Bioethics for Breakfast: Health Reform Unmentionables: Long-Term Care

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Anne Montgomery and Sarah Slocum, co-directors of Altarum’s Program to Improve Eldercare, presented at the December 10 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Health Reform Unmentionables: Long-Term Care.”

While past Bioethics for Breakfast events were held in person, this year’s series is taking place virtually. The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

A lot of attention has been given recently to the social, political, ethical, and economic challenges associated with long-term care. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time, the pandemic has given these issues more public visibility. There are several large questions to consider: What are the major challenges facing long-term care today? How should long-term care be financed? What would motivate individuals to purchase long-term care insurance? What are the consequences for Medicaid if we see increased reliance on Medicaid for long-term care funding (keeping in mind continued growth of the elderly population and dementing illness)? What policy options are available for addressing all these challenges? Should those policy options be left to the states? What, if any, is the role of the federal government?

Discussing financing, proposals, and reforms related to long-term care insurance in the U.S., Sarah Slocum reminded attendees of our present-day circumstances by giving a brief overview of Medicare and Medicaid, beginning in the 1965 when they were passed at the federal level. The original design did not include long-term care. By the 1980s, the version of Medicaid could bankrupt entire families if one member of a married couple needed to enter a nursing home. In the 1990s, spousal impoverishment provisions were enacted to protect the assets of individuals. Many states began regulating long-term care insurance, however, policies remained very expensive and were very hard to market. For those who did choose to purchase long term care insurance, their premiums increased as they got older. Bringing us to the present, Slocum discussed Michigan reforms that began to be planned in 2017. One option that the Michigan legislature will have to consider is a 0.5-1% payroll tax contribution for all individuals to fund a long-term care program. Slocum shared the example of a new program in the state of Washington, noting that watching how well the program does could help inform decisions made in Michigan and other states.

Anne Montgomery then offered insight into policy considerations at the federal level, based on her work in Washington, D.C. The cost of long-term care insurance remains a challenge to many people. Additionally, one in five middle-income seniors will become impoverished, typically turning to Medicaid to cover their long-term care costs. More than half of Americans who enter old age today will have a long-term care need for constant attendance, something that is very costly. Montgomery shared the possibility of federal social insurance, though that possibility depends on how legislation is drafted and considered by Congress. Discussing Medigap, Montgomery suggested adding long-term care services and supports to the existing coverage. Montgomery also brought forth the need for a bigger and better trained long-term care workforce, and the need for other infrastructure and home and community-based service improvements. Montgomery then shared predictions on what the Biden administration may be looking to do beginning in 2021, touching on the Affordable Care Act and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. Finally, Montgomery discussed the need for culture change and quality improvement within nursing homes, such as moving to a person-centered model.

The discussion portion of the session included questions about how hospice and palliative care interface with long-term care insurance, how family caregivers could be compensated under a new model, and the overall appetite of the American public for the changes discussed by Slocum and Montgomery.

Related Resources

About the Speakers

Anne Montgomery
Anne Montgomery is Co-Director at Altarum’s Program to Improve Eldercare, where she oversees a portfolio of quality improvement and research projects focused on older adults and long-term services and supports. Montgomery has more than two decades of policy experience working on Medicare, Medicaid and related programs. Montgomery served as a Senior Advisor for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, where she developed policy included in the Affordable Care Act, including policy to upgrade quality in the nursing home sector; expand options for states offering home and community-based services; improve direct care worker training; and improve state Medicaid assessment processes. Montgomery also worked for the House Ways & Means Committee, the Government Accountability Office and the Alliance for Health Policy in Washington, D.C., and was awarded the Atlantic Fellowship in Public Policy to conduct comparative analysis of family caregiver policy in the U.S. and the UK. Montgomery received an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.

