Provider Nondiscrimination Update

My editorial on the Affordable Care Act’s section that prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against classes of health care providers is now posted at Health Insights Today.

When fully implemented, this federal nondiscrimination policy will for the first time forbid any American health insurance company from refusing to cover services legally provided by a class of licensed health care practitioners (e.g., chiropractors, acupuncturists or clinical social workers) acting within the scope of their state licenses, if it covers those services when provided by a different class of practitioners (e.g., medical or osteopathic physicians). While the Affordable Care Act does not mandate equal payment for equal work (i.e., paying a chiropractor providing a service the same rate as an MD providing the same service), friend and foe alike understand that Section 2706 would make it illegal for insurers to cover any health service for one class of providers licensed to perform it while rejecting coverage for another also licensed to do so. (This nondiscrimination policy does not apply to the two largest government insurance plans—Medicare, which offers partial chiropractic coverage nationwide, and Medicaid, where coverage varies from state to state.)

This part of  the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014. Because it applies to all services that a practitioner is licensed to provide under state law, the implications are quite broad. I’ll be writing more about this in the near future, and presenting on the prevention and health promotion part of this equation at the March ACC-RAC conference in Washington, DC. (ACC-RAC is the annual Association of Chiropractic Colleges Research Agenda Conference).

NY Times Article: Flu Shot Benefits Substantially Overrated

I have never found the hype behind flu shots convincing. Here’s new evidence supporting that skepticism.

It’s flu-shot season, and public health officials are urging everyone over 6 months of age to get one. Many businesses provide on-site flu shots, and some hospitals have told staff members that they have to wear masks if they do not get the vaccine. By 2020, United States health leaders want 80 percent of the population to get yearly shots.

For vaccine manufacturers, it’s a bonanza: Influenza shots — given every year, unlike many other vaccines — are a multibillion-dollar global business.

But how good are they?

Last month,, in a step tantamount to heresy in the public health world, scientists at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota released a report saying that influenza vaccinations provide only modest protection for healthy young and middle-age adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older, who are most likely to succumb to the illness or its complications. Moreover, the report’s authors concluded, federal vaccination recommendations, which have expanded in recent years, are based on inadequate evidence and poorly executed studies.

“We have overpromoted and overhyped this vaccine,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, as well as its Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. “It does not protect as promoted. It’s all a sales job: it’s all public relations.”

It’s my impression that it’s people over 65 to whom these vaccines have been most strongly promoted. And those are the folks who derive “little if any protection.”

 

 

Reality Check on Claim That Obamacare “Raids” Medicare, Lowers Benefits and Adds to Deficit

From today’s Washington Post, a reminder that the Medicare Board of Trustees reports that Obamacare extends the solvency of Medicare and does so without any lowering of benefits to patients.

Repeal of Obamacare, as proposed by the Romney-Ryan ticket (and already passed by the House) would bring insolvency closer. It would also take insurance away from over 30 million people, eliminate the ban on pre-existing conditions, eliminate the new preventive care provisions for Medicare, re-open the prescription drug donut hole, etc.

 The $716 billion in savings helped free up funds to pay for other health programs, like the expansion of insurance to 32 million Americans.

That was the primary purpose, at least. There was also a really important side effect: The health care law extended the solvency of Medicare’s Trust Fund. If the program pays hospitals less, each dollar stretches a little bit further. Earlier this year, the independent Medicare Board of Trustees estimated that with these cuts the trust fund would remain solvent through 2024.

Without those cuts, however, the budget gets a little tighter. Medicare keeps paying providers at the same rates it does now, but each dollar buys less. And that means, according to these trustees, that the trust fund would no longer be able to cover Medicare’s costs as soon as 2016.

Obamacare Has Saved Seniors $4 Billion On Drug Costs

While I would love to see much less dependence on medications and much more on healthy lifestyle changes, the fact that the Affordable Care Act has already kept $4 billion in the bank accounts of American seniors and out of the hands of the drug companies strikes me as a positive development that deserves to be widely publicized.

That’s what a new report from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services has documented.

The Medicare agency released figures showing that millions of seniors and people with disabilities have saved $3.9 billion on medications since the law was enacted.
The data also showed that since the beginning of the year, more than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries have saved an average of $629 on prescriptions in the “doughnut hole” coverage gap. 

“Millions of people with Medicare have been paying less for prescription drugs thanks to the healthcare law,” said Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Seniors and people with disabilities have already saved close to $4 billion. In 2020, the doughnut hole will be closed thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

To close the doughnut hole, the government will cover more and more of the value of brand-name and generic drugs until 2020, when seniors will be responsible for 25 percent of the cost for each.

