Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Colonoscopies Save Lives

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number is 29.7%

Deaths per 100,000

My post on Monday about the lack of mortality improvement from detection of thousands of cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) made me look for some data on the changing rate of colorectal cancer mortality in the US.  The CDC has published data on this since 1999, during which time our population has aged – so we’d expect an increase in colon cancer mortality.   We’ve also had a steep fall-off in death from heart disease, leaving more people alive to get colon cancer.

Nonetheless, the unadjusted mortality rate for colorectal cancer has decreased every year – for a total decrease of 29.7%

Now, don’t think for a minute that this means that doing more colonoscopies saves money.   The cost per quality adjusted life year saved for colonoscopy is between $50-100,000.   That means that saving all these lives has an associated cost of billions.   But the purpose of medical care is to prevent death and improve the quality of life, not to lower costs.

Are you 50 or over?  Get your colonoscopy, if you haven’t already!  Repeat every 10 years.  We need to see more bar graphs like this.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Data show little or no benefit to treating "early" breast cancer (DCIS)

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number is 5

It’s been 5 days since JAMA Oncology published its landmark article on ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), thought to be a precursor to breast cancer.   And the top five articles in the New York Times Health section this morning were all about this article.   It’s a big deal – important to the treatment of women with breast calcifications on mammograms, and also important to health policy.

Researchers used the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database to show that the 20 year likelihood of dying of breast cancer among the 110,000 women who had DCIS was a bit over 3% - very similar to the likelihood among women who were not diagnosed with DCIS.   The likelihood of local recurrence went down with mastectomy or lumpectomy, but the likelihood of dying of breast cancer was unmoved. Radiation therapy with lumpectomy was not significantly better at decreasing mortality compared to lumpectomy alone; removal of the entire breast was associated with statistically significantly higher rate of breast cancer mortality than lumpectomy with or without radiation therapy.

DCIS is increasingly common; it represented 3% of all breast cancers found before mammography became widespread, and was usually diagnosed on autopsy only.   It now represents 20-25% of all breast cancers detected – 50 to 60,000 women a year.

The accompanying editorial observes:
1.     The risk of death from breast cancer in those with DCIS is low
2.     The risk of dying from breast cancer in black women and women under 40 diagnosed with DCIS is substantially higher
3.     Aggressive treatment doesn’t lower mortality
4.     The risk of invasive breast cancer is almost the same in the other breast, making it likely that DCIS is an indicator of higher risk as opposed to a precursor lesion itself.

Screening for cancer makes intuitive sense. Find it early, remove it, and lengthen life.   This works for at least two cancers – colon cancer, where death rates are falling in the era of colonoscopy, and cervical cancer, where pap smears decreased death rates dramatically.

But we’re increasingly finding that screening isn’t nearly as effective for many other cancers.  Prostate cancer screening raised diagnosis dramatically, but few lives were saved, and many suffered from complications of therapy.  I’ve written earlier about the epidemic of diagnosis of thyroid cancer, unaccompanied by any decrease in diagnosis of invasive cancer, or any decline in death from thyroid cancer.

We should look at population data before deploying population-wide screening. The goal of medical care is to give people more life and better quality life – not merely to make diagnoses that subject patients to potentially harmful therapy without benefit. We also need to recognize that there are subpopulations where screening and therapy recommendations can differ, as their risks are substantially higher.

JAMA Oncology, a journal that just began publishing this year, is offering access with no paywall to the original research and to the editorial.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number is 2

There are two developed countries that allow direct to consumer (DTC) marketing of prescription pharmaceuticals – the United States and New Zealand. The FDA’s power to regulate drug company commercial speech is on the wane; a district court found earlier this month that the FDA couldn’t stop a company from communicating that its fish oil pills could be used for non-approved indications unless the company knew the claims were false.    A federal appeals court ruled earlier that the FDA couldn’t mandate that tobacco companies  admit their previous misstatements on cigarette packages, and plans to require use of plain packaging with large graphic warnings have been thwarted. 

The US began to allow DTC pharmaceutical marketing in newspapers and magazines in 1985, and television in 1997.  The rationale was that they could help educate Americans about various conditions which could be helped by drugs, and DTC advertising was consistent with a move to make health care less paternalistic.   Why shouldn’t patients know about the drugs available to them?  