Sarah Slocum
Sarah Slocum joined the Altarum Program to Improve Elder Care in the fall of 2016. As Co-Director of Altarum’s Program to Improve Eldercare, Ms. Slocum strives to improve the quality of life and care for frail elders living with disability. Just prior, she served 13 years as Michigan’s State Long Term Care Ombudsman, leading advocacy for Michigan citizens living in long term care facilities. She has led policy change efforts in the state Medicaid program, long term care regulations, the Certificate of Need program, and with the Michigan legislature. Ms. Slocum has testified on nursing home quality before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. She has worked for over three decades in aging and long term care advocacy at the state and national levels. Ms. Slocum received an MA in Bioethics from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Web of Interests Surrounding Medicines Makes Patient Access Increasingly Difficult

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD

A recent New York Times article described the problems that patients are having gaining access to a new class of cholesterol reducers, called PCSK9 inhibitors. This difficulty extends not just to the uninsured but also to patients with insurance. The drug costs are exorbitant, listing as more than $14,000 per year for a drug that may need to be taken indefinitely. Insurance companies are balking at paying so much for the new drug when cheaper cholesterol reducers are available. Patients for whom the old cholesterol reducers do not work are forced to jump through many time-consuming hoops – mountains of paperwork, proof that other drugs have failed, and appeals after initial denials of coverage – before drug coverage approval for the PCSK9 inhibitors.

It is easy to blame the drug companies in this situation. Why must they charge so much?!?! This question has become more common considering recent news stories about drug company price increases designed only to increase profits. But high drug costs are only one obstacle for patients to access drugs. Insurance coverage dictates cost of drugs to patients from nominal co-pays to out-of-pocket self-funding. Attempts to address one issue without addressing the entire web of interests is doomed to failure.

Image description: A close-up photograph of a spider web that is covered in water droplets. The web takes up the entire frame and is in focus, the background is blurred and includes green and purple tones. Image source: nils.rohwer/Flickr Creative Commons

Drug Companies and Federal Regulations

Drugs cost money and time to develop and produce. All drugs must undergo scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where drug developers must prove both the safety and efficacy of the potential drug before it is sold. The process takes on average 12 years between lead compound identification and final approval, and often costs close to a billion dollars absent streamlined approval processes for certain rare diseases. The billion-dollar cost estimate includes the cost of research for the failure of the many compounds that enter clinical trials but are deemed either unsafe or ineffective for the disease to be treated.

Thus, drug companies charge prices to recoup this huge research investment. Prices also pay for manufacturing and advertising as well as profit margins of close to 20% to fuel further investment. While there are mechanisms in place to incentivize generic drug manufacturers to enter the market and decrease prices through competition, branded drug companies have strategies to delay generic entry that have come under recent legal scrutiny.

Private Insurance and Federal/State Medical Programs

While drug costs are high due to the myriad factors described briefly above, patients are often insulated from some of those costs by insurance companies that cover the cost of drugs. Insurance comes in a variety of forms. Private insurance may be procured on the open market or through employer coverage. In the latter, the employer may cover some or all the costs of the insurance. Senior citizens rely on the Federally-sponsored Medicare program for medical coverage, though private supplements insurance policies are also the norm. Those too young for Medicare and too poor for private insurance (with or without an employer subsidy) are forced to rely on state Medicaid programs.

Unfortunately, not every insurance plan covers every drug. Insurance companies produce a formulary of covered drugs for each plan. The insurance plan negotiates a price, often significantly cheaper than the drug’s list price, that it will pay the drug manufacturer. More expensive drugs may require insurance pre-approval and multiple rounds of paperwork from the prescribing doctor.

Insurance companies have an incentive to reduce the usage of expensive drug alternatives. For private insurance companies, that incentive is profit. In fact, for-profit insurance companies know how to play this game quite well; many have profits in excess of 6 billion dollars. Medicaid and Medicare programs have limited budgets for all medical costs including drugs. While increased Medicaid funding for states offered through the Affordable Care Act was effective in decreasing uninsured rates, government funding is always in flux due to political pressures.

Doctors and Pharmacists

Doctors have great discretion in prescribing drugs. While doctors hold their patients’ health as the highest goal, knowledge of insurance (or its lack) may influence the doctor’s choice of drugs. Denial of a drug may well mean many, many more forms for a doctor who wants to make sure her patient has the best, most expensive drug. Doctors who do this for multiple patients could soon find themselves spending as much time on drug paperwork as medical care. Many doctors have taken to giving samples of drugs – left by drug companies as part of their advertising budgets – to patients who cannot afford the drug but need it.

Pharmacists exist at the epicenter of the patient’s dilemma. Patients often find out that insurance is not covering the drug when the pharmacist explains the situation. More troubling is the fact that drug prices are sometimes cheaper for a patient without insurance. For instance, a patient may have a twenty-dollar co-pay, but the drug may only cost ten dollars. For years, pharmacists have been subject to “gag clauses” in contracts between pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers that prevent them from disclosing to the patient the cheaper alternative. Recent legislation signed this month has banned this practice.


