,” which more of us are finding offensive.

Mid-level providers who are cheaper for health systems to hire are replacing physicians. Reimbursements from commercial payers are declining. Health policy “experts” unfairly blame rising healthcare costs on physicians and have pushed legislators to find ways to lower physician compensation further. There are fewer physician meeting spaces in hospitals, such as doctors’ lounges or physician dining rooms, which used to serve as important spaces for physicians to commiserate and collaborate.

Overall, I sense great disappointment and anger among physicians about what many perceive to be increasing disregard for the tremendous amount of sacrifice physicians have made to complete their training. Physicians increasingly regret all of that time away from family or dropping their personal interests and hobbies during medical school and residency.Most shocking to me, however, is that physicians who speak out about such devaluation are often labeled “greedy doctors” by health policy “experts,” the press, and even fellow physicians (usually in the later stages of their career).

Loss of Autonomy and Independent Physician Opportunities

Personally, I’ve always wanted to be my own boss and I knew fairly early on in training that I wanted to enter private practice. I thought private practice would allow me to insulate myself from many of the forces that pushed my orthopedic surgery colleague to quit.

Mine is not the popular path, however, as the number of millennial physicians who are entering private practice has rapidly declined over the past decade. According to Medscape’s Residents Salary & Debt Report 2019, 22% of residents say they anticipate becoming either a practice owner or partner. According to a survey by the Physicians Foundation and Merritt Hawkins, only 31.4% of physicians identified as independent practice owners or partners in 2018. In 2012, independent physicians made up 48.5% of all doctors.

The survey even revealed that 58% of doctors do not think that hospital employment is a positive trend and concluded that “many physicians are dubious about the employed practice model even though they have chosen to participate in it, perhaps fearing that employment by hospitals will lead to a loss of clinical and administrative autonomy.”

I used to wonder why more of my millennial physician colleagues did not choose private practice as a career path and why so many were choosing hospital-based employment. A line I saw on Twitter sums it up: “Private practice is no longer about profitability. It’s about financial sustainability.” With greater consolidation within healthcare, independent doctors have lost much of their leverage when trying to negotiate fair rates with commercial payers.

In addition, the costs of purchasing an electronic health record and running a staff to deal with authorization and billing issues have made private practice extremely difficult. If more private practice opportunities existed, I am sure that my millennial colleagues would absolutely take them to maintain their independence. However, such independent practice opportunities continue to diminish, and millennial physicians may be pressured to take the only available positions: hospital employment with possible restrictions on autonomy.

Is Your Career Worth Your Own Life?

On average, one doctor a day in the United States ends his or her own life. Physicians commit suicide at a rate twice that of the general population, and over 1 million patients will lose their doctors to suicide every year. Pamela Wible, MD, who studied 1363 physician suicides, points out that “assembly-line medicine kills doctors” and that “pressure from insurance companies and government mandates further crush the souls of these talented people who just want to help their patients.”

Just a couple of months ago, my fellowship director forwarded me an email about a young orthopedic surgeon who had committed suicide, Thomas Fishler. He was known to be a brilliant surgeon whom colleagues and patients loved, and is survived by his young daughter. My fellowship director included in his email, “I know you have an awareness of the risks that those in our profession often face.”

Many physicians are crying for help and nobody is listening. Some sadly feel that the only way out is to end their lives.

Physician suicide is heartbreaking and screams crisis. What is driving brilliant doctors to the edge? I believe it’s further evidence of compounding external pressures that are making the practice of medicine increasingly intolerable. Many physicians are crying for help and nobody is listening. Some sadly feel that the only way out is to end their lives.

I get chills as I push the thought quickly out of my mind: Am I being subjected to this risk? All physicians have their tough days but I have never been anywhere close to being suicidal. But seriously—is it really worth it if I am at even a small risk of becoming that miserable?

Is There an Impending Crisis?

The average millennial physician completes training, looks around, and sees his or her profession in complete shambles. Burnout is rampant. Doctors are committing suicide daily. Many seem to be miserable over their lack of autonomy and loss of standing. The physician starts to take a hard look at the career they are about to embark on and begins to have serious doubts. Then the physician remembers that student loan debt. The average medical student loan debt in 2018, according to AAMC , was $198,000. There’s really no way out at this point; even if your job is going to make you miserable, you are going to push through because you’re on the hook.

And this is where I start to get seriously worried. We will have an entire generation of graduating physicians who will be subjected to forces that have never been present in medicine before. And these forces are actively causing distress and misery among some of my colleagues.

I know that my millennial colleagues have tremendous resilience and grit, as every generation of physicians has in the past. But how long will they put their heads down and fight against these ominous forces before they decide that they’ve had enough and jump ship just like my orthopedic colleague did?

Hope in Advocacy to Avert Crisis

Don’t get me wrong—practicing medicine is still the greatest privilege, and I know that every one of my millennial physician colleagues loves their patients dearly. I am honored that my patients entrust me to take away their pain and suffering in the operating room. I’ve studied and trained for 14 years to become an attending orthopedic spine surgeon; I’m not giving up this privilege that easily. And neither are most millennial physicians.

Millennials may be viewed as entitled, but many of us see that as comfort in advocating for themselves and questioning the status quo.” I believe that millennial physicians will not quietly accept the current state of affairs.

I see many impassioned millennial physician advocates becoming active in organizations like the Medical Society of the State of New York or the American Medical Association. These organizations already do excellent advocacy work, and I predict that millennial physicians will become a powerful force within such organizations to protect their profession. Through a unified voice, organized medicine is truly our strongest hope in enacting systemic changes that can prevent further physician demoralization and burnout.

We’re not giving up just yet. The crisis can be averted. Our patients and profession depend on it.

America’s healthiest and unhealthiest states

Cortney Moore noted that when it comes down to the popular saying that “health is wealth,” the states that have high revenue streams and median household incomes also have populations that are wellness-focused. Particularly, the states with the healthiest people are concentrated in the northern half of the U.S. and West Coast, according to America’s Health Rankings annual report conducted by the United Health Foundation.

The United Health Foundation analyzed the 50 states on five core categories, including model behaviors, community and environmental factors, public policies for health care and preventative care, clinical care and the overall health outcomes that result from the previous four.

America’s Health Rankings used a composite index of over 30 metrics to create its annual snapshot of statewide healthy populations, which ultimately helped the organization determine the healthiest to the unhealthiest.

Moreover, the report cited the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” in addition to individual genetic predispositions to disease.

The healthiest state is Vermont, which has moved up from 20th place in 1990 to first place in 2019, according to America’s Health Rankings data. In the past 15 years, the state has decreased its air pollution by 47 percent – with fine particles per cubic meter going down from 9.7 to 5.1 micrograms. Additionally, Vermont’s disparity in health status decreased from 49 percent to 17.4 percent in the past year. Other strengths the report noted include low incidences of chlamydia, violent crime and the percentage of uninsured residents.

For the 2019 fiscal year, with the exception to the month of December (which data has yet to be released for at the time of publication), the state of Vermont made over $955 million in revenue from general funds, according to the Agency of Administration. More than $113 million came from health care taxes and assessments that were collected between January 2019 and November 2019.

The median household income in Vermont is $60,076, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is close to the national median of $61,937. Moreover, average employee health care premium contributions for a family in the state is said to be $4,996, according to independent researchers at the Commonwealth Fund.

When it comes down to those who have government-funded health insurance plans, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services do not have up-to-date figures since it is collected on a quinquennial basis. However, the agency found that Vermont reported a little over $5.7 million in 2015 for health care expenditures, as noted in an infographic by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Outside the Green Mountain State, the other states that rounded out America’s Health Rankings top 10 are Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Utah, New Hampshire, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and Colorado.

The unhealthiest state is Mississippi, which has maintained close to 50th place from 1990 to 2019, according to America’s Health Rankings data. Since 1993, low birthweight in Mississippi increased from 9.6 percent to 21 percent of live births. In the past five years, premature death increased by seven percent from 10,354 to 11,043 years lost to people who died before age 75. Premature mortality has increased on a national scale in addition to diabetes and obesity. Other challenges the report noted include a high cardiovascular death rate and percentage of children in poverty.

For the fiscal year of 2019, the state of Mississippi made $166 million in revenue collections, according to the Mississippi Legislative Budget Office, which surpassed the state’s estimate by $30.5 million.

The median household income in Mississippi is $43,567, according to data from the U.S. Census, which is $18,370 less than the national median. Average employee health care premium contributions for a family in the state is $5,133, according to the Commonwealth Fund, which is only $137 more than the premiums employees in Vermont are paying. But, when coupled with Mississippi’s lower median income, the cost of health coverage is substantial.

Mississippi also surpassed Vermont in spending on government-funded health insurance plans. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that Mississippi reported over $21.5 million in 2015 for health care expenditures.

The other states that rounded out America’s Health Rankings bottom 10 were primarily in the South, including, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. Indiana was the only Midwestern state to land on the lower one-fifth of the unhealthiest states list.

On a national scale, American health is a mixed bag. Since 2012, smoking among adults has decreased from 24 percent to 16.1 percent, however, obesity among adults increased to 30.9 percent from 11 percent while diabetes among adults increased to 15 percent from 9.5 percent.

In the past three years, drug-related deaths have increased by 37 percent from 14 to 19.2 deaths per 100,000 people. When compared to America’s Health Rankings data from 2007, that is a 104 percent increase.

Environmental conditions have improved as air pollution decreased by 36 percent since 2003 and violent crime decreased by 50 percent since 1993. In the past four years, frequent mental distress increased from 11 percent to 13 percent, which has resulted in an increase of mental health providers, according to the report.

Infant mortality has decreased by 43 percent from 10.2 to 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in the past 29 years. However, low birth weight has increased by four percent from eight to 8.3 percent in the past three years, which also happens to be a 19 percent increase from 1993.

The average American spends more than $11,000 per year on health care and accounted for 17.7 percent of the U.S. GDP, according to estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. With spending projected to grow at an average rate of 5.5 percent per year, the U.S. will reach nearly $6 trillion in health care spending by 2027.

Buttigieg’s health care plan would save money while Warren and Sanders plans would cost trillions, analysis finds

Associate Editor Adriana Belmont reported that Health care has been a contentious topic among the Democratic presidential candidates: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) support Medicare for All while Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN) and former Vice President Joe Biden offer alternatives to universal health care.

A new analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) took a look at the different plans and found that while each proposal would reduce the number of uninsured Americans, the least costly would be Buttigieg’s plan.

“Mayor Buttigieg’s plan would reduce deficits by $450 billion,” according to CFRB, adding that the policy would also “increase gross spending by $2.85 trillion, reduce costs by $1.2 trillion, and raise $2.1 trillion through direct and additional offsets.”

Through Buttigieg’s Medicare for All Who Want It plan, everyone would automatically be involved in universal health care coverage for those who are eligible. The policy would also expand premium subsidies for low-income individuals, cap out-of-pocket costs for seniors on Medicare, and limit what health care providers change for out-of-network care at double what Medicare pays for the same service. At the same time, those who still want to stay on private insurance can do so.

“This is how public alternatives work,” Buttigieg said. “They create a public alternative that the private sector is then forced to compete with.

CRFB estimated that the Indiana mayor’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured by between 20 to 30 million “by improving affordability and implementing auto-enrollment as well as retroactively enrolling and charging premiums to those who lack coverage.” 

‘Building on Obamacare’

Joe Biden’s health care plan, described as “building on Obamacare,” has an estimated gross cost of $2.25 trillion and would add $800 billion to deficits over 10 years. The CRFB also found that “it would reduce costs by $450 billion” and “raise $1 trillion through direct and additional offsets.”

Biden’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured by 15 to 20 million Americans and reduce national health expenditures by 1%. 

Some of his biggest revenue drivers in his plan include coverage expansion revenue feedback, which would create a public option, and end deductibility of prescription drug advertising. Additionally, his capital gains tax and “tax at death” would generate $550 billion.

‘Federal health expenditures would increase somewhat more’

Sen. Sanders, one of the original proponents of Medicare for All, has a plan that’s projected to add $13.4 trillion to deficits over a decade at a gross cost of $30.6 trillion. It would also raise $12.5 trillion in revenue through direct offsets and raise another $3 trillion through additional offsets.

His proposals to eliminate medical debt would cost $100 billion and would raise $1.7 trillion by reducing the costs of prescription drugs. To generate more money for the plan, Sanders would establish a 4% income surtax (projected to raise $4 trillion) and 7.5% employer payroll tax (estimated $4 trillion added). One significant cost in his plan, though, is offering universal long-term care — which would cost $29 trillion. 

“The reality is that Medicare for All will save American families thousands of dollars a year because they will no longer be paying premiums, deductibles and co-payments to greedy private health insurance companies,” Warren Gunnels, senior advisor for the Sanders campaign, told Yahoo Finance in a statement.

“If every major country on earth can guarantee health care to all and achieve better health outcomes, while spending substantially less per capita than we do, it is absurd for anyone to suggest that the United States of America cannot do the same.”

Overall, between 2021 to 2030, the CFRB estimated that Sanders’ plan would increase national health expenditures by 6%, “meaning that federal health expenditures would increase somewhat more than non-federal health spending would fall.”

‘Magical math’ or ‘the biggest middle class tax cut ever’?

Sen. Warren’s plan closely resembles Sanders’ in terms of cost. She stated her plan would cost $20.5 trillion in federal spending over a decade. CFRB found that the plan “would add $6.1 trillion to deficits over ten years under our central estimate.”

Experts disagree over the cost of Warren’s numbers, with one calling it “magical math” and another referring to Warren’s plan as “the biggest middle class tax cut ever.”

According to CRFB, the plan would increase gross spending by $31.75 trillion, reduce costs by $4.7 trillion, raise $14.2 trillion in revenue through direct offsets, and raise another $6.75 trillion through additional offsets. Her health care plan is estimated to increase costs by about 3%, but “the magnitude of these increases would decline over time.”

A major way to fund the plan would be through tax reform. By essentially eliminating tax breaks with private health insurers and requiring employers to contribute to her Medicare for All, she’s projected to generate an estimated $14.2 trillion. Other means of generating revenue for her plan include her wealth tax and a tax on bonds, stocks, and derivatives.

Both the Warren and Sanders plans would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 30 to 35 million and “nearly eliminate” average premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Patients can’t afford for doctors to misunderstand the healthcare business

Caroline Yao reported that When I was in medical school, my teachers started a lot of their stories with the same phrase:

“Back in my day, I still helped patients who couldn’t pay.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t have 100 checklists.”

“Back in my day, I didn’t need permission from insurance companies to do my job.”

“Back in my day, a yelp review couldn’t ruin my reputation.”

It happened so often that I wondered if I had shown up to the medical profession 30 years too late. Had I signed up for a sham fairytale?

I had thought doctors were autonomous, benevolent masters with kind voices and encyclopedic knowledge. After entering the field, I’ve found most young doctors struggle to balance convention versus empowerment, and doing good versus doing well. Doctors are the ugly stepchild of healthcare reform; too privileged to warrant help, but too powerless to do our jobs better.

I performed more than 2,500 surgeries during my residency training, and I am embarrassed to say that I do not know what a single one of my patients paid for their operations.

I later learned at the public hospital, surgeons were reimbursed $35 for each emergency appendectomy performed. Where did all that money go? Why didn’t the doctors question the system, or try to regain some control?

