Must Watch: Xeni Jardin and having cancer before the ACA

Health care is life. Losing your insurance because you need care is punishment for getting sick.

I know my fellow old timers in the health care business can remember a time when patients would ask, beg, plead to not be given a diagnosis (something necessary for billing in a fee-for-service system) for fear of losing their health insurance. Times when we had to cross our fingers and hope that insurance companies couldn’t find some byzantine path to link a new diagnosis to a pre-exisiting condition and leave the patient with the full tab. In the few short years since the protections of the ACA have been in place the relationship between health care providers and patients (the beneficiaries) and their insurers (the payers) has lost the vicious antagonism recalled by the fraud investigations Xeni Jardin went through.

Insurance companies as good capitalist participants had incentive to deny deny deny. With the regulatory protections of the Affordable Care Act they are doing what all good capitalist entities do–look for other ways to reduce costs. Anyone on the population health tip? Insurance companies are attempting to lower their costs by improving overall health of their subscribers. IMAGINE! You may have noticed a gym membership benefit. Money off your premiums for getting a check up? Maybe a nurse from your insurer has called you to discuss managing a chronic condition. It is very much still in the proof-of-concept stage, but people can we agree that incentives for healthy behavior are better than punishments for being sick? THANKS OBAMACARE.

Post Script: Does anyone remember the late ’90s movie The Rainmaker? You know, novice lawyer Matt Damon going for broke for a man dying from Leukemia, his family in bankruptcy, because his insurance company refused to pay for treatment. The way teenage me loved that movie was kinda prescient, huh. But I digress.

Losing the protections of the ACA=losing lives.

Insurers Can Reduce Drug Prices, If Policymakers Let Them…

Source: Insurers Can Reduce Drug Prices, If Policymakers Let Them

Wading into the waters of prescription drug pricing. Interesting article, but I’ve got some counterpoints. Health consumers are not the same as, say, durable goods consumers. You want a kitchen remodel, but you won’t unexpectedly wake up in a home store having purchased a Viking range. God forbid you pass out at the home store and wake up having blown a kitchen’s worth of cash on a high dollar antibiotic to treat your MDRO infection. Apply capitalist principles sparingly.

As a patient who had the unfortunate occasion to met her max-out-of-pocket ($6000) after a cancer diagnosis, I want to keep policies that limit an individual’s financial liability should something devastating happen to their health. Even with that protection I was a hair’s breadth from becoming a medical bankruptcy statistic.

We also need the policy that mandates insurers cover drugs that fall into six therapeutic classes: “anti-retrovirals; immunosuppressants when used for organ rejection; anti-depressants; anti-psychotics; anti-convulsant agents; and anti-neoplastics.” BTW, this began as Bush II era Medicare Part D policy.

As far as physicians making a percentage of the cost of drugs administered in their offices, I agree with the author; Conflict of interest much?

I disagree with the author’s concluding statement that insurers must have the ability to restrict access to drugs in order to negotiate lower prices. Patients dying for lack of lifesaving drugs is a thing we should happily put in the past. Regulating the pricing and equitable access mechanisms of the pharma industry (similar to insurance companies and health care providers) would be a more righteous path.

I know, easy for me to say.

Also, the check the author’s note: Dr. Howard has received grant support from Pfizer, Inc. Gotta love those disclosures.

United States Health Care Reform:  Progress to Date and Next Steps | JAMA | JAMA Network

The president got published in JAMA! This is a lovely, academic, chock-full-of line graphs sum up of the past 6 years of changes. Uninsured rates are way down, access and quality measures improving. The economy has responded positively. The health care world is topsy-turvy, and it is undeniably rough in the ranks of hospital management. But in spite of the challenges to the health care industry, the protections that the Affordable Care Act legislation provided make me as a believer in health care as a human right happy. And very frustrated with my home state and others that have declined to expand Medicaid.

