Sunday, October 4, 2015

Conservative, Liberal, or Relevant Blood Pressure? We need studies that are really relevant...

The following is a guest post from Robert Bowman, MD

One set of guidelines says to loosen up blood pressure control to prevent consequences such as falls. Almost in reaction there appears a new study that indicates a need to, perhaps, tighten up control to reduce the potential for stroke or heart disease. When British GPs were paid more to address BP there did not seem to be gains, other than better pay for participating GPs. Time after time we seem to have cutting edge studies that are pro-intervention. They remain until longer and bigger studies come out years later indicating problems or limitations involving the once “cutting edge” pro-intervention studies.

The lives of millions of people can be impacted by hypertension guidelines. How can we best deal with blood pressure issues?

The answer is not likely to be found in guidelines, quality measures, reports, or the latest studies.

The answer is more about process and less about print.

The problem with guidelines that are too liberal or too conservative is the same – they are too distant from the real world. The real problem remains the failure to include many of those most important to the process.

The real world in health care is what is happening at home. What is the real world for elderly patients? What happens when you get up at night to go to the bathroom? Do you get up at night more because of your medications or because of how you take them? Do your physicians coordinate the addition and subtraction of medications – including drugs that impact blood pressure or fluid volumes? With more and more medications there are more potential interactions. What happens when you get up from a chair or sofa? When you lose 10 or 15 pounds, do your medications drop your blood pressure to dangerous levels? Do you even have contact with a health care professional to help look out for the problem of weight loss and medications that are suddenly too effective?

We know about the benefits of blood pressure control, but do we know about the consequences of too much control?

Sadly we know less about the risk of blood pressure that is kept too low, the risk that a fall that may belife or lifestyle ending will occur.For example, should our blood pressure goals be more aggressive in men or in those with proven bone stability while being less aggressive with those likely to suffer greater consequences becaue they have osteopenia, osteoporosis, or other conditions? We often assume linear increase in risk, but this may not be the case.

What Is Missing from “Guidelines?”

With control of BP or coagulation or other treatments that defeat how the body adjusts to change, the patient and family must have the best understanding regarding what the drugs do and how the drugs impact their particular body and situations.

Large scale studies can be helpful, but the studies need to be relevant. Studies should reflect the real world. After three hundred recent home visits, observations indicated a few with perhaps lax control that may, just may have problems in 1, 5, or 10 years. There are also a different few of the 300 who are having falls or symptoms that suggest the potential for falls - with the potential of immediate consequences. Many large studies examine only the outcome of interest to the researchers – such as the rate of strokes in people with uncontrolled blood pressure – rather than the overall rate of harm or death to the people involved. In addition, many studies exclude from participation people who have the risk factors most likely to cause them harm. Studies that do examine all outcomes (“all-cause morbidity and mortality”) are of more value, and we need to be sure that the people we are treating in the “real world” are similar to those studied.

And then there is the problem of getting reliable BP measurements at the office or at home. How many people do we overtreat based on office-only measurements when lower home BP measurements are more relevant? How do we best use ambulatory measurements? Are these accessed and priced in ways that can make a difference?

A final reflection may be more relevant. In the 5 or 6 minutes of face-to-face time that is often all that exists, given current payment design, how do we get to know our patients well enough in our office environment to optimize BP control while minimizing the consequences to them as they live in their world? How do we teach them enough to loosen up medication when necessary to help prevent falls?

Addressing Problems and Solutions

One thing is certain. As long as research is distant and irrelevant, guidelines will contribute to too much negative consequence and not enough gain.

Practice-based research could contribute. But the real potential involves home-based research. The irrelevance of the academic setting and even the office was suggested by the founders of family medicine. What matters most is far away from university hospitals and NIH researchers. Lest we forget, the home – and the community -- is where it all happens.

Follow up to come:
Why the Home is the Best Unit of Analysis for Research

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility

“A Huge Overnight Increase in a Drug’s Price Raises Protests”, by Andrew Pollack in the New York Times September 20, 2015, features the story of Daraprim, the brand name for pyrimethamine, a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis. “Toxo”, often associated with cat feces, is a protozoan and was an fairly rare infection prior to the HIV epidemic, when it became a significant cause of brain infections in those with very low CD4 counts. Luckily, pyrimethamine, a drug available for over 60 years, had reasonably good success. Now, rights to the drug have been acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals and its price has been raised from $13.50 to $750 a pill. Turing’s founder and CEO, Martin Shkreli, is a former hedge fund manager who seems to know an opportunity to make a killing when he sees one. A few days later, the Times ran an AP story on a interview Shrkeli gave ABC news which reported that Turing would reduce the price, albeit to one that was unspecified. “’We've agreed to lower the price of Daraprim to a point that is more affordable and is able to allow the company to make a profit, but a very small profit,’ Shkreli told ABC.”

But this is, as the Pollack article points out, not the first or only time this has occurred. In the last few years new drugs, mainly those made in labs from recombinant DNA rather than from plant sources, for hepatitis C, high cholesterol, and various cancers have been criticized for their astronomical prices, but we are talking about old drugs here. One example is cycloserine, used to treat multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB, the price of which has been raised from the previously expensive $500 for a month’s supply to $10,800. (Please note that I am being careful with my decimal points; this is, indeed, over a 2000% increase.) The general manager of the manufacturer, Rodelis, “…said the company needed to invest to make sure the supply of the drug remained reliable.” And thus, of course, required the 2000% increase. Right.

And many more common, prosaic drugs have had the same increases. One I have previously written about several times is colchicine, an ancient treatment for gout derived from the autumn crocus (and I mean “ancient”, not like “20th century”; there are records of its use in Egyptian papyruses from 1500BC!). Dr. Stephen Griffith’s guest post "VISA and colchicine: maybe the banks and Pharma really ARE in it for the money!” said ”the FDA has encouraged pharmaceutical companies to study some of the older drugs for true effectiveness, and the company can then apply for a three year patent on the medication. URL Pharma, Inc. did the clinical trials on less than 1,000 patients, and proved that a drug everyone already knew worked, worked. Amazing! They received a three year patent, and now a pill that was $4 per month long before the $4 per month plans existed, is $5 per pill! Since it is usually given twice a day, the drug will now cost patients $10 per day when it formerly cost about a quarter.” What? The FDA is encouraging this?

