Why Governor Christie Must Not Run

DrRich | September 30th, 2011 - 12:15 pm

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From all appearances, Republican voters are desperate for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to throw his hat into the ring, and announce that he’s running for the Republican nomination for President. And, while the governor has made dozens of absolutely definitive statements utterly denying that he is going to run, he nonetheless seems quite happy to continue relentlessly teasing his supporters with the possibility. (Just the other night he gave a speech at the Reagan Library in which he discussed foreign policy and other topics not notably relevant to running his state. What’s up with that?)

There are several good reasons Governor Christie gives for not running. He promised the voters of New Jersey that he would stay in office and do everything he could to fix the fiscal disaster that his predecessors created there. He notes that he doesn’t have the fire in the belly which, apparently, one must have for this sort of contest. He does not have very much experience with governance, and has said repeatedly he does not feel ready to become the leader of the free world.

None of these reasons, of course, are dispositive, and all of them could be dispensed with very quickly. Governor Christie is pissing off so many people in New Jersey so quickly that it is not inconceivable that, if he asked them politely, the majority would soon give him a pass on all his promises, and bid him Godspeed in his new endeavors. Fires in the belly, it is said, come and go, and one might just show up at any time. And as for feeling ready to become the leader of the free world, well, the bar there has been lowered so much in the past couple of years that even DrRich – who balked at the responsibility of becoming secretary of his book club – would no longer be intimidated at the prospect. I mean, what the heck?

And so, despite all his denials and all the reasons he gives for staying out, it remains entirely possible that Governor Christie may still get in the race.

DrRich is alarmed by this possibility. And so should we all be, as Governor Christie’s potential candidacy poses a very great threat to us all.

You see, dear reader, the governor is just too damned fat.

Our leaders have just spent nearly three years demonizing the obese, and convincing we the people that fat people, by virtue of their unsightly and self-induced rotundity, are a grave threat to the well-being of each of us.

Here is what we have been taught: Aside from the obvious negative characteristics of fat people (their sloth, gluttony, laziness, selfishness, &c.), and the fact that they are unpleasant to behold and inconvenient to encounter (they are slow, they take up too much space in the grocery aisles and on buses, and they sweat more than you and me), and the fact that obesity is contagious so that fat people should be isolated and shunned, and the fact that the obese probably account for global warming, and thus will ultimately be responsible for untold death and destruction; aside from all these undeniable truths, the obese consume far more than their rightful allotment of healthcare resources, which, per force, leaves much less healthcare available to us holier persons. They are, in fact, trying to kill us.

Demonizing the obese is critically important to the program we have embarked upon in America. Obamacare may give the Central Authority the legal standing to control the personal behaviors and personal choices of individual Americans, but it does not give them the moral authority to do so, nor the ability to actually enforce that control. Americans, despite 50 years of indoctrination to the contrary, still value their individualism, and will still balk – or worse – when they perceive their personal freedoms are being taken away.

The obese are supplying our leaders the vehicle they need for breaking down this last barrier. For, if everyone can agree that obesity is evil, and so are the people who allow themselves to become fat (despite all the “help” they get from expensive public service announcements, calorie counts posted in restaurants, and lectures from First Ladies), then how can we object when our leaders are forced to take stronger measures to “encourage” better behavior, or, if necessary, to punish their behavior?

By virtue of their now-universally-accepted state of sinfulness, the obese are fair game for whatever actions the Central Authority deems necessary to cause them to either lose weight or pay for their sins. From appearances, such measures are likely to begin with taxing soft drinks and Twinkies and whatever other foodstuffs the experts (in their wisdom) deem to be illegitimate sources of calories. But really, 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.
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*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. Clearly, obesity has now become so toxic to the survival of mankind that any paper submitted to a medical journal which offers some new reason to despise the fat – no matter how absurd – will be cheerfully accepted by the editors, and published with great fanfare.
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It goes almost without saying that the ultimate censure would simply be to withhold healthcare services from fat people. This is a strategy that is already being employed by the British healthcare system,  a system we are urged by many of our leaders, such as Dr. Berwick, to employ as a model.

The great benefit of taking the demonization of the obese to its logical conclusion, of course, is that by doing so, the Central Authority will have established the very important precedent of selectively enforcing certain rules, based on a person’s behavioral habits*, in order to achieve Social Justice.

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*While demonizing the obese is considered legitimate by many because fat people “choose” to become fat through their selfish behavior, it is nonetheless true that becoming truly obese (as opposed to becoming merely overweight) is almost always strongly mediated by genetic and metabolic factors. Blessed with the same genes and metabolisms, many of us svelter, more holy individuals would also have become fatties.
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This is a truly critical precedent to set. This precedent will ultimately 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, and how well you follow the lifestyle changes prescribed by your PCP in your annual, very-strongly-encouraged, “free” wellness checks. 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, and which thus would not be subject to central control.

All this will become possible because Americans are willing to accede to the demonization of their obese neighbors.

So now we see why Governor Christie must not run. Think of the damage he could do!

The prospect of a fat man campaigning for President – an endeavor which everyone admits takes an incredible amount of initiative, intelligence, energy, and a robust constitution – would itself undermine important “truths” about fat people upon which we base much of our (hard won) hatred of them. Worse yet, if Governor Christie actually managed to secure the Republican nomination, there’s an excellent chance that a majority of voters would actually cast their ballots for him! And he might actually become President!

What would that say about the general acceptability of obese people in our society?

Governor Christie’s candidacy would do untold damage to the critically important obesity paradigm which our leaders have painstakingly established over the past few years, and thus, would seriously damage their entire program.

And it is for this reason that Governor Christie must not run.

Note: DrRich now realizes that he has made a major mistake by writing this post, and here offers an apology and a weak explanation for his error.

