Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Telehealth Opportunity or Telehealth "Parity"?

Health Alert: Telehealth Opportunity or Telehealth “Parity”?

(A version of this column, with hyperlinks, was published by Forbes.)

Telehealth provides a great opportunity to reduce costs and improve quality in U.S. health care. It uses information technology to eliminate distance within the system. A subset of telehealth is telemedicine, which allows physicians to consult patients over the phone, by text, or video.

Take a couple of obvious examples: Telepsychiatry, whereby a patient undergoing talk therapy has a session with his psychiatrist over the phone instead of having to go to the doctor’s office; or e-prescribing, whereby a patient can describe symptoms over the phone or send a photo (of, for example, a rash) and the doctor can prescribe immediately (if appropriate).

Most people tend to categorize these as “no-brainers.” If we paid for our own care directly, these and many other examples would have long since taken off. However, because payment for medical care is dominated by health insurers and government, these innovations have been stifled. Third-party payers impose obstacles because they fear paying fraudulent claims.Nevertheless, telemedicine is growing.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Single-Payer Setback: Canadian Doctors Without Contract for Two Years

Physicians in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, have rejected a contract negotiated between the Ontario Medical Association and the provincial health ministry. The more than two-year old dispute shows no sign of ending.

Every Canadian is covered by his provincial government’s health plan. So, doctors have only one plan with which to contract. Each doctor cannot decide how much he wants to charge his patients. Instead, he is dependent on a centrally bargained contract which determines fees for every procedure and practice from the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto to windswept hamlets on the frozen shores of Hudson’s Bay.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and the FDA

(A version of this column, with hyperlinks, was published by Forbes.)

In July, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance on three topics important to the future of medical innovation. These welcome guidelines demonstrate the FDA is doing the best it can to ensure it does not interfere inappropriately with advances in medical technology that rely on processing information.

However, the guidelines also show the FDA will be limited in its ability to respond effectively to future innovations. Current law does not really define the FDA’s powers to regulate devices that depend on advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as applied to health care. Guidelines give medical entrepreneurs some comfort the FDA will not impose an undue regulatory burden on them, but they are no substitute for legislation precisely defining the FDA’s powers in the digital age.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Dull EDGE: The Administration Believes Obamacare’s Costs Went Down


The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has just made the remarkable claim that medical costs paid by health insurers operating in Obamacare’s exchanges declined in 2015 from 2014:
Per-enrollee costs in the ACA individual market were essentially unchanged between 2014 and 2015. Specifically, after making comparability adjustments described below, per-member-per month (PMPM) paid claims in the ACA individual market fell by 0.1 percent from 2014 to 2015. For comparison, per-enrollee costs in the broader health insurance market grew by at least 3 percent.
The report compares apples to oranges. When discussing the change in costs in the exchange, it estimates medical claims. When discussing changes in employer-sponsored health insurance, it estimates premiums (which increased 3 percent). The average Obamacare premium increased 5.2 percent in 2015, more than employer-sponsored coverage. (See note below.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The "Right to Shop" For Health Care

Anyone who has undergone a medical procedure knows it is very difficult to figure out how much an insured patient will pay out-of-pocket. It is often not clarified for months after the procedure, after a flurry of incomprehensible paperwork from insurers, doctors, labs, et cetera, has landed in the patient’s mailbox.

(Personal aside: A couple of years ago, my health insurer encouraged me to go paperless, and I signed up for electronic messages about claims. It was so confusing, I went back to paper after a few months. At least you can scrunch up a letter and throw it across the room with an anguished scream, which you don’t want to do with your computer.)

This problem has led to a bunch of state laws attempting to impose “price transparency” on medical providers. As discussed previously, they do not work, because relationships between insurers and providers inhibit transparency. Medical providers “customers” are insurers, which pay most of their claims, not patients. Further, the real problem with medical prices is not that they are opaque, but that they are not formed in a normal market process. Instead, they are negotiated by third-party bureaucracies.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Consumer Price Index: Medical Prices Continue Upward March


The Consumer Price Index for July was flat. Medical prices, however, continued their upward march, increasing by one half of one percentage point. If prices for medical care had been flat, the CPI would have declined by 0.1 percent. Prescription drugs, physicians’ and other medical professionals’ services, and health insurance stand out even within medical care.

Over the last twelve months, prices for medical care have increased almost seven times faster than prices for non-medical items in the CPI. Price increases for medical care have contributed 40 percent of the overall CPI increase.

Many observers of medical prices decline to differentiate between nominal and real inflation. Because CPI is flat, even relatively moderate nominal price hikes for medical care are actually substantial real price hikes. Consumers are seeing no relief from high medical prices.

(See Table I below the fold.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Incentives Matter: Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Penalties Are Having An Impact

In 2012, Medicare began to penalize hospitals which had too many readmissions. For a small number of targeted conditions, the program compares actual readmissions within 30 days to what an acceptable readmission rate should be. This is an important part of the drive to “pay for value, not volume.”

For example, if a patient who had a knee replacement is readmitted within 30 days because the implant was poorly implanted, the hospital used to profit from that readmission because the extra costs would just be submitted to Medicare for reimbursement.