The Times articles cites increases in other common drugs; two heart drugs, Nitropress and Isuprel, were acquired by Marathon Pharmaceuticals in 2013 and had their prices quintupled. Then this year, they were acquired by Valeant Pharmaceuticals which “…promptly raised their prices by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively.” The most depressing one for me is doxycycline, a form of the antibiotic tetracycline, which is broad-spectrum, effective, and, until recently, cheap. It is frequently used for pneumonia acquired in the community, as it is effective against both common bacterial and “atypical” causes of pneumonia, and generally effective against the very dangerous “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus”, or MRSA. It is used as a first or second-line drug for several sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), including syphilis, and is even effective for prevention and treatment of malaria. An altogether good drug. When I was a medical student, it had recently been introduced (under the brand name Vibramycin) and it was considered expensive compared to other tetracyclines, even if often more effective. So we were all very happy when it became generic and cheap. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for doxycycline saysDoxycycline is available as a generic medicine and is not very expensive.[1][5] The wholesale cost is between 0.01 and 0.04 USD per pill.[6] In the United States 10 days of treatment is about 14 USD”.  Um,  that seems to be dated. The Times article tells us that “Doxycycline, an antibiotic, went from $20 a bottle in October 2013 to $1,849 by April 2014.” Oh. A 9200% increase. Kind of high for treating your bronchitis, or even your outpatient (or inpatient) pneumonia, or for your Lyme disease, or Chlamyida vaginitis, or for taking malaria prophylaxis.  Maybe you wouldn’t be very happy to have to pay that when you pick up your prescription, if you don’t have prescription drug coverage. And if you do, I’m sure that your insurer is not. The issue of how this price increase was allowed to happen is described as “murky” by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times. [Note: it seems that some of the generic forms of doxycycline have come back down, per a search on the valuable-for-health-care-providers-or-anyone-taking-prescriptions app, Goodrx.]

These price increases for long-standing generic drugs are outrageous, even more than the predatory prices of the new recombinant DNA drugs. It is blatant opportunism on the part of the drug manufacturers certainly, who could be considered to be cold-blooded profiteers on human misery (which of course they are, not to say evil, immoral, unconscionable and inhuman). But, hey, they are in business and are taking an opportunity to make more money, as does every cold-blood, profiteering business, in what is apparently a legal way. This, of course, raises the question of “how come it is legal? What the heck happened?”  Where is the FDA? Where is the Department of Health and Human Services? Where is the Executive Branch? Where is the Congress? Remember, we’re not talking small price increases. We’re not talking fair pricing. We’re talking thousands of percent increases in common drugs that people need, drugs that I, and other doctors, prescribe a lot.

People care a lot about the price of prescription drugs, and the amount that their co-pay is, because this affects them directly, in their pocketbook, regardless of what party they vote for. Margot Sanger-Katz of the Times, in Prescription Drug Costs Are Rising as a Campaign Issue”, reports on a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that Americans identify costs for drugs for specific diseases and prescription drug costs overall as their #1 and #2 health concerns. “Americans have long paid the highest prices for drugs. Because the United States gives drug makers long periods of patent exclusivity and lets a multitude of insurers each negotiate with drugmakers on price, drug spending here is, on a per capita average, roughly double the amount spent in many developed countries.” (see figure)

I started out saying that these companies were making a killing, but the problem is that the ones being killed are the rest of us. Sounds like something Jim Hightower would say, and he’d be right. The real issue is why do we keep electing people who put our interests, our health, behind the rapacious profits of corporations. It is only because of the enormous coverage Turing’s increase in the price of Daraprim engendered, and the calls for investigations in Congress, that Shrkeli is planning to lower the price. It has nothing to do with his, or any other corporate leaders’, concern for the public (see, for example: Volkswagen diesels, poisoned peanuts).

By the way, you might want to write down the names of the two Congresspeople the Times article notes have called for an investigation of this: Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Yes, that Bernard Sanders; the one running for President. Hmm.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Battling for Biomedical Supremacy? How about improving the people's health?

In an editorial on August 30, 2015, the New York Times discusses the “Battle for Biomedical Supremacy”, looking at the practice of what they call “poaching” of biomedical researchers by one state or university from another. Their main focus on the receiving end is Texas, because it has the highest profile of spending really big money to recruit researchers from universities in other states, and its main concern is (unsurprisingly) New York, which has more medical schools than any other state, and especially private medical schools with big endowments and big research programs to be “poached”. They raise the issue, but I am not (after reading it a few times) quite sure what their position is and I am afraid that they may not be either, since usually the position of the Times editorialist is clear. It seems to be saying “Well, New York needs to join this, but not spend too much public money on it.” But the editorial certainly does not condemn the practice.

I am not sure that I am wholly against it, either. Biomedical research is important. Researchers who can get better jobs (higher paying, more money to support their work) should not generally be criticized for accepting them. People have that right. On the other hand, from the point of view of the institutions that are being poached from, there can be not only feelings of sadness, betrayal, and anger, but in many cases financial losses that result from money they spent to recruit these “top researchers”, and now is down the drain, or so it seems. Sometimes these researchers are signed to contracts, just as physicians who bring in lots of money for a hospital are. These contracts for physicians may contain “non-compete” agreements, which (try to) restrict the area in which a physician leaving their employment can practice. They are more enforceable when they are more local, preventing them from going over to direct competitors, but not when someone is moving from NY to Texas. And the competition in biomedical research is much more national than the competition for direct medical care. On the other hand, if you hire mercenaries, you run the risk that someone will offer them more.

So it can increase the income and resources for the individual investigator (and his/her “team”) and can increase the status of the successful university, and might (in some cases) impact directly or indirectly on the economies of the local area, and thus state. Whether it is “worth it” from a direct financial return-on-investment (ROI) point of view probably depends upon the individual situation. It is almost never financially “worth it” directly; universities (medical especially) almost always lose money on their research endeavors even when you don’t factor in multi-million dollar recruitment packages; most “wet-lab” (biomedical) research (as opposed to say, community based or epidemiologic research) costs a lot more than even the sum of the “direct” dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the indirect dollars (often 50% or more of the “direct”) that is supposed to help support the infrastructure. Add in another $5, $10, $20, $40 million more and you have a really hard time coming out anywhere close to break even.

But so what? The money for biomedical research has to come from somewhere; the usual source is NIH, but if states want to sweeten that, why not? After all, there are privately funded research institutes (the Stowers Institute in Kansas City is a local example); why not state, as well as federal. There are some concerns in that the federal (NIH) funds are the result of a competitive peer-review process, while these state funds are often just awarded to researchers based upon cachet. Still, if the state believes it has a chance for direct or indirect economic benefit, maybe it should “go for it”.