 

In The Million Hearts Initiative, Cardiologists Need Not Apply

DrRich | September 26th, 2011 - 6:52 am

Podcast:

It is a good thing that DrRich is not the only cardiac electrophysiologist writing in the medical blogosphere. If he were, the public would no doubt believe that all electrophysiologists are arrogant, self-important, sarcastic blowhards who insist on expressing themselves in the third person. Fortunately, that DrRich is uniquely afflicted in this manner, and that at least two out of three electrologist appear to be not only brilliant but also reasonably normal people, is nicely demonstrated by the offerings of Dr. Wes and Dr. John M on their respective blogs.

Both of these relatively socially acceptable electrophysiologist bloggers have seen fit to comment on the Million Hearts Initiative, recently introduced with great fanfare in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine by Drs. Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., and Donald M. Berwick, M.D., M.P.P., on behalf of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Million Hearts Initiative aims to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years.

The critiques of both Dr. Wes and Dr. John M regarding the Million Hearts Initiative are insightful and well-written, and both offer cogent analyses of the shortcomings of this program. DrRich strongly recommends both for your perusal.

Dr. John M is largely sympathetic with the aims of the Million Hearts Initiative, but finds that at least some of the methods proposed by DHHS to prevent all those heart attacks and strokes are unlikely to do much good. And more importantly, Dr. John notes, the MHI manifesto entirely ignores one of the most important (possibly THE most important) measures to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, namely, exercise. Dr. John M is an avid cyclist, and has personal experience with the benefits of exercise. How, he asks incredulously, can you design a major program to prevent cardiovascular events and leave out exercise?

DrRich (who, being a runner for going on five decades, has himself invested much blood, sweat and tears to the proposition that exercise is good for you), also finds this ommission to be quite remarkable. But as usual, DrRich has developed a theory to explain it. Both Dr. Frieden and Dr. Berwick, judging from the string of letters trailing behind their names, are public health experts. Public health experts are known for taking snippets of data from typically flawed clinical trials and, stringing together a chain of mathematical assumptions and conjectures longer than their post-nominal decorations, calculating how many people will be saved (or killed) if this or that public policy is initiated (or withheld). Obviously, for the Million Hearts Initiative, Frieden and Berwick needed to assemble a package of policy interventions whose calculations, when properly jiggered, show that there will be precisely one million beneficiaries. By including exercise in their program (and in their calculations), they would clearly have boosted the results to some awkward and difficult-to-promote value. The “One-Point-Eight Million Hearts Initiative” would just not have had the proper flair.

Like the President says, John, it’s just math.

Dr. Wes is somewhat less charitable toward these eminent public health experts than is Dr. John. John, while criticizing their methods, attributes high motives to them. Wes, on the other hand, is quite cynical about their motives. (In fact, if it were not for his total lack of blustery, third-person-y verbosity, Dr. Wes’ post might well have been written by DrRich.)

Wes suggests that the Million Hearts Initiative is the Feds’ way of distracting the public from noticing that they are doing everything they possibly can to restrict patients’ access to cardiologists, and to restrict spending on cardiovascular medicine.

It is, in fact, striking (at least to cardiologists like DrRich, Dr. Wes, and Dr. John) that this major policy initiative to save a million hearts has no place in it for cardiologists. Cardiologists are never mentioned in the manifesto itself, except obliquely to indicate that their services will not be required. Cardiologists, of course, take care of patients who have already developed significant heart disease. So what the public health experts are telling us is that they are only interested in stopping heart attacks and strokes in people who are apparently disease-free. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Preventive medicine is extremely important in cardiovascular disease.

But still. It is at least arguable that the quickest way to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes would be to target those patients who have the highest risk for these events, namely, people with known cardiovascular disease. Cardiologists dedicate their lives to preventing catastrophic events in these high-risk patients – and a tremendous amount of clinical evidence suggests they’re pretty good at it. While the only thing we ever hear these days about stents and implantable defibrillators is that cardiologists over-use them (and so the DOJ is launching criminal investigations to intimidate doctors into using them less frequently), when these kinds of technologies are used appropriately – as they most often are – they are proven to save lives.

But this is most decidedly not what the government’s public health experts are trying to prove. They want nothing to do with actual doctors practicing medicine in the trenches, fighting to save patients with active disease. Rather, they are out to show that the healthcare system can do just fine without all those fancy specialists and all their expensive procedures. They are aiming to advance the Progressives’ long-term agenda of showing that all the really important stuff in healthcare can be accomplished with much cheaper public health initiatives.

As DrRich has pointed out, it is our duty as citizens to maintain our wellness, and the the Million Hearts Initiative is simply the latest initiative by which the Central Authority will help us fulfill that duty. Those who by their own shortcomings develop heart disease or stroke, despite all the wonderful preventive help they receive through programs such as this, have manifestly failed  to fulfill their duty to society and will just have to get by the best way they can. And doctors such as cardiologists, who made the mistake of choosing careers dedicated to caring for such slackers, should not expect to be taken seriously, or overly respected, by the public health experts who are doing the really important work, or by any policy makers for that matter.

None of us cardiologists, nor our patients, should be surprised at being excluded from the Million Hearts Initiative. And won’t we feel bad when the results are in, and it turns out that millions of hearts can indeed be saved without any participation by the heart specialists?

So: Can the public health experts really save a million hearts with the specific steps they say they will take? Examining the strategy which Drs. Frieden and Berwick have laid out in their document, it certainly does not appear so. But, as it turns out, that result will be amenable to “tailoring,” and so the actual values they obtain in their results will be of little consequence.

The Million Hearts Initiative proposes to save a million hearts by doing the following:

A) Make “providers” report more regularly on how well they make little chits on checklists. (These are pretty much the same checklists the providers are already using; it’s the improved reporting standards that will save lives.)

B) Use electronic medical records to track and improve the behavior of providers and patients. (It is not clear exactly how this is supposed to work, though it is easy to imagine many rather spooky initiatives that might be taken, given the creation of a centralized database tracking, among many other intimate details, everybody’s long-term behavioral habits.)

C) Assemble groups of providers into “care teams,” which will somehow employ tag-team counseling efforts to get patients to improve their lifestyles. (Revealingly, it is this gang-nagging, and not novel life-saving technologies, which the public health experts refer to in their document as “clinical innovation.”)

