Part II: The Senate’s “Better Care”

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Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans introduced their revised Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) yesterday. As of this morning, both Sen. Susan Collins and Rand Paul have opposed a motion to proceed on bringing the bill up for consideration to vote. This leaves the Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal-and-replace in uncertainty, as 3 “No” votes would be enough to doom any chances of passing the Senate. Experts have said that they don’t expect the changes in this bill to alter the CBO’s previous estimate that 22 million could lose their health insurance coverage if passed. This may not matter, as Republicans have made it evident that they could try to push for a vote before the CBO concludes its analysis of the new bill.

Here are the main revisions from the previous bill, with some perspective from Vox:

Cuts to Medicaid remain unchanged, as does the shrinking of Medicaid expansion that more than 30 states have accepted and new patients have found satisfying. Both Republican opposition and citizen outcry thus far have been focused at these severe cuts to Medicaid, which covers half of the births in this country and 1 in 5 Americans, including 2 in 5 children and 2 in 3 nursing home residents. Shrinking the ACA’s program to expand Medicaid is also significant. The CBO has concluded in a separate analysis that these proposed cuts would shut off additional states from accepting Medicaid expansion, and would force some states that have accepted it to drop out, resulting in millions losing coverage.

Denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions has returned to Republican’s healthcare legislation. However, it has become more complicated (likely on purpose), so we’ll spend a little more time discussing it.

You may remember that the first rendition of BCRA left out what the House bill (AHCA) included concerning pre-existing conditions. But Sen. Ted Cruz has offered a new amendment included in the revised BCRA that returns a backdoor option for denying those with chronic health problems. As long as health insurers offer a comprehensive plan – that is, one with essential benefits that the ACA requires to be provided – they can also offer skimpier, deregulated plans. These deregulated plans give more control to insurers in raising costs so high that individuals with pre-existing conditions cannot afford to pay them. Thus, those with chronic health problems will be forced to buy the more expensive and comprehensive plans.

This has several avenues of predictable outcomes that all lead to an unstable marketplace. Ultimately two types of coverage will form: (1) cheap, barebones coverage for rich, healthy individuals, and (2) expensive (or unaffordable), comprehensive coverage for poor, sick individuals. This is explained by Vox author, Sarah Kliff:

Health policy experts know exactly how this would play out: Healthy people would pick the skimpier plan, while the comprehensive plan would essentially become a high-risk pool for sicker Americans.

Individual market enrollees would likely game the system too. A couple expecting a baby, for example, would be expected to upgrade to the [comprehensive] plan that covers maternity care for one year before returning to the cheaper plan they had before.

This tipping of the scales alone could be enough to make comprehensive plans too unaffordable for most individuals, forcing them out of coverage. Those looking to join a comprehensive plan will still be eligible to receive a tax credit in BCRA. However, out-of-pocket costs for deductibles and premiums would remain unbelievably unaffordable. For example, the CBO estimates that a 64-year old earning $11,500 would still need to pay $4,800 for a comprehensive health insurance plan.

Pre-tax money could be used to pay for premiums. Americans enrolled in health savings accounts (HSA), nearly 29% of workers, could now use this money to pay for premiums in addition to their co-pays and co-insurances. This is a great added benefit to those with HSAs, but falls short as a stand-alone option for those who struggle to afford health insurance premiums in the first place. And, as you may know if you have an HSA, this often doesn’t cover the entire cost of a premium.

Wealthy Americans would get less of a tax cut in the revised BCRA. The previous bill included more than $500 billion in tax cuts for high-income individuals and manufacturers. Republican writers decided to extend both a 0.9% investment tax and 3.8% Medicare payroll surtax from ACA that target wealthier individuals.

Keeping these two taxes in place would net the government an estimated $231 billion in revenue over the next decade, and eliminate some of the benefits high-income Americans would have received under the first draft.

Finally, the revised bill provides $45 billion to combat opioid abuse. But as Joshua Sharfstein, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says

The $45 billion they’ve added is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money that would be lost in the Medicaid cuts ($800 billion). It’s a tiny fraction of what Medicaid is already providing millions of people.

Think about it. Those addicted to and abusing pain-killing drugs need actual care through sustained coverage – which Medicaid provides – rather than an indiscriminate number of dollars. When you consider that funding for this opioid abuse program constitutes less than 6% of the total cuts imposed to Medicaid, it is sadly apparent that this is included mostly as political leverage. That is, ammunition for BCRA’s supporters to attack those who oppose the bill as a whole for any other legitimate reason.

