On health performance, Mass. is not a shining star

[Commonwealth Magazine published this analysis and commentary on May 4 2019.]

Many Bay State health care cognoscenti and politicos like to brag about Massachusetts health statistics. For years now, Massachusetts has performed well, at or near the top, in surveys of key health indicators among the 50 US states.

For example, the United Health Foundation’s 2016 America’s Health Rankings had Massachusetts in 1st place (though we dropped to 7th in 2018). We were 2nd in the Commonwealth Fund’s State Health System Performance Scorecards in 2018. And we showed up 5th in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best States survey. Not too shabby.
2019-ma-v-oecd-national-health-data_Page_1-e1556919514405-768x456
Maybe we should limit the self-congratulations. Perhaps we’re not as good as we like to believe. What if comparing ourselves with retrograde US states sets the bar too low? By contrast, the Massachusetts education policy community routinely examines benchmarks comparing our state’s performance with that of other advanced nations, not with US states where looking smart is no big challenge. Here’s a recent example:

“If Massachusetts were a nation, it would share the top spot in reading with eight other nations worldwide. In science, the state’s students and those from 10 nations came in second, trailing only students from Singapore. In math, 11 other nations were ahead of the Commonwealth. The results come from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international survey designed to assess how well 15-year-old students can apply their knowledge and skills.”

So, how does Massachusetts compare on key health statistics with those of other advanced nations? Are we tops? Do we win the crown or not?

Not.

With research assistance from a diligent graduate student, I examined 12 key health performance indicators for Massachusetts and matched them with comparable stats from 11 advanced nations: the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I included core public health measures often included in international and US comparative performance studies:

Obesity among adults
Adult smoking
Population with health insurance
Infant mortality
Life expectancy at birth
Share of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on medical care
Maternal mortality
Suicide mortality
Having a regular physician or place of care
Mortality attributable to health care
Population experiencing cost-related access problems
Population with out-of-pocket health care costs greater than $1,000 in past year

Some argue that it is illegitimate to compare a nation as large as the US with comparatively puny competitors. For comparative purposes, the US population in 2017 was 325.7 million, and the 10 non-US comparators’ combined population was 322.8 million. For this analysis, I examined the 10 non-US nations as a group and individually with the US and with Massachusetts – 12 categories in all. The accompanying table provides data and rankings for Massachusetts, the US, and the average of the other 10 nations. (To see the full table with sources and with details on all 11 examined nations and Massachusetts, click here.)

How does the US come out? On the 12 measures among 12 nations (treating Massachusetts as a nation), the US ranks 12th worst on 8 measures, 10th worst for 2 measures, and 9th and 7th worst for 1 measure each. Looking at the three units – 10 nations, US, and Massachusetts – our nation comes in last on 11 of 12 measures, and best on zero.

What about Massachusetts? On 8 of the 12 measures, we’re in the bottom half; on 4 of those, we come in at #11, one rank better than the US, and worse than everyone else. We’re 11th best out of 12 on health insurance coverage, life expectancy, share of Gross Domestic Product spent on medical care, and having a regular physician or place of care. We are 9th best on maternal mortality and infant mortality.

On the other hand, we are best among the 12 on having a low suicide rate, and 2nd best on mortality attributable to medical care. On the rest, we are in the middle of the pack. When just looking at the 10 non-US nations collectively, the US, and Massachusetts, we are best on 5 indicators, and worse than our competitor nations on 7, though better on all of these than the US.
Surprises? I incorrectly expected that Massachusetts would be better than 4th on adult smoking. I did not realize that the Massachusetts suicide rate would be so positive. It is remarkable that while Massachusetts has the highest rate of health insurance coverage among all 50 states, at 97.3 percent, our rate is lower than the rates in all 10 non-US nations.

Because Massachusetts has such a high level of spending on medical care, I expected we would spend a larger proportion of our state’s GDP on health care than the US and come in dead last. Instead, we’re 11th. What explains this? It’s not so much the numerator (health care spending), as it is the denominator (the state’s high total GDP) which reflects a far more affluent state than most of the other 49. Even though our spending looks high, it is lower than the US average in its burden.

Looking to education policy as a model, Massachusetts should be less concerned with comparisons to other states’ performance, and more attuned to comparing our results with those of other advanced nations. Massachusetts policy experts would do well to pay closer attention to factors that influence the superior performance of these nations to ours. If other nations can kick our butts so convincingly on maternal and infant mortality, life expectancy, health care spending, and other essential measures, then we should focus more on how we can close the gap with these nations than comparing ourselves with our fellow states.

