Why We Still See Sudden Death in Young Athletes

DrRich | August 31st, 2010 - 7:48 am

Podcast:

It’s the dog days of what seems to have been an unusually hot summer (though DrRich does not know whether it has been sufficiently warm to affect the global cooling trend we’ve been in for the past decade), and as is all too common at this time of year, we are seeing extraordinarily heartbreaking stories, (like this one), about healthy, robust young athletes dying suddenly on the practice fields.

Most of these tragic sudden deaths are due to a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy often does not produce any symptoms prior to causing sudden death. But it can be easily diagnosed, before exercise-induced sudden death occurs, by screening young athletes with electocardiograms (ECGs) and echocardiography.

A couple of summers ago, the New York Times wrote about such an athletic screening program at the University of Tennessee. Based on the U of T’s results, “Cardiologists and other heart experts say that the screenings could help save the lives of the 125 American athletes younger than 35 who die each year of sudden cardiac death.”

The reason this routine cardiac screening is not widely used is because of the expense. Making the very conservative assumption that 1 million young Americans participate in athletic competition each year, and that (as the Times reports) the average cost of screening is $1000, then screening would cost us about $8 million to save one life. That’s pretty a steep cost-effectiveness challenge by any standard.

But Dr. Douglas Zipes (the perennial New York Times expert on matters cardiac) speaks for many of us when he says, “If it were my son playing ball, I would like him to have an echo, even though it is cost inefficient.”

In truth, the cost-effectiveness analysis here presents a problem only because the kind of screening being used is judged to be a medical service, and thus ought to be paid for through some centralized pool of money (whether the pool is controlled by insurance conglomerates or the government).

If we were to do a similar cost-effectiveness analysis on seat belts, smoke alarms, motorcycle helmets, or carbon monoxide detectors, we would reach a similar conclusion: Yes, those several hundred preventable deaths from house fires are indeed a tragedy, but we simply can’t afford to pay for smoke alarms for all those millions of American families, just to save those relatively few lives.

The difference, obviously, is that we don’t expect smoke alarms to be paid for out of public funds. We expect individuals to do their own cost-effectiveness calculation, and decide whether to buy smoke alarms from their own resources. Individuals tend to place a much higher value on their own lives than the value assigned to their lives by society (the self-assessed value of one’s own worth often approaching infinity), and therefore many people indeed find the cost-effectiveness calculation to come out in their favor. Thus, buying smoke alarms seems a reasonable investment for many individuals.

If Dr. Zipes wants his son screened by echo, by all means have it done. I agree it would be entirely worthwhile. But don’t ask me to pay for it.

It is especially noteworthy that the technology exists to place cheap, portable echocardiogram machines in the office of every primary care doctor, and every primary care doctor could be easily trained in less than an hour to rapidly screen athletes for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. For probably less than $100, parents like Dr. Zipes could have their children screened with this kind of limited echo and an ECG at the same time they’re getting their flu shots.

But we can’t do this because a) professional groups like the American College of Cardiology will do everything they can to block the democratization of guild-based procedures like the echocardiogram (start-up companies that have developed such tiny, easy-to-operate echo machines have been very disappointed with the response of the cardiology community), and b) such screening is a medical service, and it’s generally acknowledged to be a travesty to expect (or, as DrRich points out, to allow) individuals to pay for any medical service themselves.

And if such obstacles result in the sudden deaths of a hundred or so young athletes each year (most of whom, by the way, are participating in pick-up or intramural sports, rather than the semi-pro variety we watch on TV every March), well, it’s too bad there’s nothing we can do about it.

Defending the Demonization of Obesity – Part 2

DrRich | August 26th, 2010 - 7:49 am

Podcast:

Fighting the Obesity Paradox With A New Obesity Creed

In Part I of this important and insightful meditation, we saw the many reasons why it is so critically important for anyone who supports Obamacare to stand foursquare behind the demonization of the obese.

But unfortunately, the vitally important anti-obesity platform of Obamacare is under assault. The fat-is-bad firmament – created by the concentrated exertions of the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, the fashion and beauty industries, sundry weight-loss conglomerates, the popular media, and countless other engines of public opinion – is threatened by a growing body of evidence, created by a few misguided scientists, which suggests that obesity may not be quite as bad a thing as we are all led to believe. Like an expanding pool of molten rock hidden just beneath an apparently placid landscape, this expanding evidence poses a threat to the anti-obesity movement, and therefore to Obamacare. It must be dealt with.

And we need to deal with this threat now, while it is still relatively hidden, and before it bursts through to the surface where it would do much damage. Fortunately – in contrast to an actual volcano – we have the tools to tamp the threat down before it becomes manifest.

Before DrRich explains how this can be accomplished, let us take a brief look at some of that counterproductive evidence itself, to illustrate the seriousness of the problem. The evidence that not all obesity is bad for the health, when one begins to look for it, is disturbingly broad and consistent. DrRich will not attempt a comprehensive review of that evidence here, but instead will offer a brief and selective survey, just enough to impart a sense of the threat we are dealing with:

1) We must begin by noting that a substantial part of the “obesity epidemic” that has become manifest over the past decade can be accounted for by a change in the definition of obesity. When the CDC changed that definition in 1997, as many as 30 million Americans who had been of normal weight suddenly found themselves to be obese, or at least overweight, and all without gaining a pound. Enemies of the anti-obesity movement will not be above exploiting this inconvenient truth to their own ends.

2) In 2002, a report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology examined almost 10,000 consecutive patients who had angioplasty and/or stenting for coronary artery disease, and found that those who were overweight or obese had fewer complications and a lower 1-year mortality than those who were thin or of normal weight. Several more recent studies claim to have shown the same thing.

3) A 2007 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that overweight people who were physically fit had a lower risk of death than normal-weight people who were sedentary.

4) A 2007 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that while Americans were growing fatter, other changes in health behavior (such as reduced smoking and better management of cholesterol and hypertension) more than offset any increase in health risk posed by the population’s increase in obesity.

5) In 2009, a meta-analysis in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology concluded that while obesity itself increases the risk of heart disease, obese people who develop that heart disease have significantly better survival than thin or normal-weight people who develop the same kind of heart disease.

