More Evidence that Pay for Performance is Working

DrRich | April 29th, 2010 - 8:57 pm

Podcast:

DrRich has long praised Pay For Performance as a particularly effective tool for covertly rationing healthcare.

Traditionally, pay-for-performance efforts (modeled after time-honored techniques used on trained seals), produce checklists of approved “activities,” which physicians of quality will always perform when engaged in a “patient encounter.” By examining filled-out checklists, the payers (both health insurance companies and the government) can thus determine which doctors are of sufficiently high quality to deserve their full reimbursement allotment, and which doctors are of substandard quality, and therefore deserve at least to have a portion of their reimbursement withheld, and possibly to be sent away for “re-education,” or to have their names published on a potentially embarrassing list.

When these pay-for-performance checklists are combined with the need to see one patient every 7.5 minutes, thus leaving no time for the discussion of health problems (or other issues) that the payers have not seen fit to include on their checklists, pay-for-performance becomes a very serviceable addition to the covert rationing armamentarium. Which brings us to the latest good news about the success of pay-for-performance.

This week, at Digestive Disease Week (the year’s major scientific gathering of gastroenterologists), doctors from Johns Hopkins will present a paper demonstrating that pay-for-performance reimbursement schemes create financial incentives for surgeons to shun obese patients.

Under this species of pay-for-performance, surgeons are “rewarded” (i.e., not punished) for meeting specified quality standards which have to do with certain patient outcomes. (For pay-for-performance to occasionally equate quality with outcomes is a particularly useful formulation, since expressing reservations about such pay-for-performance measures immediately brands one as being against good medical outcomes, in the same way that being concerned about illegal immigration brands one as being against immigrants, or having reservations about certain of President Obama’s policies brands one as being a racist.)

The Johns Hopkins researchers have found that performing surgical procedures on obese patients results in substantially more complications than performing the same surgical procedures on non-obese patients. For instance, fat people had 27% more complications after gall bladder surgery, and 11% more complications after appendectomy, than thinner people. They also had substantially longer hospital stays, and generated much larger medical bills. The researchers conclude that surgeons (some of whom are literate and understand rudimentary statistics, and therefore not only have access to this kind of information, but are also capable of processing it to at least some extent) can only conclude that, in order to maintain a viable surgical practice, they will need to avoid operating on obese patients. At the very least, they will need to avoid doing elective surgery on fat people, waiting instead until they are in extremis, and require emergency surgery (since at least some effort is made to “adjust” the expected outcomes in these situations).

This result, of course, is similar to the result DrRich reported some time ago regarding the publication of Physician Report Cards. Namely, thanks to publicly-available report cards, cardiologists in the state of New York have been more reluctant than cardiologists in other states to aggressively treat patients with severe heart attacks, and as a result (while the report cards are cleaner) the mortality of these patients is higher in New York.

And the situation with surgeons being quite similar (i.e., doctors being incented to avoid treating higher-risk patients, for fear of being punished because of an unavoidably higher rate of complications), DrRich feels quite confident in offering his surgical friends the same advice he offered the New York cardiologists. Namely, he suggests the Designated Driver strategy.

The Designated Driver strategy requires the Chief of Surgery (ideally, an imposing and feared figure) to approach a promising young surgeon who is just entering practice after the end of a very long course of training, and saying, “Son, you are going to have a brief but spectacular career. You are going to be our Designated Driver.”

For an extraordinary annual salary and immediate vesting in a generous pension plan, this young surgeon is going to have the honor of being the one who gets all the high-risk surgical cases for the group. He will agree to do this as long as it is feasible, that is, as long as he’s not run out of practice because his pay-for performance reports, or his physician report card, have become so abysmally bad. With careful management, and with his colleagues tossing him a few “easy” cases now and then in order to extend his longevity, he may be able to survive as a surgeon for five or ten years (longer, for instance, than the average NFL player), after which he can enjoy a lucrative retirement, or simply change careers. (There are obviously other approaches for conducting the Designated Driver strategy, for instance, as a way for surgeons nearing retirement age to go out in a blaze of glory. But you get the idea.)

The Designator Driver strategy is a win-win for everyone except the government – so surely it will eventually become illegal. But what doctors have to realize, when practicing medicine in a healthcare system driven by the covert rationing imperative, is that one either gives in to the bizarre incentives created by programs like pay-for-performance (which will cause measurable harm to their patients), or one fights back guerrilla-style, striking where one can, and changing tactics as the enemy adjusts.

To the government, however, such guerrilla activities amount to a mere nuisance, an annoyance which (like the poor and the uninsured) will always be with us. Looking at the big picture, our government will doubtless rejoice to hear the Johns Hopkins research results. The Feds will be particularly pleased to learn that their pay-for-performance efforts are achieving both of the desired effects (i.e., reducing the volume of elective surgical procedures, and advancing prospects for demonizing and discriminating against the obese.

Say what you will about pay-for-performance. It’s working.

Medicare Already Does It (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 4)

DrRich | April 28th, 2010 - 10:11 pm

Podcast:

Part 1 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 2 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 3 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives
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DrRich could go on and on about how our government is intent on restricting the right of individuals to spend their own money on their own healthcare, but (for now, at least) this will be the final post in this series. DrRich has made his point.

Even some of his critics, who have accused DrRich in the past of being overly paranoid on this topic, seem to have gotten it. Some who previously were quite vocal have remained suspiciously silent. Others have fallen back to quasi ad hominem accusations (suggesting, for instance, that DrRich must be a follower of Mr. Beck, with all the horrific connotations that condition entails). And then there is the esteemed Praveen (author of the excellent True Cost Blog), who conceded as follows: “Massachusetts’ attempt to ban direct pay is both unfortunate and unconstitutional. Perhaps you’re right, and the bureaucrats are sneakier than I think.”

So maybe DrRich should just declare victory and move on.

But it is important to make one final point, namely: the notion that our government is intent on limiting our individual healthcare prerogatives is far more than just one of DrRich’s theoretical constructs. Indeed, our government has been acting on this intent for over 15 years. The main case in point, of course, is Medicare.

It has always been recognized that every American citizen “is the proper guardian of his own health,” (Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, 1873), and accordingly, has a natural right to employ his own individual resources to that end. Roe v. Wade, for instance, was a particularly explicit recognition that a woman has a fundamental right to purchase medical services which she determines to be necessary for her own well-being.

Indeed, when Medicare became law in 1965, Congress also explicitly recognized this right, stipulating that nothing in the new law “shall be construed to preclude [an individual] from purchasing or otherwise securing protection against the cost of any health services.” (DrRich reminds his readers once again that a bold, restrictive statement like this, appearing in legislation, generally heralds an outcome opposite to the statement itself.)

DrRich has already pointed out that under Hillarycare, private medical practice would have been nearly criminalized out of existence. So one ought to expect that the Clinton administration would view an individual right to purchase healthcare as a threat. And indeed, it did. But, as it happens, the erosion of the rights of Medicare “beneficiaries” began even before the Clinton administration. (And even again, DrRich must remind his readers that any universal healthcare plan, even under a Republican administration, will always tend to limit individual liberties.)

In 1991, Medicare administrators published a “carrier bulletin” warning physicians that direct-pay contracts between patients and doctors were strictly prohibited, unless the contract was initiated solely by the patient, and even then, payment rates must be set by Medicare, and further, if the patient later became dissatisfied with that (patient-initiated) contract, Medicare would severely (and retroactively) sanction the physician.