Caught in this web of diverse and conflicting interests are the very people for whom drugs are created and vetted and prescribed – patients. Drug manufacturers must be able to recoup costs, but if no one can afford the drug how will they make sales? Additionally, drug pricing is a convoluted process that varies between insurance policies, pharmacies, and branded or generic formulations. Insurance coverage is often dictated by employer, age, or resources. Lack of coverage for a specific drug might mean the patient is faced with choosing a different drug or a different job. But asking about insurance formularies during a job interview would be quite difficult even if switching jobs in the midst of a medical crisis were possible. On the other hand, determining drug needs in advance is almost impossible. Finding a doctor with the time to work with a patient on an involved approval process is becoming more difficult given the increasing shortage of doctors in the United States.

Sitting in the center of this web of interests, patients have the most to gain and the most to lose from any overhaul of our drug system. It is impossible to fix all the problems by focusing only on the problems in one area. Unfortunately, patients are also a very small voice in the web that includes pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and medical professionals.

Jennifer Carter-Johnson photo

Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, is an Associate Professor of Law in the College of Law at Michigan State University. Dr. Carter-Johnson is a member of the Michigan State Bar and the Washington State Bar. She is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, November 1, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Carter-Johnson: Humanity in the Age of Genetic ModificationDefining The Spectrum of “Normal”: What is a Disease?Dawn of False Hope: Spread of “Right To Try” Laws across the U.S.Designing Children: Patents and the Market are not Sufficient Regulation

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Bioethics for Breakfast: Medicaid Work Requirements: Blood, Sweat and Tears Too?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyAdrianne Haggins, MD, presented at the Bioethics for Breakfast event on February 8, 2018, offering perspective and insight on the topic, “Medicaid Work Requirements: Blood, Sweat and Tears Too?” Leonard Fleck, PhD, moderated this session.

The Trump administration has proposed giving states permission to attach work requirements for Medicaid eligibility. So far, ten states are seeking that permission. Is this a good idea, either from an ethical perspective or a policy perspective? Our speaker, Dr. Adrianne Haggins, is part of a research team at the University of Michigan that evaluated the impact of Michigan’s Medical expansion on employment—as reported in JAMA Internal Medicine (Dec. 11, 2017)—as well as health, and healthcare utilization.

A researcher at Kaiser Health News has added, “States will have to figure out how to define the work requirement and alternative options, such as going to school or volunteering in some organizations; how to enforce the new rules; how to pay for new administrative costs; and how to handle the millions of enrollees likely to seek exemptions.” Dr. Haggins also discussed some of her own research regarding health disparities and emergency department utilization.

Audience participants questioned such things as the administrative costs associated with implementation as well as the value and accuracy of labeling individuals as able-bodied with its attendant underlying stigma of deserving/undeserving of medical care. It was noted that much of the national conversation is linked to racialized assumptions that those utilizing Medicaid benefits are largely persons of color. Finally, many audience members argued the point that all people unconditionally deserve access to health care and some observed how that point too often gets lost in the semantics.

Related Reading:

Adrianne Haggins, MD
Adrianne Haggins is a clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, and alumnus of the MSU College of Human Medicine class of 2007. She is a member of a research team at the University of Michigan evaluating the impact of Michigan’s Medicaid expansion, the Healthy Michigan Plan, using a mixed-methods approach. This evaluation provides rich data on enrollee and health care provider experiences with the Michigan Medicaid program, as well as health care utilization. Dr. Haggins’ specific interests are related to examining the impact of health care reform on emergency department utilization.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

At a Crossroads: Medicaid and Health Policy in the U.S.

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Hannah Giunta, DO, PhD, MPH

Recently, U.S. states were granted federal permission to pilot a variety of initiatives that will require able-bodied, adult Medicaid recipients to attend school, work, volunteer, or participate in rehabilitation to receive benefits. Earlier this month, Kentucky became the first state to successfully apply for a waiver allowing them to trial work requirements. While the majority of Medicaid recipients—including children, enrollees with disabilities, and full-time caregivers—are exempt from these changes, the initiation of a work requirement represents a dramatic shift in health policy unprecedented in our nation’s history. While I am not opposed to work requirements for cash assistance, access to health care is a fundamentally different matter. Even if the work requirement could be implemented without negative downstream effects, it still values people’s lives according to what they contribute.

