Thursday, August 30, 2007

Drake Law School looking for health law/insurance law teacher

Faculty opening at Drake:
DRAKE LAW SCHOOL seeks applications for a tenure-track position in the area of health law, insurance law and related fields commencing in the 2008-09 academic year. We are interested in both entry-level and experienced candidates with a J.D. degree and strong academic credentials who exhibit the ability to produce excellent scholarship and become outstanding teachers. Applicants who will contribute to the diversity of the faculty are particularly encouraged to apply. Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the diversity of the nation. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or veteran status.

Contact: Professor Cathy Lesser Mansfield, Chair, Faculty Recruitment Committee, Drake Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail:
posted by Tom Mayo, 7:11 AM | link

Monday, August 27, 2007

Medicare beneficiaries lag in taking advantage of covered screenings and preventive care

From the Wall Street Journal (via AHLA's Health Law Daily [link should be good for about a week]):

CMS says Medicare is spending more on prevention efforts. The Wall Street Journal (8/26, McQueen) reported, "Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for older Americans, increasingly is paying for screening tests and immunizations that previously were not covered. But the vast majority of recipients are failing to take advantage, officials say." Less than 10 percent of Medicare recipients are "getting all the screenings and immunizations recommended by public health groups," according to the CMS. And, just over "a third of recipients didn't get a free flu shot in 2005, for example, even though elderly and immune-system-compromised patients are at high risk of death from the disease." In order to reverse this trend, "Medicare officials launched a bus tour of 48 states and more than 120 cities this summer, in conjunction with local officials, hospitals and elder-care groups. The tour is expected to wrap up this week." The Journal noted, "Until now, just five percent of Medicare spending has been for preventive services, officials say. But in recent years, as medical evidence has mounted about the cost-effectiveness of preventing diseases such as flu, diabetes and heart disease instead of treating them later, the U.S. has authorized more spending on screening tests and immunization."
This caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, it is scandalous that Medicare beneficiaries aren't getting the preventive services they need to fend off really serious and expensive health problems. Of course, the reason might be that the elderly haven't gotten the word about changes in Medicare coverage for such items. But it might also be because of other impediments such as limited transportation, the extra burden from multiplying trips to providers of different kinds to get the screenings done, etc. But at least CMS is focusing on the easiest-to-solve part of the problem by trying to do a better job of getting the word out.

Second is the statement that "medical evidence has mounted about the cost-effectiveness of preventing diseases such as flu, diabetes and heart disease instead of treating them later." This is certainly conventional wisdom, and this argument has an undeniable, intuitive appeal. But is it true?

There is evidence to support the proposition, at least within a limited time frame and for certain medical conditions and certainly for the individual who, as a result of the screening or the flu shot, didn't get sick. For example, as the New York Times reported [TimesSelect article: no link available] on January 11, 2006, in an article about diabetes prevention:

Insurers, for example, will often refuse to pay $150 for a diabetic to see a podiatrist, who can help prevent foot ailments associated with the disease. Nearly all of them, though, cover amputations, which typically cost more than $30,000.

Patients have trouble securing a reimbursement for a $75 visit to the nutritionist who counsels them on controlling their diabetes. Insurers do not balk, however, at paying $315 for a single session of dialysis, which treats one of the disease's serious complications.

But what if avoiding the life-threatening acute medical condition simply permitted a large percentage of patients to survive for a life-time of care for their chronic conditions. Isn't it at least possible that the cost savings would eventually be exceeded by the costs associated with a longer life-time of care? That seems to have been the thrust of a March 16, 1997, article in the Times [also TimesSelect (no link)]:

While studies have shown that preventive care is generally good for your health, they have also shown that it often does not save money.

The central problem is that the early detection of many diseases, like high cholesterol and H.I.V. infection, is often followed by a lifetime of costly treatments and drugs. Expensive hospitalizations may only be forestalled. So in many cases, total medical costs actually rise.

''An awful lot of preventive care has no payoff economically -- it actually costs money,'' said Uwe Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton University. ''If the [managed care] plans are doing it, they're doing it because they think it gives them a good image. A lot of this stuff is overhyped.''

That's the message, again, from the recent essay by David Leonhardt, "Free Lunch on Health? Think Again" (NY Times, Aug. 6, 2007; TimesSelect [no link]). Leonhardt notes that Rudy Giuliani and the three leading Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton, Edwards, Obama) are all promoting the idea that

[b]y practicing preventive medicine, doctors can keep many people from getting sick in the first place. Those who do end up with a chronic illness will be closely tracked so that fewer of them develop complications. These steps will result in less illness, which in turn will require less health care. With the savings, the country can then lower its medical bills or provide health insurance for the 40-odd million people who lack it -- or maybe even both.

