Eliminating Waste and Inefficiency Is Not Enough

DrRich | August 29th, 2011 - 7:22 am

Podcast:

A recurring theme of the CRB is that the rising cost of healthcare is the main internal threat to the continued viability of the US. Indeed, the very title of this blog reflects the chief mechanism which is being employed, fruitlessly and disastrously, in the attempt to reduce those costs.

Recently, DrRich pointed out that there are four ways – and only four ways – to reduce the cost of healthcare. He did this as a service to his readers, so that when politicians describe in their weaselly language how they will get the cost of healthcare under control, you will be able to figure out which of the four methods they are actually talking about.

While DrRich’s synthesis has been generally well-received, a few readers did offer one particular objection. DrRich, they assert, left out a fifth way to reduce the cost of healthcare, and the very best way at that. Namely, just get rid of the waste and inefficiency.

DrRich has talked about this before, but obviously it is time to revisit the issue.

It is, in fact, a central assumption of any healthcare reform plan ever proposed that we can get our spending under control simply by eliminating – or at least substantially reducing – the vast amount of waste and inefficiency in the healthcare system. Conservatives propose to do this by incorporating the efficiencies of the marketplace, thus eliminating the waste and inefficiency imposed by bureaucrats. Progressives propose to do it by adopting and enforcing strict, top-down regulations (ideally, through a single-payer system, employing the officially-perfect wisdom of various expert panels) that will control the wasteful and inefficient behaviors of healthcare providers. But one way or another, each scheme for reforming healthcare proposes to bring spending under control by eliminating waste and inefficiency.

Another way of describing what all the reformers across the political spectrum are telling us is: There is so much waste in the system that we can avoid healthcare rationing by getting rid of it. Most Americans believe this. Most policy experts believe this. DrRich suspects that even most of his loyal readers believe this, despite what he’s been telling you for many years.

But this is unfortunately false. No matter how much waste and inefficiency you think might be gumming up our healthcare system today, there’s not enough to explain the uncontrolled rise in healthcare spending we have been seeing for decades, and therefore, not enough to allow us to avoid rationing altogether in any publicly-funded healthcare system.

To understand why this is the case, we must first recognize the fundamental problem with our healthcare spending. The real problem is not simply that we’re spending a lot of money on healthcare, or even that we’re spending a larger proportion of our GDP on healthcare than any other country. The real problem is that our healthcare expenditures for years and years have been growing at double digit rates, several multiples faster than the overall inflation rate, such that, over time, an ever larger proportion of our annual GDP is being consumed by healthcare expenditures. Unless this disproportionate rate of growth is stopped, eventually healthcare spending will consume our entire economy. (Rather, what will actually happen is that it will grow to the point of producing societal upheaval, sending us back to a more typical era for mankind, where healthcare is a little-thought-of luxury, and not a necessity or a right. This will happen well before healthcare consumes 100% of the economy.)

To reiterate, it’s not the amount of spending on healthcare that is creating a fiscal crisis, it’s the rate of growth of that spending.

Once we understand the problem – that it’s the rate of growth of healthcare spending that threatens our society – then demonstrating that waste and inefficiency cannot possibly account for that rate of growth is a matter of simple mathematics.

What our politicians and policy experts are telling us, when they say they can fix the problem by eliminating waste, is that without all the waste, our healthcare spending would be economically well-behaved. That is, save for the waste and inefficiency, the annual rate of increase in our healthcare spending would be roughly the same as the general rate of inflation. To say it another way, our leaders are asserting that the “excess” in growth of our healthcare spending is entirely wasteful.

It is trivial to construct a simple spreadsheet to test this assertion, that is, a spreadsheet in which calculations assume that any increase in annual healthcare spending over and above the general rate of inflation must be due to wasteful spending.  In such a spreadsheet, for instance, we may take the annual rate of growth of healthcare spending to be 10% (a reasonably representative number for the past 30 years or so), and the annual rate of overall inflation to be 3%.

We now must “pick” the proportion of healthcare spending that we designate as being wasteful in Year 1 of our spreadsheet. Nobody really knows this value, especially since we all will define wasteful healthcare spending in different ways. Let’s just say, arbitrarily, that 25% of healthcare expenditures are wasteful in Year 1.

When we plug these values into our spreadsheet, the result is clear. In order to account for our unsupportable growth in healthcare spending by invoking waste and inefficiency, the proportion of healthcare spending that is caused by waste must increase to ridiculous proportions very rapidly, such that (for instance) by the Year 10 we will have more than doubled (59%) the proportion of all healthcare expenditures that are wasteful; and by the Year 20, nearly 80% must be wasteful. Similarly, the proportion of the annual increases in healthcare spending that would have to be due solely to waste and inefficiency rapidly climbs to equally ridiculous proportions. By Year 5, wasteful spending will have to account for 82% of the annual increase in healthcare expenditures, and that proportion continues to climb, eventually approaching 100%.

In real life, of course, we have enjoyed healthcare inflation of roughly 10% for over 30 years now. So if the assumptions behind our spreadsheet are accurate – and again, these are the assumptions our political and policy leaders expect us to swallow – we find ourselves in the position, at Year 30, where well over 90% of all of our healthcare expenditures must be wasteful, and virtually all of the annual increase in healthcare spending is entirely accounted for by waste and inefficiency. (This result is largely independent, after 30 years, of whatever value we may have chosen as the proportion of wasteful spending in Year 1.)

Such a result is completely absurd. If you think it is not absurd, but actually reflects reality, then (all of healthcare being entirely useless) there’s no point in worrying about healthcare at all – we should simply stop spending any money on it.

And this result indicates that the initial assumptions must be wrong. That is, the unsupportable rate of growth in our healthcare spending cannot be due to waste and inefficiency. Therefore, that growth must be due, fundamentally, to the growth of “useful” healthcare expenditures.*

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*This analysis does not trivialize the waste and inefficiency we actually see in our healthcare system, which is large and inexcusable. What it likely means is that the level of inefficiency – which is certainly at least 25% of the total if not higher – likely attaches itself proportionately, sort of like a tax, to the underlying growth in healthcare expenditures.
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Therefore, DrRich has demonstrated, using actual Math, that a substantial proportion of our growing healthcare expenditures must necessarily be coming from real, honest-to-goodness, useful healthcare. And if we’re going to substantially curtail that growth, we’re going to have to curtail useful spending. Which means that as long as we have publicly-funded healthcare (which we do), we have to ration.