When Medicaid was first signed into law as part of the 1965 Social Security Act by President Johnson, it represented the culmination of a larger social debate about poverty and health. A general consensus emerged that no American should be left without access to needed medical care whether due to age, disability, or disadvantage. Against the backdrop of Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” initiatives, access to health care was rightly seen as a crucial factor in economic empowerment and development. Johnson stated unequivocally in his January 1964 State of the Union address to Congress:

This budget, and this year’s legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes—his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age. (Peters and Woolley, The American Presidency Project)

But, there was also a sense that America could do right by the poor and disadvantaged. Later in the same State of the Union address, Johnson stated:

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. (Peters and Woolley, The American Presidency Project)

Image description:  President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare amendment at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri on July 30, 1965. Former president Harry S. Truman is seated at the table with President Johnson. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, from the very beginning, the Medicaid program was justified based on the importance of economic empowerment and also on the basis of the compassion and decency a rich nation ought to show its citizens. In its present forms, the work requirement will go a long way toward undermining both of these justifications.

From the perspective of economic empowerment, one of the major arguments made in favor of the work requirement emphasizes personal empowerment through work. As Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reiterated in her public comments, community involvement through work can be a source of empowerment and possibly help recipients transition to jobs with health benefits. Yet, while Americans certainly want good jobs with benefits, current work requirement proposals do little to help Medicaid recipients climb the economic ladder. There is no additional funding for education, workforce placement services, or incentives for companies to hire these workers at a living wage. It is unclear how simply requiring people to find jobs improves the situation. Of course, some might argue that people should take any 20-hour per week job they can find if they want benefits. While you can make an argument in favor of this proposition, you cannot simultaneously herald work requirements as a force for economic empowerment. Workers are likely to end up in the same dead-end jobs available before the work requirement. Additionally, with no upgrade of their skills or qualifications, I imagine the likelihood of them obtaining a job with decent health insurance coverage is the same as it is right now. The only difference is that now workers who lose a job and cannot find new employment lose their health insurance too. If they volunteer, we as a society might benefit from these workers’ efforts. But, though volunteering is laudable, it is unlikely to result in a major step up on the economic ladder and places further burdens on individuals who are already on the margins.

pill bottle and money
Image description: a prescription pill bottle is on its side with capsules still inside and spilling out onto a surface of U.S. $20 bills. Image source: Images Money/Flickr Creative Commons.

Not to mention, the work requirement may paradoxically exacerbate the health inequities Medicaid was designed to address in the first place. For instance, children, pregnant women, and full-time caregivers make up a large number of Medicaid recipients. They are currently exempt from the work requirements, but their family members are not. Imagine how much more hardship a family will face if a partner or parent loses coverage. Adult caregivers and children may be forced into a losing battle between their own needs and the needs of the newly uninsured family member.

Most crucially, the issue at stake in this debate is truly whether health care is a human right or a commodity provided or traded to those who contribute something in return. Of course, supporters of the work requirement will point out that they merely want those enrollees who can work to contribute something in exchange for free benefits. It is human nature to count the cost of our generosity. However, in a society as rich as our own, should anyone go without needed care? Is the life and health of an individual who has not held a job in years worth less than the life of someone who works 20 hours each week? According to the work requirements, it seems like the answer is a resounding “yes.” Of course, the person could seek care at the emergency room—a place of last resort for many people without resources. But, can’t we do better than that? The question really becomes: can the United States care for its own, or has the most powerful nation in history lost its way? We can decide to declare defeat or we can develop new battle strategies to win the war on poverty once and for all. How we answer this challenge will undoubtedly determine how future historians look back on this time.

hannah-giunta-2017-cropHannah Giunta, DO, PhD, MPH, is a first year pediatric resident at Mayo Clinic and proud alumnus of Michigan State University. She completed her PhD in spring 2016 under the direction of Dr. Tom Tomlinson and her medical degree in May 2017.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, February 13, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

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Incarcerated AND Sick: At Risk for Pain, Injury, and Death

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD

The U.S. project of mass incarceration reveals that more than 2 million people are jail-involved at any given time. That rate far exceeds that of any other nation in the world. Incarcerated patients are sicker, bearing an increased burden of chronic disease, namely addiction, viral infections, and mental illness. Conditions often exacerbated by solitary confinement. Moreover, those incarcerated are disproportionately from communities of color suffering from historical racial discrimination. Consider the following: Whites (non-Hispanic) comprise 64% of the U.S. population, 39% of the U.S. incarcerated population, and the national incarceration rate (per 100,000) is 450; Hispanics make up 16% of the U.S. population, 19% of incarcerated population, and the national rate is 831; Blacks are 13% of the U.S. population, 40% of the incarcerated population, and the national incarceration rate is 2,306 per 100,000.

