[Ed. note: we are pleased to welcome Nicole Cornett to HRW. She is a fourth year evening student at Seton Hall Law School and is currently a Senior Program Manager for Novartis Pharmaceuticals in Oncology. After completing an undergraduate degree in Biology and Chemistry at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Nicole joined Novartis as an Analytical Chemist and began the Masters of Business Administration program at Seton Hall University. Upon completion of her MBA in Management she transitioned into Program Management in Oncology and shortly after enrolled in Seton Hall Law School's evening program, pursuing a J.D. with a concentration in Health Law. Nicole continues to support a broad spectrum of drug development activities, and has received various corporate awards including a President's Award in 2010. She is particularly interested in drug regulatory policy and global healthcare systems.]
In 2001, amidst an atmosphere of fear and ignorance, a UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS raised HIV/AIDS to the level of seriousness it so rightly deserved. There are some who credit the meeting with the formation of the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Ten years later (September 19-20, 2011) a high-level meeting of the General Assembly convened in New York on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Why now? Because the environment of fear and ignorance has been replaced with recognition of the potential risk that these diseases pose for economic burden. Diseases such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer pose a major risk to productivity, healthcare costs, poverty, and economic growth. In September of 2011 the World Economic Forum released a report entitled The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases, in which they discuss an assortment of variables that will lead to an increased rate of NCDs and therefore an increased burden on the global economy, as well as local economies. The findings of their research paint a dire picture of rising prevalence, increasing costs, an aging population, and the cumulative output loss as a percentage of Global GDP.
To assess the affect of NCDs on economic burden the authors of the report describe three methods used to quantify: 1) the cost-of-illness approach, 2) the value of lost output: the economic growth approach, and 3) the value of statistic life approach. The report elaborates on each method, but essentially each provides an assessment of economic burden from a different perspective, and each has strengths and weaknesses that should be considered when viewing the results. Here are some of the conclusions the report sites (these bullets should encourage you to read the report):
- Value of Lost Output approach: lost output from five conditions (cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental health) over the period 2011-2030 is estimated at nearly US$ 47 trillion.
- Value of statistical life approach: the economic burden of life lost due to all NCDs ranges from US$ 22.8 trillion in 2010 to US$ 43.3 trillion.
- Cost-of-illness approach: estimates of direct and indirect costs of ill health for five distinct disease categories are:
- Cancer: an estimated US$ 290 billion in 2010 rising to US$ 458 billion in 2030.
- Cardiovascular disease: an estimated US$ 863 billion in 2010 rising to US$ 1.04 trillion in 2030.
- COPD: an estimated US$ 2.1 trillion in 2010 US$ rising to US$ 4.8 trillion in 2030.
- Diabetes: an estimated nearly US$ 500 billion in 2010 rising to at least US$ 745 billion in 2030.
- Mental illness: an estimated US$ 2.5 trillion in 2010 rising to US$ 6.0 trillion by 2030.
Thankfully, the report goes the extra mile and discusses possible interventions (most identified by WHO) identified as “best buys” because they are cost-effective, feasible and appropriate for use in low-middle income countries. Examples of these interventions include tax increases to tobacco and alcohol products, counseling on cardiovascular therapies, education on diet and physical activity, and preventative medicine/screening.
In the US, we should pay particular attention to what can and should be done to tackle the issue of NCDs, and bear in mind the hazards of not doing so. After the recent debt-ceiling-debacle we can all expect much greater scrutiny into government spending. This will include expenditures on educational programs for diet and exercise, smoking cessation, diabetes, etc. The cost/benefit analysis must determine these programs to be of unquestionable importance.
Just the other day I heard a political analyst on a mainstream news program state that it’s unfortunate for Barack Obama that the Supreme Court will likely hand down a decision on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law in the midst of heavy presidential campaigning because it serves as a reminder that instead of focusing on the economy, Obama was immersed in healthcare reform. The statement highlights the issue of mindset. The availability and affordability of healthcare cannot be considered independent of economic health. Instead, it should be considered a direct factor in addressing the root cause of our struggling economy. To put it another way, Obama’s focus on healthcare reform was a direct effort at rehabilitating the US economy by targeting a source of financial strain on the government and the public, as well as reducing the affect of disease on the productivity of society.
It will be increasingly important for global leaders to recognize the role healthcare plays in economic health and growth. It’s encouraging to see the UN acknowledge the risk associated with NCDs because it highlights the need for effective systematic health management, particularly of diseases with high prevalence that require continuous maintenance. Failure to manage such a large portion of the pie that constitutes healthcare costs will have cascading effects on global and local economies.
Filed under: Economic Analysis of Health, Health Care Economics
1) At the beginning of the summer, I noted some problematic drug shortages (bottom half of post). The problem keeps getting worse. There is a steady stream of heartrending stories about care being compromised. Reform measures to assure an adequate supply are moving at a snail’s pace, thanks both to truculent manufacturers and the bipartisan drumbeat to “cut health care costs.” But at least some folks are thriving: as the NY Times notes, ”Unscrupulous wholesalers have made matters worse by scooping up scarce drugs and offering them to hospitals at markups that often reach 20 times the normal price or more.”
What a great business model! So glad the “free market” is working its magic on health delivery. While we’re at it, let’s allow ER docs to force patients to sign over half their bank accounts before treatment. That will certainly increase the supply of emergency rooms, even if the transition is a little bumpy for some people.
By the way, I’m sure some will argue that, if only Medicare weren’t paying for many of these drugs, we’d be fine. (Or at least the “we” capable of paying for the drugs at a “market price,” whatever that is, would be fine.) Query: Would there have been adequate incentive to create the drugs if a major purchaser like Medicare hadn’t paid what it did while the drug was on patent? No, I didn’t think so. Income and wealth in our society is still equally distributed enough (and coordination problems severe enough) that the top 1% won’t sustain a thriving hospital and drug research system all by themselves, even if they are the critical factors in one’s policy calculus. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to imagine individuals, or even wealthy groups, stockpiling all drugs they might need, particularly the sterile injectables or biotech solutions that are critical to advanced medicine. Even the very wealthy must rely on a steady, more general demand for these products. They can’t just order them up for just-in-time delivery, like a Tiffany watch. Public subvention—ranging from research grants to Medicare and Medicaid funding for the products research generates—provides that demand.