When physicians sued Medicare to prevent this odious new policy from being implemented (Stewart et al. v. Sullivan), the government took the position that it had, in fact, not made any new policy after all, arguing that stuff that shows up in its “carrier bulletin” doesn’t really count. But once this argument was successful in having the lawsuit thrown out in a summary judgment in 1992, Medicare then cynically turned around and immediately made that selfsame new policy “official,” by publishing it in their 1993 Medicare Carrier’s Manual.

But the Feds were still not satisfied. The new, restrictive policy technically still allowed private-pay contracts, as long as the patient initiated them. So the Clinton administration engineered an amendment to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 – Section 4507 – which prohibited any self-pay contracts whatsoever between Medicare patients and their doctors for medical services which are covered under Medicare. Under Section 4507, which is still the law today, if a doctor provides even one self-pay medical service to a single Medicare patient, that doctor is punished by complete banishment from the Medicare program for at least two years.

The federal government was eventually challenged again in court over Section 4507, but that lawsuit was also thrown out in a summary judgment. The rationale the government offered to the court in justifying its restrictions on individuals’ prerogatives, however, is instructive: “…what you will have is a system whereby the rich can buy what they want and those many beneficiaries who are on fixed income will not be able to afford those services” (United Seniors Association et al. v. Shalala). So again, the interest of the collective (“social justice”) was invoked to justify a law which stifles an individual’s fundamental right to purchase medical services he or she determines to be necessary for his/her well-being.

In any case, since 1997 Medicare patients have been able to purchase Medicare-covered services for themselves ONLY if they obtain that service from a doctor who agrees to opt out of Medicare entirely. This severely limits a patient’s opportunity to self-pay for covered services. The fact that Medicare patients can still buy these medical services from direct-pay physicians, however, is one reason the government hates direct-pay practices, and wishes to stamp them out. More importantly, while some primary care physicians have indeed opted out of Medicare in order to establish direct-pay practices, this path is not a realistic option for medical specialists. So in practical terms, the only “covered services” available for self-pay by Medicare patients, on even a limited basis, are primary care services.

There are several legitimate reasons a Medicare patient might want to self-pay for a medical service that is covered by Medicare. If Medicare “covers” heart valve surgery, for instance, a patient might want to pay for a new, minimally-invasive surgical approach that is inadequately reimbursed by Medicare, rather than the big, open-heart surgery that Medicare reimburses fully. Or, one might want to self-pay for “covered” psychiatric care, or for treatment for a venereal disease, in order to keep embarrassing or harmful medical records out of government-controlled databases.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that just because a healthcare service is “Medicare-covered” does not mean that it will be covered for a given patient. Whether a specific individual is covered is often determined by a “medical necessity” ruling, made by a bureaucrat. Section 4507 essentially precludes a patient’s ability to purchase a denied (but “covered”) medical service, no matter how badly they want it, or believe they need it.

One can argue, and with some merit, that at this juncture denials of medically necessary services by Medicare have been relatively judicious, and therefore that the “Section 4507 rule” has not had much of an actual impact. In fact, it is likely that most Medicare beneficiaries do not even know that this rule exists.

But while its impact might be relatively small so far, the Section 4507 rule has now been in place for 13 years – it is well-established. So, once Medicare begins reducing reimbursements to physicians and hospitals, to the point where they can no longer afford to offer certain services to Medicare patients (and Medicare has just recently begun doing so, specifically, for some cardiac imaging studies), those patients will be left in the cold. Services which are officially “covered” by Medicare, but which are reimbursed at such a low rate that they cannot actually be provided to them, will become unavailable even to Medicare patients who are willing and able to pay for those services.

DrRich’s main point, once again, is that our government has a deep and abiding need to limit our individual prerogatives when it comes to our healthcare, and has been acting on that need for a long time. The principle for these limitations on our individual liberties, the principle of social justice, has already been established, and has survived court challenges.

Extending these limitations on personal liberties to Obamacare, and broadening their usage, will not require any major changes in direction, or principles, or policy, but will merely require an expansion of already existent – and even “venerable” – rules, rules which have been an established part of Medicare for many years.

DrRich has expressed the idea that such restrictions by our government on such fundamental individual liberties are a very big deal indeed, and, in fact, signal an end to the Great American Experiment. His critics admonish him, however, that he makes too much of it, that, presumably, our government in its benign wisdom is just doing what’s best for us.

DrRich begs his readers to forgive him if he sees, in such a reply, even more evidence that the only nation in the history of mankind to be founded on the principles of individual freedom is well on the way to abandoning those exceptional principles, for the sake of the same, soothing-but-empty blandishments that have been offered, throughout human history, by well-meaning people who end up producing – or becoming – tyrants.

Breaking the Doctor-Patient Relationship (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 3)

DrRich | April 25th, 2010 - 10:46 pm

Podcast:

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Part 1 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 2 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

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The thing about Progressives is that the characteristic which makes them most endearing (and, which makes them most attractive to the unaware), is the very characteristic which makes them the most dangerous.

Fundamentally, Progressives believe in the perfectibility of mankind, or at least, of society. Indeed, they have discovered the very Program which will lead to the perfect society, a society which will maximize the good of the whole. Their vision is so compelling, and their ends so utterly and undeniably right, that it becomes legitimate for them to engage in whatever means are necessary to achieve it. (Indeed, for those who have been paying attention, “By Whatever Means Necessary” appears to have supplanted “Hope and Change” as the catchphrase of our current political leaders.)

The thing that always trips up Progressives (and their more revolutionary cousins, the Communists), is, of course, human nature. In order for their Program to work, it is necessary for each individual to behave in the prescribed fashion. And, at the end of the day, a substantial proportion of the population (any population) will insist on striving for their own individual benefit, rather than (as the Program requires) for the benefit of the collective.

The major competing system of societal organization – capitalism – recognizes this facet of human nature (i.e., the essential imperfectability of mankind, as manifested by the non-suppressibility of self-interest), and attempts to channel it into relatively productive and non-destructive (but still competitive and individually-directed) behaviors that limit the damage, and maximize the public good to a reasonable degree.

In contrast, Progressives attempt to change human nature to fit their inherently superior Program.

The fact that you cannot change human nature to fit the Program is what makes them dangerous. Their initial wide-eyed optimism that us folks will just “get it,” once they explain it to us, invariably evolves to an essential contempt for our limited intellectual capacity. This contempt justifies all manner of prevarications, to fool us into going along. Even in societies where the tyranny of correct-thinking has gone so far as to elicit the cooperation of the people at the point of a gun (rather than through the preferred methods of “education” or misdirection), the achievement of the predicted perfect society is invariably prevented by the recalcitrance of human nature. (The final realization that not even an all-powerful central authority can make people behave in the prescribed way always produces a nearly psychotic frustration that – in virtually every Communist country – has led to atrocities against various subsets of the recalcitrant people.)

DrRich does not believe there will ever be pogroms in the United States.

