Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 26th March 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.

Affordability and availability of off-patent drugs in the United States—the case for importing from abroad: observational study. BMJ [PubMedPublished 19th March 2018

Martin Shkreli has been frequently called “the most hated man in America“. Aside from defrauding investors and being the envied owner of a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, the company of which he was chief executive, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased the sole US approved manufacturer of a toxoplasmosis treatment, pyrimethamine, and hiked its price from $13 to $750 per tablet. Price gouging is nothing new in the pharmaceutical sector. An episode of the recent Netflix documentary series Dirty Money covers the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals whose entire business was structured around the purchase of drug companies, laying off any research staff, and then hiking the price as high as the market could bear (even if this included running their own pharmacies to buy products at these inflated prices). The structure of the US drug market often allows the formation of monopolies on off-patent, or generic, medication, since the process for regulatory approval for a new manufacturer can be long and expensive. There have been proposals though that this could be ameliorated by allowing manufacturers approved by other trusted agencies (such as the European Medicines Agencies) to sell generics in the US while the FDA approvals process takes place. The aim of this paper is to determine how many more manufacturers this would allow into the US drugs market. The authors identify all the off-patent drugs that have been approved by the FDA since 1939 and all the manufacturers of those drugs that were approved by the FDA and by other trusted agencies. No analysis is given of how this might affect drug prices, though there is a pretty obvious correlation between the number of manufacturers and drug prices shown elsewhere. The results show that the proposed policy would increase the number of manufacturers for a sizeable proportion of generics: for example, 39% of generic medications could reach four or more manufacturers when including those approved by non-FDA bodies.

Why internists might want single-payer health care. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 20th March 2018

The US healthcare system has long been an object of fascination for many health economists. It spends far more than any other nation on healthcare (approximately $9,000 per capita compared to, say, $4,000 for the UK) and yet population health ranks alongside middle-income countries like Cuba and Ecuador. Garber and Skinner wondered whether it was uniquely inefficient and identified or questioned a number of issues that may or may not explain the efficiency or lack thereof. One of these was the administrative burden of multiple insurance companies, which evidence suggests does not actually account for much of the total expenditure on health care. However, Garber and Skinner say this does not take into account time spent by clinical and non-clinical staff on administration within hospitals. In this opinion piece, Paul Sorum argues that internists should support a move to a single-payer system in the US. One of his four points is the administrative burden of dealing with insurance companies, which he cites as an astonishing 61 hours per week per physician (presumably spread across a number of staff). Certainly, this seems to be a key issue. But Sorum’s other three points don’t necessarily support a single-payer system. He also argues that the insurance system is leading to increasing deductibles and co-payments placed on patients, limiting access to medications, as drug prices rise. Indeed, Garber and Skinner note also that high deductibles limit the use of highly cost-effective measures and actually have the opposite effect of reducing productive efficiency. A single payer system per se would not solve this, it would need significant subsidies and regulation as well, and as our previous paper shows, other measures can be used to bring down drug prices. Sorum also argues that the US insurance system places an unnecessary burden from quality measures and assessment as well as electronic medical records used to collect information for billing purposes. But these issues of quality and electronic medical records have been discussed in the context of many health care systems, not least the NHS, as the political and regulatory framework still requires this. So a single-payer system is not a solution here. A key difference between the US and elsewhere that Garber and Skinner identify is that the US permits much more heterogeneity in access to and use of health care (e.g. overuse by the wealthy and underuse by the poor). Significant political barriers stand in the way of a single payer system, and since other means can be used to achieve universal coverage, such as the provisions in the Affordable Care Act, maybe internists would be better directing their energy at more achievable goals.

Social ties in academia: a friend is a treasure. Review of Economics and Statistics [RePEcPublished 2nd March 2018

If you ever wondered whether the reason you didn’t get published in that top economics journal was that you didn’t know the right people, you may well be right! This article examines the social ties between authors and editors of the top four economics journals. Almost half of the papers published in these journals had at least one author with a connection to an editor, either through working in the same department, co-authoring a paper, or PhD supervision. The QJE appears to be the worst offender with (if I’ve read this correctly) all authors between 2000 and 2006 getting their PhD in either Harvard or MIT. So don’t bother trying to get published there! This article also shows that you’re more likely to get a paper into the journals when your former PhD supervisor is editing it. Given how much sway a paper published in these journals has on the future careers of young economists, it is disheartening to see the extent of nepotism in the publication process. Of course, one may argue that it just so happens that those that work at the top journals associate most frequently with those who write the best papers. But given even a little understanding of human nature, one would be inclined to discount this explanation. We have all previously asked ourselves, especially when writing a journal round-up, how this or that paper got into a particularly highly regarded journal, now we know…

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Thesis Thursday: Mathilde Péron

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Mathilde Péron who graduated with a PhD from Université Paris Dauphine. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Three essays on supplementary health insurance
Supervisors
Brigitte Dormont
Repository link
https://basepub.dauphine.fr/handle/123456789/16695

How important is supplementary health insurance in France, compared with other countries?