But, once again, we’re Americans and Americans don’t ration. Which is why we commissioned first the big insurers and then the government to do the rationing covertly, a task they have accepted with great gusto.

DrRich is compelled to point out, once again, that waste and inefficiency is multiplied with great exuberance any time you have covert rationing. Disguising all the rationing activity as something other than rationing fundamentally requires opaque procedures, unnecessary complexity, bizarre incentives, Byzantine regulations arbitrarily and variably enforced or ignored, and the diversion of healthcare dollars to non-healthcare ends (such as corporate profits, expanding layers of government bureaucracies, and other massive bureaucracies within the healthcare system created to defend oneself against those government bureaucracies). Covert rationing greatly increases waste and inefficiency, and does so inherently and systematically.

To reduce the unavoidable rationing to the smallest amount possible, we will have to figure out a way to do it openly, and not covertly. Having viewed commercials featuring Congressman Ryan pushing elderly ladies off a cliff after he proposed a Medicare reform far less drastic than open rationing (a reform that would restore some individual responsibility for healthcare expenditures to at least some of the more well-off beneficiaries, and thus reduce to some extent the need to ration care), DrRich doubts whether the public is yet ready to engage in such an endeavor.

May God Save Us From the Public Health Experts

DrRich | August 23rd, 2011 - 7:45 am

The “expert class” – the knowledgeable elites who are appointed by the Central Authority to establish the rules under which all of us in the great unwashed masses are to live our lives – will always (as a general proposition) tend to do great harm. Nowhere is this result more evident than in the policies promulgated in recent decades by the public health experts.

In each of the following three articles, DrRich deconstructs one of the major initiatives with which public health experts have assaulted the general public in recent years.  Each of these three initiatives was launched with great fanfare, displaying all the arrogant certainty exuded by any religious zealot, but sadly, was based on what to any objective observer was clearly insufficient data.  So the recent crusades against dietary fat, cholesterol, and salt each amounted to a great uncontrolled medical experiment, conducted on the entire population, in which each one of us was enrolled as an unsuspecting and involuntary research subject. The results of these massive experiments are just now coming to light.

Public health experts: stop them before they kill again!
Public Health Experts and The War Against Dietary Fat

Public Health Experts and The War Against Cholesterol

Public Health Experts and The War Against Salt

DrRich Explains The Right To Healthcare

DrRich | August 22nd, 2011 - 7:09 am

Podcast:

If we are ever to gain control of our healthcare spending, which is a necessity if we are going to avoid an economic catastrophe during the next couple of decades, we have to come to some agreement, as a society, on a few essential questions.  Chief among these questions is whether healthcare is something we must consider to be a right for all Americans.

The question of whether healthcare is a right has become a very contentious one. One side passionately declares that of course it is a right, as healthcare is so critically important that how could it be otherwise? And the other side, with equal conviction, asserts that nothing can be a right that creates an involuntary burden on another.

That is, advocates on either side of the argument maintain their respective positions as being axiomatic, as primary and irreducible truths – which does not allow much room for discussion or debate. So instead of dispassionate discussion, we get vituperation. For, when one’s opponent denies an axiomatic truth, he declares himself to be beneath contempt, and unworthy of any degree of respect.

Regular readers will know that DrRich is a peacemaker.  Accordingly, he will attempt an apology for each of these mutually exclusive, fundamentally principled positions. He will follow this by a description of the pragmatic (as opposed to principled) position on the matter taken by our current leaders. Then finally, humble as ever, he will offer the “real” answer to the question of whether healthcare is a right.

The Conservative Position

Conservatives (and in most matters, DrRich is among this lot) think of “rights” in terms of “natural rights,” that is, in terms of rights which accrue to every person by virtue of the fact that they are members of the human race. Natural rights are generally considered to descend from the Creator (as the Declaration of Independence explicitly says), or at the very least from the inherent nature of the universe, and thus are not subject to addition or subtraction by any human authority – such as by governments.

Because natural rights are granted equally to every human, it follows that there is no such thing as a right that imposes obligations or limitations on the natural rights of others.

A right to healthcare would most certainly require an abridgement of the rights of others, and so there can be no right to healthcare.

The Progressive Position

Most Progressives do not explicitly deny the existence of natural rights, because doing so would cause them embarrassment when they assert their own inherent and unalterable “truths” (such as the superiority of “diversity” over all other human virtues). However, at their core Progressives do not (and cannot) actually subscribe to natural rights, since the Progressive program virtually requires a Central Authority to assign and distribute and enforce various differential “rights” to various groups, in order to achieve social justice.  And achieving social justice is the central requirement for Progressives to reach their ultimate goal of a perfect society.

To Progressives, creating healthcare equality among all Americans is critical to social justice. And so, it becomes axiomatic for them that healthcare must be a right.

It becomes immediately evident that any such “rights” granted under the Progressive program will necessarily create involuntary obligations upon at least some individuals. So it is likewise immediately evident that any “right” for Progressives will fundamentally violate the essence of a “right” for Conservatives.

This impasse, which occurs at the very first step of the discussion, is what prevents Conservatives and Progressives from engaging in any fruitful discussion of whether healthcare ought to be a right.

The Practical Position (The BOSS Rule)

Our current leaders have taken a more practical position on the question of a right to healthcare. They rely on the fact that “rights” are often bequeathed not because of some overarching principle (as with Conservative or Progressive thought), but rather, because of issues of practicality – or more straightforwardly, because the sovereign authority has the desire and the power to do so. They point out that throughout human history innumerable “rights” have been promulgated by the expediency of raw power.

We need only consider, during the course of human events, such widely acknowledged rights as the exceptional rights of the aristocracy (especially the divine rights of kings), the unique rights of the clergy, or the special rights of the Politburo (or the Congress).  The fact is that all of these rights clearly imposed more-or-less oppressive obligations on, and limited the individual rights of, the people. But that is not the least matter of concern. Rights become rights because the exigent authority has the desire to create them, and the capacity to exert violence wherever necessary to enforce them.

