Category Archives: World Healthcare

States Move To Restrict Parents’ Refusal To Vaccinate Their Kids. Our Goal and the Rest of the World!

50201675_1876827435780240_8947739925063663616_nI don’t know whether you all remember my last few sentences of last week’s post but I was so encouraged this week because it seems that maybe some of the politicians are reading my blog (yeah right!?!?) or they recognize the severity of the measles problem today. So, I want to continue the discussion starting with a number of States who get the message.

Patti Neighmond wrote that all U.S. states require most parents to vaccinate their children against some preventable diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough, to be able to attend school. Such laws often apply to children in private schools and day care facilities as well as public schools.

At the same time, beyond medical exemptions, most states also allow parents to opt out of this vaccination requirement for religious reasons. And 17 states permit other exemptions — allowing families to opt out of school vaccination requirements for personal or philosophical reasons.

Michelle Mello, a professor of law and health research and policy at Stanford University, says the bar for claiming an exemption from vaccine requirements has been very low in many states. “You can believe that vaccines don’t work or that they are unsafe or they simply fly in the face of your parenting philosophy,” she says.

But this winter’s outbreaks of measles across the nation are resulting in challenges to many exemptions: At least eight states, including some that have experienced measles outbreaks this year, want to remove personal exemptions for the measles vaccine. And some states would remove the exemption for all vaccines.

Most of this year’s measles cases have been among children who were not vaccinated against the virus.

Once considered eradicated in the U.S., measles has sickened at least 159 people since the start of 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in outbreaks ranging from Washington and Oregon to Texas and New York. Last year, there were 372 reported cases of measles nationwide.

The move among state legislatures to tighten vaccine requirements is good news to Diane Peterson, the associate director for immunization projects with the pro-vaccine advocacy group Immunization Action Coalition.

“Measles is not like a common cold,” Peterson says. “Children get very, very sick and can be hospitalized,” she says, adding that measles can even lead to death.

The virus is highly contagious, airborne and easily spreads. It can survive in the air for a couple of hours.

“A patient with measles can go to the doctor, cough in the exam room and two hours later another patient coming into the same exam room can be infected,” Peterson says.

The virus is spreading fast this winter, she says, because of the “pockets of children who have not been vaccinated, mostly due to parents who have decided not to vaccinate them.”

This leaves not only those unvaccinated school children vulnerable to the virus but also many adults who have suppressed immune systems and infants who are not old enough to be vaccinated.

According to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, bills to restrict exemptions are now pending in a growing number of states.

None of this sits well with activists who want their states to maintain personal and philosophical exemptions.

“Nobody should sit in judgment of another person’s religious and spiritual beliefs,” says Barbara Loe Fisher, a spokesperson for the National Vaccine Information Center, a group that lobbies against mandatory vaccination and thinks parents should have a choice. “No person should be allowed to force someone to violate their conscience when they’re making a decision about the use of a pharmacological product that carries a risk of harm.”

The scientific consensus about any risk from vaccines is that serious side effects are extremely rare. A suggestion that immunization might be tied to severe consequences like autism was debunked years ago after findings supporting that link were proved fraudulent.

Mello, the Stanford law professor who has been following the exemption debate, notes that the courts have repeatedly held that when a public health intervention is necessary to safeguard the public, individuals generally can be required to give up some personal liberty, particularly if that liberty is tied to a government benefit like school.

So far, only three states — Mississippi, West Virginia and California — prohibit nearly all vaccine exemptions, including the one exempting families who say their religious belief conflicts with vaccination. (All states allow medical exemptions when, for example, a child has a compromised immune system.)

The California state Legislature made that decision in 2015, less than a year after the state experienced a significant measles outbreak that got its first foothold among unvaccinated children visiting Disneyland.

A measles outbreak in the US has triggered debate on the ease with which parents can opt out of mandatory vaccine rules.

I noted last week that a total of 159 people have come down with the disease in 10 states since January, but one small area, in particular, Clark County in Washington State, has illustrated the dangers of these exemptions, which are sought for religious, personal or philosophical reasons.

Just north of Portland, Oregon, Clark County accounts for 65 measles cases, 47 of them among children under age 10. In almost all 65 cases, patients had not been vaccinated.

Fifteen years ago, 96 percent of school children aged five in Clark County got measles shots. But in 2017-2018, the proportion was down to 84 percent.

