Recommended Reading

April 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recommended Reading 

tara-ragoneAs proof that the only news in health law does not involve the Supreme Court’s consideration of the challenge to the Affordable Care Act, here are some interesting recent articles that are worth a read:

1.      Frank McClellan and others recently released the results of their study, “Do Poor People Sue Doctors More Frequently? Confronting Unconscious Bias and the Role of Cultural Competency.” Some doctors perceive that socioeconomically disadvantaged patients tend to sue their doctors more frequently, which has influenced them not to provide care or to provide care in different ways to this population. For example, 57 percent of physicians polled in California in 1995 cited this belief as important in their decision not to treat Medicaid patients.  Yet McClellan and his co-authors review studies showing that, to the contrary, poor patients tend to sue their physicians less often than other groups.   Indeed, there is evidence that patients in lower socioeconomic groups are also less likely to file nonmeritorious malpractice claims.  One possible explanation that the authors of this project offer to explain this disconnect between physician perception and fact is unconscious or implicit bias, which “describes thinking and decision making affected by stereotypes without one being aware of it” that “can explain why people may consciously believe in a truth, whereas their behavior, affected by subconscious prejudices, is contrary to that truth.”  For example, physicians unconsciously concerned that poor patients will not adequately compensate them for their care “might consciously or unconsciously presume poor patients are more likely to sue as an excuse or way of avoiding the presumed difficulty associated with collections from such patients.” The authors of this study make recommendations to confront unconscious bias and provide culturally competent care (“CCC”), including increasing diversity, educating providers about CCC, improving provider communication skills, and enhancing patient health literacy.  CCC educational efforts are especially valuable in specialties like orthopaedic surgery, where approximately 84 to 89 percent of providers are white males.   It is thought that these efforts will improve medical care to lower socioeconomic groups and reduce the risk of malpractice claims.

2.      In “Diversion of Offenders with Mental Health Disorders: Mental Health Courts,” Sarah Ryan and Dr. Darius Whelan review the use of mental health courts in the United States, Canada, England, and Wales and consider whether these courts should be established in Ireland.  The article first reviews Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ”), a foundational theory underlying problem-solving courts like mental health and drug courts that “promotes the employment of a ‘problem-solving pro-active and results oriented posture that is responsive to the current emotional and social problems of legal consumers.’”  While advocating its strengths, the authors also warn of the danger that paternalistic applications of TJ can water down due process and rule of law values.  They then identify and compare features of mental health courts that have developed in the United States, Canada, England, and Wales since the pioneer court started operating in Broward County, Florida in 1987.   After evaluating the main merits (e.g., more appropriate treatment and potentially reduced recidivism and costs) and criticisms (e.g., concerns about coercion, waiver of due process rights, stigmatization and segregation of the mentally ill, diversion of resources, and lack of empirical data that they are effective) of these courts, the authors conclude that mental health courts could offer a partial solution to the challenges facing Ireland’s criminal justice system.  Not surprisingly, they urge policymakers to select the best features of the programs that have evolved to date and to apply TJ “in a careful manner, to avoid interference with defendants['] constitutional rights.”  For example, the authors recommend that a solicitor be appointed at the first indication an offender could be eligible to participate.  Further, they believe that Ireland should not require offenders to plead guilty as a pre-condition to participate in the program because such a requirement is “antithetical to the goal of decriminalising the mentally ill.”  They warn, however, that for the program to be viable, Ireland would have to allocate substantial funding to develop community mental health treatment facilities.