The provider will see you now

Somewhere along the way, my title as a doctor has been reduced to “provider,” and my worth dictated by administrators, insurance companies—and the government. The Hippocratic Oath I earnestly recited upon starting medical school is challenged everyday by a system of perverse incentives, where hospitals are paid more for treating the sick than keeping the patient well.

In 2013, 87% of graduating doctors felt uncomfortable with their knowledge of the business of medicine; 81% felt they lacked an understanding of healthcare legislation.

Is the answer that doctors should participate more in determining patient fees and reimbursement schedules? History shows that when doctors controlled payments more directly, graduated systems based on ability to pay were subtle but more ubiquitous. In the era of Aristotle, wealthy physicians did not accept payment, while poorer ones requested them. When 9th-century physician and scholoar Ishaq bin Ali al-Ruhawi wrote the first book of medical ethics, he described physicians as business owners who provided free services during times of patronage from caliphs and sultans. Throughout medieval Europe and during the Ottaman Empire, doctors treated the poor with the help of subsidies from royal courts and churches. Notable physicians such as Sir William Osler, legendary French surgeon and anatomist Guillaume Dupuytren, and physician and founder of Dickinson College, Benjamin Rush also charged rich and poor patients based on a self-made sliding scale.

Today, governments, universities, religious groups, and philanthropists are essentially modern-day barons who fund healthcare for the indigent through public hospitals, grants, and charitable work.

In the US, some physicians are granted partial and full student debt forgiveness from the government for working in underserved or rural communities. However, the majority of physicians who volunteer at free clinics, teaching hospitals, charities, or medical missions often do so only because their practice is flexible or lucrative enough to allow them both time away from paying jobs and the financial means to offer free services.

While physicians in private practice have autonomy over who they treat and how much they charge, physicians who work in hospital systems are more and more removed from managing the whole patient.

In 1983, 76% of doctors owned their own practice versus only 47% in 2016. Young physicians today are fundamentally unaware of the business side of medicine, and that’s bad news for everyone. As is the fact that medical students and residents are consistently and idealistically mentored to ignore the costs of materials and treatments we recommend.

We are taught to deliver care based on strict scientific evidence: the “gold standard” of care. Said gold standard, however, does not account for price, diminishing returns, convenience, or pain. The treatment that works best for a lab rat in a cage does not always translate to the most appropriate care for a person who has far more complex needs.

The cost of your health

A more pragmatic physician understands that patients who are underinsured, uninsured, or improperly educated will often forgo procedures, clinic visits, and medications when those interventions are too expensive or inconvenient.

Cost-conscious surgeons know that using instruments to tie stitches instead of hand-tying stitches can often result in a 10-fold cost savings without sacrificing quality.

I did not know how prohibitively expensive everyday surgical consumables cost until I went on humanitarian missions abroad and worked with surgical teams that could not afford these luxuries. I learned that hemostatic fabric we used like disposable napkins in the US cost $40 for a post-it sized square. A five-inch silicone band-aid costs $20. Bioengineered skin substitutes cost $10,000 for a palm-sized sheet.

My lack of price-awareness is fairly common. Many doctors have stopped accounting for the cost portion of a cost-benefit analysis.

And where doctors have leaned away from understanding cost, others have stepped in. Hospital administrators, governments, and insurance companies now manage the costs of healthcare. Correspondingly, physician compensation is estimated to be under 10% of total US national healthcare spending today. Overhead, administration, ancillary staff, malpractice insurance, and pharmaceuticals account for the majority of costs. For an appendectomy and associated care in 2018, the Medicare allowable compensation for a surgeon’s work is $394; meanwhile, healthcare watchdog organizations quote $13,000 as the fair price for hospitals to charge a patient and US hospitals bill an average of $31,000.

Most surgeons working in large hospitals are unaware of these numbers. They are therefore unable to tell patients how much they will be billed for a given operation. A surgeon in the 1830s in the company of the likes of Dr. Dupuytren would know these numbers.

Patients are often dismayed or surprised that their doctor cannot earnestly explain the cost-benefits of different treatments. A 2013 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 87% of graduating doctors felt uncomfortable with their knowledge of the business of medicine and 81% felt they lacked an understanding of healthcare legislation.  As surgeons, we have slowly let ourselves become exclusively technicians. Just like Aristotle and Plato said.

By turning our noses up at the business of medicine, we have lost ownership over our patients, and the agency to advocate for them. As Osler said, “The good physician treats the disease. The great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”

We as physicians and surgeons need to recover our identity and learn the business skills that our teachers have forgotten, but our forefathers stood up for.

As China’s Coronavirus Cases Rise, U.S. Agencies Map Out Domestic Containment Plans

Richard Harris reported that China has reported a large surge of cases of the novel coronavirus — upping its count from under 3,000 to over 4,500 as of Tuesday morning. More than 100 deaths have been reported. It is spreading rapidly in many provinces, and sporadic cases have now been reported in 18 other locations outside of China, including Australia, France and Canada.

In the United States, the case count remains at five — all people who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. And at a news conference Tuesday, top U.S. health officials reiterated that the disease — while serious — is not currently a threat to ordinary Americans.

“At this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety,” said Alex Azar, health and human services secretary, at the press briefing Tuesday.

While risk to most Americans remains low, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that “risk is dependent on exposure” and that health care workers or others who know they have been in contact with a person exposed to the virus should take precautions.

The federal government continues to adjust its approach to preventing the disease from taking hold in the U.S. On Monday night, the CDC and the State Department announced that a travel advisory recommending that Americans avoid travel to China when at all possible.

Airport screening is also being expanded from five airports to 20, with the goal of screening all passengers returning from China and letting people know what they should do if they fall ill after they get home.

The CDC is conducting contact investigations of people known to have been in contact with the five patients with confirmed infections, monitoring them for symptoms and testing them if concerning symptoms emerge.

Officials at the CDC are eager to get into China in order to help scientists there answer key questions — such as whether the virus can spread from people who don’t show any symptoms of illness. Azar said at the news conference that he had been pressing his counterpart in China for permission to send investigators.

That plea has been answered, at least to a certain extent. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that it had the green light to send outside experts to China. It was not immediately clear whether that will include scientists from the CDC.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained that federal agencies are taking a three-pronged approach to respond to the novel coronavirus: developing and improving diagnostic tests, investigating experimental antiviral drugs, and working to develop a vaccine.

He said if it turns out that the virus can spread from someone who is not showing any symptoms, there would be some changes in the public health response. Similar coronaviruses from past outbreaks — severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome — did not spread in the absence of symptoms, but that doesn’t mean the new one will behave the same way. Viruses such as measles and influenza can be spread from people who aren’t showing signs of disease.

“Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, in all the history of respiratory-borne viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks,” Fauci said. “The driver of outbreaks has always been a symptomatic person.”

And lastly condolences go out to the Bryant family and the other members of the helicopter crash in southern California. Kobe will be sure missed but loss of kids really upsets a father like me the most!

A British doctor was treated in an American emergency room and said it revealed how broken US healthcare really is, The Republicans on Healthcare and Obamacare Again!!

  1. “You should never, ever have to say, ‘I can’t afford this medical treatment I need,'” he said. Really??
  2. He experienced American healthcare firsthand when he went to the emergency room in the US with a bloody finger.
  3. Adam Kay says he never paid a single medical bill in his life — until, while vacationing in the US, he got a piece of glass lodged in his finger.

His finger sprang open, spurting bright red blood in every direction.

“It was really embarrassing. It was like a little fire hose,” the former obstetrician told Insider. “It looked like there’d been some sort of massacre, and the blood was coming, and I couldn’t stop it bleeding.”

That was the day that Kay got a glimpse of just how different the US healthcare system is from the system in his home in the UK, where medical care is taxpayer-funded.

Kay swiftly headed off to the nearest emergency room, travel-insurance card in hand, for care.

“They took my card details and my insurance details,” he recalled. “That was the most important thing. And that was quite weird, because that just doesn’t happen back home.”

Kay, a former National Health Service worker who chronicled his time as a doctor in a bestselling book, “This Is Going to Hurt,” said he took great pride in being a doctor in the NHS — what he called the “closest thing” Brits have to “a national religion.”

One of the biggest differences between the UK and US health systems, he’s noticed, is the pay-as-you-go, employer-bankrolled nature of many American health plans. He said the for-profit US health system undermined the idea that healthcare is a basic human right.

“The NHS was founded on the principle that it’s free at the point of delivery and you’re treated according to clinical need, not ability to pay — whether you live in Windsor Castle or on a bench outside Windsor Station,” Kay wrote in his book. “Other systems around the world might be more efficient, but I’d drag myself out of a coma to argue that none of them is fairer.”

Kay acknowledged that it’s not a perfect system. In recent years, it’s been tough for the NHS to find enough doctors and nurses to go around. With Brexit on the horizon, many doctors are worried that the shortages will only get worse.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Conservative Party, famous for slashing the NHS’s budget in recent years, won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats in the country’s general election on Thursday. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Conservative leader, has promised to reverse course and make the national healthcare system the first priority. Even so, he’s proposing to spend less than his left-wing rivals.

Despite issues of cash and people power, the NHS still tends to outperform private care systems in the US. For example, the NHS said that in November, more than 80% of patients who were rushed to the ER were admitted, transferred, or discharged within four hours. In California, the average ER patient can expect to wait more than 5 1/2 before admission. Life expectancy is also shorter in the US by more than two years.

“I feel like America’s been gaslit about what the NHS is,” Kay said. “I speak to hugely intelligent people over here who’ve just been slightly brainwashed into the idea that healthcare is rationed.”

Instead, he said, it’s the US system that has “got this wrong.”

“You’ve got yourself worked up into this lunatic situation where everything’s itemized and everything’s become hyperinflated, because it’s become a marketplace,” Kay said. “I don’t think that should ever play a part in medicine. They’re two separate things. Do what’s best, clinically.”

That was not how Kay’s trip to the ER went.

Money should not dictate best practices in medicine, Kay said- hmmm, and that’s why the most complex, complicated cases in other countries come to the U.S. for treatment!!

After the bleeding stopped, Kay was shocked when his doctor said he’d have to decide what to do based on how much he wanted to spend.

“They said, ‘Normally, because it was a glass injury, we would want to X-ray it, just to make sure that nothing’s got into the joint, but that will be an extra $1,500.’ I’m suddenly thinking, do I really [want this X-ray]? I imagine I’ll get this back from my travel insurance, but if I don’t, that’s a lot of money on my holiday … And then I suddenly thought, no! If I was the doctor back home, I wouldn’t suggest it as an option. I would say, ‘This is best practice.'”

The cost of US healthcare has consistently been at the top of the list of issues Americans are most worried about. Healthcare bills are the most common reason Americans file for bankruptcy protection. In the UK, while people are still concerned about the direction of their national healthcare system, they’re more likely to say their top life worry is a looming Brexit deal, or crime, or maybe the environment.

“You should never have to sell your house ’cause you got ill,” Kay said. “You should never, ever have to say, ‘I can’t afford this medical treatment I need.’ I’ve just grown up in an environment where it’s effectively a human right. You get the healthcare you need.”

Interesting, then who pays the bill and if the government is paying all the bills and if there is no fear of bills and who will pay them the patient can ask for anything to treat them without care as to expense and can go from doc to doc without care as to cost. Not a happy scenario.

A growing number of Republicans say they’re satisfied with US healthcare costs — even as insurance prices have surged 20% in the past year

Joseph Zeballos-Roig noted that a growing number Republicans are satisfied with the cost of healthcare in the United States, according to a new Gallup poll released Wednesday.

The increase comes as another major index from the Labor Department showed average insurance prices spiking 20% over the last year.

The poll noted overall satisfaction with US healthcare costs is the highest since 2009 as just over one in four Americans are content with the healthcare pricing environment — though much of that boost was driven by the uptick in Republican approval.

It suggests that heightened partisanship is swaying Republicans on healthcare just as it has been on the economy, another issue where they are much likelier than Democrats to view the situation more favorably, An growing number of Republicans are satisfied with the cost of healthcare in the United States, according to a new Gallup poll released Wednesday. The increase comes as another major index from the Labor Department showed average insurance prices spiking 20% over the last year.

The poll noted overall satisfaction with US healthcare costs is the highest since 2009 as just over one in four Americans are content with the healthcare pricing environment — though much of that boost was driven by the uptick in Republican approval.

The Labor Department’s consumer price index, which tracks the average change over time in prices paid for goods and services, said the cost of overall medical care rose 5.1% since Nov. 2018. That measure also incorporates doctors’ visits and hospital services.

The cost of health insurance had the biggest jump over the past year at 20.2%, representing one part of the broader healthcare industry. Other elements such as the price of doctors’ visits and hospital services saw more modest increases at 1.4% and 3.3%, respectively.

It suggests that heightened partisanship is swaying Republicans on healthcare just as it has been on the economy, another issue where they are much likelier than Democrats to view the situation more favorably, the Pew Research Center said.

By comparison, only 9% of Democrats were satisfied with healthcare costs in the US, according to the Gallup poll.

Still, another recently-released Gallup poll showed both Democrats and Republicans broadly satisfied with what they pay for their own healthcare, though there was a notable dip in Democratic satisfaction and an increase among Republicans. 

The cost of healthcare, though, continues to rise in the United States.

That’s led to Democratic primary candidates to propose a variety of methods to reform American healthcare. They range from incrementally shoring up the Affordable Care Act and introducing an optional government insurance plan to enrolling every American into a government-run insurance system.

Trump has repeatedly promised to introduce another plan to replace Obamacare, but he hasn’t done so yet.

House Republicans rolled out their own alternative in October, but it looks a lot like the unpopular “skinny repeal” version that was narrowly defeated by a single Senate vote in 2017. That one has almost no chance of becoming law before the 2020 election as it would have to pass the Democratic-led lower chamber.

Striking down Obamacare would open a path to better, more affordable health care

Realize that I really believe that Obamacare was and still is a well thought out health care system, but my concern is the lack of long term financing of the program, especially in comparison to the new program touted by the Democratic liberals running for president.  Now, Thomas Price and Alfredo Ortiz and Opinion contributor noted that The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of Obamacare. While its decision will have significant implications for American health care policy, it won’t affect people’s health coverage for at least a couple of years as the appeals process plays out. In the meantime, a ruling striking down Obamacare would give the country the opportunity and the impetus to unite behind a health care reform plan that actually lowers costs, increases choices and improves the doctor-patient relationship.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare was constitutional under the government’s power to tax. However, President Donald Trump’s tax cuts eliminated the tax, more commonly known as the penalty, for not purchasing health insurance. In February 2018, 20 states led by Texas filed suit against the federal government, arguing that Obamacare was no longer constitutional because the tax upon which the law had been based no longer existed. Without this tax, the plaintiffs argued, the law’s individual mandate is nothing more than the unlawful federal compulsion to purchase health insurance.

Last December, a federal judge in Texas agreed with this reasoning and declared Obamacare unconstitutional. But he also issued a stay on his judgment, allowing the law — the Affordable Care Act — to remain while the case is being appealed in order to save Americans potentially needless uncertainty. The case, Texas vs. Azar, was then appealed to the 5th Circuit.