Some cardiologists have already termed this growing line of evidence, i.e., the general observation that at least in some situations obese cardiac patients fare better than thin ones, as “The Obesity Paradox.” Anyone who understands the importance of the anti-obesity movement to Obamacare should be alarmed.

Just on the face of it, we can see that while such evidence could easily be painted by our enemies as “a little fat is OK,” the opposite is actually true. As we all know, the chief aim of healthcare reform (despite all the palaver about providing universal access and improving quality) is to reduce costs. So what could be worse than a condition like obesity, which a) increases the incidence of heart disease, but b) once heart disease develops, prevents an early (and relatively inexpensive) demise. The actual incidence of a disease, of course, is pretty neutral to our goal of reducing healthcare costs. What is important is the expense and duration of the disease once it develops. (Indeed, to reduce long-term healthcare costs, a very prevalent disease that kills very quickly would be just about ideal.) Since few medical conditions are more expensive to manage chronically than heart disease, the best thing for our healthcare system and our society would be for those who develop heart disease to just go ahead and make a rapid departure from the scene. So in this light, what this recent evidence shows is that obesity – because it increases the incidence of non-fatal (i.e., chronic) heart disease – is much worse than we believed.

Beyond these obvious cost implications of the “Obesity Paradox” (the general idea that obesity may not be as dangerous as we have thought), is the much deeper problem that any new science that undermines the anti-obesity movement threatens to undermine a major pillar of Obamacare. DrRich described this important aspect of the anti-obesity movement at length in his prior post, but to summarize: Successful anathematization of the obese will establish an important precedent that is needed by our central authorities as they set out to restrict, control and tax the human behaviors they decide may cause an increase in healthcare expenditures (which is to say, nearly all other human behaviors). While establishing this precedent would certainly be possible with some group other than the obese, so much effort and time has been invested in dehumanizing fat people that it would be more than a shame to have to abandon that huge investment, and start all over to demonize some other subset of our population.

Thus, what is needed is a means of suppressing a more general awareness of the Obesity Paradox. It is fortunate, therefore, that we have at hand a very serviceable model for achieving this end.

That model, as DrRich has pointed out, is Man-Made Global Warming. By the simple expediency of issuing a formal declaration that Man-Made Global Warming is real and is too important to argue about, all further debate over global warming (whether it is occurring, and more importantly, whether it is man-made) has been cut off; those who persist in challenging it have been decreed as outliers, heretics and kooks. To so effectively stifle further scientific scrutiny, a great council of hand-picked environmental scientists was assembled to review the body of admitted evidence on global warming, and to formally divide that evidence into orthodoxy and heresy, and to declare the era of scientific revelation on the matter to be ended, and the science settled.  And while the extensive document that council produced itself contains much that would make one question the actual magnitude of global warming, and especially whether it is actually man-made, the Executive Summary (a sort of catechism produced for general consumption by the Global Warming hierarchy) nicely provides us with what we really need to know, and accordingly is the only part of the document that is ever reported or discussed publicly or in polite company. In this manner, and with the full cooperation of the media, Man-Made Global Warming has been rendered a done deal.

DrRich merely points out that if further scientific exposition and debate of global warming can be officially cut off, apparently (and remarkably) with the blessing of the scientists themselves, then the same can certainly be accomplished with obesity.

It would be a simple matter to assemble another great, Council-of-Nicaea-like body of respected and unassailable experts on obesity and preventive medicine – from government, academia, sympathetic consumer groups, and the numerous industries whose success depends on the existence of lots of fat people desperately wanting to lose weight – to ruminate over all the evidence, and produce their own sacred document declaring, once and for all, that obesity is very, very bad (and so is anyone who says otherwise); and further, that it is morally wrong to waste any more time or money studying whether obesity is a health hazard, and hereafter the only permissible research will be aimed at studying how to prevent and treat it.

That should do it.

Selling such an Obesity Creed should be even easier than selling global warming. Fat people, unlike the ostensibly rising seas and melting ice caps, are all around us, and are readily visible to everyone. Many times each day our encounters with them will induce real and visceral reactions – our pity over their personal health plights, our disgust over their manifest inability to exhibit any self control whatsoever, and our indignation that their obvious gluttony and sloth is costing us so much money. Obesity as a threat to humanity will be a much more concrete, much less abstract, tool for focusing a general righteous anger than global warming can ever be.

So how to combat the growing problem of the Obesity Paradox is not the issue – we can combat it by promulgating an Obesity Creed. The issue is to recognize that there is indeed a threat to the anti-obesity movement, that the threat comes in the form of an expanding body of scientific evidence, and that time is of the essence. If we are to have the Obamacare our leaders visualize for us, we need to recognize the threat and deal with it now, while it is still in its early stages, and before it enters the general public consciousness.

DrRich is very pleased to have been able to assist in this matter, and at this critical juncture, to help eliminate a grave threat to Obamacare. But heck, that’s what DrRich is here for.

Defending the Demonization of Obesity – Part 1

DrRich | August 24th, 2010 - 7:42 am

Podcast:

Why Demonizing Obesity Is So Important

As regular readers will know, DrRich thinks President Obama’s healthcare reform is very bad for America, and in particular, that it threatens the Great American Experiment. At the same time, DrRich is fundamentally an optimist, and finds in Obamacare a thin thread by which some good might result. That thread goes like this:

In practice, Obamacare will become a government-run system of covert healthcare rationing. And DrRich is reasonably confident that in the government’s hands the covert rationing will become so amazingly ham-fisted and inept that even us Americans, distracted as we are by Lady GaGa, performance-enhancing drugs in baseball players, and Shark Week, will finally be forced to notice that there’s actually a whole lot of healthcare rationing going on. And once we are all forced to acknowledge the rationing, perhaps we will insist on trying to figure out how to do it as fairly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. In other words, DrRich clings to the hope that the Obamacare might end up being the cataclysm that precipitates a public discussion of healthcare rationing. And a public discussion of healthcare rationing is critical, since continuing to conduct the rationing covertly will destroy us.

It’s a slim thread, to be sure. But, especially in a new era of hope, one must embrace what hope one can.

