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The GOP’s “solution” to the high cost of health insurance is to make health insurance worthless.

Short-term plans can turn away people with preexisting conditions, including asthma and acne. They can charge older or sicker people prohibitively expensive premiums.

Or they can enroll such people at what looks like a bargain-basement price and then refuse to pay for any care related to preexisting illnesses — including illnesses that enrollees didn’t even know they had when they enrolled, such as cancer or heart disease. Some plans have dropped consumers as soon as they got an expensive diagnosis, sticking them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexpected medical bills.

Unlike Obamacare plans, short-term plans also are not required to cover any particular benefits, even for the relatively healthy.

A Kaiser Family Foundation review of short-term plans offered around the country found that most did not cover prescription drugs, and none covered maternity care. Preventive and mental-health care are also frequently excluded.

Catherine Rampell, The Washington Post, 8/3/2018

Worse yet, they can throw the markets for real health insurance into chaos.

This parallel system of insurance will siphon off healthier, younger, less expensive people from the exchanges. That will leave behind a pool of sicker, older, more expensive people, which will drive up premiums on the exchanges.

Between this and repealing the individual mandate, Republicans are actively sabotaging Obamacare to make it seem like a failure.

Health insurance can literally be a life-or-death issue

Health insurance is not health care (and just because health insurance premiums rise does not necessarily mean health care is more expensive), but health insurance is a crucial mechanism that we use to finance and access health care.

And, in some cases, not having health insurance can be the difference between life and death. Just take a look at the results of two studies  published in the August issue of the journal Cancer comparing survival rates for men with two forms of cancer based on insurance status.

From the first study, regarding glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain cancer:

Among the 13,665 adult patients in the study cohort, 558 (4.1%) were uninsured, 1516 (11.1%) had Medicaid coverage, and 11,591 (84.8%) had non-Medicaid insurance. Compared with patients who were uninsured, insured patients were more likely to be older, female, white, married, and with a smaller tumor size at diagnosis. Accelerated failure time analysis demonstrated that older age (hazard ratio [HR], 1.04; P<.001), male sex (HR, 1.08; P<.001), large tumor size at the time of diagnosis (HR, 1.26; P<.001), uninsured status (HR, 1.14; P =.018), and Medicaid insurance (HR, 1.10; P =.006) were independent risk factors for shorter survival among patients with GBM, whereas radiotherapy (HR, 0.40; P<.001) and married status (HR, 0.86; P<.001) indicated a better outcome. The authors discovered an overall yearly progressive improvement in survival in patients with non-Medicaid insurance who were diagnosed from 2007 through 2011 (P =.015), but not in uninsured or Medicaid-insured patients.

Rong, X., Yang, W., Garzon-Muvdi, T., Caplan, J. M., Hui, X., Lim, M. and Huang, J. (2016), Influence of insurance status on survival of adults with glioblastoma multiforme: A population-based study. Cancer. doi:10.1002/cncr.30160

Translation: patients with private insurance lived the longest with this form of brain cancer. In terms of surviving glioblastoma multiforme, Medicaid did not seem to make a difference compared to being uninsured.

And the second study, regarding germ cell testicular cancer:

Uninsured patients had an increased risk of metastatic disease at diagnosis (relative risk [RR], 1.26; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.15-1.38) in comparison with insured patients, as did Medicaid patients (RR, 1.62; 95% CI, 1.51-1.74). Among men with metastatic disease, uninsured and Medicaid patients were more likely to be diagnosed with intermediate/poor-risk disease (RR for uninsured patients, 1.22; 95% CI, 1.04-1.44; RR for Medicaid patients, 1.39; 95% CI, 1.23-1.57) and were less likely to undergo lymph node dissection (RR for uninsured patients, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.57-0.94; RR for Medicaid patients, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.63-0.92) in comparison with insured patients. Men without insurance were more likely to die of their disease (hazard ratio [HR], 1.88; 95% CI, 1.29-2.75) in comparison with insured men, as were those with Medicaid (HR, 1.58; 95% CI, 1.16-2.15).

Markt, S. C., Lago-Hernandez, C. A., Miller, R. E., Mahal, B. A., Bernard, B., Albiges, L., Frazier, L. A., Beard, C. J., Wright, A. A. and Sweeney, C. J. (2016), Insurance status and disparities in disease presentation, treatment, and outcomes for men with germ cell tumors. Cancer. doi:10.1002/cncr.30159

Translation: men who had private insurance were 88 percent more likely to survive germ cell testicular cancer than those who were uninsured, and the men who had Medicaid were 58 percent more likely to survive than those who were uninsured.

In both studies, patients with private insurance tended to be diagnosed earlier on the disease progression than uninsured and Medicaid patients, and this was shown to be important to a patient’s survival.

Arguments for the left and right

There is fodder here for both sides of the political aisle. On the one hand, liberals can point to the 58 percent increase in survival rates among Medicaid patients compared to those who were uninsured. And they can also point to the researchers’ acknowledgement that many of the Medicaid patients were likely to have been uninsured until just after being diagnosed with cancer. Clearly having Medicaid was better for these patients than having no insurance at all.

And yet, on the other side of the aisle, conservatives can point to the results of the first study that, despite all the tax dollars spent on Medicaid, it did not seem to make a difference in survival rates compared to having no insurance at all. Even with the second study, the right can point to the far superior outcomes of patients with private insurance compared to those with Medicaid, even while acknowledging that Medicaid was better for those patients than being uninsured.

Underlying issues

So, what’s an objective observer concerned about health policy supposed to make of these results? I have a few suggestions.

  • Private insurance probably improves access to care because reimbursement rates for physicians and hospitals are much higher than Medicaid. Many physicians will not accept Medicaid patients due to the very low reimbursement rates. Medicaid can also have issues with the timeliness of reimbursement, depending how much funding is left in a given state’s Medicaid budget. Even the physicians who do accept Medicaid might be less inclined to proceed with aggressive cancer treatments for their Medicaid patients than they would be for their patients with private insurance. The germ cell study found that Medicaid and uninsured patients did have a different treatment path from patients with private insurance, but this might be because they were also diagnosed later.
  • Medicaid isn’t as good as private insurance, but it’s better than nothing. Particularly for the germ cell cancers, Medicaid patients had much better outcomes than uninsured patients even though they did not fare as well as the patients with private insurance. Medicaid certainly has its administrative and funding/reimbursement challenges as a government bureaucracy reliant in part on state government sources, but does anyone seriously believe this is causing the cancer patients in their population to die in such large numbers? I’m all for innovations to make Medicaid as efficient as possible so that it can serve these populations as effectively and cost effectively as possible, but the idea that is it a hindrance to care for people who can’t afford private insurance is simply not borne out by the evidence. One learning point from these studies for Medicaid plans is to do more to encourage their populations to get cancer screenings so that these cancers can be caught earlier, but that doesn’t fully explain the insurance disparities.
  • These comparisons don’t represent realistic policy choices. I don’t know of anyone on either side of the aisle who has proposed putting the Medicaid population on private health insurance plans like the ones employers offer to their employees. Republicans would balk at the high cost to taxpayers, and Democrats would balk at the high levels of cost sharing for poor people who can’t afford it as well as the involvement of private insurance companies in general. Sure, some private health insurers have contracts with state governments to administer managed Medicaid plans, but those plans still don’t reimburse physicians and hospitals the way private plans do. They’re not equivalent. Even the private health insurance plans that are available on the exchanges for people a little higher up the economic ladder than Medicaid patients tend to have lower physician and hospital reimbursement rates than most employer-sponsored or individual plans outside of the exchanges. Considering how many Medicaid patients are covered by managed Medicaid plans operated by private insurance companies, one would think these private insurers would be able to close the gap between their regular insured and their Medicaid patients. Given the very real policy implications being debated in state legislatures today, it would be interesting to learn if there are real disparities between managed Medicaid and traditional Medicaid patients, but so far that research is lacking.
  • Medicaid is not Medicare, and it’s especially not single payer. Some on the left, like Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have been calling for a single-payer system that would essentially be “Medicare for all.” Medicare’s reimbursement rates are lower than private insurance but higher than Medicaid, and Medicare have the same payment timeliness issues that Medicaid does because it’s funded entirely by the federal government without involvement of state governments. Unlike Medicaid, physician participation in Medicare is already nearly universal (although I don’t know of too many pediatricians who take Medicare patients today because most Medicare beneficiaries are over 65). Eliminating private health insurance and moving to a “Medicare for all” system regardless of age would bring those pediatricians and the few outliers from other specialties into the Medicare fold because there would literally be no other source of income for them if they intended to continue practicing medicine at all.
  • Achieving equally bad outcomes would be a pyrrhic victory. I’ve seen bumper stickers from conservatives that read, “Liberals want misery spread equally.” It’s a concern worth addressing. If we address these disparities by merely reducing the survival rates of people who currently have private insurance, things will be equal, but no one will be better off. For germ cell testicular cancer, the research tells us that taxpayer dollars spent on Medicaid are quite literally saving lives for people who would otherwise be uninsured. But it’s very important that we understand the complex reasons why the Medicaid population is experiencing these disparities compared to the population with private insurance and address them. My health economics professor from graduate school would say that we need to build a better model.

