Health Tax Credit Tool

If you know someone who is uncertain how the Affordable Care Act works and whether they qualify for subsidies under the exchanges, a good place to start is here, at a site sponsored by Consumer Reports and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Click on the FAQ tab.

As health writer Maggie Mahar notes in her post about this site, “A great many young people don’t realize how little insurance would cost after applying the tax credit. Do them a favor, and find out for them.”

Organic Chicken Has as Many Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Conventional Chicken

Tom Philpott has a post at Mother Jones today about a Consumer Reports finding that, surprisingly, certified organic (and therefore antibiotic-free) chicken has as many “superbugs” (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) as chicken raised conventionally with antibiotics. The finding is clear but the reasons behind it aren’t at this point.

What got me was that chicken samples labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics” (list of all brands tested here) were just as likely to contain these potentially deadly, drug-defying pathogens. Notably, organic and antibiotic-free chicken both carry substantial premiums over conventional—at my local H-E-B supermarket in Austin, organic boneless chicken breast is fetching $7.97 per pound—vs. $4.99 for no-antibiotic and $1.97 for regular.

My surprise wasn’t based on some romantic notion that organic food is cleaner. Bacteria develop the ability to withstand to antibiotics by being exposed to them regularly. US Department of Agriculture code forbids antibiotics in organic meat production, and the “no antibiotics” label means just that, and is also regulated by the USDA.

Eighty percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs. Nearly all are given routinely, with the intent of preventing disease in these farmed animals, rather than as treatment for sick animals. The remaining 20 percent are used in human medicine.

Public health officials fear that if antibiotic resistance continues to accelerate at its current trajectory, we may find ourselves in a post-antibiotic age in the near future. If and when this happens, many infectious diseases that were fatal or caused permanently damage before the invention of antibiotics will be much more difficult to treat, as was the case prior to the 1940s.

The routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an area ripe for reexamination.

Prescribing Antipsychotic Drugs to Kids

Consumer Reports looks at current practices and finds them alarming:

The number of children taking powerful antipsychotic drugs has nearly tripled over the last 10 to 15 years, according to recent research. The increase comes not because of an epidemic of schizophrenia or other forms of serious mental illness in children, but because doctors are increasingly prescribing the drugs to treat behavior problems, a use not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And a disproportionate number of those prescriptions are written for poor and minority children, some as young as age 2.

Doctors are prescribing antipsychotics even though there’s minimal evidence that the drugs help kids for approved uses, much less the unapproved ones, such as behavioral problems. And to make matters worse, the little research there is suggests the drugs can cause troubling side effects, including weight gain, high cholesterol, and an increased risk of type-2 diabetes.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the medical system. A drug that may be helpful for certain severe cases is prescribed for vastly greater numbers of people. As we move down the severity scale, the risk-benefit ratio gets worse and worse. Milder cases (even assuming the diagnosis is correct) are those least likely to benefit from drug treatment and most likely to have a cost-benefit ratio that’s underwater.

$500 Per Stitch

This sums up the bizarre economics of the hospital business in the United States as well as anything I’ve seen. Oversimplification? Sure. But what a clarifying example!

With blood oozing from deep lacerations, the two patients arrived at California Pacific Medical Center’s tidy emergency room. Deepika Singh, 26, had gashed her knee at a backyard barbecue. Orla Roche, a rambunctious toddler on vacation with her family, had tumbled from a couch, splitting open her forehead on a table.

On a quiet Saturday in May, nurses in blue scrubs quickly ushered the two patients into treatment rooms. The wounds were cleaned, numbed and mended in under an hour. “It was great they had good DVDs, the staff couldn’t have been nicer,” said Emer Duffy, Orla’s mother.

Then the bills arrived. Ms. Singh’s three stitches cost $2,229.11. Orla’s forehead was sealed with a dab of skin glue for $1,696. “When I first saw the charge, I said, ‘What could possibly have cost that much?’ ” recalled Ms. Singh. “They billed for everything, every pill.”

There is little science to how hospitals determine the prices they print on hospital bills.

“Charge master prices are basically arbitrary, not connected to underlying costs or market prices,” said Professor Melnick, the economist. Hospitals “can set them at any level they want. There are no market constraints.”

Prices for any item or service are set by each hospital and move up and down yearly, and show extraordinary variability, health economists say. The codeine that costs $20 and the bag of IV fluid that costs $137 at California Pacific are charged at $1 and $16 at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, across town. But U.C.S.F. Medical Center charges $1,600 for an amniocentesis, which costs $687 at California Pacific.

 

 

Three Governors: Why Obamacare Is Working in Our States

The governors of Kentucky, Connecticut and Washington explain it clearly:

In our states — Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut — the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” is working. Tens of thousands of our residents have enrolled in affordable health-care coverage. Many of them could not get insurance before the law was enacted.

People keep asking us why our states have been successful. Here’s a hint: It’s not about our Web sites.

 Sure, having functioning Web sites for our health-care exchanges makes the job of meeting the enormous demand for affordable coverage much easier, but each of our state Web sites has had its share of technical glitches. As we have demonstrated on a near-daily basis, Web sites can continually be improved to meet consumers’ needs.

The Affordable Care Act has been successful in our states because our political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health-care coverage and have avoided the temptation to use health-care reform as a political football.