In some schools, mainly private ones, the rate of use of the so-called MMR vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella was only 20 to 30 percent. In some of the schools, more than half the students had received exemptions.

Local lawmakers in Washington State have responded to the outbreak by advancing legislation that would do away with exemptions on personal or philosophical grounds. Opt-outs for religious reasons would still be allowed.

Such exemptions are widely available in the United States. Only three of the 50 states—California, Mississippi, and Virginia do not allow them.

California did away with exemptions for personal reasons in 2015. In the most populous US state, exemptions are permitted only for medical reasons.

In recent years other states have toughened their laws. Connecticut, for instance, requires parents claiming an exemption for religious reasons to provide a yearly, notarized statement to this effect. Since 2015, Delaware has allowed schools to temporarily exclude non-vaccinated kids.

Vermont wants to get rid of religious exemptions, after eliminating those sought for philosophical reasons four years ago, according to The Washington Post. Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota are also debating stricter laws.

Congressional hearing

The US Congress will hold a hearing Wednesday on the issue of vaccinating children.

Overall, the vaccination rate of kids in the US has remained stable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors such trends closely.

It reports that in the 2017-2018 school year, around 95% of American kindergarteners were vaccinated against MMR, chicken pox and diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

But the national rate masks wide disparities from state to state and even from one school to the next, as the case of Clark County illustrates.

And health authorities are alarmed because the previous school year was the third in a row in which requests for exemptions from vaccination increased, even though the rises were small.

And the proportion of kids reaching age two without having received any kind of vaccination is also growing, albeit slowly: 0.9 percent of children born in 2011 to 1.3 percent among those born in 2015. Vaccination-free kids were practically unheard of at the turn of the century.

Exemptions alone do not explain why children are not vaccinated. Many vaccines are recommended for American children in their first two years of life—the CDC advises they be used for 14 diseases—and this is hard for parents to keep up with, especially for vaccines that require three or four shots.

Another problem is access to health insurance. Children in families without such insurance make up a disproportionate amount of those who go without shots, according to the CDC.

In Congress, the measles outbreak has prompted lawmakers to act.

The disease routinely infected American kids before a vaccine was introduced in 1963. Before that, it killed 400 to 500 people a year in the US. In 2000 it was declared eliminated. But since then, over the years anywhere from 50 to 600 cases have been reported annually.

Two US senators recently called on the CDC to explain what it is doing in response to what they called “pockets of unvaccinated people.”

‘We Need to Get to Zero’ on Measles: NIAID Chief to House Panel

I think we all agree and members from both parties express support for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine

Our friend Joyce Frieden, the News Editor of MedPage Today, reported that the views that some House committee members expressed Wednesday in favor of vaccination brought to mind a line from a character on a British television show: “I am unanimous in this.”

“It wasn’t until the development of the MMR [measles, mumps, and rubella] vaccine that we as a country were able to stop this horrific illness,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, at a hearing on recent measles outbreaks in the U.S. “But despite that success, here we are again 20 years later.”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a ranking member of the full Energy & Commerce Committee, noted that one in four people diagnosed with measles will end up being hospitalized. “If we don’t reverse the downward trend in vaccination, we risk bringing back measles in full force,” he said.

DeGette called the recent measles outbreaks “a real cause for national concern” and pointed out that the national measles vaccination rate for children stands at 91%.

“That may seem high to some, but it’s well below the 95% vaccination rate required to protect communities and give them herd immunity,” she said. “And while the overall national rate of MMR vaccines is currently at 91%, the rate in some communities is much lower — some as low as 77%. Outbreaks like the one we’re seeing with measles remind us of just how interconnected our communities are … As a nation, to stop the spread of deadly diseases, we have to address the root cause of the problem and we have to define concrete steps … We need to support additional research into vaccine safety to further increase consumer confidence in these vaccines.”

Nearly 160 Cases This Year

Once again the numbers are important and so from Jan. 1, 2019 to Feb. 21, 2019, there have been 159 confirmed measles cases in 10 states, Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the committee. The states reporting outbreaks include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. In 2018, 372 people in 25 states and the District of Columbia were reported to have measles; most of those cases involved unvaccinated people, she added.