The bigger issue is not whether biomedical research should occur or who should support it, but why there should be competition for which university or state gets the big researchers. Does this facilitate biomedical researchers finding out more about how to treat or cure disease? I guess if more money is available, more progress could be made. But the bidding wars between universities and states seem to me to be more about local glory and (if lucky) economic development than real advances in biomedical research. It is similar to states and localities trying to lure employers by tax breaks, which may sometimes cost more than the economic benefit. Or, in the case of the Kansas City metropolitan area which straddles two states, luring companies back and forth across the state line (so that employees don’t even have to move) in what seems not-even-break-even mode (considering the cost of tax breaks). There may sometimes be benefit to science or the public good from relocating researchers and their laboratories but certainly not at the level and frequency it is occurring, and not enough to justify the huge expenditures. Often there is little or no new value being generated, but rather a shifting of resources from one place to another, maybe with a little loss in the process. However, this is how much of our economy works; the stock market and most of the financial industry – moving money around, skimming off profit (HUGE profit – the profiteers here are most of the richest of the billionaires) without creating any real value for the society.

Even more important is the implication that this is benefiting people’s health. If we wanted, as a society, to actually benefit people’s health, there are a lot more direct, effective, cost-effective and rational ways to do so. This, of course, could partly be providing financial access to health care for everyone regardless of their socioeconomic or other status, including those who have been left out of the ACA expansion because they life in states that have not expanded Medicaid, because they are undocumented, or because the level of health insurance that they can afford on the exchanges doesn’t meet all their health needs. A single-payer health system, Medicare for all. It also could mean enhancing geographic access, for those who are in rural areas or underserved urban areas, by using whatever is necessary (like financial incentives) to get doctors and hospitals to service these communities. It could also mean increasing the number and percentages of health care providers entering our most needed specialties, such as primary care, either by direct subsidy or by stopping the skewed and counterproductive reimbursement of subspecialists at much higher levels. (In Denmark, I discovered, general practitioners usually earn more than subspecialists! It is all about policy, not about the market.)

But, even more narrowly, talking about research, there is the question of getting out the therapies that research has already shown work, and are effective, and often cost-effective, to the people who need them. Continuing to do more research and find out more things is great, but actually having a national (or even state) system to ensure that the important discoveries are disseminated and implemented, is a greater priority. There are many common conditions, such as diabetes, for which we have treatments that are simply not available to many people, for many of the reasons above. Some of the unavailability of effective treatments are cost (the rapacious prices and profits charged by drug companies), but there are also treatments that are unavailable because – well, we don’t know why. While we continue to do more research on discovery, we need to do even more on efficacy, and fidelity, and finding out how to get our people to actually have improved health. Competition for researchers without increasing value is as wrong as it is in any arena.

The most effective treatments need to be available to all, the ineffective to none. We don’t need biomedical supremacy of Texas over New York, or California universities over those in Massachusetts, or even in the US over the rest of the world. We don’t need one university to “win” over another. We need better health for all our people.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Does prevention save money? Is that the right question?

Does prevention save money? That is, does increasing access to preventive health care, doing more screening tests on a larger number of people, end up saving more money in the long term by reducing the cost of caring for the diseases that are prevented? This is the question asked in “Conventional wisdom clashes with data on health care savings”, by Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times on August 7, 2015. Ultimately, she answers “no”; indeed, in the online version dated August 5 that the link above takes you to, the article is titled “No, Giving More People Health Insurance Doesn’t Save Money”. Although it of course depends upon which preventive test we are talking about; “Counseling on contraception is one [of the preventive interventions that actually do save money] because the costs of prenatal care, delivery and pediatric care associated with an unplanned pregnancy are so substantial. But a lot of the preventive health measures that we tend to value a lot — mammography, screening for diabetes — tend to cost more than they save.”

The motivation for this article at this time is clearly the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which not only resulted in more people receiving coverage but mandated that preventive services be covered with no co-pay. President Obama made the case for it in part by talking about cost savings; Sanger-Katz quotes his 2009 address to Congress: “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse. That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.”  But, in fact, the discussion on the cost vs cost-saving from preventive services is not new; it has been frequently addressed in the literature. I have written about it several times, including two sequential posts on February 2 and February 9, 2009: Prevention and Cost and Economics and Disease Prevention, that cited two important articles on the topic, by Russell in Health Affairs[1] and by Woolf in JAMA.[2]

Sanger-Katz also cites two studies to support the argument, one old and one more recent. The famous RAND health insurance experiment from the 1970s and 80s that examined the impact of providing free (to the patient) access to health care, and the more recent Oregon health insurance experiment, begun in 2008, where poor people who were not already on Medicaid were lotteried into receiving health coverage or not. As she notes, in both studies, people who got free or low-cost coverage used more care, and thus cost more money. This, she notes, is consistent with basic economic theory, and ”…follows the pattern for nearly every other good in the economy, including food, clothing and electronics. The cheaper they are for people, the more they are likely to buy.”

But, while true, this misses the most important point. I have written about both studies before, I discussed the RAND study in Insurance company profits up and patient care down, May 11, 2011, and also refer to it in my discussion of Oregon, The Oregon Lottery: Far from enough, but at least they are doing something, July 19, 2012. In the latter, I quote from a June 22, 2012 New York Times article by Annie Lowrey, “Oregon Study Shows Benefits, and Price, for Newly Insured” that the study “has found that gaining insurance makes people feel healthier, happier and more financially stable,” and that “The insured were 25 percent less likely to have an unpaid medical bill sent to a collection agency and 40 percent less likely to borrow money or skip paying other bills in order to cover their medical costs.” This is the truly important point; people are getting medical care that they need, and are not having to cut back on their other basic needs (remember, these are poor people who don’t have lots of discretionary income) to do so. It echoes the findings of RAND, which were basically: yes, people who got free health care used more care, and indeed used more care that experts considered “inappropriate” (the classic “going to the ER for a cold” trope). But it also found that, and this is the real take-home message, they used more appropriate care; the corollary trope is going to the ER for chest pain, instead of staying home and hoping it would go away because you’re afraid to incur the cost. Free health care not only saved lives, it improved health.[3]

Ultimately, as Sanger-Katz points out, everyone dies. While provision of preventive services may save lives from one disease “…every time you prevent people from dying from one disease, they are likely to live longer and incur future medical expenses. The patient who benefits from the cholesterol screening may go on to develop cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s or some other costly illness.” This may seem obvious, but only if you think about it. In the 1980s, I was the only physician student in a class on Health Administration; the other students were planning on being health administrators but did not have a medical background. In one class, a student reported that we were likely to save money in the future because people were adopting healthier lifestyles – eating better, exercising more, not smoking as much. I pointed out that the opposite was true; this would mean people lived longer, and were more likely to develop long-term chronic diseases leading them to, for example, long hospitalizations and nursing home stays. If you truly wanted to save money, you’d encourage a high-cholesterol diet, no exercise, and 2 packs of cigarettes a day, so everyone would drop dead from a heart attack in their late 40s and be done with the cost.

