Are medical marijuana laws just a gateway drug?

Marijuana will never be legalized because pot smokers cannot remember when to go to the polls. “Darn, I thought that was Super Thursday.” Drew Carey

Call me a nerd if you like, but if there’s one thing that I find the most frustrating about the debate over marijuana legalization, it’s the lack of good, reliable data for public health. The biggest reason for that is how difficult it is for public health researchers to collect data about people’s use of an illegal substance. People tend to be reluctant to talk openly about their participation in activities that could get them arrested.

Is it legal anywhere?

Of course, even the legality question is not a straightforward one. Despite laws allowing marijuana use for medical and even recreational purposes in 23 states and the District of Columbia, the federal government still has the authority to raid dispensaries and homes if it sees fit to.

Map of marijuana laws by state

Although cannabis is still illegal as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, many 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own laws allowing marijuana for medical or even recreational use. Source: Governing, 2015.

In 2002, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided the homes of California residents Angel Raich and Diane Monson and destroyed their marijuana plants. What Raich and Monson were doing was legal under a 1996 California state law, but not under federal law. Raich, Monson and two anonymous caregivers sued the federal government, and the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Raich. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 in favor of the federal government.

In spite of the ruling in favor of the Bush administration (the Gonzales in Gonzales v. Raich was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales), the Obama administration decided to leave marijuana users in these states alone. But another change in presidential administrations in 2017 could lead to a change in enforcement, as Chris Christie suggested when he was on the campaign trail.

Does medical marijuana need tighter regulations?

For people like me who live in states where marijuana is illegal under all circumstances, it may be difficult to picture exactly how things work in a state that permits medical marijuana. So I’ll let Drew Carey explain what it’s like in California, where marijuana is legal for medical purposes.

What Carey left out was how gray and unregulated the medical marijuana marketplace is in California.

It’s very easy to get a medical marijuana card in California. And, if you ask the right doctor, you can get one for virtually any medical condition you can think of. And the right doctor is pretty easy to find.

Doc 420 billboard

This “trusted and experienced” California medical marijuana doctor, advertises with billboards. She also has a website at www.doc420.com.

I don’t know about you, but all this strikes me as very bad medicine.

Before Colorado decided to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes beginning in 2015, it allowed medical marijuana. And, just like in California, the unregulated market (especially after 2009) led to some alarming medical practices. Here’s how one Colorado physician explained it.

Suppliers of pot to medical marijuana card holders are designated as primary care givers (yes, appallingly close to the term primary care providers). Additionally, the bulk of medical marijuana recommendations are written by a small number of doctors who make huge incomes without practicing within accepted standards that the rest of us must follow (performing diagnostic work-ups, counseling on the risks and benefits of possible treatments, and following up on effectiveness and side effects of treatment). Laurie D. Berdahl, MD, Medical Economics, 2012.

This might seem harmless to you, but there have been some negative public health outcomes as a result of lax medical marijuana regulations. And, fortunately, there is some credible data available on this.

Hospital discharges coded as marijuana-dependent increased 1% per month (95% CI=0.8, 1.1, p<0.001) from 2007 to 2013. A change in trend was detected in poison center calls mentioning marijuana (p<0.01). After 2009, poison center calls increased 0.8% per month (95% CI=0.2, 1.4, p<0.01). Poison center calls also increased 56% (95% CI=49%, 63%, p<0.001) in the period following the policy change. Further, there was one hospital discharge coded as dependent for every 3,159 (95% CI=2465, 3853, p<0.001) medical marijuana registrant applications. Davis, et al. Am J Prev Med. 2016 Mar;50(3):373-9

The American Public Health Association agrees.

APHA urges federal, state, and local governments to regulate commercially legalized marijuana in partnership with state and local health departments, including the provision of resources to local and state public health agencies for the purpose of reducing and preventing marijuana’s use, misuse, and abuse. American Public Health Association

Come on, (this is because you want to) get higher

Of course, there are lots of credible studies that demonstrate the positive effects of marijuana for treating certain serious medical conditions. But is that really what is going on with most people who use medical marijuana? Probably not.