But this does not mean that the Progressives will always be kind and gentle as they attempt to achieve their goals. As DrRich sees it, in the U.S. the Progressives have clearly evolved to the “contempt for the masses” phase of their Program, a phase which justifies all manner of techniques – just this side of violence – to get us all to cooperate. Currently they are intent on demonizing their opponents as being racist, stupid, uneducated, selfish, overly dependent on outmoded supernatural beings, violent, and (of course) obese. This demonization is quite useful, since there is obviously no need to address any actual ideas put forth by such as these, even if they were capable of the feat of “ideas.”

Healthcare is, at present, the chief battleground in the war between Progressives vs. non-Progressives in the U.S., and the outcome of this battle will likely determine the success or failure of the entire Progressive Program. And the most fundamental (and emblematic) aspect of this battle is over what to do about the “doctor-patient relationship.”

The classic doctor-patient relationship was a celebration of the primacy of individual rights. And, for over 2000 years (at least since the advent of the Hippocratic Oath) guaranteeing the sanctity of that relationship was the basis of all medical ethics.

Until very recently doctors, patients, philosophers and ethicists recognized that, when you are sick, you are no more capable of navigating a complex and hostile healthcare system than are accused felons a complex and hostile legal system, and you are no less in peril if you run afoul of that system. And, just as the felon has a right to a personal advocate, a professional whose job is to protect his individual interests against the conflicting aims of the “system,” so does the patient. That is (quaint conventional wisdom held), when you are sick, you should be entitled to at least the same protections as when you rob a convenience store. And the doctor-patient relationship was supposed to guarantee you that right.

This is why, throughout the ages, the basic precepts of medical ethics were aimed at guaranteeing the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Fundamentally, these ethical precepts required the physician to place the needs of his or her individual patient above all other considerations.

It should be clear to everyone that, under either our “old” healthcare system or the one that Obamacare promises us, this formulation of the doctor-patient relationship cannot be allowed to stand. Neither the insurance executives nor government officials can allow spending decisions – that is, decisions on how to spend their money – to be made by individual patients (and their personal advocates). For this reason, the classic doctor-patient relationship had to go.

And so, in 2002, official medical ethics was formally amended to require physicians (while still giving lip service to their obligation to individual patients) to strive for a “just distribution of healthcare resources.” That is, official medical ethics now makes it ethical for physicians to ration healthcare, covertly, at the bedside – and indeed, makes it unethical for them to fail to do so.

The New Ethics has been enthusiastically supported by medical ethicists worldwide (a field which now seems to be dominated by utilitarians), and worse, has been embraced by all the world’s major medical professional organizations. DrRich has not embraced the New Ethics (on the grounds that it places individual patients at great peril, and destroys the profession of medicine), and neither have many (possibly a majority) of older physicians. But it has been taught in medical schools around the world for over a decade, and in another decade it is likely that the vast majority of practicing physicians will accept as a matter of course that their primary obligation is to control healthcare costs, and only secondarily to try to meet the needs of their individual patients.

The plan, therefore, is for Obamacare to provide physicians with directives from expert panels on which medical services to supply to which patients and when, and for the New Ethics to allow physicians who go along with such directives to live with themselves. The feasibility of this plan depends entirely on physicians acceding to the program.

So, incentives are being put in place to “help” doctors cooperate. Quality measures will be implemented, with “quality” being defined as doctors doing what they’re told, and reimbursement will be tied to one’s quality rating. Possibly more persuasive will be the fact that the Feds can construe the failure to follow handed-down rules, regulations and guidelines, at any time, as a federal crime. (Even doctors who don’t mind being labeled as “substandard quality” – perhaps even considering the label as a badge of honor – will mind going to jail.)

But by whatever means necessary, the happiness of the government is to be the doctor’s first consideration, and not the happiness of their individual patients. The classic doctor-patient relationship is being terminated with extreme prejudice.

To see just how important it is to destroy the doctor-patient relationship, one merely has to observe what is happening to primary care doctors who have the audacity to leave the system, and set up a direct-pay medical practice.

Part of the problem, to be sure, was caused by these doctors themselves. The first few to do so unabashedly catered to rich patients, and to attract the rich, referred to themselves as “concierge” practitioners. This name (and its elitist connotations) have been forcibly affixed to all direct-pay practitioners, even as this style of practice has evolved into a much more democratic form. Today, more and more doctors are starting direct-pay practices (in which patients pay the doctors out of their own pockets) which are easily affordable to anyone who can afford a cell phone or cable TV contract.

While many direct-pay practices offer patients certain benefits they can usually not get from primary care doctors who remain in the approved system (such as phone and e-mail access, same-day appointments, appointments lasting as long as necessary instead of the allotted 7.5 minutes, etc.), the fundamental benefit, to both the patient and the doctor, is that it restores the classic doctor-patient relationship. The physician’s primary obligation is no longer to the 3rd-party overlord, or to the Progressive ideal of social justice, but to the patient.

And while critics (who abound) attack direct-pay practitioners for their elitism, laziness, and greed, their real issue is that direct-pay practitioners are acting as if their primary duty is to their individual patients, and not to the needs of society. This latter fault simply cannot be tolerated.

Having gained nearly complete control over the behavior of primary care practitioners, it is critical for Progressives – in making sure that practice by handed-down “guidelines” is not simply the only legal way to practice, but also the only ethical way to practice – to shut the door to any alternative forms of primary care. Direct-pay practitioners are a menace because they threaten to raise the expectations of both doctors and patients. Perhaps, doctors and patients might tell themselves, there really is a way to maintain individual autonomy within the healthcare system.

The attacks on direct-pay practitioners have followed the usual scheme Progressives follow when they discover a faction they need to suppress. First, they were ridiculed. “For a Retainer, Lavish Care by ‘Boutique Doctors,’” said a headline in the New York Times in 2005. Then, they were demonized, widely attacked for their elitism, laziness, greed, and lack of fundamental medical ethics. In this latter effort, it was not difficult to find fellow physicians – generally, from the medical organizations which promulgated the New Ethics – to lead the attacks. There are countless examples. DrRich will give just two.

Anthony DeMaria, then President of the American College of Cardiology, criticized the practice of direct-pay medicine in an article in the JACC in 2005, saying, “Personally, I do not mind if people acquire yachts or personal trainers if they have enough money, nor would I object if they secured a physician at their beck and call. However, unlike yachts, health care is not discretionary, and everyone should be entitled to the same quality.” As a matter of social justice, direct-pay physicians improve healthcare quality for only some patients, and so have no place in the healthcare system.

In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Troyen A. Brennan (M.D., J.D., and M.P.H., so we know we’re in trouble) really gets to the point. Referring to direct-pay practices as “luxury primary care,” he notes that “traditional medical ethics is rather poorly equipped to address issues related to luxury primary care.” That is, while “traditional” medical ethics always places the individual patient first, that kind of thinking is now outmoded. “(M)ost ethicists now agree that the financial structure of health care is an important subject for ethical consideration. Access to health care, in particular, is a salient ethical issue.” Direct-pay practitioners threaten (by their elitism and the limited size of their practices), to limit access to primary care, and thus are in fundamental violation of medical ethics.

The argument here, for those who missed it (advanced by fellow physicians no less), is that, of the two competing ethical precepts now established by New Medical Ethics (i.e., the physician’s obligation to the individual patient vs. the physician’s obligation to society), clear primacy is to be given to the physician’s obligation to society. Physicians must (like it or not) participate in covert bedside healthcare rationing. Physicians who take the only path remaining to them that allows them to make the individual patient their primary obligation are to be castigated as ethically deficient.