Although measles was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, and the rate of measles vaccination coverage is fairly high nation-wide, “there are pockets of people who are vaccine hesitant who delay or even refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children,” which can cause outbreaks, Messonnier said. Many of those live in close-knit communities where they share the same religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds as their neighbors. Others simply have a strong personal belief against vaccination.

“In the past 5 years, there have been 26 measles outbreaks of more than five cases, 12 of which were in close-knit communities, including a Somali community in Minnesota in 2017 and Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and New York state in 2018; these 12 outbreaks account for over 75% of cases in the past 5 years,” she said, adding that “Vaccine hesitancy is the result of a misunderstanding of the risk and seriousness of disease combined with misinformation regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. However, the specific issues fueling hesitancy vary by community” and must be attacked locally with the help of the CDC.

The federal government’s Vaccines for Children (VFC) program is a “critical component” of the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases, Messonnier said. “Because of VFC, we have seen significant decreases in disparities in vaccination coverage … For each dollar invested [in the program], there are $10 of societal savings and $3 in direct medical savings.”

‘I Am a Measles Survivor’

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, said that measles was “one of the most contagious pathogens we know of” and explained that since the virus has been well sequenced, “we can tell, when the virus is reintroduced into our country, from where it comes.” For example, researchers were able to determine that a measles virus that led to an outbreak among a community of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn in New York City came from Israel.

“I consider it really an irony that you have one of the most contagious viruses known to man, juxtaposed against one of the most effective vaccines that we have, and yet we don’t do and have not done what could be done — namely, completely eliminate and eradicate this virus.” Fauci showed a slide delineating the recent outbreaks. “This slide is really unacceptable; this is a totally vaccine-preventable disease … What we all should strive for, that measles in the United States, we need to get to zero.”

A few hearing participants shared their own experience with the disease. “I am a measles survivor,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, MD (R-Texas). “I was at an age where the measles vaccine was not available. Even though I was very young when that happened, I still remember … the heart-shaking chills, the muscle pain, and the rash that’s [emblematic] of measles.” Fauci said he also had the disease and that it was “very uncomfortable and very scary.” Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), the subcommittee’s ranking member said that one of his close childhood friends “was essentially born without a hand” after the friend’s mother contracted rubella during her pregnancy. “I’ve always thought of measles and how devastating it can be.”

Guthrie also asked Fauci whether people could “self-medicate” with vitamin A to prevent measles. Fauci responded that children with vitamin A deficiency who get measles “have a much more difficult course, so vitamin A [supplements] can actually protect you from some of the toxic and adverse effects,” but that doesn’t apply in developed countries where such deficiencies are rare. “It doesn’t prevent measles, but it’s important in preventing complications in societies in which vitamin A deficiency might exist,” he said.

The Thimerosal Question

Burgess asked about whether thimerosal — a mercury-containing preservative often mistakenly claimed to cause problems with vaccines — was in the measles vaccine. “No, it’s preservative-free,” said Fauci. Burgess asked whether there was ever any evidence that mercury or thimerosal was unsafe. Messonnier said thimerosal had been removed from vaccines “out of an abundance of caution at a time when there wasn’t enough evidence, but evidence since then has been very conclusive” that thimerosal is safe.

The hearing was also marked by a few disruptions, including some shouts from the audience when Fauci, responding to a question, said that the measles vaccine couldn’t cause encephalitis. DeGette told the audience that such disruptions were in violation of House rules; Messonnier then said that the vaccine doesn’t cause brain swelling or encephalitis in healthy children.

Guthrie remarked that whether or not parents choose to vaccinate their children, they do so with the best of intentions. “Whatever decisions they’re making, they’re making it in the love and best interest of their child,” he said. “So I think it’s important we do have the science … and people with credentials and reputations to present this evidence, and hopefully people have the opportunity to see it and read it.”

Measles cases soar worldwide, UN warns of ‘complacency’

Outside of the U.S., I think it is necessary to see how this disease is affecting other countries. I brought up the statistics regarding the incidence and the deaths in the Philippines but on a broader scale Cynthia Goldsmith reviewed the statistics with regard  of the measles problem in the world and noted that just 10 countries were responsible for three-quarters of a global surge in measles cases last year, the UN children’s agency said Friday, including one of the world’s richest nations, France.