Many voters believed this arrangement would help people who couldn’t get relief from cancer or from serious, debilitating illness any other way. In reality, however, only 2% of users in our state report having cancer, and only 1% each report glaucoma, cachexia, HIV, and seizures. In Colorado, most users request marijuana for nonspecific complaints, use unregulated doses, and have used pot recreationally in the past. It’s fortunate for the marijuana industry that no test can confirm that someone has severe pain, because that is the reason given by 94% of our state’s applicants…

Our children in Colorado grow up now thinking that marijuana is a medicine. I think this has led kids to believe pot has low risk, so they self-prescribe it for anxiety, headaches, or whatever ails them.

But what I find most shocking is when prenatal patients use marijuana. They’ve often heard that it’s good for nausea and pain and ask me, “Isn’t it a legal medicine now?” Then I have the task of trying to convince them to stop because marijuana is a developmental neurotoxin, potentially changing the fetal brain permanently.

Laurie D. Berdahl, MD, Medical Economics, 2012.

Colorado residents ultimately decided to stop the charade that medical marijuana laws were primarily about healing the sick and allowed people to use pot recreationally. At least that’s an honest approach. (Interestingly, much of the promised tax revenue that was supposed to be generated from full marijuana legalization in Colorado hasn’t materialized.)

California is taking a different approach. In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signaled a major policy shift on medical marijuana by signing the California Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act. This was partly driven by the U.S. Department of Justice’s insistence on “robust regulations” at the state level as a condition of DOJ and DEA leaving them alone. Voters will need to approve these new regulations by way of a ballot initiative in 2016.

I’m not (cough-cough) holding my breath for that to happen.

 

The elephant (or donkey) in the room: Part 3 on the fiscal crisis facing Medicare and Medicaid

I have previously written about the fiscal crisis facing Medicare and Medicaid. In Part 1, I wrote about the extent of the trouble that the United States finds itself in when it comes to financing Medicare and the “dual eligibles” who also receive Medicaid benefits for the future. In Part 2, I wrote about the origins of the problems that these programs face as well as the inaccurate forecasts of just how much these programs would cost.

Now I’ll finish up this series by talking about where we need to go from here.

But, first, a little news to set the stage.

A marriage made in red tape

Right now, two of the nation’s largest private health insurance companies – Anthem and Cigna – are trying to merge and become the very largest private health insurance company in the nation. The merger is pending, which is akin to an engagement prior to a wedding.

As a former Anthem employee, I’m totally rooting against for this despicable lovely couple. They most certainly deserve each other. But if these two companies are getting married soon, they may want to see a counselor to talk about their issues.

Akin to learning that your fiancée has a criminal history just before the wedding, Cigna just got busted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for its handling of Medicare Advantage (MA) and Medicare Part D prescription drug plans for doing all the things that private insurance companies are infamous for doing: denying health care services and prescription drugs to patients who needed and should have received them and mishandling the grievance and appeal process.

Cigna has had a longstanding history of non-compliance with CMS requirements. Cigna has received numerous notices of non-compliance, warning letters, and corrective action plans from CMS over the past several years. A number of these notices were for the same violations discovered during the audit, demonstrating that Cigna has not corrected issues of non-compliance.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

As a result of this bad behavior, Cigna informed the Securities and Exchange Commission (which would be akin to the wedding officiant, I suppose) that it couldn’t sell new MA or Medicare Part D policies.

But wouldn’t it be hypocritical for Anthem to break off the wedding? After all, Anthem (which was known as WellPoint at the time) got into the exact same predicament with CMS in 2009 due to similar bad behavior. Eventually those sanctions were lifted, but there was some lost revenue in the meantime.

Considering how lucrative managing these plans has been for private insurance companies, the new restrictions on Cigna could, at the very least, put a damper on the couple’s honeymoon plans.

Private insurers worsen fiscal crisis

For all of the problems that MA and Medicare Part D enrollees have experienced due to bad behavior on the part of the private insurers who operate the plans, you would think that Medicare Advantage would be saving taxpayer dollars in the Medicare Trust Fund.

You would be wrong.

Our findings indicate that the inclusion of private plans in the Medicare program has cost taxpayers $282.6 billion, or 24.4 percent of the total amount Medicare has paid private plans since 1985. Our findings likely underestimate the magnitude of the overpayments…

…In 2012 alone, we estimate that private insurers are being overpaid $34.1 billion, or $2,526 per MA enrollee…

..Advocates of market-based Medicare reforms suggest that competition among private plans will induce greater efficiency and result in cost savings. Our findings indicate that the opposite is true. Private plans have drained more than $280 billion from Medicare since 1985, most of it in the last eight years. Increasing private enrollment through voucher-type Medicare reform (as suggested by Republicans) or through quality bonuses and financial incentives to plans to enroll dual-eligible beneficiaries (as enacted by President Barack Obama’s administration) will almost certainly raise Medicare’s costs, not lower them.