In this light, one might say that healthcare is a right in America simply because of the BOSS rule (Because Obama Says So). If Obama says healthcare is a right (and he has said so, many times), and has the raw power to back it up, then, by God, healthcare is a right.

The Correct Position

It is easy to see why the “healthcare is a right” debate has become so contentious – people mean entirely different things when they use the word “right.” A right to a Conservative is a natural phenomenon, awarded equally to all people and fundamentally unalterable by human hands. A right to a Progressive is an essential social construct, enumerated by enlightened leaders, which is necessary to further the principle of social justice. And to some non-ideologues a right is whatever the sovereign authority says it is.

To DrRich, none of these constructs are useful to solving our current problem of healthcare spending.

The Conservative position – that because healthcare cannot possibly be a natural right, therefore there is no right to healthcare – not only seems callous to a large segment of Americans, but (as DrRich will shortly demonstrate) is wrong. The Progressive and Practical positions – that healthcare is a right either because it is necessary to further the supreme cause of social justice, or simply because the Central Authority decrees it to be so – leave us in an untenable position when it comes to reducing healthcare spending.

That untenable position occurs because, when a “right to healthcare” is bestowed by the government, under either the Progressive program or the BOSS rule, that right is open-ended. It immediately takes on the characteristics of an entitlement, a grant bestowed on individuals by society because of the group to which they have been assigned (such as: citizens, residents, people over 65 years of age, a particular racial or ethnic group, etc.) That entitlement is to “healthcare” – that is, for whatever we can get the authorities (by whatever political maneuvering we choose to engage) to agree that “healthcare” includes, whether it is well-baby checks, artificial hearts, chemotherapy, extravagant end-of-life care, hair transplants, or cosmetic surgery. A right like this – an entitlement – is rarely taken away, or even limited, once granted. Entitlements are soon seen by their recipients (and by the vested interests that quickly spring up to defend those entitlements, such as the bureaucracy that regulates them, the companies that supply the products for them, and the healthcare professionals that administer them) as something that is owed forever, as a natural, God-given right, which can always be expanded, but never ever restricted.

DrRich, therefore, finds all these positions on a right to healthcare to be unhelpful. For this reason DrRich proposes a new position on a right to healthcare, a position which he humbly calls the Correct Position.

To wit: all Americans have an implied contractual right to healthcare. We have this right because we have long since entered into a contract under which, in exchange for implied considerations, we’re all paying for it.

Under the present healthcare system, a system we have devised over the past six decades through our duly elected representatives, every person living in the United States is sharing in the cost of healthcare for every person who receives healthcare. Since every American, in one or more ways, is paying for the healthcare of every American who receives it, every American has a just claim – a contractual right – to their fair share of that healthcare.

Let us list some of the ways in which Americans all share in the cost of all healthcare:

1) Anyone receiving a paycheck is subject to payroll deductions to pay for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.
2) Anyone paying income tax is paying higher tax rates to offset tax-deductible health insurance premiums purchased by businesses for their employees. (That is, employer-provided health insurance is subsidized by the taxpayer.)
3) Anyone buying products in the U.S. is paying higher prices to cover the healthcare costs of American businesses.
4) Anyone living in America is sharing in the massive societal burden we are creating by allowing healthcare spending to be passed off to future generations, by way of the national debt.

These costs, and more, are borne by everybody living in the U.S. And since all Americans are paying the cost of all healthcare – even the cost of so-called “private” health insurance – we all have a right, in the form a consideration under a contract, to claim some of that healthcare for ourselves. To deny this fact would void the contract.

It is important to note that this argument for a right to healthcare is fundamentally different from the arguments typically given. This contractual right is not “granted” to an individual by a beneficent society because of some inherent characteristic of the recipient, but rather, it exists solely because the individual is party to a social contract, created by the peoples’ representatives, under which healthcare is a consideration given in return for certain obligations the individual makes to society. Those obligations would include paying for the publicly-funded healthcare through taxes, and subjecting oneself to whatever limits to publicly-funded healthcare such a system requires in order to maintain societal integrity.

It is critical to understand that this kind of contractual right to healthcare enables us, legally end ethically, to set necessary limits on what we mean by healthcare. The “right” to healthcare is a contractual right, and not a natural right or an ethical requirement.  So, under that contract,  as in any contract between consenting parties, we have a duty to specify the limits of our mutual obligations, that is, to specify what we mean by “healthcare.” Furthermore, we have a duty to specify what we mean by “healthcare” in such a way that fulfilling the contract does not bring about national bankruptcy or otherwise cause societal destruction.

There would no longer be an obligation to provide individuals with every manner of available healthcare under all circumstances, but only to provide individuals with that level of healthcare which is provided as a public benefit to all other individuals, under the terms of the social contract. (An entitlement to healthcare, in contrast, traditionally is an open-ended promise in which “healthcare” comprises anything and everything one might think has any possibility of restoring every bit of health.)

To summarize, as DrRich sees it we have already created a contractual obligation to provide publicly-funded healthcare to all individuals, by virtue of the fact that we have burdened every individual in America with the cost of healthcare for anyone who is now receiving it. In contrast to the Conservative position, DrRich’s formulation recognizes a right that truly exists, by virtue of a contract that is unarguably in force, and that has been enacted over a long period of time through the offices of the people’s elected representatives. And unlike the Progressive position, DrRich’s formulation does not entrap us into an open-ended obligation to pay for all “healthcare,” however our collective sentiments may entice us to define that term.

We might as well own up to our responsibilities by openly recognizing : a) the universally-shared payments we all make to the cost of American healthcare: b) the right of all Americans to the considerations that arise from this universally-shared burden; and c) that it is right and proper for us to establish clear limits to the obligations borne by all the parties, as we must do with any legitimate contract.

The open recognition of this contractual right to healthcare will finally give us the framework we need for a public discussion on setting necessary limits on publicly-subsidized healthcare spending.

And this, DrRich most humbly submits, is the correct answer to whether healthcare is a right.

It Is Your Duty To Maintain Wellness

DrRich | August 15th, 2011 - 7:26 am

Podcast:

DrRich considers it his responsibility to point out to his readers certain truths related to modern American healthcare which may not be obvious to everyone, and which the fine people in the mainstream press choose not to mention.