As Hillary Clinton recently told The Atlantic, it's possible to ''save money
and improve quality and cover everybody.''

The hitch, according to Leonhardt, is that

[n]o one really knows whether preventive medicine will save money in the long run, let alone free up the billions of dollars a year needed to help pay for universal health insurance. In fact, studies have shown that preventive care -- be it cancer screening, smoking cessation or plain old checkups -- usually ends up costing money. It makes people healthier, but it's not free.

''It's a nice thing to think, and it seems like it should be true, but I don't know of any evidence that preventive care actually saves money,'' said Jonathan Gruber, an M.I.T. economist who helped design the universal-coverage plan in Massachusetts.

This is a tough idea to swallow because better health really does seem as if it should lead to lower medical bills. Indeed, if it were somehow possible to wave a wand and turn people into thin nonsmokers who remembered to take their statins, this country's health care expenses would fall.

But any effort to promote health has its own costs. Doctors and nurses need to spend time with patients to persuade them to change their behavior. (Ever tried to get someone to stop smoking or drinking?) For a new program to work, it has to reach people who are not being helped by whatever exists now -- and who thus will be among the most difficult and expensive patients to treat. The program would also have to treat a whole lot of people who never would have gotten sick.

Jay Bhattacharya, a doctor and economist at Stanford's School of Medicine, estimates that to prevent one new case of diabetes, an antiobesity program must treat five people -- ''not cheaply,'' he says. Along the same lines, Mr. Gruber found that when retirees in California began visiting their doctor less often and filling fewer prescriptions, overall medical spending fell. People did get sick more often, but treating their illnesses was still less costly than widespread basic care -- in the form of doctors visits and drugs. Louise Russell, an economist at Rutgers, points out that programs that focus on at-risk patients cost the least, but even they are rarely free.

As Dr. Mark R. Chassin, a former New York state health commissioner, says, preventive care ''reduces costs, yes, for the individual who didn't get sick.''

"But that savings is overwhelmed by the cost of continuously treating everybody else.''

The actual savings are also not as large as might at first seem. Even if you don't develop diabetes, your lifetime medical costs won't drop to zero. You might live longer and better and yet still ultimately run up almost as big a lifetime medical bill, because you'll eventually have other problems. That would be an undeniably better outcome, but it wouldn't produce a financial windfall for society.

Certainly, there are examples of preventive care that can save money. As Mrs. Clinton has noted, Safeway and a handful of other companies have held down health costs by emphasizing prevention. (This, of course, is only over the short term.) Perhaps the best examples fall under the category of what Dr. Brent C. James calls 'do it right the first time.''

Dr. James is an executive at Intermountain Healthcare, a network of hospitals in Utah and Idaho that has saved money in recent years by reducing hospital infections and drug errors. Intermountain hospitals have also largely stopped inducing child labor for the sake of doctors' or parents' convenience. The hospital induces birth only for medical reasons -- and the number of babies that spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit has fallen.

It's this last example that holds the real key to cutting medical costs. I realize many
people will react to the notion that preventive care usually costs money by saying, ''So what? We should do it anyway.'' And we should.

But by describing it as an easy win-win solution, the presidential candidates are gliding over an important part of the issue. Preventive care saves real money only when it replaces existing care that is expensive and doesn't do much, if any, good. There are plenty of examples of such care -- from induced labor to many lumbar surgeries and cardiac stent procedures.

The problem is that the people getting this care typically don't consider it wasteful. We all like to believe that other people are the ones getting the unnecessary care. We, on the other hand, are probably not getting enough treatment.

Persuading people otherwise -- persuading them that basic care is sometimes cheaper and better -- will be difficult. Sometimes insurance plans will simply have to say no to questionable care, over the opposition of doctors' groups with a financial interest in the status quo. But it's the only way to ''save money and improve quality and cover everybody,'' as Mrs. Clinton says.

This is one of the best articles I've seen in the popular press that explores some of the variables in the "pay for increased coverage by increasing cost-effective primary and preventive care" argument. The problem is -- should we be surprised? -- much subtler and more difficult than our political candidates are making it sound.

posted by Tom Mayo, 11:45 AM | link

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tax-exempt hospitals and "community benefit"

This is a bit tardy but well worth noting here and reading the underlying documents as time permits. In July the IRS issued an interim report on community benefit in the hospital industry (news release), based upon responses to its 2006 questionnaire to 500 hospitals. The Service's main finding: "The report contains preliminary findings on how hospitals, one of the largest components of the tax-exempt sector, responded to questions about how they provide community benefit and meet required standards. The IRS continues to analyze the data and work continues on assessing executive compensation paid by non-profit hospitals." As noted by Leigh Griffith, Don Stuart, and Terri Cammarano, (of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP, Nashville, TN) in an email alert to members of the AHLA Tax and Finance Practice Group, the IRS interim report came out "shortly after the Minority Staff of the Senate Finance Committee released its discussion paper on its concerns with nonprofit hospitals." The Minority Staff discussion paper is here.
posted by Tom Mayo, 12:06 AM | link

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Health Lawyers Weekly, August 10

The AHLA's Health Lawyers Weekly features two articles by lawyers from Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, P.S.C., on the IRS' publication in the July 26 Federal Register of its final rule for 403(b) plans (a/k/a tax-deferred annuity plans) and DOL's simultaneous publication of Field Assistance Bulletin 2007-02 containing guidance on how 403(b) plans can avoid compliance with ERISA.