Funds wasted on overpayments to private MA plans could instead have been used to improve benefits for seniors, extend the life of the Medicare Trust Fund by more than a decade, or reduce the federal deficit. Private insurers have enriched themselves at the expense of the taxpayers.

Hellander, et al. Medicare overpayments to private plans, 1985-2012: Shifting seniors to private plans has already cost Medicare US$282.6 billion. International Journal of Health Services 2013; 43(2): 305-319. 

Just to be clear, that means overpayments have amounted to about one fourth of all the payments made from taxpayers to private health plans to cover Medicare beneficiaries. And this is estimating conservatively.

The entire health system is sick, and the Doc Fix was no cure

As I’ve written before, the entire U.S. health system is burdened by an inordinate amount of wasteful spending that doesn’t improve anyone’s health. It’s impacting all health payers, not just Medicare and Medicaid.

Whereas private insurers have responded to increased health spending by increasing premiums — which they must do in order to turn a profit, stay afloat or even maintain the cash reserves required by insurance law — the Medicare Trust Fund doesn’t even remotely work that way.

Changing any Medicare or Medicaid formula, from taxes to provider reimbursement to benefits, requires an act of Congress and a debate that most politicians of all stripes would prefer to avoid.

When it comes to Congress’s action on provider reimbursement in Medicare, it’s a good news/bad news/good news scenario.

The good news: In 1997, Congress and President Bill Clinton enacted a Sustainable Growth Rate formula that indexed physician reimbursement in Medicare based on the rise (or fall) of the nation’s gross domestic product. If physician spending grew more slowly than the GDP did, physicians got a raise. If physician spending grew faster than the GDP did, physicians had to take a pay cut.

The bad news: This seemed reasonable in 1997 when GDP was growing rapidly and provided some cost control incentives to counterbalance the perverse incentives of the fee-for-service model. But, after the 9/11 attacks, the economy stagnated, and physicians felt a considerable pinch. After all, the broader economy was largely outside of each physician’s control, as were the actions of other physicians. The financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting recession would have really made things uncomfortable for physicians under the SGR…including a potential 21 percent pay cut in 2010.

So, from 2003 to 2015, the American Medical Association successfully lobbied Congress each year to bypass the SGR and give physicians a raise regardless of what happened with GDP. This was known as the “Doc Fix,” and it had to be renewed each year. As you might imagine, when you ignore the Sustainable Growth Rate formula for years, you end up with a growth rate that is not sustainable. And that’s indeed what happened – at a cost to taxpayers of $150 billion.

The good news: Just about everyone realized that this cut-and-paste formula of passing a new Doc Fix bill every year just to bypass the SGR was inefficient, expensive, and absurd.

So, in 2015, Congress and President Obama struck a deal to permanently eliminate the SGR and create a new reimbursement formula tied to quality of care and efficient use of resources. This was considered to be a permanent Doc Fix.

Without digging too far down into the weeds, suffice it to say that it sounds like we’re finally getting somewhere for reforming Medicare and reducing waste in the health care system. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “giant sucking sound” of waste in the health system

I kind of miss H. Ross Perot. Whether you thought he would have made a good President or not, the man sure knew how to explain complicated issues to the public.

It’s also a bit strange for me to look back on this debate from 1992. I was only 12 years old at the time, but I followed politics even then along with my parents. Now, nearly 24 years later, we’re still debating many of the same issues we were debating back then.

Back in 1992, Perot described health care (he really meant employer-sponsored private health insurance) as “the most expensive single element” in making a car in the United States. And if he thought it was expensive then, just imagine what he would think now.

Health expenditures as percentage of US GDP

Health expenditures in the USA have grown considerably over the years as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 1992, health expenditures accounted for just over 13 percent of GDP. In 2014, health expenditures accounted for 17.4 percent of GDP. Note: Percentage of GDP does not need to be adjusted for inflation or population growth…it’s a constant statistic.

It’s obvious that we’re spending a considerably larger share of our economy than ever on health care. That in and of itself is concerning, but what is even more troubling is how much of it we are wasting. A 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine estimated $750 billion in waste in the U.S. health care system in 2009 alone…nearly 1/3 of total health spending that year.

