Sunday, July 31, 2016

GDP: Health Services Spending Dominates "Close To Zero" Economic Growth

As the U.S. economy continues to flirt with recession, this morning’s “flash” Dross Domestic Product release for the second quarter indicates “close to zero” growth. Business investment has collapsed, leaving personal consumption expenditures to drive what little growth there is.

As a large component of personal consumption expenditures, spending on health services continues to outpace GDP growth. Growth in health services spending of $28.4 billion (annualized) comprised 18 percent of GDP growth. However, personal expenditures on services grew much more than GDP overall. Growth in spending on health services amounted to 15 percent of growth in personal consumption expenditures and 25 percent of spending on services. Spending on health services grew by 5.3 percent, versus only 3.2 percent growth in non-health services GDP (Table I).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

First, Do No Digital Harm: Regulating Telemedicine

(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

Telemedicine, whereby physicians use email, phone, text, or video for prescribing and consultations, is growing rapidly. Seeking to encourage faster uptake of telemedicine, many well-intentioned parties are prodding Congress to take actions which will likely have harmful unintended consequences.

So far, Congress has done well. With respect to regulating actual devices, the 21st Century Cures Act, passed by the House in 2015 with overwhelming bipartisan support, is forward thinking. If passed into law, the policies it would implement would lead to a responsible and responsive regulatory environment for mobile health apps.

However, there are other areas in which a Congressional take-over would do more harm than good. In recent testimony to the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcomittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, I encouraged Congress to First, Do No Digital Harm. Two of the most important areas of risk are federal interference in the practice of medicine and how Medicare pays for telemedicine.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Medical Marijuana Saves Taxpayers Money

In a fascinating article in Health Affairs, Ashley Bradford and David Bradford of the University of Georgia have estimated that medical marijuana has benefited taxpayers:
Using data on all prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D enrollees from 2010 to 2013, we found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented. National overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013. The availability of medical marijuana has a significant effect on prescribing patterns and spending in Medicare Part D. 
(Ashley C. Bradford and W. David Bradford, “Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Prescription Medication Use in Medicare Part D,” Health Affairs, 35 (7) July 2016, pp. 1230-1236.)
Let’s not get carried away, here. The Medicare Part D prescription drug program spent $69 billion on benefits in 2013, of which $59 was funded by taxpayers (not premiums). So, medical marijuana is making an insignificant dent in the burden of this entitlement.

Obamacare's Perverse Job Creation Program

The latest jobs report gave the stock market a boost and injected some optimism into public sentiment about our economic prospects. Unfortunately there’s a problem with the current employment situation that few understand: Obamacare has likely led to too many jobs in health care, drawing labor from more productive functions.

Dan Diamond of Politico reports jobs in health care have grown 23 percent since 2005, while jobs overall have grown only 6 percent. Much of this was driven by the collapse of non-health jobs in 2008-2010, while health jobs remained undisturbed. As the economy recovered, Obamacare kept layering jobs onto health care that did not actually improve health care:
“We knew our economy spends more than it should on health care," says Bob Kocher, a venture capitalist who served as a special assistant to the president in 2009 and 2010 and helped shape the Affordable Care Act. “And we had good battles inside the White House" over whether to preserve health jobs — which were one of the biggest drivers of those costs, but kept Americans employed at a bleak economic time.
The resulting law — born at the very moment the economy was bottoming out — ultimately came down on the side of saving jobs. Many of those jobs are effectively waste. "For every doctor, there are now 16 FTEs that are non-doctors," Kocher said. "Nine of them are administrators — and it's jumped from six" in the past few years. 
(Dan Diamond, “Obamacare, the secret jobs program,” Politico, July 13, 2016.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Government Price Controls & Drug Addiction