D) Reduce smoking and second-hand smoke. (Fine, but this is merely one of the behavioral changes about which oppressed patients will be mercilessly “counseled” – see Item C.)

E) Get trans-fats out of the food supply. (DrRich has no objection here either, except to note that it was the same public health experts who, 40 years ago, demanded that trans fats be introduced into the food supply in order to crowd out saturated fats.  This is one example of why, when you’re a Progressive, history has always begun just 10 minutes ago.)

And F) Institute a population-wide salt restriction. (This amounts to yet another huge experiment to be perpetrated on the population at large. With luck, after 10 or 20 years this experiment may finally reveal who’s right – the experts who say that a general, population-wide sodium restriction will reduce net mortality, or the experts who say such a sodium restriction will increase mortality. Right now there’s plenty of data to argue for either outcome.)

Will doing these things really save a million hearts? Not in real life. All these things, taken together, don’t amount to very much in terms of actually accomplishing anything useful. But in the final analysis, the public health experts will have a decided advantage. It is plain that, while proving that hearts are actually “saved” by such measures will in fact be impossible, it will be equally impossible to disprove it. This situation is entirely analogous to the one in which the Administration insisted that President Obama’s stimulus package “saved” eight million jobs – since there is no way to prove or disprove that any jobs (or hearts) would have been lost had you done the other thing, any old claim is just as good as the next.  In such situations, the faction which gets to analyze the final data (in this case, those selfsame public health experts) can manipulate the statistical evidence any way they must to “prove” what they aim to prove.

Heck, they probably have their final report written up already.

Readers are advised to forget about saving a million hearts. Instead, save only one. Don’t smoke. Get plenty of exercise. And don’t eat so damned much. And should you develop heart disease despite your best efforts (which happens all too frequently despite what you’ve been told), pray that you can still find a cardiologist who has not been intimidated into withholding those expensive, modern medical therapies that really have been proven to save hearts, and lives.

Gibson Guitar and the Regulatory Speed Trap

DrRich | September 19th, 2011 - 6:25 am

Podcast:

A couple of weeks ago, a swarm of Federal agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service, armed with automatic weapons, suddenly raided the Gibson Guitar Company and confiscated raw materials and finished guitars, apparently because Gibson allegedly violated the Lacey Act in their importation of exotic wood.  Spokespersons from Gibson insist that they purchased the wood legally, that the sale was approved by Indian authorities, and that they have the paperwork to prove it.

To DrRich, the interesting aspects of this episode are: a} The Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Obama administration is happy to raid and disable a business – a manufacturing business at that – that has been hiring Americans, in order to enforce murky, difficult-to-interpret laws which require Americans to comply with even more difficult-to-interpret and even murkier laws in foreign lands. b) The administration is willing to enforce such laws in such a way as to induce maximum intimidation. And c), they are willing to do so selectively. (Several guitar companies, which have not been raided, also import the same wood from the same sources.)

DrRich stipulates that neither he – nor anyone else – knows all the facts of this case, and that perhaps Gibson really is guilty of imperfect compliance with the Lacey Act.  However, from what is known publicly, even if this were true, this episode would appear to be a case of selective enforcement. DrRich does not know whether the Administration would pick on Gibson because its CEO is a well-known Republican, or to teach a lesson to the people of Tennessee because at least one of their Senators has been seen consorting with the Tea Party, or because Gibson is non-unionized, or for some other reason.

The current version of the Lacey Act was arguably promulgated for good reasons, aimed as it was, ostensibly at least, at protecting rare species. But full compliance with the Lacey Act requires companies to document they are in full compliance with changeable, obscure and opaque laws in foreign lands, and in a fundmental sense is impracticable. America has many laws, rules, regulations, and guidelines that are just like this – for which it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to be in full compliance.

Such laws and regulations are very useful to the government, because it allows them to declare, at a time of their choosing, almost anyone who is functioning under those laws to be criminals. If Americans understand that the only thing standing between them and a raid by Federal agents armed with automatic weapons is the pleasure of the Central Authority, then smart Americans will do whatever they can to curry that pleasure.

DrRich calls it the Regulatory Speed Trap. The Regulatory Speed Trap can be recognized by its typical 5-step pattern;

1) Over a long period of time, regulators will promulgate a confusing array of disparate, vague, poorly worded, obscure and mutually incompatible rules, regulations and guidelines.
2) Individuals or companies which need to provide their products or services despite such hard-to-interpret regulations, will necessarily render their own interpretations (usually with the assitance of attorneys, consultants, and the regulators themselves), and will act according to those interpretations.
3) By their apparent concurrence with, or at least by their failure to object to, such interpretations of the rules, the regulators over time allow de facto standards of behavior to become established.
4) When it becomes to their advantage, the regulators will reinterpret the ambiguous regulations in such a way that the formerly tolerated de facto standards suddenly become grievous violations.
5) Regulators aggressively, but selectively, prosecute newly felonious providers of products or services.

Basic to the Regulatory Speed Trap is an underlying set of complicated and contradictory rules and regulations. In most instances, such as with the Medicare regulations that have evolved over the past several decades, the complexity and self-contradictions grow almost organically over time, and are not planned in any way.  In other instances – such as with the Lacey Act – some new regulations that cannot be complied with are created de novo. And in yet other circumstances – such as the Obamacare legislation or the Dodd-Frank legislation – an entire, massive, tangled web of impossible regulations is painstakingly created out of whole cloth. (This is likely why it is taking so long to render each of these new laws into their hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations.)

It is a rule of nature that bureaucracies evolve away from clarity and toward maximum complexity. But the resultant regulatory morass does not necessarily have to produce fatal paralysis. Societies have thrived for long periods of time despite such bureaucratic complexity. (The Byzantine Empire for instance, whose very name came to symbolize the bureaucratic tangle, lasted for a thousand years.) These societies have thrived, however, only because bureaucrats have allowed de facto interpretations and standards of behavior to develop under their watchful eyes. This sort of benign oversight permits societal commerce to continue to function within some reasonable bounds.