This may sound macabre, but the point it makes is that cost is not the only issue. Examining the cost of providing free health care, as in RAND 40 years ago, or free preventive care, as in ACA, is a legitimate activity, but it is not the only, or even most important outcome. Access to health care, prevention of premature death, and improvement in quality of life are also critical considerations. Cost is important, but cost control cannot be measured in such crude ways as “does prevention save money”? First, as Sanger-Katz noted, different preventive services have stronger evidence behind them, and have a smaller “number needed to treat” (NNT) to have an impact on either cost or lives saved or quality of life (thus a high priority should be expanding access to contraception and contraceptive counseling). Second, there is the expansion of indications (reasons for doing a test), either through providing preventive services to a larger group of people than those shown to have the most benefit in studies, or by ratcheting down the “goal” for things like cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar. These both have the same effect; they decreases the average long-term benefit while increasing the cost (and, not coincidentally, the profits for the manufacturers of the drugs and purveyors of the tests).

Third, and by far the most important in terms of both cost and justice, is the application of different standards to different populations, based on insurance status, wealth, and race. Performing preventive services for people who are unlikely to benefit is a problem, but performing much more expensive interventions for people who almost certainly won’t benefit just because they want them, and they (or their insurer) can pay for them, and because the providers doing them make money, is a far greater issue for cost. In addition, there is the question of “what is a fair price?” for any service, preventive or therapeutic, indicated or not (well, if not indicated, the fair price is zero!). In The high cost of US health care: it's not the colonoscopies, it's the profit, Jul 28 2013, I cited the work of Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times, on this topic; she presents the wide variation in costs for this and other procedures. Thinking of the myriad types of preventive interventions as if they were all the same and of the same value is like thinking of “cancer” as one disease, rather than hundreds; it is simple and it is incorrect.

Ultimately, the cost issue is addressed by equity. Everyone should have access to all interventions that are likely to help them, and no one to those that will not. 

[1] Russell, LB, “Preventing chronic disease: an important investment but don’t count on cost savings”, Health Affairs, Jan/Feb 2009;28(1):42-45
[2] Woolf SH, “A closer look at the economic argument for disease prevention”, JAMA 4Feb2009; 301(5):536-8. (9th)
[3] Brook RH, et al., “Does Free Care Improve Adults' Health? — Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial”, N Engl J Med 1983; 309:1426-1434

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On interdisciplinary patient care and the corporate takeover of health care

The following is a gues post by Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH

In July 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine, the school invited its alumni for a Saturday morning symposium on "Transformative Medical Education in Hawai`i."  The last panel of the morning, on the future of medical education in Hawaiʻi, featured the deans of medicine, nursing, social work, and the associate director of public health.

Dr. Peter Donnelly - Kanaka Maoli family physician, practicing on the Neighbor Islands, my mentor in Hawaiian Pidgin and how to be local (I fail abjectly on both counts) - asked what the panelists think of nurse practitioners telling him that they can do anything he can do, at less cost.  One panelist suggested, "If you can't beat them, join them," so you might as well go get your MBA.

The claim that a non-physician provider can do the work of a physician at less cost ignores (perhaps willingly) the distinction between earning less and costing less.  Certainly non-physician providers earn less than physicians.  Dr. Stephen Kemble - psychiatrist and a stalwart for single-payer, who had been decrying the business takeover of health care from the audience all morning - noted that with regards to the provision of mental health, the evidence shows that non-physician therapists can actually cost the mental health system more than psychiatrists.  (He was citing an unpublished study performed by a Hawaiʻi health insurance outfit.)

Of note, a study in the September 2015 issue of Medical Care found that diabetic patients cared for by nurse practitioners had comparable rates of  preventable admissions as primary care physiciansThe provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care. The medical profession as a whole must shoulder part of the blame for the present situation.  Specialty control over the reimbursement system results, naturally, in disproportionately higher reimbursement for procedures and disproportionately lower reimbursement for primary care. See Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care. [1] This ensures that most medical students will choose specialty training so that there are not enough primary care physicians to care for all of us.  To the extent that physicians obtain MBAs and figure out how to game the extant reimbursement system [e.g. hire an N.P. to consult on patients so the gastroenterologist can perform colonoscopies in the surgicenter (anus to anus time of under 10 minutes) all day] - the proceduralist specialties are complicit.  Indeed, there is no reason why the gastroenterologist should explain the risks, benefits, and the bowel prep for screening colonoscopies.

We family physicians learn during residency that the practice of primary care is, in many ways more complex than specialty practice. [2] A well-trained, experienced provider of any discipline can deal with many complex patient problems for which a less intensively-trained, less experienced provider may order unnecessary tests or referrals.  Thus, while a primary care physician may earn more than a non-physician provider, the cost to the health care system may be less.

In addition, the provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care.  These days, you can be largely assured that if you presents to the ED with a headache, you’re going to get a CT scan of your head.  If you present with abdominal pain, you’re going to get a CT of your abdomen.  Many patients with symptoms clearly suggested of reflux are kept in the hospital for observation to “rule out myocardial infarction.”  So, conversely, while a primary care physician may earn less than an emergency physician, the cost to the health care system may also be less.

While part of the problem may be that the nursing profession is eager to escape the yoke long placed upon it by the medical profession - perhaps the larger problem is what Dr. Kemble identified as the incursion of the business model into health care.

The business model is predicated on delivering a standardized product with quality controls on what can be measured at prices that the market will bear.  Thus at any fast food franchise, one can reasonably expect a hamburger without too much E. coli in it, at the price listed behind the counter.  The MBAs who run our health care systems have no concept of the importance of, for example, a longitudinal patient-doctor relationship to health outcomes.  If they can replace an experienced primary care physician with a lower-paid "provider," it's better for the bottom line. 