Accordingly, DrRich feels obligated to do his part in supporting some of the main pillars of Obamacare (as odious as Obamacare itself may be), whenever they come under attack. And one of those pillars is the proposition that obesity is a scourge on our civilization, and for the good of the whole, those who are guilty of it must be reformed or stamped out.

Obesity, we are assured, is a main cause of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, (and even, some insist, cancer), and so is largely responsible for the runaway cost of our healthcare. This simple fact alone allows us to – indeed, demands that we – use every public and private intervention at our disposal to fight this great scourge.

The fact of publicly funded healthcare permits us to say to the obese: “Your unsightly obesity is no longer a matter of your individual choice; rather, it is now placed squarely within the realm of legitimate public concern. Since everyone else has to pay for your heart attacks and knee replacements, all those donuts and double cheeseburgers you insist on shoveling into your mouth are no longer your business. All your protestations to the effect that you can’t help it are revealed by simple math (i.e., calories gained = calories consumed minus calories burned) to be sad prevarications. Indeed that same simple formula reveals the true cause of obesity – gluttony and sloth. Like other heretics of an earlier time, you deserve no sympathy nor special considerations, but only a firm – though ultimately compassionate – hand to push you toward the right path, or alternately, toward the just punishment you have brought upon yourselves.”

So clearly, the obese are now become fair game for whatever manipulations our government can devise to cause them to either lose weight, or pay for their sins. The authorities can begin with simple maneuvers – taxing soft drinks and Twinkies, and whatever other foodstuffs they (in their wisdom) deem to be illegitimate sources of calories – but the sky’s the limit. For instance, under the undeniable proposition that it costs more energy to move a fat person from point A to point B, whatever the mode of transportation, the obese could be subjected to a special carbon tax, based on their BMI. The periodic mandatory “weigh-ins” such a tax would require would serve the useful purpose of public humiliation, an important incentive to weight loss.

Further humiliations could be visited upon the fat by designating special isolated areas in the workplace (ideally, an area fully exposed to the elements) for fat people to consume their calories. This latter strategy, of course, is derived from the same restrictions placed on smokers, and can be legitimized by the same sort of logic. That is, the authorities can invoke the prospect of second-hand obesity to induce fear and loathing of the fat, and cause them to become socially isolated. (The “scientific” conclusion that obesity is contagious, i.e., that those who associate with the obese are more likely to become obese themselves, has been proffered by academics employing the same kind of statistical legerdemain used to blame global warming on fat people. It appears to DrRich that obesity has now become so toxic that any paper submitted to medical journals offering a new reason to despise the fat – no matter how absurd – will be cheerfully accepted by the editors, and published with fanfare. These editors, one can only presume, must also be great supporters of Obamacare.) And finally, it goes without saying that the ultimate censure would be simply to withhold healthcare services for medical problems which can be associated with having allowed oneself to become too fat – a strategy that has already been employed by the British healthcare system, which we are urged by Dr. Berwick to employ as a model.

Demonizing the obese and subjecting them to such restrictions, of course, carries with it implications that go far beyond merely inducing the obese to lose weight or causing them to pay more in taxes. It sets an important precedent that will finally allow our central authorities to restrict, control and tax virtually any human behavior they can claim may lead to an increased risk of healthcare expenditures. Such behaviors may include (in addition to obvious things like smoking and alcohol consumption), one’s choice of occupation, participation in sports, hobbies, hours spent or miles traveled on the highways, etc. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any choice one makes in daily living that does not, in some manner, impact on one’s likelihood of requiring medical services.

Furthermore, successfully demonizing the obese will establish that our society may, whenever it needs to, discriminate against the lower economic classes – which will prove a useful tool when setting future behavioral standards to reduce healthcare spending. (Obesity, rather than starvation, is the chief nutritional problem of the poor in America. This is the the direct result of plentiful and cheap foods that are often loaded with empty calories. Making such foods more expensive – by imposing punitive taxes on them – will disproportionately affect the poor, who still won’t be able to afford the highly nutritious stuff, especially since the price of that good stuff will go much higher as a result. Rendering it permissible to inflict such pain on the poor, in the name of the greater good, will be an immeasurably important precedent to establish.)

In terms of providing strategies for controlling healthcare costs, it is clear that our response to obesity is key. Fighting obesity is a vital pillar of Obamacare.

Accordingly, DrRich is very sorry to report that this anti-obesity pillar may not be nearly as robust as we might hope. Certain clueless medical researchers – ones who have apparently not received the official memo – have been reporting that obesity might not be quite as bad a thing as we have all been saying. So, in the spirit of advancing Obamacare, DrRich will address in his next post some of this counterproductive new research on obesity, and will show how it can be marginalized.

Another Reason It Sucks Being A PCP

DrRich | August 18th, 2010 - 6:09 am

Podcast:

DrRich entered medical school 40 years ago with every intention of becoming a general medical practitioner, and indeed he became one. But after only a year in practice as a generalist, he found himself so frustrated with the frivolous limitations and the superfluous obligations that even then were being externally imposed on these supposedly revered professionals, that DrRich altered course and spent several years re-training to become a cardiac electrophysiologist.

(Electrophysiology is a field of endeavor so arcane as to be mystifying even to other cardiologists. DrRich hoped that the officious regulators and stone-witted insurance clerks would be so confused – and possibly intimidated – by the mysterious doings of electrophysiologists that they would leave him alone. Happily, this ploy worked for almost 15 years.)

Still, DrRich has always held general practitioners (now called PCPs) in the highest regard, if for no other reason than these brave souls – unlike DrRich himself, who cut and ran at his earliest opportunity – have stuck it out.

But, as we all know, the practice of primary care medicine is today in crisis. Today’s PCPs are mostly looking to get out as soon as they can afford to do so, and today’s medical students are avoiding primary care in droves.

But not for the reasons most often claimed.  DrRich’s contention is that doctors are abandoning primary care medicine for reasons that actually have relatively little to do with low pay and high educational debt. The real reasons have much more to do with the fact that primary care medicine has been systematically and purposefully demeaned and diminished, to the point that it has become nearly an untenable choice for most doctors.

Accordingly, every now and then DrRich likes to point out – for the edification of his readers – some of the ways in which this fundamental devaluing of primary care medicine is being accomplished.