When ridicule and demonization fail to suppress their opposition, Progressive dogma indicates it’s time to resort to force. The first pass in this regard, of course, is always to render the opposition illegal. (Actual violence is reserved for criminals who persist in their misbehavior, despite more polite efforts to get them to behave lawfully.)

Making direct-pay medical practice illegal has not been accomplished yet, but clear efforts have been made in this regard. Noting with alarm the rise of direct-pay primary care, numerous Congresspersons have issued statements of concern, suggesting that perhaps Congress should look into the propriety of such activities.

Indeed, the first step by Congress has already been taken. In 2003, as part of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, Congress directed the GAO to study and report on the effect of direct-pay practices on Medicare patients. The GAO did so in 2005, and a fair paraphrase of its report is as follows: “The practice of direct-pay medicine is not currently a threat to Medicare patients, because the direct-pay movement is not large enough yet to have an impact. If it does begin to have an impact on Medicare patients, action will have to be taken.” That is, direct-pay medicine was considered OK in 2005 not because it was inherently an ethical and legal form of medical practice, but simply because there were not enough practitioners at that time to significantly affect Medicare patients. The clear implication is that Congress stands ready to pass laws outlawing – or, at least, severely limiting – direct-pay practices, as soon as those practices begin to “impact” the system.

Certain state governments are not waiting for Congress to ban direct-pay practices. The state of Maryland (and a few others) have taken the creative position that, because many direct-pay practices work on a retainer basis, they meet the definition of a health insurance company. And as a health insurance company, to be considered legal entities, they have to have millions of dollars set aside to pay for unforeseen “claims.” (Interestingly, this same argument was not applied to Maryland lawyers, who also often work on a retainer model.) According to the Baltimore Sun, the state’s stance in this regard has already successfully caused several primary care physicians to abandon their plans to become retainer practitioners.

Less devious (but more draconian) than the state of Maryland is the state of Massachusetts (whose universal healthcare system, we’ve all heard, is a preview of Obamacare circa 2015). A bill is under consideration in the Massachusetts Senate (Bill 2170) which requires doctors, as a condition of their licensure, to accept payment rates as determined by the government. If it passes, it will be the first actual legislation in the U.S. to ban direct-pay medicine, if only by making it completely impracticable. (Thanks to Dr. Wes for pointing out this important development.)

Since medical licensing is controlled by the various states, of course, it would take 50 bills like the one in Massachusetts to really get rid of direct-pay healthcare. But there are other ways for the Feds to accomplish the same thing. Now that the federal government directly controls all student loans, for instance, it would be a simple matter to make those loans contingent on agreeing to become primary care doctors working strictly within the government controlled system, or to offer loan forgiveness for doctors who agree to do so, or to rescind favorable re-payment conditions (retroactively, and decades after the fact, if necessary) for doctors who go to a direct-pay model later in life.

DrRich does not really know how the Progressives will actually place the final nail in the coffin of the doctor-patient relationship. All he knows is that they have – well, more than the desire – the deep and abiding need to kill that relationship, once and for all. Unless we the people decide we ought to stop them, this is going to happen.

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Part 4 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Hillary Started It (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 2)

DrRich | April 20th, 2010 - 10:50 pm

Podcast:

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Part 1 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

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Have you ever wondered where Obamacare came from? From where, exactly, did those 2700 pages of undecipherable prose arise?

It is clear that our Congresspersons never read it, let alone wrote it. At the President’s “Health Care Summit” in late February it seemed pretty plain, to DrRich at least, that the only people in the room who had read the bill carefully were Republican Congresspersons Ryan and Cantor. The proponents of the bill stuck to generalities, platitudes, and vignettes about recycling dead people’s dentures. When Ryan and Cantor used their knowledge of the bill to question the President about its details, they were admonished to stop using “props.” The President was not just being mean; he needed to avoid getting into the details because he himself had only a broad general idea of what the bill actually said. This is not a slam at the President; the bill is designed to be fundamentally indeterminate in its meaning, so that the regulators who will later translate it into rules, regulations and guidelines, under which healthcare providers can then be prosecuted, can at that time interpret it as directed. This is what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said, a few days later, that Congress would have to pass the bill so that we all could find out what was in it. (This also explains why none of our legislators read it – except for those pesky Republicans, who were only trying to make trouble. What’s the point in reading a long, boring document whose actual meaning will only be sorted out later?)

So, DrRich asks again, where did this bill – whose actual meaning was elusive even to the President and the legislators who were promoting it – come from? Who actually put the words to the page, and crafted this remarkable piece of legislation?

We may never know the name(s) of the person (people) who held the pen(s) which scratched out the actual words, any more than we will ever know the real names of the individuals who wrote the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But, just as New Testament scholars have been able to trace these two gospels to a common prior source – the so-called “Q document” – it is not difficult for anyone with a smattering of interest in the art of legislative exegesis to trace the source document for our new healthcare law.

The Q Document for President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was, of course, Hillary Clinton’s Health Security Act, which went down to ignominious defeat in 1994.

DrRich, who is rapidly developing an expertise in forensic diplomatics, and having spent significant time examining aspects of the Obamacare bill, decided to go back in time, and re-examine Hillary’s original proposal for fundamentally transforming the American healthcare system.

While Hillary’s Health Security Act was widely castigated by contemporaries as being a vast monstrosity of bureaucratic legerdemain, filled with complexity and labyrinthine passages that attempted to hide its true meaning, DrRich, after spending some time with Obamacare, found Hillarycare to be a model of legislative brevity and clarity. In fact, DrRich believes, its very straightforwardness is what killed it.

For instance, Hillarycare is only 1368 pages in length. How could they be so concise?

Even more remarkably, Hillarycare spells out pretty plainly what it actually means to do. For instance, in the Obamacare bill, in order for a reader to assemble the information that the  Independent Medicare Advisory Board is actually to be called the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and that its “advisory opinions” which are to be submitted to Congress for “consideration” are actually formal dictates which must be followed to the letter, and that it can inflict its cost-cutting mandates to all of healthcare and not just to government programs, one must jump around to numerous distant sections in the 2700-page document. In the Hillarycare bill, in stark contrast, the analogous National Health Board (which, like the Immutables, was to have been the Supreme Court of Healthcare, beyond which there was to be no appeal, no revision, and no repeal) is presented in an entirely straightforward way, and all in one place.

And now, having immersed himself once again, however briefly, in the relatively refreshing model of clarity and precision that was Hillarycare, DrRich is convinced that the people who actually wrote the Obamacare bill (and may God keep these invaluable masters of legislative poetry safe, as we will be needing them), simply began with Hillary’s old Health Security Act, disassembled it into various bits, padded each bit with a little more than twice its weight in verbiage, and reassembled the pieces in some nearly random fashion, puzzle-like, into the exceedingly difficult-to-read document that became Obamacare.

That is, Hillarycare is demonstrably the Q document to Obamacare.

Obamacare’s debt to Hillarycare is obvious. Hillarycare included individual mandates requiring everyone to have government-approved health insurance; it reduced private health insurers to government-directed utilities, whose products, rates, and profits were to be controlled by the feds; and it created omnicient and omnipotent panels which were to hand down dictates to let doctors know what services they may or may not provide and under what circumstances.