We in family medicine should not be picking a fight with the nursing profession.  (For the sake of patient outcomes, I am happy to help nurse practitioners improve their practice, and I am happy to learn from them what they do best.)  I think that the main problem is the marketplace model of health care.  Capitalism has always depended on maintaining a certain percentage of unemployment in order to keep workers a little afraid of losing their jobs and therefore toeing the line.  The corporate takeover of health care means pitting the lowest rung of the physician class, the primary care physicians, against a growing workforce of providers with different qualifications eager to take their jobs.  From where I stand, I think that all health workers need to unite against that.

[1] Freeman J. Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care.

[2] Freeman J, Petterson S, Bazemore A. Accounting for Complexity: Aligning Current Payment Models with the Breadth of Care by Different Specialties. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Dec 1;90(11):790.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Corporate mergers, retail clinics, and monopoly capital

Two huge mergers have recently been announced in the health insurance sector. First, Aetna announced its intention to acquire Humana for $35 billion, creating a behemoth. Not to be outdone, Anthem (the enormous group of formerly non-profit Blue Cross/Blue Shields that have gone for-profit) announced it will buy Cigna for $47 billion. Consolidation in the industry is moving fast, and soon there will be oligopoly. Robert Reich, in his July 5, 2015 article The Choice Ahead: A Private Health-Insurance Monopoly or a Single Payer discusses these mergers, observing that

Executives say these combinations will make their companies more efficient, allowing them to gain economies of scale and squeeze waste out of the system. This is what big companies always say when they acquire rivals.

Yes, indeed. They always say it, and while sometimes they achieve efficiencies-- this usually involves firing people -- it almost never benefits the consumer; prices almost always go up. Remember airline mergers? Bought a ticket lately? Despite the rhetoric of capitalism about competition, virtually all companies would prefer to be monopolies, control the industry, and set prices, guaranteeing huge profit. If they cannot, the next best thing is oligopoly, control by a few companies, with collusion so that they all make huge profits. Competition is their bugbear. Yes, we have federal regulators, but the result of their regulation has been those airline mergers. And telecommunications mergers. And financial services mergers. And banks too big to fail. So don’t count on them.

Health insurance companies are not the only mega-corporations profiting from “health care” by siphoning off money that could actually be spent improving health, or at least providing medical care. Obviously, there are drug companies (as I recently discussed in Chemotherapy, Quality of Life, and Corporate Profit on July 26, 2015), but also big pharmacy chains (like CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens) as well as other retailers that usually have a pharmacy (like Walmart, Kroger and Target) that have now branched out into providing health care, through what are known as “retail clinics”.

In the New England Journal of Medicine on July 15, 2015, John Iglehart writes about “The expansion of retail clinics—corporate titans vs. organized medicine”.[1] Here the case against the corporations is less clear, or at least the case in favor of organized medicine is. Iglehart points out that the opposition from organizations like the AMA, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have focused on the lack of continuity of care and “disruption of the patient-physician” relationship. Recently, opposition has softened (I guess folks know when they’ve lost) except from the AAP. It seems to me that these clinics provide a menu of services that primarily is focused on acute care for relatively minor infections and injuries, immunizations, and monitoring of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, and are pretty popular with the people who use them. They are conveniently located (for the people who use them), generally have little or no wait, and are staffed by professionals (usually nurse practitioners) who know what they are doing.

The problems with such retail clinics fall into two broad categories. First, when people use them inappropriately, not for acute or minor conditions, but as their usual source of care. For healthy younger people, this may be all they need. For older folks and others with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, chronic lung disease, heart disease, etc., they are not sufficient. The danger is when people only seek care when they have symptoms, such as (particularly) pain, whether to such a retail clinic, traditional physician’s office, or emergency room, and ignore prevention and management of their chronic conditions. I do not fault the providers in these settings; there is evidence that they urge people with such needs to follow up with their primary provider. But, once the acute symptoms are gone, they may not. Some of this, sadly, may be financial.

The other problem is more interesting, and gets back to the financial issue. Providers and the organizations representing them (“organized medicine”) has real concerns because such retail clinics “cherry pick”, or skim the easy cases that pay for (or more than pay for) themselves, leaving physicians with the care of patients with diseases that take more time and are reimbursed less per hour (or minute) of work; this destroys the business model of primary care practice. As long as we depend upon a fee-for-service, reimbursed-for-care-provided, private medical model, this puts a real burden on physician practices which, while looking bigger than the small retail clinics, are usually tiny compared to the corporations that own those clinics.

Another medical area in which there is a clearer case of fear of competition disguising itself as virtue is in the shrill hostility of US-based medical schools, represented by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to off-shore (mainly Caribbean-based) medical schools, as described by Robert Goldberg in Discrimination against foreign medical schools is bad for your health in the online publication “The Hill”. The argument against such schools from the AAMC is in part that the students are “lower quality”, the ones rejected by US medical schools. The flaw here is that there are many highly-qualified students who do not get into US medical schools, demonstrated by the recent dramatic expansion of the number of US schools and the class size of existing schools. Are there Caribbean schools of poor quality? Yes. Is the academic preparation of students in Caribbean schools, on average, lower than those in US schools? Probably. Is this a reason to try to put them out of business, by both bad-mouthing and trying to limit the access that their students have to educational loans? I don’t think so.

Our US medical schools get talented students, and then put them through a process that ends up producing doctors underrepresented in the primary care specialties and overrepresented in urban – and especially suburban – areas. As I have often pointed out, we produce the wrong mix of doctors who practice in the wrong mix of places. If (and it is, of course, an if) graduates of off-shore medical schools are likely to fill the medical needs not being met by graduates of US medical schools, then the title of Goldberg’s piece is correct. The same might be said for retail clinics, if indeed they were mostly present in underserved communities, but, based on the business models of their owners, they are generally not.

So, then, we see a spectrum of corporate involvement in health care ranging from the off-shore, for-profit medical school, to the acute care clinics run by large retailers, to the consolidation into oligopoly of health insurance companies, to the large pharmaceutical manufacturers. We also see a response of tepid regulation of the latter two, and protectionism by organized medicine and organized medical schools to the first two. None of these are good for our health. What would be good for our health would be the rational use of health care dollars to provide health care, for everyone, of the right kind in the right setting.

Reich ends his article with
If we continue in the direction we’re headed we’ll soon have a health insurance system dominated by two or three mammoth for-profit corporations capable of squeezing employees and consumers for all they’re worth – and handing over the profits to their shareholders and executives. The alternative is a government-run single payer system – such as is in place in almost every other advanced economy – dedicated to lower premiums and better care.
Which do you prefer?