Be honest. If it weren’t for DrRich, would you be aware that the only reason Obamacare became the law of the land is that the private insurance companies needed it in order to have any hope of long term survival?  Would you understand that the Progressive healthcare system to which we are now legally committed inherently requires all of the following things (while loudly proclaiming the opposite): ending the classic doctor-patient relationship; preventing individuals from spending their own money on their own healthcare; killing off the practice of primary care medicine; to the furthest extent possible, limiting preventive medicine; and stifling medical innovation?

One thinks not.

And so, DrRich hopes you will pay attention as he reveals yet another poorly-appreciated truth about our new healthcare system. Namely, it has become the case that maintaining your own wellness is not merely something which would be desirable, something you ought to do, or at least something you ought to want to do. It is now your duty.

You owe it to society to maintain your wellness, to take every step at your disposal to keep yourself from needing to consume healthcare resources. You owe it because healthcare is now a collective responsibility. And if your chosen actions (or inactions) cause you to become unwell, and if your unwellness causes you to consume healthcare resources which otherwise might have been available to individuals who (unlike yourself) became ill through no fault of their own, and if such faultless individuals subsequently suffered or died as a consequence of your failure to honor your duty, well then – that would make you no different from any other common criminal whose selfish actions produce harm to their innocent victims.

Maintaining your wellness is not a nice-to-have; it is your non-negotiable obligation.

You have been told that your wellness is very important to the caring people who will run our new healthcare system. And indeed, it is. So you will, by law, be “entitled” to annual, detailed “wellness checks,” provided by a dedicated team of healthcare workers, who will assess (and record) your efforts to maintain your own wellness, and then will give you all the instruction you need to alter whatever suboptimal behaviors you are displaying. The results of these annual wellness checks will be entered into a federally-approved universal electronic medical record, so that any healthcare provider, anywhere, at any time, will have a complete record of the trajectory of your state of wellness over the years – and of the degree of your compliance with the instructions you have received for maintaining that wellness.

Of course, if you elect to forgo the annual wellness checks to which you are entitled, that information (i.e. that you cared so little for your wellness that you couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it) will also be maintained in the universal electronic records.

Then, when you become ill 10 or 20 years from now, your records can be consulted to decide to what extent your illness can be considered self-induced. For, when resources are scarce, the only moral thing to do is to distribute them according to who is the most deserving.

Most readers are now thinking that DrRich is paranoid. Guilty as charged. However, DrRich’s paranoia, regarding the kinds of behaviors of which our Central Authority is capable, is based on hard experience. Indeed, it is evidence-based.

Still, DrRich is enough of a realist to understand that it is unreasonable to ask his readers to just trust him here. Instead, let’s examine patterns of behavior, regarding supposedly self-induced disease, which our society is already displaying. The best example, one which DrRich has written about extensively, is obesity.

We are witnessing a sustained and ongoing campaign to demonize the obese. Consider: While we are universally urged to stifle any impulsive speech or sentiments which, by any stretch of the daintiest of sensibilities, might make any member of any group (however you choose to define a group) the least bit uncomfortable, it is perfectly OK to castigate the obese, loudly and often. We can say about the obese anything we like.  Screw their feelings. It is perfectly fine to insist that it is the obese – gluttonous, lazy, self-indulgent, slothful fat people – who are driving our healthcare spending off a cliff. It is acceptable to publish ridiculously flawed papers in respected scientific journals proving that global warming is caused by the obese (thus pinning upon them the responsibility for upcoming catastrophes of unimagined proportions), and demonstrating that obesity is a contagious disease (which will justify any actions we may choose to take to concentrate the obese into special camps).

A person’s choice to allow themselves to get fat already justifies more than mere words of castigation. Under the British Health Service (the model to which Dr. Berwick and other of our current healthcare heroes openly aspire), the obese (along with smokers, another group of selfish sub-humans who use an unfair share of healthcare) are now being removed from the waiting lists for medical services.* By virtue of their obesity (and the lack of social responsibility their obesity indicates), fat people have forfeited their equal access to healthcare.

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*Removing the fat from the waiting lists has at least two beneficial effects. It punishes them, of course, for their selfish refusal to maintain their own wellness. But it also reduces the long waiting lists that exist in Britain for medical services, closer to the target waiting times which the government has been promising its citizens for decades.
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Demonizing the obese has many advantages. Chief among these is that the obese are easy to spot. In contrast to the Jews of Nazi Germany, one does not have to sew a Star of David to their jackets to know which individuals are wrecking the culture. By just walking down the street (not that fat people do all that much walking, lazy SOBs) they reveal themselves, by their unsightly corpulence, to be one of those people who are ruining the healthcare system for the rest of us. And we svelter, more worthy citizens can look upon them with the scorn they deserve.

Especially now that we have so many programs and policies aimed at preventing obesity – putting apple slices in Happy Meals, publishing calorie counts in restaurants, being lectured at by First Ladies and skinny movie stars, &c., – anyone who still chooses to remain obese despite all this abundant assistance must be especially contemptible.

Perhaps most useful of all, in the long run, is the fact that real, honest-to-goodness, health-threatening obesity almost always has a strong genetic component. When we learn to demonize the obese, we are learning that wellness is a duty even if your genes (or some other force that is largely beyond your control) mitigates against it.

The obese, therefore, are the perfect target. Thanks to them, we are teaching ourselves that it is right and proper to disdain individuals who are leading less than exemplary lives.

Once we have learned this lesson well, it should be relatively easy for us to apply the same kind of disdain to others who who fail to honor their duty to maintain their own wellness. Most of these scurrilous individuals will not be so obvious to spot as fat people.  But at the end of the day, they will reveal themselves in the ultimate manner – they eventually will fall sick. And by their diseases we shall know them.

For the past several years, our healthcare experts have been busy declaring more and more illnesses to be “preventable.” And if an illness is preventable, and an individual fails to prevent it – well, what more do you need? That person has obviously failed to perform their sacred duty to society, and has forfeited any claim to the healthcare we more deserving people can expect.

The list of illnesses which are officially preventable now includes coronary artery disease, heart failure, kidney failure, diabetes, stroke and many kinds of cancer. And just a week or two ago, Alzheimer’s disease was added to the list.