DrRich, therefore, formally advances the thesis that if you want to understand what Obamacare is actually getting at – what with its inherent and intentional obscurity, obscurity designed with care to provide its proponents with plausible deniability – simply examine the much more straightforward model from which it was derived, namely, Hillarycare.

And this brings us, finally, to the theme of this current series of posts. For Hillarycare strictly limited, in practice, the ability of individuals to spend their own money on their own healthcare.

In this instance even Hillarycare had to be a bit obtuse. For, as DrRich’s critics have pointed out to him so very many times, Americans are jealous of their own personal liberties, and are not likely to simply tolerate a frontal assault on their right to guard their health with their own resources. And of course DrRich agrees with this idea. Indeed, the fact that Hillarycare was insufficiently obtuse on this matter had a lot to do with why it ultimately failed to become law.

The attempt at limiting individual prerogatives under Hillarycare was, to be sure, devious (though not devious enough to fool people). So it began with a straightforward statement declaring that it was not doing what it was actually trying to do: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting…an individual from purchasing any health care services.”

Now first of all, for readers who persist in thinking that restrictive language like this, when it appears in federal legislation, actually means anything in particular, let DrRich disabuse you of that notion with two examples. 1) The legislation that created Medicare contains the following language: “Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize any federal officer or employee to exercise any supervision or control over the practice of medicine, or the manner in which medical services are provided, or over the selection, tenure, or compensation of any officer, or employee, or any institution, agency or person providing health care services.” (Section 1801, Medicare Act, 1965). 2) Obamacare contains language that prohibits healthcare rationing.

In any case, after making this broad promise in favor of individual liberty, Hillarycare went on to limit individual liberties. It attempted to do this in the Fraud and Abuse section of the proposed law, which sought to dry up most of private medical practice, and criminalize the rest. It provided for strict governmental controls over the fees that could be charged by fee-for-service doctors or private practitioners. And if the feds decided that a private doctor’s fees were too high, they could charge him/her with bribe-taking, a serious federal crime under the new law. Indeed, Hillarycare attempted to make illegal most of the ways patients could go outside the approved system to get “extra” healthcare. Criminal penalties could accrue to both the doctor and patient. According to Paul Craig Roberts, writing in the Washington Times in December, 1993, “Mr. Clinton’s plan turns normal patient advocacy into a federal criminal offense. For example, a doctor who wants an earlier date for surgery for a needful patient can be accused of using wrongful influence and accepting a bribe and sentenced, along with the patient, to 15 years in prison.”

While none of this got much publicity in the general media in 1993-1994 (which goes to show that things really haven’t changed that much), you can be sure that doctors were aware of it. That Hillarycare would make it so very easy to inadvertently commit a federal crime – which would lead to massive fines, loss of license, and jail – was, in fact, one of the main reasons most physicians were so violently opposed to it.

The point DrRich is trying to make here is to demonstrate just how deeply reformers feel the need to control the behavior of physicians (and through physicians, the behavior of patients) in order to gain the control they need over individuals, and just how far they are willing to go to this end. It was partly because the Clintons showed their hand in this regard that their healthcare plan failed.

DrRich will now make two final points, and then end this already-too-long post. First, while Hillarycare failed to become law, many of the over-the-top anti-fraud provisions within Hillarycare actually became the law of the land a few years later, in the HIPAA legislation. DrRich has discussed this in detail in his book, and demonstrated how, during the rest of the Clinton administration, the healthcare police worked diligently to let doctors know that their careers, life savings, and physical freedom were dependent on making the happiness of the government – and not of their patients – their chief concern. This activity stopped during the Bush presidency, and has not yet picked up again under President Obama. But the infrastructure is in place already for an unusually effective coercion of doctors, in order to keep them from providing services, and thus to keep patients from buying those services, that the government does not like. There was, in fact, no need to add this infrastructure to the Obamacare legislation. The only thing that’s necessary is for the government to decide (as it did for a few years during the 1990s) that it’s time to take off the gloves.

And second, the intent of the people who brought us Hillarycare – the same people, in philosophy if not in person, who brought us Obamacare – ought to be very plain to all of us. We know their mindset. They may not have gotten away with limiting individual prerogatives in 1994 – but they certainly tried to.

And while it is true that Americans greatly value their liberty, and will chafe at overt restrictions on their ability to use their own resources for the sake of their own health, DrRich reiterates that actually preventing these restrictions will depend on our continued vigilance, and our willingness to stop the people who so plainly want to stifle our individual prerogatives, for the sake of the control they must have.
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Part 3 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 4 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

The Real Fight is Just Beginning (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 1)

DrRich | April 15th, 2010 - 10:57 pm

Podcast:

Unlike many of those who actually supported President Obama’s healthcare reform, DrRich always remained confident (even during the darkest days, such as right after the Scott Brown election) that Obamacare would pass.

DrRich’s confidence stemmed from the simple fact that the health insurance industry required this outcome. That industry, having clearly reached the end of its life-cycle and having nowhere else to turn, desperately needed the government to provide it with a graceful exit strategy. And Obamacare, which promised to convert the health insurance industry into a public utility, was as good a deal as they were going to get. And so, while the President and his supporters traveled the land, painting insurers as the very embodiment of all healthcare evil, with sundry hapless victims of insurance industry atrocities in tow (for demonstration purposes), we Americans were treated to the spectacle of the insurers themselves not only declining to defend themselves, but actively adding fuel to the fire whenever necessary to keep reform moving along, and gratefully embracing their assigned role as the villains of the set piece. And in the end we got the healthcare reform the insurers desperately needed.

So, dear readers, now that this thing has finally come to pass, it is time to prepare ourselves for the real fight, the fight whose outcome is actually in question, and which will determine not merely what kind of healthcare system we will finally end up with, but more importantly, what kind of society we will be. That question, of course, is whether individual Americans ultimately will be restrained from using their own resources to provide for their own medical care.

DrRich has said many times that this was to be our real battle. And whenever he has said this, loyal (but misguided) readers have questioned his sanity – or at least, his judgment. There is simply no reason (these critics insist) for our leaders to attempt to prevent individuals from buying some of their own healthcare with their own money. There is nothing in the bill (they go on) that explicitly does so. And besides (they offer as a clincher), we’re Americans, and even our clueless political leaders know that we’d never stand for it. The very notion that our government would try such a thing amounts to simple paranoia.

DrRich sincerely hopes his critics are right, and that his fear over such a restriction to our personal liberties is just one more manifestation of his paranoid psychosis. For, if his critics are right, not only do we have drugs for that, but also DrRich would be allowed to buy them.

DrRich is sorry to say, however, that if we Americans are to suffer no restrictions on our ability to purchase healthcare services with our own money (and, ultimately, on our ability to expend any individual resources for any individual benefit), this outcome will likely result solely from enough of us remaining vigilant, and vigorously fighting oppressive efforts whenever we find them. It will not result from our complacency, or from placing our trust in the beneficence, the common sense, or the respect for fundamental American precepts, of our political leaders.

This will truly be a momentous fight. Its outcome will determine, to a very great extent, what kind of country we will be, and more importantly, whether the Great American Experiment – arguably the greatest secular endeavor in human history – will continue, or will end in a whimper.