And so, here’s another reason it sucks being a PCP:

PCPs whose patients fail to quit smoking are now at risk not only of being publicly labeled as low-quality physicians, but also of being sued.

To see how this works, dear reader, DrRich asks you to place yourself, for a few minutes and for the sake of empathy, in the position of a modern American PCP.

As a PCP, one of the major banes of your existence is the struggle you must make during each and every “patient encounter” to get through a long Pay-for-Performance Checklist (different checklists for different patients, depending on their insurer). Completing these checklists, within the 7.5 minutes that have been graciously allotted to you for such encounters, is of course critical in order to demonstrate to the appropriate healthcare accountants the adequacy of your performance as a modern, high-quality American physician.

One item that invariably appears on each of your mandatory checklists, doctor, has to do with counseling your patient on smoking cessation. It’s likely you may have thought this to be one of the less objectionable mandates you must accomplish during each patient visit. After all, you can get through your well-rehearsed pitch on smoking cessation in 20 seconds or less (unless you are dealing with one of those rare patients who is actually serious about trying to quit), and thereby make up some of the precious time, from your 7.5 minutes, that you have already spent achieving some more challenging check mark (trying, perhaps, to talk a diabetic patient into taking the extraordinary steps necessary to get his hemoglobin A1c down that last 0.5% to target).

So: 20 seconds spent on smoking cessation. Check.

But whoa. Not so fast there, Dr. Welby.

Did you know there are guidelines for physicians on smoking cessation? Did you know that these guidelines were devised under the auspices of the federal government, by a committee of individuals who are anti-smoking zealots (not that there’s anything wrong with that)?

From this latter fact, of course, there are certain things you will already know about these guidelines before you ever see them. You will know that the guidelines must be very long and detailed and tedious, because a) they are federal guidelines, and b) they are devised by people whose one and only mission in life – a mission they clearly believe is far more important than, say, oil spills, terrorism, global warming, jobs, or achieving fine and durable erections upon demand – is to save the world from the scourge of smoking. And now, these zealots have been granted the authority (i.e., the federally-approved authority to generate medical guidelines) to make it your primary mission in life, too.

Now, doctor, have a peek at the actual guidelines, which you can find here. Notice, first, that the federal guidelines for physicians on smoking cessation are 196 pages long. Notice how they step you through the process of counseling, and then step you through each of the measures you must take in order to guarantee that your patient achieves total success. And notice that an early branch point in the process of counseling is the one where the patient informs you whether he/she is willing to go any further with efforts at smoking cessation; and notice further that when the patient concludes that he/she is indeed NOT willing to go any further, thank you very much for your concern, the guidelines do not relieve you of further immediate obligations – no – but instead specify additional interventions you must now, at this moment, embark upon with this unwilling patient, which are “designed to increase their motivation to quit.”

The brash sales techniques required of you by the federally-sanctioned smoking-cessation guidelines would embarrass even a telemarketer, or an annuity salesperson.

This, of course, is all to say: Your 20-second spiel on the evils of smoking just doesn’t cut the mustard, doctor. To really earn that smoking-cessation chit on your P4P checklist, you need to do a lot more than that. The 196 pages of deadly serious federal guidelines detail what that is.

Lest you are tempted to dismiss as an absurdity the expectation that you are actually supposed to cram 2 hours of anti-smoking counseling into a 7.5 minute patient visit, there’s one more thing you ought to know.

One John Banzhaf, Executive Director and Chief Counsel for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who bills himself as the “law professor who masterminded litigation against the tobacco industry,” is not taking lightly, doctor, your obvious laxity in following federal guidelines on smoking cessation. Accordingly, some time ago he sent letters to each of the 50 state health commissioners warning them that he will soon begin instigating medical malpractice suits, on behalf of smokers who continue to smoke as the result of their doctor’s refusal to follow federal guidelines to the letter.

Mr. Banzhaf informs the commissioners that “physicians are killing more than 40,000 American smokers each year by failing to follow federal guidelines.” That’s right, doctor, you’re killing them. (Cigarettes don’t kill people; people kill people.) Specifically he invokes your sacred obligation to “warn the smoking patient about the many dangers of smoking and provide effective medical treatment for the majority who wish to quit.” (Emphasis DrRich’s.) That is, it’s your job not just to counsel them and treat them, but also to see that they actually succeed in quitting. If you don’t follow this mandate, you’re killing them. And you must pay.

When the federal government takes the pains necessary to draft detailed management guidelines for physicians, guidelines that, if followed as written, will save tens of thousands of lives each year, then surely society has every right to expect you to follow those guidelines to the letter – and to save those lives.

This is such a brilliant scheme for ending smoking-related death and disability, one must wonder why it hasn’t yet been applied to other intractable medical problems. Just think of all the good that could be accomplished, for instance, by federal guidelines requiring PCPs to assure that each of their patients maintain an optimal body weight, follow an exemplary diet, exercise vigorously for at least an hour a day, maintain unfailingly positive attitudes, and work diligently at their allotted tasks each and every day (secure in the knowledge that adopting right thinking and right behaviors will be invaluable to our dear leaders, as they bravely go forth to assure the good of the whole).

In any case, doctor, consider these anti-smoking guidelines carefully next time you’re putting that little check mark next to “Smoking cessation counseling” on your P4P checklist, and ask yourself: “Have I really done all that I am obligated to do, under the law, to guarantee that this patient has lit up his last smoke?”

Making PCPs responsible for their patient’s personal choices and behaviors, of course, is a time-honored method of covert healthcare rationing. It gives doctors powerful incentives to invent mechanisms for avoiding patients who display obviously unhealthful lifestyles, thus making it relatively inconvenient for these patients to gain access to expensive healthcare services.

But more to the point of this post, it is yet another example of how micromanagement by politicians, activists and bureaucrats has come to infest the practice of primary care medicine, and to relegate PCPs to the diminished role of simply following the checklists continually produced by such as these. If this is what primary care medicine has come to at last, why would you expect anyone who has a choice to take such a career path?

DrRich, for one, does not believe the 10-15% increase in pay hinted at by Obamacare will change the calculus for PCPs very much, and in fact, if it does – given all that is being done to primary care medicine – we should all be very much distressed by the implications.