It’s strange and sad that I celebrated the upholding of the ACA in the office of a Free Clinic where I volunteered, thinking it might be the end of clinics covering adults below the federal poverty level with a patchwork of volunteer services, state funds, and grants. I’m sorry that virtually nothing has changed for the patients we saw at that clinic. Hospitals in non-expansion states are still going uncompensated for millions of dollars of care. The federal government DSH (disproportionate share hospital) dollars that used to support public hospitals with large numbers of uninsured have declined as that money was plowed into ACA program support. One last insult: if you are paying federal taxes in a non-expansion state, your money is fed into Medicaid for adults in other states, while your health infrastructure is starving. But that is not the main focus of the article. This is a celebration. A statistically-backed victory lap. But don’t take my word, listen to Barack Obama, JD:

The United States’ high uninsured rate had negative consequences for uninsured Americans, who experienced greater financial insecurity, barriers to care, and odds of poor health and preventable death; for the health care system, which was burdened with billions of dollars in uncompensated care; and for the US economy, which suffered, for example, because workers were concerned about joining the ranks of the uninsured if they sought additional education or started a business.

Source: United States Health Care Reform:  Progress to Date and Next Steps | JAMA | JAMA Network

Policy heavy. Palliative & curative & doing the right thing.

Here is the best thing on closed circuit television this week:

Atul Gawande and Amy Berman at Senate Special Committee on Aging
Start at 31:55 and end at 55:25. If you are as pumped as I am about a Senate hearing on aging I’m sure you don’t mind cueing the thing up yourself.

From Medline, a quick intro to the un-introduced:

Palliative care is treatment of the discomfort, symptoms, and stress of serious illness. It provides relief from distressing symptoms including

  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems with sleep

It can also help you deal with the side effects of the medical treatments you’re receiving.

Hospice care, care at the end of life, always includes palliative care. But you may receive palliative care at any stage of an illness. The goal is to make you comfortable and improve your quality of life.

Our health care system is based on the curative model of care. But you know what? I can’t think of one single patient in my given short tenure in ICUs that was curable. We patch people up. We send them back out into the world to manage their health. And we think maybe the next exacerbation will be the one that ends them. Or maybe we’ll treat the same COPD/heart failure 25 more times before the angels call him home. Maybe 100 more ICU days billed. 100 more days spent being woken up for vitals q.1 around the clock, catheter in the bladder, 6 or more needle sticks a day, uncomfortable bed, bad TV, worse food, and exponentially multiplying chances of acquiring a hospital infection.

When I have a very sick patient coming to the end of a long and painful (and expensive) road I am driven mad by the pain and sometimes harm we cause to extend life, or better stated, delay death. I’m a conscientious objector to placing naso-gastric tubes up the noses and through the pharynx of barely conscious patients on 3 vasopressors with ejection fractions of 10 percent. No tube feeding in the world is going to contribute to that person’s well being, but it will certainly hurt like hell. And we charge for the pleasure.

But hear the good news. We are doing better at starting to consider patient quality of life as part of care. The provision that got cut from the original ACA came back last year with CMS approving a reimbursement for end-of-life discussions. We work within the fee-for-service model. Talking about what you want from your care gets a ICD code and Medicare will pay your doc. This victory though seemingly small, is prized.

Next up for change, and this where Gawande and Berman come in as expert witnesses, is better access to palliative care and its use alongside curative care. These two care models act like enemies when I see an end-stage liver failure patient’s palliative care physician’s orders being DC’ed by the attending, then vice versa, and we go round and round. But they can cooperate. A patient with serious illness (heart failure, COPD, cancer) should not have to make the either/or choice of “fight” with aggressive interventions (multiple surgeries, 2nd and 3rd line chemo) or “give up” with comfort measures only (let’s be sensible and keep antibiotics and say a blood transfusion on the menu). Choosing what your goals are for the remainder of your life, if it’s 3 months or 15 years, and having the right to adjust that choice requires the care of both palliative trained and curative aimed practitioners. Most people want to be comfortable and home in their last bits of time. Pet their dogs and eat food not through a tube and smell flowers (no flowers allowed in the ICU). Very few people want to spend half a million dollars having their body flogged with futile care. But we do have to talk about it before it happens. And as Gawande says, with the same words used time and again by children of the intubated parent who don’t know mom/dad would want, it’s always too early to talk about it until it’s too late.