I feel like raising my hand and waving it in the air saying “I know, I know!”

[1] Iglehart JK, The expansion of retail clinics—corporate titans vs. organized medicine, NEJM 15 Jul 2015;373(4):301-303

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Medicare and Medicaid at 50: Time to include “US” all

On Thursday, July 30, Medicare and Medicaid turned 50 years old. The anniversary was marked by an event held at the Truman Library in Independence, MO, which I attended. Why there? In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed those bills (officially Titles XVIII and XIX of the Social Security Act) there, in the presence of former President Truman and his wife Bess, who received cards #1 and #2. The location was chosen for its symbolism even in 1965, because Truman had fought for a national health insurance system and lost. Nearly 20 years later, Johnson honored his legacy by signing these two major bills (also opposed by the AMA) in his library. Both presidents thought that this was a down-payment on the national health insurance system that was sure to come soon. But it took another 45 years to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and we still don’t have universal health insurance, and ACA and even Medicare are under constant attack. At least now it is not the AMA that is the active opposition.

This event was not the first held at the Truman Library to remember that day. Seven years ago, a group of single-payer activists organized a 43rd anniversary celebration there, both to commemorate the signing and to call for a universal health insurance system. That event was less “official” but more passionate, with talks by both local KC Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Rep. Conyers’ first year in Congress was 1965, the year Medicare and Medicaid passed, and all those years later he was still vital and still in Congress and was the sponsor of HR 676, the national single payer bill. This year’s event had more of the feel of an administration press conference with several federal and Missouri bureaucrats speaking. Some of talks, including those by Truman’s grandson Clifton Truman Daniel and former Missouri state rep and insurance commissioner Scott Lakin, were good, but only one had any real passion. That was given by Bridget McCandless, MD, the CEO of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City (HCFGKC), which sponsored the event.

There is a reason for that. Before taking the reins of HCF, a “conversion” foundation established with the money that came from the sale of a group of not-for-profit hospitals to for-profit HCA, Dr. McCandless, a self-described “Independence girl”, was the medical director of the Jackson County Free Health Clinic in Independence, caring for the many people in that area who could not otherwise access excellent health service. She cared for people who had little, whose lives, in Dr. Camara Jones’ metaphor (most recently discussed in Racism and the Social Determinants of Equity: Camara Jones at Beyond Flexner 2015, April 19, 2015), were lived on the edge of the cliff before they even got sick. Dr. McCandless’ clinic provided a safety net that prevented many people from falling to the ground below. The “lucky” ones were those who were old enough (or disabled enough) to qualify for Medicare, and poor-plus-something enough to qualify for Medicaid. For those people, these federal programs, which now cover about 30% of Americans were indeed life savers.

Dr. McCandless, whose foundation is committed to funding programs that help the underserved and uninsured (the exceptional founding CEO, Steve Roling, was in the audience), talked, as did other speakers, about the difference that Medicare had made in the lives of seniors; before it they (and their families) lived their retirement years in financial fear of sickness. But her passion really showed when talking about Medicaid, originally seen as a means of providing access to health care for the poor. You certainly have to be poor to receive Medicaid, very poor in many states including Missouri, but that is not sufficient. She told us that you have to be “poor and”. Poor and pregnant, poor and the mother of small children, poor and disabled, poor and in a nursing home, poor and – and the tears rolled down her cheeks – a child. ACA was intended to expand this federal-state collaboration to encompass all the “just” poor (with the exception of those who are undocumented), but Missouri, and Kansas, the other state in the Kansas City metropolitan area, are among the states that have not done so.  Dr. McCandless eloquently expressed her hope that our states would rise to the need, that our legislators and leaders would rise to the decency, to remove the “and” by expanding Medicaid.

While it is possible that Missouri, and Kansas, and the other states that have taken advantage of the 2012 Supreme Court decision (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), that otherwise upheld the ACA, to not expand Medicaid will still do so, it is unconscionable that they have not yet, that they have left so many people who could now be accessing health care uncovered. It is a land-office business for the safety net clinics in the area, like Dr. McCandless’ former practice, but it is a volume that they can barely care for. When people get very sick, and show up in the Emergency Department and get admitted to the hospital, those hospitals bear the brunt of care without payment, but even their usually powerful lobbies have so far not been successful.

The opposition to this expansion, the opposition to ACA, and even threats to Medicare are often said to be politically driven, but they are ideologically driven. They are driven by the agendas of billionaire elitists, most of whom have never known any hardship. They have been able to further expand their already-considerable influence as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and blithely fund the election of their minions to state houses and legislatures.  The New York Times on Aug 2, 2015 documents that fewer than 400 families have contributed the almost half the money in this election cycleFormer Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer once said that many of the privileged were “born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple” (although most of these billionaires were actually born within arm’s length of home plate!). Indeed, they have no empathy; they are selfish and mean. Their minions, who enjoy the power their sponsors’ money provides for them, must be (if they are not truly stupid) also mean, but actually are not fiscally prudent; not funding health care for our people costs us a lot. Medicare already covers our most costly ill (they are old; this is why raising the age for Medicare eligibility to 67 or 68 will save little money). It is way past time for it to cover the rest of us.

Rep Jim McDermott of Washington, a physician and long-time single-payer advocate, has introduced the American Health Security Act of 2015, which will authorize and provide federal funds to support single-payer programs developed by states. It should be passed, but it probably won’t be while we have a Congress bought and paid for by the rich mean selfish people. We have had single-payer bills in Congress before, Rep. Conyers’ and before that Rep. Ron Dellums’. It is time to pass them. We need to go beyond the ACA, we need to make sure states expand Medicaid and take the “and” out of the “poor and” for eligibility. But we need to go farther.

For 50 years Medicare has been literally a life-saver for our seniors. Now we need to expand it to include everyone. Everybody in, nobody out!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Chemotherapy, Quality of Life, and Corporate Profit

“In reality, only 2 major reasons exist for administering chemotherapy to most patients with metastatic cancer: to help them live longer and/or to help them live better.”