Despite these poorly addressed flaws, a vote could happen this week. The voice of the people has made a difference at each step of the healthcare reform process. With just 12% approval and millions of lives at stake, BCRA will require sustained pressure on our elected officials. You can use the Trumpcare Toolkit to reach make your voice heard, and if you’re a member of the medical community searching for the right words, here is a great perspective to get you started.

Image: Digg

Wasted: Sensible Solutions for Unused Prescription Drugs

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Most of us keep all of our medicine in a designated location in the house. Be it the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, the kitchen shelf just above the coffee maker, or the gallon-sized plastic bag we tend to see patients bring during their office visits, most of us have prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications stockpiled somewhere.

But when was the last time you took a moment to organize that medicine cabinet, figure out which medicines you are no longer taking, and review expiration dates?

There are safe ways to dispose of expired and unused medications. (No, I am not talking about flushing them down the toilet.)

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a semi-annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, where you can take your expired and unused drugs to a designated collection site in your community to be disposed of appropriately. Typically, collection sites are at local police stations, fire stations, pharmacies, clinics, or hospitals. Collection sites are community-specific and can be found on the DEA website.

The most recent National Prescription Drug Take Back Day wrapped up on Saturday, April 29, and program organizers are waiting to see just how many drugs were collected. This time last year, the DEA set an all-time collection record.

On May 6, 2016, Americans turned in more unused prescription drugs than on any of the previous 10 events since it began in 2010, demonstrating their understanding of the value of this service. The DEA and over 4,200 of its state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners collected 893,498 pounds of unwanted medicines—about 447 tons—at almost 5,400 sites spread through all 50 states, beating its previous high of 390 tons in the spring of 2014 by 57 tons, or more than 114,000 pounds.

447 tons is roughly equal to the weight of five NASA Space Shuttles. With growing awareness of the opioid epidemic in our country, it is certainly possible that the record may have been broken again this year.

As future physicians, it will be important for us to spread the word and continue to facilitate awareness of community disposal programs like this to our patients. According to the DEA, the majority of prescription drug abusers report in surveys that they get their drugs from friends and family. By cleaning out medicine cabinets and disposing of medications appropriately, we can reduce accidents, thefts, and the misuse and abuse of these medicines—including the opioid painkillers that accounted for over 33,000 deaths in 2015.

Proper disposal of expired medications is crucial, but what if there were other, more efficient, more cost-effective options for the medications that are not expired and go unused? What if unused prescription drugs could be recycled and redistributed?

A recent ProPublica investigation found that nursing homes waste millions of dollars in prescription drugs every year. Marshall Allen, the author of the investigation, recently gave an interview on NPR. Medications are discontinued for many reasons, including when a patient passes away or gets discharged, “and so in most nursing homes around the country, they just throw those drugs away,” said Allen.

With the rising costs of healthcare and the unprecedented costs of prescription drugs these days, it is a little disturbing to hear that millions of dollars of perfectly good prescription drugs are literally being flushed down the toilet. As Allen reports, Medicare and other commercial insurance payers have already paid for the prescriptions, so why not recycle them?

That is exactly what a program in Iowa is doing. SafeNetRx retrieves unused prescription drugs and redistributes them to uninsured or underinsured patients for free. This program estimates that they receive close to $5 million worth of drugs in a year that they redistribute to communities in need.

“The National Academy of Medicine estimated in 2012 that the U.S. squanders more than a quarter of what it spends on health care – about $765 billion a year.”

Can you imagine what impact we could have on healthcare costs across the nation if we recycled and redistributed prescription drugs that would otherwise be thrown in the trash, incinerated, or flushed down the toilet?

When patients are non-compliant in taking their medication because they are unable to afford their prescription, they frequently wind up in the emergency room—putting greater financial strain on hospitals, taxpayers, and communities across the country.

From a health policy perspective, efforts have been made to pave the way for the donation and redistribution of drugs.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 39 states had passed laws that allowed the donation of drugs. But almost half of these states with laws lack programs to get the drugs safely from one appropriate user to another, and many of those that do have programs are focused on cancer drugs, the analysis showed.

The logistics of such a program appear to be the biggest barrier to getting formalized prescription drug recycling off the ground, and this highlights a classic issue in writing health policy.

“It’s like people have created legislation and it’s a feel-good thing, but nobody’s come back to see why it’s not working,” says Mark Coggins of Diversicare, a chain of nursing homes in 10 states.

Though legislation to address these issues sometimes becomes law, too often it fails to provide adequate investment for carrying out the idea. In Iowa, SafeNetRx is state-funded for about $600,000 a year, and is considered a best-practice, common sense solution for recovering and redistributing prescription drugs to those most in need.

Many patients that benefit from the SafeNetRx program are saving hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on prescription drugs (not to mention savings for the insurance companies), including low-income and fixed-income senior citizens with multiple chronic conditions.

The next time you clean out your medicine cabinet, or advise your patients to do so, consider where those medications could go. They could be thrown away, or they could go back in the hands of patients that need them the most. With little effort, you can be part of a life-saving solution that also saves millions of healthcare dollars.

If you’re interested in learning more and helping to solve this problem, I encourage you to explore what your state is doing to recover, recycle, and redistribute prescription drugs.

 

Image: Wise Rx Card

Episode 2: The March for Science and DO Day on Capitol Hill

This week on Diagnostocracy, Ti and Keifer welcome students Jennifer Fields and Jesse Aquino to review the March for Science and the inevitably partisan role of science in politics. Jennifer and Jesse then discuss their experience advocating health policy while at DO Day on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Street Medicine Series: Homelessness as a Medical Condition

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I went into medicine with the full intent of serving the less fortunate. However, I didn’t discover street/homeless medicine until after college, and I quickly fell in love with it. During the last four years, I discovered that most people — especially my peers — don’t know that street medicine is a field. So here I am, armed with a laptop and the effervescent desire to share my passion and educate (or rather, I now have an outlet to rant forever and ever without seeing the glazed look in your eyes).

I’m starting a Street Medicine series on Diagnostocracy in which each article will cover a different aspect of medical care for the homeless, since there is so much to talk about. Through the series, I want to not only open your eyes to a special field of medicine but to also to reverse the stigma that weighs so heavily and unjustly on homeless individuals. Diagnostocracy is about promoting change, whether it be medical, social, intellectual, or spiritual. Ideally, I’ll tap at least the surface on all of those with this series.


Homelessness in Paradise

All right, let’s jump to it.

When we think of Hawaii, we think of paradisiacal beaches against a soft sunset glow, some guy setting your alcoholic drinks on fire at a tiki hut bar, or an intimate honeymoon getaway. (I’ve never been to Hawaii, but this is what the ads tell me.) What’s cast in shadow behind all of this is the fact that Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness in the country.

One of Hawaii’s representatives, Senator Josh Green, is also a physician, and he recognizes that homelessness isn’t just a social problem; it’s a medical one, too. In January 2017, he co-introduced legislation titled “Declaring Homelessness to be a Medical Condition in the State for Purposes of Medicaid Eligibility and Recognizing that Housing Instability is a Major Health Factor that Negatively Affects Homeless Individuals’ Health and Well-Being.” I’m going to call it by its other name, SCR4, for short.

SCR4 has a couple of lines that encapsulate the aforementioned concept that homelessness is the intersection between an extremely simplified medical vs. social Venn diagram:

“…according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, ‘[h]omelessness both causes and results from serious health care issues, including addiction, psychological disorders, HIV/AIDS, and a host of order [sic] ailments that require long-term, consistent care’”

“… because housing instability detracts from regular medical attention, homeless individuals’ conditions often get worse, which allows these medical conditions to become more dangerous and costly”

Supporters of the SCR4 measure see homelessness as an illness and housing as a treatment, and it’s easy to see why. Homeless individuals are more susceptible to substance abuse and medical co-morbidities, such as HIV and cardiovascular disease. A study found that the mortality rate in homeless individuals is three to six times higher than that of their housed counterparts.

As future healthcare professionals, there are some things we should think about.

  • Since homelessness is tied to a decrement in health, should we be able to use public insurance, like Medicaid, to fund housing?
  • What are the shortcomings of starting social intervention before medical treatment and vice-versa?
  • How do we approach this issue if housing is just correlated with, not a cause of, a decline in health?
  • With whom can we collaborate outside of medicine to derive a solution?
  • What kinds of biases or other limitations do we have that may be holding us back from tackling this problem effectively and efficiently?

I talked to a homeless patient who tried to stay overweight to appear bigger and therefore intimidating to others on the streets as a defensive measure. What can we do about this battle between health and safety?

How You Can Help

I’d like to ask you to distribute water bottles, food, hand sanitizer, bug spray, hats, and/or sunscreen as you see homeless individuals during your drives or walks. The weather is warming up, so let’s think of ways we can help alleviate the discomfort of our fellow human beings.


I like to keep my articles short and to the point, but sometimes, it’s difficult with a topic that I love talking about. With that being said, please contact me via email, through the Diagnostocracy contact page, or catch me at school if you’d like to know more about homelessness as a medical condition. I have much more to add, some of which I hope to eventually incorporate in this new Street Medicine series, so please stay tuned!

Image: Al Jazeera