When the Medicare drug benefit was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2004, it was structured so that 100% of the costs were added to the federal deficit. In contrast, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka Obamacare) was structured so as to decrease the deficit, in accordance with the estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

 

 

More Confirmation That Affordable Care Act Lowers Deficits While Bringing Insurance to 30 Million Uninsured Americans

The Affordable Care Act is the opposite of an unaffordable new entitlement; it is a way to insure 30 million more people while reducing the federal government’s deficit at the same time, according to today’s report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which is the closest thing that the United States has to an unbiased financial umpire.

CBO also scored the budgetary impact repealing the health reform law, as endorsed by Mitt Romney and House and Senate Republicans. They found that repeal would add to the deficit while also taking away the insurance that those 30 million people would have gained. In addition, repeal would overturn rules that bar insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions, from canceling coverage when people become ill, and from placing a lifetime dollar limit on coverage. Other provisions that repeal would reverse are the phase-out of the “donut hole” where seniors have no Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, the right of young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance policies through age 26, and the requirement that insurance companies spend at least 80 or 85% of premium dollars (depending on the type of policy) on health services rather than administration and profits.

Also prohibited under the law starting in 2014 will be annual coverage limits and gender discrimination (women currently can be charged higher rates than men for the same coverage).

From Jon Cohn’s new article in The New Republic:

The Congressional Budget Office just published a newly updated estimate of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the budget. The estimate largely tells us what we already knew: The law, when fully implemented, will dramatically reduce the number of Americans without health insurance. It will also reduce the deficit.

This last part remains a big deal, if only because so many conservatives—and, yes, so many members of the public—refuse to believe it. Over and over again, you hear people saying that Obamacare will run up the deficit. The CBO, which is our most reliable guide on such matters, begs to differ. 

CBO can’t be certain, because nobody can be certain, how exactly the law will play out. But the best available evidence suggests that, in the end, the law will leave the federal treasury with more money than it would have otherwise. And that’s just in the short- to medium-term. If the program’s efforts at re-engineering the health care system really work, then all spending on health care—from the federal government, corporations, and individuals alike—will stop rising so quickly, freeing up more money for other purposes (like, for example, raises to employees).

The Supreme Court Speaks, Health Reform Continues

My editorial on the health reform law has been posted as part of the new issue of Health Insights Today, here. There’s a focus on the potential effects of the law for chiropractic and CAM, along with broader societal effects that will come with implementation (or repeal).

I hope you all click through to the full editorial. Here’s an excerpt.

First, the landmark provider nondiscrimination rule, Section 2706:

Since most readers of Health Insights Today have a strong interest in chiropractic and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), let’s begin with the provisions directly related to those fields. First and foremost, the Affordable Care Act’s Section 2706 enacts for the first time a nationwide provider nondiscrimination policy, prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on provider type for services provided by licensed health care practitioners. For example, this policy appears to indicate that if spinal manipulation or acupuncture (or any other service within a practitioner’s scope of practice) is covered when performed by a medical or osteopathic physician, insurers cannot have a policy denying such coverage when the service is performed by a chiropractor or acupuncturist. In the past, such discriminatory policies have had the effect of routing patients away from DCs, LAcs and other non-MD/DO practitioners.

The nondiscrimination rule is a landmark step forward and marks the first time that legislation applies such a policy across the entire nation. However, it does not bar all forms of discrimination. Importantly, insurers are not barred from paying some types of practitioners more than others for the same services. Chiropractors and a variety of other non-MD/DO practitioners sought such a ban but did not achieve it in this legislation. Success on that front will have to wait until later.

The full ramifications of Section 2706 will become clearer over time, as uncertainties are resolved through state and/or federal regulatory actions or litigation. For now, it is seen by chiropractic and CAM leaders and attorneys as the most significant piece of federal legislation in many years. The American Medical Association House of Delegates approved a resolution at its June 2012 national meeting that calls for the repeal of the nondiscrimination policy. While vigilance on the part of chiropractic and CAM organizations remains necessary, this AMA repeal effort faces a steep uphill climb unless the November 2012 election brings a president, House, and Senate that repeals the entire Affordable Care Act. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have pledged to seek full repeal in early 2013. 

I ask each of our readers … please familiarize yourself with what is in the law, so that you will be able to evaluate all claims — pro or con — based on facts rather than distortions.  

 

 

 

Drug Company Corruption, Pfizer Edition

The level of pharmaceutical company corruption is breathtaking.

A research director for Pfizer was positively buoyant after reading that an important medical conference had just featured a study claiming that the new arthritis drug Celebrex was safer on the stomach than more established drugs.

“They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker,” he wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

The truth was that Celebrex was no better at protecting the stomach from serious complications than other drugs. It appeared that way only because Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole thing.

The companies had a lot riding on the outcome of the study, given that Celebrex’s effect on the stomach was its principal selling point. Earlier studies had shown it was no better at relieving pain than common drugs — like ibuprofen — already on the market.