Image description: a black and white photograph showing a person’s hands reaching through from behind metal fencing. Their hands are grasping the fence in the foreground, and the rest of the person’s body is not visible. Image source: Tiago Pinheiro/Flickr Creative Commons

In the 1976 Estelle vs. Gamble ruling the U.S. Supreme Court established that “deliberate indifference to healthcare for inmates constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and was thus prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.” In April of this year, a class action lawsuit was filed in the State of Illinois arguing, “health care inside the Illinois Department of Corrections systematically puts inmates at risk of pain, injury, and death.” In effect, Illinois has been put on notice that the correctional health care it provides (or the lack of provision), violates the 1976 Supreme Court ruling. Of course, Illinois is not the only state faced with this problem. A recent ruling found the Alabama Department of Correction’s mental health care system to be “horrendously inadequate.”

The challenges to delivering health care in correctional institutions are similar to those experienced in delivering care in any under-resourced setting that serves vulnerable patients. Overcrowding and understaffing are oft-cited explanations for the inadequacy of correctional health care delivery. An additional, deeply concerning factor is the privatization of prisons with related underbids, cost overruns, and vast gaps in the actual services provided. With increasing numbers of women cycling in and out of prison, women prisoners have specific health needs related to the increased likelihood of being victims of domestic and sexual violence. There is a pressing need for correctional health care services to address these health issues.

Image description: a close-up photo of the bars of a prison cell, with the bars in focus in the foreground and an empty green/yellow cell visible in the background. Image source: Dave Nakayama/Flickr Creative Commons

As a matter of justice, incarcerated patients should receive the same level of care that they would receive in a community setting. Unfortunately, this notion is not politically popular. Nevertheless, work is being done to merge correctional health and public health to ensure continuity of care once prisoners are released. Significantly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifically addresses the importance of ensuring that the jail-involved have access to the same benefits as the non-incarcerated. The ACA expansion of Medicaid eligibility supplies a critical opportunity to treat prisoners once released. Untreated substance abuse and mental illness among the jail-involved increases their likelihood of future imprisonment.

Image description: a close-up photo of part of a large metal door that reads “SOLITARY.” Image source: Shannon O’Toole/Flickr Creative Commons

Health care providers often find themselves serving two masters in correction settings. Providers have a duty to provide care that is in the best interest of the patient, but equally, they are also employed by the institution that has other, often conflicting interests, namely to confine, punish, and possibly, rehabilitate. This conflict is referred to as dual loyalty. The virtual societal silence on larger issues about the nature of the institution of incarceration is problematic and makes many correctional health providers “complicit as the United States has embarked on a vast and unprecedented social program of mass incarceration.” Given this state of affairs, providers should use their professional power and work to advocate for and insist upon substantial reforms in clinical care within prisons. A key critical reform is to eliminate solitary confinement. Medical providers also must advocate for change in the criminal justice system. The current project of mass incarceration in the U.S. harms the individual health of prisoners and the public health of the community.

Because of lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits on behalf of prisoners, as well as the dedication of committed health care professionals, activists, and advocates, the quality of health care in prisons has steadily improved. Yet there remains vast room for improvement in clinical care. Physicians hold leadership and management positions in correctional institutions. Combined with the social privilege afforded them in the U.S., physicians have the power, and I would argue the obligation, to spearhead reforms in correctional health care and ensure that the incarcerated sick are at no greater risk than the non-incarcerated of pain, injury, or death.

Karen Kelly-Blake photoKaren Kelly-Blake, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, August 10, 2017. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Kelly-Blake: White Horse, White Faces: The Decriminalization of Heroin AddictionRacism and the Public’s Health: Whose Lives Matter?Concussion in the NFL: A Case for Shared Decision-Making?

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No More Death Panels; Politically-Assisted Suicide Instead

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics-in-the-News-logo

By Leonard Fleck, PhD

Republicans have not coalesced around any comprehensive proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act (though one is now on the table and intensely disputed). This has been named the American Health Care Act. At this writing (March 10) two congressional committees have approved a bill endorsed by Paul Ryan. It is expected to go to the full House this week where it will likely receive a much rockier reception from a number of very conservative Republicans who have derided the bill as “Obamacare Lite.”