Ninety-eight countries reported more cases of measles in 2018 compared with 2017, and the world body warned that conflict, complacency and the growing anti-vaccine movement threatened to undo decades of work to tame the disease.

“This is a wakeup call. We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease—a vaccine that saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF.

“These cases haven’t happened overnight. Just as the serious outbreaks we are seeing today took hold in 2018, lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow.”

Measles is more contagious than tuberculosis or Ebola, yet it is eminently preventable with a vaccine that costs pennies.

But the World Health Organization last year said cases worldwide had soared nearly 50 percent in 2018, killing around 136,000 people.

Ukraine, the Philippines, and Brazil saw the largest year-on-year increases. In Ukraine alone, there were 35,120 cases—nearly 30,000 more than in 2017.

Brazil saw 10,262 cases in 2018 after having none at all the year before, while the Philippines reported 15,599 cases last year compared to 2,407 in 2017.

Taken together, the ten nations accounting for 75 percent of the increase from 2017 to 2018 account for only a tenth of the global population.

The countries with the highest rate of measles last year were Ukraine (822 cases per million people), Serbia (618), Albania (481), Liberia (412), Georgia (398), Yemen 328), Montenegro (323) and Greece (227).

While most of the countries that experienced large spikes in cases are beset by unrest or conflict, France saw its caseload jump by 2,269.

In the United States, there was a 559 percent year-on-year increase in cases from 120 to 791.

Misinformation and mistrust

The resurgence of the disease in some countries has been linked to medically baseless claims linking the measles vaccine to autism, which have been spread in part on social media by members of the so-called “anti-vax” movement.

The WHO last month listed “vaccine hesitancy” among the top 10 most pressing global health threats for 2019.

“Almost all of these cases are preventable and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse,” Fore said.

“Measles may be the disease, but all too often the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency.”

In war-torn Yemen, where health services in many regions have collapsed, UNICEF and the World Health Organization joined with local authorities last month in a campaign to vaccinate some 13 children aged six months to 15 for measles and rubella.

UN officials estimated that 92 percent of the targeted children were jabbed during the one-week push, which ended on February 14.

Yemen also figured on UNICEF’s “top 10” list of countries showing the largest increases last year in measles cases with a 316 percent hike, from 2,101 cases in 2017 to 8,742 cases in 2018.

Other countries with huge jumps last year compared to 2017 are Venezuela (4,916 more cases, up 676 percent), Serbia (4,355 more cases, up 620 percent), Madagascar (4,307 more cases, up 5,127 percent), Sudan (3,496 more cases, up 526 percent) and Thailand (2,758 more cases, up 136 percent).

A few countries saw declines in the number of confirmed cases of measles.

In Romania, reported cases dropped 89 percent from 8,673 to 943, and in Indonesia, the number declined by 65 percent from 11,389 to 3,995.

Nigeria, Pakistan, Italy, and China also saw drops of 35 to 55 percent.

So, the number of worldwide resurgence of cases of measles is huge and we as a community need to step up and push our healthcare community and the government to step up and demand that we protect our youth both here in the U.S.A. and yes, in the world. Also, we need to ignore the politics and the misinformation and mistrust and get the job done for our kids, and future generations!

 

 

 

 

Healthcare in 2018. Let’s Review!

48391556_1839791506150500_8003351817255649280_nAs the end of the year approaches I thought that I would try to review some of the progress, if I can find any. Probably the biggest invisible improvements the world sees year to year are essential indicators of overall global public health, like rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, childhood stunting, and teen pregnancy. These are important, because they represent access the average person alive has to health-care professionals, facilities, medicine, and more. All of these rates have been falling in the past few decades, in some cases dramatically, and every single one fell again in 2018.

The Health of the World In 2018, By The Numbers

Reporter Susan Brink noted that at year’s end, global health numbers offer reason for both hope and despair.

There is one strong positive note. An overriding public health finding is that people are living longer. “If that’s not a bottom line reason for optimism,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “I don’t know what is.”

And then there are the million-plus cases of cholera in Yemen — deemed “a hideous milestone for the 21st century” by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Note: Because of the way global numbers are gathered, it’s too soon to report on health statistics from the year now drawing to a close. There are only a few yet available for 2018 — polio cases, for example, and Ebola deaths in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But there has been a constant stream of numbers released from the years just past. Unless otherwise noted, the numbers below represent the worldwide population.