How Big Health Insurance Saved Obamacare, and What That Means To Us Regular Folks

DrRich | August 11th, 2010 - 8:30 am

Contrary to common wisdom, the American health insurance industry did not oppose President Obama’s healthcare reforms. Far from it. Big health insurance was actually quite desperate for Obamacare to pass, and indeed took extraordinary steps, at critical times, to make sure that it did.

In this series of articles, DrRich reveals why the insurance industry supported Obamacare, how the industry supported Obamacare, and (most importantly) what that support means to Progressives who pine for a single-payer healthcare system, and to Conservatives who pine for the repeal of Obamacare.

Part I – Another Reason He Should Have Kept the Bust

Part II – Why the Health Insurance Industry Supported Obamacare

Part III – How the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

Part IV – What It Means That the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

Don’t Sweat the Obesity Dividend

DrRich | August 11th, 2010 - 7:25 am

Podcast:

DrRich has pointed out several times that it is very important to our new healthcare system, as a matter of principle, to be able to discriminate against the obese.

The obese are being carefully groomed as a prototype, as a group whose characteristics (ostensibly, their lack of self-discipline, or their sloth, or their selfishness, or whatever other characteristics we can attribute to them to explain how their unsightly enormity differentiates them from us), will justify “special treatment” in order to serve the overriding good of the whole.

The obese are a useful target for two reasons. First, their sins against humanity are painfully obvious just by looking at them, so it is impossible for them to escape public scorn by blending in to the population, unlike some less obvious sinners such as (say) closet smokers, or pedophiles. And second, since true morbid obesity almost always has a strong genetic component, successfully demonizing the obese eventually will open the door to the demonization of individuals with any one of a host of other genetically mediated medical conditions.

Readers who wonder why this is a big deal need to go back and study the original Progressives, for whom some form of genetic purification was an indispensable step toward achieving societal perfection. This was true not only for notorious eugenicists such as Woodrow Wilson, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Margaret Sanger, but also for the kinder, gentler Progressives we generally revere even today, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and even Mohandas Gandhi.

This sort of thinking fell out of vogue, for obvious reasons, after World War II. So it is no longer cool to talk openly about genetic cleansing.

But discriminating against people who have genetic health disorders (in the name of achieving an optimally efficient healthcare system for the purpose of cost saving) would be a start. And the obese have been selected as the most acceptable prototype for such treatment.

In this light, a recent article in the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal has created something of a problem for the anti-obesity movement. This article compared the lifetime cost of healthcare (beginning at age 20) for obese individuals and for smokers to the lifetime cost for non-smokers who maintained a healthy weight. Naturally, the study concludes that the healthy individuals can expect to live longer than the obese and the smokers (84 years vs. 80 and 77 years, respectively). However, the healthy young people will consume $400,000 in lifetime healthcare costs, vs. only $365,000 for fat people and $321,000 for smokers. (The cost savings in the obese and the smokers arise from their relatively premature deaths.) Therefore, healthy people, over their lifetime, are a bigger drain on the healthcare system than the obese and the smokers.

The reason this study presents a problem  is that it appears to contradict a central axiom of our present program. Specifically, it places in some peril our deeply held conviction that the obesity epidemic is one of the major threats to the stability of our healthcare system.

The added costs which the obesity epidemic poses to our healthcare system has become a touchstone, to the extent that it has become acceptable even in polite circles to openly discriminate against, if not overtly disdain and humiliate, the obese. Mississippi is considering legislation to prevent the obese from eating in restaurants. And in Britain, whose healthcare system has been held up as a model for Americans, doctors themselves are saying that obese patients should be barred from receiving medical services. (Though, in defense of his physician colleagues, DrRich wishes to point out that these same medical humanitarians are also calling for the withholding of medical care from the elderly and smokers – so perhaps they are not being unusually unkind to the fat.)

In light of this, what are we to do with this new study which says that obesity saves money for the healthcare system? Do we reverse course, and embrace this “obesity dividend?” Do we encourage supersizing, and, far from refusing to serve them, offer the overweight free second portions? Do we give them deeply discounted heavy-duty suspensions? Better yet, do we give away free Marlboro starter packs to the fat? (Just think how much money we’d save with obese smokers.)

Thankfully, no.

DrRich has pointed out innumerable times the absurdities we find ourselves promoting when the chief purpose of the healthcare system becomes avoiding costs rather than maximizing health, that is, when its chief job is covert rationing. It is therefore gratifying to say that this is one of those cases where we don’t have to engage in such absurdities. Let’s be plain about it: We don’t need to reevaluate our current vilification of obesity (and smoking) just because people who have these conditions may save us money in the long term.

The reason? We don’t care about the long term.

Who cares that, in 50 or 60 years, today’s healthy 20-year-olds are going to cost us a lot of money? They’re likely to be entirely free to our healthcare system for at least several decades. In contrast, today’s obese and today’s smokers, what with their chronic diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, joint replacements, strokes, lung disease, &c., are costing us a lot of money right now.

If we actually cared about the long term, we’d be doing something about the Social Security and Medicare entitlements we’ve already signed up for, which in a little more than 20 years will require confiscating more than 50% of each American paycheck, just in payroll deductions. (Never mind income tax.) Heck, just looking at their pay stubs will probably cause most of today’s healthy 20-year-olds to die of apoplexy by the time they’re 40. In any case, the entitlements we’re obligated to provide will threaten societal disintegration long before today’s healthy young adults ever need elder care. Consoling yourself with the idea of projected long-term savings when you’re facing such a fiscal catastrophe is like consoling yourself with the idea of beautiful spring alpine flowers when you’re directly in the path of an onrushing avalanche. Projected long-term savings are completely irrelevant.

The obesity dividend is just smoke, and can be safely ignored. For the greater good of our social welfare, we’re far better off doing what we’re doing today – castigating and humiliating the obese into right actions, and if that fails, then (following the example provided by the British healthcare system which Dr. Berwick and others urge us to use as a model) discriminating against them when they need healthcare. Once we’ve established this useful prototype, we can apply it to whatever additional groups we can identify as targets of our collective indignation.