More good news for Obamacare – and bad news for those who want to repeal it

The number of uninsured people in the United States has dropped by the millions thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Just how many depends on how you count and who’s counting. Whether the number is 9.7 million (according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index) or 16.4 million (according to the Obama administration), that’s still millions of people who have been able to get health insurance who didn’t have it before.

So, for all of the Republican rhetoric about repealing the law, they will have to deal with millions of people who would lose their coverage altogether.

Be careful what you wish for, Republicans

If the King v. Burwell decision goes in favor of King to eliminate the Obamacare subsidies in states that have not set up their own exchanges, you would think Republicans would be overjoyed. Instead, they’re divided and scrambling to find a fix…at least temporarily. This is the part of the law that people LIKE. If the subsidies in the federal exchanges are eliminated, then millions of people will lose the help they needed in order to get insurance. And then the exchanges would turn into an adverse selection death spiral.

This would not really be an issue in the first place if Republican governors and state legislatures in 34 states had just created their own exchanges with the federal money provided to do so. Instead, they chose to play politics and rebel. And now, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of King, they will be accountable to their citizens for the loss of subsidies.

The ruling is certainly far from guaranteed for King, as Yale Law professor Abbe Gluck explained very well.

But if King does win the case, Republicans can’t agree on a strategy for what to do next: do they provide some temporary fix to extend the subsidies until after the 2016 election, or do they just cut them off completely? A few million people losing the health insurance that Obamacare afforded them — based on a technicality — could make for some unpleasant town hall meetings for Republican legislators in red states as well as the 2016 GOP candidates for President.

The Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 as a form of Medicaid expansion: Part 1 – Background

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (which you might know better as “Obamacare”) into law. Unless you have been in a coma for the past five years, you probably know that this is a controversial law that the GOP has been trying unsuccessfully to repeal ever since that day.

In addition to the legislative attempts to repeal the law, a landmark Supreme Court case (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius) challenged the constitutionality of the law’s mandate that individuals purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on the case, deciding 5-4 in favor of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which meant the law would be upheld.

Although the case was mostly a victory for Obamacare, part of the Supreme Court’s ruling did weaken one important provision of the law that required states to implement an expansion of Medicaid to adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The court ruled that the federal government could not compel states to participate in the Medicaid expansion if the state legislatures and governors did not want to.