Disgraceful fearmongering

Politicians and commentators claim that this case threatens to eliminate health care coverage for Americans covered by Obamacare. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is leading the appeal, called the lower court ruling “an assault on 133 million Americans with preexisting conditions, on the 20 million Americans who rely on the ACA for health care.” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries claims that the Trump Justice Department is trying to “destroy health care for tens of millions of Americans.”

Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the health care industry-funded Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, warns that if Obamacare is deemed unconstitutional, “the chaos that would ensue is almost impossible to wrap your brain around. The marketplaces would just simply disappear and millions of people would become uninsured overnight, probably leaving hospitals and doctors with millions and millions of dollars in unpaid medical bills. Medicaid expansion would disappear overnight.”

This is fearmongering of disgraceful proportions. In reality, Democrats would appeal a plaintiff’s victory to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the trial court stay would remain in effect. The earliest the high court would be able to hear the case would be next fall at the start of its next session, barring an expedited Supreme Court timeline. Based on the usual timeline between hearings and rulings, this means the soonest it would issue a final decision would be the spring of 2021. Obamacare health coverage already purchased and planned upon for 2021 would likely continue.

Listen to your doctor: Medicare for All government chokehold would be even worse than private insurance

In the meantime, policymakers and reformers can develop a health care alternative that fixes the many flaws in Obamacare while keeping its protections for those with preexisting conditions. Obamacare has done nothing to control spiraling medical costs and diminishing health care choices for many ordinary Americans. Despite their different reform visions, Republicans and many Democrats are united in their agreement that the country must move on from Obamacare. 

‘Medicare for All’ would be worse

Yet the solution proposed by these Democrats — “Medicare for All” — would exacerbate our current cost and choice problems even further. The Mercatus Center of George Mason University estimates that Medicare for All would cost $32 trillion over 10 years. That means one year would amount to more than two-thirds of the entire 2020 federal budget.

The only way government-run health care could attempt to control costs is by rationing care — meaning fewer options, longer wait times and less innovation.

‘Medicare for All’ is unpopular: Democrats could lose to Trump if they abandon Obamacare and private health insurance

A better alternative is the Job Creators Network Foundation’s “Healthcare for You”  framework, which prioritizes reform from the bottom up rather than the top down. In practice, this means deregulating insurance markets and allowing state officials to set insurance parameters while maintaining protections for those with preexisting conditions. Instead of the one-size-fits-all health care plans that proliferate today, this reform would unleash a flood of new insurance options — from Cadillac to catastrophic — that patients could tailor to their unique needs.

By also prioritizing direct medical care, transparent prices and expanded tax-free health management accounts (also called health savings accounts), a true health care market would emerge, allowing patients to shop for coverage while prices fell.

A Texas vs. Azar ruling that deems Obamacare unconstitutional will help spur such long-overdue patient-centric health care reforms. It will not immediately remove lifelines for patients, as critics claim. 

Sunday Deadline Looms For Affordable Care Act Open Enrollment

Brakkton Booker alerted us all that for millions of Americans, time is running out to sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplace healthcare.gov.

For those who will not receive health coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2020 through an employer or other programs like Medicaid, Medicare or the Children’s Health Insurance Program — commonly referred to as CHIP — the deadline to purchase health insurance is Sunday, Dec. 15.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tweeted a reminder: “If you decide that purchasing coverage through healthcare.gov is the right decision for you, make sure you select coverage by this Sunday.”

December 15 is the deadline to shop for 2020 plans.

Costs are down and choices are up for 2020 plans. If you decide that purchasing coverage through 

 is the right decision for you, make sure you select coverage by this Sunday.

Sign-ups for 2020 coverage in the first six weeks of open enrollment for the ACA, also referred to as Obamacare, are down slightly, trailing last year’s totals by 6%. However, this decline is happening at a slower rate when compared to 2019 coverage sign-ups in the first six weeks. That decline dipped 12%, according to Modern Healthcare.

The publication also notes that the latest numbers “don’t include the millions of people who will be automatically enrolled in coverage at the conclusion of open enrollment.”

NPR’s Health Policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin told NPR’s Up First podcast on Saturday that enrollment has been down every year since 2016.

“Last year more than 11 million people enrolled and we’re on track to be slightly behind that this year,” Simmons-Duffin said.

Many experts blame the drop in sign-ups on the Trump administration making sharp reductions in outreach efforts to connect would-be insurance purchasers to available plans.

“One of the actions that President Trump’s administration took to change the [Affordable Care Act] law is to radically cut back the funding to do outreach and to do advertising to let people know that this exists,” Simmons-Duffin said.

Kaiser Health News points out there is typically “a flurry in the last few days before the Dec. 15 deadline” when last-minute participants decide to sign-up.

Some states have seen double-digit declines. In Arizona, for example, enrollments are down 17% from this time a year ago, according to the Arizona Republic. The paper cites “apprehension among some Latino families over enrolling in anything government-related” as one possible cause for the drop off.

Meanwhile, Delaware Public Media reports a 1.7% decline from last year. It adds: “Lagging enrollment comes despite premiums in Delaware dropping for the first time since the ACA became law seven years ago.”

Health officials in California announced Thursday more than 130,000 people signed up for new coverage plans this year — an increase of 16% compared to the open enrollment period last year.

For those who miss the open enrollment sign-up period, not all is lost. The health care law does allow, in specific cases, a special enrollment period where people can sign-up after the open enrollment period ends.

The government lists circumstances including losing health insurance, getting married, moving, having a baby or adopting a child as “life events” that would make applicants eligible.

And the confusion continues with no real solution in the horizon! Let’s get to the discussion that I had promised, what a single-payer system is really all about!

The Big Push for Medicare Advantage, Trump’s Counter Health Care Proposal and Dumb Bernie!

rights328Michael Rainey reported that Medicare is shaping up as one of the most important issues in the 2020 election, with several leading Democrats offering proposals that would significantly expand the program. President Trump jumped into the fray with an executive order last week that he claimed would protect and improve the Medicare system, in part by promoting broader use of private Medicare Advantage plans. Those plans are quite lucrative for the private insurers that sell them, Bloomberg’s John Tozzi said Wednesday, and they’ll be pushing hard to sell more of them when Medicare enrollment begins next week.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage has more than tripled in the last 20 years, and now about a third of all Medicare beneficiaries get coverage through private plans. If current trends continue, more than half of all beneficiaries will be in Medicare Advantage by 2025, according to Tozzi.

How it works: Those who sign up for Medicare Advantage pay the same monthly premiums as regular plans but agree to certain limits imposed by the insurers, such as a restricted network of doctors, and also receive a wider range of benefits, which can include drugs plans and dental care. Insurers get a fee from the government for each person who signs up and is responsible for managing their plans to ensure a profit. In 2019, the average fee for each of the roughly 22 million participants was $11,545 – which comes to a total of about $254 billion.

Big numbers for insurers: Insurers see Medicare Advantage as “as a lucrative market they can’t afford to pass by,” Tozzi said, especially as sales of traditional, employer-based insurance plans slow. Medicare is now the biggest part of UnitedHealthcare’s business and the insurance giant is expanding to reach 90% coverage of the market next year. Other major players including Humana and Aetna are also expanding their coverage, and competition in the space is growing.

More generous benefits: Recent rule changes have allowed private insurers to offer new benefits within Medicare Advantage, such as meal delivery, air-conditioners, and in-home help. Regular fee-for-service Medicare doesn’t offer such options due to concerns about fraud.

A potential political battle ahead: Insurers increasingly rely on the revenues and profits from Medicare Advantage and can be expected to fight any effort to restrict – or, as some Democrats are calling for, eliminate – the existing private system. And as the plans become more generous – and, as critics have pointed out, more expensive for the government – seniors are likely to resist changes as well, complicating any Democratic effort to enact sweeping changes in the Medicare system.

Targeting ‘Medicare For All’ Proposals, Trump Lays Out His Vision For Medicare

Selena Simmons reported that President Trump gave a speech and signed an executive order on health care Thursday, casting the “Medicare for All” proposals from his Democratic rivals as harmful to seniors.

His speech, which had been billed as a policy discussion, had the tone of a campaign rally. Trump spoke from The Villages, a huge retirement community in Florida outside Orlando, a deep-red part of a key swing state.

His speech was marked by cheers, standing ovations and intermittent chants of “four more years” by an audience of mostly seniors.

Trump spoke extensively about his administration’s health care achievements and goals, as well as the health policy proposals of Democratic presidential candidates, which he characterized as socialism.

The executive order he signed had previously been titled “Protecting Medicare From Socialist Destruction” on the White House schedule but has since been renamed “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors.”

“In my campaign for president, I made you a sacred pledge that I would strengthen, protect and defend Medicare for all of our senior citizens,” Trump told the audience. “Today I’ll sign a very historic executive order that does exactly what — we are making your Medicare even better, and … it will never be taken away from you. We’re not letting anyone get close.”

The order is intended, in part, to shore up Medicare Advantage, an alternative to traditional Medicare that’s administered by private insurers. That program has been growing in popularity, and this year, premiums are down and plan choices are up.

The executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to develop proposals to improve several aspects of Medicare, including expanding plan options for seniors, encouraging innovative plan designs and payment models and improving the enrollment process to make it easier for seniors to choose plans.

The order includes a grab bag of proposals, including removing regulations “that create inefficiencies or otherwise undermine patient outcomes”; combating waste, fraud, and abuse in the program; and streamlining access to “innovative products” such as new treatments and medical devices.

The president outlined very little specific policy in his speech in Florida. Instead, he attacked Democratic rivals and portrayed their proposals as threatening to seniors.

“Leading Democrats have pledged to give free health care to illegal immigrants,” Trump said, referring to a moment from the first Democratic presidential debate in which all the candidates onstage raised their hands in support of health care for undocumented migrants. “I will never allow these politicians to steal your health care and give it away to illegal aliens.”

Health care is a major issue for voters and is one that has dominated the presidential campaign on the Democratic side. In the most recent debate, candidates spent the first-hour hashing out and defending various health care proposals and visions. Only two candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — between a Medicare for All system — support the major divide and a public option supported by the rest of the field.

Trump brushed those distinctions aside. “Every major Democrat in Washington has backed a massive government health care takeover that would totally obliterate Medicare,” he said. “These Democratic policy proposals … may go by different names, whether it’s single-payer or the so-called public option, but they’re all based on the totally same terrible idea: They want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism.”

Toward the end of the speech, he highlighted efforts that his administration has made to lower drug prices and then suggested that drugmakers were helping with the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives. “They’re very powerful,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if … it was from some of these industries, like pharmaceuticals, that we take on.”

Drawing battle lines through Medicare may be a savvy campaign move on Trump’s part.

Medicare is extremely popular. People who have it like it, and people who don’t have it think it’s a good thing too. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 8 in 10 Democrats, independents and Republicans think of Medicare favorably.

Trump came into office promising to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better. Those efforts failed, and the administration has struggled to get substantive policy changes on health care.

On Thursday, administration officials emphasized a number of its recent health care policy moves.

“[Trump’s] vision for a healthier America is much wider than a narrow focus on the Affordable Care Act,” said Joe Grogan, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, at a press briefing earlier.

The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, said at that briefing that this was “the most comprehensive vision for health care that I can recall any president putting forth.”

He highlighted a range of actions that the administration has taken, from a push on price transparency in health care to a plan to end the HIV epidemic, to more generic-drug approvals. Azar described these things as part of a framework to make health care more affordable, deliver better value and tackle “impassable health challenges.”

Without a big health care reform bill, the administration is positioning itself as a protector of what exists now — particularly Medicare.

“Today’s executive order particularly reflects the importance the president places on protecting what worked in our system and fixing what’s broken,” Azar said. “Sixty million Americans are on traditional Medicare or Medicare Advantage. They like what they have, so the president is going to protect it.”

Trump’s New Order For Medicare Packs Potential Rise In Patients’ Costs

Julie Appleby reported that vowing to protect Medicare with “every ounce of strength,” President Donald Trump last week spoke to a cheering crowd in Florida. But his executive order released shortly afterward includes provisions that could significantly alter key pillars of the program by making it easier for beneficiaries and doctors to opt-out.

The bottom line: The proposed changes might make it a bit simpler to find a doctor who takes new Medicare patients, but it could lead to higher costs for seniors and potentially expose some to surprise medical bills, a problem from which Medicare has traditionally protected consumers.

“Unless these policies are thought through very carefully, the potential for really bad unintended consequences is front and center,” said economist Stephen Zuckerman, vice president for health policy at the Urban Institute.

While the executive order spells out few details, it calls for the removal of “unnecessary barriers” to private contracting, which allows patients and doctors to negotiate their own deals outside of Medicare. It’s an approach long supported by some conservatives, but critics fear it would lead to higher costs for patients. The order also seeks to ease rules that affect beneficiaries who want to opt-out of the hospital portion of Medicare, known as Part A.

Both ideas have a long history, with proponents and opponents duking it out since at least 1997, even spawning a tongue-in-cheek legislative proposal that year titled, in part, the “Buck Naked Act.” More on that later.

“For a long time, people who don’t want or don’t like the idea of social insurance have been trying to find ways to opt-out of Medicare and doctors have been trying to find a way to opt-out of Medicare payment,” said Timothy Jost, emeritus professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia.

The specifics will not emerge until the Department of Health and Human Services writes the rules to implement the executive order, which could take six months or longer. In the meantime, here are a few things you should know about the possible Medicare changes.

What are the current rules about what doctors can charge in Medicare?

Right now, the vast majority of physicians agree to accept what Medicare pays them and not charge patients for the rest of the bill, a practice known as balance billing. Physicians (and hospitals) have complained that Medicare doesn’t pay enough, but most participate anyway. Still, there is wiggle room.

Medicare limits balance billing. Physicians can charge patients the difference between their bill and what Medicare allows, but those charges are limited to 9.25% above Medicare’s regular rates. But partly because of the paperwork hassles for all involved, only a small percentage of doctors choose this option.

Alternatively, physicians can “opt-out” of Medicare and charge whatever they want. But they can’t change their mind and try to get Medicare payments again for at least two years. Fewer than 1%of the nation’s physicians have currently opted out.

What would the executive order change?

That’s hard to know.

“It could mean a lot of things,” said Joseph Antos at the American Enterprise Institute, including possibly letting seniors make a contract with an individual doctor or buy into something that isn’t traditional Medicare or the current private Medicare Advantage program. “Exactly what that looks like is not so obvious.”

Others said eventual rules might result in lifting the 9.25% cap on the amount doctors can balance-bill some patients. Or the rules around fully “opting out” of Medicare might ease so physicians would not have to divorce themselves from the program or could stay in for some patients, but not others. That could leave some patients liable for the entire bill, which might lead to confusion among Medicare beneficiaries, critics of such a plan suggest.

The result may be that “it opens the door to surprise medical billing if people sign a contract with a doctor without realizing what they’re doing,” said Jost.

Would patients get a bigger choice in physicians?

Proponents say allowing for more private contracts between patients and doctors would encourage doctors to accept more Medicare patients, partly because they could get higher payments. That was one argument made by supporters of several House and Senate bills in 2015 that included direct-contracting provisions. All failed, as did an earlier effort in the late 1990s backed by then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who argued such contracting would give seniors more freedom to select doctors.

