Tagged Multimedia

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ Is Health Spending The Next Big Political Issue?

The Republican-led Congress was unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, but the Trump administration continues to implement elements of the failed GOP bill using executive authority. The latest change would make it easier for states to waive some major parts of the health law, including allowing subsidies for people to buy insurance plans that don’t meet all the law’s requirements.

Meanwhile, in states that are transitioning from Republican governors to Democrats, GOP legislators are using lame-duck sessions to try to scale back executive power and lock in some key health changes, such as work requirements for Medicaid enrollees.

And there is growing evidence that even with health insurance, patients who use significant amounts of medical care are increasingly unable to afford their share.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Rebecca Adams of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Trump administration outlined last week what type of waivers it is willing to consider for states’ ACA markets. Options include changes in who gets premium subsidies and how much they receive, and making short-term insurance plans that are not as comprehensive as current marketplace plans eligible for subsidies.
  • Any changes are likely to end up in court, as have most of the revisions that the Trump administration has proposed.
  • In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican legislatures are seeking to restrict what the new Democratic governors can do to change GOP policies on Medicaid and challenges to the ACA.
  • A recent study has highlighted that health problems can create financial hardships well beyond the illness. For example, loss of income from a debilitating illness can make paying other bills very difficult and sometimes other family members must give up their jobs to be caregivers.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: NBC News.com’s “FDA Approves Drug for Dogs Scared by Noise,” by Maggie Fox

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Washington Post’s “An Experiment Requiring Work for Food Stamps Is a Trump Administration Model,” by Amy Goldstein

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day,” by Ed Yong

Rebecca Adams: The New York Times’ “Why Hospitals Should Let You Sleep,” by Austin Frakt

Also mentioned in this episode:

The New York Times: “1,495 Americans Describe the Financial Reality of Being Really Sick,” by Margot Sanger Katz

Kaiser Health News: “No Cash, No Heart. Transplant Centers Require Proof of Payment,” by JoNel Aleccia

CBS News: “High Cost Has Many Diabetics Cutting Back on Insulin,” by Serena Gordon

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.

Sales Reps May Be Wearing Out Their Welcome In The Operating Room

In the operating room, surgical masks and matching scrubs can make it hard to tell who’s who — at least for outsiders.

Patients getting wheeled in might not realize that salespeople working on commission are frequently present and sometimes even advise the clinical team during surgery.

Who are these salespeople, and why are they there?

The answer to the first question is pretty easy. These sales reps typically work for medical device companies, such as Stryker, Medtronic or DePuy Synthes. Many surgeries, especially orthopedic trauma and cardiac procedures, require insertion of artificial joints or other hardware manufactured by these companies.

But as to why they’re present in the operating room, the answer depends on whom you ask.

Critics of the practice say that device reps attend surgeries to strengthen their relationships with particular surgeons and thereby persuade them to choose one brand of artificial hip joint or stent or pacemaker over a competitor’s.

The device reps say they observe surgeries because they are experts on particular devices and their accompanying toolkits, which often include hundreds of wrenches, screws and other hardware to aid in installation.

Sometimes, the device reps have observed more surgeries with a particular device than any one surgeon. That depth of experience can be helpful, the reps say, especially with the newest device model or upgrade.

“I can’t keep my socks together through the dryer. You can imagine trying to get 100 pans or 300 pans of instruments all set up correctly,” said Dr. Michael Christie of Nashville, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in new hips.

Device reps have been attending surgeries for years, but that practice is coming under new scrutiny. As baby boomers age, there has been exponential growth in device-dependent procedures like total joint replacements. In addition, insurers are starting to crack down on health care costs, telling hospitals that they’ll pay only a fixed price, known as a “bundled payment,” for certain surgical procedures, such as hip or knee replacements.

That approach has forced hospitals to take a hard look at the price tags of the devices and the salespeople who are pushing the latest models. Hospitals are “starting to figure out what these reps make for a living. They feel like they’re making too much money, and I think that’s why they want them out,” said Brent Ford, a former sales rep who now works for Nashville-based HealthTrust, a firm that handles contracting and purchasing of supplies like hip implants for more than 1,600 U.S. hospitals.

Medical device reps are more often business majors than biology buffs, but they train for the job as if they might have to conduct surgery themselves. At an educational center in Colorado, future reps learn how to saw off a hip bone and implant an artificial hip.

Their corporate training frequently involves cadavers, which helps reps develop the steel stomach required for the unsettling sights and sounds of an orthopedic operating room — like a surgeon loudly hammering a spike into a bone.

“Before we’re allowed to sell our products to surgeons, we have to know the anatomy of the body, go through tests of why physicians use these types of products and how we can assist in surgery,” says Chris Stewart, a former rep for Stryker, one of the largest device manufacturers.