In this and in the next few posts, DrRich will attempt to explain himself by addressing three specific questions. 1) Why must individual prerogatives be restrained in our new healthcare system? 2) What evidence do we have that such restraining efforts are already in the works? 3) How have such restraining efforts already become ingrained in our current, pre-reform healthcare system?

Why Individual Prerogatives Must Be Restrained

It is natural and unavoidable for universal healthcare systems to strive to limit individual prerogatives.*

These healthcare systems are “universal” in two senses. First, they attempt to cover all people. Second, almost by definition they cover “all” healthcare services. Under America’s new healthcare law, for instance, our new health insurance utilities (formerly health insurance companies) are required to issue policies (which every American must have) that cover everything. “Qualified” health plans under our new law MUST cover (as laid out in Section 1302): ambulatory patient services, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment, prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices, laboratory services, preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management, pediatric services, including oral and vision care.

Fundamentally, this “universality of features” reflects a particular philosophy. The central authority is telling the individual that “everything” will be taken care of for them, from soup to nuts. So no need to worry your pretty little heads. But, as always when the central authority assumes all responsibility for providing some aspect of security (in this case, healthcare security), it also assumes all control.

It is important for the government to control all healthcare spending not only because it is the natural state of governments to continually accrue all the power they can (see: Thomas Jefferson), but also because, in the case of healthcare, controlling all expenditures is essential for the purpose of covert rationing.

Allowing individuals to spend their own money fundamentally undermines such a system. It implies that the central authority is actually not supplying all useful healthcare services (when, by definition, it is), and thus implies that the government may be doing some kind of rationing. When one is dedicated to rationing covertly, such an implication cannot be permitted.

Perhaps more importantly, when individuals are allowed to purchase “extra” healthcare, that’s a graphic admission to the unwashed masses that there is extra healthcare to be had. That is, it raises expectations for everybody, and these higher expectations make it that much more difficult for the central authority to pull its covert rationing strings.

(The official reason the central authority will always give for restricting individual prerogatives is one of “fairness.” Allowing the rich to go outside the system would create an unfair, two-tiered healthcare system, etc., etc. But the real reason is that individual healthcare spending undermines the government’s control, and that control is essential for covert rationing.)

The critical importance of controlling the expectations of the masses is nicely illustrated by some of the problems being experienced by the British and the Canadian healthcare systems. In both of these systems, the very visible progress that has been made in the American healthcare system – new drugs, new techniques and new technology – has created new demands and new expectations among Canadian and British citizens. Essentially, seeing what was possible, enough of the population demanded better care that something had to change.

The inability of these universal healthcare systems to ignore such increased expectations has led to an acceleration in expenditures, and even to loosening up the restrictions on individuals. (Both of these universal systems started out, as a simple matter of course, by strictly forbidding individuals from purchasing “extra” healthcare with their own funds.)

Some of DrRich’s critics have argued that such “loosening up” shows that any restrictions on individuals simply will not stand – so we don’t really have anything to worry about. For, if such restrictions cannot be maintained in Canada or Great Britain, how will they ever be maintained in the U.S.? Perhaps. But DrRich suggests that, to the contrary, the fact that restrictions on individuals in Canada and Great Britain systems had to be revised simply illustrates the critical necessity, in any universal healthcare system, of managing expectations. For a failure to manage expectations, obviously, leads to a loss of control. Had it not been for the very visible example of American healthcare to show them what was possible, citizens of Canada and Great Britain quite possibly never would have agitated for “more.” As it is, thanks to the unfortunate example of high-cost healthcare their citizens saw in the U.S., British and Canadian officials were simply unable to manage the expectations of their citizenry.

Now that we too will soon have mandated universal healthcare (much to the relief, no doubt, of Canadian and British healthcare bureaucrats), it will become critically important for our government to manage the expectations of American citizens. Since American healthcare bureaucrats won’t have an annoying external healthcare system to worry about, continually displaying more effective, and more expensive, healthcare options,the job will be somewhat easier for them than it was for their counterparts in Canada and England. For American bureaucrats, managing public expectations will mainly mean restraining individual American citizens from going outside the system, and buying extra healthcare with their own money. This makes restricting individual prerogatives in the U.S. critical, even more critical than it was in our cousin nations. And we should not be surprised if our bureaucrats employ some very devious and even draconian maneuvers to do so.

DrRich believes that they will pull out all the stops to restrict individuals. Whatever methods they employ will, of course, be conducted only for the best of reasons – to have the fairest healthcare system possible, to have the most ethical healthcare system we can devise, and to protect misled Americans from throwing their hard-earned money away on unproven medical services. Whatever the reasons they might offer, their attempt to restrict individual prerogatives will become deadly serious, because doing so is absolutely essential to their real aims.

Covert rationing demands it.

*This is the case in practice, but not necessarily in theory. In his book, DrRich proposed a kind of universal healthcare system in which each American would be provided with catastrophic universal health insurance (which would operate under a system of open and transparent rationing), and in which Americans would then be expected to buy their more routine healthcare, as well as any non-covered healthcare they might want, themselves. (Poor Americans would be subsidized to do so.) But a system like DrRich’s encourages – even demands – individual responsibility, and is therefore philosophically objectionable.

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Part 2 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 3 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 4 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

An Ounce of Prevention Costs A Pound of Cure

DrRich | April 6th, 2010 - 9:37 am

Podcast:

As DrRich has noted many times over the years, “preventive healthcare services” cost the healthcare system far more money than they can ever save, and for this reason, any healthcare system engaged in covert rationing is going to have to find a way to stifle these preventive services.

Now, dear reader, before you go away angry, DrRich understands that some preventive measures are indeed very cost-effective. In fact, DrRich will now engage in a bit of cost-effective preventive healthcare: Don’t smoke. Don’t eat so damned much. And get some exercise.

There. DrRich has just successfully administered pretty much all of the truly cost-effective preventive measures known to modern medicine. (And it’s only cost-effective because the advice was free.)

All the other preventive stuff we do in medicine tends to bend the cost curve in the wrong direction.

Reasons that preventive healthcare services increase the cost of healthcare include: a) The preventive measure itself costs money. b) The preventive measure may not be effective. c) Many “preventive healthcare services” consist of some kind of screening test for “early detection,” and these screening tests almost always produce more false positive results than true positive results – leading to the need for more definitive, more expensive, and often invasive confirmatory tests. d) “Early detection” of any medical condition often detects “occult” disease, that may or may not have become manifest if it had remained undetected. e) Treating the diagnosed – and often occult – medical condition is often very expensive, produces complications, and/or is ineffective. f) Successfully preventing the target medical condition may give patients more time to consume healthcare resources for all their other medical conditions.

Please note that DrRich is not arguing here that preventive services are useless or undesirable. Often they are quite useful and very desirable. Rather, he is arguing that the healthcare system will spend more money by offering these preventive services than if it did not offer them.

This fact ought to prove embarrassing to our leaders, who have spent the last few years assuring us otherwise. Indeed, they have doggedly insisted, not only are preventive healthcare services cost-effective, but also it is precisely because of such preventive services (delivered in the remarkably efficient manner which will be achieved by our new healthcare system) that we will enjoy tremendous cost savings over the next decades.

Like Nancy Pelosi says, it’s all about “prevention, prevention, prevention.”

And having taken this bold and very public stance on prevention, our leaders are going to have to walk very gingerly (now that they have finally been successful in giving us the gift of healthcare reform), as they seek ways of cutting back on those selfsame preventive services.

They know this, of course, and have taken steps to provide themselves with the tools they will need to accomplish this feat. Their chief tool, based on what DrRich can find in the new healthcare law, is our old friend, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Readers may remember that it was the USPSTF that released the controversial new “recommendations” on breast cancer screening last fall. Readers will also recall that the USPSTF’s new recommendation, that women under 50 no longer need screening mammograms, proved quite shocking to many women – women who had been urged for over a decade by various cancer societies, by the government, and by their doctors to get regular mammograms beginning at age 40, because the early detection of breast cancer was the best way not to die from breast cancer. Indeed (readers will again recall), the outcry was so great that Secretary Sebelius quickly issued a statement reminding us that the recommendations of the USPSTF were merely that – non-binding recommendations – and that women should continue getting their screening mammograms as they and their doctors thought best.

DrRich wondered at that time whether Secretary Sebelius (who was simultaneously urging all of us to support the healthcare reform bills which were then making their way through the House and Senate) actually knew that both of those bills contained language making the recommendations of the USPSTF legally (and retrospectively) binding.

In any case, DrRich wishes to take this opportunity to remind his readers that the healthcare reform which is now the law of the land indeed makes the USPSTF the arbiter of which preventive services are to be covered by private insurers (Section 2713), by Medicare (Section 4105), and by Medicaid (Section 4106). To be sure, presumably to bail out Ms. Sebelius, new language was added (Section 2713) to say that the recent recommendations on mammography do not apply, at least not for private insurance plans. (Similar language, however, does not appear in the Medicare or Medicaid sections [4105 and 4106], so patients covered by these programs may indeed be subject to the new mammography recommendations .) New mammography recommendations aside, for the rest of the preventive healthcare services that exist in the universe, only those that have achieved a grade of A or B by the USPSTF will be covered.

Now that the USPSTF has been officially converted from a panel that simply makes recommendations which doctors and insurance companies can take or leave alone, into a panel that determines definitively what is covered and what is not – and indeed, into the chief tool by which our leaders will seek ways to withhold expensive preventive services – DrRich would like to very briefly restate his objections to the USPSTF’s recent mammography rulings.

In a word, DrRich’s problem with the USPSTF’s revised mammogram recommendations has nothing whatever to do with whether mammography is really useful or not, but rather, with the methodologies the panel used to make those recommendations. For, if those methodologies are deemed legitimate, unfortunate precedents will have been set. Specifically, by analyzing the USPSTF’s own justifications for making its new mammogram recommendations, it is possible to derive at least four new “rules” under which the panel can operate in the future.

1) The USPSTF now recommends that breast cancer screening no longer be done for women under age 50. But by the panel’s own words, screening mammography in women in the 40 – 49 age group appears as effective at reducing mortality as it is in women 50 and older, and the panel indicates this fact several times within its own document. And as nearly as DrRich can tell, the panel’s only concrete rationale for dropping mammography for women under 50 is that it has found “a new systematic review, which incorporates a new randomized, controlled trial that estimates the ‘number needed to invite for screening to extend one woman’s life’ as 1904 for women aged 40 to 49 years and 1339 for women aged 50 to 59 years.”

This rationale implies the following rule, Rule 1: If you have a preventive measure which is equally effective across a large population of patients, you can withhold that preventive measure from any arbitrary subgroup within that large population, as long as performing the effective measure in that arbitrary subgroup is more costly than it is for some other arbitrary subgroup.

2) In its public justification for withholding mammogram screening for women aged 40 – 49, the USPSTF did not emphasize cost savings, but rather, emphasized the fact that screening in this age group results in more false positive tests than for older age groups, and thus in more unnecessary biopsies, and the potential for more unnecessary emotional trauma. While this is true, the traditional response to such a circumstance would be for doctors to carefully review the pros and cons of screening with each woman, so as to allow the individual to decide whether the possibility of needing an unnecessary biopsy outweighs the possibility of diagnosing breast cancer while it is still curable.

But instead, the panel established Rule 2: Rather than allowing individuals to apply their own values when weighing healthcare decisions which reasonable people could decide either way, it is legitimate for the panel to make those decisions from on high for all patients; and furthermore, it is legitimate for the panel to make different decisions for different and arbitrary subgroups of patients (e.g., one decision for women 40 – 49 years of age, another decision for women over 50).

3) The USPSTF now recommends that women not be taught breast self examination (BSE). In point of fact, since most doctors stopped teaching BSE a long time ago, this recommendation will probably have little actual impact. But the panel came to this recommendation based on clinical trials conducted in backward, 3rd world healthcare systems (Russia and China), where outcomes with breast cancer have little to do with outcomes in the U.S.

Perhaps more to the point, a similar tactic was used in deciding to withhold mammogram screening for women under 50. That is, the “new randomized controlled trial” the panel invoked to justify this decision was conducted in England, where outcomes for the treatment of breast cancer are substantially – and famously – worse than they are in the U.S.

So Rule 3 is established: It is legitimate to take the results of clinical outcomes trials conducted in backward countries with poor healthcare systems, or in less backward countries which nonetheless have demonstrably inferior outcomes, and directly apply those results to coverage decisions affecting American patients who are being treated in the American healthcare system. This is like performing a careful statistical analysis of outcomes from a Pee Wee football league, then telling the New England Patriots to abandon the forward pass, because the percentages just aren’t there.

4) The USPSTF now recommends that women 75 and older not get breast cancer screening, despite the fact that (from the panel’s own words) breast cancer is the leading cause of death in this age group. The panel justifies this recommendation by noting that there are insufficient data from randomized trials in these patients, and further, that “women of this age are at much greater risk for dying of other conditions that would not be affected by breast cancer screening.”

It is, perhaps, convenient that very few randomized clinical trials assessing preventive measures have ever been conducted in elderly populations, and further, that if such trials were conducted, any actual benefit that might accrue to the subset of relatively healthy older people would be diluted by the inclusion of large numbers of less healthy elderly patients. And, while doctors usually have little problem identifying those healthy 75-year-olds who are likely to survive another 10 – 15 years, and in whom detecting early breast cancer would likely be beneficial, the large, long-term, randomized clinical trials “proving” to the satisfaction of the USPSTF that these women deserve screening will, for all practical purposes, never be done.

So, Rule #4: Preventive measures should not be offered to old people, because they’re probably going to die soon anyway.

Those who want to criticize DrRich  because they feel the USPSTF’s actual recommendations on breast cancer screening are appropriate may, of course, do so. But you will be revealing yourself as a dunderhead. For, as DrRich has just made quite plain, he is not necessarily criticizing the substance of the new recommendations, but rather, the dangerous methodologies the panel used to reach those recommendations, and the four new rules those methodologies have established. These precedents are very troublesome indeed – especially now that we’re no longer dealing with the quaint USPSTF of old. The new USPSTF has acquired broad new powers, and is no longer making mere “recommendations,” but rather, definitive coverage decisions which will directly affect all of us.

And this, it appears, will be the primary means by which our leaders will get out of providing us with all those robust preventive healthcare services they always insisted they were dying to implement.