So begins “Chemotherapy Near the End of Life: First—and Third and Fourth (Line)—Do No Harm”[1], an editorial by Charles D. Blanke and Erik K. Fromme in JAMA Oncology commenting on an important new study in the same issue by Prigerson and colleagues, Chemotherapy Use, Performance Status, and Quality of Life at the End of Life”.[2]  The study, a fairly large randomized controlled trial, discovered that giving last-ditch chemotherapy for “solid tumors” in patients estimated to have less than 6 months to live did neither. Not only was survival time not increased (although the editorialists note that this study was not designed to look at survival), but quality of life (QOL) was not improved. Indeed, and incredibly important, the group that had the best quality of life before receiving this final round of chemotherapy had the greatest drop in QOL, ending up pretty much as bad as the rest of the group. Blanke and Fromme observe that that this may be because they had “further to fall”. This is likely true, but surely the goal is not to give “treatment” that facilitates that fall.

So why do we do it? Were “we”, doctors especially, ignorant of this? Certainly the strength of the results – especially the fact that those whose pre-treatment QOL was the best were those who were most harmed – was a surprise in that it had never been published before, but that “palliative” chemotherapy at the end of life, intended entirely to improve QOL, often does the opposite – is something that every doctor who cares for patients with cancer, including but not limited to oncologists, has seen. Many of us, including many palliative care specialists, usually recommend against such treatment to patients and their families, often to have our voices drowned out by the encouragement from others (particularly some oncologists).

The truth is that the answer, as with so many things involving people, is complex. People do not usually want to die, and frequently grasp at any straw offered to them. Even when they themselves are not sure that they wish to go on, even when their disease makes them unable to make a decision, their family members often take on the role of demanding more treatment. This rarely if ever comes from a desire to cause more suffering for a loved one, but rather hoping that a miracle will occur. When this is encouraged by the physician who offers some sort of hope it is more likely to happen. The distinction between the outcomes of palliation and longer life is not always clear to patients or their families, and indeed “improvement” and “longer life” may mean different things to the doctor saying it (tumor gets smaller, life expectancy extended by weeks) and those hearing it.

The results of this study showing the decrease in QOL for those who were “best off” prior to treatment should be sobering and decrease the use of end-of-life chemotherapy, but there continue to be critics of the work. Some oncologists, typified by the one quoted by Pam Belluck in the New York Times article on the study (“Benefit of End-Stage Chemotherapy Is Questioned”, July 23, 2015) who “noted that patients were seen between 2002 and 2008, before some newer chemotherapy drugs with fewer side effects or the ability to directly target certain tumors or cancer-causing mutations,” still hold out hope. He may be right, but, of course, all studies are done in the past, and the “things are better now than then” refrain is almost always the one we hear from people unhappy with the results; in all probability, things, for end-of-life cancer patients, are not really better now.

The one clearly unacceptable reason for doing such therapy is the financial benefit to the manufacturers of these chemotherapeutic agents, but also to a lesser degree the providers – mainly the hospitals but also sometimes the doctors – who administer them. This is a major consideration, not generally addressed in the articles about this study. “Costs aside,” Blanke and Fromme write, “we feel the last 6 months of life are not best spent in an oncology treatment unit or at home suffering the toxic effects of largely ineffectual therapies for the majority of patients.” The costs that they are holding aside are the costs of the drugs, the implication is that it is the cost to the patient (or their insurer), a negative to be weighed against the potential benefit (or not) of the therapy. In this sense, it is one item on the scale. But the cost to the patient or insurer is the source of enormous profits to the pharmaceutical companies that make these incredibly expensive drugs, and they are heavily marketed to physicians by those multi-billion-dollar corporations. Their marketing campaigns push the slightest, least-convincingly-demonstrated-by-research potential benefits, and almost never talk (audibly) about the possible, probable, likely negative effects of treatment. 

While these companies are the greatest financial beneficiaries, so are the hospitals and cancer centers that administer them. The reason that there are so many cancer centers is only in part because cancer is a bad disease; it is largely because it is a very profitable disease to treat because the markup paid by insurers (led by Medicare) for administering chemotherapy is very high. Doctors (particularly oncologists) benefit most directly when they are owners of such cancer centers, but to a lesser degree when they receive high salaries from their employer that are made possible by the huge profits on cancer treatment.

It is an ugly thought that your receiving cancer drugs may be in large part because the manufacturers stand to make a lot of money from it, but there it is. And it is not just cancer treatment; a recent article in the Business section of the NY Times from July 24, 2015 by Andrew Pollack, “New Drug Sharply Lowers Cholesterol, but It’s Costly”,  describes the introduction of a new “recombinant DNA” drug called alirocumab (Praluent) that dramatically lowers cholesterol levels, but will cost $14,600 a year! This may be a wonder drug for the relatively small number of people who have familial hypercholesterolemia, but the indications will unquestionably be pushed by physicians with encouragement from the manufacturer. Every time there is the least evidence that a drug, initially intended for the most severely affected patient, can be used for a larger group, there is more potential for enormous profit.  The evidence that just lowering cholesterol as much as can be done is linearly linked to reducing heart attack and stroke is limited. “’This is treating a lab value,’ said Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, referring to lowering cholesterol for its own sake. ‘I don’t think we should rush into it.’

“’We came to a price that is reflective of value, not what the market will bear,’ said Elias Zerhouni, head of research and development at Sanofi [one of the two companies that make alirocumab], who said his own brother had suffered three heart attacks and needed new options to control cholesterol.” I am sorry about his brother, but if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. It is absolutely about the price that the market will bear. The sad part is that there may be some who are more willing to believe this because Dr. Zerhouni used to be the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a higher-profile but undoubtedly less well-paid position. Revolving door, anyone?

Alirocumab is likely to be beneficial to some patients but will undoubtedly be used in many more and is unconscionably priced. It’s fine for a company to make profit on its drugs, but predatory pricing and rapacious profit is not. Most disturbing is the thought that people who do not need and will not benefit from a drug, and may even be harmed by it, may receive it mainly so these companies can profit.

The line I quote from Blanke and Fromme at the start of this piece refers to chemotherapy for metastatic cancer, but in fact can be applied far more generally: 

In reality, only 2 reasons exist for administering therapy to patients: to help them live longer and/or to help them live better.

Let’s keep that, and not corporate profit, as our touchstone.