Then-Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) opposed such direct contracting, arguing that patients had less power in negotiations than doctors. To make that point, he introduced the “No Private Contracts To Be Negotiated When the Patient Is Buck Naked Act of 1997.”

The bill was designed to illustrate how uneven the playing field is by prohibiting the discussion of or signing of private contracts at any time when “the patient is buck naked and the doctor is fully clothed (and conversely, to protect the rights of doctors, when the patient is fully clothed and the doctor is naked).” It, too, failed to pass.

Still, the current executive order might help counter a trend that “more physicians today are not taking new Medicare patients,” said Robert Moffit, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

It also might encourage boutique practices that operate outside of Medicare and are accessible primarily to the wealthy, said David Lipschutz, associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“It is both a gift to the industry and to those beneficiaries who are well off,” he said. “It has questionable utility to the rest of us.”

Elizabeth Warren Has Many Plans, But on Health Care, She’s ‘With Bernie’

Sahil Kaput noted that Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything — but on the crucial 2020 issue of health care, she’s borrowing from a rival and fellow progressive — Bernie Sanders.

The presidential candidate who made a mark with her signature “I have a plan for that!” is the only one of the five top-polling Democrats without a sweeping proposal of her own to remake the health care system. She has instead championed Sanders’ legislation to replace private insurance by putting every American in an expanded Medicare program.

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” Warren said recently in New Hampshire when asked if she’d devise a blueprint of her own. “Health care is a basic human right. We need to make sure that everybody is covered at the lowest possible cost, and draining money out for health insurance companies to make a lot of profits, by saying no.”

Warren’s deference to a rival is unusual for a candidate who has styled herself as the policy wonk with a program for everything from cradle to grave. It has allowed her to attract many liberal voters who supported Sanders in 2016, leading her to a dead heat with former vice president Joe Biden for the top spot in the Democratic field. And if Sanders were to eventually drop out of the race before Warren, her embrace of his most popular plan could keep his supporters in her camp.

Sean McElwee, a left-wing activist, and researcher with Data For Progress said that Warren cannot afford to go soft on Medicare for All.

“It’s the best option for the campaign to stay in alignment with Sanders on health care through the general election,” he said. “These Sanders voters have the highest risk of voting third party or staying home, and you have to keep them mobilized.”

Weeks before Warren, a Massachusetts senator, announced that she was exploring a presidential run last December, she sounded less wedded to the Sanders proposal, describing a three-step approach to health care.

“Our first job is to defend the Affordable Care Act. Our second is to improve it and make changes, for example to families’ vulnerability to the impact of high-priced drugs,” she told Bloomberg News. “And the third is to find a system of Medicare available to all that will increase the quality of care while it decreases the cost of all of us.”

As Warren was rising in the polls, her allies began to pick up signals that Sanders supporters were questioning her commitment to progressive ideas. Since June, Warren has given them little ammunition to claim she’s going soft on Medicare for All, a defining issue for many left-wing voters.

“The biggest concern Warren has from the left is this idea that, at the end of the day, Sanders is the one true progressive,” McElwee said. “If your main issue is Medicare for All, and that’s a central tenet of your politics, Warren probably can’t win you. But she doesn’t want you to hate her. She wants to be your fallback option.”

At the same time, Warren faces attacks from Biden for supporting a plan that would replace Obamacare, which Democrats bitterly fought for in 2009 and 2010. “The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” the former vice president said in the third Democratic debate in September. “I think Obamacare worked.”

Biden’s plan would build out Obamacare and have a public option for those who want it.

Health care consistently ranks as the top issue for Democratic voters. Government-run health care is popular among Democrats and Americans overall, but that support dips once voters are given the arguments against it, including that it would require higher middle-class taxes and abolish employer-sponsored coverage.

Medicare for All, which lay at the heart of Sanders’ stronger-than-expected 2016 campaign, has become a litmus test for some progressive activists and voters. To them, it indicates a candidate’s belief in universal health care and willingness to take on private insurers who they say are gouging consumers for profit.

In Los Angeles on Friday, Warren was asked if her health care vision would raise middle-class taxes. She evaded the question and said working families would see their overall medical costs reduced, referring to the end of premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. “The very wealthy and big corporations will see their costs go up, but middle-class families will see their costs go down,” she said.

Surveys show that Sanders voters clearly prefer Warren as their second choice. But it doesn’t cut both ways — Warren’s supporters are more split among Sanders, Biden and Kamala Harris as their second choice.

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston, said that if Warren believes Sanders has the best plan, she has to “be all in on it — and if she’s got elements of her own to put in it, she needs to do that.”

The Sanders health care plan tracks with the “big structural change” Warren has called for, a message that also appeals to mainstream Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Maintaining that cross-section of support is critical to Warren’s path to the nomination. Biden is dominating with moderate and conservative Democrats, some of whom worry that running on Medicare for All will cost Democrats the general election.

“By supporting Bernie Sanders’ health care plan, Elizabeth Warren improves the chances of Bernie Sanders voters supporting her if she’s the nominee, thereby avoiding some for the heartburn Bernie gave Clinton and her supporters all the way through Election Day,” Marsh said.

A voter at her event in Keene, New Hampshire, asked Warren how she would handle the transition from private insurance to a government-run system.

“What we’ve got on Medicare for All is a framework,” she said. “And it doesn’t have the details, and you’re right to be antsy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sahil Kapur in Washington at skapur39@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney

Pete Buttigieg explains why he’s against Medicare for All

As reported by Adriana Belmont, Mayor Pete Buttigieg stands apart from other Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to health care policy. Unlike frontrunners Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), he does not support for Medicare for All, but rather an alternative.

“I am a candidate who believes Medicare for All is not as attractive as Medicare for All Who Want It,” Buttigieg said at The New Yorker Festival. “Because it gives people a choice.”

Through Buttigieg’s plan, everyone would automatically be involved in universal health care coverage for those who are eligible. It would also expand premium subsidies for low-income individuals, cap out-of-pocket costs for seniors on Medicare, and limit what health care providers charge for out-of-network care at double what Medicare pays for the same service. However, those who still want to stay on private insurance can do so.

When asked whether or not this is a matter of “having your cake and eating it too,” Buttigieg responded: “Why not?”

“This is how public alternatives work,” Buttigieg said. “They create a public alternative that the private sector is then forced to compete with.”

This differs from other candidates like Sanders and Warren, both vocal supporters of a single-payer health system. Sanders has even gone so far as to call for the elimination of private insurance companies. Buttigieg, however, sees his plan as an opportunity for private insurance companies to step up.

“The way I come at it is with a certain humility about what’s going to happen,” Buttigieg said. “Because one of two things will happen. Either, there’s really no private option that’s as good as the public one we’re going to create … which means pretty soon everyone migrates to it and pretty soon it’s Medicare for all.”

“Or, some private plans are still better, in which case we’re going to be really glad we didn’t command the American people to abandon them whether they want to or not,” Buttigieg said. “I’m neutral on which one of those outcomes happen.”

According to Politico, although there is no official cost for what Medicare for All Who Want It would cost, a campaign adviser said the federal spending would “be in the ballpark” of $790 billion.

“The core principle is not whether or not the government is your health insurance provider,” Buttigieg said. “The core principle for me is you get covered one way or the other. That’s what Medicare for All Who Want It entails.”

Bernie Sanders admits he was ‘dumb’ for ignoring symptoms ahead of heart attack

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is turning his heart attack into a PSA.

The 2020 candidate was hospitalized last week with what his doctors later said was a heart attack, leading Sanders to suspend his campaign events and a forthcoming Iowa ad buy. Sanders hasn’t said if he’ll resume campaigning before the Oct. 15 primary debate, but he does have a universally agreeable message in the meantime.

Sanders gave a health update at his home on Tuesday, telling reporters he was on his way to meet with a new cardiologist. “I must confess, I was dumb,” he said. Despite being “born” with “a lot of energy” and usually handling multiple rallies a day without a problem, “in the last month or two,” Sanders said he’d been “more fatigued than I usually have been.” “I should’ve listened to those symptoms,” Sanders continued, and then advised listeners to do the same “when you’re hurting when you’re fatigued when you have pain in your chest.”

Bernie Sanders is meeting a cardiologist this morning. A new doctor he has not met with before. Before he left he told reporters that he was “dumb” and should’ve listened to the warning signs his body was sending him prior to his heart attack.

Sanders first tied his hospitalization to his campaign in a tweet last week expressing his thanks for “well wishes,” “great doctors,” and “good health care.” “No one should fear going bankrupt” if they experience a medical emergency, he continued, and added in a call for “Medicare for All!”

What a dumb comment but it seems to follow how dumb Bernie is to neglect his heart disease however, he is telling us all about health care. And remember that Bernie has Congressional Blue Cross Blue Shield health care insurance, the best in the world!

 

Death toll from vaping-linked illness now at 19 in the ​US. Trump’s answer for Medicare and Bernie’s health issue!

bernie465Why aren’t more people interested in the severity of the vaping complications in our youth? We are now up to 19 deaths, and this is just the reported deaths. We haven’t figured the long-term severity of chronic vaping inhalation, a form of COPD-chronic obstructive pulmonary disease!

The death toll in the United States from illnesses linked to e-cigarette use has risen to at least 19, health authorities say, as more than 1,000 others have suffered lung injuries probably linked to vaping.

Officials have yet to identify the cause for the outbreak, which dates back to March and is pursuing multiple lines of investigation.

A report by clinicians in North Carolina last month pointed to the inhalation of fatty substances from aerosolized oils, but a new study by the Mayo Clinic published this week found patients’ lungs had been exposed to noxious fumes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that 18 deaths in 15 states had now been positively linked to vaping, from a total of 1,080 cases of people sickened —a jump of 275 since last week.

Connecticut officials also announced the first death in the state, bringing the total to at least 19.

The CDC attributed the sharp increase to a combination of new patients becoming ill in the past two weeks and recent reporting of previously identified patients.

“I think we really have the feeling right now that there may be a lot of different nasty things in e-cigarette or vaping products, and they may cause different harms in the lung,” Anne Schuchat, a senior official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a call with reporters.

Among a group of 578 patients interviewed on substances they had used, 78 percent reported using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive substance of marijuana, with or without nicotine products.

Another 37 percent reported exclusive use of THC products, and 17 percent said they had only used nicotine-containing products.

About 70 percent of patients are male, and 80 percent are under 35 years old.

Skyrocketing use

E-cigarettes have been available in the US since 2006.

It is not clear whether the outbreak is only happening now—or if there were cases earlier that were wrongly diagnosed.

Initially conceived as a smoking cessation device, e-cigarette use has skyrocketed among teens, with preliminary official data for 2019 showing more than a quarter of high school students using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

They were until recently perceived as a less harmful alternative to smoking because they do not contain the 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes, dozens of which are known to cause cancer.

Only one case of lung injury has been reported abroad, making the outbreak more mysterious still.

Canadian authorities said in September a youth had been hospitalized, but so far no other countries have reported anything similar.

Public and political opinion appears to be hardening, however, with the administration of US President Donald Trump announcing in September that it would ban in the coming month’s flavored e-cigarette products, which are particularly attractive to young people.

India has issued an outright ban on all e-cigarette products, as has the US state of Massachusetts.

E-cigarettes: five things to know about vaping linked deaths and illnesses in the U.S.

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the United States is feeding caution about a product, already banned in some places.

Here are five things to know about electronic cigarettes.

Around for two decades

Early designs for an electronic cigarette were drawn up in the United States in the 1960s but Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik is acknowledged as the inventor of a viable commercial version in the early 2000s.

Hon, who was trying to quit his own pack-a-day habit, took out patents between 2003 and 2005. But his devices would soon be overtaken as the international market exploded.

How do they work?

A battery powers a coil that heats a liquid containing various amounts of nicotine as well as propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, which mimic tobacco smoke when heated.

This “e-juice” can also contain flavorings and other substances, such as THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

E-cigarettes are mostly draw-activated, with the puffing releasing vapor.

They do not produce tar or carbon monoxide—two of tobacco’s most noxious elements and associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Harmful to health?

E-cigarettes were initially touted as less damaging than tobacco, which causes around eight million deaths a year.

In 2015 public health authorities in England said best estimates showed they were 95 percent less harmful than tobacco.

“Even if it is difficult to quantify precisely the long-term toxicity of electronic cigarettes, there is evidence that it is significantly lower than traditional cigarettes,” the French Academy of Medicine said the same year.

However, concern has been growing.

On October 3, 2019, US health authorities reported 18 vaping-related deaths and more than 1,000 cases of damage since March, the cause of which had not been identified.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on September 2019 that many of the cases involved the use of black-market marijuana products.

In July 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that electronic smoking devices were “undoubtedly harmful and should, therefore, be subject to regulation”.

Another worry is that the vaping flavors are particularly attractive to teenagers and an enticement to pick up the habit.

Exponential growth

The number of vapers worldwide has leaped from seven million in 2011 to 41 million in 2018, according to leading market researcher Euromonitor International.

By comparison, there were 1.1 billion tobacco smokers on the planet in 2016, according to the latest WHO figures on its website.

The largest markets for e-cigarettes are the United States followed by Britain, France, Germany, and China.

The increase in vaping has been particularly dramatic among teenagers.

Moving towards regulation

In September 2019 India became the latest country to ban the import, sale, production, and advertising of e-cigarettes, citing in particular concerns about its youth.

The devices are already banned in several places, such as Brazil, Singapore, Thailand and the US state of Massachusetts, but elsewhere legislations are inconsistent.

In June 2019 San Francisco became the first major US city to effectively ban the sale and manufacture of electronic cigarettes.

In September New York followed Michigan in banning flavored e-cigarettes.

Trump woos seniors with an order to boost Medicare health program

Reporter Jeff Mason pointed out that U.S. President Donald Trump sought to woo seniors on Thursday with an executive order aimed at strengthening the Medicare health program by reducing regulations, curbing fraud, and providing faster access to new medical devices and therapies.

The order, which Trump discussed during a visit to a retirement community in Florida known as The Villages, is the Republican president’s answer to some Democrats who are pushing for a broad and expensive expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans.

Trump referred to such proposals as socialist and pledged to prevent them from coming to fruition, a political promise with an eye toward his 2020 re-election campaign in which healthcare is likely to be a major issue.

“They want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism,” Trump told an enthusiastic crowd in Florida, a political swing state that is critical to his goal of keeping the White House.

The executive order follows measures his administration rolled out in recent months designed to curtail drug prices and correct other perceived problems with the U.S. healthcare system. Policy experts say the efforts are unlikely to slow the tide of rising drug prices in a meaningful way.

Trump suggested that drug companies were backing impeachment efforts in Washington, which he considers a “hoax,” as a way to sabotage his efforts to make prescriptions affordable.

“We’re lowering the cost of prescription drugs, taking on the pharmaceutical companies. And you think that’s easy? It’s not easy… I wouldn’t be surprised if the hoax didn’t come from some of the people that we’re taking on,” he said.

Medicare covers Americans who are 65 and older and includes traditional fee-for-service coverage in which the government pays healthcare providers directly and Medicare Advantage plans, in which private insurers manage patient benefits on its behalf.

Seniors are a key political constituency in America because of a high percentage of the vote.