2) Pauline Chen reports on an “insurance maze” for US doctors, based on a new Health Affairs study comparing their practices to those of their neighbors to the north:
Physicians in Canada, where health care is administered mainly by the government, did spend a good deal of time and money communicating with their payers. But American doctors in the study spent far more dealing with multiple health plans: more than $80,000 per year per physician, or roughly four times as much as their northern counterparts. And their offices spent as many as 21 hours per week with payers, nearly 10 times as much as the Canadian offices.
Clearly the US has a comparative advantage in generating insurance-based hassles. Maybe we can keep specializing there, and aim to spend five times as much as the Canadians by 2014. The more choice, the better, whatever the cost, right? Think of all the people employed by this gauntlet of private sector checks and balances:
A young patient complaining of extreme fatigue, for example, might benefit from a $40 blood test that could confirm infectious mononucleosis in 10 minutes. But a doctor cannot order the simple test without first checking with the insurance company to see if it is covered and if there are any constraints on where the patient’s blood can be drawn and the test run.
Tracking down answers often means phone calls with long periods on hold, digging up old patient information and even recruiting office workers to act as specimen couriers to other labs and hospitals in order to expedite results or save frail patients or harried family members the hassle of traveling to an “approved site” for a test or procedure. “If someone comes in with a sick infant who needs a test, we often eat the costs and draw the blood ourselves,” Dr. Star said. “We aren’t going to tell them to put that kid in a car seat, drive a mile to an approved lab, park, register, then wait in line.”
If you’re an insurer (or the insurance industry), you’ve “won” to the extent you’ve foisted these costs and inconveniences onto doctors and patients. You certainly don’t want to abide by new Medical Loss Ratio requirements that limit the extent to which you employ these strategies of cost-shifting, delay, and denial of needed care. The “free market” is your friend, as is anyone who insists that health care delivery can be guided by the same economic principles that govern every other commodity.
In earlier posts I have discussed the “care/profit tradeoff in nursing homes,” focusing on the role of private equity firms in reducing costs by limiting the liability of their enterprises. Cutting nursing staff and increasing the risk of elder neglect isn’t so costly for private equity barons when “complex corporate structures . . . obscure who controls their nursing homes.” One firm constructed a particularly notable series of corporate moats between itself and the nursing home which it first controlled, and then rented land to.
Daniel JH Greenwood has called a good deal of private equity activity a form of looting, and I have explored its shortcomings in a review of a book on the topic. Sadly, it appears that the private equity influence in Britain is undermining a key part of its health care system. Having stacked various care homes with debt in order to buy them, many private equity firms have abandoned (or are about to abandon) the homes:
[A new] report, delving into the running and funding of the care industry, reveals that the collapse of Southern Cross may not be a one-off, as a number of other social care companies are also on the brink. Private equity takeovers of public services that use similar high risk business models, could leave taxpayers picking up the bill for more company failures. The in-depth study of privatisation shows that the second largest care provider, Four Season, is also in severe financial difficulties and others may follow. If both Southern Cross and Four Seasons were to collapse, around 1,150 nursing and residential care homes would be at risk of closure, affecting nearly 50,000 vulnerable people and their families and hitting over 60,000 staff.
Another of the top four largest residential care home operators is Barchester Healthcare — a sister company to Castlebeck, the operators of the Bristol care home exposed by a Panorama documentary . . . for patient abuse. The home owners have admitted that serious wrongdoing took place at Bristol. The report shows that Barchester and other operators of care homes, have repeatedly changed ownership, often through private equity firms buying, consolidating and selling companies. The UK’s largest union is warning that the Government must tackle the crisis in the care industry.
However disruptive the private equity takeovers have been, they have fulfilled their main purpose: huge gains for a few entities that bought and sold at the right time:
Southern Cross was floated on the stock market by Blackstone, which obtained a 400% return in two years on its acquisition. Southern Cross is now at risk of collapse. Allianz Capital Partners made a return of 100% by acquiring Four Seasons in 2004 for £775 million, selling it four years later for £1.4bn – the business then collapsed in value.
3i private equity fund brought a 38% stake in Care Principles for £1.5m in 1997, the remaining amount in 2005 and sold to to Three Delta in 2007 for £270m — a return of 390%. Tunstall was acquired by Bridgepoint Capital in 2005 for £225m, merged with Bridgepoint Investment and sold on after three years for £514m.
Here are more details on Southern Cross. This story and other critical commentary suggest that the goal for owners has been rapid profit rather long term investment in more efficient processes. When the “music stopped” in the acquisition game, it was left with mounting debts.
Chris Sagers’ article “The Myth of Privatization” (59 Admin. L. Rev. 37) suggests that there is very little difference between “public” and “private” operationally, except that “one of them lacks even a nominal obligation toward the public interest.” I have seen little evidence to contradict that idea in the eldercare industry. Further research may reveal more support for Daniel JH Greenwood’s diagnosis of the rise of private equity:
The success of private equity firms challenges mainstream corporate governance theory: according to standard agency cost analysis, this should not have happened. Agency problems—the shorthand term for the tendency of fiduciaries in a capitalist system to work for themselves as well as, or instead of, their clients—cannot be solved by adding an additional layer of extremely highly paid agents supported by an ideology that justifies the most extreme forms of self-interestedness. Therefore, private equity is unlikely to be an innovative solution to the age-old agency problem.