What followed was a split along partisan lines — basically the states with Democratic governors and legislatures implemented the Medicaid expansion, and states with Republican governors and legislatures (and states with divided governments) opted out. One of those opt-out states was my home state of Indiana.

In 2008, Indiana (at that time under Governor Mitch Daniels) implemented a Medicaid waiver program called the Healthy Indiana Plan, or HIP. HIP was based on principles of health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans, which are generally favored by conservatives over more comprehensive health coverage requirements. You can read more details about how HIP originally worked here.

The original HIP program did not meet the standards of essential health benefits required under the Affordable Care Act, and it capped enrollment based on a fixed budget rather than allowing anyone who met the income guidelines to enroll, so there was concern that the program would be suspended…it has been temporarily extended through 2014 to allow time for Indiana and the federal government to determine where to go from here.

Now Indiana Governor Mike Pence has proposed using a modified version of the Healthy Indiana Plan (known as HIP 2.0) to substitute for expanding traditional Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He has been negotiating with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about this for some time now, and it is widely believed that they will be able to reach some sort of compromise.

Pence has received criticism from both the left and the right for his approach. (He has also received bipartisan praise.) But my real question is whether HIP 2.0 is good public policy. I’ll explore in more detail how both version of HIP were designed and the policy implications of that in Part 2.

Want to save babies? Focus on improving women’s health, not picketing Planned Parenthood

Family planning is an important part of women’s health. And reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal, and rare. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to bring down the rate of abortions. And it has been my experience that good family planning and good medical care brings down the rate of abortion. Keeping women and men in ignorance and denied the access to services actually increases the rate of abortion. — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee, 2009

It wasn’t too long ago that I stumbled upon an anti-abortion protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic that was across the street from my shopping destination. Even though I adamantly disagree with the protesters and doubt that they understand all of the non-abortion services that Planned Parenthood provides, I think their hearts were in the right place. They want to protect fetuses that they consider to be babies.

To further their efforts, pro-life groups have fought to pass anti-abortion laws (which are frequently overturned in court as unconstitutional, most famously in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) and opened crisis pregnancy centers that show ultrasound images to pregnant women (a tactic proven to be ineffective at reducing induced abortions).

I’d like to suggest that if their real goal is to save the lives of babies in the USA — both born and unborn — they might want to focus their energies elsewhere.

Good news/bad news from the USA

First, the good news from the USA. In 2011, induced abortion rates in the United States fell to their lowest since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Another good sign is a declining infant mortality rate…reported at 6.05 deaths before the first birthday per 1,000 live births in 2011, which was a 12 percent drop from 2005. So we’re getting a little better at this. The bad news is that better is still not very good by international standards.

In 2008, the United States ranked 27th in infant mortality rate among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, and a previous report linked the United States’ relatively unfavorable infant mortality ranking to its higher percentage of preterm births. Despite the recent infant mortality decline, comparing the 2011 U.S. infant mortality rate with the 2008 international rankings would still have the United States ranked 27th. — U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, NCHS Data Brief, April 2013 (emphasis added)

 

Not getting much value

US not getting much value

Despite spending more than any other nation on earth for health care per capita, the United States (depicted on the far righthand side of the chart) still lags behind many other countries in terms of infant mortality and abortion rates. Although the United States is not the worst performer on the list in terms of abortion and infant mortality, countries like Mexico and Estonia spend far less on health care per person. Please note that lower numbers for all variables always indicate better performance in this chart.

But is more health spending the answer? A quick glance at the data would suggest not, since the United States has the highest health care spending on earth, both in real dollars and as a percentage of gross domestic product.

In terms of the unborn, even though the U.S. abortion rate is dropping, it’s still too high. In 2008, the United States reported a rate of 20 induced abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44. Germany, the top performing country, reported only 7.