[1] Blanke CD, Fromme EK, “Chemotherapy Near the End of Life: First—and Third and Fourth (Line)—Do No Harm”, JAMA Oncology, published online 7/23/15, doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.2379
[2] Prigerson HG, et al., “Chemotherapy Use, Performance Status, and Quality of Life at the End of Life”, JAMA Oncol. Published online July 23, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.2378

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tax policy, drug companies and the public's health

Tax policy is complicated. You have to figure out who to tax and how much, and how much revenue it will bring in and what you (the government) needs to spend the money on and figure out how to match it up. People of different political stripes differ with regard to how much money to spend on what, and also who to tax. For example, is it better to have more graduated income tax (a “progressive” tax, where the more you make the higher percent you pay on the incremental amount), or more “regressive” tax where everyone, regardless of income pays the same amount, like a sales tax, or a “proportional tax” where everyone pays the same percent but not the same amount, like some variations of “flat tax”?

In Kansas, for example, our Governor and Legislature have made that decision. Faced with enormous budget deficits as a result of 2012 massive tax cuts on corporations and wealthy individuals, and unable to make it all up with one-time fixes such as raiding the state highway fund (hope those corporations don’t need to transport goods on our roads), they have gone for big sales tax increases. This is because, to them, the 2012 tax cuts are sacrosanct, because they believe that this will stimulate the economy and create jobs. They believe this even though such a strategy has not worked so far in Kansas and has in fact not worked anywhere. They even brought in Arthur Laffer, the trickle-down guru economist, to address the legislature. Nonetheless, owners of “S” corporations (usually small businesses, like lawyer’s offices, or the few remaining private practice doctors’ offices) do not pay state tax on the income they make from being the owners. Their employees -- nurses and secretaries and legal assistants – do, along with the new higher sales taxes. The Governor and Legistlature have other plans as well; faced by a State Supreme Court decision to increase public school funding by a half-billion dollars or so that they don’t have (vide supra), they are thinking about not funding the State Supreme Court. Could be a solution, if they can get around the constitutional issue.

The Federal Government also has to deal with such issues. In the last 50 years our income tax policy has become less progressive, with a top rate of 35% rather than 90% when I was taking civics in junior high school. (Please note that this is not a flat tax of 90% on all of top-earners’ income, but on the marginal amount above the next lower tax rate; everyone paid the same percent on earnings up to each next bracket.) Also in that civics class, we saw that corporate income tax made up more income for the feds than personal tax. Not any more. Corporations are getting away with paying very low taxes, and with the new “global economy” taking more and more of their profits abroad, where they can avoid paying tax until they are re-patriated. To encourage them to do so, the Congress is considering legislation to create a “tax holiday”; this is where corporations are rewarded for bringing their profits home by paying a lower tax rate on them. This has been done before, and been amazingly unsuccessful. So let’s try it again. Like Kansas, why learn from experience? Why not, for example, tax those international earnings? After all, if they are creating jobs, it is not in the US.

Also like Kansas, the US has a problem with roads and other infrastructure, and the Federal Government funds much of the cost of repairs, which are unfortunately not being done. A study by the Center for Effective Government, “Burning our Bridges” notes that “To modernize our infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would cost $3.6 trillion by 2020. They warned that if we fail to make these investments, American citizens and businesses will face costs of $1.8 trillion a year in travel delays, water leaks, and power failures.” How has Congress responded? It's slashed infrastructure spending to the lowest levels since the post-WWII era.
 But where could we get the money? Is the amount of money not being paid by US corporations on international earnings that big? Well, there is $2.1 trillion in untaxed international income, so that could be a chunk of change. About half of it is held by 26 corporations. Apple has the most, and GE is #2. The enormously profitable pharmaceutical industry (I have previously noted that it is, each year, either #1 or, well, #1 in profit among US industries) has about $82 billion among its 7 largest companies. Given that the report is called “Burning our Bridges”, it is of interest to note that this is enough money to pay for all US bridge repair and maintenance needs.

I guess this is where the public health and medical part of this post comes in. Let’s just think about that. We have drug companies charging “whatever the market will bear” for their products; for some of the recent recombinant DNA treatments for autoimmune diseases, Hepatitis C, and cancer this can range into 5 digits (before the decimal point) a month. They try every trick in the book to keep their prices high and patents in place to prevent generic competition. Some I have addressed before include changing the formulation of the drug -- the FDA mandated elimination of fluorocarbons as propellants in inhalers was a bonanza because changing to non-fluorocarbon propellants was a “new formulation” allowing them to extend their patents. Or taking drugs used by, but not previously tested and approved for use by, children and testing them (when already, via practice, shown to be safe) in children, also extending their patents. Or in some the most offensive practices, testing drugs that have been used for generations and patenting them, thus jacking up their prices. The prime example is the gout treatment colchicine, formerly available for about 10 cents a pill and now available for $355 for 60 (about $5.20 a pill!).

In Canada, there are price controls on drugs, so they cost less. Thus pharmaceutical manufacturers try to block import (and Internet sale) of drugs from Canada. The Medicare drug benefit, (Part D) passed in the GW Bush administration, forbid Medicare from using its purchasing clout to negotiate lower prices. The new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pushed through by the Obama administration will offer more protections; corporations will be able to sue governments to ensure their profits, not in real courts but in specialized TPP pro-business “courts”. I wonder how long the price restrictions on drugs in Canada and elsewhere, not to mention the manufacture of affordable generic equivalents of high-priced HIV drugs in Brazil, India, and Thailand, will continue?

I personally am rooting for the success of the Brownback tax cuts to create jobs in Kansas. Not because I think they were good or even close to moral, or even because I think that they have a prayer of being successful, but as long as they are in place it would be nice to see some new jobs. It’s not going to happen with this state government. TPP passed, and there is no meaningful effort to either tax the international profits of pharmaceutical and other corporations, or to force drug manufacturers to make their products affordable in the US.

In their recent paper “Fantasy paradigms of health inequalities: Utopian thinking?”, Alex Scott-Samuel and Kathleen Smith note that "In a capitalist society, where liberal macroeconomic policies position virtually all economic activity – including unhealthy activity – as beneficial, there is an inbuilt incentive to ‘blame the victim’ rather than to tackle the corporate and economic causes of the problem."[1] We prefer not to regulate unhealthy activity (when we have done so, such as with making cars safer and limiting smoking, it took intensive, long-term campaigns by public health advocates), and we allow corporations such as drug companies to profiteer from our trying to repair the damage to our health. And we also let them not pay taxes, which we really need.

It's time to get serious, and hold them responsible and make them responsive.

[1] Scott-Samuel, A. & Smith, K. E. (2015).Fantasy paradigms of health inequalities: Utopian thinking? Social Theory & Health, advance online publication, 1 July 2015; doi: 10.1057/sth.2015.12

Total Pageviews