Doctors Can’t Be Trusted About Healthcare

Cancun   Of all of the bad nominations coming our way, the notion of Georgia Congressman Tom Price running the Health and Human Services has the most impact on millions of people because of the impact of his virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the jeopardy it places not only on 30 million beneficiaries there, but also on millions more because of additional threats to Medicare for the elderly and cutbacks in Medicaid for the poor generally. Some hold out a sliver of hope because Price keeps saying that he’s a doctor, and he wants that to mean something along the lines that he cares about peoples’ health. He’s taken the Hippocratic Oath, so he’ll “do no harm.”

James Surowiecki points out in the current New Yorker, that in fact the record of doctors and the American Medical Association has been to oppose virtually every governmental medical program providing health security for Americans for a century now. Doctors organized to oppose universal health care when it came to the ballot in California in 1917 during the First World War, claiming it was a “dangerous device imported from Germany.” The AMA in the 30’s opposed pre-paid medical groups where customers paid a flat fee in exchange for care and was fined for anti-trust violations. The AMA campaigned against the creation of Medicare, and hired Ronald Reagan to go on the air and warn us about so-called “socialized medicine.” The AMA was in the thick of the fight to oppose the Clinton health plan during his first term and only supported Obamacare after the so-called “public option” was off the table.

Ten thousand doctors have already organized in opposition to Price and his plan to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, and though the AMA has endorsed his nomination as a former member of their delegate board and a long-time friend in Congress, there is a schism mounting within the AMA over its stand as harmful to patients. Most hospital associations have been silent over Price’s nomination, but have come out strongly in opposition to the plans to end Obamacare as catastrophic in terms of patient care, hospital closings, job loss, and economic ruin within the healthcare industry. Nurses’ unions have been pretty unanimous in opposing the end of Obamacare.

Price is likely to hide behind the public’s assumption that as a doctor he’s an expert on healthcare. Reading Michael Lewis’ new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, might take away any notion that doctors should be seen as our modern day priests. Experiments conducted under the influence of work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that fairly simply algorithms outperformed doctors in making diagnoses of many medical conditions, largely because of the unchecked biases of doctors for the way they are used to seeing and working. That’s scary, but true.

And, as Surowiecki points out repeatedly, the AMA is little more than a very effective special interest group, a closed shop union for doctors, if you will, and their own reports indicate repeatedly that their primary purpose is protecting the income security of doctors. Putting money in doctors’ pockets should never be confused with providing basic healthcare for Americans. We don’t need an algorithm to know the facts about that.

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Sorting out Obamacare Problems Now

obamacare-premium-mapAmersfoort   To the degree that the final version of the Affordable Care Act was neither fish nor fowl and represented a compromise between those that hated the entire concept and those that were trying to make the best of whatever slices of the original loaf were left, we all knew that problems were inevitable. Over the last five years we have been treated to regular and confusing reports from the battlefront, but nothing that ever fixes any problems, some of which are normal and predictable in a huge, new program. Without progress many fall out of love with Obamacare, even as more than ten million have enrolled with huge positive health impacts. Now consensus is building that any new president will have to fix the plan in the coming year, though no one seems sure about the fix or how to come to agreement on a cure.

What to do?

Some notions are almost simple-minded. One I saw said the quick fix was essentially a minor tune-up. Raise the amount of the subsidies for lower income families so that they can absorb the higher premium costs, and raise the level of the penalties to force more of the young and able into the program.

I’m all for raising the level of subsidies, if there can be agreement on that from whoever emerges as the new Congress, but raising the level of penalties is not a real solution to anything. The quick fix folks think that the fact that 260 million Americans or covered by healthcare on their jobs means no problems there, but that’s wrong too. Or, at least it isn’t the whole story.

Many penalty payers are not necessarily just the young and healthy, but also lower waged workers caught in so-called company coverage that ostensibly is offered, but because of the combination of premium cost and exorbitant, almost no-limit deductible charges, means that almost whatever the penalty level might be, it will still be cheaper than paying a premium of 9% of your pay and then having to pay many thousands of dollars in deductibles before you get any real benefit from the so-called insurance. This is really not medical insurance but catastrophe insurance, meaning if you know you need a major operation, maybe you pay. If not, you take your chances and pay the piper. Luckily, it’s taken out of your IRS tax refund, so you can pretend it hurts you less.