The order pushes for Medicare to use more medical telehealth services, which is care delivered by phone or digital means, leading to cost reductions by reducing expensive emergency room visits, an administration official told Reuters ahead of the announcement.

The order directs the government to work to allow private insurers that operate Medicare Advantage plans to use new plan pricing methods, such as allowing beneficiaries to share in the savings when they choose lower-cost health services.

It also aims to bring payments for the traditional Medicare fee-for-service program in line with payments for Medicare Advantage.

Trump’s plans contrast with the Medicare for All program promoted by Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist who is running to become the Democratic Party’s nominee against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Sanders’ proposal, backed by left-leaning Democrats but opposed by moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, would create a single-payer system, effectively eliminating private insurance by providing government coverage to everyone, using the Medicare model.

“Medicare for All is Medicare for none,” said Seema Verma, the administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, on a conference call with reporters, calling the proposal a “pipe dream” that would lead to higher taxes.

Sanders has argued that Americans would pay less for healthcare under his plan.

The White House is eager to show Trump making progress on healthcare, an issue Democrats successfully used to garner support and take control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, his predecessor President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law also known as “Obamacare.” So far he has not repealed or replaced it.

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it would propose a rule for imports of cheaper drugs from Canada into the United States. A formal rule has not yet been unveiled.

The administration also issued an executive order in June demanding hospitals and insurers make prices they charge patients more transparent. Another in July encouraged novel treatments for kidney disease.

Trump considered other proposals that did not reach fruition.

A federal judge in July shot down an executive order that would have forced drugmakers to display list prices in advertisements, and Trump scrapped another planned order that would have banned some rebate payments drugmakers make to payers.

The administration is mulling a plan to tie some Medicare reimbursement rates for drugs to the price paid for those drugs by foreign governments, Reuters reported.

Targeting ‘Medicare For All’ Proposals, Trump Lays Out His Vision For Medicare

Faced with the pressure from the Democrats and their proposal for health care, Medicare for All President Trump gave a speech and signed an executive order on health care Thursday, casting the “Medicare for All” proposals from his Democratic rivals as harmful to seniors.

His speech, which had been billed as a policy discussion, had the tone of a campaign rally. Trump spoke from The Villages, a huge retirement community in Florida outside Orlando, a deep-red part of a key swing state.

His speech was marked by cheers, standing ovations and intermittent chants of “four more years” by an audience of mostly seniors.

Trump spoke extensively about his administration’s health care achievements and goals, as well as the health policy proposals of Democratic presidential candidates, which he characterized as socialism.

The executive order he signed had previously been titled “Protecting Medicare From Socialist Destruction” on the White House schedule but has since been renamed “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors.”

“In my campaign for president, I made you a sacred pledge that I would strengthen, protect and defend Medicare for all of our senior citizens,” Trump told the audience. “Today I’ll sign a very historic executive order that does exactly what — we are making your Medicare even better, and … it will never be taken away from you. We’re not letting anyone get close.”

The order is intended, in part, to shore up Medicare Advantage, an alternative to traditional Medicare that’s administered by private insurers. That program has been growing in popularity, and this year, premiums are down and plan choices are up.

The executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to develop proposals to improve several aspects of Medicare, including expanding plan options for seniors, encouraging innovative plan designs and payment models and improving the enrollment process to make it easier for seniors to choose plans.

The order includes a grab bag of proposals, including removing regulations “that create inefficiencies or otherwise undermine patient outcomes”; combating waste, fraud, and abuse in the program; and streamlining access to “innovative products” such as new treatments and medical devices.

The president outlined very little specific policy in his speech in Florida. Instead, he attacked Democratic rivals and portrayed their proposals as threatening to seniors.

“Leading Democrats have pledged to give free health care to illegal immigrants,” Trump said, referring to a moment from the first Democratic presidential debate in which all the candidates onstage raised their hands in support of health care for undocumented migrants. “I will never allow these politicians to steal your health care and give it away to illegal aliens.”

Health care is a major issue for voters and is one that has dominated the presidential campaign on the Democratic side. In the most recent debate, candidates spent the first-hour hashing out and defending various health care proposals and visions. The major divide is between a Medicare for All system — supported by only two candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — and a public option supported by the rest of the field.

Trump brushed those distinctions aside. “Every major Democrat in Washington has backed a massive government health care takeover that would totally obliterate Medicare,” he said. “These Democratic policy proposals … may go by different names, whether it’s single-payer or the so-called public option, but they’re all based on the totally same terrible idea: They want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism.”

Toward the end of the speech, he highlighted efforts that his administration has made to lower drug prices and then suggested that drugmakers were helping with the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives. “They’re very powerful,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if … it was from some of these industries, like pharmaceuticals, that we take on.”

Drawing battle lines through Medicare may be a savvy campaign move on Trump’s part.

Medicare is extremely popular. People who have it like it, and people who don’t have it think it’s a good thing too. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 8 in 10 Democrats, independents and Republicans think of Medicare favorably.

Trump came into office promising to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better. Those efforts failed, and the administration has struggled to get substantive policy changes on health care.

On Thursday, administration officials emphasized a number of its recent health care policy moves.

“[Trump’s] vision for a healthier America is much wider than a narrow focus on the Affordable Care Act,” said Joe Grogan, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, at a press briefing earlier.

The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, said at that briefing that this was “the most comprehensive vision for health care that I can recall any president putting forth.”

He highlighted a range of actions that the administration has taken, from a push on price transparency in health care to a plan to end the HIV epidemic, to more generic-drug approvals. Azar described these things as part of a framework to make health care more affordable, deliver better value and tackle “impassable health challenges.”

Without a big health care reform bill, the administration is positioning itself as a protector of what exists now — particularly Medicare.

“Today’s executive order particularly reflects the importance the president places on protecting what worked in our system and fixing what’s broken,” Azar said. “Sixty million Americans are on traditional Medicare or Medicare Advantage. They like what they have, so the president is going to protect it.”

Sanders presidential campaign pivots health scare to Medicare for All message

And now Bernie Sander’s health becomes an issue! Simon Lewis reported that Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential election campaign on Wednesday sought to use news the candidate had a heart procedure to highlight the benefits of his trademark Medicare for All healthcare plan.

Sanders’ campaign canceled campaign events and pulled TV ads after the 78-year-old U.S. senator had two stents inserted into an artery after he experienced discomfort during a campaign visit to Nevada on Tuesday.

The candidate would rest for a few days after the relatively common procedure, his campaign for the November 2020 presidential election said.

Sanders’ speechwriter, David Sirota, said in a daily newsletter that the unexpected medical procedure was “a perfect example of why the United States needs to join the rest of the world and pass Bernie’s Medicare for All legislation.”

Sirota cited a 2018 paper by researchers at the London School of Economics that found cardiac implant devices cost up to six times more in the United States than in some European countries with government-run healthcare systems.

Sanders advocates an approach that would extend the existing Medicare program for Americans aged over 65 to all Americans and largely eliminate the private insurance industry.

Sirota argued the gulf in price was in part due to the U.S. healthcare system’s “complex web of payers – rather than a single-payer Medicare for All system that can negotiate better prices.”

As many as 1 million Americans a year get stents, a procedure that involves inserting a balloon-tipped catheter to open the blockage and deploy tiny wire-mesh tubes to prop open the artery.

“I’m feeling good. I’m fortunate to have good health care and great doctors and nurses helping me to recover,” Sanders tweeted on Wednesday afternoon, his first public statement since the procedure.

“None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for All!”

News of Sanders’ health scare sparked mean-spirited jokes pointing out the U.S. senator was treated by the healthcare system he wants to overhaul.

“Any bets on whether he’ll be going to Cuba for their great communist medical care? Get well soon Bern. #SocialismSucks!” tweeted Ben Bergquam, a right-wing California radio host.

Sanders’ supporters also took to social media to post #GetWellBernie messages.

The senator from Vermont’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, retweeted one message from a supporter that read, “take my heart, Bernie!!”

Another issue, which his campaign manager refuses to point out is did Bernie used his Medicare insurance to cover his diagnostic studies, his stenting procedure or his post-op care? As they are touting Medicare for All after Bernie had a quick diagnosis and stenting of his coronary artery disease we should all remember that Bernie, as well as all of the candidates for the presidency, don’t have Medicare for their health care insurance. No, they all have Congressional Blue Cross and Blue Care. So, don’t fall for their politicization of healthcare. Again, I point out, how can you promote Medicare for all when you all have no idea of the impact on patients of being insured under Medicare and the multiple restrictions and the true expense of Medicare insurance!

The 3 Reasons the U.S. Health-Care System Is the Worst, the AMA and more on Medicare for All and an angry teenager scolding the United Nations!

healthcare158[788]The head of the Commonwealth Fund, which compares the health systems of developed nations, pinpoints why America’s is so expensive and inefficient.

Olga Khazan reviewed the three reasons that the U.S. Health Care system is the worst. A woman has her blood pressure taken at the Care Harbor four-day free clinic, which offers free medical, dental, and vision care to around 4,000 uninsured people in Los Angeles.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, which regularly ranks the health systems of a handful of developed countries, the best countries for health care are the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Australia.

The lowest performer? The United States, even though it spends the most. “And this is consistent across 20 years,” said the Commonwealth Fund’s president, David Blumenthal, on Friday at the Spotlight Health Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

Blumenthal laid out three reasons why the United States lags behind its peers so consistently. It all comes down to:

  1. A lack of insurance coverage. A common talking point on the right is that health care and health insurance are not equivalent—that getting more people insured will not necessarily improve health outcomes. But according to Blumenthal: “The literature on insurance demonstrates that having insurance lowers mortality. It is equivalent to a public-health intervention.” More than 27 million people in the United States were uninsured in 2016—nearly a tenth of the population—often because they can’t afford coverage, live in a state that didn’t expand Medicaid or are undocumented. Those aren’t problems that people in places like the United Kingdom have to worry about.
  2. Administrative inefficiency.“We waste a lot of money on administration,” Blumenthal said. According to the Commonwealth Fund’s most recent report, in the United States, “doctors and patients [report] wasting time on billing and insurance claims. Other countries that rely on private health insurers, like the Netherlands, minimize some of these problems by standardizing basic benefit packages, which can both reduce the administrative burden for providers and ensure that patients face predictable copayments.” In other words, while insurance coverage, in general, is great, it’s not ideal that different insurance plans cover different treatments and procedures, forcing doctors to spend precious hours coordinating with insurance companies to provide care.
  3. Underperforming primary care.“We have a very disorganized, fragmented, inefficient and under-resourced primary care system,” Blumenthal added. As I wrote at the time, in 2014 the Commonwealth Fund found that “many primary-care physicians struggle to receive relevant clinical information from specialists and hospitals, complicating efforts to provide seamless, coordinated care.” On top of a lack of investment in primary care, “we don’t invest in social services, which are important determinants of health” Blumenthal said. Things like home visiting, better housing, and subsidized healthy food could extend the work of doctors and do a lot to improve chronic disease outcomes.

Together, these reasons help explain why U.S. life expectancy has, for the first time since the 1960s, recently gone down for two years in a row.

Two Experts Debunk Four Big Health Care Fallacies

Yuval Rosenbery of The Fiscal Times reported that in a The New York Times op-ed, Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy expert, and a former adviser in the Obama administration, and Victor Fuchs, a Stanford health economist, look to clarify what they call “four fundamental health care fallacies”:

  1. Employers pay for workers’ health insurance.“Since 1999, health insurance premiums have increased 147 percent and employer profits have increased 148 percent,” they write. “But at that time, average wages have hardly moved, increasing just 7 percent. Clearly, workers’ wages, not corporate profits, have been paying for higher health insurance premiums.”
  2. Medicare for All is unaffordable. As I have mentioned in previous posts Medicare for All is too expensive. “True, Medicare for All would increase federal health care spending. But that is not the same as increasing total health care spending, which was over $3.5 trillion last year,” Emanuel and Fuchs said. “We have our doubts about Medicare for All. But unaffordability is nota reason to oppose it. … When you hear a health care price tag in the trillions, know that the existing system has already brought us there.”
  3. 3. Insurance company profits drive health care costs.“The fact is, we could eliminate those profits and it would hardly matter to the cost of health care. You would not notice it in your premiums. … True, $22.1 billion is a lot of money — but it is 0.6 percent of health spending. And last year alone health care costs increased over $130 billion — six times insurance company profits. Health care spending would not be significantly cheaper if all insurance companies’ profits were zero.”

4. Price transparency can bring down health care costs.“Over 80 percent of the cost of medical care is paid by private and public insurance. Patients have little incentive to seek out the cheapest provider. When pricing websites exist, few patients use them. … Furthermore, price considerations are useful for choosing only about 40 percent of procedures — routine services like colonoscopies, M.R.I. scans and laboratory tests. Most of the expensive services — think heart catheterizations, cancer chemotherapy, and organ transplants — are not the kind of thing you decide based on price.”

AMA President: It’s Still ‘No’ to Single Payer

Shannon Firth, Washington correspondent of the MedPage, noted that Dr. Barbara McAneny still doesn’t believe in the Single Payer system for health care but she and the AMA applauds a ban on pharmacy gag clause and APMs.A single-payer healthcare system in the U.S. would break her practice, said the president of the American Medical Association (AMA), who argued that Medicare and other government programs as currently structured simply don’t pay enough.

“We need a payment system that the country can afford,” said Barbara McAneny, MD, AMA president, and a practicing oncologist/hematologist in New Mexico.

McAneny pointed out that in the portion of her practice that serves the Navajo Nation, 70% of payments are from governmental payers, and “I have struggled for the last 10 years to keep that practice breaking even.”

Medicare payments are designed to cover about 80% of the cost of doing business, McAneny said. If all her commercial patients were to pay Medicare rates, there would be no other place from which to shift costs, she explained. “My doors would be closed. I would no longer be able to make payroll.”

Moving to a single-payer healthcare system won’t fix what’s broken, she said during a meeting with reporters Tuesday to discuss a variety of issues, including drug pricing, value-based payments, and turf battles.

While she said she strongly supported Medicaid expansion in New Mexico, McAneny expressed skepticism about the possibility of a Medicaid “buy-in,” which would allow people to purchase Medicaid-based public insurance plans.

She pointed out that only about a quarter of the population in New Mexico has commercial insurance, and “Medicaid and Medicare do not cover the expenses of providing care.” With fewer patients to cost-shift from, independent practices and small rural practices “would not be able to keep the lights on.”

AMA policy supports patients buying “individually selected health insurance,” subsidized with advanced or refundable tax credits that correspond inversely to income, McAneny said.

McAneny also discussed the Trump administration’s recent efforts to curb drug prices and the challenge of transitioning from fee-for-service to value-based care.

She called the latest bill banning pharmacy gag clauses”really important. When patients discover that they can pay less than the co-pay to buy the drug, they need to know that because patients are going broke out there, trying to buy their drugs.”

Gag clauses prevent pharmacists from telling customers whether paying for their prescription might be cheaper if they paid the cash price instead of using their insurance.

Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that drug makers would need to include the list price of any drug paid for by Medicare or Medicaid in their TV advertisements. In an AMA press release, McAneny stated that the HHS move seemed like “a step in the right direction,” although the AMA is opposed to direct-to-consumer advertising in general.

McAneny said greater transparency was a “first step” toward addressing such high drug costs.

