Thursday, March 23, 2017

California Single-Payer Bill Looks Backward, Not Towards A New Era of Patient Choice

(A version of this Health Alert was published by the Orange County Register.)

Here we go again. The California state legislature is considering yet another bill to impose a so-called single-payer, government monopoly, health care system. This has long been an obsession of the militant California Nurses Union, because a health system under total government control would suit the narrow interests of union leaders. They would accrue power similar to that wielded by other public-sector unions and might even be able to negotiate contracts similar to those enjoyed by state and local employees, which are driving public finances across the state into the ditch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Whither Goes Your Health Insurance Premium?

AHIP, the trade association for health insurers, has a nifty infographic answering the question: “Where does your premium dollar go?”

Obviously designed to defray accusations that health insurers earn too much profit, the infographic shows “net margin: of only three percent. A full 80 percent of our premium dollar goes to paying medical, hospital, and prescription claims.”

Fair enough. However, the elephant in the infographic is the 18 percent of premium that goes to “operating costs.” Lest you think that’s a synonym for “overhead” or “bureaucracy,” AHIP helpfully explains: “Operating costs include consumer-centric activities such as communicating with members, running customer service operations, quality reviews, and data analysis, among other activities.”

Well, readers have to judge how “consumer-centric” those operations are.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Veterans Health Administration Realizes It Should Buy, Not Build Software

Imagine if you learned a government agency built its own office furniture, HVAC, or telephones. Even if there were a massive amount of corruption in government purchasing, it would be remarkable if a bureaucracy could do a better job building than buying.

Yet, for decades, the Veterans Health Administration has tried to do that with its Electronic Health Record (EHR). I cannot think of another health system that has built its own EHR, rather than buy it from a vendor. It makes as little sense as a health system manufacturing its own MRI machines.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Logic Defying CBO Obamacare Replacement Score Breaks Its Own Rules

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

Dr. Tom Price, the U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services has said the Congressional Budget Office’s recent “score” of the Republican Obamacare replacement bill defies logic. Even worse, it defies the very rules which govern the CBO.

The 2016 Budget Resolution, agreed by both the House and Senate in May 2015 directed the CBO to do so-called dynamic scoring of major legislation.  Dynamic scoring includes proposed laws’ macroeconomic effects. It is especially important when new laws cut taxes, as the American Health Care Act would do. Old fashioned, static analysis does not result in accurate estimates.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Health Technology Forum: DC April 11 - The Promise of 21st Century Cures

The next Health Technology Forum: DC Meetup will be on April 11 at 6 p.m. in Washington, DC.

The topic will be The Promise of 21st Century Cures. Last December, President Obama signed his last bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, which promises to significantly improve the pace of medical innovation.

Please learn more and RSVP at the Meetup group.

If you would like to nominate a speaker, please let me know.

Medical Price Hikes Match CPI

Both the Consumer Price Index and the price index for medical care rose just 0.1 percent in February. This is the sixth month in a row we have enjoyed medical price relief in the CPI. Even prices of prescription drugs dropped by 0.2 percent. Some components – medical equipment and supplies, outpatient hospital services, and health insurance jumped a bit, but not enough to drive overall medical prices higher. Medical price inflation contributed nine percent of CPI for all items.

Over the last 12 months, however, medical prices have increased much more than non-medical prices: 3.5 percent versus 2.7 percent. Price changes for medical care contributed 11 percent of the overall increase in CPI.

More than six years after the Affordable Care Act was passed, consumers have not seen relief from high medical prices, which have increased over twice as much as the CPI less medical care since Obamacare took effect.

See Figures I, II, and Table I Below the fold:

Is Health Insurance A Cause of Past-Due Debt?

study of past-due medical debt by Michael Karpman and Kyle J. Kaswell of the Urban Institute demonstrates the expansion of coverage subsequent to the Affordable Care Act is associated with a reduction in the proportion of adults with past-due medical debt.

In 2012, 29.6 percent of U.S. adults had past-due medical debt, versus just 23.8 percent in 2015. The study does not define “past-due,” nor the average amount of medical debt that is past-due. However, it cites research that almost half of debt in collections is owed to hospitals and other providers.

Although health insurance is supposed to protect us from such a situation, it often does not. Among insured people, 26.6 percent had past-due medical debt in 2012, versus 22.8 percent in 2015. However, among uninsured people it declined more: 39.8 percent in 2012, versus 30.5 percent in 2015. What to make of this?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

PPI: Health Prices Mixed, Inflation Low

February's Producer Price Index rose 0.3 percent. However, prices for many health goods and services grew slowly, if at all. Nine of the 16 price indices for health goods and services grew slower than their benchmarks.* Prices for medical lab and diagnostic imaging actually deflated in absolute terms.

Even  pharmaceutical preparations for final demand, for which prices increased most relative to their benchmark, increased by just 0.4 percent. Although 0.3 percentage points higher than the price change for final demand goods less food and energy (0.1 percent), this is still tame relative to the trend of pharmaceutical prices. Among services for final demand, only price for health insurance and nursing homes rose higher than their benchmark.