A lower waged worker caught in the service industry by these kinds of premium plus high deductible policies would need to be making more than $20 per hour for full-time 40-hour per week work to make it worth taking the insurance rather than paying the penalty. In some healthcare companies where we have contracts, like the service contractor giant ResCare for example, there are literally no takers out of more than 400 workers. I know people who are literally saving up for a CT scan because they don’t have insurance and are paying the penalty, making their health care “cash-on-the-barrel.” The quick, simple fix does nothing for any of these people and pretends that the United States is not dominated now by the service economy and its workforce.

The argument for a public option, a government-funded insurance of last resort, for these workers and others that can offer real competition and leverage to the private insurers makes sense, as Jacob Hacker, the political scientist and health care experts has argued. That’s still not single-payer or any kind of a system that takes private insurers out of the market, but the last years have already established that there’s no free enterprise in this marketplace. There are private insurances still waiting for subsides — $2 billion from the government – and there are regular folks getting subsidies and more that need them who are caught in the bind. Either the government needs to let workers and families caught by corporate insurance gimmicks that technically qualify under the Act, but are worthless in reality, come into the marketplace and get subsidies if qualified, or set up a public option that offers real coverage for this huge segment of the population.

The justice of raising penalties to catch the scofflaws doesn’t work when we still need a lot more mercy or stiff requirements on corporations to provide real insurance coverage.

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Penalties Under the Affordable Care Will Hit Lower Income Workers Hard

tax-penalties-carousel-rappler-20140416New Orleans    The good news in the narrative of Obamacare is that everyone gets covered, there are basic guarantees, and in 60% of the states more people, particularly lower income children, are covered by expanded Medicaid. Those are just the highlights, and they are lifesaving. The controversy continues for conservatives and businesses around the mandates, the fact that all businesses of a certain size are required to provide coverage. In truth, this is largely a fiction. The quieter, more painful, side of the mandates is the fact that everyone is required with some exceptions to embrace the coverage offered and available, and if not are also required to pay a penalty. The penalties were relatively trivial, but are becoming more expensive.

The fictional burden for companies has proven to be Swiss cheese, a drum I’ve admittedly been beating for several years now. Payments for monthly premiums could not be higher than a certain percentage of a worker’s gross payroll, but unlike the Massachusetts model, there were no limits on deductibles and little to none on co-pays. Nursing home chains, janitorial contractors, mental health and home care providers and untold other employers demanded and eagerly received from the insurers bare bones, narrow network plans with deductibles ranging from $4000 to $6500 along with significant increases in co-pays and of course required payment of monthly premiums.

The real cost to employers? Almost nothing in practice, because lower waged workers, making less than $15 or $20 per hour are priced out of such policies both by dollars and common sense. If a nursing home worker is making $10 per hour – and many aren’t! — and works an industry standard 35-hour week while being paid for annual labor about $18,000 in gross wages, and might be facing a $5000 deductible and to be conservative another $1000, she would be losing one-third of her income before she was able to access any benefits from the plan other than the statutory minimums. Why would she enroll in the employer’s plan if she were looking after her own economic self-interest? No reason, and in fact as Local 100  looks at the participation numbers from workers we represent, almost no one is signing except those who anticipate critical or catastrophic care situations like imminent surgery.

The math for the worker in this situation when required to pay penalties, as they are in Arkansas for example, at the 2.5% assessment would be $450. Cheaper to pay the piper than the policy. In Louisiana, Texas, and the other 18 states that did not expand Medicaid, if these workers would have been eligible, and with this income and likely family size, most of them would have been, they are exempted from paying the fine. There are other exemptions, but most are catastrophic in nature as well: homelessness, medical debt, unemployment, and worse.