“There’s so much the public doesn’t understand about the market, including the true costs of research and development and the role of middlemen, like pharmacy benefit managers and insurance mark-ups, she said.

“Before we suggest any sort of treatment, we think it’ s a good idea to make the diagnosis, and that means really understanding that entire process, which means they’re going to have to pull back the curtain and let us, the healthcare community, really take a look at that and figure out what adds value and what doesn’t,” she said.

McAneny was less supportive of changing the way Part B drugs are bought and paid for. In May, HHS Secretary Alex Azar suggested moving some Part B drugs administered in a physician’s office into the Part D program, in an attempt to negotiate more competitive prices.

“People cannot afford a 20% co-insurance on a drug that costs $5,000 a month,” she said.

In terms of value-based payment, McAneny said she’s excited about the work the physician-focused Payment Model Technical Advisory Committee (PTAC) is doing. Doctors are well-positioned to help design alternative payment models, she noted.

“We see all the time places where healthcare dollars get wasted, and patients don’t get what they want,” she said, so allowing doctors to come up with new methods of care delivery, which incorporate things they’ve always wanted to do for their patients, has “tremendous potential.”

McAneny said she hopes Azar will test as many pilots projects as possible, and see what works, but not penalize groups who fail. “If you’re trying something innovative … sometimes you’re going to be wrong, and those people shouldn’t have to lose their practices… they should be allowed to fail quickly, and move on to something else,” she stated.

McAneny said she will present an alternative model to the PTAC in December.

Her proposed model integrates clinical data from a group of oncology practices with claims data “to set accurate and realistic targets that reflect what oncologists can actually control, rather than the total cost of care,” McAneny told MedPage Today in an email.

“We will measure quality by compliance with physician derived pathways that reflect the best care in the medical literature… [and] improve patient satisfaction by getting patients the care they need, when they need it, at a practice site that knows them and understands what they are going through.”

The model saves money by reducing hospitalizations and “aggressively managing or preventing” adverse effects.

Another challenge in healthcare is the scope of practice, with some physicians expressing concern that nurse practitioners and physicians assistants (PAs) are encroaching on their territory.

McAneny acknowledged that concern, noting that primary care physicians must be “incredible diagnosticians,” she said. “They need to know when a sore throat is a sore throat and when it’s really cancer.”

“In my own practice, where we have everyone working to the top of their license, I value my nurse practitioners and I value my PAs immensely, but I don’t expect them to be oncologists, and I don’t really expect them to be primary care doctors,” she added.

“Everybody has a place in healthcare,” McAneny stressed, “but I do not feel that a nurse practitioner who has gone to nursing school and done one extra year… and has not practiced in that post-doc process, has the same level of expertise to be that diagnostician.”

A new report from the AMA’s Council on Medical Service, “Covering the Uninsured Under the AMA Proposal for Reform,” also reaffirms that stance, calling for improvements in the Affordable Care Act — increasing subsidies, and expanding eligibility and the size of cost-sharing reductions — rather than “threatening the stability of coverage for those individuals who are generally satisfied with their coverage.”

There will be resolutions calling on the AMA to support federal laws that would not eliminate the private health insurance market and to collect data comparing Medicare reimbursement to the cost of delivering services.

ACTION ALERT: The A.M.A. must support Medicare for All!

But we find out that the President of the AMA may not reflect the total view of the national organization of physicians. On June 8, 2019, at 1:30 PM CST, students, physicians, nurses, allied health care workers, and activists from around the country will unite in Chicago to protest the annual meeting of the American Medical Association (A.M.A.).

Representatives of a rapidly growing coalition of Medicare for All supporters, including National Nurses United, Students for a National Health Program, Physicians for a National Health Program, People’s Action, Public Citizen, The Center for Popular Democracy, The Jane Addams Senior Caucus, various labor unions, teachers, activists, and more, will be taking a stand AGAINST corporate greed, misleading advertising, and the profit motive in health care.

And for a system that guarantees quality health care and choice of provider for all Americans, regardless of income.

The action recalls similar campaigns waged throughout the 1960s in which members of the African-American-led National Medical Association, the Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Poor People’s Campaign picketed the A.M.A.’s annual meetings because of its refusal to take a stand against segregated medical services and for allowing local medical societies to discriminate against physicians and patients of color.

When we join together, we can send a powerful message to the A.M.A. and corporate medicine that we won’t stop until every American is guaranteed quality medical care without going into debt or bankruptcy.

Everybody in, nobody out!

Also, I need to comment on that sixteen-year-old who was invited to a United Nation session where she berated the countries all about not taking up the environmental banner and cleaning up the world. She is a spoiled “child” who knows nothing about economics as well as politics and what it would take to move ahead with cleaning up the environment. Where are all the countries to get the trillions of dollars or Euros, etc. to make the changes that she demands?

Greta Thunberg excoriated world leaders for their “betrayal” of young people through their inertia over the climate crisis at a United Nations summit that failed to deliver ambitious new commitments to address dangerous global heating.

If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them

In a stinging speech on Monday, the teenage Swedish climate activist told governments that “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”

But Thunberg predicted the summit would not deliver any new plans in line with the radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are needed to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” a visibly emotional Thunberg said.

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

Suggestion for Miss Thunberg, get an education! Go to the university and get the real facts. Get an education so you can understand the system and the only ways that we can truly deal with our environmental issues! Instead, you sail around the world! Must be nice instead of working or going to school!

And back to health care next week.

Health Insurance Inflation Hits Highest Point in Five Years and More on Medicare; and What is this about Abortion and SATs?

57358059_1998437466952569_3700281945192660992_nFirst of all, I must yell and scream at the idiots in the States, you know who you are, that have or are in the process of passing the most restrictive abortion bills. This is especially Alabama where Governor Kay Ivey signed the strictest anti-abortion law. Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced in 16 states this year. The Alabama Senate approved a measure on last week that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state, setting up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the case that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The legislation bans abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalizes the procedure for doctors, who could be charged with felonies and face up to 99 years in prison. It includes an exception for cases when the mother’s life is at serious risk, but not for cases of rape or incest — a subject of fierce debate among lawmakers in recent days. The House approved the measure — the most far-reaching effort in the nation this year to curb abortion rights and was just signed by the Governor.

What the heck are you thinking, not even for rape or incest? You are forgetting the women who bare the brunt of your idiot decisions. Do you think that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe versus Wade, passed in 1973? Get real and attend to the real multiple crises out there!

And diversity scores on the SAT exams??? Again, what are you all thinking? I know to correct the “crises of rich parents who got their “unfortunate” children into the best of colleges. Next, the strategy to get our children into good colleges will be to take courses to improve their test-taking abilities, but now they will have to figure out how to improve their adversity scores. Mom and Dad, we need to move into the ghettos of Scarsdale, get on food stamps, get fired from your high paying jobs and become homeless. I know this all sounds crazy, but that is where we are.

Shelby Livingston wrote that the health insurance inflation rate hit a five-year peak in April, possibly because managed care is rising.

The Consumer Price Index for health insurance in April spiked 10.7% over the previous 12 months—the largest increase since at least April 2014, according to a Modern Healthcare analysis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unadjusted monthly Consumer Price Index data.

In contrast, the other categories that make up the medical care services index—professional services and hospital and related services—rose 0.4% and 1.4% in April, respectively. The CPI for medical care services in April rose 2.3%, while overall inflation increased 2% year over year.

Screen Shot 2019-05-19 at 11.16.08 AM

Because of the way the BLS calculates the health insurance index, the change year over year does not reflect premiums paid by customers, but “retained earnings” after paying out claims. These earnings are used to cover administrative costs or are kept as profit.

The BLS redistributes the benefits paid out a portion of the health insurance index to other non-insurance medical care categories, such as physician services.

The likely reason health insurance inflation is rising is because of growth in managed care, including Medicare Advantage, Medicaid managed care and commercial insurance, according to Paul Hughes-Cromwick, an economist at Altarum. He noted that added administrative costs increase insurance price growth.

Hughes-Cromwick said the increase in the health insurance index could also be driven by the fact that insurers’ medical loss ratios may be decreasing as high premiums, particular in the individual health insurance exchanges, exceeded anticipated claims.

The medical loss ratio reflects the percentage of every premium dollar spent on medical claims and quality improvement. Insurers must pay at least 80% of premiums on those things and if they don’t, they must issue rebates to plan members, as part of the Affordable Care Act.

In response to rising inflation, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s biggest lobbying group, commented that “consumers deserve the lowest possible total costs for their coverage and care.” She pointed out the medical loss ratio requirements and said health insurers spend 98 cents of every premium dollar on medical care, operating costs that include care management, and preventing fraud, waste, and abuse.

Affordable Care Act exchange insurers hiked premiums higher than necessary in 2018 and now expect to pay out $800 million in rebates to individual market customers this year because they did not meet the medical loss ratio threshold, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis published this month. Because medical loss ratios are declining, health insurers in the individual, small group and large group markets expect to issue $1.4 billion in rebates based on their 2018 performance, the analysis stated.

Still, health insurance profits have been on the rise. The eight largest publicly traded insurers posted net income of $9.3 billion in the first quarter of 2019, an increase of 29.9%. They made a combined $21.9 billion in profits over the course of 2018.

Medicaid waiver loophole sparks transparency concerns

Robert King noted that the CMS is doing a poor job in ensuring the public knows about major changes to Medicaid, including the installation of work requirements, a federal watchdog said Friday.

The Government Accountability Office’s report found that the CMS has limited transparency for amendments to existing Section 1115 waivers. That has allowed some states to score approval for their work requirements while skirting some rules, such as projecting how the changes will impact Medicaid enrollment.

The government watchdog noted that two of the four states it studied did not seek public comment on changes that could significantly impact Medicaid beneficiaries.

The transparency requirements for an amendment are more relaxed than a new waiver application, the GAO said. Arkansas and New Hampshire both added work requirements to their Medicaid programs through amendments to their existing Section 1115 waivers.

Currently, new waivers or extension requests must include whether the state thinks that enrollment will decrease and any spending changes. While amendments must address the impact on beneficiaries and explain the changes, there are fewer requirements for what information must be disseminated to the public.

The GAO also found that the CMS had inconsistent transparency requirements for amendments.

For example, the CMS determined Massachusetts’ amendment to waive non-emergency medical transportation was incomplete because the application didn’t include a revised design plan. However, the CMS-approved Arkansas’ work requirement amendment even though it did not include a revised design plan.

The GAO recommended that the CMS develop standard transparency requirements for new waivers, extension requests, and significant Section 1115 amendments.

In response, HHS said it has already implemented policies to improve transparency. GAO said those changes “do not apply to amendments.”

The CMS also lacks policies for ensuring that major changes to a pending application are transparent.

The report comes as the Trump administration is appealing a federal judge’s decision to strike down Medicaid work requirement programs in Kentucky and Arkansas.

Seven other states have received CMS approval for work requirements. Those states are Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin. Another six states—Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia—have applications pending federal approval.

Industry enters new battle phase over surprise billing

Susannah Luthi reported that the knives are out over legislation to end surprise medical bills and specifics haven’t even been unveiled yet. But will this solve the problems of the healthcare crisis?

The industry is pushing back hard against a particular principle laid out by President Donald Trump last week.

The administration wants all out-of-network charges from a doctor at an in-network hospital to be wrapped into a single bill from the hospital.

How this provision will technically play out in policy is yet to be seen, as the Senate health committee plans to release its legislative package on surprise medical bills this summer.

But the administration’s position has roiled hospital groups and specialty physicians like emergency doctors, radiologists, and anesthesiologists, who don’t always share the same insurance network as hospitals and have higher than average charges.

“Untested proposals such as bundling payments would create significant disruption to provider networks and contract without benefiting patients,” American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement shortly after Trump made his remarks. He reiterated the AHA’s position that all Congress needs to do is enact a ban on balance billing and leave the rest to the industry to figure out.

Specialty physicians argue that a single bill will complicate all the billing processes on the back-end with hospitals and insurers.

Dr. Sherif Zaafran, a Texas anesthesiologist, said he doesn’t see room within the White House framework for a policy he could support. He sees it as undercutting specialty physicians’ independence from hospitals. “As a patient, I think a single hospital bill on the surface sounds really good, but in the reality of how most of us practice it’s probably not very practical,” Zaafran said. “A single bill would imply you’re marrying the system for how a physician gets paid with other components that bill completely separately.”

He expects a resulting policy would end up cutting pay for both hospitals and ancillary physicians—hospitals taking a hit as they try to collect the fee and reimburse the physician, and physicians taking a hit if hospitals need to negotiate with insurers on their behalf.

“There are downstream effects that folks haven’t thought through,” Zaafran said.

But the administration’s stance shows how thinking around policy has morphed during months of scrutiny of the issue. And analysts have been documenting the trajectory of high ancillary physician charges in part to lay out the argument for payment bundles.

Discussions started last fall with an initial legislative push from a bipartisan group led by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). Cassidy and his co-sponsors introduced a draft proposal to cap out-of-network charges at a regional average. Not long after, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pitched arbitration to settle disputes between insurers and providers.

As the months passed, the debate transitioned into a look at the underlying contracts between hospitals and insurers—even as policy analysts note that the problem of surprise medical bills is limited to a small number of hospitals.

Experts and economists from think tanks like the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and the Urban Institute have weighed in, aided by data from states that have tried to curb the practice in the individual insurance markets that fall under their regulating power.

Several have warned that if lawmakers don’t handle the policy carefully, they could end up inflating overall costs, leading to higher premiums and expenses in an already costly system.

Joyce Frieden pointed out the solutions proposed by the President and hopefully most of the GOP.  President Trump announced an initiative Thursday aimed at ending the problem of surprise medical billing, in which patients undergoing procedures at in-network hospitals receive unexpectedly high bills because one or more of their clinicians was out of network.

Trump called surprise billing as I just outlined, “one of the biggest concerns Americans have about healthcare” and added, “The Republican Party is very much becoming the party of healthcare. We’re determined to end surprise medical billing for American patients and that’s happening right now.” He thanked the mostly Republican group of lawmakers who came to the White House to discuss the initiative, including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and representatives Kevin Brady (R-Texas), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and Greg Walden (R- Ore.).

Trump then announced guidelines that the White House wants Congress to use in developing surprise billing legislation. They include:

  • In emergency care situations, patients should never have to bear the burden of out-of-network costs they didn’t agree to pay. “So-called ‘balance billing’ should be prohibited for emergency care. Pretty simple,” he said
  •  When patients receive scheduled non-emergency care, they should be given a clear and honest bill up front. “This means they must be given prices for all services and out-of-pocket payments for which they will be responsible,” Trump said. “This will not just protect Americans from surprise charges, it will [also] empower them to choose the best option at the lowest possible price”
  •  Patients should not receive surprise bills from out-of-network providers that they did not choose themselves. “Very unfair,” he commented
  •  Legislation should protect patients without increasing federal healthcare expenditures. “Additionally, any legislation should lead to greater competition, more choice, and more healthcare freedom. We want patients to be in charge and in total control,” the president said
  •  All types of health insurance — large groups, small groups, and patients on the individual market should be included in the legislation. “No one in America should be bankrupted unexpectedly by healthcare costs that are absolutely out of control,” said Trump

He noted that “we’re going to be announcing something over the next 2 weeks that’s going to bring transparency to all of it. I think in a way it’s going to be as important as a healthcare bill; it’s going to be something really special.”