 

As We Await the Supreme Court Health Care Decision, Remember the Impact on Individual Lives

From today’s New York Times:

His wife called every major insurance company she found on the Internet, but none would cover him: His cancer was a pre-existing condition. In desperation, the Richters agreed to pay half their hospital bill, knowing they could never afford it on their combined salaries of $36,000 a year.

No other group of Americans faces higher stakes in the impending Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act than those with pre-existing conditions. The law, once its major provisions take effect, would prohibit insurance companies from turning people away or charging them more because they are sick. In exchange, most Americans would be required to have insurance, broadening the base of paying customers with an infusion of healthy people. Those who did not buy insurance would be subject to financial penalties.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that 36 million to 122 million adults under 65 have a pre-existing condition. As many as 17 million do not have insurance. Many try to buy coverage on the individual market, but in most states that is either impossible or too costly.

 

Learning What Your Genome Contains

From today’s Wall Street Journal health blog, here’s the story of a Stanford professor who used information from his genome to change his diet and exercise patterns to bring his blood sugar levels back to normal. It appears to illustrate the upside of genetic testing.

Snyder, who is 56, two years ago decided to see what genetics might tell him about his own health. He’s not alone, as the cost of mapping a person’s full genetic profile has been dropping quickly, as WSJ reports, raising questions about how best to use the information. Colleagues sequenced Snyder’s whole genome, which revealed a number of potential health issues.

He learned he has an elevated risk for heart disease, not unexpected since “everyone on my father’s side died of heart failure,” he says. Surprisingly, he also discovered he is at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes. “For me, that came out of nowhere,” he says.

Snyder is physically active and isn’t overweight. And, at the time of the genome test, his glucose level was normal. But the level began rising gradually over the next few months. Finally, at a physical, the doctor told him the latest tests showed, “You are diabetic.”

He ramped up his bike riding and added running to his regimen. He cut out most sweets. “It took six months, but my glucose came back to normal,” he says. His doctor now calls him a “managed diabetic,” says Snyder, who has so far avoided needing medication.

Snyder is one of the drivers behind a Stanford study of faculty members in the genetics department who were offered the chance to get their genome sequenced and interpreted. Participants will be followed for more than a year to see how they use the information to manage their health, how they react to unexpected findings and other issues.

A downside of having your genome analyzed is that, legally or illegally, risk factors could potentially be used against you by employers or insurers. Federal law has some protections in place against such abuses, but we are at such an early stage in the application of this technology that the future is very much uncharted territory.

An interesting sidelight of this doctor’s story, not fully addressed in this article, is the fact that his diabetes first emerged very shortly after he was told that he had a genetic predisposition to that disease.

Certainly that could be a coincidence and there’s no overt indication to the contrary. But what an odd coincidence!

 

Doctors Urge Their Colleagues to Quit Doing Worthless Tests

This is a very difficult policy to implement as long as doctors and hospitals continue to be paid more when they perform more procedures. Radiology departments are major profit centers for hospitals and other health care facilities.

To see major medical groups such as the American Board of Internal Medicine endorse this policy is heartening. I would add that my profession, chiropractic, has made major changes along these lines within our educational institutions over the last decade. Student interns cannot routinely x-ray patients; for imaging studies to be approved, specific guidelines (such as the Canadian Cervical Spine Rule) must be followed.

Nine national medical groups are launching a campaign called Choosing Wisely to get U.S. doctors to back off on 45 diagnostic tests, procedures and treatments that often may do patients no good.

Many involve imaging tests such as CT scans, MRIs and X-rays. Stop doing them, the groups say, for most cases of back pain, or on patients who come into the emergency room with a headache or after a fainting spell, or just because somebody’s about to undergo surgery.

The Choosing Wisely project was launched last year by the foundation of the American Board of Internal Medicine. It recruited nine medical specialty societies representing more than 376,000 physicians to come up with five common tests or procedures “whose necessity … should be questioned and discussed.”

The groups represent family physicians, cardiologists, radiologists, gastroenterologists, oncologists, kidney specialists and specialists in allergy, asthma and immunology and nuclear cardiology.

Eight more specialty groups will join the campaign this fall, representing hospice doctors, head and neck specialists, arthritis doctors, geriatricians, pathologists, hospital practitioners, nuclear medicine specialist and those who perform a heart test called echocardiography.

Consumer groups are involved, too. Led by Consumer Reports, they include the AARP, National Business Coalition on Health, the Wikipedia community and eight others.

The effort represents a growing sense that there’s a lot of waste in U.S. health care, and that many tests and treatments are not only unnecessary but harmful.

Harvard economist David Cutler estimates that a third of what this country spends on health care could safely be dispensed with.

h/t Stephen Perle