In France in 2016, Supplementary Health Insurance (SHI) financed 13.3% of total health care expenditure. SHI supplements a partial mandatory coverage by covering co-payments as well as medical goods and services outside the public benefit package, such as dental and optical care or balance billing. SHI is not a French singularity. Canada, Austria, Switzerland, the US (with Medicare / Medigap) or the UK do offer voluntary SHI contracts. A remarkable fact, however, is that 95% of the French population is covered by a SHI contract. In comparison, although the extent of public coverage is very similar in France and in the UK, the percentage of British patients enrolled in a private medical insurance is below 15%.

The large SHI enrolment and the subsequent limited out-of-pocket payments – €230 per year on average, the lowest among EU countries – should not hide important inequalities in the extent of coverage and premiums paid. SHI coverage is now mandatory for employees of the private sector. They benefit from subsidized contracts and uniform premiums. Individuals with an annual income below €8,700 benefit from free basic SHI coverage which covers copayments, essentially. However, the rest of the population (students, temporary workers, unemployed, retirees, independent, and civil servants) buy SHI in a competitive market where premiums generally increase with age.

Can supplementary health insurance markets lead to an adverse selection death spiral?

Competitive health insurance markets are subject to asymmetric information that prevent the existence of pooling contracts (Rothschild and Stiglitz, 1976Cutler and Zeckhauser, 1998). The US market is a good example; in the 1950s not-for-profit insurance companies (Blue Cross, Blue Shields) – which offered pooled contracts – almost all disappeared (Thomasson, 2002). And, despite a notably higher public coverage that could limit adverse selection effects, the French SHI market is not an exception.

Historically, SHI coverage was provided by not-for-profit insurers, the Mutuelles, who relied on solidarity principles. But as the competition becomes more intense, the Mutuelles experience the adverse selection death spiral; they lose their low-risk clients attracted by lower premiums. To survive, they have to give up on uniform premiums and standardized coverage. Today 90% of SHI contracts in the individual market have premiums that increase with age. It is worth noting that in France insurers have strong fiscal incentives to avoid medical underwriting, so age remains the only predictor for individual risk. Still, premiums can vary with a ratio of 1 to 3, which raises legitimate concerns about the affordability of insurance and access to health care for patients with increasing medical needs.

How does supplementary health insurance influence prices in health care, and how did you measure this in your research?

A real policy concern is that SHI might have an inflationary effect by allowing patients to consume more at higher prices. Access to specialists who balance bill (i.e. charge more than the regulated fee) – a signal for higher quality and reduced waiting times – is a good example (Dormont and Peron, 2016).

To measure the causal impact of SHI on balance billing consumption we use original individual-level data, collected from the administrative claims of a French insurer. We observe balance billing consumption and both mandatory and SHI reimbursements for 43,111 individuals from 2010 to 2012. In 2010, the whole sample was covered by the same SHI contract, which does not cover balance billing. We observe the sample again in 2012 after that 3,819 among them decided to switch to other supplementary insurers, which we assume covers balance billing. We deal with the endogeneity of the decision to switch by introducing individual effects into the specifications and by using instrumental variables for the estimation.

We find that individuals respond to better coverage by increasing their proportion of visits to a specialist who balance bills by 9%, resulting in a 32% increase in the amount of balance billing per visit. This substitution to more expensive care is likely to encourage the rise in medical prices.

Does the effect of supplementary insurance on health care consumption differ according to people’s characteristics?

An important result is that the magnitude of the impact of SHI on balance billing strongly depends on the availability of specialists. We find no evidence of moral hazard in areas where specialists who do not charge balance billing are readily accessible. On the contrary, in areas where they are scarce, better coverage is associated with a 47% increase in the average amount of balance billing per consultation. This result suggests that the most appropriate policy to contain medical prices is not necessarily to limit SHI coverage but to monitor the supply of care in order to guarantee patients a genuine choice of their physicians.