3.      Recent Harvard Law School graduate Maggie Francis has written, “Forty Years of ‘Testing, Testing’: The Past and Future Role of Policy Experimentation in Healthcare Reform,” which reviews the federal government’s use of pilot projects and demonstration projects over the past forty years to test innovative health reform ideas.   As Ms. Francis describes, her article is the “first . . . in the legal literature to analyze the use of systemic policy experimentation by the federal government to reform the healthcare system.”  She describes the number and types of problems facing the healthcare system and why policymakers have chosen pilots as a means of addressing these problems.   The article then evaluates whether pilot projects are a useful tool in healthcare reform.  Ms. Francis identifies numerous advantages to pilots, including that they provide some cover to controversial innovations from political pressures and permit government to try multiple theories in different pilots to assess what works better in different populations, locations, etc. and to make adjustments based on experience that should make large-scale implementation smoother.  She also warns of some possible roadblocks, including lack of adequate information and competence to select the right pilots and then to oversee their implementation and evaluation.  A common criticism of these programs is that they take too long to test new ideas and expand those that are successful.  Securing consistent funding has also been a challenge.  In addition, political interference and gamesmanship can undermine efforts to innovate.  Ms. Francis concludes that, despite their limitations, pilot projects satisfy policy makers’ need for information about reform ideas and their consequences and offer the most promise where “organizational challenges, rather than stakeholder opposition and distributional problems, are the primary obstacle to reform.”  As a result, she posits that pilots might be more successful at encouraging widespread adoption of less controversial innovations, such as medical homes, than with contributing “significantly to the goal of cost control, which necessarily raises contentious distributional issues among powerful stakeholders in the healthcare industry and is likely to trigger rent-seeking behavior by interest groups.”  Ms. Francis’s observations are not merely historically interesting but rather offer important insights given the variety of pilot projects included in the ACA to help identify a politically viable way to bend the healthcare cost curve while improving quality.  Ms. Francis reviews the diverse medley of pilots in the ACA, including, but far from limited to, the creation of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, reminding us all how much more there is to the ACA than just the mandate and how much we will learn from its implementation.

Happy reading!


Reform Rodeo

September 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reform Rodeo 
Photo by David Monniaux

Photo by David Monniaux

[Ed. Note: HRW welcomes back Jordan Cohen from his work in Washington at HHS this summer-- the place just wasn't the same without him]

Waste: The New York Times provides an overview of a new study detailing health care wastefulness — which the Times reports as being the first study to quantify the problem.

Berwick’s Pilots: Newly appointed Medicare director Donald Berwick is pushing for hundreds of new pilot programs that would seek to innovate the delivery of health care.

Prognostication: The Health Care Blog’s David Kibbe and Brian Klepper look beyond meaningful use and distill five future trends of patient health data and clinical health information technology.

Meaningful Use FAQs: For those with questions on meaningful use, John Halamka has created FAQs.

PPACA and Employees: Researchers at RAND have published a study predicting PPACA’s effect on workers’ health insurance coverage.

Medicaid Outside the Box: Health Affairs’ Michael O’Grady and Jennifer Baxendell Young have published a post that discusses new ideas for Medicaid financing.


The Tragic Sense of Health Insurance Reform

December 19, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Proposed Legislation 
J.M.W. Turner (1801)

J.M.W. Turner (1801)

It looks like there are now 60 votes behind the “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”, and the set of amendments to it released today. For the sake of this post, I will assume that this Senate bill will basically be the template for health insurance reform.

Given all the twists and turns of this debate, I’m sure there still will be some important changes (even though holdout Sen. Ben Nelson has been promised a “limited conference” in exchange for supporting it). But today’s announcement does strike me as a turning point in the debate. It’s time to reflect on a growing divide between “realists” in the Democratic party and more idealistic progressives.

Democratic Divisions

Ed Kilgore of The New Republic describes the divide over the Senate bill as follows:

[O]n a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. . . . [T]his is not the same as the conservative “privatization” strategy, which simply devolves public responsibilities to private entities without much in the way of regulation.