Everyone is talking about inequality. Politicians, economists, and columnists on all sides of the spectrum make the point about jobs increasing but wages remaining stagnant, so the paradoxical impact of this healthcare conundrum is that the pain will worsen for lower income workers with largely frozen wages. In a ton of states not only will these workers not get raises, but they will pay in this example a fee out of their tax returns collected by the IRS.

For the nursing home worker we have used as an example, a $450 penalty under the Affordable Care Act is equal to twenty-five cents per hour in lost wages. In states throughout the South with strapped budgets and reduced reimbursements for such workers, they would need to win a 2.5% wage increase just to stay even, and without a union that’s not going to happen, and in all likelihood even with a union that’s going to be rare. Such a worker, and there will be millions of them, will wake up in 2016, 2017, and find themselves in a situation where they are in a double bind with a smaller paycheck and still no healthcare coverage thanks to the miserly offering of their employer and the loopholes that allow farcical coverage to mask as real insurance.

This is a huge problem, and it is not going to end well.

 

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Congress is the Undercard, the Real Fight for Healthcare is Still Corporate

imrs.phpNew Orleans   Recently the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act for something like the 62nd time. They have now almost banned Obamacare from being funded as many times as they have barred ACORN! The more you understand about the continued tug of war behind the scene with employers, hospitals, drug companies, doctors, and insurance companies, the more you realize the political machinations on the front pages are window dressing, just part of the puppet show as the pols are pulled back and forth, up and down by the big players. Not to mix too many metaphors, but they are the weak under-card in this fight, while the heavyweights are the companies punching back and forth for advantage.

Of course we have the scandalous way that some drug companies are trying to play arbitrage with people’s health and hike the prices of rare drugs through the roof, regardless of the body count, not caring about anything other than making Wall Street happy. This situation is so grotesque that Congress may be forced to do something about it. We also have 800 pound gorilla setting on the examining table and continuing to pose the most serious problem, increasingly noticed, but left unattended, and that is the persistent problem that employers did not play fair on Obamacare and have largely squeezed through the loopholes, providing coverage in name only with deductibles, co-payments, and monthly bills all collectively so high that millions of lower waged workers are having to embrace the fines, because actual health coverage on offer is financially out of their reach and unreasonable.

A story in Modern Healthcare about the insurance companies’ tug of war was also depressing and enlightening particularly because the companies continue to play such a huge, daunting role in the exchanges, pricing, and coverage. CMS, the Obamacare administrator, is trying to nail down regulations for 2017, understanding that they need to lock as many backdoors as possible before the Obamas pack out of the White House. They proposed a rule that would require any health insurers to require all insurer networks “to include hospitals and doctors within certain travel times or distances from members. There would also be minimum provider-to-member ratios for some medical specialties. The CMS wanted to make sure consumers had access to enough healthcare providers as more insurers moved to narrow-network products.”

And, that’s when everything hit the fan. The CMS is basically trying to make sure that those who buy into care get a standard package across the country to meet their health needs. The insurers and some of their buddies in the state insurance commission offices, who are most frequently their captive audiences, in some states are crying like stuck pigs. They claim they want to tailor the networks to each state rather than have a federal cookie cutter approach, but the real deal is likely just making a deal that makes the big insurers they are used to currying happier to do business with them. Many hospitals and doctor groups line up with CMS on this one rather than being hammered even harder by the insurance bullies. According to Modern Healthcare some of them even advocate that “the CMS…go a step further and build network standards for appointment wait times.”

Meanwhile hospitals and doctors have their own issues. Doctors employed by hospitals in Oregon have even organized a union because of rough handling by the hospitals. Hospitals are being scored by CMS for service, recovery, and billing and some of the outfits that can’t make the mark are squealing about the scores rather than trying to do better on the tests. Meanwhile hospital requirements for providing affordable care to justify their tax exemptions, enjoyed by many, are still resisting and avoiding any accountability.

My best advice is to not take your eye off of the healthcare fight. It’s a long way from over yet, and any notion that we won, has been gone since the early rounds.

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Please enjoy Since You Been Gone by The Heavy.  Thanks to KABF.