It is possible that in a decade or so, if you acquire an illness from this growing list of “preventable” medical disorders – especially if your annual wellness checks reveal that you have gained weight since college, or you habitually fail to exercise at least 90 minutes per day, or that you imbibe less than one or greater than two alcoholic beverages per day – you may be triaged to Tier B healthcare. Tier A will be reserved for people who obviously care more than you do about wellness, and about their duty to society. Just as obesity does today, the state of your health will demonstrate your true commitment to the perfect society to which we all aspire.

For, when it is your duty to maintain wellness, your illness reveals a grave dereliction.

A Revered Ethicist Argues For Restricting Direct-Pay Practices

DrRich | August 11th, 2011 - 5:30 pm

Podcast:

DrRich, in his last post, attempted to show why a direct-pay medical practice is the only remaining pathway by which PCPs may preserve the classic doctor-patient relationship, and for patients to assure themselves that they are working with a doctor who at least has the prerogative to actually place their individual interests first, above all those other powerful, ruthless, contrary interests, which are striving to control the behaviors of their doctors.

He attempted to show this by making an argument founded in the principles of medical ethics.

As it happens, one of today’s best-known medical ethicists, at about the same time, was telling doctors just the opposite. Arthur Caplan, at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, published this advice for doctors at Medscape.com. Here is the meat of Dr. Caplan’s admonition:

“No matter how you look at it, if you allow providers to buy out, you are going to leave other patients with lower-quality care, and you are going to burden the remaining primary care practitioners (who don’t take the concierge route) with more work.”

DrRich has two comments.

First, this argument against direct-pay practices is based solely on the goal of social justice.

DrRich has not been shy about expressing his disdain for the views of your typical, modern medical ethicist. Most of these individuals today embrace the utilitarian camp of medical ethics, wherein formerly revered niceties based on ethical precepts (like the classic doctor-patient relationship) must take a back seat to the goals of social justice. And where social justice is concerned the ends justify the means.

Achieving “social justice,” of course, always and inherently requires a powerful Central Authority which has the muscle to make sure that all of the benefits of life are distributed in a just and fair way. What is just and fair, of course, is to be determined by groups of sanctioned experts, a sort of expert class with guns. These will determine who gets what, when and how.

So once again a member of the group of sanctioned experts, who will determine how things are to be, comes right out and tells us: a doctor who embraces the kind of medical practice where a doctor’s only responsibility is to the needs of his/her patient is behaving unethically.

Second, DrRich calls your attention to the most interesting and revealing phrase uttered by Dr. Caplan: “If you allow practitioners to buy out. . .”

What Dr. Caplan is saying is that doctors must not be allowed to establish direct pay practices. It must not be left to them. We must prevent them from doing so. That is, it must be made illegal.

He is laying out a formal ethical argument for doing what DrRich has been warning his readers, over and over again, the Progressives are bound and determined to do: to make it illegal to sell medical services directly to individuals, and for individuals to purchase medical services with their own money. You can only get your healthcare when, how and from whom the Central Authority says.

The message won’t get much more explicit than this, dear readers. DrRich begs you to take heed before it is too late.

An Epiphany On Direct-Pay Practices

DrRich | August 8th, 2011 - 6:56 am

Podcast:

DrRich’s recent posts on the death of primary care medicine elicited several responses from readers, not all of them positive.

Most of the complaints DrRich harvested from these posts had to do with his suggestion that the physicians formerly known as PCPs ought to drop out of the dysfunctional healthcare system altogether (the system that has, purposefully and with malice aforethought, wrecked their chosen careers), then strike out instead on their own, and establish private practices in which they are paid directly by their patients.

This suggestion creates, among many in our society (and apparently, among many of DrRich’s readers), a viscerally negative reaction. Many people believe that DrRich is exhorting doctors to embrace their inner greed, and abandon the great lot of patients in order to satisfy their own selfish desires and foolish professional pride.

A reasonably typical comment came from one Tracy, who avers, “Only the rich will be treated. I don’t think we want to do that do we?”

Now, if DrRich were a Progressive, he would take advantage of the fact that Tracy (who thoughtfully provided his website address) is a health insurance agent, and would dispense with him using a scathing ad hominem attack, something like: Look who’s talking about somebody selling a vital healthcare product at such a high price that people can’t afford it!

But DrRich is not a Progressive. So he will ignore the delicious irony in Tracy’s complaint, and address the substance of his comment. To restate Tracy’s objection (and, in fact, all of the objections that have been made to physicians dropping out of the system and establishing direct-pay practices): For doctors to demand that patients pay them directly is elitist and unethical; only the rich will be able to afford this kind of care; a two-tiered healthcare system will develop, and public health will suffer.

DrRich will answer this objection in two ways. First, he will make a philosophical argument as to why direct-pay practices are the right thing to do. Then he will give a real-world example that demonstrates how a direct-pay practice is, in fact, good for patients and for society.

The fundamental argument that supports the rightness of direct-pay practices has been made numerous times on this blog. In summary: In the attempt to control healthcare costs, the Feds and the insurance companies have, in uncountable ways, entirely coerced physicians (using and exercising the threats of loss of income, massive fines, and jail) to place the needs of the payers ahead of the needs of their individual patients. In so doing, they have systematically destroyed the doctor-patient relationship, in the process killing medical professionalism, and reducing patients to objects, to cost centers, and abandoning the sick to their own devices as they attempt to navigate an increasingly hostile healthcare system.

This process is now firmly established. It has been legislated by Congress, embodied in volumes and volumes of rules, regulations and “guidelines” (strictly and ruthlessly enforced), upheld by the courts, and finally (and most tellingly) sanctioned as being entirely “ethical” by the physicians’ own professional organizations.

It has become impossible for doctors – especially the PCPs, who have been most directly affected – to fight this reality. If they want to escape, their only options are to become a medical specialist (since outpatient primary care is the main lever on which the Feds are pushing), a deep-sea fisherman – or a direct-pay practitioner.

So primary care doctors must either resign themselves to a system that ruthlessly pushes them toward an unethical, demeaning, public-health-destroying style of practice, or (one way or another) get out.