[I]n the health care reform debate, the Obama administration pursued legislation that utilized regulated and subsidized private for-profit health insurers to achieve universal health coverage. This approach was inherently flawed to “single-payer” advocates on the left, who strongly believe that private for-profit health insurers are the main problem in the U.S. health care system. The difference was for a long time papered over by the cleverly devised “public option,” which was acceptable to many New Democrat types as a way of ensuring robust competition among private insurers, and which became crucial to single-payer advocates who viewed it as a way to gradually introduce a superior, publicly-operated form of health insurance to those not covered by existing public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Now that the public option compromise is apparently no longer on the table, and there’s no Medicare buy-in to offer single-payer advocates an alternative path to the kind of system they favor, it’s hardly surprising that some progressives have gone into open opposition . . . . To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector.

Glenn Greenwald is one of the most forceful progressive voices on the issue, offering a multifaceted indictment of dominant Democrats’ coziness with a series of corporate interests:

The health care bill is one of the most flagrant advancements of . . . corporatism yet, as it bizarrely forces millions of people to buy extremely inadequate products from the private health insurance industry — regardless of whether they want it or, worse, whether they can afford it (even with some subsidies). In other words, it uses the power of government, the force of law, to give the greatest gift imaginable to this industry — tens of millions of coerced customers, many of whom will be truly burdened by having to turn their money over to these corporations — and is thus a truly extreme advancement of this corporatist model.

One finds this in far more than just economic policy, and it’s about more than just letting corporations do what they want. It’s about affirmatively harnessing government power in order to benefit and strengthen those corporate interests and even merging government and the private sector. In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists. Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state’s armed forces. Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded. [links omitted]

If one judges the bill purely from the narrow perspective of coverage, a rational and reasonable (though by no means conclusive) case can be made in its favor. But if one finds this creeping corporatism to be a truly disturbing and nefarious trend, then the bill will seem far less benign.

Chris Hedges concurs (in his book Empire of Illusion), dismissing “proposals to require insurance companies to use more income from premiums for patient care or link payment with reported quality” as “unworkable.” He favorably cites physicians John Geyman and Steffie Woolhandler, who think health reform as it now stands is a doomed effort to keep a failing system on life support. Yet many on the left are standing behind the Senate bill, embracing it as what Sen. Harkin called a “starter home” with a good foundation for future additions.

Realism and Idealism in an Increasingly Ungovernable Nation

There has been a lot of talk about a Niebuhrian “Christian realism” in Obama’s foreign policy–a willingness to deploy force and otherwise questionable means to accomplish worthwhile ends. The health reform bill strikes me as another iteration of these endlessly complex, ethically ambiguous moments. The political opposition to the public option has been so intense that those pursuing universal coverage have been forced to bargain with (and even become identified and intertwined with) the very entities they are trying to force to act responsibly. In this topsy-turvy world, where an anti-system opposition refuses to responsibly deal with problems that most developed nations addressed decades ago, Democrats and the Obama administration must cut deals with moneyed interests (whose influence over politics grows apace as a “conservative” judiciary continues to gut campaign finance regulation).

But abstractions can only go so far in describing this bill. I just want to give a counterintuitive spin to two bits of journalism on health reform, to prefigure what I’m sure will be months and years of unintended consequences (some good, some bad) flowing from this bill.

1. Pilot programs: Atul Gawande has pointed to a hodgepodge of pilot programs in the Senate bill as one of the best reasons to support reform efforts. Like many physicians, Gawande is attracted to the organic development of “best practices” in cost control, instead of top-down imposition of a general theory:

Where we crave sweeping transformation . . . all the current bill offers is those pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. . . . The bill tests, for instance, a number of ways that federal insurers could pay for care. Medicare and Medicaid currently pay clinicians the same amount regardless of results. But there is a pilot program to increase payments for doctors who deliver high-quality care at lower cost, while reducing payments for those who deliver low-quality care at higher cost. There’s a program that would pay bonuses to hospitals that improve patient results after heart failure, pneumonia, and surgery. There’s a program that would impose financial penalties on institutions with high rates of infections transmitted by health-care workers. Still another would test a system of penalties and rewards scaled to the quality of home health and rehabilitation care.