Whatever it takes to avoid confronting the rationing issue head on.

What It Means That The Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

DrRich | August 5th, 2010 - 7:00 am

Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare, Part IV

Podcast:

In the past few posts (in particular, here and here), DrRich has shown why the health insurance industry embraced Obamacare, and indeed, took extraordinary steps to assure that Obamacare became the law of the land. This, of course, is especially interesting in light of the common perception that Obamacare constitutes a major defeat for the greedy health insurance industry. But the fact that big health insurance gave critical support to Obamacare is far more than merely interesting. It has major implications both to supporters of Obamacare, especially the ones who hope for an eventual single-payer outcome, and to opponents of Obamacare, many of whom hope to repeal it after the 2010 mid-term elections.

For the health insurance industry to have supported Obamacare, especially in the manner that it did, leads us to three conclusions.

First, while almost nobody realized it at the time, the passage of healthcare reform – in some form or another – turns out to have been inevitable. Quite simply, the insurance industry was telling us in every way they knew how that they just could not tolerate the status quo any longer. And since the insurance industry is critical to maintaining the status quo, then one way or another, the status quo had to end.

Second, the health insurance industry has just succeeded in demonstrating its great and continuing worth to the Progressive agenda, a fact that might make it more difficult than many think for Progressives to achieve their real goal – a single-payer healthcare system. If our Progressive leaders have been paying attention, the health insurance industry has taught them two important lessens in this regard.

The insurance industry has taught them that running the American healthcare system, especially under a covert rationing paradigm, is a messy, ugly and painful job, and further, that it is destined to turn out badly. This, indeed, is the chief lessen that the health insurance industry has learned over the past 15+ years. DrRich believes that many of the Progressives who are now in a position of leadership, and who are on the brink of achieving at long last a primary goal of the Progressive agenda – government control of healthcare – are aware of this fact. So they are probably not quite as self-assured about their ability to achieve healthcare nirvana, for instance, as the insurance executives were in 1994. They can see, from the experience of the insurance industry, that even draconian efforts to covertly ration healthcare are very likely to fail to slow healthcare inflation over the long term.

Furthermore, the insurance industry has taught them, if such a lesson was even necessary, just what a great boon it is to have at one’s disposal a ready villain, especially a villain which assumes the form of a business, and in particular a villain which is satisfied to play its assigned villainous role whenever called upon to do so. When things go south with Obamacare, as things will, it will go a lot easier for our Progressive leaders if they still have the insurance industry – even in a greatly diminished form – to blame. Having a foil to absorb the blame will not solve the problem, of course, but it will buy the Progressives more time, during which they can do what Progressives always do, and institute another round of “tough regulations” to hold the villains in closer check. So keeping the health insurance industry around, rather than going to a single-payer system, will indeed provide a critical level of additional insurance – albeit to our political leaders, and not to patients.

One need only look at the mortgage crisis to see another good example of the great utility of having an evil foil at one’s disposal. As readers may recall, the mortgage crisis resulted when the government instituted a free-wheeling easy-loan policy that defied every known rule of free markets, engaged Fannie and Freddie to make the easy loans, and then recruited private businesses to absorb, distribute and hide the risk. When the excrement predictably hit the fan, the investment banks (which, like the health insurance companies, did indeed behave very badly in response to fundamentally unsound governmnent policies) were offered up as the bad guys. It proved so useful to have serviceable villains during the mortgage crisis that the taxpayers were called upon to bail the villains out lest they disappear, and then, most recently, financial regulations were completely overhauled to make sure the villains will always be there. (DrRich calls this policy “Too Evil to Fail.”) In this way, Fannie and Freddie can continue making unsustainable loans, without ever having to take the blame for the consequences.

In other words, villains who reside in the domain of private enterprise are extremely useful to the Progressive program. The health insurance industry has just graphically demonstrated that it is every bit as helpful to the government’s takeover of healthcare as the investment banks were to the government’s takeover of the housing market. So DrRich, for one, bets that the health insurance industry will have a long – if unhappy – life as a government-regulated public utility, which can be called upon, whenever necessary, to display its fundamentally evil nature, in order to prove yet again that the problem is (even now!) not enough government regulation.

In contrast, once the government assumes full, direct control of healthcare (or any other aspect of the economy), then there will be nobody to blame but the government when things go wrong. (This is not strictly true. All-powerful authorities can always find somebody to blame. Historically, for instance, they often begin with the Jews, though today one must speculate that the obese will also be near the top of the list. DrRich, and, he suspects, most of his American Progressive friends, would much rather submit corporate villains to an *auto de fe* than go once again down this well-trod historical path.)

The role of Court Villain may not be exactly what the health insurance executives had in mind when they saved Obamacare, but since they had no choice in the matter, it will have to serve.

And finally, the third conclusion. Since the health insurance industry has been telling us that they are at the end of their rope, to the point that their best option was selling themselves out to President Obama and his ruthless refomers, then the idea that Obamacare can simply be repealed, or de-funded, or de-featured, or declared unconstitutional, so that we can just go back to the healthcare system we’ve had since 1994, is absurd.

Indeed, even though Obamacare is now law, the health insurance companies are by no means out of the woods. There remains a real question as to whether the provisions of Obamacare will be sufficient for the short-term viability of the health insurance industry.  Most of the provisions of Obamacare – in particular, the individual mandates the insurance companies are relying upon for their One Last Windfall – do not go into effect until 2014.

At least until then, the insurance companies likely will need to keep increasing their annual premiums at astronomical rates in the attempt to remain sufficiently profitable. Can the system sustain such increases until 2014?  Or, will the provisions of Obamacare have to be accelerated? Or, will Obamacare have to be revised, for instance, to add the much reviled (or much desired, depending on your political views) “public option?”

But while Obamacare may need to be accelerated or further radicalized, it cannot just be repealed. For the same reason that healthcare reform was inevitable, we can’t just go back. The insurance industry simply will not tolerate it.

What we all have to remember – and the main point of this series of posts – is that we can’t just get rid of Obamacare and go back to the way things were.  If we think we need to substantially change Obamacare, so as to shed ourselves of the extremely disturbing spectre of government-controlled covert rationing (which will be far more destructive than the insurance-company-controlled covert rationing we’ve painfully endured for 15 years), we’ll need to have another solution in hand.