In a recent print issue of National Review, David French has a sobering article describing how the Veterans Health Administration is overdosing veterans on prescription drugs. A veteran himself, French has plenty of anecdotes about his buddies:
They couldn’t sleep, so they had to take Ambien. They were depressed, so they were taking Lexapro. They had chronic neck and back pain after hanging 90 pounds of gear on their frame day after day, month after month, so they took Lortab. They were anxious, so they took Xanax.
It was as if a VA doctor had simply listened to a list of symptoms, located a pill to address each complaint, loaded up the patient with prescriptions, and called it “treating” a soldier with PTSD. 
In 2014, an inspector-general report found that the VA was systematically over-medicating its patients – even to the point of death.
Wisconsin’s Senate race is being roiled by a report on the VA facility at Tomah, a place so notorious for freely writing narcotics prescriptions that it gained the nickname “Candyland.”
(David French, “Casualties of the VA,” National Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 12, July 11, 2016, pp. 20-21.)

Chemotherapy Payment Reform: Medicare Is Missing the Elephant in the Room

Last May I wrote about the uproar over Medicare’s proposed changes to how it will pay doctors who inject drugs in their offices. This largely concerns chemotherapy. Currently, physicians buy the drugs and Medicare reimburses them the Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6 percent. The proposed reform would cut the mark-up to 2.5 percent and add a flat fee of $16.80 per injection.

I did not think the reform would have a positive impact, but I also thought criticism was overblown. Well, Medicare has managed to irritate all the affected interest groups to such a degree that it is likely to toss the proposal and go back to the drawing board.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Health Insurers, Hospitals Cannot Figure Out How To Pay For Catastrophic Care

An advocate of consumer-driven health care, who makes the case that individuals should control most of our health spending directly, will not get very far before hearing the rebuttal: “When you have a heart attack or get hit by a bus, you won’t be in any condition to negotiate which hospital you go to.”

Fair enough, which is why we advocate insurance for catastrophic events, just like for houses or automobiles. However, in the current system, insurers and hospitals are dropping the ball on even that:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Last Year's Medicare "Doc Fix" Is Already Breaking Down. Here Are Some New Fixes.

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

What a difference a year makes! In April 2015, a bipartisan super-majority in Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to give the federal government even more control over how doctors practice medicine on Medicare beneficiaries. Advertised by Republican and Democratic leaders as a permanent solution to the flawed way Medicare paid doctors, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) was actually Republican politicians’ first vote for Obamacare.

The president himself confirmed this shortly after signing the bill, congratulating leaders of both parties at a White House garden party celebrating the law’s concentration of power within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “I shouldn’t say this with John Boehner here, but that’s one way that this legislation builds on the Affordable Care Act. But let’s put that aside for a second.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Weakening Business Case for Health Insurance

Boeing, the giant aerospace concern, has been cutting out the middle-man for health benefits:

In another sign of growing frustration with rising health costs, aerospace giant Boeing Co. has agreed to contract directly for employee benefits with a major health system in Southern California, bypassing the conventional insurance model.
The move, announced Tuesday, marks the expansion of Boeing’s direct-contracting approach, which it has already implemented in recent years in Seattle, St. Louis and Charleston, S.C.
In other examples, Intel Corp. contracted directly with a major health system in New Mexico, where it has several thousand employees.
Retailers Wal-Mart and Lowe’s took a different approach, striking deals with select hospitals across the country for bundled prices on specific surgeries. The companies steer workers to those hospitals.
(Chad Terhune, “Boeing Contracts Directly With California Health System for Employee Benefits,” Kaiser Health News, June 21, 2016)

I recently discussed evidence that insurers inflate rather than decrease prices for medical goods and services.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ambulatory Surgery Centers Saved $38 Billion in Private Health Spending

New research from the Healthcare Bluebook (sponsored by the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association) indicates the privately insured population saved $38 billion by using Ambulatory Surgery Centers (ASCs) instead of hospital outpatient departments for day surgeries. That figure includes $5 billion of lower out-of-pocket costs paid by patients directly.