Other experiments try moving medicine away from fee-for-service payment altogether. A bundled-payment provision would pay medical teams just one thirty-day fee for all the outpatient and inpatient services related to, say, an operation. This would give clinicians an incentive to work together to smooth care and reduce complications. One pilot would go even further, encouraging clinicians to band together into “Accountable Care Organizations” that take responsibility for all their patients’ needs, including prevention—so that fewer patients need operations in the first place. These groups would be permitted to keep part of the savings they generate, as long as they meet quality and service thresholds.

The bill has ideas for changes in other parts of the system, too. Some provisions attempt to improve efficiency through administrative reforms, by, for example, requiring insurance companies to create a single standardized form for insurance reimbursement, to alleviate the clerical burden on clinicians. There are tests of various kinds of community wellness programs. The legislation also continues a stimulus-package program that funds comparative-effectiveness research—testing existing treatments for a condition against one another—because fewer treatment failures should mean lower costs.

There are hundreds of pages of these programs, almost all of which appear in the House bill as well. But the Senate reform package goes a few . . . steps further. It creates a center to generate innovations in paying for and organizing care. It creates an independent Medicare advisory commission, which would sort through all the pilot results and make recommendations that would automatically take effect unless Congress blocks them.

None of this is as satisfying as a master plan. But there can’t be a master plan. That’s a crucial lesson of our agricultural experience. And there’s another: with problems that don’t have technical solutions, the struggle never ends.

I agree with all of this, but I want to add one more dimension to the “neverending struggle”–the very interest groups that are supposed to be reined in by pilot programs are likely to do their best to alter, influence, or limit those programs over the coming years. One need only look at the sad and convoluted history of gainsharing pilot programs (merely adumbrated here) in order to get a sense of how, as the “rubber hits the road,” various lobbies will be storming veto points in order to undermine experimentalists’ efforts. This is not to say that pilot programs are a sham–I am about to publish a book chapter with the subtitle “A Plea for Pilot Programs as Information-Forcing Regulatory Design.” I just want to temper the technocratic optimism at the heart of Gawande’s worldview with a touch of the skepticism driving progressives like Greenwald and Markos Moulitsas.

2. Cuts in Medicare Home Health Care: Now here is an aspect of the bill that I at first felt offended by. Doctors, insurers, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies all appeared to be making at most modest concessions in the final bill. But home health care, staffed by some of the most vulnerable workers, was to be slashed. If anything appeared to fit the Greenwald storyline of rapacious private interests shifting public burdens onto the unfortunate, it seemed to me, these cuts would fit the bill.

Yet once one digs in a bit to this story, more complexity emerges. According to one of the speakers on this podcast of the Diane Rehm show, over half of the “extraordinary patient” payments in the program are made in Miami-Dade County alone. It’s hard to get upset with a long overdue crackdown in the Ponzi State. Many other apparent abuses were mentioned in the podcast, as well as in this discussion on the NYT website. After sorting through all the commenters’ underlying empirical data, I may still come back to my original diagnosis of brutal, bareknuckle pluralism as the driving force behind home health care cuts. But I can’t justify that level of cynicism currently.

Concluding Thoughts on the Tragic Dimensions of Moving Forward

The personal is always political, and rarely is this more the case than in health policy. As with abortion and the draft, the law of health care financing directly impinges on the body of the citizen, determining fundamental opportunities for individuals. Despite all of my reservations and disappointments, in the end I am for this bill for a very personal reason: I cannot imagine how my family would have afforded treating my mother’s ailments over the past decade without the private and public insurance she has continually been covered by.

Earlier this year, I had hoped to be a larger part of the academic legal debate on health reform. But my mother broke her back in early September after falling off a scale in her bathroom, and I am her primary caregiver. Attending to her has taken up much of my free time since then. It’s hard to explain how much pain this incident has caused her, and how it has disrupted her life. All I can say is that I cannot imagine how stressful this incident would have been if she were one of the 46 million uninsured. Without question, her 3 weeks in the hospital, four weeks in rehabilitation, and related care, would have bankrupted her (and nearly bankrupted me). Millions of people may end up in such a situation–without coverage, battered by fate, and broke–if progressives in Congress stand on principle (or dubious constitutional arguments) and torpedo the bill.

Nevertheless, I also realize that this immediate victory, like 2009′s stabilization of the financial system, may be a Pyrrhic one for the Democratic Party. It entrenches the power of one more sector of America’s overweening FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate). I’ve recognized the potential of private insurers to rationalize health care, but that potential is rarely realized. I am very worried that just as “GM hired a thousand lawyers, and Toyota hired a thousand engineers” in response to the Clean Air Act, private insurers will plow new revenues attributable to an individual mandate into endless lobbying to hollow out the terms of “minimum creditable coverage.” They will certainly devise clever tricks designed to drive away the 5% or so of the population that accounts for 49% of medical expenses. If pervasive regulatory capture occurs, the “reform” will be an albatross around the necks of Democrats for years.

“In their determination to avoid Harry and Louise, they’ve become Thelma & Louise.” That’s the verdict on the Obama Administration from a Democratic strategist tweeted by horserace reporter extraordinaire, Chris Cillizza. Although it’s a characteristically snide and smug observation from The Village, I think this bon mot has some chance of coming true. Like most of the conventional wisdom excrudescing from Beltway pundits, it’s less a reflection of reality than a narrative our entrenched political class enacts. The “politics of reform” will be endlessly refracted in DC media celebrities’ halls of mirrors, where a 24-hour news cycle is always hungry for “backlash.” The lazy conventional wisdom has already coalesced around a narrative of Obama-as-Icarus, perpetually mistaking his cautious incrementalism as a seamless web of socialism.

The real tragedy here lies in a struggle for the soul of the Democratic party–between idealists like Greenwald, Hedges, Woolhandler, and Kos, and the DLC/Brookings “realists” who’ve dominated the official Democratic response to the financial and health care crises. The sclerotic Senate’s supermajority rules have put the realists in the driver’s seat, and idealistic progressives have been left with little more than the power to refuse the bill that Reid & Co. craft. Idealists want an FDR-style rejection of what TR called the “malefactors of great wealth,” and they also want to see the millions of Americans without health care coverage given some semblance of a safety net beyond the bankruptcy courts. But we cannot have both. As Martha Nussbaum writes in The Fragility of Goodness (speaking generally about such quandaries),

We are considering [a] situation[], then, in which a person must choose to do (have) either one thing or another. Because of the way the world has arranged things, he or she cannot do (have) both. . . . He senses that no matter how he chooses he will be left with some regret that he did not do the other thing. . . .

Aristotle speaks of a captain who throws his cargo overboard in a storm in order to save his own and other lives. The man sees all too well what he must do, once he grasps the alternatives. . . .And yet he was also attached to that cargo. He will go on regretting that he threw it into the ocean–that things turned out so that he had to choose what no sane person would ordinarily choose, throw away what a sane person would ordinarily cherish.

By passing this reform bill, Democrats will jettison whatever “populist” credentials they once had, opting instead for an early-twentieth-century “progressive” vision of technocratic alliance between corporate and government experts. However many disastrous missteps the FIRE industries make, this is the only arrangement that the media will credit as responsible governance. We’ll commence an endless argument (read: notice and comment rulemaking and subsequent administrative adjudications) over what constitutes an adequate baseline of coverage, what is the fair share of revenue for middlemen like insurers, and what regulatory infrastructure can best vindicate the entitlements (and impose the burdens) specified by the bill. But the fundamental victory of reform–the national commitment that no one should have to choose between death or bankruptcy when confronted with a serious illness–will also endure. The tragic paradox is that the Democrats can only achieve this great cultural and ideological victory by becoming identified with the very interests that only they are willing to confront.