But the modus operendi of our Progressive leaders – in their perpetual attempt to establish the perfect society – is to control “everything” from the top down. And what they have discovered, to their unending delight, is that in a mature bureaucracy – one that has found a way to function despite a tangle of vague and contradictory regulations – is that Everyone Is Always Guilty Of Something.

And if everyone is always guilty of something, then the judicious use of the Regulatory Speed Trap, which is to say, the selective enforcement of inherently ambiguous regulations, becomes a useful tool for achieving Social Justice. By such selective enforcement they can punish their enemies (the enemies of the Progressive Program), reward their friends, and press their own agenda as they see fit.

This, DrRich submits, is what we see happening today to the Gibson Guitar Company, and for that matter, to Boeing.

Less obvious to the average citizen, but very obvious to individuals and organizations working within it, is that the same thing holds for the American healthcare system. Even before all the Obamacare regulations are published, the morass of already-existing rules, regulations and “guidelines” means that, at any given time, the Central Authority can suddenly construe some rule in such a way that virtually any worker or any institution dealing with the healthcare system becomes a criminal. The Central Authority has already exercised its awesome and arbitrary power to do so, in selected and circumscribed cases, and to good effect. Today, healthcare workers and institutions – and especially the medical profession – know that staying on the good side of the Feds is Job One.

Which means that doing what’s best for your patient can be no higher than Job Two*. It is not only “ethical” to act for the good of the collective instead of the individual patient, it is also the only way to optimize your chances of staying on the right side of the law – whichever law, that is, the Feds choose to reinterpret at any given time.

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*For doctors, doing what’s best for patients is actually Job Three. The top priority is maintaining your professional viability (by keeping the Feds happy); the second priority is protecting your turf against encroaching physicians from other specialties; and the third priority is the patients. This order of priorities does not mean that doctors are evil; if they ignore the first two priorities, they will not be able to do anything at all for their patients.
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Most doctors are very smart and can adjust to these or any other rules of engagement. It is the patients who are well and truly screwed by the Regulatory Speed Trap.

Is This The End-Game For American Doctors?

DrRich | September 12th, 2011 - 6:50 am

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DrRich has long argued that a non-negotiable necessity of Obamacare will be to gain complete control over the behavior of American physicians. Most of the important medical decisions which doctors make – the ones that cost the government the most money – will be forcibly centralized. That is, panels of experts will determine which services are to be delivered to which patients under which circumstances, and doctors who fail to follow the experts’ dictates, in all their particulars, will be prosecuted as criminals.

This is more than just a matter of cost management. Placing control of most important decisions into the hands of sanctioned experts is a central tenet of the Progressive program. Centralizing decisionmaking – rather than leaving it in the hands of individuals, who will always operate for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of the collective – is the principle mechanism by which the Progresive program (i.e., achieving the perfect society) is to be realized.

In recent years, growing numbers of doctors who recognize that their independence is quickly being taken away, and that the principle ethical precept of their profession (i.e., to always act for the benefit of their individual patient) is quickly being converted into a mortal sin, and that their own professional organizations are acquiescing with these changes, are realizing that the only way left open for them to retain some of their professional autonomy and professional integrity is to opt out of the system altogether, and begin contracting directly with their patients for medical services.

While the trend for doctors to opt out has not yet become widespread enough to have reached the consciousness of the broad public, it has certainly grabbed the attention of our Progressive leaders. For autonomous physicians pose the greatest possible threat to Obamacare, or to any Progressive healthcare system. And Progressives simply cannot abide these physicians who establish direct-pay practices.

So it has never been a question to DrRich whether our Progressive leaders will act to stop direct-pay medical practices. The only question has been how they will do it.

Over the past couple of months, DrRich has developed a theory about this. He hopes his theory is wrong, but he fears it is not.

DrRich believes that the medical profession is about to become nationalized, and doctors will become government employees, just like the airport security screeners. Furthermore, the mechanism by which they will become nationalized is the very same mechanism by which the airport security screeners were nationalized into the TSA, an event which occurred, DrRich reminds his readers, with barely a peep of protest from American conservatives, or anybody else. That is, it occurred precipitously, out of dire necessity, due to a grave national crisis that seemed to leave us little other choice.

DrRich believes the outline of the crisis that will justify the nationalization of the medical profession is becoming discernible. He believes the crisis will be precipitated by a provision of Obamacare that, for most observers, has just come to light.

On August 10 Medicare announced that, by March 23, 2013, most American physicians – at least 750,000 of them – will have to recertify their Medicare credentials. Now, for most Americans this prospect does not sound too odious. But be assured that it is.

The Medicare certification process is always a bureaucratic nightmare, and the nightmare will be greatly magnified when three-quarters of a million doctors are recertifying nearly at the same time.

All doctors have gone through Medicare certification at least once, and many have done it more than once. Because several common activities – such as changing your address – trigger the need to recertify with Medicare, doctors go through this process on an average of every decade or so. And most dread the experience.

Certifying requires filling out a 60-page form, a form which is absolutely masterful in combining obtuseness, opacity and redundancy, and then submitting it, along with all sorts of additional documentation, to one of several Medicare administrative contractors. These contractors are famous for their incompetence, their indifference, and their glacial bureaucratic pace. DrRich has experienced the ordeal himself, and knows countless doctors who have as well. The experience is nearly universally painful and expensive.

It is very common – possibly the rule – for submitted applications to be “lost,” at least once. (Officially, of course, the doctor never sent them in.) This event is so routine that doctors know to check with the contractor to confirm that their paperwork has been received. But the contractors have caught on to this gambit, and now refuse to reply to such queries for some specified period, usually for 30 days (at which time, it often turns out, the paperwork has disappeared into the ether). When the doctor finally gets to the point where the contractors will admit to having the documentation, there is another prolonged period of enforced silence, while the contractors painstakingly comb through the documents for misplaced commas, “X’s” typed over the line, or any other trivial excuse for discarding the application and notifying the physician (often, 2 or 3 months after originally submitting it), that they must begin the whole process again, and submit new forms. It is common for the entire process of recertification to take 3, 6 or even 12 months.