7 Of Our Most Popular Global Health and Development Stories Of 2018

Life Expectancy

Worldwide life expectancy in 2016 was 72 years, up from 66.5 years in 2000.

The gain of 5.5 years in worldwide life expectancy between 2000 and 2016 was the fastest gain since the 1960s and reversed the declines of the 1990s caused by AIDS in Africa and the fall of the Soviet Union.

But life expectancy has been ticking down in the U.S. for three years: it was 78.9 in 2014; 78.8 in 2015; 78.7 in 2016; and 78.6 in 2017. An increase in deaths from opioids and from suicide is a possible reason for the trend.

Child mortality rates for children under five years of age have fallen from 216 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950; to 93 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990; to 40.5 deaths per 1,000 in 2016; and most recently to 39.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017.

Health Care

3.6 million people died in 2016 because they had no access to health care.

5 million people, despite having access to health care, died in 2016 because the quality of care they received was poor.

In 2010, the year that the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, 49.9 million people in the United States, or 16.3 percent of the population under age 65, were without health insurance. In 2017, that number dropped to 28.9 million uninsured, or 10.7 percent of that segment of the population.

Yet also in 2017, the number of uninsured Americans increased by nearly half a million — the first increase since the Affordable Care Act was implemented.

HIV/AIDS

36.9 million people were living with HIV in 2017.

940,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2017.

35.4 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the epidemic was identified in 1981.

Ebola

11,325 people died of Ebola in the epidemic of 2014-2016 in West Africa.

As of Dec. 23, there have been 347 confirmed deaths so far in the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Air Quality

Pollution contributed to the deaths of some 9.9 million people in 2015 by causing diseases such cancer, heart disease and respiratory illnesses. That’s three times more deaths than the death toll from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Murder

Roughly 385,000 people were murdered around the world in 2017.

Hunger

Some 821 million people around the world did not get enough to eat in 2017. resulting in malnutrition, and about 151 million children under five experienced stunted growth due to malnutrition.

An estimated 1.9 billion adults were overweight or obese in 2016. 41 million children under five are overweight or obese.

Cholera

There were 1,207,596 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen between April 2017 and April 2018.

The total estimated number of cholera cases worldwide ranges from 1.4 million to 4 million.

Vaccinations

Global vaccination rates against childhood diseases in 2017: 85 percent. That number has stayed steady for several years.

In 2017, about 100,000 children in the U.S. under two, or 1.3 percent of children that age, had not been vaccinated against serious diseases like measles and whooping cough.

The percentage of unvaccinated U.S. children has quadrupled from 0.3 percent in 2001 — shortly after the circulation of erroneous and disproven reports that vaccines cause autism.

Polio

The number of cases of polio worldwide in 2018 as of Dec. 25 was 29, compared to 22 in 2017. There were an estimated 350,000 cases around the world in 1988.

A mysterious polio-like disease, called acute flaccid myelitis that can paralyze patients, mostly children, appeared in the U.S. in 2014 with 120 confirmed cases from August to December. There were 22 confirmed cases in 2015, 149 confirmed cases in 2016, 35 confirmed cases is 2017 and 182 cases as of Dec. 21, 2018.

Guinea Worm

In 1986, guinea worm disease, an incapacitating disease that creates painful lesions, affected some 3.5 million people in Africa and Asia. As of Oct. 1, 2018, there were 25 reported cases of guinea worm disease worldwide: 1 in Angola; 14 in Chad, and 10 in South Sudan. One obstacle to wiping it out entirely: The worm can circulate in dogs.

Mystery Disease

Number of cases of Disease X: Zero. But that doesn’t mean the World Health Organization isn’t worried about it. They use the term Disease X to refer to a pathogen “pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease” but that has the potential one day to trigger a deadly pandemic.

Healthcare in Congress for 2019: All Hat, No Cattle, Experts Say

News Editor, Joyce Frieden, in her end of the year report, noted that the work Congress does on healthcare next year — and even the year after — will be mostly for show without a lot of concrete results, experts said.

“Probably nothing is going to happen legislatively in the next 2 years around healthcare” in terms of legislation that is actually passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president, said Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere, a healthcare consulting firm, in a phone interview. “I think the Democrats in the House are going to use this as an opportunity to showcase their policy priorities for 2020 — things like ‘Medicare for All’ or a Medicare buy-in, taking votes on those and nailing down some specifics.”

“You will also see Democrats in the House use their oversight power over [the Department of] Health and Human Services (HHS) — to hold hearings, and give pushback around things the administration is doing around the Affordable Care Act (ACA) like the expansion of association health plans and cuts in funding for marketing and outreach in the [health insurance] exchanges,” he said.

Sloan also expects a lot of activity to occur around drug pricing. “I’m not expecting a major piece of legislation around drug pricing coming out, but it’s a huge issue with a lot of traction on the right and the left… so I’d expect in the House and the Senate [to see] hearings on drug pricing,” he said. “There’s always a chance that the Democratic House and the Republican president will come together on some piece of drug pricing — like transparency reporting — but I think it’s unlikely. So the next 2 years won’t be stagnant for healthcare; there will be a lot of policy development but no major bills.”

Julius Hobson, Jr., JD, senior policy advisor at Polsinelli, a consulting firm here, was a little more optimistic — but only a little. “The first thing on my list is prescription drug pricing,” he said in a phone interview. “If there is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work out something together — provided neither side tries to overreach — that will be the one thing that has the possibility of being enacted.” Possibilities for drug pricing legislation include bills supporting reimportation, pegging U.S. drug prices to those in Europe, or giving HHS the authority to negotiate drug prices under Medicare and Medicaid.

“After that, I can’t find a health issue at the moment that I think the two sides could work on,” Hobson said. “But I think we’ll see more hearings on the oversight of the ACA, especially in the House, as administration officials get dragged in to see what they’re doing.” A House floor vote on a ‘Medicare for All’ bill is also a possibility — although it won’t pass — along with more oversight on veterans’ healthcare, he added.

One area that gets little attention is healthcare costs at the Department of Defense, which is the fastest-growing portion of the budget, said Hobson. “Having been in wars for 17 years, our healthcare costs are going through the roof.” Both President George W. Bush and President Obama pushed for having military members pay more of their costs under the Tricare health insurance program for military families, “but Congress refused to do that.”

Instead of action in Congress, most of the activity on the healthcare front will probably be within the Trump administration, he continued. “There will be more attempts to get things done — things [the administration] can do that Congress is unable to do.” Expect more efforts to come from the Office of Regulatory Reform at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, “which is consistent with an executive order from last year to come up with lists of regulations they could do away with to make the system less burdensome,” Hobson predicted.

Rodney Whitlock, vice president for health policy at ML Strategies, a consulting firm here, said in a phone interview that he expected some effort to pass a bill related to Texas vs. the United States of America — the court case questioning the constitutionality of the ACA — “and I think there’s something that looks a little more like ACA stabilization in the works… [The question is] what is the difference between the things where they’re trying to make a point versus what might be actually statutorily possible.”

Bob Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., agreed with the idea that both parties will be focused on the drug pricing issue. “This seems to be about the only bipartisan interest and it will be interesting to see if there is any real agreement between them,” he said in an email. “Trump’s reference pricing proposal could be an interesting spot — will he find more Democratic allies than Republicans?”

Healthcare-related taxes imposed by the ACA but not yet implemented — including taxes on “Cadillac” health insurance plans and medical devices — are another possible area of cooperation, he said. “These have only been postponed and will have to be dealt with. There does seem to be broad agreement they should not be restarted.” And the pharmaceutical industry will be pushing back against a proposal to have it pay a larger share of drug costs in the Medicare Part D “donut hole,” he added.

Finally, “Democrats will have as their top priority rubbing salt into the Republican wounds on pre-existing conditions and the recent Texas court case,” Laszewski said. “I don’t see any opportunity for bipartisan fixes. With the Supreme Court more than a year away in terms of any final decision, this will be a very dark cloud in 2019.”

Bookended by Obamacare, 2018 was the year of policy change

As Susannah Luthi points out in 2018 tith Congress’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act dead by the end of 2017, any relief the law’s supporters felt were likely short-lived, as 2018 was the year the Trump administration began significantly remolding a law it fundamentally opposes.

Led by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who took the reins of the $1.2 trillion department last January, the administration charted an overarching strategy to lower drug prices and reduce spending on hospital care. Moreover, by the end of 2018, the entire Affordable Care Act was back in legal peril when a federal judge in Texas struck it down and blocked immediate appeal.