New Cholesterol Calculator Tells Healthy People They Need Statins

The cholesterol guidelines released last week are already poised to drastically increase the number of people prescribed statin drugs, and this calculator that the American College of Cardiology just unveiled will help people miscalculate their risk (substantially upwards, of course) even more.

This is beyond the beyond. Worth reading this whole article if you or a loved one are considering taking statins.

“[It] overpredicted risk by 75-150%, depending on the population. A man whose risk was 4 percent, for example, might show up as having an 8 percent risk. With a 4 percent risk, he would not warrant treatment…..  Miscalibration to this extent should be reconciled and addressed before these new prediction models are widely implemented. If real, such systematic overestimation of risk will lead to considerable overprescription.”

“Something is terribly wrong,” Dr. Nissen said. Using the calculator’s results, he said, “your average healthy Joe gets treated, virtually every African-American man over 65 gets treated.”…

Defending the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

In response to my op-ed in the Kansas City Star this week, I received a wide range of comments. Most were quite supportive. Others were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about various aspects of the health reform law.

My reply to those commenters:

Regarding the questions you shared with me about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act …

The United States is the one nation in the developed world that has not made a decision as a nation to consider health care a fundamental right. The health reform law (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010) is the first major step in that direction since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. It has many moving parts because it builds on the existing flawed system rather than switching to a single payer system, as was done in varying ways in other nations. Some of those other countries maintained private insurance companies but only as nonprofit entities; others went all in with government as the sole payer and/or administrator. The United States is the only developed nation that has private insurers that have to answer to shareholders. I would argue that this is a bug, not a feature.

In my view, all systems have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. The pre-PPACA U.S. system has the unique track record of having the highest (by far) overall per capita health care expenses in the world at the same time that it has many of the worst health outcomes in the developed world. So we begin with a system that is highly problematic, and to cap it off also leaves tens of millions (50M?) uninsured, something does not exist in any of these other nations. Before diving into any particular strengths and weaknesses of PPACA, I think it’s critical to acknowledge that the system on which it seeks to improve is drastically flawed. On at least that one point, I would imagine that both proponents and opponents may agree.

Continued after the jump …

My Op-Ed on Medicaid in Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Star has just published my op-ed based on my experiences this year on the Missouri Citizens and Legislators Working Group on Medicaid.

At least a dozen physicians from safety net clinics shared stories of their uninsured, “working poor” patients (most of whom would be covered if Missouri accepts Medicaid expansion) who can’t afford the medicines or other treatments prescribed for their diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or chronic pain. As a result, they spiral downward, suffering greatly as their previously manageable ailments become unmanageable (such as treatable diabetes descending into kidney failure) , at which point their now-severe disabilities allow them to finally qualify for Medicaid, but too late to regain their health.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/11/12/4616981/tough-choices-on-medicaid-ahead.html#storylink=cpy

 

Why Health Care Reform Was Necessary: A Good Reminder

A fine article from Lucia Graves at the National Journal:

To put Obamacare victims’ strife in perspective, let’s take a trip down memory lane. You know, the golden years of American health care in … oh, let’s say 2007, back when you could be denied coverage for something as benign as acne or as mundane as pregnancy.

Back then, anecdotes about people who were denied coverage abounded. They included this 12-year-old boy who died in 2007 from an abscessed tooth after his family’s Medicaid lapsed. And this 17-year-old boy whose insurance was revoked after he tested positive for HIV. This woman who was denied coverage for breast cancer because she wasn’t diagnosed at the correct clinic. And this woman whose double mastectomy was denied after her insurance company learned she had visited a dermatologist for acne treatment the year before. Ah, yes, those were the days!

For those who put more stock in headlines, here are a few that help convey the state of the American health care system back in its heyday.

From The Washington Post in 2009: “Acne, Pregnancy Among Disqualifying Conditions.” From the Associated Press that same year: “Worker Health Care Costs Soar.” From USA Today in 2007: “People Left Holding Bag When Policies Revoked.” And from The New York Times in 2004: “Cost of Benefits Cited as Factor in Slump in Jobs.” And in 2002: “Hard Decisions for Employers as Costs Soar in Health Care.”

It’s not all anecdotes and headlines. She goes from there to a series of links to policy papers and the like.

We are currently in the early stages of what will likely be a decade-long transition to a new model. There will be bumps along the way. There are some now. But it’s important to remember why there was such a hue and cry for reform in the first place.

 

FDA Moves Against Trans Fats

This move should complete the elimination of artificial trans fats from the American diet. Previous advice from the government had already lowered the amount of trans fats in packaged foods substantially.

On the basis of a review of scientific evidence and findings from expert panels, the agency made a preliminary determination that the oils “are not generally recognized as safe for use in food” and should be eliminated, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, said on a conference call with reporters.

The decision “is very welcome and strongly supported by massive scientific evidence that trans fat has many adverse effects on health,” Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an email to MedPage Today. “Trans fat has no place on the table, and this step will help make the diets of Americans safer.”

Harvard School of Public Health’s Walter Willett, PhD, puts the change into context:

Willett added, “Further removal of trans fats will also likely nudge down rates of diabetes, obesity, and other conditions as well.”

“Importantly, by getting trans fat off the table entirely, we will be able to focus attention on other aspects of diet that also need to be improved,” he said. “This will likely have a ripple effect worldwide because other countries are considering similar actions.”