Stewart now works for Ortho Sales Partners, a company that helps device manufacturers navigate relationships with hospitals.

Keeping those relationships strong is crucial, because hospitals don’t have to allow reps into their operating rooms. But if reps are allowed, there are rules: Reps can’t touch the patient or anything that’s sterile.

Big companies like Stryker have developed detailed policies for their own reps about how to behave in the operating room. And some hospitals, like hospital chain HCA’s flagship medical center in Nashville, have instituted even stricter rules — selling is banned in the OR and reps are only allowed to provide support for surgical cases.

But Stewart maintains reps still can be useful. Some help surgical assistants find a particular tiny component among the trays of ancillary tools. Some reps even deliver the tool trays to the hospital themselves, prior to the surgery. They want the procedure to run as smoothly as possible so that a busy surgeon will become a steady customer.

“Obviously, there’s a patient on the table being operated on, so that’s where the sense of urgency is,” Stewart said. “You have to become an expert in understanding how to be efficient with helping everyone in the OR making sure your implants are being utilized correctly.”

Keeping Up With Technology

It has become difficult for hospital staffs to keep pace with constant design changes for artificial joints or spinal rod systems, Stewart said.

The speed of innovation concerns some researchers, including Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University medical doctor who studies the relationships between industry and physicians.

“What we need are skilled helpers in the operating room who are not making money off of the choices of the surgeons,” she said.

Fugh-Berman said she has come to believe that reps should be banned from operating rooms. Her biggest concern is safety, including the occasional violations of sterile protocol. As part of her research, she anonymously interviewed reps who said they’re instructed to always push the latest, most expensive products, even when the old version is more proven.

“The newest device is not necessarily the best device,” she said. “In fact, it may be the worst device.”

Cost Concerns

Yet safety issues are not what has worn out the welcome for some reps — it’s their potential influence on surgical costs. Their precise impact remains hard for hospitals to quantify, but hospital executives now have a new incentive to push back on the role of the rep because insurance reimbursement formulas have changed.

For example, in 2016 the government-run Medicare program began changing how it pays hospitals for a joint replacement — from a traditional billing-for-costs model to a fixed-dollar amount for each surgery. It’s a cost-control move, because joint replacement has become one of the most common reasons for inpatient hospitalization for Medicare patients.

Increasingly, hospitals are feeling the squeeze of these new payment caps.

“They’re looking at costs and saying, ‘I want to understand everything that drives cost in my OR,’” said Doug Jones, a former rep with DePuy who now works for HealthTrust to control surgical spending. “I think they’re becoming more aware that that rep is in there and saying, ‘Is there a cost associated with it?’”

HealthTrust hasn’t been telling administrators to kick out sales reps. But it has been suggesting hospitals reassess their role. The company, which is a subsidiary of for-profit hospital chain HCA, has studied particular devices, like pedicle screws, often used in spine procedures. They cost anywhere from $50 to $100 to manufacture, but a hospital might pay a thousand dollars apiece to keep them in stock. One basic spine procedure can involve several screws and rods, with the sales rep standing to make a 10 percent to 25 percent commission on the equipment used, according to HealthTrust’s market research.

And in many places, upselling occurs in the room, said HealthTrust’s Ford. He recalled seeing reps encouraging a surgeon preparing for a procedure to use a fancier device that wasn’t on the hospital’s discounted list.

Other HealthTrust clients are starting pilot projects on running operating rooms without company-sponsored reps and buying equipment directly from smaller firms, which often have devices that are nearly identical to the brand names.

But getting rid of the rep may have hidden costs, too.

Surgeon-Rep Relationships

Joint replacements have become so routine that an experienced surgical team can nearly operate in silence. When the surgeon says “neck” and reaches out his hand, an assistant places the piece in his hand without a moment’s delay.

The array of tools and components are often in the right place because a device rep made sure of it. Logistics is a big part of the job — delivering trays of instruments in the pre-dawn hours to be sterilized by the hospital, the “non-glorious side of being a rep,” Ford said.

The logistical role has essentially been filled by the manufacturers instead of hospitals in recent decades. And now surgeons may trust their reps more than anyone else in the room. They’re often the first call he or she makes when scheduling a case, to make sure the device will be ready to go.

“If that widget isn’t there the next day when I’m doing a case and I need the widget, we’re kind of at an impasse,” said Christie, the Nashville-based joint replacement surgeon.

Many experienced surgeons, like Christie, also have financial ties to manufacturers, collecting substantial royalties for helping design new implants. As of 2013, these payments are now disclosed publicly. Christie, for example, was paid $123,000 by DePuy in 2017.

An industry trade group spokesman defends the close relationship as a way to improve their products and provide hands-on training to surgeons. “Those are two areas where it’s key to maintain a close, collaborative relationship, with the appropriate ethical limitations,” said Dr. Terry Chang, associate general counsel for AdvaMed.