And the best part is, during the time the documentation is being reviewed, the physician cannot bill Medicare for any services. So during the recertification process the physician must either stop seeing Medicare patients, or continue seeing them without hope of payment. It is standard to lose at least a month – and very often more – of Medicare income during the recertification procedure.

These cost savings, of course, are why Medicare demands recertification every time you change your address, or add a partner, or sneeze. And this is why a slow, bureaucratic, demeaning recertification process is not only perfectly OK with the “system,” but is lovingly nurtured.

That, DrRich reminds you, is what happens during the typical recertification. The en masse recertification mandated by Obamacare, when 750,000 physicians will be going through this process at the same time, promises to become much, much worse. Doctors certainly believe it will be much worse.

“Tough luck for you doctors,” many loyal readers are now saying, “but what’s that got to do with the TSA-ification of American physicians?”

There are many thousands of PCPs today who are strongly considering opting out of Medicare, or who would like to opt out but they are afraid to take the chance. That is, they’re on the fence.  There are many thousands more who are hoping to retire within several years, and are hanging on almost on a year-by-year basis, waiting either to meet their target retirement funding, or until things get so bad that they just can’t do it any more.

DrRich thinks that a great many of these on-the-fence physicians will be tipped by the prospect of having to recertify for Medicare, especially under circumstances in which the process of recertification promises to be much worse than even the usual stomach-turning process.  If a doctor is thinking about getting out anyway, and now faces the prospect of losing (most likely) several months or possibly a year of Medicare income, then he or she is much more likely to just do it.

If this doesn’t do the trick, then add to it the fact that Medicare reimbursements to all providers are likely to be reduced by something like 25%, when the pre-deadlocked Congressional Super Committee* fails to agree on the necessary budget cuts later this year.  And last Thursday night, when the President announced that the Super Committee will have to find $2 trillion instead of only $1.5 trillion in budget cuts by Thanksgiving (in order to pay for his Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! bill), the likelihood that doctors will take a 25% cut in pay increased even more.

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*The Super Committee is pre-deadlocked because: a) the Republicans audaciously appointed at least one Tea Party supporter to the committee; b) the Democrat leadership (specifically, the Vice President) has identified the Tea Party as terrorists, a designation they have never been willing to assign to any other group, for instance, to Islamic extremists; and c) it is well known that one does not negotiate with terrorists.

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DrRich thinks the Progressives, whether by design or by blind luck, are now precipitating a crisis in healthcare. They are giving American doctors a huge incentive – probably two huge incentives – to opt out of Medicare all at once (instead of opting out gradually, as they are doing today).

If this occurs, the shortage of doctors who accept Medicare will become a hyper-acute problem. Panic will take hold.  The media will decry the crisis, running heart-rending stories about old people dying in their homes because they cannot get an appointment with a doctor, and blaming it all on the abiding greed of physicians (who, after all, probably still owe the government for their education, and hold their professional licences at the pleasure of the state). Medicare beneficiaries will flood their congresspersons’ offices with emails, letters, and their very bodies, demanding immediate action.

The autonomy of physicians may be OK in theory. Classic medical ethics might be a nice idea – a nice-to-have – if you can afford it. The doctors who “opted out” might actually be standing on principle, instead of on greed. But little matter. However you cut it we’ve got a real crisis here. The public’s right to healthcare is being violated. People are dying. The very security of the country is in jeopardy.

Not even conservatives will be able to withstand the tide of public opinion. Something will have to be done to compel doctors to provide that which they owe the public. In the war on illness, doctors need to be good soldiers. So like real soldiers, if they fail to volunteer for duty in sufficient numbers they will need to be drafted – and like soldiers they will need to work for, and receive their orders from, the government.

The politicians will be sorry about this. Nobody wanted it this way, they will say.  A little less greed, a little more compassion, and we could have avoided this. The doctors brought it on themselves, and have nobody to blame but themselves. The welfare of the public must take precedence.

Anyway, that’s DrRich’s theory. With luck, he is wrong. (Perhaps, for instance, many fewer physicians than DrRich thinks are on the fence about opting out.) But if he’s wrong, he’s more likely wrong about what, specifically, will precipitate the crisis that will finally justify taking away what remains of doctors’ autonomy, than he is about the general outline of what the end-game for American doctors will look like.

Progressivism often “progresses” toward its goal not gradually, but in major, discrete leaps – and it usually does so as the result of some “crisis” that causes the people to go along with changes they would never otherwise agree to. Which is why, if you’re a Progressive, a good crisis never goes to waste.

And the requisite “good crisis,” more often than one might think, turns out to be something you can goose along, just when you need it.

Grand Rounds 7-50: The Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Edition

DrRich | September 6th, 2011 - 6:59 am

Podcast:

 

While Grand Rounds is normally the highlight of everybody’s week here in the medical blogosphere, this time it’s different. This week, we are all – each and every one of us  – completely distracted by the most wonderful sense of expectation and joy, to the exclusion of virtually every other human emotion. For DrRich, at least, the feeling puts him in mind of the giddy anticipation he experienced on, say, his 5th Christmas eve, when he was still young enough to consider Santa Claus a magical-but-real agent of earthly delights. (This was before DrRich realized that Santa, being obese, is actually a great menace to society.)

For this, dear reader, is the week when President Obama will turn his considerable powers of intellect, at long last, to the issue of jobs. The President indicated to us more than a month ago that he would, in his own good time, present to us his program for fixing the horrific and prolonged unemployment problem which now affects most American families in some way. And thus realizing that a solution is finally at hand, we in the great unwashed masses have waited, as patiently as we could, through earthquakes, hurricanes, Martha’s Vinyard vacations, and numerous pre-season football games, for the President to tell us the Answer. And, summoning together a Joint Session of Congress – a venue most often reserved for declarations of war and similar life-altering policy initiatives, thus confirming the momentous nature of his coming words – he will finally proclaim to us the Good News, a mere two days from now. One can cut the anticipation with a knife.