So proposed changes:

Professionally–better training for doctors and nurses in the provision and goals of palliative care. Before he wrote his book Dr. Gawande didn’t know what it was. Let’s get on that professional organizations, universities, health systems. Nurses IMHO are very progressive when it comes to palliative care. And great educators.

Politically–Some Medicare policy tweaks:

  • Medicare will not reimburse for any curative treatment after a patient elects hospice care. As a patient, that choice is scary. And unnecessary. Provision of both types of care could prevent overly aggressive and expensive care chosen only because the alternative was nothing more than symptom management. Middle ground, y’all.
  • Home care is only reimbursed when a person is terminally home-bound. Where do people go when they aren’t there yet, can’t afford home care, and can’t take care of themselves? The hospital. What’s more expensive and less comfortable than home care? The hospital.
  • If you should need hospice, Medicare requires a minimum 2 night stay in a hospital before giving approval for reimbursement.That seems like a typo, right?

I have no conclusion aside from knowing that progress is being made and being damn proud of it. And I’ve trumpeted my love for Atul Gawande across the land and sea, but standing ovation for Amy Berman. What a nurse. She writes beautifully, too.

Finding primary care.

*gets on high horse*

I am a nurse with no small amount of expensive health care related education and experience who works in a health system that has its very own heath plan (partnered, of course) and I promise you it just took me 3 solid hours to find a pediatrician for my kid. AND THAT WAS JUST FINDING A NUMBER TO CALL. There was the extra challenge of subscribing to a HDP HSA (high-deductible plan with a health savings account), but that’s where the smart money is in the marketplace.

After I finally set an appointment got off the phone with the grumpy receptionist from the new pediatrician’s office, I immediately called the old pediatrician’s office to request that my kid’s records be put in le grand queue at the fax machine to be sent to the new doc. I was shut down HARD by this grumpy receptionist. I need a release from the new office first. To be signed by me. And the new office requested a release from the old office. To be signed by me. I have a fax machine app on my phone, but I can’t make this happen.

So we will go to the appointment and take the heat and compromise in care of not having his records at the time he is seen. No medical history at all. I will duplicate a small forest’s worth of paper writing out what my shoddy memory contains of his past years of life. It will be skimmed. No one will be happy.

My morning’s nightmare is comprised of two system failures: Who can I find that will take my insurance (bonus question, at what coverage level) and how do I get my medical records to a new provider.

Here is how this could work better:
1.) Stay within the same health system (Kaiser/Geisinger/Sentara/any odd number of university health systems) so that the records are within the same electronically record management program, the billing is the same, and you can assume insurance coverage is the same.

alas, this is not an option (I moved)

2.) Use a larger brand of insurance. More providers accept them. Makes the hunt easier, does nothing for the transfer of medical records.

also not an option (Are you crazy I can’t afford that!)

3.) Pray for the day that health care reckons with the IT future of an electronic medical record that belongs to the patient, not the health system. Throw in a hail Mary for universal coverage. The first I am convinced will happen. The second not really.

As of now if you establish a record of care with a health system you are held there by the inconvenience of moving to an outside provider. It’s a perverse way to get brand loyalty. The middle-weight systems are (wisely, as the motto is grow or die) consolidating independent hospitals and practices faster than you can say “who bought us?” Health systems are trying to grow as big as health insurance networks and become both payer and provider. I get it. The future of a small number of very large health systems and the demise of the independent practitioner is not the saddest thing in the world. Right now, though, things are getting more complex as dozens of regional players merge and partner and insist on keeping their name on the door. It reminds me of having 4 specialists involved in the care of a critical patient and all I want to know is who is the captain of this ship! But that is another issue entirely. Or is it, really.