For purposes of this commentary I will put aside internal Republican bickering. My goal is to call attention to the most serious ethical deficiencies in the bill as it stands now. I confess that Obamacare Lite does not sound too ethically problematic. Many Democrats would support some reform of the Affordable Care Act. A more accurate moniker (in my judgment) would be “Obamacare Stingy.” That comes closer to capturing the serious injustices inherent in the American Health Care Act (AHCA).

Anyone familiar with my published work knows I am a strong advocate for the view that health care costs need to be constrained, and this needs to be done justly and for the sake of justice in the overall allocation of health care resources. Further, I have argued that those who are medically least well off and capable of significant benefit from access to effective costly health care services have strong just claims to have those needs met. But this is precisely what the AHCA does not do.

Instead, the AHCA eliminates two taxes that Obamacare imposed on the wealthy to pay for the subsidies needed by the poorer uninsured to gain access to insurance. To be precise, the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. (those who earn more than $774,000 in a year) would receive a tax cut of $33,000 while the top 0.1% of earners would get a tax cut of $197,000. In order to reduce the burden on the federal treasury the new subsidies under the AHCA would be given as tax credits and reduced significantly from those provided under Obamacare.* Further, the tax credits would be age-related, not income-related. A 25-year-old would get a tax credit of $2,000 while a 60-year-old would get a tax credit of $4,000. If that 60-year-old earned less than $20,000 under Obamacare, he would have received $9,900 in subsidies for health insurance. The average 60-year-old will have 3.5 times more health care expenses than the 25-year-old. Under the AHCA insurance companies could charge the 60-year-old five times what they charged the 25-year-old, unlike Obamacare which limited that difference to a factor of three. The cost of insurance for that 60-year-old (the silver plan) would be about $18,000 under the AHCA, which would be essentially unaffordable. Instead of the notorious Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” we would have “subsidies to nowhere.” This is where the most objectionable ethics issues lie: the creation of massive pseudo benefits that provide political cover for members of Congress but no health care coverage for patients with substantial health needs.

Image description: a woman with white hair wearing a red shirt is displaying a sign that reads, “health care for profit is sick!” Image source: Sage Ross/Flickr Creative Commons

We must also mention that Medicaid funding would be reduced to the states, apparently through a per capita funding mechanism. Over a period of years, the share of Medicaid funding from the federal government would be reduced and the financial responsibility for “adjusting” would be left to state legislatures. The same might be true for high-risk pools for the uninsurable. Again, individuals faced with reduced subsidies would be forced to “freely choose” health plans with very high deductibles, high co-pays, and restricted benefits. This is “fig leaf” insurance, sufficient for political modesty, but insufficient for even modest health care coverage.

The common denominator among these items is reduced federal spending and the shifting of responsibility for making painful cost control (rationing) decisions to states, hospitals, physicians, and individuals. Congress thereby spares itself a Palinesque death panel fulmination. The reason this works is that there are numerous mechanisms for doing rationing invisibly, the most common of which is rationing by ability to pay.** The target for these efforts will be primarily those who are medically and financially among the least well off (not to mention politically powerless), such as our marginally employed 60-year-old above.

If individuals “freely choose” to not purchase health insurance (because it is unaffordable), or “freely deny themselves” needed care (because of high deductibles or co-payments), then responsibility for any bad outcomes (premature death) is widely dispersed among “irresponsible” individuals and effectively rendered invisible to prying media eyes. This is the logic embedded in Representative Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) comment that people should “invest in their own health care instead of getting that new iPhone.” One individual responded that their $117,000 broken ankle was worth 234 iPhones.

A 2012 Families USA study concluded that 26,100 individuals between the ages of 25 and 64 died prematurely in 2010 as a consequence of being uninsured. Of course, the death certificates themselves would not have listed “lack of insurance” as the cause of death. These individuals would have died of their (untreated or undertreated) cancer or heart disease or diabetes, all natural causes, certainly unfortunate, but nothing that would capture any media headlines. These are patients who would have “refused” their life-prolonging $100,000 targeted cancer therapies or their $250,000 left ventricular assist device for their late-stage heart failure. That is what makes these outcomes politically invisible. Patients, apologists for invisible rationing will argue, made the choice to refuse these $100,000 cancer drugs “freely,” which is “better” (for whom?) than mandating and subsidizing their purchase of health insurance. Consequently, Congress and the President are shielded from charges of heartless rationing by a thick political “veil of (willful) ignorance.”