But DTC marketing has made television a wasteland of ads for treatments for erectile dysfunction, insomnia, and hepatitis C.  And many of the well-meaning regulations restricting how drug companies communicate actually obfuscate the real dangers and tradeoffs of medications. For instance, mandating the presentation of a raft of uncommon side effects makes it harder to focus on common side effects. Everything eventually looks like an iTunes user agreement – and who pays any attention to those.

What’s always really bothered me is advertising for expensive brand name drugs (Yes, I’m thinking of Nexium, the purple pill) that are absolutely equivalent to omeprazole at 16 times the price. Until Nexium lost its patent protection last year, it was among the top cost drugs for most employers whose data I reviewed – which certainly doesn’t speak to increasing value.

There are two articles in yesterday’s New England Journal focused on DTC drug advertising.  “Rethinking DTC Advertising.. “ points to the failure over decades to develop meaningful “patient package inserts” (PPIs) to help patients understand the risks and benefits of a drug.  The FDA initially intended to mandate PPIs – but gave up during the Reagan administration.  The authors conclude
For all its capacity to encourage overdiagnosis and overmedication, DTCA's virtue is that it treats consumers as people who deserve to know something about the compounds they take into their bodies. After 30 years of DTCA, it's not clear that advertising is the best medium for communicating risk information,5 but marketers should at least be required to try to communicate risk information as effectively as they do their promotional messages.

New DTCA Guidance — Enough to Empower Consumers?” points to the fundamental inequivalence between regulatorily mandated disclosure of risk and vigorous company marketing of potential benefit.

If disclosure is to work, as others have argued, it must be done right, in a format that's designed to be usable. As an example of success, Fung et al. cite the simple, salient, and familiar “A, B, C” system used to rate restaurants on the basis of public health inspections, with the results posted prominently by the door. The new FDA guidance is a move in this direction, at least if it gives companies more liberty to construct readable disclosures. However, even revised disclosures written by the companies themselves are unlikely to be simple and candid enough to steer patients away from drugs that are inappropriate for them. One can imagine a system that would grant drugs an “A” rating if they proved a substantial advance over the previous standard of care in treating a serious medical condition, with minimal risks or side effects. Regrettably, many of the most widely advertised drugs would not secure that golden ring.

I’m pretty sure we won’t see restaurant style A, B and C grades for drugs that include safety cost and effectiveness any time soon – and in fact a drug might be a “c” for some patients and an “a’ for others (think about high dose statins for those who had a heart attack, compared to those with a 3% risk of a heart attack in the next decade).

But we do desperately need better consumer information on pharmaceuticals – and given the strong incentives for pharmas to emphasize benefits, we need a standardized way to portray risk and overall value.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Air pollution in China and “Poop Water” in my Hometown

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number is 4400

A report in this weekend’s New York Times notes that air pollution in China is more widespread than previously believed -  3/8 of the population lives in areas with air pollution rated  on the average “unhealthy” in the US; 92% of the population.   1.6 million people die prematurely each year in China due to air pollution. That’s a staggering number; I think it might have more impact to say that air pollution kills 4400 people a day. 

Here’s a link to the full report.  

I’ve noted before that environmental protection saves substantial dollars in the economy, and we’ve made huge strides in the United States.   China is focused right now on maintaining its high growth rate.   The economy (and health care) require better environmental stewardship.  

Speaking of environmental stewardship, I’m pretty embarrassed to be a citizen of Belmont, MA, where our inadequate efforts to control water runoff mean that our streams, which feed the Mystic River, just received an “F” from the Environmental Protection Agency.   According to a Boston Globe columnist,

On many days, just getting splashed with the water coming out of the culvert flowing into Little Pond, which in turn flows into Alewife and the Mystic, poses a health hazard.

Clean water, like clean air, is important to the health of the community.    Both are a community good  -  the air I breathe and the water I swim in, or don’t, is profoundly influenced by activities far from my hometown.  Funding environmental protection locally makes it more likely that some towns won’t make a big enough investment. Cap and Trade for sulphur dioxide has also shown us that we can use the market to be sure that incremental dollar spend on cleaning air (or water) are spend where they can do the most good.

So, I’m pretty embarrassed to live in a town whose streams are called “poop water” in our newspaper.  There is a health and economic price we pay for sending raw sewage into our streams, or nitrogen and sulphur dioxide and particulates into the air.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Should we repeal the "Cadillac Tax?"

There's a  bipartisan move to eliminate the Affordable Care Act's excise tax on employer sponsored health insurance plans that cost more than $27,500 (family) or $12,700 (individual) in 2018.   Current bills to repeal this tax have been cosponsored by 132 Representatives in the House and 7 Senators.  The New York Times editorialized against repeal in today's paper.

The broad based coalition that opposes the excise tax includes:

·         Employers.  Who wants to be taxed?
·         Labor:  The excise tax will make it tougher to negotiate higher benefits, and will take dollars away from potential raises.
·        Health plans, which don't want to administer this and be blamed for it
·         Anti-tax advocates:  who don't want the feds to collect extra taxes
·         Equality advocates: There's no adjustment - so employers with older employees, sicker employees, or with workers in expensive areas will now be doubly penalized
·         Urban advocates: Health care costs in many metro areas are high, with large portions of the population cared for by academic medical centers
·         Rural advocates: Health care costs on single hospital rural areas also tend to be high since there is no competition

There are serious problems with this excise tax as it will be administered.   

The first problem is fairness. A “fair” excise tax would either account for demographics, illness, and geography.  All these adjustments would increase fairness, but they would also increase complexity and the propensity to game the system, though.  Another way to be sure that the excise tax didn’t penalize employers for elements beyond their control would be to levy the tax if the total actuarial value of the health plan was high.  That would penalize plans that were “too rich”, and many economists believe that these plans are responsible for excess spending.  It would also discourage narrow network plans or some staff-model plans like Kaiser that accomplish high actuarial value without an especially high price.

The second problem is that the excise tax has helped encourage substantial cost shifting to employees.  One way to pretty much guarantee an employer’s health plan will cost less is to “buy down” to a lower value plan.  These low value plans, though, are bad news for those of modest means, for whom a $3000 or higher family deductible is an unbearable barrier to obtaining care.

My sense is that the threat of the excise tax has helped convince employers to substantially decrease the value of their health plans already, and I don’t think we need this tax to further discourage overly generous plans.  Making it fair through adjustments would be complicated, and pegging it to actuarial value would discourage plans with meaningful coverage for those of modest means.

It’s not likely that Congress can pass a nuanced bill to address these problems with the excise tax, nor is it likely that the current Congress can replace the estimated $84 billion in revenue from the excise tax over its first decade. Therefore, a repeal would likely add to the projected deficit. This would cost angst to those who dislike allowing the government to run a deficit, but will not be a significant economic drag at this point.  

Congress eliminated the physician “sustainable growth rate” pay cuts without coming up with respecting budget neutrality;  I suspect they do the same for the excise tax.  Opponents of the ACA can declare that they have repealed a piece of the law, and supporters can breathe another sigh of relief because this tax will make the ACA less popular and it is not critical to the ACA's success.

This shows that the portion of Americans facing high deductibles is already quite high.  The exercise tax threshold would  only increase with the consumer price index, pushing employers to increase cost sharing each successive year to avoid the tax.  Source: KFF HRET Employer Sponsored Health Benefit survey, 2014.  

Monday, August 10, 2015

Blather, trope, and little policy debate.

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number 
is 5

I’m back from a week off – and the bike ride and the beach were great.  Now, back to wonkiness and health care.

I listened to snippets of the Republican health care debate on Thursday night –and there wasn’t much about health care. The Washington Post posted a transcript –and I looked for words associated with health care.  I found only five words or phrases:

·         Health Care (2 mentions)
·         Abortion (10 mentions)
·         Obamacare (11 mentions)
·         Planned Parenthood (15 mentions)

I reviewed the transcript for the ‘undercard” debate, too.  Mentions of abortion (14) and Planned Parenthood (14) overwhelmed “health care “ (7) and “ObamaCare” (7) in that debate as well.
I was emailing with one of my conservative friends the other day –and he expressed a sense of frustration that the serious health care policies that have been put forward by economists and policymakers on the right are being totally ignored. 

This is especially ironic, since the heart of ObamaCare was designed during the Nixon Administration as a private market alternative to national health insurance. Further, the move to high deductible health plans and health care savings accounts has been championed by conservatives – and the health care financing system has made big leaps in that direction over the last few years.

I looked back to the op-ed in the New England Journal “Bending the Cost Curve Through Market Based Incentives” written by right-leaning health care policy experts prior to the 2012 election.  (It’s available with no paywall). Recommendations included:

·         Shift Medicare from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan – essentially fixing subsidies at current levels.  If health care costs rise more, patients will pay the difference.  Slyly, this is dubbed “premium support.”  
·         Convert the current tax exclusion of employer sponsored health plans to a fixed refundable tax credit, or at least cap the tax exclusion. (That’s effectively what the “Cadillac” excise tax in the Affordable Care Act does, although a cap on the tax exclusion would be ‘cleaner.’)
·         Combine Medicare Part A and Part B deductibles.  (This is something that would make Medicare much more like employer-sponsored insurance, and remove a gnarly hard-to-understand distinction for patients who are often caught off guard when outpatient services are substituted for inpatient admissions.)
·         Split CMS into regional health plans for ‘traditional Medicare.” Each would have their own administration, which the authors feel would be more accountable.  Overhead would go up.
·         Do away with state regulations that increase the cost of health insurance through coverage mandates and which increase complexity for employers, who often have beneficiaries in many states.   Note that most Americans with employer sponsored insurance are in “self insured” plans which are already exempt from these state regulations.
·         Allow sale of bare bones health plans for those who want to purchase less coverage. This would include the “minimed” plans with maximums of $1000 to $5000 which were banned by the Affordable Care Act.
·         Allow sale of fully-insured health insurance plans across state lines.  This would effectively do away with many of the state mandates and regulations, as insurers would seek to domicile in the states with the most lax regulation, much as credit card companies are so often based in South Dakota, and corporations choose to incorporate in Delaware.

You can tell that I’m not a fan of the conservative agenda for health care. I feel that patients are vulnerable when they are sick, and aren’t in a good position to negotiate. I know that’s especially true of the 5% of people who are highest cost, who alone represent about half of all expenditures.  I am comfortable to let health insurance to serve as a transfer of wealth from those lucky enough to enjoy good health to those unlucky enough to be gravely ill.  I like the fact that some states like Massachusetts can choose to more vigorously regulate fully insured health insurers.  I watched Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko  in 2007 and was relieved that most of the worst insurer practices had been banned in my state for years.

But there are some real ideas on the right – more than the trope of “repeal and replace” or “job killing ObamaCare” or “let’s defund Planned Parenthood.”  It’s certainly hard to get beyond sound bites with so many candidates clogging the stage, but I hope we’ll hear a little more about what the candidates really want to do with health care in the coming months.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Medicare mortality, hospitalization, and costs all down since 2009

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Number is 16%

I’m used to seeing time-lapse maps of the United States that show that society is crumbling and that our health is just getting worse and worse.  For instance, these CDC maps are in many presentations (mine too!) – they show obesity getting relentlessly worse.

That’s why yesterday’s JAMA has set of time lapse maps that warms my heart.  It’s no surprise that Medicare costs less per person in 2013 than it did in 2009.   The average age of a beneficiary went down a tad (as us boomers age into Medicare), and the Affordable Care Act meant that hospitals got much lower rate increases than expected. 

It’s a shocker that mortality dropped from 5.3 to 4.85% (a 16% drop), and the number of hospitalizations of Medicare beneficiaries dropped by over 23%.   Even inflation-adjusted end of life care costs dropped dramatically from a peak in 2009.

Total inflation-adjusted Medicare costs per beneficiary dropped almost 15%, from $3290 to $2801. 

There’s no clear answer as to why things are getting so much better.  Each successive year there are relatively fewer smokers aging into Medicare, and improvements in air quality lead to longer lives and fewer hospitalizations for those with lung disease.  A combination of improved quality improvement processes at hospitals, technology and pharmaceutical improvements, and even pay for performance could all share some credit.   

In the meantime, let’s bask in this great news!

(I’m riding the Pan Mass Challenge, a 192 mile bike ride to raise money for cancer research, this weekend, and will be on vacation next week – so posts will likely be sparse.  Here’s a link to post from 2013 and 2014 with some musings on charity athletic events.)