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The Problem of Obamacare Dropouts: Cost, Confusion, and Language

indexNew Orleans   We’re knocking on the door of another Affordable Care Act enrollment period beginning November 1st. There are ten million eligible people who have not yet received coverage of whom 40% or 4 million are lower income. Reports indicate that there are improvements in the website, but there is no indication that there is improvement in the outreach.

Having labored in the vineyards of the enrollment process, it is hard not to take note of the fact that as difficult as it is to enroll families in the program initially, it is also difficult to keep them enrolled. In 2015 after an announcement that 11.7 million had selected plan in the 2015 enrollment year, latest information from the end of June is that 9.9 million continue to be enrolled for a dropout rate of 15% and almost 2 million people. That hurts! Experts are saying the obvious culprits are costs, especially in all of the states that have not extended coverage and expanded Medicaid services, and confusion, which is part and parcel of the continuing fragmentation of the insurance marketplace and the myriad array of choices that confront families inexperienced with the already opaque health insurance industry.

One element of the confusion that may not be on everyone’s radar may be language and the foot dragging, half-hearted compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and its requirement that there be no discrimination in this area. Recently we participated in a conference call organized by the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society, and listening to the work from various groups around the United States, it is hard not to believe that inability to access the website and documents based on language has to be counted as part of the problem, and one that should be easy to correct. Of course seeming easy and being easy are different things, since many of us no doubt can remember that in the initial enrollment year the government was chronically unable to even make the enrollment website accessible in Spanish, much less other languages that are less ubiquitous in modern America.

The Civil Rights Act requires accommodation, either through accessible printed and on-line materials or by providing – and paying for – translation services. A fair number of languages are seen as the major dozen or so in the United States, but where there is sufficient density in a geographical area, ranging to more than 1000 individuals, the requirements stiffen. The proposed semi-official languages are based on a national grid not local issues, so local community organizations are having to step up to advocate and ensure that underserved populations facing language barriers get needed translation services to navigate the complexities of the health insurance mandate. There was talk of a new rule making process so that will have to be kept on the radar as well.

It is unlikely in the current climate of contention that the huge issues of costs and program expansion are going to get a quick fix, but lowering language barriers would seem to be a straight forward objective easily within our reach. What the heck, it’s already the law!

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Affordable Care Act Potholes

aca_flagNew Orleans        Some twelve million people may have enrolled under the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t mean that Obamacare can catch a break.  Everywhere we turn there seems to be more potholes on the road.

Of course there’s the decision due in June by the Supreme Court on whether or not subsidies can be offered to the poor to enroll in the states where the federal government runs the marketplace.  Worse, dozens of current and former Congressman basically are saying that the four words that are in contention in this challenge were basically a “whoops, my bad” drafting mistake that was never part of debate or deliberation, but always assumed a “no brainer.”  Unfortunately that could still be enough to eviscerate health care coverage for lower income families in many states.

Now new studies and data are also pointing out the obvious problem with tax penalties not being effective in forcing enrollment when they come many months in the spring when taxes are due and long after the enrollment window has closed to gain coverage under the Act.  Interestingly, the lower income families seem more responsive to the penalties than those with more income hinting that the penalties might even be too low.

But, even past these almost technical problems, the concern we have often expressed that too much of the employer and marketplace coverage is simply too thin to cover the care is also becoming more obvious.   Too many people are woefully under-insured.

New estimates from the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey for 2014 found that 23 percent of 19 to 64 year-old adults who were insured all year – some 31 million people – had such high out-of-pocket costs or deductibles compared to their incomes that they were technically almost uninsured.  11 percent of privately insured adults had deductibles of $3000 or more in 2014, making any health insurance they might have, catastrophic at best.   The inability to limit deductibles is a huge crisis for lower income workers and their families with these low rider policies.

Normally, we could expect that what is broken could be fixed, but given the political season and the whooping and hollering that continues to be embedded in Congress in the far right efforts to deny healthcare to millions, there seem to be too many holes and not enough shovels.

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Go Ahead And Die! (Pirates Of The Health Care-ibean)  Music by Austin Lounge Lizards

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