Instead, it is better understood as a clever bit of legal arbitrage: by reclassifying agents as principals, it allows former fiduciaries to instead view themselves, and be viewed by others, as entitled to look out only for themselves. And look out for themselves they have: the private equity managers have extracted hitherto unseen sums from our corporations, appropriating for the private benefit of a handful of individuals surplus that otherwise might have gone to other corporate participants, including consumers, ordinary employees, taxpayers and investors in the public securities markets, or might have been devoted to increasing productivity or innovation for the benefit of future generations.
The basic private equity technique, like the basic hedge fund technique, appears to be to borrow money in order to increase potential returns or losses. If the loans were correctly priced, this would not create new value under standard valuation theories, nor would it be a service that could possibly warrant the high fees typically charged in the hedge fund and private equity worlds. The simplest explanation is that either lenders or fund investors are mispricing risk and have done so for several years at a stretch, contrary to the claims of the efficient market theorists.
This explanation suggests, moreover, that private equity is simply the modern equivalent of the pyramid schemes, margin loans and highly leveraged utility holding companies of the 1920s. Like those earlier edifices built on borrowed money, the contemporary schemes are likely to be highly unstable: if the underlying assets decline in value or fail to provide expected income by even small margins, the lenders are likely to take losses out of scale with their potential profits. Once lenders wake up to this possibility—most likely only after losses have begun—they are likely to cut back lending rapidly, which will, in turn, make the underlying assets both less valuable and less saleable still, thus beginning a new round of lender panic. Any minor downturn, in short, runs the risk of starting a self-reinforcing cycle of credit and business contraction. The rise of private equity in its present form, then, appears to be another step towards the pre-New Deal world of inequality and instability.
And don’t forget about the role of private equity in influencing our political process. Blackstone billionaire Pete Peterson helped fuel concerns about government spending, while doing very little to advocate for increased taxes on the wealthy. And now we see that the CLASS Act—an innovative program to promote full funding for future long-term-care in the US–is likely to be on the chopping block. The primary value of both care homes and care plans to P/E firms appears to be their susceptibility to rapid sales and purchases. The P/E firm’s employees can earn massive bonuses if the value of entities goes up, and can’t lose those bonuses even if things eventually fall apart. It is a heads they win, tails they win scenario. The losers include all the other stakeholders in firms which are treated primarily as ATMs for fleeting owners.
Filed under: Cost Benefit Analysis, Cost Control, Drug Pricing, Drugs & Medical Devices, Economic Analysis of Health, Health Reform, HHS, Hospital Finances, Medicare, Medicare & Medicaid, Social Justice, Taxation
One rare point of elite consensus is that the US needs to reduce health care costs. Frightening graphs expose America as a spendthrift outlier. Before he decamped to Citigroup, the President’s OMB director warned about how important it was to “bend the cost curve.” The President’s opponents are even more passionate about austerity.
Journalists and academics support that political consensus. Andrew Sullivan calls health spending a “giant suck from the rest of the working economy.” Gregg Bloche estimates that “the 30% of health care spending that’s wasted on worthless care” is “about the price of the $700 billion mortgage bailout, squandered every year.” He calls rising health spending an “existential challenge,” menacing other “national priorities.” Perhaps inspired by Children of the Corn, George Mason economist Robin Hanson compares modern medicine to a voracious brat:
King Solomon famously threatened to cut a disputed baby in half, to expose the fake mother who would permit such a thing. The debate over medicine today is like that baby, but with disputants who won’t fall for Solomon’s trick. The left says markets won’t ensure everyone gets enough of the precious medical baby. The right says governments produce a much inferior baby. I say: cut the baby in half, dollar-wise, and throw half away! Our “precious” medical baby is in fact a vast monster filling our great temple, whose feeding starves our people and future. Half a monster is plenty.
But when you scratch the surface of these sentiments, you have to wonder: is the overall level of health care spending really the most important threat facing the country? Is it one of the most important threats? There are many ways to raise revenue to pay for rising health costs. Aspects of the Affordable Care Act, like ACOs and pilot projects, are designed to help root out unnecessary care.
I am happy to join the crusade against waste. But why focus on total health spending as particularly egregious or worrisome? Let’s explore some of the usual rationales.
Terrible Tax Expenditures and Suspect Subsidies?
Employment-based insurance gets favorable tax treatment, and much Medicare and Medicaid spending is drawn from general revenues. So, the story goes, medicine’s big spenders don’t have enough “skin in the game.” Once health and wealth are traded off at the personal level (as the Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen advocates), people will be much less likely to demand so much care. Government can attend to other national priorities, or individuals will enjoy higher incomes and will be free to spend more.
I respect these arguments to a point, but I worry they partake of the “nirvana fallacy.” If I could be certain that leviathan would repurpose all those wasted health care dollars on infrastructure, or green energy, or smart defense, or healthier agriculture, I’d be ready to end tax-advantaged health insurance in an instant. But I find it hard to imagine Washington going in any of these directions presently.
Giving tax dollars back to taxpayers also sounds great, until one processes exactly how unequal our income distribution is. In 2004, “the top 0.1% — that’s one-tenth of one percent — had more combined pre-tax income than the poorest 120 million people.” To the extent health-related taxes are cut, very wealthy households may see millions per year in income gains; the median household might enjoy thousands of dollars per year. Sure, middle income families will find important uses for those funds (other than bidding up the price of housing and education). But at what price? What if the insurance systems start collapsing without subsidies, and more physicians (who are already expressing a desire to work less) start seeking out pure cash practices? A few interactions with the the very wealthy may be far more lucrative than dozens of ordinary appointments.
Consider the math: billing a $20,000 retainer from each of 50 millionaires annually may be a lot more attractive to physicians than trying to wrangle up 500 patients paying $2000 each—or, worse, getting the money from their insurers. There are about 10 million millionaires in the US; that’s a lot of buying power. One $10,000 score by a cosmetic dentist from such a client could be worth 400 visits from Medicaid patients seeking diagnostic procedures. Providers are voting with their feet, and a Medicaid card is already on its way to becoming a “useless piece of plastic” for many patients. Given those trends, simply reducing health care “purchasing power” generally risks some very troubling outcomes for the very people the health care cost cutters claim to protect. No one should welcome a health care plutonomy, where the richest 5% consume 35% of services, regardless of how sick they are.
Is Anyone Underpaid in Health Care?
Health commentators rightly draw attention to big insurer CEO paydays. Top layers of management at hospitals and pharma firms are also getting scrutiny. Wonks are up in arms about specialist pay. Read more
Filed under: Economic Analysis of Health, Health Benefit Costs, Medicare
Georgetown law professor Gregg Bloche’s new book, The Hippocratic Myth, looks to be a major contribution to health policy debates. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but many reviews and radio shows give the impression of a rigorous work leavened with engaging narratives of individual patients and providers.
Bloche’s approach to rationing will rekindle many of the health care debates of 2010. A former advisor to the Obama health policy team, Bloche concludes the following:
Medicine’s therapeutic potential has surpassed our ability to pay for it, but our elected officials are afraid to tell us. The historic health reforms enacted last year will protect 30 million Americans from the Darwinian cruelty of lack of access to care. But contrary to much wishful thinking in Washington, these reforms do little to stave off looming medical cost catastrophe. Our future fiscal and social stability will turn on our ability to gain control of spending without imperiling patients’ trust in their caregivers.
Bloche also observes the importance of the medical profession in upcoming bioethical debates:
Medical judgment incorporates hidden political and moral beliefs, and doctors have become key political and legal decision-makers—on such matters as child custody, criminal punishment, access to performance-enhancing drugs, and the politics of obesity, abortion, and homosexuality.
Doctors and the rest of us will need to address the morality of innovations we never thought possible. Drugs that block—or boost—biological mechanisms of stress resistance, brain-scanning methods that read minds, and medicines that interfere with formation of traumatic memories are among the technologies that will soon be with us.
During his interview with NPR’s Leonard Lopate, Bloche mentioned an aspect of insurer practice that renders suspect many consumer-directed ideals of medical care. Many insurers’ care protocols are kept secret, as proprietary information. Bloche found the practice deeply troubling, and I agree. Insurers’ criteria for providing care are important aspects of the service they are providing. They should not be hidden from patients or doctors. In more encouraging news, Bloche notes that he has not lost an appeal of a medical coverage decision to an insurer.
Enforceable Contracts for Cheaper and More Limited Care
Bloche seems committed to permitting consumers to make enforceable contracts for lower levels of care. Tyler Cowen recently evoked that possibility of ala carte insurance in his evaluation of the recent Ryancare proposal:
Let’s say it’s 2027 and I’ve just turned 65. I fill out a Medicare application on-line and opt for a plan with superior heart coverage (my father died of a heart attack), not too much knee coverage and physical therapy (my job doesn’t require heavy lifting), no cancer heroics (my mother turned them down and I wish to follow her example), and lots of long-term disability. Is that so terrible an approach? Is it obviously worse than having the Medicare Advisory Board make all of those choices for me?
Cowen worries that “Perhaps an individual will choose ‘no coverage for lung cancer,’ but the government cannot precommit to the outcome of no coverage.” But Bloche makes a point in an NPR interview that suggests that a physician’s decision to withhold care in that instance would not violate the Hippocratic Oath:
The rationale there is that the doctor who stints on care three years later when you get really sick is acting in accordance with your preferences as you expressed them in the employee benefits office three years before. And therefore, the doctor is not violating the Hippocratic Oath. The doctor is merely complying with your preferences when you rolled the dice in the employee benefits office.
Of course, that is in the private insurance context, not Medicare, and I don’t know if that distinction would make a difference for Bloche. But it does help me see how the book attracted a blurb from a Heritage Foundation analyst. Contemporary conservative health policy experts are committed to giving individuals the chance to buy low-cost plans, and so far the Obama Administration has been quite accommodating in granting waivers for them. My sense is that Bloche is committed to a minimum essential benefits approach that would allow consumers to opt out of “cancer heroics” (perhaps defined as biotechnology drugs costing over $7 million over one’s lifetime?), but not to waive “lung cancer” coverage generally.
Bloche argues in the book that:
[M]edicine’s capabilities and costs will inexorably grow. Increasingly, doctors will need to say no to care that’s technologically possible and that could prolong life, but that does so in competition with other national priorities. We must empower them to do so even when the consequences seem tragic. But we must give them this power without asking them to break faith at the bedside. To this end, the current regime of covert rationing, under cover of ‘medical necessity,’ should be supplanted by visible resource allocation rules–rules set for doctors and patients by social institutions. (58-9)
Transparency of this sort will compel us to come to terms the truth that insurers must say no to beneficial care to stay within the limits we impose when we seek low prices for products for products and services, elect politicians who promise low taxes, and choose cheaper health care plans for ourselves.
Though I hate to disagree with such an eloquent statement by so eminent a scholar, I am slightly troubled by that language. I think money saved from the health sector is more likely to go to new adventures in the Middle East or dot-com, housing, and commodities bubbles than it is to be allocated to “other national priorities.” Health care is only one of many sectors where US-style casino capitalism has seriously distorted capital allocation.
I also believe that the invocation of “we” here glosses over the moral role of redistribution in an extremely unequal economy. A privately insured person who really wants a procedure can spend himself down to bankruptcy, then apply for Medicaid. At that point, the government must make a decision. Given that “the government collected less in taxes in 2010 than it has in over three generations, and tax rates are at historic lows” for the very wealthy, I don’t think it is entirely fair to say “we” can’t afford certain care. Rather, those at the top of the income and wealth scale are increasingly supporting politicians who will not tax the wealthy. The current scarcity of care for the least well off is not a natural feature of the world; rather, it is epiphenomenal of repeated decisions not to impose certain tax burdens today even though they would have seemed perfectly fair 50 years ago. Since a “Wall Street transactions tax of only 0.50% on short-term speculation could raise up to $170 billion annually,” I fail to see an imperative to reduce incomes in the health sector until problems in much less socially productive sectors are addressed.