With respect to diagnosing whether health prices are under control, the February PPI is about as mixed as January’s was.

See Table I below the fold:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Pharmaceutical Profits And Capital Markets

An interesting research article at the Health Affairs blog asserts there is no relationship between high U.S. prescription drug prices and drug companies’ research and development budgets. The point of the article is to debunk the argument that research-based drug companies must earn high profits if they are going to reinvest in R&D. While the data are correct, the article misunderstands the nature of capital markets.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Slow Growth, Downward Revisions in Health Jobs Continue

For the second month in a row, the Employment Situation Summary showed a slowing down in the growth of jobs in health services versus non-health jobs, relative to recent history. Further, revisions to data in this morning’s very strong jobs report indicate high job growth reported in health services for December and January were not correct.

Health jobs increased only 0.17 percent in this morning’s jobs report, versus 0.16 percent for non-health jobs. With 27,000 jobs added, health services accounted for 11 percent of new nonfarm civilian jobs.

This continues a welcome development. The previous disproportionately high share of job growth in health services was a deliberate outcome of Obamacare. If this trend persists, it will become increasingly hard to carry out reforms that will improve productivity in the delivery of care.

Ambulatory sites added jobs at a much faster rate than hospitals (0.25 percent versus 0.12 percent). This was concentrated in physicians’ offices and home health. This is a good sign because these are low-cost locations of care.

See Table I below the fold:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

QSS: Good Growth in Health Services Revenue

This morning’s Quarterly Services Survey (QSS), published by the Census Bureau, showed good revenue growth across health services, except for specialty hospitals. 

Overall, revenue grew 4.2 percent in the fourth quarter. Further, growth versus Q4 2015 was a strong 6.9 percent and YTD growth is up 5.9 percent. Only specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals showed a decline. Revenue at outpatient care centers has grown 10.5 percent, Q4 2016 versus Q4 2015, a remarkable growth which hopefully reflects a change in location of care to lower cost settings versus hospitals. Although, hospitals’ revenues still grew a healthy 7.5 percent.

See Table I below the fold:

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Every State Must Close Obamacare’s Special Enrollment Loopholes

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

So, the Republican Repeal-and-Replace Obamacare train has finally left the station. Although free-market health reformers are divided on the merits of the American Health Care Act, as introduced by the Energy & Commerce and Ways & Means Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives, no-one can deny the Republicans have kept their promise to take up health reform as their first order of legislative business.

However, new legislation takes a long time to get to the President’s desk. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has the unenviable task of enforcing a law they know harms Americans. They are doing the best they can to offer relief through administrative rule-making.

On February 17, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services proposed a new rule to address one reason why Obamacare premiums jumped 25 percent this year: The exchanges attract too many sick people and not enough healthy people. This is called a death spiral; and one reason it occurs is the Obama Administration allowed people to jump in and out of the exchanges too easily.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Replacing Obamacare with A Means-Tested Tax Credit

In his joint address to Congress last Tuesday, President Trump promoted the idea of a tax credit to support people’s purchase of health care. This is in line with the approach taken by Secretary Tom Price when he was in Congress, and that of the House Republican leadership.

Some self-styled conservatives oppose a refundable tax credit because it would cost taxpayers a lot of money. That which we currently understand to be the Republican replacement bill would offer a tax credit to individuals based on age but not on income, if they do not get employer-based health benefits.

That may be changing to a means-tested tax credit in order to win the support of conservative Republican lawmakers. “Oh, the irony,” exclaims one journalist: Don’t those Republicans know Obamacare contains means-tested tax credits? It’s still Obamacare-Lite!

No, it would not be.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Why Do Late Middle-Aged Women Allow Obamacare To Gouge Them?

In February, Professor Mark Pauly of the Wharton Business School wrote a short article proposing reforms to individual health insurance, in which he reminded us the biggest premium hike in the market for individual insurance consequent to Obamacare was among women in their 60s. The actual research was published in 2014, but I have wondered about it ever since.

Obamacare prevents insurers from charging premiums for 64-year olds that are more than three times those charged to 18-year olds. (A multiple of about five would be fairer, according to actuaries’ consensus.) Intuition tells us that should reduce premiums for older people. That intuition is wrong. Nevertheless, if politicians can convince people it is true, it makes political sense to impose the rule, because older people are much more likely to vote than younger people.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Health Construction Declined in January, Robust Year on Year

The construction market was weak overall in January, especially in health facilities, where construction starts declined 1.6 percent from December. Other construction starts declined only 1.0 percent. Health facilities construction accounted for just under six percent of the value of all new nonresidential construction (Table I).

Repealing Obamacare Will Create Jobs

(A version of this Health Alert was published by InsideSources.com and widely syndicated in local newspapers.)

Obamacare channeled billions of dollars out of the productive economy and diverted it towards a health-services sector that has become even more bloated than it was before 2010.

Last July, Dr. Bob Kocher, a venture capitalist who served as a special assistant to President Obama when the Affordable Care Act was created, noted that more than half of all health care workers today are administrators, up from just over a third before Obamacare became law.

These are paper pushers, not doctors and nurses—not the kind of jobs we should be bragging about.