What is remarkable is that only 48 percent of procedures (such as joint replacement) that can currently be done in either setting are actually done in ASCs. Assuming it would not be appropriate for three percent of surgeries to be done at ASCs (due to complexity), the study estimates shifting the balance of procedures to ASCs would save yet another $38 billion. Plus, shifting other procedures, not currently done at ASCs, would save another $56 billion.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Consumer Price Index: Medical Prices Up

Unfortunately, prices for medical care resumed their upward march in the June CPI, released today. At 0.4 percent, prices for medical care increased twice as fast as the CPU for all items. Price changes for medical care contributed 16 percent of the price change for all items. Prescription drug prices, especially, resumed their increase. Prices for medical care services, on the other hand, were in line with the CPI for all items.

Over the last twelve months, prices for medical care have increased over four times faster than prices for all items other than medical care. Medical care price increases have contributed almost one third (29 percent) to the price increase of one percent for all items. Claims that consumers have experienced relief from prices of medical care are simply not grounded in data (see Table I).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Producer Price Index: Health Prices Remain Tame


For the second month in a row, prices of pharmaceutical preparations did not increase at all in the PPI (Table I).


Prices for final demand goods (less food and energy), and prices for all final demand health services were either flat or down in June. Similarly, price changes of health services for final demand were all lower than price changes for final demand services overall. The same was true for both goods and services for intermediate demand.

For the last 12 months, prices of health goods and services (especially pharmaceutical preparations) have increased significantly more than prices of other goods and services, but the trend of disproportionately high health price increases might be breaking down.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Bipartisan "Yes" To A Health Care Tax Credit

(A version of this column was published by RealClearHealth.)

Ready for some good news on health reform? Both the presumptive Democratic candidate for President and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives agree people should be able to spend more money directly on medical care without insurance companies meddling.

Both sides would be shocked to have their respective health reforms described as sharing any common ground. However, identifying this common ground might be necessary if either side wants to fix the worst aspects of Obamacare.

If Republican politicians in Congress want to give people any relief from the burden of Obamacare, they need to be prepared for the possibility they will have to deal with Hillary Clinton’s White House next year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Should Dissent Be Allowed In Heath Care?

An eminent physician has tentatively proposed that published treatment guidelines be accompanied by dissenting expert opinions, much like the U.S. Supreme Court does. Daniel Musher, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine, served on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which considered guidelines for a dual vaccine approach for pneumococcal vaccination for adults.

He disagreed strongly with the published recommendation, but was prevented from publishing his opinion alongside the recommendation. Dr. Musher believes the publishing of dissenting opinions is very valuable to the progress of knowledge:

As citizens of the United States, we are as much bound by a 5-4 decision of the High Court as a 9-0 vote (although closely passed decisions are more likely to be overturned in future cases).1 Similarly, as practitioners of medicine, until new guidelines are written, we are seriously constrained by, if not actually bound by, existing ones, without regard to the unanimity of opinion in the recommending committee. Nevertheless, there is much to gain from studying dissenting opinions, as was famously shown by the writings of Justices Holmes and Brandeis, many of whose minority opinions, in time, became the law of the land.2 I propose that the failure to publish differing or dissenting views in medical guidelines presents our profession with an inappropriately monolithic view—one that is studied as gospel by physicians-in-training and forced on practitioners by incorporation into a variety of performance measures.

This seems very reasonable, especially in a time when expert guidelines determine the flow of billions of tax dollars and access to treatment. There was a lot of controversy circa 2009 and 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, about whether women in their 40s would get “free” mammograms every year.

In 2009, the US Preventive Services Task Force issued guidelines recommending annual mammograms for women starting at 50 years, not 40 (as previously recommended). Needless to say, this upset many people. The American Cancer Society maintained its recommendation that preventive screening start at 40, as did the Mayo Clinic. Politicians took note, and made an exception in Obamacare for mammograms, such that the 2009 USPSTF revision was ignored when it came to Obamacare’s “free” preventive care. (In January 2016, USPTF maintained is recommendation.)