On the other hand, if our government “of the top 1%, by the top 1%, for the top 1%” continues, major cuts to the health sector are inevitable. If they must come, we need more trusted and fair voices like Bloche’s at the table. As Daniel Alpert has observed, “the U.S. has engineered a winner-take-all economy and indebted both the majority of its people and its government to keep a ‘don’t tax, but spend anyway’ consumerist fantasy alive.” Bloche helps us face the difficult task of unwinding the consequences of all those bad economic decisions.
Bloche is also admirably restrained in his sense of how much current law can do to rationalize health care spending. As he notes in a book excerpt:
30 percent of health spending [is] wasted on worthless care—about the price of the $700 billion mortgage bailout, squandered each year. . . [One study estimated that only] about 10 to 20 percent of medical procedures rest on “gold-standard” evidence — randomized clinical trials. . . . Risky and pricey therapies routinely make their way into common use without such studies. . . .
Change is looming. The 2010 health reform law created a “Patient- Centered Outcomes Research Institute,” funded by levies on Medicare and private insurers, to sponsor such research. But the funding level, less than a tenth of a percent of what Americans spend on health care each year, will do little to increase the fraction of medical decisions that rest on science. And the Institute’s governing body — composed mostly of representatives from the hospital, insurance, and drug and device industries, as well as physicians — seems almost designed to enable stakeholders to block studies that threaten their interests. Moreover, multiple provisions in the law (sought by providers and drug and device makers) hobble Medicare’s ability to base coverage decisions on research the Institute sponsors.
The mix of hope and realism in the paragraphs above reflects the judicious sensibility of the many Bloche articles I have had the good fortune to learn from. I look forward to reading his book.
Filed under: Bioethics, Drug Pricing, Drugs & Medical Devices, Economic Analysis of Health, Pharma
An unusually hardy strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae was isolated from a 59-year-old Swedish patient who had been treated in a New Delhi hospital. The bacterium was found to be indifferent to even our most powerful antibiotics. To make matters worse, the genes that gave it this superpower were found on a small ring of DNA that is easily traded between different species of bacteria.
New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM-1) has since turned up in more than 16 countries across the world, including Britain. A study published in Lancet Infectious Diseases today shows the resistance factor has spread to 14 different species of bacteria. . . In a report published last year, the US Institute of Medicine described antimicrobial resistance as “a global public health and environmental catastrophe”, while the WHO called the rise of NDM-1 a “doomsday scenario of a world without antibiotics”.
Econbloggers on both left and right are worried. But the chairman of the Board for the Canadian Committee on Antibiotic Resistance says that, despite these tocsins, “The problem is that it is somewhat akin to climate change and so slow and insidious that people, and notably our politicians, are lulled asleep.” I am worried by the chair’s climate analogy: it may speed antibiotic activism to the same graveyard of “socialist ideas” that high speed rail recently crashed into. (Yes, that metaphor was as ugly as the political process that provoked it.) Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s dismissal of the precautionary principle is far closer to administration policy than, say, Lisa Heinzerling‘s, Robert Verchick‘s, or Greg Mandel’s and James Thuo Gathii‘s rehabilitations of the concept. Official Democrats endlessly dither over risk prospects, while Red America is not even that concerned:
One of the most Republican demographic groups — affluent white men — is the demographic with the highest number of confident risk takers. Among academic researchers, this phenomenon is known as “the white male effect.” A 1992 study reported in the journal Risk Analysis found that, in a survey of 1,512 people, men saw less risk than women from each of twenty-five potential health hazards including nuclear waste, pesticides, blood transfusions, radon, and X-rays: “Sizeable differences between risk perceptions of men and women have been documented in dozens of studies. Men tend to judge risks as smaller and less problematic than do women.”
Why invest in future antibiotics if risk is seen as so manageable? As Edsall noted, in other studies of Americans, “fully 69 percent believe[d] they are ‘above average’ in their overall personality and character, and 86 percent [said] their intelligence is above average.” A culture of “self-help” encourages individuals to think they can outwit the superbug, if they are smart and savvy enough.
But there is a deeper problem that American culture is only beginning to grapple with. As FT editor Martin Wolf recently noted in a address at the LSE, the US has been the beneficiary of enormous capital inflows since the beginning of the Bush administration, and has spectacularly wasted them. Charged with efficiently allocating capital, the finance sector has instead opted, by and large, for get-rich-quick schemes. That mentality has affected every sector, including pharma. Even in a society where national priorities are set by an increasingly small group, one would think that drug-resistant bacteria would stir some coordinated response. But when money is primarily thought of as a way to earn more money, even the most pressing needs can be left neglected. Perhaps that’s why Americans are increasingly suspicious of the “free market” and financial institutions.
There is an interesting article at Xconomy San Diego on the growing tensions between venture capitalists, biotech startups, and pharmaceutical companies. Many entrepreneurs feel like they’re getting a raw deal from big pharma firms. One source alleges that dealmakers are about to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.
In an earlier post, I worried that big pharma firms were becoming virtual to the point of ghostliness, mere nexuses of certifications, patent and trademark portfolios, tax dodges, and contractual obligations. If these trends continue, what types of controversies are likely to develop?
Gains from Gatekeeping
The just-in-time, ad hoc nature of movie production has led many economists to see in it a model for collaboration in other industries. As Marty Neumaier puts it, “By switching to a network model, the studios . . . avail themselves of the best talent for each project, thereby creating unique products and shedding unnecessary overhead.” But one-off, one-sided contracts can lead to epic conflicts. Consider, for instance, the recent rash of news about Hollywood accounting:
Michael Moore . . . claims $2.7m in unpaid royalties from Fahrenheit 9/11 [from his studio]. . . At the heart of the lawsuit is a dispute about Hollywood accounting practices that have for decades been a source of contention between the studios that release movies and “the talent” . . . Moore alleges the Weinsteins improperly deducted expenses from his share of the film’s profits – including the cost of a private jet to fly Weinstein from the US to Europe.