Here’s a look at the major healthcare political issues of 2018, a year when the public political drama slowed down, but activity aiming to overhaul the ACA sped up.

Drug prices

During Azar’s confirmation hearing last January, he faced skeptical Senate Democrats who argued his tenure as a top executive with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. could blunt the Trump administration’s promised plan to lower drug prices.

The skepticism didn’t abate when White House in May unveiled its blueprint. But as the policy bones gained muscle, Azar’s ideas have won over some doubters and drawn manufacturer ire.

“The biggest news item of the year is that the drug blueprint wasn’t hot air and that they’re really trying to do big things,” said Michael Adelberg, a healthcare consultant with the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. “Like many others, I assumed it was mostly PR, but I think the administration deserves credit for taking this seriously.”

Among the most controversial policies: a mandatory international pricing index model for Part B physician-administered drugs to align prices with those in other countries.

Critics on the left who want Medicare to negotiate directly said the policy falls short. Investment analysts hope the proposal is a tactic to bring manufacturers to the negotiating table.

Critics on the right say it’s price-fixing.

“Proposing to effectively accept the pricing decisions of other countries, while having the chutzpah to brand the policy ‘market-based’ is beyond disappointing,” said Benedic Ippolito of the American Enterprise Institute.

Last month the administration also proposed a significant change to Medicare Part D that sparked outcry: room for price negotiation for drugs in protected classes, where Medicare costs are exceptionally high. Patient groups are fighting back over concerns about access, but the administration says Part D has substantial patient protections in place, and the chronically ill will always be able to get critical medications.

Site-neutral payments

HHS has also took action on site-neutral payments for Medicare, and despite pending litigation, analysts believe the political winds on the issue may have changed.

Last month the administration finalized a rule that will slash payments for office visits at hospital outpatient clinics to match the rate for independent physicians’ offices. In response, two powerful industry groups sued.

But nonpartisan experts have wanted to see this policy move—not only to address rising Medicare expenses but also consolidation and the rising costs that stem from that trend. “In an era of growing consolidation of providers and increasing physician employment by hospitals, site-neutral payments are critical on all dimensions,” said Paul Ginsberg, director of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Hospitals will keep fighting hard against them, Ginsberg added. But from his vantage point, analysts’ views on the issue have expanded to what’s at stake for the entire healthcare system in terms of this policy, and they are increasingly bipartisan.

“I’ve had the sense that (the administration) has long seen the issue of healthcare competition as something they can work with Democrats on,” he added. “And I think Democrats are much more comfortable using competition than they have been historically. So that’s a political dimension that makes it more promising that this policy could be sustained.”

340B program

The administration also trimmed reimbursement in the 340B drug discount program, which avoided congressional reforms despite Senate hearings and introduction of several House bills.

Hospitals had a key win late this year when HHS jumped ahead of its stated deadline and said it will start capping the prices manufacturers can charge providers for drugs. Regulation over ceiling prices for 340B has been delayed for years and early this fall hospitals sued over the latest postponement.

But litigation over the sweeping cuts to Part B drug reimbursements for 340B hospitals is still pending, and the administration has expanded those cuts to hospital systems’ off-campus facilities.

Affordable Care Act

A proposal to stabilize the individual market with a federal funding boost fell apart early in the year as a band of Republican-led states sued to overturn the law following the effective elimination of the individual mandate penalty for 2019.

Still, Obamacare may survive this attack. Sabrina Corlette, from Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, said that in 2018 the law proved the doubters wrong. “It revealed remarkable resilience in the face of some pretty dramatic attempts to roll back or undo the law,” she said.

The individual market remains in a holding pattern. Shortly before open enrollment started this year, CMS Administrator Seema Verma touted the fact that premiums dropped for the first time since the law was implemented.

Premiums for benchmark silver plans on the federal individual market exchanges will drop in 2019, marking the first decrease since the Affordable Care Act was implemented, CMS Administrator Seema Verma announced on Thursday.

Verma attributed the 1.5% overall drop to looser regulations, the Trump administration’s market stabilization rule and the seven 1332 State Innovation Waiver approvals that launched reinsurance programs.