The only means that will allow them the freedom to practice primary care medicine in a way that is compatible with true medical ethics – which allows them to place the needs of their individual patient above all other considerations – is the direct-pay model. And this means that the only way for a patient to have a primary doctor who treats them the way patients are supposed to be treated is to find a direct-pay doctor.

To argue that direct-pay practices – or any innovation that would somehow restore both the doctor’s professional integrity and the patient’s rightful advocate – is unethical is completely upside down. It is one of the few viable pathways toward restoring the foundational (but currently obsolete and officially repudiated) medical ethic of always placing the patient first.

To argue that direct-pay practices threaten public health completely ignores reality. In fact, this is one of the few viable pathways toward restoring protections that the public is supposed to have when facing a healthcare system that is utterly bent on avoiding spending money on them.

To argue that direct-pay practitioners are creating a two-tiered healthcare system is ridiculous on its face in a society that gives mere lip service (though, to be sure, plenty of it) to the problem of 47 million uninsured.

To argue that direct-pay medicine will create a subpopulation of elites (because it provides a mechanism by which some individual patients can escape the deadly obstacles that have been intentionally laid before them), is as absurd as arguing that George Washington was wrong to free his slaves upon his death (or even that New York State was wrong to abolish slavery at about the same time), because it created a subpopulation of “elite” (i.e., free) African Americans; that until all slaves were freed, no slaves should have been freed. But freeing at least some slaves – and forthrightly stating why it needed to be done (see: Declaration of Independence) – was not only ethical, but also showed what was possible, and over time created an expectation that eventually could no longer be ignored, and that, at huge cost, was finally fulfilled.

It is important to note that any innovation that can potentially spare patients from some of the harm the healthcare system has in store for them will necessarily be applicable to only some patients at first. That’s how disruptive processes work. They begin as niche products or services, attractive only to a few high-end users; too expensive or too marginal for the vast majority; ignored, ridiculed or castigated by current providers. But if at their core they’re offering something fundamentally useful, they will slowly demonstrate their worth – and eventually all the potential users will see the light, and demand for the product will become explosive. When that happens, the means are found to make the new product affordable and available to meet the demand – often by making significant adjustments to the original concept, that nonetheless preserve the core benefits. And when that happens, the traditional providers (who never saw it coming) are suddenly out of business.

It may not be that direct-pay medicine plays the personal computer to the traditional healthcare system’s mainframe. But it is inarguable that what it offers to patients – at its core – is every bit as vital and every bit as indispensable. And if a critical mass of the public can be made to understand what is really being offered here, there will be no holding it back.

Unfortunately we have a limited window of opportunity. The vociferousness of the complaints against direct-pay practices indicates just how threatening these are to the Progressive program. Unless this practice model gains a sufficient toehold, and quickly, it will be made illegal. Because Americans cannot be permitted to spend their own money on their own healthcare.

DrRich will finish by pointing his readers to a real-world model of a direct-pay practice which, he believes, graphically demonstrates the potential benefits of such a model.

Epiphany Health is a direct-pay primary care practice recently begun by Dr. Steven Shell and Dr. Lee Gross in southwest Florida. These doctors took pains to make their services affordable to many of the uninsured (and underinsured). For about what you would pay for a cell phone contract or for cable TV, they will be your doctors.

Doctors, that is, in the original sense – a professional who knows you well, a personal advocate for your health, who is dedicated to placing your interests above all the other competing interests within the healthcare system. Because they are paid by you, it is you they must satisfy in order to have a viable career.

As Dr. Shell told Sun Newspapers, “Our simple, preventative healthcare plan has several advantages that include true price transparency (cost of services ahead of time), high quality care, affordable fees, no copays, no deductibles, no pre-existing condition exclusions and a plan not tied to an employer.”

In addition to price transparency, Epiphany offers major price discounts to their patients. They have negotiated these discounts with pharmacies, physical therapists, imaging centers and laboratories. These discounts are often in the range of 75 – 80% of the cost to non-members.

Now, if this kind of practice is unethical, elitist, or damaging to the public welfare, DrRich just does not see it. In fact, as much a benefit as this kind of practice might be to doctors, it is far more beneficial to the patients lucky enough to have such an option available to them.

You who aren’t so lucky should look at what Epiphany is offering – and demand it for yourselves. If you do, you will have it. There are thousands and thousands of disaffected doctors who would love to practice medicine like this, but they have been cowed to inactivity by the naysayers (and Progressives) with their cries of, “Elitist! Immoral! Unprofessional!”

If these doctors heard from their patients, all the negatives would be forgotten, and they too would have their own epiphany.

Attila The Cardiologist

DrRich | August 2nd, 2011 - 6:00 am

Podcast:

Note: DrRich has issued this warning more than once before. It has always gone unheeded. He will now try one more time, with this updated and hopefully more compelling version, not because he actually believes it will do any more good than similar warnings did those other times, but because he is a humanitarian and time is growing short. American physicians will continue to ignore this warning at their own peril.

The history of Western civilization, from prehistoric times until relatively recently (so recently, in fact, that one cannot be absolutely certain the pattern has been broken), has been marked by successive waves of invasions by wild barbarians from the north. (This explains why DrRich will never completely trust the Canadians.)

Every few hundred years, one group of primitives or another – Scythians, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Avars, Norsemen, Bulgars, Mongols, and others named and unnamed – would sweep down upon their betters, upon the more civilized, more culturally and intellectually advanced people to the south, and by the expediencies of slaughter, rape and pillage, would take their land, possessions, freedom, and their lives. The advancing barbarian wave would eventually play itself out, and individual members of the untamed horde would simply settle in place, and over a few generations would become civilized themselves – until the next group of barbarians, in turn, would fall upon them.

It was a cycle as natural as the seasons.

What drove these irresistible barbarian movements? Historians still argue about it. Likely these violent migrations were caused by several different things – famine, plague, encroachment by even nastier barbarians from even farther north, and climate change (though this latter conjecture is now politically incorrect, since the official and proper view of the earth’s climate is that it was absolutely stable for millions of years, until Henry Ford and George Bush came along and bent the temperature curve upwards, like a hockey stick).

The reason DrRich brings all this up, of course, is: to warn his medical colleagues about the cardiologists.