When an intermediary has access to extraordinary distribution networks, it has enormous leverage vis a vis “the talent.” Studios might respond that it’s a lot more fun to be Michael Moore than it is to be Harvey Weinstein: one gets to express his ideas, the other has to meet a payroll. But the enormous amounts of money generated by the film (between $228 and $500 million, according to Moore’s lawyer), and the frequency of complaints like Moore’s, lead to concerns about transparency and bargaining power in the industry.
Terry Fisher has written compellingly on the economics of Hollywood and pharmaceutical research (with Talha Syed). Intellectual property is key to both industries, and that’s one natural point of connection. Another is the economic role of middlemen, a topic that’s becoming increasingly important as certain dominant companies aim to own the “celestial jukebox,” “master switch,” or “Digital WalMart” of content connectivity.
Consider Apple’s demand for 30% of revenue from publications delivered via the iPad–and its refusal to share key customer data (for example, ads clicked on, time spent per page, etc.) with publishers. Seth Godin does not approve of this move:
The web has been a hotbed of siloed content, of deep dives for small audiences. The large scale stuff, though, has tended to be mostly about gossip and other quick reads that’s cheap to produce. Tablets offer a new chance to create content worth paying for.
[But] Apple has announced that they want to tax each subscription made via the iPad at 30%. Yes, it’s a tax, because what it does is dramatically decrease the incremental revenue from each subscriber.
These debates are very old in the tech world: when the VCR was introduced, Hollywood said its makers should pay for all the copyright infringement it enabled. Sony eventually retorted that the studios should be glad to see all the new customers that electronics would bring them.
Health Care’s Middlemen
Moore, the disgruntled biotech firms, and Godin each in their own way bring up issues that are going to be very big in health care over the next decade. Private insurers were supposed to be the magical mediators between providers and consumers in health care, demanding value and driving down prices. But, as Joseph White has shown, it was far easier for insurers to “stick it to” their customers than to constrain prices of “must-have” providers:
Remembering the pain of the late 1990s, [by 2001] managers of health care providers and insurance companies were determined to keep prices up through “pricing discipline.” “I’ve never seen discipline in the industry from a pricing standpoint like I’ve seen now” (HSChange 2004, p. 2), said one insurance industry consultant, providing part of the answer to why the underwriting cycle had yet to turn back toward lower margins. . . .
One might wonder why consolidation among insurers did not allow them to resist the providers’ demand for increased payments. The simple answer is that there were two concentrated parts of the market and one fragmented part. The insurers had to choose between fighting a full-pitched battle with the providers or exploiting their own market power vis-à-vis the employers. Raising premiums to employers was a lot easier. In theory, employers could have demanded restrictive networks (at lower prices). But since everyone had agreed that employees did not like restrictive networks, and providers (especially hospitals) were not willing to discount much to get into such networks, there were not many available for purchase. Individual employers could not invent such a product; they could only shop around and find the relatively best deal by customizing other contract terms, such as cost sharing.
Just as insurers began to align more with the interests of concentrated providers than with fragmented, disorganized consumers, so too do many Group Purchasing Organizations appear to be failing to fulfill their promise as cost-constraining intermediaries. As one analyst testified before the DOJ and FTC, “the compensation of most GPO management is almost always based on . . . fee income [from suppliers] rather than on the real savings to hospital members.” Again, the ostensible “protector” of one side of the health care equation ends up aiding one side of the deal.
Of course, the masters of all such deals work in finance. As Karen Ho suggested in her excellent ethnography, Liquidated, their values inform all the tough and opportunistic dealmaking mentioned above. As I taught health care finance over the past few years, I continually felt the topic stood in relation to finance proper as chemistry might stand in relation to physics: a discipline in its own right, but ultimately reducible to a more fundamental science. (I’m not saying I endorse this reductionism, just that it is an intuitively plausible model for what’s really driving developments in health care.)
Are there any policy lessons for health care? As Louis Uchitelle has suggested, we might want to question an economic system that delivers risk-free riches to those who invest or market future cures and little but anxiety (with limited or very unlikely upside) to many of those who create them. If we hesitate at awarding Apple a perpetual 30% bite of publisher profits merely for becoming the hippest platform, or question a finance sector that grabs 30% of all corporate profits, we might also want to articulate some decent maximum multiple of dealmakers’ over researchers’ compensation.
Reflecting on his book “The Great Stagnation” a few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen noted that many of the biggest winners in today’s economy are structuring “heads I win, tails you lose” deals. Wall Street has mastered the concentration and privatization of gain and socialization of loss. Will key players in pharma and the rest of the health care sector scramble to follow its lead?
Filed under: Drug Pricing, Economic Analysis of Health
There will be an online symposium on the new book Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property at Concurring Opinions this Tuesday to Thursday (Feb. 1 to Feb. 3, 2011). This book, edited by Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased here. Here is a quote from the introduction that gives a sense of the book’s themes:
In a hospital in South Korea, leukemia patients are expelled as untreatable because a multinational drug company refuses to lower the price of a life-saving drug. Thousands of miles away, a U.S. group called the Rational Response Squad is forced by the threat of a copyright lawsuit to take down a YouTube video criticizing the paranormalist Uri Geller. Could we—should we—see these two events, so seemingly remote from one another, as related? Yes—or such is the premise of a new political formation on the global stage, one that goes under the name of the “access to knowledge movement”—or more simply, A2K.
A2K is an emerging mobilization that includes software programmers who took to the streets to defeat software patents in Europe, AIDS activists who forced multinational pharmaceutical companies to permit copies of their medicines to be sold in South Africa, and college students who have created a new “free culture” movement to “defend the digital commons”—to select just a few. A2K can also be seen as an emerging set of theoretical commitments that both respond to and reject the key justifications for “intellectual property” law and that seek to develop an alternative account of the operation and importance of information and knowledge, creativity and innovation in the contemporary world.