Tennessee will see the sharpest premium decline, as average monthly premiums for silver plans fell more than 26%, from more than $600 last year to $449. North Dakota had the greatest increase, with average premiums rising more than 20% from $312 per month to $375. Sixteen of the 39 states using the federal exchange will see declines, two states will have no change and the majority of the remaining states will face marginal, single-digit increases.

Verma dismissed the idea that President Donald Trump’s cut-off last year of the cost-sharing reduction payments hurt the market, although the action was followed by a nearly 40% jump in average premiums as insurers added the cost to benchmark silver plans in a move known as “silver loading.”

Analysts have credited the slim premium increases insurers have announced so far this year as a correction to excessive 2018 rate hikes.

But Verma defended the expansion of short-term, limited duration plans as an affordable option for people who can’t afford Obamacare plans. Potentially, they could appeal to the 20 million Americans who don’t have coverage, she added.

“The prediction was that the offering of short-term plans would have negative impact on the market and increase premiums, but we’re not seeing the impact on the market,” Verma said.

The administrator also announced the administration will be writing new guidance for 1332 waivers to allow states to broaden exchange plan design “to create more affordable options,” but said the new reinsurance programs are a key part of the overall drop in premiums.

Federal exchange states that launch reinsurance programs in 2019 will see decreases in premiums as expected, but prices will not fall to pre-2018 levels. Wisconsin, which had its 1332 waiver approved earlier this year, will see a drop in averages from $464 in 2018 to $440 for 2019. In 2017, average silver plan premiums in the state were just over $300. Maine’s average premiums will decline from $482 in 2018 to $446 in 2019, still more than $100 per month higher than the $316 in 2017.

New Jersey will see the sharpest decrease with its reinsurance waiver. In 2017, average silver premiums were $286 per month, rising to $339 per month this year. With reinsurance, they will settle in at $286 per month in 2019.

Last year, Alaska — which has the highest insurance premiums in the country — saw a drastic decline after implementation of its waiver. Average monthly premiums fell from $759 in 2017 to $595 in 2018. Next year they will drop again to $576.

The CMS hasn’t made enrollment projections for 2019 based on these new numbers, but Verma added that more people may opt for the federal exchanges “when we’re not seeing double-digit rate increases.”

Verma said the administration still wants changes to Obamacare’s exchange rules.

“For millions of people, the law needs to change,” she told reporters. ” While some have publicly been accusing us of sabotage, we have been doing everything we can to mitigate problems of Obamacare.”

The high cost of stabilization continues to trouble many. “ACA markets have stabilized at an unsatisfactory point,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

He said the deep cuts to marketing and other changes “all do matter at the margins” and that the slower enrollments noted this year have borne this out. “You have to decide what the administration’s objective is politically,” he added. “They don’t want to expand enrollment: they want it stabilizing,” but it’s coming at a high cost.

Adelberg said while plans aren’t “hemorrhaging money and going out of business” as they were in the early years, the exchange market still very much depends on subsidies and looks more like a tier of Medicaid.

“The exchange market is starting to look like Medicaid expansion-expansion,” he said.

The CMS has tweaked guidance for Section 1332 state innovation waivers, sparking criticism that the administration opened the door to trimming protections.

Potential actions from the administration take on extra weigh in light of the late-breaking court decision over Obamacare.

But even strong critics of the law doubt the administration would use the murky legal situation to cross statutory lines with waiver approvals in the meantime.

“No one wants to do anything in the interim, and both sides are waiting for the final, final decision,” said conservative policy analyst Chris Jacobs.

Medicaid public option

States this year started a serious push for their own form of the public option through Medicaid and some in Washington have started paying attention.

Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico are some of the states that have forged ahead with studies on this policy. And with congressional activity on healthcare likely on hold until after the 2020 presidential election, advocates see this year’s progress on the state level with this policy as significant—even if the industry is on the alert about potential revenue hits.
Adelberg said he is tracking the discussion closely and is particularly interested in the option if it’s offered outside the Obamacare exchanges

I have previously stated and I will restate my opinion, that unless civility, maturity, and a dedication to do what is best for the voters, nothing will get done in healthcare in the next 2 years with the Democrats using the failure as one of many talking points to get elected. These will be depressing 2 or more years of frustration. But I will continue my discussion regarding the options for our healthcare system and hopefully offer what I believe is the best form of healthcare delivery for all in our wonderful country.

Happy New Year to All!!