Health Care For All Americans, Part 3: UPDATED

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Over the past few days, Dr. John and I have been having a fascinating discussion about this post from September 2008.  It is one of the first pieces I wrote for Extreme Thinkover,  before President Obama was elected, as well as at least a year before the serious work on what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare” (but which I prefer to refer as “the ACA”) was being worked on.  It was also before Dr. John and I met and got acquainted.

I deliberately haven’t edited the post below, so our comments will make sense in the context in which they were written will make sense.  I think my readers will enjoy the back and forth between us, and I invite you to add your own comments, should you feel so inclined.

IMPORTANT: Read the comments starting from the bottom of the thread. It is where the discussion starts. And you may have to move up and down a few comments for our replies because of the way WordPress publishes them: by the time stamp of the comment/reply and not directly associated with a given submission.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

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Health Care for All Americans: Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2,  I discussed first, the assumptions needed from a medical perspective, particularly with respect  to the scope of treatment plans that would lead to optimizing the health of Americans, and second, how those assumptions would create a radical transformation in the health of Americans that would work its way through all aspects of daily life.  In Part 3, I now want to describe the logic that shows how the country would benefit.

We’ll start using my first assumption: Preventable diseases are prevented.

We could use any number of examples, but the format of the blog does requires some brevity, rather than a detailed White Paper or journal article.  I also acknowledge that the ideas I  present here have all been suggested by others, but this is how I choose to organize them.

For purposes of our discussion let’s call our example citizen, Larry.  Larry works full time for minimum wage, does not have  health insurance, and cannot afford to buy private insurance.  He also does not qualify for any government health care benefits.  Larry’s wife also works for minimum wage, but only 24 hours per week.

As long as his health holds, Larry can work and he has no medical needs.  He pays local, federal and state taxes and uses no special government services.

But let’s say that Larry gets pneumonia.  It is a very common viral strain, and can be treated successfully with antibiotics, and could have been avoided entirely if Larry had had a pneumonia vaccination.  Now he’s faced with a dilemma.  At first he thinks he just has a chest cold and he can wait it out.  Being a conscientious worker, he toughs it out and goes to work, but exposes his coworkers to the bug through his worsening cough.

By the weekend, Larry is really sick.  Over the counter cough medicines provide almost no relief, and on top of that, his cough is becoming increasingly productive.  He cannot sleep because of the cough and not being able to find a position in bed where he can breathe without effort and  pain.  Larry knows he needs to see a doctor, but having no insurance, he does not have a primary care physician, so he has no idea who to call.  Finally his breathing becomes so difficult that his wife calls  911.  Larry is taken to an emergency room by ambulance, but one on the far side of the city because the hospital closest does not like to take patients without insurance.

By the time Larry gets to an emergency room that will accept him as a patient he is nearly in respiratory arrest.   The ER doctor quickly diagnoses the pneumonia, but that it is so advanced that Larry’s life is in danger.  She intubates him immediately and transfers him to the hospital’s intensive care unit. It is four days before Larry’s condition has improved enough to send him to a “step-down” unit and two more days before he can be admitted to a medical unit room, and he is discharged two days after that.

Larry is fortunate that the hospital he is at has Certified RN and MSW Care Managers.  They work with him and his wife throughout  the hospitalization, develop a treatment plan and a discharge plan, set Larry up with a local medical clinic that treats patients without insurance, and provide his wife with food  vouchers and bus tokens so she can make the long trip back and forth to the hospital.

Despite all this, when Larry is wheeled out to the taxi to take him home, he has a hospital bill that is $250,000.  Since Larry and his wife together make too much money to qualify for Medicare, that bill rests squarely on their shoulders. He has no way to pay it back.  He will not be strong enough to work for at least another three weeks.  He will have not earned a dollar since he got sick, and won’t until he returns to work.  His wife’s income is not sufficient to cover all their bills,  and if they pay the rent, they will not have enough money to buy food.  The hospital sent home a week’s supply of medications, but after that, he will have to pay for them himself, and due to the damage to his lungs, he will need regular medications for at least six months.  Those prescriptions will cost over $800 per month.  Through the free medical clinic he can apply for medication cost support , but that can take up to four weeks to be approved assuming he qualifies.

Now multiply this basic scenario by twenty or thirty million Larrys a year. Every year. That is health care in America.

Here’s what happens.  The only good news is that Larry has survived a brush with death, ironically from a completely preventable disease.

Larry and his wife now owe the hospital $250,000.  They have no assets.  Even though they signed a promissory note with the hospital, no one is under the illusion that he will be able to pay back more than a few thousand dollars if he is a very conscientious person.

Larry and his wife owe the ambulance service perhaps $3,000.  They cannot pay it, or they will have to try to pay it off in very small amounts per year at a probably high interest rate.

Larry will lose at least a month’s income, and perhaps more if his recovery is longer than expected.  If he is very fortunate, his employer will hold his job until he can return.  In the meantime, his wife’s income is not large enough to cover their essential bills, starting with rent and food.  If Larry’s wife cannot get more hours from her current work, her only realistic option is to get another part time job, likely at minimum wage.  Whether that will at least let them pay for their basics is not certain.  It is also uncertain how flexible their landlord will be to let them catch up with their current rent.

It should be clear by now, that one simple, preventable illness has created a cascade of events that affects the economy, are extraordinarily expensive and completely unnecessary.  Yet, this is the true consequence of the current American health care system.

The hospital will have to write off the $250,000.  To compensate they will have to pass this loss, as well as hundreds of others per year, to their patients with insurance.