Krikorian and Kapczynski have assembled a top-notch group of contributors, and we welcome comments from across the blogosphere.
Filed under: Economic Analysis of Health, Pharma, Unemployment
Anyone familiar with pharmaceutical industry restructuring will not be surprised by this prediction from the FT’s John Gapper for 2011:
A drugs company will drop early-stage research. Big Pharma has struggled for a decade with a dearth of potential blockbusters. Companies such as GlaxoSmithKline have restructured and slimmed down their research arms but the sector remains troubled, as the departure of Jeff Kindler, Pfizer’s former chief executive, on the grounds of “exhaustion” indicates.
The obvious course with something that is not working is to drop it. Shire Pharmaceuticals pioneered a strategy of outsourcing early-stage research to smaller companies and focusing on developing and trialling promising drugs. This will be the year when one of the industry’s biggest takes a similar tack.
Gapper seems pretty unworried about this transition, and perhaps from the standpoint of pure economic theory it makes little difference whether research is conducted in-house or purchased from other, smaller firms. But as a matter of public relations and political economy, this is a troubling development.
The Post-R&D PR and Jobs Crises
First, the pharmaceutical industry has long justified its profits by arguing that it invests in research and development. For those who favor a market-based approach to drug research, this is a vindication of laissez-faire. Rather than relying on the heavy hand of government to try to direct the research done at pharmaceutical firms, we can expect the “invisible hand” of the market to spin off solutions for everyone’s problems–from the richest to the poorest. Innovations eventually filter down from the highest-income individuals to those with fewer resources. Spending by the wealthy on health care leads to investment in research infrastructure that ultimately redounds to the benefit of all.
But to the extent that the industry spins off its research and development, shouldn’t policymakers be more concerned about the health of research firms than the continued thriving of Big Pharma? I suppose one could make the argument that big Pharma is evolving toward a Walmart or Google style of value creation via skilled intermediation. Its key role in that scenario is to identify the most promising researchers, CROs, marketers, distributors, and advertisers.
If that evolution occurs, it reminds me of another of Gapper’s predictions for 2011:
As China tries to make itself a hub for environmental [and energy] innovation, the US is retreating. Silicon Valley venture capital groups that identified green energy as a big opportunity are playing it down and turning to social media. China has the market, the cash and the science to stick with it.
In other words, Big Pharma’s moves toward becoming virtual companies, mere hubs of certifications, trademarks, tax dodges, and contractual obligations, mirror a longer-term hollowing out of the US economy. Whereas a nation like China has an industrial policy that encourages production of useful goods and full employment, US capital is migrating toward “platform plays” that merely redistribute bargaining power and information about goods and services. One can imagine all sorts of clever entrepreneurial ploys that fall out from this strategy—think Groupon for cheap pills! What remains unimaginable is how social networking leads to viable occupations for all but the most connected and tech-savvy.
Top US economic strategists used to claim that offshoring didn’t matter, as US citizens’ superior productivity, technological skills, and education would attract high-value jobs to the country. Given America’s massive failures in educational policy, we no longer hear much about the “high value” jobs that a global division of labor was supposed to deliver to us. Instead, we see ever higher unemployment and no plausible plan to keep decent jobs in the country, or to be sure that those that remain are paid decently. Andy Grove has also helpfully demonstrated the necessary connections between ongoing manufacturing capacity and research designed to make production better. As he puts it:
Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter. The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S.
You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high-value work—and much of the profits—remain in the U.S. That may well be so. But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed? . . . .
Finally, the increased outsourcing of R&D may menace existing cross-subsidization of research for neglected drugs and tropical diseases. To be sure, not much of this is going on presently; of the 1300 compounds tested for safety and effectiveness by major drug companies from 1992-2005, only 1% were directed toward diseases that predominate in the developing world. And a recent conference at BU gave me some hope that humanitarian research efforts could be distributed among small teams of researchers. Still, I worry that the ongoing shrinkage of Big Pharma will have results in the medical field similar to the gradual dissipation of Bell Labs.
Pharma as Part of a Larger Industrial Policy
Are there any solutions to be offered? The key to effective policy here is to recognize the extensive role the US government plays in the pharmaceutical industry. Epic battles over the scope of patent rights in the US are routinely fought in the US Congress. The US Supreme Court has recently opined on a number of fundamental issues in patent law in rapid succession. Legislation like the Hatch-Waxman Act prescribes a regime of protections and obligations for drug manufacturers that is extraordinarily complex, and continually contested. The FDA is involved in every step of a drug’s approval and marketing process. Medicare Part D legislation also significantly increased the US Government’s involvement in the pharmaceutical sector, providing an enormous amount of funding for spending on drugs for the elderly. International treaties like TRIPS also play a very important role in the pharmaceutical sector. In short, if there is one sector where state action is not simply a side constraint on “the market,” but rather serves to constitute it, that is the pharmaceutical sector.
Therefore, the US government needs to be much more involved in shaping both the output and the business practices of the industry to reflect national and humanitarian needs. On the humanitarian side, there are many excellent ideas in the book Incentives for Global Public Health. On the industrial policy side, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this article on Chinese practice:
Foreign companies have been teaming up with Chinese ones for years to gain access to the giant Chinese market. Now some of the world’s biggest companies are taking a risky but potentially rewarding second step—folding pieces of their world-wide operations into partnerships with Chinese companies to do business around the globe.
Several earlier joint ventures inside China have soured over concerns that Chinese partners, after gaining access to Western technology and know-how, have gone on to become potent new rivals to their partners. “Foreign partners are seeing they will have to sometimes sacrifice or share the benefits of the global market with the Chinese partner,” says Raymond Tsang, a China-based partner at consultancy Bain & Co. “Some of the [multinational corporations] are complaining. But given the changing market conditions, if you don’t do it, your competitors will.”
To the extent that big Pharma is a truly global industry, US policymakers should be just as aggressive as Chinese ones in assuring that present private profits leave behind infrastructure that meets national needs for both quality healthcare and a balanced and highly skilled workforce. To neglect these imperatives is to declare unilateral economic disarmament vis-à-vis a competitor to which we are already massively indebted, and which has shown no qualms about taking US-developed intellectual property. If China wants certain concessions from multinationals for the good of its citizens, the US should demand no less.
Filed under: Economic Analysis of Health, Hospital Finances, Primary Physician Shortage, Productivity, Public Health
Bad weather recently caused massive failures at Heathrow Airport, and brought chaos to air travel in the New York area. Both scenarios suggest an intriguing set of dilemmas in health law and policy. We should be doing much more to prepare for sudden, disruptive events in both the transportation and health sectors. But economic short-termism rules the roost, undercutting the infrastructural investments that a more enlightened America would make.
By 2025 the need for general hospitals to cross-subsidize [i.e., use payments from the well-insured to pay for others' care] will greatly increase, but their ability to do so will be diminished. U.S. hospitals could begin to resemble U.S. airlines: severely cutting costs, eliminating services, and suffering financial instability. . . .
There are numerous similarities between the airline and hospital industries. Both comprise companies that built a complex infrastructure and provided cross-subsidized services. Both were protected by a lack of price transparency and limited competition. In the recently deregulated airline industry, price competition and specialized airlines have emerged that do not have to serve all cities and can focus on the most profitable routes. They need not charge higher prices for these routes to make up for losses incurred elsewhere. Similarly, in the hospital industry, specialty hospitals have emerged that can focus on the most profitable patients and do not have to treat the uninsured or provide money-losing services.
The new specialty hospitals, like the new low-cost carriers, are not saddled with fixed costs from old plant and equipment and do not have to contend with excess capacity that resulted from historical changes in demand.* Both use their inherent cost advantages to compete for more price-sensitive consumers. Legacy airlines cannot raise fares to cover costs because price-sensitive customers can now obtain transparent price information on the Internet and shop for the lowest fares. California is now requiring, and many advocacy organizations are encouraging, hospitals to post their prices on the Internet. Hospital patients, facing increased copayments, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs, could begin to behave more like airline passengers. . . .
Because of increased price transparency and specialized competition, legacy airlines could not raise prices sufficiently to cover their costs. Between 1 October 2001 and 31 December 2003, they cut costs by $12.1 billion. They stopped serving some locales and reduced seat capacity. They cut labor costs, services, and amenities. Nevertheless, from 2001 through 2003, the legacy airlines lost $24.3 billion, while the low-cost carriers reported profits of $1.3 billion.
The past few years have witnessed a recovery for many airlines pushed to the brink after 9/11. They filled more seats in each plane (leading to higher “load factors”) and otherwise “cut the fat” (sometimes endangering passengers in the process). Nate Silver observes that filling up planes has some positive effects on prices and the environment, but also sets in motion dynamics that few fully consider until the unexpected strikes:
[L]oad factors have been rising steadily. A decade ago, they were closer to 70 percent, which permitted quite a bit more slack in the event of cancellations. At a 70 percent load factor, there are 2.3 passengers for every available seat, which means, roughly speaking, that one day’s worth of cancellations might take two days to clear through the system. At an 82 percent load factor, on the other hand, there are 4.6 passengers for every seat — roughly twice as many — so one day’s worth of cancellations might require four or five days to get everyone home.
The societal trade-offs here are tough, and airlines need flexibility in determining how far they should go to crowd planes and maximize profits. But in the realm of healthcare, I am much more concerned that a long series of hospital closures will leave the system disastrously overwhelmed in case of an infectious disease outbreak, terrorist attack, or extreme weather event. Like airlines, hospitals have been cutting their surge capacity in order to improve the bottom line. As I noted over four years ago, the asymmetry between projected demand and supply for something as fundamental as ventilators is shocking. A 2006 estimate suggested that only 5,000 spare ventilators would be available to as many as 742,500 people in need in the case of a serious pandemic.
In a 2005 article in the Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy, Lance Gable et al. discuss surge capacity as “the number of critical casualties arriving per unit of time that can be managed without compromising the level of care,” and propose ways of increasing “the availability of skilled health professionals to supplement the existing health workforce.” I applaud their approach and attention to the problem (astonishingly, it is the only article in the Westlaw JLR database with “surge capacity” in the title). But I also worry that scarce physical space is going to cause as large a problem at hospitals as personnel shortages. Like its airports, New York’s community hospitals are fraying:
In New York’s many community hospitals, which provide an essential first line of defense in the effort to safeguard public health, the danger of failure is particularly acute. Combine growing costs, decreasing revenues, and high debt loads, and you can’t dig out. Then what happens? “If you’ve accumulated any reserve over time,” an executive at a major local hospital says, “the first thing you do is eat it up. Then you cut costs on staffing and support services, sometimes below levels you know are safe. Then you stop spending money to keep your physical plant and equipment up to date. The condition of the physical plants of many New York City hospitals is staggering. Then, when there’s nothing else you can do, you declare bankruptcy. That’s the life cycle of a New York hospital.”
Given all these strains, hospitals may have to choose between community service and solvency in the wake of a major outbreak of illness. Vickie J. Williams’s article “Fluconomics” presciently examined the bad financial incentives that hospitals would face in case of a serious outbreak of infectious disease:
[W]e currently have no means of ensuring that hospitals acting as isolation, quarantine, and treatment centers in a pandemic will survive the loss of revenue that they will experience in protecting the public’s health. Our hospitals depend on a fragmented financing system that presumes the hospital’s ability to shift costs from low-paying public payors to higher-paying private payors, and from less lucrative cases to more lucrative, often elective, procedures.