For the past decade, since passage of the state’s 2006 universal health care law and the 2012 cost containment law, Massachusetts has focused on controlling health care cost increases. While this has been a valuable and successful effort, I believe it also has crowded out attention to key determinants of health, especially obesity, that drive up health care spending substantially and harm public health. Perhaps it is time for the Commonwealth to reassess its core health system priorities.

Case Studies in Medicare for All

[I wrote this new commentary, “Case Studies in Medicare for All,” for the Milbank Quarterly.]

George Santayana’s famous quote—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—comes to mind when considering prospects for a “Medicare for All” or single-payer health system revolution. There is history here demanding attention that goes beyond President Harry Truman’s ill-fated effort in the late 1940s. Since 1994, four states have taken a cold, hard, and serious look at single payer and backed off, three via voter ballot initiatives and one by legislation. Collectively, they offer a compelling “starter’s package” of case studies on Medicare for All. Let’s take a closer look at each and then consider the patterns.

California Here We Don’t Come, 1994. Voters rejected Proposition 186—the California Health Security Act—by 73% to 27%. The initiative appeared on the November 1994 ballot only two months after the final and ignominious death of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health reform plan. Throughout 1993-1994, single-payer advocates preached that Democrats were squandering a historic opportunity by advancing the Clinton’s complicated and indecipherable proposal instead of moving single-payer legislation. The California initiative would have been financed by new taxes on employers, individuals, and tobacco products. A diverse group of “good guy” proponents had enough organizational heft to collect more than one million signatures statewide to qualify for the ballot. Continue reading “Case Studies in Medicare for All”

The Health Reformers’ Dilemma

[The Milbank Quarterly just published this new commentary that I wrote for their November 2018 edition.]

Ever since the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the expansion of Medicaid as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) must be optional rather than mandatory for states, health care advocates have worked heart and soul to convince their state governments to adopt the expansion. For Virginians, the moment arrived in 2018 after years of frustration—with a catch. The only politically viable pathway to expansion included a detested provision, known as the “work requirement,” that obligates many new enrollees to work or else forfeit coverage. What to do?

I explored this dilemma with health justice advocates in Virginia, the first state to confront work requirements that had not previously expanded Medicaid. In November 2017, Virginia voters elected a respected new Democratic governor named Ralph Northam along with an eye-popping jump in the number of Democrats in the state’s House of Delegates, leaving them just 2 votes shy of majorities in the House and Senate. In May 2018, solid bipartisan majorities formed to enact Medicaid expansion after years of discouraging defeats. The wrinkle was including a work requirement and imposing cost sharing on Medicaid beneficiaries. Continue reading “The Health Reformers’ Dilemma”

Might We See a Medicaid Wave Start Next Week?

[This column appeared on the Health Affairs blog on Thursday, November 1.]

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states must have an option whether or not to expand Medicaid as authorized in the Affordable Care Act, expansion has been a long, slow slog, state by state, inch by inch.  While blue states had mostly lined up to expand Medicaid by 2013, nearly every purple and red state proved to be a battlefield.  Today, 19 states have yet to expand, with 31 in the “yes” column (plus the District of Columbia) (see table 1).  The last state to expand, #31, was Louisiana in mid-2016.  But, might a mighty Medicaid wave be coming courtesy of the November 6th elections?  The answer is a definite maybe.

Right now, all that’s certain is that Virginia will become state #32 to expand Medicaid in January. The state enacted the 400,000-person expansion last May, albeit with a “work requirement” to be filed with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sometime in 2019.

Maine is certain to become #33 early next year if Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills wins the Governor’s Chair.  In November 2017, Maine voters approved expansion—59-41 percent—in a state ballot initiative.  Departing Republican Governor Paul LePage refused to implement the expansion in spite of strong legislative support to do so, as well as an order from Maine’s highest court.  In previous years, the Legislature failed by only a small number of votes to override LePage’s vetoes (5 times).  Progressive forces expect to pick up state legislative seats on November 6th, so it’s also possible expansion could happen with a new Republican governor, supportive or not.

State Adoption Of ACA Medicaid Expansion (By Year) 

SOURCE: Advisory Board.  “Where the States Stand on Medicaid Expansion.”  June 8 2018.  Accessed Oct. 29 2018 at: https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/resources/primers/medicaidmap 

Medicaid On the Ballot

Activists in three states—Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah—are standing in the wings hoping to be states #34, 35, and 36 depending on the outcomes of state ballot initiatives in each of them on November 6th. Montana has an initiative on the ballot to continue its expansion with dedicated funding.

While Idaho’s departing Governor Butch Otter fought consistently against Medicaid expansion throughout his tenure, he recently changed his position and announced his support for the Medicaid ballot initiative. Republican gubernatorial candidate Brad Little says he will respect the ballot initiative’s outcome—even though the measure does not specify how to finance the 10 percent financing match states will need to pay by 2020 (7 percent in 2019). Two organizations, Idahoans for Healthcare and Reclaim Idaho raised $594,191 by the late September reporting deadline, while the opposition Work, Not ObamaCare has raised $29,999.  Idaho’s Hospital and Medical Associations contributed nearly $200,000 to the “yes” effort.  Recent polling shows 66 percent support, including 77 percent from independents and 53 percent from Republicans.  The yes campaign co-chair is Republican State Representative Christy Perry.

Nebraska previously did not have enough support to overturn a Governor’s veto against expansion.  Nebraska Governor Pete Rickets maintains his opposition as he coasts toward an easy re-election.  But it’s a spirited race for Nebraska Initiative 427, the Medicaid Expansion Initiative that would cover an estimated 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The lead organization—Insure the Good Life—has raised $1.69 million as of late September to support a yes vote, versus $0 by the opposition Americans for Prosperity. The “yes” camp’s largest contributor is a national progressive political action committee called the “Fairness Project” which also backed the 2017 Maine Medicaid initiative and which has donated $1.19 million.  Other key supporters include the Nebraska Hospital Association, the state health center association, Nebraska AARP and 24 other organizations.

Of the three ballot initiative campaigns, Utah’s is the most compelling.  Proposition 3 would raise the state’s sale tax from 4.70 to 4.85 percent to fully finance the expansion for 150,000 low-income Utah residents.  In 2021, that is projected to raise $88 million to cover the state’s projected $78 million share of the $846 million total expansion cost (the federal government pays the rest).  A February 2018 poll showed 68 percent support among Utah voters.  As in Nebraska, the national Fairness Project is driving the campaign, providing $2.7 of the $2.83 million raised as of late September.  A wide array of health care and religious organizations are public supporters. No organization is registered with the state in public opposition to the initiative, as of late September.

To thwart the proposal, in March, Governor Gary Herbert signed House Bill 472 into law to expand Medicaid for individuals with household incomes no higher than 95 percent of the federal poverty line, as opposed to 138 percent in Proposition 3, as authorized under the ACA.  HB472 would also impose work requirements on many enrollees and would cover 90,000 as opposed to the initiative’s 150,000.  Earlier this year, the Trump Administration rejected a plan similar to HB472 that was advanced by Oklahoma to expand Medicaid eligibility no higher than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.  So it is unclear whether the Trump Administration will allow the Utah HB472 expansion to go forward.

Montana is another state with a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative facing the voters on November 6th, but to continue the existing expansion. The state expanded Medicaid in 2015, though only through 2019. The November 6th ballot will present an initiative, I-185, to continue expansion past 2019 by raising tobacco taxes by $2 a pack as the state’s funding source. Healthy Montana for I-185 backers have raised $4.8 million and are battling the tobacco industry in the form of Montanans Against Tax Hikes (MATH) which has invested at least $12 million to defeat the initiative; 97 percent of the MATH’s money has come from Altria Client Services, maker of Marlboro cigarettes and other smoking products. If voters approve, the expansion will continue without restraints. If the referendum fails, the legislature still could pass a new funding law, likely with a work requirement attached.

Other Election Day Impacts

Of the 14 remaining non-expansion states, the November 6th results may have consequential impact.  If Democratic candidates win currently competitive gubernatorial races in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Wisconsin, and pick up legislative seats, that could alter the Medicaid expansion equation.  This would be especially true in Kansas where prior expansion efforts were thwarted by a narrow inability to override gubernatorial vetoes by only three votes. In other states, notably North Carolina with Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, significant Democratic gains in the state legislature may also have a consequential impact.

Some noteworthy features of this issue are worth considering.  First, in many of these remaining states with Republican control, the price of expansion is likely to include work requirements on many newly eligible enrollees—as occurred in Virginia this past year. Unless ruled illegal by the federal courts, this national experiment will more than likely run at least for the duration of Republican control of the executive branch. As is apparent from the track record in Arkansas thus far, this is about values and ideology more than dollars and sense.

Second, after six years of fighting the Medicaid expansion wars, it is clear that most expansion opponents are not going to change their minds.  Not much is left to say that hasn’t been said countless times before.  As we saw in Virginia, a change of mind accompanies a change in occupants of legislative and gubernatorial seats.  And in the four November 6th ballot initiative states, if successful, we should anticipate that one or more of the affected Governors may imitate Maine Governor LePage in seeking to block expansion in spite of voter sentiment.