So, while it is indeed an honor to be hosting Grand Rounds during this historic week. DrRich must admit to finding it a little difficult to concentrate his efforts. No doubt readers will likewise find it a challenge to turn their attention away from the Big Event long enough to peruse the following posts – the best of the medical blogosphere this week.

But be assured that there is good stuff to follow. So, if you find yourself incapable of focusing your attention on Grand Rounds at the moment, simply bookmark this page, and return to it once your sense of soaring happiness returns (as it inevitably must) to a more normal state. Be assured that this week’s entries are timeless enough to outlive your ecstasy (an emotion which – alas! – to be effective, must always be transient).

So let us begin.

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DrRich – having been informed not long ago, by an actual U.S. Attorney who at that moment had him under a form of official duress, that the DOJ is well aware of this blog and the general tenor of its content – always likes to mention early in any long post (so that his minders do not have to read the whole thing) any items that might be helpful to the Administration. Accordingly, we open Grand Rounds this week with the announcement, posted in The Examining Room of Dr. Charles, of the 2011 Charles Prize for Poetry. Dr. Charles has been hosting this prestigious contest – which seeks and awards excellence in poetry touching on health, science or medicine – for some time now, and it has proven to be an exceedingly popular annual event.

In addition to the significant intrinsic merits that accompany the Charles Prize for Poetry, DrRich must note that Dr. Charles is also awarding a not-inconsiderable cash prize to the winners. That is, he is creating what, in our present economic environment, must be considered damned-near jobs. Encouraging employment in the career of poetry is something, DrRich thinks, the President should seriously consider before Thursday night, lest he be tempted to make the huge mistake of attempting to whip up enthusiasm yet again for Green Jobs. (In the wake of the collapse just last week of the heavily-government-subsidized and heavily-Obama-promoted Solyndra Company, and of at least two other companies that received large federal funds for Green Jobs, treading that dead ground again would merely reveal that he is entirely bereft of ideas.) The Administration ought to thank DrRich, and especially Dr. Charles, for this critically important advice. Encouraging poesy, instead of Green Jobs, would demonstrate the kind of new thinking we are all looking for from our President at this critical juncture.

At Dr. Malpani’s Blog, Dr. M. outlines his 3-step approach for helping his patients understand the intricate concepts of in-vitro fertilization. First, you describe how the thing is supposed to work when everything is functioning normally (the “thing” in this case being the human reproductive system). Then, you describe to the patient where the system is breaking down in his/her case. And finally, you describe the options available for mitigating the breakdown. Dr. Malpani’s system, which he points out is generalizable, is aimed at creating a consensus for action when faced with a complex problem.

DrRich will only remark that Dr. M’s system, which works well enough for problems based in human physiology, is proving pretty worthless for problems based in the more social sciences, such as economics. This is because of a fundamental disagreement, among the debaters, on how the economy is “supposed to work when everything is functioning normally.” Progressives and conservatives have very different ideas about this. So Dr. M’s approach, which requires both logic and a fundamental consensus on what constitutes “normal” behavior, is unsuitable to non-physiologic systems.

Dr. Val at Better Health posts a recent interview with Dr. Dori Carlson, president of the American Optometric Association, regarding the importance of screening children for subtle but significant vision problems. (Dr. Val and Dr. Dori are referring here to the kinds of vision problems that involve optics, and not the kind suffered by our political leaders.) The type of gross vision screening which is conducted by most schools misses the majority of these vision problems in children, and those undetected vision problems not infrequently lead to impaired learning. Also, they often lead to misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatment, likely including the misdiagnosis of ADHD. (Missed vision problems constitute only one of the causes for the explosion in ADHD diagnoses in recent years. A more common cause, in our overly-feminized schools, is being a boy. Indeed, as nearly as DrRich can tell, being a boy today is a disease; they have drugs for it and everything.) In any case, if you are a parent of a school-aged child, you should strongly consider having your child’s vision checked by an ophthalmologist or optometrist – especially if somebody wants to put him on Ritalin.

Henry Stern at InsureBlog tells us the good news and bad news about a new study related to heart attacks. He notes that heart attack victims are receiving definitive therapy in American hospitals much more quickly than they were just a few years ago. And when you are having a heart attack, minutes count – the longer that coronary artery is occluded, the more permanent damage is done to your heart, and the higher your odds of death or disability. So the diminished delay to treatment is good news. As usual, though, there is bad news attached. DrRich, always the sunny optimist, does not wish to repeat the bad news. You can go to the InsureBlog to read it for yourself.

The ACP Internist reports a study showing that 80% of today’s doctors look up on-line information in front of their patients. DrRich, who admits to being an Old Fart, does not find this surprising, since young physicians these days are, well, young. And young people are on-line all of the time, reporting their every trivial thought and mundane action instantaneously to the Cloud. (If Andy Warhol were alive today he’d be talking about our 15 minutes of anonymity.) But you don’t have to be a young doctor to take up these new habits. It appears from this new survey that doctors of all age groups have ritualistically placed an LCD screen between themselves and their patients. In so doing, they have awarded to those distant, expert panels – the ones spinning out all those guidelines, pay-for-performance checklists, marching orders, &c – their appropriate and rightful physical position, that is, directly interposed between doctor and patient. This is more than mere symbolism, but the symbolism is delicious.

But, dear reader, please do not be too critical of today’s doctors. If you yourself were a savvy modern physician, realizing that you could go to jail if you do what you think is medically appropriate before checking with the Authorities to find out if it is also allowable, you’d have a computer screen in front of your face too, and you’d be looking stuff up in front of your patients the entire time they were blathering on about their symptoms or whatever. DrRich worries for the 20% of doctors (likely, his fellow Old Farts) who haven’t “gotten it” yet.

