Should Drug Investors Worry About Medicare Revenues?

 

(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

The pharmaceutical sector has held up quite well in this aging bull market. Now, a new political risk is on the horizon: The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was instituted in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Starting in 2015, the IPAB was empowered to cut Medicare spending if costs increased faster than a certain rate. It quickly faded into the background as the growth in Medicare spending moderated after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.

Those days are gone. The latest annual Medicare Trustees’ report, published on June 22, indicates Medicare spending will cross the threshold for IPAB to swing into action in 2017. The 2017 threshold is determined by a target rate of growth which is the average of the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the medical-care component of the CPI. Estimates of both actual Medicare spending per capita and the target rate are calculated as five-year averages.

Table I, extracted from a recent presentation by Medicare’s Chief Actuary, illustrates why investors are becoming concerned. Table I highlights this year’s Medicare spending per capita will increase 2.21 percent (averaged over the five years, 2014 through 2018). The target rate is 2.33 percent, higher than the estimated actual rate, so the threshold is not crossed. IPAB remains asleep.

20160708 Forbes IPAB TI

Is that Granola Bar Really Healthy? Nutritionists Say No!

 

Healthy eating and “eating clean” is all the rage among health conscious consumers. So-called Super Foods like blueberries, kale, Swiss chard and quinoa supposedly supercharge the body, cleans the colon and all around make people healthier. A recent New York Times article explores the misconceptions people have about healthy eating and how what constitutes healthy foods differs from nutritionist and the public.

More Evidence Against Health Insurance

 

doctor-mom-and-sonDavid Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times, whose columns on health policy tilt heavily towards single-payer advocacy, has done a great service to the cause of consumer-driven health care, describing how much more sense it makes to pay cash prices for health services than pay what your health insurer “negotiates.”

Five blood tests were performed in March at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. The hospital charged the patient’s insurer, Blue Shield of California, $408. The patient was responsible for paying $269.42.

Tests that were billed to Blue Shield at a rate of about $80 each carried a cash price of closer to $15 apiece.

This is one of the dirty little secrets of healthcare,” said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “If your insurance has a high deductible, you should always ask the cash price.”

Not all medical facilities will be open to sharing their cash prices with an insured person, Kominski said, but many will.

Appeals Court Ruling Saves Fixed Indemnity Health Coverage

 

The indemnity insurance model is alive and well thanks to a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. So-called “fixed indemnity” insurance pays a fixed amount for a given claim – such as $500 per day for hospitalization or $50 for a doctor visit.  Often, fixed indemnity plans only cover specific conditions, such as cancer.

In 2014 the Obama Administration ruled that only individuals who already had comprehensive coverage could purchase fixed indemnity. The reason the administration did not want fixed indemnity coverage available was because it was trying to prop up Obamacare. The administration thought a cheaper option would undermine the goal of “maximizing the number of individuals who have comprehensive, major medical coverage.”

Under the administration ruling, individuals buying fixed indemnity coverage had to attest on their application they already had comprehensive coverage with minimal essential coverage. The plaintiffs argued the 2014 regulatory ruling essentially destroyed the market for their products. The federal court and the appeals court agreed, ruling that the administration had overstepped its regulatory power. Fixed indemnity insurance has been exempt from federal insurance standards for 20 years. The appeals court explained the Affordable Care Act did not change that nor was there evidence Congress planned for the ACA to change that fact. Unfortunately, people who buy fixed indemnity coverage still must buy Obamacare coverage to avoid getting fined. But they can now at least make the choice.

Is It Now Okay to Sell Your Kidney in the U.S.?

 

man-in-wheelchairThere is a global shortage of many organs for transplantation. How about just increasing the supply of organs through a free market? The idea of allowing people to sell their organs for personal gain grosses many of us out. Although, it is legal to sell our plasma, and many poor Americans find it profitable to do so.

The moral case for a market in organs has been made by Professors Kathryn Shelton and Richard B. McKenzie at the Library of Economics & Liberty. Yet, it is illegal to sell your organ for transplantation in the U.S. Or is it? A major insurer may have found a side door into this market, by offering up to $5,000 to kidney donors to cover their travel expenses. Clever, eh?

Health Facilities Exceed Other Construction in May

 

Census2April’s drop in health facilities starts looks to have been idiosyncratic. Health facilities exceeded other construction in May, as in March and February. While construction overall dropped at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.8 percent, health construction increased 0.2 percent (See Table I below the fold).