The ethical reality, however, is that this is politically-assisted suicide. If federal funding to the 31 states that have expanded Medicaid to 138% of the poverty level is reduced, and if state legislatures in those states are unwilling to raise taxes to support that former expanded funding, and if taxpayers fail to rise up in revolt and demand higher taxes for compassionate reasons, and if rural hospitals are forced to close because of the size of their uninsured patient base, and if anonymous patients die for lack of timely care and ability to pay, then who should be responsible for “assisting” those deaths?

Judge Neil Gorsuch has made it clear that he is profoundly ethically and legally opposed to physician-assisted suicide. He should be questioned closely at his hearing whether he is equally opposed to the politically-assisted suicides now in the process of being legalized by Republican legislation aimed at replacing the Affordable Care Act. Or will he plead that it is unreasonable to demand that he see what is in reality “invisible”?

Finally, President Trump has committed himself to supporting “universal access” to health insurance. In his tweets he should make clear that such access would be restricted to paytients, who alone seem to have the requisite visibility.

* Lest any of us who are securely in the middle class feel ethically superior to the rich beneficiaries of this tax giveaway, we should be reminded that we were the beneficiaries of $270 billion in tax subsidies in 2016, which reflects the value of the taxes we did not pay on our own health insurance provided by our employers.

** Invisible rationing is intrinsically unjust. The most central element of our understanding of just policies and practices is that they are public, visible, transparent, and available for criticism, most especially by those most directly affected. John Rawls, the philosopher, emphasizes this point in his book, A Theory of Justice. I have argued at length for that same point in the health care context in my book, Just Caring: Health Care Rationing and Democratic Deliberation (Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 3.

leonard fleck photoLeonard Fleck, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the College of Human Medicine and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

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Bioethics for Breakfast: The Future of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act: Ethical and Policy Challenges

bioethics-for-breakfastSteve Fitton and Jane Turner, MD, presented at the Bioethics for Breakfast event on February 2, 2017, offering perspective and insight on the topic, “The Future of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act: Ethical and Policy Challenges.”

We assume that Republicans in Congress will follow through with their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. We also assume that there will be some sort of replacement. The expansion of Medicaid coverage represents just about half the increase in newly insured individuals. The proposal that seems to have the greatest likelihood of being enacted would include block-granting Medicaid. From the perspective of the federal government a block grant is a “fixed budget” as opposed to open-ended funding.

Our speakers discussed what this means for those who are dependent upon the Medicaid program for meeting their health care needs. For example, 31 states have expanded their Medicaid programs to 138% of the poverty level, and 95% of those additional costs are supposed to be covered by the federal government. Will those 31 states have those funds included in their block grant but have it denied to the other 19 states? Is it likely that the size of the block grant will be less than what Michigan would otherwise receive under the current funding mechanism? If the size of the grant is reduced, what sort of health care priorities will Medicaid use to determine the allocation of that more limited funding? What do we imagine might be the consequences for hospitals and or long term care facilities if funding is more constrained? These questions and more were addressed by speakers and attendees during the presentations and moderated discussion.

Left to right: Jane Turner, Leonard Fleck, and Steve Fitton pose for a photo after the Bioethics for Breakfast event. Photo courtesy of the Center for Ethics.

Steve Fitton
Steve Fitton is a principal with Health Management Associates. He has extensive expertise in Medicaid financing, federal waivers and reinventing healthcare delivery systems. As Michigan’s Medicaid director, he oversaw a budget of more than $15 billion with programs that served over two million residents. Steve played a key leadership role in the approval and implementation of the Healthy Michigan program, the state’s expansion of Medicaid. Steve led the creation and implementation of several Medicaid programs and initiatives to improve access and quality of care while increasing efficiencies and lowering costs. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University.

Jane Turner, MD
Jane Turner is a general pediatrician and professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development. She enjoys all aspects of caring for children and youth and has a special interest in working with children who have chronic health conditions. She has served on the faculty of the College of Human Medicine for more than 20 years as a teacher, clinician, and administrator. Dr. Turner also works for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as assistant medical director of the Office of Medical Affairs and chief medical consultant for Children’s Special Health Care Services. She went to medical school at the Oregon Health Sciences University and completed a pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.