Health insurance is not insurance

A message for conservatives

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Is health insurance a plan to help healthy people mitigate against an unexpected illness, or an income subsidy to help the sick pay for medical care?

Conservatives ought to have a clear answer to that question.  Congressman Morris Brooks from Alabama did not and found himself on the receiving end of liberal ridicule.

By suggesting that those who take better care of themselves should pay lower health insurance premiums, Brooks implied that health insurance is indeed a type of insurance arrangement.  After all, the risk adjustment of premiums is a practice proper to all other kinds of insurance services: A prudent driver pays less for auto insurance than one with a pre-existing driving record.  A home owner pays more for home insurance if the property is on muddy terrain rather than on sturdy ground.  A smoker pays more for life insurance than a non-smoker, as does anyone whose risk of dying prematurely is high, even if that predisposition is inherited genetically.

Brooks’ conception of health insurance, however, intuitive as it may be, is wrong.

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Good health care news from America

My dispatch to Switzerland

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I was kindly asked to provide an article for Courrier du Medecin Vaudois, the French language journal of the medical society of the canton of Vaud.  The article was published as part of an issue on the theme of ‘America First against Obamacare.’ Below is an English version of the piece.

Health care in the United States: The surprising good news

On the surface, the news from America about health care seems rather grim: cost and dissatisfaction keep rising, reforms are stalling, and, for some, even life expectancy may be declining.  If that wasn’t bad enough, President Trump issued a tweet on March 25 predicting that “Obamacare will explode.”

For a small but growing number of doctors and patients, however, the future is surprisingly hopeful. 

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A health insurance CEO daydreams

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Jim was at his desk, looking weary.

The last few weeks had been brutal.  Despite working twelve-hour days, he felt that he had little to show for.  His annual board meeting was to take place the next day, and he expected it to be tense.

With a replacement bill for the ACA about to be voted on, and with Trump in the White House, the situation seemed particularly precarious.  The board members had asked him to present a contingency plan, in case things in DC didn’t go well.

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Three cheers for the statin war

The days of healthcare utilitarianism are numbered!

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If anyone has any lingering doubts that the promises of evidence-based medicine are quickly evaporating, the recent blog post by Larry Husten on the statin war should quickly dispel them.  Husten gives an excellent account of the latest battle opposing the pro- and the anti- camps.

What happened?

The pro-statinists published a 30-page diatribe in The Lancet.  Statins save lives, they assert.  The evidence is incontrovertible.  Yes, they can have side effects such as muscle pain, no one disputes that.  But drawing attention to those side-effects—as the anti-statinists do—endangers patients who now find a reason to refuse to take the life-saving drugs.  There’s evidence of that happening.

The anti-statinists voiced their position in the BMJ.  Statins cause muscle pain and fatigue, they assert.  The evidence is incontrovertible.  Yes, they can save lives, no one disputes that.  But trumpeting the benefits or down-playing the harm—as the statinists do—prevents patients from partaking in the glorious activity of “shared-decision making.”  There’s evidence of that happening.

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The mother of all medical errors

Iatrogenesis in perspective

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A study published a couple of months ago in the BMJ  made headlines for claiming that medical errors are the third leading cause of death.  As expected, the reactions were swift and polarized.

For some, the study confirmed that the self-serving healthcare system is utterly careless about the welfare of patients.  For others, the claim was complete hogwash, based on faulty methodology designed to justify further regulatory oversight.

The two positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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Interview on the Wake-Up Call podcast.

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I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Adam Camac and Daniel Laguros, hosts of the Wake-Up Call podcast.  We talked about the history of American healthcare.  The interview was broken down into 2 segmenst.  Here is part 1 and here is part 2.  I highly recommend this podcast.  Adam and Daniel are very good hosts and they have terrific guests, covering a wide range of topics.  You can subscribe on iTunes.

The pharma-fed doctor

And the foundation-fed healthcare journalist

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In his recent article “Feed Me, Pharma,” ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein has been calling attention to studies showing that the prescribing decisions of doctors are linked to the amount of money that drug companies can bestow on them, usually in the form of meals, travel expenses, tuition support to attend courses, and so on.

I find nothing surprising about that, and Ornstein need not be so scrupulous when he clarifies that “the researchers did not determine if there was a cause-and-effect relationship between payments and prescribing.” To deny that perks have a causal effect on physician behavior invites improbable considerations.

In fact, the data suggests that doctors are particularly easy to manipulate. One of the researchers interviewed by Ornstein was “surprised that it took so little of a signal and such a low value meal [to influence doctors]” A Chick-fil-A is all that it takes!

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In defense of the employed physician

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I wish to make one clarification and one prediction regarding employed physicians.

The clarification is this:  There is a common misconception that if healthcare operated under free market conditions, it would primarily be a cottage industry of solo practices and of small physician-owned hospitals.  Such operations would not develop the capabilities of large healthcare entities that we commonly associate with central planning.

In reality, however, the opposite would be the case.

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Let’s be clear about transparency

And about the obfuscations of healthcare policy interventions

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Note: This article is jointly posted here and on The Health Care Blog.

Transparency—or its absence—continues to fascinate healthcare analysts and healthcare economists.  A study just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine addresses the effects of public reporting of hospital mortality rates on outcomes.  Its senior author, Dr. Ashish Jha, offered his perspective on the study results and on the topic of transparency in The Health Care Blog.

According to the study investigators, mandatory public reporting of hospital mortality is not improving outcomes.  The result of their analysis surprised them because “the notion behind transparency is straightforward” and the “logic [of public reporting] is sound.”  The conclusion, therefore, is to persist in the effort, but to do it better with better metrics, better methods, and better data. 

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Practicing medicine for the common good

Beware of the fallacies of Spaceship Earth ethics

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In a recent New England of Medicine article titled Considering the Common Good—The View from Seven Miles Up,” Dr. Martin Shapiro tells a story that serves as a parable for a more general point:  Instead of only considering the best interests of individual patients, American physicians should adopt “a more communitarian approach to decision making” and consider “the implications of individual clinical decisions for other patients and society as a whole.”

The parable is as follows: two sick patients are aboard an airplane, each which his own physician.  The first one is terminally ill and on his way home; the second one has a grave illness but stands a small chance of surviving.  A decision to land midway must be made in flight, and it pits the interests of one against those of the other.

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