The ambulance company will have to spend a lot to try and recover their fee from Larry, and will pass those added expenses along to their other customers who can pay, either privately or with insurance.  If Larry doesn’t keep up with the payments, they may turn him over to collection, which will damage his credit.

Larry’s employer loses productivity from a good worker.  The company may have to hire temporary labor to fill Larry’s absence, which will be more expensive.

Larry and his wife lose essential income, which at minimum wage is marginal to begin with, and may jeopardize their ability to even house and feed themselves.

Every day that Larry does not work means that his wages do not generate taxes, local, county and federal, as well as FICA withholdings.  Multiply that by twenty or thirty million Larrys year after year and the loss is well into billions.  The impact of this loss of tax revenue and productivity is staggering on the national economy.

All this from a preventable disease that could have been stopped before it was started if Larry had had access to the most basic medical care.  Everybody loses.  The nation is weakened through attrition in ways no external threat could impose on us.   This national “epidemic” is progressive, it is close to end-stage, and we could all too easily end up with a terminal prognosis.  We may reach a point that we literally will be too unhealthy to survive as a nation.

We still have a choice.  Until the epidemic takes that away.

30 Governors Open Health Care Ghettos: October 1, 2013

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The governors from over half of the 50 states have or are considering refusing to establish Health Care Exchanges and to participate in Medicaid as provided for by the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) cynically known as “Obamacare.”  My assessment is that the consequences of this decision by the Chief Elected Officers of these states is going to in actuality create a third-tier, low quality health care environment.  Simply put, those states that offer to their residents full participation in the rights and privileges provided by the ACA, which is the law of the land, will develop in a few short years, into first-tier, high quality health care systems.  The states  that don’t, however, will within a similar number of a years see their health care, both private and public, degenerate into a ghetto of medical inferiority.

I call it…Read More

The Supreme Court and the ACA: The Ultimate Death Panel?

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I started Extreme Thinkover in the fall of 2008.  The presidential race was in full swing.  Universal health care was one of the major topics that the candidates, media, and the public were debating.  One of my primary motivations for creating the blog was to have a forum in which to express my ideas about the health care debate.

I’ve worked in the health care industry for nearly 16 years and have daily contact with patients and families in the hospital.  I hear their stories, good and bad, about what these hospitalizations are doing to their lives.  Yes, what the hospitalization is doing to their lives.

Here in America, going to the hospital is not just about getting medical treatment; it’s also about entering a very broken and extremely expensive system. It nevertheless tries to limp along: In all fairness to the medical professionals who work very hard on behalf of their patients, in most cases, if you find yourself hospitalized, you get reasonably good medical care.

However, in the middle of this is an ongoing battle with the major health care players (hospital systems, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment providers, etc.) all wanting to maximize their profits in an economic power race that too often is at the expense of the quality of care delivered to the patients who pay for their services, as well as forcing ever-increasing demands on their care givers to do more with less.  Admittedly, it doesn’t happen everywhere, but it is far too pervasive in Rube Goldberg “system” that passes for health care in America.

I wrote in fall 2008:

Here’s the question: What kind of treatment and medical care is needed so that all Americans can be healthy, or as healthy as possible?

That perhaps is not the question you expected to hear. The national conversation has focused on how much will it cost to provide all Americans with health insurance, how will the spiraling costs of health care be brought under control, will taxes have to be raised to pay for it, what will the roles of the health insurance industry, and the medical industries, and most of all the federal government be? Tough questions all around.

That question, “What kind of treatment and medical care is needed so that all Americans can be healthy, or as healthy as possible?” remains the key to a successful national health care program.  It also remains almost totally ignored by politicians, lobbyists, and, sadly the American public, none of whom have yet realized that without answering this question first, in my opinion, the debate about the cost cannot be resolved.  I contend this is why the health care law polls low for national support.

The current law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, nibbles at the edges of what I think is essential, but it, also, is far too focused on trying to control medical costs.  And in case you are wondering, yes, I’ve read the law cover to cover.

Beginning Monday, March 26, the Supreme Court of the United States is going to hear arguments for and against the PPACA.  The primary question before the Court is whether Congress overstepped its authority regarding the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by mandating all Americans (sort of) be required to purchase health insurance.  The debate is guaranteed to be rancorous, even in the sedate and forcibly polite setting of the Supreme Court.  The debate, though, once again is all about the money.  A healthy America will likely never even come up. The pundits will have a field day with this, without question, but I doubt any will see the fundamental flaw in all the arguments, based on my point of view.

Will the justices see past the smoke screen of political ideology, special interest group pressure, and inflammatory rhetoric that is fueling these proceedings?  If they do, and declare the law constitutional, there is hope that the ACA can continue to be refined, actually moving toward being a mechanism to support a healthier America.  If they don’t, by striking down all or parts of it, the Supreme Court will, for all intents and purposes, become the Ultimate Death Panel, condemning tens of millions of Americans to poor health, premature, and in some cases, an agonizing death because they will have been denied the right to even the most basic level of health care.  And that, tragically, just months before a law already on the books would have given them the care snatched away by the Supreme Court Death Panel.

Now we wait to see how this court rules on the fate of Americans’ health for generations to come.

The Thinkover:  When Patrick Henry uttered those iconic words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”  he wasn’t suggesting that death was preferred outcome of that stand for patriotism.  So far, the opponents of the ACA have been clueless to this obvious distinction in demanding “liberty” from the ACA mandate.