This week's issue also has a good piece on the DC Circuit's en banc decision in the Abigail Alliance case (previously discussed here).

Top Stories

Articles & Analyses

Current Topics

© 2007 AHLA. Reprinted with permission.
posted by Tom Mayo, 10:02 AM | link

NY Times editorial on why the U.S. doesn't have the world's best health system

The Times' editorial looks at the Commonwealth Fund's recent international report card that compared the U.S. with Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the U.K. In the words of the Commonwealth Fund:

the U.S. health care system ranks last or next-to-last on five dimensions of a high performance health system: quality, access, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives. The U.S. is the only country in the study without universal health insurance coverage, partly accounting for its poor performance on access, equity, and health outcomes. The inclusion of physician survey data also shows the U.S. lagging in adoption of information technology and use of nurses to improve care coordination for the chronically ill.
Bottom line for the New York Times editorialist:
With health care emerging as a major issue in the presidential campaign and in Congress, it will be important to get beyond empty boasts that this country has “the best health care system in the world” and turn instead to fixing its very real defects. The main goal should be to reduce the huge number of uninsured, who are a major reason for our poor standing globally. But there is also plenty of room to improve our coordination of care, our use of computerized records, communications between doctors and patients, and dozens of other factors that impair the quality of care. The world’s most powerful economy should be able to provide a health care system that really is the best.
The Commonwealth Fund's report card on U.S. states (previously mentioned here) is also worth a close look.
posted by Tom Mayo, 9:44 AM | link

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

DC Circuit (en banc) reverses panel decision in Abigail Alliance case

The much-anticipated en banc decision of the D.C. Circuit came down today. The court ruled, 8-2, that dying patients do not have a fundamental right of access to drugs that have either just completed Phase I testing or are in Phase II. The big surprise to me was that no-one on the court joined the two judges -- Chief Judge Ginsburg and Judge Rogers -- who comprised the majority in the original panel. The idea of a new fundamental right seemed far-fetched and unlikely to go anywhere, but not one of the other eight judges on the court saw the issue the same way as the dissenters? This will be a good case for my fall Health Law class -- useful overview of the drug-approval process, good discussion of fundamental-rights law, and an example (if they didn't get this in Con Law II) of how the framing of the claimed right (narrow and specific vs. broad and general) will usually dictate the outcome of the case.

Next stop: Supreme Court. What are the chances four justices will vote to grant cert.? I'll venture a guess: 5% (never say never, but this case comes very close to a zero-percenter).
posted by Tom Mayo, 3:50 PM | link

Friday, August 03, 2007

Security issues for hospitals

Scary words: "Hospital = Target"

In this week's Health Lawyers Weekly, Mark Rogers analyzes hospital-security issues in a post-9/11 world. The risk is anything but speculative, as this list demonstrates:

Several incidents since the attacks of 9/11 have highlighted this risk. Consider
the following:

  • November 2002: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an alert to hospitals in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., warning of a vague, uncorroborated terrorist threat.

  • August 2004: The FBI and U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a nationwide terrorism bulletin that al-Qaeda may attempt to attack Veterans Affairs Hospitals as an alternative to more heavily guarded U.S. military institutions. The bulletin indicated that there had been persistent reports of suspicious activity at medical facilities throughout the United States.

  • November 2005: Police in London, England arrest two suspected terrorists accused of plotting a bomb attack. One of the suspected terrorists was found to have a piece of paper with the words in Arabic, “Hospital = Target.”

  • April 2005: FBI and DHS investigated incidents of imposters posing as hospital accreditation surveyors. The Joint Commission sent security alerts to the 5,000 medical institutions it accredits and warned them to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

  • July 2007: Eight individuals, all of them either physicians or other medical professionals associated with Britain’s National Health Service, were taken into custody in relation to attempted car-bomb attacks in London and a car-bomb attack at Glasgow Airport in Scotland. The FBI reported that two of the suspects contacted the Philadelphia-based Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates to inquire about working in the United States as physicians.
Worth reading (as is the rest of this news-filled issue) . . . .

posted by Tom Mayo, 2:43 PM | link

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter