Brent Gibbons’s journal round-up for 12th December 2016

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

As the U.S. moves into a new era with the recent election results, Republicans will have a chance to modify or repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also called Obamacare, is a comprehensive health reform that was enacted on the 23rd of March, 2010, that helped millions of uninsured individuals and families gain coverage through new private insurance coverage and through expanded Medicaid coverage for those with very low income. The ACA has been nothing short of controversial and has often been at the forefront of partisan divides. The ACA was an attempt to fill the insurance coverage gaps of the patchwork American health insurance system that was built on employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) and a mix of publicly funded programs for various vulnerable subpopulations. The new administration and republican legislators are promising to repeal the law, at least in part, and have suggested plans that will re-emphasize the private insurance model based on ESI. For this reason, the following articles selected for this week’s round-up highlight different aspects of ESI.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act evaluation study: Impact on specialty-behavioral health utilization and expenditures among “carve-out” enrollees. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] Published December 2016

Behavioral health services have historically been covered at lower levels and with more restrictions by ESI than physical health services. Advocates for behavioral health system reform have pushed for equal coverage of behavioral health services for decades. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) was passed with a fairly comprehensive set of rules for how behavioral health coverage would need to be comparable to medical/surgical coverage, including for ESI. This first article in our round-up examines the impact of this law on utilization and expenditures of behavioral health services in ESI plans. The authors use an individual-level interrupted time series design using panel data with monthly measures of outcomes. Administrative claims and enrollment data are used from a large private insurance company that provides health insurance for a number of large employers in the years 2008 – 2013. A segmented regression analysis is used in order to measure the impact of the law at two different time points, first in 2010 for what is considered a transition year, and then in the 2011 – 2013 period, both compared to the pre-MHPAEA time period, 2008 – 2009. Indicator variables are used for the different periods as well as spline variables to measure the change in level and slope of the time trends, controlling for other explanatory variables. Results suggest that MHPAEA had little effect on utilization and total expenditures, but that out-of-pocket expenditures were shifted from the patient to the health plan. For patients who had positive expenditures, there was a post-MHPAEA level increase in health plan expenditures of $58.03 and a post-MHPAEA level decrease in out-of-pocket expenditure of $21.58, both per-member-per-month. To address worries of confounding time trends, the authors performed several sensitivity analyses, including a difference-in-difference (DID) analysis that used states that already had strict parity legislation as a comparison population. The authors also examined those with a bipolar or schizophrenia disorder to test the hypothesis that impacts may be stronger for individuals with more severe conditions. Sensitivity analyses tended to result in larger p-values. These results, which were examined at the mean, are consistent with reports that the primary change in behavioral health coverage in ESI was the elimination of treatment limits. In addition to using a sensitivity analysis with individuals with bipolar and schizophrenia, it would have been interesting to see impacts for individuals defined as “high-utilizers”. It would also have been nice to see a longer pre-MHPAEA time period since insurers could have adjusted plans prior to the 2010 effective date.

Health plan type variations in spells of health-care treatment. American Journal of Health Economics [RePEcPublished 12th October 2016

Health care costs in the U.S. were roughly 17.8 percent of the GDP in 2015 and attempts to rein in health insurance costs have largely proved elusive. Different private insurance health plans have tried to rein in costs through different plan types that have a mix of supply-side mechanisms and demand-side mechanisms. Two recent plan types that have emerged are exclusive provider organizations (EPOs) and consumer-driven/high-deductible health plans (CDHPs). EPOs use a more narrowly restricted network of providers that agree to lower payments and presumably also deliver quality care while CDHPs give patients broader networks but shift cost-sharing to patients. EPOs therefore are more focused on supply-side mechanisms of cost reduction, while CDHPs emphasize demand-side incentives to reduce costs. Ellis and Zhu use a large ESI claims-based dataset to examine the impact of these two health plan types and to try to answer whether supply-side or demand-side mechanisms of cost reduction are more effective. The authors present an extremely extensive analysis that is really worth reading. They use a technique for modeling periods of care, called treatment “spells” that is a mix of monthly treatment periods and episode-based models of care. Utilization and expenditures are examined in the context of these treatment “spells” for the different health plan types. A 2SLS regression model is used that controls for endogenous plan choice in the first-stage. The predicted probabilities from plan choice are used as an instrument in the second stage along with a number of controls, including risk-adjustment techniques and individual fixed effects. The one drawback in using the predicted probabilities as the sole instrument is it is not possible to perform an exclusion test. The results, however, suggest that neither of the new plan types performs better than a standardly used health plan. EPOs have the lowest overall spending, but are not significantly different than the standard plan type, and CDHPs have 16 percent higher spending than the standard plan type. The CDHPs in particular have not been studied carefully and these results suggest that previous research on CDHPs found cost-savings due to younger and healthier patients and not because of plan type effects. There are also worries with high deductible plans that patients may elect to forgo necessary healthcare services.

The financial burdens of high-deductible plans. Health Affairs [PubMed] Published December 2016

Having discussed the consumer-directed/high deductible health plans, this third journal article looks at the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) data to examine the burden high deductible health plans place on individuals and families with low incomes. High deductible health plans like the CDHPs are increasingly offered. High deductible plans are sometimes paired with the option to use a flexible spending account (FSA). An FSA gives the patient the option to set aside money from her salary or paycheck that can only be used for healthcare costs, with the benefit that the money set aside will not be subject to various income taxes. The benefit of the high deductible plan is supposed to be lower premiums and the possibility of saving money through the FSA, if that option is available. Yet descriptive analyses using MEPS data from 2011 – 2013 from ESI plans show that high deductible plans impose a particularly high burden on individuals with family incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line. Specifically, the authors found that 29.1 percent of individuals with high deductible plans had financial costs exceeding 20 percent of family income, compared to 20.6 percent of individuals with low deductible plans. For individuals with family income greater than 400 percent of the poverty line, financial burden was not different for high deductible plans compared to other plan types. Yet worryingly, individuals with low incomes were just as likely to have high deductible plans as individuals with high incomes.

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Sharing the burden of healthcare: providing care to our sickest patients

One of the major challenges to affordable, universal health insurance is the high cost of providing care to the sickest patients. According to Roy Vaughn, senior vice president at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, “just 5 percent of the company’s marketplace customers had accounted for nearly 75 percent of its claims costs.” What is the cost of healthcare for the typical person in the United States?Distribution of per capita US health expenditures 2012

Data from 2012, the last year for which a full analysis is available, presents a complex and confusing picture. The graph above shows per capita expenditures by percentile starting with the highest per capita expenditure. 10% face expenditures of at least $10,250. The median per capita expenditure was $854. The mean average per capita expenditure was $4309 – five times the median – and “the top 1 percent ranked by their healthcare expenses accounted for 22.7 percent of total healthcare expenditures with an annual mean expenditure of $97,956″. In brief, there is no typical person: since the bottom 50% accounted for 2.7% of total expenditures, the average per capita expenditure of the top 1% was 420 times that of the bottom 50%. There really is no typical person in terms of healthcare expenditures.

Pareto/ power law distribution of healthcare costs

This extreme distribution of healthcare costs (approximately an “80/20”, Pareto/ power law distribution) poses a major challenge to providing universal healthcare through traditional insurance models based upon risk pooling. Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the US health insurance industry addressed these challenges with risk selection – adjusting premiums or denying insurance to patients with high predicted risks, such as those with pre-existing conditions, and imposing caps on annual and/or lifetime benefits, much like the way the auto insurance industry sets premiums and limits benefits to address extreme differences in projected driver risks. Come back tomorrow for another blog post with more technical details about the Pareto distribution and healthcare costs.

Risk selection is illegal but prevalent

The ACA makes both caps on benefits and risk selection based upon pre-existing conditions illegal. In particular, US insurance carriers are required to provide coverage to all, at rates independent of pre-existing conditions, a requirement which President-Elect Donald Trump would like to keep.

However, the extreme distribution of healthcare costs means that “Targeting the highest spenders represents the greatest opportunity to have a significant impact on overall spending”; an opportunity for insurance carriers as well as for public policy. Moreover, there are good predictors for high spending: age and end of life, chronic conditions, and high spending in a previous year. For example 44.8% of the top decile in 2008 healthcare expenditures “retained this top decile ranking with respect to their 2009 healthcare expenditures”; a fact cited in an extensive Forbes report. Swiss and Dutch experience found risk selection prevalent and persistent. However, with every adult paying the same premium – within a given fund for the same type of contract – but expected healthcare expenditure (HCE) varying widely, strong incentives for risk selection are created in the absence of an adequate risk adjustment scheme. Although risk selection is illegal, it is prevalent. Swiss conglomerates of insurance carriers have been reported to achieve risk selection by assigning applicants to “specific carriers based on their risk profiles.”

Removing the economic incentives for risk selection

There is one clear way to avoid built-in economic incentives for risk selection (incentives which seem to drive insurance company behavior); that is, a single payer system, universally or as excess coverage for significant, predictable expenses. The United States now has several parallel single payer systems, namely Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the very poor and CHIP for children; thus, in effect, a public/private partnership in healthcare. These pre-existing single-payer systems might serve as models for a more inclusive US single payer system. Alternatively, the United States might act as an insurer of last resort, providing umbrella insurance covering individual expenses above some relatively high limit, or for costly but treatable conditions using the End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Program, passed in 1972 as a model. This approach would also remove extreme costs from the health insurance risk pool, as both Medicare and the ESRD Program do now, by providing near-universal coverage for our sickest patients outside the private insurance system (elderly US citizens and those with severe chronic kidney disease, respectively).

Tomorrow I will return to the Pareto-like distribution of healthcare expenditures and its consequences for any competitive insurance program. But for now, a few conclusions. Medicare and the ESRD program provide models for a smooth transition from health insurance pre-ACA with its caps and limitations to a more universal system. Medicare can be expanded to a broader public alternative. Universal coverage for additional treatable but high-risk conditions can be modeled on the ESRD program. These steps should provide the basis for further evolution of the present public/private partnership into a more universal, more cost-effective system.

In my opinion, the extreme distribution of healthcare expenditures and the ability to perform risk selection, even though illegal, present a strong, essentially irrefutable argument for a single payer system; either overall, or for chronic conditions and expenditures predictable through risk selection. In the US, Medicare and the ESRD program provide illustrative, successful and useful models.

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Chris Sampson’s journal round-up for 3rd October 2016

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Using discrete choice experiments with duration to model EQ-5D-5L health state preferences: testing experimental design strategies. Medical Decision Making [PubMedPublished 28th September 2016

DCEs are a bit in vogue for the purpose of health state valuation, so it was natural that EuroQol turned to it for valuation of the EQ-5D-5L. But previous valuation studies have highlighted challenges  associated with this approach, some of which this paper now investigates. Central to the use of DCE in this way is the inclusion of a duration attribute to facilitate anchoring from 1 to dead. This study looks at the effect of increasing the options when it comes to duration, as previous studies were limited in this regard. In this study, possible durations were 6 months or 1, 2, 4, 7 or 10 years. 802 online survey respondents we presented with 10 DCE choice sets, and the resulting model had generally logically ordered coefficients. So the approach looks feasible, but it isn’t clear whether or not there are any real advantages to including more durations. Another issue is that the efficiency of the DCE design might be improved by introducing prior information from previous studies to inform the selection of health profiles – that is, by introducing non-zero prior values. With 800 respondents, this design resulted in more disordering with – for example – a positive coefficient on level 2 for the pain/discomfort dimension. This was not the expected result. However, the design included a far greater proportion of more difficult choices, which the authors suggest may have resulted in inconsistencies. An alternative way of increasing efficiency might be to use a 2-stage approach, whereby health profiles are selected and then durations are selected based on information from previous studies. Using the same number of pairs but a sample half the size (400), the 2-stage design seemed to work a treat. It’s a promising design that will no doubt see further research in this context.

Is the distribution of care quality provided under pay-for-performance equitable? Evidence from the Advancing Quality programme in England. International Journal for Equity in Health [PubMedPublished 23rd September 2016

Suppose a regional health care quality improvement initiative worked, but only for the well-off. Would we still support it? Maybe not, so it’s important to uncover for whom the policy is working. QOF is the most-studied pay-for-performance programme in England and it does not seem to have reduced health inequalities in the context of primary care. There is less evidence regarding P4P in hospital care, which is where this study comes in by looking at the Advancing Quality initiative across five different health conditions. Using individual-level data for 73,002 people, the authors model the probability of receiving a quality indicator according to income deprivation in their local area. There were 23 indicators altogether, across which the results were not consistent. Poorer patients were more likely to receive pre-surgical interventions for hip and knee replacements and for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). And poorer people were less likely to receive advice at discharge. On the other hand, for hip and knee replacement and CABG, richer people were more likely to receive diagnostic tests. The main finding is that there is no obvious systematic pro-poor or pro-rich bias in the effects of this pay-for-performance initiative in secondary care. This may not be a big surprise due to the limited amount of self-selection and self-direction for patients in secondary care, compared with primary care.

The impact of social security income on cognitive function at older ages. American Journal of Health Economics [RePEc] Published 19th September 2016

Income correlates with health, as we know. But it’s useful to be more specific – as this article is – in order to inform policy. So does more social security income improve cognitive function at older ages? The short answer is yes. And that wasn’t a foregone conclusion as there is some evidence that higher income leads to earlier retirement, which in turn can be detrimental to cognitive function. In this study the authors use changes in the Social Security Act in the US in the 1970s. Between 1972 and 1977, Congress messed up a bit and temporarily introduced a policy that made payments increase at a rate faster than inflation, which was therefore enjoyed by people born between 1910 and 1916, with a 5 year gradual transition until 1922. Unsurprisingly, this study follows many others that have made the most of this policy quirk. Data are taken from a longitudinal survey of older people, which includes a set of scores relating to cognition, with a sample of 4139 people. Using an OLS model, the authors estimate the association between Social Security income and cognition. Cognition is measured using a previously developed composite score with 3 levels: ‘normal’, ‘cognitively impaired’ and ‘demented’. To handle the endogeneity of income, an instrumental variable is constructed on the basis of year of birth to tie-in with the peak in benefit from the policy (n=673). In today’s money the beneficiary cohort received around $2000 extra. It’s also good to see the analysis extended to a quantile regression to see whereabouts in the cognition score distribution effects accrue. The additional income resulted in improvements in working memory, knowledge, languages and orientation and overall cognition. The effects are strong and clinically meaningful. A $1000 (in 1993 prices) increase in annual income lead to a 1.9 percentage point reduction in the likelihood of being classified as cognitively impaired. The effect is strongest for those with higher levels of cognition. The key take-home message here is that even in older populations, policy changes can be beneficial to health. It’s never too late.

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