Also at the announcement was Martin Makary, MD, MPH, a surgical oncologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “When someone buys a car, they don’t pay for the steering wheel separately from the spark plugs,” he said. “Yet, in healthcare, surprise bills and overpriced bills are commonplace and are crushing everyday folks … People are getting hammered right now.”

Trump also introduced two families who had experienced high medical bills. Drew Calver, of Austin, Texas, said that after a heart attack 2 years ago, “although I had insurance, I was still billed $110,000 … I feel like I was exploited at the most vulnerable time in my life just having suffered a heart attack, so I hope Congress hears this call to take action, close loopholes, end surprise billing, and work toward transparency.”

Paul Davis, MD, of Findlay, Ohio, said that his daughter was billed nearly $18,000 for a urine drug screening test. “She had successful back surgery in Houston and at a post-op visit, because she was given a prescription for narcotic pain relief — which she used as directed — the doctor said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’d like to get a urine specimen.’ Fine; she did it. A year later, a bill showed up for $17,850.”

He noted that her insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits said that the insurer would have paid $100.92 for the test had it been done by an in-network provider. “This type of billing is all too common … The problem of improper billing affects most [of] those who can afford it least. We must put aside any differences we have to work together to solve this problem.”

“Today I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to work together; Democrats and Republicans can do this and I really think it’s something [that is] going to be acted on quickly,” Trump said.

Healthcare groups responded positively to the announcement, with one caveat. “The AHA commends the Administration and Congress for their work to find solutions to this problem,” Rick Pollack, president, and CEO of the American Hospital Association (AHA), said in a statement. “The AHA has urged Congress to enact legislation that would protect patients from surprise bills. We can achieve this by simply banning balance billing. … Untested proposals such as bundling payments would create significant disruption to provider networks and contracting without benefiting patients.”

“ACEP appreciates the White House weighing in on this important issue and welcomes congressional action to address surprise medical bills,” said Vidor Friedman, MD, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), in a statement. “Emergency physicians strongly support taking patients out of the middle of billing disputes between insurers and out-of-network medical providers.”

“ACEP is concerned about the administration’s call for a single hospital bill,” he continued. “Such a ‘bundled payment’ approach may seem simple in theory for voluntary medical procedures. But if applied to the unpredictable nature of emergency care, this untested idea opens the door to massive and costly disruption of the health care system that would shift greater costs to patients while failing to address the actual root cause of surprise bills — inadequate networks provided by insurers.”

The president also mentioned another one of his administration’s healthcare initiatives. “We may allow states to buy drugs in other countries … because the drug companies have treated us very, very unfairly and the rules and restrictions within our country have been absolutely atrocious,” he said. “So we’ll allow [states], with certain permission, to go to other countries if they can buy them for 40%, 50%, or 60% less. It’s pretty pathetic, but that’s the way it works.”

And now back to Medicare. As you all probably remember the reason that physicians decided not to support the national plan was the confusion regarding reimbursement or payment to physicians. But the insurance companies as well as organized labor who opposed the compulsory system on the grounds that its passage would deprive the labor movement of an extremely effective issue with which to organize workers.

Also, with the entry of America into the First World War the interest in the passage of a compulsory health care bill waned. Because of the anti-German hysteria, the AALL bill opposition became more organized with the biased thoughts that mandatory health insurance was the product of a German conspiracy to impose Prussian values on America.

Renewed interest in mandatory health insurance didn’t emerge until during the New Deal as a consequence of the report of the Committee on Economic Security, the committee appointed by President Roosevelt in 1934. As the Depression worsened the President and his advisors were eager to offer an alternative social welfare package. Roosevelt and his advisors particularly those of the Committee on Economic Security advised the passage of a comprehensive social security system to include unemployment insurance, old-age security, and government-administered-health-care insurance.

The final report by the Committee on the Costa of Medical Care was issued in 1932, by the Committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur who was the former Secretary of the Interior and former President of the AMA. The Committee actually concluded that the infrastructure in medicine as well as the medical services in the United States were inadequate and made recommendations for changes. And, despite the favorable climate especially among labor leaders, politicians and social scientists the President’s Committee on Economic Security recommender unemployment insurance and social security but not the passage of a mandatory health insurance bill.

But Roosevelt wanted to keep the subject of health insurance and therefore established an Interdepartmental Committee to Coordinate Health and Welfare Activities immediately following the passage of the Social Security Act and ordered his staff to keep the subject out there before the public. Over the next few years it was the subject of many books and extensive studies by the federal government, but no bill yet.

More to come!!

Poll: Support for ‘Medicare-for-all’ fluctuates with details and Medicaid. What is the Answer​?

50065252_1872612819535035_7021591760191094784_nSo, one of the options that the Democrats are pushing is “Medicare-for-All.” But do the voters like the idea? Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar noted that Americans like the idea of “Medicare-for-all,” but support flips to disapproval if it would result in higher taxes or longer waits for care. Then how will the plan be financed?

That’s a key insight from a national poll released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. It comes as Democratic presidential hopefuls embrace the idea of a government-run health care system, considered outside the mainstream of their party until Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders made it the cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. President Donald Trump is opposed, saying “Medicare-for-all” would “eviscerate” the current program for seniors.

The poll found that Americans initially support “Medicare-for-all,” 56 percent to 42 percent.

However, those numbers shifted dramatically when people were asked about the potential impact, pro, and con.

Support increased when people were told “Medicare-for-all” would guarantee health insurance as a right (71 percent) and eliminates premiums and reduce out-of-pocket costs (67 percent).

But if they were told that a government-run system could lead to delays in getting care or higher taxes, support plunged to 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Support fell to 32 percent if it would threaten the current Medicare program.

“The issue that will really be fundamental would be the tax issue,” said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who reviewed the poll. He pointed out those state single-payer efforts in Vermont and Colorado failed because of concerns about the tax increases needed to put them in place.

There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that a single-payer system would require tax increases since the government would take over premiums now paid by employers and individuals as it replaces the private health insurance industry. The question is how much.

Several independent studies have estimated that government spending on health care would increase dramatically, in the range of about $25 trillion to $35 trillion or more over a 10-year period. But a recent estimate from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst suggests that it could be much lower. With significant cost savings, the government would need to raise about $1.1 trillion from new revenue sources in the first year of the new program.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., has asked the Congressional Budget Office for a comprehensive report on single-payer. The CBO is a nonpartisan outfit that analyzes the potential cost and impact of legislation. Its estimate that millions would be made uninsured by Republican bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act was key to the survival of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Mollyann Brodie, director of the Kaiser poll, said the big swings in approval and disapproval show that the debate over “Medicare-for-all” is in its infancy. “You immediately see that opinion is not set in stone on this issue,” she said.

Indeed, the poll found that many people are still unaware of some of the basic implications of a national health plan.

For example, most working-age people currently covered by an employer (55 percent) said they would be able to keep their current plan under a government-run system, while 37 percent correctly answered that they would not.

There’s one exception: Under a “Medicare-for-all” idea from the Center for American Progress employers and individuals would have the choice of joining the government plan, although it wouldn’t be required. Sanders’ bill would forbid employers from offering coverage that duplicates benefits under the new government plan.

“Medicare-for-all” is a key issue energizing the Democratic base ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but Republicans are solidly opposed.

“Any public debate about ‘Medicare-for-all’ will be a divisive issue for the country at large,” Brodie said.

The poll indicated widespread support for two other ideas advanced by Democrats as alternatives to a health care system fully run by the government.

Majorities across the political spectrum backed allowing people ages 50-64 to buy into Medicare, as well as allowing people who don’t have health insurance on the job to buy into their state’s Medicaid program.

Separately, another private survey out Wednesday finds the uninsured rate among U.S. adults rose to 13.7 percent in the last three months of 2018. The Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index found an increase of 2.8 percentage points since 2016, the year Trump was elected promising to repeal “Obamacare.” That would translate to about 7 million more uninsured adults.

Government surveys have found that the uninsured rate has remained essentially stable under Trump.

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll was conducted Jan. 9-14 and involved random calls to the cellphones and landlines of 1,190 adults. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Trump Seeks Action To Stop Surprise Medical Bills

A healthcare reporter, Emmarie Huettman reported that President Trump instructed administration officials Wednesday to investigate how to prevent surprise medical bills, broadening his focus on drug prices to include other issues of price transparency in health care.

Flanked by patients and other guests invited to the White House to share their stories of unexpected and outrageous bills, Trump directed his health secretary, Alex Azar, and labor secretary, Alex Acosta, to work on a solution, several attendees said.

“The pricing is hurting patients, and we’ve stopped a lot of it, but we’re going to stop all of it,” Trump said during a roundtable discussion when reporters were briefly allowed into the otherwise closed-door meeting.

David Silverstein, the founder of a Colorado-based nonprofit called Broken Healthcare who attended, said Trump struck an aggressive tone, calling for a solution with “the biggest teeth you can find.”

“Reading the tea leaves, I think there’s a big change coming,” Silverstein said.

Surprise billing, or the practice of charging patients for care that is more expensive than anticipated or isn’t covered by their insurance, has received a flood of attention in the past year, particularly as Kaiser Health News, NPR, Vox and other news organizations have undertaken investigations into patients’ most outrageous medical bills.

Attendees said the 10 invited guests — patients as well as doctors — were given an opportunity to tell their story, though Trump didn’t stay to hear all of them during the roughly hourlong gathering.

The group included Paul Davis, a retired doctor from Findlay, Ohio, whose daughter’s experience with a $17,850 bill for a urine test after back surgery was detailed in February 2018 in KHN-NPR’s first Bill of the Month feature.

Davis’ daughter, Elizabeth Moreno, was a college student in Texas when she had spinal surgery to remedy debilitating back pain. After the surgery, she was asked to provide a urine sample and later received a bill from an out-of-network lab in Houston that tested it.

Such tests rarely cost more than $200, a fraction of what the lab charged Moreno and her insurance company. But fearing damage to his daughter’s credit, Davis paid the lab $5,000 and filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office, alleging “price gouging of staggering proportions.”

Davis said White House officials made it clear that price transparency is a “high priority” for Trump, and while they didn’t see eye to eye on every subject, he said he was struck by the administration’s sincerity.

“These people seemed earnest in wanting to do something constructive to fix this,” Davis said.

Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy at Johns Hopkins University who has written about transparency in health care and attended the meeting, said it was a good opportunity for the White House to hear firsthand about a serious and widespread issue.

“This is how most of America lives, and [Americans are] getting hammered,” he said.

Trump has often railed against high prescription drug prices but has said less about other problems with the nation’s health care system. In October, shortly before the midterm elections, he unveiled a proposal to tie the price Medicare pays for some drugs to the prices paid for the same drugs overseas, for example.

Trump, Azar, and Acosta said efforts to control costs in health care were yielding positive results, discussing, in particular, the expansion of association health plans and the new requirement that hospitals post their list prices online. The president also took credit for the recent increase in generic drug approvals, which he said would help lower drug prices.

Discussing the partial government shutdown, Trump said Americans “want to see what we’re doing, like today we lowered prescription drug prices, the first time in 50 years,” according to a White House pool report.

Trump appeared to be referring to a recent claim by the White House Council of Economic Advisers that prescription drug prices fell last year.

However, as STAT pointed out in a recent fact check, the report from which that claim was gleaned said “growth in relative drug prices has slowed since January 2017,” not that there was an overall decrease in prices.

Annual increases in overall drug spending have leveled off as pharmaceutical companies have released fewer blockbuster drugs, patents have expired on brand-name drugs and the waning effect of a spike driven by the release of astronomically expensive drugs to treat hepatitis C.

Drugmakers were also wary of increasing their prices in the midst of growing political pressure, though the pace of increases has risen recently.

Since Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives this month, party leaders have rushed to announce investigations and schedule hearings dealing with health care, focusing in particular on drug costs and protections for those with preexisting conditions.

Last week, the House Oversight Committee announced a “sweeping” investigation into drug prices, pointing to an AARP report saying the vast majority of brand-name drugs had more than doubled in price between 2005 and 2017.

The Ground Game for Medicaid Expansion: ‘Socialism’ or a Benefit for All?

One of the other options is that of expanding Medicaid but is that socialism or a benefit for all. Michael Ollove noted that a yard sign in Omaha promotes Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska. Voters in the red states of Idaho and Utah also will decide whether to join 33 states and Washington, D.C., in extending Medicaid benefits to more low-income Americans as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act. Montana voters will decide whether to make expansion permanent.

Nati Harnik noted that on a sun-drenched, late October afternoon, Kate Wolfe and April Block are canvassing for votes in a well-tended block of homes where ghosts and zombies compete for lawn space with Cornhusker regalia. Block leads the way with her clipboard, and Wolfe trails behind, toting signs promoting Initiative 427, a ballot measure that, if passed, would expand Medicaid in this bright red state.

Approaching the next tidy house on their list, they spot a middle-aged woman with a bobbed haircut pacing in front of the garage with a cellphone to her ear.

Wolfe and Block pause, wondering if they should wait for the woman to finish her call when she hails them. “Yes, I’m for Medicaid expansion,” she calls. “Put a sign up on my lawn if you want to.” Then she resumes her phone conversation.

Apart from one or two turndowns, this is the sort of warm welcome the canvassers experience this afternoon. Maybe that’s not so surprising even though this is a state President Donald Trump, an ardent opponent of “Obamacare,” or the Affordable Care Act, carried by 25 points two years ago.

Although there has been no public polling, even the speaker of the state’s unicameral legislature, Jim Scheer, one of 11 Republican state senators who signed an editorial last month opposing the initiative, said he is all but resigned to passage. “I believe it will pass fairly handily,” he told Stateline late last month.

Anne Garwood (left), a tech writer, and April Block, a middle school teacher, review voter lists in preparation for canvassing an Omaha neighborhood in favor of Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

Bills to expand eligibility for Medicaid, the health plan for the poor run jointly by the federal and state governments, have been introduced in the Nebraska legislature for six straight years. All failed. Senate opponents said the state couldn’t afford it. The federal government couldn’t be counted on to continue to fund its portion. Too many people were looking for a government handout.

Now, voters will decide for themselves.

Nebraska isn’t the only red state where residents have forced expansion onto Tuesday’s ballot. Idaho and Utah voters also will vote on citizen-initiated measures on Medicaid expansion. Montana, meanwhile, will decide whether to make its expansion permanent. The majority-Republican legislature expanded Medicaid in 2015, but only for a four-year period that ends next July.

untitledmedicaid.1.

Polling in those three states indicates a majority supports expanding Medicaid. Like Nebraska, all are heavily Republican states easily captured by Trump in 2016.

Last year’s failed attempt by Trump and congressional Republicans to unravel Obamacare revealed the popularity of the ACA with voters. Health policy experts said it also helped educate the public about the benefits of Medicaid, prompting activists in the four states to circumvent their Republican-led legislatures and take the matter directly to the voters.

Activists also were encouraged by the example of Maine, where nearly 60 percent of voters last year approved Medicaid expansion after the state’s Republican governor vetoed expansion bills five times.

“Medicaid has always polled well,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown. “When you explain what it does, they think it’s a good idea. What has changed is the intensity and growing recognition that states without expansion are falling further behind, especially in rural areas where hospitals are closing at an alarming rate.

“And all of the states with these ballot initiatives this year have significant rural populations.”

For many in Nebraska, the argument — advanced in one anti-427 television ad — that Medicaid is a government handout to lazy, poor people simply doesn’t square with what they know.

“These aren’t lazy, no-good people who refuse to work,” said Block, a middle school teacher, in an exasperating tone you can imagine her using in an unruly classroom. “They’re grocery store baggers, home health workers, hairdressers. They are the hardest workers in the world, who shouldn’t have to choose between paying for rent or food and paying for medicine or to see a doctor.”

Extending Benefits to Childless Adults

The initiative campaign began after the Nebraska legislature refused to take up expansion again last year. Its early organizers were, among others, a couple of Democratic senators and a nonprofit called Nebraska Appleseed.

Calling itself “Insure the Good Life,” an expansion of the state slogan, the campaign needed nearly 85,000 signatures to get onto the ballot. In July, the group submitted 136,000 signatures gathered from all 93 Nebraska counties.

The initiative would expand Medicaid to childless adults whose income is 138 percent of the federal poverty line or less. For an individual in Nebraska, that would translate to an income of $16,753 or less. Right now, Nebraska is one of 17 states that don’t extend Medicaid benefits to childless adults, no matter how low their income.

Under Medicaid expansion, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the health care costs of newly eligible enrollees, and the state would be responsible for the rest. The federal match for those currently covered by Medicaid is just above 52 percent.

The Nebraska Legislative Fiscal Office, a nonprofit branch of the legislature, found in an analysis that expansion would bring an additional 87,000 Nebraskans into Medicaid at an added cost to the state of close to $40 million a year. The current Medicaid population in Nebraska is about 245,000.

The federal government would send an additional $570 million a year to cover the new enrollees. An analysis from the University of Nebraska commissioned by the Nebraska Hospital Association, a backer of the initiative, found the new monies also would produce 10,800 new jobs and help bolster the precarious financial situation of the state’s rural hospitals.

For economic reasons alone, not expanding makes little sense, said state Sen. John McCollister, one of two Republican senators openly supporting expansion and a sponsor of expansion bills in the legislature, over coffee in an Omaha cafe one day recently.

“Nebraska is sending money to Washington, and that money is being sent back to 33 other states and not to Nebraska,” he said. “It’s obviously good for 90,000 Nebraskans by giving them longevity and a higher quality of life, but it also leads to a better workforce and benefits rural hospitals that won’t have to spend so much on uncompensated care.”

He said the state could easily raise the necessary money by increasing taxes on medical providers, cigarettes and internet sales. If 427 passes, those will be decisions for the next legislature.

Among the measure’s opponents are Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group funded by David and Charles Koch that has been running radio ads against the initiative. Jessica Shelburn, the group’s state director in Nebraska, said her primary concern is that expansion would divert precious state resources and prompt cutbacks in the current optional services Medicaid provides.

“While proponents have their hearts in the right place,” Shelburn said, “we could end up hurting the people Medicaid is intended to help.”

Georgetown’s Alker, however, said that no expansion state has curtailed Medicaid services.

When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it mandated that all states expand Medicaid, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made expansion optional for the states. As of now, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have expanded, including states that tend to vote Republican, such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Indiana.

Expansion is not an election issue only in the states with ballot initiatives this year. Democratic gubernatorial candidates are making expansion a major part of their campaigns in Florida and Georgia.

Ashley Anderson, a 25-year-old from Omaha with epilepsy, is one of those anxiously hoping for passage in Nebraska. A rosy-faced woman, she wears a red polo shirt from OfficeMax, where she works part-time for $9.50 an hour in the print center. She aged out of Medicaid at 19, and her single mother can’t afford a family health plan through her employer.

Since then, because of Anderson’s semi-regular seizures, she says she can’t take a full-time job that provides health benefits, and private insurance is beyond her means.

Because Anderson also can’t afford to see a neurologist, she is still taking the medication she was prescribed as a child, even though it causes severe side effects.

Not long ago, Anderson had a grand mal seizure, which entailed convulsions and violent vomiting, and was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. That trip left her $2,000 in debt. For that reason, she said, “At this point, I won’t even call 911.”

Anderson might well qualify for Social Security disability benefits, which would entitle her to Medicaid, but she said the application process is laborious and requires documentation she does not have. As far as she is concerned, the initiative is her only hope for a change.

“You know what, I even miss having an MRI,” she said. “I’m supposed to have one every year.” She can’t remember the last time she had one.

For the uninsured, the alternatives are emergency rooms or federally qualified health centers, which do not turn away anyone because of poverty.

While the clinics provide primary care, dental care, and mental health treatment, they cannot provide specialty care or perform diagnostic tests such as MRIs or CAT scans, said Ken McMorris, CEO of Charles Drew Health Center, the oldest community health center in Nebraska, which served just under 12,000 patients last year.

Almost all its patients have incomes below 200 percent of poverty, McMorris said. Many have little access to healthy foods and little opportunity for exercise.

William Ostdiek, the clinic’s chief medical officer, said he constantly sees patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease whose symptoms are getting worse because they cannot afford to see specialists.

“It’s becoming a vicious cycle,” he said. “They face financial barriers to the treatments they need, which would enable them to have full, productive lives. Instead, they just get sicker and sicker.”

Expansion, McMorris said, would make all the difference for many of those patients.

Some county officials also hope for passage. Mary Ann Borgeson, a Republican county commissioner in Douglas County, which includes Omaha, said her board has always urged the legislature to pass expansion. “Most people don’t understand — for counties, the Medicaid is a lifeline for many people who otherwise lack health care.”

Consequently, she said, the county pays about $2 million a year to reimburse providers for giving care to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford treatment, money that would otherwise be in the pockets of county residents.

‘That Is Socialism’

Insure the Good Life has raised $2.2 million in support of 427, according to campaign finance reports and Meg Mandy, who directs the campaign. Significant contributions have come from outside the state, particularly from Families USA, a Washington-based advocacy organization promoting health care for all, and the Fairness Project, a California organization that supports economic justice.

Both groups are active in the other states with expansion on the ballot. Well-financed, the proponents have a visible ground game and a robust television campaign.

The opposition, much less evident, is led by an anti-tax Nebraska organization called the Alliance for Taxpayers, which has filed no campaign finance documents with the state.

Marc Kaschke, former mayor of North Platte, said he is the organization’s president, but referred all questions about finances to an attorney, Gail Gitcho, who did not respond to messages left at her office.

Gitcho had previously told the Omaha World-Herald that the group hadn’t been required to file finance reports because its ads only provided information about 427; it doesn’t directly ask voters to cast ballots against the initiative.

Last week, the Alliance for Taxpayers began airing its first campaign ads. One of them complains that the expansion would give “free health care” to able-bodied adults. It features a young, healthy-looking, bearded man, slouched on a couch and eating potato chips, with crumbs spilled over his chest.

In a phone interview, Kaschke made familiar arguments against expansion. He said the state can’t afford the expansion, that it would drain money from other priorities, such as schools and roads. He said he fears the federal government would one day stop paying its share, leaving the states to pay for the whole program.

He also said, repeating Shelburn’s claim, that with limited funds, the state would be forced to cut back services to the existing population.

“We feel the states would be in a better position to solve this problem of health care,” Kaschke said. He didn’t offer suggestions on how.

Outside influence ruffles many Nebraska voters. Duane Lienemann, a retired public school agricultural teacher from Webster County near the Kansas line, said he resents outside groups coming to the state telling Nebraskans how to vote.

And he resents “liberals” from Omaha trying to shove their beliefs down the throats of those living in rural areas.

Their beliefs about expansion don’t fly with him.

“I think history will tell you when you take money away from taxpayers and give it to people as an entitlement, it is not sustainable,” Lienemann said. “You cannot grow an economy through transferring money by the government. That is socialism.”

It’s a view shared by Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts. He is on record opposing the expansion, repeating claims that it would force cutbacks in other government services and disputing claims, documented in expansion states, that expansion leads to job growth. But Ricketts has not made opposition to expansion a central part of his campaign.

Whether he would follow in the path of Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, and seek to block implementation of the expansion if the initiative passed, is not clear. Ricketts’ office declined an interview request and did not clarify his position on blocking implementation.

For his part, Scheer, the speaker of the legislature, said he would have no part of that. “We’re elected to fulfill the wishes of the people,” he said. “If it passes, the people spoke.”

Rural Hospitals in Greater Jeopardy in the Non-Medicaid Expansion States

Michael Ollove reported that after marching 130 miles from rural Belhaven, North Carolina, to the state Capitol in Raleigh, protesters in 2015 rally against the closing of their hospital, Vidant Pungo. Medicaid expansion could be the difference between survival and extinction for many rural hospitals.

In crime novelist Agatha Christie’s biggest hit, “And Then There Were None,” guests at an island mansion die suspicious deaths one after another.

So you can forgive Jeff Lyle, a big fan of Christie’s, for comparing the 36-bed community hospital he runs in Marlin, Texas, to one of those unfortunate guests. In December, two nearby hospitals, one almost 40 miles away, the other 60 miles away, closed their doors for good.

The closings were the latest in a trend that has seen 21 rural hospitals across Texas shuttered in the past six years, leaving 160 still operating.

Lyle, who is CEO, can’t help wondering whether his Falls Community Hospital will be next.

“Most assuredly,” he replied when asked whether he could envision his central Texas hospital going under. “We’re not using our reserves yet, but I can see them from here.”

It’s not just Texas: Nearly a hundred rural hospitals in the United States have closed since 2010, according to the Center for Health Services Research at UNC-Chapel Hill. Another 600-plus rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to an oft-cited 2016 report by iVantage Health Analytics.

Texas had the most hospitals in danger of closing (75), the health metrics firm said. And Mississippi had the largest share of hospitals at risk (79 percent).

Neither state has expanded Medicaid eligibility to more of its low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. In fact, the closures and at-risk hospitals are heavily clustered in the 14 states that have not expanded.

Those state decisions not to expand have deprived rural hospitals, which already operate with the slimmest of margins, of resources that could be the difference between survival and closure.

That is why Lyle and administrators of other rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states are so adamant about their states joining the ranks of those that have expanded.

“It would mean a fair number of people we see who have no insurance would have insurance,” Lyle said. “And for us, a dollar is better than no dollar.”

untitledmedicaid.2

In Texas, the expansion would make 1.2 million more people eligible for Medicaid, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. An Urban Institute study in 2014 estimated that not expanding Medicaid would deprive Texas hospitals of $34.3 billion in federal reimbursements over 10 years.

Without that money, many rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states have closed obstetrics units and other expensive services, forcing patients to travel long distances to seek treatment at the next-closest hospital, which is sometimes hours away.

By shedding those services, the hospitals diminish their reason for existing, said Maggie Elehwany, head of government affairs and policy for the National Rural Health Association.

The office of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the most recent Republican chairmen of the health committees in the Texas legislature (the legislature has yet to make committee assignments for the current legislative session), Sen. Charles Schwertner and Rep. Four Price, did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

But not everyone believes Medicaid expansion is the answer to the problems facing rural hospitals. “Medicaid is as likely to prop up inefficient and wasteful hospitals as anything else,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Another rural hospital in Texas, Goodall-Witcher in Clifton, which also operates two community health clinics and a nursing room, risked closing until residents of Bosque County voted in November to create a hospital taxing district.

“I’m not saying we would have closed the day after the election,” said Adam Willmann, the hospital’s CEO, “but I don’t know how much longer we could have gone.”

The additional taxes will bring the hospital an estimated $2.5 million a year and perhaps take it out of the red, but they won’t necessarily lift Goodall-Witcher out of financial peril, Willmann said.

“Medicaid expansion,” Willmann said. “That is one of the key things we could do to help us deal with the tough financial demands we face.”

The burden of Uncompensated Care

As envisioned by the ACA when it passed Congress in 2010, expansion states would extend benefits to all adults — including childless adults — whose income was at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line. (In 2019, that would be an average individual income of $12,140, depending on the state.)

Initially, the federal government paid 100 percent of the health care costs of the expansion population. The federal share falls to 90 percent in 2020.

To date, 36 states plus Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. By 2017, expansion under the ACA had covered 17 million new enrollees. Roughly another 4 million people would qualify in the remaining states, according to a 2018 Kaiser report.

Instead, many of those low-income residents remain uninsured or underinsured in plans with high deductibles and copayments.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t receive health care. Without health insurance, low-income people are less likely to get preventive care, which often results in worsening health conditions that frequently bring them to hospitals where they are guaranteed treatment. Under federal law, hospitals must stabilize and treat anyone showing up at the emergency room, regardless of their ability to pay.

Rural hospitals, like their urban counterparts, are forced to absorb those costs. But unlike bigger hospitals, their patient volumes, and operating margins are so low that “uncompensated care” burdens can be crippling.

For instance, Willmann said his hospital’s uncompensated tab last year was about $4.2 million, or 11 to 12 percent of his overall budget.

According to the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the state’s rural hospitals carried about $170 million in bad debt from charitable care and patients’ unpaid bills. Five rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2016.

A 2018 study in the journal Health Affairs found that the rate of closures of rural hospitals increased significantly in non-expansion states after 2014 when states began implementing the expansion. At the same time, closure rates decreased in expansion states.

Many administrators of rural hospitals are quick to say that Medicaid expansion alone will not solve their financial problems. Rural hospitals faced steep challenges long before the ACA.

Rural Americans tend to be older, in poorer health and less insured than those living elsewhere, the latter resulting in a greater share of uncompensated care for rural hospitals. Because of declining populations in rural areas, hospitals there often have empty beds, which means less revenue.

“It’s been a long, slow bleed,” said Fred Blavin, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute.

Automatic federal budget cuts beginning in 2013 (known as sequestration) reduced Medicare reimbursements, which are a particularly important source of revenue for hospitals. Congress has cut back on the amount hospitals can deduct for bad debt. Congress, in its budget tightening, reduced other forms of assistance to rural hospitals as well.

“You can put a Band-Aid on, but you still have 99 other wounds,” Willmann said.

Elehwany, of the National Rural Health Association, said that rural communities where hospitals are forced to close might be able to meet residents’ health needs by opening a new urgent care facility or maternal care center.

The loss of rural hospitals not only means patients having to travel longer distances to the next medical providers, but the closures also can often have a crippling effect on the local economy.

Goodall-Witcher Hospital is the largest employer in Bosque County. “Our payroll is bigger than the county’s entire budget,” Willmann said. “Can you imagine what it would do to this county to lose $9 million from the economy a year?”

A Health Services Research journal report found that when a rural area’s only hospital closes, income per capita falls by 4 percent and unemployment rises by 1.6 percent.

Willmann was relieved voters in his district supported the measure to create a hospital taxing district, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t a good deal for his county’s taxpayers. Their federal taxes help pay for the expansion in other states but not in Texas.

“Basically, you’re asking them to pay twice,” he said.

Rural hospital officials appear not to have the slightest hope that the deep red Texas legislature and the governor will get behind expansion.

“There is no likelihood of Medicaid expansion in Texas in the near term,” said John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

The government shutdown is over, but for how long? The New York Times finally got it correct when they wrote:

‘Our Country Is Being Run by Children’: Shutdown’s End Brings Relief and Frustration