The difference was especially apparent in private construction. Construction of private health facilities increased 0.5 percent, 0.8 percentage points more than other private construction, which declined.  Construction of public health facilities dropped 1.0 percent, but this was less than half the drop in other public construction.

For the twelve months from May 2015, there is a significant difference in trend between private and public construction. Private construction increased 4.7 percent, and private health facilities starts increased at almost exactly the same rate. However, while public construction declined 2.6 percent, public construction of health facilities dropped only 1.4 percent.

Overall, health construction increased 3.3 percent, versus only 2.8 percent for non-health construction. Notwithstanding other factors, this indicates health costs will continue to increase faster than other sectors of the economy because (as the old saying goes) “a bed built is a bed filled.”

Is this the Insurance Casualty Model; Or Just a Dirty Trick?

 

The health insurance “Casualty Model” is alive and well in Georgia — but only as a punishment for not signing an in-network agreement or accepting usual and customary reimbursement for emergency room treatments.  At issue is a Georgia hospital (and one in Los Angeles) that are not part of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia network. Because neither of the hospitals are part of the insurer’s network, when covered individuals go to the hospitals’ emergency rooms, the insurer sends reimbursement checks for emergency care directly to enrollees. The enrollees are then supposed to endorse the checks over to the hospital.  This is similar to the casualty model when an insurer provides funds for a covered claim and the covered individual shops around and receives a service at the provider of their choice. When someone slid into my car during an ice storm a few years ago, an adjuster came to my office and calculated an estimate. I received the check and was told I could get my car repaired almost anywhere for the estimated amount.

The Regulatory State Reaches The Wellness Industry

 

Women joggingThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has finalized rules on how employers can use wellness programs. By current federal standards, the rules are concise: 19 pages pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act and 17 pages pertaining to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Both laws are extremely popular. The ADA (1990) passed by 91-6 in the U.S. Senate and 377-28 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The GINA (2008) passed by 95-0 in the Senate and 414-1 in the House.

These laws are meant to prevent discrimination. However this bumps against the real world where health insurers cannot charge different premiums to individuals who are sick. The Accordable Care Act (2010) allows employers to offer incentives to workers who participate in wellness programs, and can offer financial incentives up to 30 percent of premium (or up to 50 percent for anti-smoking programs). However, participation in a wellness program also necessitates surrendering personal health information to an employer who would otherwise be barred from having it (under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, 1996).

Because employers cannot use underwriting for medical risk to charge different premiums to different employees, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that wellness programs are less designed to make or keep employees well, as to ensure healthy people are attracted to the employer and sick people are not. Evidence suggests this is the real consequence of workplace wellness programs.

The Fantasy of Single-Payer Health Care In The States

 

HEALTHCARE LAW PROTESTS AT SUPREME COURT(A version of this Health Alert was published in the Washington Examiner)

One of the defining characteristics of Bernie Sanders’ socialism is single-payer healthcare, a fully taxpayer-funded universal medical system. Single-payer healthcare has long had a following in the United States, but it is unlikely to become federal policy. Obamacare’s setbacks have made Americans less confident than ever that the federal government could operate such a system.

So single-payer advocates are focusing on individual states. This November Coloradans will vote on single-payer healthcare. A couple of years ago, Vermont’s governor tried to institute it, but gave up short of the finish line. Other states will surely try. I would put Oregon and (maybe) Hawaii at the top of the list of states to watch.

If successful, this would be a Canadian-style roll-out of single-payer healthcare, which began in individual provinces in the mid-20th century and subsequently won federal support. However, there are significant obstacles to any state instituting true single-payer healthcare in 21st-century America, even if the people or politicians choose it.

As Health Care Spending Slows; Out-of-Pocket Hospital Bills on the Rise

 

NHENational health care expenditures increased just under 3 percent annually during the 4-year period, 2009 to 2013. Many attribute that slow growth to the recession. But some experts believe there are other forces at work. During this same period, out-of-pocket expenditures for inpatient care rose by about 6.5 percent annually. Deductibles have about doubled over the past decade. A study in JAMA found that cost-sharing for the average hospital stay was about $738 in 2009. This had increased to $1,013 by 2013. Background here and here.

Much of the money spent in health care are spent on hospital care, accounting for nearly one-third (about 30 percent). When Americans enter the hospital, they are responsible for only about 3 percent to 4 percent of the cost out-of-pocket. As patients out of pocket costs rise, they may take steps to avoid expensive hospital stays. Basically, I would argue that a significant portion of the recent slowdown in medical spending can be attributed to rising patient cost-sharing. For a breakdown of where our health care dollars are spent, see Figure.