That’s right — out of every $3 we spend on health care, we’re throwing $1 right in the trash. Actually, it’s worse than that because many of those wasted dollars on unnecessary treatments have actually cost people their lives.

The responsibility for building a continuously learning health care system rests on many shoulders because the stakes are high. As the IOM committee reports, every missed opportunity for improving health care results in unnecessary suffering. By one estimate, almost 75,000 needless deaths could have been averted in 2005 if every state had delivered care on par with the best performing state. Current waste diverts resources; the committee estimates $750 billion in unnecessary health spending in 2009 alone…

…The entrenched challenges of the U.S. health care system demand a transformed approach. Left unchanged, health care will continue to underperform; cause unnecessary harm; and strain national, state, and family budgets. The actions required to reverse this trend will be notable, substantial, sometimes disruptive—and absolutely necessary.

Institute of Medicine, 2012. Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Health Care in America

When we talk about health policy the one area that draws my attention is administrative costs. And, quite frankly, the USA has out-of-control administrative costs largely because our patchwork reimbursement scheme makes things needlessly complex.

In the U.S., there are almost as many different types of health coverage as there are patients. Even within the same insurance company, there are numerous variations from policy to policy. When I worked for a major health insurer, I answered calls from our insurance members but also from physician office and hospital staff who were contacting us just to verify a patient’s benefits, from whether the patient still had insurance to deductibles to coverage exclusions. They had learned that insurance cards weren’t always current or specific enough, so they had to call us one patient at a time because everyone was different…just to make sure they got paid.

Does that sound like an efficient system to you?

It’s a problem they don’t have to deal with in countries with single-payer  health systems…like Canada.

Reducing US per capita spending for hospital administration to Scottish or Canadian levels would have saved more than $150 billion in 2011. This study suggests that the reduction of US administrative costs would best be accomplished through the use of a simpler and less market-oriented payment scheme.

Himmelstein, et al. A Comparison Of Hospital Administrative Costs In Eight Nations: US Costs Exceed All Others By Far. Health Aff September 2014 33:915861594;

 

The elephant (or donkey) in the room: Part 1 on the fiscal crisis facing Medicare and Medicaid

There’s a massive problem ahead that our political leaders are all dancing around: Medicare.

Sure, it comes up in broad terms from time to time…

But whenever someone proposes a plan to do something about it (or, in the case of Obama, actually passes a law that affects it), they pay a heavy political price.

Why is this such a toxic issue for politicians of all stripes? Why are they walking on eggshells? Because, unlike younger adults, a lot of senior citizens show up and vote on Election Day.

Some 61 percent of citizens age 65 and older voted in the November 2010 election, the best turnout of any age group. More than half (54 percent) of those ages 55 to 64 also cast a ballot. People under age 45 are much less likely to vote. Just 37 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds made it to the polls in November 2010. And not even a quarter (21 percent) of the youngest citizens—ages 18 to 24—entered a voting booth in 2010.

U.S. News and World Report, March 19, 2012

Medicare and Medicaid together: Dual eligibles

One thing that often goes overlooked in the discussion of Medicare is its peculiar relationship to Medicaid. Primarily because Medicare does not include room and board coverage for long-term residential care (i.e., nursing homes), elderly and disabled people who need long-term care are forced to spend their resources out of pocket. Many people are forced to sell their homes in order to pay for long-term care.

When those resources are exhausted (and they often are), Medicaid kicks in. As of 2008, there were 9 million “dual eligibles” in the United States — people who were on both Medicare and at least some level of Medicaid.

Dual eligibles

As of 2008, there were 9 million “dual eligibles” receiving both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
Source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

For FY2010, Medicaid spending alone averaged $16,460 per dual-eligible beneficiary, and dual eligibles accounted for 36 percent of all Medicaid spending.

The good news from Obamacare

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care of 2010 (aka Obamacare) did make $716 billion in cuts to Medicare, especially with regard to waste, fraud and abuse as well as overpayments to private insurers that participate in the Medicare Advantage program. Yet PPACA actually enhanced benefits for Medicare beneficiaries (specifically for preventive care and prescription drugs) and extended the solvency of Medicare.

As of their most recent report, the trustees for Medicare and Social Security estimate that the Medicare Hospital Insurance (Part A) Trust Fund will remain solvent until 2030.

If there has been one consistent message from Republicans for the last several years, it’s that they want to repeal Obamacare. Doing that would actually bring the Medicare Trust Fund to insolvency much faster.