Filling A Personnel Gap

The overall result is that many clinicians are happy to have reps in the room.

“You say ‘sales rep,’” said Marley Duff, an operating room manager at TriStar Centennial Medical Center. “I look at them more being somebody that’s expertly trained in their field to provide support for the implants that they happen to sell.”

Reps can be especially helpful when a failing artificial joint needs to be removed and replaced, Duff said.

Hospitals are reluctant to remove reps, for fear of irritating surgeons, who typically don’t work directly for a particular hospital and could move their cases to another institution. Those hospitals experimenting with going “rep-less” have done so quietly and have had to hire additional staff to pick up the slack.

One of the first in the country to try, Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, Calif., boasted in 2015 of reducing costs for total knee and hip replacements by more than 50 percent by going rep-less.

But a hospital spokeswoman now says that the medical center has abandoned the effort, though she refused to discuss why.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ Reading The Tea Leaves In Blue Wave’s Wake

This week, “What the Health?” panelists discuss, among other things, how the House Democrats’ leadership battle could affect the congressional health policy agenda.

The panelists are Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Alice Ollstein of Politico and Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.

As the post-election dust settles on Capitol Hill, the Democrats — soon to be in control of the House of Representatives — have begun the process of choosing their leadership team. How this shakes out will have a lot to do with how health policy agenda takes shape in the lower chamber.

House Democrats nominated Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to retake the speaker’s gavel, but she still needs to win over more of her colleagues to secure the speaker post in January.

But all the action this week wasn’t focused on Congress. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb unveiled a proposed overhaul of the FDA’s decades-old medical device approval process, and the Trump administration announced proposals it said would reduce Medicare prescription drug costs. Critics fear those changes could mean that some people with chronic diseases like AIDS or cancer might not have access to the drugs they need.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • House Democrats nominated Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to retake the speaker’s gavel this week along with the rest of its leadership slate, Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. This is only the first step, though. The leadership positions will not be filled officially until January, when they are voted on by the full House. Although Pelosi is still wrangling for the support needed to earn her the required 218 votes, most insiders expect the Democrat’s leadership team to look much as it did the last time Democrats ruled the House chamber in 2010, when the Affordable Care Act became law. That means the House will likely be laser-focused on the necessary steps to protect the ACA. There may also be hearings on single-payer health insurance — a concept that is increasingly gaining interest and support within the caucus, and especially among some of its newest members.
  • In the background, the Texas lawsuit that could overturn the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting conditions is still pending. That decision could come any day. Keep in mind, though, that whatever the court rules, it is likely to be appealed immediately and move up the legal ladder. And, in the interim, House Democrats may still move forward with legislation to strengthen those ACA safeguards. Such a measure could get some GOP support because many Republicans seeking re-election this year said they wanted to ensure that patients with preexisting medical conditions would not lose coverage.
  • The FDA unveiled a proposed overhaul of its decades-old medical device approval system. Among its provisions, the plan includes steps to ensure that new medical devices reflect current safety and effectiveness features. Critics of the current system say it has failed to detect problems with some implants — like hip replacements that failed prematurely or surgical mesh that has been linked to pain and bleeding. The changes, if approved, could take years to implement and some might require congressional approval.
  • The Trump administration proposed a series of changes to reduce the number of prescription drugs that all Medicare drug plans must cover. The proposal focuses on drugs in six “protected classes” and involves medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotic medicines, cancer drugs and antiretrovirals to treat HIV/AIDS. Administration officials have said the proposal could cut costs for Medicare, but patient advocacy groups say it could reduce patients’ access for much-needed treatments. The proposed changes would not occur until 2020, and Congress could intervene to stop them.

Also this week, Julie Rovner interviews KHN senior correspondent Jay Hancock, who investigated and wrote the latest “Bill of the Month” feature for Kaiser Health News and NPR. It’s about a single mother from Ohio who received a wrongful bill for her multiple sclerosis treatment. You can read the story here.

If you have a medical bill you would like NPR and KHN to investigate, you can submit it here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Mary Agnes Carey: The New York Times’ “This City’s Overdose Deaths Have Plunged. Can Others Learn From It?” by Abby Goodnough

Margot Sanger-Katz: NPR’s “Rethinking Bed Rest for Pregnancy,” by Alison Kodjak

Anna Edney: The Washington Post’s “Overdoses, Bedsores, Broken Bones: What Happened When a Private-Equity Firm Sought to Care for Society’s Most Vulnerable,” by Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating

Alice Ollstein: Wired.com’s “The Science Is Clear: Dirty Farm Water Is Making Us Sick,” by Elizabeth Shogren and Susie Neilson

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.