Beth Gainer at Calling the Shots makes an important observation about the two classic narratives to which all victims of breast cancer are assigned – the narrative of the triumphant hero, and the narrative of the courageous and noble victim. Ms. Gainer’s observation is that most women with breast cancer do not fit either of these prescribed narratives. Many women are thus left feeling guilty or diminished when they find that their experience is not meeting with society’s expectations. Ms. Gainer is absolutely correct, and indeed, her observation is generalizable. The same thing occurs whenever society’s designated narrative-makers assign a range of permissible attitudes, thoughts and behaviors to any defined group. Mercy on any member of the group who falls outside those designated norms.

David E. Williams at the venerable Health Business Blog addresses the question of how we – society – will cope with the next big trend in the drug industry – the development of “niche” drugs, drugs that are suitable for only a relatively small number of patients and which, therefore, are exceedingly expensive to develop and market. David goes directly to the real question – the problem of niche drugs makes the issue of healthcare rationing unavoidable.

So far, of course, we are doing our healthcare rationing covertly, and in the case of niche drugs that usually means interpreting clinical results in such a way as to minimize their potential benefits. We do this by saying that Drug X “only increases survival by 4 months,” and ignoring the fact that “4 months” is an average value, and that while many patients have no benefit at all, a non-negligible minority may live a lot longer. The question, “Is it worth $50,000 for only four more months of life?” is different from the question, “Is it worth $50,000 to have a realistic shot at living several extra years?” Covert rationing causes us to frame the question in such a way that the answer to any question beginning with “Is it worth. . .” is always, “no.”

At the Road to Hellth, Douglas Perednia, one of the best analysts of health policy writing today, looks at the rationale for the onerous penalties which are required under Obamacare for hospitals whose patients are readmitted at higher than the average readmission rates. Perednia describes the bogus math which the Feds are apparently using to determine what appropriate readmission rates ought to be – and points out the irony of requiring doctors to behave in an “evidence-based” fashion, while the Feds themselves are using frivolous statistics to dole out the equivalent of the NCAA Death Penalty to our hospitals.

Steven Seay, PhD discusses what ought to be second nature to any clinician – applying the principles of the scientific method to clinical practice. That is: gather the necessary data to formulate an hypothesis; institute therapy based on that hypothesis; measure the results of that therapy; revise the hypothesis to reflect this new data; repeat as necessary. This is the way clinical practice should be done. DrRich is happy to learn that it is still apparently OK for clinical psychologists to function in this manner. For physicians, especially PCPs, the scientific method has become forcibly compressed to: make a diagnosis; treat according to the guidelines. While the patient might not do so well with this new method, the physician will be OK, since “quality” will be measured according to one’s compliance with the guidelines. Measuring the actual results of the treatment, of course, would only lead to trouble, and in most cases will be avoided.

James Gault, MD, of the blog Retired Doc’s Thoughts, is a long-time champion of classical medical ethics (as opposed to the New Age medical ethics now formally espoused by all the major professional organizations).  As such, Dr. Gault often deconstructs arguments being published by modern medical ethicists supporting these New Age ethics, which require doctors to act for the benefit of the collective rather than for the benefit of their individual patients. In this post, Dr. Gault gives a very effective what-for to Professor Fuchs of Stanford, who, once again, has published a paper advancing the bankrupt argument that what’s good for the collective is necessarily good for the individual. These kinds of vapid arguments may fool the Whippersnappers, but they’re not fooling us Old Farts.

The ACP Hospitalist notes that, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a “grey market” is developing for life-saving medications that have been in severe short supply for the past few years. A grey market, DrRich thinks, is like a black market, but less illegal – though it is possible they are referring to Old Farts who are merchants. In any case, the ISMP says the grey market is price-gouging hospitals that need those important drugs, and have nowhere else to buy them. The solution, according to the ISMP, is (among other things) to empower the FDA to manage drug shortages and tighten regulations for drug distribution.

The growing, widespread shortage of important medications is indeed a bad problem. We should look for a solution to this problem. Shortages of any product occur when it costs companies more to make the product than they can get for it in the marketplace. Onerous regulatory policies by the FDA which, in the name of product safety, have greatly increased the cost of doing business for pharmaceutical companies, along with recent de facto price controls on generic drugs, have combined to make it economically unfeasible for drug companies to expend large resources to manufacture these drugs. It seems doubtful that piling on even more regulations will improve the situation. And attacking the grey markets will simply drive them further into the dark (since black markets are nature’s way of providing a product when governments act to limit it). Given the expected 500,000 pages of new regulations being conjured up out of the Obamacare legislation, drug shortages are merely the first of many critical medical shortages we will be seeing in the coming years. So it will be instructive to watch how our leaders handle this problem.

In any case, from the job-creation standpoint, DrRich believes there will be many employment opportunities in coming years in sundry black markets related to healthcare. Many skills will be needed, some of which should be quite exciting!

At the Prepared Patient Forum, Trudy Lieberman writes a post entitled “Health Insurance, Meet the Jolly Green Giant,” in which she discusses the new, patient-friendly labels that are supposed to accompany health insurance policies under Obamacare beginning no later than 2014. The labels sound like a good idea, but as Ms. Lieberman points out, there will be problems. For instance, for the Feds to mandate transparency in labeling is unlikely to be all that helpful when, at the same time, they often mandate utter secrecy on the part of providers (for instance, in creating severe anti-trust penalties for doctors who reveal the fees they have negotiated with insurance carriers). But as always, results are far less important than simply meaning well.

Sharp Incisions, a blog written by a self-described “fledgling” medical student, has sent in an affecting post about scrubbing in on a unique surgical case – the harvesting of six vital organs for transplantation from a patient who has been declared brain dead. DrRich prays that Dr. Incisions will maintain for a long time the same sense of wonder and gratitude, expressed in this post, for the gift of life.