The bad news

Just looking at the far-distant insolvency date of the Medicare Trust Fund could lead to a false sense of security in the meantime. But the fact that there is an insolvency date at all means the program is unsustainable as it is currently designed.

Medicare Projections

It’s conventional wisdom that Medicare is funded entirely by the Medicare payroll tax and the premiums paid by those opting into Parts B (physician care benefits) and D (prescription drug benefits). But, in 2013, the Medicare received $237.7 billion in “general revenue,” that is, from the government’s general fund while only taking in $220.8 billion from Medicare payroll taxes. Even with that sizable extra bump, the program still spent $7.1 billion more than it took in. When people talk about the “Medicare Trust Fund,” they are specifically talking about the fund for Part A hospital insurance (HI). Part B and Part D are funded by the Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Fund (SMI).
Source: 2014 Medicare Trustees Report

Just how big a problem is this?

CBO projections

In 1974, federal government expenditures on major health care programs accounted for 1 percent of gross domestic product. They have already ballooned to 4.8 percent and are projected to expand further to 6.1 percent by 2024 unless we change something.
Source: Congressional Budget Office. The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024

It’s gargantuan. It’s far bigger and more urgent than the crisis facing Social Security, defense spending or any of our other social programs.

In a future post, I will examine just how we got to this point, what solutions have been proposed, and the pros and cons of each.

“Bleeding Belgium” is an ironic historical allusion for public health

Support among the American public for quarantine appears at this point to be overwhelming. You can know this if you walk down the street and ask people, or if you look at a CBS poll that found 80% of respondents think citizens returning from West Africa should be quarantined until it’s clear they do not have the disease.

But America’s ‘professionals’ in the scientific and medical communities, and certainly those in the White House, seem deeply uninterested in the views of common people. When pressed on the issue they, especially the president, offer only gobbledygook and slogans. We can’t be safe here until they’re safe over there! They sound like propagandists for Bleeding Belgium in World War I.

Peggy Noonan, “From Ellis Island to Ebola,” 10/31/2014

Leave it to right-leaning columnist Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal to write something so transparently xenophobic that it defies all logic.

That “gobbledygook” Noonan is talking about is just the medical science she can’t understand. And she is not alone in her ignorance…which is no wonder why the scientific and medical “professionals” she is referring to “seem deeply uninterested in the views of common people.”

This from the same “common people” who wanted to quarantine AIDS patients in 1985 despite an understanding among public health professionals from years before how AIDS was and was not transmitted.

This propaganda piece appeared on page 14 of the New York Tribune on November 5, 1917. It made the emotional case that the United States needed to go to war to protect Belgium from Germany as a matter of U.S. national security.

This propaganda piece appeared on page 14 of the New York Tribune on November 5, 1917. It made the emotional case that the United States needed to go to war to protect Belgium from Germany as a matter of U.S. national security.

Considering that “common people” like Peggy Noonan describe medical and public health terminology as “gobbledygook,” thank goodness the professionals are disinterested in their views!

The end of the excerpt from Noonan compares the Democrats in the White House and the medical scientists to the U.S. Committee on Public Information propagandists from World War I who made the case that we needed to go to war in Germany to protect “Bleeding Belgium,” specifically making the argument that failing to protect Belgium made the United States less safe.

But Noonan’s failure to understand far more recent history makes her argument more comical ironic than absurd. Consider this November 16, 2002 quote from President George W. Bush as he made the case to go to war in Iraq.

We are committed to defending the nation. Yet wars are not won on the defensive. The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide.

In her column, Noonan told the story of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian national who died from Ebola after coming to the United States (and infecting at least two nurses who cared for him). He had originally tested negative before he left Africa but ultimately incubated enough of the virus to kill him.

As you might imagine, Duncan’s family has a few questions about the care he received.

To Noonan, this was a great reason to keep nurse Kaci Hickox — who had tested negative for Ebola and showed no symptoms — under mandatory quarantine after her return from Sierra Leone, where she temporarily worked with Doctors without Borders. (Hickox is also an employee of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which certainly complicates matters a bit since she knows a thing or two about public health and epidemiology.)

Never mind that the only two people who became infected with Ebola because of Duncan were the nurses who cared for him. (After all, who else was coming into contact with his bodily fluids?)

By the way, Thomas Duncan entered the United States on a flight from — where else? — Belgium.