Medicare, the free market, and a drug that doesn’t work

This story will make you discouraged about BOTH the government AND the free market when it comes to healthcare.  Peter Whoriskey reports:

The U.S. health-care system is vastly overspending for a single anemia drug because Medicare overestimates its use by hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to an analysis of federal data. The overpayment to hospitals and clinics arises because Medicare reimburses them based on estimates rather than the actual use of the drug.

The government for years has tried to rein in spending on the prescription drug, Epogen, which had ranked some years as the most expensive drug to taxpayers through the Medicare system.

Medicare’s current estimates are based on Epogen usage in 2007 for dialysis treatments. But since then, use of the drug has fallen 25 percent or more, partly because of Food and Drug Administration warnings about its perils and partly because Congress removed the financial incentives for clinics and hospitals to prescribe the drug. Because Medicare continues to reimburse health-care providers as if the dosing levels haven’t changed, the significant savings in doses has not translated into savings for the U.S. Treasury.

The amount of the overspending is more than $400 million annually, according to calculations done separately by The Washington Post and experts.

“I think we probably left money on the table,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a critic of the way the drug had been used who helped shepherd through legislation that removed the financial incentives for bigger doses beginning in 2011.

The overpayment for Epogen reflects both the promise and difficulty of large-scale government reform of health-care spending.

For years, Epogen was one of a trio of anemia drugs — all manufactured by Amgen, a California biotech firm — that cost Medicare as much as $3 billion annually. Overall U.S. sales of the drugs exceeded $8 billion.

Nearly two decades after the drugs were first approved in 1989, their purported benefits were found to be overstated, and the FDA issued a series of stern warnings about their potentially deadly side effects, such as cancer and heart attacks.

At least some of their popularity stemmed from the fact that hospitals and clinics made lots of money using them: The spread between what they paid for a dose and what Medicare paid them to administer one reached as high as 30 percent, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

The incentives drove up usage. By 2007, about 80 percent of dialysis patients were getting the drugs at levels beyond what the FDA now targets as safe.

Congress pushed Medicare to revise its payment system to remove the incentives for larger doses. Under the new system for dialysis patients, Medicare pays a set fee for a bundle of dialysis services and drugs.

via Medicare overspending on anemia drug – The Washington Post.

So Medicare reimbursed based on ESTIMATES rather than actual usage?  And hospitals and doctors prescribed the drugs so much in part because “they could make so much money using them”?

Of course, the reason the drugs were so lucrative is because Medicare paid so much for them, so it’s the unholy alliance between the government and the private sector–which is at the heart of Obamacare– that is to blame.  Still, this dashes further the assumption that our medical treatment is always based on objective considerations of patient care.

Are business practices that work in other profit-making enterprises fitting for health care?  For example, why are all of these prescription drugs being advertised on television?  Are patients now “consumers” who are expected to demand certain medicines from their physicians, in which case, what happens to objective determinations in the practice of medicine?  Or are the physicians the target of these marketing campaigns, in which case, again, what happens to objective determinations in the practice of medicine?

When the state-run health care system makes cuts

Great Britain has a state-run health care system, having taken over virtually all medical care at little or no cost to the individual.  That’s what many people in this country would also like to see eventually.  But now the incredibly expensive British system has to save costs.  Here are some of the ways the British government will save money:

* Restrictions on some of the most basic and common operations, including hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and orthodontic procedures.

* Plans to cut hundreds of thousands of pounds from budgets for the terminally ill, with dying cancer patients to be told to manage their own symptoms if their condition worsens at evenings or weekends.

* The closure of nursing homes for the elderly.

* A reduction in acute hospital beds, including those for the mentally ill, with targets to discourage GPs from sending patients to hospitals and reduce the number of people using accident and emergency departments.

* Tighter rationing of NHS funding for IVF treatment, and for surgery for obesity.

* Thousands of job losses at NHS hospitals, including 500 staff to go at a trust where cancer patients recently suffered delays in diagnosis and treatment because of staff shortages.

* Cost-cutting programmes in paediatric and maternity services, care of the elderly and services that provide respite breaks to long-term carers.

via Axe falls on NHS services – Telegraph.

This is why so many Americans are leery of state-run health care. They don’t want to become dependent on the federal government for their very lives, knowing that what the state gives it can take away. The free market is the only way to allocate supply and demand while cultivating both freedom and abundance. (Yes, scarcity raises prices for the poor, but that can be addressed without taking over the whole system in a command economy run from above.)


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