What’s interesting is the inverse correlation between restrictive abortion laws and the number of abortions…especially the number of unsafe abortions. That is, the more restrictive a country’s abortion laws are, the more abortions occur. And they are of the unsafe, back-alley variety that endangers women’s lives.

Although the legal status of abortion and risk associated with the procedure are not perfectly correlated, it is well documented that morbidity and mortality resulting from abortion tend to be high in countries and regions characterized by restrictive abortion laws, and is very low when these are liberal…We found that the proportion of women living under liberal abortion laws is inversely associated with the abortion rate in the subregions of the world. — Sedgh, G. et al. “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” from The Lancet, 2012

It’s worth pointing out that the study classifies the U.S. as having liberal abortion laws, but obviously the people picketing outside of Planned Parenthood are hoping to change that.

So what’s a country to do?

Just because the United States spends more on health care by far than any other nation in the world doesn’t mean we’ve been spending the money very wisely. Indeed 31 percent of U.S. healthcare spending is on administrative costs.

But Sedgh, G. and colleagues offer an idea.

Other studies have found that abortion incidence is inversely associated with the level of contraceptive use, especially where fertility rates are holding steady, and there is a positive correlation between unmet need for contraception and abortion levels. — Sedgh, G. et al. “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” from The Lancet, 2012

And if you don’t believe that, there’s this:

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has calculated that funding which provides modern contraceptive services in developing countries ($7.1 billion in 2003) prevents 187 million unintended pregnancies, 60 million unplanned births, 105 million induced abortions, 22 million spontaneous abortions, and 215,000 pregnancy-related deaths each year. — John Lomoy, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Fortunately, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (that is, Obamacare) goes a long way in improving access to contraception and other women’s preventive health programs that can also reduce infant mortality rates.

Cutting through the clutter

Unfortunately for a lot of born and unborn babies, the pro-life crowd has spread a lot of misinformation about the impact of the Affordable Care Act’s women’s preventive health provisions.

To be clear, Obamacare does not provide any funding for abortions, nor does any other federal program due to the Hyde Amendment. Even the Medicaid funds that Planned Parenthood receives are specifically for the non-abortion services it provides…just like any other health provider that provides these services.

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case in which Hobby Lobby argued that the law’s required coverage of emergency contraception (Plan B and Ella) violated their religious beliefs, and they should not be required to include it in their employees’ insurance plans. Pro-life groups have inaccurately referred to Plan B and Ella as abortifacients, probably for political reasons. In reality, even traditional birth control pills can prevent implantation in the uterus (not just conception), so the distinction is totally made up.

What’s the real story?

It is hard to say precisely what is prompting the pro-life movement to back policies that are so counterproductive to reducing the number of abortions, infant mortality and deaths among pregnant women. I have a few hypotheses:

  1. An overly simplistic view of policy. If you tell someone that something they abhor is legal, the intuitive response would be to say, “We should try to change that law” because they don’t want it to happen anymore. Of course, sometimes reality is counterintuitive. When abortion is not legal, desperate women still get abortions…it’s just that they are of the unsafe, back-alley variety. Conservatives who oppose gun control measures should understand this line of reasoning: if you make performing an abortion a crime, then only criminals will perform abortions.
  2. Unspoken motivations. Access to contraception and abortion has been a major step forward for the rights of women, and conservatives tend to be uncomfortable with that. Sure, the early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion, but the abortions they opposed were unsafe and coerced by men. They had no concept of abortion in the way we think of it today as a safe medical procedure initiated by the woman.
  3. Political wedge issues. Politics is a very ugly business sometimes, and if you can portray your opponents are murderers, that’s pretty effective. That’s precisely what the GOP has done with the abortion issue, and religious conservatives have overwhelmingly rewarded them for it, often voting against their economic interests to vote for pro-life candidates.

Don’t fall for it. The data shows overwhelmingly the pro-life crowd is (perhaps unintentionally) harming the babies they claim to cherish.