DrRich, of course, knows such a solution, and he has described it in detail elsewhere.

__

Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare

Part I – Another Reason He Should Have Kept the Bust

Part II – Why the Health Insurance Industry Supported Obamacare

Part III – How the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare
________________________________

Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle!

How the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

DrRich | August 2nd, 2010 - 9:02 am

Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare, Part III

Podcast:


As we have seen, the fact that the health insurance industry was going to support healthcare reform after the 2008 elections was a foregone conclusion.  The question was: How would the insurance industry support healthcare reform?

When the time came, the support the insurance industry gave to President Obama’s efforts to reform healthcare followed four simple rules:

1) Do not actively oppose Obamacare. In stark contrast to its behavior during the Clinton’s effort to reform healthcare in 1993-94, this time the insurance industry never engaged its vast public relations resources to stifle healthcare reform.  There was no Harry and Louise this time. (Actually, Harry and Louise – the original actors – did make a brief appearance, but now, like the insurance industry itself, they were older, wiser, and sadder, and this time they fully supported the proposed reforms.)

2) Submit quietly to demonization.  A key strategy of the Democrats in passing Obamacare was to remind Americans repeatedly that the for-profit health insurance industry is fundamentally evil.  This strategy was based on the time-honored precept that it is easier to get the unwashed masses to cooperate through hatred than through reason, and so, to gain their cooperation, one must give them something to hate. Obviously, this strategy meant that the health insurance industry had to accept its role as the bad guys in the reform debates without complaint, and without engaging in any serious self-defense.

3) Offer subdued public support to Obamacare. The AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) issued public statements that cautiously supported President Obama’s healthcare reforms. But its support had to remain subdued and tepid, since Satan can’t be seen leading the hymns.

4) Whenever necessary, rise up and demonstrate to the world just how evil you really are. At the end of the day, this was the most important role the insurance industry played in advancing Obamacare. It was certainly their most active role.

It was not a difficult role to fill. Since 1994 the health insurers had engaged in the sorts of truly evil, inhumane, and reprehensible practices that are naturally engendered by covert healthcare rationing, and that harmed or killed many of their subscribers. The only difficult part was choosing which reprehensible behaviors to feature, and when to do it.

In at least two key moments during the fight over healthcare reform – June, 2009 and February, 2010 – when the proponents of reform felt their momentum lagging, the insurance industry intervened with gratuitous behaviors whose chief function was to remind Americans just how unremittingly wicked and inhumane they really are. In the second case, at least arguably, the insurance industry turned the reform effort from apparent defeat to almost certain victory. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to assert that, in the end, the health insurance industry saved Obamacare.

June, 2009: Say Hello To My Little Friend

The debate over Obamacare entered a new phase in May and June of 2009.  It was during those months that the opposition to healthcare reform found its voice, and it began to seem as if perhaps the Obama steamroller could really be slowed, if not stopped. People were even beginning to say that many Democrats in Congress, after getting an earful from their constituents when they held their summer town hall meetings, would abandon any idea of supporting President Obama’s healthcare reforms.

Supporters of Obamacare decided it was time to invoke the demons.  So in mid-June, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations called three health insurers to testify on the practice of rescission, and to face not only indignant Congresspersons, but also some of the people who had been personally harmed by their practices.

“Rescission” is when an insurance company voids subscriber’s health insurance (after happily accepting premiums from that subscriber, often for many years) once they get sick. Under some circumstances, rescission might be justifiable. It is legal and proper to cancel a policy if the subscriber is found to have purposely lied on the insurance application about a prior illness that is material to the current illness.

But health insurance companies for years have actively and aggressively practiced rescission on subscribers whose insurance applications contained inadvertent and non-material inaccuracies.  (Just to put it in perspective, this kind of bad behavior is to be expected under a system of covert healthcare rationing, which again, is rationing by whatever means you can get away with.)

Furthermore, the health insurance industry does not merely engage in occasional unfair rescission practices; it has industrialized the process. It employs health insurance detectives whose job is to comb the prior medical records of subscribers who are newly diagnosed with certain, expensive medical conditions, looking for even trivial discrepancies on insurance applications, which they can inflate to “fraudulent” omissions, thus voiding the policy. These health insurance detectives are paid by commission, according to how much money their efforts can save the company. Many of them find it a very lucrative career.

So, at the cost of perpetrating a bit of inhumanity, rescission can save insurance companies a lot of money.

Consider some of the individuals who testified in Congress along with the insurance companies that day

  • A nurse in Texas had her insurance canceled after she was diagnosed with breast cancer because she had failed to reveal that, years before, she had consulted a dermatologist about acne.
  • A man (whose surviving sister had to testify) had his insurance canceled before he could begin expensive cancer therapy, because he had not revealed (and indeed he had not known) that a prior CT scan had showed gallstones and an aneurysm – conditions unrelated to his cancer.
  • A woman had her insurance canceled – and due to the rescission could not find replacement insurance – because she failed to reveal that, at one time, she had been on medication for irregular menstruation.

During the hearing, the three health insurance executives were caused to listen to these and other incredible stories describing some of the inexcusable pain, suffering and death their unfair rescission practices had caused, and then were forced to listen to withering commentary by stunned Republicans and Democrats on the Subcommittee, whose own investigation had found that the three companies on the docket had retrospectively canceled the policies of 20,000 sick subscribers over the past 5 years.

After these heart-rending testimonies and the blistering attacks from extremely angry congresspersons, the executives were challenged by Chairman Stupak (D-Michigan) to now commit to discontinuing the practice of rescission unless intentional fraud could be shown.

All three replied, in turn, “No.”

Such a reply, in such a setting, almost defies belief. The only possible explanation, in fact, is that the insurance industry was stepping up to the plate, and embracing its assigned role as the Evil One in the great healthcare debate.

Even the most stone-hearted insurance executive can see that canceling the health insurance of a newly-diagnosed cancer patient, because she’d forgotten she’d required acne medicine before the prom 20 years ago, is just a bit unfair. But how did these three executives react? They did not attempt to deny such reprehensible behavior, or to explain it, or to defend it.  They were simply defiant about it.

One is put in mind of Tony “Scarface” Montana, bereft of friends, family, allies and bodyguards (albeit because of his own actions), hopelessly surrounded by an army of heavily-armed assassins, screaming, “Say hello to my little friend!” then launching defiantly into a wild, bloody and spectacular suicide.

One cannot for a moment believe that that Richard A. Collins, chief executive of UnitedHealth’s Golden Rule Insurance Co., Don Hamm, chief executive of Assurant Health, and Brian Sassi, president of consumer business for WellPoint Inc., would have been stupid enough to publicly defy Congress over such an indefensible practice, if doing so was against their own long-term interests.  Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, they were not auditioning for a remake of Scarface.

This is not how an industry behaves which wants to court the goodwill of Congress at a critical juncture in its life cycle. This is not the strategy of an industry that wants Congress to defy its own party’s President and defeat healthcare reform, or that is begging Congress to give them another chance to figure out how to bring healthcare costs into check. This is not the behavior of any industry that wants to elicit any sort of favorable action from Congress. Indeed, these executives would have seemed more sympathetic and deserving if they had proposed instead to place live puppies on a spit and roast them over an open fire during half-time at the Super Bowl.

There is only one explanation for their astounding public defiance on this matter. Which is, it must have suited their long-term interests.

Recall that at the time of this remarkable hearing, there was growing skepticism about President Obama’s healthcare reform efforts, not only on the part of Republicans, but also on the part of a critical minority of Democrats in Congress. And for the first time since the election, there was some question about whether his reform plan would succeed in gaining sufficient support.

What must the health insurance industry do in the face of this faltering support for its desperate end-game? It must act to bolster Obamacare.

In this light the stark, defiant, public “no” uttered by the three insurance executives makes sense. “Look at us,” they were saying, “See how evil we are! We are utterly devoid of human decency, ethical obligations, or a sense of fair play. If we behave this defiantly when we are in the position of mere supplicants to your eminences, just think how we will behave if you fail to rein us in with new reforms!  Abandon all hope, those of you who rely on us for your healthcare, and behold the congressional dogs that placed us in this position of power over your very lives!”

Given the headwinds the healthcare reform effort was to face during the next nine months, it is difficult to say with any certainty how much good the insurance industry did in June, 2009, when it took such an extraordinary step to remind Americans just how incredibly evil it is. But when the time came to help boost the President’s reform efforts, nobody can deny that the insurance industry stepped up and did its duty.

February, 2010: Raising Obamacare From The Dead

Things looked especially bleak for healthcare reform in early February of 2010.  The incredible, possibly Constitution-defying, machinations Congress employed in its desperate attempt to pass healthcare reform had disgusted a majority of Americans, and momentum was clearly shifting to the opponents of Obamacare. And when Republican Scott Brown incredibly won the Senate seat in Massachusetts, robbing the Democrats of their crucial, filibuster-blocking 60th vote, many thought healthcare reform was dead.

But then out of nowhere, in early February, Wellpoint’s California subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross, announced it was raising its already-astronomical health insurance premiums by as much as 39%, a move that promised to greatly increase the number of Californians who are uninsured.

The demoralized Democrats in the administration greedily capitalized on this new opportunity.

Kathleen Sebelius immediately fired off a very public letter to the company, demanding that they justify this unconscionable rate increase. And Wellpoint, lustily assuming its assigned role as villain, was delighted to reply, equally publicly.

We’re in a recession, Wellpoint brazenly asserted, and in a recession, like it or not, people exercise their prerogative to drop their health insurance. The only people who don’t drop their health insurance are the sick people, or those who are likely to become sick, which means that our cost per subscriber goes way up. So naturally, we have to increase premiums. By a lot. It’s just business. That’s just the nature of our current, unreformed healthcare system. So choke on it.

Wellpoint was also kind enough to mention (for anyone dense enough to have missed the point) that the need for higher insurance premiums would be nicely mitigated if everybody was mandated by the government to purchase health insurance.

Wellpoint’s anounced premium increase immediately triggered great volumes of delighted outrage by thankful Democrats, who desperately needed a large dose of “evil insurance company” at just that time. Wellpoint’s action reignited the proponents of healthcare reform, who were inspired to remind all Americans that this is what would happen to everyone if healthcare reform failed, and the greedy insurance companies had their way.

Stunned Republicans, seeing their impending victory over Obamacare evaporating before their eyes, could only issue a few lame and uncomfortable attempts to diminish the significance of Wellpoint’s unfortunate action.  But to little avail. The momentum had shifted. At least arguably, it was Wellpoint’s decision to announce an unconscionable rate increase at this extremely critical juncture that put healthcare reform back on the road to adoption.

From a pure business standpoint, there was no good reason for Wellpoint to stir the soup at that moment. Wellpoint is the most financially sound private health insurance company. While its California subsidiary did lose money in 2009, overall the company performed quite well, and reported a very nice profit growth for the year. And with several of its competitors in trouble, Wellpoint stood to do comparatively well for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, it has since been learned that Wellpoint’s math was bad. An independent actuary working for the California Department of Insurance reported on May 5, 2010 that the company had made “numerous errors” in calculating is rate increases, and further, that Wellpoint could cut its rate hikes substantially, and still meet its required 70% medical-loss ratio threshold.

It stands to reason that if Wellpoint really wanted healthcare reform to go away, they would have first checked their math before announcing seismic rate increases, and then, if such astounding rate increases were really needed, they would have waited a few months – while Obamacare died – before announcing their rate hike.

The last thing they would have done is to throw the reformers a critical lifeline just as they were going under for the last time.

In any case Wellpoint’s action, especially at that moment, seems entirely gratuitous. Wellpoint could only have chosen to do its demon dance, at such an inopportune moment, in order to revive Obamacare during its darkest hour.

And that’s precisely what happened.

In the final post in this series of articles, we will take a look at the implications of the insurance industry’s support of Obamacare, as we who find Obamacare less than desirable contemplate what we ought to do about it.
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Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare

Part I – Another Reason He Should Have Kept the Bust

Part II – Why the Health Insurance Industry Supported Obamacare

Part IV – What It Means That the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare
________________________________

Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle!