All news about the cost of care and the business of medicine from hospitals,' doctors' and patients' perspectives.


New Addiction Treatment Implant Will Hit The Market Next Month At $4,950

A graphic shows how the implant is placed inside the skin of a person's upper arm. (Courtesy Braeburn Pharmaceuticals)

A graphic shows how the new addiction treatment implant Probuphine is placed inside the skin of a person’s upper arm. (Courtesy Braeburn Pharmaceuticals)

There’s a new tool in the fight against the nation’s raging opioid epidemic.

The FDA on Thursday approved an implantable version of the drug buprenorphine, which staves off opioid cravings. Labels for the new device are rolling off printing devices today, and trainings begin Saturday for doctors who want to learn to insert the four matchstick size rods into patients.

The implant, called Probuphine, is expected to be available by the end of June.

“This is just the starting point for us to continue to fight for the cause of patients with opioid addiction,” said Braeburn Pharmaceuticals CEO Behshad Sheldon.

But one day after the FDA approved this first long-acting delivery method for buprenorphine, debate continues about how effective the implant will be and whether insurers will cover it.

A Game Changer … Or Set Up For Failure? 

The head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls the new implant a game-changer because it will help addiction patients stay on their meds while their brain circuits recover from the ravages of drug use. And addiction experts say it will be much harder for patients prescribed the implant to sell their medication on the street, which is a problem for addiction patients prescribed pills.

“I think it’s fantastic news,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorder Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We need as many tools in the toolbox as possible to deal with the opioid epidemic.”

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Harvard Study: Shopping For Health Care Fails To Lower Costs

A new study is bad news for the push for health care shopping. (Caden Crawford/Flickr)

A new study is bad news for the push for health care shopping. (Caden Crawford/Flickr)

I hate it when there’s more bad news about the health care costs that are devouring our family, municipal and national budgets. (Latest number: $3 trillion, or 17.5 percent of America’s GDP.)

But here it is: A Harvard study just out in JAMA finds that when health care consumers use price-comparison tools, they don’t end up spending less. In fact, they may even spend a bit more, perhaps because they think higher prices mean better quality.

So much for the idea that if you just let people shop for cheaper care, prices will surely go down.

The study’s senior author, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra of Harvard Medical School, says the findings do not mean that health care price transparency mandates — which have passed here in Massachusetts and more than half of states overall — are a bad idea. Rather, he says, the message is that “It isn’t that easy just to fix this problem.”

About the study: It looks at nearly 150,000 employees at two big companies that gave their workers access to an online health care shopping tool, and compares them to nearly 300,000 status-quo employees. It found that among the employees who got the tool, outpatient spending on average went up a couple of hundred dollars, from $2,021 to $2,233.

The control group’s spending also went up slightly, but among the workers with the shopping tool, spending went up a bit more: by an average of $59 for outpatient care, including $18 out of pocket.

“Some of it is benefits design. …[And] we should also recognize that not everything in health care is shoppable.”

– Dr. Ateev Mehrotra

“Not A Panacea For High Health Care Costs,” says the headline of an accompanying editorial in JAMA. No kidding. Surely no one expected price transparency to solve our $3 trillion problem, but still, these results are also surely disappointing to anyone who hoped health care shopping might at least make a dent.

Or perhaps it will, someday. I spoke with Dr. Mehrotra, an expert on consumerism in health care, about what the results mean. Our conversation, lightly edited:

How would you sum up what you found?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the health care system about increasing price transparency, to both help patients become better consumers and to decrease health care spending. And unfortunately, in our results, we do not find that providing price transparency decreases health care spending.

I think there’s been this general idea that, ‘Oh, all we need to do is give people high deductibles, give them prices, and magic will happen, and people will start switching their providers to lower-cost providers.’ And one main message from this is that this should temper that enthusiasm, and it’s more complicated than that.

I don’t think it’s that patients think shopping for care is a bad idea. People generally realize that prices in health care are high and they should switch. But there are other factors that are playing a role.

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra (Courtesy)

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra (Courtesy)

Some of it is benefits design. We have these really complicated health care benefits designs that people really struggle to master, and under our current benefit design you might go to such a website and say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of having my knee operated on and I’ll pay the same amount at every hospital, so it doesn’t matter.’ And a lot of the surgeries were for things that were relatively higher cost and therefore it didn’t matter. So that’s an issue.

And also, a lot of health care is emergent: When you’re having a heart attack and you’re in an ambulance, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, let me see where it’s cheaper for me to go for care.’ So we should also recognize that not everything in health care is shoppable. Continue reading

Commentary: I Needed Help With My Autistic Son. Others Need Help Too

The author, Susan Senator, and her son, Nat (Courtesy of Ned Batchelder)

The author, Susan Senator, and her son, Nat (Courtesy of Ned Batchelder)

The winter my son Nat broke our playroom window with his head was an endlessly snowy one. He was home on school break and on sensory overload — rocking too wildly on a rocking chair, too close to the bay window. A nauseating shatter, like the crack of thin ice underfoot.

Miraculously, he was not hurt.

Nat has fairly severe autism, and back then he struggled with all the unstructured time and the oppressive indoors of a New England winter. We all did. The season of days spent inside wears on all families. But if you are also living with a child with a complex developmental disability, who is nearly non-verbal and with sensory issues, it can mean that he will likely need extra help staying safe.

Back then I didn’t realize just how sensitive Nat was to confusion and unorganized days, or how his anxiety roared inside him, jangling his nerves, forcing him to pace, to scream, or to pinch. I understand now that autism wasn’t the enemy — lack of help was. We needed someone trained in autism education, who could work directly with Nat on activities of daily living, self-calming, social skills and how to behave out in the community; someone who could also work with us on how to organize Nat’s time at home to comfort him with a better sense of order. Continue reading

Colonoscopies, Mammograms And Childbirth Are Americans’ Most-Shopped Health Services

The idea of comparing prices and quality when we are in the market for health care is pretty new territory in our country of avid shoppers. But more and more employers and insurers are giving patients tools that let them put in the name of a test or procedure and see who charges what.

So what are patients shopping for? A study out Monday looked at the health care shopping habits of 332,255 members of insurer Aetna in 2011 and 2012. The top shopped service was a colonoscopy. Coming in at second and third, respectively: a mammogram and childbirth services.

Patient shoppers were typically younger, healthier women who had a high-deductible plan and had time to plan ahead. But overall, only about 3 percent of those who had access to Aetna’s “Member Payment Estimator” used the tool — even though surveys show patients want prices.

“This suggests that our efforts to engage patients with price information are still very much a work in progress,” one of the study’s co-authors, Anna Sinaiko, said in an interview. She’s a research scientist in the Department of Health Policy at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Sinaiko said patients often do not know where to find a price at the time they are making an appointment or choosing a hospital.

“This question of how to get this information to patients is the key one going forward, and continuing to fill this gap is the important work that lies ahead,” Sinaiko said.

Most health care comparison tools offer limited quality information because few reputable organizations have determined how to measure quality and collect the numbers.

We have some quality data that we’ve previously collected and published on colonoscopies, mammograms and childbirth. At the very least, we hope this will help you ask more informed questions if you are trying to figure out where to find the best value for your health care dollar.

The study appears in the April issue of the journal Health Affairs.

Our Past Quality Measures Reporting:

‘Not Unlike A Mortgage’: Health Care Loans Proposed For Pricey Treatments

Robert Deckman, at his home in Gloucester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Robert Deckman, at his home in Gloucester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

About three years ago, right around his 50th birthday, Robert Deckman found out he qualified for MassHealth. So this carpenter from Gloucester did something he hadn’t done in years: He went to the doctor.

“I’m like, well, let’s get the 50-year tuneup, the whole nine yards, just everything,” Deckman said recently, tossing his hands in the air. “The blood work was the last thing I did.”

The blood work showed Deckman had hepatitis C, a virus that damages the liver. His doctor delivered good news: A drug coming on the market would almost certainly cure his disease. And bad news: One bottle of the pills would cost $37,000. Deckman would probably need two.

“‘I can’t pay that, so I guess I’ll just die,’ ” Deckman recalled telling the doctor.

The doctor told Deckman insurance should cover Harvoni, the medicine the physician would prescribe, but his insurance provider might make him “jump through hoops,” the doctor said.

Deckman was denied the very expensive life-saving drug twice. His skin turned yellow, his pony tail thinned, he developed a skin infection and problems with his teeth. Deckman’s family grew desperate. His sister, Viki Deckman-Moeller, laid out a strategy.

“Plan A was to put a fundraiser together for my brother, and see if we could, just through friends and family, get some donations,” Deckman-Moeller said. “And then, we were looking at, or I was looking at, going out and getting a loan of some type at a low interest rate, for — it would have been about $50,000 I guess.”

Taking out a loan or pulling out a credit card to pay a health bill is not new. But now, with hep C pills that are $1,000 apiece, cancer drugs priced at $100,000 a year, and gene therapy at almost $1 million per treatment, credit cards or a line of credit at your bank will not be adequate.

Dr. David Weinstock, left, and professor Andrew Lo (Courtesy)

Dr. David Weinstock, left, and professor Andrew Lo (Courtesy)

MIT professor Andrew Lo and Dr. David Weinstock at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute say it’s time to create a long-term health care loan.

“The basic idea is for individual patients to have access to health care loans, not unlike a mortgage or auto loan or student loan,” Lo said. Patients would “borrow from a loan company to pay for these extremely expensive therapies and amortize the payments over a period of time, say five to 10 years.”

The loans would be available for drugs or treatment that would cure a disease or improve a patient’s health over the length of the loan.

“If the drug works, then all the payments would be made, but if it doesn’t, then payment would stop,” Weinstock said. “That creates more risk in the investment itself but it also incentivizes drug companies to develop drugs that really do work.” Continue reading

Opinion: A Call For Protecting The Health Of Women Who Donate Their Eggs

Human egg and sperm (Spike Walker. Wellcome Images/Flickr)

Human egg and sperm (Spike Walker. Wellcome Images/Flickr)

By Judy Norsigian and Dr. Timothy R.B. Johnson

The egg market is growing.

As couples and individuals continue to rely on assisted reproductive technology to overcome infertility, to make parenthood possible for gay couples and for other reasons, the demand for eggs is increasing swiftly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of donor eggs used for in vitro fertilization increased about 70 percent per year, from 10,801 to 18,306, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

And although there are no exact figures for how many young women engage in egg-retrieval-for-pay, the numbers are at least in the thousands. Many of these women are in their early 20s — often university students in need of cash to cover their tuition fees. But what most of these women, as well as the general public, don’t realize is that there are no good long-term safety data that would enable these young women to make truly informed choices.

Now, a number of women’s health and public interest advocacy organizations — including Our Bodies Ourselves, the Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research and the Center for Genetics and Society — are studying women’s knowledge about egg retrieval and calling for more and better research about its risks.

Here’s an example:

One drug frequently used to suppress ovarian function (before the ovaries are “over-stimulated” to produce multiple eggs that can then be harvested and fertilized) is leuprolide acetate (Lupron). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not given approval for this particular use of the drug, and thus its use during egg retrieval protocols is “off label.”

In various surveys of younger women engaging in so-called egg “donation,” it appears that this fact about off-label use is rarely shared. Probably few, if any, of these young women know about the 300-page review of many Lupron studies that Dr. David Redwine submitted to the FDA in 2011. In this report, he documents a plethora of problems, some long term.

How can we encourage the collection of adequate long-term data about the extent and severity of egg retrieval risks? Given the strong anecdotal evidence of problems such as subsequent infertility, a possible link to certain cancers and more prevalent short-term problems with Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) than previously reported in the literature, more well-done studies are needed.

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A $1 Pill That Could Save Thousands Of Lives: Research Suggests Cheap Way To Avoid U.N.-Caused Cholera

(United Nations Photo/Flickr)

(United Nations Photo/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

Here’s a way to get a big bang for a buck:

If a few hundred United Nations peacekeeping troops had taken a $1 antibiotic pill five years ago before they were deployed to Haiti, it may well have prevented a cholera outbreak that has so far sickened 753,000 Haitians and killed more than 9,000.

That’s the takeaway of a new study by Yale University researchers in the journal PLoS.

The authors believe their evidence should prompt the U.N. to adopt a simple and incredibly cost-effective strategy: Make sure all the 150,000 peacekeepers it sends out into the world each year from cholera-afflicted countries get preventive doses of antibiotics before deployment.

It’s not the first time the U.N. has gotten that advice. It was first suggested by a panel of outside experts the agency appointed back in 2011 to investigate the Haitian epidemic. But so far the U.N. has rejected the panel’s recommendation on preventive antibiotics.

It’s not clear whether that will change. The U.N.’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jillian Farmer, said in an interview Friday that she welcomes the new study. But she noted it does not address “the biggest barrier to implementing the antibiotic recommendation” — a concern that what she calls “mass administration” of antibiotics would give rise to antibiotic-resistant strains of cholera.

“It may be we will be able to do this [administer pre-deployment antibiotics to U.N. peacekeepers],” Farmer said. “I don’t have a closed mind.”

The Yale researchers and others argue that the concern about generating resistant cholera strains is overblown because the antibiotics would be targeted — not administered massively. They further argue that the U.N. should sponsor research to answer that question, given the urgency of the question.

“When we have a case as extreme as Haiti showing the status quo doesn’t work, we should be working to build evidence for a solution that does, not using a lack of proven solutions as an excuse not to act,” said Adam Houston, who works with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

The new study is the latest chapter in a tragic story that’s been unfolding since mid-October of 2010, when, researchers say, a single U.N. peacekeeper from Nepal most likely introduced cholera to Haiti, touching off the most explosive cholera epidemic in modern times. Before the outbreak. Haiti had been cholera-free for at least a century; thus, its citizens had no immunity to the disease.

“Based on DNA evidence, this outbreak was probably started by one or very few infected, asymptomatic individuals — I would guess one,” said Daniele Lantagne, a Tufts University environmental engineer who was one of four independent experts appointed by the U.N. in 2011 to investigate the outbreak.

Since none of the 454 Nepalese peacekeeping troops deployed to Haiti in late 2010 showed any symptoms of cholera, all of them would have had to take a prophylactic dose of antibiotic to prevent any one of them from starting the outbreak. That would have cost around $500 — a tiny price to pay to avoid a devastating epidemic that — absent the investment of billions of dollars in clean water and sanitation — will continue into Haiti’s indefinite future.

The new analysis finds that prophylactic antibiotics would have reduced the chances of the Haitian epidemic by 91 percent. When antibiotics are combined with cholera vaccination, the risk of an outbreak goes down by 98 percent.

The U.N. began requiring cholera vaccination of all its field personnel late last year. But the new study says vaccination by itself isn’t very effective; it reduces the risk of an outbreak by only 60 percent at best.

That’s because vaccination can prevent someone from falling ill from cholera, but it doesn’t prevent infection — so a vaccinated person can still carry the cholera bacterium and pass it on to others.

“Vaccination alone is not enough,” said Virginia Pitzer, who led the Yale research team. “Vaccination plus antibiotic prophylaxis would be best.”

“Antibiotics are far and away the most effective and the least expensive,” added epidemiologist Joseph Lewnard, the study’s first author. “It hits the problem from two angles. It not only prevents those exposed to cholera from experiencing an infection, but if they do get infected it shortens the duration of shedding the bacteria. So once they arrive [at their deployment destination] they would no longer have bacteria in their stools.” Continue reading

U.S. Health Care Is Less Private, More ‘Socialist’ Than You Might Think

The extent of the government's role in health care has become a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Here, candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are seen in a debate on Jan. 17 in Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith/AP)

The extent of the government’s role in health care has become a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Here, candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are seen in a debate on Jan. 17. (Mic Smith/AP)

By Richard Knox

Readers, a pop quiz:

The proportion of U.S. health care paid by tax funds is (a) less than 30 percent, (b) about half or (c) more than 60 percent.

If you picked “more than 60 percent,” you’re right — but you’re also pretty unusual.

“Many perceive that the U.S. health care financing system is predominantly private, in contrast to the universal tax-funded health care systems in nations such as Canada, France or the United Kingdom,” David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler write in a new analysis of U.S. health spending in the American Journal of Public Health.

They find that 64.3 percent of U.S. health expenditures are government-financed. And they project the tax-supported proportion will rise to 67.1 percent over the coming decade as the baby boom generation ages and retires — nearly as high as Canada’s 70 percent.

“We are actually paying for a national health program, we’re just not getting it,” Woolhandler says.

tax dollars for U.S. health spending

Now, Himmelstein and Woolhandler have an agenda. For decades, they’ve been perhaps the leading researchers promoting the kind of single-payer health system that Socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has put on the debate agenda. One recent poll suggests more than half of Americans (and 30 percent of Republicans) support the idea.

But even if you disagree with the Himmelstein-Woolhandler ideology, their research is generally regarded as sound, and their method is straightforward.

They added up what federal and state governments spend on health through Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Health Administration, government employees’ health care premiums, tax subsidies and other programs. They argue that accounting by government agencies (the Center for Medicare and Medicaid) undercounts the real tax burden because it leaves out major pieces of the pie — such as government employees’ care ($156 billion a year) and tax subsidies for private, employer-sponsored coverage (nearly $300 billion).

And whatever you think about Medicare-for-all, it’s a good idea to see the present U.S. health care system for what it is — an increasingly government-funded financing scheme. Continue reading

Options Weighed To Address State’s Health Care Price Variations

Updated 6:50 p.m.

BOSTON — Variations in prices for the same service at different hospitals in Massachusetts do not reflect different qualities of care and have not evened out over time, according to a Health Policy Commission report released Wednesday.

The report found that higher prices “are not generally associated” with better care, and that prices vary across the different types of hospitals — academic medical centers, teaching hospitals, community hospitals — as well as within each individual group.

To highlight the difference in costs just at community hospitals during a Wednesday meeting, Health Policy Commission executive director David Seltz pointed to levels of spending on maternity care. Spending for a low-risk pregnancy ranged from $16,000 at North Shore Medical Center to $9,000 at Heywood Hospital.

“While some variation in prices is warranted to support activities, unwarranted variation in prices — combined with a large share of volume at those higher-priced institutions — leads to higher spending overall and inequities in our distribution of resources,” Seltz said.

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More Evidence That Growing Up Poor May Alter Key Brain Structures

Allan Ajifo/flickr

(Allan Ajifo/Flickr)

Poverty is bad for your brain.

That’s the basic takeaway from an emerging body of research suggesting that the distress associated with growing up poor can negatively influence brain development in many ways, and in certain cases might also lead to emotional and mental health problems, like depression.

The latest study, led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that poverty in early childhood may influence the development of important connections between parts of the brain that are critical for effective regulation of emotions.

The study, published in the Journal of American Psychiatry, adds “to the growing awareness of the immense public health crisis represented by the huge number of children growing up in poverty and the likely long-lasting impact this experience has on brain development and on negative mood and depression,” researchers report.

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