We are entering a period when access to care will be centrally determined by political appointees who project an inappropriate degree of certainty when they issue their guidelines. They could at least allow dissenting experts the right be heard.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Health Services Jobs Still Dominate Employment Growth

Last Friday’s thrilling jobs report, which drove the stock market to new highs, continued to be dominated by growth in health services jobs. Indeed, breathless media coverage disguised that monthly job growth followed a miserable May report (which was actually revised downward last Friday).

Health services added just 39,000 jobs in June, significantly fewer than July. Nevertheless, those comprised 13 percent of 287 thousand civilian non-health, non-farm jobs added (Table I). The warping of our economy towards the government-controlled health sector continues.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Should Drug Investors Worry About Medicare Revenues?

(A version of this article was published by Forbes.)

The pharmaceutical sector has held up quite well in this aging bull market. Now, a new political risk is on the horizon: The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was instituted in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Starting in 2015, the IPAB was empowered to cut Medicare spending if costs increased faster than a certain rate. It quickly faded into the background as the growth in Medicare spending moderated after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.

Those days are gone. The latest annual Medicare Trustees’ report, published on June 22, indicates Medicare spending will cross the threshold for IPAB to swing into action in 2017. The 2017 threshold is determined by a target rate of growth which is the average of the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the medical-care component of the CPI. Estimates of both actual Medicare spending per capita and the target rate are calculated as five-year averages.

Table I, extracted from a recent presentation by Medicare’s Chief Actuary, illustrates why investors are becoming concerned. Table I highlights this year’s Medicare spending per capita will increase 2.21 percent (averaged over the five years, 2014 through 2018). The target rate is 2.33 percent, higher than the estimated actual rate, so the threshold is not crossed. IPAB remains asleep.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

More Evidence Against Health Insurance

David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times, whose columns on health policy tilt heavily towards single-payer advocacy, has done a great service to the cause of consumer-driven health care, describing how much more sense it makes to pay cash prices for health services than pay what your health insurer “negotiates.”

Five blood tests were performed in March at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. The hospital charged the patient’s insurer, Blue Shield of California, $408. The patient was responsible for paying $269.42. Tests that were billed to Blue Shield at a rate of about $80 each carried a cash price of closer to $15 apiece. This is one of the dirty little secrets of healthcare,” said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “If your insurance has a high deductible, you should always ask the cash price.” Not all medical facilities will be open to sharing their cash prices with an insured person, Kominski said, but many will.

These vignettes shows how harmful health insurance is to our financial well-being.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Is It Now Legal To Sell Your Kidney in the U.S.?

There is a global shortage of many organs for transplantation. How about just increasing the supply of organs through a free market? The idea of allowing people to sell their organs for personal gain grosses many of us out. Although, it is legal to sell our plasma, and many poor Americans find it profitable to do so.

The moral case for a market in organs has been made by Professors Kathryn Shelton and Richard B. McKenzie at the Library of Economics & Liberty. Yet, it is illegal to sell your organ for transplantation in the U.S. Or is it? A major insurer may have found a side door into this market, by offering up to $5,000 to kidney donors to cover their travel expenses. Clever, eh?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Health Construction Exceeds Other Construction in May

April’s drop in health facilities starts looks to have been idiosyncratic. Health facilities exceeded other construction in May, as in March and February. While construction overall dropped at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.8 percent, health construction increased 0.2 percent (Table I).

The difference was especially apparent in private construction. Construction of private health facilities increased 0.5 percent, 0.8 percentage points more than other private construction, which declined.  Construction of public health facilities dropped 1.0 percent, but this was less than half the drop in other public construction.

For the twelve months from May 2015, there is a significant difference in trend between private and public construction. Private construction increased 4.7 percent, and private health facilities starts increased at almost exactly the same rate. However, while public construction declined 2.6 percent, public construction of health facilities dropped only 1.4 percent.

Overall, health construction increased 3.3 percent, versus only 2.8 percent for non-health construction. Notwithstanding other factors, this indicates health costs will continue to increase faster than other sectors of the economy because (as the old saying goes) “a bed built is a bed filled.”