Some Powers of the Immutables

DrRich | April 5th, 2010 - 7:34 pm

Podcast:

As DrRich helpfully pointed out in his last post, our new healthcare law (Section 3403) creates a new and apparently immutable entity called the “Independent Medicare Advisory Board,” whose job is “to reduce the per capita rate of growth in Medicare spending.” This, in fact, is the right goal. For it is the rate of growth in healthcare spending (and not the absolute amount being spent) that threatens us with societal disintegration within the next couple of decades.

But it is mathematically impossible to attribute this explosive growth rate in healthcare spending to waste and inefficiency. Most of that growth must necessarily be caused by healthcare expenditures that are actually producing some benefit (though, to be sure, some of that benefit is marginal). And this means that in order to reduce the rate of growth, we have to ration healthcare (i.e., to withhold at least some beneficial healthcare from at least some of the people who would benefit from it).

We can only conclude that, in order for the new IMAB to do its designated job, it must ration healthcare. But since the same law that creates the IMAB also stipulates that it must not ration care, the IMAB must necessarily perform that unavoidable rationing covertly. This is a very difficult job, as demonstrated by the fact that the private health insurers (even with the wonderful incentive of profits, and with the full support of Congress) have utterly failed to develop a sustainable business model based on the covert rationing of healthcare.

But still, this is the job that our leaders have now assigned to the IMAB. And so, DrRich has attempted to tease out some of the options which remain available to the Immutables as they embark on their difficult but necessary assignment of covertly rationing our healthcare. (As DrRich will shortly explain, the legal nomenclature for the IMAB is actually a bit confusing and misleading. So for clarity’s sake, DrRich will hereafter refer to this Board as the Immutables.)

DrRich has found, so far, at least three powers which our new healthcare law grants to the Immutables, that will give them at least a fighting chance at success.

1. The most fruitful pathway to covert rationing remains open to them.

The new healthcare law specifically does not allow the Immutables “to ration health care, raise revenues or Medicare beneficiary premiums. . ., increase Medicare beneficiary cost-sharing (including deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments), or otherwise restrict benefits or modify eligibility criteria.” While these prohibitions might appear on the surface to greatly limit the options available to the Immutables, in fact all this language does is to formalize their directive to ration covertly instead of openly. Since covert rationing has long been our society’s policy regarding healthcare, these prohibitions actually change nothing.

What is left to the Immutables, of course, is the most time-honored pathway to covert rationing – coercing the healthcare providers to place the needs of the payers ahead of the needs of their patients. DrRich has posted innumerable examples over the years showing how payers do this. He is confident that the Immutables will employ all the methodologies which have been devised to date for coercing providers, and (with the awful power of the sovereign authority behind them) they will invent some really useful new ones.

2. The Immutables have been granted near-dictatorial authority.

On the surface, one might think of the Immutables as a sort of Mr. Rogers of healthcare – a mild-mannered, friendly, always-helpful, but ultimately undemanding agent for good. One might get this impression by reading the first few paragraphs of Section 3403, which paint the new entity as an “advisory” board, whose main task is to develop “proposals” and “advisory reports,” and these “proposals” and “advisory reports” would solely consist of various “recommendations,” that ought to be “considered” for the purpose of cost reduction.

Indeed, one might get the impression that the main difference between the Immutables and this blog is that the former is appointed by the President, and has a travel budget.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once the Chief Actuary of CMS determines that the projected per capita growth rate for Medicare exceeds the target growth rate, the Immutables are required to submit a “proposal” which will cut costs sufficiently to bring the growth rate back in line. Then, the Secretary of HHS is required to implement that “proposal” in its entirety, unless Congress acts to block implementation. However, Congress is forbidden from taking any action “that would repeal or otherwise change the recommendations of the Board,” unless it replaces those “recommendations” with its own legislation that would cut Medicare spending to the same target level.

For all practical purposes, then, the cost-cutting “recommendations” which the Immutables would “propose” for “consideration” will be implemented nearly automatically, with the full authority of the Federal government.

And, for all practical purposes, the Immutables will become a new agency of the executive branch, with near-dictatorial authority to cut Medicare spending as it sees fit.

3. The Immutables have been granted the authority to limit private health-care expenditures.

Those who paid attention to the process that brought us our new and transformational healthcare system might recall that the Senate bill, which ultimately became law of the land, was never designed to be actually implemented. It was designed solely to assure 60 votes in the Senate, after which the Joint Conference with the House was to meld the House Bill and the Senate Bill into a workable law.

As part of the negotiations to gain those original 60 votes in the Senate, five or six Democrat Senators cobbled together a list of amendments to the original Senate Bill – the so-called Manager’s Amendments. It is in the Manager’s Amendments that one can find such famous niceties as the bribes paid to Nebraska. But the Manager’s Amendments (which, contrary to the expectations of the actual Managers, are now part of our new healthcare law) contained lots of other stuff as well.

One of the more interesting parts of the Manager’s Amendments (Section 10320) is entitled, “Expansion Of The Scope Of, And Additional Improvements To, The Independent Medicare Advisory Board.”

Section 10320 (which can be found way down on page 2210 of the new law) grants the Immutables (beginning in 2015) the authority to limit all healthcare expenditures, and not just expenditures by Medicare or government-run programs.

To emphasize this expanded authority, Section 10320 changes the name of the Immutables from the Independent Medicare Advisory Board to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. It directs the Immutables (and now readers will understand why DrRich has resorted to this more descriptive name), at least every two years, to “submit to Congress and the President recommendations to slow the growth in national health expenditures” for private (non-Federal) healthcare programs. Furthermore, it allows that these “recommendations” may be implemented by the Secretary of HHS or other Federal agencies administratively.

Ostensibly, the justification for this expansion of the Immutables’ authority is that controlling private healthcare expenditures will directly impact Medicare, since the “target” Medicare growth rate which the Immutables are charged with achieving will be determined by overall healthcare expenditures. More practically, if Medicare patients (who are subjected to arbitrary cost-cutting measures) see their younger counterparts enjoying less restricted healthcare, the old farts are likely to become rowdy. But DrRich suspects there was an even stronger reason to give the Immutables this authority over private healthcare expenditures.

DrRich has often speculated that the real fight regarding healthcare reform will come when the government attempts to limit the ability of American citizens to spend their own money on their own healthcare. This limitation is absolutely necessary if we’re to have a single-payer healthcare system, since if you can spend your own money on your own healthcare, that would be at least two payers. (It would also be “unfair.”)

Many of DrRich’s readers think it’s absurd to think we’re headed toward a single-payer system. DrRich hopes these readers are correct. But he also thinks there’s plenty of evidence that some of our leaders are intentionally taking us there. The new healthcare law, at least arguably, is entirely consistent with such an ultimate goal. And if we are ever to have a single-payer system, the government ultimately will need the authority to limit private expenditures.

DrRich does not believe that the Immutables will act immediately to limit the ability of private citizens to spend their own money on their own medical well-being. Such an action would create a great uproar today, and likely for several years to come, at least until those of us who still cling to the quaint notion of individual autonomy are finally worn down, or re-educated, or otherwise made to see the light.

But whenever that time comes, Section 10320 of the new healthcare law appears to give the Immutables all the authority they will need.

(At the same time, those who castigate DrRich for paranoia might consider reading just how far our healthcare system has already come in limiting the prerogatives of individuals.)