Third, in spite of all the uproar, it is significant that not one expansion state has gone back on it, or even considered doing so.  The closest an expansion came to a rollback was the election of hard right conservative Matt Bevin as Kentucky’s governor in 2015.  Bevin abandoned his pledge to repeal Kentucky’s ground-breaking and successful Medicaid expansion early in his gubernatorial campaign, and never returned to that stance, turning to mandatory work requirements as the next best thing.

Much like how the public’s support for banning pre-existing condition exclusions has become calcified in the public’s mind from the battles of 2017 and 2018, similarly the expansion of Medicaid has become hard-wired into public consciousness in the states that adopted it.

I have yet to read an insider’s account on how and why the U.S. Supreme Court lined up 7 votes to secure their atrocious 2012 ruling to make Medicaid expansion an option for states.  It is true that their decision played a role in compelling Americans to grapple with and understand the rationale and importance for Medicaid expansion.  But at what a damn price!

Continue reading “Might We See a Medicaid Wave Start Next Week?”

Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios

[I co-wrote this opinion column with Paul Hattis for Commonwealth Magazine.]


SHOULD MASSACHUSETTS 
establish mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in law for all the state’s acute care hospitals? This 25-year-old conflict between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Massachusetts Hospital Association will be determined at the polls on November 6 as Question 1.

We think not.

We are university professors who care about Massachusetts health care policy. We both connect with Massachusetts’ leading health care consumer advocacy organizations who worry about access, cost, and quality in Massachusetts’ health care system—and we don’t speak for them.

We have advocated publicly for better pay, working conditions, and training for health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. We know the vital importance of organized labor as representatives of health care workers to meet their needs and to promote a higher quality care for patients. We are not eager to take a position opposed to the Massachusetts Nursing Association.

After seeing data advanced by groups on both sides, especially data and analysis from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, we believe the evidence, the better policy choice, and the more socially just result—especially for lower income households and communities—points to a no vote. The Legislature should demand that both sides come together to create a more workable set of solutions to improve quality of care in our state’s hospitals. Continue reading “Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios”

What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?

FOR THE BETTER part of this decade, Massachusetts had been on a roll regarding its health system’s performance. Since passage of the 2006 universal health insurance law, we’ve been tops in having the lowest number of uninsured the nation. Recent national surveys on cost, quality, access, and public health from the Commonwealth Fund, the United Health Care Foundation and others show the Bay State to be best or among them. As Michael Widmer noted in his October 7 Upload piece, over the past five or so years, even the state’s performance on controlling costs has also been a national standout.

Still, history teaches that these trends can turn downward on a dime. And self-congratulations can obscure lingering and insidious system weaknesses. The current controversy over the proposed merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lahey Health, and other hospitals and physician organizations into “Beth Israel Lahey Health” (BILH) brings into sharp relief underlying systemic problems that are getting worse, not better.

Last week, the state’s Health Policy Commission released its final analysis of the cost, quality, and access impacts of the merger. They estimate $158.2 to $230.5 million in added annual costs above current projections from this deal. Also last week, the health commission reported on the projected annual costs of Question 1, the November Massachusetts ballot initiative that would set statutory nurse-patient ratios in all acute care hospitals – estimating $679 to $949 million in new annual costs in our $61.1 billion state health system. Continue reading “What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?”

Health Reform Realism

[I wrote this new commentary for the Milbank Quarterly.]

In noticeable ways our current health reform period resembles the 2005-2006 era when political leaders, stakeholders, and think tanks began formulating proposals to prepare for a future national effort to achieve comprehensive health reform, a process that came to fruition with the signing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010. Though those years were also a time of unitary Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, many foresaw the arrival of a new president and Congress in 2009 as a potential and not-to-be-missed window of opportunity for important reform. Waiting until 2009 to begin planning would have been too late. I propose that in 2018 we embrace this renewed possibility for reform with realism and humility.

Today, we already see a plethora of legislative and policy proposals emerging from elected Democratic officials and progressive think tanks such as the Urban Institute and the Center for American Progress. While Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill seeks the holy grail of single-payer reconstruction, others aim for meaningful yet incremental changes to address critical pain points in the current system.

All of these plans rely on an unreliable expectation that, come January 2021, Democrats will control the White House and governing majorities in the US Senate and House of Representatives, as the federal election cycles of 2018 and 2020 come to resemble the blue-wave cycles of 2006 and 2008. All of these plans recognize little potential for meaningful reform until then. However, if Democrats control all 3 power sources come January 2021, public demands on them for far-reaching national health reform may well be overpowering. Continue reading “Health Reform Realism”