Dear reader, the cardiologists are on the move. Their home turf is being encroached upon, their livelihoods gravely threatened, by the biggest, most ruthless, and most irresistible force on earth – the Feds. And in response they are gathering themselves into a great wave, and they are preparing to overrun the territories of less robust, less terrifying, more civilized (possibly more effete) medical specialists, and make themselves a new home.

Some medical specialists aside from the cardiologists are of course also predatory by nature, but for the most part their territorial incursions are predictable, localized and contained – the orthopedic surgeons and the neurosurgeons, for instance, will fight over lumbar disc surgery. Not so for the cardiologists.

DrRich is a cardiologist, and he knows that the Board Certification papers wielded by cardiologists do not read: “Certified in the practice of cardiac medicine,” but rather, “Certified in the practice of cardiovascular medicine.” Cardiologists, in other words, are officially certified not merely in the practice of heart disease, but also in the practice of any and all disorders affecting the blood vessels.

And DrRich urges his unsuspecting medical colleagues to please notice that blood vessels are prominent features of every organ system in the body. Cardiologists therefore recognize no natural limits to their rightful turf; if it is supplied by the vascular system, it is theirs. And if some other kind of specialist has traditionally claimed sovereignty over some particular organ – say, the liver – their continued success lies entirely in the fact that the cardiologists have not yet chosen to assert their rightful authority. (As it happens, hepatologists are relatively safe, as most cardiologists think of the liver as a particularly uninteresting organ, which, after all, just sits there doing nothing. Many cardiologists, in fact, persist in getting the liver and the kidneys mixed up.) Still, should it ever become convenient for cardiologists to invade the hepatologists’ space, these relatively intellectual, relatively sedentary specialists don’t stand a chance.

What all this means is that when the cardiologists are on the move, nobody is safe. And they are on the move.

Hide the women and children!

The cardiology settlements have been restless for years, continually expanding and growing, and spilling out across their borders to encroach on the turf of their nearby neighbors. They long ago began driving the formerly proud and powerful cardiothoracic surgeons into a sad state of underemployment. More recently they have usurped the formerly sovereign territory of diabetes specialists. They are currently laying siege to sleep medicine (pulmonary specialists) and bariatrics (weight loss specialists). All of these incursions can be related, within one or two degrees of freedom, to heart disease. So these are localized disputes.

But in the last year or so, cardiologists have moved from a state of mere restlessness to a state of high alarm. The ruthless Feds (a mysterious tribe arising from a dark, inexplicable cauldron of a place where even the laws of physics, economics, and human nature do not apply) have taken to attacking the cardiologists where they live – in their home turf of stents and implantable defibrillators. By conducting secret and extensive DOJ investigations as to whether cardiologists are plying their trade according to “guidelines” (a form of tribute acknowledging their state of thrall to the Central Authority), and by threatening to jail them or fine them into professional oblivion (to the point where even the ubiquitous threat of malpractice suits has become a relatively trivial concern), the Feds have forced cardiologists to recognize that it is time for them to move on. It is time to seek out new territory.

There is no telling where they will show up next. If any of you non-cardiologists think you are safe, think again.

To illustrate just how unpredictable the Great Cardiology Migration is likely to become, DrRich will review a few of their recent incursions into the territory of some of the least likely of the medical specialists – the neurologists and the neurosurgeons.

The cardiologists’ encroachment into the field of neurological medicine is not only surprising in itself (for who would have thought that such shoot-from-the-hip, action-addicted specialists would find anything interesting about the brain?), but especially surprising is its scope and its persistence. Cardiologists actually began this process several years ago, under the radar, when they took to blaming imbalances of the autonomic nervous system (i.e., dysautonomia) on mitral valve prolapse. In more recent years, and somewhat more openly, they have attempted to take ownership of migraine headaches.

And now, in recent months, cardiologists have laid claim to the brass ring of the neurological diseases – Alzheimer’s Disease. If they can wrest this common and expensive disorder away from the neurologists, a disorder which people will pay almost any amount of money to prevent or treat, they can set themselves up for generations.

The typical pattern of behavior employed by the cardiology invaders is easy enough to spot. First, they call attention to an alleged association between some cardiac condition (a condition they will manufacture if necessary), and a neurological disorder. Then, immediately, they will assert that (or at least begin behaving as if) the association proves a cause-and-effect relationship. Finally, since they have demonstrated that the neuro problem is produced by a cardiac condition, it will become necessary to refer patients who have (or might develop) that dreaded neuro problem to cardiologists, who, lo and behold, will have invented a well-paying procedure which they claim will treat it.

The best known example is mitral valve prolapse (MVP), a congenital condition in which the mitral valve partially flops open when it should be closed, thus allowing blood to flow backwards (i.e., to regurgitate) across the mitral valve as the heart contracts. (For anyone interested, here’s a brief description of the heart’s chambers and valves.) Now, significant MVP can be a serious medical problem which requires mitral valve surgery. Fortunately, however, this kind of serious MVP is relatively uncommon.

But happily for cardiologists, echocardiography (a non-invasive test using sound waves to create an image of the beating heart) has become so advanced that some degree of trivial MVP, it seems, can be found in almost anybody. According to some studies, as many as 25 – 35% of healthy individuals – people without any cardiac problems or any symptoms whatsoever – can be said to have some degree of MVP. In fact, whether you have MVP or not depends largely on what criteria the echocardiographer uses to make the call, and how badly the referring doctor wants you to have the diagnosis.

Over the years it has become customary to diagnose MVP in young, apparently normal people who have the temerity to complain about the highly disruptive symptoms of dysautonomia (such as fatigue, weakness, strange pains, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, cramps or passing out), without supplying the kinds of objective physical or laboratory findings which, doctors insist, patients are always obligated to provide. Such thoughtless patients are now routinely sent for echocardiography, so that MVP can be diagnosed (since it can be diagnosed just about whenever it is looked for). The patient is then given the diagnosis of “mitral prolapse syndrome,” even though: a) the MVP is usually so trivial as to be nonexistent; b) the studies which claim to show an association between MVP and these sorts of symptoms are generally based on a gross over-diagnosis of MVP; and c) there is no credible theory based on actual physiology to explain how MVP – even real MVP, much less the trivial kind – might cause such symptoms.

But no matter. “Rule out MVP” has become one of the most common reasons for young, healthy people to be referred for echocardiography, and has become a stable source of income for cardiologists.

The story is similar for the association between patent foramen ovale (PFO) and migraine headaches.

In the developing fetus, the foramen ovale is a hole that is present in the atrial septum (the thin structure that separates the right atrium from the left atrium). At birth, a flap of tissue imposes itself over the foramen ovale, causing it to close. In some people, however – people with PFO – the tissue flap is still capable of flopping open. In people with PFO, the foramen ovale can open for a few moments if the pressure in the right atrium becomes transiently greater than the pressure in the left atrium, such as with coughing, or straining during a bowel movement.

In rare instances, strokes in healthy young patients have been attributed to PFO. The supporting theory is that a stroke can occur when a blood clot happens to be coursing through the right atrium at the precise moment when a person with PFO is coughing (for instance), allowing the clot to move into the left atrium, and on to the brain. And because this theory is at least plausible, in a young person who has an unexplained stroke and is then found to have a PFO, it makes at least some sense to close the PFO.

But the presence or absence of a PFO is a little like the presence or absence of MVP. Its diagnosis depends to some extent on how hard the echocardiographer looks for it, and on how much the referring doctor would appreciate the diagnosis. With modern echocardiographic equipment, at least some sign of PFO can be found in as many as 25% of normal individuals.

Being able to make this nifty diagnosis would be of little use to cardiologists if the only clinical problem it may cause is a one-in-a-million chance of stroke. One cannot make a living, or even make a decent car payment, doing echocardiograms in those extremely rare young patients with cryptic strokes. So it didn’t take long for cardiologists to draw a more useful association – this time, between PFOs and migraine headaches.

While all the things that have to happen in order for a PFO to cause a stroke are very unlikely, at least one can assemble a string of very unlikely events that, should they all occur simultaneously, might possibly produce a stroke. This is not the case with migraine. No plausible theory has been advanced to explain how PFO might cause migraines. The only reason PFO is being invoked as a cause for migraine is that when patients with migraine have been carefully studied for the presence of PFO, an increased incidence of PFO was found. (But again, when PFO is carefully sought in any population of patients, it is more likely to be found.) The only likely reason PFO has not been associated with cancer, red hair, type A personality, or difficulty in memorizing the multiplication tables is that cardiologists have not thought of looking for it (yet) in these conditions.

For cardiologists, the poorly-supported allegation that PFO causes migraine is particularly compelling, since not only can they get paid for the echocardiograms to look for PFOs in migraine sufferers, but also there is an invasive (and lucrative) procedure they can do to close PFOs, to “treat” the migraines. Studies to date have not been successful in showing that closing PFOs improves migraine headaches, but that hasn’t kept cardiologists from screening migraine patients for PFO, then offering them PFO closure as a therapeutic option.

Migraine sufferers are particularly vulnerable to this and many other unproven therapies, since they are often disabled by their condition, and in many cases medical science (or medical ignorance) offers them insufficient help. Consequently, anecdotal stories abound regarding unorthodox therapies that cure migraines. (DrRich, himself a migraine sufferer for many decades, has heard them all.) One undeniable truth is that merely performing PFO closures on enough migraine suffers is guaranteed to produce a patient here or there who will report a positive response. And despite the continued negativity of actual clinical trials so far, that’s what happened.

So, by anecdote – but not by controlled trial – closing PFOs can cure migraines.

But now it gets even worse for the neurologists. Any who ignored the cardiologist’s usurpation of dysautonomia, and who may have felt only a little more concern when cardiologists began to lay claim to migraine headaches, had best sit up and take notice. Because now, cardiologists are laying claim to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Recently, researchers presented a study suggesting that ablation procedures for atrial fibrillation are associated with a lower risk of subsequent Alzheimer’s disease. (Here’s some information on atrial fibrillation and its treatment if you are interested.) The study was presented as an abstract only, so we know relatively little about the specifics.

But, really. Atrial fibrillation and Alzheimer’s are both disorders associated with aging, so it is not surprising that they are associated with each other – in the same way that atrial fibrillation is associated with gray hair, cataracts, and bunions. Ablation for atrial fibrillation is a relatively lengthy and difficult procedure, whose results are relatively middling, and which carries a substantial risk of some really nasty complications. So these ablation procedures are generally reserved for carefully selected, reasonably ideal candidates – usually, the relatively young, relatively healthy atrial fibrillation patients, who are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease over the next few years whether they have ablations or not.

So there is a lot to be cautious about in interpreting a preliminary study like this one.

But such objections are just quibbles. When this study was reported, the headlines in the typically discerning American press blared: “Ablation Procedures For Atrial Fibrillation Prevents Alzheimer’s.” Whatever the details and limitations of this study, cardiologists can now treat Alzheimer’s. Mission accomplished.

Then, just last week, the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association released a formal scientific statement to the effect that vascular disorders are an important cause of Alzheimer’s disease. So this new statement clearly plants the flag for the AHA’s chief constituency – the cardiologists (who, DrRich reminds his readers, own vascular disorders).

Remarkably, the American Academy of Neurology, apparently failing utterly to grasp its significance, endorsed the statement. As a result, American neurologists have formally taken the knee before their new masters.

You see how this works?

Now, having for the last time, with an unerring sense of fair play, called this problem to the attention of his non-cardiologist medical colleagues, DrRich would like to finish by emphasizing an overarching point.

You can’t fight the Feds. When the Central Authority, at the point of a gun, decides to reach down into the world of the medical specialists, and dictate which medical services are no longer going to be feasible (all for the noblest of purposes, of course), the affected medical specialists have a limited range of possible responses. And fighting the Feds is NOT among these available responses. It would be more effective – and certainly safer – for doctors to fight against the change of the seasons.

So the affected specialists have only two options. They can contract their horizons, take what’s left, and try to make the best of it. Or, they can do what the Visigoths did when the people of the steppes fell upon them. Strike out against other, weaker tribes and take what’s theirs.

DrRich is not passing any judgment on his cardiology brethren here. (Would you have him judge a she-bear protecting her cubs?) He is just describing what’s happening. You who lie in their path can do with the information as you see fit.

In the meantime, DrRich remains supremely confident that his cardiology colleagues can find a nearly unlimited supply of plunder in this brave new world. They are very robust barbarians.