A medical student who blogs anonymously at the D.O.ctor Blog, describes her first experience participating in cardiopulmonary resuscitation when it actually counted. DrRich, who in his days as a cardiac electrophysiologist ran hundreds of these things, and who became convinced over the years that three people was the optimal number to run a “code,” admits to being a little taken aback by this student’s description of the event, which sounds like it must have been as complex to coordinate as a Busby Berkeley production number. No wonder she was a little astonished by her experience. DrRich supposes that this must be the new-style CPR mandated by some new guideline or other, and would not be surprised to learn later this week that CPR procedures requiring 15 participants is part of the President’s new Jobs Plan.

Speaking of sudden death, one of DrRich’s recurrent themes here on the CRB is that sudden death is a great boon to our healthcare system (since not only is sudden death itself very cheap, but also it tends to remove individuals who would otherwise continue collecting Social Security, and who tend to have expensive chronic heart disease), and that therefore the government will tend to stifle the prevention of sudden death any time it can. Accordingly, Dr. Wes tells us that the Feds are about to further limit the use of the Zoll wearable defibrillator. Doctors have taken to using this device in high-risk patients during the first month or so after a heart attack, since guidelines specify that ICDs (implantable defibrillators) must not be implanted during this interval. Since sudden death is particularly likely during that first month, the Zoll device is being used as a “bridge to ICD.” Obviously, sudden death being the healthcare system’s friend, this must not be permitted. And so, Dr. Wes points out, soon it will not be.

At the HealthAGEnda Blog of the John A. Hartford Foundation, Marcus Escobedo describes how his father is coping with the decisions that need to be made as he deals with recurrent prostate cancer. Helping elderly patients deal with health issues is the thrust of Mr. Escobedo’s work at Hartford, and his new personal experience, he tells us, drives home the point. Specifically, Escobedo works to assure that elderly patients are considered to be more than just the sum of their disease and their age. DrRich is sorry to have to point out that no less an expert on American healthcare than President Obama has explicitly disagreed with this approach, and on national television to boot. Perhaps when he said this the President was suffering under the influence of teleprompterpenia, and perhaps if he had an opportunity to meet with Mr. Escobedo over a beer in the Rose Garden, he would possibly begin to revise his position to one that is more compatible with the mission of the Harford Foundation. On behalf of America’s Old Farts, DrRich would certainly hope so.

Dr. Thomas Pane writes in the Business, Surgery & Medicine Blog about tantrums, specifically, the kind occasionally thrown by surgeons in the operating suite. His post carries an important Labor Day lesson for anyone who hopes to make a career in the medical field in the coming years, so pay attention:

Everyone can agree that throwing tantrums in the operating room is never a good thing, and that quite often, it is a very bad thing. But Dr. Pane points out that, counterproductive as tantrums often are, they are nonetheless not the worst possible way in which a surgeon can express his/her utter frustration at a bureaucracy that blithely conspires to disrupt surgical procedures at critical moments. He reminds us, once again, that the biggest handicap one can ever have when working in an environment in which bureaucratic mud has fouled every gear is: giving a sh*t. So, while Dr. Pane may or may not agree, here’s the lesson: If surgeons would simply adopt the apathetic, indifferent attitude that classically characterizes long-term survivors in work environments mired by bureaucracy, all would be well.

Jaqueline writes Laika’s MedLiblog, a blog dedicated to medical information science. She submits a post entitled, “PubMed’s Higher Sensitivity than OVID MEDLINE… & other Published Clichés,” in which she shows how medical researchers doing literature searches for, among other things, meta-analyses, will stumble upon various “anomalies” in their searches of the PubMed and OVID databases, and then write additional, CV-padding papers about those anomalies. Jaqueline points out that these so-called “anomalies” are actually well-documented “clichés,” which are well-known to information specialists and anyone else who is competent in doing comprehensive literature searches. In other words, Jaqueline has documented that these meta-analysis researchers are rank amateurs at doing the most critical step in conducting meta-analyses – searching the literature for all the appropriate published studies. DrRich has always mistrusted meta-analyses, and Jaqueline has helpfully identified yet another reason to justify such mistrust. He thanks Jaqueline, and whoever planted those database anomalies which allow us to identify potentially incompetent meta-analysis researchers.

Nicholas Fogelson of Academic OB/GYN writes about taking care of the dying Jehovah’s Witness patient, or rather, taking care of the Jehovah’s Witness patient whose illness is potentially curable but who is dying because he or she refuses to accept blood products. DrRich can attest to how very difficult it is for a doctor to respect a patient’s religion when doing so results in their death. Dr. Fogelson’s description of his evolving attitude regarding this dilemma is compelling.

Need to be uplifted after reading the above post? Read Jordan Grumet’s submission from his blog, In My Humble Opinion. It’s brief and beautifully written, and it reminds us that sometimes our efforts as doctors – which all too often seem futile – can pay off in unimagined ways.

Pranab at the Scepticemia blog points to a news story about a medical school in Mumbai selling seats (that is, entry to medical school) to the highest bidder. He strongly objects to this practice, even though he postulates that his objection will make some of his readers call him “a leftist commie” (which DrRich finds to be the most common kind). DrRich does not agree with Pranab’s (tongue-in-cheek) conclusion that it is America’s fault that Mumbai medical schools are selling seats. (It is actually only George Bush’s fault.) But DrRich does agree entirely that the practice itself is an abomination. Indeed, we can all agree that entry to any career which requires a high degree of skill, talent, and/or intelligence ought to depend on merit, and nothing but merit. Can we not? Good.

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DrRich will end by noting that he is finishing this Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Edition of Grand Rounds during the waning moments of Labor Day, which causes him to fondly recall those long-ago days of yesteryear, when the U.S. still had plenty of steel mills and DrRich was a card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers of America, and the thought of attending medical school had not yet penetrated his still-empty head. And he recalls how, while he was working one day as a lowly laborer, a union boss came over to him to explain (after DrRich had complained about it) the utility of his spending three painful days moving a large pile of slag, employing only shovel-and-wheelbarrow technology, from one location to another – AND THEN BACK AGAIN.  Now, those were the days when we knew how to make jobs!

Say, whatever happened to those steel mills, anyway?