We further investigate the heterogeneous impact of SHI in a model where we specify individual heterogeneity in moral hazard and consider its possible correlation with coverage choices (Peron and Dormont, 2017 [PDF]). We find evidence of selection on moral hazard: individuals with unobserved characteristics that make them more likely to ask for comprehensive SHI show a larger increase in balance billing per visit. This selection effect is likely to worsen the inflationary impact of SHI. On the other hand, we also find that the impact of a better coverage is larger for low-income people, suggesting that SHI plays a role in access to care.

Have the findings from your PhD research influenced your own decision to buy supplementary health insurance?

As an economist, it’s interesting to reflect on your own decisions, isn’t it? Well, I master cost-benefit analysis, I have a good understanding of expected utility and definitely more information than the average consumer in the health insurance market. Still, my choice of SHI might appear quite irrational. I’m (reasonably) young and healthy, I could have easily switched to a contract with lower premiums and higher benefits, but I did not. I stayed with a contract where premiums mainly depend on income and benefits are standardized, an increasingly rare feature in the market. I guess that stresses out the importance of other factors in my decision to buy SHI, my inertia as a consumer, probably, but also my willingness to pay for solidarity.

Kenneth Arrow on healthcare economics: a 21st century appreciation

Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow passed away on February 21, 2017. In a classic, fifty-year-old paper entitled Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care, Arrow discussed how:

“the operation of the medical-care industry and the efficacy with which it satisfies the needs of society differs from… a competitive model… If a competitive equilibrium exists at all, and if all commodities relevant to costs or utilities are in fact priced in the market, then the equilibrium is necessarily [Pareto] optimal” (emphasis added)

Note the implicit assumption that price reflects value, to which I’ll return. As Arrow elegantly explained, there are vast differences between the actual healthcare market and the competitive model, and, moreover, these differences arise from important features of the actual healthcare market.

Identifying the lack of realism of the competitive model in health care may lead to deeper understanding of the actual system. In essence this is what Arrow does. Although both medical care and our expectations have changed greatly, Arrow ’63 is still valid and worth reading today.

Here is Arrow’s summary of the differences between the healthcare market and typical competitive markets.

The nature of demand

Demand for medical services is irregular and unpredictable:

“Medical services, apart from preventive services, afford satisfaction only in the event of illness, a departure from the normal state of affairs… Illness is, thus, not only risky but a costly risk in itself, apart from the cost of medical care.”

Expected behavior of the physician

“It is at least claimed that treatment is dictated by objective needs of the case and not limited by financial considerations… Charity treatment in one form or another does exist because of this tradition about human rights to adequate medical care.”

Product uncertainty

“Recovery from disease is as unpredictable as its incidence…  Because medical knowledge is so complicated, the information possessed by the physician as to the consequences and possibilities of treatment is necessarily very much greater than that of the patient, or at least so it is believed by both parties.”

Supply conditions

Barriers to entry include licensing and other controls on quality (accreditation) and costs.

“One striking consequence of the control of quality is the restriction on the range offered… The declining ratio of physicians to total employees in the medical-care industry shows that substitution of less trained personnel, technicians and the like, is not prevented completely, but the central role of the highly trained physician is not affected at all.”

Pricing practices

There are no fixed prices:

“extensive price discrimination by income (with an extreme of zero prices for sufficiently indigent patients)… the apparent rigidity of so-called administered prices considerably understates the actual flexibility.”

Avik Roy observes in a critical National Review article that “Because patients don’t see the bill until after the non-refundable service has been consumed, and because patients are given little information about price and cost, patients and payors are rarely able to shop around for a medical service based on price and value.”

Medicine has seen major changes since Arrow’s 1963 paper. For example, the treatment of blocked coronary arteries has evolved from coronary bypass to angioplasty to early stents and finally drug-eluting stents. We have seen the advent of minimally invasive surgery, robotic surgery and catheter-based cardiac valve repair and replacement. We have seen drugs to treat hepatitis C and biologicals to treat arthritis and cancer. Many conditions have been transformed from acute to chronic but (at least temporarily) manageable. There are also divergent trends, such as increases in both natural childbirth and Caesarean sections.

In the last 50 years, medicine has become more powerful, but also significantly more complex and overall, more expensive. Intensive care units are a good example, both valuable therapeutically, but expensive to provide. At the same time, many treatments are both better (more valuable to the patient) and less expensive to provide; these range from root canal (frequently two visits to the dentist instead of four) to the significantly less invasive treatments for many cardiac rhythm abnormalities (radio-frequency ablation) and stents for coronary artery disease. The advent of epinephrine auto-injectors has been a lifesaver, but the cost of the Epi-Pen has increased significantly.

Can a competitive economic system appropriately and reasonably price such treatments and devices? Arrow argues that, if not, non-market social institutions will arise and address these challenges. Here is a deeper look.

Arrow’s first two points are still virtually axiomatic today: demand for medical services has become even more unpredictable with the continued growth of advanced, effective interventions and corresponding, appropriately increasing (in my opinion), patient expectations. Similarly, as medical care advances, we increasingly see medical care as a human right and in many cases, a societal obligation. We have come to expect treatment dictated by objective needs and not limited by financial considerations, not only from physicians but from a growing number of key players including pharmaceutical companies. To their credit, in many cases (AIDS comes to mind) pharmaceutical companies have responded by sharply reducing prices in the developing world.

Powerful chemotherapeutic and biologic drugs may have increased the uncertainty and asymmetry of information observed by Arrow, both in their effectiveness and in their side effects. In many cases one needs the language and mathematics of probability and statistics to evaluate, assess and describe their efficacy and utility. One needs an understanding of probability to determine when and how to use common preventive techniques, such as mammograms and PSA screening. Here is an example, paraphrased from Gigerenzer and Edwards (see also Strogatz). Women 40 to 50 years old, with no family history of breast cancer, are a low-risk population; the overall probability of breast cancer in this population is 0.8%. Assume that mammography has a sensitivity of 90% and a false positive rate of 7%.  A woman has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she has breast cancer? Among 25 German doctors surveyed, 36% said 90% or more, 32% said 50-80%, and 32% said 10% or less. Most (95%) of United States doctors thought the probability was approximately 75%.  (See the links above for the answer, or see my next blog on the challenge of communicating probability).

Arrow’s information asymmetry remains, despite the growing availability of accessible medical information on the web, perhaps for good reasons such as the ability to effectively address the needs of sicker patients.

I would amend Arrow’s discussion of supply conditions to include a wide variety of cost barriers ranging from large fixed costs of ICUs to the costs of medical research. The high cost of basic medical services relative to per capita GDP in the the developing world represents a barrier as high as any faced in the developed world.  As Arrow notes, society has addressed this challenge through a variety of pricing mechanisms outside traditional competitive models. This may not, and in general will not achieve a Pareto optimum, but their wide endorsement by society does indeed suggest that these approaches achieve a more general optimum.

“I propose here the view that, when the market fails to achieve an optimal state, society will, to some extent at least, recognize the gap, and nonmarket social institutions will arise attempting to bridge it… But it is contended here that the special structural characteristics of the medical-care market are largely attempts to overcome the lack of optimality due to the nonmarketability of the bearing of suitable risks and the imperfect marketability of information. These compensatory institutional changes, with some reinforcement from usual profit motives, largely explain the observed noncompetitive behavior of the medical-care market, behavior which, in itself, interferes with optimality. The social adjustment towards optimality thus puts obstacles in its own path.”

It is this view which I find too limiting. I would suggest that society has at least implicitly concluded that price alone does not define value, and thus formed a broader definition of optimality, not simply Pareto optimality in a competitive market. Society is finding and supporting ways to overcome obstacles toward this broader sense of optimality.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation vaccination project aims to reduce the number of children that die each year from preventable disease (currently around 1.5 million). The lifebox project, founded by Dr Atul Gawande, provides affordable, high quality pulse oximeters to the developing world and now seeks to address basic surgical safety in the developing world. Important advances also arise in the developing world; most recently, an easy to deliver, more effective oral cholera vaccine developed in Vietnam.

Arrow himself recognizes the limits of a traditional economic description of the medical care market in his concluding Postscript, arguing that “The logic and limitations of ideal competitive behavior under uncertainty force us to recognize the incomplete description of reality supplied by the impersonal price system.” I conclude more generally that prices not only do not necessarily represent value in medical care (as Arrow observed), but that the combination of uncertainty, externalities, high costs, divergent economies, and technological advance means that price alone cannot describe value in medical care. A broader more general theory of healthcare economics with a foundation standing on the shoulders of giants such as Kenneth Arrow, with perhaps a more general multi-dimensional Pareto optimum, might help us all better understand where we are and where we might go.

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