Category Archives: Policy and politics

Staying away from substance abuse on campus

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Safe at home

The opioid epidemic is truly devastating. Drug overdoses (mostly opioids) are a leading cause of death in the US, topping guns and car crashes. People don’t want to become addicted to drugs or die from overdoses, so why does it happen so often?

It often starts with a doctor writing a prescription for someone complaining of chronic or acute pain or following a surgical procedure. Little thought is given to the number of pills prescribed; extra pills are either consumed by the patient or left lying around in the medicine cabinet where they may be taken by family members or house guests who have developed a habit. When prescription pills run out and the cost of buying them on the black market is too high, users shift quickly to heroin, which is cheap, potent and readily available. The downward spiral can be steep.

Thankfully, the country is starting to get a grip on the opioid crisis. Health insurers are tightening up on opioid coverage, doctors are trying alternative therapies (like massage) or being more conservative in their prescribing. TV and newspaper stories are pointing out the perils.

Awareness is spreading, including to the younger generation. I’m really pleased to see that some colleges are offering “sober dorms” for students committed to a substance-free lifestyle. The idea is not brand new –a Rutgers program dates back to 1988—but it seems to be gaining traction as more schools try out the approach.

A number of schools offer housing for people in recovery, designed to prevent relapse. New Jersey has a new law requiring any college with more than one quarter of students living on campus to offer sober housing. Other schools are starting to offer sober dorms to students who are looking for a clean lifestyle, whether they are in recovery or not.

It’s also my impression that college administrators are doing more than they used to to enforce alcohol and drug laws, regardless of a dorm’s official designation.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Canada is looking better and better

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O Canada!

In almost every election cycle people talk about moving to Canada if a presidential candidate they despise takes office. In practice few make the move. Things could be a little different this time around if a certain nationalist strongman comes to power.

There’s something else to fear this year: the Zika virus. According to NIH director Tony Fauci, mosquitoes with Zika are likely to arrive in the US mainland within the next month or two. One species will be all over the South, another will come up the East Coast as far as New England. Already, close to 300 pregnant women in the US are infected.

Congress is dithering with the President’s request for funds to combat Zika’s spread and is toying with the idea of canceling Ebola funds to partially support the Zika fight. It’s pretty irresponsible.

In the past I would have assumed that Congress would get it’s act together and do the right thing. But after seeing some members unconcerned about preventing a default I no longer take good intentions and common sense for granted.

Zika is serious and its spread could have a big impact on economic growth. In El Salvador, the government has advised women not to get pregnant for the next two years, lest they give birth to babies with severe birth defects. Can you imagine the impact such an advisory would have in the US?

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Health Wonk Review is up at Boston Health News

Check out the latest edition of the Health Wonk Review over at Boston Health News. Tinker Ready has a great collection of posts about insurance, HIT, report cards, LGBT health and cancer.

And you won’t want to miss the beautiful collection of photos of the Sant Rafael Pavilion in Barcelona.

The false link between mental illness and gun violence

It would be nice if we could eliminate mass shootings by improving the mental health system, coaxing (or forcing) potential shooters into treatment before they have a chance to wreak havoc.  As the Washington Post (Most mass shooters aren’t mentally ill. So why push better treatment as the answer?) reports:

“It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” which examines the personalities of brutal killers. “It’s really folly.”

This seems pretty obvious, and yet Republican and Democratic leaders, along with the general public and the media seem to think mental illness is the root cause of shooting sprees and that improving the mental health system can fix the problem.

After mass shootings, reporters often jump quickly to mental illness as the cause. Remember after the Sandy Hook shooting when there was speculation that the shooter’s Asperger’s diagnosis was to blame?

Asperger’s? Are you kidding me?

The danger of our fixation on mental illness as the root cause of violence is that we end up stigmatizing people with mental illness –and developmental disorders– while ignoring more direct causes of gun violence, such as ready access to guns.

Mass shootings are rare outside the US. Is there someone who can tell me with a straight face that the difference is due to better mental health systems abroad?

Meanwhile, Australia has seen a major decrease in gun violence over the past 20 years since adopting strong gun control after a mass murder. That seems like a more evidence and logic based response than what we’ve tried here.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Biosimilars are “me-too” drugs, not generics

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Time to take off the blinders

Generic drugs are the biggest success story in healthcare cost containment. This great success has fooled policymakers, journalists, health plans and others into thinking that the same model will tame spending on biologic drugs the way it has for traditional, chemical based products.

The latest example can be found in the Wall Street Journal (Knockoffs of Biotech Drugs Bring Paltry Savings). The article blames the lack of savings on price increases by makers of the original products in the run-up to the introduction of competing products. That is happening, but it doesn’t get to the root cause of the situation.

The traditional generic market is about as close as the healthcare industry gets to economists’ fantasy world of perfect competition where there is no differentiation among products, there are a large number of producers, and buyers understand that the products are all the same. As a result, prices trend toward marginal cost and it is not uncommon to see price reductions of 90 percent or more. Sometimes it’s 99 percent.

Biotech is very different. The “generic” products are not generic at all, rather they are close but not exact copies that cannot be freely substituted for one another. The number of producers will be small because they must go through the expense of clinical trials. And if the companies are smart (they are) they will do their best to make sure buyers realize there are differences among the products. One clue is that the products are referred to as biosimilars not biogenerics.

As I’ve been writing for ten years, this doesn’t sound like the market for generic drugs. Rather it’s much more like the “me-too” phenomenon we saw in the 90s with blockbuster categories such as statins. When Lipitor came in as the fifth statin on the market it didn’t advertise itself as cheaper and undifferentiated. Rather it used clever trial design and sales and marketing tactics to climb to the top of the pile.

Why wouldn’t a biosimilar try the same approach if possible? So far new entrants are pricing themselves a bit lower than the original product but if they can come up with better data from a trial why not make the price higher instead?

If we take off our generics blinders we can come up with ways to control costs while encouraging innovation. Since 2006 (A better idea than biogenerics) I’ve suggested regulating the price of biotech drugs once their patents expire. I still think it’s a good idea.

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Health Wonk Review is up at Wright on Health

Wright on Health hosts the latest incarnation of the Health Wonk Review blog carnival. It’s the Pivoting Toward the General Election edition. Interestingly, multiple posts focus on the same topic as mine: United Healthcare’s exit from the Obamacare marketplaces.

But beyond those posts you’ll see a lot of variety, along with a striking gallery of candidate photos!

Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces

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United we hardly knew ye

United Healthcare announced that it’s exiting most of the Obamacare insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) next year. Sound like a familiar story? In fact all the recent news coverage is just a rehash of last November’s announcement that United was probably going to exit.

As I wrote at the time (United pulls out of ACA exchanges: Should we care?), United’s exit is not a huge deal. The company specializes in selling high-priced plans to corporate accounts. In the price-sensitive world of the exchanges that’s a losing proposition. No surprise — United wasn’t getting traction.

In January (Like I said: United’s ACA exchange departure is no big deal) I reported on a study that showed that the name brand, high priced commercial players like United were losing out to insurers with a Medicaid managed care background and to mission-oriented Blues plans. United’s departure represents the failure of United, not the failure of the marketplaces. If United says otherwise it’s a sore loser.

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

Now, if United were a little more clever and capable it actually could make a play for the exchange business, in a way that would boost its success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients. Some astute players in the bundled payments space are starting to figure it out. Somehow I don’t think United will be the one to make it happen.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.