To bring it right back to where the confusion started, my insurance card has four company logos at the top. And the website is bad. Also, my human resources person is an animated character. Man that took forever. But now I’m just quibbling.

From the E.R. to the Courtroom: How Nonprofit Hospitals Are Seizing Patients’ Wages – ProPublica

Under federal law, nonprofit hospitals must offer care at a reduced cost to lower income patients, a service often called charity care. But crucial details—how poor patients need to be, how much bills are reduced, and how policies are publicized—are left to the hospital. The Affordable Care Act empowered the IRS to set new requirements for publicizing this information, but those have yet to be finalized.

If a patient can’t pay and Northwest obtains a judgment, it’s too late. Hospital policy says once the collection agency has “incurred legal fees” on a case, the patient is ineligible for charity care, regardless of earnings.

via From the E.R. to the Courtroom: How Nonprofit Hospitals Are Seizing Patients’ Wages – ProPublica.

I’m breaking my break because this spectacular piece of investigative journalism is really all I wanted for Christmas. This is an issue that makes the individual mandate, as Salt-N-Pepa might say, very necessary.

Charity care/financial assistance is available at my academic health system. Patients qualify for financial assistance based on income and payments are calculated with a sliding scale. They may owe nothing, a percentage of the total, or be put on a payment plan. This article uncovers that the criteria for how a patient finds out about or applies for or qualifies for financial assistance is largely left up to the hospital. As a recent cancer patient with massive bills but good insurance and 2/3 of a graduate degree from the academic health system where I received treatment, I still messed up paying the hospital. Medical billing is incomprehensible and damn tricky. Adding the difficulty of applying for financial assistance on top of your stack of bills from many non-communicating entities is the real cherry on top of the garbage sundae. No, it’s an additional garbage sundae on top of the garbage sundae. No, it’s just a pile of garbage.

Bottom line: Access to aid is limited. Barriers to aid are significant. And, most shockingly to me, once you have been sued successfully by the hospital, you no longer qualify for aid. *MIND EXPLODES*

Between Two Lives – Features – Fall 2014 – Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine

via Between Two Lives – Features – Fall 2014 – Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine.

Does fleeing family violence and the nation with the world’s highest murder rate qualify Wilter as a refugee?

Though it’s been bobbing in and out of the news cycle, there is still a Central American migrant crisis. I got into the weeds on immigration policy, then deleted it all because jeez it may be the one thing more complicated than health policy. For reference: UNHCR definition of refugee, US Citizen and Immigration Services definition of refugee.

But this current event is germane to public health. By not having a comprehensive policy in place we are unable to mobilize resources to address the health and safety needs of a large group of immigrants, mostly children. The humane thing to do would be to accept and give the best care we can possible to these refugees. At bare minimum, to protect our native population we should ensure screening for infectious diseases (TB, measles, mumps, rubella, Hep A-C, pertussis), treatment, and vaccinations.

If you have the time and the inclination to have your heart broken, watch the film Sin Nombre. It was done more than five years ago and is of course fiction, but by all accounts captures the migrant journey well. What keeps me up at night is thinking of what home must be like if this voyage is the better option.

Panic, Paranoia, and Public Health — The AIDS Epidemic’s Lessons for Ebola — NEJM

Panic, Paranoia, and Public Health — The AIDS Epidemic’s Lessons for Ebola — NEJM.

Please read this because we have to remember our history to learn from our history.

Various politicians called for quarantining of anyone who tested positive for HIV, and commentator William F. Buckley infamously penned an op-ed in the New York Times saying that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed.”

Let us pump our collective brakes.

I mentioned in an earlier post that as an infectious disease, Ebola is a slam dunk for a country with a robust public health system. It poses far fewer challenges then, say, a really bad respiratory virus. This technically-but-really-not-an-epidemic has shown that there are some weakness in public health. Particularly in leadership. I’ll leave you with a parting tweet: